The gun pressed into the center of Claire Kramer’s forehead. She didn’t move, not an inch, too afraid to even breathe as she knelt in the middle of the old, rickety wooden dock.
It was her grandfather’s dock. Her grandfather’s fishing cabin. Her haven.
She should have been safe there. Instead, it seemed she was about to die there.
“Why did you leave me, Claire?” Ethan Harrison asked her as he held that gun to her head. “Why?”
Her gaze darted to the right. His bright, red sports car gleamed in the nearby parking lot, sticking out like a sore thumb.
Please, please, someone notice that car. You have to see it. But there just weren’t any people out then. No one was there to help her. If someone would just pull into the lot. If someone would just come—
“I love you, Claire,” Ethan whispered, his voice actually sounding sad as he stared down at her with his soulful green gaze. “You know that.”
Claire was sixteen, but she still knew that love didn’t involve a gun. It also didn’t involve hitting, punching, hurting. Her parents had wanted her away from Ethan. She’d wanted away from him.
But in Alabama, escaping from a Harrison wasn’t exactly easy. The cops hadn’t believed her story about Ethan’s attacks. His daddy was a state senator. Ethan was old money. Power.
And she…she was the girl kneeling on the dock, with a gun to her head.
My family believed me. She’d been trying to get her parents on the phone just moments before Ethan had surprised her. He shouldn’t have been able to find her. Only her parents, her sister, and her grandfather knew she was at the little cabin on the water.
“Why did you leave?” Not a whisper this time, but a bellow.
Claire flinched. Her hands were twisted behind her, her fingers fisted, and her nails sank deep into her own palms. “I-it was over, Ethan. You said you-you didn’t want me anymore.”
The sunlight glinted off his blond hair. “I will always want you, Claire.” Ethan never eased his grip on the gun. “You’re my one and only.”
My one and only.
“You shouldn’t have run. Never run again, understand? Because I can find you anywhere, Claire.”
A tear leaked down her cheek. “Don’t hurt me.” She was begging. She knew it. “Please, don’t. Please.”
He smiled. Once, that wide grin had made her heart melt in her chest. Now it just made her body ice with fear.
“I like it when you beg me, Claire.”
She knew he did.
She also knew that he liked to hurt her.
This isn’t the way love is supposed to be.
She’d seen her parents together. Her dad loved her mother so much. He would never hurt her mom. But Ethan wasn’t like Claire’s father.
Claire still had the bruises from Ethan’s last attack on her skin.
Ethan exhaled slowly. “Begging won’t work this time. You shouldn’t have left. You knew that you belonged to me.”
No, I don’t. Claire shook her head.
His handsome face twisted with fury. “You’re mine!”
And he pulled the trigger.
Claire screamed. The frantic cry burst from her throat as her eyes instinctively squeezed shut. She knew that she was dead. She’d never see her parents again. Never see her sister, Sara. She’d never do anything but—
He was laughing at her.
I’m still alive.
Her eyes opened. More tears coursed down her cheeks.
“Oh, Claire, I forgot to mention…I already used the bullets that were in this gun.”
The chill on her skin got worse. So much worse.
He glanced toward the phone that had fallen from her fingers when he’d surprised her before. The phone sat on the edge of the dock. “You were trying to call your parents, right? Sorry, sweetheart, but they’ll never be answering you again.”
I already used the bullets that were in this gun.
He pulled the gun away from her head. Numb, she could only kneel there and gaze helplessly up at him.
Ethan tucked the gun into the back of his jeans. Then his head tilted to the right as he studied her. His hair fell loosely over his forehead. The good-looking college boy. The heart breaker. “You have a choice,” he told her flatly as that good-looking veneer twisted with rage. “You can be mine, or you can be dead. Because I swear…you will never leave me for another.”
She hadn’t been leaving him for another boy. She’d been afraid of him, and she’d fled. For her own survival. “I-I didn’t—”
Claire couldn’t say any more. His hands were at her throat. Squeezing so tightly. “Mine or dead, Claire. Mine. Or. Dead.”
Her fingers flew up. Her nails clawed at his skin.
He jerked her, twisting her body, and hauling her down the dock with his fierce grip on her throat.
He was going to take her away. This was the end for her. No matter how hard she fought, Claire couldn’t break free. Her throat hurt so much—
A gunshot rang out. The bullet sank into Ethan’s thigh, just a few inches away from Claire’s face. Blood sprayed onto her.
Ethan screamed and he let her go.
Claire jumped to her feet. She ran for the end of the dock even as Ethan bellowed her name. She didn’t stop. Faster, faster.
Then she saw them. Men in uniform who were coming from the woods near the small parking lot. Their badges gleamed. They had their weapons out.
“Keep my boy alive!” That shout, it was familiar. Her gaze whipped to the left, and she saw Senator Colby Harrison standing behind a uniformed officer—that officer had a rifle in his hands.
“Claire, it’s okay now.” The sheriff came toward her. Jim Brady’s face was lined with concern. “We’ve got you.”
Jim hadn’t believed her when she’d tried to press charges against Ethan. But…but the deputies were all there. They all had to believe her now.
I already used the bullets…
Claire grabbed Sheriff Brady’s shirt-front, clenching it beneath her fists. “My…my parents…”
Other deputies rushed past her. They raced toward the dock. Toward a still-screaming Ethan.
Sorrow flashed on Sheriff Brady’s face. “Claire, I’m so sorry…”
No, no. Her body started shaking. “I-I need to call my mom.”
Sheriff Brady shook his head.
“I have to call my mom!” Now she was screaming.
Sheriff Brady wrapped his arms around her. “They’re gone, Claire. He…he got to them first.”
And at that moment, Claire broke.
I can do this.
Claire Kramer stared up at the tall, imposing lines of York Towers. The building seemed to touch the sky, and windows—far too many to count—gleamed as they reflected the bright sunlight back on her. The Towers were located in the heart of New York, and the streets were packed with people.
So many people. Their bodies brushed against her as they passed her on the sidewalk.
Claire took a deep breath. That breath was supposed to fortify her. She’d come this far. She had to go inside the building. It wasn’t like she had much of a choice at this point.
Her savings were gone. Her apartment—um, she didn’t have one. She had nothing but a hotel stay that would last for two more nights.
She was desperate, and desperate times sure called for desperate measures.
After one more glance up at York Towers, Claire straightened her shoulders. She smoothed down her jacket for what had to be the tenth time. Fall had hit the city, and the brisk air chilled her skin. Or maybe that chill just came from the fear she felt. What if he doesn’t help me?
Going to York Towers…it was her last option.
So do this. With her chin up, Claire approached the entrance to the hotel.
The rich and famous usually stayed in places like this one. Claire wasn’t rich, and she sure wasn’t famous.
Just infamous back home.
But New York was a long, long way from Fairview, Alabama. No one knew her in this city. No one but Noah York. The man who was York Towers. Young, dynamic, mysterious…Noah York was a powerhouse in this city and around the world. He had dozens of luxury hotels and getaways.
He was also the sexiest man Claire had ever met. That sexiness made him dangerous. The last time Claire had fallen for a good-looking, rich boy, she’d lost everything.
This time, I have nothing to lose.
A doorman hurried to open the door for her. He tipped his hat, a friendly smile on his face. Claire found herself nervously smiling back. She’d worked in plenty of other hotels during the last few years. It wasn’t as if she was totally out of her element.
She’d seen gleaming marble floors before. She’d seen other lobbies filled with complimentary welcome champagne and roses.
It was just that…this was Noah’s hotel. And Noah made Claire very nervous.
She headed toward the concierge desk. The woman there immediately stood to greet her. “May I help you?” she asked. Her ID listed her name as Janelle.
Claire cleared her throat. “I’m here to see Noah York. My name’s Claire—”
The woman’s brown eyes lit with curiosity. “Of course! Mr. York told me that you’d be here for a meeting this morning.”
Because she’d broken down and called him last night. She and Noah had met a few months ago. They’d both been caught in a terrible nightmare in Chicago. She’d been stabbed. He’d been shot.
They’d both survived.
Sometimes, Claire felt like that survival had linked them. Or maybe it was just the odd, instinctive awareness that she’d felt for Noah since the first moment that they’d met. When he was close, Claire was hyper-aware of the man.
An elevator dinged behind her. She heard the doors slide open.
And goosebumps rose on Claire’s arms.
Instinctive awareness. Almost like prey, sensing danger.
Claire glanced over her shoulder. Sure enough, Noah strode from the elevator. His golden eyes were locked on her. Such unusual eyes—they reminded her of a lion’s. Noah was certainly a top notch predator, both in the boardroom and, judging by the gossip columns, in his personal life.
As she turned to fully face him, Noah smiled, a flash of his perfect, white teeth, and his steps quickened as he approached her. “Claire, you’re late,” he chided as he closed in.
She shook her head. “I…it’s only nine.”
“Five minutes after nine.” He raised one dark brow. “And here I thought you’d be more punctual.”
Oh, crap. What a way to begin a job interview. Claire felt her cheeks sting with embarrassment. How did she go about explaining that she’d actually been outside of the hotel for thirty minutes? She’d just been trying to work up the courage to step inside the place.
Noah scares me.
Her gaze drifted over his face. He was too handsome. Handsome men were dangerous. That was rule one in her book.
Rule two went something like…Never trust handsome men.
And Claire didn’t trust Noah. The man was too much of a mystery for trust to enter the equation. But then, Claire didn’t actually trust anyone. Not completely.
Noah’s cheekbones were high, sharp slashes. His nose was straight and strong. His jaw was perfectly square. His lips appeared hard but sensual. His hair was midnight black and his eyes—
They were like a lion’s. A deep, beautiful gold.
Those eyes seemed to be looking right into Claire’s soul then.
Nervously, she pulled at the sleeves of her jacket, making sure they covered her wrists. Then she stopped, catching herself.
Noah reached for her hand. “Come along, Claire.” He nodded to the concierge. “Morning, Janelle.”
“Sir…” Janelle said, giving a quick nod.
Then Noah pulled Claire toward the elevator. A private elevator, she noted, because he had to use a keycard to get the control panel to function. Once they were inside, he pressed the button for the top floor.
She knew that floor would house the main luxury suites.
The elevator doors closed, and they were sealed inside. The space seemed far too small to her, or maybe Noah was just too big. His broad shoulders stretched the tailored suit that he wore, and the guy had to be at least six foot two, maybe six foot three. A raw power clung to him.
Claire inched back a bit.
Her gaze flew to meet his.
Noah shook his head. “You have nothing to fear from me, Claire.” He smiled at her. “Besides, from what I remember, you’re pretty strong in your own right.”
She blushed. Again. She couldn’t help it that she had the annoying skin type that flushed way too much. No, she couldn’t help it, but she could hate it. “I was…” Claire cleared her throat. “I didn’t know who you were then.” When a strange man appeared out of seemingly nowhere and came at her, Claire’s immediate instinct had been to attack. She hadn’t wasted moment on questions. Instead, she’d gone in fighting.
These days, Claire knew it was better to be safe—
“And to think,” he murmured as he advanced in that little space, “you look so…deceptively delicate.”
Claire was tall, about five foot ten, but she still had to tilt her head back a bit to keep meeting his stare. “Appearances are always deceiving.” She’d learned that lesson at sixteen.
His mouth hitched into a half-smile. A smile that made her heart race too quickly. He was definitely a handsome bastard, she’d give him that. And the fact that he could make her heart jump so easily—
That tells me to be careful with him. So careful. The last time she’d fallen for a man with a heart-jumping smile, she’d nearly paid for that mistake with her life.
“You remembered my offer,” Noah murmured.
How could she forget?
The last time that she’d seen Noah York, Claire had been at her sister’s funeral. Grief had nearly choked her as she stared down at Sara’s coffin. Noah had been there. Right at Claire’s side. I want to help you. His words whispered through her mind. He’d slipped his card into her hand. I owe you. I owe your sister. If you ever need me, I’m a phone call away.
When the funeral had ended, Claire hadn’t stayed around to talk with Noah or any of the others at that gut-wrenching graveside. She’d run away from them all. Claire had gotten good at running.
But there was nowhere to run now. She needed him. A week ago, she’d lost the job that she’d counted on, and Claire had forced herself to come to Noah. Even though he scared her.
“My, what big eyes you have,” he murmured. His smile slowly faded as he searched her gaze. “I’ve never seen anyone with eyes quite like yours. That deep blue is really quite incredible.”
Her lashes lowered, hiding the blue in question. She found herself staring at his throat. At his tie. At anything but—
His fingers slipped under her chin. Claire jerked at the contact and tried to back away from him.
Her elbow rammed into the wall of the elevator.
“I don’t…I don’t like to be touched.” The words were sharp. They were also true.
But she hadn’t jerked away from Noah because the press of his fingers brought the usual cold fear.
She’d backed away because his touch had scorched her.
“It’s a pity,” he told her as his hand dropped back to his side. “Because I think that I could enjoy touching you.”
The elevator had stopped. She just realized that. How long had it been still? “Ah, why aren’t the doors opening?”
He glanced at the control panel. “Because I haven’t opened them.”
So he wanted the two of them to be trapped together in that elevator?
“Are you afraid of small spaces?” Noah asked her suddenly.
Claire shook her head.
“Good to know.” He inclined his head. “I’m making a list, you see.”
She was totally lost. “A list?”
He pressed a code into the control panel. The doors opened seconds later. “I’m finding out what scares you. What you like. What you don’t like.”
She hurried from the elevator, but then hesitated on the lush carpet in the hallway. “Why does any of that matter to you?”
He shrugged. “Because it does.”
Talk about an incredibly vague answer.
“We’re almost to my suite.” He headed down the hallway.
Claire didn’t follow. “I’d expected that we’d meet in your office.” Not in his suite. If she hadn’t been so nervous on that elevator, she would have brought up this point sooner.
Noah glanced over his shoulder at her. “I can get the best privacy in my personal suite.”
They were having the meeting in his personal suite? The breath that she sucked in felt icy, but Claire soldiered on. Noah opened the suite door for her. She slipped past him, casting a quick glance up at the chandelier that hung in the entrance way. The huge chandelier gleamed, casting light all over the massive foyer of the suite. A suite that is way bigger than the home my family used to have down in Alabama.
Noah shut the door behind her.
“Do you always have business meetings in your suite?” She asked him, not buying the privacy line for a minute.
“I didn’t know we were going to talk just business.” He slid by her. Not touching, but close. He headed into the next room. She did, too, then momentarily lost her breath at the stunning view she discovered. The New York skyline was spread out before her, on perfect display thanks to the floor to ceiling windows that lined the wall. Just to the right of that wall, Claire saw a glass door that led out onto a balcony area. When she’d been staring up at the hotel, she hadn’t even noticed the balcony. She glanced back at Noah. He was watching her.
Noah motioned toward the windows and said, “I saw you.”
Her shoulders tensed.
“You stayed across the street for so long. I was wondering when you’d get the courage to come to me.”
She crossed to the windows. Stared down. They were up so high. “How could you see me clearly?”
“When it comes to you, Claire, I can see plenty.”
Now she looked back over her shoulder at him.
“Want a drink?” he asked her.
“No, I want a job.” Okay, those words had just blurted out. She’d meant to broach the subject of her employment in a much more elegant way. She was sure that had been her plan. But when she got nervous, elegance tended to vanish from her repertoire.
Noah crossed his arms over his chest. “That’s a problem.”
Oh, damn. She’d had such high hopes. Keep your pride, Claire. It’s all you have. Her chin notched up. “It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Just something temporary. You’ve got dozens of hotels, I’m sure that you can—”
“I don’t fuck with my employees.”
Wait, what? Her jaw dropped.
“And I very much want to have sex with you.”
She shook her head. Claire wasn’t sure if she was denying his words or just—“You didn’t just say that to me.”
His lips quirked. Amusement flashed in the depths of his golden eyes. “I assure you, I did. I believe in honesty.”
She didn’t know what to say. “I’m not…” Okay, this was getting way past her control. “I’m not here for sex. I’m here for a job.”
“Do you feel it?” Noah asked as his gaze seemed to heat with emotion. “Or is it just me?”
“Is what just you?” Claire whispered.
“I look at you, and my whole body burns. I want you naked. I want you screaming. I want to see pleasure make your eyes flash even brighter.”
Her breath came faster. Rougher.
“So I wondered if that was just me. Is the arousal all on my side? The attraction?” His gaze dipped to her mouth. “Or do you feel it, too?”
I feel it. But Claire had rules. So many rules. She licked her lips. Saw the gold in his eyes go molten. “I’m not…I’m not interested in having sex with you.”
His dark brows rose. “Are you very sure about that?”
No. Yes. Claire hadn’t taken a lover in years.
Nine years, to be exact.
Not since she’d learned how dangerous a lover could be. She pulled at the left sleeve of her jacket. “Sex won’t be an issue.” Claire cleared her throat. “I need the job. You said that you owed me.” She didn’t actually think that he did owe her. He certainly hadn’t caused her injury in Chicago, but in that desperate moment, she’d try to play on any sense of debt that he might feel. “I-I need the job.”
He took a slow step toward her.
“Please,” she said, truly desperate and—
A flash of anger crossed his face. In the next instant, Noah was right in front of her. “Don’t ever do that.”
Do what? Lost, she could only shake her head.
“You don’t have to beg me for anything. Remember that.” His hands lifted, then his fingers fisted as if he were trying to resist the urge to touch her. “If you want a job with me, it’s yours.”
Her breath expelled in a relieved burst. “Thank you.”
“I don’t want your gratitude.” His eyes still burned. “I want you, and that wanting isn’t just going to stop.”
She could actually feel the heat from his body. It warmed her when she’d been cold for so long.
“But I meant what I said,” Noah continued, his voice deep and rumbling. “I don’t fuck with my employees.”
“Y-you won’t be f-fucking with me.”
His lips thinned. “We’ll see. I don’t want you to beg, I think I was pretty clear about that…you should never have to beg for anything. But I will wait and let you ask me to be your lover.”
That shocked her. “It’s not happening.”
“We’ll see.” He turned away from her. Paced toward a desk that waited in the corner. “You graduated at the top of your class at Washington State University. Received a Bachelor’s degree in Business Management, then got your MBA.”
He’d checked her out?
“But you’ve barely stayed at any job longer than six months since you got your MBA.” His fingers tapped lightly on the edge of the desk. “Why is that?”
“Because my past keeps catching up with me.” And she did not, could not, talk about her past then. She’d lost her last job because her boss found out about her.
Noah’s expression hardened. “Are you in danger, Claire?” A new note had entered his voice. Rougher. Harder.
A shiver slid over her. “No.” Not any longer. At least, she shouldn’t be. She cleared her throat. “I have…a powerful enemy. He likes to punish me, so he tends to make sure I don’t exactly have the best employment prospects.” Please, please, Noah, just accept what I say and don’t ask any other questions.
Her gaze dropped to the manila file on his desk. Understanding hit her hard and had Claire backing up a step. If he’d learned about her college, then… “You already know.”
His shoulders tensed as he straightened to fully face her.
“You know everything that happened to me, don’t you?” And she hated that. Claire rarely talked about her past. It hurt too much. For Noah to know. For this sexy, strong man to know all her dark secrets—
The knowledge of her exposure to him just made her feel weak. Too exposed.
He held her gaze. “I know you’re a survivor, and that’s all that matters to me.”
She blinked quickly because, for some reason, his words had her eyes tearing. Claire would not cry in front of him. She didn’t cry in front of anyone.
“I don’t really give a shit how powerful the enemy from your past is,” he continued, voice deep, “because I’m pretty sure I’ve got just as much…if not more…power.”
Claire thought he did, too. That was why she’d come to him. If anyone could stand up to the man after her, it would be Noah. “I just want a chance.”
Noah inclined his head. “Like I said, I’ll give you a job.”
Her shoulders slumped. The relief that hit her then was so dizzying she felt a little light-headed for a minute. The last nine years had been so hard. And with her sister’s death just a few months before…the demons that chased Claire seemed to have just grown stronger.
“I know I have to start at the bottom,” Claire said, her words coming fast now, “and that’s fine. You just tell me who to report to, and I’ll—”
“You’ll report to me, Claire. Only me.”
Her lips parted. “But—”
“I need an assistant, and you just got the job.”
That was…wow. “I can do it,” she promised him. “I’ll prove that I can—”
“I already know you can do it.” He tilted his head as he studied her. “But you should be aware that we’ll have to work very closely together. My hours are crazy, and I’ll expect you to be at my beck and call pretty much twenty-four, seven.”
She nodded. She had no social life, so that was a done deal.
“Where are you staying?” Noah asked.
“The Hamlet, over on—”
“It’s a dump, Claire.” The anger was back on his face and in his voice. “A man was shot there last week.”
And two men had been arrested there last night. But when you were trying to save every bit of money you had, well, you didn’t have the luxury of being choosy about your hotel.
His jaw locked. “I’ll make sure you have a room available here at the Towers.”
A muscle flexed in his jaw. “You aren’t staying there any longer.”
“What will the other staff members think?” Claire asked as she shifted her feet nervously. “If I just move in here, even if it’s just for a few days, they’ll talk.”
“There’s nothing to talk about. Other staff members stay here.” He waved that concern away. “Like I told you, I don’t sleep with my employees. No one will think anything of your sleeping accommodations at the Towers.”
Right. Claire nodded and sighed in relief. “Th-thank you, Noah. I won’t forget this.” Claire squared her shoulders. She walked toward him. Offered her hand.
He stared down at her hand for a moment, then his fingers curled around hers. His hand was so big that it seemed to swallow her own. His flesh was golden, warm, and at that touch—a touch she’d instigated—a surge of sensual awareness flooded through her.
Just from his hand? Such a simple touch…
“And we will get to this part,” he murmured as his fingers tightened around hers. “Then you’ll have to choose…if you want to keep working for me or if you want to fuck me.”
He had Claire Kramer, and he wasn’t letting her go.
Noah York was used to getting what he wanted in life, and for the last few months, he’d wanted her.
Noah led Claire to the room he’d arranged for her. She probably didn’t know that he’d had that room—a suite also on the same floor with his—cleared out when he’d gotten her call. He and Claire now occupied the only two suites on that floor.
He needed her close. He’d have her close.
And, eventually, he would get exactly what he wanted from her.
He’d watched her that morning as she stood outside, the wind sending her blonde hair flying around her shoulders. He’d been afraid that Claire wasn’t going to walk into his hotel.
Come to me, Claire. Come to me.
Then she had.
He opened the door to her suite. Heard her soft gasp. Good. That sound better mean she liked the place.
“There is no way I can afford this!” Claire turned in a circle as her eyes swept around the suite. “Give me another room. This hotel is huge, just put me—”
“I need my assistant nearby,” he said smoothly. “I do business at all hours, just like I told you. This floor is reserved for me and my associates.” A partial lie. “If you’re going to work for me,” Noah added, “you really do need to start learning how to follow my orders.”
She bit her lower lip. That lip was sexy and full, and he’d like to be the one biting it.
“Staying close is an order,” he told her as his stare swept over her once more.
In the past, he’d gone more for the dark-haired beauties. But Claire—Claire with her blonde hair and blue eyes—she was different for him. Her heart-shaped face kept catching his gaze. Those high cheeks, that small nose. When the light hit her hair just right, she almost looked like an angel.
One who’d fallen so very far.
Claire had lush curves that he couldn’t wait to explore. Rounded hips and tempting breasts that he knew would be perfect for his hands.
But not yet.
Because Claire still feared him. He had to work past that fear.
“I’ll get your things brought over from the Hamlet,” he told her, aware that his voice had hardened. He couldn’t help it. When he thought of Claire and sex, his response was immediate.
“I only have one bag there.” Her shoulders lifted in a faint shrug. “I’ve learned to travel light over the years.”
Because she’d been forced to do so.
Things were going to change for Claire. Noah believed in protecting what was his.
Claire, you don’t know it yet, but you will be mine.
“I don’t need you to get the bag, though,” Claire said as she notched up her chin. “I’m perfectly capable of doing that on my own.” She cast one more nervous glance around the suite. “I’ll…um…I’ll go do that now, and I’ll come back and get settled. That way, I can get started working this afternoon.” Her eyelashes—so long—flickered. “If that’s okay with you?”
“I’ll come with you to the Hamlet.” He wasn’t ready to let her out of his sight yet. The last time he’d done that, when he’d thought she might want a little time to grieve privately in Chicago, Claire had vanished.
It had taken him weeks to track her down. Claire had a talent for disappearing. He wasn’t about to let her use that talent again.
Instead of arguing with him, Claire surprised him then. She smiled.
Claire’s smile was slow, beginning with a faint curve of her lips. The smile spread, showing a dimple in each cheek. He’d never noticed those dimples before.
Because Claire had never smiled for me before.
And her eyes lit with her smile. Shined even brighter.
“It’s going to be okay now,” she said.
He couldn’t speak. Noah just nodded. Hell, yes, he’d make sure that everything was okay for Claire.
She’d already suffered enough.
Claire wasn’t embarrassed by the sight of the Hamlet Hotel. She’d stayed in far worse places in the course of her life.
Even once, for five terrible months, in a place where her other roommates would scream for hours and hours.
Claire shoved that memory into the back of her mind. All of the memories from Shady Pines deserved to stay back in the darkness.
She rose from the car—Noah’s car, a sleek limo that had been waiting outside of York Towers. She cleared her throat and told him, “You know, this car really doesn’t seem to belong here.”
Noah had exited a few moments before her. He glanced her way. “You don’t belong here. You should’ve come to me as soon as you arrived in New York.”
That statement had her frowning. How did he know when she’d arrived in New York?
He took her elbow. Claire stiffened. “You know I don’t—”
“Like to be touched,” he finished grimly. “Yes, I know, but, Claire, you have to get used to me.” He nodded to his driver. Claire wondered if the hulking guy was also a body guard.
She knew a few secrets about Noah’s past. Enough to tell her that the man hadn’t always worn fancy suits. He knew how to fight.
How to kill.
“We’re getting in and out as fast as we can.” He led her into the building. Growled when he found out that she was on the first floor. “Open access to anyone,” he snapped.
The room had been cheap, so she’d taken it.
They hurried past the desk clerk. Turned the corner and—
Her door was ajar. Room one-oh-four. Claire stopped.
Noah immediately stilled beside her. “What is it?”
Claire shook her head, fighting the surge of fear she’d felt. If she wasn’t careful, Claire found that fear could creep up on her far too often. “I think the maid is in there.”
He advanced. Claire tried to hurry with him, but Noah pushed her behind him.
He entered the room first. His body tensed. “It’s not a damn maid.”
She peered over his shoulder. Her clothes were tossed around the room. They’d been…slashed? Torn apart? “No,” Claire whispered. Dammit, those clothes were all she had! Fury had her shoving past Noah.
He grabbed her and wrapped his arms around her stomach. “Don’t! The bastard could still be in here.” He pushed her back once more. Then he stalked forward. He yanked open the closet. Checked the bathroom.
Claire stood in the doorway. The room was wrecked. The mirror was shattered. Chunks of glass littered the floor. The overturned mattress slumped against the small nightstand.
My things…they’re all—
Her gaze fell on the floor. On the picture frame that had been smashed. Claire rushed forward and grabbed it. Broken glass bit into her fingers.
Her family stared back up at her. Her mom. Claire had her mom’s blonde hair. Her dad. Claire had his blue eyes. Her parents were both smiling. And Claire—Claire was standing next to her sister, Sara.
Claire had been fifteen years old then.
She’d been happy.
Her head snapped up at Noah’s call. Her hold tightened on the frame.
He stalked toward her. “You were supposed to stay in the hall.”
She shook her head. “He’s not here anymore.”
“Dammit, you’re bleeding.”
“It’s just a cut.” Her voice sounded so hollow. “Nothing to-to worry about.”
“Christ, Claire, there’s plenty to worry about. Some asshole broke into your room. Destroyed your things. And now you’re hurt.”
A small wound, nothing more. She’d suffered plenty worse. But he took the frame from her and led her into the matchbox-sized bathroom. He put her hand under the rush of water in the sink. “Here,” Noah said, “let’s push up your sleeves…”
Because she was still so shocked by the savagery in her room, it took Claire a moment too long to react to his words.
He pushed up her sleeves.
Claire glanced down. Saw the white scars on each wrist. “No!” She jerked away from him but Claire knew it was too late. He’d seen those marks. “I’m fine.” Her voice was stronger now. She whirled to face Noah. “I’m fine.”
His gaze held hers.
“I need the frame. The picture.” Her voice was softer now. “Nothing else matters.” It couldn’t matter. It was all gone.
She brushed past him.
“What in the hell happened here?” At that bellow, Claire looked toward the doorway. The Hamlet’s Hotel manager—a man with thinning hair and small, dark eyes—glared at her. “Did you have a party? We don’t allow—”
Noah was across that room in an instant. He grabbed the manager and shoved him up against the thin wall of the room. “Does it look like a damn party?”
The manager’s small eyes got very big.
“Someone broke into her room because the security at your hotel is shit.” Noah’s voice vibrated with fury. “He got in here, and he wrecked Ms. Kramer’s things. If she’d been here, he could have hurt her.”
“I-I know you,” the manager gasped out as his eyes widened with recognition. “You’re Noah York!”
In this town, most people knew him. Or, knew of Noah.
“Call the police,” Noah snarled at him. “Call them now. I’m sure they have this place’s address memorized.” He let the guy go. The man stumbled away.
Noah focused on Claire once more. She held the frame in her hands. He rolled back his shoulders and demanded, “Has this ever happened to you before?”
Having her place trashed? Unfortunately, it had. Claire nodded.
His jaw hardened. “How many times?”
“It hasn’t happened since I lived at home, back in Alabama.” She never let her southern drawl slip out. She’d worked hard to lose her past.
But the past wouldn’t let go.
“At first, people blamed me,” Claire confessed quietly. At first? That was a lie. Claire knew that too many still blamed her for what happened down in Alabama. “The house was trashed a few times back then.” Goosebumps were on her arms. “This—this was just a break-in.” It couldn’t be related to her past. “The thieves must have realized I’d taken my purse, that nothing valuable was left behind, so they trashed the place.”
His eyes glittered.
“It was just a break-in,” Claire repeated, willing herself to believe those words. “Like you said, the police have this address memorized. Crimes happen here all the time.”
“I don’t want you ever coming back here,” he gritted out the words.
She looked around the room. “There’s no reason to come back. Not anymore.” But it looked as if she’d be starting her new job with just the clothes on her back.
And with the memory of her past rushing through her mind.
He watched as the police came. They would find no clues in that dank, little hotel room. Nothing that could be tied back to him.
He never left clues behind.
Claire was there. Broken Claire Kramer. She stood in front of the Hamlet, clutching tight to her photo.
Nothing was left of Claire’s family. They were all bones in the ground. She was alone.
Except…who is that guy with her?
Because there was a man near Claire. A man who let his body brush against hers. A man who wrapped his arms around Claire’s shoulders even as the man seemed to bark orders to the cops.
No, no, no! Claire didn’t get to turn to another. That wasn’t how this worked.
And Claire…Claire didn’t like to be touched.
Only that man was touching her.
That man was also loading Claire into the back of a big, dark limo.
What in the hell?
Rage pulsed within him. He’d made sure that Claire was at the end of her rope. He’d pushed and pushed her. She should have been falling apart then.
Just like she did before.
No white knight was supposed to ride to Claire’s rescue. That damn well wouldn’t happen. Claire Kramer deserved to be punished for her crimes.
And no matter what, he would see to it that she was punished. She’d suffer, just as Claire had made others suffer.
Punishing Claire was his job, and he was very, very good at that job.