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The Things I Can't Say



     “You might wanna get something on that.” 

     Molly winced sympathetically from where she sat behind the desk, eyeing up the angry red mark around my eye: The impending shiner I’d just earned because I’d underestimated my opponent. He’d jabbed and I’d ducked, but I’d miscalculated, punching his fist with my face instead. Hardly the way it was supposed to work, and a really fucking great look. 

     I was presenting at a conference tomorrow, and now I’d be doing it with a black eye. Made me look like a powerful leader in the free world, showing up looking like I’d gotten my ass handed to me in some back room brawl.

     Which was pretty much exactly what it was. I knew the risks–had known the risks for years–but I loved cage fighting entirely too much to give it up. It was brutal, vicious and completely unforgiving, which suited me just fine. 

     It was also a great way to keep myself in shape while pushing myself to exhaustion. 

     It took the edge off. 

     Filled up a hole that my demanding day job couldn’t, and made up for what wasn’t happening when I was off the clock. 

     Kept me out of most trouble and took up almost all of my “free” time.

     Today I’d knocked off a little early because I couldn’t stand to be in the building anymore. The hot, itchy feeling clawing at my throat told me I should go to the gym and train, so rather than stay and bark orders at my terrified assistant, I told her I was out for the rest of the day and left. 

     Operating at a high level on the administrative diagram helps with shit like that: No one questions you.

     It had started like any other day, decent enough. Breakfast was ok and coffee was passable.

     My stocks were up and, a bright spot, my biggest enemy was testifying before Congress for something underhanded his company had tried to pull. That part was very satisfying, watching him all pale and stuttering, groveling on C-Span as he was grilled by the junior senator from Kentucky. 

     Guy landed a couple good ones. 

     Max had it coming. He knew his business model crossed every line there was, and he wasn’t sorry. (He was only sorry he’d gotten caught.)

     Undue influence over the election process, the conservative press was calling it. 

     The other guys? They weren’t even covering it, choosing instead to downplay it and focus on a developing public health crisis in China.

     Truth was, Max and I had always been at each other’s throats. In fact, you could almost say our animosity was predestined, attending the same college and then the same graduate program. 

     Chasing the same girls. 

     The difference between the two of us was that he was the Have and I was the Have Not, and he had never let me forget it. I’d scraped and clawed and worked and fought for everything I had, landing a full ride to Stanford by some inexplicable miracle. (Or maybe my brother Thomas was the miracle, considering it was his alma mater and he had serious clout. I’d never asked.)

     Since Max’s daddy came from money–and was an ex-senator to boot–Max sailed into Stanford with straight C’s. 

     After six years and what was probably a million dollars in tuition later, he walked out with a graduate degree. 

     Now he waltzed around Silicon Valley with that proverbial silver spoon shoved so far up his ass, he was insufferable.

     Max had been raised to believe the sun rose and set on him and when it sometimes didn’t, he didn’t know how to handle it. He turned into an angry, whining little bitch when he didn’t get his way, and since he had money and connections, he almost always got his way.

     If fate had been kind, Max would have been an ogre and a thirty-five-year old virgin. 

     A troll living in his very wealthy mother’s basement. 

     But as luck would have it, all of his ugly was on the inside and the outside was this tall, blond, arrogant Viking god. 

     I fucking hated that.

     Because, me? Well, let’s just say that when Max and I went toe to toe for a woman’s attention, there was no competition. He won the prize every damn time. 

     Then again, the girls he pulled in weren’t usually looking for the sort of action I had to offer. They were after money and power, influence and name dropping, and it took me a while and some frustration before I figured that out.

     There was a single time Max hadn’t been able to work his magic on a woman, and he wasn’t about to forgive me for that.

     I was no slouch, but there was no mistaking me for Scandinavian royalty, either. I was shorter, darker, and considerably less pretty than Max. My nose had been busted up a couple times and, thanks to always getting into fights with my much older, bigger brothers, I had a number of interesting scars. 

     I’d added to that collection over the years in the ring.

     After graduation, I’d done a quick stint overseas before hiring on with a tech company in San Francisco. 

     With nothing in my life to demand my time or hold me back, I’d slowly clawed my way to the top of the food chain.

     Max had started his own company right out of grad school, funded with the money from Daddy’s bottomless pit of wealth and influence, and he attracted all the best talent because he paid crazy salaries. It allowed him to build an empire on a new concept, and before we were thirty he’d surpassed the billion-dollar mark several times over.

     As the Chief Product Officer for IntrinoTech, I was pretty far up the ranks and I had a very comfortable salary to show for it. It was nothing that put me in the same field as Max, but with some aggressive investing I was building a very comfortable cushion in case I ever decided to explore Plan B.

     It also meant that I had no life to show for it, and some nights I didn’t even bother making the short drive home, opting to crash on my office sofa because it wasn’t like there was anyone waiting for me anyway.

     Most nights, I could be found at the gym. That sometimes kept me out of the gossip columns some of my coworkers found themselves in, and probably saved me innumerable cases of drunk driving.

     But today? Well, there was really only one thing that could have taken what was a pretty ok day and flipped it on it’s ass, and when I rounded the corner to my office I was kicked in the gut by that one thing. 

     A blonde stood with her back to me, her posture ramrod straight, her body something straight off a runway.

     Stopped me in my damn tracks, because I knew that hair…that body. 

     In a tight black pencil skirt and red-soled heels, long, silky legs and even longer, silkier hair, the demure blue button-up blouse only emphasized the fact that Olivia Fucking Mattingly was still sex on a stick.

     Damn it.

     Swear my knees knocked. 

     Get it together, boys.

     “Asher.” It was Taylor, our CEO. The Big Man. “I’d like you to meet Ms. Mattingly.”

     I watched her work to turn her neck my way, her deep blue eyes stealing my breath the way they always had. 

     I hated that. 

     Hated her. 

     “Ms. Mattingly is joining us as our new Chief Technology Officer.”

     I didn’t move a muscle, frozen to my spot, my mouth suddenly so dry it felt like I’d swallowed sand.

     Taylor was looking back and forth between the two of us, like he couldn’t understand why we needed to maintain a distance. 

     The polite thing to do was shake hands, but I’d never been described as polite.

     My face froze and the few angry thoughts bouncing around in my brain screeched to a halt. 

     “Really,” I said, the irritation painfully evident in my voice. 

     No one had bothered to tell me Joshua, our previous CTO, was leaving. 

     Had left. 


     I was going to have to work directly with this woman every damn day? God help me, my life could not get any worse. Starting right now.

     “Asher and I went to school together,” she said smoothly, aiming a charming smile at Taylor, who was obviously already under her spell. 

     I couldn’t tell if he wanted to mentor her or hump her leg, but the way he watched her was making me uncomfortable: hot and itchy and all kinds of angry.

     I felt my fingers curling in, my thumb sealing the fist.

     “That so?” Taylor asked, but he didn’t look terribly interested in my part in that story. 

     We’d done a hell of a lot more than just go to school together, but certainly nothing Taylor needed to know about.

     Excusing myself, I mumbled something about having a packed schedule, because just being near her was like being burned by a thousand suns, every stupid nerve ending in my body on fire.

     The one who didn’t want me.

     It took serious effort on my part, but I stayed away from her the rest of the day. 

     After ten years without her in my life, in any capacity, I hadn’t been prepared for the sudden and unexpected reintroduction, and to say it knocked me sideways was being pretty damn generous. 

     I sure as hell hadn’t been prepared to see her and it had thrown me for a loop. It left me reeling, pulled up short and disoriented. 

     It still fucking hurt to look at her, after all this time: Another case of Time not doing her damn job, because Olivia was gorgeous. She was more polished and professional than she’d been when we were in school–more contained and aloof–and still the most breathtaking thing I’d ever seen.

     I hated her for being so calm and possessed and beautiful, because today hatred was the only emotion I was capable of expressing.

     That’s how I ended up at the gym that afternoon, angry and distracted, getting my ass handed to me because I couldn’t keep my head in the game.

     Bryson, one of the trainers and my semi-official-sort-of-coach, disappeared into the staff room and reemerged with a bag of frozen peas. He slapped it over my eye, none too gently, and I grunted my thanks. “Gonna bleed on your veggies, man.”

     “Eh.” He grunted back at me. “Been in the freezer for years--nobody eatin’ ‘em anyway. Smaller problem than whatever it is you got going on up there.” He twirled an index finger over his head.

     He wasn’t wrong. The guy could read me like I had a teleprompter spooling my thoughts out across my forehead.

     He gestured that I should follow him, leading me back through the door marked “Staff Only.” 

     There was a plain formica table and seven mismatched chairs, and I threw myself into one as I leaned into my fist, holding the bag of peas to my eye. 

     I was irritated.

     “You gonna tell me what’s got you so off track today?” he asked, digging through the cupboard hanging over a small counter and sink. He pulled out a package of ramen and my nose curled up, but dude was only twenty-six; supposed he could still get away with eating like a college kid.

     “That shit’ll kill you,” I rasped out, and he threw a grin over his huge shoulder.

     “Probably slower’n takin’ punches to the face, my man.”

     He had me there.

     “And?” He was leaning against the counter, those disgusting plastic noodles already in the microwave, the low hum filling the room.

     “New hire,” I ground out.



     “May as well be.”

     He hummed, lifting his chin before he turned to pop open the microwave door. 

     “Hot, then.”

     How in the hell did he do it? My jaw sagged just in time for him to turn around and bark out a laugh when he saw the look on my face.

     “That’s what I thought. Such a hardship, man.”

     He had no idea how much a hardship it was going to be. It was going to be a trial each and every day I went into the office, and with the visibility of my job, I wasn’t logging a whole lot of remote hours from the comfort of my sofa. 

     I’d have to see her; smell her; be in the same room as her, every damned day. And already I knew that would compromise my focus.

     On the job, I was a machine. Nothing and no one got in my way. I wasn’t derailed for anything, and I’d prided myself on that the last ten years I’d spent clawing my way up the ladder. 

     Everybody move. 

     Get out of my way.

     At thirty-four, I’d held the position of Chief Product Officer for the last six years, which meant I’d landed a C-level position at a young enough age. 

     But while I was young in the tech world, I was old in the ring. My days as a cage fighter were limited, since most of my opponents were getting younger and younger. Most of them had been training since they were in the single-digits, whereas I’d only been training since my late teens. I was a dinosaur by their standards and despite the considerable time I devoted, I would never make it as big as I wanted. 

     I didn’t lie to myself. I knew that making it this far was part hard work, part miracle, and I wasn’t guaranteed anything.

     I trained religiously and fought a couple times a year–would have done it more if I could have managed, but my day job was a bit of a kink in those plans. 

     If I’d gotten the call from the UFC when I was a kid, no doubt I’d have jumped at it: a few thousand dollars per fight with no guarantees I’d fight more than once. There were probable medical bills and recovery time…the idea slightly less attractive now than it had been when I was eighteen.

     My dual focus hadn’t left much time for anything else, and much of my success could be measured in things: I had the multi-million dollar home on Santa Paula Avenue and the three-stall garage filled with expensive cars.

     My closet was full of expensive suits, silk ties, custom-made shoes and watches that retailed for the GDP of third world countries.

     On the surface I had it all, but I wasn’t so shallow as to think I had everything. Because I knew the truth: the expensive house and the nice cars, the fancy clothes and the stupid parties I attended...all of it was empty. 

     I didn’t have what really mattered. 

     The one thing that would give my life meaning had been missing for ten years. Something I could ever consider a possession, because I’d tried that once and I’d paid for it every damned day since.

     Lost her.

     Lost a huge piece of myself when she walked out.

     I probably deserved it then, but I’d definitely deserve it now. 

     Instead of becoming more worthy, I was decidedly less.

     “You have no idea,” I sighed, handing him the bag of peas and pushing to my feet. I needed to get home and eat something, then deal with the fact I might need stitches. I could handle that part on my own, though: I’d been stitching myself up since I was a kid. (I’d practically sewn my own leg back on after my brother Noah pushed me out of a tree when we were kids.)

     Bryson crossed the room to set the steaming bowl of noodles on the table, a small smile on his face. “Chicks, man...they absolutely know when they’ve got us all wound up.”

     I shook my head. “You just don’t even have the first idea. This one...she’s been fucking with my head for years.” 

     Even though she didn’t know it.

     I leaned a little and clapped him on the back, wincing when he returned the favor and I felt the movement in the split skin around my eye.

     Hoisting my gym bag onto my shoulder, I snapped off a salute to Molly as I passed the desk and let myself out into the parking lot.

     Clicked my key fob, bringing the AMG immediately to life, her lights a pretty welcome. 

     I heard a car door slam at the other end of the lot and looked over to see a shiny new Mercedes. 

     Laughed to myself: What a poser. 

     Sobered for a second. Probably couldn’t throw that stone, looking at my pretty girl parked right there...also a Mercedes. 

     Damn glass houses.

     A swish of blonde hair and tight, toned legs in sleek black leggings. 

     My mouth watered as I watched her cross the parking lot, oblivious to my lustful stare as she yanked open the door to the gym and let herself into the raucous noise: death metal, always Molly’s first choice.

     Karma, that bitch, was messing with me. It was enough that I had to see Olivia every day, but now I had to share my gym with her? 

     Dropping my bag into the passenger seat, I crawled in behind the wheel and groaned at the throbbing that was setting up on the right side of my face. 

     I threw the car into reverse.

     This was nothing a whole lot of scotch and an evening with my willing fuck buddy Kristyn couldn’t fix.

Copyright 2022, Erin FitzGerald

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