The North name is a heavy burden. Two things I learned young—the best way to keep my head on is to keep my head down, and never fall in love. But I’m a sucker for a damsel in distress.
Lillian came into my life swinging. Mistaking me for my abusive twin brother, she greets me with a swift kick to the balls and a busted lip. Then she shakes up my world.
She needs her job, but she needs a break just as much. And nothing silences my demons as efficiently as playing the hero.
To protect her from my jerk twin—her boss—I take her on a business trip and quickly learn that she’s different. Blunt. Honest. Intriguingly strange. I’m transfixed, so when she unknowingly sinks a multimillion-dollar deal, I don’t speak up. Something my family won’t forgive.
Now, I have a choice to make. I can go against my own blood and burn the North legacy to the ground, or play it safe, commit to my self-imposed rules and predestined future, and walk away from her forever.
We stroll down the street, taking turns with the fried bread and looking at each booth that offers some variation of Native American cuisine. Lillian finds a way to strike up a conversation with everyone. The woman likes to talk. And I’m getting an unexpected level of enjoyment watching her.
“Let’s head to the arts section.” She tugs on my jacket sleeve. “I want to get a souvenir—oh, look! A bouncy house!” She hooks her hand into the crook of my elbow.
I startle a little at the contact, even though, so lost in her excitement, she doesn’t seem to notice she’s even touching me.
“We have to jump in the bouncy house!”
“Why? We’re not six years old.”
She drags me closer to the jungle-themed contraption, complete with inflated palm trees, monkeys, and bananas decorating the entrance. “Because it’ll be fun.” She whirls around, her pale blue eyes dancing. “You do remember what fun is, don’t you?”
“My idea of fun isn’t making a fool out of myself in front of a bunch of kids.”
“Why not?” She toes off her shoes. “Kids don’t care if you look like an idiot.”
“You go ahead.”
“You’re missing out,” she calls as she ducks through the strips of green plastic made to look like hanging vines.
Within one minute, she’s laughing with the kids, jumping in a blur of black, with her golden hair flying in every direction. I don’t mean to stare, so I pull out my phone, sure that there’s an email I can attend to, but her laughter keeps my eyes from the screen. I’ve never heard a sound so authentic, free from the constraint of social expectation or acceptance. Have I ever met a person who gets this much joy from something so simple and childish? Lillian balks at a three-Michelin-star meal and finds a contagious kind of joy from a bouncy house.
She’s breathing hard as she has an in-depth discussion with the kids about what she dressed up as for Halloween and who would win in a fight between Sophia the First and someone named Doc McStuffins. A little girl asks her where Lillian’s mom is and if she wants to have a playdate tomorrow.
“See that guy there?” Lillian points me out to her new friends. “He’s afraid of bouncy houses.”
The group of littles reply in multiple forms of shock.
An evil smirk tilts her lips. “I think he might feel brave enough to try if you guys go talk to him.”
“Oh, come on…” I grumble.
Three kids who I wouldn’t guess to be older than five come barreling toward me.
“Don’t be scared!”
“My little sister isn’t even afraid!”
“You can hold my hand.” A small hand slips into mine and holds on. The little girl with bright brown eyes and black hair tilts her head back to look up at me, and something warm seeps into my chest. “Just hold on, okay?”
Only an asshole would say no to that face.
I kick off my shoes and let her drag me to the bouncy house. The kids are still shouting their encouragement while Lillian dissolves into a fit of laughter.
“Don’t be a wussy!” one of the boys calls out while jumping furiously.
I release the little girl’s hand and walk straight into Lillian’s space. Her laughter dies, and I watch her throat bob with a hard swallow.
“I’m going to pay you back for this,” I say low so the kids don’t hear, which makes my voice rumble.
A spark fires in her eyes. “You’ll have to catch me first.”
I lunge, and she takes off running. My fingers brush the back of her sweater, but she’s too fast to grab. I chase after her, careful to avoid children as they bounce into my path. The kids squeal with every swipe of my hand. She bobs, weaves, jumps, and ducks, always narrowly escaping my grasp. One kid falls in front of her, and she jumps over him. I spin and jump over his downed body. I manage to grab her around the waist. She stumbles. Turns. We fall together, me on top with one arm around her lower back and the other cradling her head. Our noses are less than an inch apart, and I can smell the sweet honey on her breath.
“You got me,” she breathes.
I swipe my thumb along her cheek, pushing away the hair that clings there and watching the path my finger makes against her smooth skin. “I told you I would.”
Her warm, soft body cradles mine. She feels like heaven beneath me. My stomach muscles harden with the strength it takes to keep from flexing my hips forward, searching for a deeper, more intimate connection. Craving the friction of her body and mine. The rise and fall of her chest and her frantic pulse cast images of us together with fewer clothes and no audience.
“Eww, they’re going to French kiss!”
The kids erupt in giggles.
I roll away from a smiling Lillian. “We are not going to kiss.”
“French kiss means with your tongue,” one boy shouts and then moves his tongue around in a gross mocking of a kiss.
“Okay, that’s enough.” Lillian pushes to stand and offers me a hand.
I take it, pull her down, then hop to my feet. “Payback.”
She moves to stand up but swings her leg out and takes both of my feet out from under me.
I slam to the inflated floor.
“I can’t believe that worked,” she says, laughing. “I’ve only seen that in movies!”
This time, I stand up a good distance away so she can’t drop me again. She takes the opposite side of the bouncy house, her molten gaze fixed on mine.
What are we doing? Flirting? Foreplay? Because the deep tug I feel in my stomach says that whatever we’re doing is more than two colleagues killing time at a festival. But that’s all it can be. I hardly date, and if I do, I certainly don’t date within my company. It goes against everything I stand for. So why can’t I get the image of Lillian and me, twisted and sweaty in bed together, out of my mind?
Everything I’m feeling is wrong. Unethical. Destructive. I know it’s wrong because it feels too good to be right.