Holding on tighter, p.1
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       Holding on Tighter, p.1

         Part #12 of Wicked Lovers series by Shayla Black
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  Chapter One

  Rule for success number one:

  Pay attention—to the right things.

  October

  AFTERNOON sunlight streamed through the wall of windows as Jolie Quinn hustled down the hall of her North Dallas office, ready to make things happen. Which probably meant she had to bust some asses. It wouldn’t be the first time . . . nor the last. But keeping her small, slightly offbeat workforce focused during crunch time was critical.

  Her entire future was riding on it.

  To her left, Gerard hovered over the latest copy of Vogue. Accessories for the summer collection she desperately needed sat half drawn as he swayed to the rhythm of Mozart blasting through his earbuds. Rohan hunched over his keyboard, his fingers flying, as he scanned his screen, working his E-Trade account far more intently than he coded her new website. Wisteria, her receptionist, was fresh from another breakup. She looked somewhere between contemplative and maudlin as she shuffled the mountain of customer records on the credenza behind her. Arthur, her accountant, wasn’t even at his desk. He’d probably hooked up his PlayStation to that little flatscreen in the break room again. And the latest addition to her staff, her gorgeously distracting security contractor, never inhabited his desk. Instead, Heath Powell constantly cased the building and asked questions, watching everything and everyone with a dark, focused stare.

  He unnerved her.

  Jolie dismissed the thought and got back to business.

  Hands on hips, she regarded her assistant designer. “Where are we with the sketches?”

  Gerard’s head snapped up as he yanked the buds from his ears, looking like a quintessential Frenchman with Continental sensibilities. “I am looking for inspiration. You cannot rush creativity.”

  “I have to. You know I don’t have a choice.”

  He grimaced as if the situation was out of his control. “Nothing flows as it should, yes?”

  She understood. When she’d designed the office attire for the upcoming line, it had come to her quickly. Admittedly, the casual wear had stumped her for weeks.

  “Imagination, Gerard. You’ve got it. I need those handbags.” Jolie glanced down at the sketchbook on his desk. “Off the top of my head, these look too much like last summer. Fashion is change. And I want more texture. Let’s review everything you’ve got. My office. Ten minutes.” Conversation over until then, so she turned to Rohan with a raised brow. “Do I pay you to build a website or work your stock portfolio?”

  Rohan had already shuttled the day-trading site and retrieved the code he’d previously written. “I took five minutes to investigate an interesting stock tip.”

  She hated being lied to.

  Jolie leaned into his face. “You were tapping away about the same small cap’s historical data when I took my call in the conference room an hour ago. Planning for the future is important, but do you grasp that if my potential investor walks because I can’t show him a working mockup of the new website, we may all be out of a job? It has to be done by Friday. That’s in two days.” She held up a pair of fingers. “If you’ve got some obstacle preventing you from finishing, let me know. I’ll remove it. Otherwise, I don’t have time for your personal financial health during my business crisis.”

  “Sorry.” Sweat beaded on Rohan’s olive skin. He swallowed audibly. “You know deadlines freak me out, but I can do it.”

  “You can or I wouldn’t have hired you. Show me what you have ready on the new shopping cart and tax tables. My office in thirty minutes.”

  “I’ll be there. I think you’ll be pleased with . . .”

  Jolie didn’t stay to hear the rest since he would present everything relevant shortly. If the site wasn’t functional and top-notch in time, it could mean the difference between her business flourishing and folding.

  As she strode toward her office, she spotted a new pot of red tulips on her sister’s desk and frowned. Karis was often taking in strays. Had she shifted her attention from cats to plants?

  With every step, Jolie’s stomach rumbled. Damn, she’d skipped lunch again. Maybe she’d munch on some crackers at her desk while she met with her employees and compiled the presentation for her prospective investor. During their upcoming dinner meeting, she intended to show Richard Gardner a complete strategic plan, new website functionality, current financials, and finished sketches of her summer collection. Right now, she was nowhere near ready. Food really didn’t fit into her schedule.

  Of course she hadn’t had time for much of anything in the last four years—not waiting for inspiration, or her personal finances, and certainly not fun or games or romance. After waiting tables to put herself through FIT in NYC, she’d earned a bachelor’s in fashion design. Then she’d gone straight for her MBA, focusing on merchandising, and studied feverishly to graduate at the top of her class.

  Afterward, Jolie had refused eight high-profile job offers. They had been flattering, but she’d already spent enough time building someone else’s name during her internships, thank you. Her dream had never been about working her way up from the bottom or limiting her income based on someone else’s arbitrary pay structure.

  So she had forged a different path, starting her own line of chic yet comfortable fashion for women of all sizes. She’d also launched a completely different distribution channel at the same time, merchandising exclusively through home-based parties. So far it was working because her company had grown ten-fold in the last four years. Jolie had recently been named an up-and-coming designer by Fashionista and one of the top ten businesspeople to watch in Dallas. A popular nighttime drama would begin dressing their popular, stylish heroine, played by Shealyn West, in pieces from her spring collection after their winter hiatus. Sales were predicted to skyrocket.

  Jolie intended to build Betti into a brand as recognizable as Coke, as sought after as Apple, and as far-reaching as Starbucks.

  It was a tall order for a thirty-year-old woman short on capital. She needed this investor and all the building blocks in place to take the next step.

  She didn’t want to think about what would happen if she failed.

  Jolie ducked around the corner and peeked into the break room. Sure enough, Arthur was shooting a blue laser at both feral ghouls and raider scum in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Currently, his character was fighting off a horde of enemies, along with radiation sickness.

  “Arthur?”

  He didn’t turn to her, just pressed buttons on his controller like a madman. “Um, yeah. Two minutes. I’m almost done with these guys.”

  “You’re done now.”

  Her accountant performed a quick save, pausing the game, then turned to her with a sheepish expression. He shoved the shaggy brown hair from his face and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. Slender, brilliant, and a bit on the anxious side, he often seemed more like a slouchy college student than a CPA pushing thirty. “Sorry. I get involved. It’s just that RooskieGamer posted a great YouTube video about how to defeat these guys and earn a trophy. I wanted to test it out.”

  “After hours. At home. I need the financials ready for my investor meeting ASAP.”

  “They’re almost done,” he assured her.

  “I want to review them at tomorrow’s staff meeting.”

  “Totally.” He peeked nervously back at the TV, as if the screaming goons and trigger-happy baddies could somehow reach through the screen and annihilate him while he wasn’t looking. “I’ll have it done by end of business today.”

  “Good.” She turned away, then thought of one more thing. “Don’t spend the evening here playing that crap. Seriously. Go home.”

  He frowned. “My roommate is constantly shagging his girlfriend. They’re so loud.”

  And Arthur was annoyed becau
se he wasn’t getting any. Not her problem.

  “Turn up the volume on your game. The screeching ghouls alone will kill their mood,” Jolie suggested.

  “But—”

  “No. Last time you stayed here all evening, you cooked raw fish wrapped in foil in the microwave. The place almost caught fire and reeked for days.”

  Not to mention that she’d had to buy a new microwave.

  “I’m not much of a cook.” He pushed his glasses up again. “I’ll leave by six.”

  Mission accomplished, she gave him a sharp nod and turned for the door.

  “Jolie, before you go, I’ve got a question. Ten minutes, tops.”

  “Do you need an answer to finish your part of the presentation for my investor?”

  “N-no. But I—”

  “Then let’s talk next week. I’ve got more meetings now. Sorry. Everything else is back burner at the moment.”

  Jolie didn’t wait for him to object, because it was probably another one of his causes like cleaner urinals or organic coffee. She headed to her office.

  On the way, she passed Wisteria at her desk. “All that paper has to be scanned, filed, and locked inside the proper cabinet by the end of the day. I know you have a lot on your mind, but customers’ addresses and credit card numbers shouldn’t be lying around. If we mishandle their personal and financial information, they’ll shop elsewhere.”

  “You’re right.” Wisteria looked appropriately contrite. “I’m not in a good head space but I’ll get it done.”

  “I’m sorry he hurt you. But he’s a man, so if he hasn’t already, he’ll be moving on soon. I suggest you do the same.”

  Jolie strode into her office and shut the door. She couldn’t exactly tell Wisteria that she understood because she’d been there. Jolie refused to give a man that much power over her heart. She intended to build something more lasting than “love.”

  Leaning against the wood, she shut her eyes and basked in the moment of silence. In part, she blamed herself for her employees’ lack of urgency. She’d given each a job because she’d believed in their talent, but they didn’t quite grasp that, despite Betti’s growing profits and impending opportunities, she would be unable to finance the company’s expansion for years without an infusion of capital. And if she waited that long to get ahead, the competition would undoubtedly have passed her by. She shielded them from the daily dog-eat-dog rigors of business so they didn’t see the throat-cutting happening all around them. Just last week, a man had initiated a hostile takeover of a growing cosmetics corporation and wrested it from the owner—his own mother.

  Jolie wouldn’t rest until her dream was secure. Some might not understand her methods, but experience had proven her staff was most productive when she was professional but exacting. Gaining respect as a female CEO hadn’t been easy. Some misogynist, fidiot, or hack was always waiting to tear her down.

  She refused to bend for small-minded people.

  With a sigh, Jolie opened her eyes to tackle the mountain of work on her desk—only to be stopped short. Her younger sister, Karis, sat in her chair, staring out the window overlooking the parking lot. The girl’s dreamy expression tightened Jolie’s gut. She loved her sister, but as the baby of the family—and the one most like their mother—Karis didn’t have many practical bones in her body.

  “Tell me how you’re working with that male god every day and not tearing your clothes off. He’s so hot.” Karis fanned herself. “And so British. That accent . . . Hmm. I want him.”

  Jolie held in a groan. She didn’t have to ask who him was. Heath Powell. Her security contractor was incredibly male and terribly attractive. She refused to let him become a distraction.

  Unfortunately, Karis lacked her willpower.

  “Mr. Powell has been hired to make sure we don’t suffer a catastrophic security-related event, whether that’s industrial espionage or the burglar who’s been hitting all the businesses in the neighborhood. He is not here to make your vagina tingle.”

  Karis huffed. “Not everything can be about business all the time.”

  “It has to be until we secure this investor. While you’re getting your ass out of my seat so I can get back to work, let’s talk about expectations. I’ve counseled everyone else in the last five minutes about getting the job done. It wouldn’t be fair if I gave you special treatment because you’re my sister. You’re a hell of a graphic artist and I think you’ll make a great project manager. Stay on top of Rohan. He’s behind on his milestones for the new website. You’re lagging on your deliverables, too. You all need to be caught up by close of business tomorrow.”

  Karis’s mouth tightened in mutiny. “I had plans this evening.”

  “So did I.” Jolie really wanted a few hours of extra sleep but that would have to wait.

  “Fine. But I’m not letting that hunk of a spectacularly single man pass me by indefinitely. Jolie, you should find someone. You’re sacrificing every shred of your personal life and future just for a job. Don’t you want more?”

  “It’s not just a job.” Her blood pressure ticked up twenty points. “It’s my dream.”

  “Yeah? Maybe my dream looks more balanced, with work I enjoy and an amazing guy. That’s exactly what Heath Powell is.”

  Did such a man actually exist? Her mother had been searching for one her whole romantic life, despite her three divorces and a copious number of live-ins. In Jolie’s estimation, the odds of any woman finding the perfect man were right up there with saddling a rainbow-hued unicorn. “How would you know? You met Heath when he started here two days ago.”

  “I spent some time looking into him this afternoon.”

  Now the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. “On my computer?”

  “You have more bells and whistles on your machine, plus the software that checks backgrounds.”

  And Karis knew how to uncover personal information online because she’d recently dated Ben, a hacker who had taught her how to dig into anyone’s background, including his university dean’s. Jolie was pretty sure the dirtbag had blackmailed his way into a degree.

  “My office also gave you the privacy of a closed door so Heath couldn’t see what you were up to.” She raised a brow at her younger sister.

  “Yeah, it came in handy, especially when I called Ben for help,” she admitted. “Oh, don’t make that face. He’s a white hat . . . mostly. He walked me through bits of cracking and a back door or two. Some of it looked like top-secret stuff.”

  “Yeah, Heath is obviously a great guy.” Jolie rolled her eyes. She didn’t want to know how much of Karis’s productive time that had wasted. “Looking into Heath’s background isn’t in your job description. Don’t make it your top priority.”

  “But what if he’s the ‘one’?” She rose and grabbed Jolie’s hands, her excited tone like a teenage girl’s waiting for the football captain to give her a sweeping “promposal.” “I needed to know more about him.”

  “Be real. That concept is an old myth perpetuated by fairy tales and exploited by Disney. Sis, he’s sixteen years older than you.”

  “Age is just a number,” Karis protested.

  Jolie snorted. Only someone naive actually believed that. Then again, that described Karis well. So the difference between her sheltered twenty-three and Powell’s well-lived thirty-nine might as well be a century. “Bullshit. Back to work.”

  “You’re my sister. Why don’t you want me to be happy?”

  “I do.” It hurt that she’d actually believe otherwise. “But your happiness shouldn’t be dependent on a man.”

  “It’s not dependent,” Karis argued. “I’m just saying, he would help the cause.”

  “Well, I’m also your boss who thinks you could be very happy accomplishing great things here. So please start caring about your job as much as some guy you barely know.”

  Karis finally looked chastened. “I care.”

  “Then don’t let me down. I’m counting on you.”

  “I won’t
. But will you hear me out first? Please.”

  Why was she a sucker for her little sister’s pleading? “You’ve got two minutes.”

  “Did you know he’s former MI5?”

  And Karis clearly thought that having an ex-spy for a boyfriend would be somehow romantic. “That did come up in our conversation, yes. I know how long he was employed by the British government, the types of missions he completed, and some of his other relevant job experiences. He was candid about his professional background and seemed extremely qualified.”

  Callie Mackenzie, her friend from Yoga Oasis, had recommended him, based on her handsome husband’s word. Sean was a former FBI agent and obviously knew his stuff. She was grateful to have

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