Pleasing Mr. Parker: Chapter 10

Maria

Griffin.

Fuck, fuck, fuck!

Why did I agree to it? Not just agree, but say ‘yes’ in a breathy, ridiculous voice that probably made me sound all flirty, or like some air-headed damsel in distress.

As I apply my makeup after a shower, I go through all the reasons I should have declined Griffin’s offer in my head.

One, he’s an irritating, control-freak who crashed my trip spectacularly because he doesn’t trust me. But then, I know why he has issues with trust, and I can’t say I blame him. I haven’t been at The Songbird long yet. He obviously trusts people once he has known them awhile. Like Emily, for example. He trusts her to host her charity galas at the hotel and deal with it all herself. I don’t think he gets involved with the planning at all, from what Harley says. So that’s explainable, which just leaves irritating.

He’s definitely still that.

Okay, reason two. He’s my boss, and… wait, this isn’t a vacation This is a business trip, so this is a business dinner. Surely not having dinner with him would be seen as rude. So that’s not a reason, either.

Reason three… I comb my fingers through my hair. Reason three… trois… tres… the third installment… shoot, I have nothing.

I sigh at my reflection in the mirror. My eyes are bright—excited. Why the hell do I look excited about having dinner with the alpha boss-hole in the hut next door? No. It must be the new deal we agreed with Ken today. That’s it. That is definitely it! I smile as I recall the way Griffin calmed down and smoothly slotted into Mr. Parker, charming businessman role as he chatted with Ken and met his wife, and we had tea on their porch. It’s the same Mr. Parker I’ve seen glimpses of around the hotel when he’s speaking to… well, anyone who isn’t me.

I head over to the wardrobe in the bedroom, where I hung up some of my clothes. I’ve not brought a lot with me, as it’s only one night. Luckily, I packed a dress in case Todd and I went to the hotel restaurant tonight. I pull it off the hanger and step into it.

Todd sent a text earlier to say everything was sorted with his family, after I asked if all was okay. He brought up taking me to dinner again when I get back, but I don’t want him to think it’s a date, so I suggested he come to Emily’s charity gala with me as my business guest next week instead. That way it’s a work function, and he won’t get the wrong idea.

“This will do,” I mutter as I zip the red dress up.

I twist my hair up at the back of my head and clip it into place, pulling some strands down around my face. It’s far too hot right now to wear it down. I slip on a pair of high nude wedge sandals, grab my purse, and head out.

The walk to the pool bar allows me to clear my head. I always told myself I would put all my energy into work after I split up with my ex. And that’s what I’m doing now. I think I’m doing a pretty great job, too, if I’m honest. The spa has received incredible feedback, and Vogue magazine wants to do a feature on us in their next issue. Everything is moving in the right direction. Just how I dreamed.

I round the corner to the pool bar. I feel him before I see him. The tiny hairs on the back of my neck stand up and my spine straightens as I dart my eyes around. A deep, intoxicating, blue stare pulls me through the small tables filled with couples having pre-dinner drinks. I weave between them as the fairy lights in the surrounding gardens twinkle off the surface of the infinity pool. My eyes never leave his as I walk over to the bar where he’s sitting on a stool, looking like a runway model—light blue casual linen shirt, cream slacks, and a smile on his lips that makes my mouth dry.

He stands as I reach him and pulls out the stool next to his for me. I slide onto it as he sits down next to me, pulling his closer so our knees touch. His gaze drops over my tight, red dress subtly before he looks away, raising his chin to the bartender.

“What would you like to drink, Maria?”

I swallow down the flutters in my chest from the way he says my name. Maybe it’s the first time, or maybe I’ve never noticed it before, but the way he says it makes it sound special. Like the most beautiful name in the world.

“Something strong.”

He looks at me, the corner of his mouth twitching.

“Two of your strongest cocktails, please,” he says to the bartender.

He leans his elbow on the bar, pointer finger tracing back and forth over his lips as he studies me.

“What?” I ask.

“Nothing.” He shakes his head with a smile. “You just surprise me. Few people do that.”

“By asking for a strong drink?” I smile back at him, relaxing into his proximity as I cross my legs and my knee brushes his thigh.

“By being you.”

I pull my head back in confusion as the bartender places two cocktails down in front of us. They’re bright yellow with a swirl of something dark and inky on the top.

“It’s a compliment, Maria.” He hands me my glass and then lifts his own to clink against it. “To new business deals.”

I wait until the glass is to his lips.

“And to drinking cocktails the same colors as the birds who made it possible.”

He inhales some of the liquid and then coughs, placing his glass down on the bar.

“What?” He frowns at the glass as though just realizing. “For fuck’s sake,” he mutters, running a hand around the back of his neck. Then he laughs and raises his eyes to mine. I laugh too, desperately trying to ignore the flush of heat that’s infused itself between my thighs as I stare back into his eyes. They’re open, honest. He looks back at me, and it’s as though I’m seeing his soul.

This is the real Griffin Parker I’ve been aching to see.

The way he laughs so easily here—a deep, smooth sound that warms my insides, his eyes crinkling at the corners—is magical. He’s like a different person to the serious control freak I’m used to.

Could it all be a front and I’ve had him wrong all along?

“How’s your collection going?” he asks, breaking into my thoughts.

He raises a brow at me over the rim of his glass as he has another drink, this time without almost choking.

“Collection?”

“For the pigeons.” He smirks.

I press my lips together to stifle my smile. “Very well, thank you for asking. I’m even thinking Emily may like to consider the cause for one of her future galas.”

“Really?” Griffin leans closer to me.

“Mmm-hmm.”

I concentrate on drinking my cocktail, so I don’t have to meet his eyes. The fresh scent of his aftershave—or maybe it’s just his skin—reaches me, and I shuffle in my seat, as the earlier intimate heat infusion intensifies in my core.

He smiles and shakes his head. “Today was impressive. We got a good deal with Ken.”

“You did, you mean? You negotiated the price.”

“It was both of us. You saw an opportunity and turned the situation around. We work well together.”

Together.

I tilt my head and smile at him.

“Two compliments from you in five minutes. What did I do to deserve this?” I take another sip of my drink.

“You were you,” Griffin states, as though that explains everything. He furrows his brow and then looks back at me, his eyes dazzling in their intensity. “Do you think I don’t notice how talented you are? That I don’t appreciate you?”

It’s my turn to almost choke on my drink.

I place my glass down and lick my lips, Griffin’s eyes following my every move.

I take a deep breath. “You turned up at the meeting with Todd and Serena on my first day. You turn up here for the meeting with Ken. You don’t think I can do my job.”

“That’s not it.” His gaze darkens as he looks at me, effectively drawing my eyes to his again until I can no longer look away, no matter how hard I try. “I know you’re perfectly capable. I wouldn’t have hired you if I didn’t have complete faith in your abilities.”

I remember the words he said in his office after I went to lunch with Todd.

Someone else would have made you theirs… I wasn’t going to let that happen.

“Then, why?” I whisper.

“I told you. I don’t trust people easily. Even when logic tells me I can.” He lowers his head and shakes it, breaking the spell I’m under from his eyes, and allowing me to breathe again. “It’s something I struggle with.”

“The formulations that were stolen.” I nod in understanding as I recall our earlier conversation about them. No wonder he’s so hesitant to trust new people. When you’ve had someone betray you when you thought you could rely on them, it scars. It leaves a dirty black mark which doesn’t wash away. I know all about those marks. I’m still wearing one.

He raises his eyes to meet mine again and the betrayal and hurt is tangible in them, like I could reach out and dust it with the gentle sweep of a fingertip.

I wish I could. Then I could brush them away, set them free on the breeze, never to affect him again.

Erase all black marks for good.

“Only a handful of people had access to them. People I trusted.”

“Gwen?” I ask, testing out something I’ve heard the spa team whispering about.

He nods. “She was one of them.”

Griffin straightens and downs his drink. He obviously knows about the rumors around the hotel that his ex, Gwen, took them. It seems convenient that she left to work for a rival hotel shortly after they went missing. The theories range from her being approached with a considerable sum of cash to take them, to her being part of a larger operation, and planted in the first place, to grow close to Griffin, and use it to her advantage later to do something that would affect The Songbird. And if he was in a romantic relationship with her, the deceit would be all that more hurtful.

“Looks like our table’s ready.” Griffin looks over my shoulder.

I turn toward the beach. There’s a scattering of tables for two set up on the sand, a path of hurricane lanterns with candles lighting the path to them.

“Wow, they look…”

“Inviting?” He catches my eye.

The word romantic freezes on my lips.

“Come on. I could eat a whole damn flock of birds.”

I laugh as we stand and Griffin places his hand on the small of my back, guiding me out of the bar and over to the sand.

We spend the next hour drinking cocktails and eating the most incredible dinner of island fruits, followed by freshly caught lobster. I try to ignore the fact we are surrounded by honeymooners and romantic vacationers, dreamily gazing at one another across the white linen tabletops. I guess this is what you get when you stay in the best hotel on the island.

“Okay. I must agree. The food is outstanding, like you said.” I smile at Griffin as I place my napkin down on the table, unable to eat any more.

“I told you.” His lips curl into a smug smile as I roll my eyes at his lack of modesty.

I lean back in my chair and exhale, allowing the sounds of the waves gently brushing the shore to completely relax me. It’s a beautiful evening. And having dinner with Griffin has been nowhere near as unpleasant as I would have expected prior to this trip. He’s actually wonderful company out of work, more loose, more talkative. He’s been telling me about how his grandfather bought The Songbird, and it has become a family business, moving down generations. They’ve opened other hotels now. One in San Francisco, and one in Boston, both run by his younger brothers. I bet family gatherings are interesting, judging from the stories Griffin regales me with about his brothers, an easy chuckle flowing from him with each one.

“Now you know about my family history. Tell me about yours.” He leans back in his chair, mirroring my posture.

“Not much to tell.” I look out over the ocean, and then back at him when his eyes don’t leave my face. “Fine.” I sigh, picking up my drink and taking a huge gulp. I place it back down on the table and my heads swirls, signifying just how many cocktails I’ve had tonight. They are delicious, though.

“I spent a lot of time with my grandmother and grandfather growing up. Mom worked a lot, and my dad…” I pause. “… Dad wasn’t around much.”

Griffin’s listening and watching me closely, which just makes me want to say it as fast as possible so we can move back onto other topics of conversation. I hate talking about the past. What good does it do?

I turn my head so I’m not looking into his eyes.

“My dad was an addict. Poker, mainly. He would lose his wages before even making it home on pay day. Gone. Just like that.” I grimace at the memory. Even as a child, I understood it wasn’t normal. None of my friend’s parents fought like mine did.

“Mom took on extra hours to help cover the bills. She never told my grandparents what was going on. They moved to the UK when I was a teenager to live near my uncle, who needed their help when his wife got sick.” I glance at Griffin. He’s still watching me closely. “Once they were gone, Dad didn’t bother even trying to hide it. The whole town knew. Neighbors would drop off casseroles, offer to fetch groceries for Mom from the store, give me their kids’ old school textbooks. We were that family. The one that everyone pitied.”

Griffin clears his throat. “That sounds shit.”

I give him a small smile, grateful that there’s no trace of pity in his eyes. He’s just watching me, his expression serious as he nods for me to continue.

”As soon as I could get a job, I did. I worked as much as I could, giving all my wages to Mom. It was at a fragrance and skincare counter in a big store. That’s where my love of it began.”

Griffin waits patiently as I gather myself. I haven’t spoken about this in so long. I don’t even know why I’m telling him.

“The day I came home and found Dad in my bedroom, all my drawers riffled through, clearing out my purse, was the day I left home. He swore he would get help, enroll in a program and everything. But it was too little, too late. He and Mom broke up. They live separately now, even though Dad’s finally on a better path.”

“And the spa in Hope Cove?” Griffin sits forward in his chair, leaning his elbows on the table, caught on to my every word.

“That came later. I saved up and paid to do a college course on formulations and then business management. Then I got a job as an apprentice in the best spa I could find and worked my way up to senior therapist. I heard about a small beauty room available for someone to start up by themselves in a little hotel outside of LA. I applied, got the job, and after a few years, as the hotel grew, so did the spa. It became what you saw when you visited.”

Griffin’s eyes glitter like two sapphires. “I knew you had built that spa up from scratch. But I didn’t know just how hard you worked to get to that point. It’s very impressive, Maria. You should be proud.”

I look down into my glass, which is now empty.

“It almost didn’t happen.” I raise my eyes to Griffin’s as I scrunch my nose. Somehow, what I’m about to say is worse than what my dad did. Worse, because I should have known better. Should have seen the signs. Like that saying, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

“Why not?” He furrows his brow, and I swallow the lump in my throat, tasting the shame that’s settled there with it.

Sour and clogging.

“Damien, my ex, started coming home late, saying he was busy at work with a project. I suspected he was cheating. Then I opened a letter from a debt collection agency. He’d forged my signature on a loan agreement and wasn’t keeping up with the payments. My dad’s weakness was poker. Damien’s was a stripper called Mercedes in the next town over.” I snort out a humorless laugh, expecting Griffin to do the same.

He doesn’t.

Instead, my hand is cocooned in warmth, surrounded by strong fingers as he pulls it to his own and wraps it up.

I stare at it, shame heating my cheeks.

“He was a fucking fool, Maria. If he couldn’t see the incredible woman who was right in front of him, then he didn’t deserve you.” He looks at me with an intensity that makes the breath catch in my throat. “I would kill any man who did that to…”

He lets my hand go, as a cross between a growl and a hiss escapes his lips. He turns, looking over to the ocean, and the muscle in his jaw ticks, his nostrils flaring as he draws in a breath.

I remember his words in the hallway outside my apartment that morning.

If I was in a relationship, she would be everything to me. All. Mine.

Looking at his face now, the deep furrowed brow, stormy eyes, I can tell—if you are the woman in Griffin Parker’s life, you will never be treated like anything less than a goddess.

I’m still staring at him with my lips parted when he turns back to me and his blue eyes land on mine. They lose some of their anger, his brows relaxing.

“Enough about my depressing past. Tell me something interesting,” I say, leaning over the table toward him, my eyes dropping to his hand, which was holding mine moments ago.

“Like what?”

“Like, whether you really had private business here to attend to, or whether it was all your control-freak nature taking over when you heard I was on my own.”

His face fully relaxes as he chuckles. “Control freak?” He nods. “It’s fair, I suppose. But I really was here on business. If you’d like to check my calendar…” He raises a brow at me and I smirk “… then you’ll see I was originally due here in two weeks’ time. I just brought it forward.”

“Because Todd couldn’t make it?”

“Precisely.”

“You don’t seem bothered that you had to change your schedule.” I run my fingers up and down the stem of my glass.

Griffin smirks. “Because I’m not. It’s the best damn luck I’ve had since that pigeon shit on me.”

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