Jax Wilder was about to go stark raving mad. Minus the raving. And the stark.
Either that or he’d petrify right in this chair by the time Chase returned from his girlfriend’s east coast tour. Hey, maybe Chase could sell Jax’s body as a baseball relic and earn back the income he’d yet to produce much of on a regular basis since they’d started Deuces Wild.
Jax shook his head and sent the metronome on his desk swinging again. A bodyguard agency. Who the fuck had come up with that idea?
It was days like this, when he was sitting around, thumb firmly up his butt, in the oversized coffin his business partner optimistically called an office that he wondered why in the sweet hell he’d left baseball. He’d had it good there. He was still winning games, still fairly well respected, possibly because he was one of the few who hadn’t been chewed up and spit out by his supposed fame. Yet.
That yet was part of why he’d left. The rest of the reason was in the photo tucked in the corner of his blotter. His mother’s smiling face beamed up at him, her hands full of the flowers he’d surprised her with when he’d returned to town for good. He’d caught that surprise and pleasure with his phone’s camera and had printed out the picture so he never forgot what he’d come back for. Yardley, New York was no one’s tropical paradise, but it was home.
Sometimes home counted for a fucking lot.
He was tapping the metronome’s small silver balls again when the door swung open and a dark head wrapped in a patterned scarf peeked in. The woman wore oversized glasses despite the gloomy day outside, and they tipped down her nose, practically obscuring her face. He started to ask if she had an appointment—knowing she didn’t, since he set the appointments—and fell silent as she swept inside and flipped the lock on the door.
Jax rose. “Uh, Miss, can I help you?” Why the hell are you locking yourself in with me? She wasn’t bad looking from what he could tell in her long coat and even longer skirt, but other than offering him a more pleasant last image when she shanked him, he couldn’t see how that mattered. “This is a bodyguard agency,” he added, hoping she read the implication of big bad danger in his tone.
So what if there were more dust motes than weapons in this place? So what if he was alone and unarmed, minus the switchblade he’d taken to carrying in his boot? Badassedness was an attitude more than a state of being.
Or so it would read on the police report detailing his murder.
When she reached up and pulled off her scarf—and her dark wig—he nearly laughed aloud at the red silk that tumbled free. Yeah, his boredom was reaching epic heights if he was concocting tales about mid-afternoon office ambushes by willowy women wearing Jackie O glasses. He could’ve taken her down in a tackle, no problem.
And when it came to this particular redhead, tackling her wasn’t too far from what he wanted to do to her on a daily basis. Minus their clothes and possibly with the aid of a couple of sex toys, but only for rounds two and three. For the first one, he’d use the equipment God had given him.
Enthusiastically, for an hour or two until the chafing set in.
“I fooled you.” Cassidy Dixon, Chase’s younger sister and the cause of Jax’s perma-hard-on for the last seven months, dropped into the chair across from his desk. He had the desk in front, on account of the fact that Chase said he was the prettiest.
Though Jax couldn’t deny that—Chase and Sterling were a pair of ugly motherfuckers—the real reason was that neither of them planned to be in the office more than the minimum amount of time. Their nonexistent budget didn’t extend to receptionists, so for now it was him and his metronome.
And when things got really tedious, the TV in the corner and the punching bag he’d tucked discreetly in the coat closet.
“You did,” Jax acknowledged, pushing aside his desk diversion to cross his forearms over the blotter. He wasn’t hiding the picture of his ma, despite the fact that more than one of the women who’d visited him at the agency had made a sickeningly sweet comment about him being a mama’s boy. He wasn’t. In fact, his mom didn’t even know he was seeing anyone. Or everyone, if town gossip was to be believed. “So what’s with the cloak and dagger, Ms. Mysterious? You trying out your Halloween costume five months early?”
Cass shed her raincoat and let it slouch behind her, then pushed her massive glasses on top of her head. The dark half circles under her startlingly green eyes grabbed his attention first, but the tension pinching her generous lips followed a close second. “I’m here on official business and I didn’t want anyone in town to know.”
“Official business, hmm?” Another niggle of worry chilled his spine. “And somehow people would realize that if you weren’t suitably disguised? You do realize your brother owns this agency. I don’t think it would be out of the realm for you to visit him without calling the Feds.”
“Chase isn’t here right now, remember?”
How could he forget? Jax had been on his own for a good part of the first five months of their bodyguard agency, though they’d brought Sterling on board part-time after the first of the year. Very part-time at first, because their, ahem, current lack of business hadn’t exactly necessitated lots of help. But they had picked up a few clients, some long-term, some short, and Sterling had proven himself adept at pounding the pavement in getting the word out about their agency. Being a bodyguard wasn’t the easiest job to advertise. It wasn’t as if they could hang up a sign somewhere that anyone with a stalker should call them.
That hadn’t worked at all.
“No, but I am. You think people would think it’s that strange that you’d stop in to say hello to an old friend?”
Cass’s eye roll didn’t make him feel confident she viewed him that way. Old annoyance, maybe. Old nuisance. He wasn’t sure how he’d gotten slotted in that particular category in her mind, but he didn’t like it one bit.
Oh, who the hell was he kidding? He knew exactly when she’d pegged him that way, at least for good. It had happened last summer when he’d been the bearer of bad news and informed her that her piece of shit boyfriend liked to stick his tongue in other women’s mouths. Since then, Cass had acted like he was two steps up from a communicable disease, and that was only because she hadn’t had her flu shot. Otherwise he and the disease would’ve been running dead even.
“I might say hello to you, but I’d do it when you swaggered into my shop on your daily ice cream run. Why would I bother to come here to speed up the process?” she asked, proving his point.
“Swaggered? I don’t swagger.” He wanted to be offended but it was hard to be when she looked so damn tired. She was always pale but right now the white curtains had more pigment than she did. She was practically translucent. “And I also don’t stop by every day.”
“Yes you do.” She sounded smug. “Ever since I hooked you with those Moose Tracks...”
The Moose Tracks ice cream was pretty good, he had to admit, but that wasn’t why he stopped by often enough for her to tease him about it. Though it was a handy excuse.
Too bad he was hooked on something—someone—else who happened to be smirking at him with those slick pink lips and making him wish he’d worn looser jeans. Wish he owned looser jeans, because seriously, good fucking hell.
“You know me and my ice cream.” He played it off because it wasn’t as if he could tell the truth.
The only way ice cream could interest me as much as you is if you were naked and writhing in a vat of it.
“I do. And if you help me out, I’ll give you a lifetime supply, on the house. As long as you keep this between us for now.”
Curiouser and curiouser. “Help worthy of a lifetime’s supply of ice cream?” He wondered what she’d say if he suggested a non-traditional serving cup.
Probably snort and roll her eyes. He was her brother’s annoying friend, whom she believed chose fuck buddies with less discrimination than ice cream flavors. Any warm hole would do.
Oh, how wrong she was.
“Daily? Your largest size?”
She narrowed her sea-green eyes. They seemed all the more vivid when showcased by that tangle of pale lashes and the shadows layered beneath. “You don’t eat a large ice cream daily. Not with your training schedule.” She gestured to his body without sparing it a glance. “Isn’t the kiddie cup more your speed?”
He snorted. Kiddie, my ass. “I’m not a baseball player any longer, remember? And I’d definitely eat a large daily if it was free.”
“Oh yeah. You’re so poor that you need my dairy handouts. Want me to throw in a vat of white chocolate sauce and a morning coffee too?”
“Yes, that would be nice. Thank you.”
Now she did snort, somehow elegantly. She did everything with class. She’d probably stitched freshwater pearls into her underwear. “And I know you aren’t a baseball player any longer, but as a bodyguard you need to stay physically fit. I’ve seen you, you know.”
The way she said it made him think she’d glimpsed him one-handing it behind the curtain in his mother’s house. Something he didn’t do often, preferring instead to channel the months of sexual frustration into work on his new home, currently being built on the outskirts of town. He’d told few about his burgeoning home ownership. It was more fun to let the rumors fly. People liked to smirk and speculate how a single manwhore like himself could live in his mother’s house for more than six months without going crazy.
The idea that he could simply choose to live without sex or dating or any of that while he built his new career and readjusted to small town life had yet to be considered, far as he could tell.
Especially by Cass.
“What exactly have you seen me doing?”
“Running,” she said as he reached for his metronome again. “In the park. With that mutt of yours.”
“The mutt’s name is Tally. And yes, I run. Which means I’m entitled to all this free ice cream you’ve promised in return for this unspecified help you’ve requested.” He shouldn’t goad her about it, at least not until she’d said what she needed. He didn’t want to chase her off too soon.
But c’mon, a man had to retain a few vices. Teasing little Cass Dixon was one of his.
“So tell me,” he continued, tapping his thumb against the little silver ball until it swung into the others. “How could someone as utterly efficient as you possibly ever need help? You handle everything so well. A one-woman dynamo.”
Instead of tossing back a remark in kind, she tugged out a folded piece of paper and slid it across his blotter. If she noticed the picture of his ma, she didn’t comment.
Cass always commented.
Lifting a brow, he unfolded the paper and narrowed his eyes. Someone had borrowed a page from the Stalker’s Handbook and pasted together a message from cut out magazine letters. As he read it, he had to fist his hands on the arms of his chair to keep from jerking to his feet.
For your health, you should leave town. Go now on your own. Wait and pay the price.
“That was the first one.” Her voice stayed clear and strong even while he directed a penetrating glare her way.
“First?” he gritted out. “How many are there? And I’ll need dates and locations of where you found these, as well as the envelopes.”
“Three more. No envelopes, just folded pages slipped under my door.”
“Which door? Home or office?”
“All office, waiting for me when I came in each morning. They were on the doormat. No obvious fingerprints or identifying smudges.” While he stared at her, she crossed her legs. If she was uneasy, it was impossible to tell. “I logged the dates that I found them and will get you that information. Here are the other letters.” She withdrew three additional pieces of paper and pushed them toward him, retreating slightly when he grabbed them out of her steady grip. “Each one escalating in intensity, over a period of two months. But I figured they were just the usual competitive business nonsense. There aren’t a lot of customers in Yardley to begin with, and with two other ice cream shops in town, plus mine extending its hours—”
“Excuse the fuck out of me, but do you really think it’s ‘business nonsense’ when someone threatens your life repeatedly?” Shaking his head, he started to tug the cell out of his pocket.
“No. Dammit. Don’t call Chase.”
“I wasn’t. I was calling the police. These are death threats.” Sly ones for the most part, but the Stalker’s Handbook was sketchy sometimes about how detailed to get. He’d gotten the message clear enough. What he couldn’t figure out was how she hadn’t.
Cass wasn’t a stupid woman. She had an MBA from Columbia and probably wrote up business proposals in her sleep. Somehow she’d managed to build a thriving ice cream shop in the center of a town that spent practically half the year in the cold, snowy dark, even when several other similar businesses continued to struggle.
She’d added a line of fancy ices and gelatos and stuff he couldn’t even pronounce to go along with her ice cream and erotic sauces—shut up, cock—and the coffee bar she’d put in a few months ago to help ride out the winter months. Against all odds, she’d gone to a year-round schedule, and now someone wanted to scare her into giving it all up? Especially when being scared wasn’t something Cass should be, ever?
Hell fucking no.
When he found the person responsible, Jax intended to make him pay. With his fists if need be. He abided a lot of things in life, but threatening and harming a woman wasn’t one of them. This woman in particular.
Cass leaned forward across the desk and closed her fingers around his wrist. They were cool, slim. Unyielding. “No police. No Chase. Just you and me.”
Those words lanced deep inside him, to a place they had no right to go. “No way. I’m not risking you.”
“You don’t understand. That’s what they want. If I run to the police, then people start talking. In a town this small, the gossip will run rampant in a day’s time. People will come in for curiosity’s sake, until the novelty wears off. Then they’ll start drifting away, afraid that Triple Scoop might be an unsafe place.”
“That’s ridiculous,” he snapped.
“Oh yeah? Haven’t we all heard the stories in the news about wives or girlfriends being harassed by their exes before they come in and shoot up their place of business? As unfortunate as it is, things like that happen in towns like Yardley all the time.”
“So wait a second. You think someone might come in and shoot the place up, as you so eloquently stated, thereby deterring your customers. But you don’t think the police need to be involved? And what are you talking about, exes?”
An image of a beanpole with rust-colored hair and a smirk that deserved to be permanently erased filtered into Jax’s brain. Russ Jackson, Cass’s ex, better hope his life insurance policy was up to date, because if he was the one who’d been hassling her, his family might get to collect soon. That prick was the reason for a good amount of the distance between him and Cass, and for that alone he owed him a boot up the ass.
“Russ?” he practically growled.
She sighed. “You’re not listening to me. I’m not saying it’s an ex. It’s not like I have that many of them to choose from, to start with. I’m also not saying that anyone wants to shoot up anything. These letters are juvenile-level scare tactics. I won’t give this individual the satisfaction of harming my business over something so petty.”
“Fine.” Jax unwrapped her fingers from his wrist and gripped them in his other hand—so he held on longer than he strictly needed to, so what—as he scrolled through his list of contacts. “You won’t give this individual the satisfaction. I will. Call me a concerned citizen.”
“Jason,” she pleaded, her eyes taking on a soft quality he hadn’t seen since…ever.
He’d known that she must have a softer side, simply had to, but he’d damn well never glimpsed it. Her fiery stubbornness, the sheer force of will that was Cass, had attracted him to her like a bee looking to drink from a flower one glorious time before its demise.
Not that she’d resort to murder. No, she slayed him with her spine and her brains and her wit and left an indelible memory behind.
Was she a challenge? Yes. Mount Everest appeared to be a small hill in comparison. Was that the reason behind his whatever the hell it was he had for her?
No. Not even close.
“Jax,” she added after a moment, knowing that was what he preferred to be called.
But not by her. As much as he’d teased her about never using the nickname for him that everyone else used, it sounded strange from her lips. To her, he was Jason. She’d known him before the glitz and the glam and the fastball fast track that had become his life. When their gazes locked, he didn’t remember any of that. The years fell away, stripping them down to the kids they’d once been. When he’d locked her in the closet for an hour to see if she’d cry, only to open it to a flying spitball that had landed right on his cheek.
Somehow he had a feeling that could’ve been a good metaphor for their whole relationship, if he had a handle on all that symbolism crap.
None of that mattered. Their shared distant past, their acrimonious present. All he could focus on was that she’d approached him—practically her sworn nemesis, for chrissakes—for help, even if it was probably because she’d had nowhere else to turn.
He wouldn’t make her regret it.
He let go of her hand and clicked off the phone, then set it aside and reveled in her soft, relieved sigh. Her gratitude probably wouldn’t last long. “Okay.”
He’d keep her safe. Her way, for now.
“Okay,” she echoed, sinking gratefully back into the chair.
“You have an extra bedroom?”
She blinked. “What?”
He pulled out his wallet, thumbed out the business card for his contractor. He wouldn’t be stopping by his house at lunchtime today. “I don’t need a lot of space,” he went on, sorting through and discarding other cards he no longer needed. Shit, he should get organized. Some other lifetime. “Just enough room for me and a suitcase worth of clothes. Oh, and an extra-long bed if you have it. I’m a bit bigger than average.” At her choked sound, he looked up. Smiled. “Height-wise, of course.”
Let her just wonder about that. And from the blush staining her porcelain cheeks, she was. Oh, she was.
“Then there’s Tally. Is there a yard behind Triple Scoop? She has to have some room to run, especially after she does her business. Still gets a bit skittish about that. But if it’s a problem, I can—”
“What in the hell are you talking about?” Cass burst out.
“I’m moving in with you above the shop.” Jax smiled again. Slowly. He had her cornered, and from the way her pupils dilated, she damn well knew it. “Unless you’d rather contact the police…”
* * *
The swingman was blackmailing her. Worst of all? She’d toe-stepped right into his little batter’s box.
For a moment, Cass could do nothing but stare at the cagey creep who’d reined her in more effortlessly than he hit home runs. And that was saying plenty, since the man had an epic batting record. Fans still lamented his loss well into the first season without him, and likely would for years. Deservedly so. He might be a jerk in a lot of ways, but Jason Wilder was skilled on the field.
Sliding home was his specialty. On the diamond, in women’s bedrooms. Who could differentiate? If one listened to Yardley gossip—and as a business owner, she had to for the sake of her livelihood—he’d bedded every single woman and some who weren’t single, since he’d been home. Others claimed he was on a prolonged celibacy streak. Somehow she doubted that, though it provided a handy excuse for why his gaze seemed to sharpen now and again in her direction.
She so wasn’t his type. It was laughable to even consider it. He liked his motorcycle-riding chicks in miniskirts and bustiers. She wore cashmere and silk. She’d worked her keister off to be able to afford those things, and she’d be damned if some anonymous twit interfered with the business she’d forged out of nothing but cobbled together loans, grit and tears.
He swore and drank and probably smoked illegal substances in the park.
He also had a picture of his mother in his blotter, but that didn’t count for much. He was living with the woman, after all. He’d probably blown through most of his fortune on wine, women and balls and had to depend on her to support him. Why else had he gotten so excited about free ice cream?
Maybe now he figured she’d offer him room and board for free as part of his bodyguard compensation so he could get out from under his mama’s thumb. Yes, her theories were growing more insane by the second, but who could blame her?
Jason Wilder bedding down in her house. He didn’t fit in with her weekly book club and the Wheel of Fortune she DVR’d religiously and her classical music. And her cat.
“I’m sorry, but I have a Siamese,” she said, a little more haughtily than she’d intended, secretly delighting in the way his mouth tightened. It so pleased her to make him scowl. “She and Tally won’t get along. Regrettably, I’ll have to pass on your generous offer.”
“They’ll get along well enough. It happens all the time. Get Fuzzy. Bucky and Satchel,” he added at her blank look. “Dog and cat cartoon. Don’t you read the newspaper?”
“Cartoons are not reality.”
“No, but I assure you dogs and cats live in relative harmony all the time. We’ll keep an eye on them. Now onto my space requirements. A dresser should be enough for my clothes. Or even a couple drawers. I’m no clothes hound, unlike someone we know.”
“Will your dog fit in one of those drawers?”
“Unless dog is a euphemism I’m not aware of, no, she won’t. She’s an Australian Shepherd.”
She’d seen the wild furry beast running with Jax in the park, though from a distance she’d only been able to make out a gigantic mass of hair without a discernible face. Her Ming would never be able to tolerate some giant thing with a lolling tongue slurping her up in her sleep.
Neither would she. And in this case, she wasn’t entirely referring to the canine.
Cass crossed her legs and steepled her fingers over her knee. Staying calm was the surest way to convince him his presence at her place wasn’t necessary. The situation had escalated a bit more than he knew, but she’d quickly decided to hold that information back until she’d ascertained that he’d be level-headed about this. He’d reacted with more alarm than she’d expected, especially considering he was in the bodyguard business and must see that sort of thing often.
Maybe that’s because you should be more alarmed too.
“I really appreciate the offer.” She gave him a bland smile, hoping her expression didn’t reveal her tension. She could feel it coiling inside her, a snake ready to strike. The hot stone massage she’d scheduled for that evening couldn’t come soon enough. “I’ll be happy to consider it if the incidents continue, but right now, I’m certain that—”
“I’m certain that if I don’t move in with you, I’m going to the police. And Chase.” Jax returned her smile. “It’s your choice, Chanel.”
She barely restrained a groan. Chanel, really? After all these years, she’d thought—hoped—he’d forgotten that dopey nickname. He’d always loved to tease her about her love of name brand accessories and had started calling her that when she’d saved six months of babysitting money to buy a Coach bag in high school.
After her mom had moved out and remarried shortly thereafter, they’d been down to living on their dad’s income as a mailman. With one kid in sports and one in band—and one of them with a heart problem that required medication—there hadn’t been much money left for clothes or anything nice. Every time she’d bought one of those status items she’d felt like she could do anything. That her circumstances couldn’t define her. Only she could do that.
Jax had never understood. He figured she was a straitlaced snob and left it at that.
“Unfortunately, there’s one aspect you haven’t considered.” She hadn’t considered it either until this very second, which was pretty odd in light of her desire to hide what was going on. Best to chalk it up to the overwhelming idea of him moving in. That would flummox even the most level-headed woman.
“I disguised my identity so word wouldn’t get around that I was here. If you move in with your big floppy dog and park your truck out front, people will start talking.”
“Too true.” He gave her a toothy smile. “And I don’t think they’d assume I was your bodyguard if I started sleeping overnight. Sounds like the perfect set-up to me.”
“But Chase will be home in a few weeks—”
“So that means we need to get this wrapped up quickly.”
She couldn’t argue with that. But the idea of her friends and neighbors thinking she now harbored some delusion that she could wrangle one of the biggest bad boys in town might cause another hit to her pride. It hadn’t been that long since the humiliation she’d suffered from Russ’s behavior. She’d only had a few months out of the gossip spotlight. Jax strolling around in his tight jeans or mowing the lawn shirtless or sitting at her rickety patio table sans shirt, drinking lemonade would put her right back in the glare.
Yes, every scenario ended with him half-naked. That had to be a coincidence.
“How about you come over more often instead?” Panic bubbled in her throat, making her voice thin and high. “Maybe you could hang out in the store a few hours a day?”
“Maybe you could stop arguing with me?” His tone was so pleasant it would’ve been easy to miss the hard glint in his caramel-colored eyes. They went well with his dark hair, which was now growing out in carefree waves.
Carefree. That was Jason down to a T. God, she envied him.
“Yes, I’ll be making more visits to the store,” Jax agreed when she fell silent. “But they won’t follow any set routine, since odds are you’re safer there during business hours than you are otherwise. We don’t want the perp to alter their pattern of harassment until they can be caught and prosecuted. Meanwhile, the likelihood is that it will continue to escalate, and they’ll probably attempt those strikes when you’re alone and the shop is closed. But don’t worry, I’ll have eyes on you in the store too.”
She didn’t know exactly what that meant. Spies? Video cameras? Tracking devices in her ice cream cups? “I guess I don’t understand the point. Do you move in with all your clients or am I special?”
“Chase had one client that required his presence all day long. It isn’t that unusual.”
“Yes, but moving in with me seems…drastic.”
He tapped his wide, blunt-tipped fingers on his blotter. “Know what else seems drastic? Someone threatening your life, repeatedly.” When she didn’t respond, he relaxed in his chair, kicking up one ginormous leg onto the other. The man was huge. Over six feet and bulky with lean muscle. All hard and ripped and worthy of being in a nude calendar.
Not that she had one of those secreted in her desk drawer.
“I can stay out of your way. I’m good at being discreet.” She couldn’t help her snort, but she tried to stifle it behind her fingers. Yes, sure. He was as discreet as the Incredible Hulk, minus the green paint. “We’ll work out a schedule. A system. I know you get off on those.” His voice dipped on the words get off and her shoulders hunched defensively.
If only she was getting off on anything these days. It had been too long. No wonder she was feeling so edgy and out of sorts around him. As if the whole stalking thing wasn’t enough, did he have to look so capable of handling anything that came his way?
Capability was her weakness. She could withstand good looks and charm and wit. But someone with so much assurance and such a dominating physical presence couldn’t be ignored.
Oh, she’d tried. Over and over again. But he didn’t make it easy on her. And now he wanted to move into her damn apartment. To sleep in the hand-crafted sleigh bed in her guest room on her five-hundred-thread-count sheets. Living among all her things, like he belonged. Like she needed him there to keep her safe.
More safety. Being level-headed and making practical choices was already her default setting. She’d toed the line of caution all her life and she was so very tired of it.
Something else he would never understand. He’d always lived exactly as he pleased. Living hard wasn’t a motto for him. It was a state of being.
“I’m afraid there is one sticking point.” She examined her manicure, all too aware of his stare. “My home isn’t appropriate for…entertaining.”
His long pause gave her momentary satisfaction. She took pride in her unerring ability to knock him off his pedestal of unflappability. It wasn’t right that one person should always be so disgustingly cheerful and even-tempered. She didn’t give in to fits of pique, because she’d had to learn not to. He didn’t seem to have them, period. For some unexplainable reason, his agreeable nature pissed her off.
“So that means I can’t invite over my buddies from the bar?”
She sniffed. “Absolutely not.”
“How about my harem of hotties? I can’t go more than a few hours without them rubbing my—”
“I was going to say feet. Dirty mind.” His grin nearly made her grin back, if only because he was practically impossible not to like. Which made her redouble her efforts.
Men like Jason Wilder were dangerous. He himself had taught her that last summer when he’d clued her into her cheating ex’s nocturnal activities with Amanda Bellamy at the very same bar Jason preferred. Harem of hotties notwithstanding.
She’d taken a chance on Russ. He was overly charming, too slick and quick with the lines. But he’d been good in bed. That was a simple fact, and one she wasn’t proud of admitting. She’d allowed herself to be bamboozled by a ready smile—though not nearly as potent as Jason’s—and skill between the sheets.
Not that she was an expert on variations there. She’d had a pathetically small sample study to compare him to. After a lifetime of being told she shouldn’t get excited and upset her already touchy heart rate, she was hardly the one to consult on sex. Or anything more fun than mixing up new ice cream and sauce blends.
A night discussing Jodi Picoult’s latest tearjerker with her book club friends over wine was about as wild as her life got. Even her best friend, Summer, wasn’t around anymore to get her into shenanigans.
But if you move the personification of wildness himself in, even temporarily, that could change…
“No.” She rose and clutched her purse to her stomach until the handle dug into the flesh above her belt. “I can’t do this.”
Jason nodded. “I understand.” Out came his phone.
She didn’t say a word as he dialed, as he started to speak. “You don’t even have weapons training,” she exclaimed, desperate to get him off the phone.
Instead of ending the call, he turned it against his broad thigh. The thing was like a board of rippling muscle. “That’s incorrect. I’ve been taking classes in both that and the martial arts. I also practice twice weekly at the range. Want to test my shot?”
The last question he delivered with a quirk of his brow that shouldn’t have been half as arousing as it was. She believed in gun control. It wasn’t the least bit sexy to imagine him with his arm cocked and a weapon in his hand. Besides, being armed certainly wasn’t relevant to her life. These notes were nothing but an annoyance, soon to end when the individual behind them accepted she wasn’t going anywhere.
“No. I believe you. But really, you’re a baby bodyguard. New to the field, I mean.”
“I’m no baby, sweetness, in any way. Anytime you want a demo, let me know.” Before she could unseal her tongue from the floor, he picked up the phone and resumed his call in that same even, placid voice.
Leaning forward, she braced her hands on his desk. She only realized how far she was draped across it when Jason’s eyes narrowed on the deep V-neck of her top. Or at least it was deep now. She yanked up her top with one hand and made another grab for his cell. He held it easily out of reach. “Come on. Stop this now. I give in. Uncle. Uncle.”
“Say you want me to live with you.”
“But I don’t.” As he turned back to the phone, she ground her fingers into her burning eyes—listening for creaks in the floorboards in the shop below her apartment didn’t make for a restful night’s sleep—and acknowledged defeat. This round, anyway. “I want you to live with me.”
Scowling, she opened her eyes and found him grinning at her, phone discarded on the desk. His broad thumb still pressed over the end button, probably as it had been for the entire call.
He’d had her twice in one day.
Her cheeks heated. In a manner of speaking.
“I’ll pack up, get over to your place after you close up for the day. What time do you close on Thursdays?”
“Kind of late to stay open, don’t you think? Can’t people get that shit to go?”
“No. Not everyone keeps your banker’s hours. Some customers work late into the evenings and appreciate the later closing time.”
“Banker’s hours and a harem of hotties. Damn, I’m doing pretty well for myself, huh?”
To keep from decking him, she twisted her purse between her hands, remembered belatedly what it had cost, and pushed her fingers through her hair instead. Then she caught sight of the wig she’d tossed on the floor next to the chair and picked it up, noting the gleam of interest on his face.
She rolled her eyes. Men were all the same. They could turn a discussion about water chestnuts and bamboo into something sexual with absolutely zero effort.
Something else she could begrudge him, since she couldn’t even get off, to use his vernacular, after Russ’s betrayal. It was as if all the pleasure centers in her brain had shut down. Touching herself reminded her of the last time he’d touched her and then, boom, she mentally checked out.
It was probably just as well. Jason’s arrival in her home meant her chances of obtaining satisfaction of any kind—self or otherwise—hovered around nil.
“You don’t get to tell me what time to close my business. It’s May. It’s warm out, finally. People want to relax and eat some frigging ice cream.” At least she had a good reason for the perspiration beading on her throat at his stare. God knows this sweatbox didn’t have adequate A/C. Not that she could tell it from looking at him, languidly lounging across from her like a big jungle cat. “And stop staring at this wig, you pervert.”
He didn’t laugh. “You looked hot in that. Actually, you look hot now. A little warm, Miss Dixon?”
Had he called her sexy? Or had he commented on her current state of overheating? God, the man was infuriating. “I’m fine, thank you.” She cleared her throat and fought the urge to run to the bathroom to make sure her hair hadn’t gone frizzy in the humidity. “Yes, I’ll be ready for you at ten. Now I need to get back. I’m afraid we don’t all have two hours for lunch each day,” she added, referring to his daily afternoon runs with Tally.
“Yeah, well, you know me and my life of leisure.” He canted his head as she tugged on the wig and fiddled with the dark hair that hung down to her breasts. “Definitely hot.” He headed toward the door before she could snap at him.
She wasn’t basking in the glow of pleasure from his words. She wouldn’t. He was a player, and she’d had her fill of those. Besides, this particular player knew all her secrets and would never let her forget them, which made him ten times worse.
The sexy body, cat-like eyes and full lips were unfortunate add-on bonuses she’d have to ignore. Had been ignoring since puberty.
He held open the door for her and smiled. “You know, I was going to ask you what you meant by being ready for me. But I think it’ll be more fun if it’s a surprise.” Her glare didn’t slow him down. In fact, his delight in taunting her only seemed to grow. “I’ll make sure to tell the harem I’m busy tonight. I’m sure you’ll provide more than enough entertainment.”
Cass frowned, swallowing the words on the tip of her tongue. She’d intended to thank him for his offer of help, but he had to act like an ass. As usual. She had very valid concerns about his lifestyle and how it would jive with hers, and rather than treat them as valid, he turned them into a joke. Nothing new there.
She slipped on her sunglasses and brushed past him without sparing the stupid giant another glance. “Go to hell, Wilder.”
She was almost positive he murmured, “Looks like heaven to me,” as she walked away.