Off Limits by Clare Connelly. Picture: Supplied
Off Limits by Clare Connelly. Picture: Supplied

Is this book sexier than 50 Shades of Grey? Part 1

TO celebrate the launch of Harlequin's DARE series of romance novels, we are proud to present a day-by-day serialised release of Off Limits by Clare Connelly. To navigate between the chapters head to the bottom of today's segment.

IMPORTANT: Before you begin reading, remember - this is Mills & Boon as you've never seen it before, with plot lines featuring empowered women and extremely steamy sex scenes - for adult subscribers aged 18 and over only. Find more titles like this one here.

Read part two

 

PROLOGUE

 

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;

Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;

Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.

For nothing now can ever come to any good.

-WH Auden

 

'YOU'VE GOT THE Prime Minister calling in ten minutes.'

Jack nods, showing not a flicker of response at the prospect of this. Then again, nothing about Jack Grant is what you'd expect. For a self-made billionaire-investor-cum-philanthropist-cum-sex-god, he is wild, disrespectful of authority and the establishment, and rough around the edges. Deliciously so.

Take this situation: Jack, in his bed, naked as the day he was born, uncaring that he should have been at his desk an hour ago. That I can see most of his beautiful back and backside. That my insides are clenching with hot, steamy lust.

'About. . .?'

It's a lazy drawl as he flips over and pierces me with those intelligent green eyes. His accent is pure Irish brogue. Like Colin Farrell after a night of cigarettes and booze: deep, hoarse and throaty.

'The latest episode of The Great British Bake Off.'

I roll my eyes. We've been negotiating to buy a huge swathe of Crown land for the last six months; it's at the highest level of negotiation and, given the media interest, the Prime Minister has become involved.

'What do you think?'

His laugh is a rumble that barrels out of his chest. 'Well, every man needs a good scone recipe.'

'And you've got one?'

'Sure.'

He grins. It's a grin that is at once devilish and charming, and I know how easy it must be for him to get women into bed. And that's before you factor in the body, the money, the power.

'Nine minutes,' I snap.

His grin unfurls like a ribbon on his face. My heart kerthunks. I ignore it. Stupid heart.

'Did you book Sydney?'

'Yes.'

He arches a brow at my impatient tone and, as if to contradict it, stretches in the bed, his arms high over his head, his body gloriously on display for me.

'And, Amber?'

I don't mean to sigh but when the Prime Minister's office is calling I feel there should be some air of responsiveness. Jack, apparently, doesn't agree.

'All arranged.'

Lucy's sister is taking a year's sabbatical from her job as an executive at a bank to manage the foundation's start-up year. She's insanely qualified and personally motivated.

'Salary agreed; she'll be based out of Edinburgh, as we discussed.'

He nods, but makes no effort to move.

'Seriously, Jack. Eight minutes. Get the hell up, already.'

'Ouch. Did you get out of the wrong side of bed this morning?'

He runs his fingers down his chest, drawing my attention to the ridges of his abdomen, the flesh so perfectly smooth and sculpted. My mouth is bone-dry.

'No.'

'You're even crosser than usual,' he teases, and my lips tighten impatiently.

As it happens, he's right. I got The Invitation this morning. The one that arrives every year, beckoning me to come and pay homage to my parents' marriage.

Ugh.

 

It's my least favourite social event-and the one time I'm forced to remember who I really am. The one time a year my parents recall me to the mother ship, reminding me that no matter what I do, professionally or personally, I'll always be Gemma Picton. Lady Gemma Picton.

Ugh.

'Sit down. Tell me all about it.'

He pats the bed beside him and I roll my eyes again, hoping he won't know how sorely I'm tempted. Just once I imagine giving in to this-the electrical current that is arcing between us. I never would. . .never could. He is as off-limits as hell is hot-the stuff of fantasies and nightmares.

'No, thanks.'

'What is it?'

'Nothing. Personal stuff,' I say, and he shrugs.

But there's curiosity in his eyes. A curiosity I have to ignore. Along with desire. Lust. Want. Need.

We have our boundaries and we definitely know better than to cross them.

Jack pushes the sheet off, exposing the tattoo that curls across his lower back and snakes around his hips to the tops of his legs. It must have hurt like hell to get it done-especially on the skin of his thighs, right near his cock.

I asked him once why he'd got it. His answer? 'Seemed like a good idea at the time.'

He doesn't care that I see him naked. It's not the first time and undoubtedly won't be the last. Sometimes I wonder if he's goading me, waiting for me to react. After all, it's classic workplace sexual harassment.

Except it isn't. Because I'm not harassed.

I'm amused. And more than a little turned on.

In the two years since I started working for Jack I've probably seen him naked on average once per week. That's over a hundred stare-fests and he is totally worth staring at. I don't think he used to be like this. Before this there was her.

Lucy.

His wife.

But she got sick and died, and two months later I came to work for him and he was like this. Dark and brooding and desirable and sexy and messed up and mourning and fascinating.

This sleeping with anything in a skirt is post-Lucy. Same as the copious Scotch-drinking afterwards. It's sensual self-flagellation but he won't see it that way.

So, no matter how much I want to stare at his naked arse, I know he's for looking at-not touching. Like when Grandma used to take me shopping at her favourite Portmeirion boutique and I was allowed to stare at the intricate floral and botanical artwork for hours on end, but never, ever to touch.

Because touching might lead to breaking-and, yes, touching Jack would, I fear, break me.

'See something you like?'

Another drawl-he's so good at that. He lets words slide out of his mouth like liquid chocolate.

'Nope.' My smile is saccharine. 'Seven minutes.'

I spin on my heel and leave, a smile playing around my lips as desire pools between my legs.

 

* * * * * * * * *
Gemma is staring at me, and the mood I'm in I feel about two steps away from going all 'Me Tarzan, You Jane' on her. I want to grab her round the waist and pull her down on my length. No foreplay. No teasing. Just her. . .taking me deep.

In my fantasy she's not wearing panties and she's left her brain at the door-because real-life Gemma would quote me a thousand reasons not to have sex even as she was moaning in my arms.

Last night was fun. At least, it started off as fun. But the woman I brought here. . .Rebecca? Rowena?. . .talked too much.

She'd wanted to be romanced.

I wanted to screw.

So I gave her cab fare and showed her the door.

And now I have a raging hard-on and an assistant-she hates it when I call her that, so I do it often, even though she's technically my in-house counsel-who seems to have moved into my sexual fantasies permanently. When did that happen?

I rack my brain, trying to pinpoint the moment I went from observing her to obsessing over her. From looking dispassionately at her in those suits she wears one day, and the next imagining how long it would take me to strip her out of one.

I don't think it was one day, though, because that implies some switch was flicked. No, I think it was a look as she got into my helicopter in Spain. A laugh over dinner. Hearing her hum as she stared out of a window, her mind obviously running at a million miles an hour.

Then there was that blackout we were once caught in at the City office. The fire alarm shut the place down, closing us inside an elevator for close on an hour, with just the dim flicker of emergency lights that made her legs look so long and smooth. By the time they cranked the doors I was about ready to pin her to the carpeted floor and screw her senseless.

Yeah, that was probably the moment I realised how much trouble I was in.

I'm not interested in a relationship. But I do want to fuck her. And I think she wants it, too. I've seen the way her caramel eyes drop to my arse when she thinks I'm not looking.

But I'm always looking lately.

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

SHE MIGHT AS well be naked. The dress is skin-tight, bright red and low-cut. Tiny straps slip over her shoulders. The dress is short, too. Not indecently short but, Jesus, her legs are long and smooth, and while she's wearing that dress I find it impossible to look away.

She's hotter than any woman here-and that's saying something, given that this launch event has brought together most of London's elite. There are models, actresses, singers, athletes, and lots of those women who've married for money and now make it their life's work to live up to their husbands' expectations.

And then there's Gemma.

Her blond hair is pulled into a ballerina bun, her face is serious and her body is like pale silk that I want to wrap around me.

She's said something funny, going by the way the guy with her leans forward and laughs. Is he her date? A frown pulls at my brow. I stare harder. Did she bring a date? Isn't she technically here as my plus-one?

Seeing her with another guy does something dangerous to my equilibrium. A possessive impulse threads through me, knotting at my chest.

I pull a couple of champagne flutes from a passing waiter and cut through the room. I'm aware of people trying to get my attention but I have no time for them. Gemma is in my sights.

'Jack. . .'

Her lips purse as I approach; her eyes flick to me in that way she has. How is it possible for one person to imbue a simple gesture with a measure of cold disdain even when there's the hint of a smile somewhere in that symmetrical face of hers?

I hand her a glass of champagne and she takes it, her fingers briefly wrapping over mine. Immediately my mind puts them elsewhere on my body.

'You remember Wolf DuChamp?' she says. 'He manages our accounts in New York.'

I remember his stupid name, but not the man himself. Nothing memorable about blond, pretty-boy looks and that air of Ivy League he seems to wear like a coat.

'Sure.' I extend my hand, knowing I have to meet the convention even when my body is singularly focussed on Gemma.

'Good to see you again, sir.'

Gemma's lips quiver. I hate being called 'sir' and she knows it. Out of nowhere I have an image of her saying it to me, bent at the knees, her eyes moving up my body to meet mine as her lips clamp down on my length. Okay, maybe in some circumstances I could make an exception. . .

What the hell am I thinking? These fantasies are one thing, but screwing Gemma cannot happen.

Cannot happen. Might as well get that tattoo added to my collection.

'I was just explaining the software overhaul we're looking at to Gem.'

Is he trying to piss me off? First of all by removing the very nice image I was enjoying by talking about software. And then by referring to Gemma as 'Gem'-as though they're best buddies who paint their nails together.

'I'll summarise it for you later,' she says, sensing my impatience though I suspect not the reason for it.

'It'll make a huge difference to our operations,' Wolf pushes.

'Gem' angles her body a bit, turning away from me, giving me a chance to escape.

'I'll look into the feasibility. The problem is going to be short-term. We'll need to make sure the systems are protected during the transfer of data. You handle some of our most sensitive work-a data breach would be unacceptable.'

'I've thought of that, too,' Wolf carries on-and I am dismissed, it would appear.

Across the room a platinum blonde with a sensational rack and legs that go on forever is trying to catch my eye.

I want Gemma, but I can't have her. And I'm not one to wallow in self-pity. There's plenty of fish in the sea.

I have two rules when it comes to the women I fuck.

No commitment.

No redheads.

Commitment was for Lucy.

And Lucy was a redhead.

I freeze. A vision of Lucy is in front of me, a scowl of disapproval on her face. I messed around a fair bit before we met, but nothing like this. I've taken it to a whole new level and I don't care. Except for that scowl. Even in death I don't want to upset Lucy.

What did you expect, Luce? You left me a pretty big void to fill.

Don't blame me, I hear her snap back. Your life. Your choice.

Yeah, right.

My eyes wander of their own accord back to Gemma. She's got her head bent now, and Wolf's fingers are typing something into his cell phone. She nods and smiles, then presses a hand to his forearm. My stomach rolls on a surge of emotion I don't much care for.

I stalk towards the blonde as though she is the only woman in the room.

'I'm Jack Grant.'

Her lips are painted a bright red. She purrs. 'I know who you are.'

'Then you have the advantage.'

Her lips part. 'From what I hear, telling you my name wouldn't serve much purpose. You won't remember it tomorrow, right?'

I laugh, appreciating her honesty. 'No. . .' I lean forward so that my lips are only a whisper from her ear. My breath flutters her hair and I see a fine trail of goose bumps run across her skin. 'But you'll remember me for the rest of your life.'

Her laugh is husky. She's everything I would usually find sexy, but in that moment she's just passably acceptable. If I'm honest, I'm bored. It's a phone-it-in flirt. A What the heck? situation.

'We'll see. . .'

'Can I get you a drink?'

'I can share yours,' she murmurs, her eyes dropping to my champagne flute.

I didn't even realise I was still holding it. I extend it to her on autopilot, watching as her lips shape over the glass and she tilts it back. The liquid is honey-gold. She passes the glass to me and I take a sip.

'Let's get out of here,' she says, with a throaty laugh in the rushed words.

I nod, reaching down and putting a hand in the small of her back. Gemma and Lucy are both in my head now-a fascinating occurrence. A new occurrence. Are they ganging up on me? Would they even like each other?

Lucy was so soft and sweet. She looked at me like I was her saviour and I suppose I was. I ripped her out of her old life, away from a boyfriend who used her as a punching bag, and I made all her dreams come true.

But fate is a bastard of a thing, and it only had bad news in store for Lucy. For a while she managed to jump tracks and sit on a different train, and then-bam. It took her. You can't outrun destiny, can you?

Gemma is nothing like her. Her personality isn't so much hard edges as a single hard face. She is smart-smarter than me by a mile-and focussed in a way that is completely familiar to me. She is also sexy. I don't know how I know that, but I do. She acts so damned cold around me-as though she's never so much as heard of an orgasm, much less experienced one. It makes me want her more. Want to show her for the liar she is. To make her orgasm again and again until 'cold' is a very distant memory.

'Jack.'

She catches me as I'm about to leave the room. Her eyes briefly meet the blonde's. There is nothing beyond a polite acknowledgement of her existence. That iciness is there. I want to push Gemma backwards against the wall and kiss the hell out of her. Right here.

'You're scheduled to speak in twenty minutes.'

Whoops. Even for me that's a bit of a slip. I don't usually let anything get in the way of business-even my sex life.

'We'll be back by then.'

Blondie surprises us both. Her meaning is unmistakable.

Shit. I can't remember the last time I had a quickie in the car. Is she seriously suggesting it?

Gemma shifts her attention to her phone. She runs that iPhone as though she designed the thing. Her fingers fly over the screen like it's a part of her. Her complacency pisses me off.

'Okay. The talk can be brief. Just an outline of what the foundation is hoping to achieve, thanking the commercial partners, yada-yada-yada.'

'Yada-yada-yada?' I grin slowly, my eyes linking with hers, daring her to forget the coldness and complacency.

She looks at Blondie and her smile is perfunctory. 'Have fun.'

* * * * * * * * *
Of course Jack nails the speech. Not so much as a hair on his head looks out of place. The tuxedo is immaculate. The white shirt crisp. The bow tie in place as though glued. He speaks eloquently about the foundation and he also speaks with humour, so the crowd laughs.

I don't.

I am wondering about the blonde.

No. I'm thinking about Jack-but they're thoughts that I need to run a mile from. This can't control me. I've worked my arse off in this job, twisting myself in mental knots to stay on top of my workload without breaking a sweat, and I am not going to let the fact that my boss is impossibly hot get in the way.

Instead I let my attention drift to Wolf.

He's talking to someone else now-no doubt about that bloody software. His face is serious, and that makes me smile. Because Wolf is pretty much always serious.

Warning! Warning! Warning! It flashes inside my mind. Because I don't do serious, and if I let the flirtation with Wolf keep going I think he's going to see roses and candy and wedding bells.

God help me, I can't think of anything worse.

I am suffocating at the very idea of being a bride in white, having Wolf waiting for me at the end of an aisle. He would definitely want children, too. Three of them. And he'd expect me to be the obliging baby-maker and carer. He'd look at me with those puppy-dog eyes, sadness and disappointment on his features, if I so much as dared suggest we get a nanny.

Maybe I could be like Marissa Mayer and have a nursery built into my office? The nanny could be based there, so I could still be one of those hands-on Pinterest-type mummies. Wolf would never even need to know I'd hired someone to help.

But Jack would. He'd hate that. A baby crying when I'm trying to talk to him about tariffs on our Chinese imports? No, he'd probably seduce the nanny and then I'd have to either fire her or kill her.

Okay, now who's getting ahead of themselves?

But Wolf has caught me watching him and his heart is so on his sleeve he might as well be a cartoon character, with one of those thought bubbles popping out of his head. I have to let this opportunity pass me by. He's not right, and when he realises that I'm not going to leave Jack and move to Manhattan, working with him will become a nightmare.

I look away.

Right at Jack.

He's standing in front of me.

The band has started to play and I've been so lost in imagining the hell of my future with Wolf DuChamp that I haven't realised.

'Did you like the speech?'

'Looking for compliments?' I sip my champagne, pleased at how quickly I'm able to recover. 'What's the matter? Wasn't she suitably impressed?'

His eyes clash with mine. He's angry. Ooooh. Why? Have I hit the nail on the head somehow?

'Are you wondering if I can please a woman in fifteen minutes?'

He shifts his body infinitesimally, but enough to spark something low in my abdomen. Anger. Resentment. Heat. Warmth. Need.

Fuck.

'Believe it or not, I haven't given any thought to your bedroom prowess,' I lie, shifting my attention back to the room of people. London's elite swirl around us, and I am wanting to swirl away with them.

'Liar,' he says, so softly I think I've misheard.

Because we can't go there! He knows that-I know that. Every bone in my body wants him, but my brain is still in charge. I don't want to screw up my career, but it's more than that. I love Jack. Not in that way. I mean I love working with him. Even when he's at his assholiest, he's become one of the biggest constants in my life. How stupid would it be to rock the boat?

I imagine, briefly, that we indulge in an affair and it ends-because Jack doesn't do permanent-and then I imagine not seeing him again.

It makes me ill.

I don't want to think about it.

I don't want to risk it.

'The speech was good.' I bring the conversation back onto far safer ground, trying to fold my desperate realisations away neatly into a box I won't open again.

'Tell me something, Gemma,' he says, and the tone of his voice is still dangerous to me.

He hasn't got my silent memo, obviously, because his words prick the blood in my veins until it gushes and gurgles through me-he's flirting with me.

I use my most businesslike tone. 'Oh, I don't know if you really want me to do that. You might not like what I say. . .'

His eyes lance mine. It's like being sliced through.

'What's the deal with you and that guy from New York?'

Who's he talking about? Oh. Right. 'You mean Wolf?'

His lips curl derisively-that's one of my favourite of his expressions. I don't know if he realises how devilishly sexy he looks.

'Who calls their kid after an animal? Especially when he's the least wolf-like person you can imagine.'

'I don't suppose they knew that when he was born,' I say, but a smile is pushing at my lips. He's right. Wolf is handsome, but in a very neat and tidy kind of way.

'Is he a wolf in the bedroom?'

The question catches me completely off guard. It's wholly new territory for us. Invasive in a way I don't know if I like but am worried that I might.

Still, challenging Jack is what I do. That's who we are.

I tilt my head to one side, assessing him for a moment, before volleying back, 'How was the blonde?'

'She was dull,' he says with a shrug and no hesitation, apparently having no qualms discussing his sex-life with me.

'Where is she?'

'At her house. Waiting.'

'For you?'

He shrugs. 'I said I might stop by. It seemed like the only way to get rid of her.'

Wait. He hasn't slept with her? No, not slept with. Fucked. The thought is oddly elating, though I can't help but feel sympathy for the woman he flirted with and then sent packing.

'You really are a bastard,' I mutter. 'Are you going to go to her?'

His eyes are probing mine now, and I feel like every single one of my fantasies, my dirtiest, hottest dreams, are playing out between us like a kinky Pensieve for his pleasure.

Yes, I'm a Harry Potter diehard. Hermione was one of my first role models.

'Maybe.'

My stomach turns. I am used to this feeling with Jack. In the first six months we worked together I wasn't so adept at dealing with his vivid love-life. I blushed whenever I found evidence of his nocturnal activities, and I couldn't always meet his eye. But now? Well, now I've had two years to practise acceptance.

I smile blandly. 'Well. . .' I shrug as though my heart's not racing and my nipples aren't throbbing. 'Have a good night.'

'Wait.' His words are commanding, and so too is the hand he clamps around my wrist.

I jerk my face towards his, the breath exploding out of me. We don't touch. No more than an accidental brush of fingers from time to time. That's impossible to avoid when you're together as often as we are.

Definitely not like this.

His thumb pads across my inner wrist, and when I don't say anything he pulls me, hard and fast, so that my body rams into his. We are surrounded and yet we are alone. There is a void that engulfs us. Like a sensual electric fence.

This is all new and all wrong. And so right.

His body is tight. Hard. Hot. Just as it is in all my fantasies. It takes every single ounce of my willpower to close my mouth and let my breath return to normal. To look at him as though he's lost his mind, not made me lose mine.

'Yes, sir?'

His eyes flare. I meant it to put him back on his guard, to remind him of the boundaries of our relationship, but I might as well have struck a match over gasoline. He doesn't let me go.

'Dance with me.'

The air around us is charged with expectation and I just know he's asking for more than a dance. Does he expect me to say no? I don't like living up to expectations, and I'm not going to give him a reason to think I'm afraid of what's going on between us.

'Fine.' My smile is tight. It stretches over my face like sunburn.

He expels a breath, long and slow, and places a hand in the small of my back. No. . .just at the very top of my arse. His fingers are splayed wide and they press into me firmly, so that I'm propelled towards him. His other hand links with my fingers, wrapping through them.

I focus on the band, my eyes taking in the details of their appearance while I concentrate on looking completely calm. I'm not, though. I'm weak when I want to be strong, and I need something that I shouldn't.

'This dress is sensational,' he says, immediately shattering my attempts to find calm.

'Is that your informed fashion opinion?'

Too tart. I soften the snap with a smile. It's a mistake. His eyes are mocking, his own smile sardonic.

I look away again immediately.

'It's my informed opinion as a red-blooded male.'

'What do you like about it?'

Warning lights are flashing in my mind, clamouring for attention. They are bright and angry. What am I doing?

'Let me see,' he murmurs. 'The colour. The way it's literally glued to your skin.'

He drops his head closer and heat spirals inside me; my blood is a vapour of steam in my veins.

This isn't right. It's not us. He sleeps with other women and, sure, he flirts the heck out of me, but that's harmless.

This doesn't feel harmless.

The music slows and I slow with it, putting some space between us with what I tell myself is relief.

'Get me up to speed on the New York situation,' he says.

'I intend to.'

I'm snappy because I'm uncertain. I'm completely wrong-footed by his nearness, his touch, and my own desire for him is swamping me. I need a minute to regroup, but his fingers are giving me no time. They're throbbing across my spine, my arse, and I am heating up by the second.

'Tonight. Now.'

I angle my head towards Wolf unconsciously. He's still locked in conversation. I have no intention of going home with him, and yet I resent Jack's implication that I don't have a life of my own.

'It's not urgent.' My words are stiff. 'It'll keep till tomorrow.' And I force myself to pull completely free of Jack's grip.

It's the equivalent of grabbing a lifeline from the side of a sinking boat. It's slippery, and I'm pretty sure I'm not strong enough to hold on to it for long enough to save myself. Drowning is inevitable.

'I want to hear about it tonight.'

It's a challenge. A gauntlet. He gives me a lot of latitude in my job because he knows how much I do. And I do it well. But at the end of the day he's my boss, and I don't know if anything is to be served by refusing him this request.

'Fine,' I say with a shrug of my shoulders. But I'm not going to let him think he's won. 'I just need. . .twenty minutes.'

I disconnect myself from him and try not to register how my body screams in frustration.

I saunter off towards Wolf before I can see if Jack's reacting in the same way.

Wolf is deep in conversation when I approach. 'May I have a moment?' I look with a hint of apology towards the men he's with.

'Sure.' He grins at me. A nice grin. He really is good to look at. Not groundbreaking, earth-shattering, but nice.

He puts a hand on my elbow but I am leading him, walking quickly out of the ballroom, seeking privacy for no reason other than to give Jack a taste of his own damned medicine. That and to send a loud and clear message. He doesn't control every part of me.

'All good for later?' Wolf asks.

I smile. 'No, it's not. I have to work tonight, actually. I'm going to brief Jack on the software situation.'

'Tonight?' He arches a brow, his voice rich with disbelief.

'He micromanages everything,' I explain. It's true. 'And he's impatient as hell. I just want to make sure I have all the information.'

He nods, not quite hiding his disappointment. 'Let's recap.'

And that's how I spend the nineteen minutes I have. Well, eighteen. . . I allow myself one minute to pull a bit of my hair loose from its bun and to pinch my cheeks, making them appear flushed with pleasure.

Jack is waiting for me in the limousine twenty-five minutes after I left him. I imitate breathlessness as I step inside, and enjoy the way his eyes sweep over me with undisguised speculation.

'Ready?'

It's not what I expected. I nod, but as I do so I feel like maybe I'm agreeing to something I don't understand. Like there's a hidden meaning I don't yet know.

'Yeah. Let's go.'

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

I'LL SAY THIS for Jack. He knows how to do this. Late-night entertaining is clearly his forte.

His office is dimly lit and he's switched on some kind of acoustic guitar album that's humming low in my abdomen. The vocalist has a husky rasp and it's doing very strange things to my equilibrium. He mixes two martinis with a maraschino cherry in each.

I arch a brow as he hands me mine. 'I hate cherries.'

'Interesting,' he murmurs, his eyes hooked to mine. 'Why?'

I stare at it and swirl the glass, sipping the alcohol and wincing as the slightly medicinal flavour assaults my back palette. 'They're weird. Plasticky.'

'Not the real ones.'

'No.'

I swallow, wondering at the way my gut is churning and my pulse is racing. I need to bring it back to business. It's the reason I'm here with him.

'The server in Canada can pick up the slack, but it's going to slow things down.'

'By how much?'

'Just a few seconds' lag. It's unavoidable, given the distance.'

'A few seconds?' He shakes his head. 'There's nowhere closer?'

'Not that can handle this amount of data.'

He throws his drink back in one motion. 'And Wolf thinks that's acceptable?'

He says his name with obvious derision.

'You think he'd go to the effort of flying out here to propose it if he did?'

'Well, he's banging you, right?'

I can't hide the angry intake of breath. Sure, he's always rude. And demanding. And I've learned not to give a shit. I don't expect the same courtesy from Jack Grant that most people pepper into life. But this is too far even for him. . .even when we've been flirting all night.

'His suggestion is professional,' I return softly. A warning lurks in my words. Does he hear it?

Apparently not. Jack is like a cat with a mouse.

'But you are fucking him?'

'God, Jack,' I snap, standing up.

His eyes follow the fluidity of my movement. They're narrowed. Assessing. He's reading me like a book. But I'm too angry to care. Too worked up, as well. He's halfway to being drunk, and he's obnoxious, and since he pulled me hard against his body I'm a bit mushy.

I hide my mushiness, though. I hide it behind a veil of anger. 'That's none of your damned business.'

His eyes flick to mine. There's a lazy arrogance in his features but anger palpitates off him.

'He works for me. You work for me. If you're fucking him I want to know.'

'What I do in my own time, and with whom, is up to me. Until the day it starts affecting my job performance you should just butt out.' I jut my chin, my eyes sparking with his. 'Got it?'

He looks calm, controlled, but I know there's an undercurrent of emotion just beneath the handsome surface. Because I know Jack. Probably better than anyone else on earth.

'You don't strike me as coy,' he says.

'Because I'm not.'

I step backwards. The wall is behind me. I brush against it, feeling cornered and unbelievably confused and turned on by this strange turn of events.

'So answer the question.'

'Am I fucking Wolf?' My question emerges as a husk in the night.

'Yeah.' He moves forward. An infinitesimal step. 'You know everything there is to know about me, don't you? So why keep your secrets?'

I open my mouth to say something snappy, but shut it again. He's right. I know a lot about him. Not the 'everything' he claims, but a lot.

'You could always lock your door if you want to be more private about your love-life.'

'Sex-life,' he interjects swiftly, on autopilot, and I know it's because of Lucy that he's so emphatic on this point.

I don't know anything about his wife. I presume she was a nice enough person-although agreeing to marry Jack does make me question both her sanity and her judgement. But maybe he was different before she died. Maybe his bastard impulses weren't so apparent?

'So you're going to live out the rest of your life like this? Moving from one woman to another, never getting to know a thing about them beyond their cup size and their sexual proclivities.'

His eyes drop to my breasts and I can tell he is assessing my cup size. Crap. My nipples strain hard against the flimsy fabric of my dress-it's too tight for a bra, and sadly I don't really need one.

His smile is self-satisfied and I want to slap it off his face. I fight the urge to cross my arms and cover my involuntary reaction.

'I'm trying to get to know more about you right now,' he says.

My pulse is hammering hard in my veins. His revolving-door bedroom flashes before me in an instant. The number of mornings I've arrived to find him asleep after a busy night of. . . Best I don't imagine that right now.

'Are you afraid I'll judge you?'

I open my eyes to find him right in front of me, his head bent, his body just a hair's breadth from me. A soft moan escapes me before I can catch it.

'You? You think you'd have any right to judge me after parading half of England through here?'

'Not half of England,' he murmurs, a smile shifting over his face. 'Half of London, maybe.'

'How do you justify it?' I ask, feeling a dangerous pull towards a line of questioning my brain is shouting at me to back away from. 'You think Lucy would be happy that you're fucking your way through a smorgasbord of women just because you won't have an actual relationship? Is there a sliding scale of monogamy that the dead expect?'

A muscle jerks in his cheek. I recognise that I'm stirring him up and still I don't stop. I'm angry, too! He doesn't have a monopoly on thwarted desire and pent-up frustration.

It feels good to goad him! So good!

'You think what you do is fair to these women?'

His smile spreads slowly, but it is cold, angry. 'I don't hear any complaints.'

Boom! It's the proverbial match to the fuel of my anger. I explode.

 

'You boot them out before you even know their names half the time! Where, exactly, would they lodge their complaint? My God, Jack. Of all the chauvinistic, selfish, careless-'

He lifts a finger to my lips, silencing me with the touch. His eyes on mine are intent. Heat builds inside my blood, at fever pitch now.

'You know. . . ' His fingers dip into my drink, fishing out the bright red orb at its base. 'You have a tendency to be judgemental.'

My sharp intake of breath is dangerous, given his finger's closeness to my mouth. He runs it across my lower lip and I don't pull away. He holds up the cherry with his other hand. My eyes slip to it of their own accord.

'Haven't you ever discovered that you like something you thought you hated? Haven't you ever been wrong?'

I shake my head, not really sure of the question he's asking. He surprises me by lifting the cherry to his own lips and sucking it into his mouth. I watch for a moment, and as his finger drops from my mouth I try to say something. I'm not sure what, and I'll never have a chance to find out. He brings his lips to mine, pressing the cherry into my mouth, rolling it around before sucking it back into his and crushing it.

The flavour is all around me and I no longer care. Because it is dwarfed by something else: the taste of him. Cherry flavour is on his tongue, evaporating in the flame of our kiss.

His lips crush mine, silencing any words, sucking them out of me, and a new heat spreads in my body. His kiss is punishment and it is possession. I cannot explain it better than that. It is a moment of clarity in which my anger seems to evaporate temporarily before it is back and I am kissing him-just as hard, with just as much fury.

My tongue lashes his and my hands are in his hair, rough, pulling at him, and I am kissing him as though I am still shouting at him with my touch.

He groans angrily and his body weight holds me to the wall, his strong legs straddling me, pinning me where I am. I think my brain is trying to tell me something, but I can hear nothing above the pounding of my heart and the rushing of my blood.

Desire is a whip, and it is lashing at my spine.

He drags his lips lower, nipping the skin of my shoulder with his teeth and teasing the racing pulse-point in my neck with his tongue. I groan, tilting my head back, knowing I need to stop this madness but accepting we are past that.

A line has been crossed. Not just crossed! Obliterated! There is newness to this. But I want to shape it, not be shaped by it. I need to be in charge-at least to some extent.

'Why do you care?' he asks, bringing his mouth back to mine and kissing me with enough force to hold my head hard against the wall. His hand drops to my dress, lifting the hem, and his fingers slide between my weak, shaking legs.

'Care. . .?' I mumble. What is he talking about?

He breaks the kiss but I have no space to think-not when his fingers are sliding inside me, his hand easily pushing aside the barrier of my flimsy underpants.

Oh, my God. I'm about to come. I swear, I'm this close. He swirls his finger around my wet muscles, teasing me, feeling me, and I am his. Completely.

'Why do you care who I fuck?'

The question is a gruff, deep demand.

I blink my eyes, trying to think straight. But he moves his thumb over my clit and I shiver, trembling in every bone of my body as I feel the wave building around me.

'I don't,' I snap through gritted teeth, sweat sheening my brow.

My eyes are shut, so I don't see him dip his head forward. It is a surprise when his mouth clamps over my breast, his teeth biting down on my nipple through the silky fabric of my dress.

My stomach lurches as he drags his teeth along my nipple, pulling, making me throb with pleasure. And his finger pushes deeper, then draws out. My own wetness glides across my clit as he thumbs my nerves, and I am lost. Exploded. Gone.

Heat shoots through me, bursting me apart, and I am panting loud and hard as he moves his head to the other breast.

Shit. It's too much. My muscles are clenching and my legs are hardly able to hold me up. I have had amazing sex, but something about this has blown all my experiences out of the water. Is it the illicitness of being with my boss?

My boss.

Jack Grant.

I groan in awareness of a moment I will undoubtedly regret, and then I groan at my weakness because I can't stop. There is a compulsion-no. An awakening. It is an acceptance of a truth I have fought too hard and for too long.

Two years of looks, laughs, infuriating arguments and differences of opinion have been leading to this. Two years of finding him in bed and fantasising about climbing in with him. I have resisted because he is my boss and I love my job-and because he's Jack-bloody-Grant. I have resisted acting on my deepest desires, but now I find it is impossible not to welcome his.

His hand drops to my side. His fingers dig into my flesh just enough to make me arch my back forward, but his hips rock me against the wall, crushing me with strength and passion. Hell, he's good at this. So, so good. So much better than I imagined.

And I've imagined a lot.

I whimper-a sound I don't think I've ever made in my life-as he brings his mouth back to mine, but the ghost of his kiss lingers on my breasts, making them painfully sensitised.

'Now do you think women complain after they leave me?' he asks, and he is stepping away, backwards, his eyes glinting in his handsome face as he stares at me with a confusing lack of passion.

There is colour in his cheeks and his chest is shifting hard, as is mine, with the pain of laboured breath. But his voice is steady and his eyes are cold.

His question doesn't make sense. I lift a finger to my breasts. They're tingling and swollen. I stare at him, unusually slow on the uptake.

'I give them what they want. What you want.'

And he turns sharply, stalking across the room and grabbing another drink. His back is to me as he throws back the glass and swallows, but I hardly register the movement. Shock is seeping into me. Shock at what we've just done.

Holy hell!

Was he proving a point? I am trembling, moistness slicks my underwear, my dress bears the marks of his kiss, my mind is tumbled-and he is nothing?

Feminine pique stirs in my gut. I fantasise about slipping the dress from my body and storming across the room. About pushing him to the floor and straddling him, making him admit he wants me.

I know he does. I felt the proof of his desire hard against my stomach. But sanity is returning, and with it the realisation that we have done something very, very stupid. There is no turning back. No unwinding time. I need to salvage my pride and get the hell out of his office before I do something really stupid. Like ask him to finish the job he started.

'I'll email you a full report on the server's feasibility tomorrow.' My words are pleasingly stiff.

He grunts. 'There she is. My cold-as-ice assistant.'

I straighten my back. I have never been his assistant and he knows it. He's goading me. Spoiling for another fight?

I narrow my eyes. 'Oh, I'm not cold,' I hear myself say. 'I'm very, very turned on.'

Perhaps my honesty surprises him. He turns his face, angling it towards me without actually looking in my direction.

'If you'll excuse me, I'm going to go and. . .blow off some steam.'

I walk out of there calmly, even though I am awash with doubt. Let him make of that what he will. If he imagines me going to Wolf. . . So what? If he imagines me going home to masturbate, looking at a picture of him, then let him.

I don't know if I give a shit.

It is cold when I emerge from The Mansion, and drizzling with rain.

One of the decisions I made within six months of coming to work for Jack was to move to Hampstead, where he lives. The hours I work, I don't want to lose any more to a lengthy commute.

The Mansion is at the end of a long lane that comes out near the Heath, and just around the corner from a happy little school is my townhouse. A Dickensian brick with a shining red door and window boxes that have been sorely neglected over the summer. I should have planted them with pansies and strawberries, as they were when I first moved in, but I've never got around to it.

I shoulder the door inwards and slam it closed behind me with true relief.

But then I make the mistake of shutting my eyes and there he is. Jack Grant. . .head bent forward. . .mouth moving over my breast. I curse darkly-a string of angry words that would have knocked my mother sideways if she thought I even knew such language-and stride to the mirror in my entrance way.

My breasts are covered by two dark, wet marks. I lift my fingers to them and trace their outline, shuddering at remembered sensations, desperate for more. More of him. More of this.

I groan loudly and stomp through to the kitchen.

What the hell just happened? He's my boss. My boss! And I know what he's like. I know how messed up he is. For two years I have kept all this swirling desire at bay. Why couldn't I control it tonight?

I pour myself a glass of wine in the hope that it will somehow reach back through time and wipe the experience not only from my memory but also from existence. It doesn't. Each sip reminds me of him, and the faint overtone of alcohol hits the back of my throat, making me crave him.

This is not good.

I walk more slowly through the house, up the narrow stairs-two flights. The house is tall and skinny, with one or two rooms on each of its five storeys. My office is on the first floor; my bedroom and bathroom are on the next. There are three bedrooms on the next few levels, and a roof terrace right at the top. I love it, but I am not here nearly enough.

I kick my shoes off, then flick the light on with the base of my wineglass, narrowly avoiding spilling Pinot Noir on the beige carpet. I pad over the carpet and strip off the dress as I go. I'll give it to charity as soon as I can.

In just my still-damp underpants, I climb into bed and pull the duvet up to my chin. Wineglass in hand, I stare at the wall.

It's not that bad, is it?

People must do this kind of thing all the time. We work together. Hell, we practically live together. Something like this was kind of inevitable.

I cringe.

It's so not okay. Wasn't I just congratulating myself a few days ago on the Very Important Lessons I've learned from watching female bosses get derided and demoted over the years? Surely the cardinal sin for any woman in the workplace is to get involved with a colleague? And definitely not a senior, super-rich, super-yummy, fuck-around kind of colleague.

Ugh!

There are only a handful of us that work at The Mansion. Jack's two assistants, his driver, a bodyguard and me. We are all bound by a strict notion of confidentiality, and I think most of his staff are too afraid of me to get on my bad side anyway. So it's not gossip I fear.

It's Jack. And it's me. It's the respect I suspect I have sacrificed by letting this happen.

Letting it happen? My brain is outraged. My brain, after all, did try to stop it.

Sorry, I wasn't listening. I won't make that mistake again.

I pour the wine into my mouth, wincing at the astringent taste I really don't enjoy. I'm tired. It's been a long day and a weird night.

The last thing on my mind as I fall into a tortured, sensual sleep is a question about what tomorrow will bring.

He's at his desk when I arrive the next morning, coffee steaming in front of him, dark head bent. I move past, telling myself I would never do anything as cowardly as tiptoeing even as I hold my breath until I'm past his doorframe.

'Gemma? Get in here.'

Shit.

I squeeze my eyes shut, suck in a deep breath. I can do this. We just kissed.

You didn't 'just kiss'. He stuck his finger deep inside you and made you come.

Shut up, brain.

He sucked on your breasts and you fell apart at the seams.

Seriously, I'm going to lobotomise myself.

'Gemma?'

With a silent oath, I spin on my you-can-handle-anything Jimmy Choo heel and stride into his office with my very best appearance of calm.

'Oh, hi, Jack.'

Crap. He's wearing the pale blue shirt that makes his eyes look like bloody gemstones. It's unbuttoned at the neck and I can see a hint of dark hair curling above the top button.

'I didn't realise you were here.'

His smirk shows my lie for what it is.

'Sit.'

I arch my brow, staying exactly where I am, ignoring the wall to my left. The wall he pressed me against while he explored me intimately. My eyes stray to the bar instead. To the cocktail he was drinking last night.

'Sit,' he says again, and there is something in his voice that makes my nerves twitch.

There is promise in that command. Promise and heat.

'How are you?' The question, softly asked, makes everything inside me tremble.

'I'm fine,' I snap, to counteract that response. 'And busy. What do you need?'

His smile spreads slowly across his face. It is fire and it is flame and my brain is beginning to get very, very anxious.

'How did you sleep?'

Does he know I dreamed of him? That in my dreams he did very, very bad things to me?

I swallow, crossing my arms over my chest as the memories nip at my heels. They are in the room with us, swirling around him, me and the things we did. I can't give them more air.

'Did you want something?'

He stands up, and I am frozen to the spot as he moves confidently across the room, shutting the door and clicking the lock in place.

'I slept badly,' he says, ignoring my question, his voice sunshine on my cool flesh.

'Mmm. . .?' I murmur, making sure no warmth conveys itself to him. 'Maybe you should have tried a sedative?'

He strides to the chair across from his and holds it out. Shooting him a look laced with my fiercest resentment, I sit down, careful not to so much as brush against his fingertips. Fingers that have now been inside me-that have not just touched me, but have breached my barriers and found my throbbing heart.

Fingers that have undone me.

I am holding my breath again. Is that how I'm going to get over this little hurdle? Suffocate myself? Is that even possible? I'm pretty sure we have some breathing trigger in our brains, but my brain is a bit pissy with me so maybe it would conveniently forget about the button.

I push air out consciously, quietly, and he takes his seat.

'Anyway. . .' I prompt impatiently.

His smile is a flicker. Is he laughing at me? Arrogant arsehole! That'd be just like him. See? That's the problem! I know him. I'm not one of his other women. I know that he is as bastardy as he is sexy.

'How did you sleep?'

I blink at him, my eyes wide. 'You've already asked me that.'

'You didn't answer.'

I expel a sigh that speaks of anger. 'Like I always do. Seriously, Jack. My desk is covered in paper. I have to get to work.'

'I'm your work,' he says with a shrug.

Insolent bastard.

He leans forward, and while his face is casual there is an urgency in the flecks of gold that fill his eyes. 'Did you see him last night?'

I want to remind him of the salient fact I pointed out the night before. It's not his damned business. But I'm not sure I can say that with such conviction now that I've tasted his mouth; now that I've been stunned by his desire.

Can I skirt around his question?

'You're my work? Okay, the thing is I have the New York guys waiting on contracts, you have a meeting in a week that I have to prepare for and Athens wants your input-which means my input-on a lease agreement. And I need to-'

'Quiet.'

God! Don't hate me, but when he's bossy I love it. And he's almost always bossy.

I glare at him across his desk; it's best if he doesn't know that this is just about my favourite version of him.

'You're fucking telling me to be quiet?' I lean forward, and we're close now: almost touching. 'Seriously?'

'You're pissed off.'

'Damn right, I am.'

His laugh is soft. Throaty. Hot. 'Because we didn't finish?'

I flick my eyes shut. My cheeks are hot. 'What do you need?'

'Are you in a relationship with him?'

'Who?'

'Wolf DuChamp?'

I hide a smile. 'So you do know his name?'

'Now I do.'

His expression is unreadable. But deep inside me something stirs. Hope. Because isn't there an implication there that he knows about Wolf because of me? Because he wants to know about my life?

'So? What's the deal?' he asks.

'Are you jealous?' The words are a challenge; they escape unbidden.

His response is razor-sharp. 'Why would I be jealous?'

Crap. A stupid challenge, apparently.

'Forget it.' I scrape the chair back and stand, my eyes not inviting argument. 'Is that all?'

'You haven't answered me. How can it be all?'

I expel a breath angrily. 'I like him.' I shrug.

It's true. Not romantically, necessarily. But he's a nice guy. Good-looking. It doesn't matter that I've already ruled out a relationship.

'Are you fucking him?'

My expression is ice-even I can feel the chill that spreads through the office.

'Isn't this the question that got us into trouble last night?'

He stands up, slamming his palms against the desk, his eyes lashing me. 'Are you fucking him?'

It's loud. Not quite a roar, but close to it. I'm startled. This is outside the bounds of anything that's happened between us and we both know it. Then again, I guess we've obliterated boundaries now. They-like me-are in a state of flux. Changeability that is unpredictable and not good.

'Go to hell.'

I turn around and walk out of his office, but my knees are shaking and I feel really weird, as if I could cry-which, for your information, I haven't done in years. I literally don't cry. Not at sad movies. Not when my cat died.

But I'm shaking, and if he follows me I'll be really lost.

He doesn't.

I storm over to my desk. I wasn't lying or exaggerating. Piles of paper clutter every available inch of the thing. I turn my back on them and stare over the Heath, my eyes brooding.

This is a damned nightmare, isn't it?

My brain nods along smugly. Told you so.

 

 

 

Text Copyright © 2018 by Clare Connelly

Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.


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