Holding on tighter, p.4
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       Holding on Tighter, p.4

         Part #12 of Wicked Lovers series by Shayla Black
 

  “Since we’re off the clock and we’ve clearly set aside our working relationship for the moment, I think it’s only right that I have the chance to say what I think of you.”

  She swallowed. If he was this hip to give her his opinion after she’d hurled a bunch of insults at him, she couldn’t expect anything but ugly. Jolie sighed. It sucked but she’d earned it. “I’m listening.”

  “Excellent.” He released her, his fingers curling into a fist as he began walking around her, studying her, drawing conclusions. “You don’t trust men and that runs deep. It colors your decisions and prejudices everything you say to me. If you’ve never been in love, then your deep-seeded distrust must come from the lack of any stable father figure in your childhood.”

  “Thanks, Freud,” she snapped.

  Heath jerked back to face her and leaned in so close their noses nearly touched. “Am I wrong?”

  She refused to stroll down that memory lane. “Does it matter?”

  “I daresay it does. But we’ll come back to that. If you were merely mistrustful of men, you would have waited until tomorrow and delivered a well-placed warning to keep me away from your sister. Instead, you came after me. And when you found me with another woman, your temper flared. If I merely lived up to your expectations of being a womanizing prick, that shouldn’t make you angry at all, simply smug at being right. But you were livid. I doubt all that displeasure is on your sister’s behalf. In fact, I suspect, Ms. Quinn, that you have more than a passing interest in me. You were jealous.”

  Apprehension raced through her veins. He was uncomfortably close to the truth. “You’re egotistical.”

  “But I’m right.” He gave her a tight smile. “For the record, if I intended to disregard policy and pursue a woman in the office, I wouldn’t bother with your sister. As you say, she’s naive and provides no challenge. But you . . . You would be far more interesting. Pretty, strong, smart, not easily bendable. Color me intrigued.”

  She tensed. “I’m your boss.”

  “Temporarily. We’re both adults. Surely neither of us are prone to torrid emotional attachments. We could keep business separate from personal, couldn’t we?”

  Normally, she’d say yes. But working with him constantly buzzing around her, asking questions, and watching her every move had already dented her focus. “I have no intention of becoming your next conquest.”

  “I never planned to pursue you.”

  Jolie wondered why, then dismissed the question as she buttoned her red coat. “Perfect. There’s nothing left to say except I’m sorry for intruding on your evening. I hope we can forget this by morning.”

  She had to get out of here. She’d overplayed her hand and needed to regroup, to think about how to treat him tomorrow. The last thing she wanted was for Heath Powell to decide she was a challenge he should convert into his next bed partner after all. Normally, the sexual urges of a man wouldn’t concern her unless she was interested. If so, she found a way to have him for a night or two, then ended it.

  Something told her that nothing with Heath would ever be that simple.

  But when Jolie turned her back on him and headed for the parking lot, he snaked an arm around her middle and pulled her against his big, steely body. “I never planned to pursue you . . . but I’ve changed my mind.”

  Those soft words against her neck rolled a shiver through her. “Get your hand off me.”

  “I’ll bet the bitch act has scared off a man or two in your past.”

  She jerked away and cocked her hand on her hip. “Why is it that when a man is assertive, he’s hailed as alpha and take-charge. But when a woman is equally assertive, she’s a bitch?”

  “Oh, let’s be clear. I don’t believe you’re a bitch at all. I think that under your steely exterior is a woman with a soft heart. You take in stray employees the way other people foster animals. Their former employers have all cast them off. They aren’t perfect but under your leadership, they’re productive again. You make them work hard—as they should—but you’re fair. You don’t wheedle effectiveness out of them by pretending to be their friend. You tell them exactly what you expect. But you’re chilly with me because you fear that if you don’t guard against what I make you feel, I’ll slip under your defenses and bruise that untried heart of yours.”

  God, he’d seen way too much of her. “Don’t touch me again. If I want to be psychoanalyzed, I’ll hire a shrink. Other than that, I expect you to be professional and do your job. You have my promise that I won’t contact you after hours unless there’s an emergency. Now we’re done. Don’t forget we have a staff meeting tomorrow morning at eight.”

  She pulled her keys free from her purse and walked away as quickly as her high heels could take her.

  “I felt you trembling against me,” he called after her.

  Jolie clamped her lips shut. No sense in acknowledging that. The best way to handle a man like Heath Powell was to ignore him.

  It took every bit of her will to follow her own advice. Why did he have to be right?

  As she marched to her car, she fought to catch her breath. Once inside the vehicle, she shut the doors, locked them, then glanced out the window to see the man still standing where she’d left him. He watched her every move. Swallowing down a shiver, she gripped the wheel and dragged in a breath, unable to dodge the suspicion that she had poked a sleeping bear.

  Her phone buzzed in her pocket. Another text from her sister. She ignored it and launched her e-mail instead. A dozen new messages poured into her inbox but she sought the one Karis had sent a few hours ago. The one she’d sworn she had no interest in. The one she’d never intended to open.

  The report Karis had compiled on Heath Powell.

  Her finger trembled as she tapped the screen. The attachment took its sweet time downloading before it finally opened. She scanned the document because she needed to know her potential adversary on a personal level. Well, in part. She also felt a dangerous fascination she couldn’t shake.

  Jolie let out a breath. That admission had been tough but necessary. Lying to herself served no purpose. Heath’s words had been like a crowbar, prying past her defenses and uncovering troubling facts she hadn’t wanted to face.

  Her business needed him. Tomorrow morning, he would tell her all the vulnerabilities in her physical and cyber security after observing her office and its habits. She had no doubt he’d found many, and she would address them all. If that was the extent of their interaction, Jolie would be relieved. But the unspoken attraction shimmering between them was like a genie. Now that it was out, she couldn’t force it back in the bottle.

  Damn it.

  The words of the report swam before her eyes. Born outside of Liverpool. Upper-middle-class upbringing, lucky him. Decent student with a penchant for ferreting out information better kept hidden and working the system when it suited him. Jolie hadn’t known that but she could picture it. After some time in university, he served for a few years in the military, including a tour in Afghanistan, before he suddenly appeared on MI5’s payroll, just as he’d said during their interview.

  But he’d failed to mention the bit about his wife being gunned down in broad daylight in the middle of an open-air market in London seven years ago. Jolie gasped. The case remained unsolved but the government suspected home-grown extremists. Based on what Karis had tracked down, Heath hadn’t been involved in any lasting relationship since. There was more but she didn’t need it.

  Against her will, empathy softened her resolve. Were those women Callie said he frequently picked up a balm for his grieving heart? A way to pass the time? His attempt to forget the pain of his wife’s loss?

  The sound of Jolie’s breaths echoing in her head mingled with the loud thump of her heart. She wished she could take back every word she’d said to him tonight. She had no excuse except the one he’d already discerned. Her reluctant personal interest had clouded her brain, and when he’d given another woman his attention, she’d handled it badly.

/>   Jolie stared out the windshield, then turned to glance back at the alley.

  Heath still stood there, unflinching, unmoving.

  She owed him a genuine apology.

  With a sigh, she pushed her car door open and stood, shoving her phone in her coat pocket along the way. When she reached him, he didn’t say a word, just raised a brow, his dark eyes dissecting and undressing her at once.

  “I’m sorry. Really.” She didn’t dare tell him that Karis had dug into his background. Jolie doubted he’d appreciate knowing she’d read about his tragic past. “You didn’t do anything to deserve my outburst. I’ve had a bad day. I meant to protect my sister. You pushed some of my buttons.”

  “Still telling me I’m wrong about why?”

  Of all the things that had passed between them tonight, he zeroed in on that. “Why are you fishing to hear that I want you?”

  He drilled her with those dark eyes. “Because I want you, too.”

  With a silent gasp, she stared, the moment still and sharp. “Forget it. I’ve given you reasons for my earlier behavior. I promise it won’t happen again. Can we be two professional adults and move forward?”

  “In the office? Certainly. I never bring my personal life to my job.”

  “Good. That makes two of us.”

  “But I’m not letting this go. Girls like the one in the bar tonight are a way to get through an evening, but they don’t actually interest me. You reminded me that I haven’t challenged myself in far too long.”

  She’d walked right into that trap. Unless she wanted to suddenly declare that she was unable to separate the personal from the professional, she had to figure out some other way to combat him.

  “Take your challenge elsewhere. I have too much going on now to handle a fling. I don’t do friends with benefits. I’m even less interested in anything lasting.”

  He sent her a faint smile. “We’re on the same page.”

  “Perfect.”

  “But it doesn’t matter. Consider this fair warning: I’m coming after you and I intend to have you underneath me. I won’t rest until I do. So shore up your defenses and work yourself up tightly. That way when I seduce you, it will be even sweeter.”

  “It’s not a competition,” she grated out.

  “It’s not.”

  Then why bother? Because he needed another conquest to make himself feel big? Because he wanted to use her so he didn’t have to think about his late wife’s murder? “Fixate on something else. Try yoga.”

  Heath opened his mouth to hit her with some witty rejoinder, she was sure. Instead her phone buzzed insistently. She glanced at the display. Her sister. As ticked off as she was with Karis right now, Jolie might have declined the call but it gave her an excuse to pause this conversation with Heath until she got her head together.

  She pressed the button and lifted the cell to her ear. “What?”

  “Did you get my text?” she whispered. “I was hearing noises just outside the building but now I hear footsteps in the office. Heading down the hall. They’re coming toward me.”

  Chapter Three

  Rule for success number three:

  Not everything will go your way.

  STANDING inches from him, Heath couldn’t miss the way Jolie froze. Panic widened her eyes, and whether she realized it or not, she looked to him, her mossy gaze silently begging for his help.

  Something had gone wrong.

  He cupped her shoulder in silent comfort. Yes, he was here for her. If she hadn’t been so worried, she wouldn’t have appreciated his gesture.

  “Where are you?” Jolie asked, then yanked the phone from her ear and enabled the speaker.

  “—Turned off the lights, left my desk, and sneaked into the break room when I heard what sounded like someone messing with the door to our suite,” Karis panted. “Then I heard footsteps in the hall, so I eased the door closed and called 911. They told me it would be another ten minutes. I’m scared.”

  Heath had heard all he needed to. He grabbed Jolie and hustled her to his motorcycle only a few paces away.

  As he tossed her his helmet, she tried to set Karis at ease. “I’m with Heath just down the street. We’re on our way.”

  “Do you know where the intruder is now?” he asked the girl on the other end of the line.

  “I think in Jolie’s office.” Karis’s muted voice trembled.

  “Are there more than one?”

  “I-I didn’t hear any others.”

  “Good. Get out of the break room.” She couldn’t reach the lone door out of the suite, which led directly to the parking lot, without passing the intruder, so he could only do his best to keep her safe. “Duck behind the cubicles and dash to the file room at the end of the hall. That door has a lock. Use it, then quietly wedge one of the chairs inside under the doorknob and wait until help arrives.”

  “Okay.”

  He turned to Jolie. “You have to disconnect the call and hold on to me.”

  Reluctantly, she nodded and told Karis to stay safe. As he started the motorcycle, anxiety bit into his gut. He refused to let anyone else die on his watch, especially not someone whose loss would crush Jolie.

  He didn’t want to think about why that mattered to him.

  Though rattled, she quickly straddled the bike and settled onto the seat behind him, wrapping her arms around his waist. Then Heath bolted out of the parking lot and zipped toward the office. Tomorrow he’d planned to present his recommendations for a more secure workplace to Jolie and hopefully get the measures in place quickly. He wished now he’d simply bypassed her approval process and installed the equipment he knew she needed.

  Streetlights blurred on either side of him as he dodged cars, speeding toward Betti. His head spun with all the scenarios he might encounter once they reached the office. Behind him, Jolie clung tightly, her whole body stiff. He suspected she’d never been on the back of a motorbike, and he’d love to take her for a long ride, gauge her mood after being plastered against him for an hour or two with the purr of the motor between her legs.

  Yes, he should leave his boss alone. But she’d sparked something inside him he didn’t think he could simply snuff out. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d felt this alive merely being near a woman.

  Dangerous thoughts, and he shoved them aside. Only saving Karis was important now.

  Who the devil could be in Betti’s offices? That burglar who’d been reported in the area seemed the most likely suspect. The coward apparently waited until after hours when he wasn’t likely to encounter anyone who’d put up a fight. He intentionally hit small businesses without alarm systems and quickly thieved all their technical gadgets, probably having some black market buyer ready and waiting. But no one had ever reported coming face-to-face with the prowler, so Heath didn’t know if the man was armed or would be dangerous if confronted.

  As they reached the parking lot outside of Betti’s offices, he saw Karis’s blue compact still in the lot and dimmed the headlight of his cycle, putting the engine in neutral and coasting around the side of the building, away from the door to Jolie’s suite.

  She tore off the helmet and shoved it at him, then darted for the door. With one hand, he hung the helmet on the handlebars. With the other, he gripped her arm and gave it a yank. “Stay here. You can’t barge in.”

  “My sister—”

  “Won’t be any safer if you dash in half-cocked. Wait here.”

  “Like hell.” She jerked from his touch. “I’ll stay behind you if that makes you feel better but I won’t let you leave me altogether.”

  Heath pulled his gun from his holster and gritted his teeth as he took her hand and crept toward the building. “If the situation weren’t dire, I’d take you over my knee.”

  She sent him a sideways glare. “I’m not a misbehaving child.”

  “No, you’re a bloody stubborn woman.”

  The light bulb seemed to go off in her head. “I don’t submit.”

  She might not thin
k so . . . but interesting that her mind had gone there. Given all the responsibilities she juggled and how tightly she was wound? Heath would bet she did. “Let’s go.”

 
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