Authors: Marissa Clarke
She sighed at the mortifying level of Claire-ism potential that held. So many things could go wrong, and she couldn’t afford to leave this job until the life insurance policy paid out. She had bills to pay.
Nope. Not going to happen
. Always-responsible Claire would remain…responsible.
Claire’s Tuesday-morning commute was as uneventful as her Will-free Monday afternoon had been. For the first time, she’d arrived on time with no Claire-isms at all. Not even her usual tripping over her own feet as she descended the stairs to the subway. And she hoped, as she slipped behind her desk with time to spare, it wasn’t the sign that a real doozy of a Claire-ism was on the way.
She glanced through her open door at the mahogany entrance to the office across the lobby. The older secretary, Mildred something-or-other, knocked, then entered carrying a large blue coffee mug. It was Michael Anderson’s office, but it was also Will’s home base yesterday morning before he disappeared. Her heart beat a little harder at the thought that he might be in the building. Maybe she should close her door and try to push him out of her mind.
That was a sound plan. Stop spying on the office across the hall and put an end to the mental shenanigans centered on Will Anderson. God knew she’d had plenty of that in her sleep last night. Every dream featured him, and man, what a show her subconscious had put on. Her entire body heated just remembering it.
“Stop thinking about him,” she scolded herself as she crossed her small office to close the door right as those across the lobby opened, revealing a rumpled and more-than-sexy Will Anderson holding the blue coffee mug. God, he looked like he’d stepped right out of last night’s dreams and into the lobby.
Like a deer in the headlights, she froze. So did he. And for a long, odd moment, they simply stared at each other. If attraction could be made tangible, the entire lobby would have crackled with lightning bolts. And then, it would have ended with a sonic blast because he gave her the biggest, sexiest dimpled grin imaginable. A jolt of lust shot straight from her navel to every part of her body, even her freaking toes.
“Ka-boom,” she whispered as she closed the door. So much for a Claire-ism free morning.
What the hell was that?
Will wondered, heart like a jackhammer pounding in his chest. He stared at Claire’s closed office door and shook his head to clear it. It had been like a scene from one of those silly animated movies where the animals sing and the world melts away while the loving couple make goo-goo eyes. Thank God Michael was out of town and Chance hadn’t made it in yet. If they’d seen it, he’d never live it down. He took a swallow of coffee and shook his head again. His mission was to uncover a spy, and here he was lusting over the number one suspect.
After another cup of coffee and a shower and shave in Michael’s executive bathroom, Will put on some fresh clothes he’d picked up from home yesterday afternoon and went to the small Anderson security office on the floor below to study the video footage from the past three weeks. It irritated him that the first thing he had done when exiting Michael’s office was check out Claire’s office to see if he could get a glimpse of her. It irritated him even more that he was disappointed her door was still closed.
After several hours poring over security video, Will found nothing out of the ordinary. He looked at his watch. Based on the video footage, Claire Maddox left her office about this time for her lunch break. He stared at the monitor that caught most of the lobby, including her office door. After several minutes, she exited her office, pausing for a moment and staring toward Michael’s office door, then turned right, away from the lobby.
Even seeing her in black and white on a small monitor caused his body to react. This would trouble him in an ordinary situation, but it was maddening since she was a focus of his investigation. Will had learned to trust his gut in the military, and everything in him rebelled against the notion she was the spy. He had to trust that feeling, and he did. He was convinced Claire was innocent. Sure, she had some missing pieces in her personnel file, but so could just about anyone in a temp position, especially being the agency owner’s friend. She’d likely never held down a long-term job since graduating from college.
She disappeared from view on his screen, then appeared in the next as she made her way down the hallway to the lunchroom. But instead of walking to the end of the hall, she looked around as if making sure nobody was watching, then slipped inside the file room, shutting the door behind her.
Will held his breath and studied the screen feeding from the file room. The camera was trained on the back of the space where the important, locked files and the vault doors were located. Claire was not in the camera’s line of vision. What the hell was a temp doing in the file room? None of her job duties would involve business in that area.
His stomach twisted for a moment as he watched the screen. Still, nothing. It was like she had disappeared. He bolted from the office to the stairwell, taking the steps two at a time. Surely his instincts weren’t that far off. Claire had seemed so straightforward and real. But then, so had Beth… He marched ahead and yanked open the door to the file room.
Her startled hazel eyes met his, and she gasped. Instead of catching her riffling though files, he found her eating yogurt and a sandwich at the table right inside the door.
What a relief. She was doing nothing wrong. Weird, but not wrong.
“The lunchroom is two doors down,” he said, controlling his breathing so she wouldn’t know he’d sprinted up here like an idiot.
She wrapped up her sandwich and threw her purse strap over her shoulder. “I’m so sorry. I guess I’m not supposed to have food in here. I just wanted some privacy. Beverly always comes in when I’m in my office.”
He closed the door quietly behind him, trying not to spook her any more than he already had with his guns-blazing entry. God, he felt like a dick. “It’s fine.” He noticed her eyes flit to the door behind him. “Do you want me to open it? I closed it because you did and I assumed you didn’t want anyone else in the office knowing you were in here eating.”
She placed the sandwich back on the table and unwrapped it. “I’m good either way.”
He slid into the chair opposite her. She made no move to resume her lunch. Instead, she kept her eyes on her sandwich, which gave him the opportunity to openly stare at her. Her gold hair reminded him of midday sunshine. Not the rays from hell like he endured in the desert—but the kind of sunshine that made him want to close his eyes and tilt his head back to get more of it. More of her was exactly what he wanted, which was troubling on several fronts, both personal and professional. Still, despite the best logic in the world telling him to back down, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Just like yesterday in her office, he was at war with himself.
The only indication of her state of mind was the twitching of her pinky fingers. She was uncomfortable. Well, of course she was—he’d really fucked up, not only by blasting in here and startling her, but by pushing her so hard in her office yesterday. “Look, Claire. I’m sorry I came on so strong yesterday. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”
Her eyes met his. “I liked it,” she said, barely above a whisper. She smoothed the paper flat around her sandwich. “Loved it, actually.”
The breathy sound of her voice made his whole body stand at attention before his brain even had time to process her words.
I liked it.
He’d liked it, too. He leaned back in his chair and exhaled slowly. He hadn’t blown it after all. There was that honesty again. He was attracted to this quality about her even more than her ass, and her ass was pretty fucking spectacular. “Yet you turned down my offer for lunch.”
A slight smile pulled at the corners of her mouth. “Yes, and all other things implied.”
“Everything.” She fiddled with the corner of the sandwich wrapper.
That was a completely unexpected exchange. Raw and real, but a little too vague. They were right on the edge of something, teetering before either pulling back or falling off completely. He remained still, hoping she’d go on without prompting.
“Do you want some of this sandwich?” she asked, pushing her glasses up on her nose.
After placing both halves on one side, she ripped the wrapper in half, then put part of the sandwich on it and slid it to him.
Still, he sat silently and waited. She seemed to want to tell him more but didn’t know how. He had seen this dozens of times with the men in his unit. Honesty needed to be given, not forced. Sometimes, though, it could be coaxed. “You were talking about fear,” he prompted before digging into the sandwich. The fact that she wasn’t trying to get rid of him, knowing he was one of the owners of the company, boded well for her innocence. No way was this girl the spy.
She took a bite and chewed for a moment before answering. “Yeah. Well, I’ve taken care of people my whole life, pretty much. Now all those people are gone. For the first time ever, I’m free.”
“So you turned down my offer for lunch because…?”
Her eyes shot up to his. “Because I’d reached my all-time record number of Claire-isms for the day and the earth might have exploded if I committed another.”
She ate a bite of yogurt and nodded. “Yeah. When something goes massively wrong or especially when something is embarrassing, my friend Heather calls it a Claire-ism. I’m forever doing odd or embarrassing things.”
“Your skirt ripping was a Claire-ism.”
“A prime example. So was spilling my purse.”
He nodded. “So how does that relate to my lunch offer?”
“That had massive Claire-ism potential.”
He smiled—he found himself doing that constantly around her—and took another bite of the roast beef sandwich. “In what regard?”
“In every regard. First, I wasn’t sure you meant it. Second, I would have done something awkward. Third, it made no sense.” She dipped her spoon in the yogurt, and he watched her pull the utensil between her lips.
He leaned closer, staring at her full mouth before reluctantly dragging his gaze back to her deep hazel eyes. “First, I meant it.
meant it.” Her breath caught, and she blinked slowly. “Second,” he said, leaning even closer—close enough to smell something floral, perhaps her shampoo, “something that you consider awkward, I might like. Take the ripped skirt for example—I liked that a lot.” A blush crept up her neck and over her face. “And as for not making sense…” He leaned back in his chair. “Go out to dinner with me so I can show you how much sense it makes.” She remained silent, but her eyes never left his. “Say yes,” he prompted, surprised at how badly he wanted her to agree.
Still no answer, but a faint smile curved her lips and she looked away. Good. She was considering it. She balled up her sandwich wrapper, and put it, along with her plastic spoon and empty yogurt cup, into a paper bag. When she stood, he did, too, holding his breath in anticipation.
“Yes.” She met his eyes and her smile broadened. “Yes. I’d like that.”
Nothing about this woman was guarded or deceptive. No way was she the spy. “Excellent. So, how about tonight at eight?”
Claire couldn’t believe this was happening. Gorgeous men never asked her out. Never. Yet, here was William Anderson inviting her to dinner. It took everything in her not to jump up and down, pumping her fist in the air. In her buzzy haze, it sounded like a great idea.
her body cheered, but then she stilled as a wave of disappointment flooded her. She had her Tuesday girls’ night out with Heather. They met twice a week for drinks now that Claire was no longer tied down. “I can’t. I already have plans.”
He shoved his hands in his pockets. “That’s too bad.”
Everything in her wanted to say yes, but it was just too good to be true. A man this important and desirable would never seek her out like this. Something was off. “So, do you do this often?”
“Ask women from the office out?”
“I don’t ask anyone out. I don’t date…well, I haven’t in a long time anyway.” He took several steps closer. Near enough to touch, but he didn’t. “But I want to go out with you, Claire.”
Heather had told her to do something reckless. Going out with William Anderson was as reckless as jumping the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle. Just having him this near made her knees go weak. “Yes,” she whispered in spite of her misgivings.
Will’s phone buzzed in his back pocket and he took a step back. “Sorry.” His smile faded as he stared at his screen, then a less genuine one replaced it when he shoved the phone back in his pocket. “We’ll leave from here and catch a bite somewhere casual close by. Will that work?”
She nodded, and was relieved when the warmth entered his eyes again. He moved closer and ran his fingertips down her arm. Such a gentle touch, but her entire body hummed to life. “See you tomorrow.” He gave her one last dimpled grin, grabbed his sandwich wrapper, and left the room.
Gasping for breath, she slumped against the table.
. She was going on a date with the hottest man she’d ever seen who made her lose her mind with a simple touch. How in the world could she go back to editing descriptions of Greek pottery? She straightened and gathered her purse. “How’s that for reckless, Heather?”
Will sat back in Michael’s desk chair and stared at the text again.
When it came in while he was in the file room with Claire, he assumed it was Jim getting back to him about his findings. Instead, it was Suzanne Elliot, a socialite who ran in Beth’s circles—and his, too, if he ran at all, which he didn’t anymore.
He’d bumped into Suzanne on his way into the building day before yesterday. It had been good to see a friend from college, and he thought nothing of exchanging numbers as a nicety. He’d never expected her to actually contact him.
So much for expectations
What was he supposed to do? He was free tonight because Claire was going out with someone else. What harm could it do to meet an old acquaintance for drinks? Hell, it might even be fun. He’d make it someplace close and keep it short and sweet. At least his brothers would quit hassling him about being a hermit.
How about Georgio’s at 5:30?
he texted back. There
Early and close.
Her response was immediate.
Fabulous. Can’t wait to catch up
“Hey!” Chance said, peeking in the doorway. “A client from a few years ago just called. He’s selling off some stuff. Michael is going to be stoked.” His brother had the trademark Anderson dimples, which showed up when he grinned like he was now. He was wiry and thin like Michael, but despite his quiet demeanor, he managed to look like a badass even in the suit and tie. Perhaps it was his longer hair or his eight-billionth-degree black belt in karate or whatever he was now.
Their mom had labeled the Anderson brothers from early childhood. Michael was the serious one, William was trustworthy and dependable, and baby Chance was the sensitive artist. Will had always half expected Chance to spin off into all kinds of craziness, but it had never happened. He was probably the best-looking of the three brothers, and girls had always followed him around like puppies. With the exception of a few dates here and there, he just didn’t seem interested, which unlike the dimples, was
an Anderson brother trait.
Since his return from duty, Will usually preferred to be alone, but something had shifted today and being alone tonight didn’t appeal. He hoped it wasn’t a bad thing. “You doing anything later tonight?” Maybe they could meet up after he had a drink with Suzanne.
“I’m stuck here for a while. Plan to order takeout at five if you want to join in. I have a sparring match at eight, but have to finish Polly Guidry’s contract first.”
Well, that effectively took Chance out of play tonight unless he wanted to go to the dojo and watch him face off with another ninja type. Will folded up one of his cuffs. God, he hated dress clothes. “Polly… Old Bart’s widow?”
“Yep. She’s selling off a Rembrandt charcoal and three Faberg
pieces. The auction and wine and cheese party is here in the lobby on Thursday. Super small, invitation-only event, so no real security issues for this one.”
“Is she selling stuff off to finance another European luxury tour?” Will’s other cuff received the same treatment as the first.
“Nope. She’s gone cougar. Buying a yacht for her new, younger man.”
“She must be eighty by now.”
“Eighty-one. He’s seventy-four. Love is timeless.” Chance winked and swung his feet back to the floor. “Dinner early here, then?”
“Can’t. Meeting Suzanne Elliot for drinks.”
Chance’s eyes widened. “Suzanne Elliot, as in the model?”
“Yeah. We bumped into each other out front the other day.”
“I remember her from your engagement party. She’s kind of hard to forget.”
hard to forget. Tall, leggy, and in the prime of her modeling career four years ago, she’d captured the eye of the tabloids at the engagement party and stolen the limelight, which really pissed Beth off. It was the first real glimpse Will had gotten into Beth’s selfish, darker side. Sadly, it wasn’t the last.
“Wow. Suzanne Elliot.” Chance stood and gave him a friendly punch in the shoulder. “Good luck, man.”
For some reason, the inference bothered Will. “We’re just going for drinks. Nothing else.” Shit. He hoped Suzanne didn’t have the idea there would be more. Maybe he should call it off after all.
“You’ve been in the desert too long if you’re really expecting me to buy that.”
“Don’t you have some legalese to interpret somewhere so Polly can give her boy toy a yacht?”
Chance grinned. “Indeed I do.”
“Holy shit, girl, what did you do?” Heather broke her breadstick in half and wagged it at Claire. “I got phone calls from Bev the Beast and some dude named Jim asking all kinds of things about you. Did you do Michael Anderson or something?”
“No!” Claire covered her mouth and coughed out the bit of wine she’d just inhaled. “God, no.”
Heather shoved part of the breadstick in her mouth, eyes narrowing. “The little brother, then. The quiet one with the long hair. Shit, I’d do that one, no questions asked.” She dragged the other half of her breadstick in marinara sauce and took a bite. “I bet he’s got a wild streak a mile wide. The quiet ones always do.”
Claire raised her wineglass and took a sip, trying to cover up her panic. It unnerved her that people were calling Heather’s temp agency about her. And who was this Jim guy anyway? No doubt the calls had been triggered by Will Anderson’s puzzling interest in her. Claire didn’t like it. Not one bit.
“I did not…
either of them, Heather. I have no idea why this is happening.”
“Liar.” Heather cocked her head, then pointed at the bowl of marinara. “You are the color of this sauce right now. Spill, girl. I’ve known you too long to be fooled.”
Mercifully, the waiter arrived with their food and rescued her from having to answer. Maybe Heather would be so distracted by her huge bowl of lobster ravioli she’d drop it. The middle-aged man, wearing a white apron past his knees, placed the food in front of them, making a big deal about not touching the hot plates.
“So, who is it?” Heather asked before the waiter was even out of earshot.
Yeah, well, so much for dropping it.
Claire took a bite of her minestrone.
“Ignoring me won’t work.” She stabbed ravioli with her fork. “I have my sources in that office, and I’m going to find out sooner or later. Might as well get it over with.”
Even more embarrassing than admitting her attraction to William Anderson would be Heather snooping around and bringing someone else’s attention to it.
“You’re right. You’re probably getting called because I’ve…I’ve had some dealings with one of the brothers.”
Heather popped the ravioli into her mouth whole, face glowing like she’d won the lottery.
“Nothing serious. It was minor.”
Heather eyed her empty glass, then reached over and chugged some of Claire’s wine. “Nothing with an Anderson is minor. Scoring an Anderson is like spotting a Sasquatch. They are elusive, mysterious, and larger than life—if you know what I mean.” She winked and shoved another ravioli in her mouth. “And I have that last bit on the best authority.”
Claire was not going there. She’d said all she was going to say.
When her mouth was empty again, Heather leaned closer. “I knew you were bluffing at lunch yesterday. It’s the oldest one, right? I’ve heard he’s fantastic in bed. I have a couple of friends who say Michael Anderson was the best night of their lives.” She leaned even closer. “What did he do? They won’t give me any real specifics. Just vague five-star reviews and dreamy smiles.”
Claire pointed at her face and scowled. “Does this look like a dreamy smile?”
“No.” Heather gasped, then grinned. “Get out! You kissed the youngest brother, Chance? Nobody kisses Chance—well, at least Chance doesn’t kiss them back. Did he kiss you back?” She bounced in her chair and clapped her hands.
“You are way off base and I am not talking about this with you.”
“Well, that only leaves…” Her jaw dropped. “Oh, wow. I’d heard the middle one was back. Did William Anderson kiss you? Because if he did, you are one of the few girls in the world lucky enough to experience a close encounter with those lips.”
Not reacting, she took another bite of soup and waited for Heather to fill in the blanks. For once, she hoped her friend’s snooping and gossip would come in useful for more than entertainment. Maybe she could learn something about the man who made her heart hammer and her knees go weak.
“He dated the same woman forever. They had a huge high-society engagement ball even. I heard she called off the wedding before he came back from wherever the military sent him, but I never found out why.”
Claire stirred her soup.
“So, how was it?” Heather asked.
“Fine. We only talked, for heaven’s sake.”
Heather’s eyebrows shot up, and her lips pulled into that smirk Claire knew so well. “I’m calling bullshit. That guy is walking sex. Hell. If I’d known he was back in play, I’d have taken the position as editor myself. Whatever you did with that man was not ‘fine.’ Now, it might have been
It had been more than that, which was the most disturbing aspect of this whole business. She hadn’t even kissed the guy, but she could think of nothing else—which was out of character. Claire, though not worldly compared to someone like Heather, was no wallflower. She had dated in high school and early college before her grandparents got so sick. She even considered marrying Eric until he turned into a controlling asshole. Maybe he’d been one all along, but she hadn’t noticed until he insisted she stop caring for her grandparents because he didn’t like sharing her.
Will didn’t strike her as the controlling type. She sighed. If only he’d come along a couple of years ago. For the first time in her life, her time was her own. She was leaving the country in a few weeks, hopefully forever. No matter who…
Heather snapped her fingers. “Hellooooooo, Claire! We’re talking about important things here, like William Anderson’s lips.”
She grinned. “He only used his lips to talk.”
“What a waste. Are you going to see him? I mean in addition to the office…talk?” She winked.
“That’s fantastic.” Heather accepted the black check folio from the waiter and lifted it above her head when Claire reached for it.
“Come on and let me cover this one. I owe you dinner for getting me this job to cover expenses until my money comes in and I take off.”
“Nuh-uh. I’m buying dinner as a bribe for more info. A lot can happen between a man and woman in two weeks.” She pitched her credit card into the black folder and handed it back to the waiter. “Consider this prepayment for vicarious enjoyment of your future ‘dealings’ with William Anderson.” Her mouth went slack as she looked over Claire’s shoulder. “And oh, shit. Speak of the devil.”
Claire knew having dinner at the Italian restaurant across from the Anderson Building was a mistake, but she and Heather had met here every week since she’d started working at Anderson Auctions, as the temp agency office was only a few streets away.
Claire gripped the table, forcing herself to not turn around. Instead, she watched Will’s reflection in the glass of a huge black-and-white photo of the New York skyline. He wasn’t alone.
“Oh my God,” Heather whispered. “He’s with that model chick. The tall, black-haired one with the legs for days whose picture was on that billboard at the Astoria station a couple of years ago. You know the one. The ad for those designer jeans with the rhinestones on the ass?”
Claire squeezed her eyes shut and swallowed the lump in her throat.
I will not turn around, I will not turn around, I will not turn around.
Will’s reflection slid off the side of the glass as he was seated at a table somewhere behind her.
Heather flagged the waiter down. “Two more glasses of merlot.” She tapped Claire’s arm. “Unless you want something stronger.”
“No. Nothing for me, thank you,” she murmured. Her chest felt too tight to breathe.
The waiter nodded and headed off, and she released her white-knuckle death grip on the edge of the table and slipped her purse from the back of the chair to her lap. “I’ve gotta go.”
“Not unless you want him to see you. So far, he’s looked at nothing but the hot model.”
“So, you have to face him at work tomorrow and you have a
. How awkward do you want it to be? Sit still a moment.” Her eyes flitted back to the couple somewhere behind and to the right of Claire. “They refused menus, so they’re probably just having drinks. If they leave first, he won’t know you saw him out with Sparkle Jeans the same day he hit on you.”
“He didn’t hit on me. He asked me out. And the only reason you want me to stay is to see what happens.”
“Damn right, I do. Don’t you?”
The waiter delivered Heather’s wine, and Claire buried her face in her hands. Maybe she’d call in sick tomorrow. Hell, she wouldn’t be too far off. Her stomach was about to heave-ho. “I’m not sticking around to see if he scores. Thanks for dinner.” Claire stood, gathered her purse, and without glancing in the direction she knew Will had gone, exited the restaurant.