Play with Me Read Online Lisa Renee Jones

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Total pages in book: 1
Estimated words: 38105 (not accurate)
Estimated Reading Time in minutes: 191(@200wpm)___ 152(@250wpm)___ 127(@300wpm)
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Play with Me

Author/Writer of Book/Novel:

Lisa Renee Jones

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A dedicated reporter and a powerful businessman will find passion, drama, and a sizzling romantic connection in this story from New York Times bestselling author Lisa Renee Jones.

Kali Miller has spent three years reporting fluff stories for a small-town Texas paper, waiting for the opportunity to pen the article that will launch her career to new heights. That dream has never felt further away when she suddenly finds herself out of work, forced to take a job as an executive secretary at a Las Vegas casino. But that’s exactly where Kali meets the subject of what will surely be a shocking exposé: her boss, Damion Ward, the casino’s arrogant and undeniably sexy CEO.

Watching Damion make his cold, calculating business maneuvers, Kali is positive she’s doing the right thing. But after Damion invites her to help him plan a Thanksgiving charity event, Kali begins to see another side of the man. And when she surrenders to the exhilarating tension that’s been simmering between them since day one, Kali becomes part of her own story, which she hopes will have a happy ending.

This was previously published with Loveswept, and is a reissue.
Books by Author:

Lisa Renee Jones



Part One

The first meeting…

“Ms. Miller.”

At the sound of my name, I hop to my feet in the center of the Las Vegas temp service. Rushing forward, I stop in front of my interviewer, a forty-something woman in a navy suit not so unlike my own.

“Hi,” I say, sounding as awkward and nervous as I feel about being unemployed for the first time in my life.

My greeting earns me a quick up-and-down inspection that has my already rattled nerves swan-diving off an invisible cliff. She levels a stare at me and asks, “Can I help you?” And her prickly tone says I’ve failed her sixty-second assessment.

“I’m Ms. Miller,” I reply, and try to win her over. “But, please, you can call me Kali.”

Her lips twist and tell me she is clearly not charmed, as I had intended. Instead, she looks down her nose, which is as straight as the long brunette hair neatly tied at her nape, and repeats with formality, “Ms. Miller. I’m Ms. Williams, your job-placement counselor. Come with me.”

“Ms. Williams” charges down a narrow hallway and I chase after her, just as I did for the reporting job at the Vegas Heat that fell through before I ever started to work. She disappears into an office and I follow, swiping at a strand of my long blond hair, which suddenly feels as disheveled as the new life I’ve gambled on.

Ms. Williams settles behind a basic wooden desk and motions me to the burgundy cloth-covered visitor’s chair. Claiming the seat that might as well be labeled FOR DESPERATE, UNEMPLOYED FOLKS, I adjust my skirt to rest primly at my knees and watch Ms. Williams study my paperwork for what feels like an excruciatingly long amount of time.

She glances up at me, and the skeptical glint in her eyes—real or created by my insecurity—makes me wish she hadn’t. “Let me get right to the point,” she declares. “You were working as a reporter in college.”

“And for a year at the Texas Sun,” I quickly add, afraid she’s missed that line on my application. “I only left for a better offer, which was eliminated while I was en route.”

“I was getting there, Ms. Miller,” she reprimands sharply. “My point is that I do not have any reporting jobs. They’re hard to come by. In other words, no one has any reporting jobs. If you can return to Texas and get your job back, you should.”

The whiplash effect of her words has me slumping and then straightening in rebellion. Even though my savings are gone, I will not go back to covering watermelon festivals and, well, other … stuff I’d rather not think about now. Or ever. I’d rather not think about it ever. “I took your administrative tests,” I point out, “and, as you should be able to tell, I have excellent clerical skills. Additionally, I’m highly organized and I’m dedicated to whatever I do. I need work—therefore, I will be timely and productive while on the job.”

“I saw your testing. The question is, will you be reliable if I send you to a job that isn’t a reporting position?” It doesn’t come out as the question it claims to be but more as an accusation.

“My experience in journalism should assure an employer that I’m articulate and know how to censor when necessary. And I want to be an asset. I need a stable career.” Not a dream that can’t pay the bills, no matter how hard it is to let it go.

She purses her lips and stands up. “Give me a moment to look at our job board.”

Yes. Yes. Yes. She’s going to the job board, whatever that is. I track her departure, twisting in the chair and watching her from over my shoulder, then sinking down when she disappears from sight. Thrumming my nails on the arms of the chair, I anxiously feel every second Ms. Williams is gone. I used my savings to come here and start a new life. I couldn’t leave if I wanted to, which I don’t.

“Okay,” Ms. Williams announces, walking back into the office. “I have a secretarial job opening, but you have to start today.”

I sit up on the edge of the chair. “Now? It’s already two in the afternoon.”

“Now means now. The pay is exceptional and the opportunity amazing. You just happen to be at the right place at the right time. If you do well, I have no doubt you could go full-time. The CEO of the Vantage Hotel and Casino group has fired his assistant. Because he is in a highprofile position and fields a great deal of press, I think you hit the nail on the head in your earlier assessment of your journalism background as being useful. He oversees a three-property operation and is extremely powerful. That will make you extremely powerful if you do well. He’s leaving town in an hour. He needs you there for a briefing immediately. In or out, Ms. Miller?”

For a moment I am paralyzed by where this is taking me. How far from my dreams, and how close—even at a distance—to a home that is now hell. But stability is not overrated. Not when a girl is alone in a new city. Not even when a girl is near family who feel like strangers.

“How much is the pay?” I ask. Then, holding my breath, I wait for the answer and curse the part of me that wants it to be bad, the part of me that wants an excuse to turn this down and cling to my dreams, to my escape from greed, pain, and powerful people who will stomp on you for no reason other than that they can.

She grabs my application off her desk, studies it for a moment, and then flicks me a look. “Double the salary you made in Texas.”

The promise of stability wins over watermelon festivals and ramen noodles much easier than I’d expected. I stand up. “Where do I go?”

* * *

Thirty minutes later, I’ve parked the rental car and found the lot’s elevator when my cell phone rings. Quickly scooping it from my purse, I answer to hear Ms. Williams demand, “Why are you not there yet?”

Shifting my purse and briefcase on my shoulder, I straighten my navy-blue jacket and reply, “I’m headed into the casino now.”

“Make it snappy. Mr. Ward has to leave. He needs to meet you first.”

“I’m almost there,” I assure her, right before I enter the building and the phone thankfully goes dead. That woman is as rude as they come, but she will be my new best friend if I get this job.

Once inside the building, I walk through rows of clanging slot machines to yet another elevator. Twenty-five floors later, I exit to a lobby that screams of money and luxury, from the fine hardwoods beneath my feet to the gorgeous mahogany desk.

The pretty blond receptionist, who I guess to be twenty-three, or maybe twenty-four like me, stands up. She is strikingly similar to an older version of someone I’d rather forget, and I am angry with myself for how easily the confidence I’ve fought to recover slips away. Suddenly I am not blond enough, not tiny or pretty enough.

“Kali?” she asks hopefully.

“Yes, I’m Kali.”

“I’m so glad you’re here,” she says, pressing her hand to her chest, and her genuine friendliness begins to ease my tension. She waves me toward a hallway and I follow as she adds, “I’m Dana, and I’m so glad it’s you working for Mr. Ward instead of me. You just shout if you need anything, and I’ll help you.”

“Oh. Thanks. Why didn’t you want to work for him?”

She snorts. “Too good-looking and intense for me.” I barely have time to process that answer when we enter a second lobby, with leather chairs, fancy art on the walls, and a secretarial desk that looks as if six or seven files exploded on top of it.

“Good grief,” I whisper, but before I can ask what happened, Dana motions to the door directly behind the mess. “That’s his office,” she whispers, as if it’s a secret, then rushes forward and grabs the phone in the midst of the piles of papers. “Mr. Ward,” she says into the receiver, “your new secretary has arrived.” A brief pause, then, “I’ll send her right in.”

Dana hangs up and turns to me. “Good luck.”

“I’m supposed to just walk in?”

“Yes.”

“Knock first?”

She gives an uncertain shrug. “Whatever feels right.” She waggles her fingers at me and hightails it in the other direction.

I sigh and walk behind the desk, intending to take the liberty of placing my purse in the drawer of what I assume will be my work space, but I gape at how much worse the mess is from this angle. The papers that have erupted on the desk are scribbled on with a black marker, as if someone was being malicious. And childish.

I study them, and it appears many are financial reports. Reaching for one, I freeze when the door behind me creaks, followed by, “Ms. Miller?”

The deep, richly masculine voice has me whirling around and then freezing: My new boss is an early-thirties, clean-shaven version of Robert Downey, Jr., in a gray pin-striped suit perfect for the role of Tony Stark. And while I’d have sworn the past few years had left me immune to men like this one, the low thrum of awareness pulsing through my body says otherwise quite loudly.

“Ms. Miller?” he repeats, arching a brow at my silence, and I am appalled to realize I am gaping. At my new boss. Who clearly knows it. Brilliant. He now has an upper hand I shouldn’t have allowed. It’s not as if I’m an amateur with corporate wolves. I know how easily they will gobble you up if you let them. And that isn’t going to happen this time.

Straightening my spine, I attempt to reclaim the power I’ve given him and persuade us both that my gaping was in our imaginations. “I’m Ms. Miller, Mr. Ward,” I confirm. “I know you have a flight to catch. What can I do to help?”

The amusement in his unique pale-green eyes says he’s fully aware of the gift I gave him and he’s keeping it. “I need you in my office. We have to cover a few things before I leave.”

“Yes, of course,” I agree quickly, and, expecting him to turn and lead the way, I take a step closer. He doesn’t move. We end up almost toe-to-toe, with me staring at his chest. It’s safer than his eyes, which will see too much. It’s a nice chest. Broad and hard enough to flex beneath his shirt and suit jacket as he reaches for the ringing cell phone in his pocket.

I take a step backward. He turns and faces the other direction and answers the call: “Right. Yes. I’ll be on my way.” Short and sweet, and he ends the connection before facing me again. “Change of plans. You’re riding with me to the airport.” He doesn’t wait for my agreement, but, then, he didn’t really ask a question. He gives me his back and disappears into his office.

I blink after him, trying to process what has happened. Ride with him to the airport? I swallow the cotton forming in my throat. This is going to be him and me in a small space, playing with who gets what power, before I’ve even sat down at my desk.

“Ready?” he asks, reappearing with a briefcase on his shoulder and stopping only a few steps from me.

“Yes,” I say. “I’m ready.”

His eyes narrow ever so slightly, and suddenly we are standing here as if he doesn’t have a flight to catch, staring at each other, and I am drowning in the depths of his light-green eyes. He’s sizing me up in some way, and it’s unnerving. He’s unnerving. Seconds tick by, until his lips hint at a curve of a smile, as if he has seen something in me I did not intentionally mean to show him, and he says, “I guess we’ll find out just how ready you are, now, won’t we?”

I see the challenge in his eyes, read the undertone of his words, and this pleases me. There is a reason he didn’t pull Dana from the front desk despite her reservations. He doesn’t want the timidity of insecurity. And while I might have lost myself for a while, I am back, and Bambi I am not.

“Yes,” I say, lifting my chin. “We will.”

Part Two

I’ve got your number…

Approval flashes in those gorgeous eyes of my new boss, and he says, “I’m looking forward to it, Ms. Miller,” then motions me ahead of him. “Ladies first.”

Pleased with his reaction, and feeling better about this job by the moment, I shift my briefcase on my shoulder and head toward the main lobby. Tall and broad, he falls into step beside me, and I am still far too aware of him. It’s a problem I will need to fix, and quickly. Which is exactly why, when we enter the lobby, I do not look at Dana. I don’t need her, or anyone else, reading my attraction to Mr. Ward before I can get a grip on it. Both he and the staff need to trust that I’m competent and professional if I am going to be his right-hand person.

I punch the elevator button. While Mr. Ward lingers behind to instruct Dana to leave his messages on his voice mail, the scent of him seems to chase me. It’s spicy and wintery, stirring the oddest memory of a candle my mom used to burn during the holidays.

A second nervous jab of the elevator button and, with Mr. Ward on my heels, we step into the car, that cursed cologne of his suffocating me with its deliciousness. I face forward. He does not, and I’m quite aware of him leaning on the wall, inspecting me with more nerve-racking intensity. I think he’s doing this intentionally, playing a game, continuing to test me.

Steeling myself for the impact that is this man, I slowly turn to face him, and find that only a few steps separate us. Against my natural instinct, which tells me that we are too close, and my feminine instinct, which says we are not close enough, I settle on standing my ground. Besides, moving away would come with the risk of showing weakness.

He doesn’t speak, and I can’t fight the need to fill the empty space. “I have a good memory, so if you want to start running through important information, I’m all ears.”

His eyes light with more of that challenge I’d seen in his office. “Why do you want this job?”

My not-so-far-gone post-college interview speech flows automatically from my lips. “To be a valuable asset to your company and build a career.”

“I value honesty, not politically correct answers you think I want to hear. Why do you want this job?”

Honesty. There’s a unique concept, which I think is more myth than reality, but I cannot deny him what I so crave in my own life. “Security,” I say. “Stability. Pride in my success that lets me pay my bills.”

He does more of that intense staring of his, and several seconds tick by in which I do not dare breathe, before he approvingly says, “That’s more like it.” Then he tosses me another abrupt change of topic. This one more sensitive than the last. “I understand you moved here from Texas for a job that was eliminated.”

“That’s right.” While I am pleased with my immediate response, I do not succeed at keeping the tightness from my voice.

“How do I know you won’t haul it back home while I’m gone?”

“I’m not going back.”

“Now or ever?”

Knots form in my stomach. “Ever.”

“You can’t be sure of that.”

“You can’t be sure,” I say precisely. “But I can and I am.”

His head tilts thoughtfully, my direct answer giving him pause. “Do you have family here?”

My reply is instant, my defenses impossible to shackle. “Is that a job requirement?”

Several beats tick by before he asks, “Are you alone?”

I’m not sure what he means by “alone,” but he’s on a roll that I don’t like. First he carved me up, and now he’s punched me in the gut. “What I am,” I say, a hint of tartness I do not intend slipping into my voice, “is here to stay. I’m also a damn good employee.” I don’t give him time to question my reply. “Where are you headed?”

I think he will push me harder, but he doesn’t. “New York.”

“When will you be back?”

“Monday.”

Relief washes over me, and his glower is instant. “Hoping for an easy first week?” he asks, his tone dry, hard.

“No.” I clearly need to work on my poker face. “That’s not the case.”

“Then what is the case, Ms. Miller?”

I hope he really does like honesty, because that’s what he’s getting. “Your absence gives me a week to organize whatever that explosion is on my new desk and to get a general footing in the office. That includes sizing up the staff to work with them most effectively, which is important since they appear quite intimidated by you.”

“The staff? You’ve only met Dana, who barely has contact with me and is so insecure that she was afraid to even fill in as my secretary.”

“Even the staffing agency seemed intimidated by you.”

“Do you find me intimidating, Ms. Miller?”

I consider that objectively. “No. You don’t intimidate me.” My attraction to him does, and so does the idea of losing this job, but he doesn’t.

His brow arches. “You’re sure about that?”

I open my mouth to assure him that I am, but the elevator dings and the doors open to a rush of people. A woman in a business suit is being shoved forward by a group of giggling females. I sidestep to avoid her, but it’s too late: She stomps on my foot. Despite the pain, I manage to catch pieces of conversation that tell me I have just become a victim of a well-lubricated bachelorette party.

I tumble backward, gasping as a hard, big body absorbs mine and strong hands close down on my shoulders. “Easy, Ms. Miller,” I hear in that deep, rough baritone I already know as my boss’s, and then he leans in even closer, his mouth near my ear, his breath warm on my neck. “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” I reply, but it comes out as more a pained pant than a confident assurance. I’m not sure if that’s because my foot has been stomped on, or I’m horribly embarrassed, or I’m tingling everywhere he is touching me—and in some intimate places he is not.

“I’m so sorry,” the offending woman gushes, looking appalled, only to be shoved toward me again as the party piles in and crowds us like sardines in a can. Desperate to stay standing, the foot stomper grabs my arm to steady herself, then quickly lets go. “So sorry.”

“It’s not your fault,” I manage.

Mr. Ward leans down again, and, Lord help me, his chin brushes my hair as he says, “I’m making an executive decision. We need to get out of the car before we are locked inside with them for who knows how many floors.”

“Yes,” I agree, and I all but gasp as his fingers curve intimately at my waist and his body urges me forward.

I don’t breathe until we break free of the elevator and he releases me.

“How’s your foot?” he asks. He is taller than I remember, towering over my five feet five inches, and he’s giving me another one of those intense inspections I tell myself I’ll develop an immunity to. Then again, no matter how many chocolate stomachaches I get, I never seem to get enough.

“Not as painful as my embarrassment,” I assure him, and laugh nervously. “What can I say? I like to make a lasting impression, and since you’re leaving I didn’t have a lot of time.”

“Do you need to sit?”

“We need to get you to the airport,” I say, and add the motto that got me back to me not that long ago. “I’m bruised, not broken.” And I intend to prove it was, and is, true.

His eyes narrow, darken. “Bruised but not broken.” His voice is softer, seeming to caress the words as he adds, “I like that.” And for some reason I’m not sure what he’s talking about or why air is suddenly lodged in my lungs.

“Mr. Ward!”

We both whirl around at the sound of his name being called, and the source appears to be a thirty-something man, with short, dark hair who is wearing a rust-colored jacket and earpiece that gives me the impression that he’s security. My new boss flicks me a look. “I’ll meet you at the car. Tell the doorman you’re with me and he’ll get you to where you have to go.”

I nod but he doesn’t notice, having already turned away from me. I’ve been dismissed. Maybe this job isn’t so unlike working as a reporter. Or, I think cynically, the Thanksgiving with my family that I plan to miss in three weeks’ time.

With a heavy sigh that comes from deep in my soul, I seek out one of the many signs hanging from the casino ceiling and head toward the exit, but something makes me pause. I turn just in time to witness Mr. Ward scrub his hand down his face and mutter a curse I can read from a distance. A second later, his gaze lifts and collides with mine, the turbulence in the depths of his stare crashing into me, a rough blast of dark emotions. For several seconds our eyes hold, and I don’t know why but I have the oddest thought. In this moment of time, I think he, too, is bruised but not broken.

As if he knows I see this, he abruptly turns away, giving me his back.

* * *

“Why aren’t you in the car?”

At the sound of Mr. Ward’s voice, adrenaline surges through me, and I am on my feet, no longer warming the bench I’ve been seated on for a good ten minutes.

“I—”

“Tell me in the car,” he says, cutting me off. “We need to go.” His hand comes down on my back, scorching away the chill of the November air and urging me toward a limo parked a few feet away.

The valet opens the back door and I slide inside. The soft leather hugs my legs, and I pull my skirt to my knees as Mr. Ward joins me, settling in directly across from me. “Why weren’t you waiting in here where it’s warm?” he demands, his voice a reprimand that nears cranky and stirs old ghosts and goblins worthy of the Halloween only a week before. I do not like that they are alive when they should be buried, and I rebel against them and his tone with me.

“I would have liked that,” I say, my voice matching his crankiness, “but the staff gave me the impression they thought I was the newest chick chasing the millionaire CEO.”

The tension vanishes from his face, and a low, sexy rumble of laughter slides from his lips. Instantly, I find myself relaxing into the sound. “You aren’t going to be a wilting flower, are you?”

“Do you want a wilting flower?”

“No. I do not want a wilting flower, Ms. Miller. Nor do I want a ‘chick chasing the millionaire CEO.’ I’ll end that perception immediately.”

“It’s not a big deal,” I say, softening with his vow.

He, on the other hand, seems to do the opposite, his humor fading, the hardness returning. “Actually,” he corrects, “it is. I’m leaving, and you have to be able to function when I’m gone.”

“I will,” I say, certain he needs to hear this, though I don’t know why. “You can trust me to get the job done.”

There is a slight tensing of his jaw that I read as skepticism. The car engine starts and he proves I’m right in my assessment by declaring, “I have concerns about you, Ms. Miller.”

Cotton lines my throat. “Concerns?”

“You’re a reporter.”

“By trade, yes.”

“You’ve never worked as a secretary,” he comments, and it’s not a question.

“Do you want just a secretary or someone with extra skills to bring to the table?”

“Clearly, you excel at asking questions and not answering them.”

“You didn’t phrase it as a question, and zipped lips should be one of my job requirements anyway.”

His cell beeps and he pulls it from his pocket, staring at the text message for what seems like forever. Finally, without typing a reply, he sets the phone on the seat and his gaze goes to the window.

Seconds tick by, and I can almost feel the tension curling in and around him, thickening the air until I can barely breathe. I wonder how he can. “Everything okay?” I ask softly.

His gaze shifts to me, and his eyes are steely hard and impossible to read. “Do you gamble, Ms. Miller?”

“Badly,” I admit, unsure where this abrupt change of topic is taking us. “And only when I have no other option.”

“Well, here’s the only sure thing you’ll get in Vegas and this job: Something is always not okay. You either deal with it or you crash and burn.”

“And you deal with it,” I say, admiring him for the strength that takes, in a way I once might not have.

“Yes. I deal with it.” He scrubs his hand over his jaw, and when he refocuses on me, his eyes are clearer; his worry over whatever that text said is contained. “Let’s cover the basics. When you get back to the hotel, go to the front desk and have them page Terrance. He’s the head of security for my entire operation, and he’ll be expecting you. He’ll ensure you have everything you need to start work tomorrow.”

“Yes, okay. Terrance. Got it.”

“Now let’s cover when to contact me, what’s urgent and what’s not, and who to go to if you can’t reach me.”

I nod and realize I left my notebook by the testing station in the temp service. I retrieve my phone from my purse. “I’m going to record this, if you don’t mind.”

Suddenly his hand is covering mine, heat climbing up my arm, and I could breathe if his knee hadn’t somehow ended up pressed to my leg. For a moment we just sit there, and I am frozen by the look in his eyes and still warm all over.

“No recording,” he says, and there is a raspy quality to his voice that could be anger or something else I don’t dare kid myself exists. “Not now or ever.”

“I … yes. Or, no. I wasn’t. I’m not. I need this job. I’ll use my notepad on my phone instead.”

“No.” He takes my cell from my hand, but he doesn’t move away. “You won’t.”

“I don’t want to forget—”

“You won’t.” He sits back abruptly and lifts his knee from mine, then reaches into his briefcase and hands me a pad and pen. “Write it down.”

I nod. “Yes. I didn’t have time to prepare, or—”

“We only have about ten more minutes. Write, Ms. Miller.”

My lips thin; my spine stiffens. I have no idea what was in that text message, but he hasn’t banked his reaction to it as I’d thought. He’s harder now, colder. It’s as if a block of ice went up between us. He is the arrogant, demanding boss I expected him to be, but I will not cower. “Understood,” I say, clicking my pen. “I’m ready.”

He wastes no time wondering if I really am ready. He begins spilling out information, and I can’t write fast enough to get it all down.

We are just pulling in to the terminal when he says, “We need to exchange phone numbers.” Then, to my shock, he grabs my phone and takes the liberty of typing his number into it before handing it back to me.

I accept it, careful not to touch him, and I am almost certain that he is careful, as well. “What’s your number?” he asks.

“It’s still a Texas number,” I warn before reciting it.

He puts it into his address book and then glances at me. “When are you getting a Vegas number?”

“I … soon.”

“Get one tomorrow. Text me when you have it.”

He opens the car door and steps out, then slams it shut a little too hard. I jump at the harshness of the action and then frown. He’s moody, far too good-looking for my sanity, and impossible to figure out. He definitely is not a sure thing, and neither is this job, but I’m committed. I’m going to gamble on them both.

Part Three

Where I belong…

My return to the hotel lands me inside the main security operation for the casino, tucked away in a tiny waiting room that feels like a prison. Apparently I don’t formally have the job until I am cleared as employable by the company standards. For an hour, I sip coffee and try to watch the news on a flat-screen television, but it can’t hold my attention and I pace instead. Not that I have anything to worry about with my clearances; I just want this job solidified. I want to be officially employed, even if it’s technically as a temporary worker. It’s a foot in the door.

Finally, an hour into my captivity, Terrance Monroe, the blond, thirty-something head of security for all three of the Vantage properties, joins me. He lifts a folder in his hand and motions to several chairs against the wall. “All right, Kali,” he says as we claim two seats, having torn down the airs of last names in the first sixty seconds we’d met. “We have your security check, fingerprints, and credit scores. You’re clear for temp employment.”

“I can report to work tomorrow, then?” I ask hopefully.

“Human resources will need to see you at eight in the morning on the twentieth floor. Bring your identification and you’ll have a picture ID made.” He sets the folder on the chair separating us and taps it. “That has a map of all three casinos, a list of staff, and your access codes for parking and the executive floor after hours.”

I push to my feet, afraid someone will find another challenge for me to hurdle before this day is over. “Terrific,” I say, shoving hair out of my eyes, behind my ear, beyond caring how I look right now. I wonder if I’d feel the same if Mr. Ward were here. Somehow, I don’t think so. “Thank you.”

Terrance stands up, too. “Eager to get out of here?” he teases, and his friendliness is easily received, genuine, welcome after the day I’ve had.

I snort, and it’s not my most ladylike moment. “I’ve gone from new reporter at the local paper, to jobless, to assistant to the CEO of one of the biggest casino operations in Las Vegas in about twelve hours. It’s been the world’s longest roller-coaster ride of a day.”

“Well, then,” he says, reaching for the folder and handing it to me, “consider this a get-out-of-jail-free pass. Bring it in with you tomorrow.”

“Oh, yes,” I say, embarrassed that I’ve forgotten my paperwork. “Thank you. Thanks for everything.”

“No problem, and if you need anything, don’t hesitate to let me know. You’re working at a high level. If you see a problem, speak up.”

“I will. Absolutely.” I’m encouraged by his friendliness, which matches Dana’s. Maybe everything corporate doesn’t have to leave me black-and-blue.

“Good.” He inclines his chin. “And good night.”

“Good night.” I start to leave and then remember the explosion on my new desk. Turning back, I ask, “Can I stop by my office?”

“I thought you were eager to get out of here.”

“I am, but there was a mess on the desk when I arrived, like someone maliciously destroyed paperwork. As tired as I am, it doesn’t seem good to leave it like that overnight, especially since I’ll be in HR first thing tomorrow.”

“That was cleaned up while you were gone.”

“Oh,” I say, and my curiosity gets the best of me. “What happened?”

“Curiosity killed the cat.”

“Thank goodness they have nine lives,” I joke. “I assume whoever left my job wasn’t very happy?”

“As every sad Texas song says, goodbye isn’t always easy.”

I laugh and shake my head. “Not all us Texans love country music, but my horse is parked outside. I hope you don’t mind?”

He grins. “Sense of humor. I approve, but I still can’t disclose information on any employee’s departure.”

“I suppose that wouldn’t be appropriate of you, but …” I hesitate, then ask, “if you were gambling on me being here in a year, what would you say my odds are?”

“I’m not the one who has to gamble on you. And since your new boss isn’t a gambling man, I’d presume he feels you have what it takes to do the job and stay around.”

“Right. Okay. Thanks.” A blast of emotion overcomes me. Unwilling to let him read my weakness, I quickly head for the door, hating how needy I am for the reassurance I don’t feel he’s given me. It’s that “alone” word Mr. Ward used. It has inched its way under my skin and stayed there.

“Kali.”

I pause at my name and glance over my shoulder at Terrance. “Yes?”

“He’d go without help rather than settle for less than the best.”

Relief washes over me, and my lips curve into a smile. “Thank you.”

A few minutes later I slide into the rental car, and a sigh escapes from deep inside me. Mr. Ward might not be a gambler, but he chose me. And I’m choosing to look at my career in a new way because of him. We are the closest thing to a relationship I’ve had in a very long time.

* * *

I stop by the grocery store on the way to the hotel I checked in to upon arriving in Vegas last night. It’s nearly nine when I enter my small but functional room and unload my purchases in the fridge, heavy on the microwave dinners. Even if I wanted to win a man’s heart, which I don’t, I will never do it through his stomach. My mom was the gourmet, and as much as she tried to teach me, I enjoyed eating more than preparing meals. Well, right up until puberty, when I had to start watching just how much I sampled.

By nine-thirty I’ve already showered and changed into sweats, eaten a microwave dinner, and looked up the bus schedule. I was considering letting go of my rental and saving the cash I had set aside for a used car. Instead, I decide to hang on to the rental for a few more days and leave my belongings stored with the moving company. I’ll stay here, and if things go well, I’ll try to get into an apartment before the holiday.

It’s nearing eleven when I snuggle into bed with my laptop and a cup of instant hot cider. Like Mr. Ward’s cologne, the cider reminds me of the holidays and the good times they were with my mother. And while it makes the hotel room a little more like home, I cannot help but think about all that has happened since I lost her. If she were still here, things would be so different. I would be different.

Determined to prepare for tomorrow before sleep takes hold of me, I Google my new boss and discover that his first name is Damion. Even the man’s name is sexy. So is his success. At the extremely young age of thirty-two, he has been in the position of CEO for nearly two years. What isn’t sexy is the scandal around how he got the job. Apparently he’d been consulting for the board of directors and personally recommended the termination of the ex-CEO; he even took part in its execution. Some said it was self-serving, as he’d then taken the position in the interim before transitioning to full-time.

My cell beeps on the nightstand and I grab it, hoping it might be Kelly, my ex-roommate, who has grown more and more distant since she moved to Hawaii with her boyfriend three months ago. I frown at the caller ID. It reads DW, and the message says, Are you awake?

DW. DW. And it hits me. Hello, Kali. It’s obvious. DW is Damion Ward, and why is my heart fluttering? It’s just a text. Just my boss. Yes, I reply. Are you in New York?

I got to my hotel about 15 minutes ago.

I wait, expecting more, like a reason for the contact, but he says nothing else. As when we were in the elevator, I feel that I’m supposed to fill the empty space. Do you have to travel like this often?

His reply is instant. Wishful thinking?

I grimace at the phone. It rings. I don’t even check the caller ID. I know it’s him. “I do not wish you out of town all the time.”

“You keep having to say that for a reason.”

“Because you keep assuming incorrectly,” I reply, irritated at myself for noticing the rough, sexy quality of his voice. “I want this job. I’m going to do it well.”

“Terrance said you were eager to get out of there tonight. I thought maybe you might have changed your mind about the job. Maybe I intimidated you after all.”

“I—what?” I sit up. “I didn’t say I was eager to leave. Or I did, but to be rested and ready for tomorrow. I just got into town last night. It was a bad day, and—”

A low rumble of laughter fills the line, sending a shiver down my spine and heating my skin. If Vegas is sin, this man is its poster child. “I guess you really aren’t intimidated by me,” he comments. “And I know what you said to Terrance. I only wanted to see how you would respond.”

“Playing with me?” I ask. “That’s not very nice, especially since what I’m intimidated by is the idea of being unemployed.”

“Aren’t we all?”

Surprised—especially after what I read about him—I ask, “You’re intimidated at the idea of being unemployed?”

“It’s more about fearing failure, and losing my job would be failure. It would mean I’ve let down customers, employees, and the board of directors. Those are big demands, and I feel the pressure like everyone else.”

I’m blown away by his confession, especially his use of the word “fear.” I’ve known men I would have thought were like him, but none of them would share vulnerability with someone they knew well, let alone just met. “Do you enjoy that kind of pressure?”

“I’m sure it’s similar to you getting a big story as a journalist. We are both chasing success. Sometimes—often—that means getting past a problem. The positive outcome is the high. I need someone who isn’t afraid of the pressure or of me. And, as you have already guessed, some people are afraid of me.”

“Do they have a reason?”

“Why don’t you judge for yourself? And I do mean yourself, Ms. Miller.”

“I have a mind of my own.”

“You’ll have to if you want to stay in this position.”

That part of me craving security demands I confirm what he has just inferred. “Can I? I mean, is there a chance I can become more than a temp?”

“I wouldn’t have hired you if there wasn’t.”

“Circumstances forced you into hiring me.”

“I don’t let circumstances force me into anything,” he counters, and it’s much more comforting coming from him than from Terrance. “If I hadn’t been impressed with you,” he continues, “I would have insisted Dana cover until I picked a replacement.”

“I impressed you?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“That’s why,” he replies.

“What’s why?”

“You might fear being without a job, but it doesn’t stop you from being you or asking questions. And questions are good. They lead to answers. In fact, I’m interested in finding out what you think of the staff once you get done with the inquisitions I know are coming. We can compare notes when I get back.”

“To judge them or me?” I ask, the entire idea opening a barely sealed nerve ending. I’ve been judged, and I don’t like it.

“I simply want to know how our thoughts come together.”

“To assess my judgment.”

“To assess my judgment.”

His answer is unexpected. Everything about him is unexpected. “I’m not sure what to say to that.”

“Then don’t say anything. Just be you and I’ll be me and we will see if we like where that leads us.”

I swallow hard against the thickness in my throat. “Where that leads us?”

“Yes. Where that leads us.” And when I can easily imagine there is intimacy in those words, he shifts, leaving me dazed and confused. “Call me when you get to your desk tomorrow, Ms. Miller.”

“Wait,” I say, and I mean to ask about his prior assistant, but somehow I blurt, “What will your caller ID say when I call you?”

“I’m DW and you’re KM,” he replies.

I am surprised and pleased with this answer.

“Is that what you wanted to hear, Ms. Miller?”

“Yes,” I respond simply, hoping to discourage him from asking more questions, since I can’t answer what I don’t understand. I simply don’t want to be just a number or “the temp.”

“Well, then,” he says thoughtfully, drawing out the words and seeming to hesitate on something he wants to say, before he finishes with, “Good night, Ms. Miller.”

“Good night, Mr. Ward.”

Neither of us hangs up. Seconds tick by, and I think we both expect something to happen that never does. And then the line goes dead and the call is over, unfinished in some way that feels wrong where he feels right. Despite all that has happened today, I have this sense that I am where I’m supposed to be. And the last thought I have before the shadows of slumber overcome me is of when I fell backward in the elevator and he caught me.

Part Four

What just happened?

Morning comes, and I’m determined to make it a great first day at work. By seven forty-five, I am at the human-resources office. The receptionist, a rather standoffish twenty-something woman with light-brown hair, offers me coffee. I decline, and she points me to one of about ten burgundy lobby chairs. By eight-thirty, I reconsider the coffee. At nine, I am feeling antsy when a slender woman with spiky black hair and wearing a fitted navy dress walks down the hall. A curvy, very Bette Midler–ish redhead is on her heels.

“I really need to go to my desk and pick up my pictures,” the brunette insists, turning to the other woman. “They’re very personal and sentimental. Irreplaceable in every way.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” the redhead says, giving her simple black dress a sharp straightening that screams of irritation. “Have a seat and I’ll be with you.”

The brunette’s back is to me and I can’t see her reaction, but she says nothing, turning and walking to the coffee machine to get a cup for herself. It is an obvious act of rebellion, a statement that she will go with her chin held high, and I am not the only one who notices. The redhead glares at the other woman for several long beats before shifting her gaze to me. “Ms. Miller?”

“Yes.” I pop to my feet, reaching for my purse and briefcase. “That’s me.”

“Actually,” the woman replies, an irritated look reddening her pale complexion, “I need to take care of another matter before we meet.”

It is all I can do not to slump in defeat. There is no apology. No real explanation. Just basically sit and behave. “Can I start working and come back later?” I ask hopefully.

“No. You need clearance from me or someone in HR first. And I’m the only one available.”

Except that she isn’t available. But I nod my acceptance—not that she sees me. She is already rushing away by the time I sit down. My attention returns to the receptionist’s desk, where I find the brunette resting a hip on the desk and the two women’s heads dipped close. The rasp of whispers I can’t make out is fuzzing up the air, and the unease of a gut feeling that I am their topic is impossible to shake.

I glance at the hallway, where the redhead has disappeared, and grimace at being left to wallow in discomfort. She did not even introduce herself to me. Note to self for my analysis of the staff, I silently say. The redhead is not a woman who makes new employees feel warm and fuzzy. If Mr. Ward cares. After last night, I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Abruptly, the brunette lifts her head, and her eyes soften as they land on me with something akin to sympathy. Oh, God. What does she know that I don’t? She shoves off the desk and abandons her coffee, heading toward me as if she is on a mission.

She sits next to me and motions to the unfriendly receptionist. “Carrie says you’re my replacement.”

I’m stunned. She’s the one who made the mess all over the desk? “I … uh … am?”

“Yes,” she confirms. “I’m Natalie. Mr. Ward fired me yesterday. Or, well, he had his bulldog Terrance do it. Bastard didn’t even have the courage to look at me eye-to-eye. I have two kids at home.” Her voice cracks, and dampness glistens in her brown eyes. “What am I supposed to do now?”

My gut twists. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say.”

She swipes at an escaping droplet. “I’m sorry. I swore I wouldn’t cry. I didn’t want to come today, but they wouldn’t give me my severance until I did exit interviews. Two years and I was turned into a paper file in two words. ‘You’re fired.’ I just moved to a bigger apartment. Be warned. You’re about to be working for a coldhearted snake.”

“What happened? Why did he fire you?” I’m almost afraid to hear the answer.

“One of my kids is sick, and I was distracted and made an error. It made him look bad and he fired me.”

I was right. I didn’t want to know. “Because you made a mistake?”

She sniffs. “Because I made him look bad. You do not make him look bad or you’ll be gone.” She squeezes my arm. “I wanted to warn you. I wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t.”

A shiver chases her touch up my arm, and it’s an odd sensation. Something is off. Me. Her. Mr. Ward. I’m not sure. “Can he do that?” I ask. “Fire you for simply making him look bad?”

“There’s some clause in the employment agreement about damaging the company reputation, and, let me tell you, it’s so all-inclusive that, in management’s opinion, you could sneeze in public at the wrong time and get axed. Something should be done about it, but I don’t have the strength to fight him and fight for my kids.”

I resist her claims, and I am shocked at how badly I do not want my new boss to be the same arrogant, rich, self-righteous jerk I’d assumed he would be. That my father is. That Kent is. But considering my life has always drawn precisely that kind of man, Mr. Ward being like them would be fitting. And if he is, my attraction to him will be over—or, I vow, I will seek counseling.

It’s also the start of a familiar cycle. I get wrapped in the glove of power of one of these men and then smashed beneath the shoe of their contempt.

I inhale and stiffen my spine. Not this time. Not. This. Time. “Listen, Natalie,” I say, “I can’t get you your job back, but I’ll try to get you justice. I’m a reporter. I’ll write a tell-all and expose him for what he is. But I need time to gather facts. If you have things I should look for, then call me.”

This time, she looks stunned. “You’re a … what?”

“A reporter. I got laid off, but I know how to get a mass press release out that will draw attention.” I’ll be helping others and helping my own career.

“Oh … well, yes. Thank you. I—” The lobby door opens, and her gaze jerks beyond me.

I turn to find Terrance standing there, and he is as good-looking as I remember but not nearly as friendly. In fact, at the moment, his handsome face is carved with so much intensity, I think he must be channeling Mr. Ward.

He gives me a short nod. “Kali.”

I lift my hand in greeting, but his attention has already moved away from me to Natalie. “Time to leave,” he says to her.

She pushes to her feet. “I assumed you were here to walk me out.”

“As promised,” he replies, and there is none of the friendliness in his tone that he’d shown me the night before.

“I need my personal items,” she says.

“We’ll talk in the hallway” is his response, and I have this sense that if she asks for her pictures again, he will have her arrested. It doesn’t make sense.

Natalie hugs herself, then gives me a sympathetic look. “Good luck,” she says softly, before defiantly lifting her chin and walking toward the door.

Terrance does not follow her, his blue eyes landing hard on me. “Is there a problem I should know about?”

My fingers dig into the chair I’m occupying. “Aside from me sitting here for two hours when my boss wants me at my desk, no.”

“Ms. Miller.”

My head jerks at the familiar tone of the redhead’s voice, and I stand up. “Coming,” I say, making eye contact with her but caving to Terrance’s silent command that pulls my gaze back to him.

“Call me if there’s a problem,” he says, and it’s an order. “And I mean any problem, Kali.”

“I will,” I assure him, but I am truly lost. I feel as if something has happened that I should be aware of, but I’m not.

He gives me a few seconds more to squirm under his inspection, which at this moment is intense enough to rival my boss’s. I do not look away. Once again I’m being sized up, and I survived his boss, so I’ll survive him. His eyes narrow, almost as if he hears my thoughts, and then he surprises me and smiles. It transforms him into the easygoing guy I met the night before.

“I have a feeling you and your boss are going to be quite the interesting matchup. I might even pop some popcorn to watch.” And with that he turns and leaves. I gape after him, as confused as the Bambi I am not.

* * *

Twenty minutes later I still don’t know the HR person’s name, but my badge has been issued and I’m alone in her office, sitting in the visitor’s chair. And while my mission when I got up this morning was to start a new career, it’s now to write a story about this place that will relaunch me into reporting and help some of the poor employees.

“We need to go down a checklist together,” the HR person says, returning and sitting behind her desk.

My cell phone rings. Her lips purse. “It would be appropriate, Ms. Miller, to turn that off.”

I reach for my purse to retrieve it. “I would, but—”

“There is no ‘but.’ It’s inappropriate.”

I grab my phone and glance at the caller ID, which reads DW. I quickly accept the call. “Hello.”

“I’m surprised you answered, Ms. Miller. I’m told you were a no-show to work.”

How his voice manages to be both sexy and cranky is beyond me.

“Ms. Miller,” the redhead warns sharply, but I ignore her.

“I’m in HR,” I tell him, trying to explain myself. “I’ve been here since a quarter to eight.”

“Ms. Miller!”

“Who’s barking your name?” he demands, and if he was cranky seconds before, he’s thunderous now.

I glance at the redhead. “I, uh, don’t know.”

“You don’t know?” he challenges.

“I haven’t gotten a name.”

“You’ve been in HR for two hours and you don’t know the name of the person you’re with?”

I cut my gaze from the woman to her desk. “I was in the waiting room for most of the two hours.”

“What? You have got to be kidding me,” he mumbles under his breath. “Put whomever you are with on the phone.”

I really don’t want someone else’s job on my conscience, either.

“Ms. Miller,” he says, and my name is a reprimand.

“Yes?”

“Put the person on the phone.”

“Please don’t make me do that.”

“You do not follow direction well, do you?”

“I’m about to head to my desk now.”

“Put the HR person on the phone.”

I sigh and hold my cell out to the now-pale redhead, who has clearly figured out to whom I am talking. She accepts it and presses it to her ear. “Mr. Ward—”

He obviously cuts her off as she goes silent, then says, “Yes. Yes.” Silence. “I didn’t know.” More silence, and she glances at me. “Right. I do know. I’ll make it happen.” She listens another few seconds and then hands me back the phone. “Your turn again.”

“Hello,” I say, placing the phone to my ear.

“This isn’t how we operate, and Maggie is normally amazing. I apologize that your day started like this, but right now I’m going to make it worse. I have an important meeting in an hour, and the computer is saying the documents I need are inaccessible. Tech support is on it, but I need you to pull the hard copies and scan them for me.”

I’ve barely recovered from his unexpected apology when the urgency of his tone has me standing. “Yes. Of course. I’ll go now.”

“Have you been assigned an email yet?”

“No.”

“Tell Maggie you need one yesterday and then call me when you get upstairs.”

“Yes, okay.”

He hangs up and I immediately tell the HR person, “I need an email ASAP, please. Can you call me at Mr. Ward’s desk with the log-in so I can head in that direction?”

“Yes. Absolutely. Do what you have to do.”

“Thanks,” I say, already turning.

“Ms. Miller,” she says, drawing my attention again.

“Yes?”

“I’m Maggie, and Mr. Ward reminded me that I am only cranky once a month and occasionally during a crisis. Lucky you got both in one day. I’m sorry and thank you for trying to cover my ass.”

I gape. “He said that to you?”

“Well, I said that to him on another occasion. He just repeated it. Welcome on board. I promise to show you I mean it soon.”

I’m confused all over again about my boss, who Natalie has painted as a monster but is now portrayed as thoughtful and involved with his employees. “Thank you, Maggie. And everything is fine with me, so don’t worry about it. But I better run.”

“Yes, of course. Go. I’ll set up the email and bring it and your paperwork to you.”

I rush out of the door and don’t stop until I am shut inside the empty elevator. Staring at the floors dinging by, I am transported to another elevator ride and that moment when Mr. Ward’s body first absorbed mine, and I can almost feel the heat that rushed through me. I squeeze my eyes shut with the memory of his hardness cradling my body and decide that, while I am confused about most everything right now, my attraction to my boss is crystal clear. And if I don’t find a way to get it under control, it will be obvious to him and everyone else, too.

* * *

“Where have you been?” Dana demands when I exit into the lobby of the corporate offices.

“Human resources,” I say, and I don’t stop. My cell starts ringing and I dig it from my purse as I add, “I need to handle something for Mr. Ward.”

“Hello?” I say, answering the call.

“Are you there yet?”

“No. Not yet. I can email it from my personal account if I need to.”

“That’s okay. Just try to find the files. Where are you?”

“Walking in to your office.” I open the door and flip on the light, and the scent of him rushes over me. I shiver with the impact but shove past it, ignoring the seating area. I round the conference table to my left, heading for the massive black-and-glass desk at the center of the room.

“Are you at my desk?”

“Sitting down now,” I say, setting my briefcase and purse on the floor and letting the cushy leather absorb me. “Let me put you on speaker.” I hit the button and then say, “Okay. Where do I look?”

“Left drawer, in a file marked New York Ventures.”

I thumb through the files. “Got it.”

“Perfect. This is highly confidential. I want it sent on our server and email. I have a scanner attached to my computer, so power up.”

“I have your email and documents,” Maggie announces at the door.

“Oh, good,” I say. “Thank you. Can I bring you the documents in a bit? I just need the email immediately.”

She rushes forward and, oddly, Mr. Ward says nothing, like he doesn’t want her to know he’s on the line. “Here’s the email.” She opens her folder and pulls out a sheet of paper. “If you want to power up, I’ll show you how to log in.”

“Yes, please.” I punch a button of the computer, and for Mr. Ward’s benefit I say, “Powering up now.” Maggie’s gaze lands on the report on the desk, lingering a bit too intently it seems, and I get a funny feeling deep in my gut. She’s been around a lot longer than me so this shouldn’t bother, but it just feels like she’s being nosy. I shut the file and frown at the flashing green light on the computer screen. “What do I do now?”

Maggie motions to the computer. “Key in your first and last name.”

“Where?” I ask, thinking I must be blind or doing something wrong.

Frowning, Maggie comes around the desk, and her eyes go wide. “Oh. Oh, my. That’s not good.”

“What’s not good?” Mr. Ward demands.

Maggie jumps and presses her hand to her chest. “Mr. Ward. I didn’t know you were on the phone. The screen is flashing with a green line. I think your computer has crashed.”

“It’s not only his computer,” Dana says, appearing in the doorway. “It’s everyone’s.”

“Call tech support immediately,” Maggie instructs.

“That’s the first thing I did,” Dana quickly assures her. “They said the servers are down and they will be in touch.”

“Take me off speaker,” Mr. Ward orders.

I grab the phone and hit the button, then put it to my ear. “I’m here.”

“Dana knows the airline I charter. Tell her my meeting has been canceled and to get the plane ready within the hour. I’m headed to the airport.”

“Oh. Okay. So you don’t need the file?”

“Get me the plane, Ms. Miller.”

The sharpness of his tone takes me off guard. “Dana,” I say. “Get Mr. Ward a plane, please. His meeting was just canceled and he’s ready to be home. He’d like to leave within the hour.”

“Okay,” she says. “What about the computers?”

“I’ll get an update from tech support for you,” I promise, winging it, not sure what is happening but certain it’s far more than we all know.

“On it,” Dana assures me, and turns to leave.

“I’ll go check in with tech support in person,” Maggie offers, and she’s gone before I can reply.

“Ms. Miller?”

“Yes,” I say, pressing the phone fully to my ear. “I’m back.”

“Text me your personal email. I’ll see you in a few hours.” He ends the call.

I grimace at the phone. Something is off. Something is really off. I text him my email. He doesn’t reply. Until he does, I don’t even know what to do next. Nerves flutter in my stomach for no explainable reason.

Intending to find a scanner not attached to the network, I gather the file and am stuffing it into my briefcase when Terrance appears in the door, his jaw clenched, eyes hard. Those nerves I had turn into stabbing pains. “What’s wrong?” I ask.

“There’s been a security breach. The casino and hotel are going on lockdown. We hope to have the public areas cleared in a few hours. Anyone considered high risk will not be released until we have the source of the breach. You’re a temp and it’s your first day. That means you, Ms. Miller.”

Ms. Miller. Not Kali. My throat tightens and I rasp out, “What does that mean—lockdown?”

“It means I’m going to give you a cushy room with free room service, where you can work until the breach is located or Mr. Ward arrives and decides differently.”

I press my hand to my stomach. “I’m a suspect?”

“Everyone’s a suspect in an incident this large. Some are simply classified as more high risk than others.”

“Do I have to agree to this?”

“You’re getting paid hourly. Why wouldn’t you agree?”

Because it’s insulting? Because it feels really bad? I grab my purse and my briefcase. “Let’s go.”

He gives me a nod and turns, expecting me to follow, and I do. We ride to the penthouse level in silence and he motions me out into the hallway, on my heels as he directs me to my left. At the door to the room, he faces me. “I need your phone, and all access outside the hotel is restricted. You can keep your computer, but Internet connections are blocked.”

I swallow the bile rising in my throat. I was wrong. Vegas is not where I’m supposed to be. This is not where I’m supposed to be. I dig out my cell and hand it to him, and I hate that my hand shakes as I do. “If you need me, call the security desk. If you need food or anything else, call the front desk.”

“Yes. Okay. Thanks.”

He swipes the key to the room and holds the door for me to enter. Once I’m inside, it shuts behind me and I lean against the hard surface, staring at what is before me. I am in the glitz and glamour of luxury, complete with a grand piano, and all I see is a prison. And all I can think is, What just happened?

Part Five

Business or pleasure?

The silence is deafening. Three hours into my confinement in the luxury suite, and I have not heard from Terrance or Damion Ward, nor have my attempts to contact them through the hotel reception yielded any results. I begin to question all my reasons for coming to Vegas, not to mention the insanity of trying a new career path. There is no way the entire casino staff is locked down in rooms like this, and I can’t help but read into the silence. I’m worried; I can’t help it. I don’t even get parking tickets, and this is unnerving enough to have me pacing the room in my stocking feet, willing the phone to ring.

By the time I’ve been tormented by my scenario for a full four hours, I know I have to do what I swore I never would again. I attempt to call Texas for help, not sure if I prefer the pain of talking to my asshole father, the attorney, or my asshole ex, the attorney. I just need to find out if I can walk out of here without getting into legal trouble. Turns out that I don’t have to choose between hometown assholes: I’m forbidden any calls outside the casino even from the hotel phone they can easily monitor.

Three more hours pass and I’ve exercised my in-casino calling privileges at least half a dozen times. I’ve even threatened to leave the room, only to be quickly assured that the floor is on lockdown, including elevators and stairwells. On another call, some employee named Derek instructs me to watch a movie On Demand as a comp from the casino. Right—comp unless they call me a thief. And no movie is going to make this wait bearable. Nor will a clearance from the crime save my job. Enough people know I’m on lockdown that my reputation will be in tatters. If Natalie was telling the truth about why she was fired, I’ll probably be fired, anyway.

And on that note, I decide to work out my frustrations by opening my computer and outlining research questions for an explosion piece on the Vantage properties and their CEO. Things happen for a reason, and maybe this is all about me getting my big story. I manage a full two pages of ideas and notes. I stare at them. I say I crave honesty and I have to start with myself. The words on the page are objective, but I am not. Despite how upset I am right now, I do not want Damion Ward to be worthy of me writing this story. I shut the computer with a finality I hope proves to be true.

By seven o’clock, I am standing at the hotel window, watching the sun descend into the jagged line of high-rise hotels and mountains, when there is a knock on the door. I whirl and charge across the room, not knowing or caring whom it might be. It’s someone living and breathing who can set me free.

I open the door and all but gasp at the unexpected sight of my soon to be ex-boss, looking intensely male and completely unaffected and perfect as ever. “We need to talk,” he says, as if this is a casual event requiring nothing more than a chat, as if I’m not being treated like a felon.

“Talk?” I demand, all the emotions of hours of confinement rising up in me to near bursting. “We needed to talk seven hours ago. Now? Now we don’t need to talk.”

He steps forward, crowding me, forcing me to give him space or let him become a part of mine. I have a rare violent urge to shove him, but I retreat into the room instead. He steps closer and kicks the door shut behind him, and damn him, that delicious scent of him tickles my nose, and the teasing eruption of sensations in my body only serves to make me more angry. I don’t want to feel the way he makes me feel. I don’t want him to be the one man who sparks something in me that no one else does.

“I couldn’t call,” he has the audacity to say. “Just like I couldn’t tell you I knew we had a security breach when you told me what the computer was doing in my office.”

“So you knew what was happening and didn’t tell me?”

“There’s a procedure to—”

“I don’t give a damn about procedures, Mr. CEO, especially from the one who sets the rules I’ve suffered with.” The edginess in me results in me poking my finger at his chest, heat dashing up my arm. “Just tell me one thing. Am I free to leave?”

He looks down at my finger and then his gaze lifts, but there is no anger in his face. There is something else, something I can’t identify. “I got you cleared, but—”

Relief is instant, and I cut him off. “That’s all the talking you need to do.” I try to turn away, intending to gather my things, but he shackles my wrist, more heat ripping up my arm and over my chest.

“Let go,” I snarl, hating a man I barely know who has put me through hell. It’s like I’m a masochist. Why else would I be drawn to yet another powerful asshole?

His lips thin, and I wish I didn’t notice how sensual and perfect they are. “We have to talk.”

“No,” I assure him. “We do not.”

“We’re going to talk.”

“You aren’t my boss anymore, which translates to the end of all conversation.”

His eyes glint hard steel. “What does that mean, I’m not your boss anymore?”

“I quit. Find someone else to treat like crap.”

“I had no choice—”

“There’s always a choice. I just want out of here.”

“You’ll regret this later.”

“I’ll take that risk.”

“You’ve had a rough twenty-four hours, Ms. Miller. You aren’t thinking straight.”

I all but growl at him. “Let me guess. I’m a woman and my emotions must be controlling me.”

“Because you’re human.”

“Why do you even care if I stay?” I demand, and I don’t know how or why, but the air around us shifts and thickens.

“Because I do.”

“You don’t even know me.”

“I want to know you.”

I swallow hard. “Well, I’m sure you’ll know every piece of my DNA after seven hours of being trapped here. Goal achieved.”

“Ms. Miller—”

“Stop with the Ms. Miller. I’m not your damn employee anymore. Let go of me.”

He doesn’t let go. His gaze flickers to my mouth, then lifts. “I won’t let you quit.”

“Call Natalie. I’m sure she’ll come back.”

He tugs me close, his hard body aligned with mine, and I can barely breathe. “What do you know of Ms. Duncan?”

“If you mean Natalie, she was in HR when I was.”

“There were circumstances.”

“Yeah. I get that. Believe me, I get it.”

“No. You don’t. She has nothing to do with you or us.”

Us? What does he mean, us? And why is my hand on his chest? Why can’t I move it? “I’m done. Let me go.”

“You won’t change your mind about quitting?”

“No.”

His fingers tangle into my hair, dragging me closer. “Then why would I let you go?”

Both of my hands have now found the wall of his chest, and I intend to push him away, but I just … don’t. “What are you doing?”

“What do you think I’m doing? Finding out if you taste as good as I think you do.” And then his lips are on mine, his tongue licking seductively into my mouth, sending erotic sensations spiraling through my body. I tell myself this is insanity. To push away. We barely know each other. I don’t even like him. Except I know it’s a lie. I know that in the short time we’ve known each other, every shared moment, every mutual look, every touch and tangled word exchange, has been leading to this.

Another lick of his tongue and I am unable to hold back a moan or the desperate need to be closer to him. I arch forward, desperate to feel him against me. Desperate to have him naked and touching me. Me touching him. Desperate to be naked and have him inside me. He is a drug, a wicked, wonderful drug that will finally be the end of my sanity if I allow him to be.

That idea sends a burst of panic and adrenaline through me, and I shove at his chest. “Stop. We can’t.”

His mouth leaves mine, and I am one part relief, one part painful need to pull him back. “Why?” he demands, and his voice is rough, affected.

“You’re my boss.”

“You quit.”

“Right. Which means I leave now.”

“You want to leave?”

No. “Yes.”

His eyes darken to deep pools of green fire and stormy torment, telling me he knows this is a mistake. He knows. I know. Why are we still here? “Tell me you really mean that and I’ll let you go,” he vows. “But just know this: If you stay, I absolutely will fuck you senseless and then do it again.”

“I … you … we can’t …”

“We can. I’m going to kiss you now, Kali.”

“Kali?” I whisper, unbelievably aroused by my name on his lips.

“Yes. Kali.” And then he is kissing me, his tongue caressing into my mouth, seeming to touch every intimate part of my body, stroking deep, and burning through me. Sensations roll through me, teasing my senses, torturing me with how much I want him and how wrong I know this is. But then his hand caresses my backside, pulling me closer, hard against his hips, his thick erection pressed to my belly, and I can’t remember why exactly it’s wrong. I am lost. Lost in him. Lost in what I feel, and I don’t want to let anything else in. Not the past. Not the last few hours. I don’t care anymore.

I wrap my arms around his neck, crushing my breasts to his chest, and gasp as he tears his mouth from mine. Then he is staring at me, searching my face for something I don’t understand. And I don’t know what he sees, or what he finds, but his eyes soften, and he strokes the hair from my face. “I was right. One kiss isn’t even close to enough.” His mouth comes down on mine again, and my fingers curl into the fabric of his shirt, holding on to him, willing him not to stop. This time the kiss is deeper, a dark demand that I answer willingly, eagerly, my tongue stroking against his.

Suddenly his fingers wrap my waist and he lifts me, setting me down on the wooden dining room table, spreading my legs to step between them.

“What are you doing?”

He reaches up and tugs on the front zipper of my dress. “Undressing you.”

A moment of clarity comes to me, and I grab his hand. “You need to know this changes nothing. I’m still furious about today. I don’t even know if I like you.”

“But you want me. That’s a start.”

He tugs on my zipper and I don’t stop him, my hands going to the table, trying to stabilize myself, though I’m not sure that is possible. This man is shoving my bra down and ravishing my breasts with a hot inspection that makes my sex clench and my thighs ache.

“I …” I pant, and forget what I was going to say. He’s cupping my breasts, pressing them together, and stroking my nipples with his thumbs.

“You what?”

“I don’t know.”

He nudges me backward. “Let me try to figure it out,” he offers, lowering his head, his dark hair tickling my chin, his tongue flicking against my nipple, sending darts of pleasure through me.

I squeeze my eyes shut, fighting for sanity, but his mouth closes down over one of my nipples, sucking deeply, and I am arching my back, offering myself to him. Silently begging him for more. It’s just been so long, I tell myself. So very long since someone touched me like this. So long since I felt like a woman. This isn’t me radiating toward men who like to hurt me. This isn’t me torturing myself. It’s him torturing me in all the right ways.

My hands go to his hair, but he slips away, going down on a knee and caressing my dress up my thighs. “Now I’m going to officially apologize for what happened today,” he vows, his thumbs stroking the bare skin above my thigh highs, then whispering over my panties.

I barely recognize the sound that slides from my lips, but he likes it. He smiles, and it is a sexy, seductive promise of more of this wonderful, delicious something he is doing to me. Caving to pleasure, giving myself to him, I let my head drop backward, staring up at the ceiling without really seeing it. Not when he is shoving the silk of my panties aside and his fingers are stroking the wet center of my body, flicking my clit, sending waves of desire through me.

“Look at me, Kali,” he commands softly.

“No.” I can’t. I don’t know why. Or I do. I think he will see something I don’t want him to see. Something I don’t even understand.

“Look at me,” he orders more darkly.

“No.” I shake my head. “No.”

He rips my panties and I jerk up, straightening to stare down at him. “That’s more like it,” he declares, dipping two fingers inside me. “Stay upright or I’ll stop.”

“You are so unfair.” My lashes flutter, a dull throb deep in my sex expanding, tightening. “I don’t think I can.”

“You can.”

I am suddenly exposed, vulnerable in some unknown way I don’t want to be, and I blurt out, “We can’t do this.”

“We’re already doing it.” He licks my clit.

“Oh … I … oh.”

“Have you forgiven me yet?” His fingers stroke inside me, and the words echo over my sensitive flesh where I want his mouth again.

“No,” I gasp, and reflexively I squeeze his shoulders with my thighs and fight the urge to shove his head back down.

“I’ll keep trying, then.” And, thankfully, his mouth closes over my clit again, suckling deeply. My hips lift with the empty ache inside me that his fingers cannot satisfy. I ignore his command to stay upright, falling back on my hands. He tugs me closer, and somehow I’m lying on the hard surface of the table, my legs around his shoulders.

My hands go over my face, my breasts thrust in the air. He laps at me, licking and teasing, his fingers stroking, pumping, and sensations ripple through my body. I am close, so close to release, but every time I am on the edge, he seems to know, licking to the left or right. My nipples are tight balls of pain, and I reach up and caress them, doing what I have never dared with another man, stroking away the pain he will not. And still it is not enough.

“Please,” I beg. “I need … I need …”

He suckles deeply and pumps his fingers faster, harder, and I am there … I … am … there. My body tenses and buckles with a tight piercing sensation, a moment before a wave of absolute pleasure overwhelms me, stealing my breath. I lose time and my surroundings, gasping back to reality to realize my fingers are twined tightly in his hair, and I’m pretty sure I haven’t been gentle.

I yank my hand back and look to my left, trying to hide my face, trying to process what has just happened. He maneuvers my legs to the side and then his hand slides under me, lifting me, pulling me to a sitting position, where I can’t hide from the depth of his intense stare, which is so much more. It is as if he sees all my broken pieces I wanted to believe no longer exist. It is a daunting thought, and embarrassment swims like shards of glass inside me, pricking already raw places. I have become his conquest, of which I am certain he has many.

I turn my face to the left again, but he cups my cheeks, forcing my gaze to his. “What’s wrong?”

“You’re my boss. Or ex-boss. That’s what’s wrong.”

“Right now I’m Damion. Just a man. A man who wants to be inside you more than he wants to breathe.” His fingers trail down my shoulder, teasing my skin, lower, until he’s teasing my nipple, touching me freely.

Damion, I whisper in my mind, shivering with the sensual way he is touching me. But I am back inside my own head, too aware of how nearly naked I am in every sense of the word, too aware to not see that he is not. And for a moment I want to run. I want to get away and hide, and this makes me furious with myself. No more running. No more hiding. I shove aside weakness and force myself to think clearly, to claim what I want.

My hand goes to his hip, my courage growing. This is a hotel fling and he wants to fuck me. I want to fuck him, too. I am not holding back. I am not going to romanticize what isn’t romantic. I’m going to enjoy this and then go back to my real life, which does not include this place or this man. I find his zipper, and my fingers trace the hard ridge of his erection.

He groans and I am empowered, hungry for him, urgent to feel his need match mine. To know he burns to be inside me the way I burn to have him there. My eyes lift to his, and I let him see what I feel. I let him see the lust and demand. And it’s like he snaps. Or we snap. Like my action has opened a door and suddenly we are set free.

His mouth comes down on mine, and he tastes wild, hungry. Urgent. I am urgent, too, bordering on lost again. So close to oblivion. So close to having him inside me. I barely register the moment he unbuttons his slacks. Or the moment my hand slides into his pants, but I remember wrapping his shaft, moaning as my fingers spread the silky wet heat pooling at the tip. And then his cell phone rings and it’s like a megaphone.

We both freeze, and he curses, burying his face in my neck. “Mother of Jesus, shoot me now.” He reaches into his pocket and glances at the number. “Fuck.” A pretty good indicator he has to take the call, and he punches the answer button. “Yeah, Terrance, what?”

I know it’s naughty and wicked, but I stroke his cock while he’s trying to talk, feeling the tension of his barely controlled arousal enveloping him as he says, “I’ll be right there.” He ends the call and drops his phone on the table, reaching for my hand. “Stop.” He drags my hand to his chest and sounds pained as he says, “As badly as I want to fuck you right now, I won’t do it with one foot out the door. Not like this.”

“I don’t care. Please—”

He kisses me, dipping his tongue into my mouth, a sweet, sensual caress that leaves me breathless, before he says, “Taste that. That’s you on my lips, and it’s the one thing that will make the meeting I have to go to tolerable.”

“You have to go?”

“Yes. I’ll be back. Soon. I promise.” He leans away from me, running a hand through his dark hair and then grimacing as he zips his pants.

I squeeze my thighs together, hugging myself, trying to cover my nearly naked body. And all of a sudden a waterfall of emotions crashes over me, none of which I recognize. Mostly I am confused. It’s the only emotion I can truly name.

He adjusts his shirt and steps close to me, stroking my hair behind my ear. “This won’t take long. Don’t leave.” His phone starts to ring again and he grimaces, reaching for it. “I have to go.”

“I know. You have a job.” But I don’t, and it’s then that I realize those emotions I am feeling are the aftermath of the past two days.

“We’ll talk when I get back.” He brushes his lips over mine and it’s a bittersweet last kiss, at least for me, before he’s headed to the door and gone.

Talk or fuck? I want to call after him. Because talking doesn’t work for me. Talking only upsets me. The door shuts and I stare at it, fighting a stupid pinching sensation in my eyes. Damn it, why do I want to cry? Why? But I know why. The idea of sitting here and waiting for him to come back and finish what we started just feels … bad. As if I’ve gone from a suspect to a bimbo. If this place and I weren’t done before, we are now. I’m not staying. I slide off the table. We’re done. My boss and I are done.

I need to get out of here so I can have a meltdown, pull myself together, and start over once again tomorrow.

Part Six

A view from inside…

The instant I am in my rental car and the engine is on, the past two days officially crash in on me, and the waterfall flows. I cry like I have not cried since “the incident,” and the concrete blocks crushing my shoulders are many. Losing my dream job, starting a new one, being treated as a criminal, and, the worst of all, almost calling my father and knowing how he would have treated me. Then there is Damion. I try to think of what happened between us as a mutual escape, but I am left feeling like his conquest. Like I lost myself all over again. I don’t like it. Not one little bit.

By the time I pull up to my hotel, I’ve weathered the short, vicious storm and have started to compartmentalize what I’m feeling. I’ll find another job. I’ll work two jobs if I have to, and I will get to the other side of this. I’ll start a blog and create new reporting opportunities no one else can give me. I’ll find ways to make my dreams come true. A year from today, I vow, I’ll look back at all of this and laugh.

Feeling renewed, I ditch my work clothes for sweats and will myself to stop thinking about my cell phone, which isn’t ringing. “Proof you were nothing but an easy diversion for Mr. Damion Ward,” I murmur, settling onto the bed with my computer. The man seemed eager to confirm I’d quit, as if he wanted me to remember it was my decision and not his. Now I wonder if I didn’t do exactly what he wanted. But anger is good. Anger got me here. Anger will get me beyond here.

Well, that and my old-faithful feel-good drug: Chinese food, which I ate a lot of after Kent and I broke up, and not because I missed Kent. Because I’d lost myself. My dignity. My confidence. It took me six months after what I think of as “the incident” to look objectively at what happened. To see it and myself clearly. Kent tried to hurt me. And he did. But it was my father who cut me open and bled me dry. It was my father who made me feel that I wasn’t a real woman. That I was inadequate. And I believed him.

After an Internet search, I order enough food to feed an army and start my online job search. An hour later, I still have no food and I’m about to dial and check on it when a knock sounds on the door. “Thank goodness,” I mutter, heading to answer it and deciding this will not be a pity-party dinner. This is a celebration. I almost had sex with Damion Ward, who, despite being a jerk, is one hell of a man. And not once had I thought that I wasn’t good enough or pretty enough or whatever else I spent six months beating myself up with after “the incident.”

“Who is it?” I ask, being safe before flipping the lock.

“Damion.”

My heart thunders in my chest at the deep, deliciously male sound of his voice, and my emotions are immediately bouncing all over the place. This man gets to me. Really, really gets down deep inside me and stirs something raw and untouched, which I doubt is about him as much as about my past. Still, he is the one who has triggered this emotion in me, which means he can cut me in a way that only losing my mother and being crushed by my father have up to this point. I’m not sure I would survive that right now. Not this soon after … everything.

“Go away,” I call out.

“Not a chance.”

My elation and my fear over his reply collide, and I am weak in the knees. “How did you find me?”

“Your employment file.”

After what he put me through today, that hits a raw nerve. I unlock the door and yank it open. “You can’t do that. I have a right to privacy.”

“I can and I did,” he says, advancing on me. His hands come down on my shoulders, branding me, burning me alive as he walks us in to the room and once again kicks the door shut. “You were supposed to wait for me.”

“I never agreed to wait for you,” I counter, stepping backward and darting away from him, moving behind the kitchen counter, putting space and structure between us. “And I’m not your employee. You have no right to come here.”

“Why wouldn’t you wait for me?”

“We had our moment,” I say, trying to sound flippant. “It passed.”

“A moment?” he asks drily. “Is that what we had? Because I’m pretty sure it was a lot more than a moment.”

My brow crinkles. “I wasn’t being literal.”

“Neither was I.” He glances around the room and his jaw flexes. “Why are you staying in this place?”

“Why are you here?”

A knock sounds on the door. He arches his brow. “Expecting someone that’s not me?”

“Dinner.”

He turns to the door and opens it. I bury my face in my hand as he pays for my food. What is happening? What the heck is happening? I try to think, to process, but my heart is beating as wildly as a ten-year-old with a new drum set.

The door shuts, and my gaze jerks up to find Damion approaching the cubbyhole of a kitchen area where I’m standing. “Dinner is served,” he announces, claiming a bar stool and opening the delivery bag. “You got anything to drink in that fridge over there?”

I flatten both hands on the counter, lean on the surface; the goal this time, instead of being flippant, is to look more stable than I feel. “What are you doing, Damion?”

His hand stills on one of the two containers, eyes narrowing on mine. “Damion?”

I swallow the cotton in my throat. “What do you want me to call you? Mr. Ward? I don’t work for you anymore.”

“Damion. I want you to call me Damion.” And the way he says it, all deep and sandpaper-rough, sends my temperature soaring. I do not want my temperature to soar.

“What are we doing?” I ask. “What are we doing?”

“Eating dinner.” He balls the plastic bag and tosses it at my trash, as nonchalant as an afternoon at the ballpark. “And since you ordered enough for an army, I won’t feel guilty for joining you. I haven’t eaten since early this morning.”

“I tend to get carried away with Chinese food,” I explain, as if I need a reason for ordering what I ordered. I don’t.

“Works for me,” he approves, loosening his tie. “I’m famished.”

There is no missing the sensual undertone, and I quickly turn away to open the fridge, trying to hide the rush of blood to my cheeks. I grab two sodas to calm my nerves. What is happening? I inhale a discreet breath and turn and set the cans on the counter. “All I have is diet.”

His lips quirk. “I like that you blush easily,” he says, not so discreetly letting me know that I did not hide my reaction to his flirtatious remark. He pats the seat next to him. “Come sit.”

How am I going to sit next to him and not combust?

That brow of his arches. “Intimidated?”

“Yes,” I say, deciding that hiding anything from this man is impossible. So why try? “Now you intimidate me.”

He reaches over the counter and takes my hand, pulling me around to stand beside him. “Well, news flash, sweetheart. I feel the same.”

I laugh in disbelief, trying to suppress a memory of his mouth on my nipple. “I don’t intimidate you. You’re a powerful CEO, with money, success, and so many women chasing you that your door staff thought I was one of them.”

He turns toward me, hitting me with the full force of his pale-green eyes. “If only they knew that you are the one running away.”

He might as well have taken a hammer to the raw nerves he’s hit. “I’m not running from anything.”

His hands go to my waist as they had earlier, and he lifts me and sets me on the stool. “Yes. You are. But you can’t run fast enough. That’s a lesson you still have to learn.”

I blink at him, not sure if he’s talking about me running from him or about something else. I want to ask, but his hands fall away and I am left cold and confused while he loosens his tie and then opens both of the take-out containers. “One noodle and chicken. One beef and rice.” He glances over at me. “I approve.”

“Why are you here?”

“Because you’re here.” He hands me a plastic fork and softens his voice. “Let’s eat, Kali.”

I wet my lips, and his eyes follow the action. I am suddenly hot and bothered and ready to reach over and yank his tie the rest of the way off. Flushing again, I turn away quickly, his soft laughter telling me once more that I am busted.

I jab the fork into the center of a piece of chicken, then reach for my drink and open it, searching my mind for a topic that will not make me overheat. He pops his can and changes the subject. “I saw your full résumé today. You’ve been at the reporting thing since college.”

I nod, picking at the food. “It’s been a passion for as long as I can remember.”

“Then why come to Vegas?”

“I was stuck doing fluff stories. I wanted to do grittier, darker stuff. I felt I’d paid my dues, and so did the folks who hired me here. Coming to Vegas was supposed to be my ticket into the mainstream.”

He reaches over and takes a bite from the container in front of me, then shoves his closer to me. “Try it. It’s good.”

I take a bite and he watches me. I watch him. And I think … I think he wants to kiss me. I know I want to kiss him. I thought this was a fast little fling, but he’s here and it feels like more. Like sharing this meal is somehow more intimate than what happened earlier.

“What else did you leave in Texas, Kali?”

The question is like a splash of ice water. “Nothing.”

“What about family and friends?”

“My best friend just moved out of state.” I scoot food around with my fork. “My father is still in Texas.”

“And what did he think about you leaving?”

I cut him a sideways look. “Nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“He’s pretty busy running his law firm.”

“What kind of law?”

“Mostly corporate takeover kind of stuff.”

He lifts his drink. “Dirty business,” he says, taking a swig and setting the can down. “Takes a certain kind of person to stomach that.”

“My father stomachs it just fine.” But it makes me curious about how Damion landed his job. “Didn’t you do some kind of consulting before you took this job?”

“Reading up on me, are you?”

“I wanted to be prepared for my first day at work.”

“Another reason why hiring you was a good decision. I worked as a business consultant, and I have a knack for finding snakes in the grass.”

“Meaning what?”

“Inappropriate use of funds, among other things. It goes beyond experience and education for me both now and then. It’s like how asking questions is inbred in you. I go into an operation, and a gut feeling leads me to the places and problems I need to discover. And, let me tell you, the many ways this operation was being abused was mind-blowing. Another year and the mob would have owned it.”

“But the media—”

“Painted me as cutthroat. I know and I don’t care. I did what I had to in order to get the mob out of our operation, and that meant taking the public blows myself.”

“What made you stay in the job?”

“Stay? Who says I’m staying? I just never felt that the operation was ready for me to leave, and the board thought it was better to bring me on full time.”

“So you plan to leave.”

“When the time is right.”

“Which is when?”

“I’ll know when.” He sets his fork down and leans an elbow on the bar, facing me fully again. “What about your mother?” he asks, changing the subject again. “Or siblings? What does everyone else think about your move?”

“No siblings, and …” I hesitate, fighting the clawing sensation in my chest as I go on, “And my mother died in a car accident three years ago. What about your family?”

“And some days that three years feels like an eternity and others like yesterday. I get it. My mom died of an aneurysm when I was seventeen. It’s not easy, but it gets easier. I know you don’t believe me, but it does.”

“I do. I know. And it is.” I cut my gaze and, damn it, my eyes are prickling again. I need this day to be over.

Now Damion is standing, turning my stool toward him, his hands on the arms, trapping me between him and the chair. “Today wasn’t normal procedure. It’s our third breach in ninety days, and we’ve been looking into potential internal problems. Not at you. You weren’t with us long enough to be a part of this. Two things you need to know: Everyone was locked down in some way, shape, or form today, and not just to be investigated. For safety reasons. I personally told security that you were on lockdown against your wishes, for your protection. I would never make you look bad. Never. How can I expect you to have my back if I don’t have yours?”

Have my back? No one has my back. Suddenly I feel shallow and wrong for my reaction. “I’m sorry. It just … it made me feel … bad. It made me feel bad.”

“I know.” He repeats what is becoming welcome and familiar, stroking my hair behind my ear as he adds, “And I wanted to call you, but silence is part of the process I would have prepared you for had you been with me longer than a day.” He lifts me off the chair and puts me down, stepping behind me, his hands on my waist, his mouth lowering to my ear. “Pack your things. You aren’t staying here.”

I turn in his arms.” What?”

“You aren’t staying in this rattrap.”

I push away from him. “I’m not a charity case who needs your money, Damion. I’m staying here.”

“You’re staying at Vantage as part of your employment package.”

“I quit.”

“I didn’t accept your resignation.”

“Yes, you did.”

“No, I didn’t. Every reason I hired you still exists. Nothing has changed.”

“Yes, it has.” My lips tighten, and so does my voice. “We changed. We crossed lines. And you might be okay with that, but I’m not.”

He scrubs a hand through his hair, leaving it a dark, rumpled, sexy mess. “You think what happened between us was just how I operate?” He makes a frustrated sound and looks at the ceiling, then at me. “It’s not. I don’t fuck my staff, literally or otherwise. I damn sure don’t fuck my secretary. But we happened, and I have no intention of you leaving because of it, and if that means I have to drag you back to the casino or pay this dump a fortune to kick you out, I will.”

I gape. “What? That would be such an asshole thing to do.”

“No. The asshole thing I did was making you feel like this. I let myself touch you. I let myself go there. And now you think you have no job. Or that you have to please me to work at the casino. That is what makes me an asshole.” He moves toward me but steps around me and actually starts to gather my things and put them in my suitcase.

I rush toward where he’s leaning over the suitcase and grab his arm. “Stop. Stop now.”

He straightens and stares down at me. “One way or another, you’re coming with me.”

I ignore his sudden caveman mentality. “I’ll come to work, but I’m staying here.”

“No, you’re not. And you’re smarter than that. You’re clearly tight on money. Every day the hotel pays for your housing is a day you keep money in your pocket.”

He’s right, but I am not fully swayed. “What will the staff think? I’m not going to be looked at like some bimbo.”

“We have sixty staff members living on site, including me, and all their stays are included in their compensation packages. You’ll be in the same room you were in today, on the executive floor. On that level the camera feed is seen by only Terrance and me. Your life is completely private. Your bills are paid. This is a smart thing to do.”

“What about …”

“I made a mistake. I know that. I’m man enough to fix it.”

Man enough to fix “it.” I’m not fully sure what he means. I’m not even sure I want him to fix “it.” But he’s right. What he’s offering is a smart move for me. “Okay. I’ll do it.”

Approval washes over his handsome face. “What can I do to help you pack?”

“The stuff in the fridge. I want to take it. The food, that is. The plates and things belong to the hotel.”

“Where are the rest of your belongings?”

“The moving company will hold all of it for a month with no extra fees. That gives me time to figure some things out.”

He studies me for a long moment, and I have a sense he wants to tell me he will figure it out for me but knows I won’t be pleased. “I’ll get the kitchen stuff,” he finally says, and turns away.

A few minutes later, he loads my car with my items and then glances from his BMW to my compact rental, grimacing as he holds the driver’s side open for me. “This car—”

“Is all I need.” And somehow I have rested my hand on his chest. I start to pull it back when his hand comes over mine and holds it over his thundering heart.

“You aren’t alone in a strange city anymore.”

I should remind him we barely know each other. Tell him I am not his responsibility. But I don’t. I let myself live in the fairy-tale moment. “Thank you.”

His eyes narrow slightly, and for some reason I think he does not approve of my reply. His hand releases mine and he backs away, almost as if he’s just pulled down a curtain. “We should go.”

I slide into the vehicle and, without hesitation, he shuts me inside, with him on the outside.

* * *

There is a subtle band of tension humming around us as we exit our vehicles in the private tenants’ area and head to the elevator. Once we are inside the lift, Damion gives me an awkward tour-guide recounting of the amenities I have at my disposal, and I want to scream at him to stop halfway through his speech.

Nerves flutter in my stomach the instant we arrive on my floor, and once we are at my door, he hands me a key, and I do not miss the way he avoids touching me. I wonder if he sees the irony of telling me I am not alone and now acting as if I am the plague.

I swipe the card in the door and hold it open as he maneuvers my bags inside. He’s back in the hall before I can blink, leaning a hand on the doorjamb by my head, shadows swimming in his eyes. “I’m not going to roll your bags inside or I won’t leave.”

The tormented confession punches me in the gut and I reach for his face, only to have him capture my wrist. “I’ve spent hours on end, it feels like, wanting you today,” he confesses. “I almost had you, too. I’m on the edge, and if you touch me, I will not do what’s right tonight and walk away.” He motions to his left. “I’m in the suite at the very end of the hall if you need anything—30011 by phone.”

We crossed lines, I’d told him. I’m man enough to fix it, he’d said. He’s giving me what I asked for. Why does that bother me?

He drops my wrist, setting me free. “Good night, Kali.” And then he turns and walks down the hall. Holding my breath, my nails curled into my palms, I watch him go. I don’t move. When he’s at his door, he pauses, and I will him to turn and come back. He doesn’t. We both go into our rooms alone.

Part Seven

The contract…

I lie in bed, aching to be with Damion and thinking of every instant before and after our being here in this room. I replay every touch, every comment, every look. But of all the things my mind could fixate on, it does not go to those delicious and wonderful erotic moments but to his generic claim that I’m running from something. I am not running. I am choosing to be happy. I have decided that moving away from a veil casting unhappiness is smart.

Unable to stop myself, I grab my cell from the nightstand and type: I am not running from anything.

And obviously you aren’t sleeping, either.

I glance at the time on the digital clock by the bed—1:00 A.M. Sorry. Did I wake you?

No. I wasn’t asleep, either.

Why? I type before I can stop myself.

I have a lot on my mind.

Me, too.

Well, I hear your boss is a bear when he doesn’t sleep.

I hear your new secretary is, too. Poor everyone else.

Yes. Poor everyone else. Good night, Kali.

Good night, Damion.

I stare at my phone, thinking of how short our exchange was. He didn’t welcome conversation. He’s trying to do what is right. He’s trying get us back to where we started. Why am I wishing we were back where we stopped? Because he’s gorgeous and you’re human, I remind myself. But you also are not stupid. You need this job, not another orgasm.

* * *

I wake on my back to a beam of bright sunlight, my cell cradled to my chest, and trying to process why the eighties’ tune “Jesse’s Girl” is playing in my head. I blink and realize it’s the alarm and roll over to turn it off. I do not let myself cave to the temptation of reading the text exchange with Damion again. I can’t overanalyze it or I will make myself crazy. I keep my mind on the job and I get more excited by the minute. I am not just a secretary. I’m working directly with the CEO of a massive casino operation. There is no telling what I will learn and do in this role. If I end up in journalism later, I will be a better reporter for this, too. If I don’t, it’s because this job will lead me to better places.

I’m slipping on a pair of black strappy shoes to complement my pale-blue skirt and jacket when the room phone rings. Nerves flutter in my stomach at the certainty that it will be Damion—or, rather, “Mr. Ward”—and I grab the receiver with the hope that this call will usher us into a good day.

“Morning, Kali! This is Maggie.” Her perky-sounding voice fills me with disappointment.

“Morning.”

“Can you stop by my office before you start to work?”

Unease rolls through me, though she seems so pleasant I can’t believe anything is wrong. In fact, it’s logical that I need paperwork to stay here. “Oh, yes, sure.”

A few minutes later, I walk in to HR to have the receptionist greet me with a friendly smile instead of a cold shoulder. Apparently—and uncomfortably so—I’m now a member of the Mr. Ward victim club, without even joining. I don’t like the idea, and the more I think about Natalie, the more wrong her story feels, but I plan on asking about her.

When I enter Maggie’s office, I find her in an emerald dress that complements her flaming red hair. “Hi there.” She waves me to a seat. “Get comfy.”

I settle across from her and remember the question I don’t want to forget. “Natalie. Mr. Ward’s ex-secretary,” I say, and Maggie’s face transforms into hard lines and tension.

“What about her?” she asks tightly.

“She was insistent on getting some personal things from her desk. If I find them, can I bring them to you to give to her?”

She shifts in her chair. “Please tell me she didn’t contact you.”

“No. I talked to her yesterday here in the lobby.”

Her hand goes to her chest. “Good. If she does try to talk to you, please get in touch with Terrance or me immediately. Your work space should be clean of all her belongings, but anything you might stumble upon goes to Terrance first, then to myself if he deems it appropriate.”

“To Terrance? She said she’s just missing family photos.”

Maggie purses her lips. “I can’t discuss details about Natalie with you, but she’s considered a security risk, and anything she might want to take out of the building must be cleared first.”

I remember Damion mentioning internal security threats, and the reporter in me looks for a question the HR person in Maggie will answer. I decide on a question that isn’t a question at all. “I can’t imagine getting angry enough over a job to lash out, no matter what the circumstances.”

She grimaces. “If that were the only problem. I feel bad because I hired her. Which is why my news for you is bittersweet: You, my dear, are being offered a full-time job in the PR department with benefits and a pay increase. I, in turn, have the pressure of finding Mr. Ward a truly stellar employee all over again.”

Feeling shell-shocked, I accept the letter and confirm the details. For a moment, I just stare at it. In the next, emotions ranging from anger to embarrassment to utter fury explode inside me and I push to my feet. “Can you excuse me for a few minutes? I need to take care of one small detail before I accept.”

“Oh, yes. Of course. How long—”

I turn, already exiting her office, my steps long and sure, my temper barely contained. The ride in the elevator is eternal, but I find plenty to fill the space. Damion doesn’t want to fix things for me. He wants to cover his butt and fix things for him. Well, he’s about to find out that I am not some puppy dog he can order under a table. He gave me a job. I’m not going to be one of who knows how many PR reps in a giant cubicle room. I could have had that in Texas.

By the time I exit the elevator onto the executive floor, I am two notches hotter and about to explode. Dana’s eyes light up when she sees me, but I don’t stop walking to greet her. “Is he in his office?”

“Yes,” she calls behind me.

Entering the lobby area, I find Damion’s door open and I charge right in. Terrance is seated across from him and, twisting in his chair, takes one look at me and has the sense to stand up. He murmurs something to Damion I can’t hear and then moves toward me.

“Kali,” he says, with a nod at my approach.

“What happened to ‘Ms. Miller’?”

If I intend to throw him for a loop by referencing his formality the day before, it does not work. “Apparently,” he replies, “she hasn’t had her coffee,” and smartly keeps walking, pulling the door shut behind him.

Damion arches his brow. “Problem, Ms. Miller?”

“Yes,” I say, closing the distance between us and rounding the desk. He rolls his chair around to face me, and damn him for looking like sin itself in his black suit and a pale-green tie that matches his eyes. Eyes he has focused on me, not on the letter, as I smack it down on the desk and add, “This is the problem. My transfer with the condolence raise meant to make cubicle hell survivable.”

“You’re mad about a raise?”

“You made an employee a conquest, and you’re shoving me under a rug to try to cover your own ass.” And it hurts. I hate that it hurts. I hate all the old feelings it stirs and how I can almost hear my father’s voice in my head saying horrible things to me. “You shouldn’t have wasted my time to cover your own ass.” I try to move away.

He rolls farther toward me and cages me so that I’m against the desk, his hands on either side of me. “First, you are not a conquest. Not even close. I work seventy hours a week, and the last thing on my mind is a notch on my bedpost, and the last thing I do is mix business with pleasure. I take my work too seriously for that. Second, what happened between us happened after you quit. If I was trying to make what happened between us go away, I would have let you walk away.”

He’s right. He could have let me go. “Then why didn’t you?”

“I told you, my gut feelings are everything. And everything inside me told me to go after you, even though logic said I was treading on dangerous ground. I still want you, Kali. I want to lick you. I want to touch you. I want to set you on the desk, rip your panties off, and fuck you. But that can’t happen when you’re my employee. And that means you being in another department is a smart move for both of us.”

Heat spreads through me at his graphic words, burning me inside out, slicking my thighs, but confusion and anger burn in me, too. He is sending confusing messages. He wants me. He can’t have me. I can’t have him. “So you are making a business decision.”

“Yes. I’m trying to give you a place where you feel your job has no relationship with me.”

“And you are not tempted to cross any more lines.”

“Yes. Exactly.”

It’s also exactly what I didn’t want to hear. “So because you still want me, I get a job, and you get to have the job you want.”

His hands go to my waist. “No. You aren’t running.”

“I am not running. Stop saying that. You don’t even know me.”

“That’s the point. I want to know you, Kali. We need to talk this through. I sincerely thought you’d be happier in the press department.”

“No, I will not be happier. You would have found that out had you asked me.”

He sighs. “You couldn’t even say the word ‘secretary’ yesterday.”

“Because I was in shock after losing my dream job. I’m over it. I’m ready to work, but I risked everything when I left Texas to get away from a bullpen-style room filled with eager reporters. I’m not going back to that. If I can’t do what I envisioned I could do, I want to be where there is opportunity and I can build a future. Where I feel like I have an identity and my skills can make a difference.”

“And you think working with me will do that?”

“Don’t you?”

His fingers flex on my hips, and for a moment his thumbs stroke back and forth. “Okay, Kali. Ms. Miller.” He rolls his chair back and his hands fall away from me. “You’re staying with me.”

With him. Relief washes over me. “Thank you.”

“See if you still feel that way in a few days from now. I’ll let Maggie know about the changes.”

“Why is she Maggie and I’m Ms. Miller?”

“Because she’s expressed a dislike for formality, and she and I are not you and me. If we are going to work this closely together, we have to go back to formality and stay there.”

“Translation,” I say. “No …”

“Licking, touching, or fucking,” he supplies. “Nor will we talk about it again. You have my word. Everything from this point forward is about the job.”

A pang of disappointment fills me and I shove it aside. “Thank you, Mr. Ward, for the clarification.” And the promise of many thigh-squeezing, miserable moments. But I will prevail. My gut tells me this is where I belong.

“Just making sure we both know the rules,” he replies.

“I guess now we’re clear.”

“I guess we are,” he murmurs softly, and there is an undercurrent to his words, a heat to his eyes that holds me captive. The air is suddenly crackling with the possibilities we never explored. With the desire we still share for each other. I want to press myself to him and beg him to fuck me and get it out of our systems.

Abruptly, it seems, his phone rings, a magnified sound that nearly makes me jump. Damion shakes his head, running a hand over his face. “That’s our time-out buzzer. Let’s hope we don’t need it often.” He rolls to the desk and his shoulder brushes my leg, and it is like an electric shock wave shooting straight to my sex.

His gaze lifts to mine, barely banked passion in its depths. “Correction,” he says softly. “We most definitely are going to need a lot of time-outs.” He answers the call.

I start to leave, but he motions me to stay.

“Yes, I have a new assistant handling the coordination,” Damion replies to something his caller has said. “We’re getting things together. I’ll have my new assistant, Ms. Miller, call you back with the confirmation.” He hangs up the phone and reaches for the offer letter and a pen, scribbling something on it. “This will make things easy.” He turns the paper around for me to see. “Sign it and initial by my changes. Call Maggie and tell her you need her to pick it up and get you online officially this time.”

I glance at the paperwork and see that the title has changed but nothing else. “My pay—”

“You can keep the raise.”

“No, I—”

“Yes. Don’t argue. I’m the boss. Remember?”

“Yes, but—”

“Boss, Ms. Miller,” he says, tapping the pen to his chest. “That’s me. You do what I say. And I have a feeling I’m going to have to remind you often.” He glances at the silver watch on his wrist. “I have a Skype call in five minutes. Text me your business email when you get it live.” He opens a drawer and pulls out a folder, offering it to me. “This is the information on my pet project, a charity poker tournament here at the casino the weekend after next, benefiting a local shelter. Supposedly it’s completely in order. At this point, I do not want to trust that anything that was supposed to be done is really done. When you have your email, I’ll get you the spreadsheet to go with the file.”

His phone rings again and he reaches for it. Our conversation is over, but I don’t feel dismissed. I feel as if I’ve just arrived, and I’m not sure if it’s about the job or the man, or both. I have a feeling I’ll be finding out sooner rather than later.

Part Eight

Mr. Ward…

Maggie shows up at my desk as I hang up with my cell provider, and I take the opportunity to give her my new local number for the files. After jotting it down in a file she’s holding, she gives me a keen inspection. “So you’re staying in this job?”

I nod. “Yes.”

“You didn’t want the other job?”

“No.”

She frowns. “You do know I’m being nosy and you aren’t cooperating, don’t you?”

I laugh. “Yes.”

She looks aghast. “Give me a pebble.”

“He thought I wanted to be in the press department. He was wrong, and now all is well.”

She lets out a blast of air. “Well, at least I don’t have to find a new secretary for him. He’s not easy to please.”

I grin. “That’s nice to hear.”

“You’re officially perfect for him,” she declares. “Most people would freak out when I said that and get nervous about pleasing him.”

“But not Ms. Miller,” Damion says, appearing behind us.

We both turn and I barely contain an intake of breath at just how tall, dark, and hot he looks standing there. I swallow hard. “That’s because I’m used to men like you.”

Maggie chokes out laughter she tried to contain.

“Men like me,” he says. “What does that mean, exactly?”

“Powerful, career-oriented men, with big personalities and lots of demands.”

“That’s how you see me?” he asks.

“That’s how I see you,” Maggie inserts. “Add good-looking and that all the girls around here melt when he walks in to the room.”

Damion shoots her a hard look. “Don’t you have work to do?”

She smirks. “Yes, sir. I sure do.” She winks at me and heads toward the lobby.

“She isn’t afraid of you at all,” I comment.

“No. You two should get along well.”

“Considering we started out rocky yesterday, I’m pleased to agree.” I hold up my phone. “Let me text you my new phone number and my email.” I push send.

His phone beeps and he looks at it. “Got it.”

“I thought you had a Skype call?”

“Delayed another ten minutes.”

“Do I have a schedule for you I’m supposed to keep?”

“I’ll email it to you.”

My phone buzzes. “Kali?”

I answer on the speakerphone, and it’s Dana, sounding flustered.

“Yes?”

“Help. I’ve had twenty media calls inquiring about yesterday, and I don’t know what to do with them. My phone is going constantly.”

“Why are they coming to you, not to the press department?” Damion asks.

“Oh,” Dana says, sounding dumbstruck. “Mr. Ward. They say the press department isn’t taking the calls.”

“We’ll handle it,” Damion instructs, and glances at me. “Get with Jessica Michaels and find out what the hell is going on.”

“What’s the official statement?”

“A power surge and we shut down to prevent a breach. All is normal now.”

“Got it. I’ll handle it.”

“Like you handle me,” he says softly.

“I’m not sure that’s a true statement.”

His lips quirk. “Well, you’re all mine now, so I guess we’ll see soon.” He heads back into his office.

* * *

The press department swears to me they are taking the calls, but after I answer another ten calls, I’m at my wit’s end. When I discover we haven’t even sent out a press release, I think Damion has some issues in his PR department—namely the manager. I’m never going to get to the charity event if I’m taking these calls, so I decide to take action. I type up a press release.

For immediate release:

Due to a power surge, all three of the Vantage properties were shut down temporarily on November 5, 2013 to avoid vulnerability to security breaches. All operations are functioning as normal. No further statements will be given.

The minute I see Damion’s line blink, I know he’s off his call. When I knock on his door, he calls out for me to enter and turns from where he’s standing at the window.

“Can I get you to sign off on something?”

“Of course,” he agrees, and meets me in front of his desk, grabbing a pen and accepting the release from me. He glances up after reading it. “Is this from the PR department?”

“No. They haven’t sent one out, and we are still getting pounded, despite their claim that they’re taking the calls. I’d like permission to send this in a press wire myself, so I know it’s done and we can get on to other business.”

“Yes. Send it, and John Alexander is the VP over that division. Tell him he’s got a problem. Fix it or I will.”

“Gladly,” I say, and I can smell his cologne. He’s too close. I could reach out and touch him, and I want to. “I’ll get on this.”

His eyes glow with warmth … approval? Heat? “Thank you, Ms. Miller.”

“Just trying to please the boss.” It’s out before I can stop it, and blood rushes to my cheeks. Quickly, I turn away and head for the door.

“Ms. Miller,” he calls out before I escape.

“Yes?” I ask, glancing over my shoulder.

“Are you running now?”

“Is that what you want me to do?”

“No. I do not want you to run.”

“I’m not,” I say, and, damn it, my voice cracks. So much for handling my boss well. I swallow hard and exit the office, certain of only one thing: We are on time-out number two and it’s not even lunchtime.

* * *

Damion leaves for a meeting at noon, and I take the opportunity to run down the road to grab a take-out sandwich and go to the bank. When I return, Dana is still on her break, with the switchboard forwarding to the front desk. Or so I think.

I round my corner to find her at my desk, digging in my drawer. “What are you doing?”

She jerks her head up and turns redder than I did over my “please the boss” slip. “I needed a message pad. I’m sorry. I should have waited for you.”

A message pad? Unease roars through me. I walk toward her. “Did you find it?”

“No. No. I’ll go to the supply room downstairs. If you want, I can show you where it is?”

“No thanks. I want to eat and get to work.”

Still looking nervous, Dana rushes away and I settle at my desk. I decide to inhale my sandwich before I start calling the hundred or so names I need to confirm for the charity list, including a few from Hollywood. Any doubts I had that this job will help me grow to the next level are fading fast.

I haven’t even unwrapped my food yet when Damion walks back in. “Get Frank Meir from Chase Bank on the line. I’ll send you a virtual address book.” He’s past me and in his office that quickly.

I pull up my computer screen and find the number. Frank isn’t in. I punch the intercom. “He’s not in.”

“Tell them to get him on the damn phone.”

“Yes. Okay.” I redial and I am as insistent as Damion. Three minutes later, I hit the intercom again. “He’s on the line.”

He doesn’t answer me. The line lights up in his office and I know he has the call. From there, a whirlwind of calls erupts and one thing after another has to be juggled, but I like it. It’s high energy and kind of fun.

At about three o’clock, an FBI agent shows up, and he, Damion, and Terrance go behind closed doors. I give up on eating my lunch and start making my calls. The news is not good: Half the people have not truly been contacted, and a few say they sent in donations that I don’t see a record of and need accounting to research.

When Terrance and the detective finally exit the office, it’s after six and Dana has been gone an hour. I’m working through my list. “Still here?” Terrance asks, stopping at my desk as the FBI agent heads past.

“The charity event is coming up fast. I’m trying to make sure it goes well.”

“Ah, yes. That’s Damion’s pet project.”

“So I heard.”

“Once you get the players’ list confirmed, I’ll need a copy.”

“Yeah, well, that may be a few days. It’s not exactly been handled as we thought.”

He cringes and lowers his voice. “Does he know? Because tonight isn’t the night to tell him.”

“Does he know what?” Damion asks, appearing in the doorway, his hair a rumpled mess, his tie loose.

“I’ll leave this to you,” Terrance says, giving me a sympathetic look.

I roll around in my chair. “You look like shit.”

“Thank you, Ms. Miller. Now, what don’t I know?”

“I have it under control.”

“Kali,” he says softly. “Just tell me so I can get it the hell over with in one day.”

Kali. My heart squeezes. “The charity list you gave me—most weren’t scheduled at all.” I leave out the missing donations. No need to stress him more than he obviously is until I know there’s a real problem.

“Fuck.” He shoves his arm on the doorjamb over his head. “How many are confirmed?”

“Maybe twenty percent of the ones I called, but most of those I convinced to get involved. They hadn’t been contacted or they were told details would follow that never did.”

“How far into the list are you?”

“Halfway.”

“I’ll call the heavy hitters and then split the rest with you. If there is one thing I do today that matters,” he says, “it’s this. If you get someone on the fence about their involvement, put them on with me.”

After three calls that require his assistance—one of which is an arrogant jerk of a Hollywood star—Damion suggests I just pull up a chair at his desk and use his second line. I grab my sandwich and my work and head into his office.

“Have you eaten?” I ask.

“Not since breakfast.”

“Me, either. I picked up lunch but never ate.” I open the container. “It’s ham and cheese. You want half?”

He stares at me for a moment, and I wish I could read him but I can’t. “Yeah,” he finally says. “I’ll take half.” He stands up and walks to the fridge in the corner of the room and brings back two sodas. “I don’t have diet.”

“I looked over the press for the event last year,” I say as we dig into our halves of the sandwich. “It’s very generic. Can I write a piece about your personal attachment to this project, which I assume exists or it wouldn’t be your pet project?”

“Nothing personal about me ever. I don’t do press.”

“Oh. Okay. Because you got burned when you took over the casino?”

“Because I don’t. Talk to Dehlia at the shelter. She runs it. Find an angle with her. We funded five college scholarships for kids living in the shelter last year. Profile the program, though, not the kids. I don’t want them labeled homeless sympathy cases.”

There is something in the way he says this that has me narrowing my gaze on him, and the minute he realizes it, he reaches for the phone and punches in a number. Conversation over. I’ve hit a nerve. I don’t know which nerve, but I’m certain there are many reasons we are drawn to each other, one of which I’ve now confirmed in my mind: namely, that we are both bruised but not broken.

Another hour passes and Damion leans back in his chair. “That’s it for the night. Go home, Ms. Miller.”

I’m Ms. Miller again. The name is a wall, a way to put distance between us. “What about you? You’re exhausted.”

His lips quirk up. “And I look like shit, right?”

I don’t laugh. “You look tired. Let’s both leave.”

“No.” His expression darkens. “You should go up before me.”

I swallow hard. “Oh.” I push to my feet.

He stands, too. “If I ride up with you, everything we tried to achieve will be destroyed.”

A wave of unexpected emotion rushes over me and I lower my head, letting my eyes shut. I want him to come upstairs with me. I want to know him, to understand what his bruises are.

“Kali,” he murmurs softly.

I inhale and force my gaze to his. “Good night, Mr. Ward.” And I turn and head out of the office, wishing he’d stop me. But he doesn’t.

Part Nine

Running…

On Friday, feeling confident in a fitted emerald-green dress that contrasts with my long blond hair, I head into Mr. Ward’s office. Glancing up from his desk, he gives me a hot, heavy inspection and scowls.

I back-step, all too aware of why he’s cranky. I have, after all, been living the problem with him all week. “I’ll be right back,” I say, and head to the kitchen to pour him a cup of coffee. We’re both going crazy. Every accidental touch of bodies seems more energized, every brush of our eyes more electric. It doesn’t help that neither of us has slept, spending our days working on the regular needs of the properties and staying late to work on the charity event that he clearly cares about deeply.

Coffee in hand, I walk back in to his office, only to be reprimanded. “You do know I was about to say something to you and that most people don’t walk out on their bosses like you just did.”

“Sorry, Grumpy.” I set the coffee in front of him. “Please drink it so I can survive the morning.”

He stares at me, and I’m not sure if his steely look means he wants to fuck me or throttle me. I think maybe both. He scrubs his jaw and reaches for the coffee. I notice it has spilled over the edge to pool on the desk, and I reach for it. “Wait.” It’s too late. Our hands collide.

Our gazes lift and do the same and we both freeze, the turbulence and heat between us damn near combustible. I start to yank my hand back. He grabs my wrist and looks first at the “V” of my dress, which at this angle has to be revealing, and then at the sticky wetness on my hand. “Do you know how bad I want to lick that off?”

I have a memory of his tongue in certain places, and my nipples tighten. “I, uh … should I say please, Mr. Ward?”

He grimaces. “You’re fucking killing me.”

“Back at ya.”

“Hello, hello.”

We jerk apart at the sound of Maggie’s voice. Damion inhales sharply, and I turn away. “Morning, Maggie,” I say.

“Morning.” She walks toward Damion, and I head out of his office and try to get to work, which requires that I first squeeze my thighs together and count to sixty.

At sixty-one, I attempt to check my email. The first thing I pull up is a message from the accounting manager, and the heat lingering from my interaction with Damion is quickly chilled. It seems that several accounting clerks have looked high and low for the missing donations I’ve claimed exist. They need proof of deposits. Not good. I decide to go through every file in the desk, piece by piece, and pray I find the evidence I need. Asking donors for proof of payment is a scandal waiting to happen. I grab my files and open them to check my work first.

Damion exits his office with Maggie, and I rotate around to greet them. “I’ll be in my meeting with the department heads until about noon,” he announces, and at least for now his dark hair is as neatly groomed as his pin-striped suit is fitted.

“Good luck,” I say, noticing his glance to the accounting files I have open. I try to distract him by adding, “And please consider drinking another cup of coffee before you start the meeting.”

Maggie chuckles and continues on her way out. “Yes, please,” she calls over her shoulder.

“Yes. More coffee will solve everything,” he grumbles when she is out of range, and his temper is as red hot as the tie he’s wearing.

“You’re mad at me.”

“Yes,” he agrees. “I think I am.”

“Why?”

“I have no fucking clue.” He wrecks his neatly groomed hair with a rake of his hand.

I sigh. “That’s a problem.”

“Big problem.”

We do our favorite staring thing. In a week of practice, we really have it down to perfection.

“We should do something about it,” I suggest.

“But we can’t,” he says flatly, and with that, he walks off.

While normally I’d hang on every moment of Damion’s presence and watch his departure, this time I start digging through my files. I’ll figure out how to solve the “Ms. Miller, Mr. Ward” problem later. I have a bad feeling about the accounting issue.

I check my records and then search the drawers of the desk. I check every piece of paper, looking for anything that might have been missed or stuffed someplace it shouldn’t be. Fifteen minutes into my search, I find a sealed envelope stuck inside a copy-machine manual. Frowning, I open it, surprised to find Natalie’s family photos. In a copy-machine manual? Still, my heart squeezes at the shots of her and her kids. She really did want her pictures back. For some reason, I flip over a cute shot of the family, and I go still. There are numbers, like codes, written on the back, taking up every bit of white space. I check every shot, and they are all filled with similar code. Heart racing, I shove them back in the folder and I look up Terrance’s cell number.

I know you’re in the meeting with Damion, but I need you now. Please don’t tell him why you have to leave. I want to solve the problem for him if we can.

His reply is almost instant. Your office or mine?

Yours.

Ten minutes later, he meets me at the elevator on his floor and leads me to a private office. I sit down in the visitor’s chair and he leans on the edge. “Talk to me.”

“I think Natalie stole donations to the charity event, but … I think it might be bigger than that, too.” I open the folder and pull out a photo and show it to him.

He studies it and runs a hand over his face. “Fuck me,” he grumbles. “Yeah. This is a problem, and it’s too big to keep from Damion.”

My heart sinks. “I knew he had to know. I just hoped it could be after we fixed it.”

“While the idea of fixing it first is admirable of you, this is too big to take that approach. There’s an inner circle involved in a breach. We have a good idea who is behind it, but not all of the players.”

My mind goes back to the message-pad incident with Dana. “Dana was at my desk the other day, looking for something.”

“More than once,” he adds. “We have a camera at your desk, and the phones are all monitored. Natalie called Dana, crying about her ‘pictures.’ Dana is just young and naïve and wanted to help.”

“There’s a camera?” I ask, my mind racing, trying to think of anything Damion and I might have done that was inappropriate, that might have been filmed. “At my desk?”

“Only I see it. Your secrets are safe with me.”

My stomach rolls. “You know.”

“Yes. I know about you and ‘Mr. Ward,’ Ms. Miller. And you should know that I’ve been here three years and Damion has never crossed a line with an employee. I’ve never seen him give any woman more than a night and a credit to the buffet. You have him by the balls, sweetheart. Try not to break them. They’re delicate little guys.”

I grip the arms of the chair, trying to process what he’s just told me. How it makes me feel. Good. It makes me feel good. And confused about my job and my decisions.

He lifts a hand. “No comment?”

“Ah, well, if I had balls, he’d have me by mine, too.”

He barks out laughter. “Good answer.” His cell beeps and he glances at a message, sobering instantly. “That would be Damion wanting to know why I’m not in the meeting.”

“Don’t—”

“I’ll wait until after his meeting,” he assures me. “Do you have an accounting of what you believe was stolen from the charity event?”

“The accounting manager has it, or I can send it to you.”

“I’ll need to talk to her, anyway. Our insurance will cover the theft, and the shelter will still get the money.”

Relief washes over me. “Oh, good. I was worried about it.”

“Damion would write a personal check before he’d let the shelter get screwed.”

“It’s important to him.”

“Yes, and since I can read the unasked question, here is your answer: It’s not my place to share his story.”

A story I want to know. I stand up. “Thanks, Terrance. For more than you know.”

I don’t wait for his reply. I leave, determined to tear down the walls with Damion, and with a plan: I have to give him the freedom he gave me by offering me a job in PR. Funny, days ago I didn’t appreciate what he’d been trying to do.

I head to the bank and ask for a notary. Once I’m in the notary’s office, I ask her for a sheet of paper and handwrite my statement.

I will not sue Damion Ward, or any connected organization, corporation, or entity, for sexual harassment unless I give him written warning that I no longer wish to be intimate with him. I consider what I learned just being a fly on the wall with Kent and my father, and I add, I will deliver any warning by certified mail.

I start to hand it to the notary, but first I fold it so she can’t read it. Fifteen minutes later, I stuff it in an envelope and seal it, then scribble Damion’s first name on the front. I leave it on his chair.

* * *

Two hours later, Damion appears at my desk and motions me inside his office. “We should talk.”

“Yes, I know.”

Dana buzzes through to my phone as Damion heads into his office. “There’s a Kent Smith here to see you,” Dana announces.

I suck in a breath and almost choke on it, snapping up the receiver. “What do you mean he’s here to see me?”

“He’s at the front desk. He wants to be allowed up.”

I am suddenly on my feet and I don’t know how I got there. “I’ll go down to him.” I slam down the phone and stare at it.

“Ms. Miller.” I whirl around at the sound of Damion’s voice and find him standing in the doorway with the letter I left on his chair in his hand. Ms. Miller. He has the letter and he’s still calling me Ms. Miller. My world is spinning. Nothing is going right. I have failed at … everything. “I’ll be right back,” I announce, and round the desk.

“Kali!”

I stop dead in my tracks at his use of my first name, which he has not spoken softly, and turn around. “Please come talk to me,” he says, and I see the tenderness in his eyes. I was wrong. I have not failed. The letter does matter to him. I matter to him. But I can’t do this now. “Delivery downstairs,” I lie, and I hate lying to him but I do not know what else to do. Kent poisons everything he touches. “It’s important. I’ll be right back.” I turn to leave and almost run into Terrance, and I know I’m saved. I sidestep him and dart out to the elevator, determined to make my past go away.

* * *

Seeing Kent again is like someone holding a shotgun to my face and pulling the trigger. For a few moments I feel as if my identity, my confidence in who I am, which I’ve worked hard to create, has been violently blown away. I want to be sick. And, yes, I want to run.

He turns, though, and sees me, all Mr. Perfect in his blue suit and silver tie, his blond hair finger-rumpled, his body as athletic and toned as ever. I know his body. I lived with him for a full year. Had plenty of sex with him but never experienced the kind of all-consuming desire I feel for Damion. Never got aroused just being near him, talking to him, looking at him. But I do with Damion. I didn’t finish Kent’s sentences—or he mine—but in only a short time Damion and I do. Kent was comfortable. He was supportive of my career. He worked for my father and fit into my life. But I did not love him—I guess in the way a friend would, maybe, but I wasn’t in love with him.

He starts toward me, and I steel myself for his touch, which I know will come. He pulls me into an embrace and my skin crawls. I shove back from him, breaking the connection. “What are you doing here? How are you even in Vegas?”

“Some guy named Terrance called to do a security clearance, and I put two and two together. Clearly you aren’t in Miami like you told us you were.”

My belly clenches and I want to scream with the injustice of it all. “Does my father know?”

He cuts his gaze, and that tells me everything before he meets my eyes again. “Yeah. He knows.”

“But he doesn’t care.”

A muscle in his jaw clenches. “I did this to you, Kali. I know I did. It’s eating me alive how I tore the two of you apart.”

“What you did was shitty, Kent. As shitty as it gets. But you didn’t tear my father and me apart. You laid the groundwork, but he got out the butcher knife.”

“No—”

“Yes.”

He inhales and tries to touch me again. I jerk back. “Don’t.”

“Is there a problem?”

Damion’s voice ripples down my spine a moment before his hand rests possessively on my lower back, and I squeeze my eyes shut, willing my now-racing heart to slow. “What are you doing?” I whisper, turning my gaze on him.

“Who the hell are you?” Kent bites out.

Damion’s eyes shift sharply toward Kent. “The CEO of the casino you’re standing in. And, as I said, is there a problem?”

“You,” Kent bites out. “You’re the problem.”

My head is spinning and I stare at the floor, trying to make sure I don’t end up flat on my face.

“Kali,” Damion commands softly, gently flexing his fingers where they still rest on my back, willing me to look at him.

I turn to him, and my eyes land on my hand, which now rests on his chest. Some part of my mind knows that we are touching each other in public and that means trouble, but I can’t seem to move away from him. He is strong and—illogically, considering the short time I’ve known him—right in ways no one ever has been.

He takes my hand, lacing his fingers with mine. “Let’s get out of here.”

“No. Not yet. I need a minute.” My eyes lift to his, and I see true worry in them. I see that this man does not consider me a conquest. He has let me in as I have him, and it matters. “Just a minute.”

He reaches up and brushes the hair from my eyes. “You’re sure?”

No. “Yes.”

“You’re not sure.”

“She’s fucking sure,” Kent growls, and I sense the defensiveness, the jealousy, he has no right to feel. He doesn’t own me any more than my father does.

Damion’s head snaps up, and he levels my ex with a lethal stare. “Don’t test me. You won’t like the results, Kent.”

Kent’s shock at the use of his name flashes in his eyes, and I see the uncertainty that follows. “What is this to you, man?”

“Do the math,” Damion says, and then refocuses on me, his voice softening. “You still need a minute?”

I nod.

He brushes his knuckle over my cheek, and I shiver with the touch. He notices. I see it in his eyes and I don’t care. Somehow, just by being him, he makes it okay for me to need him. Inhaling, I steel myself for more Kent and turn to face him, aware of Damion backing away.

“You’re fucking him?” Kent demands. “Are you fucking him?”

Emotion explodes inside me. “Don’t even start on who’s fucking who, Kent,” I hiss, pointing a finger at him, shaking inside and out. “Don’t even go there.”

He shrinks back as if I’ve hit him, stares at me as if I’m some creature he’s never seen. Cursing under his breath, he runs a hand over the back of his neck. “This isn’t what I meant to happen. I only … I wanted to tell you I’m sorry. If I could take it back—”

“Stop, Kent. This changes nothing.”

“I still love you.”

“Go back to Texas. Just … go.”

“The holidays are less than three weeks away. We need to be together. We’ll get our families together. We can be a family again.”

“Oh, please. You were the catalyst that destroyed what family I had left. This is my home now. This is where I’ll spend Thanksgiving.”

“Your father—”

“Is a bastard.”

“He’s never gotten over losing your mother. He uses Elizabeth—”

“Damn you, don’t say her name. Don’t. This conversation is over.” I turn to leave.

His hand comes down on my arm, and somehow Damion is there, his body shielding mine, his warmth easing the icy chill that is everything to do with Kent and my old life. “Let her go,” Damion orders, his voice a cool command laced with a threat.

I squeeze my eyes shut for several beats, waiting for what will happen next. Kent lets go of me, and in the same instant Damion pulls me close, his arm is around my shoulders, and we are walking toward the elevators. For a dozen or more steps there is only him and me, and nothing else matters. Kent is gone. This nightmare walk down memory lane is over.

Reality comes to me with a hard slap at the sight of Terrance walking toward us. Damion and I are touching each other in public, and Terrance is the one who called Kent. Those two things represent another chapter of this nightmare.

“Make sure he doesn’t get back on the property,” Damion tells Terrance as we meet up with him, and I take the momentary distraction of their conversation to dart under Damion’s arm and around Terrance.

“Kali!”

I hear Damion shout, but I do not stop. I spot an open elevator and slip inside moments before it closes. I hesitate only briefly, then punch the button for the office floor. If I go to my room, Damion will follow, and I will cave and let him in. I can’t talk to him until I figure out what I’m feeling. Not right now. I won’t talk to him right now.

Hugging myself, I wait for my floor, trying to stop the shaking. Damn it, I’m weak. I don’t want to be weak. The elevator dings for my floor and I exit. Dana is on the phone and waves at me, giving me a smile I just can’t return. At my desk, I all but fall into my chair and will myself not to cry. I grab a stack of mail and start opening it, trying to stay sane.

I know the moment Damion is in the lobby, the scent of him blistering my nostrils. He is like a drug. I think I’ve become that to him, too. He is risking too much for me. I have to leave here, and him, and it’s going to destroy me.

Suddenly he is standing beside me, towering over me. “Let’s go talk.”

I don’t look at him. “No. Not now.”

“Kali—”

I turn to him and snap, “Not. Now.”

“Yes,” he says, turning my chair to face him, his hands on the arms. “Now.”

“Write me up, Damion, fire me, but I am not ready to talk.”

“Hey, Kali—”

The sound of Dana’s voice makes me cringe, and I can’t even look at her. “I, uh,” she stammers from behind me, and I hear her departing steps.

“Either come with me,” Damion warns tightly, “or I’ll pick you up and carry you.”

“Don’t even think about it.”

He pulls me to my feet and drags me into his office, shutting the door and locking it. I try to escape and at least put distance between us. His hand comes down on my arm and he turns me to face him.

I blast him. “You just told the whole damn place that we’re together when we haven’t even really been together. Why would you do that? Why?”

He maneuvers me against the wall, framing my body with his. “We are together, and if you didn’t believe that, you wouldn’t have signed that notarized letter.”

“We aren’t together, and now we won’t ever be together. I have to leave. I can’t stay. I can’t let you get fired over me.”

“I won’t let you go, and I won’t get fired.”

“I had a right to privacy. Terrance should have asked permission to share my personal affairs, and don’t tell me I signed a form or I might hurt you right now. Kent and my alcoholic asshole father—who thinks if he puts ‘functional’ before the ‘alcoholic’ it’s actually acceptable—weren’t supposed to know I’m here. If I wanted them to know, I would have told them.”

“Kali—”

“And I didn’t run away from those people, like you accused me of. I chose to shut them out and be happy. This was supposed to be my place and now it isn’t. Now they know I’m here and everyone here knows about us.”

“This is your place, Kali, and I’m not letting you go without a fight.” His fingers twine in my hair, tilting my head back, forcing me to look at him. “We might be new, Kali, but we’re damn good together.”

“What about—”

“We’ll figure it out. Together, Kali. We’ll figure it out together.” And then his mouth closes down on mine, his tongue stroking past my lips, his palm molding me close to him. I try to resist, but it’s more because I feel I have to, because I should. Only I don’t want to resist this man. Not now and not since the moment I met him. I cave to my need for him, moaning as I sink into the kiss. I know we are headed for trouble, and I’ve had enough trouble. But I have not had enough of him.

I tug at his shirt, suddenly desperate to feel his skin next to mine. To know if it will feel as good as I’ve imagined it would. My fingers slide beneath the cotton material, absorbing his body heat and the warmth of taut skin over hard muscle.

His mouth trails over my cheek to my ear. “Together,” he promises again, his warm breath teasing my sensitive flesh and sending a shiver down my spine.

“Yes,” I whisper, and I don’t let myself think about trouble or tomorrow. I cling to him, arching my body into his, trying to get closer to him, afraid I will never get close enough.

He cups the back of my head, slanting his mouth over mine, kissing me deeply, passionately. Breaking only to seductively trail his lips over my jaw, my neck, my ear, and I am lost in the haze of desire.

“I want you naked,” he murmurs, tugging my dress up over my hips, and, with that, an unwelcome jolt of reality hits me.

I grab at my dress and pant, “Wait. We can’t. Not here. We could get caught.”

“The door is locked.” He turns me to face the wall, pressing my hands to it, his on top of mine, his big, wonderful body encasing me. He leans in close, his mouth at my ear. “And,” he murmurs, “if you’re still worried about getting caught, I need to do a better job of distracting you.” He tugs on the zipper of my dress, and I open my mouth to resist, only to moan as his tongue begins to follow the metal downward. And his tongue is magic burning through me, sending waves of sensations to every nerve ending I own.

He slides the material off my arms, kissing my shoulders, caressing my sides, my breasts, my nipples. My knees wobble, and his hands brace my hips. My dress pools at my feet and he lifts me, kicking it aside as I slip off my shoes, leaving me in only my bra, panties, and thigh highs. I am exposed, open to him, but I am not shy. I am not intimidated or inhibited. My nipples are tight, my sex slick.

His hands go back to where mine rest on the wall, encasing me with his body, his cheek rasping over mine, as he whispers, “This is where I touch you, lick you, and fuck you. What do you say to that, Kali?”

I moan from nothing more than the promise of what he will do to me. And I know I thought this was trouble, but I no longer know why. My answer is easy. “Yes. Please …”

Part Ten

Sex therapy…

I am nearly naked, still facing the wall and living the fantasy of being at Damion Ward’s mercy, and he wastes no time leaving us with zero barriers. He unhooks my bra, and my nipples tighten and ache with the promise that his hands will follow, but they do not. Instead, he gently shackles one of my hips, his hand caressing my backside before his knee widens my stance, his fingers tracing the silk string along the crevice of my cheeks. I moan with anticipation and his hand scoops low, closing around my panties and yanking them free.

I gasp, weak-kneed with arousal. “That’s two pairs you owe me.”

“Don’t wear them and I won’t rip them off,” he says, his hand flattening on my belly, caressing up my body, until I am no longer leaning on the wall but am cradled to him, my back to his chest, and his hands covering my breasts, teasing my nipples.

I am already panting by the time one of his hands glides down my belly, into the “V” of my body, and his fingers are suddenly pressed into the slick heat of my arousal and stroking my clit. Waves of sensation rush over me and I reach behind me, clinging to his jacket and trying to turn for his mouth.

He turns me and presses me to the wall and I don’t wait to find out what he plans. I reach for his tie, needing to feel his skin against mine. The sound of his cell phone ringing freezes me in place.

“No,” I whisper. “Tell me no.”

He grabs his phone from his pocket and turns it off, stuffs it in his jacket, then shrugs off the jacket and tosses it to the ground. “Problem solved.”

My lips lift and I laugh. “Problem solved,” I repeat, but my hand is shaking as I drag his tie from his neck and help him unbutton his shirt, a gnawing ache in my belly at the reminder that we are breaking rules and there could be consequences. I don’t want him to suffer.

He grabs my hands, and his eyes find mine. “Easy, baby. Relax. Nothing is wrong. Everything is right.”

I nod, wanting to believe him. “Yes. Okay. But hurry.” I shove his shirt over his shoulders, the springy dark hair of his chest teasing my nipples. “Before some other problem needs to be solved and something goes wrong and this never happens.”

He frees his arms from his shirt and tangles his fingers into my hair. “Nothing is going to stop this from happening,” he promises. “Not this time.” And then his mouth comes down on mine, his tongue finding mine, a hot demand and a sweet promise all at once. There is something happening between us, a growing bond, a connection that logic says I should fear after the hell of the past months, but I do not. I just … don’t. Not with Damion.

That realization—the understanding of how much I feel for this man—has me wrapping my arms around his neck and melting into him, trying to get closer. He deepens the kiss and I moan, savoring the deliciousness of finally really, truly, being skin-to-skin, embracing the sense of barriers falling away.

Another sweep of his tongue, a caress of his hand on my breast, a tease of my nipple, and I am instantly lighter, freer, and somehow every part of me is laden with desire. This is the power of Damion, and I revel in his ability to make me all things at once, his ability to bring me to a place where there is only him and me. I am wild and hungry, touching him, moving against him. And he is as wild and hungry as I am, as passionate, as intense. We are lost and found together, touching each other, pressing into each other. His hand is on my breast; mine sweeps down his hips, stroking the thick ridge of his cock. I ache to feel him inside me.

“Damion,” I whisper. “Damion—”

“I know, baby,” he murmurs, kissing me quickly, as if he needs one last taste before he steps away from me and unzips his pants. My heart rate doubles as I watch him shove down his pants and boxers in one sweep. He grabs a condom from his wallet, and, I swear, as impossible as it seems with this confident, amazing man, his hand shakes.

Finally he stands naked before me, gloriously ripped, his body pure masculine beauty, his cock jutting forward, thick and hard, and I cannot breathe as he rolls the condom over himself. He steps toward me and a knock sounds on the door. I jerk toward the sound, my heart lodging in my throat.

Damion wraps himself around me, burying his head in my neck, his lips near my ear. “Ignore them.” He presses me against the wall again, his shaft fitting thickly between my thighs. “Think about me. Think about us.”

Another knock sounds, this one louder, and my hands flatten on his chest. “Damion—”

His mouth comes down on mine, his tongue driving away the voice of reason. No. The voice of Terrance is calling Damion’s name, but Damion acts as if he doesn’t hear it. He deepens our kiss, dragging me back into the swell of passion, and somehow we are on the floor, and now his back is against the wall.

His hands frame my hips, anchoring me, and a mix of urgency and anticipation burns through me. Reaching behind me, I lift my body and press the thick pulse of his shaft inside me, sliding down the hard length of him, sighing as he moves deeper, filling me, stretching me. I lean into him, wrapping my arms around his neck.

Damion’s hand caresses my back, molding my chest to his, and he seems to inhale my scent before whispering, “Finally.”

The way this one word echoes what I feel, the way it tells me he craves and needs me as I do him, stirs emotions in me I cannot ignore. I press away from him, leaning back to see his face, urgent now for another reason. “I don’t want you to regret this or me.”

“I am never going to regret this or you.”

“Your job. I do not want to hurt you.”

“You won’t. Stop thinking about what happens outside this room.”

“I’m just—”

He kisses me. “I’m inside you.”

“Yes,” I whisper, and he kisses me again, deeper this time, a claiming, a seduction, and I moan as his hands drag a path down my shoulders to settle at my waist.

“I’m inside you,” he repeats.

“I know,” I pant. “Believe me, I know.”

He frames my face, forcing my gaze to his. “Say it.”

“You’re inside me.”

“Where I plan to stay.”

I touch his face, and I fight the urge to make him promise, but he is already dragging my mouth to his, kissing me, pressing me down on him, and I cling to him, move with him. There is a desperateness to what I feel, to the way I sway and push against him, and I feel it in him, too. There is an explosion of desire between us, a wildness that makes everything else fade. I need more and more. Him. I want him. More him. I think there is another knock on the door, but this time I don’t care. This time there is only the frenzied rush of us grinding together, us panting together.

“Come for me, Kali,” he commands near my ear, and the erotic, sexy words are enough to drive me to the edge. And the edge is so good that I cling to it and to Damion, trying to hold it off. Trying to make that wonderful “almost” sensation last forever, but it’s already too late. I am there. I am tumbling over the almost wall and crashing into pleasure.

I bury my face in Damion’s neck, every muscle in my body tensing. His arm tightens around my waist, and I have this sense of being with him, really with him, present in every way. My sex clenches, and I jerk with the impact of the spasms closing down around his cock. A deep growl escapes Damion’s throat as he pulls me hard against him. I feel him shake but I cannot move with him, frozen by the overwhelming intensity of the sensations sliding through my body. I don’t even know when or how I come back to the present. The next thing I know, Damion is lying on his back and holding me close.

My hand settles on his chest, and I don’t even care that we are naked on the floor of his office. I snuggle against him, unwilling to give up this moment in time with him, but as the silence ticks by, I can almost hear him thinking.

“What do you want to know?” I ask, but I don’t look at him, certain I’m not going to like his reply.

“What happened between you and Kent?”

Still I don’t look at him. I can’t look at him. “I told you I don’t want to—”

“Did you love him?”

I prop myself up on an elbow to face him. “No. No, I did not love Kent. That was the problem. I met him because he works for my father; we started dating, which evolved into moving in together. Then I was just with him, and for a while it was comfortable.”

“If all you were was comfortable, he wouldn’t have elicited the kind of emotion I saw in you today. I saw the hurt in your eyes. I feel that hurt in you now just talking about him.”

My chest tightens painfully. “He proposed and I declined. He was angry. He lashed out.”

Damion sits up and drags me against him. “Did he touch you? Did he physically hurt you? Because if he did—”

I press my lips to his, tracing his jaw with my fingers. “No, he didn’t touch me, but I think that would have hurt less.” I look down, staring at our legs pressed together. We are both stripped of our clothes, but I am naked clear to my soul.

His finger slides under my chin, gently forcing my gaze to his. “If you don’t want to tell me—”

My hand goes to his. “It’s not that. I do. I want to tell you.” After what he did for me today, after how he jeopardized his job, I owe him the truth. “But it’s hard to talk about.” I lean away from him and curl my knees to my chest. “When my mother died, my father started drinking and never stopped. He also married an attorney he’d hired in the office, a thirty-year-old Pamela Anderson lookalike, who was after his successful business and his money.”

“How soon after your mother died?”

“A year, but I lost my father the day my mother died. It was like the bottle tipped. He became a complete prick, and my stepmother doesn’t help. She hates me, of course, because I inherit the money she wants. Or I did. I’m disinherited. She and Kent made sure of that.”

Damion wraps an arm under my legs and pulls me closer. “How? What did they do?”

“He set me up. They set me up. He says they didn’t, but I know better. We had dinner planned and I was meeting him at work. It was after hours, so, as I normally would, I headed straight to his office, which is where I found him buried inside my stepmother.”

Damion jerks back, his expression as shocked as mine must have been when I found them together. “What? I knew I should have beaten that little prick’s ass. Tell me your stepmother is now your ex-stepmother.”

“She’s not. I was sure she would be, though. I went to my father, worried about this hurting him, thinking we’d both share in the horror—but, no, that’s not what happened. He blamed me, not her or Kent. No protective papa for me. I was furious and hurt by his reaction, and I lashed out. In short, I told him she was white trash and he was a drunk. He disinherited me and now we don’t speak. And that’s how Kent shredded me. Kent knew how much I craved my father’s love and so he took it from me, the way he felt I had taken mine from him.”

“How the hell could your father blame you for what happened?”

His reaction reminds me of how he protected me with Kent. How good it felt to have him there at just the right moment, and it gives me courage to share the most painful truth with him. “I didn’t think he would, but I guess, working with my father, Kent knew him in a way I didn’t allow myself to know him. The quote from my father went something like: ‘You aren’t as pretty as her, so try spending less time chasing worthless stories and more time on your knees. Then maybe you can keep a man.’ ”

Damion tightens his hold under my knees and drags me closer. “You know you aren’t to blame, right? And you’re gorgeous. Absolutely fucking beautiful.”

I reach out and trace the handsome lines of his face. My Tony Stark. “Thank you,” I say. “I had a rough six months of questioning myself. I’d lost my mother and my father. My job was going nowhere. And even though I wasn’t in love with Kent, he was gone, and life had changed. It all fell apart at once and so did I. I’m not proud of it, but I did.”

His thumb strokes my cheek. “You didn’t fall apart. You’re strong and you’re a fighter, or you wouldn’t have come to Vegas on your own, with barely a resource in your pocket. You’re right. You didn’t run, and I’m a prick for saying so without knowing the truth.”

“It’s done and I’m okay. Or I’m getting there. It’s been a long process.”

He draws my hand to his lips. “I’m going to make you better than okay,” he vows.

I don’t question that he means what he says. I don’t question us. I question what happens when we leave this room. “I can’t believe we let the world know we’re …”

“Together?” he finishes for me.

“How can we be? You are my boss.”

“A technicality.”

“It’s more than a technicality, Damion.”

He stands up and pulls me to my feet. “Get dressed and let’s get this day over with.” He kisses me soundly on the lips. “Then I’m taking you to dinner.”

A knock sounds on the door, and, no longer drugged by arousal, I jump and snap up my clothes.

“Damion, damn it,” Terrance calls out. “Read your text messages if you aren’t going to answer the damn phone or the door.”

I frown. “Why isn’t your office phone ringing?”

“I turned it off when I saw your letter.” He grabs his pants and pulls them on, then reads the text messages Terrance is screaming about. He grimaces at the content. “Wonderful. More potential breaches. The mob was easier to deal with than this mess.” He slips on his shirt. “I heard about the missing charity funds.”

Already dressed, I slide on my shoes. “Did you see the coded messages on the back of Natalie’s pictures?”

“Not yet. Terrance has an update on what it is, though.” He reaches for my hand and pulls me close. “I can’t wait to get you in my bed tonight.”

I grab his tie and slip it around his neck, pulling the knot for him, but I don’t step away when I’m done. I hold on to it like I want to hold on to him. “Damion—”

“Stop worrying and let me handle things. And that’s an order, Ms. Miller. I’m still the boss.”

* * *

Once Damion is gone and I’m at my desk, business is back to usual. No one seems to want to ask me questions, and I can’t help but wonder if Damion has done something to make sure they don’t. I spend the rest of the afternoon doing final confirmations for the charity event, and I email Terrance the complete list of participants.

Finally, near six o’clock, Dana gives me a shy wave goodbye, as if I’m the plague, and the press releases for the charity event land in my in-box. And they are bad. So bad that I’m appalled. The overall promotional plan is lacking, as far as I can see.

The sound of footsteps in the hallway carries to me in the silence of the now-empty offices, and I hold my breath, expecting Damion. Instead, Terrance appears, his suit and security jacket pressed and perfect, his blond hair a bit longish and wild. I know why he’s here and I lean back in my chair, hugging myself, ready to put all conversations of Kent behind me.

“I’ll get right to it,” Terrance says, stopping in front of me. “My team messed up. We were so wrapped up in protecting the company in the midst of internal havoc that we got too aggressive in our actions. I can’t take back what we did.” He leans forward on the desk, fist on the wooden surface. “But I can promise you that if he comes near this place or you again, he will land flat on his ass, and I’ll enjoy putting him there.”

My spine stiffens. “Damion told you.”

“He told me the bastard was worth the mud on my shoe, nothing more. But I saw the footage. I saw how upset you were. That’s enough. He won’t get to you again.”

My heart squeezes at the realization that I’ve gone from having no one care to having two men who seem to be willing to fight for me. “Thank you.”

“And I told the staff you had a family emergency and ‘Mr. Ward’ was helping you deal with it. You’re both still in the closet.”

I should be happy. Disaster for Damion avoided. I am happy. “Does Damion know?”

“Yes, Damion knows.” We both turn to find him walking around the corner toward us, and I relax into the warmth in his eyes, which tell me he has not had a change of heart. We are still us. We are together. “And we aren’t rubbing anything in anyone’s face, but we aren’t hiding, either.” He glances at me. “Ready for dinner?” He cuts Terrance a look. “And before you invite yourself as usual, forget it. She’s all mine tonight.”

“I kind of got that read on my own,” Terrance says drily, and fixes me with a hard look. “We okay?”

“Yes. We are okay.”

“Good. Call if you need me.” He starts to leave and lifts his cell at Damion. “I’ll text you if I get any more updates. Read them this time.” He heads toward the hallway.

“Let’s go eat,” Damion says, walking around the desk and turning my chair to face him.

“I can’t. I just got the press packet for the charity event. It’s a disaster. I need to rewrite it and get a new angle on it.”

“I volunteer at the shelter on Saturday morning. You can come and write the release there. And we’ll deal with PR once and for all on Monday.” He pulls me to my feet, hard against his body. “We both need a night off.” His palm flattens on my back, molding me closer. “I’ve had a change of heart. Let’s go to my place and order Chinese food.”

“Yes, please,” I find myself saying for a second time today. There is nothing I’d like more tonight than to shut the rest of the world out. Maybe I’ll even convince myself we can do it forever. But that would be a fairy tale, and the past few years have taught me that fairy tales don’t exist. But, then, Damion didn’t exist, either, and now he does.

Part Eleven

Home is where the heart is…

Saturday morning I wake in Damion’s bed, with him wrapped around me as if he thinks I might escape, and I am at peace in a way I have not been in years. Safe. Warm. Right. Remarkably, as delicious as Damion is with a one-day shadow on his jaw and his thick, dark hair rumpled, I am not even slightly self-conscious about no makeup and my own wild mess of hair.

Still naked from the night before, we are in no hurry to abandon the bed, talking about everything from the casino, to my mother, to the politics of doing business in Vegas. But I don’t miss how he dodges the subject of his mother and his youth, and I wonder if this is the source of his bruises.

It’s nearly ten when we order room service. He tugs on pajama bottoms and a T-shirt and looks as gorgeously male as he does in a suit and tie. Clinging to the intimacy between us and without any clothes except my dress at his place, I grab his shirt from the night before and pull it on.

Despite Damion’s insistence that I throw on his robe and stay in the room when the food arrives, I hide in the massive, sparkling white-tiled bathroom of his fancy suite, which makes mine look like an economy spot. I just don’t understand how he seems to want to announce our relationship to the world at all costs. And there will be costs.

Once we’re alone again, we settle at the wooden table where our breakfast has been laid out, and I press him to understand. “Why aren’t you more worried about people finding out about us?”

He fills our cups with coffee. “I’ve found that what is hidden becomes gossip fodder and poison. We’re both professionals. We will still act like it at work, but we also both live here. We can’t hide all the time. And we will be caught if we do.”

“So you want to tell the world?”

“Yes. I’m not saying make an announcement, but if they ask, the answer is, yes, we are together.”

“What about our jobs?”

“I filed a report with the board with your letter.”

My jaw drops. “You did what?”

He takes my hand. “I covered my ass and yours. I’m committed to finding out where this will go and what we can be. We can’t do that by hiding it while we try to work and live together.”

My heart skips a beat. “Live together?”

“We work too much and too long. I’m keeping you with me in our private time as much as you’ll let me have you.”

You aren’t alone, he’d said to me at one point. And for the first time in a very long time, I think he’s right. I lean forward and press my lips to his. He wraps his arm around me and stands up, taking me with him.

Back to bed.

* * *

An hour later, I have returned to my room to shower and change and pack some things to stay with Damion for the rest of the weekend. I escaped long enough to dress in black jeans, a red tank top, and red Keds tennis shoes. Inspecting myself in the mirror—my long blond hair flat-ironed and shiny, my makeup present but not evident—I am satisfied I look casual and comfortable, not too dressy and not too drab.

I return to Damion’s room and, using the key he’s given me, enter to find him in dark-blue jeans, a blue polo, and deck shoes. On Damion, this translates to one of those Ralph Lauren Polo ads that make you want to lick the paper. He is really too good-looking for my sanity.

A few minutes later we step onto the elevator, deep in conversation, both laughing about my mother’s efforts to turn me into a cook and my many horrible failed attempts to please her. “Good thing we both like room service,” he jokes, and pulls me close.

At the same moment another couple sneaks onto the car, just before the doors shut.

I stiffen instantly, hoping the man and woman aren’t part of the very large staff. “Stop acting like we’re doing something wrong,” Damion chides when they get off on the next floor.

“I can’t help it.”

“Baby, I’m not trying to be arrogant, but I’m damn good at my job. The people who matter know it, and they want to please me because I please them. Profits talk and I deliver.” The doors open and he laces his fingers with mine. “Stop worrying, or I might have to tie you to my bed and torment you as punishment.”

“If that’s motivation to stop worrying, it’s not working.”

“How about I won’t tie you to my bed and torment you if you keep worrying.”

I perk up. “Much better.”

Once we’re in the parking garage, Damion holds the passenger door of his BMW for me. “We should talk about your car.”

I hesitate before I get in. “I have money set aside. I need to go buy one.”

“We’ll go this afternoon.”

“Oh, no. I’m going alone.”

“Why would you do that?”

“Because I have a Ford Escort budget, not a BMW budget.”

“Exactly why I need to go with you.”

“No.” I get into the car and he shuts me inside.

“No?” he asks, sliding into the driver’s seat.

“No. In fact, I think I’ll turn my rental in and wait on buying a car I’ll probably never drive. I can buy one when I need one.”

“We’ll talk about it.”

“No. We won’t talk about it.”

“We’ll talk about it.”

“Ask me again in six months.”

He cuts me an incredulous look. “Six months? This is Vegas. Six months is a lifetime to me. Two weeks.”

“Three months.”

“Christmas.”

Christmas? Will we be together at Christmas?

“Yes,” he answers, as if I’ve spoken it out loud. “We will be together at Christmas and long after.”

“And what if we aren’t? What about our jobs?”

“We’ll be together.”

He starts the car and puts it in reverse, ending the topic of conversation, but I am the furthest thing from dismissed. I slide down into my seat and smile.

* * *

“We’re here,” he announces, pulling into what looks like a fancy movie theater with green neon rimming gray glass.

“This is the shelter?”

“It used to be an entertainment center with movies, games, and shops.”

“Surely it’s outrageously expensive to operate.”

“It is,” he says, and gets out of the car.

He opens my door and I step out. “I’m confused. How can the expense be good for the shelter even with donations?”

“I’ve made it work.” He takes my hand and drags me toward the door, and it’s clear, in no uncertain terms, that he doesn’t want to talk about this.

Another piece of what is becoming a Damion puzzle. I know, though, that pain isn’t easy to explore, and I won’t push him. I want him to choose to tell me in his own time, unlike the way things exploded on me.

We enter the building and it looks exactly like a movie theater, complete with out-of-date movie posters. Damion’s hand settles on my back, urging me toward a stand with people working behind it. “They even have a concession stand?”

“It provides jobs and profit for the center, and Dehlia has strict rules about what can be served on non-movie nights.” He motions me to the left. “Let me show you around. There’s a homeless shelter on the east side that usually has forty people; those residents are transient. The west side houses long-term residents—mostly teens who have no home. We find them foster homes or keep them here until they start an adult life. Right now there are thirty living here. Unfortunately, we only have room for fifty, and we take applications from outside the city when someone special is brought to us.”

“We?”

“I’m one of five people on the board.”

And I wonder how much of this he funds himself. I’m feeling fairly confident that at a minimum he’s responsible for how the money flows through the doors.

We continue walking the property, and for the next hour I am in shock and awe. All but a few theaters have been converted to a dormlike setting, and there’s a sports complex and gym on the roof.

Our final stop is a movie theater that’s been converted into an amazing cafeteria, with trays installed on the seats. There are a group of kids studying, eating, and playing video games in the corner. I turn to Damion and press my hand to his chest. “This is all because of you, isn’t it?”

“No. This is all because of Dehlia.”

I don’t miss the tenderness in his voice. “I’d like to meet her.”

He motions me to a door across the room. “Like your mother was, she’s always in the kitchen.”

We enter an industrial-sized kitchen with multiple stoves and a large table, where a short, sixty-something, dark-haired Hispanic woman stands, shouting at an employee. “No. No. No. Not enough flour!”

But the employee is not an employee at all. It’s Maggie, with her red hair piled on top of her head, and the flour that is not in the bowl is on her face. “Dehlia,” Maggie complains. “You’re killing me. Last time you told me I put too much flour. This time, not enough.”

“Two years you’ve been helping,” Dehlia says, holding up two fingers. “Dos! You still cannot read a recipe.” Dehlia seems to realize something in the air has shifted, and her gaze cuts to us. “Damion. Son.” She grimaces. “Maggie is having issues again. Are you sure she reads well at the casino?”

Maggie tosses flour in the air and Dehlia rambles in Spanish.

Damion and I laugh, and he warns, “She doesn’t take any junk. Be warned.”

“That’s right,” Dehlia agrees, dusting off her hands and walking toward us, as Maggie gives me a waggle of her fingers. “I don’t.” She stops in front of us, all five feet zero plump inches of her, and she gives Damion a hug before inspecting me, hands on her hips. “You must be Kali.”

“I …” I glance at Damion, who gives me a knowing smile, and then back at her. “Yes. I’m Kali.”

“Well, then,” she says, “give me a hug.” She wraps her arms around me. “And he’s right. You are lovely.”

My cheeks heat. “Thank you.” I gaze at him. “Thank you.”

He and Dehlia share a look. “And polite,” Dehlia says. “You were right. She has manners. Rich is looking for you, Damion. He’s got a plan to finally dethrone you.”

Damion rubs his hands together. “Let the war begin.” He leans down and kisses me. “Ping-Pong battle. You’ll be okay with Dehlia?”

Dehlia snorts. “Of course she’ll be okay. You think she’s a girl so she needs her hand held.” Someone comes in the door and says something in Spanish. Dehlia glances at Maggie. “They need help up front.”

“Oh, thank you. Let me out of the kitchen.” She quickly removes her apron and heads toward us, pausing to greet me.

“What brings you here?”

I start to mention the press release and change my mind. “Damion.”

Her eyes glow. “Damion.” She smiles. “I heard something to that effect. I approve, for the record. He works too much. He needs someone to slow him down. I’ll catch up with you later.” She disappears out the door.

“Maggie lost her husband the Thanksgiving before last, and Damion thought she needed a second home. He brought her here to volunteer and she just showed up every Saturday after. She’s all excited about planning the holiday meal this year. Of course, she picks up McDonald’s better than she cooks, but she tries.”

“Is this the time I admit Taco Bell is my specialty?” I ask sheepishly.

She levels me with a warning look. “No Taco Bell. You want Mexican, I’ll cook it right here for you. Let’s skip the kitchen and go to the lounge.”

We head into a small TV room with worn leather couches and chairs. “Looks like we have it all to ourselves.” Dehlia plops down on a leather couch and then motions for me to sit. “Damion says you want to talk to me about the shelter, for next weekend?”

“Oh, yes.” I settle across from her in a chair. “Can you tell me the history of this place?”

“Well, honey, I immigrated here with my mother. She died of cancer not long after I turned sixteen. I was homeless and scared and landed in a place like this that was more nightmare than shelter. One of the young men who came in to teach us English adopted me. Together he and I vowed to make the shelter better. My husband and I took it over and ran it for many years, until he passed five years ago. That’s when Damion stepped in and created this place.”

So Damion is behind this. “How did you meet Damion?”

Her eyes soften. “He didn’t tell you.”

“Tell me?”

“He knew I would, of course.” Her eyes tear up. “He gets upset talking about it. He doesn’t talk about it.”

My eyes tear up, too, and I’m not sure why. Because hers do. Because I know she’s about to tell me something that hurts Damion. I move to sit next to her. “Tell me. Please.”

“When he was seventeen, he and his mother were here in the shelter. Or the old shelter, before we moved.”

“Damion was homeless.”

She nods. “His mama had lost her job and they had no family. Four days they were here when she just dropped dead.”

I gasp and cover my mouth. “No. God. No.”

“It was horrible,” she says grimly, swiping away a tear. “I was there. I still remember like yesterday. And that poor boy lost it. He was lying over her, screaming for his mama. He went into shock and had to be hospitalized.”

Tears spill down my cheeks. “How long?”

“Two weeks. When he got out, he was my boy. My Roberto and I nurtured him back to health. Six months later it was like he found someplace to put it all. He turned eighteen and took a job on commission, selling stocks or some deal like that, and the next thing we knew he was making money and always trying to give us some. He never turned his back on us, though. He was here every weekend.”

I stand up. “I need to see him.”

She tugs me down. “No. Not here. It’s too emotional for him. Talk to him alone.”

I swallow hard. “I just want to go hug him.”

She smiles. “He can use some hugs. He doesn’t let anyone in. There was a girl years back, when he first got money. He met her here and thought they were alike. Soon she started milking him for money and he got tired of it. Gave her some cash and sent her on her way. Only she wanted more cash. She threatened to say she was abused at the shelter.”

“What did he do?”

“Dared her to do it, and thankfully she didn’t.”

I stand up. “I’m not going to say anything to him, but I want to be with him right now.”

She pushes to her feet and squeezes my arm. “I like that idea. Then later I’ll teach you to cook and you can help with Thanksgiving dinner.”

“I’ll make the tea and roll napkins or something.”

She grins. “I can teach you to cook.”

No. She can’t teach me to cook. But she’s taught me a lot about Damion.

A few minutes later Dehlia leaves me in the sports center, and I watch Damion laughing and joking with a group of ten teenage boys. He glances my way. Our eyes meet and he sets down his paddle and walks toward me, and I have only one thought: I’m falling in love with this man. No. I don’t care if it’s too soon. This is Vegas, after all. I love him.

He stops in front of me, lacing his fingers with mine.

“Hey,” I say.

“She told you.”

“Yes. She told me. Why—”

“I still can’t talk about it. I know it’s crazy—it’s fifteen years ago—but I still get … just … can’t.”

“You are the most incredible person.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Yeah, you are. And I’m going to spend as much time as you let me making sure you know it and showing you in any way I can.”

“Just be with me, Kali. That’s enough.”

“I am. I am with you.”

He strokes hair from my eyes. “You know what you can do for me now?”

“What?”

“Help me convince these boys they aren’t ever going to beat me at Ping-Pong.”

I laugh at his change of mood. “I bet I can.”

“So you think you want to play me?”

“Oh, yeah. I want to play you.” And we aren’t talking about Ping-Pong.

“Game on, baby. Game on.” He drags me toward the tables, and, indeed, I think: Game on.

Part Twelve

The truth will set you free…

Damion and I spend every second of every day we possibly can together during the next week. The charity fund-raising poker tournament finally arrives and is a huge success. We close the day with a two-hundred-thousand-dollar take home, and neither of us can wait to tell Dehlia. Damion calls her and invites her to dinner, then we head to his room—which has really become my room, too—to shower and change out of our work clothes.

I head to the fridge of his full kitchen and grab a soda. “Can I ask you something?”

He leans on the bar across from me. “Since when do you ask if you can ask anything?”

“I know this event raised a lot of money, but it can’t be enough to support the shelter. It’s a huge facility, and Dehlia has a staff.”

“I told you,” he says shortly. “I took care of it.” He turns and walks away, and I blink after him, shell-shocked at his sharpness.

I set the soda down and follow him, finding him on the patio. I take one look at the way he’s leaning his hands on the wall, chin tucked to his chest, and I go to him.

Gingerly, I settle my hand on his back. “Hey.”

He lifts his head and looks at me, storm clouds overtaking the green of his eyes. “I need to tell you something.”

“Okay,” I say cautiously.

He pushes off the wall and scrubs his jaw. “You know how I said I handled the mob here at the casino?”

Mob? Are we really talking about the mob? “Yes.”

“There’s a guy I know from the shelter. He was there the day my mother died. He’s high up in the mob in Vegas now. I used my connection to him to get the mob out of the casino.”

“That’s good, right?”

“I also used his love for Dehlia to get the facility funded. He donates a ridiculous amount of money every year. Blood money—I know it is. But, damn it, he’s doing one thing in his life right. One thing.”

“I’m … confused about how I feel about it.”

“That makes two of us.”

I wrap my arms around his neck. “Then we’ll be confused together.” And I dare to take a risk. “Damion. I—”

His phone rings, and he kisses me. “Hold that thought.” He sighs. “Terrance. Things are heating up with the investigation on the breach of security.”

He takes the call and my moment is lost, but I vow to get it back.

* * *

Thanksgiving eve morning, I greet Dana—who has long since figured out that Damion and I are seeing each other—with a smile. “Where’s Mr. Ward?” she asks, glancing around the corner, still just as nervous with him as ever.

“In a meeting. Relax. It’s a half day. You probably won’t see him at all.”

She sighs. “Oh, good.” Then looks guilty. “I really can’t say that to you anymore, can I?”

“Of course you can. He’s still intense.”

She laughs, and I head to my desk to work through a stack of reports Damion has me compiling on the different properties. Come noon, I haven’t heard from him, and I dial Maggie to see what time she’s heading to the shelter tomorrow, but I get her voice mail.

Another hour later, Dana and I wish each other a happy holiday. As I step onto the elevator to head to HR, I think of how much I like Dana. It was incredibly kind of her to want to find Natalie’s pictures for her. Sadly, though, Natalie never deserved Dana’s concern.

I’m stepping off the elevator when my cell rings, and it’s Damion. “This security thing is blowing up. The ringleader of the security breaches was a management-level employee at one of the other properties. A dozen employees have been arrested for a plot to steal from the casino, including Natalie.” He hesitates.

“What? What aren’t you saying?”

“Maggie is one of them.”

I stop walking and lean against the wall. “Oh, God. No. Damion. I’m sorry.”

“Money makes people crazy.”

I think of the woman who bribed him, of how that must live in his mind. “I don’t want your money. You know that, right?”

“Kali, baby, you’re the one thing I’m sure of, and that’s good right now. It’s really good.”

“Damion, I … I …”

“Me, too. Me, too. We’ll translate that later.”

I smile sadly, because I know how much he’s hurting. “Sooner rather than later. Can I come to you?”

“No. I don’t want you in this. I’ll call you later and then I just want to lock ourselves away and forget this shit for the rest of the night.”

“Yes. I’ll be here. Call me.”

* * *

At nearly seven o’clock, Damion has checked in with me several times but doesn’t seem close to being home. Home, I think, looking around his suite. I wonder if we shouldn’t get a real home. He’s never had that. Ever. I want him to have that.

Another hour passes, and when my cell rings this time, it’s Terrance. “We need to talk.”

My gut knots. “Why don’t I like how that sounds?”

“Heads up: Natalie told Damion that you were in this, too, and that you were going to write a tell-all piece and expose him for what he is.”

“Oh, God. No. It’s a lie.”

“I believe you, and I think he does, too, but he’s had a hell of a day.”

I remember him grabbing my hand and telling me no recordings. He’s going to be suspicious. People have lied to him. I’ve been lied to. I know what that feels like.

“Kali, are you there?”

“Where is he?”

“He left the police station about an hour ago.”

“I have to go.” I hang up and dial Damion. He doesn’t answer. I race for a drawer and rip away my robe and shove on jeans and a tank top, slide on my Keds. I don’t have a car, since I let go of my rental, so I decide to take a cab. I race for the door and stop. Where the heck am I even going? He isn’t at the police station. I dial Dehlia to discover he’s not at the shelter, either.

The door buzzes and opens, and a weary Damion appears, dropping his briefcase on the floor. I launch myself at him and throw my arms around his neck. “I would never write a tell-all about you. I told her I’d investigate before I met you, when she told me a horror story. The minute I met you I knew she was lying. I wouldn’t do anything to hurt you. And I love you. And I think we should get a house that is a home and get away from work all the time. And—”

He wraps his arm around me and kisses me. “I didn’t believe her.”

“You didn’t?”

“No. I told you. I’m sure of you. Of us, Kali. I love you, too.”

My heart warms. “You do?”

“Yes. I do. And we’ll get a real home on one condition.”

“Condition?”

“That you marry me. Be my wife, and neither of us will ever be alone again.”

My heart swells. “I would be honored to be your wife.”

He scoops me up and carries me to the bed, settles me on the mattress, and then braces his elbows above me. “Happy Thanksgiving, Kali.”

“Happy Thanksgiving, Damion.”

The End

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