Excerpt The Favor by Suzanne Wright

Aug 192020
 

The Favor by Suzanne Wright

Vienna Stratton knew she only had herself to blame. You didn’t let yourself become indebted to a man like Dane Davenport, no matter how badly you needed his help. As his personal assistant, she was very aware that the globally successful CEO was ruthless and unforgiving.

Of course, if she’d known he’d request that she be his wife for twelve months, she’d have hesitated in accepting his help. Because what she’d learned from Dane was that the devil wasn’t ugly and terrorising. He was seductive and captivating. He hummed with whispers of temptation – the temptation to sin and surrender, to let him brand and possess you. He awakened every need and fantasy you had.

He could even make you love him.

Excerpt The Favor by Suzanne Wright
© Suzanne Wright
PROLOGUE

Watching my ex pick himself up off the deck, I winced at the deep cut above his eye. Ouch. He’d need a few stitches for sure. But I wasn’t feeling very sympathetic right then.
“Maybe you should do something, Vienna,” said Melinda, sidling up to me.
I gave my foster mother a helpless shrug. No one with a brain would try to get between Dane Davenport and something he wanted. And right then, what he seemed to want was to pummel my ex-fiancé into the ground.
I would not at all be opposed to that.
Owen had been something of an asshole lately. Today, he’d gone too far. He might not have made himself as problematic as the others who were set on separating Dane and me, but he’d certainly had this coming.
Melinda turned to her husband. “We can’t just stand here.”
“Why not?” asked Wyatt. “Owen should have known better.”
Why yes, yes, he should’ve. An uber-successful business mogul, Dane had a reputation for being someone you did not cross or underestimate. He was driven. Relentless. Assertive. Unforgiving. Intimidatingly intelligent. Richer than God. And, until several months ago, married to his job.
Now he was married to me.
He was also my boss.
He rarely lost his cool like this. Probably because he didn’t waste emotional energy letting others get under his skin. But as others weren’t supposed to know that our marriage was purely a business arrangement, he naturally had to play the role of possessive husband. And since there was no missing the blatant edge of danger he carried, he certainly had a menacing vibe going on right now.
Dane stared the prick down. “I warned you, didn’t I? I warned you time and time again to stay away from her, but you didn’t listen,” he reprimanded, his tone soft. “Worse, you pulled this shit. For someone who claims to care for Vienna, you sure don’t show it.”
Owen clenched his fists. “I do care for her, she’s—”
“Not yours,” Dane finished. “They’re my rings on her finger. It’s my name she’s taken. It’s my bed she shares. She is mine. So whether you care for her or not isn’t fucking relevant.”
Owen swallowed. “She was mine first.”
“And you should have held tight to her. You didn’t. You let her go. That was your mistake.”
“I did what was best for her.”
“No, you did what was best for you. You might have cared for Vienna, but you didn’t put her first. She was never your priority.”
Owen nostrils flared. “I was young back then. A kid.”
“A kid who wanted the space to pursue his ambitions. She gave that to you; she didn’t curse you for it. And how do you repay that? By trying to break up her marriage. You think she’ll thank you for that? That she’ll want someone who’d do that to her?”
My ex’s jaw hardened. “What I think … is that Vienna deserves to be loved. You’ll never love her—you don’t have that in you.”
Those words stabbed me right in the chest … because they were true. Dane didn’t love me. Never had. Never would.
I shouldn’t care. I wasn’t supposed to care. And I definitely didn’t like that I did. But I’d gone and fallen for my fake husband. Yeah, I was that stupid.
Dane sighed. “So you’ve said before. I didn’t care what you thought then; I still don’t care now. You’re of no interest to me. And you’re of no interest to her. You need to man the hell up and accept it, because I won’t have you playing these games with her. You’re going to leave here, and you’re going to stay away from her.”
Owen jutted out his chin. “You don’t get to dictate what I do.”
“When it comes to my wife, I absolutely do.”
“You won’t keep her in the long-run, you know. She’ll see that I’m right about you eventually. Then she’ll leave you.”
Dane tilted his head, looking at him curiously. “Now why would you think I’d let her do a thing like that?”
Owen’s head jerked back. “You can’t force someone to stay with you.”
“Vienna knows I’d never let her go.”
Damn, Dane was so good at acting that if he hadn’t been so clear about not wanting a real marriage, I might have believed him.
“She’s just a possession to you,” Owen insisted.
“My most prized possession, as it happens,” said Dane. “And I have every intention of keeping her. Deal with it. Accept it. Leave her alone. Get rid of this dream you have of winning her back. It won’t happen.”
“And if I don’t stay away from her?”
Dane’s mouth curved into a cruel, chilling smile that almost made me shiver. “I’ll make you wish you had.”
Owen’s eyes flickered. “She can do better than you. You don’t deserve her.”
“And you think you do? You, who just behaved like a complete asshole, think you deserve her?”
Shame flickered across my ex’s face. “Maybe neither of us do. But—”
“There are no ‘buts.’ You’re mistaken in thinking that you’d be married to her now if you hadn’t messed up. I’d have lured her away from you, even if it took me years. Don’t think for one moment she would be yours if A, B, or C hadn’t happened. I would have made her mine one way or another. You’d be wrong to think I don’t mean that. I’m ruthless about going after what I want. Quit banking on me fucking up and losing her the way you did. I’d never let someone so important to me walk out of my life.”
Owen narrowed his eyes, studying Dane hard. “Son of a bitch, I think you might just actually care for her in your own way.”
Dane’s gaze slid to me, burning with possession, impatience, and something … more. Something that made my pulse quicken and my breath catch. But Owen was wrong. Dane didn’t care for me. There was no way he’d want this marriage to be real. He didn’t even want a girlfriend, let alone a wife … right?

CHAPTER ONE

Six months earlier

Stopping at my desk, Hanna regarded me warily. “Uh-oh, your eyelid’s twitching. What’s wrong? Did someone mistake you for the model on the Syphilis Awareness billboard again?”
I narrowed my eyes at my friend and coworker. “No. And I don’t look anything like her.” We’d had this conversation already. But Hanna liked to poke at me in that way that only one of your closest friends would.
“You have the same pale blue eyes and high cheekbones. Her hair isn’t exactly the same platinum blonde shade as yours, but it’s close.”
People always assumed my hair color came straight out of a bottle. In truth, I’d inherited it from my half-Swedish grandmother.
“But she doesn’t have your blunt bangs or Jessica Alba-mouth,” Hanna went on because, yeah, she was a pain in my ass when bored.
“Can we not talk about the model who looks nothing like me, please?”
“Of course.”
“Great. If you’ve come to speak to Dane, he’s not yet back from his lunch meeting, but he shouldn’t be much longer.”
“I came to check on you. A little birdie told me they saw Travis enter the building earlier. The last time the idiot came here, you almost had to call security to remove him.”
And who was Travis? My boss’s sly, smarmy, self-entitled brother.
I sighed. “I’m fine, just annoyed. He wanted to wait for Dane in his office. I said no. He tried flirting with me to get his way. I said no. He claimed he had a migraine and just needed a quiet place to sit. I said no. Then he got all mean and demanded I let him in. Again, I said no. We went around and around like that for a while until, finally, he stalked off—but not before threatening to have me fired.”
Hanna shook her head. “He’s such a weasel. Why do you think he wanted access to Dane’s office?”
“He said he wanted to wait for him in there.” It wouldn’t have surprised me if he’d intended to nose around and sniff out some sensitive material that he could sell to Dane’s competitors. Travis seemed to harbor a deep resentment for his brother. I suspected it was petty jealousy since—in total contrast to Dane—the only thing Travis appeared to be successful at was being an absolute tool.
Hanna tilted her head. “Although he’s a boil on our butts, he generally doesn’t send that eyelid of yours twitching. It usually takes more than that to set it off. Come on, tell me what’s bothering you. You’ll feel better for it. And I’m nosy—help a girl out.”
“It’s nothing, really. I just discovered something about myself that I don’t like.”
“Ooh, I do that daily. So, what’d you discover?”
I clasped my hands together and rested them on my desk. “I can be very petty. See, I’m going to bump into my high school sweetheart today—a guy I was briefly engaged to. He’s rich and successful now. Although I don’t want him back, I want him to look at me, see how much better my life is without him in it, and regret letting me go.”
“Girl, pretty much everyone wants their exes to feel that way. It doesn’t make you petty. It makes you human. And back up … you were engaged to this guy? How is it we’ve known each other for four years and I’ve never heard about this?” She propped her elbows on the desk. “Okay, walk me through how it all went down.”
“Short version—”
“I want the long version.”
“Well, you’re getting the short one. Owen Redford and I grew up together. He was one of my closest friends. We dated during the last few years of high school, and he proposed to me after graduation—it was a gesture to show that him going away to college wasn’t going to change anything between us. But he ended our relationship five months later. He said we’d rushed into getting engaged and that we were too young to make such a commitment.”
Hanna’s face went all soft and sympathetic. “That limp-dicked asshole crushed your teenage heart.”
“Not quite, but he certainly dealt it a few kicks. People always used to talk about how he was made for bigger and better things than the life he’d been born into. We grew up in a real shady neighborhood. A part of me worried he’d leave me behind when his life officially took off … and he did. He asked to remain friends, but I never saw or heard from him again after that.”
“Not even once?”
“No. I bumped into his aunt a few times over the years, so I know he’s married, has a kid, owns a huge house, and has a cushy job.” I sighed. “I’m glad things worked out so well for him. I really am. It’s just made me painfully aware of how little my own life has changed since we last saw each other. Not that I don’t like my life, it’s just become sort of … stagnant.”
I had my health, I had people who loved me, I had a well-paying job, and I never took any of it for granted. But I felt like I was stuck in one place, existing only to eat, sleep, and pay my bills. I didn’t date, didn’t go on vacations, didn’t take much time for myself. I didn’t really have time, since I worked a lot. Being the PA of a workaholic was murder on my personal life. I definitely needed to shake things up a bit.
“Is there no way you can get out of seeing Owen?” asked Hanna.
“Probably not. His boss arranged a meeting with Dane months ago. I had a brief chat with the guy’s PA earlier via phone, and she told me that Charles would be bringing two of his ‘rising stars’ with him. I almost fell off my chair when she said Owen’s name. And since Dane usually likes me to sit in on these sorts of meetings and take notes, it’s highly unlikely that I can avoid seeing Owen.”
“Shit.” Straightening, Hanna waved a hand at me. “Well, you might not be married, rich, or live in a flashy house, but you’re a smart, confident woman who anyone would respect purely for working as Dane Davenport’s PA for a full four years. Not many people could work so closely with a corporate psychopath. At least not without having a breakdown.”
I sighed. “Granted, Dane’s … a little difficult at times, but he’s not a psychopath.”
“You’ve not noticed the power-hunger, lack of empathy, absence of a conscience, or that he is a control freak? None of his previous PAs lasted longer than six months—they were either fired or left in tears. Dane is not anyone’s idea of a nice guy. Not that I’m complaining. There’s something real yummy about a bad boy. The whole cold and ruthless thing works for him.”
Okay, so he liked power. Didn’t most CEOs? And, yes, he could be a little insensitive and careless with people’s feelings. He was also ruthless, sure, but … “He’s not cold or without a conscience. And he doesn’t lack empathy.” Well, not totally anyway. “He just doesn’t always bother to call up any emotional tact.”
“He made Gibson cry yesterday. Sweet, fresh-faced, quick-to-laugh Gibson. That’s like kicking a puppy. Which is something Dane probably often did as a child—being mean to animals is textbook for psychopathic kids, you know.”
I sighed again. “He’s not a psychopath.”
“Come on, he even has that hunter stare they’re known for having. Look me in the eye and tell me it doesn’t make you want to squirm. The hairs on my nape stand up every time.”
Yeah, I didn’t fare much better against it. There was always a dangerous glint in his dark, steely eyes. They could focus on you like a laser, pin you in place, and direct so much intensity at you that your personal space felt invaded.
Even after four years of working for him, I was not immune to that unflinching, relentless, apex-predator stare. Not at all. It was like being watched by a jungle cat. A big, badass jungle cat who wondered what an insignificant little thing like you was doing in its domain.
“Anyone can perfect a stare like that if they try hard enough,” I said.
Hanna squinted, and her mouth curled into a smile. “You know something? I think you like him.”
In all honesty, I’d had a harmless crush on my boss for years now. I didn’t give myself a hard time about it. There was no way to remain unaffected by Dane Davenport. “Good-looking” was too tame a term for him. Tall, dark, and supremely male, he exuded a raw sex appeal that could shake any girl’s equilibrium.
It wasn’t just his appearance that made him so lethally seductive. It was the entire package—his powerful personality, innate aura of authority, unshakable self-assuredness, and the untamed air about him that spoke of danger.
He was effortlessly desirable, and he was very much aware of it. He didn’t flaunt it, though. He did, however, make no bones of exploiting the impact he had on the female gender. He flitted from woman to woman, never taking the time to romance them. For Dane, nothing and no one came before work. He’d built a life that seemed designed to keep people out.
Sometimes, I couldn’t help but feel that he had an empty spot inside him. One he tried so hard to fill with work but never quite succeeded.
Despite being offhand and rude at times, he’d secured himself a vast network of clients, partners, and allies. He had a sort of … cold charisma. A powerful, masculine, irresistible presence that wasn’t tempered by warmth but still drew you into his orbit like a magnet. And I, sadly, was not at all immune to it.
I didn’t pine for him, though, for two reasons. First, I was a realist. I knew there would never be anything between us, and that surety enabled me to box the whole thing into my mental fantasy drawer. A drawer I only ever opened when I was spending quality time with my vibrator.
Second, even if he wasn’t too much of a workaholic to be fully invested in a relationship, he’d be too difficult a partner. In business, things were never good enough for Dane—he was always moving the marker, always driven to have “more,” always finding imperfections. I suspected he’d be the same way with his partner; that he’d never feel truly satisfied. That kind of relationship did not appeal to me.
Really, Dane was far too professional to get involved with one of his employees anyway. Would I ever consider a one-night stand if he gave me any indication that he’d be up for it? No. I valued my job too much to lose it over an “indiscretion.”
“You do have a thing for him, don’t you?” pushed Hanna.
Like I’d share that with Hanna, who couldn’t hold in her own pee. “It’s not that, it’s just … he gave me an opportunity that not a lot of people would have.”
Understanding flashed across Hanna’s face. “And so you’d feel disloyal saying anything negative about him, I get it.”
Well, it would be disloyal. When I’d first come to work at o-Verve Pro Technologies, I’d been hired as a secretary for one of the low-level staff. Clint was an arrogant, egotistical, narcissistic chauvinist who was prone to throw tantrums and believed that everyone was out to sabotage him.
I’d been nothing short of mortified when I realized that the CEO had overheard me telling Clint to “Stop being a precious little man-child and quit with the drama before you give yourself an ulcer. Oh, and don’t think I’m going to clean up that mess—you swiped the stuff off the desk, you can put it all back.”
It was not a great way to speak to your boss, no, but I’d found that Clint responded well to my teacher-addressing-an-unruly-student tone. It always snapped him right out of his tirades.
When I’d gotten called into Dane’s office later that day, I’d been sure he meant to fire me. Instead, he’d informed me that he’d be moving me to another department within the building. Namely, his …
Shocked as all shit, I stared at him. “I don’t understand.”
“I need a new PA,” he said, lounging in his leather chair. “I did a little digging after overhearing your … conversation with Clint. I learned a lot of things about you. You’re meticulous. Dependable. Highly efficient. Hyper-organized. You don’t balk at hard work, you have a positive attitude, you’re good at multi-tasking, and you’ve been a great right-hand person for Clint. And I saw—or, more precisely, overheard—that you can handle difficult characters. I need all that in a PA.”
“Don’t you already have one?”
“Yes. She can’t deal with the workload and would prefer to spend her time flirting with me. Needless to say, she doesn’t have a future as my PA.”
I licked my lower lip. “Not that I’m trying to talk myself out of a job but, well, my way of handling ‘difficult characters’ isn’t always in a calm, professional manner.”
“But if Clint could have been handled using a calm, professional manner, you’d have gone down that route, wouldn’t you?”
“Yes.”
“I don’t need someone who’s always polite. You’ll come into contact with a lot of strong, demanding, self-entitled characters—me included. If you’re sweet and agreeable and can’t handle yourself, they’ll eat you alive. I need someone who won’t be railroaded.”
He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his desk. “I’m good at recognizing talent and skills in people; at knowing where and how they’d be useful within my company. I believe this position would suit you. But, be warned, it isn’t a dream job. I’m not an easy man to work for; I’m a perfectionist who has little room for error. By doing the amount of jobs—big and small—that I’ll be requiring you to do, you’ll be expected to be ten people at one time. I need someone who can keep on track with everything, who won’t need any direct supervision, and who isn’t going to start sniffling if I’m not nice to them. I believe that’s you. So, care to take a chance and see if I’m right?”
I’d taken the chance. He hadn’t lied. A lot of pressure came with the job, and he could be a nightmare to handle sometimes—mostly because he had very strict standards for others and himself, and he had no tolerance for anyone who couldn’t keep up. He could also be inflexible and overly detail orientated. Any displays of laziness, inefficiency, or a bad work ethic from his employees were met with chillingly insensitive putdowns.
He also tended to forget that, unlike him, not everyone was married to their job. But in many other ways, he was a good boss. He paid well, looked after his employees, rewarded hard work, and didn’t tolerate any workplace bullshit.
Moreover, he’d once been my fucking hero—he’d stepped in when I thought everything would come crumbling down around me and he’d fixed the situation without batting an eyelid. For that alone, I’d always be loyal to him. Of course, he’d made it clear that he hadn’t done it to be “nice” and that he’d call in a favor one day but—
“Speak of the psychopath …”
At Hanna’s words, I snapped back to attention. My gaze flew to the elevator and, sure enough, Dane came walking out with that purposeful, sexy as hell, alpha-male stride. He looked so self-possessed and implacable it made my pulse skitter and my hormones sigh in appreciation.
The dark tailored suit looked damn good on him, but no suit could hide the menace that seemed to lurk just beneath the very controlled surface he showed to the world. That menace occasionally flared in his eyes or deepened his voice.
“We’ll talk later.” Hanna pushed away from my desk. “I want to hear how it went with the ex.” She hurried away, bidding Dane a good afternoon as she passed.
I was pretty sure he grunted by way of hello, but it was hard to tell from all the way over here. Taking in his default unimpressed expression, one might think he suffered from chronic indifference. It tended to make people nervous; they often seemed compelled to try to please or amuse him. The latter was truly a waste of time. In all the years I’d worked for him, I’d never heard him laugh. Not. Once.
I flashed him my receptionist smile as he neared me. “Afternoon, Dane.”
He flicked up his brows ever so slightly—his usual way of greeting me. Well, it was more than a lot of people got.
Grabbing some papers from my desk, I followed him into his sleek, spacious, masculine office. The glossy, cognac-brown wooden flooring perfectly matched the ergonomic desk, the full-wall shelves, and the coffee table in the seating area at the far side of the room. Two black leather sofas framed the table, and I could attest that both were delightfully comfortable.
Dane sometimes held one-on-one meetings in the seating area, but he mostly used conference rooms. I got the sense that he didn’t like having many people in his private sanctum. Not that anything in the room revealed much about him. There were no mementos, no knickknacks, no clutter. Even his kickass desk was surprisingly sparse. There was only his desktop computer, laptop, landline phone, nameplate, and a single coaster.
There were two things I envied about Dane’s office. One, the private bathroom. Two, the floor-to-ceiling windows that boasted an incredible, skyline view.
“Coffee?” I asked once he’d settled in his chair.
“No.”
In the beginning, I used to bristle at his curt manner. Now? I was used to it. I knew not to take his rudeness personally. Dane didn’t put much effort into sparing the feelings of anyone.
After relaying some important messages to him, I placed the papers on the desk in front of him. “You need to sign these.”
He only grunted.
I gave him a bright smile. “I like these little chats we have.”
He gave me one of those droll looks I’d become accustomed to over the years.
I headed to the door. Reaching it, I looked over my shoulder as I said ever so casually, “Oh, and Travis turned up to see you.”
Dane’s eyes narrowed as he studied me hard. “What did he do?”
I blinked. “Who says he did anything?”
“What did he do, Vienna?” Dane repeated. He very rarely raised that smooth, low-pitched, authoritative voice … as if never doubting that he had his conversationalist’s full attention. From what I’d observed, he was right not to have such doubts.
I really didn’t like tattling on people, but I figured Dane had a right to know that his brother might have been up to something. “Travis wanted to go into your office even though you weren’t here. I wouldn’t let him, so he kicked up a fuss. When it didn’t get him anywhere, he left. He also wants you to call him.”
“Define ‘fuss.’”
“He whined and yelled and growled and promised he’d have me fired.”
“Did he touch you?”
“No.” But he had threatened to. I decided not to mention that, though. It would only piss Dane off, and he was even more of a pain when he was in a mood.
“Hmm.” He made that sound far too often. It was infuriating, because it could mean everything or nothing.
Moving swiftly on … “Don’t forget you have a meeting in an hour. The agenda is on your desk, and I emailed you the materials that you’ll need to review for the meeting.”
His gaze on the laptop screen, he said, “You’ll attend it with me.” An order.
“That’s fine,” I said, nothing in my voice betraying that it was far from okay.
He went very still, and his eyes flew back to mine. “Is that going to be a problem?”
Seriously, the guy was a warlock or something. It was next to impossible to get anything past him. “Of course not,” I replied. “Are you sure you don’t want coffee?”
He didn’t answer. He just fixed me with that hunter stare. The only reason I didn’t squirm or avert my gaze was that I’d had plenty of practice at acting unaffected.
The cell phone he’d placed on his desk began to ring.
“I’m sure,” he finally replied, reaching for the chiming phone.
“Okay. Buzz me if you need anything.” With that, I left the office and returned to my desk. It was clean and tidy but, unlike his, far from sparse with a computer, printer, landline, stationery, and the fake cactus that my foster mother gave me. Melinda knew I’d accidentally kill a real plant.
I didn’t have time to dwell on the upcoming meeting—I had too much shit to do. As the founder and CEO of an incredibly successful analytical software company, Dane maintained a schedule that was never anything but hectic, and his workload was never anything but heavy. That meant my workload was just as heavy.
There was never a lull in the activity during the day. It started off at full throttle and remained that way until the business hours finally came to an end—and sometimes even longer than that. But I liked working in such a fast-paced environment. Each day was similar yet different.
Luckily, Dane wasn’t one of those bosses who asked his PA to do ridiculous shit like buy him condoms or cater to diva-like whims. In fact, he never sent me on any personal errands, as if preferring to keep his personal life separate. He was an intensely private guy, and I’d long ago given up trying to get to know him.
He rarely sent me out of the office on errands, though he did occasionally ask me to courier sensitive documents to other buildings. He also used me as a sounding board on occasion, which I liked. Mostly, though—in a nutshell—I handled his calendar, kept things running smoothly, and freed up as much of his time as possible by taking care of tasks that didn’t require his personal touch. I also made sure everyone else was in sync with his calendar of meetings, trips, and conferences.
The most trying part of my job was screening Dane’s emails, calls, mail, and visitors. Everyone “needed” to speak to him, and everything was a “priority.”
One of the things I most liked about being his PA was that I often accompanied him on business trips. They weren’t necessarily fun, since my time was rarely mine during those trips—I ran on pretty much the same schedule as him. Still, I got to travel on private jets, stay in luxury hotels, and attend exclusive events.
I was part way through an expense report for his last business trip when Dane came striding out of his office, and I realized that almost an hour had gone by. My stomach sank. All too soon, he and I were heading to one of the conference rooms for the meeting.
I was so annoyed with myself for caring that Owen would be there. I didn’t want it to matter. Didn’t want him to matter. He didn’t deserve to. Not that I was still hurting after what he’d done. But I didn’t like being reminded of that time; of how small he’d made me feel when he’d not only dumped me but dropped me from his life like I was a bag of crack.
Maybe it wouldn’t have hurt as much if we hadn’t been friends for so long. I didn’t trust easily, but I’d trusted Owen. I’d never thought he’d ever cut contact between us like that. And it stung that he’d so easily been able to do it.
As we reached the conference room, Dane stopped at the door and turned to me. “Is there something I should know?”
I blinked. “I’m sorry?”
“You’re uncomfortable. Why?”
Yep, he was a warlock. “I could tell you, but it involves talk of feminine products—”
“I don’t need to hear it.”
I almost snickered.
Dane entered the room first. The three men gathered at the long table instantly rose to their feet. Once they’d all exchanged greetings and the visitors were done metaphorically kissing Dane’s ass, he gestured at me and said, “This is my PA, Vienna.”
A tall, well-groomed figure moved aside to get a better look at me. Owen. Karma clearly hadn’t caught up with him yet, because he was even more good-looking than he’d been seven years ago. He had more muscle definition now and carried himself with more confidence, but he didn’t make my heart skip a beat the way he used to.
He blinked. “Vee? Jesus.” He stepped forward as if he might hug me, but Dane’s body shifted ever so slightly to the side. It was enough to make Owen halt, though he didn’t spare my boss a glance.
I gave him a professional, distant smile. “Owen, it’s good to see you.”
“You … you look great. It’s been a long time. Too long. I didn’t realize you worked at o-Verve.”
Well, why would he?
One of the other men cut in, “You two have met?”
“We were childhood friends, but we lost touch.” I shrugged. “It happens.”
Dane quickly introduced me to Owen’s companions and then said, “Shall we sit?” Really, it was an instruction, not a question.
As usual, I sat on Dane’s side of the table and silently took notes on my tablet. During internal meetings, I often contributed. But when Dane met with people from outside the company, like other CEOs, stakeholders, or potential clients, I left the discussion and negotiations to them.
As the meeting went on, I pretended that Owen wasn’t casting me way too many looks, just as I pretended that Dane wasn’t watching both me and Owen very closely. If I focused hard enough on the screen of the tablet, I could even pretend I was alone and that their voices were coming over a speakerphone.
I couldn’t help but note that the visitors seemed a little in awe of Dane. It wasn’t unusual. In matters of business, he was brilliant. He was a master at getting to the heart of an issue. When seeking a solution, he never gave up and moved on. No, he rose to every challenge and pushed his goals forward.
What others would think of as a pipe dream he’d make a reality in a few precise, well-executed moves—overcoming any obstacles or setbacks. He was also hell-on-wheels in the boardroom. His reputation as someone who couldn’t be pushed around by competitors was well-earned.
All things considered, I’d expected for it to feel as though the meeting lasted forever, but the time flew by. Soon, people were shaking hands and saying their goodbyes.
Owen gave me another smile. “It was real good seeing you again, Vee.”
“Same to you,” I lied.
Once we were alone, Dane pinned me with those steely eyes. “How well do you know Owen? There’s more to it than you two being childhood friends. He made you uncomfortable. Why?”
Ugh. “We were engaged for five months when we were teenagers. It was a little awkward to see him again after all this time, that’s all. Not that I’d expect you to understand, Mr. Dauntless. Has anyone ever made you feel uncomfortable?”
“No.” He grabbed the door handle. “You and I need to talk later.”
“Sounds ominous. Are you going to fire me?”
“Is there a reason I should fire you?”
A memory of me earlier flipping off his brother flashed in my mind. “Probably.”
The corner of his mouth almost twitched. “Your job is safe. For now.”
CHAPTER TWO

Later that day, I parked in the lot outside my apartment building and switched off the engine. It wasn’t a very well-lit parking area, so I was glad that dusk hadn’t yet completely fallen. There were many times I’d needed to stay late at the office to help Dane with one thing or another, so I often didn’t make it home until it was super dark.
Slipping out of my car, I locked it with the remote fob and then dug the can of pepper spray out of my bag. It was only a short walk to my building, but a girl could never be too careful.
Crossing the crack-ridden pavement, I glanced around. There was no one hovering about. All I could hear were my heels clacking on the ground and the sounds of street traffic.
Reaching the footpath that led to the main entrance, I neatly sidestepped the cans, wrappers, and crinkled flyers that littered the ground near the overflowing trash can.
I could afford to live in a nicer neighborhood, I just preferred being near my family. Especially my father, Simon.
Inside the building, I took the elevator up to my floor and headed into my apartment. There, I tossed my coat on the back of the armchair and slipped off my shoes. After changing into my sweats, I shuffled into the kitchen and sighed at the sound of raised voices coming from next door. The walls of my apartment were annoyingly thin, so it was unfortunate that I had neighbors who screamed at each other loud enough to wake the dead.
They were actually super nice people. Ashley was a hoot and had become a close friend. Her boyfriend, Tucker, was one big teddy bear who was impossible to dislike. But when they argued, they argued. Ashley would always storm out, and she’d always come knocking on my door to complain about whatever he’d done.
At least the argument hadn’t started until after I’d finished my bath. I’d needed the quiet time to wind down and relax before dinner.
Too tired to cook, I dug a microwavable mac and cheese meal out of the freezer. It might not be terribly healthy, but the meal would suit me just fine.
As I closed the freezer door, I almost knocked down one of the drawings I’d attached to it with magnets. I gently skimmed my fingers over the sheet of paper. There were five stick figures beneath which Freddie had written the names Maggie, Simon, Freddie, Vienna, and Deacon in his childish scrawl. The first four figures stood together, but the fifth stood alone—Deacon always did.
My heart squeezed. I wished I could do more to help them, particularly Simon, but I didn’t have that power. And I damn well hated that.
Once my meal was ready, I sat at my small dining table and dug into my mac and cheese. My neighbors, sadly, continued to row. And said row got louder and louder.
I closed my eyes, wishing for silence, knowing from experience that it could always be worse. This area of Redwater City, Florida might not be glamorous, but it was nicer than most. My building was secure and stable. Although my apartment was small and cramped, it was clean and well-maintained … unlike the one I’d lived in as a child.
I could still remember the smells of stale air, spoiled food, cigarette smoke, and body odor that greeted me each morning. I could remember the taste of rusty water. Could remember how hot it would get when the air conditioning failed to switch on. Could remember the dirty dishware in the sink, the piles of unwashed laundry, and the rats … God, the rats.
More, I could remember the burn of a palm slapping my face so hard it felt like my eye exploded. I could remember hands shoving me hard, feet kicking my legs or ribs, and fingertips digging into my jaw as my mother screamed in my face. It would have been a relief that she left if my entire world hadn’t then imploded. But I was grateful that I’d been fostered by Melinda and Wyatt—who’d always supported my contact with my father—even if my early years with them hadn’t been smooth sailing.
A door banged shut as the arguing cut off abruptly. Moments later, knuckles rapped hard on my front door. I pushed out of my chair, left the tiny kitchen, and crossed the equally small living area. I opened the front door, and Ashley marched inside.
“That man thinks he can lie to me and get away with it,” fumed Ashley, a flush staining her dark skin. “Nu-uh. Not as long as I’ve got a hole in my ass.”
My mouth twitching, I followed her into the kitchen. She looked about to make herself some coffee, but then she spotted the mac and cheese. “Smells good.” She sat at the table. “You done with this?” she asked, helping herself to the food.
I smiled. “I am now.” Taking the chair opposite her, I tilted my head. “So, what happened?”
Ashley shoved a forkful of food into her mouth. “I dreamed he cheated on me.”
I waited for her to expand. She didn’t. “Okay.”
“I told him about it. He said he’d never do that. But he blinked when he said it.”
I would have chuckled if she didn’t look so serious. “I don’t think he’d ever cheat on you. He loves you.” The guy worshipped her, and Ashley absolutely adored him in return. She might have a harder shell than he did, but she was a softie on the inside.
Ashley sniffed. “Hmm. He liked some bitch’s photo on social media. When I confronted him, he accused me of cyberstalking him. Like I even have time to monitor his lying ass. He shouldn’t have a problem with me logging into his account from time to time either. How is that a problem?”
“He’s probably just hurt that you don’t trust him.”
“I trust him with my life. I just don’t trust that he’s not doing stupid shit online. Heaven knows he does it at home. He keeps denying that he turned the thermostat up. Like I can’t see he did it.”
Another knock came at the front door—this one gentler. “That’s probably him,” I said, pushing to my feet.
Ashley straightened in her seat and pasted an aloof look on her face. “Probably.” But she didn’t rise from the table.
I left the kitchen and made my way to the door. Opening it wide, I smiled at Tucker. The guy was at least six foot seven and built like a linebacker, but he was a gentle giant.
“Hi, Vienna,” he greeted, polite as ever.
“Hey, Tucker.”
“Is Ashley here?”
“She is. Come in.” I closed the door once he’d stepped inside. “She’s in the kitchen.”
He thanked me and then headed to the kitchen, closing the door behind him. I sat on the sofa in the living room to give them some privacy. I could hear their muffled voices talking curtly, but then those voices softened. I had to smile. They reminded me a little of Melinda and Wyatt. My foster parents argued over the weirdest stuff sometimes, but they were a tight and happy couple.
My intercom buzzed. I frowned. Apparently, I was a popular girl today.
I headed to the wall-mounted control panel and jabbed the intercom button. “Hello?” I said into the microphone.
“It’s me,” rumbled a deep, distinctive voice that seemed to vibrate with testosterone.
I almost jerked back in surprise. Not once in the four years I’d worked for Dane had he ever come to my home. Ever. So, yeah, this was new.
“We need to talk,” he quickly added.
Yeah, he’d informed me of that earlier, but I hadn’t realized he’d meant we’d do it here. He’d left o-Verve at 4 p.m. and still hadn’t returned by 6 p.m. Figuring that we could postpone the discussion until tomorrow, I hadn’t lingered at the office.
Curious about what was so important that it couldn’t wait, I pressed the button that would unlock the main door to the complex. It wasn’t long before he arrived at my apartment. Spying him through the peephole, I opened the door.
“Dane,” I greeted simply, ignoring how my feminine parts woke right up and did a cheer. It wasn’t fair that this attraction I felt toward him was so damn unrelenting. I was too susceptible to him. Too helpless against the one-way chemistry that wouldn’t back the hell down.
I’d read once that chemistry couldn’t possibly be one-sided, but my situation was evidence that theory was complete bullshit. The undeniable, inexplicable force always pulsed in the air around me whenever I was near him; always made my nerve-endings tingle and my body feel so very aware. But it was abundantly clear that my boss was totally unaffected.
His eyes drifted over me, and I was suddenly unbearably conscious that I was dressed in my sweats with my hair tied up in an unruly knot. He’d never seen me in anything other than business attire, and I always styled my hair into a sleek, professional bun for work.
I stepped aside, allowing him to enter. His all-knowing eyes swept over our surroundings, and I fought a blush. At work, I was hyper-organized. At home? Not so much. Probably because I needed a little break from being hyper-organized throughout the majority of the day. I kept my home super clean, but no matter how many times I decluttered, I never managed to keep everything in their designated places.
Piles of unopened mail, books, and papers were untidily stacked on the coffee table. Change, receipts, and stray cosmetic items littered the fireplace mantel. Jackets had been tossed over the back of the armchair. My e-reader, blanket, and a half-eaten box of chocolates had been slung on one side of the sofa.
Dane took it all in and then lifted a brow at me.
I shrugged. “I was playing a game of Jumanji—it tends to get messy. So, why are you here? Is something wrong?”
Just then, my neighbors came strolling out of the kitchen hand in hand. They both halted at the sight of Dane. Tucker seemed to stand a little taller—he often did when men sniffed around me, like the protective big brother I’d never wanted.
“Dane, these are my friends and neighbors, Ashley and Tucker. Guys, this is my boss, Dane Davenport.”
Tucker inclined his head, even as he narrowed his eyes. “Good to meet you.”
Ashley fanned her face. “Vienna didn’t tell me you were hot.”
Tucker glared at his girlfriend. “I’m right here.”
“It was just an observation.” Ashley smiled at me and wagged her fingers. “See you tomorrow, Vienna. Bye now, Dane.”
He didn’t respond, but I said my goodbyes and then locked the door shut behind them.
“You have coffee?” Dane asked when I turned to face him.
“Sure.” I padded into the kitchen, conscious that he was close behind me. He settled at the table while I cleared its surface and then prepared our drinks. Once I’d set our coffees down, I took the chair opposite him. He was looking at the drawings on my fridge.
Before he could ask about them, I prompted, “So, you came here because …?”
He slid his mug closer to him. “I have news.”
“News?”
“I’m getting married.”
My stomach plummeted and twisted painfully. A horrible pressure began to build in my chest, and I swallowed hard. “Really? Well, congrats.” God, that couldn’t have sounded faker. “I didn’t realize you were seeing anyone.”
“I’m not.”
I felt my eyebrows squish together. “I don’t understand.”
“My paternal uncle was a very rich man who’d made a wide range of very lucrative investments. Hugh set up trust funds for me and my two brothers. He left each of us stocks, shares, money, properties, and even art. But there’s a clause. Like my brothers, I can’t access the trust fund … until I’m married.”
“But, why?”
Dane sipped his coffee. “Hugh never married. He was all about work. And it wasn’t until later in life that he regretted it. He used to ask me what the point was in him having such a massive home when there was only him to live in it. The closest thing he had to children of his own was my brothers and me. He encouraged us to work hard and be successful but to not neglect our personal lives. He didn’t want us to make the same mistakes that he did.”
“Hence the clause.”
“Yes. There’s also another snag. If by the time I reach the age of thirty-eight I’m not married, the assets in my trust fund will be divided between my brothers.”
Which, essentially, pressured him to do as his uncle wished. “Wow. He really wanted you guys to get married.”
“More, he wanted to ensure that we didn’t wait until late in our lives before we found someone to share that life with. It worked with Travis and Kent. They both married young.”
“Is it normal for people to attach conditions to trust funds?”
“It’s not uncommon. I know someone who couldn’t access theirs unless they married someone of a certain religion. Hugh wasn’t so much fussed about who we married as he was about when we married.”
“You’re thirty-seven now,” I recalled.
“Yes. And I’m no more interested in marriage now than I ever have been. I don’t even have any interest in a relationship.”
“So you’re getting married purely to gain access to your trust fund?”
Dane shrugged. “There are more fickle reasons to get married. It’s not about the money, Vienna. Hugh left me things that have sentimental value to me. They’re mine. And I don’t like the idea of any of the assets ending up in Travis’s hands. He’d gamble most of them away, and his wife, Hope, would squander the rest. Kent said he’d hand me his share since it’s rightfully mine, but I can’t be sure he truly would.”
I nodded. “Okay. I get it.” And it wasn’t my stuff, so I wasn’t in a position to say what the best way would be to deal with the situation, was I?
Watching me closely, Dane lifted his mug and took another sip of his coffee. “I want you to do something for me.”
If he asked me to pick out wedding invitations or something, I so wouldn’t be pleased. I could support him getting married, but I still didn’t like the idea of him shacked up with someone else. Apparently, my measly crush hadn’t been so measly after all. “What?”
“Marry me.”

© Suzanne Wright

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