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 here: 'Office sex the biggest mistake of my life'
Note: Adult language and themes
'AMBER.' I SMILE, meeting the redhead's eyes with genuine interest.
Lucy's sister is ten years older than Lucy was, and she has the same pale skin and dainty features - at least going from the photographs I've seen. Her eyes are enormous and brown, her smile slow but genuine. She is naturally plump and attractive.
I like her instantly.
'The angelic Gemma,' she responds, her Scottish accent thick. 'I've been looking forward to meeting the woman who's tamed my brother-in-law.'
Tamed him? Not bloody likely.
Flashbacks of the previous afternoon flood my brain and I push them away. I cannot think about how it felt to be made love to by Jack Grant. No - fucked by him. Fucked hard. So hard, so hot ... Oh, my God. My insides clench with remembered need. It's a visceral awareness, and actual biological need throbs through me on a cellular level. It's every bit as compelling and real as thirst, starvation and fear. It is a need strong enough to fell me at the knees.
I swallow, hoping to calm my raging, insatiable desire. 'I'm pretty sure he's untameable,' I say, with only a hint of desperation, gesturing that she should take a seat.
I've moved us to the small conference room on-site at The Mansion. Thankfully it's nothing like the office in the City, with its modern decor and imposing outlook. This is a room far more fitted to an ancient home on the edge of Hampstead. Still expensive, with luxurious leather recliners, but homely, somehow.
'Put up with him, then. You must have the patience of a saint.'
'I must,' I agree.
'Gemma is actually very impatient.'
His voice enters the room before he does, and I straighten in the chair.
'If I don't give her what she wants straightaway she begs me until I give in.'
My cheeks flame and I'm grateful that Amber is standing and moving across the room towards Jack - arsehole that he is. How dare he say something so bloody obvious? I know we're both thinking of how I begged him to make love to me the day before.
My eyes cling to Jack and Amber, morbidly fascinated, as they embrace. It's a hug of true affection and, yes, grief is there, too. He's wearing navy blue pants and a pale blue shirt which he's rolled up to just below the elbows. It's a linen material, and it's crinkled a little around the chest, showing he's been sitting in it for quite some time.
He keeps an arm around Amber's waist as they walk deeper into the room. She takes an armchair opposite me and he sits beside her, facing me, aligning himself with her.
They are family. I'm the outsider.
It hurts. Possibly even more than the showering-straight-after-sex thing.
Did he need to drink copious measures of Scotch to forget me last night?
My eyes drift to his face to find him watching me. Intensely watchful, I would have to say, peeling away my skin and analysing each beat of my heart.
I blink, careful not to react, and then turn back to Amber. 'How's everything going with the launch preparation?'
'Aye, good. We're getting there. I've staffed the main headquarters and we're just getting the international charitable recognition worked out to allow foreign donations.'
'Advertising?' Jack chimes in.
'We're meeting with two agencies next week to select a final campaign. It's looking like it will be print and digital-heavy, with the possibility of sponsoring a major sporting event over the summer - possibly the cricket.'
Jack pulls a face. 'Bloody hell. The cricket?'
'Oh, come on. Lucy would have wanted it.' Amber grins, pushing a finger into his shoulder in a further sign of their casual camaraderie.
It's strange that I don't often think of Jack like this - as a member of other spheres.
Here, it is him and me and the work we do together. It consumes so much of my life that I must admit I'm surprised to realise he has other people, things, memories and hobbies. Jokes and history.
Did Lucy watch cricket while Jack groaned about it? Did they laugh about his aversion to any sport other than rugby?
I blank the thoughts - or try to. But they're gnawing at my mind, unfolding like a concertinaing piano accordion that's ever so slightly out of key.
'It'll be a good show,' Amber says loudly, her smile encouraging as she winks in my direction.
Despite the fact that she's forced me to walk through a door that shows me the ghosts of Jack's Happy Past, I like her immensely, and the more she speaks about the foundation the more I know we've absolutely made the right decision. She's intimately informed on all the matters I need to consult with her about. She's thorough and quick and funny. And she's uniquely motivated to make the fundraiser a success.
She's Lucy's sister, and Lucy is dead, but I am jealous of Amber suddenly. It's ridiculous. An emotion entirely unworthy. But watching her talk, with her big red lips and her animated face, I feel wan and boring in comparison.
I would have been bland compared to Lucy, too.
I look downwards as Amber launches into a description of the view from her office. I'm wearing one of my favourite dresses - a shift in olive-green with bell sleeves and a boat neck. Oh, but it's so conservative and drab! Just the kind of dress my mother would adore. I chose it for the length of the sleeves, which fall to partway down my hands, because my wrists - which I see I've now accidentally left uncovered - have a dark band of bruising around them.
Belt-burn. Thanks, arsehole.
I nod at something Amber's said, my eyes moving of their own accord to Jack's face.
He's looking at my wrists, too, and the colour has drained from his face. I shift self-consciously, uncrossing and crossing my legs and drawing my sleeves lower in the process.
'Amber, we can discuss the rest over lunch. I know Gemma's got a desk full of crap to deal with.'
'Your crap!' Amber laughs good-naturedly, totally relaxed.
'That's her job,' he says pointedly.
Amber rolls her eyes. 'How you put up with him is beyond me.'
But she stands, straightening the crinkles out of the front of her skirt as she moves towards me. I hold out a hand to shake but she ignores it and pulls me into a hug instead.
'We've spoken so many times I feel like I already know you. But it's been lovely to finally meet you.'
'Likewise,' I murmur, stepping away from her with cringe-inducing coldness. Something else my mother would approve of! Standoffishness is a bland green dress. Great. I'm everything I swore I'd never be.
'Gemma? I need a moment with you, please.' He turns to Amber. 'Why don't you wait for me in the car? This won't take long.'
'I have a few calls to make,' she says, and nods, clipping out of the room.
He walks behind her, but only so far as the door, which he pushes shut emphatically and slips the lock across with equal force. And then he is prowling towards me. Yes, prowling. That's absolutely the word.
I have about four seconds to pull myself together. Four seconds to ignore the hammering of my heart and the throbbing of my libido. Four seconds to remind myself that he's my boss, and a total ass to boot. To remember how I felt when he rolled off me and all but asked me to leave his bed not two minutes after deserting my body.
No one has the right to make me feel like that. No one. And certainly not twice.
'That went well,' I say efficiently, leaving no room for the personal. 'I'm thrilled she's going to be at the helm of the foundation.'
A muscle jerks in his cheek - as though he's grinding his teeth or something. He catches my wrists and lifts them, pushing my sleeves up my arms to reveal the full extent of my bruising. He closes his eyes as he runs his finger over them, as though fortifying himself to look properly.
I swallow, not liking this side of him any more than I do the bastard side that showered as soon as he'd pulled out of me. This is scarier, because it's doing really odd things to my heart and my tummy, seeing him show this kind of humanity and compassion.
I jerk my wrists away. 'Yeah ... Can't you tell? I'm in agony.' I roll my eyes for good measure. 'It's just a couple of bruises.'
He nods, but there's a look in his face that I don't know if I ever want to see again. 'Listen, Gemma ...' The way he says it rolls my stomach. 'About yesterday ...'
'It's fine.' My smile is a flicker across my face and then it's gone. 'I know you.'
He shakes his head. 'No, you don't understand.' His frown is one of frustration. 'Let me explain.'
I swallow. Be strong. Remember Shower Gate. 'You don't need to explain,' I say firmly.
Please don't let him explain. Without an explanation there's ambivalence. But if I have to listen to his regrets, worse, his apology ...?
'It was good. I had fun. Let's leave it at that.'
I walk towards the door, needing an escape. My legs are unsteady and my throat is parched and sore - like it's been flamed with a blowtorch. I walk away from him because my sanity depends on distance.
But this time he follows. He puts a hand on either side of me as I reach the darkly panelled door, so that I'm trapped by him. I freeze, staring straight ahead while my body goes into overdrive, his nearness impossible to ignore.
'You want to leave it at that?' he asks, his hand dropping to my hip.
I close my eyes, waiting for the hammering of my pulse to slow. As if it's going to.
'You want to forget what that felt like? Never do it again?' His fingers run lower, down my leg to the hem of my dress. 'Say the word and I'll step backwards. I'll stop touching you. For good.'
I nod, but 'the word' clogs my throat.
'Spread your legs apart.'
You do that and I am outta here. Love from your brain.
'Jack ...' I say, his name thick and hoarse.
'I've been wondering all morning,' he says quietly. 'Did you listen to me?'
And his hand creeps under my dress, up my leg towards my bottom, where he finds the fabric of my knickers and flicks at it, hard enough to make me jerk.
'No, you didn't. Shame ... Because if you weren't wearing underwear I could take you right now. Here against the door. Would you like that, Gemma?'
I groan, completely frozen by the imagery of his words.
'I'm going to fuck you now unless you tell me not to.'
Not only can I not find the words, I nod my head in total surrender. I hear his exhalation of breath and smile weakly. I move to turn around, but he keeps his hands on my hip - firm.
'No. Like this.' And he pulls me backwards, bending me at a ninety-degree angle.
He doesn't remove my underpants. He links both hands around them and pulls until they tear, dropping them to the ground.
I stare at them with surprise and impatience. 'They were really expensive,' I say darkly.
'They were in my way.'
I hear him unzip his trousers, then the familiar sound of foil being torn, rubber being snapped onto his length, and then he's inside me. No preamble, but - let's face it - the whole morning's been a total exercise in tantric delay. He runs his hands over my back as he thrusts into me and I splay my fingers wide against the door, my body taking his possession as though it's what I need to stay alive.
I am hot and cold all over, and about to come when he pulls out. It is so like the torment of the day before - the utter outrageous shock of desolation - that I cry out hoarsely into the room.
'You'd better not fucking stop,' I say angrily.
He straightens me and turns me around, pushing me hard against the door and kissing me until my knees are about to give way.
'Think of that as an IOU.' He pulls away, his eyes meshing with mine. 'One I intend to collect.' He scoops down and grabs my underwear, dangling the scrap of fabric by one finger. 'And no more of this.'
I gape at him. 'Is that an order, sir?'
'You'd better damned well believe it.'
'Okay, I'll call HR and have it added to my contract.' He kisses me again and my body sways towards his; I give up the sass immediately.
'Fuck me more,' I say into his mouth.
'Wild horses won't stop me.' It's a growl. 'Later.'
Five minutes later, I'm staring at my desk, a frown on my face.
What just happened?
It's like some kind of cyclone came into the room and settled down on top of us. All that's needed is for us to be close to one another and bam! The world loses its usual governance and we are wild, unshackled animals.
I tilt my head forward, catching it in my hands.
I've never felt like this.
I've always been able to control the men in my life, and I've always, always known what I want from them. Relationship decisions have, historically, been made by the same part of my brain that runs my career and all other aspects of my life.
I know some people talk about 'love at first sight', but that's always been a good clue to me that those people are batshit crazy.
Oh, I'm not saying I think I'm in love with Jack! I'm sexually tormented, not a sadist, and loving Jack would be stupid. But I don't have any brainpower or willpower around him.
He has all the power. Sex power. It makes me uneasy to acknowledge that and to accept that I would walk headfirst into whatever it is we're doing just to be with him some more. He's that good.
My body is a livewire, arcing through space, waiting to be grounded by him. But he doesn't ground me - he flares me into a violent electrical storm.
I drive him crazy, too. I remember, in a drowning attempt to have faith in my own abilities, that when I went down on him he was mine. Completely.
I don't think Jack welcomes this development any more than I do. I think his brain is probably giving him as hard a time as my own ... What we had before worked. Sure, I pretty much had to pull up my big girl pants in the form of Maid Marian's chastity belt to make sure I didn't give in to the sexy man-pull of Jack Grant. But professionally we're a great team.
And losing that is far riskier for him. I'll get another job when I want one - I'm forever being headhunted, in fact.
My frown deepens as I open my second drawer and rifle through it, my fingers curling around the card of the most persistent caller. Andrew Long from Saatchi & Long. He's offered me some seriously awesome job opportunities in the last year, and every time I demur he tells me I must be on an incredible package.
Little does he know! I am very well-paid; Jack knows he can't afford to lose me. But, more than that, I get to stare at Jack-fucking-Grant all day.
This is hopeless. I scrape my chair back, dropping Andrew's card back into the drawer and pushing it closed, scooping my bag up and pulling the strap over my shoulder.
'I'm going out,' I call as I pass Sophia and Rose. 'Back soon.'
Sophia waves in acknowledgement. I keep walking, my bare ass making me feel both turned on and self-conscious as I step out into the weather. It's cold, but I forgot my coat and I don't really care.
'Ma'am?' Hughes straightens from where he's been leaning beside the limo.
'Do you just lounge about out here all day, waiting for me to walk past?' I ask teasingly. I know how busy he is.
'Better than watching paint dry. You can actually walk in those things?'
He nods down at my Louboutins with a smile on his lips. They're two-inch spike heels and, yes, I'm very, very good in heels.
'I could run a marathon in them,' I say, and wink. My hair is in a ponytail today and the wind blows past, flicking it against my cheek.
'Well, save yourself the effort today.' He reaches for the door handle. 'Where to?'
I look at him blankly. It's a fair question; one to which I have no answer. 'I'm just going to go for a walk,' I explain. 'I need a coffee.'
'A coffee?' His look is one of sardonic amusement. 'You mean that spaceship's stopped working?'
I shake my head. The high-end pod machine Jack's had installed makes great coffee and we both know it. 'Okay, you caught me. I want a pain au chocolat.'
'Really?' He grins, arching a brow. 'A weakness for patisserie goods ... interesting.'
I shrug. 'Certain days,' I say in explanation.
'Say no more.'
'See you soon,' I say in farewell. Then, as an afterthought, 'Need anything?'
* * * * * * * *
So, I've banged her against a door in the conference room of my home office and against a window of my boardroom in the City. And while my sister-in-law was waiting in the car for me, too.
The Gemma Conundrum is getting out of hand. I woke up this morning knowing I had to apologise for yesterday, to tell her I'd regretted having sex with her the second we were done. That it had been a colossal, asshole mistake.
And then she walked away from me and I panicked.
Apparently Gemma only listens when I'm inside her.
So? What? I'm going to have sex with her any time we disagree? Any time she gets annoyed?
Amber laughs at something and I smile, but my mind is on Gemma and the promise I made her - that I'd collect on my IOU later today. The thought of not doing so makes some part of me want to shrivel up. So I accept the inevitable. We're going to fuck again.
My cock tightens instantly, straining against the fabric of my pants. Is she still naked beneath her dress, waiting for me? Wanting me?
I sip my wine, and say something in response to Amber's question - I'm amazed that any part of my brain is ticking on as normal, absorbing what's being said and answering in kind, even while most of me is absorbed by the question of my assistant.
I love sex. I love it because it lets me forget about Lucy and what I no longer have. But Gemma is different - because I can't just fuck her and walk away for good. I have to see her every morning - and what if she starts to want more from me than I can possibly give?
* * * * * * * *
'Hey, Grandma.' I can't help but smile as she answers the phone in her sunny little room.
I hear her sip her tea and imagine her lips smiling against the bone china rim. 'What's up, lovey?'
'Nothing's up. How are you?'
'It's the middle of the day on Friday and you're calling me. What's up?'
I shake my head, but those damned tears that have been dogging me for days are threatening to fall. I blink my eyes angrily, staring at a family as they walk past me. Mum and Dad holding hands and three small children of varying degrees of growth and rugged-upness run past, looking as though they're being pulled back by a magnetic force when all they want is to sprint along.
'And is that birdsong in the background?'
I bite into the pain au chocolat; crumbs flake down my front. Absent-mindedly I brush them aside. 'I'm on the Heath.'
'You mean you've unshackled yourself from that desk?'
I laugh. 'Yes, Grandma. From time to time I do get out.'
'Have you spoken to your mother recently?'
I furrow my brow. Grandma is the only person on earth who understands my relationship with my parents. She understands that I love them, but in a dutiful way - they did give me life, after all. They also gave me self-doubt and insecurity and a sense that I'd never be good enough for anything other than the life they envisaged for me. Grandma tunnelled me right out of that existence, though.
'Not for a week or so.' Actually, it's closer to a month. 'You?'
'They called yesterday. They're in Cambodia.'
I arch a brow, imagining my perfectly manicured, elegant mother in Cambodia, of all places. 'I trust the Shangri-La's penthouse is sufficient?'
Grandma laughs. 'Well, you know - they're doing volunteer work.'
I burst out laughing at this ongoing joke between us. My parents are incredibly wealthy, incredibly entitled aristocrats and they have apparently reached a point in their life where they're bored with that and are looking to 'make the world a better place'. So far this has involved paying a lot of money to buy shoes for children in Africa, travelling to Lithuania to learn about child smuggling and now a trip of Southern Asia to 'help provide vaccinations' to the poor.
I wonder how helpful my mother - who faints at the sight of blood - and my dad - who can't stand heat, mosquitos or poverty - are actually capable of being.
'I think they're going to cut their trip short,' Grandma says, almost managing to keep the droll amusement out of her voice.
'Oh, I'm so surprised by that.' I fail miserably. 'I daresay the philanthropic community of Cambodia will breathe a sigh of relief when they board their flight home.'
'Yes, well ... Their hearts are in the right places,' she murmurs, and I nod.
'They'd do better to donate to a foundation,' I say. 'Money is what these people need. And then trained staff can do their jobs without westerners assuaging their guilt over the quality of our lives getting in the way.'
'Phew, that's been building up for a while, has it?'
'Sorry. I just can't stand volunteer tourism. If I see one more photo of a schoolfriend posing with emaciated children in Africa I'm going to punch something.'
'Darling, it all brings attention to good causes.'
'Yeah - and it makes rich people feel better about their rarefied existence in the process.'
Grandma is nodding. I just know it.
'So nothing's going on, then?' she asks.
The children on the Heath are running now, and the mother and father are watching, holding hands, laughing as the littlest one tumbles down and lands in the middle of some wet grass. One of the older siblings scoops him up, cradling him and spinning in circles until the little one's laughter peals across the grass towards me, hitting me like a slap in the face.
I'm not clucky. I don't want children. The agony of my own childhood is one I would never inflict on another. Oh, it's not like I was abused or anything. My parents loved me. Loved me enough to hire only the best nannies and tutors and horse-riding coaches. To send me to the very best schools ... Clue: the best schools for meeting handsome, eligible husbands-to-be.
And they loved me enough to question my sanity when I enrolled in joint honours at Oxford and then post-grad at the LSE. But there was Grandma in the front row when I accepted my Master's degree.
'I'm just flat out,' I say quietly. 'Work's crazy at the moment.'
Grandma is quiet, taking this in. Then, 'You're coming for lunch tomorrow?'
Tomorrow? Shit. It's almost the weekend. But the idea of seeing Grandma makes my heart soar. 'Lunch? Yeah, sure.'
'And you'll bust me out of this hellhole again? Take me out for so much champagne I get woozy and disgraceful?'
I laugh, because the 'hellhole' nursing home Grandma is in costs more per year than most people earn in a lifetime and is the last word in luxury. She has a personal butler, for crying out loud. But the staff there don't entirely approve of her love of bubbles, whereas I am more than happy to serve as her occasional enabler.
'Yep. You betcha.'
I stand up, giving one last look at the family as they move over the crest of a hill and disappear out of sight, then I walk across the grass, making my way to the gate nearest the lane that leads to Jack's mansion.
I try not to think about whether Jack will be in the office when I get back.
IT'S JUST AS well I'm busy. Between running one last glance over the Wyndham contracts, checking the files I'll need and locking down the details for Australia, responding to some urgent emails and looking at some high-level staff CVs for the foundation, the day passes quickly.
It is evening before I know it and I am still at my desk.
My phone bleeps just as I'm packing up.
I'm in the City. Hughes will bring you here when you're done.
I read the text three times, my bemusement growing with each moment. True, I'd basically begged him to fuck me earlier that day, but this is hardly a masterpiece in flirtation and seduction.
Do you need me for something?
I fire the message back, lifting my bag over my shoulder and switching the lights off at the door.
You know what I need you for.
I don't reply. I don't know why. But I make my way outside and smile at Hughes - possibly the only guy in the company who works hours as long as Jack and mine. He doesn't have a family. He was in the army and returned from three tours of Iraq ready for a change. He's smart, safe and we trust him implicitly.
I do that a lot, but I don't mean 'we' in a romantic sense. It's just that we've almost become partners over the years without either of us realising it.
'I'm meeting Jack at his place in the City,' I murmur.
When I was sixteen my dad caught Roger Cranston and me fooling around in the kitchen. I was so mortified with embarrassment that I spent the next week making up elaborate stories that would explain exactly why Roger had been kneeling in front of me, my skirt pushed up my legs.
He dropped a pen and ... um ... I was reaching for another ...
I feel that now. That same sense of embarrassment - like I've been caught doing completely the wrong thing and need to explain. To Hughes, of all people.
My cheeks flush pink and I don't meet his eye. 'I need some documents signed.'
He pulls the door open and smiles. 'Long day?'
'Yeah, you could say that.' I sit down, careful not to flash my naked self to him, then sink back into the leather seat.
I read the news on my phone as we drive, catching up on what I've missed while I've had my head down the Jack Grant wormhole all day, and discover that a police manhunt has ended with the suspect being shot, and that a chain of supermarkets is at risk of bankruptcy.
We're at his apartment block quickly, though, and the door opens to the familiar bank of lifts. Hughes presses a button, then swipes a keycard so that I'm granted access to the floor Jack's penthouse is on.
'Thanks. Goodnight, Hughes.'
I laugh. 'You know I hate it when you call me that.'
The doors swish closed on his wink.
I'm still smiling when the lift opens - but it's transformed into a frown of curiosity as I step into Jack's place. A couple of lights are on, casting an ambient glow, but otherwise it's dark. There are lights coming from beyond the glass and, curious, I walk towards it.
Jack's voice comes from down the hallway and I turn to see him emerging from one of the rooms, a towel knotted loosely around his waist.
'I didn't know you were on your way.'
My eyes have dropped to his bare chest. To its rhythmic rise and fall as he breathes, to the smooth tan that covers him and the hint of ink I can see above the towel.
I swallow, my throat dry, and force myself to meet his eyes. 'How was your day?' Crisp, professional. Safe, good.
He unwraps the towel, uncaring of his spectacular nudity, and brings it to his hair, towelling it dry. He's semi-hard, and God knows I want to jump him then and there.
But I don't. I'm not sure why, but something holds me immobile.
'Good meeting with Amber?'
'Yeah. You were right about her. She's a good pick for the job.'
'I think she's got the perfect combination of experience and passion.'
His nod is droll. 'She sure has, Miss Picton. Cocktail first?'
Damn it. I like the way he says that. It's such a formal name, but when he says it I sound like a courtesan or something.
'First?' I can't help teasing.
He drops the towel, hooking it around his body once more, and I'm glad even though it means I can't perve at him so easily. It stops my blood from simmering itself into a fever state.
'First. As in first, before I fuck you senseless.' He grins, pulling me to him.
Something about this feels so right, and it should feel wrong. And awkward. I shake my head, my eyes dropping to the floor before I remember that I've known Jack for two years and that whatever happens we work together and I won't be cowered by him and what we are.
'Cocktails sound perfect.'
His smile is a flicker and then, his eyes holding mine, his smile just a smudge across his handsome face, he lifts my dress with the same reverence a groom might lift his bride's veil and finds my nakedness.
He groans approvingly. 'You've been waiting for me all day?' His hands curve around my butt, pulling me tight to him.
'Well, you did tear my underpants,' I point out.
'Sorry about that.' His voice shows that he is anything but.
He releases me and I have to stifle a noise of impatience, watching as he saunters into the kitchen and pulls something from the freezer. It's a bottle, but I don't recognise it - nor the label. He shakes it, then opens the top. As he pours it into two glasses I realise that it has a thickened consistency, like a Frozen Coke.
I taste it tentatively, my eyes latched to his. 'Cherry?' I raise my brows, taking another sip.
'It's my new favourite flavour.'
My cheeks glow pink to rival the drink. 'Mine, too.'
'Good to see we're both re-evaluating our opinions,' he says with a wink. Then, almost as an afterthought, 'How was your day?'
'Busy.' I don't want to talk about work. We do enough of that. 'I spoke to my grandma and sat on the Heath, though.'
He laughs. 'Am I not giving you enough to do?'
I shoot him a look of dismissal. 'It was a short break.'
'I'm kidding.' His eyes are thoughtful. 'You never talk about your family.'
'Yes, I do,' I retort, perhaps too quickly. 'Just not with you.'
'I see. Why not?'
I'm pretty sure I'm scowling at him. 'Well, for starters, because up until recently our relationship has never remotely veered away from the professional ...'
'That's not true. You've seen me naked. You wake me up most days.'
'Yes, I know.' Thoughts of his body sprawled over his bed make my blood simmer. 'You're my boss ...'
'Then take it as a command.'
The thought of Jack commanding me is instantly memorable. My lungs are filled with thick, hot air.
'A command? You're my boss - not royalty.'
He shrugs. 'Is there a difference? Tell me about your grandmother.'
I laugh. A soft sound of disbelief. 'My grandmother? That's really what you want to talk about right now?'
He sips his drink, his eyes locked to mine. It's a challenge! Just like always, he's finding my boundaries and pushing at them with a persistence I find hard to ignore. And I do like to rise to his challenges.
'Grandma is one of a kind,' I say after the smallest of pauses. 'Revolutionary. She worked until well into her seventies and has always been my biggest ally. She encourages me to push myself as hard as I can in everything I do.'
'What did she do?'
'For work? She was a nurse. Still is, actually.' My lips twitch. 'Just last month she saved a man in her nursing home after he had a heart attack. She threw off her cardigan and performed CPR until the staff got there.'
'Sounds like you're just as proud of her as she is of you.'
'Mmm ...' I make a smooth noise of agreement, absent-mindedly running my fingers over the bones of my wrist.
His eyes catch the gesture and he steps around the bench towards me. Before I can guess what he's planning he dribbles some cherry daiquiri from his glass onto the skin I've just rubbed, then brings his lips to it, sucking it and kissing me gently.
'I'm sorry about this.'
Jack? Sorry? That's a novelty.
My heart squeezes at his gentle admission. My voice is soft when I speak. 'I told you, it doesn't hurt.'
'The bruising would say otherwise.'
I shrug, but the way his mouth is moving over me is making thought difficult. 'I'm fine. I would have told you if I didn't like it, believe me.'
He brings my thumb to his mouth and sucks on it. I shudder; the pleasure rips through me.
'So? What do you like? Usually?'
'With other men?' I clarify, and there is a strange darkening of his features before he wipes them clear and nods.
I tilt my head to the side. 'Oh, you know - kinky shit.'
'Such as ...?'
It's a calm, measured response beyond what I expect.
'I'll show you soon.'
He clears his throat. 'You bet your sweet arse, you will.' He grins and sips his drink once more.
'Anyway,' I ask throatily, 'what do you like? With other women? Or is the only prerequisite that they submit to your wham-bam, thank you, ma'am form of sex?'
He shakes his head. 'Not the only prerequisite, but it's an important one.'
'Why?' I push, taking another sip.
He presses his finger under my chin, tilting my face towards his. 'Because that's what I want.'
'Two-night stands, in your case,' he says, pulling me forward.
At the same time I reach for his towel and push it down his body. He lifts me easily, settling me on a bar stool, his eyes holding mine as he slides on a condom, and then he takes me totally, driving deep inside me and winding my legs around his waist. Even as the bliss of his possession moves through me I feel a strange distaste for his statement.
A two-night stand on its second night means it's the end.
But don't I want that?
Aren't boundaries a good thing?
I bite down on my lip, unable to process it any more. He holds me tight, gripping me against him.
'I like being able to be inside you like this. Whenever I want.'
His fingers grab my dress and lift it up my body, over my head, so that I'm wearing only my heels and a lace bra. He disposes of the latter easily and then, true to his word, grabs his daiquiri glass and trickles ice-cold liquid across my breasts.
His mouth on my nipple is warm and I arch my back, giving him greater access. He chases it down my body as he thrusts into me again, his ownership of me both thrilling and frightening at the same time. His chin is stubbled and rough against my neck. He takes an earlobe into his mouth, wobbling it between his teeth, and I groan, desperate for him to move faster, deeper.
'What do you want?' he asks softly.
'More!' I call the word out loudly, an incantation or an invocation, scoring my nails across his back, marking him as mine even when I know he isn't.
He moves a little deeper, so that I nod, but it's not enough.
He laughs, pulling out of me and guiding me off the stool at the same time.
'Has anyone ever told you you're a bossy son of a bitch in bed?'
'We're not in bed,' he reminds me frankly, and there's a sexy, sardonic smile at the corner of his lips.
'You're a bossy son of a bitch to fuck,' I correct dutifully, and he laughs.
I shoot him a look over my shoulder and do as he says, turning around.
'Those fucking heels ...' he says, bending me at my waist and spreading my legs before taking me from behind, his fingers digging into my naked arse. 'You have no idea how hot this is.'
But I do, because he's driving me to the point of distraction with every single move. Fire spirals inside me, coiling, spinning, taking me and making me fall apart in his arms.
The kitchen bench is marble and cold beneath my fevered palms. And then he brings the palm of his hand down on my arse and I jerk, crying out as both pleasure and pain radiate through me.
'Did you know you have a mark here from me?' He presses into what I presume must be a hickey from the last time we were together.
I shake my head and he catches my ponytail in his hand, pulling it with just enough pressure to hold me still as he thrusts inside me. His other hand trails down my spine, chasing each knot, each groove, until he reaches my arse. Once again he presses a single finger against me, and there is something so illicit and forbidden about it that I come - out of nowhere.
The orgasm is intense. He's only touching my skin, there is nothing invasive about his finger, but just the idea of what I'd let him do to me makes me fall apart.
'Shit ...' I swear under my breath, sweat across my brow.
His finger pushes in a little way and I buck hard. His dick thrusts into me and his hand around my hair pulls. It's too much. The pleasure is making me weak.
'I can't ...' I say, my breath coming in pants, my eyes fevered, my body wet.
'You can do whatever you want,' he contradicts, and brings his mouth to my back.
But he moves his hand away, bringing it to cup my breasts and torment my nipples. I have never known sex like this. I have never been an instrument of pleasure. I always call the shots and yet now I am his to control, to command, and there is something so hedonistic about that I know I will never be the same again.
'You are so much more perfect than I imagined,' he groans, and now he thrusts deeper and harder and faster, and I rock my hips with him until we fall apart together, him exploding inside me while I tremble and squeeze him tight.
I bring my weight forward, pressing my head onto the marble kitchen bench, not wanting to lose him.
He belongs inside me.
It's an erroneous thought. No one person can belong to another - inside or out.
'I needed that.'
He steps away from me as though he's sated, when I'm satisfied and still needy all at once.
'You and me both.'
I walk around the kitchen bench on legs that are wobbly as all hell. I sip some of my drink, my eyes linked to his. But he's staring at my breasts. Bemused, I look down and see that they're red from his stubble.
His jaw is clenched and he looks away.
Something jars in my mind. A memory I can't quite grab, like finding soap in the bath.
'What is it?'
His smile is tight. 'I ordered Japanese.'
'Great. No karaoke, though,' I tease, referring to my last drunken night with Jack.
He nods. But something is wrong.
'What is it?' I insist.
'I've marked your entire body,' he says after a beat has passed. 'You're literally covered in marks from me.'
I frown, running my hands over my breasts, and then I shrug. 'So?'
His eyes, when they meet mine, are haunted. 'It doesn't bother you that I like fucking marking you? That I'm turned on by seeing proof of me on you?'
I tilt my head to one side, pretending bemusement, but my heart is accelerating and again I wonder at the risk of broken ribs in the face of a particularly aggressive heartbeat.
I shake my head slowly.
'Jesus ...' He drags a hand through his hair unsteadily. 'All this time I thought you were Miss Moneypenny and you're actually Air Force Amy.'
He doesn't answer, just reaches down and picks up his towel, wrapping it around his waist, then walks into the kitchen to stand behind me. He runs his finger down my spine.
'There is a line here.' He drops his finger lower and presses it against my butt. 'And here, where I sucked you until you bruised.' Then he cups my arse. 'And here, where I slapped you hard enough to redden your skin.'
I swallow. This description of his touch is erotic and dangerous.
I suck my lip between my teeth. 'Don't you get it?' I don't look at him as I speak. 'When I'm here, I'm yours. I trust you. And I want this. This - what you do to me - is what turns me on. More than anything I've ever known.'
He drops his forehead to my shoulder, and then he grabs me and turns me around to face him. 'It doesn't bother you that I'm just using you?'
It's not what I expect him to say. I look at him with an obvious expression of confusion because he shakes his head.
'Not you, per se. Sex with you.'
I try to play the lighter side. 'Do I seem like I mind?'
He exhales, frustration and anger communicating themselves in the weighted breath. 'I don't want you to be another one of them.'
His eyes are hollow. No matter how I stare at him, I can't intuit his meaning.
'Another one of whom?'
'Them. The women I fuck to forget about her.'
I know instantly that he's referring to Lucy. Sadness wells inside me. Sadness for Jack, for Lucy and the whole sordid mess.
'But that's all this can be.'
There's a determination in his statement that fills me with ice.
I nod, but his words are exploding in my mind like tiny little bombs.
'I know,' I say. Because I do.
That's the worst thing. I have known this about him for a long time and yet here I am, fucking him and letting him drive me crazy when I should be running a mile in the opposite direction.
'So what are you doing here? How can you be okay with that?'
A great fucking question! One I wish I'd asked myself sooner.
'Hasn't that horse already bolted? We've had sex together. Does it really matter why?'
'I don't know.' His laugh is uncertain, his eyes cagey. 'I'm not usually this ... barbaric.'
He drops his mouth to my shoulder and bites me gently.
'But with you ... I don't know ... it's like some animal instinct kicks in. I feel like I want to carry you over my shoulder and tie you to my bed.'
'You've already done that. Check and check.'
A flicker of his lips acknowledges the truth of my reply. 'I mean for days. I mean I want to feed you when it suits me. Let you drink the champagne that I tip into your mouth. But otherwise you'd exist for my pleasure alone.'
'Maybe you just want that because you know I'd never go for it,' I say hoarsely, hiding the fact that his words have evoked a powerful emotional need in me.
Suddenly, his need gives me an idea. No, it gives me a bartering chip. 'What if I let you go all Neanderthal?'
'You think I haven't already?' he asks, the words full of hoarse self-condemnation.
I shake my head. 'I think you've just scratched the surface.' I cup his face, rubbing my thumb over his stubble. 'So give me what I want and I'll give you what you want.'
'And what is it you want, Gemma Picton?'
I swallow my anxiety. What's the worst that can happen? He'll say no?
'I want you to answer my questions. I want to understand you better.'
The shower is warm against my skin. I rub my body all over, letting the soap bubble and froth before turning the heat off and stepping out into an enormous soft towel. I dry myself and then reach for one of the luxurious robes hanging behind the door.
I'm nervous, as though I'm on a first date. But that's stupid.
Because Jack doesn't date. Come to think of it, I don't really date either.
What we're doing is fucking - sure, the best sex of my life. But still just sex. Two nights? Maybe more? But definitely not any form of happily-ever-after.
It's sex. And it's discovery.
I'm getting my curiosity answered - and I have been curious about Jack for as long as I've worked with him. I've wondered about the demons that drive him. The ghosts, real and imagined, that play on the edges of his mind.
Besides, it's kind of win-win for me. I love the animal passion in him. So much so I'm terrified of myself This way I get to find out more about the beautiful darkness of Jack Grant, and I get the beast in bed.
When I step out of the bathroom he's arranging containers on an enormous dining table. It could easily seat twelve people, but he's placed us at one end and, in a gesture that makes my heart thump, he's even lit a candle.
'Expecting company?' I murmur with forced sarcasm, desperate to cover the trembling emotion in my chest.
'That's not what I'd call you,' he responds in kind, but he winks at me and my heart pounds harder.
'We've covered that already with - who was it? Amy someone?'
He grins. 'I called you Miss Moneypenny first.'
'Yes, and that's equally wrong. I'm not some wallflower assistant.'
'You assist me,' he says with a shrug, but he comes to a chair and pulls it out, his eyes meeting mine, silently inviting me to sit.
Electricity sparks between us like a current neither of us can control.
I'm nervous, and that makes me angry! I don't want to be nervous around Jack, like this is a date or something. I've agreed to let him ravage me so that he'll tell me stuff. It's not a date. If it were he'd tell me all that stuff without the promise of animalistic sex.
It's only when I sit that I pay attention to the kind of food he's ordered. There's sushi, sashimi, a Katsu curry, edamame and a couple of miso soups. I try not to think he's remembered that Katsu curry is my favourite thing in the world.
He takes the seat opposite mine and lifts a glass. I tilt mine towards his and then rest it back on the table.
'It's bad luck not to drink after clinking glasses.'
'I haven't heard that.'
I lift the drink to my lips and taste it. Of course it's delicious.
He rests back in the chair, his hands linked beneath his chin. 'Well, Miss Picton. We have a deal. What is it you'd like to know?'
'You'll tell me anything?'
'And you'll let me do anything.'
I nod, my throat dry as I wonder just what his idea of 'anything' encompasses.
'How do you know I won't chicken out, out of interest?'
His laugh makes my gut vibrate. 'Because you're you. I can't imagine you backing away from anything in your life. You're fearless.'
'Not entirely,' I say under my breath.
'No? What are you afraid of?'
I sip my wine again, and then snap my chopsticks in half reaching for a piece of salmon nigiri. 'I'm afraid of lightning,' I say softly. 'Terrified of it.'
'As in thunder and lightning?'
I nod. 'Yep. That one.'
'But why? It's just atmospheric discharge.'
'Yeah. It's just a weather phenomenon. But I will still hide under my covers during a storm, waiting for it to pass, without fail.'
'Why? Since when?'
My smile is lopsided. 'Since I was a girl.'
'How do you know anything happened?'
'I just do,' he says with a shrug of his broad shoulders, lifting his own chopsticks and taking a piece of chicken karaage.
He's right, of course.
'I was seven years old and locked out of our home. I'd gone to pick apples and my parents presumed I was in bed. They were out to dinner with friends and Nanny Winters thought I'd gone with them. The house was locked up and I couldn't get in.'
I shiver. It was one of the most horrifying nights I can recall.
'I climbed into my tree house and waited it out there. But a flash of lightning came down so close and so loud it smoked on the ground at my feet.'
He nods thoughtfully, but I can tell he's unravelling the story.
'When did you get back into your home?'
'Not until morning. I fell asleep eventually, and it wasn't until Nanny discovered me missing and the alarm was raised that I heard the staff looking for me. I woke up and all was well. Except that I can't stand storms now. Even the smell of rain in the air makes me afraid.'
He strokes his chin thoughtfully.
'So I'm not entirely fearless,' I finish lamely.
'Lots of people are afraid of thunderstorms.'
'No.' His smile is perfunctory. 'There isn't much I'm afraid of.'
'But ...?' I ask, sipping my wine, curious to the point of distraction.
'Yes, I have fears,' he admits grudgingly.
He makes a deep, guttural noise. 'This was a crappy idea.'
I laugh softly. 'Ghosts? Spiders?'
'No.' He's quiet for so long I wonder if he's not going to answer, and then he continues, his voice hoarse. 'I'm afraid of powerlessness. Of watching someone I love die.'
His grief hits me like a web and I am caught in it.
'You've watched someone you love die and you've survived.'
'Barely.' He shakes his head. 'Try the chicken. It's great.'
I don't move. The ghosts of his admission linger between us, haunting our table.
'Were you with her when she died?'
He recoils as though he's been slapped and I briefly regret the agreement we've made. But I want to know this stuff. It's so important to me to understand. I feel like I've got only half of the picture and bit by bit I want to piece him together.
'I wanted to be with her.'
'Of course.' I nod. 'How long were you married?'
'A year.' He clears his throat. 'Can we talk about something else?'
Sympathy is thick inside of me but instinctively I know talking about this will help him so I don't back down. 'You told me I could ask what I want.'
'And this is what you want to know?'
'You told me you're fucking me because of her - so, yes, I want to know.'
His face pales. 'Fine.' His teeth are gritted. 'What else?'
I drink some wine and eat another piece of sushi, chewing on it thoughtfully. 'She died of cancer?'
'And ...?' I prompt.
'And what, Gemma?'
'Well, what kind?'
He expels an angry breath. 'Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia. Stage Four. It was a terminal diagnosis.'
I wince. 'I'm so sorry.'
'Why? It's not your fault.'
I understand his anger and aggression.
'Nothing could be done?'
His eyes meet mine and he shakes his head. I feel like he's holding something back, but I don't want to push him anymore. Not about this.
Sympathy trumps curiosity. So I let it go.
'This is delicious,' I say instead, reaching for another piece.
And he visibly relaxes, as though he's been in hell and I'm unlocking the gate.
'Do you spend much time here?' I look around the palatial apartment, seeing it almost as if for the first time.
'I used to.' His smile is tight. 'So ... Nanny Winters, huh?'
'No, no - you don't get to change the subject.'
He laughs. 'I can do what I want.'
'That's not our deal.'
'Your parents worked full-time?'
It's so like Jack to push on with his line of questioning just because it suits him.
I stare at him. 'Not really.'
'Yet you were raised by a nanny?'
'I had three nannies,' I say, grabbing a piece of avocado sushi and eating it, then sipping my wine. 'Nanny Winters oversaw the other two.'
'Three nannies?' His voice is bordering on a scoff. 'So you were a handful even as a child?'
I roll my eyes. 'Did you not hear my thunderstorm story?'
'A runaway and a handful?' He nods with mock seriousness.
'Your parents were rich?'
'Are rich,' I agree.
'Funny ... I didn't have you picked as the daughter of some loaded guy.'
I arch a brow teasingly. 'Technically I'm the daughter of a loaded guy and a loaded lady. Duchess Arabella Picton, in fact.'
'No shit? That I did not see coming.'
He laughs then - a sound that relaxes me because it's so like us to laugh together that I am reminded of the years we've spent working together, getting to know one another. Not like this, admittedly, but in a different way.
'Why not?' I ask.
He laughs again and my gut clenches.
'So you slaving away for me is like a vanity job?'
I frown. 'No!'
'But you're going to inherit a fortune?'
I shrug, deciding it's better not to talk about my trust fund with Jack. I figure he won't really appreciate the amount that's sitting in my name in a Swiss bank account.
He nods, but I can see the wheels of his brain turning. 'You studied law, right?'
I roll my eyes. 'I'm your in-house counsel, what do you think?'
He grins and my tummy tilts off-balance. 'I don't pay too much attention to what my assistants do at university.'
I shoot him a look of disapproval but bite my tongue. He's goading me, and I won't give him the satisfaction of knowing he's been successful. 'I studied law and economics at Oxford, thank you very much.'
'Let me guess ... you did well?'
My gaze doesn't falter. 'Double first.'
He tilts his head back, his laugh a soft caress. 'Not at all surprising.'
'How do you not know this about me? You hired me to work for you.'
'Yeah ... Expecting you to last about three seconds.'
'Because that's how long all my other assistants lasted.'
I grit my teeth. 'Counsels.'
'Your job is pretty much unfillable.'
'Because you're such a charm to work with,' I point out.
'Whatever the reason, no one stays around. So why have you?'
'Because I like a challenge,' I say honestly, my chin jutting out, my eyes holding to his. And he is still. Watchful. The air between us thickens.
'I'm a challenge?'
I laugh. 'You're kidding, right?'
He reaches for a piece of sushi. I watch him eat it and my stomach squeezes. How can I want him again already? I am fire and flame, bursting with need.
'Were you always like this? Or is it just since ... Lucy?'
He frowns and doesn't answer right away. I can practically see the cogs turning in his brain. 'I don't know.'
'Well, before she ... she died, did you have a constantly changing stream of staff?'
He shrugs. 'No.'
I nod, slowly. So this is a hangover of Lucy's death. My job, my being here, it all comes back to her. To Lucy.
The emotional strangulation of that is not something I think I'll easily comprehend, and so I stand up slowly.
'I've had enough for now.' My eyes meet his and now I am the one issuing a challenge. 'So show me.'
'Show you what?' he asks with a purposeful glint in his eye.
'Show me what you want.'
Text Copyright © 2018 by Clare Connelly
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.