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Secrets 1: Unavailable

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Secrets don’t belong in the office—or the bedroom.

Alex Brannigan walked up to Cailin on the dance floor like he owned the place. Owned her. And for a few perfect hours, he controlled her like he did everything else in his life—completely. Giving her pleasure. Saturating her with his need.

Then she woke to an empty bed. Alex was a one-night stand she didn’t think she could forget, but still, just a one-night stand. No big deal, right?

She was still telling herself that Monday morning when she walked into her new office and there, behind the desk, was the one man she thought she’d never see again. Too bad the fact that he’s her new boss isn’t the only reason he’s unavailable.

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Chapter One

What the heck am I doing here?

The warm summer breeze caressed Cailin’s bare—very bare—thighs. Her new black sheath dress, a “knockout” according to the teenage assistant at the mall, lingered just below the crease of her…um…rear, with no intention of going any lower. Revealing cutouts along her back, rib cage, and what little there was of the skirt were lined with silky mesh material that stretched over her curves. At twenty-eight, she wasn’t too old to wear young clothes, but she felt more and more naked with every passing minute.

Atlanta had an active twentysomething party scene, and it seemed as if every participating member had shown up for the grand opening of the latest downtown hot spot, Thrice. Nerves fluttered in her stomach and down her wobbly legs as she waited in the long line to enter the rocking new nightclub. Moving to Atlanta was a huge step for this small-town Alabama girl, but she’d made it. The transfer had been approved the same day her divorce finalized. At the time, Cailin hadn’t been sure whether to celebrate or bawl her eyes out, but she’d done enough bawling in the year it took to divorce Sean to last more than one lifetime. The past twelve months had been hell, and all she’d wanted was a chance to start over. A clean slate.

And look where it had landed her. In line. At a bar.

Here she was, a long way from the provincial town she’d grown up in, alone in a city she’d only rarely visited, surrounded by strangers, and…free. Being on her own was oddly freeing. She was learning things about herself that she’d never realized before. Good things.

And then there were the things she wished would go away, like the idea she’d woken up with this morning.

Anonymity wasn’t always a good thing. It tempted people to act in ways they normally wouldn’t, to indulge in fantasies they’d normally never consider if someone they knew was around to see—and condemn—them. Cailin had lain awake last night, staring at the darkened ceiling, alone and hungry. And not for food. Two years was a long time to go without touch, much less sex—especially when she’d spent half that time married—and she found her craving was getting harder and harder to ignore. Taking care of it herself just didn’t feel the same. She wanted human interaction, a man’s hands on her body. And this morning, she’d awakened with an idea of how to get it.

Thus the trip to Crazyville, um, Thrice.

It was risky, at least for her. Definitely unhinged. She’d been a virgin on her wedding night. She didn’t do casual sex. Or she hadn’t, but what other choice did she have? And it just so happened she had a really long, empty weekend ahead of her and a new nightclub opening not twenty minutes from her home. Best of all, nobody knew her. Nobody would be watching her “moral slipup,” as her mother would’ve called it. And nobody would talk. She could go, have a drink, maybe meet someone. Maybe go home with him. That’s what normal people did, right? At least, people who didn’t marry right out of school and who’d never in their life set foot in a bar.

What a backwoods idiot she was. She just prayed, after the amount of money she’d blown on her outfit, that the backwoods part of her was well hidden—and that this little foray into mental illness was somehow successful.

“You do realize you’re asking God for a hookup, Cailin,” she told herself, ignoring the questioning look of a cute young thing with a ring in his nose passing on his way to the end of the line. “That just proves how crazy you really are.”

The cutie did a quick twist to stare at Cailin as he went by. His gaze zeroed in on what she knew was a mostly bare back and clearly outlined butt. Her garters played peekaboo through the cutouts, extending just below her hemline to catch sheer thigh-high stockings, but the woman at the store had assured her it was utterly sexy. Cailin didn’t know about that—naughty might be a better word, but when had she ever been naughty? It was definitely past time to give herself a break from the good-girl routine. Tonight she could be anyone she wanted to be—and the woman she wanted to be was a sexy siren, ready to entice. Tilting a look over her shoulder, she gave the guy a smile, ignoring the jittery feeling in her stomach. Maybe she’d see him inside.

A group of women in line ahead of her giggled when the man winked back at her. They struck up a conversation about her dress, and by the time she greeted the broad-shouldered bouncer a half hour later, it felt as natural as buying a ticket to a movie. The way he eyed her legs helped her relax even more. She couldn’t swear, but she was pretty sure her reaction to that look was something like preening.

“Well, ready or not, here we go!” she whispered as she walked through the wide double doors.

The inside of the club was everything she’d ever imagined a bar to be: dark corners, flashing lights, driving music. The beat hit her middle, and the urge to dance struck hard. Since the dance floor was below the entry, almost like a sunken pit in the middle of the room, she skirted it to look around for a few minutes, fortifying herself with a fruity drink complete with miniparasol before approaching the stairs to go below.

“Alex! You made it!”

In a dark corner of the club’s bar, Alex Brannigan settled his frosty mug of even darker beer on the table and stood to bump knuckles with Damien, his childhood friend and owner of Thrice, before he wrapped the other man in a back-thumping bro hug. “Of course. Wouldn’t miss it; you know that.”

Damien flashed his signature pretty-boy smile, one Alex knew for a fact was a hundred percent genuine, gestured him back to his seat, and took the other one. “So what do you think?” He waved a hand to indicate the noisy room. “Great, isn’t it?”

“You’ve done a phenomenal job.” It was the truth. The place was a crush. Packed to the rafters, with every table full, the bar overrun, and the dance floor wall-to-wall mania. Damien’s infamous Midas touch was showing again. No one would have guessed that what used to be a dilapidated old warehouse could be turned into the trendiest nightclub in Atlanta. No one but Damien. Alex’s friend had an eye for the unusual, as he’d proven with his last two clubs, one in LA and the other in Denver. Hence the name.

Alex took a sip of the bitter beer, letting it soak into his taste buds as they discussed the renovations. Damien’s love for his work shone through, and Alex’s chest ached with envy. Not too long ago, he’d had the exact same enthusiasm for what he did, working his way to the top of the corporate ladder with the speed of an express elevator. He still loved the job itself, but at his level it wasn’t just about the job. It was about the politics, and God knew he was eyeballs-deep in the shit of politics. With no way out. Not without hurting the people he cared for the most.

“So what do you think of Atlanta so far?” his friend finally asked him, rubbing a hand across the dark stubble shadowing the lower half of his face.

“It’s definitely not LA.”

Damien laughed. “No, it’s not. But it has its moments.” Two skimpily clad women sauntered by, their hips swinging in opposite directions like clashing bells. Damien watched their progress with a less than professional eye. “Yep, definitely has its moments.”

Alex chuckled, shook his head, and finished off his beer with a final swallow.

Damien’s unrepentant grin gave the totally false impression of an innocent little boy; only the strong edge to his jaw and the hungry look in his eyes gave away the lie. “Hey, there’s a reason I do what I do.” His expression turned greedy as he surveyed the female population weaving around them. “And the nice thing about the women here? They’re not all silicone and collagen injections. The more natural the better, I always say.”

Alex silently agreed.

A waiter with a black apron around his waist approached the table. “Mr. Adams, Brad has some questions about—”

Damien raised a hand to cut the guy off, that hundred-watt smile softening the gesture. “I’m coming; give me just a minute.” He turned to Alex, clapping him on the back as he rose. “You won’t be a stranger, will you? I’ll have Brad send over another beer.” He nodded at Alex’s empty glass.

“Thanks, but I’ve got to head back.” It had been a long day in an even longer week, but he hardly knew what else to do with his time anymore but work. He stood and walked with Damien toward the bar. “Congratulations, man. Thrice looks like a helluva success.”

“Yeah, it does, doesn’t it?”

Alex gave the man a rueful grin. “And that’s what we’ve always loved about you: your humility.”

Damien barked out a laugh, then headed behind the bar.

Alex started the long walk toward the front door. The bar area was situated above the dance floor, which was sunk a whole level underground, the overhang surrounded with a wrought-iron balcony of sorts that allowed partygoers to watch the action below before deciding to dive in. He stopped at the edge, leaned his forearms on the hard railing, and let himself get lost in the mindlessness of writhing bodies and pulsing rhythms for just a few minutes.

Women glanced up, over, and around, his dark good looks drawing them in. He knew what they saw; he saw it in the mirror every day. A stranger. The crisp, dark hair, brown eyes, engaging smile—they belonged to someone he didn’t recognize anymore. Inside he was numb, hanging in a limbo that dulled the hungry edge with which he usually tackled life, completely disconnected from the successful business persona that conquered anything put in his path. Oh, he knew why, understood what the problem was, but he couldn’t fix it. Just wallow in it, hide it, and hate himself the whole time.

He shook his head and straightened, turning toward the door. He had to get back to the office before he got downright maudlin, and that he would never accept, ever.

The wide glass doors leading out to the street still loomed half a room away when he spotted her, the sight literally stopping him in his tracks. Thick, curly blonde hair swayed to below her shoulders, and when she pushed it back to tuck behind a delicate ear, soft caramel eyes shone in the dark of the room. She looked younger than his own thirty-six years, or maybe that was just the innocence in her unlined face talking. But her body didn’t say innocent; it screamed come take me. All lush curves and mysterious hollows encased in a black dress that should be declared illegal for the way it conformed to her shape. Damn if his cock didn’t sit up and beg with that very first glimpse. And the longer he looked, the harder he got, until every single thought vanished and all he could concentrate on was making his way toward her. He needed to know her name; he wasn’t sure why, and he didn’t care. Knowing was all that mattered.

Think, idiot, and with something besides your hard-on. Can you afford this?

White-knuckling the wrought iron to halt his progress, he stopped, dropped his head, forcing out the picture of her lithe form making her way down to the dance floor. Weigh the cost. Consider the risks. But all his brain wanted was to justify his hungry gaze on her.

The past two years had been consumed with protecting his reputation, insulating himself from innuendo, rumor, the wagging tongues that followed success—his in particular. Practicality said that at some point, he had to have another woman, if for no other reason than to relieve the constant blue balls he lived with every day. His libido shouted yes! at the thought, but his brain brought the tongue-hanging drive for sex to a screeching halt. His arms shook at the force of his grip on the balcony, but he refused to let go. Think.

He closed his eyes, letting the world around him fall slowly away. Okay, so he’d think. One, he was in a new city, one not nearly as gossip hungry as LA. Two, it hadn’t been long enough for his employees to get to know him, professionally and personally, or for him to worry about what they might say. Not that he’d seen anyone he knew tonight anyway. And three, if he didn’t act and act soon, he was gonna fucking do something drastic, like throw himself off the nearest bridge high enough to put him out of his misery.

That’s what he told himself, anyway.

The truth was, she captivated him. No name, no conversation, not even eye contact. None of it mattered. When he raised his eyes and caught sight of her in the midst of the crowd, slender arms arched above her body as she writhed to the beat of the music, logic fled, and the heavy haze of desire demanded he have her.

Guess that answered his question. He really was losing touch with reality.

Too bad. For the first time that he could remember, Alex Brannigan threw caution completely to the wind and made a decision based solely on his dick. God forgive me, he thought as he made his way down to the lower level. There was no going back now.

 

A PAUSE IN the cacophony was followed by the sultry sound of a sax filtering across the dance floor. Cailin stopped to catch her breath at the sound. She hadn’t been completely alone as she danced; several men had approached, partnered her for a few minutes, then left, leaving her available for another dance, another partner. She’d thought she would feel awkward dancing with strangers, but she didn’t. She enjoyed it. And she didn’t feel like a slut, either.

As the timbre of the music worked its way into her bones, she let her body move, sway, absorb the pleasure of sense and sound. When broad, heavy palms landed on her rocking hips, she startled. She whipped her head around, only to meet the darkest, sexiest brown eyes she’d ever seen. They blazed with emotion in a face that put Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, and every other Sexiest Man Alive to absolute shame. Her mouth opened in a soft “oh” as she stared.

God, he was beautiful.

And then he smiled. It was soft, secretive, sexy. Steaming. Her legs wobbled beneath her, but his grip kept her upright. Then his body made contact with hers—full-body contact, her back, point by point, met by the muscled heat of his chest, stomach, thighs. A gasp escaped as his pelvis brushed the base of her spine and an unmistakably rigid bulge made itself known. The next moment, she was lost in the intensity of his touch.

Her head turned to the side, Cailin tried to smile, but nerves and something else had wicked the moisture from her lips. He moved against her, his hips more agile than Patrick Swayze’s in Dirty Dancing, and nuzzled his sharp nose against the cheek closest to him.

“Hi.”

Her head reeled, her tongue tied itself in a firm knot, and she wished the solid floor beneath her would do her a favor and swallow her whole. Fast. “Hi.”

And then she gave herself up to the music. Talking was impossible, but moving wasn’t. And it felt delicious. She melted into the firm body supporting her, countered the sway of his hips, and fell in love with a man she’d spoken only one word to. Of course, she only loved him for his body. Nothing could compare. Nothing could ever feel as good as he felt against her. His arms circled her waist, his hands flat on the soft curve of her stomach. She wanted them on her breasts. On her mound. Between her legs. The music made love to her, one beat at a time, and he partnered it perfectly until her brain couldn’t think, couldn’t tell where she ended and he began. Didn’t want to. All she wanted was for this moment to last forever.

Which, of course, it couldn’t.

At the music’s final note, the man turned her in his arms, his tight grip pulling her into his body until her front was as firm against him as her back had been. She looked up—and up. Her head tilted back farther than she’d imagined it would have to in order to meet those chocolate eyes. He had to be at least six-four, much taller than Sean—

No, she wouldn’t think about Sean tonight. In the fantasy world she’d created, Sean no longer existed. He belonged to tomorrow and reality. Now was for sweet heat and the fantasy lover staring down at her.

“I’m Alex,” he said. His voice was a mix of gravel and velvet, the sound clenching her womb. Cailin blushed as a rush of hot moisture coated her inner thighs.

“Cailin.”

Alex tucked his head down to hear her, and at her name, he turned, eye to eye, his wide pupils mesmerizing her. Time stopped. Sound receded. And then he wet his bottom lip with a slick pink tongue. “Nice to meet you, Cailin.”

That seductive smile flashed again, so close she could touch it, taste it, before he straightened. The press of the heavy wall of his chest into her sensitive breasts brought a moan to her lips, one she abruptly cut off as soon as she realized what she’d done. Jeez, Cailin. Get it together. But he didn’t seem to mind. In fact his eyes heated further, and he rubbed lightly against her. In the back of her mind was the thought that if anyone else had pulled that move, she would have to remove his balls with her knee, but with Alex, it felt right. She didn’t know why. It just did.

Music swelled again, and Alex took control, moving her against him, the subtle rubbing of their bodies the most sensual foreplay she’d ever experienced. She knew in that moment that she would have sex with this man. If he wanted her—and the erection still going strong between them said he did—she would have him. She wouldn’t lose this opportunity. Guess she’d found her courage…in his arms.

The minutes passed with no regard to how much she wanted them to pause. As the next song came to an end, she realized they were close to the edge of the dance floor. Alex stepped aside, took her hand in his, and led her toward what looked like a dark hallway heading off to one side. Cailin balked, some unwanted feminine instinct waking her to reality and danger, but Alex soothed her. “Offices. The owner’s a friend of mine. I thought we could talk someplace quieter.”

Turning for a last look at the crowded dance floor, she followed him down the long hall, berating herself for the stupidity of the move but unable—or unwilling—to say no. Something deep down in her soul, some gut feeling she thought she’d lost when her marriage fell to pieces, trusted this man. Maybe it was the way he seemed to read her mind, to know what she needed before she did. The way he anticipated every move, as if even a breath didn’t escape his notice. She’d never felt like the center of a man’s entire concentration. She wanted more, wanted to bask in the intensity of Alex’s attention.

And the occasional employee passing them assured her they weren’t completely alone. If she screamed, someone would hear. Wouldn’t they?

A wide, heavy door marked, appropriately enough, OFFICE waited at the end of the passageway. Alex knocked, and a dark-haired man with classic playboy looks opened the door. The surprise on his face eased more of her worry. So this wasn’t a regular occurrence; thank God, even if she did want to sink through the floor in embarrassment.

“Damien, could I—”

“No problem.” The man didn’t ask for an explanation, and his cheeky grin said he didn’t need any. “Just lock up when you leave.” He nodded politely at Cailin before turning to walk back the way they’d come.

Alex gave a rueful snort and dragged her inside. The minute the door clicked shut, he had her backed against its unforgiving surface.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered roughly. “I need—”

Cailin kissed him before he could finish.

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Head over to the "Extras" page for a deleted scene!

Secrets 2: Undisclosed

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Business should never involve love—or secrets.

Harley Fisher irritated Damien on sight. Not because she was the cockiest know-it-all he’d ever met. No, it was because she was a hot know-it-all who did things to his libido that no employee should. Unfortunately his business needed her almost as much as he did.

He can’t fault the quality of her work. And he can’t resist her sassy mouth and perfect curves either. She’s already deep in his heart when he discovers the secret she’s been keeping all along, the secret that will destroy the life he thought he had.

And maybe, just maybe, put him back together again.

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Chapter One

“You’re who?”

Harley came very close to laughing, though she wasn’t sure if it was actual amusement or just plain nerves. George Michael’s voice crooned “Last Christmas” in her head. “Tell me, baby, do you recognize me?” It’s definitely been a year. Guess the answer’s no.

She managed to hold back the laughter. Barely. Nerves wouldn’t get the better of her any more than Damien Adams would. She refused to allow it. Squaring her shoulders, she ignored the fact that she felt like an idiot with her hand dangling out in front of her, waiting to shake, while she faced down the man who had taken the Atlanta bar scene by storm less than a year ago. In person he was more like a blizzard, slamming into her senses, whiting out everything, including her courage. She’d always been good at faking it, though.

Ignoring his obvious impatience, she tried again. “Harley Fisher.”

The jerk stared back silently, full lips pressed tight together, a dark brow cocked up in question.

Okay, she knew she’d interrupted him, but seriously… She raised her own brow, getting a little impatient herself and trying hard to control it. “We spoke on the phone. About the general manager’s position,” she reminded him carefully.

Damien looked at her still-extended hand; then, with casual deliberation, he crossed his arms over his wide, muscular chest. The silk of his shirt stretched to a fit that resembled plastic wrap. Pulling her gaze from the deep V of the open neck, she dropped her hand and refused to be intimidated. She needed this job, and she intended to have it.

A spark of recognition lit those river-brown eyes, and Harley swallowed hard against the heavy, dry lump in her throat until he said, “Right. You’re the one I thought was a guy.”

She caught her grimace before it could get out. Yes, her name was unusual. She was often mistaken for a man until someone saw her in person, after which they simply thought she was an airhead. Or a slut. Her youth and rocker-chick persona often worked against her in the “real” world, but it never took people—men—long to learn differently. Hopefully Mr. Slick here would be quick on the uptake.

From the look of it, she had a better chance of Santa coming down her nonexistent chimney.

Raising her voice slightly to be heard over the remixed Christmas song blaring from the speakers, she said, “Yes, that Harley.” Try a smile, she told herself. “We—”

An impatient shake of his head cut off her words. “I believe I told you we were looking for someone more”—his gaze slid slowly down her body and back up—“more.”

More what, for God’s sake? More ready to jump into bed with him? A strong urge to put her leather jacket back on, as if she were still out in the Atlanta winter cold, bit into her. And pissed her off. Maybe she’d made a mistake in coming here. Damien obviously wasn’t the man she’d thought he would be, the man she needed.

No, give it a chance. This is too important to be making rash decisions. He can afford to; you can’t.

She dug her fingernails deep into her palms and wished her soon-to-be boss wasn’t quite such an ass.

Or quite so sexy. Looking at him heated her body in a way that had nothing to do with the anger she was feeling. The reaction shook her. Of course, Sonny’d always had good taste in men.

Which was definitely not why Harley was here.

Pain tingling in her palms from the digging of her nails, she forced herself to hold his stare. “Mr. Adams, simply because I’m young—and female—doesn’t mean I’m not the right person for the job. If you could just take a look over my résumé one more time—”

“I’ve seen what I needed to see, Ms. Fisher,” he said, voice dropping to little more than a growl. “I own three very successful clubs in three cities hundreds of miles apart. Traveling between them means leaving someone else in charge, someone with the experience and expertise to work independently, wisely, and efficiently. It means I must trust that person implicitly with my livelihood and that of my employees. Being Thrice’s general manager requires more than a familiarity with the bar.” That insulting look returned to his eyes, implying various ways she might’ve gained such knowledge that had nothing to do with her brains.

Oh, he so did not go there.

“So what you’re saying is, a woman in her midtwenties, a former musician, covered in tattoos but looking reasonably attractive is by definition a lush? Or are you insinuating that I’m a whore?”

Damien stared, eyes wide with shock, as if he couldn’t believe the words that had left her mouth. Then a boyish grin transformed him from put-out businessman to dangerously naughty hunk, and the urge to let go of her anger sank its teeth deep. No way. She was not forgetting he was rude, egotistical, asinine, a dickhead…

He laughed before she could let a real hissy fit loose. The sound echoed, rich and full, blending and countering the music filling the room. It deflated the ball of emotion choking her, drew her in, made her want to mix her laugh with his. She held her breath, unable to decide if his reaction was a good or bad thing.

“Forgive me,” Damien said. A wheeze interrupted the last word, and he had to pause to get his mirth under control. “You’re right. That was uncalled for.” Like an old-world aristocrat, he bowed from the waist. His shirt draped away from his chest, giving her a glimpse of smooth, tan skin all the way to his navel. “My apologies.”

Did he plan to kiss her hand next? The man had throwing people off down to an art. And why didn’t he look ridiculous with his shirt unbuttoned down to a lick-worthy six-pack? Reminding herself of her purpose, she said warily, “Accepted. I think.”

His grin said if that was the best he could get, he’d take it. “Ms. Fisher, I appreciate your candor—and that you are willing to forgive my rudeness. But—”

She barely refrained from rolling her eyes. There always has to be a but.

“—the fact remains that a certain level of experience is necessary for this position. I’m sorry.”

He turned to leave, and panic took over, pushing her to close the distance between them. Instinctively her hand shot out, and then she was gripping the heavy muscle of his biceps. Desperation firmed her hold when the shock of physical contact shot up her arm like a lightning bolt. He felt hot. Masculine. This close, he smelled of spice and alcohol, and she found herself breathing heavier just to take in more.

Don’t be a damn fool, Harley! Get your act together.

“Ms. Fisher—”

Before he could blast her for detaining him, Harley firmed both her courage and her voice. “Thrice has been open how long, Mr. Adams?” When he refused to answer, she did it for him. “Six months. I’ve been involved in the Atlanta music scene for fifteen years, the last seven of which I spent not only as a musician but as an event organizer and PR rep for my band and several others.”

That got him to face her fully. “You are either older than you look, or that’s a big stretch of the truth.”

She let a smirk sneak onto her lips. “And you are more unfamiliar with your new market than I would have given you credit for. My mother rotated out of every club in town, dragging me along with her from the time I was ten so she could sing her heart out. At fifteen I became involved with the indie music scene, and three years later formed and managed my own band, Aftershock.”

At the name, Damien’s brows shot up. So much for actually reading my résumé. Anyone with even a basic knowledge of indie music had heard of Aftershock; they were one of the foremost bands in the business, not just because they were damn good musicians, but because Harley had as good of instincts in management as she did with a bass guitar. If her private life hadn’t blown all to hell, she would still be with them.

“I see.”

She could tell he didn’t like admitting he was wrong, but at least the playboy charm was darkening into something more serious, more thoughtful, without the annoyed edge he’d shown at first. Time to close the deal. “You know the national scene, no doubt about it. You know what needs to be done to make things happen in LA or Colorado. You gained that know-how through study, experience, and local help.” She fought to keep the quaver of desperation out of her words. “I can give you that here, Mr. Adams, and with far more depth and speed and with lower cost than anyone else you could hire. I know Atlanta. I know the people here. I know the nightlife and the music and the contacts to make it all happen.” She pulled in a heavy lungful of air to ease her aching chest. “I am the person for this job.”

When the last word left her lips, she knew every ounce of her passion and determination went with it. Her lungs deflated like a balloon with a slow leak, refusing to refill as she waited for his verdict. Thinking of everything that was at stake, she willed him to listen, to see all that she could offer.

“You’re not gonna give an inch, are you?” he finally asked.

Harley narrowed her eyes. “No, and you wouldn’t want me to. It’s exactly what you need.”

Damien’s gaze dropped to the hand still clutching his arm. Harley slowly released him, the burn of embarrassment firing her cheeks. When his mouth, that sinfully full mouth, opened to speak, she braced herself for rejection.

“Okay.”

Wh-what? The single word hit like a brick wall she’d never seen coming. “Okay?” she parroted.

“Okay, let’s talk.” Glancing down, he surveyed the thick black watch encircling his wrist. “I have a couple of things to settle first, but if you’re willing to hang around, I’ll take the time to speak with you.”

Clenching the muscles in her thighs to keep herself from slumping to the floor in relief, she forced calm into her voice. “Yes. Absolutely.”

Damien stared down at her for a long moment, something dark and unreadable in his eyes. Knowing she had to get used to him watching her, judging her, she let him look. Whether he found what he was looking for or not, she didn’t know. He turned to a passing employee, asked the man to escort her to a table in the bar, and nodded before making his way down a nearby hall.

She couldn’t resist a final glance in his direction as she was led across the room. Step one down. They were on their way.

He needed to stop looking at her. Every few minutes his gaze strayed toward the corner table in the bar where Harley Fisher sat, sipping a drink with red and silver sprinkles rimming the glass, chatting with every employee who passed. The Christmas lights illuminating the area glinted in her eyes, and he couldn’t keep his fucking gaze off her. Which was bad, because he didn’t do employees—ever. And he wanted to do her, no doubt about it.

Pretending to listen to Brad give him a rundown of the night’s tally, he took in the picture she made. She fit, which was what had made him wary at first. Too young, too hip. From the top of her candy-red-and-cream-striped hair to the toes of her knee-high stiletto boots, she looked like one of his customers—the ones he occasionally slept with—not a manager. She had slipped her tight leather jacket onto the chair back, revealing a silky silver tank that showcased a full-sleeve tattoo along one slender, toned arm. Those muscles came from holding a guitar, he now knew. A musician. Wasn’t that just further reason to be panting after the woman? It was a wonder he hadn’t been forced to roll his tongue back into his mouth like the cartoon characters he remembered from childhood.

“Boss?”

Brad’s voice pulled him back to business, and Damien turned, removing Harley from his line of sight. Tonight’s private Christmas party for Keane Industry’s Atlanta office had been well attended, the bar busy all night. Brad needed his attention, as did a million additional things, both here and at his other two clubs. He needed a general manager for Thrice. Once, his club in LA, and Twice, the Denver nightclub, were both hugely successful, but he wasn’t the kind of owner who could open a place and then leave it in someone else’s hands entirely. He stayed in constant contact with both managers, flying out frequently to each location, this month in particular. The series of charity events planned for the holidays would benefit hundreds of families in the three cities where he ran clubs, but they added more strain to his already overfull schedule.

He and Brad were finishing up the details for tomorrow’s order when Ryan strolled over to lean against the bar.

“Sounds good, Brad,” Damien told the bartender. “Finalize those numbers and have Malik get that order in ASAP tomorrow morning.”

Brad immediately pulled out his phone to shoot the day supervisor a reminder, which was one reason the man had become such a trusted employee so quick. He got things done and done fast. Damien needed all the help he could get. Fifty e-mails waited on his phone for his attention, and that didn’t include the things Ryan, as his assistant, handled on his own, or the things Ryan couldn’t handle when he and Brad took over Thrice while Damien was away. Both men worked hard, but neither had the know-how or experience to run the club without constant input from Damien, not yet. The need for a seasoned day-to-day manager here at Thrice neared desperation level at this point. No one he’d interviewed had felt right for such an important position, though. No one had even come close, not until Harley.

“Remind him about contacting that wholesaler while you’re at it,” Ryan put in. “See what the guy has to offer us.”

Brad nodded, fingers flying, then hit a final button and looked up. “Anything else?”

“No, you’re good,” Damien told him, meaning it.

“Does that mean I get an extra-special Christmas bonus this year?” the bartender asked with a grin.

“I don’t know. Ryan?”

Brad groaned. “You did not put Wonder Boy in charge of our bonuses, did you?”

“I’ll remember that,” Ryan warned.

Brad laughed as he headed toward the other end of the bar, which spanned the length of the club area, to finish supervising the night’s cleanup.

Ryan leaned a little closer, brows up almost to his hairline, and smiled slyly. “So, who’s the girl?”

In the four years Ryan had worked for him, Damien had come to love his young assistant like a little brother, so he didn’t resist the urge to smack the little pissant upside the back of his head.

“Hey, man, don’t mess with the hair!” Ryan smoothed the ruffled strands at his nape, but his smile widened despite the whine in his voice.

“Keep your tongue on a leash,” Damien warned, his words lacking heat. Without his consent, his gaze traveled toward Harley, watching as one of the waiters approached her table to offer a refill. Harley shook her head; then something the man said made her laugh. A twinge of pain shot through his jaw as Damien ground his teeth together. “That,” he told Ryan, “is Harley Fisher.”

Ryan shot to attention at his side. “The Harley Fisher? From Aftershock? Hot damn!” His tongue practically hung out as he stared across the room, and Damien started to wonder if he was going to have to wipe up drool. “I didn’t recognize her offstage. Is this my Christmas gift? Say yes. Please?” The last word definitely approached a whine.

Ryan was much closer to the indie scene than Damien, obviously, but it wasn’t as if Damien had no clue who the woman was. Aftershock was one of those bands that even adamant anti-indie listeners knew and enjoyed. He kept up with their music, if not all the band members’ names. What he did know was the venues they played—good ones, events that took finesse to get, especially for a band without the solid backing of a major record company. If Harley acted as their manager, she knew what the hell she was doing. So why leave that behind to work for him?

Ryan’s gushing made the pain in Damien’s jaw worse. “Down, boy. She’s applied for the general manager’s position.”

“No kidding?” A thoughtful look crossed Ryan’s boyish face. “I’d heard she was on hiatus. Maybe it was more serious than the rumor mill let on.”

Something to think about. She certainly seemed the best choice overall, given her background. And if he was honest, the main thing holding him back at this point was the attraction he felt for her. He liked her spunk. He liked that she didn’t take his shit without calling him on it. Damn it, he liked her, wanted her, and therein lay the problem. She was trouble waiting to happen. With a capital T.

A soft, feminine hand on his arm interrupted his thoughts. “Damien? Is everything all right?”

Mia. Another problem squeezing herself onto his overflowing plate. When he said he didn’t do employees, he meant it, but Mia refused to get the picture.

He straightened. “Fine, Mia,” he said, shifting as subtly as possible away from the petite waitress. Petite but strong, barracuda strong. She, like Harley, was young, maybe twenty-three. She’d been waitressing at Thrice for three months, and if things didn’t change soon, he would be forced to let her go. Being ambushed every time he came in the door of his own club was unacceptable—and unavoidable. She’d made it so.

“Would you like me to gather the staff for the meeting?” she asked, swaying her shoulders side to side in an incongruously little-girl move that emphasized her generous breasts in the low-cut shirt she wore. Damien knew better than to look down. They were nice breasts—he’d noticed; he was a breast man, after all—but a single glance and he’d end up with a permanent attachment to his hip that would take a crowbar to remove.

Keeping his eyes firmly locked with her exotic, almond-shaped ones, he said, “Valentine will let you know when we’re ready.” He glanced over to see his waitstaff supervisor at the far end of the room, pointing two waiters in the direction of a section that had not been taken care of yet. He nodded in Valentine’s direction. “Don’t you have cleanup to get through?”

Mia’s full lips pouted prettily. “I just wanted to help, Damien. I’m sorry.”

Instead of rolling his eyes, he nudged his chin toward the opposite end of the room. “Finish up, please.”

“That is a mess waiting to happen,” Ryan murmured, barely waiting until Mia stepped out of earshot.

“I agree.” He jammed both fists against the bar, arms rigid, and rolled his shoulders to release the tension that had settled there. “One you can take care of while I’m away.”

“Thanks,” Ryan mocked. “I get to cover your ass while you gallivant all over the country, and handle the horny waitress.”

Damien smirked at the disdain dripping from Ryan’s last word. “It’s a dirty job, but at least I don’t have to do it.” Especially not at Christmas. Damien hated letting anyone go, but the young woman had been warned strongly and repeatedly. Knowing what had to be done didn’t mean it depressed him less.

Damien motioned for Brad and Valentine to gather their crews for the “family meeting,” the staff meeting held nightly to go over issues from the shift or things that needed to be addressed for upcoming ones. By the time they finished, Harley had been waiting more than an hour for his attention, but she didn’t act impatient. She’d watched him handle the staff, those green eyes alight with interest. Now those same eyes narrowed on him as he walked toward her table, leaving Brad and Ryan to lock up.

Damien felt the pull of that look, right down to his groin. And that hair. Jesus. Her hair reminded him of those Life Savers strawberries-and-cream lollipops he used to love as a kid, a swirled mix of sharp tang and sweet, creamy goodness. It made him wonder where else on Harley he could taste creamy goodness. When his dick filled at the thought, he groaned. He needed her as a manager, not a good lay. He could get sex anytime; someone to fill the empty slot in his business was far harder to come by.

Harley was it, but neither he nor his cock were jumping for joy over the decision.

“Mr. Adams.” Harley smiled as he sat across from her.

He dived right in. “Why do you want to work for me?”

A V formed between Harley’s brows. “What?”

“Why me? Why Thrice? I know Aftershock’s success, and I know the position I’m offering. I just can’t figure out why you would go from that”—he cupped one hand, then the other—“to this.”

A rosy flush crept up Harley’s neck. She hesitated for so long he thought she might refuse to answer, but finally she spoke. “I left Aftershock six months ago.”

“Were you fired?”

“No!” The indignation in her eyes convinced him quickly. “Some things happened…” Harley nabbed the swizzle stick from her nearly empty drink and twirled it, pausing a long moment before raising her eyes to meet his. “My sister died. I decided…” She shrugged. “I decided I needed a change. To be in one place, not a new one every weekend. Life’s too short.” A frown tugged one side of her mouth down. “I loved the band. I did. But it wasn’t what I needed anymore.”

Damien stared for a long moment before nodding. “Okay, I can accept that.” There was no doubting the sincerity in her eyes. Not that he wouldn’t verify her story—he’d already directed Ryan to run a background check.

“Thank you,” Harley said. She met him look for look, seeming to drill a hole right through him. “You will not regret it if you hire me, Mr. Adams. I guarantee it.”

He bet she would. And his every instinct screamed that he would regret it if he didn’t hire her. The whole attraction thing, he’d simply have to ignore. “Call me Damien. We’re going to be working together, after all.”

Eyes lighting up, Harley leaned forward. “We are?”

“Yes, we are.” Damien took his phone from his pocket and pulled up his calendar. “If you’ll agree to a trial period, we’ll see how it goes. Can you start Monday morning?” That left him tomorrow to get his libido under control, though it would probably be an ongoing process.

“Certainly.”

He forced a grin back, forced himself to stay focused on business even though his new potential manager practically bounced in her seat. Enthusiasm was good, if he could ignore what the movement was doing to her breasts. Trying to bring them both back to earth, he started in on his spiel about businesslike behavior. More than one employee had assumed because they worked in a club, the standards of professionalism would be lax. He didn’t fear such a thing happening with Harley, who must have worked with managers in venues and nightclubs across the country, but the reminder of her purpose there—which wasn’t to get in his pants—was something he needed.

Nearing the end of his speech, his attention caught on Harley’s hair as she ran her hand through the messy locks. The sight of the damn stuff practically had him salivating, a reaction that absolutely had to stop.

“You need to dye your hair.”

The words were out of his mouth before he knew what he was saying. Every part of him rebelled at the idea, which, perversely, made it even more necessary.

Harley frowned. Apparently she liked the idea about as much as he did. “It is dyed.”

“It’s not professional.” And he was all about professional, wasn’t he? Even if the heat in his gut said otherwise.

“It is in this business.” Harley leaned forward on her elbows, almost nose to nose with him across the small cocktail table. “Look, I’ll do a lot of things for you, but unless you want my hair purple when I walk into your office Monday morning, you won’t insist on this.”

“You wouldn’t.” Oh yes, she would.

Propping her chin on one hand, she shot him a mischievous grin that confirmed his suspicions. “I wouldn’t?”

Shit. It wasn’t like he could say, Your hair makes me want to lick you all over. Maybe he needed to hunt down some of those suckers and keep them in his office—or get out of town as soon as possible. The latter seemed the best alternative.

“Fine,” he said, more than aware of his surly-ass tone. “No purple.” Knowing his luck, he’d get a sudden craving for grape Tootsie Pops.

Harley stood, satisfaction radiating off her. “No purple, I promise.” She winked—actually winked—at him, and he had to fight back a groan. The next few weeks were going to be hell; he just knew it.

Holding out a hand, Harley waited. Remembering his refusal to shake with her earlier, Damien reached out, knowing it was a mistake, knowing he should avoid touching her at all costs, and grasped her slender hand in his. The power of the contact shocked him—and her, if the gasp that escaped was anything to go by. For a single moment, their eyes met, and he saw his own overpowering attraction reflected back at him. Then Harley blinked and the moment was gone.

“Good night, Damien. I’ll see you Monday morning—without the purple hair.”

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Fun Fact!

This book introduces Hank and Vincent from Weekend Washout, as well as Harley's former band, Aftershock. Hank and Vincent are now featured in the If Only series. That series will be a bridge to a series featuring Aftershock — eventually. If my characters will ever stop proposing new books. And I can ever get them written. And... Well, you get the idea!

 

Secrets 3: Unshakable

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Secrets won’t protect you. Only love can.

Angel has known Brad Donovan for so long she can’t remember the first time they met. She does remember the first time he saved her, though—on the second grade playground from the class bully.

It took years for her childhood friend to become the man she loved. She still loves him, more than her own life. But that life has been ripped apart, and she’s not sure if she can ever find her way back to him.

When every shadow sends her running and every night is filled with nightmares, there’s only one truth Angel can hold on to. That Brad’s love for her is unshakable.

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Chapter One

Angel Gilliam wrestled the butterflies in her belly as she forced her key into the stubborn lock and finally managed to turn it. She was through the apartment door and calling Brad’s name before she could tug the key back out.

Nothing.

The silence that met her call deflated her excitement like a leaking balloon. Damn it, she wanted him to know first, in person, not over the phone. He was the only one who would understand how much this meant to her.

A glance around the darkened living room confirmed its emptiness. The heavy blue curtains Brad had hung when they moved in a month ago were drawn across the windows, pulling a smile from her as she crossed toward the kitchen. She’d teased him about their joint living room being a “man cave,” but who was she to argue. She hadn’t found a full-time position here in Atlanta yet, and five years in college dorm rooms hadn’t left her with a ton of homemaking supplies. The only curtains she owned were floral and gauzy and hung in her bedroom down the hall. And honestly, she didn’t mind if it was masculine. From the time they’d decided to share the apartment, she’d known she wanted as much of Brad in it as she did her own style. It was like the old T-shirts she’d snitched from his suitcase whenever he visited her at FSU, only better. Here, it wasn’t just his scent surrounding her, comforting her; it was his presence. Walking into the apartment was almost as good as being wrapped in his arms. Almost.

“Brad?”

The kitchen was empty too. Maybe he was still in the shower? Hope sent her on a mad dash down the hall that ended in a quick skid. She barely managed to stop by hanging on to the doorjamb of the master bedroom, but as she swung inside, she found Brad’s room was also dark and still. The faint scent of soap and hot water lingered in the air, confirming her fear that he’d already left for work.

“Well, damn.”

She slumped onto Brad’s bed, the king-size monstrosity that took up three-quarters of his room, and let the soft comforter cushion her as she considered her options. The only thing in her mind since she’d gotten off the phone with Henry Lockwood at the Atlanta office of Child Protective Services had been telling Brad about the interview she’d landed. She didn’t want to wait until he got home around four in the morning, if she could even stay awake that long. Waiting till he woke up was even worse. And she was pouting, darn it. She hated it when she pouted. She’d just so wanted to tell him, and tell him now. If only she hadn’t been stuck waiting for the bus to bring her home.

Turning her head to bury her nose in the soft down of the comforter, she filled her lungs with the scent of Brad’s cologne and something else, something vitally him that she couldn’t put a name to. When had she first noticed it? She wasn’t even sure she knew, it had happened so gradually. He’d visited her at school every chance he got, even during summer breaks when she was busy loading up on classes so she could get through her bachelor’s and master’s programs in five years. But even when her roommates and girlfriends were falling all over themselves chasing after him, his focus had been on her. And somewhere along the line, her focus had centered completely on him.

So why hadn’t they done anything about it?

Good question.

Tugging her bottom lip between her teeth, she stood and crossed the hall to her bedroom. Clothes lay scattered on most of the surfaces. Makeup, jewelry, shoes. After sharing a room with one fellow foster child or another through her teen years, always keeping her belongings locked up, protected, then doing the same in the dorm, Angel reveled in the ability to mark the space as hers. To claim ownership with the sheer presence of her things. Brad teased her about it, about “letting her hair down” after so many years of being the model foster kid, but she knew he got it. He’d understood the fears hiding down deep inside her even before she did, understood why she’d always tried to be perfect, to overachieve, to not be sent back into the system. He got her.

She eyed the folded clothes stacked at the end of the bed, ready to be put away. Right on top lay the red cashmere sweater Brad had given her for Christmas a couple of weeks ago. Their first Christmas living together—as best friends. The look in Brad’s eyes when she wore that sweater, though, went way beyond friends. It even went beyond the emotion that, if she was honest with herself, she knew she’d seen in his eyes over and over when he’d visited her at school. The emotion she’d heard in his voice every time they talked on the phone. An emotion she’d come to anticipate, to want, even if she hadn’t fully understood what it was. That look Brad gave her was crystal clear. Hunger. It made her shiver. And it felt right, as if all the years they’d spent together had naturally led to this, wanting each other as well as needing each other.

Maybe it was time to stop pussyfooting around and bring things out in the open. And she knew just how to do it.

The excitement was back again, humming under her skin, fizzing like champagne through her veins. It had her smiling as she gathered the sweater and her tightest pair of jeans and headed for the shower. An hour later she was standing outside the wide double doors that led into Thrice.

The burly bouncer guarding the door eyed the low curve of her neckline. “Hellooo.”

“Hi.” She handed over her ID, which the man dutifully checked. His eyes might’ve strayed a couple of times, but Angel just took that as a sign that she looked as good as she’d hoped.

He handed the card back, shooting her a wink. “You wouldn’t be inclined to save me a dance later, sweet thing? I get off at ten.”

“I don’t think Brad would like that,” she told him, a little laugh escaping as she left him with his mouth slightly ajar.

Inside, a cacophony of music, people, and movement hit her eyes and ears, flashes of light adding to the confusion. The massive room—the center of a former warehouse, Brad had told her—seemed to sway with the ebb and flow of clubgoers filling every available space.

It took some wading to find the sunken dance floor taking up the entire middle of the room, then the bar area at the far side. When she took the time to think about it, she was still amazed that Brad had walked away from his family money and chosen to work in a bar, especially after his brother’s death. Most people would call it crazy—and a few of their friends had. But it made sense. His degree in business management meant he could work his way up at Thrice, but he also loved being in charge of the bar, interacting with customers, keeping people safe—that more than anything. He’d told her more than once that people shouldn’t pay with their lives for having fun or relieving stress, and he made sure of it with his vigilant watch over those in his care. He wanted to make a difference, no matter how small other people thought it was; they were alike that way.

His blond head came into view first, then the rest of him. Brad moved behind the room-length bar with ease and efficiency. A word here and there passed out with the drinks brought smiles to the people he served, especially the women. The feminine eyes eating him up sparked a dark jealousy in Angel’s core. But it was the look in Brad’s eyes that really mattered, and that look filled with fire when he saw her walking toward his end of the room.

His gaze swept her body, head to toe. And all the way back up. She watched his tongue slide along his bottom lip, saw him shift as if he was suddenly uncomfortable, and the knowledge that other women wanted him faded past caring. When his eyes finally met hers, she smiled, feeling the sexy edge to the way her lips curved, and put a little extra sway into her hips as she closed the distance between them. Brad leaned on the bar top, chin propped on his fist, to watch.

“Is it my birthday?” he teased when she got close enough to hear him.

A man seated on the next closest bar stool turned to look. “Maybe mine?” he asked. He was in his early twenties too, but his conservative hair and business-casual clothes didn’t fit Thrice’s vibe tonight.

“Hands off, Ryan,” Brad warned.

Ah. That explained the button-down and khakis. This was Brad’s co-manager in training. Damien’s secretary. “Hi.”

“And she has manners,” Ryan pointed out, throwing a pained look Brad’s way. He reached for Angel’s hand and leaned over to place a chaste kiss on the back. Angel felt her heart flutter at the sheer mean filling Brad’s gaze as he watched.

“And you are?” Ryan asked.

“Angel.”

“Taken,” Brad said at the same time, straightening to his full six-two height. Angel giggled.

“Fuck off, Brad,” Ryan threw out, his eyes still on Angel.

Brad leaned over the bar far enough to pop Ryan upside the back of the head. “Language,” he snapped.

“Ow!”

Watching the two of them was like watching brothers torment each other. Ryan was pouting now, but it didn’t earn him any points with Brad. “You can drop her hand anytime, Wonder Boy,” Brad growled.

Ryan slowly released her, but the half smile he shot her way—on the half of his face Brad couldn’t see—told her he was drawing it out for Brad’s benefit, not his own.

Brad whipped the tie at the back of his black apron open and wadded the cloth into a ball. He threw it on the counter. “I’m taking a break.”

Ryan glanced around. “Where’s your relief bartender?”

Pitching his thumb over his shoulder toward the mirror behind him, Brad shrugged. “Take a look at him.”

Ryan’s incredulous expression reflected perfectly in the mirror. By the time he started muttering protests, Brad had rounded the bar and taken Angel’s elbow.

“Get back here, asshole,” Ryan called.

Without missing a step, Brad shot a bird back at his friend. When Angel looked up at him, the amused curve of his lips had her laughing.

“You’re mean,” she said between chuckles.

“Not to you.” He shrugged. “Ryan earns it.” His mouth twitched at her laughter, though, and when he joined in, the noise and crowds surrounding them fell away from her awareness. Brad filled it up too much for anything else to intrude.

He didn’t stop at the curved railing that encircled the dance floor. Angel tugged on the hand now twined with hers. “Where are we going?”

Brad glanced down. “To get away from this noise,” he said, voice raised above the din. “The last thing I want to do is shout at each other over this mess.”

Angel agreed. Of course, going somewhere without noise probably meant going somewhere without this many people…or any people. She swallowed hard at the idea of being alone with him. She wasn’t a tease, and she’d been making it plain what she wanted for the last half hour. Now it was time to pay up. What if she couldn’t?

Nerves multiplied like tribbles in her veins as they went through the entry area of the club. Brad led her down a dark hallway to one side marked Employees Only. The hall was dotted with doors, and Brad opened one about halfway down. They stepped into a brightly lit room lined along one side with lockers and the other with a comfy seating area. The counter, sink, fridge, and microwave proclaimed “break room” loudly. When the door slid shut, the sheer relief of relative silence distracted her from her nerves for about a millisecond.

“So…” Brad pulled her toward the couch but turned before they reached the brown leather monstrosity. His gaze went straight for her breasts in their soft red cover, and he seemed to lose track of what he was saying. In the moment it took for him to break himself away, Angel felt that look right down to her clenched thighs.

Shaking himself back to awareness, Brad finally asked, “To what do I owe this unexpected visit?”

Angel felt every muscle go tense. Say it! Say you have feelings for him—new, different feelings. You want him to know. He wants to know; just look in his eyes and see it. Tell him.

She cleared her desert-dry throat, opened her mouth, and said, “I got the interview.”

Not what she meant to say. Definitely not. And not what Brad expected her to say, from the sinking look on his face. But it didn’t last. Brad was Brad—a huge grin appeared, and the next thing she knew his arms were around her waist and he was twirling her through the air with a loud “whoop!”

Her smile felt bittersweet as love swelled in her chest. He was always putting her and her needs first, before what he wanted. He lifted her up, gave her whatever he thought she needed, even if it was far less than he might want. How long had he been doing that?

And how long was she going to be a coward and let it continue?

When he finally settled her on her feet, she was breathless with anxiety. She met Brad’s warm gray eyes…and immediately, all the chaos whirling inside her settled. She reached to cup his stubble-covered cheeks. “I came by for something else too,” she said, surprised by the suddenly low, raspy tone of her voice.

“What?”

“This.” She pulled him down until her lips could meet his and kissed him.

She felt his jolt of surprise, felt the sudden tight clamping of his grip on her hips—and then he took over just like he did with everything else.

His lips were firm against hers and fit perfectly, as if they’d been made for each other. They probably had. The two of them fit together in life too, so it made sense that their bodies would align as well as their souls. His mouth opened over hers, moving, molding, shaping. No hesitation here, nothing tentative, just a rush of heat that threatened to overwhelm her. He tasted of Brad, of beer, of hunger. She wanted more, so much more, moaning her need into his mouth and lifting one leg to hook around his, pulling him closer.

Right there. There was that hard center she’d wondered so much about. The firm length of his erection nestled directly against her mound thanks to the high-heeled boots she wore. He rocked against her, and a mewling sound escaped at the zing of sensation reverberating through her core. He rocked again, the base of his shaft grazing her clit. Afraid her legs might give out, Angel dug her nails into Brad’s wide shoulders and clung for dear life. She wasn’t sure if moments or hours passed; everything disappeared but Brad’s mouth, his body, and the love flowing between them. It had to be love. Nothing else could feel this good.

It took some time, but desperation finally forced them to stop for air.

“God, Angel.” He groaned, his lips brushing hers. “Do you have any idea how long I’ve waited for this?”

She shook her head, not because she didn’t know but because words were beyond her. Brad didn’t wait—he took her lips again. This time when he opened hers, he delved inside.

His tongue took her over, took her breath. He pulled back and pushed in, the smooth glide mimicking the rhythm of his hips. Every hard advance caught her throbbing clit, teasing, tempting, driving her higher until she held her breath, certain the next slight touch would send her off like a rocket. Brad’s head fell back, and she marveled at the agony in his expression as he pushed against her once more.

The sound of the door opening startled them both.

“I’m sorry,” Ryan drawled. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything.”

Brad cursed, curbing the last syllables with a quick glance at Angel. The final stream of words was a fairly accurate impression of Joe Pesci’s character in that old movie Home Alone.

“Of course you’re interrupting—and you know it,” he managed eventually, the words strangled with cutoff need and frustration. “Who’d you leave up front?”

“Malik.” Was that glee lacing Ryan’s voice? Yes, wicked glee. Despite the protests of her body, Angel found herself choking back her own amusement.

“I hate you,” Brad said, though the words lacked heat. He shook his head, but Angel could see the reluctant laughter in his eyes—and the beginnings of calculation. She had a feeling Ryan would be paying for this, and when he least expected it. “Come on, Angel.”

He led her out. As they crossed the threshold, Ryan gave her a courtly bow. “Again, I apologize, Angel.”

For all his supposed chivalry, there was smug satisfaction in his eyes when they landed on Brad. “Shut up,” Brad grumbled. He tucked an arm securely around her waist as he drew her into the hall, and the look he threw over his shoulder at Ryan was triumphant, the kind of but-I-got-the-girl look meant to rub in his success. Angel hid her grin and the absolutely giddy feeling that surged inside her at that look. He certainly had got the girl. For always.

They made their way to the emptyish entry area of the club. Off to one side was a small alcove, where Brad stopped in the relative quiet and pulled her against him once more. Like a sponge Angel soaked up his heat, the feel of his hard muscles contrasting with her feminine softness in all the right places. She didn’t want to stop, go home, wait for him. She’d waited long enough, and so had he.

But right now, he needed to get back to work; she knew that. She’d taken enough of his time. It’s only for now. We won’t have to wait much longer.

Brad glanced down. Angel watched him watch her, saw the hungry spark in his eyes as he skimmed the contours of her face, down to her almost bare shoulders and the upper curves of her breasts. That part of her anatomy swelled at his attention, but she didn’t look away. She wasn’t embarrassed or scared anymore. Brad wanted her, just as she was. He knew her inside and out. The secret they’d danced around for so long was finally out in the open.

She knew him too, knew when something was bothering him. The hesitant rhythm of his thumb rubbing along her hip bone sharpened her attention. “What’s wrong?”

The outside noise filled the silence while she waited for him to gather his thoughts. “Does it bother you?” he finally asked.

“What?” With that single word she realized what he was asking, and that she might like to turn the question on him. They’d been friends for so long; this new state of being felt at once perfectly right and just…weird.

“This.” She barely felt the nudge of his crotch against her again. She swallowed hard, trying without success to figure out what to say. Did it bother her? Yes, but only because she wished he was harder, that they were alone, that she wasn’t worried about how this would affect their relationship. He hadn’t said the words yet. Did that mean this was just sex, not love?

Brad dipped low, his mouth brushing her earlobe. “I hope it doesn’t, because you have to know, seeing you in that sweater affects me that way every time.”

Now it was Angel’s turn to squirm. No, that didn’t bother her. It was the not knowing that concerned her. Could she gather enough words and courage to say that to him? The intensity in his gaze forced her to close her eyes.

“Don’t tease me” was what she finally said. “Not— If you don’t mean it, don’t.”

Brad’s arms came fully around her, his big hands spreading to cover each side of her spine. “I’m definitely not teasing.” His palms slid up the ridges of her ribs, his thumbs coming to rest at the outer edges of her aching breasts. “I’ve been waiting for years to do more than tease, beautiful. A lot more.”

A lot more. Oh God.

He’d been waiting years. Nobody waited that long because they were horny. He had to feel the same love she did. She believed that with everything inside her.

And so, when his lips touched the skin at the juncture of her neck and shoulder, she sighed and leaned back to give him easier access, opening herself and her protective cocoon to the only man she truly trusted. Letting him in. The tip of his tongue easing gently along her skin told her without words how much that trust was appreciated.

“Tonight, when I get home,” he whispered into her skin, “we’ll celebrate your interview—and everything else—the way it should be celebrated.”

Angel shivered. “I’m looking forward to it,” she said, that siren voice making another husky appearance.

“Good.” He stepped back, taking his heat with him, and ran a thumb across her moist bottom lip before turning toward the bar. The crowd swallowed him whole, but Angel kept watching until even the back of his head was no longer visible.

The same bouncer stood outside as she exited the club. “You have a good evenin’, sweet thing.”

“You too,” she told him. She glanced down the street to the corner and saw a yellow cab waiting for a fare. She hurried toward it, anxious to get home and get things cleaned up before Brad finished his shift. The last song she’d heard before leaving Thrice echoed in her head. There’d been no opportunity for them to dance tonight. Maybe she could come again, or maybe…could she convince Brad to give her a private show? She knew he could dance from the countless nights out and proms they’d been to together, but would he do it just for h—

The sudden scrape of pain across her cheek came out of nowhere. Trying to turn her head, Angel felt instead the clasp of a rough, smelly hand across her mouth, clamping her jaw shut. Her scream muffled against the human gag, she fought the force dragging her toward the dark mouth of an alley nearby. The last thing she saw was the cab’s empty back window, and through it, the cabbie’s head turned toward the street, away from her.

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Fun Fact!

For Just a Little More, I have a heroine badly in need of protection, and I have a hero whose entire being is centered on protecting and caring for those he loves -- and he's loved Angel a long, long time. There was no more appropriate song than this little gem nestled on Daughtry's latest release: "I'll Fight."