The Russian’s Acquisition
An offer she can’t refuse…
Subject: Contractual Offer
You will find $100,000 in your charity’s account today, provided I find you in my bed tonight.
Aleksy Dmitriev is after the ultimate revenge. Yet his plan backfires when he discovers that his new mistress, Clair Daniels, is a virgin who could not have been her former employer’s lover.
Revenge may be out the window, but that won’t stop Aleksy from enjoying the perks of his purchase…. But Clair is destined to be more than just this Russian’s acquisition!
“I’m not into anything kinky. If you’re looking for someone to spank you, move along to the next girl in the secretarial pool.”
— Clair to Aleksy, The Russian's Acquisition
I call this one ‘the book I rejected myself.’
I’d been working with the editors at Harlequin Mills & Boon since placing in the Instant Seduction contest in 2008. I had completed, submitted, and had them turn down half a dozen manuscripts. I knew my editor was eager to help me make the jump from ‘close’ to ‘published.’ She suggested I send her three ideas and we’d cherry pick the best. I did and she asked me to take the hero from one set up and the heroine from another and run with it.
Since I hadn’t envisioned that, it took me a while to find my feet. She was patient, looked at a few chapters, tweaked my direction, offered revision suggestions. Finally she sent me an email with exciting news. She was having another baby and I’d be moving to a different editor. Would I like to take one more stab at revising this current story, or start something fresh?
I was fairly disheartened and wound up speaking with her on the phone. I said I thought I should start over with something fresh if I was changing editors, and there was a funny pause on the other end of the line. I realized she thought I was really close with one. She said, “Okay, but promise me you’ll keep Aleksy on the back burner. He’s a wonderful hero.”
I hung up and realized, after literally hundreds of rejections from editors and agents from New York to London, I had just rejected myself.
It lit a fire in me. I was so mad at myself, I determined that my next book would be The One. And it was. I wrote No Longer Forbidden? which turned into my first sale. A few books later, I put together a proposal that included a freshly revised copy of Aleksy. They bought it quite promptly and here it is. Happy reading.
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The Russian’s Acquisition
I miss waking up with you.
The note struck a pang of wistfulness in Clair Daniels’s chest. She wondered if anyone would ever write something so romantic to her. Then she recalled the waves of emotional highs and lows Abby had been riding for months, all under the influence of that elusive emotion called “love.” Being independent was more secure and less hurtful, she reminded herself. And the roller coaster she’d been through in the last two weeks, after losing a man who was merely a friend and mentor, was brutal enough.
Still, she had to hide envy as she handed the note back to Abby and said with a composed smile, “That’s very sweet. The wedding is this weekend?”
Abby, the firm’s receptionist, nodded with excitement as she placed the card back in the extravagant bouquet Clair had admired. “I was just saying to everyone—” She waved at the ladies gathered with their morning coffee. “I texted him that after Saturday, we can wake up together forev…” She trailed off as it struck her who she was talking to.
The horseshoe of women dropped their gazes.
Clair’s throat closed over a helpless I wasn’t waking up with him. She’d never slept with anyone but couldn’t say so. Her confidentiality clause with Victor Van Eych had made such confessions impossible.
Still, she knew everyone had thought her relationship to the boss went deeper than merely being his PA. The gossip had eaten her up, but she’d let it happen out of kindness for a man whose self-assurance had been dented by age. Other people’s opinions of her shouldn’t matter, she’d told herself. Victor was nice to her. He had encouraged her to start the foundation she’d always dreamed of. Letting a white lie prevail in return had seemed harmless.
Then his family had refused to let her into his mansion to so much as share condolences, turning their backs and pushing her to the fringes like a pariah.
She wasn’t someone who wore her heart on her sleeve, but the one person she had begun to count on had died. Shock and sorrow had overwhelmed her. Thankfully she’d had a place to bolt to for a week and absorb her loss. Ironic that it had been the orphanage, but what a timely reminder how important the home and foundation were, not just to her, but to children as alone as she was.
Now she was feeling more alone than ever, trying not to squirm under the scrutiny of her colleagues, not wanting to reveal that her chest had gone tight and her throat felt swollen. It wasn’t just Victor’s unexpected death getting to her, but a kind of despair. Would anyone ever stick? Or was she meant to walk through life in isolation forever?
Into the suffocating moment, the elevator pinged and the doors whispered open. Clair glanced over her shoulder to escape her anxiety, and what she saw made her catch a startled breath.
A hunting party of suits invaded the top floor. It was the only way to describe the tribe of alert, stony-faced men. The last off the elevator, the tallest, was obviously their leader. He was a warrior whose swarthy face wore a blaze of genuine battle injury. At first that was all Clair saw: the slash of a pale scar that began where his dark hair was combed back from his hairline. It bisected his left eyebrow, angled from his cheekbone toward the corner of his mouth, then dropped off his clean-shaven jaw.
He seemed indifferent to it, his energy completely focused on the new territory he was conquering. His armor-gray suit clung with perfect tailoring to his powerful build. With one sweep of his golden-brown eyes, he disbursed the clique of women in a subtle hiss of indrawn breaths and muted clicks of retreating heels.
Clair couldn’t move. His marauding air incited panic, but her feet stayed glued to the floor. She lifted her chin, refusing to let him see he intimidated her.
Male interest sparked to life as he held her stare. His gaze drifted like a caress to her mouth, lowered to her open collar and mentally stripped her neatly belted raincoat and low-heeled ankle boots.
Clair set her teeth, hating these moments of objectification as much as any woman, but something strange happened. Her paralysis continued. She wasn’t able to turn away in rejection. Heat came to life in her abdomen like a cooling ember blown into a brighter glow. Warmth radiated into her chest and bathed her throat.
His attention came back to her face, decision stamped in his eyes. She was something he would want.
She blushed, still unable to look away. A writhing sensation knotted in her stomach, clenching like a fist when he spoke in a voice like dark chocolate, melting and rich, yet carrying a biting edge.
She didn’t understand him.
Clair blinked in surprise, but he didn’t switch to English. His command had been for one of his companions, yet she had the impression he’d been talking about her if not to her. He swung away, moving into the interior offices as if he owned the place. One of the men flanking him murmured in a similar language.
“Was that Russian?” Clair asked on a breathless gasp as the last pin-striped back disappeared. She felt as if a tank had just flattened her.
“They’ve been coming in all week. That tall one is new.” Abby dragged her gaze away from the hall and became conspiratorial as she leaned over her keyboard. “No one knows what’s going on. I was hoping you could enlighten us.”
“I wasn’t here,” Clair reminded her. She hadn’t even been in London. “But Mr. Turner told me before I left that everything would carry on as usual, that the family were keeping things status quo until they’d had time to settle his private affairs. Are they lawyers?” She glanced toward the hall but was certain that man wasn’t anything as straitlaced as a lawyer. He struck her as someone who made his own rules rather than living by any imposed on him. Her skin still tingled under the brand of ownership he’d imprinted on her.
“Some are, I think,” Abby answered. “Ours have been meeting them every day.”
“Our—? Oh, right.” Clair forced herself back to the conversation. Lawyers. Not just her friend deceased but the boss and owner, leaving the place on tiptoes of tension. She’d noticed the mood the second she returned. Having strangers prowl like bargain hunters at a fire sale didn’t help. Clair decided she didn’t like that trespasser of a man.
Abby glanced around before hunching even closer. “Clair? I’m really sorry for what I said. I know losing Mr. Van Eych must be hard for y—”
“It’s fine. Don’t worry about it,” Clair dismissed with a light smile. She stepped back to freeze out the empathy. Putting up walls was a protective reflex, an automatic reaction that probably accounted for why no one ever sent her flowers or love notes. She wasn’t good at being close to people. That was why she’d let herself fall into a fake romance with Victor. He’d offered companionship without the demands of physical or emotional intimacy, protecting her from anyone else trying to make a similar claim. No risk, she’d thought. No chance of pain.
That Russian would make incredible demands, she thought, and her stomach dipped even as she wondered where her speculation had come from. No way would she let someone like that into her private life. He was a one-way ticket to a broken heart. Forget him.
Nevertheless, trepidation weakened her knees as she looked toward her office, the direction he’d taken. Silly to be afraid. He would already have forgotten her.
“I’ll check in with Mr. Turner,” Clair said, holding the smile of confident warmth she’d perfected as Victor’s PA. “If I’m able to tell you anything, I will.”
“Thank you.” Abby’s worried brow relaxed.
Clair walked away, determined to push the Russian from her mind, but she’d barely hung her coat and bent to tuck her purse into her desk drawer before Mr. Turner appeared in the doorway. Waxen paleness underpinned the flags of red in his sagging cheeks.
Clair stood to attention, heart sinking with intuitive fear. “What’s wrong?”
“You’re to report to—” He ran a hand over his thinning hair. “The new owner.”
Aleksy Dmitriev set the waste bin next to his feet, reached for the first plaque on the wall and tossed it in, taking less satisfaction in the loud clunk of an industry award hitting the trash than he’d anticipated. This coup had been too easy. Clunk. The bastard wasn’t alive to see his world collapse. Clunk. Van Eych had succumbed to the lifestyle he’d enjoyed at the expense of men like Aleksy’s father rather than face the revenge Aleksy had intended to wreak. Clunk.
The blonde in the foyer was that filthy dog’s mistress. Smash!
A delicate crystal globe shattered in the bottom of the can, leaving a silver heart exposed and dented.
“What on earth,” a clear female voice demanded, “do you think you’re doing?”
Aleksy lifted his head and was struck by the same kick of sexual hunger he’d experienced fifteen minutes ago. The part of his anatomy he couldn’t control suffered another tight, near-painful pull.
At first sight he’d judged her snowflake perfect, delicate and cool with creamy, unblemished skin, white-gold hair and ice-blue eyes. As potent as chilled vodka with a kick of heat that spread from the inside. He’d demanded her name and details.
Now the dull raincoat was gone, revealing warmer colors. Her peach knit top clung to slender arms and hugged smallish but high breasts, while her hips flared just enough to confirm she was all woman.
He smothered reckless desire with angry disgust. How could she have given all that to an old man, especially that old man?
Under his stare, her lashes flickered with uncertainty. She turned one boot in before setting her feet firmly. Her fists knotted at her sides, and her shoulders went back. Her chin came up in the same challenge she’d issued when they first came face-to-face.
“Those might have sentimental value to Mr. Van Eych’s family,” she said.
Aleksy narrowed his eyes. The heat of finding the fight he’d been anticipating singed through his muscles. She was an extension of Victor Van Eych, and that allowed him to hate her, genuinely hate her. His sneer pulled at his scar. He knew it made him look feral and dangerous. He was that and more. “Close the door.”
She hesitated—and it irritated him. When he spoke, people moved. Having a slip of a woman take a moment to think it over, look him over, wasn’t acceptable.
“As you leave,” he commanded with quiet menace. “I’m throwing out all of Van Eych’s trophies, Miss Daniels. That includes you.”
She flinched but remained tall and proud. Her icy blue eyes searched his, confirming he was serious.
As the heart attack that killed your meal ticket, he conveyed with contempt.
She turned away, and loss unexpectedly clawed at him.
He didn’t have time to examine it before she pressed the door closed, remaining inside. Inexplicable satisfaction roared through him. He told himself it was because he would get the fight he craved, but what else could he expect from a woman of her nature? She didn’t live the way she did by walking away from what she wanted.
Keeping her hand on the doorknob, she tossed her hair back and asked with stiff authority, “Who are you?”
Unwillingly, he admired her haughtiness. At least she made a decent adversary. He wiped the taint of dust from his fingertips before extending his hand in a dare. “Aleksy Dmitriev.”
Another brief hesitation; then, with head high, she crossed to tentatively set her hand in his. It was chilly, but slender and soft. He immediately fantasized guiding her light touch down his abdomen and feeling her cool fingers wrap around his hot shaft.
He didn’t usually respond to women like this, rarely let sex thrust to the forefront of his mind so blatantly, especially with a woman he regarded with such derision, but attraction clamored in him as he closed his hand over hers. It took all his will not to use his grip to drag her near enough to take complete ownership, hook his arm across her lower back and mash her narrow body into his.
Especially when she quivered at his touch. She made a coy play at pretending it disconcerted her, but she’d been sleeping with a man old enough to be her grandfather. Acting sexually excited was her stock in trade. It made him sick, yet he still responded to it. He wanted to crowd her into the wall and kindle her reaction until she was helpless to her own need and he could sate his.
Disappointment seared a blistering path through his center. He wanted her, but she’d already let his enemy have her.
Aleksy Dmitriev released her hand and insultingly wiped his own on his tailored pants, as if her touch had soiled his palm.
Clair jerked her hand into her middle, closing her fist over the sensation of calluses and heat. He was hot. In every way. All that masculine energy and muscle was a bombardment. She didn’t want to react, especially to someone who wanted to fire her.
She dragged at her cloak of indifference, the one she’d sewn together in a school full of spoiled rich kids. “What gives you the right, Mr. Dmitriev, to take away my job?”
“Your ‘job’ is dead.” His curled lip told her what he thought her job was.
“I’m a PA,” she said tightly. “Working under the president. If you’ve taken ownership, I assume you’re moving into that position?”
“On top of you? A predictable invitation, but I have no use for his leavings.”
“Don’t be crass!” she snapped. She never lost her temper. Poise was part of her defense.
He smirked, seeming to enjoy her flush of affront. It intensified her anger.
“I do real work,” she insisted. “Not whatever you’re suggesting.”
His broken eyebrow went up. They both knew what he was suggesting.
“I manage special projects—” She cut herself off at his snort, heart plummeting, suddenly worried about her own very special project. The foundation was a few weeks from being properly launched. After last week, she knew the building she’d grown up in was badly showing its age. The home needed a reliable income more than ever. And the people…
“Clair, are you okay? You’re more quiet than usual,” Mrs. Downings had said last week, catching her at the top of the stairs where she’d been painting. They’d sat on the landing and Clair hadn’t been able to keep it all in. Mrs. Downings had put her arm around her, and for once Clair had allowed the familiarity, deeply craving the sense that someone cared she was hurting.
She’d come away more fired up than ever to get the foundation off the ground. She had to keep people like Mrs. Downings, with her understanding and compassion, available to children with the same aching, empty hearts that she had.
“Are you shutting down the whole firm?” Clair asked Aleksy with subdued panic.
He turned stony. “That’s confidential.”
She shook her head. “You can’t let everyone go. Not immediately. Not without paying buckets of severance,” she guessed, but it was an educated one. There were hundreds of clients with investments managed here.
“I can dismiss you,” he said with quiet assurance.
Another jolt of anger pulsed through her, unfamiliar but invigorating. “On what grounds?”
“Not turning up for work last week.”
“I had the time booked months ago. I couldn’t have known then that my employer would pass away right before I left.” And she would have stayed if Victor’s family hadn’t been so cutting. If someone, anyone, had said she was needed here.
“You obviously cared more about enjoying your holiday than whether your job would be here when you returned.”
The annual blitz of cleaning and repair at the home was the furthest thing from a holiday, not that he wanted to know. “I offered to stay,” she asserted, not wanting to reveal how torn she’d felt. With her world crashing around her here, she’d been quite anxious to escape to the one stable influence in her life.
“The VP granted my leave,” she continued, scraping her composure together by folding her arms. With her eyes narrowed in suspicion, she asked, “Would I still be employed if I’d stayed?”
“No.” Not a shred of an excuse.
What a truly hateful man! His dislike of her was strangely hurtful too. She tried hard to make herself likable, knowing she wasn’t naturally warm and spontaneous. Failing without being given a chance smarted.
“Mr. Turner assured me before I left that another position would be found for me. I’ve been here almost three years.” She managed to hang on to a civil tone, searching for enough dignity to disguise her fear.
“Mr. Turner doesn’t own the company. I decide who stays.”
“It’s wrongful dismissal. Unless you’re offering a package?” She hated that she tensed in hope. She knew exactly how marketable her skill set was: barely adequate. Going back to low-end jobs, scraping by on a hand-to-mouth existence made her insides gel with dread. This job had been her first step into genuine security.
The Russian tilted his head to a patronizing angle. “We both know you’ve enjoyed the full package long enough, Miss Daniels. If you haven’t set aside something for this eventuality, that’s not my concern.”
“Stop talking like I was—”
“What?” he demanded, baring his teeth. “Victor Van Eych’s mistress? Stop acting like you weren’t,” he snarled with surprising bite. In a few long strides he was at his desk, flipping open a file, waving a single sheet of paper. “Your qualifications are limited to typing and filing, but you’re occupying an executive office.” Another sheet flapped in the air. “You’re paid more than his personal secretary, but he still needed one because you were dedicated to ‘special projects.’” He cracked out a laugh as he snatched up the next record. “You live in the company flat—”
“In the housekeeper’s wing because it’s one of my duties to water the plants,” she defended, hearing how weak it sounded even though Victor had made it sound so logical.
“The janitors who dust the place can water the plants. You’re a parasite, Miss Daniels. One who’s being pried off the host. Take the day to pack your things.”
A parasite. She was doing everything in her power to pay back the system! This job had been a golden egg, but she’d tried not to take advantage of Victor’s generosity. Now she was finally on the brink of being able to help others instead of focusing on her own struggles—something she wanted not for the recognition, but to support children like what she’d once been—and he was calling her a parasite?
“You reprehensible, conscienceless…” Her voice dried up, which was probably best. She was shaking and liable to get personal. Mention that scar, for instance.
“Conscienceless,” he repeated through lips that peeled back in a snarl. He closed her file and took up a memo of some kind. “Do you even know what you’ve been sleeping with? Read that, then tell me who is conscienceless and reprehensible.”
Aleksy told himself he was only confirming that she’d actually left. He was not looking to run into her. Nevertheless, the part of him still prowling with a sense of anticlimax would leap on another chance to verbally tussle with her. Until she’d read the memo, paled, then walked out in stunned silence, Clair Daniels had been—
Forget her, he ordered himself again, but it wasn’t easy. Her type was usually fair game. He didn’t mess with marriageable women, just the types who enjoyed physical pleasure and material wealth over love. Clair had obviously fallen into that category, asking if he was offering a package. She’d been royally peeved when he turned her down, displaying the kind of passionate anger that suggested an equally passionate—
Stop it. He was here to take ownership of one more acquisition. That was all.
He keyed in the entry code to the firm’s penthouse and stepped into generic opulence. The plants looked very well tended. Unfortunately that was the only thing recommending the place. It was the height of modern convenience. No expense was spared in the white leather furniture or silk rugs over marble tiles, but it lacked…
Traces of her.
Absently stroking his thumb along the raised line on his chin, he strolled through a dining room that held no fresh flowers. The white duvet on the master bed was undented. The bathroom was not decorated with intriguing lingerie. In the kitchen, the pantry shelves were bare of all but the minimum staples. She’d vacated so completely, it was as if she’d never lived here at all.
How, then, would he find—
He caught the faint sound of a feminine voice through a wall and cocked his head, instantly alert. Moving past the refrigerator, he found an unlocked door to a laundry room. On the opposite side another door opened into a narrow kitchen, where the scent of toast lingered. Beyond, in a modest lounge peppered with colorful throws, unopened mail and abandoned shoes, Clair Daniels stood. She had her back to him as she finished a call. Her pert bottom and slim thighs were mouthwateringly silhouetted by clingy yoga pants.
The internal wolf that had been pacing restlessly inside him leapt to the fore, exploding his heart in his chest and slamming hot blood through his limbs. He was furious to find her here, but he smiled.
She hung up, turned and screamed.
Clair clapped a hand over her mouth as she recognized the Russian. As forbidding as he looked, as frightening as it was to have a man appear in her private space, she instantly knew she wasn’t in real danger. At a very deep level, she’d been expecting him. That unnerved her, but she ignored it.
Dropping her hand, she accused, “You scared the life out of me!”
“It wouldn’t have happened if you’d left as you were told.” He no longer wore the suit jacket and tie from earlier. His fog-gray shirt strained across his chest, barely containing his big shoulders and thick biceps. He’d turned up his sleeves, revealing strong flat wrists and a ruthlessly simple gold watch.
She had an urge to touch his arm to see if it was as hard as it looked, which was ridiculous. Men fell into two categories for her: Get lost and Friends is friendly enough. She’d never been silly over boys and had always found women who went hormonal a bit irritating. She was capable of noticing a man with nice abs or a handsome smile, but she didn’t get hot and weak-kneed. Ever. Especially over men who came on so strong. This quivery, oversensitized version of herself was not her.
And yet she watched with fascination as he moved with masculine grace, bending his arm and glancing at his exclusive watch, then flicking his gaze toward her bedroom door where her unpacked suitcase stood against the wall. “You’ve packed at least.”
“I haven’t unpacked from being away.” She shouldn’t take such pleasure in throwing defiance at him when she was falling into desperation, but it gave her ego a boost to let him know she wasn’t bowing and scraping under his every word. She didn’t like what he was doing to her and wanted to make it stop. Under no circumstances did she want him to know how much power he was wielding over her.
“Well, that saves time, doesn’t it?” he said with false pleasantry.
“Whose? Yours? Are you here to throw me out?” It wasn’t even five o’clock. She’d started calling hotels but had wasted precious hours trying to find a workable solution for the foundation first. She had survived starting with nothing before, but she couldn’t bear to let down people whose hopes she’d already raised. The trustees needed to run the home, not spend all their time scrambling for funding. She was stuck, but she didn’t want him to know how desperate she was. “Why didn’t you just send the clown who threw me out of my office?”
His arrogant head went back. “You can’t mean Lazlo?”
“The lowbrow who said, ‘I’m to assist you if you require it’? He might as well have grabbed me by the collar and thrown me into the street.”
Although she had to admit it had been less humiliating to stuff her few personal items into her laptop bag and make a quick exit than try to explain while saying goodbye to everyone. She’d been shaken by what she’d read in the memo and hadn’t wanted to speak to anyone while it sank in. Victor, the man she’d put so much stock and trust in, had put on far more fronts than having a young blond mistress.
“I’ll remind him to be more sensitive next time,” Aleksy said.
“Next time?” she repeated with a kick in her heart. “He’s here?”
“No, we’re alone.”
Her stomach quavered. She folded her arms over her middle, trying to project confidence when she felt gullible and stupid. “Well, I’d rather deal with him. At least he doesn’t sneak up on a person like a thief.”
Aleksy’s golden-brown eyes flashed a warning. “I bought the company fair and square and entered a flat I now own. You’re the one with no right to be here.”
“It’s a job perk!”
“It’s a love nest. One the firm will no longer support.”
So this was about money. She had deduced as much. He must have bought the firm believing its worth to be higher and only learned that Victor had falsified returns after the purchase went through. He didn’t have to take out his bad luck on her, though. They were both victims of Victor’s ruse.
“You know, if you let me keep my job, I could pay rent and this unused apartment could generate income, rather than be an expense,” she suggested.
He narrowed his eyes, displaying thick eyelashes. “How long have you been here?”
“Over a year.”
He moved through her small lounge with calculating interest, probably adding up the value of her few possessions. The place came furnished, but the faded snapshot of her parents in the cheap frame was hers. Her father’s pipe stood on the mantel above the gas flame fireplace. The items were all she had and didn’t come with real memories.
He jerked his chin at the pipe. “I’m surprised you let him keep you in here. A woman with your assets could have pressed for the main prize.” He turned his head.
She ought to have been offended, but her body betrayed her. Heat flooded her under his lingering stare. Her breasts became tight and sensitive and her thighs wanted to pinch against a sweet tingling sensation high between. She was compelled to wet her parted lips with a stroke of her tongue.
His cynical lift of an eyebrow stabbed her with mortification.
“That pipe was my father’s, not Victor’s.” She moved to snatch it up, as though that were all it would take to whisk away the pulsing attraction disconcerting her. “I never—” She cut herself off and tightened her fist around the pipe. “I signed a confidentiality statement,” she finally said, lifting her chin to see him better.
He was so looming and intense with not a shred of compassion for a naive young woman who had wanted to believe she’d been noticed because she worked hard. Aleksy Dmitriev was far above her, not just in wealth and education, but in confidence and life experience. Part of her was intrigued, but their inequality raised her barriers. It killed her to beg guidance off him, but she had to.
“I’m sure you would know better than I whether such agreements are meant to be binding after a death. With your being the new owner, are you in a position to insist I disclose—”
“I insist,” he commanded, flat and sharp. “Tell me everything.”
“Well, I don’t know anything of national import. Don’t get excited. I’m just sick of you accusing me of sleeping my way to the top when I didn’t. Victor was impotent.”
He took her chin between his thumb and curled finger. “Don’t lie,” he warned.
She lifted her free hand, intending to shove his disturbing touch away.
He caught her wrist in midair, but what really held her immobile was the ferocious flare of gold in his eyes. His irises glittered with more demand than this situation warranted. It made her still out of curiosity.
“Why would I lie?”
“Because you know I don’t want you if he’s had you.”
She sucked in a shocked breath and instinctively tried to pull away.
His grip on her wrist flexed lightly to keep her close. “That wasn’t really what he was hiding, was it?”
Clair was plunged out of her depth, body reacting with alarm, mind splintered in all directions by what he’d said about wanting her.
“I—I didn’t know until today that Victor was hiding anything,” she stammered, trying to ignore the detonations of nervous excitement inside her. “I thought he was exactly what he looked like. A successful businessman.” She tried to resist looking into his eyes, but once his stare caught hers, she couldn’t look away. Her nerves seared with something like fight or flight, but it wasn’t fear. The danger here was subtle. Sexual.
“How did you meet him?”
“Who are you? Interpol?” She longed to move away, disturbed beyond bearing.
“Tell me,” he insisted, not releasing her.
“He needed something after hours. I was working late in the file room.” She begrudged making the explanation but wanted him to believe her. Sort of. You know I don’t want you if he’s had you. It was such a Neanderthal thing to say, but it made her insides quiver. “I found it and he said I was the sort of person the top floor needed.”
“I bet he did.” His thumb moved into the notch below her bottom lip. He tilted her face up, into the fading light from the window. His gaze stroked her face like a feathery caress, taking in features she knew men found attractive, but she sensed evaluation, not admiration.
It shouldn’t matter, but it undermined her confidence. Her looks were all she had unless she managed a miracle with the Brighter Days Foundation, and losing her job had quashed that.
“I didn’t think his motive was romantic. He was old.” She tested his grip on her chin, but he held fast, making her vibrate with nerves and awareness. It took everything in her to suppress her shivers and pretend she barely noticed his touch. “When I did realize he wanted people to believe we were together, I told him I wasn’t interested and he said I didn’t have anything to worry about. He wasn’t able to make it with any woman, but he didn’t want people to know. He said if I was able to keep a confidence, I’d have a good career ahead of me as his PA. I needed the money and it wasn’t like he was grabbing me all the time or anything.” She pointedly moved her fist with the pipe into the center of his chest and pressed. “Unlike some men.”
His touch on her face changed. His fingers fanned out and he stroked his palm under her jaw to take possession of the side of her neck, thumb lightly grazing her throat.
The tender touch stilled her, not just because it was unexpected but because it felt so nice. She didn’t encourage people to touch her and hadn’t realized how cherished and important it could make her feel. Her lashes wanted to blink closed so she could focus completely on the lovely sensation.
“So you took him for all he’d give you and never put out for any of it.”
“It wasn’t like that.” He made it sound ugly when she hadn’t taken anything. “The raise and job title were his idea. He suggested I move into this flat because he held receptions and cocktail parties in the main suite. If people thought we were together, that was their assumption. Maybe neither of us corrected it, but all I did was work for him.”
“What kind of work? Hostess duties? Attending functions as his escort?” His lip curled. “Why on earth would people get the wrong impression?”
“He was a widower, so yes, I was his date. But he also put me in charge of forming the firm’s charitable foundation.”
“Ha!” He released her with a lifting of his hands in rejection. “Van Eych help the less fortunate? Now I know you’re lying.”
“I’m not.” The words rushed out, but a sense of loss washed over her as well. Let him believe what he wants to believe, she told herself, but if she was allowed to set the record straight, she wanted to, especially if he’d fired her because he thought she was involved with Victor. Maybe he would reconsider if he believed she hadn’t been. Maybe that’s what he’d meant when he’d said he didn’t want her if Victor had had her.
Dismay squirmed through her. She didn’t want him to want her physically, did she? No. She was trying to rescue the foundation. If there was even a remote chance of keeping her job, and keeping the foundation alive, she had to try.
Veering from him on shaky legs, she found her laptop bag and unzipped it. “You won’t have seen it on the books because it’s not up and running, but I can show you…”
Most of her records were on her laptop and it took forever to wake up, but she had a slender file with a proof of the logo she’d recently approved. It wasn’t the fanciest letterhead, but it gave the foundation an identity and made it real. Her heart pounded with pride every time she looked at it. She showed him.
“‘Brighter Days’? It looks like a child drew it.” He barely glanced at it.
“It’s supposed to! It’s an organization that provides funding to group homes and offers grants to orphaned children so they can develop independence.”
“By underwriting their lives?”
“By providing support of many kinds!” Insulted, Clair whipped the file closed. “You obviously don’t know what it’s like to be without parents or you’d have some empathy.” As she tucked the file back into her bag, she let her hair fall forward to screen how wounded she was by his cynicism.
“Or maybe I do and I didn’t have the luxury of handouts to help me find my way. Maybe I managed on my own.” His tone was dangerously quiet.
The truth in the hardened brass of his gaze made her hesitate. The thought that he might have shared some of her struggles struck a chord of kinship in her, but he emanated aggression, provoking her defensive response.
“So did I,” she challenged. “I’m still capable of wanting to help others.”
His hard laugh cracked the air. “Van Eych gave you this flat, a manager’s salary, and countless other favors for that face.” He pointed at her features, then let his gaze traverse insultingly down her narrow shape. “Among other attributes. Not for any smiley face you drew on the sun. Hardly pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.”
He acted as if this illustration was all she had to show for her year of research and meetings and planning. Impotent fury threatened to engulf her, but to let him see he could get under her skin was handing him a weapon he didn’t deserve to hold.
“I don’t care if you believe me,” she said stiffly. “You’re obviously a bully who kicks people around for the fun of it. If you’d like to wait in your flat next door, I’ll clear out of this one by midnight.”
Such an ice queen, walking into the bedroom as though she wasn’t daring him to follow. Throwing out the bait that she’d never let Van Eych have her. He wondered how she’d homed in on the one reservation he had against her and dismantled it so effectively. A depth of experience in getting what she wanted from men, he supposed. Look at the way she had singled him out as the top dog this morning, making a play with one bold look before he even knew her name.
He almost didn’t care whether she had given herself to Van Eych, so long as he possessed her, which left him oddly defeated. Van Eych had stolen everything from him: not just his parents and home, but his youth and looks and his right to a normal life. No matter how Clair was connected, he ought to want to bury her, not bury himself in her.
He told himself her defiance provoked him. A man who’d conquered as many challenges as he had was internally programmed to trim the claws of a spitting cat and show her he wasn’t the easy dalliance she was used to. She wouldn’t be the biddable sex kitten he was used to either, but that made the thought of having her all the more exciting.
Listen to him. He knew better than to trust her, but he was halfway into bed with her anyway.
Pulling out his mobile, Aleksy texted his PA, then held his breath. He had the truth in seconds and swallowed back a howl of triumph. Her sugar daddy hadn’t been capable of making physical demands. That made taking her not just acceptable but imperative.
He pushed open the half-closed door and found more evidence to support her claim. She was moving clothes into a laundry basket set atop a narrow, single bed. There was something very youthful and innocent about her. He imagined Van Eych had been feeling his age—and beginning to feel the pressure of Aleksy’s running him to ground—when he’d discovered Clair in the file room.
Clair was just the old man’s type: young and pretty, angelic in looks but not in disposition. Van Eych had had women on the side even during his marriage, so it came as no surprise that he’d wanted to maintain the illusion of virility into his later years. The inability to fully enjoy Clair must have churned like bent nails in the old man’s gut.
If only he were alive to hate Aleksy for this. A wicked smile of enjoyment pulled Aleksy’s mouth. “The medical records confirm what you say. Van Eych was limp.”
She sent him a glance that tried for boredom but held an underlying flutter of nervous tension. “I told you, it doesn’t matter to me what you believe.”
“It matters to me.” He hooked a hand over the top of the doorframe, anchoring himself so he wouldn’t press forward into the room and take what he wanted before they’d outlined the terms. She had maneuvered a very profitable situation out of a criminal-class schemer. He couldn’t underestimate how conniving she could be.
She grabbed a hooded jacket off the suitcase near his feet. As she folded it, she hid her expression and any chance of reading her thoughts, but he heard the wheels turn.
He took in the unpacked case as he waited for her to make the next move, distantly wondering where she’d been for a week. With a real lover perhaps, but other men didn’t matter. She had never belonged to Victor. That was the important piece here. The thought of taking her for himself kindled a hungry fire in him. It was an approximation of the victory he craved, and he would have it.
With possessive satisfaction, he toured her shape, stoking the heat of anticipation as he hit narrow feet in bronze ballet slippers and climbed up slim but shapely legs. Hips that would fill his hands. A thick pullover sweater that hung loose, disguising whether she wore a bra. He’d bet she wore a snug undershirt of some kind, something that would trap the heat of her skin but still allow him to find and rub her taut nipples.
Her arm came across her breasts, forcing him out of his fantasy. Her blue eyes were wide, her lips parted. A blush of awareness bloomed across her cheekbones. She knew exactly what he was thinking and even though she was acting shocked, she wasn’t repelled. Her lashes dropped to hide her eyes, but she flirted light fingers through hair that looked as shiny and silky as gold tassels on a scarlet cushion. Her chest rose in a shaky little pant and she ran her tongue over ripe lips.
It struck him that she wasn’t accustomed to wanting the men she used.
He chuckled, delighted not only to have the upper hand, but to have her delectable body fall so easily under him. “Go ahead, Clair,” he taunted. “Ask me if offering to share that bed will persuade me to let you stay in it.”