Holding on tighter, p.7
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       Holding on Tighter, p.7

         Part #12 of Wicked Lovers series by Shayla Black
 

  Heath didn’t want to. He burned to hold her. Oddly, her refusal only made him more determined to change her mind.

  For now, he released her and stepped back. “Lock your door.”

  Jolie did, but when she raised her hands to her deadbolt, he saw her shaking.

  “Did I scare you?” he asked.

  “Pfft. No.”

  Good. That meant he affected her on a deeper level. He shook her foundations, made her aware, aroused her in a way she didn’t understand. The same was true for him.

  “Wait here. I’ll check the rest of your flat.”

  He inspected every room, closet, and cranny in the next two minutes and learned that she was, indeed, alone. And she kept her personal space every bit as tidy as her office. He smelled her everywhere, something citrus with a hint of musk—teasing and feminine. Imagining her in the queen bed with all the fluffy pillows or the big glass-walled shower turned him on.

  As soon as Heath finished in her bedroom, he sauntered into the kitchen to find her pouring a glass of red wine, seemingly determined not to look at him. “Coast clear?”

  “Indeed.”

  “Good. See you tomorrow.”

  Normally, he’d take his cue and leave. But nothing that had happened tonight had been normal. “I’d like to ask a few questions.”

  “The police have already done that.”

  “You’re paying me to get to the bottom of this break-in. Do you really worry so much that I’ll seduce you that you’re willing to let your burglary go unsolved?”

  Jolie slammed her glass on the counter. “God, your opinion of yourself is high. You don’t do that much for me.”

  “So I misunderstood your trembling earlier. If you aren’t afraid of me—and why should you be?—the only other explanation is that I get to you.”

  “I’m hungry and tired,” she bit out.

  “That makes your heart race?” He stepped closer, determined to have her look at him. “Makes your nipples bead?”

  Instantly, her head snapped up and she flipped an angry stare at him. “Okay, so I noticed you’re a man. I don’t sleep with every guy I’m attracted to.”

  Heath liked flustering her. Just like a bit of heartache would help Karis, a little loss of composure would do Jolie loads of good.

  “I thought I didn’t do that much for you,” he teased.

  “You don’t. If you did, I would have already slept with you.”

  She was determined to keep the upper hand. He was equally determined to show her that she didn’t have to with him.

  “Why do you think you need to control everything and everyone around you?”

  “What?” As soon as she spit out the word, she shook her head. “I don’t.”

  “The absolutely meticulous apartment? Control.”

  “I like things neat and orderly,” she countered.

  “The way you run the office, manage projects, negotiate deals. You’re always in control. I’ve watched you.” He swiped a finger across the fastening at the neck of her blouse. “You control your employees, your schedule, your appetite, your temper. You even control the thermostat—”

  “I’m a doer, Mr. Powell. I maintain order so there’s no chaos. Ask your questions about the break-in and leave.”

  “Do you think you can control me?”

  She didn’t answer right away. “I wasn’t trying to.”

  But some part of her wanted to give it a go, at least long enough to make him stop digging into her psyche. He suspected she’d grown up with chaos, minus a strong male figure, and now sought order to keep ugly surprises to a minimum.

  “I’m not the enemy, Jolie,” he assured softly.

  Their exchange had only served to put her on edge and increase her need to manage the situation. She’d had a difficult evening. If he wanted to find out more about her so he could exorcise his attraction, he had to set her at ease, focus on his job. Then maybe they could see where that led.

  She glared at him, all green eyes and fire. “Then stop harassing me. I don’t need it.”

  “You don’t. But you bring out something primal the man in me can’t ignore.”

  “Well, you shouldn’t be too primal now since you’ve already scratched your itch with . . . what was her name?”

  “No idea.”

  “Lovely,” she said tartly, then downed more wine. “You and I don’t have a personal interaction, just to be clear. Ask your questions, then go home.”

  He wouldn’t mention just now that “home” was a room at Dominion, the BDSM club Mitchell Thorpe owned. If he decided to stay in Dallas, he’d rent a place of his own, but this served his purpose for now.

  “Of course. Shall we sit?” He nodded at the spotless white sofa on the other side of the breakfast bar.

  “All right.” Then, as if she realized she hadn’t offered, she held up the bottle. “Wine?”

  “I’ll take a glass. Thank you.”

  She poured. “You’re welcome.”

  As soon as she handed him a stem, he stepped back to allow her to pass. She settled into an oversized gray chair, so he took the right third of the couch and sipped his vino. Lush and dense, layered with notes of berry and plum. “This is a good cab.”

  “You know wine?”

  “That surprises you?”

  “Most men I know drink Jack Daniels or light beer.”

  He raised a brow. “Maybe you should improve the caliber of the men you spend time with.”

  “I didn’t choose to spend time with them,” she corrected. “My mom did.”

  Yes, he remembered reading that her mother had a checkered love life. “She’s been divorced three times, as I recall.”

  “Soon to be number four, with lots of live-in boyfriends in between. Thanks for invading my privacy.”

  “Occupational hazard.” He shrugged. “Does your mother leave them or do they leave her?”

  “They leave her. She has this self-esteem issue I don’t understand. She’s convinced herself that she doesn’t deserve better. I sometimes wonder if losers just look at her and know that she’ll let them take advantage of her.”

  Now Jolie’s need for control made perfect sense to Heath. Too much upheaval as a kid, of course. But she obviously strived every day of her life to be nothing like her mother. “You’re worried Karis will follow in her footsteps. That’s why you warned me away.”

  “Yep.” She took another sip of wine, then sloshed it around her glass. “She’s teetering and could go either way. I want her to develop a sense of self-worth and responsibility, to realize that every choice comes with a consequence. That ambition will never let her down.”

  “She isn’t you. She’s not driven.”

  “It can be a learned skill.” Jolie raised her chin defensively.

  Heath shook his head. “Your burning hunger to succeed is a passion that comes from within. You want to be someone. She simply wants to be happy.”

  Jolie sat back, studying him. “I don’t understand you. You’re a soldier and a secret agent, but you drink wine and psychoanalyze me . . .”

  He didn’t fit into any of those neat boxes she sought to compartmentalize him into. “Your sister will find her way. She’s a smart girl.”

  “She is or I wouldn’t have hired her.”

  “Let her figure it out. You can’t control that obviously, but once she learns her worth, I think she’ll bloom.”

  She sighed. “It’s not your problem. Ask me your questions.”

  Subject closed. Heath let it go. In truth, Karis wasn’t any of his business, and he knew Jolie wanted him out of her condo. He wished like hell he didn’t ache to reach her so badly, that he could look at her as another job. But almost from the beginning, something about her had made him crave more.

  “I assume our intruder isn’t a simple burglar?”

  “I think we’ve established that. So we have to ask ourselves what he wants and why.”

  “Either he sought the scans of my sketches—”

&
nbsp; “But if he’s been hired by a competitor, wouldn’t you know who stole your work the moment you saw a similar collection?”

  Jolie shifted in her chair. “Unless he or she alters it significantly. Or merely meant to bury it.”

  “What else could one of your rivals want?”

  She scanned the room absently, biting her pillowy lower lip. The sight made him hard again. “My customer database, my supplier information, my business plan.” Then she paled. “The details about my potential investor.”

  “Tell me about him.” Heath wanted to look into the man, ensure he wasn’t part of the problem.

  “His name is Richard Gardner. He’s the son of a recently deceased Texas business mogul who inherited a mind-boggling amount of money. Even a fraction of that could make my business a household name almost overnight. He’s agreed to be a silent partner. He’s really involved in local LGBT causes. We’ve spoken over the phone. He understands the financial arrangement I’m proposing: In exchange for his up-front funds, he’ll receive twenty percent of the profits for the next five years.”

  If the break-in had anything to do with Gardner, maybe Heath could pinpoint why someone would steal Jolie’s computer. Or dig up useful information. “Do you know of anyone else courting him?”

  “No, but who doesn’t want an investor with deep pockets and no interest in interfering?” She tossed him a wry stare. “I met Gardner a few weeks ago at a fund-raiser, and because his sister loves my clothes, we decided to talk. We’ll see where it goes. It’s a first meeting. We haven’t agreed to anything beyond bare bones. So I doubt anyone would break into my office because I’m having dinner with him on Friday. And before you ask, no, I can’t think of any other enemies.”

  Heath tended to agree with her about the investor but he’d double-check. He felt less certain that she didn’t have a nemesis somewhere in the shadows. “A disgruntled ex-employee?”

  “I’ve never needed to downsize and, until tonight, I’ve never had a violent or unpleasant incident at the office.”

  Good to hear, but Jolie could be very direct and not at all shy about expressing her opinion. Just because no one had lashed out or talked back didn’t mean she hadn’t earned a foe. “To be safe, I’d like a list of all former employees.”

  “I’ll have Wisteria compile it in the morning.”

  He’d figure out if any were capable of picking locks, firing weapons, and selling her secrets. “Brilliant. What about former neighbors? Classmates? Friends? I’d like lists of those as well. Any have a reason to hold a grudge?”

  “None who’d want to steal the contents of my laptop. They have no interest in my business, so why would they bother?”

  Exactly what Heath wanted to know. Something about this situation set off his senses. “If we figure out who, we may find out why. If the worst happens to you, what becomes of Betti?”

  “Everything goes to Karis. We’ve talked. She knows I’d want her to take care of my mom and brother, but one person needs to run the organization.”

  “Can your sister do that?” he asked.

  “No one else in my life is even remotely qualified.” Jolie sounded tired.

  “Point taken.” Another reason she pushed the girl so hard. Someday, she would likely leave Karis her legacy and she wanted her sister to keep it thriving. “What about former lovers? Would any of them want to do you harm?”

  “If any man raised a hand to me, he’d find himself without balls.”

  Heath wondered about her experience with domestic violence but didn’t ask now. “Rightly so. How about a less physical form of retaliation? Did you end a relationship and break someone’s heart?”

  She downed the last of her wine in a few long swallows. “None of those men meant anything, and I’m sure they felt the same about me. So I can’t imagine they’d be harboring latent animosity. Besides, I never kept any man around long enough to learn about my business.”

  So none of her ex-flames should care about the contents of her laptop. Good to hear.

  He tapped a toe, glad his sturdy boots hid the nervous tic and wishing her former love life didn’t matter to him.

  Jolie stood and wandered restlessly to the kitchen. “More wine?”

  “Please.” He brought her his glass.

  As she poured, Heath couldn’t dismiss the facts that they were alone, that in the near silence he could hear her breathe, that the longer he stared the more he could see a faint flush crawl up her cheeks.

  She finished and handed him the glass. “I really have no idea who’s done this. Guess you’ll have to earn your paycheck.”

  As she brushed past him, Jolie wouldn’t look at him. But he couldn’t take his eyes off her. Nor could he help but notice how pale and exhausted she looked. “I look forward to that. Did you eat dinner?”

  “I never had the chance. Oh, well. It’s not the first time.”

  Heath already knew she’d skipped lunch and he doubted she’d made time for breakfast.

  He grabbed her arm and pulled her close. She looked up at him with a surprised gasp.

  “Listen to me,” he said. “I find your ambition sexy as hell. I don’t fault you for skipping a meal now and then. But there is no fucking way you should be neglecting to eat for an entire day.”

  She frowned. “It’s fine. I’ll eat a good breakfast in the morning. Let go.”

  “You’ll eat tonight if I have to hold the fork and feed you myself.”

  Jolie gritted her teeth. She looked as if she wanted to spit in his face. “Don’t tell me what to do.”

  “Then don’t be ridiculous. Eat. I’ll even cook. What’s in your refrigerator?”

  His offer clearly surprised her. “A little of this and that. You don’t have to—”

  He shoved the wine in her hands. “Sit. I’ll bring you something.”

  After scrounging up some pre-cooked chicken strips, snow peas, and mushrooms, he made a little stir-fry and added a touch of ginger and soy before pouring the mix over some instant rice and settling it all on a plate.

  When he handed it to her, she looked at him as if he’d come from another planet. “You can cook?”

  “A man should have skills beyond a firing range, a tool bench, and a mattress. Eat.” He headed back to the kitchen to wash the dishes.

  “Where’s your plate?”

  “I ate before carousing.” He sent her a caddish smile.

  She rolled her eyes and took a bite. “Thanks. It tastes amazing. Mmm . . .”

  Heath enjoyed hearing her pleasure. He’d like to give her more.

  “I’m surprised you find my ambition sexy.” She swallowed another bite. “Most men are intimidated.”

  “They’re fools whose small minds match their other undersized attributes.”

  She stifled a laugh. “Strong mother?”

  “In her way, I suppose. Very much a homebody, really. She loves to cook and spend time with the family. I think she merely raised her children to be secure in themselves. I don’t feel less masculine around an ambitious woman who has achieved something fantastic. Any wanker who does needs to figure out where he’s lacking.”

  “But you don’t date strong women, I guess. If tonight’s . . . companion was anything to go by.”

 
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