Holding on tighter, p.27
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       Holding on Tighter, p.27

         Part #12 of Wicked Lovers series by Shayla Black

  Cutter peered over at Jolie. “The question is, why would someone want to hurt you?”

  It was the same question Heath had asked repeatedly.

  She shrugged. “I’m drawing a blank. I certainly can’t think of anyone who benefits from my death.”

  “Oh, I don’t know. The girls at SweetieBow would love for you to die a horrible death in the next ten minutes,” Karis quipped.

  “One of our competitors,” she supplied. “Well, the SweetieBow sisters live in Minneapolis, so it would be tough for them to get here and cause this much trouble.”

  “If they’re serious, they could have hired someone to pull the trigger today.” Cutter again marched over the ground Heath and Jolie had trampled earlier.

  “That’s true. But even if they believe I’m keeping them from success, they wouldn’t be giving Karis presents.”

  “What if we’re dealing with more than one person?” Heath mused beside her. “What if someone is responsible for the gifts and veiled threats? Another broke in last Wednesday and shot at Jolie today . . . That would explain the different methods and degrees of danger.”

  Karis frowned. “You mean, like, some guy really admired me in a secret way and left me cool stuff with typed notes, while someone totally different tried to scare Jolie off?”

  “That’s what I’ve been thinking, too,” Cutter said. “I suggest we move all the random offerings Karis has received—my money is on Arthur being your admirer, by the way—and focus on the events we know the least about yet have been the most dangerous.”

  “Arthur?” Karis reared back as the possibility of their accountant/video game nerd being a romantic interest had never occurred to her.

  “Good thinking.” Heath nodded, ignoring her. “Let’s review what we know.”

  “I’m not sure how much help I’ll be,” Jolie admitted. “I still can’t believe someone would want me dead. Me. First, during the break-in, this person wanted my computer and whatever was on it. Then he . . . what? Called me names by throwing a rock through my window. What purpose did that serve? Then today, he tried to kill me. It’s like he wanted to scare me off, and when that didn’t work, he got pissed off. Except the rock is way more juvenile than the other acts.”

  “She has a point.” Cutter nodded. “The rock feels like someone’s frustration. Let’s set that aside for the moment, too. Can you think of what someone might want to scare you from?”

  “Before Friday night, I would have said securing an investor. But since someone tried to shoot me after Gardner and I very publicly parted ways—”

  “That’s putting it mildly,” Heath cut in with a proud grin. “Some of the Tweets were quite funny.”

  Jolie rolled her eyes. “I can’t imagine what else this guy wants me to cower from.”

  “Maybe a competitor simply wants to distract you and jar your operations,” Karis suggested.

  “By shooting at me? That’s more than a distraction. And why would he go from a serious crime like breaking and entering, decide next to throw a rock through my living room window, then attempt murder? The sequence of events doesn’t build from petty to life threatening. I feel like I’m playing a game of ‘which one of these things is not like the other,’ you know?”

  Heath nodded. “So perhaps we focus more specifically on who would want to halt your production. Or someone who might resent your success.”

  “We’ve been over this.” She stood and began to pace restlessly. “I can’t think of anyone. Yes, my goal is world domination someday, but I’m not there yet. I can’t possibly have made that many enemies on my way up.”

  It didn’t seem that way to Heath, either. The whole situation had him scratching his head.

  “Would you ladies mind seeing if you can find me a bottle of water somewhere?” Cutter asked.

  Karis raised a brow. “The kitchen is less than twenty steps away. You need both of us to get you a drink?”

  Cutter sighed. “How else am I going to talk about you without you hearing?”

  Heath had to smile. Neither of the sisters took subtle hints well.

  “Fine.” Jolie grabbed Karis’s hand and tugged her toward the kitchen. “We’ll give you guys some space.”

  Silence fell as the men waited for the women to reach the kitchen. No wall separated them, so they could both keep an eye on their charges. Cutter watched Karis with a surgical stare.

  “How are you two getting along?” Heath dropped his voice.

  The other man shrugged. “She resents me in her personal space. You and Jolie both warned me that she’d make a pass at me. So far, she has done her utmost to keep distance between us.”

  Heath frowned. “I would have thought you would be pleased with that.”

  Cutter hesitated. “It’s just . . . she seems as if she’s going through a hard time right now. I’m not sure why. I’m sorry to make her situation more difficult but—”

  “Her safety comes first. Always.”

  “Right.” Cutter glanced down at the band on Heath’s left ring finger. “When did you and Jolie get married? And why doesn’t Karis know?”

  “Yesterday. We were going to tell her today, then bedlam ensued.”

  “It surely did. Look . . .” Cutter sighed. “Karis shared with me the report she compiled on you.”

  Bloody hell, did everyone now know about his personal life?

  “I’m sorry to pry. I didn’t want to read it,” Cutter assured. “But . . . she had this zany idea and I had to see if there was any chance it had validity.”

  Karis having a zany idea wasn’t a stretch. She thought outside the box because the box didn’t really exist for her.

  “Go on,” Heath prompted.

  “After reading the dossier she’d compiled, I could see her point. Hear me out. What if . . .” He sighed and sat back as if trying to decide how to impart a potentially uncomfortable thought. “Well, is it possible that everything that’s happened to Jolie in the past week has nothing to do with Betti and everything to do with you?”

  That shocked Heath. “Me? What do you mean?”

  “The unpleasant crap started happening when you came to work for her, right?”

  “I grant you that, but none of my friends or family have met her. Until this morning, they didn’t know she was in my life.”

  “But your past . . . Your late wife’s unsolved murder . . . No one actually tried to kill Jolie until you married her.”

  Heath froze. He couldn’t imagine anyone caring that he’d remarried. “Who would decide to make my life miserable by eliminating her? Besides, if that was their goal, why try to steal her computer? Why throw a rock through her window calling her something less than kind?”

  “I don’t know. Nothing makes sense now but the answer is right there. I can feel it. I know we’re overlooking some pertinent detail or clue.”

  Cutter was probably right, and the truth was just beyond Heath’s reach.

  “Let’s dig a bit, have a chat with Arthur. If he’s Karis’s ‘admirer,’ then we can put those incidents aside and focus on the events that threaten Jolie most.”

  Before Heath could continue, his phone dinged. Stone Sutter had arrived at Betti to help with the final installation of the card readers but no one in the office knew where Heath had gone. He texted the man Axel’s address and asked him to come by with Arthur and Jolie’s computer in tow.

  After a chipper reply, Heath settled in to wait for some answers. He only hoped what he found didn’t worry him more.

  Chapter Fourteen

  Rule for success number fourteen:

  Lead from the front.

  WHAT do you think they’re talking about?” Karis whispered next to the refrigerator, glancing back at the men.

  Who’s trying to kill me. “They obviously didn’t want us in on it, but whatever. It’s been a long damn day already. I’m opening a bottle of wine.”

  She didn’t wait for her sister’s reply, just found an unopened box of wheat crackers in the pantr
y and snagged two glasses from a nearby cupboard. It wasn’t gourmet but it might settle her shaky nerves.

  “Merlot okay?” Jolie sauntered to the wine cabinet.

  “Um . . . it’s two o’clock in the afternoon. The business day isn’t over.”

  “I don’t care.” She’d awakened earlier this morning in a gorgeous hotel room in Vegas as a newlywed. She’d started her morning as a bride, supposedly starting her fantastic life with the man of her dreams. This afternoon, if things had gone differently, she would have ended her day on a cold slab in the morgue. Adding stink to the pile of shit was the fact that if she didn’t find a new investor soon, her business would be gobbled up by her asshole of a father. So wine sounded great about now. “Are you drinking or not?

  Karis shrugged. “If you’re game, sure.”

  Jolie gripped the wine bottle with her left hand and with the other rummaged around in a nearby drawer for the corkscrew.

  Her younger sister gasped, staring at her finger. “Oh my . . . You didn’t. Did you?” Karis darted toward the men, stopping to stare down at Heath’s hand. “Oh my god. You did!”

  Jolie closed her eyes. Damn. After the shooter had shaken her and chaos had ensued, she hadn’t had the chance to sit Karis down and spill the news.

  “We did.” Jolie crossed the room. “Heath and I went to Vegas over the weekend and got married.”

  Karis grabbed her wrist and dragged her back to the kitchen, away from the men. “I’m happy for you, but would it have hurt you to call me? To call any of the family who loves you and ask . . . oh, I don’t know, maybe if we’d like to be there to share your special day?”

  No. She tried to picture Karis standing beside her at the altar, wearing a simple but lovely bridesmaid’s dress, her mother dabbing at tears in the front pew of a simple church. A pang of regret twisted her chest if she’d hurt anyone’s feelings, but she and Heath hadn’t wanted pomp and ceremony.

  “I understand but we did this for us. Because we were ready to be happy together.”

  With a shrug, her sister conceded the point. “Sorry. That was the selfish part of me talking. I wanted to be important enough to you to share your momentous day with me.”

  “You are. We didn’t elope to prevent anyone from attending our wedding, KK. We just didn’t want to wait. If it makes you happy, you can plan us a reception around Thanksgiving. Austin will be home then,” she said of their brother, who lived in Los Angeles. “It’ll be great.”

  “Sure.” Karis still looked confused. “But . . . why rush to get married. You’ve always told me that if someone cares about you enough, they’ll wait until you’re sure. I mean, I just never thought you’d leap so quickly after all the times Mom has.”

  Jolie didn’t know how to explain to her sister that she’d simply known marrying Heath was right. She’d use all the words and phrases her mother did every time she wound up with a new man who would eventually treat her like dirt and break her heart.

  “I never thought I would, either,” she said softly. “That should explain to you how I feel. He’s amazing, supportive, kind, sexy, smart.”

  A bit of envy crossed Karis’s young face. “Hell, I’d settle for sane, showered, and steadily employed right now.”

  “You have time,” Jolie promised. “Someone will come along. The right someone . . . Still nothing between you and Cutter?”

  “No.” She leaned against the kitchen counter. “I’ve overheard snatches of his phone calls. It sounds like he’s embroiled in some love triangle. Whoever she is, he loves her terribly.”

  Now Karis sounded downright wistful. Jolie took her hands. “It’ll happen. In the meantime, focus on you. Figure out what you want out of life so when he enters the picture, you’ll know whether or not he fits in the frame.”

  Her sister sighed. “You’re right. Should we call Mom and give her the good news?”

  Jolie hated to talk about getting married when Diana was in the middle of a divorce but . . . “Let’s do it.”


  THE doorbell rang about an hour later. A lean stranger with buzzed hair, ink coloring his bountiful muscles, and a dangerous look stood at the portal, carrying her computer. Arthur lingered beside him, holding a box.

  Her husband turned. “Jolie, meet Stone Sutter. He’s an amazing tech expert who will finish installing the database logs so we can launch your office security system. I’d also like him to take a look at your computer, see if we can upgrade those defenses as well.”

  “Stone, Jolie is my wife. We got married yesterday.”

  “Congratulations, man!” Stone stuck out his hand. “As a guy who recently joined the marital state, it’s bliss. Enjoy . . .”

  “How is Lily, then?” Heath asked, letting the men into the house.

  “Great. She’s started a support group for teen victims of rape and their families. She’s really glad to be making a difference. We’re trying to get pregnant. She’s ready, so . . . good times.” He raised two thumbs.

  “Excellent. Give her my regards.”

  “Why am I here?” Arthur asked, standing awkwardly in the entryway, holding a battered cardboard box with a chemical company’s logo emblazoned across the top, held together with two kinds of tape.

  “Because I asked Stone to bring you,” Heath supplied. “Why are you holding that box?”

  “It mysteriously appeared in one of the cubicles earlier. It didn’t look like anything the FedEx guy had dropped off because someone had ordered cool stuff online.”

  Stone was right. It looked patched together, battered, maybe even dangerous.

  “Everyone else at the office seemed afraid the box might be suspicious.” Stone shrugged. “So I brought it out here. I figured we’re more equipped to handle it than the web developer, the crazy Frenchman, and your sobbing receptionist.”

  So Wisteria and her boyfriend were already off again? Jolie sighed.

  Heath turned to Arthur. “Was that on Karis’s desk?”

  He swallowed. “I . . . um, yeah. I wasn’t there, so no idea who left it.”

  “Of course not,” Heath quipped caustically. “Let’s try this again, shall we? You left Karis this box—and all the other recent gifts.”

  Arthur paled. “I don’t know what you mean.”

  “Rubbish. You do.” Heath cocked a brow. “It would be better for all if you confessed now.”

  The accountant huffed, risking a glance at Karis before jerking his gaze away. “All right, damn it! I intended to talk to Jolie about the policy that didn’t allow me to date coworkers, but after what happened in the file room last week, I wondered if the policy was even relevant anymore. You two are married now? I guess that answers my question.”

  Jolie wished she had handled her relationship with Heath better around the office but she didn’t regret a moment of her time with him.

  “You’re the one who’s been leaving me gifts?” Karis gaped. “The tulips?”

  “Of course. I’d hoped they would convey what I was too tongue-tied to say face-to-face. Why you thought he gave them to you, I can’t imagine.” Arthur gestured toward Heath.

  “About that, you and I are equally perplexed, I assure you,” Heath returned. “The candy?”


  “The candle, too?” Karis asked.

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