Holding on tighter, p.21
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       Holding on Tighter, p.21

         Part #12 of Wicked Lovers series by Shayla Black

  husband answered, the sounds of playing children in the background. They seemed happy, and he was certainly glad for Jane. But their domestic bliss had always disturbed him. Today he knew it was because he hadn’t experienced that for himself.

  After some chitchat and learning that his sister was currently playing Bunco—which Clarke referred to as Drunko—with some neighbors, Heath realized he’d best get to it before their three rambunctious kids tied their dad to a chair and set the house on fire—or something equally disastrous.

  “I’m actually calling in a professional capacity, Clarke. I need your help.” Heath rubbed at his forehead, caution setting in. His next step was the right one, but he had to do it carefully. “How quickly can I liquidate my money?”

  “All of it? And do what?” His brother-in-law sounded horrified. “That’s your future. Your nest egg, mind you. You can’t still spy or protect people or anything quite so strenuous for another thirty years. You’ll need this to retire on.”

  It was much more than he’d ever need, especially since he couldn’t picture himself lying on a tropical beach somewhere by himself. Without a future—without Jolie—what did vacations or houses or worldly things mean? “I’ve got an investment opportunity.”

  “Send me the details. Let me vet it. I’ll make sure everything is on the up and up—”

  “I’ve already done all that. It’s completely legitimate. This company is poised to make a fortune.” And even if he never saw a dime of the money again, he wouldn’t care.

  Heath only wanted to make Jolie Quinn happy.

  No doubt, he was in love.

  “Then I’d like more details to—”

  “There’s no time, and I don’t need to explain, Clarke. It’s my money, yes?”

  “Of course,” Clarke conceded with a sigh as if it pained him to admit that now. “But it’s growing so nicely. I have you positioned for some incredible profits by second quarter of next year. There are procedures I have to follow. There are penalties you’ll be forced to pay.”

  “I don’t care. Convert whatever I have into U.S. dollars and have it ready next week.”

  “Next week!” Clarke sounded aghast. “I don’t understand. This isn’t done. Do you need help? Has something happened?”

  Now his brother-in-law sounded concerned. He would convey that to Jane. Heath took a deep breath and reminded himself that, to Clarke, all this shuffling of funds might as well be life or death. “I’m fine. I really did find a company I’d like to invest in. But there’s one catch. You’ll have to create a dummy corporation before you contact the CEO. Make up a retirement fund. Do whatever you must to ensure she doesn’t know I’m the one investing in her business.”

  Heath would tell Jolie the truth eventually, when she was ready to hear it. Until then, he would be her completely silent partner. She needed someone to believe in her, and he absolutely did.

  “Why not?” Now Clarke sounded positively confused. “This is all highly unusual, and I’m uncertain of the ethics . . .”

  Heath stopped listening. Jolie wouldn’t want any investment from him. She would probably assume he pitied her—difficult, contrary woman—and refuse his “handout.” She would take capital from a male investor she had chosen and vetted, as long as he was contractually obligated to stay silent. But Jolie hadn’t chosen him as a business partner. Her pride would likely spur her to refuse his offer, even though he sought to fund her simply because he knew she could succeed. Bloody woman was determined to conquer the world on her terms, to spite her heartless prick of a father. Heath didn’t want her to doubt herself for an instant; he just wanted to enable her dream.

  Damn it, that wasn’t all he wanted. “I’m going to marry her.”

  Clarke didn’t say anything for a moment, simply sat in stunned silence. “You? Marry again?”

  Heath had to chuckle. “Never thought you’d see the day, did you? My sister will be ecstatic.”

  “Beside herself,” his brother-in-law agreed. “And your parents . . .”

  They would be thrilled, yes. And they would all love Jolie.

  He explained the situation with her business to his brother-in-law. “So that’s why I need your help.”

  “Consider it done.”

  Chapter Eleven

  Rule for success number eleven:

  Pace yourself. You can’t work nonstop.

  I’M really sorry Gardner didn’t work out,” Karis said the following morning over the phone.

  Jolie winced against the sunlight glaring through the window and turned over in bed. Damn, her head hurt and her mouth felt as if something fuzzy had taken root and grown. It had to be way past nine in the morning, and for a woman usually working by the time the sun rose, this felt downright lazy. She couldn’t decide if she’d simply needed the splurge or was beginning the descent into mediocrity.

  “Heath tried to warn me. I didn’t want to believe Richard would waste my time and his for nothing more than a glorified booty call.”

  “He was literally willing to pay you millions of dollars for what’s in your panties. Wow. That’s kind of a backhanded compliment.”

  Jolie scoffed. “I would rather have had a serious investor.”

  “No doubt but at least someone wants your pink parts. I can’t seem to give mine away these days.”

  “Don’t tell me you tried to get busy with your new bodyguard.” Surely, Heath had warned Cutter about her sister’s propensity to be man crazy. Still, Jolie hoped Karis would stop looking for her happiness in the men she met and start looking inside herself.

  “Oh, god no. He’s . . . like Oscar the Grouch in a hot dude’s body. The packaging might be good. Okay, really fantastic. But I’ve had better conversations with my cat.”

  Jolie had to laugh at that. Thankfully, Karis had moved beyond the superficial attractiveness of the men around her in a way her mother never had. Diana Gale always went for the most masculine, charismatic guy in the room, as if snagging his attention did something for her ego. It was a step forward for Karis, but Jolie was relieved that her sister at least realized that she had to like the man she’d spend the rest of her life—or at least the next few years—with.

  “Besides, I think he’s got some woman in his life. And it sounds like there’s drama, drama, drama. I’m okay that he’s not interested.” Karis paused. “Did I shock you?”

  “A little.”

  “Good.” Her sister giggled. “So what are you going to do next? Your days are numbered until your asshat of a biological father comes knocking, right?”

  Jolie’s stomach tightened with worry. “Yeah. I have to come up with something and get a new ball rolling quick. I’m just going to lock myself away with a pot of coffee and my laptop—”

  “No, you’re not,” Heath said as he entered the room with a covered plate and a steaming cup on a tray. “You’re going to relax and rejuvenate for the next two days.”

  She turned to scowl at him as if he’d lost his mind. What was he up to? “I have to go, sis. Take care.”

  “Sure. Before I forget, I got another ‘gift’ from my weird office admirer yesterday afternoon, after you’d gone. He left me a gift bag with my favorite candle, Yankee Christmas Cookie. It’s as if he knew I’d just used up my last one and another would make me smile.”

  Jolie wasn’t sure what to make of Karis’s secret admirer, but it worried her more than a little that he seemed to understand her sister so well when they had no idea who he was. “Any card?”

  “Yeah. Get this. Burn this for me like I burn for you. I’ll scorch anyone who tries to stand between us.”

  “He’s not very poetic.”

  “He’s not,” Karis agreed. “But it’s almost sweet.”

  “In a creepy sort of way.” Jolie paused.

  “I know but my gut says he’s not dangerous or anything. Okay, you probably think that sounds like an excuse Mom would make, but he’s the first guy in my life who’s paid any attention to my likes and dislikes this
carefully. That’s got to mean something.”

  “Yeah, that he’s a stalker. KK, he’s pretty much threatened me.”

  Karis sighed. “I know it sounds that way and it bugs me, too, but I have to believe that if he had menace on his mind he wouldn’t be capable of such sweet gestures.”

  “That definitely sounds like something Mom would say.”

  Suddenly, Heath set the tray on her dresser, then plucked the phone from her hands and engaged the speaker. “Are you all right?”

  “Fine. It’s a candle, not a bomb.”

  Heath didn’t look convinced. “Cutter is still with you?”

  “Closer than my shadow.” And Karis didn’t sound too happy.

  “Have him look into your latest ‘gift’ and tell him to call me.”

  “Will do. Y’all never let me have any fun,” she grumbled.

  That finagled a laugh from Jolie. “See you later.”

  As Heath set the phone on her nightstand, he retrieved the tray and bid her to recline against the headboard. The sight stunned Jolie. “Breakfast in bed?”

  He set the tray over her lap. “You’ve been burning your candle at both ends all week, not eating or sleeping enough.”

  And he wanted to take care of her. No one had ever done anything half so thoughtful. Tears closed up her throat and she tried to joke the feeling away. “The not sleeping part is your fault. I thought guys pushing forty were supposed to have a less active sex drive.”

  Heath scoffed. “I’ve no idea where you heard that rubbish.”

  “Don’t know. I’m not complaining.”

  “Glad to hear it. Eat. Once you’re done, I’m going to draw you a hot bath. You’re going to relax, then we’re going to sit on the couch and watch movies or read or whatever will take your stress down many notches.”

  “I’m fine,” she insisted, lifting the lid on her plate. “French toast and bacon! Mmm . . .” She dug into her breakfast with a moan. Everything tasted fantastic. “One of my favorites. You’re spoiling me.”

  And why would he do that?

  “I prefer the word pamper, and you deserve it after the week you’ve had.”

  Jolie finished every bite, finding that, despite the disaster her business was now in, she had been famished. When she set her fork down on the empty plate, she looked at him with a sigh. “If this bodyguarding thing doesn’t work out for you, I could make you my personal chef and sex slave.”

  Heath looked as if he didn’t want to smile but couldn’t stop himself. “The sex slave part sounds very intriguing.”

  He lowered his palms and one knee onto the mattress until he loomed over her, his face inches above hers. He kissed her gently, with a reverence that made her catch her breath, before he brushed his lips across her jawline and meandered up to her ear.

  When Jolie shivered, Heath nipped at her lobe. “Very intriguing, indeed. We’ll explore that.” He pulled away and lifted her to her feet. “After your bath.”

  “I only shower.”

  He glowered. “My mother swears by a good soak for relaxation and restorative purposes. Try it.”

  “I’ll relax once I’m working on a new plan to save my business. Breakfast was really fantastic and sleeping in helped—”

  “Could you humor me, love?” He shook his head with a hint of exasperation. “Could you be less independent and stubborn for twenty bloody minutes?”

  Her go-go-go way of life seemingly worried him. He wouldn’t bother if he didn’t care. Jolie had only patchy recollections of last night. She’d told him about her father. He’d been supportive as hell. Afterward, she’d all but rubbed up against the man like she was in heat. Through it all, he had remained deeply accommodating. Being with her probably wasn’t easy. But Heath took everything she threw at him with a shrug and more steps down his doggedly correct path in life. He didn’t let her moods, her ambitions, or her past bother him.

  He was kind of perfect for her. Crap, was she in love with him?

  “All right. I’ll try it,” she conceded. “Thanks for breakfast.”

  Heath seemed pleasantly surprised by her compromise as he lifted the tray from her lap. “You’re welcome. Meet me in your bathroom.”

  As he returned the tray to the kitchen, she tossed on her robe and padded to her little spa-like retreat. She hadn’t splurged a lot on decorating this place but she loved her bathroom. The quartz counters, the teak floor, the gray Shaker cabinets, and the soothing shades of soft aqua walls.

  After brushing her teeth and pinning her hair on top of her head, she started the bath water. In books and movies, people always added salts or oils—something—to the tub. She’d never bothered, seeing it as an expensive splurge when she was a college student and a silly timewaster now that she’d become a business owner. And who wanted to sit in their own dirty water?

  Heath hustled in a moment later, carrying a candle he’d found in her living room and a vial of some liquid, which he added to the steaming tub. It smelled divine.

  He lit the candle, tested the temperature of the water, then held out his hand in her direction. “Get in.”

  Jolie doffed her robe and stepped into the tub. “Thanks. What is that?”

  “A homemade recipe my mother mixes and sends to me. It’s carrier oil combined with bits of sandalwood, rose, orange, pine, and lemon. It’s for relaxation.” He turned a bit red. “She also sends me one for happiness. My mother believes that a long hot bath with the right oils will solve whatever ails your mood.”

  “I see. She wouldn’t send you this stuff if you didn’t like it, would she?”

  His flush deepened. “I grew up with it. These smells remind me of home. So . . . yes. Sometimes, if I’m in a flat with a decent tub, I climb in. Does that make me less manly?”

  His challenging tone had her grinning as she sank into the water. It felt pretty damn heavenly. “Not at all. You sound evolved. Neanderthal two dot oh.”

  “Charming.” He turned off the lights, then disappeared. A minute later, he returned with a loofah and a misshapen bar of scented soap. “My mother makes these as well.”

  Rather than hand them to her, he knelt close, the candlelight flickering over the strong angles of his face. He dipped both items in the water, then proceeded to bathe her from head to toe. At first, Jolie couldn’t seem to relax. What did he see? Why was he taking such meticulous care of her?

  As the gentle cleansing turned into a mind-melting massage of her tense muscles, those nagging questions dissolved. Two larger ones took their place. Had her mother ever had a man treat her so tenderly, causing her to believe that she was in love? And what would Jolie do when she no longer needed Heath for security reasons and he walked out of her life?

  For the first time ever, the idea of letting a man go actually filled her with panic.

  “Hey,” he soothed. “Relax. Your prescribed twenty minutes of soaking aren’t up yet.”

  She lay back and let him resume his ministrations. Yep, she very much feared this was love, and she was finally beginning to understand why people searched endlessly for it, went to great lengths to protect it, were willing to kill and die for it.

  “I know you called it pampering but you really are spoiling me,” she murmured, eyes closed. “What can I do to return the favor?”

  “My demands are all sexual, of course.”

  She smiled. “Naturally. So what do you want? Should I play the braless sorority sister whose car is broken down and will do anything to persuade a stranger—that’s you—to help?”

  “While that might have interested me twenty years ago . . .” He grimaced. “I’m afraid that won’t do now.”

  “Glad to hear it. So what do you want?”

  “Later. Stop talking. You have fourteen minutes left.”

  “You’re bossy.”

  “Do you think so? And here I thought I’d been on my best behavior. Damn it all.”

  She chuckled. “How is it that you never married again?”

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