Holding on tighter, p.13
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       Holding on Tighter, p.13

         Part #12 of Wicked Lovers series by Shayla Black
 

  Jolie hadn’t grown up with two dimes to rub together but she definitely appreciated having money now.

  As she looked around, she spotted a gorgeous brunette in a nautical-themed maternity dress waving. The navy color suited her fair skin and made her blue eyes gleam even from across the room. The pregnancy glow only added to her beauty.

  At the table beside her, her husband, Sean Mackenzie, sat glancing through the newspaper. At the back of the shop, her devoted lover and Dom, Mitchell Thorpe, lazed against the wall, watching everything around him while he talked on the phone.

  Disappointment wound through Jolie. She’d hoped Callie would come alone, but since she’d met the woman six months ago, neither man was ever far from her side, and with the baby coming any day, they hovered even more.

  With a hug and a smile, Jolie slid into the empty chair across from Callie. “Hi. Wow, you look fantastic.”

  She put her hands on her belly and laughed. “I look so pregnant. When I see myself naked now, I think that if I get any bigger, I’ll need my own zip code.”

  “How much longer?”

  “A few weeks. But the baby keeps trying to make an early appearance. I’m supposed to be on bed rest but I had to get out of the house before I lost my mind.” Flipping her gaze back to Thorpe, then over to Sean, she leaned in. “I thought they were overprotective before but now they’re downright exasperating.”

  “I heard that, lovely,” Sean remarked without once looking up from his Dallas Morning News.

  “And I’m sure Thorpe will know too as soon as he ends this call. You guys can let up a little. I’m not going to give birth the next time I stand up and accidentally drop the baby on its head.”

  Sean frowned skeptically. “We promised you thirty minutes before we took you home to rest. If you want to gab with Jolie, I suggest you get started.”

  How did Callie put up with any man taking so much of her control?

  But the bubbly brunette didn’t let it ruffle her. Instead, Callie stuck out her tongue playfully. “Fine. I’ll get you later.”

  Sean sent her a smoldering gaze. “I look forward to it.”

  The other woman giggled, then handed her a chai iced tea before taking a sip from her water bottle. Her huge diamond wedding ring winked in the light. “How are you, doll? Rough day?”

  Rough forty-eight hours, actually. “You could say that.”

  “Is Heath helping you out?”

  Jolie couldn’t seem to stop herself. Heat crawled up her face. “He’s fine.”

  “Oh . . .” Callie raised a brow. “So he gave you more than recommendations to shore up your security, huh?”

  She ignored that question.

  “We had a break-in at the office last night.” Jolie filled her in on the details, along with a bit about Karis’s odd gifts. “So I’m not sure what to think or do. Now Heath seems determined to stick to me day and night. I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

  “Because you like him despite knowing he doesn’t ever occupy the same bed twice? Or because he got under your skin?”

  Jolie grimaced. Callie had always been perceptive. “Gee, don’t ask me hard questions or anything.”

  Her face softened with apology. “Sorry. I don’t mean to overstep. I only want to help.”

  With a sigh, she sipped her tea and whispered so Sean couldn’t overhear. “I know. The truth is, I’m not sure. And I’m even less sure I want to know the answer.”

  Callie hesitated. “That’s new for you. If it makes you feel any better, he’s a good guy.”

  “I didn’t really want a guy at all. I don’t need the distraction.”

  “You never get to choose when love comes your way.” She and Sean shared a meaningful glance before she turned to Thorpe, who was still on the phone. As if he sensed her stare, the intimidating man in the perfectly cut suit gazed back with an adoring smile. Callie glowed with happiness. “I wasn’t looking for it a year ago. But it found me. Now look.” She caressed her belly. “Married. Happy. About to have a baby. I didn’t plan this, but I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

  “I’m thrilled for you. I know you’ve been through a lot. But I’ve never been in love and I don’t plan to start now. I just needed some sanity.”

  And some space Heath Powell didn’t inhabit.

  Thankfully, Callie let the love thing drop. “What’s making you crazy?”

  Jolie explained the installation of the security equipment and Heath’s insistence that he was now her bodyguard.

  Suddenly, Callie’s eyes went wide. “So you didn’t tell Heath you were coming to meet me?”

  “No. I don’t need a keeper. I’m sure these incidents have something to do with the business, and Heath will figure it out. But I won’t have that man breathing down my neck as if he owns me.”

  Her eyes flared even wider. “Um . . .”

  “Unless you’d like me to make a scene in this posh little coffeehouse, I suggest you come with me now.”

  Jolie recognized that deep, clipped British voice. She froze.

  Heath had tracked her down. And he didn’t sound pleased.

  Chapter Seven

  Rule for success number seven:

  Pick your battles.

  JOLIE whirled around. Heath stood, muscled arms crossed over his wide chest. He didn’t look mad but under the surface she felt him seething. Karis stood behind him, wincing with an apologetic glance . . . before she started checking out the twentysomething guy behind the counter who had a mop-top haircut, gauges in his ears, and a fresh tattoo. To Jolie, he looked like a cliché. Her sister was probably wondering if he could be her soul mate.

  How had Heath known where to find her?

  Obviously not from Callie but . . . Sean appeared as surprised as his wife, though his scowl at her was now laced with disapproval. After a scan of the back of the shop, Jolie had her culprit. Mitchell Thorpe held his phone in his fist, his expression more than suggesting she start answering Heath’s questions—fast.

  Irritation bit. She didn’t like high-handed people and appreciated men who thought they knew better than the women in their life even less.

  “Just a minute.” She made her way to Thorpe. Power rolled off him but Jolie ignored his alpha vibe, refusing to be intimidated.

  “Why the hell did you tell Heath where to find me? You’re interfering.”

  “I’m helping a friend keep his charge safe. And I know a thing or two about stubborn women,” he drawled, glancing at Callie. “Better to have you annoyed than dead.”

  “That’s my decision to make.”

  “You hired Heath for a reason. Let him do his job.”

  Jolie gritted her teeth together when she felt a gentle hand on her shoulder. Callie.

  “Mitchell meant well,” she murmured as she pulled Jolie into a hug. “I’ll torment him later for you, okay?”

  When she might have argued, Jolie realized everyone in the coffee shop was staring. She backed away. “That would be great.”

  “I’ll see you soon?” Callie looked worried that Jolie was too pissed to be her friend anymore. But Jolie couldn’t stay mad at the woman.

  “Absolutely. Let me know when you go into labor.”

  “You mean for real?” She laughed at herself. “Will do.”

  They’d barely broken apart from their hug when Jolie felt firm fingers wrap around her elbow. Heath stood beside her, looking perfectly relaxed, but his grip revealed his tension.

  “Let’s go,” he growled.

  Jolie snagged her tea and left. She wanted to argue but not in public and not where she’d potentially put Callie in the middle. Her friend hadn’t known Thorpe would rat her out to Heath. No, she’d deal with her security contractor all by herself.

  “Karis?” he asked.

  Her sister flicked one last glance at the guy behind the counter as she paid for her coffee. “Yeah.”

  The three of them walked in silence to the parking lot. Karis jumped in her little compact. Heath was two
steps off Jolie’s ass as she made her way to her sedan.

  The moment they were both in her vehicle and she started the engine, she turned to Heath with a glare. “You had no right—”

  “You’ve paid me for the right. If I have to keep you safe from yourself, I will. But never mind me. Think of your sister. When she realized you’d gone, she was worried and insisted we find you immediately. She’s not too stubborn to realize you could be in danger. Since you usually attend yoga on Thursday nights, I started with a call to Thorpe to see if Callie had joined you. Imagine my surprise to learn that you’d come across town to sip coffee in public and left your bodyguard behind. Did you stop to consider for a moment that you might be putting Callie, a woman thirty-seven weeks pregnant, in danger? You want to be independent, I know. But think of the people around you.”

  Before he’d even finished speaking, regret and shame burned her. She’d merely wanted some Zen. No, she’d wanted to run away from everything he made her feel.

  Jolie hadn’t been thinking about danger. She’d been thoughtless and reckless.

  “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

  “Say those words to your sister and Callie. I don’t need an apology. I have other ways to get my point across to you.”

  With that ominous note, he fell silent, texting furiously for the next ten minutes while she fought the swelling traffic. In her rearview mirror, Karis followed dutifully, waving when Jolie looked back.

  When they reached her condo, the three of them entered wordlessly. Tension poured off Heath. It made Jolie skittish and jittery. Some foolish part of her wanted to touch him, calm him. She didn’t. She paid him, so he wasn’t going to tell her what to do . . . Though knowing she’d worried her sister and inadvertently risked others, she vowed to start listening more.

  After a silent dinner of pizza and salad, Karis borrowed a T-shirt from her, hit the shower, then emerged from the bathroom with wet hair and a pensive expression.

  “Night, y’all.”

  Jolie hugged her sister. “I’m not mad. I hope you’re not upset with me.”

  She sighed with relief. “No. I didn’t mean to panic but when you disappeared . . .”

  “I understand.” And Jolie could see how, after the last couple of days, her younger sister would draw the conclusion that something terrible had happened. “I won’t sneak off anymore.”

  Karis smiled, then retired to the futon in Jolie’s home office, carrying her iPad and earbuds. Jolie was glad they’d cleared the air and her sister could sleep tonight in safety and peace.

  But that left her alone with Heath, her frustration, and her thick desire for the man she could neither purge nor escape.

  “I’m going to shower and take my laptop to bed. The pillows and blankets from last night are still sitting on the sofa. Help yourself.”

  “So that’s it? You’re going to avoid talking about the elephant in the room. Brilliant.”

  Jolie didn’t pretend she didn’t understand. “There’s nothing more to say. I’ve apologized for leaving without letting you know. Things are right with my sister again. We’ve both agreed that we won’t be having sex anymore, and I have to finish prepping for my meeting tomorrow night with Gardner. So we’re done here.”

  He took a step closer until he towered over her. “We’re not. I don’t care how reluctant you were when you agreed to keep me as your bodyguard. We’d barely been out of that conference room two hours when you completely disregarded everything I said, went behind my back, and acted as if nothing I said mattered.”

  “Don’t take it personally. I just wanted a coffee with a girlfriend. I didn’t tell you to shove your security up your ass.”

  “Actually, you did. Without words, mind you. But your actions told me to sod off and that you don’t give two shits about staying safe. Between your to-do list and your hang-ups, you’re too wrapped up to think at all about the people around you who care.”

  He was uncomfortably close to right. “Why do you give a shit?”

  Instantly, his face closed up. “I don’t. I’m merely doing my job.” The passion with which he gritted out the words—with fists clenched and tendons standing out in his neck—made a liar out of him. “But your sister was beside herself. No one knew where you’d gone, if you’d left voluntarily or . . .”

  “My sister doesn’t seem half so agitated as you. You want to talk about the elephant in the room, fine. Let’s get it out there,” she challenged. “I left because when you’re near me, I find it harder to breathe. You make me want. You make me ache. I admit it. I’m sorry if I worried you, but it pisses me off that you’re pushing your shit off on my sister because you won’t man up to the fact that, for whatever reason, you don’t want to see me hurt.”

  “I don’t want to see anyone hurt.” He came at her again, pointing a finger at her. “But don’t make the mistake of thinking anything or anyone matters to me. I stopped caring years ago.”

  “In other words, don’t read any emotion or meaning into last night. Great. That works for me,” she shouted back. And she didn’t mean a word of it. Last night had sure as hell felt like it mattered—even when she hadn’t wanted it to. She suspected it had meant something to him, too. “Now I’m going to my room. We’ll leave for work tomorrow at seven a.m.”

  Jolie grabbed her purse and swiped her iPad off the coffee table, then marched down the hall. By the time she closed the door between them and pulled off her clothes, she didn’t want to think about why tears began to fall.

  ***

  WITH arms crossed over his chest, Heath watched Jolie close her door between them.

  No way he could simply brush off her actions today. He had to make her understand the world could be dangerous so he would be implacable when it came to her safety.

  Because despite what he’d told her, he cared.

  He also couldn’t forget her words. You make me want. You make me ache.

  She wasn’t the only one.

  Some obnoxious pop tune bled out from under Jolie’s room, interrupting his reverie. A young male vocalist crooned, calling the female he sang about a generic “girl,” as if he couldn’t recall her actual name.

  Heath shook his head. He didn’t know precisely why Jolie had chosen to shut him out, but instinct told him that he couldn’t allow that door to separate them for too long.

  For now, he let himself into the hall bathroom for a quick shower, then headed to the front of the flat and checked each door and window, ensuring he’d locked the unit as tightly as possible for the night. Tomorrow, they’d discuss the security here at her condo and he would make some changes for the better.

  Seeing a sliver of light spill out from under the guest room door, he knocked. Karis opened up enough to peek her head out. “You need something?”

  “I’d like to check the window in here, make certain it’s locked.”

  She stepped back and opened the door wider, revealing an oversized T-shirt, sans bra. She looked clean, innocent. Normally, he’d find her attractive. Lovely, impressionable, and clearly in need of a guiding hand. Yes, Heath knew his type.

  With Jolie in the picture, the doe-eyed neediness that had always drawn him paled next to her vibrant fire. She never waited for someone to help her. She attacked life with a passion that burned him. Even in bed, she’d been a firework, blistering him as she burst loud and colorful all over him.

  Down the hall, he heard running water. Jolie had stepped into the shower. He tried not to think of her naked. It would distract him, make him forget that he didn’t intend to be her lover again.

  Once he’d ensured the window was locked tight, he headed for the door. “Good night.”

  Karis lingered near the futon she’d covered with a sheet and
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