Her mind drifted back to that blue silk dress and her first event with Ben. It seemed like a lifetime ago. She felt the pinp.r.i.c.k of tears in her eyes, and she ordered herself to stop thinking about that.
The past wasn't the issue here. She was done letting old ghosts tell her how to run her life, watching them hover over her shoulder as they whispered words of doubt and deception in her ear.
Those spooky b.a.s.t.a.r.ds could go to h.e.l.l.
She was living for the present now. And the future-with Ben, if he'd have her.
What if he's not interested?
Holly shook her head to clear the negative thoughts. You're a smart, savvy, career woman who just saved her own business. Now it's time to save something more important than that.
She took a deep breath and pushed open the car door.
"And with that, I'd like to formally welcome the Kleinberger team to the Langley Enterprises family," Ben said, beaming with the smile Holly recognized as his most genuine. "We promise you've made the right choice. Thank you."
The ballroom erupted into applause, and Holly clapped from her spot behind a tall, potted palm tree. She'd tucked herself in the back of the room to remain un.o.btrusive, not wanting to embarra.s.s Ben in his big moment, not wanting to rattle him before his speech.
But now she just felt like a stalker. A stalker wearing really uncomfortable shoes.
She moved forward as Ben began walking toward the edge of the stage. He'd nailed the speech. Most importantly, he'd done it without her. All that pa.s.sion, all that energy, all that commanding presence had been up there on that stage with him, and he'd done it all on his own.
She edged toward the front of the room, hoping she could get to him before a crowd formed around the man of the hour. She wanted to tell him how proud she was, how well he'd handled himself up there on that stage.
But more importantly, she wanted to tell him she was sorry. That she wanted to be his partner, his helpmate, his girlfriend, if only he'd still have her.
She was nearing the front of the room now, and she resisted the urge to wipe her sweaty palms down the skirt of her beaded teal evening gown. A group of Kleinberger executives had cl.u.s.tered nearby, but as Ben stepped off the stage, she saw he was alone. She ordered herself not to run, not to fling herself into his arms the way she wanted to.
G.o.d, he was gorgeous. She watched him wave to a white-haired man who was slipping out the door, and her gaze locked on Ben's big, familiar palm. Then she let herself take in the rest of him, admiring the whole package. He wasn't wearing a tie or even a tux the way some of the other men were. But something about his presence made it clear this was a man in charge. This was a man who could roll up his shirtsleeves and get the job done. This was a man who didn't give a f.u.c.k about someone else's dress code.
"Ben," she said softly.
She thought her voice was too quiet to carry over the crowd, and she started to repeat herself.
But he must have heard her somehow. The instant his gaze swung to hers, a flood of warmth rushed through her body. She moved forward, her hands loose and awkward at her sides.
"Ben," she said again. She started to reach out and shake his hand, but stopped herself. Now wasn't the time to be businesslike Holly.
But with executives milling about on all sides of her, it wasn't the time to throw herself into his arms, either, so she settled for clasping her hands in front of her. "Congratulations," she said. "It was a beautiful speech. Truly amazing."
"Thank you." He looked her up and down, and she half expected him to ask what the h.e.l.l she was doing here. Instead, he smiled. "You look d.a.m.n good," he said.
"Thank you. So do you." She took a shaky breath, her well-rehea.r.s.ed speech fleeing her brain as she lost herself in those amber-flecked eyes. "Ben, I just wanted to say I'm sorry. I'm sorry and I'm proud of you and most of all, I miss you. I miss you a lot."
He opened his mouth to reply, but before he could say a word, Lyle Langley stepped up beside him and clapped his son on the shoulder. Hard.
"Ben, my boy! Nicely done. Of course, you could have added in a bit about the return-on-investment and skipped all that c.r.a.p with the data about-"
"I'm sorry, Dad, could you give me a minute?" He gave his father a measured look. "I'm kind of in the middle of something."
Lyle looked at Holly and raised an eyebrow. Then he turned back to Ben. "I think you've got more pressing things to deal with right now."
"Actually, I don't." There was something intimidating in Ben's tone, something Holly had never heard before. "Nothing else is more important than the conversation I'm having right now."
"Ben." Lyle's voice was equally cold, and he glanced toward the team of Kleinberger execs making their way toward them. Lyle gave them a wave and a smile so sugary, Holly nearly choked on the saccharine. The Kleinberger team waved back, drawing closer now to their awkward little huddle.
Holly thought about trying to rescue Ben, but the steely look in his eye told her this was not a man who needed rescuing. This was a man who had everything under control.
Lyle looked at his son again. "Don't blow this. Now isn't the time to be making chit-chat with girls." Lyle turned to Holly and fired off another one of his schmoozy smiles. "Sweetheart, why don't you run over to the bar and grab us a couple gla.s.ses of Laphroig? The twenty-five-year, neat."
"That's enough, Dad!" Ben's voice carried over the crowd. Several people nearby stopped talking, and everyone turned to stare. The Kleinberger team froze, close enough now to hear every word of their conversation.
Ben stared at his dad. Lyle stared back.
Holly stared at them both and wondered if she should have come here at all.
Part of her expected Ben to back down. She'd hardly blame him if he did.
Instead, he reached for her hand. He pulled her close, slipping an arm around her waist as he nodded to the Kleinberger team one by one. "Holly, I'd like to introduce you to the Kleinberger executives. Gentlemen, this is Holly Colvin president of First Impressions PR and Branding."
"h.e.l.lo," Holly said, conscious of Lyle simmering beside her. "It's a pleasure to meet you."
Ben ignored his father and focused on the introductions. "You've already met my father, of course," he said. "I'd like you to meet Carl, Jim, Harold, Gary, James, Floyd, Devon, and Jim."
"I've heard wonderful things about you," Holly said, shaking each man's hand in turn.
"I'll introduce you to Joe Kleinberger later," Ben said. "He's the company founder. Great guy. He had some business to take care of in my office, but he'll be back later."
A funny little knowing smile crossed Ben's face, but no one else seemed to notice. Holly nodded, conscious of Ben's arm around her waist. "I look forward to meeting him," she said.
"That's probably not necessary." Lyle Langley flashed another tooth-gritted smile and cupped a hand under Holly's elbow. "Say, sweetheart, could you run over there to the hors d'ouevres table and grab us a few-"
"Absolutely not!" Ben grabbed Lyle's hand and pried it off her elbow as he leveled his father with a look that could boil tar. "Holly's not here to do your bidding, Dad. She's not here to wait on you or serve as my arm candy or do anything other than be my companion and enjoy her evening."
Lyle frowned at Holly, then turned back to Ben and lowered his voice. "Son, I don't think you understand how these kinds of events usually go."
"Actually, I understand perfectly well. And I intend to change that. I intend to change a lot of things around here, as a matter of fact."
A few members of the Kleinberger team exchanged nervous glances. One man-Holly thought he was the CEO?-gave Ben a supportive nod. "We were actually very pleased with the alterations you proposed in the contract. The charitable component, the parts about giving back to the communities where you do business-all of that is very forward-thinking and totally in line with our corporate values."
"I'm glad," Ben said. "I studied your company's mission statement and met with Joe Kleinberger to make sure I had a good sense about the heart and soul of your business. The human element. What makes Kleinberger tick beyond the dollars and cents."
"This is absurd," Lyle muttered. "You can't just go changing contracts w.i.l.l.y-nilly."
Ben turned back to his father. "Actually, Dad, I can-I'm in charge now." He pulled Holly tighter against him, giving her hand a rea.s.suring squeeze. "And I'll be making a lot more changes around here. We're starting with how we treat, speak of, and address women. We're starting with the woman I love."
Though Ben still had very little furniture in his penthouse suite, he had something much more important: the makings for ice cream floats.
The thought of sipping one was pure nirvana as Holly toed off her high heels and leaned against the granite bar while Ben got to work making their post-event treats.
"Is it wrong that I really enjoyed the look on your dad's face when you told him under no circ.u.mstances was he allowed to pat, squeeze, grab, or comment on any part of my body?" Holly asked.
"Or any woman's body," Ben pointed out as he sc.r.a.ped ice cream into the mixing cup. "Of course, yours is the body that interests me the most."
"I'm glad," she said, pushing her hair out of her face. "I'm sorry if I embarra.s.sed you by showing up tonight."
"Are you kidding me? Seeing you there was the best part of my whole evening." He grinned. "Well, that and watching you and Joe Kleinberger go head-to-head at s.p.a.ce Invaders."
She laughed. "I enjoyed it, too."
Holly bit her lip as she felt her smile start to wobble a little. She looked down at her hands, trying to regain her composure. When she looked up at him again, he was watching her with a curious expression. "Ben, I'm scared."
"Of my dad? Don't be, he's a p.r.i.c.k, but I've got him handled."
"No, of these feelings. Of the fact that I'm so over-the-moon crazy about you and what that might mean for my future. For my career."
He smiled and stirred something into a tall gla.s.s. "Would it help if I promised you I'll never, ever, under any circ.u.mstances ask you to compromise your career for me?"
"And that I expect the same from you."
"Of course. I wouldn't have it any other way."
"It sounds like we're already off to a good start, then."
He plunked a tall, froth-filled gla.s.s in front of her. She hesitated, then hooked a finger around the old-fashioned red and white striped straw that looked like something from a retro soda shop. She wrapped her lips around it, conscious of Ben's eyes on her as she took her first sip.
"How is it?" he asked, leaning against the bar beside her and setting down his own gla.s.s.
"Delicious," she said, taking another sip. "But it's not a root beer float. What is it?"
"Yours is a lemon ginger float made with ginger beer and lemon sorbet. Mine is a cla.s.sic PB & J float made with peanut b.u.t.ter ice cream and grape soda. Here, try some."
She did, savoring the delicious blend of sweet and nutty, savory and fruity. "It's good," she said. "They're both great."
Ben took a drink of hers and made a face, then grabbed his gla.s.s back. "I'm not a fan of yours, but this one's tasty." He scooped up a spoonful of ice cream, looking thoughtful. "And you know, that's okay."
"We can try different things or branch out in different directions without losing the core of ourselves or our belief in the other person. h.e.l.l, I can even decide I like Laphroiag."
"You're being philosophical about beverages now?"
"I am. This is my literary geek side. Did I mention I double-minored in philosophy and English?"
"I am a man of many facets," he said, licking his spoon in a way Holly wished didn't make her think of what else he could do with his mouth. He caught her staring and grinned.
"Many facets," Holly repeated. "You don't say."
"So it's okay for us to experiment and try new things and let our tastes evolve and support each other through career changes and life transitions and all kinds of other bulls.h.i.t. But you know what's not okay?"
"Me being apart from you for even another day. I've missed you, Holly."
She swallowed hard, her throat clogging with emotion and lemon sorbet. "I've missed you, too." She nudged her gla.s.s aside, willing herself not to get choked up. "And I'm sorry, too. I'm sorry for not giving you the benefit of the doubt. For not trusting who you were at the core of it all. For thinking you could ever be like your father or like my ex-husband."
"It's okay. I'm sorry for not seeing earlier how scared you were and that I needed to do a better job showing you I had no intention of becoming a workaholic jerk like my father."
"You've shown me now," she said. "I believe you."
"I won't claim I won't have my jerky moments, but you're always free to call me on it. That's the way relationships work. We're both going to screw up every now and then."
He grinned and set his gla.s.s down, reaching for her hands. She looked down at them, feeling inexplicably happy at the sight of their intertwined fingers. When she met his gaze again, she smiled.
"So I'm sorry and you're sorry," she said.
"It looks that way."
"Okay, but who screwed up more?"
She grinned. "I think we need to settle this fairly."
"And I have an idea."
She rearranged their fingers so their knuckles were interlocked, thumbs resting on top of their connected fists. She met his eyes and felt her smile widen. "One, two, three, four, I declare a thumb war."
Ben smiled back and squeezed her hand tighter. "Five, six, seven, eight-Holly, I think you're really great." He leaned forward and kissed her. "In fact, I think I kinda love you."
Her stomach rolled over like a giddy puppy, and Holly fought the urge to crawl into his lap. "That doesn't rhyme," she said, kissing him back. "But I love you, too."
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