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Terms and Conditions: Chapter 18

IRIS

I wish I could say I’m some bad bitch that was willing to take a nice little jaunt around the safari lodge property. In all honesty, I had every intention of doing just that, especially after my fight with Declan.

But I’m not a bad bitch. Not in the slightest. All it took was some rustling leaves to have me hightailing my butt to our backyard and parking myself on a lounge chair. Instead of making my presence known to the big asshole inside, I kept the lights off. I could lie to myself and say I did it so I could see the stars better, but in reality, I wanted to be alone. He was so adamant about me not leaving to the point of being a complete dick, so I feel like it is only fair.

Well, you did tell your boss you’re quitting. That’s some bad bitch material that Cal would be proud of.

I groan. That was so stupid on my part. Instead of biting my tongue, I let my anger get the best of me. My phone buzzes for the fourth time since I walked out. Declan’s name flashes across the screen, and I sigh as I answer the call.

Be an adult.

“Tell me where you are.” His clipped voice rumbles through the phone.

“Out.”

So much for acting mature. But seriously, who is he to order me around like that? Has he learned nothing from what happened earlier?

“I swear to God the moment I find you…”

His half-finished threat makes the back of my neck prickle.

What the hell?

“I’m fine.”

“You’re out in the middle of the fucking jungle.”

I coo at him through the phone. “Technically it’s called a bush. Not that you would know since you made me plan everything for a trip I can’t even enjoy.”

“Shut up and tell me where you are.”

A soft laugh escapes me before I have a chance to kill it. “This is our exact problem.” I keep my voice low just in case he is looming too close to the glass doors surrounding our villa. “You continue to order me around like some disobedient housewife, and I continue to push back.”

“If you don’t tell me where I can find you—”

“I’m lounging outside by the pool.”

Our call disconnects. The pace of my heart increases with each second that ticks by. My ability to hear is drowned out by the whooshing sound of blood in my ears.

The hairs on my arms rise at the sound of the sliding door opening. I refuse to look over my shoulder at Declan, so I keep my eyes glued to the starry sky despite the burning sensation spreading across my skin from his assessment.

Declan doesn’t move for a whole minute. I consider him to be an expert when it comes to torture, given the way he makes me wait on pins and needles while he says nothing. While I have always admired his ability to make people crack under pressure, today I find it unbearable. I almost give in to the temptation to look over my shoulder and check on him, but I stay strong.

The wind conceals my sigh of relief as the sliding door glides shut again. Declan’s shoes clap against the wood deck, the thudding matching the staccato of my heart. He lingers close by as if he wants to keep his distance.

I expect him to yell at me. Part of me thinks I deserve it after walking out on him in the middle of an argument. I know it wasn’t the most mature thing to do, but I’m only human. While it takes a lot to make me explode, once I do, hell hath no fury like an assistant scorned.

The rebellious part of me stands by my decision, knowing something about him needs to give. I’m not a robot. I have feelings and dreams and a hope that I won’t spend the rest of my life assisting him to achieve his goals while putting mine on hold. And if he can’t see that, then maybe it’s time I move on from my position.

I might have tried and failed before when I applied for a job transfer, but that’s what life is all about.

“We need to talk.”

My eyes slide from the stars to his face. I open my mouth to speak, but the words seem to get trapped in my throat. I’m not sure what to say. Declan isn’t the type of man who wants to talk. That alone puts me on edge, and I become unsure of myself.

He takes a seat on the chair parallel to mine. Unlike me, he doesn’t lean back, instead choosing to remain in an upright sitting position. The shadows cling to him like a cloak, concealing most of his face. I don’t need any light to know he is focused on me. My body does the job for me, sending a shiver down my spine that has nothing to do with the temperature outside.

“I’m sorry.” His voice can barely be heard over a gust of wind.

I turn my face away, shielding him from seeing how my eyes nearly pop out of their sockets.

He must take my silence as quiet approval. “I made a mistake.”

I might need to take up learning sign language because I have officially lost the ability to speak. Declan doesn’t apologize, and he sure as hell doesn’t admit when he is wrong. That should serve as my first warning that something is off between us.

“I don’t want you to quit.” His admission hangs between us.

“Why? Because it would suck to find a replacement?”

“No one can replace you.”

Who knew one statement could do a whole lot of damage to my heart? It beats harder as if it wants to respond for me. “I can’t do this anymore.”

He sighs. “I know.”

“I deserve better.”

“That was never a doubt.”

I tilt my head. “I’m not happy.”

His reply doesn’t come instantly like the others. The silence eats away at my calm façade, and I find my fingers tapping against my thighs in a nervous pattern.

“It was wrong of me to make you work on your day off.”

I deflect with humor, hoping to ease the tight ball forming in my chest. “Yeah. You’re right. It was a total dick move.”

The moonlight highlights his small smile, making the whites of his teeth stand out. “You have such a foul mouth.”

“Is it just me or do you seem to have an unhealthy obsession with my mouth lately?”

“Who says it’s unhealthy?”

Oh. My. Lord. Either Declan is flirting with me or I was murdered by a wild animal and have officially ascended into heaven.

Or hell. Depends on how you look at it.

My toes curl inside of my boots before I have a chance to squash the warmth pooling in my belly.

What has gotten into you? Toes curling? Next thing you know, you’ll be swapping out your abstinence card for a healthy dose of Declan’s dick.

Stop thinking about his dick!

I clear my throat. “It’s fine. All is forgiven.” I’ll say just about anything to make him go away. There are far too many feelings happening inside of me to handle any more of this conversation. Scary kinds of things that I refuse to explore while he assesses me for weaknesses.

He rubs the back of his neck.

Is he…nervous?

No. There is no possible way.

Right?

I’m so mystified at the idea of Declan being self-conscious, I completely miss whatever he says. “What?”

“I called Yakura and told him we wouldn’t be able to send him the proposal until we came back from our trip.”

I nearly throw my back out from sitting up in my chair. “Why would you do that?”

“Because some things are more important.”

Don’t you dare ask.

My lips part.

No.

But, I counter.

Who cares why he did it? Asking him about it is a terrible idea. It almost seems forbidden in a way, which I know is ridiculous.

I ignore the strong voice in my head cautioning me away. “What things?”

He deflects. “Did you really mean what you said earlier?”

“You might have to clarify because I said a lot of things.”

“That you have spent the last three years compromising your happiness by working for me?”

I release a heavy sigh. “I was angry.”

“That’s not an answer to my question.”

I shoot him a withering glare. “What do you want me to say? I’ve been working for you for three years already and what do I have to show for it? I have no life, no friends other than Cal, and no future besides helping you accomplish yours. I married you despite all the red flags, and I’m supposed to give birth to a child knowing full well you want nothing to do with them. Of course I’m not happy. In fact, I’m terrified.”

That last part hurts to admit.

He blinks. Once. Twice. Three times.

I thought I would feel better after pouring my heart out, but rather, I feel sick to my stomach. Declan is far from perfect in many ways, but that doesn’t make him a bad person. He doesn’t yell at me or call me names or make me feel uncomfortable. His pay is double the usual salary, and I’ve been able to save a nice nest egg because of that.

Is he the easiest boss in the world? Absolutely not. He expects just as much from me as he does of himself. His standards are as exacting as his attitude, but that doesn’t mean he is unfair. If anything, he pushes me to do better.

And you just admitted how much you resent it all.

My stomach churns. “About what I said—”

“What would make you happy?”

I think being struck by a lightning bolt would have been less shocking than his question. Not once has Declan ever inquired about such a thing, and I’m not entirely sure how to go about answering it. Lots of things could make me happy, but there are very few within his immediate control.

“I—”

“Don’t think. Just speak.”

I take a deep breath. “First off, I want to be treated like a human being with wants, needs, and feelings.”

“Unfortunately, evolution hasn’t seemed to work out that little issue yet.”

I glare in his general direction. “I’m serious. That means you respect my time, energy, and willingness to go above and beyond to make our fake marriage work. You need to remember that this isn’t for me. You are the one who screwed up a perfectly good wedding contract with Bethany, and I’m the next best thing. I can be your asset or your enemy. It’s up to you to decide.”

“Anything else?” Humor seeps into his voice.

Are you laughing at me?”

“Only on the inside.”

My eyes narrow into tiny slits. “Yes, actually. There is one more thing. Stop calling Dreamland Tokyo your project. We both have spent two years working on that proposal together, and I lost about ten friends and a boyfriend in the process, so whether you like it or not, we’re a team. I’d like to be treated as such from this moment on.”

He rubs his stubbled chin. “That’s a valid point.”

I’m not sure whether Declan is appeasing me because he doesn’t want to continue pissing me off or because he actually cares about how I feel. I’d like to assume it’s the latter reason, but knowing him, he doesn’t want to ruin his one shot of becoming CEO. And by making me unhappy, he risks a lot more than losing an assistant.

“Great. So now that everything is settled, I’m going to bed.” I stand and take a step toward the sliding door.

“Don’t be late.”

I look over my shoulder. “For?”

“Our safari tomorrow.”

“You want to go?” My pitch rises.

Want is a bit of a stretch. But I am willing.”

I grin. “Be ready by 5 a.m.” I walk across the deck and pull on the handle of the sliding door.

“Iris?”

This time, I turn around and press my back against the glass. “Yes?”

“If you try to leave me again, I’ll make you regret it.” The slight rasp in his voice does something catastrophic to my lower half.

“Is that a threat?”

“It’s a promise.” His face remains blank, but his eyes rival the stars above us.

I blink. Somehow I pull myself together and nod before leaving the deck.

Declan’s words follow me all the way back to my room, but it’s not until I shower and crawl into bed that I realize what struck me as odd about what he said.

If you try to leave me again, I’ll make you regret it.

Not quit but leave him. Such a strange choice of words for submitting a two weeks’ notice, but I believe Declan considers them one and the same. I think he would see me quitting as a slight against him. Maybe he would even go as far as to consider it some kind of betrayal after all these years.

He doesn’t need anyone. Cal’s voice plays on repeat in my head.

Except maybe me.


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