“I can’t work with him.” Harper Crane crossed her arms over her chest. “He’s an arrogant, controlling asshole who can’t follow even the simplest of directions and—”
“And I’m standing right here,” Roman Smith cut into her words.
“I am completely aware of that fact.” Harper huffed out a hard breath as she kept her eyes focused on her boss, Eric Wilde. “Assign him to someone else.” Yes, she was nearly pleading. “Anyone else.” Like, there was a whole building full of other agents. One of those unfortunate souls could be assigned as Roman’s training partner. It didn’t have to be her.
Unless, of course, deep down…her boss hated her. And because of that secret hate, Eric was trying to punish her by pairing her up with the way too intense Roman.
“So many other options,” she muttered.
Did Eric’s lips twitch? Harper could have sworn that they did before he carefully stated, “It’s only been one week.”
The longest week of her life. Didn’t he get that? Sometimes, people just did not mesh well. She and Roman were not meshing. At all.
“It takes a while for partnerships to hit their stride,” Eric continued. Was he trying to be encouraging? She was not in the mood for encouragement. “It’s standard for a partnership’s probationary period to last at least six weeks here at Wilde. You know that.”
Yes, she knew it. But she’d truly hoped Eric would bend the rules this one time. It wasn’t as if she’d ever asked the man for a favor before.
“Is this because of the chocolate?” Roman’s low voice rumbled.
Goose bumps rose on her arms. Why did the goose bumps appear so often when he was near? She had no clue. Okay, fine, maybe she had a teeny, tiny clue. Harper whirled away from Eric’s desk and let her glare land on Roman Smith.
Smith. She snorted. As if she bought that was his real last name. The man seemed to wear secrets like some kind of shroud. He never shared any information about himself, and, usually, he replied to all of her questions with one-word answers.
She liked to talk.
She loved to laugh.
Despite her best efforts, the man had not cracked a single smile in the week that they’d been together.
And on the job, she was the senior agent.
But he was the one being bossy as hell. That crap had to stop.
This afternoon, he’d crossed the final line. Gone just too far. Harper had to unclench her teeth as she snapped, “Those chocolates were mine.”
“I can buy you more.” He shrugged.
Wow. For a moment, she was impressed that he’d actually replied with five whole words. Then those words sank in. “They were a gift from a date.”
His dark eyes narrowed. Dark, deep eyes. Ridiculously long lashes. Ridiculously handsome man.
No. Stop. Do not go there. Do not dare.
“You didn’t enjoy the date.” His words were clipped.
Again, five words. A miracle!
But… “How do you know that?” She crossed her arms over her chest. He was right. The blind date from hell had been a disaster. Sean had been handsy and boring, but when the chocolates had arrived, she’d been more than ready to pounce on those babies. She’d earned those delectable goodies by giving up two hours of her life that she would not be getting back. The box had been full of milk chocolate treats. Her absolute favorite. “How do you know I didn’t enjoy the date with Sean? I could’ve had the best time of my life.”
Roman’s head moved in a negative shake. “Heard you talking to your blond friend.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Eavesdropping isn’t polite.”
Wonderful. He was back to one-word replies. “For clarification, just because I didn’t like Sean, it didn’t mean I wasn’t going to love my chocolates. You can’t take stuff from a person’s desk without asking. Partners don’t do that. They don’t eat an entire box of chocolates and then just leave the empty box there like some kind of tease. That’s not cool. Not at all.”
While she’d been talking, Roman had been standing near the closed office door. Lounging with his wide shoulders propped back against the wall. Looking as if he didn’t have a care in the world. But he straightened slowly to his full, rather impressive height. He easily cleared six feet by several inches, and his broad shoulders and chest more than filled out the tight t-shirt that he wore.
A t-shirt and jeans. At the office. And it was a high-end office. Their clients included celebrities, royalty, billionaires. But he wore old, faded jeans.
He looked extremely good in those jeans but…
Roman stalked toward her. Her shoulders stiffened. Then her chin angled up. He was taller than her—way taller. Bigger. But she’d never been one to be intimidated by a person’s size. She could take down men bigger than Roman. Had taken them down before and would again.
Behind her, she heard Eric clear his throat.
Whoops. She’d almost forgotten that her boss had an up-close and personal view of this show as—
Roman stopped right in front of her. “Let me get this straight. You don’t want me to be your partner because you think I ate all of your chocolates.”
“No. I don’t want you to be my partner because you don’t follow directions. I told you to stay behind me when we were rushing into the club. Instead, you grabbed me and pushed me back—”
“I was protecting you.”
Harper snorted. “Yeah, that shit has got to stop.”
“I can protect myself. Senior agent here.” She touched her chest. Then her hand turned and pressed to his chest. His very firm and warm chest. “Junior agent.”
His nostrils flared, then he looked down at her hand.
She probably shouldn’t be touching his chest. Harper could see where that had been a poor life choice. Were her fingers stroking him just a wee bit? Bad fingers. Naughty fingers. She snatched them back.
Eric coughed. Loudly.
Harper glanced over her shoulder at him. “Are you coming down with something?”
He was on his feet. “I think I gave you the wrong impression of Roman.”
“Uh, no, you didn’t. You clearly told me that he was some distant relative that you had to hire—”
“And that I should be extra careful with his training. You said this situation was all new to him and that I should treat him with kid gloves.” Like that didn’t scream green agent in her mind. “Just so you know, those gloves are not working. If he isn’t going to listen to me, if he isn’t going to follow orders, then he’s too dangerous to have in the field.” The real truth. This wasn’t about chocolate or his one-word answers to most of her conversational offerings. It was about safety.
And the fact that…
She knew when she was being lied to.
Harper edged away from Roman and angled her body so that she could see both him and Eric. Oh, yes, she knew when she was being played. She liked her boss. Most days, she admired the hell out of Eric. But he was lying to her. Or, if not flat out lying, then definitely hiding some facts.
Roman was no green agent. She’d watched him. Seen the way he could move silently into a fight. Seen the coldness of his eyes when he attacked prey. Seen the way he attacked.
Kid gloves, my ass.
She also didn’t buy that whole long-lost relative spiel. No, something else was at play. Something that made her uncomfortable.
She’d caught the way Eric sometimes eyed Roman. As if…as if he didn’t quite trust the other man. Is that why I’m really his partner? Am I supposed to be keeping an eye on Roman?
If so, then she needed to know that info. She couldn’t be walking around blindly.
“I’m not inept,” Roman growled.
She rolled one shoulder.
“I can handle myself in any situation.”
“That remains to be seen,” she replied.
Eric’s gaze darted between her and Roman. He slowly exhaled. “I need to speak with Roman alone.”
“What?” Harper demanded. He was supposed to want to talk to her alone. He was supposed to give her the inside scoop and stop leaving her in the dark. She gaped at her boss.
He had the grace to at least look mildly uncomfortable as he reaffirmed, “I need to talk to Roman alone.”
“To go over some rules.” A firm nod from Eric. “It will only take a few moments. Do you mind stepping outside for a bit, Harper?”
“Yes, yes, I mind. I mind a whole super lot.” Her hands flew to her hips. “This is one of the problems with the partnership. Secretiveness. If things are being kept from me, how am I supposed to trust my partner? The person who is supposed to have my back? The man who is supposed to be there to help me in case of an—”
“I’d kill anyone who came for you,” Roman told her. Again, using that dark, deep voice of his.
She believed him. Her gaze flickered toward him. “I don’t need you to kill anyone. I need you to follow orders.”
Roman’s lips—oddly sensual—parted and—
“He will,” Eric assured her. “He absolutely will.”
Roman’s expression said he would not. He absolutely would not.
A knock tapped on the door. A moment later, Eric’s assistant poked his head inside. “The museum manager is here. Tomas wants to go over last-minute details for the gala, and ah…” His gaze darted to Harper. “He’s looking for you.”
Because the gala was her gig. Hers and her new partner’s. Typical security. She could do it in her sleep. But the manager was a worrier, and she kept having to go over details with him. Again and again. Sighing, she said, “Fine. Send Tomas to my office. I’ll be right there.”
He ducked out.
She swept her attention back to Eric. “Get Roman on task.”
Eric’s brows rose.
My bad. She could see where her words had sounded a wee bit too demanding. Or, a lot too demanding. That’s what happens when you don’t get enough chocolate. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and offered Eric a bright smile. “What I meant to say was…I’m sure you will get him on task.”
Right. Okay. She’d pushed plenty for one day. Time to get to work. Even though she would have loved to stay there and hear exactly what Eric had to say to the mysterious Roman, Harper turned and headed out. Duty called.
But with every step she took, Harper could have sworn that she felt Roman’s stare on her. It was weird the way she could always tell when he watched her.
And he watches me a lot.
Almost as much as she watched him.
At the door, Harper paused and peered over her shoulder. She caught Roman staring at her, and for just a moment, as she looked into his eyes, she swore she saw—
All of the moisture dried from her mouth. He stared at her like he wanted to—
He blinked, and the lust was gone. His controlled mask was back in place. No expression at all showed on his face or in his eyes. The change was so complete that Harper wondered if she’d imagined the lust. Because he certainly wasn’t looking at her as if he were desperate to have her any longer.
Yes, she must have imagined that expression. That hunger.
Or maybe you’re projecting. Dammit. So perhaps she did find him sexy. In that tall, gorgeous, and dangerous way of—nope. Harper cut off the thought. Not sexy. Frustrating. Annoying. Not hot.
She yanked open the door. Marched out. She had a job to do.
“So…that went well.”
Roman stiffened at Eric’s mocking words. “No.”
“No? You don’t think that your new partner coming in here and demanding that you be assigned to someone else, you don’t think that’s good?”
Eric sidled around the desk. “I think this is one of the issues.”
Roman lifted his brows.
“You may have noticed…Harper likes to talk.”
Oh, he’d noticed. She liked to talk. Laugh. Smile.
Only she doesn’t smile and laugh with me. She does that crap with everyone else. It was like she sensed who he truly was. When she looked at him, there was caution in her beautiful, green eyes. The faintest trace of…fear.
She knows what I am. He swallowed. “Maybe you should assign me to someone else.”
“No, Harper is great. She’s exactly what you need.”
He would not think about how he could need her in—
“But you have got to follow her rules.”
“There were bullets flying,” Roman gritted out. “I didn’t want her shot so I stepped in front of her.” He’d thought that was a good thing.
“She doesn’t know your background.”
No one knew his full background. Not even Eric. Eric knew bits and pieces, and that was all. Well, maybe not all. Roman tilted his head to the right as he studied Eric. Distant relative. That was what Harper had called him, but she was wrong. They really weren’t that distant at all.
But Roman hadn’t known about Eric’s connection to him, not until recently. When Eric had discovered the truth, he’d offered Roman a job at Wilde. The security and protection firm had a great reputation. Eric had assured Roman that his skills could be put to use at the firm.
Just how much digging has Eric done on my past? It wasn’t wise to dig up certain graves.
“Since she doesn’t know about your…particular skill set,” Eric noted tactfully, “it stands to reason that Harper wants you to be extra careful on cases. She needs to get to know you. Understand your capabilities.”
Roman exhaled on a slow breath. “I’m pretty sure she can’t stand me.”
“You told me—when you offered me this job—you swore that I would love my new partner.”
“Ahem. Most people do love Harper. They find her to be very friendly. Outgoing. Warm. Charming, even.” Eric’s stare swept over Roman. “You’re just not most people.”
No, he wasn’t. Because most people hadn’t been raised by a sadistic psychopath who’d taught them not to trust others and to be as ruthless and dangerous as possible. Harper was like a bright light, flitting around from person to person in the company while he was…
Yeah, not. “What are her qualifications?”
“Harper has…” Eric winced. “A very unique background.”
Eric didn’t offer more.
“That’s not helpful,” Roman told him.
“If I can’t tell her about your past, then how is it fair for me to tell you about hers?”
Okay, shit, that actually made sense.
Eric tapped his fingers on the edge of the desk. “When the two of you build trust, when your partnership clicks, you’ll tell each other all of the important stuff.”
Highly doubtful. At this point, Roman didn’t anticipate anything clicking. “Does her background have anything to do with the fact that she seems to always run the cases that involve jewelry, art, and high-priced items that thieves might be interested in swiping?” He’d done a little digging—pulling up her old case files to get a sense of how she worked.
Eric stopped tapping. “That’s her area of specialty. Some agents here prefer to work at protecting people. Harper prefers to protect things.”
Uh, huh. “So she was an art thief.” That could make sense. She’d turned her stealing talents into something all new—
“What?” A bark of laughter. “Absolutely not. And stop pushing. I’m not going to tell you about her past. She’s qualified. She’s smart. She’s a great agent. That’s all you need to know.” He pointed one finger at Roman. “Oh, yes, and stop screwing things up. Harper is the most easy-going agent here. If you can’t work with her…”
He let the sentence trail off, but Roman got the picture.
If you can’t work with her, you can’t work with anyone.
“I get that you’re not used to working with others,” Eric allowed.
Understatement. Roman was just used to others trying to screw him over. How many times had he been betrayed by people close to him? Hell, he had lost count. So excuse the hell out of him if he didn’t jump at the chance to tell Harper all of his deepest, darkest secrets. And they were plenty dark. Dark enough to send the gorgeous Harper running.
She was gorgeous. Harper had the most brilliant green eyes that he’d ever seen. And dimples. Freaking dimples that flashed when she smiled. Her hair was thick and dark, her body delicate but curved in all of the right places, and she always smelled just like sweet cream—
“Are you even listening to me?” Eric wanted to know.
Oh, shit. No, he hadn’t been. He’d been thinking about Harper.
“It’s a six-week probationary period, just like I said before,” Eric continued grimly. “Try and make it work, will you? Try to play nicely with her.”
“I have been nice.” Mostly.
“This is a chance at a new life, Roman. I know you want that life. You don’t have to be like him.”
Roman stiffened. Him. His father. The sick, twisted bastard. “Yeah, I think this little meeting is over.” No accent marked his words. He’d learned—long ago—to ditch the accent. Just as he’d learned to alter his appearance. His hair was blond now, a very dark blond. He kept a loose stubble on his jaw, and he’d let his eyes go back to being dark. When others had seen him in the past, well, his eye shade had varied. As had his hair color and beard. Small changes could turn a man into someone completely new.
“Try, Roman. I want you to be a part of Wilde.” A pause from Eric. “I want you to be a part of my family.”
Because they were connected by blood. By secrets.
Roman nodded. He was trying, but no one seemed to understand that. No one got how hard it was for him to trade his bloody past for…this. He was used to looking for trouble—death—in every direction. Yet now he was supposed to become a good little agent and toe the line in the blink of an eye?
He left Eric and went in search of Harper. As he walked through the building, everyone there seemed to steer clear of him. People suddenly remembered paperwork as they turned away abruptly. One guy even spilled his coffee as he staggered back.
What the hell? Had he really been that difficult to get along with at Wilde? Not like he was the big, bad, friggin’ wolf.
All right. Maybe I am. But these people didn’t know that.
He rounded the corner that would take him to the office he shared with Harper and—
She was hugging some jerk who wore an ugly blue suit.
“I knew I could count on you,” the jerk praised as his arms lingered around her. “You never let me down, Harper.”
Roman raised a brow and studied them. The man’s hands were far too close to her hips. Roman debated the best way to interrupt. He could clear his throat to get their attention—that was the technique Eric had been using back in his office. Or Roman could just grab the guy and toss him across the room.
Option two. That one seemed like a winner.
He took a fast step forward—
Harper pulled away from the fellow in the blue suit. Her gaze darted to Roman. Widened.
He could almost hear Eric’s words in his head. Try to play nicely with her.
“Roman!” Alarm had her voice rising. Maybe she’d read his intent. Harper seemed to recover quickly as she waved a hand toward him. “Roman, ah, have you met the museum manager, Tomas Archwright?”
No, he hadn’t met the guy.
Tomas turned toward him and smiled.
Roman didn’t smile back. He wasn’t the fake smile type. He did assess the man. From the top of his head to the hands that had been holding Harper to—
“Roman is my partner, and he’ll be supervising security tonight at the museum with me. Don’t worry, Tomas. You have absolutely nothing to be concerned about. We will make sure that the gala is a complete success. No one will touch your jewels.”
“Absolutely.” Roman agreed, deadpan. “No one touches your jewels. Sure as shit not Harper. That is not on the agenda.”
Harper frowned at him.
Tomas’s eyelids flickered. “Do you—”
“Well, we have work to do.” Harper curled her hand around Tomas’s shoulder. “So glad that you dropped by, and I will see you tonight.” She was determinedly guiding their client toward the door.
He was dragging his feet and eyeing her with way too much interest. “I, um, was wondering…once the event is over, if you might be open to possibly having dinner with me—”
“She’s not,” Roman supplied flatly. “We have a policy against dating clients here at Wilde.”
Her brow furrowed.
“Oh, but I won’t be a client when the event is concluded,” Tomas announced happily. “So that won’t be a problem—”
You’re being a problem, Tomas. Roman stared at the other man. Just stared.
Tomas gulped. “I need to get back to the museum. It was, um, interesting to meet you, Roman.” He finally stopped dragging his feet and nearly ran from the office.
Harper expelled a relieved breath.
“That’s three,” Roman noted as he shut the door.
She rolled her neck, as if her muscles ached. “Three what?”
“Three different men who have asked you out…” Right in front of me. “Since we started working together.”
“Yes.” She turned away from him. Strode back toward her desk. There were two desks in the office. Hers and his. They faced each other.
The better to distract him as he studied her far too much instead of getting shit done.
“I get asked out fairly frequently.” She sat down. Crossed her legs. Sniffed. “This will come as a major surprise to you, but most people actually like me.”
It wasn’t a surprise. He marched forward and threw himself into the chair opposite her.
She lifted a brow. “Did you have a nice chat with Eric?”
“Did he go over the rules again with you?” Harper asked. Her voice was all hopeful. Cute.
He hated to burst her bubble. Actually, he didn’t hate it. He found it a little fun. “No.”
Her lips thinned. No flashing dimples for him. What a pity. She’d been smiling plenty for Tomas.
Her fingers curled around a pen, and she began to lightly shake it back and forth. “Are we back to one-word replies?”
“No—” Roman caught himself. Normally, he did talk more. But he’d been trying to be extra careful at Wilde, and while he learned the lay of the land, so to speak, he’d been in observation mode.
A few things he’d learned from observation mode?
Men had a tendency to fall at Harper’s high-heeled feet.
They tripped over themselves for her. Maybe it was because she had a killer body. Or the most striking eyes on the planet. Or the dimples. Dammit. He was starting to think those dimples of hers were some kind of secret weapon that she wielded whenever she wanted to get something.
Except, she didn’t use that secret weapon on him.
Why the hell not? Would it kill her to smile at him?
She blinked at him. Put down the pen.
Roman sucked in a deep breath. “We aren’t back to one-word replies,” he rumbled.
Her eyes widened. “And you’re going to start following orders?”
“I’m not as green as you seem to think.”
She laughed. God, of course, the sound of her laughter would be musical. “I never thought you were green.” She propped up her chin on one hand as she studied him. “You have this whole extremely intense, I-get-shit-done vibe that rolls off you. I’m guessing former military or maybe you were involved in some off-the-books, covert work.”
He didn’t respond.
“I didn’t even get a one-word response to that.” She licked her lower lip.
His body tensed.
“Does that mean I’m right or wrong?” Harper wanted to know.
“Definitely not former military.”
“So…covert. That makes sense. You remind me of another agent—more of a freelance guy, really—who flits in and out of Wilde.” Her expression showed mock surprise. “You know what…come to think of it…I believe his last name is Smith, too. What a coincidence.”
“The world is full of those.”
Her lips trembled. He thought she almost smiled.
“I would like to start over,” Roman told her, voice serious. “I will try not to be as major of an asshole.”
“Is that a real promise? Like, one that you honestly intend to keep?”
He wouldn’t go that far. “Sometimes, being an asshole comes naturally to me.”
“I have noticed that.” Her smile finally flashed fully. It lit her eyes. Made her dimples wink.
Fuck me. I am in some serious trouble.
She offered her hand to him. “I’m all for starting over.”
He glanced at her hand. She was willing to give him a second chance so easily? Eric had been right. Harper was kind—the nicest agent there.
His fingers closed around hers. He felt the hot surge of attraction pulse through his entire body.
She was kind. Nice. Good.
He tightened his hold on her hand.
Too bad he wasn’t any of those things.