Holding on tighter, p.3
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       Holding on Tighter, p.3

         Part #12 of Wicked Lovers series by Shayla Black
 

  “You sound sad, so I guessed what might be upsetting you. Did Charlie find another woman?”

  Her mom sniffled over the line. “I should have known when he started eating at that diner every day that it wasn’t the mashed potatoes he liked. Apparently, her name is Destiny. She sounds like a stripper.” Her mom huffed. “She’s definitely a husband thief.”

  “I’m sorry.” And Jolie was because her mom was clearly hurting. Still, she kept hoping Diana would learn that she couldn’t count on men. “When are you going move out and find a place of your own? Do you need anything?”

  “I already moved out. Charlie’s brother, Wayne, helped me get back on my feet. He’s been a great . . . comfort.”

  Jolie groaned. “Please don’t tell me you’re sleeping with your soon-to-be ex-husband’s brother.”

  “I—um . . .” She sounded as if she didn’t know how to work around saying yes. “He’s really wonderful. You’ll like him.”

  If he was anything like his brother, she wouldn’t. “Isn’t he married?”

  “To a terrible cow who doesn’t appreciate him. She’s a doctor. She’s high and mighty, if you ask me. Wayne is a man with needs, and she isn’t meeting them.”

  Apparently her mother was and didn’t realize that Wayne was no better than Charlie or see the irony of calling Destiny a husband thief.

  Jolie sighed. Berating her mother wouldn’t do any good. Nor would pointing out that she was making the same mistakes she’d already made. Jolie had tried to reason with her during the last torrid ending. She’d have had better luck talking to cement. She loved her mother, but Diana was a grown woman and inclined to do whatever she thought would make her happy, whether or not it made sense.

  “Did you get the money I sent?” Jolie asked instead. “I mailed it to Charlie’s address—”

  “Yes. I waited to leave until I received it. Thank you for understanding I had to quit my job. Working for the florist sounded lovely but it was a lot of long hours and grouchy people. I promise I’m looking for a new job and I’ll pay you back as soon as I can.”

  Doubtful. Mom always needed a little more time to get her feet back under her again, then she inevitably met a new man and had a few unexpected expenses before she decided it wasn’t working out and had to keep the money she’d tucked away—and borrow a bit more—to look for happiness elsewhere. But the woman had given Jolie life and a lot of love. She’d done her best by her kids in difficult circumstances. Jolie didn’t understand her mom but she also didn’t begrudge her a few hundred bucks here and there.

  “Sure. Whenever you’re ready.” Jolie smiled to herself.

  “Thanks. I paid off one of my doctor bills with the money. They were getting insistent.”

  “And you moved out with the rest?”

  “No, Wayne helped me with that, so I lent him what was left to buy a new hunting rifle.” She laughed nervously. “He’s a manly man but such a sweetheart. He had an empty rental and he’s letting me stay here for free until he and his wife separate. He’s going to leave her soon. And before you say I’ve heard that line before, Wayne really means it.”

  Jolie shook her head and didn’t say a word. How could a nearly fifty-year-old woman who’d been disappointed over and over still be so blindly optimistic? Granted, people often accused Jolie of being too cynical but she didn’t let anyone take advantage of her. She worked her ass off, kept her eyes open, and always expected the worst. That way, if something better happened, she was pleasantly surprised.

  “For your sake, I hope he’s everything you’ve ever wanted.”

  “Oh, I think he is, baby.” Her mom sounded giddy.

  “That’s great. Hey, can we talk later?” Jolie glanced up to make sure Heath hadn’t already finished with his conquest and headed out the door. But other than a few suits returning home to their wives after an evening of booze and bimbos, no one entered or exited the building.

  “Sure. Call me next week?” Diana asked hopefully.

  “Yeah. Will do.”

  “Where are you?” her mom asked, concern lacing her voice.

  “At a bar. I’m hunting down a lothario I intend to keep far away from Karis.”

  “Please watch out for her. She’s still so young and doesn’t understand men.”

  Karis wasn’t the only one. Her sister had definitely inherited their mother’s dreamy disposition, often choosing to overlook the probable shittiness of a relationship in favor of embracing all its wonderful possibilities if the stars aligned, hell froze over, and gold rained from the sky.

  “I will,” Jolie assured. “I love you.”

  “I love you, too, baby. Bye.”

  They rang off, and she shoved her phone back in her pocket, heading for the door. As soon as she ducked inside, the music thumped so loudly, she swore it made her organs vibrate. Having given up the club scene after college, she was a little disgusted that she had to pull a grown-ass man out of a meat market she’d heard he scored in almost nightly.

  The bartender nodded at her, and she ordered a Grey Goose and cranberry, more so she wouldn’t stick out rather than from any desire for alcohol. And vodka would help combat her boredom while she waited for her British Romeo to finish his business upstairs because he was either too impatient or impersonal to find a bed.

  Yeah, she probably shouldn’t have tracked him down at his favorite hook-up joint. But what she had to say to him had nothing to do with business and didn’t belong in the office. She wanted Heath Powell to know that she understood exactly who he was so there’d be no misunderstanding about why Karis was off limits.

  The bartender set her drink down. Jolie paid him and took a sip, glancing around. God, she did not miss this, the sizing up potential bedmates for the night over the rim of her drink and wondering if he was taken, terrible in bed, a mama’s boy, or in some other way lacking. She’d been so much happier giving up on “romance” and focusing on work. Diana Gale wasn’t going to grow up, but Jolie still had hope for her sister.

  After witnessing a lot of bumping and grinding on the dance floor, she turned her back on a wannabe Casanova who’d stared her way when she saw Heath’s bimbo finally stumbling and giggling down the stairs. One of the spaghetti straps of the woman’s dress hung off her shoulder. Even across the room in the dim light, the blonde’s hair looked mussed and her face incredibly flushed. She was still breathing hard. And she wore a loopy smile.

  A pang of annoyance settled in the middle of Jolie’s chest. She didn’t want Heath. Scratch that. Some impractical part of her craved him. She refused to lie to herself. He would probably be fantastic in bed. Powell was blisteringly hot. And clearly he’d had lots of practice. Being near him made her heart rate ramp up and her palms damp. When he looked at her, she remembered that he was male, that she was female, and that chemistry could be a powerful force. No man had interested her for more than an hour in the last few years, so she gave him credit. But her attraction didn’t go any further.

  A few paces behind the blonde in the micro skirt, Heath emerged. With a satisfied swagger, he descended the stairs, finger-combing his dark hair laced with silver and zipping his slacks.

  Jolie told herself to remain calm against the rise of irrational anger.

  Unfortunately, that ship had sailed.

  She tossed back the last of her drink and made a beeline for him, pushing her way through the crowd. When she reached them, Jolie looked past the midtwenties twit and over at Heath. “I want to talk to you. Now.”

  He met her hostility with a shrug. “About what?”

  His dismissive attitude annoyed her more.

  “Who are you?” The blonde glanced between them, blinking as she thought through the situation. “Is she your girlfriend?” She gasped. “Your wife?”

  Neither of them answered, Jolie because she didn’t owe his “date” anything. She could only assume Heath remained mute because now that he’d nailed her, he no longer cared what she thought.

  “You son of a bitch
!” Short Skirt screeched. “You took advantage of me when I was vulnerable.”

  He cocked a brow at her. “You failed to mention feeling vulnerable during any of your three orgasms.”

  “You’re an asshole.” The woman’s face flushed red as she stormed away and left the bar.

  Though he’d been nothing but professional to her, Jolie had suspected he had a ruthless side. She felt somewhat sorry for the blonde but took an odd comfort in the fact that she’d been right in her assessment of Heath Powell.

  “Do we have a problem, Ms. Quinn? I can’t imagine another reason you followed me here for the obvious purpose of delivering a dressing down that apparently couldn’t wait until morning.”

  A ragtag band took the small stage then, and he had to shout so she could hear over the music. A couple of people lingering near the stairs nursed their beers and watched intently. “Come outside with me.”

  She turned and headed for the door. Her sixth sense told her that Heath wasn’t following. When she whirled back, sure enough, he leaned against the banister, watching her with a dissecting stare.

  Jolie marched back in his direction and tossed her hands in the air. “I know you speak English.”

  “The Queen’s English, thank you.”

  His condescension about being British and obviously better annoyed her, too. She tried to put a lid on her temper and focus on Karis. In her head, she kept hearing him remind his temporary honey about her three orgasms and wondering how good he must be in order to get that reaction from a stranger in fifteen minutes.

  Totally not important. “Will you please follow me outside so we can have a civilized discussion that doesn’t require shouting at one another?”

  “Of course. But I suspect, given your agitation, there will be shouting, regardless.” With an acerbic smile, he gestured her toward the door.

  Jolie resisted the urge to huff and threaded her way through the crowd. He would not get the better of her.

  Once outside, she headed away from the parking lot, putting a few dozen feet between them and anyone loitering outside. Heath followed, watching their surroundings as she paused at the opening of an alley.

  He shoved his hands in his pockets as if he didn’t have a care in the world. “I hope you’re here about a security issue.”

  “Stay away from my sister,” she warned.

  He frowned, looking genuinely perplexed. “Your sister?”

  “Karis.”

  Heath barely responded. His brows gathered, but he gave no other reaction. “I’m aware of your sister’s name. I’m merely expressing surprise that you think I’m . . . what? Sexually interested in her?”

  “That’s exactly what I think. I watched you work over the young blonde in the bar. It didn’t take you long. A glass of wine, a few well-placed words, a soft caress, and she was yours.”

  “Why does that bother you, Ms. Quinn?”

  “You’re targeting Karis because you pick the doe-eyed girls too naive to know why they shouldn’t spread their legs for a playboy like you.” She scoffed. “You didn’t even challenge yourself with tonight’s conquest.”

  “I’m fascinated by your unsolicited opinion of my character,” he drawled, letting her know he was anything but. “What’s prompted this charming discourse? Do you always tell those in your employ what you think of their personal lives or are you making a special exception for me because you think I intend to debauch your sister?”

  “Leave Karis alone. It’s against Betti’s policy to date another member of the staff.”

  “I did read the guidelines you provided. But I’m guessing your rationale for this conversation is more personal.”

  “Fine. She’s got some breathless adoration for you. Karis is looking for a grand romance, and she’s likely to pin her foolish hopes on the first man who makes her feel protected and treasured. I doubt you want that.”

  “Her attitude bothers you,” he observed, studying her like a bug he’d pinned to a corkboard.

  She bristled. “Women shouldn’t be looking for someone to ‘complete’ them; they should be a complete person by themselves. And you prey on women with those misguided fantasies, don’t you?”

  “I provide single women with mutual, if temporary, companionship and pleasure.”

  “That’s as misleading as calling tooth extraction without Novocain ‘natural dental care.’”

  He cocked his head at her. “You have some unsubstantiated notion that I’m mad for your sister, so you followed me after hours and saw me find a woman with whom I chose to spend a few pleasurable moments. Therefore, you’ve branded me a sociopathic predator. That’s quite a leap.”

  Jolie had watched men behave this way her whole life. “I merely understand you, Mr. Powell. I see past the gentlemanly facade to the manwhore beneath. You must have loved your last position, guarding the pretty body of that world-famous director’s daughter. How fabulous for you that she paid for everything in your life while you enjoyed the fringe benefit of taking her to bed.”

  That finally riled him.

  “I never touched Mystery Mullins once.” His eyes narrowed in furious warning. “Don’t speak when you know absolutely nothing about either of us or the situation.”

  As much as Jolie hated to believe him, Heath’s biting reply convinced her he’d told the truth. Fine, she’d drop that accusation. But she refused to let up about Karis until Heath agreed to leave the girl alone.

  “All right. But I won’t have you targeting my sister. I expect you to tell her tomorrow that those flowers you sent to soften her up were a token of your . . . professional esteem. Pick a reason. I don’t care what you say as long as you gently discourage her.”

  Nothing overt gave away a change in Heath’s demeanor but Jolie felt his surprise. “I did not send your sister flowers.”

  “Red tulips. I saw them on her desk earlier. She told me you left them for her. And now she likes you. Stop romancing her.”

  He leaned in, and she saw the faint hint of a scar bisecting his stubbled cheek. “You just witnessed my version of romance. If I want a woman, I don’t bother with flowers, merely a condom. Your sister is utterly, one-hundred-percent safe from my attentions. You have my word.”

  “Is that supposed to mean something to me?”

  “I’ve given you no reason to doubt me, Ms. Quinn.” He studied her with a cynical gaze. “This is about you. Why are you hostile? Did a former flame tell you he would fulfill your little-girl dreams, then leave you broken hearted?”

  “I don’t believe in love, especially in it lasting. Karis is another story, and I’m intensely protective.”

  “Clearly. But I genuinely have no interest in your sister.”

  He said the words with all sincerity. Jolie weighed them. Maybe . . . Karis had misunderstood who had given her the flowers or why. Or she had wanted to believe they were from Heath so she’d convinced herself of that. It was even possible that, somewhere in Karis’s offbeat brain, she’d wanted to see how her older sister would react to the idea of her in a relationship with the man Jolie had the hots for.

  Heath Powell might be experienced, calculating, and totally male, but he’d come highly recommended as a security consultant from people she trusted. Her gut told her that—at least in this instance—he wasn’t a liar.

  “Excuse me for a second.” She whipped out her phone and texted Karis.

  Are you sure Heath gave you the flowers? Did he leave a card?

  Her sister replied almost immediately. The card wasn’t signed, just said that he thinks about me day and night, and he doesn’t care who disapproves. Who else could it be?

  So you don’t know for sure that Heath sent them? She wrote back.

  No.

  Jolie tucked her phone away with a sigh. Mortification rolled through her in a hot flush. She’d have to apologize, damn it. “Apparently my sister isn’t sure now who sent the flowers. I’m sorry that I accused you and disturbed your evening. Good night.”

  She whirled
around and headed for her car. God, she’d all but jumped down his throat, and Jolie felt ridiculous for not asking Karis more questions before she confronted Heath. She never went to any meeting unprepared, damn it.

  “Wait.” Heath grabbed her arm.

  Something electric arced between them, and she gritted her teeth against the sizzle.

  The reaction made her even more prickly. “What?”

 
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