After the painful dinner is over, I say goodbye to Mara and the children while glaring at my brother, ignoring my father, and forcing a smile for Grace. Once I’m in my car, I head in the direction of the office, knowing work is the only thing that will help me relax and clear my head.
It’s after eight when I arrive, and I quickly use the pass that Bob gave me earlier in the day to let myself into the office. My plans to make myself feel better by ploughing through a ton of work in an empty office, however, go out the window when I see I’m not the only one who decided to work late. A young girl – the newest intern, Melody – is still working.
And so is Reese.
I’m tempted to walk straight out and go back to my hotel room. Except that I came here for a reason, and Reese turns around and spots me before I can get away unnoticed.
When I left work earlier, the strain between Reese and I was awkward and frustrating. I don’t want to deal with it tonight, not on the heels of the dinner from hell. But I came here to work, and I’m not walking away.
Reese watches me with eyes that are more guarded than they were first thing this morning as I stride across the floor, and I wonder again how we can pretend the past never happened. As much as we both want to pretend what happened a decade ago doesn’t matter, certain things leave scars. I’m aware of that even more so after having dinner with my father.
I put the coffee I bought on my way here on my desk and look at Reese. “If I’d known you were still here, I would have bought you one.”
Reese attempts a small smile. “I shouldn’t have any more caffeine tonight anyway. I won’t sleep.”
I’m not sure about that. This morning she looked fresh and put together, but tonight she looks rumpled and tired. Still beautiful, though.
“Why are you here?” she asks.
“The same reason you are, I imagine. I wanted to get some extra work in.”
She nods. “Well, I’ll let you get on with it.”
I boot up my laptop and open the document I was working on earlier today. After adding a few more crappy sentences, I turn to Reese.
“I had dinner with my father and brother,” I blurt out.
I never intended to share that tidbit before I arrived, and I don’t know why I said it. When I realise I’ve thrown her completely off guard though, I nearly smile.
Her eyes widen and her lips part a little. “Oh. How was it?”
I turn in my chair so that I’m facing her properly. “I asked my brother about my dad and his wife, you know, how they’ve been acting since they came back from the retreat.”
She folds her hands in her lap and gives me her undivided attention. “What did you find out?”
I tell her what my brother told me, which reminds me I wanted to ask her about something. “Can you tell me more about what happened with Mr and Mrs Burnham?”
“They were in your file.”
She nods. “I went over for dinner not long after they came back from the retreat, and they had the radio on the whole time. In the middle of dinner, Mozart’s Concerto 21 began playing and the two of them completely blacked out.”
“What do you mean?”
She tilts her head as she remembers. “It was as if they forgot everything but each other. Their eyes went wide and blank, and they appeared lost in a trance. Mrs Burnham stood up and began grinding on Mr Burnham, performing a lap dance. He started undressing her, and…” she shudders at the memory. “I ended up walking away because they didn’t seem like they were going to stop. I heard them going at it from the kitchen.”
“They didn’t stop?”
She shakes her head. “And when the music finished, and I walked back into the room, they acted like it never happened. You have to understand, these are two of the most conservative people on the planet, and they had sex while I was in their house, then ignored the fact it even happened.”
“That’s certainly…disturbing,” I tell her.
An image of Reese grinding on me, performing a striptease to a song pops into my head and unwelcome heat sweeps through me. I quickly shut the door on the image, then nail the damn door shut.
After clearing my throat, I ask, “Have you encountered anything similar from anyone else?”
“No. And I played the same piece of music for my brother and his wife, but it had no effect whatsoever on them.” She pauses and studies me for a moment. “The information packet came through for the retreat. I haven’t looked at it yet, but we can go through it now if you want? Unless you’d prefer to use this time to research or work on another assignment…?”
She’s clearly hesitant, and I get it. I don’t really want to have another argument tonight, or suffer through more awkwardness. I doubt Reese does either. But telling her about dinner and talking about the retreat has erased some of the tension. It makes sense to keep talking.
I pull my chair closer to her desk. “Let’s go through it now.”
She nods and then pulls up the email. I’m aware of her heat and the delicate scent of her perfume as we both lean in. Looking at her out of the corner of my eye, I can see she’s a little flushed and she’s focusing far harder than she needs on the details of our stay as Mr and Mrs Reynolds. I turn my attention back to the computer, but when we both reach for the mouse at the same time because we need to scroll down the page, she jerks her hand away as if I’ve burned her.
I shoot her a quizzical look, but she ignores me, so I turn back to the screen and continue to read. Seconds later, both of us are startled by the sound of her phone ringing and vibrating on her desk. Max’s name flashes on the screen, and every comment my father made about them as a couple bounces around my brain then burrows under my skin.
“Sorry,” she says, grabbing her phone and standing up. “I’ll be back in a moment.”
While she’s gone, I keep reading through the information in front of me. Most of it fairly straightforward, and I’m half paying attention to the hushed but serious-sounding conversation Reese is having with her boyfriend while I’m reading. That is, until I open another page of the information packet. What I read causes my whole body to flush and desire to stir in the pit of my stomach, my pants tightening as I go through the itinerary of everything I’ll be doing with Reese.
When Reese walks back to the desk, she puts her phone down. “Sorry about that.”
“No need to apologize,” I force out, sounding huskier than I have any right to. “How is Max?”
Thinking of her boyfriend should bring my body temperature down. Should being the operative word.
She forces a smile. “Fine.”
With my mind still processing everything I’ve just read, I ask, “How does he feel about you going to a marriage retreat with me?”
“Um,” she hedges. “I haven’t mentioned it yet.”
I hold her gaze. “Why not?”
She shrugs and looks away. “Just haven’t found the right time.”
“I don’t think there is a right time to tell someone you’re going undercover and pretending to be married to someone else, is there?”
“It’s not a big deal.”
Actually, it is. Or it would be if Reese was my girlfriend. I’m not sure how I’d feel about someone pretending to be her husband. And if their thoughts about Reese were similar in any way to mine right now? I’d probably punch them in the face.
Motioning to her computer, I say, “You might want to read through this information before being so sure of that.”
She sits down and reads through everything on the page I’ve left open for her. I alternate between looking at the screen and watching her reaction. The flush she had going on earlier was nothing compared to the flush covering her neck and face now.
“Still think he doesn’t need to know?” I ask once she’s finished.
“Max understands my job comes first.”
“He doesn’t mind that he comes second to the job?”
Her eyes flash to mine before she looks away unhappily, telling me he does mind. A lot.
“You need to tell him about this, Reese. If I had a girlfriend, I’d tell her.”
“You didn’t leave anyone behind in Melbourne?” she asks tentatively.
“I don’t have time for relationships; I’m married to my job.”
Her lips tip up in understanding. “I understand that feeling.”
“Max doesn’t like it or get it, does he?” I ask, suddenly understanding her reluctance to say anything to him.
Chapman and Grace spoke about how wonderful Reese and Max are as a couple, and how happy Max is, but I’m not sure Reese feels the same way.
Reese doesn’t strike me as the kind of person who would be drawn to someone who doesn’t understand or appreciate her ambition. Then again, I don’t know her. Once upon a time I thought I did, but I didn’t. Not really.
Reluctantly, she shakes her head. “He hates the fact the story comes first. He doesn’t understand my preoccupation with this, even though I’ve talked to him about my brother. I’m honestly not sure how he’ll deal with…this.”
“Going undercover together?”
She nods. “Especially with…couples therapy every day.”
“And couples bonding exercises every day,” I add.
“What does that even mean?”
I shrug. “I have no idea. I’m more worried about the compulsory classes and workshops that revolve around satisfying the ‘physical and emotional needs of each partner.’”
Reese doesn’t meet my gaze as she nods, swallowing hard. “Me too.”
“We’re going to be spending a full week together, playing a couple trying to get our relationship back on track; a man and a woman intent on making their relationship work, and satisfying each other emotionally and physically.”
“The cottages we’ll be staying in are built for maximizing a couple’s closeness in every way and encouraging couples to be as intimate as possible. There’s only one bed, no sofa, and I’d rather not sleep on a cold tile floor.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to,” she says stiffly.
If we share a bed, that will be difficult enough. Add in the workshops and classes on increasing emotional and physical intimacy? I don’t exactly know yet what they entail, but my imagination has been off and running since I read about them. Worse, the images and scenarios I keep playing over in my head have me feeling hot and more than ready to dive into a bed with Reese.
“Are you sure you’re going to be up for it? If it’s going to cause problems for you and Max…”
Her eyes flash and she glares at me. “Are you suggesting I quit this story? Knox, you know how much time I’ve put into this. I want – I need – to get in there and find out what happened to my brother. I’m not backing out.”
“We’re going to have to act like we’re together and married and that we actually care about-”
“I’m aware, Knox.” She holds my gaze. “And I’m up for it.”
“With our history-”
“I told you-”
“The past is the past and we should leave it there, I heard you. I didn’t come here to rehash history with you, Reese. But after dinner with my brother and father, I’m aware that no matter how hard you think you’re over something, there’s a good chance you aren’t.”
She sighs. “I told you, I overreacted earlier. I’m not still hung up on the past, Knox. I’m a professional and I plan to treat you the same way I’d treat any other colleague.”
Sitting back in my chair, I study her and say, “But we’re not just colleagues.”
“As far as I’m concerned, we are.”
“You can’t possibly believe it’s that simple,” I say, crossing my arms. “We know each other. We have a past. We’re no longer high schoolers. We’re not rivals. We’re not friends. But we’re not meeting for the first time, either. We don’t fit in any one box.”
“I know all this.”
“My point is, this situation between us is…unusual,” I continue. “I think we should be careful we don’t unravel because we’re trying to keep a lid on the past.”
“What do you suggest then?” she asks sharply. “We take a trip down memory lane for the sake of not suppressing our memories?”
“I’m just saying that we can’t just act like this is the first time we’re meeting and that we have no past. Even if you want to ignore what happened in high school, it still happened. If we sweep everything under the rug it may come back to bite us later. And I’ll admit, I don’t know how to act around you now. It’s easy to fall into the pattern of our old rivalry even when I’m trying hard not to.”
“Me too,” she sighs. “But perhaps that’s not the worst thing. At least we know how to act with each other when we’re competing.”
“You always were my favourite rival,” I say lightly.
“And you were mine,” she admits, her smile wry. “As evidenced by the papers you saw.”
“So, you admit that reading my work has nothing to do with this assignment?”
She rolls her eyes. “You’re just as conceited as you were in high school.”
Her irritation fills me with a sense of smugness. “I’ve missed this,” I admit.
I’ve missed her and the way I feel around her – even when it was anger or revenge, or rivalry, or admiration. Never did I feel nothing around Reese.
Our eyes meet. “Well, you’re only in town for the story, right?” she asks.
“And the reunion. And to speak at the high school.”
“Maybe we should revive our old rivalry,” she says. “I know we’re supposed to be working together, but rivalry is what we know. Maybe it will be easier to embrace it rather than…suppress it, as you said.”
“What are you suggesting?”
“How about a bet for old time’s sake?”
It would have been inappropriate for me to propose another bet, but since she’s the one suggesting it…My pulse is off and racing, and adrenaline pumps through my veins in response to her proposal. I love the thought, but I need to be careful after everything that happened last time.
“Is that really a good idea?” I ask.
“I don’t see why not.” She smirks at me. “Unless, of course, you’re…afraid?”
I can’t help but grin in response to the challenge in her dark eyes. “You know me, Cameron. I’m a betting man. Let’s hear it.”
“I bet you I can write a better article than you, on Von Gruber.”
“Who decides the winner?”
“Our bosses do.”
“Whittleman and Kates?”
“What are the stakes? What do you want if you win?” I ask.
“If I recall correctly, you used to like to leave your bets open-ended.”
A sense of unease tugs at me. “And as I recall, that didn’t work out so well last time.”
“I agree. Maybe this can be a do-over. We’ll reinvent history.”
My unease grows, twisting in my stomach, but I shrug it off. Just because our last bet ended very badly doesn’t mean this one will. We’re not the people we were ten years ago, even if we are still shaped by our pasts.
“I take it you have something in mind then?”
She shrugs. “I can’t tell you that. That’s not the way we used to do things ten years ago. I believe you used to say to me, ‘winner decides all.”
More than likely she wants to even the score – turn the tables. I love that she wants to take me on again. It will keep us focused; make me work harder. If it makes her feel better about working with me, then that will be a bonus too. It’s been too long since we’ve done this. Too long since I’ve felt the overwhelming need to compete and win.
“Don’t tell me you’re scared,” she mocks when I don’t respond straight away.
It’s my turn to smirk. “I’m not scared, Reese.”
“Good. We should make the penalty for welshing the same too.”
“Remind me again what that was.”
“Anything the winner chooses,” she sing-songs. “But Knox Casey is no welsher.”
Of course I recognise the words immediately, the ones I threw at her when I tried to convince her to be my date to Prom.
“No, I’d never welsh on a bet, Cameron, but you have to beat me first.”
Her smile is huge, her eyes bright. “Oh, don’t worry about that. I will.”
She says it with so much conviction that for a moment, I believe her.
A/N: A huge thanks for reading. This story is getting on for ten years old, and some of you remember it from back then. <333
I have recorded a video that conveys my thanks for all your support. Feel free to check it out on my blog if you have time. 😀