Holding on tighter, p.18
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       Holding on Tighter, p.18

         Part #12 of Wicked Lovers series by Shayla Black
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  life for another. He’d guarded Mystery Mullins’s body for years. That made something angry rip through her. God, she hated being jealous of a woman she’d never met. And she was afraid of where this angst was stemming from. It felt suspiciously like her heart.

  She shoved her hand in Cutter’s direction. “Thank you. I worry about my sister. The mysterious gifts have all been for her and this odd admirer has an uncanny knowledge of what she likes.”

  Cutter shook her hand. “No worries. I’ll make sure nothing and no one gets to her.”

  Jolie nodded and glanced at her watch to avoid looking at either man. Just past lunchtime. Normally if she’d had a tough morning, she’d splurge on a mani/pedi. No time today. Or she’d go home and take a hot shower. But if she did that, Heath would follow her, watch her, distract her. Seduce her again?

  Why had he broken his no-repeat rule? She didn’t think he was the sort of man to act without thought, to be provoked so utterly by the heat of mere passion. He already had too many regrets to risk adding to the list. But he’d gone out on a limb to be with her. No, that wasn’t quite it. To make love to her. That’s what being with him today had felt like. They hadn’t shared mere sex in the file room. He hadn’t had it with her simply because he’d been sure she wouldn’t get clingy or attached.

  Jolie sneaked a peek at Heath. He watched her, his dark stare intent, focused, possessive. It made her breath catch, her heart rev.

  Damn, damn, damn.

  It was too much for her to handle now. She didn’t need distractions. “I’ll be in my office for the rest of the afternoon, making sure tonight goes smoothly.”


  Jolie didn’t wait for either of them to reply, she simply headed down the hall. As she passed Wisteria’s desk, she regarded her receptionist, who was tucking away the remnants of her lunch. “Do you need to use the bathroom or get something else?”


  “Then stay in your seat and don’t let anyone in until I say so. Hold all phone calls unless it’s blood, death, or Richard Gardner.”

  “Of course.” Wisteria nodded. “I’ll give you some time alone.”

  Jolie was bowled over by the woman’s kindness and understanding. “Thanks. Really.”

  She marched into her office and withdrew a piece of paper from her printer. When she dug around her desk and located a black marker, she wrote out in big capital letters: DO NOT DISTURB. Then she taped it on the front of her door before shutting and locking it.

  Now what?

  No idea. She needed a breather. She needed some peace until she had an answer.

  Jolie pulled up her notes and made sure that she’d memorized all the pertinent financial figures for tonight. The Wi-Fi on her tablet worked fabulously, so she could show Richard all the progress on the website. She had cherry-picked a few of the best sketches she and Gerard had already completed. She really was beyond ready. She wasn’t worried that she lacked the necessary ingredients to wow Gardner.

  Her inability to focus right now scared the hell out of her.

  It was only two. Way too early to go home and dress since Heath would insist on being with her and god only knew what would happen if they were alone.

  Out of desperation, she picked up her phone and texted her sister. Was it bad?

  From listening, I’m pretty sure it was damn good, Karis responded immediately.

  Jolie groaned. So it was loud?

  Silence. She took that as a yes.

  Can you come to my office?

  Her sister answered that straight off. Be right there.

  Tiptoeing to the door, Jolie peeked out. She didn’t see Heath hovering but he was here, close. No way would he simply back off to give her some space, much less leave.

  Then Karis made her way to the door, Cutter following not far behind. She motioned her sister in, past Wisteria, who nodded in understanding. Cutter took up sentry just outside Jolie’s little office. Sighing, she closed the rest of the world away with guilty relief.

  She and Karis stood staring at one another, her younger sister fidgeting. Jolie realized that her sister wasn’t sure how much love or comfort she would accept.

  It was a startling thought. Equally discomfiting? She didn’t know the answer. She’d kept everyone at arm’s length for years, and she would still be doing it now if she didn’t feel scrubbed raw, her emotions both rusty and overtaxed.

  “I don’t know what to do,” she managed to say. “He makes me feel too much.”

  Karis’s face softened. “And you can’t control that.”

  Her sister was too smart to phrase that as a question, and Jolie was glad Karis understood. “Yeah.”

  “It happens to all of us at some point, honey. You’ve guarded your heart for so long—”

  “I don’t want him near my heart!” But Jolie already feared she didn’t have a choice.

  Pity flitted across her sister’s face before she schooled it. “I wish I had something to say that you wanted to hear.”

  “I don’t get to choose whether he works his way into my heart.” Jolie began to pace. “I know.”

  “You’re not Mom. Hell, I’m not Mom. I may have gotten hurt before. And you may be hurt this time. But you would never sacrifice your future, your loved ones, or your ambitions for the euphoric high of what she considers love. I wouldn’t, either. I know you think I’m guy crazy and believe in fairy tales, but I’ve walked away from relationships with men who were crazy-hot and made me feel so good in bed because I knew they weren’t right for me. I haven’t figured out exactly what I am looking for but I knew those guys weren’t it. I won’t ever get involved with anyone with the hope that I can change them with my love.”

  As her mom assumed every time. And Diana Gale had never managed to learn that, no matter how much she sacrificed, her husbands and boyfriends were flawed men who weren’t going to become different people simply because she willed it with her martyrdom. From watching the cycle repeat over and over, Jolie had long assumed there was no such thing as love in the traditional romantic sense. Maybe she’d been right. What had Heath given her besides a whole lot of alpha attitude and his penis?

  His support. His belief in her. His unwavering presence and protection. Despite having lost a wife to violence, he was having far less difficulty opening himself to the possibilities between them than she was.

  She was pretty sure that said something terrible about her. She’d always seen herself as too driven to pause for a personal life. Now Karis held up a mirror to her soul, and she saw the damaged woman too afraid to attempt anything deeper for fear of ending up hurt and used like her mother. Jolie didn’t like her reflection much at the moment. If she didn’t change something, she knew she’d spend her life alone.

  “You would never do that, either,” Karis pointed out softly.

  “I wouldn’t.” But that wasn’t the worry that scraped her nerves raw. “I just envisioned filling my life with Betti.”

  “Heath is making you see an existence beyond that.”

  He was. And she didn’t know how to cope because it absolutely petrified her.


  “YOU look elegant,” Heath murmured, standing beside her in the foyer of the well-established restaurant on Maple as she adjusted her black sheath and pearls. “Don’t fidget. You know what to say. You’ve rehearsed. If he veers into the suggestive or personal, I’ll be right beside you.”

  “I know.” She did her best not to look at him. If she did, she’d only get distracted by how drop-dead sexy he looked in a tailored gray suit. His crisp white dress shirt magnified the hint of olive in his skin. His dark eyes gleamed with a knowledge that something more than sex lay between them. Jolie still had no clue what to do about that. “I can’t believe you coerced the restaurant staff into adjusting the table layout simply to keep an eye on me.”

  “It’s not the first time they’ve worked with a bodyguard. They were more than happy to put a pair of two-tops beside one another to accommoda
te your safety.”

  “All this can’t be necessary.”

  “Are you willing to take that chance”—he raised a disapproving brow at her—“when your livelihood—maybe even your life—is at stake? And what about your employees? Your sister?”

  He was right. But it was more. She hated how much the idea of disappointing him upset her. She’d never once given a shit about a romantic partner’s opinion because she never intended to keep him. Jolie didn’t want to have any desire to hang onto this one.

  But she cared too much to let him go.

  “Richard and I are in public,” she tried arguing instead. “I’ll be fine.”

  “We’ve been over this. I’m staying. That’s final.”

  Jolie wanted to be annoyed but his protective instinct melted her. “You can’t hover.”

  “I’ll be at the table beside you but I refuse to let you out of my sight.” When she opened her mouth to protest, Heath laid a finger over her lips. “This is my compromise. I don’t want you in public at all, just in case whoever’s broken into your office or given your sister gifts is watching. But since you scheduled this dinner weeks ago, I’m being flexible. I would be far happier if you met in the office. Wouldn’t that be more conducive to serious business?”

  Yes. In fact, Jolie had suggested that. Richard had insisted they spend more time “getting to know each other better” before diving into mission statements and income projections. “If this dinner goes well and we agree in both philosophy and principle, that will be our next step.”

  “I still don’t like it,” he grumbled.

  “I doubt someone has been waiting for me to appear in public simply to kill me.”

  “But you don’t know that for certain, and I prefer not to leave anything to chance.” Heath’s phone dinged then, and he glanced at it, then back at her with a thunderous scowl. “Brilliant. Gardner booked a suite at Hotel ZaZa tonight. He’s already ordered champagne chilled as well.”

  Jolie didn’t want to know how he’d learned that. “Maybe he has a date later. Or a mistress. It’s possible he plans to celebrate in style alone.”

  “Rubbish. He’s using your business pitch to get into your knickers.”

  She shoved down her disquiet, hoping that wasn’t true. She needed this deal to go through. Time was running out. “You’re cynical.”

  “Normally, you are, too. I know men. I’ll bet every dime you’re paying me for this job that he makes a play for you tonight.”

  Before she could reply, the heavy wooden doors opened, and the last of the day’s golden rays slanted in. As Heath melted into the background, Richard Gardner walked in, smiling and looking urbane in a navy suit with a sharp red tie. Of average height, he had a killer smile, complete with a dimple in his left cheek. Despite having equal amounts of salt and pepper in his hair, he managed not to look anything close to the fifty she knew him to be. Normally, she wouldn’t have noticed him as anything but a potential business partner. But Heath had planted the suggestion.

  And Gardner was carrying a dozen red roses.

  “Hello, Ms. Quinn.” As he handed her the bouquet, he leaned in to kiss her cheek—and lingered. His voice dropped to something just above a whisper. “These are for you.”

  She took them because she couldn’t risk insulting him before they’d even sat down. “Thank you. They’re lovely but the gesture isn’t necessary to conduct business. I’m sure we’ll get along just fine.”

  “What can I say? I’m a bit old-fashioned. If I go out to dinner with a lady, I think she should expect flowers.”

  “I’m here tonight merely as a business owner.”

  “You can’t chide the southern gentleman in me.” He winked. “My momma simply wouldn’t have it.”

  A glance behind her said that Heath wasn’t pleased. He was probably ready to say that he’d told her so, but Jolie was determined to make Gardner focus on Betti and the investment opportunity, and get his mind off hoping she would do the mattress tango with him.

  Jolie opened her mouth to politely put him back on track, but the maître d’ approached to say their table was ready. Gardner gestured her in front of him. She hated to turn her back to the man. The primal instinct that she’d just made herself vulnerable to a practiced predator bothered her. She shouldn’t judge his business acumen by his flirtatious manner, especially since she knew that was his norm. But when he slid his hand down her back, nearly to the top of her ass as he “escorted” her, Jolie stiffened.

  She didn’t want him touching her. Worse, she could feel Heath following behind them at a barely discreet distance, radiating a pissed-off male vibe. Jolie flung a cautious glance over her shoulder, around Gardner, and caught a glimpse of the tight fury all over Heath’s face.

  As they sat, Jolie took her menu with a plastic smile and tried to focus anywhere but on him sitting at the table beside hers with his back to the wall and a glower on his face.

  “I hope you like wine. I’ve taken the liberty of ordering a bottle in advance.” Gardner snapped his fingers at a passing staff member.

  Jolie frowned. Was that man even their waiter? Did Richard care or did he simply assume everyone was at his beck and call?

  “Yes, sir?” The waiter managed to sound ready to do Richard’s bidding while still conveying a hint of annoyance.

  “Could you bring me the Château Lafon-Rochet ’99 I ordered earlier today? And two glasses.” Then Gardner dismissed the waiter utterly and turned to her.

  Jolie didn’t like his attitude. She smiled at the waiter. “We’d appreciate it. And if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, could I also have a glass of club soda with a twist? Thank you.”

  With a smile in her direction, the waiter nodded and left.

  “You didn’t need to order wine,” she ventured. “I’d prefer to do business with a clear head.”

  He patted her hand. “We’re just having a friendly conversation. I know you’ll tell me all about Betti. But as I said before, I prefer to do business with people I know. Tell me more about you.”

  A spark of tension lit the air, and she glanced over to see Heath clutching his water glass in a death grip while glaring at Richard’s hand on hers.

  He looked a bit like a wild beast ready to defend his territory.

  She swallowed nervously and pulled her hand free. “I’m a very driven businesswoman without a lot of free time on my hands. I’d prefer to begin the presentation I’ve prepared and give you time to ask whatever questions you may have about Betti, our cash position, our EBITDA, and our income projections. I have a mock-up of our coming website to show you and—”

  “Whoa. Slow down. We’ll get to all that when we’re better acquainted.” He grabbed her hand again. “Intimate . . . You know what I mean.”

  Yes, Jolie feared she did.


  “WHAT a fucking disaster!” Jolie took another long pull from the ridiculously expensive bottle of wine Gardner had ordered and kicked her shoes off, discarding them onto the floorboard. She pulled her sheath up around her thighs and propped her toes on his dashboard.

  She looked ready to spit nails and cry—at the same time.

  Heath speeded down the virtually empty freeway and tossed Jolie another glance. “You did everything possible to focus him on business.”

  “You told me.” She shook her head angrily. “You told me exactly what he wanted. Stupid me believed that a man with Richard’s business acumen and supposedly progressive views would care about both profit and the gender equality gap, so of course he’d want to get in to business with Betti. Nope.” She took another long swallow from the bottle. “He just wanted to get into bed with me. Do you think I scalded his penis when I dropped the steaming pea soup in his lap?”

  Despite the disastrous evening, a smile tugged at the corners of Heath’s lips. He was proud of his spitfire. “I’d rather you not think about Gardner’s penis.”

  She wrinkled her nose. “Good call. I just . . . no.”

made that quite clear to him, love. And I believe the answer to your question is, yes. Let’s hope for blisters.”

  Jolie sighed. Her mojo seemed to leak out of her, along with her breath. “He can ruin me. He has the connections. He knows all the big-money people. Now my best option is to go to a bank. If they listen to me at all, they’ll want so much control that it will ruin everything.”

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