Authors: Marissa Clarke
Glancing up, she caught sight of Will Anderson emerging from the double doors across the enormous lobby. Before he’d made more than six long, confident strides, Higgins the Hag headed him off and turned over a stack of files. He then disappeared back through the double doors. At least she knew where to find him to return his coat.
An hour or so later, movement drew her eye to the set of doors across the lobby again. Will backed through the threshold, his attention held by something or someone inside.
What a fantastic view. Wide shoulders, trim waist,
, the way those pants fit over his tight…
He turned suddenly, and piercing blue eyes met hers as if he’d read her thoughts or something. One dark eyebrow arched and he smiled, confirming he knew she’d been checking him out.
Well, shit. Totally busted.
She returned his smile in a failed attempt at nonchalance, then pretended to go back to work, eyes glued to her monitor. The words on the screen might as well have been in Greek, as her body responded to the man who’d smiled from across the lobby with a jolt of adrenaline that made her clothes feel too heavy and tight. What on earth was going on? Maybe being on her own for the first time was affecting her sense of reason—or jump-starting her hormones. “Do not look at him,” she muttered under her breath.
Shit, shit, shit.
How had he sneaked up so silently? A big man like that should lumber like a bear, not slink soundlessly.
She took a deep breath, eyes still fixed on the screen. This was embarrassing, not fatal. Since Claire-isms were a constant of her everyday life, she’d grown a thick skin and tended to simply own her mistakes outright. “Because, Mr. Anderson, I need to be looking at the computer monitor, not you. This description has to be edited by lunch.”
He leaned against her doorframe, seeming surprised by her honesty. And intrigued. He studied her for a beat, as though making up his mind about something, and then nodded slightly. “Well, I have the perfect solution. Look at your monitor until lunch, then look at
Had he just asked her out? He was her boss or something. Surely there was a rule against this. And that alone made her want to accept—to finally break a rule and do something irresponsible, unexpected, or forbidden.
Her pulse stuttered.
She wanted to say yes, and he knew it. A satisfied smile stretched his mouth, and Claire realized she was way out of her depth. Why would he want to go out to lunch with
He could have anyone he crooked his finger at…
She needed to say no. She must have heard him wrong or was reading too much into his offer. Maybe he planned to meet in the lunchroom where most of the employees ate together, and he hadn’t meant that the way it sounded. Besides, he didn’t strike her as a total loser, and that’s pretty much all she seemed to attract.
The photo of the urn she was staring at was reduced to a blur as every molecule in her screamed for her to meet his gaze.
Dammit! Pull yourself together, Claire. This is not the time and place to begin crushing on someone—and certainly not him.
Still, she couldn’t help meeting his eyes. Her heart beat faster and her whole body tightened under his intense stare.
“I’ll take that as a yes to my lunch offer.” At her sharp intake of air, his smile broadened. “The jacket is a nice look for you,” he said.
She slid it off her shoulders. “Oh, yeah. Thanks for the loan. I fixed the tear in my skirt, so I don’t need it anymore.” Carefully, she folded it in half and held it out to him.
He stepped closer and her pulse stuttered like a pinball machine. He reached out and took the coat from her, brushing her arm in the process. “My job for years was to cover people’s asses. Never before has the job been so pleasant.”
Blood rushed to her face in a hot wave. Yeah. Way out of her depth. “Listen, about lunch. I don’t think it’s a good idea, but thanks anyway, Mr. Anderson.”
“Please call me Will, and I think it’s a great idea. The best idea I’ve had in a long time.”
She shook her head, not knowing what to say. He terrified her—not in a bad way, but just from the unnatural pull she felt toward him. He seemed too good to be true, and Claire had learned a long time ago—that kind of luck wasn’t meant for her.
“Are you married?” he asked.
She shook her head again and continued shaking it as he ran through several more options.
“Engaged? Attached? Committed to? Living with? …No?” He snapped his fingers. “Ah! Living
Perhaps men aren’t your thing?”
That caused her to gasp, and the blush burned all the way over her scalp. “No, no. It’s—”
“Good.” He folded the jacket over the back of a chair facing her desk, the hint of a smile teasing the corners of his eyes again. “Because in all my years of covering people’s asses, yours is by far the best I’ve ever covered. And I want to take the both of you out for lunch.”
How could she say no to that?
“Thanks. Both my backside and I are flattered, but we can’t.”
“Perhaps you should let it speak for itself.”
God, his grin was gorgeous. And he was funny. She needed funny. She needed a lot of things, but this had disaster written all over it. Temp job or not, she was placed here by her best friend and he was her boss, for Pete’s sake. “Sorry. It’s shy.”
“That’s a shame. I was hoping to get to know both of you much better. Maybe get on a first-name basis.”
Holy crap, he had a dirty mouth and mind. She fought the urge to shift in her chair and relieve the ache traveling through her body. She’d never encountered a man this straightforward. She loved it.
Her eyes traveled from her monitor and landed on a vee of tanned skin exposed by his partially opened dress shirt. He’d seemed out of his element in a coat and tie. This, though still not quite right, was much better. Her eyes paused momentarily on his lips, and when his smile broadened, her gaze jerked to his eyes.
“You want to say yes,” he whispered and leaned closer from across her desk. “Both of you do. Both of you
Holy freaking shit.
She remained stone-still as he placed his palms on her desk and leaned even closer, sending shivers down her spine. There was that smell again—mint and man. And breathing it in made her a little dizzy. She held her breath as he spoke. “I survived against all odds for two tours because of my uncanny instinct to read people. I’m pretty sure I read this correctly, Claire Maddox. I certainly hope I did.”
And right before she turned into a puddle of mush, he backed away. “I’m across the lobby if you get hungry.”
“I already have lunch plans,” she muttered halfheartedly, hoping Heather was free so she wouldn’t get caught in a total lie.
“You could always cancel and join me instead,” he said with a wink.
Claire was sure she’d used up half of her heart’s lifetime quota of beats by the time he sauntered out of her office and across the lobby, disappearing behind the mahogany double doors. He’d known her name. She was sure she hadn’t introduced herself on the elevator—perhaps her backside had. She chuckled at his silly sense of humor, then noticed he’d left the jacket. God, how she wanted to go slip it back on and surround herself with his intoxicating scent, but she took a deep, calming breath instead.
It was a good thing he left when he did or one of two things would have happened: one, Claire would have died on the spot from sheer lust overload, or two, she would have climbed over the desk to see if the seam on his pants was as easy to rip as the one on her skirt had been.
She leaned back in her chair and sighed, unsure if she should curse her friend Heather for placing her in this job, or thank her.
Will cursed and adjusted himself under the restaurant table. When he’d seen Claire Maddox leave for lunch, it was all he could do to not follow her. Instead, he’d watched her leave the building on his security monitor and gritted his teeth as he wondered who she was meeting.
When he’d looked across the lobby that morning and discovered the little blonde from the elevator checking him out, he couldn’t simply ignore it. He couldn’t get the image of her pink-thong-clad body out of his mind. And then there was her face. Fine, angular features and huge hazel eyes, and she had a great sense of humor, too. A triple threat: body, brains, and personality.
Back at the office, he’d only planned to chat briefly with her and collect his jacket. He hadn’t intended to ask her out, but for some reason, he couldn’t stop himself—his brain and body shifted to autopilot. She made him laugh, and that was something he hadn’t had occasion to do in a long, long while.
He scanned the restaurant again for signs of his brother. Where was Chance anyway?
Cursing, he pulled the file out of his briefcase next to him in the booth. Might as well not waste time. The sooner he solved this, the better. He flipped open the file and reread the description of the woman who’d intercepted the lost deals, then skimmed through the employee files of the women at Anderson Auctions who might remotely fit the description. Claire Maddox, his blonde from the elevator, seemed like the prime candidate for the spy. The person intercepting deals was described as petite woman in her mid to late twenties with a fantastic knowledge of antiques who called herself Flo. Hair and eye color varied, but wigs were easy to come by, as were temp hair dyes and colored contacts. The only other employee in the editorial department who fit the age and size of the spy was Mallory White. And though pretty in a wet dream sort of way, Mallory couldn’t possibly hold down the appearance of a savvy antiquities broker intermediary. And after a brief conversation with her this morning, he was certain she couldn’t pull it off intellectually, either.
Despite his doubts, all evidence pointed to Claire. And that really pissed him off. Why did it matter so much? Because she had a great ass and he wanted a piece of it? Was he really that pathetic?
No. It was the girl herself. She was different.
And she’d been insanely honest, even to her great embarrassment.
He closed his eyes and leaned back in the chair, playing their conversation over in his head. She was different and smart. Smart enough to carry off a slick game of corporate espionage, but she didn’t seem like the type. Surely his instincts weren’t that far off.
It was an odd coincidence though, that a woman matching the exact description of the woman poaching their clients just happened to get a job at Anderson Auctions around the same time the deals started being intercepted.
What hung him up most was the lack of information in Claire’s personnel file. She had come from a temp agency they used often, but nothing personal was in her file. Only education and date of birth. No work experience or reference letters. Not even a fucking address, like she’d come out of nowhere.
Damn if that wasn’t right. She came out of nowhere like a two-by-four against the skull, knocking all common sense out of him and turning him into a walking woody.
He sat up and grabbed his cell phone from under his menu. Jim would be able to dig up something on her to prove she wasn’t the spy. He texted his longtime buddy and former CIA agent the info on a Miss Claire Elaine Maddox. Twenty-five years old, single, master’s degree in history with a focus in ancient civilizations from a prestigious New York university—a seemingly perfect match for their spy.
And hot as hell. Take those smart wire-rimmed glasses off and let that hair down and
Once more, he pictured the reflection in the elevator door of her hot-pink lace thong flossing her perfectly formed ass. He groaned and adjusted himself again. Welcome back to New York City, brother. Have we got a case for you—a case of blue balls.
“Hey, sorry I’m late,” Chance said, sliding into the booth opposite him. “I was looking over the original agreement between Anderson Auctions and Elite Placement Agency, which, by the way, is owned by a Heather Larksay, who Mrs. Higgins says is first-rate. This recent temp is evidently a personal friend of Larksay and came with a ringing endorsement.”
That might explain the incomplete personnel file. Beverly Higgins and the agency owner were tight. Jim would need to pay this Heather Larksay a visit. Will slid a menu across the table. “The contract?”
“Standard, terminable at will.”
After the waitress came by and they ordered burgers, they went through the file on the lost deals together and discussed the conclusion that Will didn’t buy. Most evidence pointed to the new temp, Claire Maddox.
“We should terminate her without cause,” Chance said. “She has no claim for unemployment or wrongful termination since she’s a temp, so even if we’re wrong and she’s not the spy, we’ve not harmed ourselves. Her agency will simply place her somewhere else.”
Will took another bite of burger and shook his head. “Michael wants to find out who she’s working with.” He chased the bite with a swallow of Coke. “Not really liking the Maddox woman for the spy anyway.”
“Why not? Everything points to her.”
Will shrugged and pushed his now-empty plate away. “Just a hunch.”
Chance stared at him for an uncomfortably long time. Will knew what he was thinking—although his hunches were usually right, he had been way, way off with Beth.
“How are you holding up?” his brother asked.
His plate was suddenly interesting. “Fine.”
Will met his brother’s pale, clear eyes. He was right. He wasn’t fine. Far from it, but there was nothing his brother or anyone else could do about it. Will needed more time. He hadn’t even been back a year yet, hardly long enough to rid his lungs of the sand and his eyes of the crosshair shadows from the scope on his rifle. Not to mention the scars left on his heart. “I’m better.”
Chance nodded. “Okay. Better is good. Have you seen her?”
“No, the tooth fairy, you asshole.” He rolled his eyes. “Yes, Beth. I’m worried about you. Don’t make me fish for information.”
“The last time I saw her face-to-face was when I was deployed for the last time. It’s been over two years since then. Eight months since she stood me up at the airport. No, I haven’t seen her. I don’t plan to.” He realized he was almost shouting and took a moment to calm down. On the day his plane was scheduled to land from his last tour of duty, Beth, in her usual socialite fashion, went to the press and ended their engagement publicly, and then didn’t greet him at the airport. The press gobbled up the high-profile breakup. He’d found out he’d been jilted by reading about it in the fucking paper. He would never trust Beth or any woman ever again. Hell, he’d had his whole life planned around her. Giving his heart like that was risky, and the payoff wasn’t worth it. Casual dating was one thing, but he vowed to never have another long-term girlfriend again. And he would never, ever allow himself to fall in love. One broken heart was enough for his lifetime and ten others.
“She’s been asking around about you. I think things didn’t work out with Mr. Wonderful and she’s sniffing around again.”
“She can sniff all she likes, she’ll never take another bite out of me. No woman will again.” He had to change the subject before he lost his cool. “Tell me about the new acquisitions that came in while I was away.”
And while he listened to his brother describe the new pieces he didn’t give a shit about, he decided it was best he stay away from the office for the rest of the day until his obsession with Claire Maddox and her pink thong had ended or was at least under control. Interest this intense was dangerous. Will was all about avoiding danger these days.
“I was surprised when you called me,” Heather said, pulling a set of plasticware out of the bin and handing it to Claire. “I hope this doesn’t mean our girls’ night out for tomorrow is canceled.”
“No, I’m still on. I just needed a rescue today.”
Poor word choice.
They moved up in the line as a family got their sandwiches and cleared out in front of them. “And what, pray tell, sweet Claire, did you need me to rescue you from?”
“Is Michael Anderson behaving badly?” She wagged her eyebrows. “I hope so.”
Claire ordered her salad and then turned to gawk at her friend. “No. I just needed to get away. I felt cooped up.”
Part of her wanted to tell Heather about Will Anderson, but for some reason, she held back. Talking about her hot, smart, funny, dirty-talking boss would only encourage Heather to push her for more information. She accepted her salad from the girl behind the counter and staked out a table by the window. She needed sunlight. What she really needed was out of this city, but that was happening soon enough. So soon, she could almost taste it.
Heather plopped into the chair across the tiny table and took a huge bite of her corned beef sandwich. The sun made her red curls glow. Claire wished she could have the sassy self-confidence her friend had. Biting back a smile, she remembered her banter with Will Anderson today. She’d been far sassier in those few minutes with him than she’d been in the previous five years combined. He had brought out something in her she’d missed: fun. And she wanted more of it.
No. He was her boss. Her rich, sexy boss, for God’s sake. And way too perfect for someone like her. The Claire-ism potential was way off the scale.
Heather took another bite of sandwich and studied Claire as she chewed. “Okay, so since this surprise lunch isn’t agenda-driven, I guess we’ll talk about business as usual, dammit.”
Claire grinned, glad to fall into a familiar conversation with her best friend…her only friend. “How’s work?”
“Good. Had three new candidates come in this morning. I cleared out my schedule this afternoon, though, because I’m taking Brian to the movie.”
“How’s Brian doing?” Heather hadn’t mentioned her nephew in a while. Claire always marveled at the little boy’s spirit. He was just as friendly now as he was before the chemo started.
“He’s doing good, health-wise.” Heather shook her head. “But his dad lost his job a year ago, as you know. They lost insurance benefits last month. The meds are really expensive. They’re trying to get assistance, but they have to scramble in the meantime.”
She gave a weak smile. “We’re working it out.”
Claire moved her lettuce around on the plate, finding the cherry tomato she’d seen hiding earlier and popping it in her mouth while Heather poured another sugar into her tea.
“How’s work other than the topic you’re avoiding, specifically the smokin’ hot Anderson brothers?”
“I’m typing up a brochure on some Greek urns. Wanna see?” She pulled up the picture she had sent to her phone. Heather had majored in history and completely geeked out over the stuff coming through the auction house just like she did. In fact, they had met in undergrad in an early civilizations class and had become fast friends over a mutual love of all things Egyptian. Other than a brief gig with a small antiques shop, Heather was unable to get a job with her history degree, so she took over and eventually bought out her sister’s employment agency.
“Nice.” Heather handed the phone back. “Have you started boxing up and selling Sissy’s place?”
Claire stabbed a piece of romaine, then dropped her fork. “I can’t seem to make myself do it. I know I need to put the apartment on the market and move on, but…” Her salad became a blur on her plate. “It’s really hard, you know.”
“Oh, hon.” Heather scooted her chair next to Claire’s with a metallic screech and then wrapped her arm around her shoulder. “It’s time to do something for yourself now. You did nothing but nurse sick people full-time.”
“Not full-time. I got my degrees.”
“Oh, yeah. You left to go to classes a couple of hours a day, four days a week. Big whoop-de-doo. Then you returned home to take care of your grandparents. You’ve taken care of people your whole life, pretty much. It’s time you took care of yourself. Cut free. Do something fun and reckless.”
“Like get laid.”
Claire choked on the mouthful of water, and covered her mouth and nose with a napkin while Heather laughed.
“I’m serious. How long has it been? You haven’t dated anyone since that asshole Eric.”
It had been over a year, but until she laid eyes on hunky Will Anderson, her abstinence hadn’t even crossed her mind. Well, the sorry state of her nonexistent sex life was front and center now, which was why she was hiding in a deli with Heather, rather than eating lunch in the office like she usually did. One more close encounter with Will, and she’d be ripping her skirt seam on purpose.
“Are you still scheduled to leave for Egypt in two weeks? Have you packed yet?”
“That won’t take long. It makes no difference whether it’s a month or a year, I’ll only take what I can carry at one time by myself. I’m still waiting on the money and my passport.”
Heather moved her chair back around to face her. “I still can’t get over the size of the life insurance policy Sissy left you. It makes me feel a little better about you throwing your prime years away.”
“I didn’t throw anything away. I would have cared for Grandpa and Sissy for nothing. In fact, I didn’t even know about the money until the will was probated.”
“I bet that was a shock.” Heather made a squeaking sound. “You’ll be rich.”
And completely alone. “Yeah.”
Heather glanced at her phone. “Oh, shit. I have a one o’clock appointment. Gotta go.” She kissed her on the cheek, gathered her bag, and headed out the door like she’d been lit on fire. Heather never did anything halfway.
People on the street passed outside the deli window in a blur as Claire stared into space and fiddled with her salad. Maybe Heather was right. Maybe she needed to do something fun and reckless for once. And maybe, just maybe, that fun and reckless thing should involve her new, hotter-than-molten-lava boss, William Anderson.