“Liese.” Ryder was right beside her, the smell of his cologne a heady intoxication as she inhaled deeply. She needed to get a handle on her emotions before she managed to embarrass herself further. Usually she could maintain better control of her mouth.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
He gently pried the glass from her hand and set it on the desk. “Don’t be. I’m not offended.”
“I didn’t mean to . . . I shouldn’t have . . . sometimes you make me nervous,” she blurted. “Damnit. Why can’t I just shut the hell up?”
Ryder burst out laughing.
“I’m so glad my humiliation amuses you,” Liese said.
Ryder reached around her for the half-filled glass, his arm sliding against her back, completely disarming her. The physical contact was accidental—of course it was—but it still had an impact. She should be used to the way his presence affected her by now. But no matter how hard she tried to convince herself these were just meetings between professionals, her body and her mind seemed to exist on two separate planes, and neither conferred with the other. Hence she couldn’t speak without it coming out all wrong.
“I apologize. Shall we start again?” he asked, fighting a smile.
Liese gave him a baleful glare.
Ryder ignored it and topped off the glass, handing it to Liese. “How was your day, Ms. Harper?”
“Horrible,” she said into the cup.
“Oh? Would you like to talk about it?”
“Not really. Thanks for asking.”
“I see.” He paused. When she said nothing, he nudged her with his elbow. “This would be a good time to ask me how my day was, since we’re being cordial with each other.”
“How was your day, Mr. Whitehall?”
“You called me Ms. Harper,” Liese pointed out.
“My mistake, Annaliese.”
“Would you stop it!” Liese flicked the lapel of his suit jacket in exasperation, her embarrassment diffused. He was good at that: relieving the tension in an awkward moment. They’d certainly had enough of them during their meetings.
“That’s better. I’ll take you feisty over subdued any day. Shall we get down to business?” Ryder gestured to her desk, where she’d laid out her research prior to his arrival.
There was something in his comment . . . while not overt, Liese caught a subtle undertone of implication. Or maybe she was reading too much into things again.
“Sounds good.” Liese crossed the room and sat in her chair while Ryder pulled one up beside her. He loosened his tie and undid the top button on his shirt. Sidling in close, he picked up the folder with her most recent research.
They spent the next two hours poring over documents. She found herself enraptured by the breadth of his knowledge and his passionate stance. She couldn’t decide what she was attracted to more, his intellect or his exterior. The combination was lethal—the worst kind of aphrodisiac imaginable. She counted every instance in which his shoulder touched hers, every comment with an undercurrent of teasing, every moment of prolonged eye contact. She was sure she could plot a graph to demonstrate the rise in all three over the time they’d spent together. Then she could plot a second one to illustrate how her level of infatuation correlated with those findings.
Liese shifted in her chair and reached across her desk for the chart they were discussing at the same time Ryder did. They knocked shoulders, and his fingers brushed the back of her hand. Flustered, she rolled back in her chair, sending several sheets fluttering to the floor.
“Sorry.” She bent to pick them up.
He pushed back his chair, too, ever the gentleman. “Nice shoes,” he said as he retrieved several pieces of paper.
“Thanks.” Liese couldn’t believe he’d noticed them. Maybe Marissa had been right.
They nearly cracked heads as they sat up at the same time, both holding fragments of her research. Ryder’s eyes dropped to her lap and stayed there. Liese looked down to find that her skirt had ridden up, leaving the lace band of her thigh highs peeking out from the hem. Shuffling the papers into one hand, she smoothed a palm over her thigh, pushing her skirt back down to cover the garters she should never have worn in the first place. She glanced up at Ryder, who continued to focus on her lap.
The sudden buzz of her phone as it rattled against her keys snapped him out of the trance.
“Would you like to check that?” he asked, clearing his throat as he yanked on his tie.
“It’s probably my friend Marissa.” She discarded the papers and plucked her purse from the floor beside her desk, sifting through the contents until she located her phone. Marissa had sent her a message and left her a voicemail. Liese had no intention of checking either with Ryder seated beside her.
He looked at his watch. “I’ve monopolized your time long enough.”
It was nearing six, well beyond the initial length of their meetings. Each subsequent meeting seemed to stretch on a little longer. At first it had been an hour, then a bit more, and now tonight they’d spent well over two hours talking, and not always about her research. In fact, the conversation had deviated frequently to topics bearing no relevance to education.
After they’d settled on a date for their next meeting, Ryder and Liese gathered their things. He helped her into her jacket, which smelled vaguely of his cologne since his coat had been humping hers for the past couple of hours.
He waited as she turned out the lights and locked up the library. They traveled the darkened, empty halls of the school together, the click of her heels echoing loudly around them. Ryder held the door for her as they left the building, his hand at her elbow as they descended the stairs to the parking lot. The lot was well-lit, and Liese had parked beneath one of the lights, which now illuminated her modest vehicle. Ryder walked her to her car and stood with his hand in his pocket as she put the key in the lock.
Liese had the ridiculous urge to hug him, or make out with him, as if they’d been on some kind of date. She really needed to stop indulging in her customized porn album right before bed; the dreams the images inspired didn’t help keep reality separated from fantasy. “Have a nice weekend.”
“You as well.” Ryder held her door open as she slipped into the driver’s seat. He hesitated and leaned in as she turned the key in the ignition. Liese turned her head in his direction and waited. For a moment she had the irrational notion he might kiss her.