Authors: J.K. Coi
Tags: #alpha hero, #CEO, #Billionaire Hero, #bodyguard, #Indulgence, #across the tracks, #bad-boy hero, #light romantic suspense, #Entangled, #contemporary romance, #J.K. Coi, #bodyguard romance, #Romance
He’d shed his and rolled up his sleeves hours ago, and now he tugged at his tie and undid the top button of his shirt, too. She swallowed hard at the glimpse of bronzed skin that suggested he’d recently been somewhere where formal clothing was optional.
“I’m fine.” She wasn’t normally so stubborn, but something about him made her all too eager to bend, and so she compensated by being more resolute.
“You’ve been in that suit all buttoned up for most of the last eighteen hours. What do you think will happen if you relax, just a little?”
warm, and the cheap weave didn’t breathe well. The jacket had become more uncomfortable as the long day had gotten even longer. She’d wanted to take it off since she’d been forced to put it back on at the gym, and if the suggestion had come from anyone else she probably wouldn’t have thought twice about it.
“I’m perfectly relaxed,” she insisted. “Can we just locate the notes and get this place organized?”
He raised an eyebrow. “You’re really not cut out to be a bodyguard, are you?”
How could he know after only one day? Even she didn’t want to admit it, despite the nervous tic behind her eyes whenever she thought about going from babysitting job to babysitting job for the next twenty years. “Why do you say that?”
“Oh you’re capable enough, but you’re stubborn as hell, and you don’t have a deferential bone in your entire body.” His gaze roamed over her, and he definitely wasn’t examining her “bones.”
Her cheeks heated. “I didn’t realize scraping and fawning over you was a prerequisite for keeping you safe,” she snapped.
“Oh it’s not,” he answered with that playboy grin she hadn’t seen in a little while. Her heart sputtered, and she wanted to tell him not to do that again. “But I’m just a spoiled society brat, and if you want me to cooperate, you should probably learn to humor me.”
He was teasing her, but she detected a thin thread of sarcasm in his voice. He obviously knew very well who people expected him to be, and instead of bucking the system and showing them all how wrong they were, he played the system, took advantage of it. She had no idea how much of his cheerfully irresponsible personality was real and how much was part of his act, but she also had a feeling that nobody else did either, because Steve Nolan was
“I suppose that bullshit works with your employees, business acquaintances, and maybe even your friends, but I am none of those things,” she said tightly. “I’m not here to be your friend or your employee. I accepted this assignment in good faith, and whether you think I’m cut out for it or not, I’ll continue to do it until the job is done.”
“Yes ma’am,” he said with a mock salute. His eyes shone with mirth.
So he thought she was funny, did he?
She shook her head, realizing how quickly she’d risen to the bait and reacted exactly the way he’d expected her to, with righteous indignation. She groaned. Did he get off on antagonizing everyone, or just her?
She was going to have to readjust her expectations. Nolan was turning out to be more complicated than she’d expected. He played the social playboy character well, but he also had a razor sharp, sardonic wit, and he was brutally observant and surprisingly unpretentious. He didn’t fit the stereotypes, and she was embarrassed to have relied on those stereotypes in the first place. In fact, she’d done exactly what she’d expected him to do with her: make generalizations based on appearance, occupation, and background. She’d also broken half the rules that had been drilled into her during training. Never make assumptions. Stay alert. Stay detached.
She worked the buttons and jerked off her jacket, laying it over the back of a leather wing chair that had been slashed all the way down the backrest.
“See, isn’t that better?” he said, smug satisfaction dripping from his voice.
She refused to comment. His gaze followed her, but there were no smart-ass remarks about the ice queen finally loosening up.
In the boxing world, she’d gotten that a lot. She had good friends, but there were always overconfident jocks who looked at a woman in gloves with a superior sneer—before making bets on how long it would take to get in her pants. Little had they known that she’d learned from the best in the business. Instead of getting her into bed, she’d let them get her into a ring, and then she’d knocked each one of them on their ass. Sometimes that won their respect and other times…well, she’d learned to deal with that, too.
Only once had she let another boxer get anywhere with her, but that had been different, and that had been…
“You okay? You know you didn’t have to take your jacket off if—”
She jerked her head up. “I know,” she said. “Let’s get back to work. Do you have a safe, or a lock box the perpetrator could have been looking for?”
“I keep a few things in my desk but nothing really valuable.” Nolan pulled a key out of his pocket and wiggled it into the lock on the drawer in his desk. April came around to see. The wood was all scratched up, and the key didn’t want to go in at first. The vandal had mucked up the lock trying to jimmy it open. Finally, it slid all the way and clicked.
“What’s that?” She pointed to a burgundy folder.
“It’s nothing. A surveillance report.”
She raised a brow. “You’re spying on someone? Don’t you think maybe you should have mentioned that when I asked if there was anyone who might have reason to—”
“It’s got nothing to do with this.”
“Why don’t you let the professionals be the judge of that?”
He raked a hand through his hair, obviously frustrated. She sympathized; it had been a long night, but he couldn’t keep hobbling her investigation by keeping things from her. She put a hand on his arm. “Nolan, please…”
He jerked his head up, his gaze shuttered and dark with emotion. “I retained the surveillance company because I’d received information suggesting that the man who’d stolen from my father’s business was still alive.”
“Justin Fielding,” she said.
He nodded. “I needed to know for sure.”
“What did they find out?”
“Nothing. Go ahead, read it for yourself.” He picked up the folder and offered it to her, revealing the handgun that had been in the drawer, beneath the paperwork.
Her heart pounded. “Jesus, don’t tell me that’s loaded.”
“It’s not. And it’s registered and completely legal,” he reassured her.
She still didn’t like the idea of him having a gun, but he shoved another handful of papers into her chest and shut the drawer. “The threatening letters.”
She reluctantly tucked the surveillance report under her arm and took the notes gingerly by the corners. “Let me get these into some evidence bags to preserve any fingerprints that might have been left behind.”
“There should be something in the kitchen you can use,” he said. His arm brushed hers as he slipped between her and the desk toward the door, and both of them froze.
Every one of the earlier feelings that had sent her reeling returned in a rush. His body was still in contact with hers, his arm solid and bulky through his cotton shirtsleeve. He shifted closer and turned his head. His mouth hovered just an inch away. Her breathing hitched.
Then suddenly, her stomach grumbled, interrupting the charged moment.
His eyes crinkled with amusement. “You sat in your car outside the restaurant the entire time I was in there, didn’t you?” he asked.
“Of course.” She nodded.
He frowned. “I apologize.”
“For what?” she asked, surprised.
“For being an insensitive ass,” he admitted. “I could have at least sent something out to you.”
“It’s the job. I’m used to it.” Nobody had
wasted a second thought about her diet when she was on a job, not even the little old lady who’d been her last client.
“So when was the last time you ate?”
She’d managed to snag a muffin from Starbucks on the way to his building that morning, but other than that…
“A while,” she admitted with a shrug.
He swore and shook his head. “Come with me to the kitchen, and I’ll get you something.”
Her cheeks heated. “I’m fine. You don’t have to—”
He grabbed her hand, pulling her with him. “Don’t bother arguing. What good are you going to be to me as a bodyguard if you pass out from malnutrition?”
“I doubt it will come to that.” But she was pretty hungry now that she thought about it. In fact, she was getting hungrier by the minute. He still hadn’t let go of her hand, so she didn’t bother to fight him.
The kitchen was open to a large, informal sitting area with a comfortable-looking sofa and a big-screen television opposite a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows looking out onto the city. Although the more formal main living room at the front of the apartment was nice, it hadn’t quite felt like Nolan’s style.
was exactly where she pictured him spending his personal time. Laid-back, comfortable, and confidently male. It was currently in slightly better shape than the rest of the apartment, but the cushions had still been slashed, and there was a spiderweb crack in the middle of the television, presumably from the stone sculpture lying on the floor in pieces directly beneath it.
He kicked his way to the island in the middle of the kitchen and shuffled through a drawer.
Her throat worked as she stood in place and took it all in. When she’d walked through all the rooms the first time, she’d been focused on making sure whoever had done this wasn’t lying in wait for Nolan to return. But now she couldn’t help but imagine how she would feel if this was her place.
She was furious on his behalf, but that only reinforced her fear that she’d already gotten much too close to this assignment than was prudent. If she’d been on a case for the FBI, she probably would have been yanked off of it already.
This isn’t an FBI assignment. That’s not going to be your career now, remember?
She squared her shoulders and took another step forward. A complete set of knives had all been stabbed into the wall over the gas range. Dishes had been taken from the kitchen cupboards and presumably thrown across the room, since they were smashed on the floor all around the fireplace. Not much of it had actually made it
the fireplace, so at least she could scratch anyone with good aim from the list of suspects.
Even the refrigerator had been ransacked, a carton of milk dumped out on the floor. Nolan was standing in it. And the contents from a leftover carton of Chinese food was smeared across the countertops. He carefully avoided touching it.
He opened a drawer and found a paper bag and handed it over. She thanked him and folded the notes inside.
He couldn’t even hide his disgust as he paused. “There probably isn’t anything left in here worth eating,” he muttered.
Leaving the surveillance report and bag on a clean square of countertop, April tiptoed through the rubble to the pantry cupboard and peered inside. Whoever had been in Nolan’s kitchen hadn’t really bothered with it, so the contents were still pretty much intact, although that didn’t mean there was much to choose from. She pulled out a lone box of crackers and shook it, then stuck her hand in. They were big and round, and when she popped a whole one into her mouth it stretched her cheeks.
“This will be just fine, thanks.” She grinned around a mouthful of crumbs, all semblance of professionalism falling away. It was too late, not to mention she was too hungry and tired, to keep it up any longer.
He came up beside her and looked inside the pantry, too. Then he pulled out a can of sardines and a tiny jar of artichoke hearts in oil.
Hanging from a hook inside the pantry cupboard was a broom. She grabbed it and started to sweep aside the broken china in front of the door.
“Don’t do that,” he protested, reaching out to stop her. “The insurance company said they’ll send someone out in the morning to assess all the damage and start cleaning up.”
She felt the urge to comfort him. It had to be hard to be here in the middle of all this destruction. He didn’t strike her as the overly sentimental type, but everyone’s house should be the one place where they felt safe, the place they kept the things that were special to them. To see everything smashed and broken…
“I just want to clear a spot for a picnic,” she said and pointed at the kitchen table, which was covered in half-dried broken eggs that had been smeared around like finger paint. “I’m not sitting there.”
With that she plopped down on the floor of the pantry with her box of crackers. He grinned and sat with her, prying the pull-tab lid off the tin of sardines. “Give me one of those,” he said. She handed over the crackers with a grin.
He should have looked ridiculous. Cross-legged on the ceramic tile in his suit, minus the jacket, digging into a box of crackers. But as she watched, he bent his leg and draped an arm over his knee. His smile had less of the edge that had crept over him since they’d got here, and her stomach hollowed out with aching desire. He’d only become more appealing with every minute they’d spent together.
He used his fingers to pinch the end of a sardine and put it on his cracker, dripping oil. She looked on in horror as he glanced around for something to wipe his hands with. “Wait!” she cried. “Don’t you dare ruin those pants.”
He paused and grinned at her. “I have others.”
“No you don’t,” she reminded him, looking back into the pantry. “Not unless you think your devastating smile is enough to keep people from noticing that your clothes have all been slashed to ribbons.” She scooted to grab a roll of paper towels from the bottom shelf.
He grinned. “You think my smile is devastating?”
Heat bloomed up to her forehead. “I think you know exactly what you do with your smile, and it’s all very calculated.”
“Shit. My secret’s out.” His grin only widened. He tore off a sheet of paper towel and wiped his fingers. “I guess it’s time to drown my sorrows then.” He lifted his cracker in a mock toast and popped it into his mouth. Then he went for the jar of artichokes.
She looked on in amazement. “Who even buys this stuff?” she asked with a laugh.