“You can’t come,” Elle tells me seriously. She’s shaking her head and holding out a hand, palm to me, to emphasize her point.
“I’m invited, I swear it. Actually, he invited me and then told me to bring you.” I take that hand, pressing a kiss to the back of it.
Her eyes narrow as she pulls away from me, both hands going to her hips. “My father, Daniel Stryker, invited you to lunch? And not just any lunch, but to Frankie’s Burger Hut? That’s what you’re telling me?”
Her eyes scan me like a lie detector, but I don’t know why.
I mean, yeah, it’s a little unexpected for Daniel to call out of nowhere and invite me to lunch, and maybe my first thought was that it was an ambush attack before I drag his little girl halfway across the globe. But then he’d said to bring Elle. With her there as a witness, I don’t think even Daniel would kill me.
No, he’d do it quietly, with an airtight alibi in place. Smart, methodical, strategic man. He’s awesome, a right role model for me to aspire to follow and certainly better than my own father.
“He did. And I’m not going to be late, so get some clothes on.” I swat her ass and she balks.
“Get naked, love. Get dressed, love. Make up your damn mind, Wolfe!” she rants, but she heads to the bedroom to pull on clothes.
Hopefully, she goes for one of the outfits Tiffany helped her organize toward the front because that would definitely be faster than the mess of things she stuffed near the back of her side of the closet. I’d questioned her need for a hot dog costume at first, but Tiffany had slapped her hand over my mouth and shook her head gravely, telling me to not even try because greater people than I had failed that mission. I’m pretty sure she meant herself, or at least I hope so, because I don’t want to think about other guys having ever been in Elle’s closet.
I wait by the front door, controlling my tapping foot by willpower alone as I check my watch for the sixth time. “Elle?” I dare call out. I will not be late to this lunch, especially if it’s as big of a deal as Elle’s making it out to be.
I can’t wait any longer. I follow her upstairs to find her still naked, leaning over the bathroom counter to put her makeup on.
“Love, we have to go.” I’m risking beheading and I know it. I only pray that Daniel will understand that it’s his daughter making me late, not my own disrespect.
“We’re fine. I’ll be ready in a jiffy.”
“What’s a jiffy? Is that fast?” I ask, looking at my watch again. “How about this . . .”
I scan her luscious body and glance to the closet behind me. “I dare you . . . to let me pick out your outfit.” It’s a double win . . . one, I can get her to hurry up, and two, I can choose what I’m going to take off her later.
She begins pulling her hair up into some twisted thing I know will end up with a scatter of bobby pins on the nightstand later. “Okay,” she says.
Yes. Thank the fuckin’ Queen Mary!
I don’t look at the pictures of outfits Tiffany spent hours compiling because even if I found a suitable one, I’d then have to find the actual pieces somewhere in here. In this . . . I won’t say mess, but . . . chaos?
I look along the bottom edge of the clothes, looking for a hemline that falls a bit longer. There!
I pull out a black dress that I absolutely love on Elle. The one she likely already knows I’m going to select for her. Not only because it looks lovely on her with its silky softness that skates over her skin, but because the tiny spaghetti straps mean she can’t wear a bra.
Usually, that sexiness does me in. And later, it will. But right now, it’s one less piece of clothing she has to get on so we can get out the damn door.
I gather the fabric in my hands and hold it low. “Step in.”
Elle lifts one leg and then the other, and I slip the dress up her body. I hold a strap out, noting the knowing smirk as she feeds her arm through. “Done? Ready?” I ask.
“You forgot panties.” She’s done with her hair, at least, and turns to head toward the bedroom.
“No, I didn’t.” I toss her over my shoulder, grabbing her sandals as I go out the door.
“Colton!” she yells from upside down. “I am not meeting my dad for lunch with no underwear on. No bra is bad enough!”
The lift takes us down quickly, but not quick enough. I don’t even get to enjoy the view of the city, too busy keeping ahold of Elle as she squirms, smacking my ass with her cat fight, don’t-hurt-a-bit swats.
I drop her semi-carefully into the Lotus, taking special delight that the dress slides up, exposing a long length of her thigh. “I dare you to.”
She sputters, going still and quiet in an instant. Her arms cross over her chest. “I hate you sometimes, Wolfe.”
I set her sandals at her feet. “Here, you can put these on while we drive.”
“You’re going to regret this, you know?”
Fuckin’ hell, I hadn’t thought that far ahead. Had only thought about this getting us out of the apartment and to lunch as quickly as possible. But I can see that light of challenge in Elle’s eyes. We might be on time, and she might be wearing my favorite dress, the one I can’t wait to take off her later, but damned if she’s not going to drive me crazy with her lack of a bra and knickers.
While we’re having lunch with her dad and I’m trying not to look like a lovesick fool who wants to snog his daughter.
“Hey, Dad!” Elle says in greeting, kissing him on the cheek. “I’m going to go order for us. Be right back.”
She starts to go, leaving me alone with Daniel. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not scared of the man, but this isn’t the professional version of our relationship we’ve worked out. This is personal, and okay . . . I’m a little scared.
“You don’t know what I want.” It’s a ploy to stall, but Elle just grins over her shoulder.
“I dare you . . . to let me pick. Chili, bacon, and jalapeños, right?”
She’s gone, too far away to catch her unless I want to make a scene by yelling. Daniel laughs, pulling my attention back to him.
“She’s kidding, right? That sounds disgusting.”
His face falls into anger. “That’s my favorite burger you’re smack talking.”
I pale, just as I suspect he wanted, and he laughs again. “Just kidding. That sounds like heartburn on a plate. I don’t eat this shit anymore, too old for greasy burgers, but it’s always been our place. I think I singlehandedly got Frankie to add black bean burgers to the menu so that I could eat here with Elle and not have a heart attack.”
We both look over to the window where Elle is ordering our food. Frankie’s Burger Hut is a small, hole-in-the-wall place with dirty picnic tables outside under an awning, paper towels on wooden dowel stands, and what appears to be a fox mascot. Frankie the Fox. I get it. But the painting is half-worn and his eyes give him a glazed look, almost making him look . . . high? Well, okay, then.
“How did you end up with this as your place? It doesn’t seem quite like you.”
Daniel smiles, lost to the past. “Elle, of course. Frankie’s used to have commercials on Saturday mornings during cartoons. There was a jingle the animated fox sang, something about Frankie’s being frankly the best. It was awful, and Elle used to sing it constantly, begging to come see the fox. For a while, I had pictures of her next to that painting, like a growth chart as she got taller, older.”
I can see what she means about this being their place, and I suddenly feel out of place even though I was invited.
Elle reappears with three baskets of burgers, balancing them all easily, much to my surprise. She’s not exactly known for being graceful, after all.
“Stryker special for Dad, BBQ gut blaster for me, and a basic for you, Colton. Figured I’d start you off easy so you didn’t get too scared.”
I look down at Daniel’s, which is stacked with thick slices of tomatoes and avocado and wrapped in lettuce leaves instead of a bun. Then to Elle’s, which is a mess of brown sauce, bacon slices, and I think I see an onion ring peeking out from inside the burger? Finally, to mine, which is a pretty standard cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato, and onion. I feel grateful for my basic burger and say, “Thank you.”
We begin eating, and I can’t help but smile as Elle picks up her monstrosity of a burger with two hands and takes a huge bite, getting sauce along her cheek. I hold up a paper towel, but she shakes her head. “No sense in cleaning up now because I’ll only get messy again with the next bite. I’ll clean up when I’m done.”
Daniel laughs. “She’s yours now. No returns, no exchanges, no backsies.”
Elle growls, spitting out a tiny bit of burger, but she catches it with her thumb, shoving it back into her mouth. My brows raise. I can only imagine her at a proper tea.
Somehow, she swallows her bite and turns to Daniel. “So, what’s up, Dad?”
Daniel sets his burger back in his basket. “Actually, I have ulterior motives for lunch today. Both with work and with you two.”
I bristle. Daniel and I have made peace over the last few weeks as Elle and I have returned to work and the set-in-stone plans for HQ2 have gotten underway. But I haven’t forgotten, nor has he, that the peace accord is tenuous and predicated on my not fucking up, or fucking over his daughter.
Or fucking his daughter, but I am doing that quite often. We just don’t speak of such things, nor do we do it in public anymore. Ever again.
Dares be damned, we’re strictly behind-closed-and-locked-doors types now.
“I spoke with Allan Fox yesterday. He’s quite pleased with how the London project is going, looking forward to sending you overseas, in fact. Doesn’t seem to give two shits that he’s sending my girl too.”
Oh, fuck. Is Daniel going to come to London? I mean, technically, Allan could choose my proposal of the London site and then still assign someone else to be Regional President. Say, Daniel Stryker, for example?
“You don’t say.” My voice is tight, the few bites of burger sitting in my belly like stones.
“Seems he’s rather excited to go back and forth between the US and the UK, take the wife on a grand tour of Europe.”
His eyes lock on mine, holding me in place.
“But to do so, he wants a bit more freedom. Said he wants to ride the Tube wherever it may lead, though we both know he won’t step foot in the Tube. He’ll take a chauffeur every mile of the way.”
I think of Oliver instantly. “I know a great guy who could help get Allan and his wife anywhere they want to go.”
We’re tap dancing, shuffling around something, but only he knows what.
Daniel nods. “But to have that freedom, he’ll need someone to not only handle the London HQ” —his chin lifts, indicating me— “but someone to handle US operations too.” That smirk is pure victory.
“You, I take it?” I say with a smile. I’m not mad. It’s a rather bloody brilliant solution.
“Yes, so you’ll be Regional President and I’ll be CEO.”
“Dad! That’s awesome!” Elle yells, getting several tables’ attention. She leans over, pressing a BBQ-sauced kiss to Daniel’s cheek.
He chuckles, wiping at the smear with his paper towel. “Thanks, baby girl. Looks like I’ll be your boss, after all. And Colton’s, too.”
Threat and delight mix together in a perfectly veiled statement. Well fuckin’ played, Daniel.
I hold out a hand. “Congratulations, Boss.”
“Thanks, Son.” The nickname is a shock, a blessing on my relationship with his daughter, at the same time telling me to get my arse in gear.
If Elle’s leaving the nest and moving overseas with me, renovating what will be our home, and making a life with me, I’d better fuckin’ make it official. Fast.
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