He shook his head. “I’m older than the guy that has, like, a dozen kids,” he said, referring to Finn.
“I think he only has two kids, and another on the way,” I corrected Ridley.
“Still. That’s a lot of kids for someone his age. He’s, like, twenty-four, right?” He looked back down at the balcony and absently kicked a clump of snow stuck to the wood. “That’s too young to have that many kids.” Then Ridley looked up over at me. “I mean, isn’t it?”
“Maybe.” I shrugged, unsure of where the conversation was going, which only made me feel more flustered than I already did. “But I don’t know what that has to do with you not coming to the party.”
“I don’t know. I’m just feeling old, I guess.” He leaned his head back, staring up at the stars, and his breath came out in a plume of white fog. “I’m having a bit of an existential crisis lately.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you think you’ll ever settle down?” Ridley asked, and I was grateful that he was still looking at the sky, so he couldn’t see the startled—and probably terrified—expression on my face.
“You mean like get married and have kids?” I asked, buying myself some time until I figured out how I wanted to answer. “Or retire?”
“No. Never,” I said firmly, and at that moment it felt painfully true.
I would never retire, I knew that with every fiber of my being, but it wasn’t until just now that I realized that love was off the table for me too. As my brief romance with Simon had proven, I didn’t have the time or the inclination for a relationship. My career would always come first—as it should.
And hopefully that would put the final nail in the coffin of whatever I was feeling for Ridley. Because it didn’t matter how I felt or whether he was with Juni or not. I would never be with Ridley. I had more important matters to tend to, and getting involved with my boss would only complicate and ruin everything.
“Never is pretty final,” Ridley commented rather grimly.
“I used to think that way,” he admitted. He rested his arms on the railing beside me, leaning against it, and his elbow brushed up against mine. I could’ve pulled my arm away so I wouldn’t be touching him, but I didn’t.
“You are retired,” I pointed out.
“No, I meant about getting married. I thought I’d never do it.” He paused, letting the silence envelop us. “But now I’m reconsidering.”
I swallowed hard and scrambled to think of something supportive to say. It took me far too long, but finally I managed, “Well, Juni seems nice.”
“Yeah, she is.” Then he said it again, as if convincing himself. “She’s very nice.”
“And beautiful,” I added. “Stunning, even.”
Ridley laughed softly at that. “Are you crushing on my date?”
“No. I’m just…” Just what? Trying to convince myself that I was happy for him? I didn’t have anything, so I let it hang in the air.
“Did you really not remember her?” Ridley asked. “I mean, you guys are about the same age and went to school together, and there aren’t that many people in town.”
“No, of course I remembered her. Her name just slipped my mind,” I lied.
“You have had a lot to worry about lately.” His tone shifted from playful to thoughtful. “Is that what you were doing out here?”
“What?” I glanced over at him.
“Figuring out how you’re going to exact your revenge on Konstantin?”
“Something like that,” I muttered, feeling angry at myself that that wasn’t actually what I’d been doing.
I should have been doing that, but instead I was stupidly and childishly trying not to think about how handsome Ridley looked tonight and the way his hair curled more at the end of the day, when the gel couldn’t fight it any longer, and how the stubble darkened his jaw in a way that made me want to touch it, to feel it like sandpaper against my cheek if he leaned in for a kiss, and how badly I wished he were slipping his strong arm around my waist and whispering in my ear instead of Juni’s.
“You should clue me in on your plans,” Ridley said.
I looked at him sharply, terrified for a second that he’d been able to read my thoughts, but then I realized that he was talking about my plans for Konstantin. “Why? So you can talk me out of them?”
“No. I want to help.” He turned to face me, putting his hand on the railing so his fingers brushed against mine. The metal felt icy cold, and his fingers felt like delicious fire against mine, radiating all through me. “I meant what I said earlier. I’m part of this too, and I don’t mean just because I’m your boss. I know what this guy did to you and what he did to your family. I want to help you catch him.”
It was too dark out for me to really see his eyes, but I could feel the heat from them, the new intensity I’d begun noticing when he looked at me sometimes, and it made my heart forget how to beat properly.
I looked away from him, unable to deal with the way he was looking at me, the way he made me feel, or even how close he was to me. His fingers on mine were cooling against the iron railing, but that didn’t stop the heat from coursing through my veins.
And suddenly I couldn’t stand it. I didn’t want to be around him, making me feel a way that I refused to feel.
I stepped back from the railing, pulling my hand away from his. “Thank you. But right now my only plans are helping Linus get ready and surviving the anniversary party tomorrow night.” I motioned to the door behind me. “Which means that I probably should be getting home to get some sleep.”
“Good call. I should be heading out soon too.”
I took a step backward, still facing him like I was afraid he would attack me if I turned away, and I reached behind me, fumbling for the door handle. Ridley moved closer. The balcony wasn’t that big, so it only took a step and he was right in front of me, staring down at me. The light was coming through the glass doors, illuminating his face, and he appeared breathtakingly handsome.
The scent of his cologne blended perfectly with the winter air around us, making him smell tantalizingly clean and crisp, and I imagined that it came in a blue bottle with a name like Aspen or Evergreen. His chest nearly touched me, and for a second time I froze completely, terrified that he would kiss me and terrified that he wouldn’t.