Holding on tighter, p.5
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       Holding on Tighter, p.5

         Part #12 of Wicked Lovers series by Shayla Black
 

  Now that he suspected they had a mutual interest, he didn’t simply want to touch Jolie, he felt compelled to.

  “Is that thing loaded?” She nodded at the semiautomatic.

  “It won’t do me a whit of good if it isn’t.”

  “Thank god.”

  Heath liked that she understood the need for a firearm in moments like this and didn’t act squeamish that he kept one. Then again, Jolie seemed practical if nothing else.

  He palmed the gun in one hand and gripped hers with the other. “Stay behind me.”

  For once, she didn’t argue. He approached the front of the building, peeking through the wall of windows that overlooked the cubicle area, searching for any lights that shouldn’t be on or obvious beams from a torch. Nothing, which meant the intruder likely wasn’t sneaking around the employees’ desks. He probably wasn’t bothering with the break room, either. No electronics there except a less-than-stellar coffee pot and a TV worth sixty pounds at best on eBay. That meant the burglar could only be in the file room he’d told Karis to barricade herself in, the conference room with the projector, or Jolie’s office—near the suite’s only exterior door.

  He wished like hell the willful woman behind him would stay outside but she was determined. So he tugged on her hand and led her toward the office.

  Heath glanced at his watch. Another six minutes before the police arrived. Jolie’s sister could be in deep peril now. They couldn’t afford to wait.

  “Stay down,” he whispered.

  She nodded and crept toward the door, mirroring his every move. Through the wall of windows toward the end of the building, the intense beam of an LED flashlight suddenly arced through Jolie’s office. Moments later the glow from her computer shafted the room with a softer glow, and the intruder clicked off the torch.

  Cursing under his breath, Heath peered through the windows again and spotted someone in Jolie’s chair—short hair, broad shoulders, definitely tall. Male. That didn’t surprise him. But the sight of the man hunched over the PC, studying it intently, did.

  “Why is he reading my computer?” she hissed.

  Good question. “Anything sensitive on the hard drive?”

  “The sketches of the summer collection I’ll be launching soon, along with my manufacturing sources. That’s probably the most valuable information.”

  When she’d suggested industrial espionage to him during their initial interview, he’d been hard-pressed to believe that a bunch of fashionistas could be cutthroat enough to steal intellectual property. After a few hours of research, he’d rethought his position. Now it looked as if she’d been right.

  “Is the computer password protected?”

  “Of course.” She hesitated. “But after I had the flu last fall, Arthur insisted I leave someone the password in case he has to generate payroll in my absence. I keep everyone’s electronic time cards secure because they include Social Security numbers. Wisteria has the password taped to the desk, under her keyboard.”

  Heath nearly groaned. They’d definitely be talking about that vulnerability, along with a list of other items, at tomorrow morning’s meeting. Provided, of course, everyone survived tonight.

  “Is your computer secured to your desk?” he asked.

  “No. Someone could unplug it and walk off. God, that sounds ridiculous when I say it.”

  “We’ll discuss precautious later.”

  “I don’t see Karis.” Jolie texted her sister and stared at the phone, her apprehension thick in the air. “She’s not answering.”

  “She may not have reception in the back of the building,” he reminded.

  Under normal circumstances, Heath would slip in, take down the intruder and wrestle him into cuffs, then ensure Karis stayed safe while he waited for police. With Jolie beside him, the scenario had to work differently.

  He counted down with his fingers, maintaining silence. When he reached one, he pointed toward the office entrance and began creeping forward. She followed, crouched low so they didn’t throw any shadows inside from the streetlights behind.

  The opening to the suite sat slightly ajar. The intruder had picked the lock, and there’d been no alarm to disable. Just inside, the door to Jolie’s office was closed. Heath peeked through the sidelight window to see the intruder still sitting in the computer’s blue glow. He hoped the thug was too focused to notice the two of them sneak past.

  He gave the door to the main entrance a gentle shove and slipped inside, weapon drawn and pointed at the portal to Jolie’s office. She stayed right behind him.

  His knees protested crouching, and he was feeling every one of his thirty-nine years, but adrenaline kept him upright and sharp. With a wave of his hand, he motioned Jolie toward the back of the suite and the file room he hoped Karis had been able to reach safely.

  Before Jolie could head back, Heath heard the first peal of the police sirens.

  He peeked through the sidelight again and saw the moment the intruder heard, too. The man jerked and leapt to his feet, the chair rolling across the industrial rug before he yanked on the computer’s cords. The beam of his flashlight jerked and circled again. Footsteps pounded toward her office door.

  A few feet away, Jolie froze. Damn it, she would be one of the first things the burglar spotted once he emerged from her office.

  “Hide!” Heath hissed, pointing at Wisteria’s big wooden desk.

  With a shaky nod, she dove under the monstrosity, out of the burglar’s sight.

  A moment later, the stranger emerged from her office. He was too busy stomping his way to the door, trying to escape amid the sirens drawing closer, to notice anyone hidden in the nearby shadows.

  Heath waited until the man inched past him, obviously carrying a computer in his latex-gloved hands—and no weapon in sight.

  As soon as the man tried to sneak out the suite’s door, Heath tackled the thug from behind.

  The burglar grunted as he went down. Jolie’s computer clattered to the carpet as he came up swinging, twisting to dislodge the unexpected weight on top. Heath wasn’t about to let go.

  He pressed his gun against the ski mask covering the intruder’s head. “Don’t move.”

  The man beneath him froze. Heath glanced back to ensure Jolie was safe. He spotted her, still curled beneath Wisteria’s desk.

  “Should I find something to tie his hands?” she asked, her voice surprisingly even.

  “The police should be here any moment. You did well,” he praised her before focusing on the thief again. “What are you doing here, wanker?”

  Silence.

  “I suggest you talk to me. I daresay I’ll be more reasonable than my SIG Sauer.”

  Still not a word. Heath knew the man hadn’t passed out. Every muscle beneath him felt tense and poised for action. He could almost feel the trespasser’s thoughts racing, most likely plotting a viable method of escape.

  The sirens drew closer, and Heath shifted his interrogation into high gear. If he wanted to know what this criminal had been up to before the police took the man away, he had to act fast.

  “Talk now or I’ll shoot your fingers off one at a time. You’ve got five seconds.”

  Suddenly, every light in the office flipped on, temporarily blinding him.

  “Jolie!” Karis screamed and darted down the hall.

  “Stay down,” he growled at her.

  “Karis?” Jolie sounded downright desperate to reassure herself that the girl was all right.

  They might seem as different as two sisters could be but they loved each other.

  During that distraction, the intruder elbowed Heath in the ribs, squirming before giving him a mighty shove. As Heath toppled back, the thug scrambled to his feet and darted for the door, drawing a semiautomatic and pointing it Heath’s way. With the other hand, he bent to retrieve Jolie’s laptop.

  Adrenaline making him sweat and his heart pound, Heath found himself staring down the barrel of a gun. He pulled the trigger first, firing at the assailant.
The bloke feinted right but grunted out a curse and dropped the computer to clutch his arm. As the machine plunked to the ground, the burglar fired back into the empty doorway a few times, then ran.

  After a bullet whizzed past his ear, Heath darted after the intruder as the sirens drew closer, now a mere block away.

  “Stay here,” he barked at the sisters, then took off after the thief, his feet pounding the pavement.

  Why the bloody hell had the man been in Jolie’s office? What had he sought? And why had he tried to take only her computer? Did it contain more secrets than she let on?

  The questions raced through Heath’s head as he pursued the dark form, gripping his weapon and ready to shoot. He sized up his foe. Fast, athletic, smart. Not quite the amateur he would have expected from a typical burglar.

  As soon as the prowler could, he disappeared into a cluster of trees behind the building. The foliage shrouded the ambient light, swallowing them both up in darkness.

  Heath gripped his gun and followed, shoving leafy branches from his face, pursuing where the rustling ahead led him. A dozen steps later, when he shoved his way through a thick wall of brush, the man was gone. Heath scanned the sidewalks dimmed by shadow. The sound of nearby cars drowned out footfalls.

  Behind and beside Betti’s offices sat industrial buildings and warehouses. They should be locked tight. Beyond that lay a major road. Pedestrian traffic less than two-tenths of a kilometer down that street would be heavy around the area’s bars and restaurants.

  Heath followed his gut. If he’d planned this job, his exit strategy would have been to blend in on the busy street and disappear.

  Once he covered a few blocks east and people milled about everywhere, he holstered his weapon. The criminal could easily be swallowed by the crowd. He would find it equally simple to steal one of the many cars parked along the curb and disappear.

  The police would be with Jolie and Karis by now. As much as Heath hated to leave them, he refused to let this thieving prick go without giving chase.

  He dodged pedestrians as they strolled from restaurant to bar, headed to their cars, walking hand in hand. Many paused to stare at him. Some jumped out of his way as if they sensed the urgency and adrenaline pouring off him. Heath fell back on his training, scanning everyone he passed. Finally, he zeroed in on a man fumbling his way into a black sedan at the curb, holding his forearm awkwardly.

  Heath kicked into overdrive, reaching the vehicle just as the man dove inside, yanked down his ski mask again, and started the engine. Heath didn’t dare shoot now or he’d risk hitting a bystander. Instead, he dove for the back of the car as the vehicle lurched into traffic.

  Launching himself onto the trunk, Heath tried to hold on but as the car accelerated, he lost his grip and tumbled onto the street.

  He came up with a curse. This wasn’t over. His legs might not run as fast as when he’d been twenty-five but there was nothing wrong with his eyes. Even without the car’s taillights engaged, he’d managed to see every number and letter.

  He hoped that would be enough to nail this bastard because he didn’t want Jolie in danger again.

  ***

  HEATH jogged back to Betti’s offices, multitasking with a phone call to Mitchell Thorpe’s friend and Callie’s legal husband, Sean Mackenzie. As a former FBI agent, the man had contacts Heath needed.

  “Hello?”

  “Not to be rude, but I need to bypass the small talk. Will you run a license plate for me?”

  Sean didn’t hesitate. “Sure. I’ll pull a few strings. What’s the number?”

  Heath rattled it off, still dragging in deep breaths, and explained the situation. “I chased the wanker all the way to his damned car but I’m determined to find out who he is and why he broke into Jolie’s office.”

  “Give me a few hours and someone will get back to you. Callie is having contractions. She’s not due for another three weeks. If Thorpe and I take her to the hospital, I’ll put this in good hands.”

  Heath couldn’t ask for more. “Thank you. I hope Callie and the baby will be all right.”

  “Thanks. If you need any more help, call Jack Cole or one of the Edgington brothers. I’ll text you their numbers.”

  He’d met them once briefly after returning from London. He hoped he didn’t have to ring reinforcements but he would if danger warranted it.

  They rang off as Heath trekked through Betti’s parking lot. The door to the suite stood wide open. A couple of patrol units had skidded to a stop, bracketing an unmarked car. The officers were obviously inside, probably taking statements from the sisters.

  As he approached the door, a patrolman stopped him. “Sorry. Only witnesses allowed.”

  “I fought the intruder before I chased him down the street. He managed to get away but—”

  “That’s very dangerous, sir. You should have waited for the police. We’re trained for this sort of thing.”

  Heath didn’t have the patience for this young cop’s posturing. “I served three years in the British military, then another ten with MI5.” He’d been well trained longer than this officer had been out of puberty. “Where’s the detective in charge?”

  “Heath!” a woman screeched across the office.

  While he didn’t think Jolie would keen so loudly for any man, he whirled around. Instead, Karis barreled down the hall and launched herself against him. She stunned him even more by throwing her arms and legs around him, then pressing an urgent kiss to his lips. He was still trying to process why the devil she meant to suck the air from his lungs and how to gracefully extricate himself when Jolie strolled into view with a scowl.

  Damn it all.

  With a firm grip, he pried Karis away and set her on her feet, clearing his throat. “Are you both all right?”

  “Yes.” The younger sister looked at him with something uncomfortably akin to hero worship as she pressed a hand to his chest and blinked at him with big brown eyes. “Thanks to you. I was terrified out of my mind but knowing that you were coming to save me, I kept calm.”

  “I’m fine,” Jolie answered in clipped tones. “You?”

  Obviously, she’d been worried about her sister. But did she imagine that he’d come to Karis’s aid and chased the intruder to earn the girl’s adoration and seduce her? Perhaps. Jolie was a cynical creature. He understood that well.

  But as he’d already pointed out, she wouldn’t be annoyed by any potential lover of his if she didn’t care.

  Heath put more distance between himself and Karis. “Excellent. I’m sorry I didn’t catch the prowler. But I’m working another angle.”

  And he refused to say more within earshot of the police. If their intruder had been the burglar common to this area, the Dallas PD had sought him unsuccessfully for weeks. Heath intended to investigate on his own and figure out who’d broken in and why—without sticky bureaucratic red tape. Jolie had hired him to keep Betti safe. He intended to do his job.

  Still, her attitude remained chilly. “Thanks.”

  He held in a curse. Even if Jolie believed he had no designs on Karis, she might cut him cold. Besides being driven, she was wary of letting men close.

  Heath wanted to understand her.

  “I was so worried about you, chasing down that awful burglar who cornered me.” Karis pressed close. “I was afraid he’d hurt you, shoot you. Oh . . .” She gasped. “I couldn’t have lived with myself.”

  He gave her a brotherly pat. “As you see, I’m perfectly well.”

  “The police are still asking questions. Excuse me.” Jolie stepped away.

  He lunged into her personal space, wishing he could take away the worry and displeasure pinching her mouth. “Are you certain you’re all right?”

  Before she could reply, a fortysomething female detective approached and “invited” him to the conference room so she could ask all the usual questions. The interrogation told Heath they had already decided the neighborhood burglar was their man. The detective also demanded he show his pe
rmit to carry a firearm in Texas, explain his spent shell casings, and hand over his gun for
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