“He’s not here.”
Claudia Fairmont shook her head, sending the gossamer wedding veil sliding over her shoulders. Her grip tightened on the blood-red roses in her hand. The bouquet shouldn’t have felt so heavy, but suddenly, everything felt heavy.
Her brother’s jaw locked. “We’ve got a church full of people, but no groom. The ceremony should have started an hour ago, and we can’t keep the guests waiting forever.”
“Something is wrong,” she whispered.
“Damn straight something is wrong.” His eyes, the same icy blue shade of her own, narrowed with fury. “The asshole has left you standing at the altar. I told you he was trouble. Told you he was no good from the very beginning, but you wouldn’t listen to me. Because you thought you were in love.”
She dropped the bouquet and reached for her phone yet again. She’d been trying to call Holden ever since she’d first received word that he wasn’t at the church. She’d called. Texted. Even checked at the local hospitals. “He wouldn’t do this to me.”
Cooper surged forward. His hand closed around her wrist. “He would. He has.”
No, no. She knew Holden. “We have to call the police—”
“We did that already. There’s been no reported accidents. No news about anyone matching his description. I even called and had a neighbor check Holden’s place.” His grip tightened. “He’s not there. He’s gone.”
She jerked free of his grip. Claudia took a quick step back and nearly tripped on her train. “Let me just try to call him again.” Her trembling hand lifted the phone to her ear. Fear made her tremble. Not anger. Holden wouldn’t do this to me. She knew him. Trusted him. Loved him. Holden wouldn’t just stand her up. Something had to be terribly, terribly wrong and—
“Claudia.” He’d answered. Holden finally answered her call.
Her breath expelled in a relieved rush. “Holden! Thank God! I was so worried about you!”
“Holden?” Her stomach twisted. “Are you okay?”
“Not going to make it to the church today.”
She almost fell. The shock was so great that her knees just gave way. Luckily, Cooper locked his hands around her shoulders, and her brother’s strong grip held her upright. “You’re…what?” Pain knifed through her. “Holden?” This could not be happening. No way.
Just…sorry? That was all? That was—
Click. He’d hung up on her. Her breath shuddered in and out, and the pain spread through her whole body. In shock, Claudia stared at the phone in her hand. The loud drumming of her heartbeat echoed in her ears. Over and over and over.
And her thundering heartbeat seemed to be echoing Holden, saying over and over…Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.
“Claudia?” Her brother lightly shook her. “Look at me.”
Her gaze swung to him.
“What’s happening?” Cooper asked her.
Shock. Heartbreak. Consuming pain. That was what was happening. “He’s…sorry.”
Her voice sounded strangled to her own ears as she added, “Holden is…not coming to the church.”
Cooper swallowed. Rage burned in his eyes, and Claudia wished that she could be angry, too. But she wasn’t. She hurt too much for fury.
“I’ll take care of everything,” Cooper told her with a firm jerk of his head. “Change out of the dress. Get the hell out of here. I’ll handle it all.” He pressed a hard kiss to her forehead. “And I will fucking destroy him, I promise you that.”
She didn’t want Holden destroyed. She didn’t want…
I love him.
And he’d left her. Wearing the white dress. The veil. The train that made her feel claustrophobic because it pulled back on her with every step that she took.
“I told you he couldn’t be trusted,” Cooper bit out. “He just wanted to hurt our family. He always hated us.”
But I love him.
Cooper’s arms wrapped around her in a fierce hug. “It’s okay. I swear, it will be okay.”
She’d been left at the altar by the man she loved. There was no part of that situation that would qualify as okay. A waking nightmare? Absolutely. But okay? Not so much.
Cooper released her. “Change. I’ll have the limo waiting out back for you. You can slip away, and you don’t have to see a soul.”
He hurried for the door. She noted the stiffness in his back, and she knew just how furious he was. Cooper had never liked Holden. Because of their pasts. Because of who Holden was.
A rough and dangerous fighter. Too violent. I don’t want him near you.
Her brother had said those words when she’d announced her engagement. He’d warned her. She’d failed to listen. Now Cooper was off to clean up her latest disaster.
A public humiliation. Dumped at the altar.
Cooper’s hand froze above the doorknob. His head jerked as he glanced over his shoulder at her. “We can’t leave them sitting in the church.”
No, they couldn’t. “I’ll tell everyone.” Her wedding. Or, her would-be wedding. So it was her job to face the crowd.
He shook his head. “Claudia, you don’t have to do this.”
Actually, she did. Her hands fisted in the skirt of her gown. A stupid expensive gown. She lifted up the skirt and marched forward even as the weight of the train tried once again to pull her back. At any moment, Claudia feared she might be physically sick. Her stomach wouldn’t stop churning, and she just kept hearing Holden’s voice in her head…
Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.
The echo chimed in tune with her steps. She entered the chapel. The harpist was playing, but everyone swung toward Claudia because she’d yanked open the sanctuary’s doors with too much force. Her gaze swept over the crowd. She could see the shock in people’s expressions. The gaping mouths. The pity in their eyes.
Her chin lifted. “I think you’ve been in here long enough.” She wanted to offer them a smile but couldn’t. The act was simply beyond her. “How about we all go to the reception hall? There is quite a feast waiting. And cake. Cake that is supposed to be sinfully good.”
She felt a light hand at the base of her spine. Cooper had followed her. Her and Cooper—them against the world. That was the way it had been since her father had died and her mother had run off to start a new life far, far away.
No one moved from the pews. Everyone just kept watching Claudia. Their pity felt suffocating.
“There isn’t going to be a wedding today. Change of plans.” Her whole body shook. All the people just kept sitting there. Why wouldn’t they move? “Sorry for the inconvenience.”
Tears filled her eyes, but Claudia would not let them fall. This should have been the happiest day of her life. Wasn’t that what everyone always said about your wedding day? The happiest day of your life.
Everyone was wrong. The day was shit. “I need some wine.” If the guests weren’t going to the reception on their own, then she’d just lead the way. Claudia spun on her heel, kicked at her train, and walked out of the chapel.
The knock sounded on her door around two a.m. Loud and pounding, she would have liked to say the knocking pulled her from a deep sleep. That would have been a lie, though, because she hadn’t been sleeping. Instead, the events of the day had just been spinning through her head on automatic repeat.
She rose from her position on the stairs—she’d just been sitting halfway up the staircase—and slowly descended. Claudia had a fairly good idea who had decided to pound on her door so late. After all, she’d figured he would show up, sooner or later.
Later. Much too late.
When she reached the landing, her bare feet crept slowly across the wooden floor. No heavy train pulled her back any longer. She’d ditched the train long ago.
The pounding continued at the door.
Peering through the peephole, Claudia easily saw his grim features, and she thought about just ignoring him. But a problem didn’t go away when you ignored it. Hadn’t her mother taught her that? Her mother had run away because she’d thought that had been easier. It hadn’t been. Her mother had simply traded one set of problems for another.
You had to face things head-on in this world.
Swallowing—three times—because it was hard to choke down the lump in her throat, Claudia opened the door.
Holden Blackwell’s towering form filled her doorway. Too big. Too strong. Too painful to see.
“Hi, Holden,” she heard herself say. “You’re a little late.”
“Let me in.” Grim. Rasping. Desperate? Oh, surely not. Holden had never been desperate, at least not where she was concerned.
Her answer was simple and soft as she told him, “No.”
His hands flew up and clamped around the doorframe. Her gaze slid to the left. The porch light fell on him, and she could see the bruising near his knuckles. Her stare shifted back to his face. Not classically handsome. More rugged. Fierce. Hard jaw. Glinting eyes. And…bruises? Yes, that was definitely a dark spot along the sharp edge of his square jaw. “You’ve been fighting.”
That was what he did, though, wasn’t it? Holden was one of the best MMA fighters in the world. She’d been to a few of his matches, and they absolutely terrified her. Too savage. Too brutal. Each punch had her flinching. She’d been covered in sweat by the time those bouts had ended.
He was out fighting…when he was supposed to be marrying me?
“We need to talk,” Holden said. His voice was the deep, dark rumble that always sent shivers down her spine.
Correction, the voice that had sent shivers down her spine. Before he’d wrecked her. “Sorry.” Her own voice was tight. The one word a very deliberate choice. Sorry.
“You missed the wedding. It was a lovely affair. The harpist performed beautifully. The food was top-notch. The bride got a little drunk, but, hey, sometimes stuff like that happens, am I right?”
He reached for her.
She flinched away, taking a quick step back. “Don’t.”
His hand hung in the air.
“You left me at the altar.” Her voice cracked. “I was afraid you were hurt. In a car accident. Bleeding on the side of the road.”
His fingers slowly fisted, then his hand dropped.
“I went into the church and told all of those people that the wedding wasn’t going to happen. You weren’t there.” She shook her head, still having trouble with that concept for some reason. “You weren’t there.” Dazed, she squinted at him. “I thought you would always be there for me. I loved you.”
Loved. Past tense. But that was a lie. You didn’t just turn off emotions like a faucet. Pain knifed through her, yet the love was still there. Eventually, it would fade. Die. She knew it would. But seeing him right then just made everything hurt so much worse.
And he wasn’t speaking.
“Tell me that you were kidnapped.” Dammit, why was she still talking? “Tell me that someone held a gun to your head and made you leave me. Tell me that you were forced to stay away from the church. That you would never, ever have willingly done that to me.” She darted a glance down at his fisted hand. At the bruises she could see. Dark spots that would have come from fighting. “Tell me that this wasn’t all some long con just so you could get some kind of twisted vengeance on my family.”
Bitter blood. She’d been warned to stay away from him. Warned over and over and yet…
“Tell me that this is all a bad dream and that I should wake up now,” she whispered, the words far too close to pleading. But…
He isn’t speaking. Holden wasn’t telling her anything. He just stood in the doorway. All big and strong and grim.
She grabbed at the ring on her left hand. Claudia yanked off the engagement ring, and she slammed it against his chest. “Take it.”
He didn’t. He just stood there. Watching her with green eyes that swirled with unnamed emotion.
Her hand jerked back. The ring fell.
He didn’t even glance down at it. His gaze remained on her.
He’d come to her door, pounding. He’d told her they needed to talk, and now he said nothing? He’d never been the strong, silent type. Not Holden. Holden talked all the time. He was bold and exciting. He was charming and seductive. Cocky. Confident. Larger than life.
A liar. “Did you ever love me?” Why, why did she even ask that question?
“I should never have touched you.”
She flinched. Just the apologetic words she’d longed to hear. Not. This was clearly not going to be some epic grovel scene where he begged for her forgiveness and said it was all a terrible mistake. That he loved her. Would love her forever…
“You never said you loved me.” The red flag she’d ignored because she wanted him so much. “I convinced myself you did, but you never said those words. You told me you needed me. That you wanted me. You asked me to marry you, but you never said you loved me.”
She waited. He still didn’t say those words. I love you. Three little words. He just stared at her with a gaze that seemed to burn.
“You could have called off the wedding before I had a church full of people waiting.” She could feel tears coming again, and Claudia refused to let them fall in front of him. “Having me in the wedding dress waiting for you—that was just cruel. I know you hate my family, but I didn’t realize you hated me, not until I was ready to walk down the aisle.” And you weren’t there.
“Hate isn’t what I feel for you.” Grated.
“Then what do you feel?”
Before he could answer, she heard the growl of an engine on the road. Starting low, then getting louder the closer it came. Louder and angrier until it sounded like a snarling animal. The dark car whipped past them, shattering the silence on her quiet street.
“Fucking fuck,” Holden swore, voice vicious.
And, again, she flinched. “Well, that’s certainly a lovely sentiment. Fucking fuck to you, too, Holden.”
“I have to go.”
Of course. With no explanation as to why he’d hurt her. “You broke my heart, damn you.”
“Claudia—look, I’ll be back, I swear, but I have to go, now.” He spun and bounded toward the edge of her porch.
“Don’t come back. I don’t want to see you again.” Because it would just hurt too much.
He froze. “You don’t mean it. You don’t—”
“I don’t want to see you again. I don’t want you coming after me, and I will not be coming after you.” She wanted to run inside and slam the door. She would be doing that, but first, he had to understand that they were done. “To be clear, I would not come to you again unless my world was on fire.”
He spun toward her. “Look, Claudia, I have to leave, but I’ll be back. I will—”
“On. Fire. The flames would have to be scorchingly intense, and you’d need to be the only man in possession of a fire extinguisher.” She backed into her home. “Goodbye, Holden.”
Claudia slammed the door.
And the tears started falling.
Five years later…
Step One: Find a way to get back into her life. Proximity is key. She can’t fall for you if you can’t get close to her. So…get your ass close. Close enough to touch. To kiss. Close enough that she stops being a ghost and becomes a reality for you once again.
Holden Blackwell hesitated in front of his office door at Wilde, the elite security and protection firm that had become a refuge for him. When he’d first been recruited by Eric Wilde, the owner of the place, Holden had thought for sure he’d crash and burn as an agent.
Instead, he’d become a VP. His office was on the top floor. Swanky as hell. He could have stopped taking field cases long ago, but Holden enjoyed the adrenaline rush far too much to give up the day-to-day operations that sent him out on cases.
His latest client was waiting for him on the other side of that door. Eric had sent her to wait, and, moments before, he’d just calmly told Holden that Claudia Fairmont was inside. Calmly dropped that bombshell, and Holden had hauled ass to get there and greet her. Only now…
Now he was standing in front of his own door like some kind of scared kid. Screw that. He grabbed the knob. Twisted it. And shoved the door open. He marched across the threshold and ventured inside, making sure to keep his face expressionless as he asked, “So…where’s the fire?”
Claudia had been sitting with her back to the door. She’d taken a position in one of the two waiting chairs that faced his desk. At his words, she stiffened, then slowly rose. His gaze drank in the thick curtain of her hair—brown but shot with streaks of gold—and he held his breath as he waited for her to slowly turn and face him.
I have missed her. Too damn much. Too—
She turned toward him. Makeup carefully applied. Soft red lipstick on plump, kissable lips. The faintest dark eyeshadow to frame her killer blue eyes. A dusting of blush on her high cheekbones. “Holden.” Soft. Sensual. She always sounded sensual when she spoke. “As charming as ever, I see.”
He bounded toward her. Two quick steps. But he caught himself before he actually reached out and did something crazy like, oh, haul her close. Kiss her as if his life depended on it. Never, fucking ever, let her go.
Instead, he sucked in a breath, but could have sworn he tasted her sweetness, even as his gaze trekked down her body. She wore a body-hugging gray dress, sleeveless, and her delicate feet were encased in red high heels that had probably been designed to make a man beg. They looked helluva sexy on her, but truth be told, he thought pretty much everything was helluva sexy on Claudia. She could be wearing jogging shorts and a trash bag, and he’d still think she was perfection. Runway ready.
Not that he could tell her that. Not that he could do much except drink her in like a man dying of thirst. I should say something else. Speak again. Not screw up this big reunion. He dragged his hungry stare back up to her face. “I have a fire extinguisher.”
A little furrow appeared between her elegant brows. “Good for you?” The words were a definite question.
He cleared his throat. “You said you’d only come to me if your world was on fire.”
Her eyes—a light blue with gold buried in the depths, a gold that matched the highlights in her dark hair—widened. “Of course, you’d remember that part.” She tucked a lock of hair behind her left ear. “I suppose it thrills you that I had to come to you for help.”
I am thrilled to see you, hell, yes.
She turned her back on him and paced toward the windows on the right. She stared out at the busy city of Atlanta. “I didn’t want to come here.” Her shoulders were stiff. Her spine ramrod straight. “I didn’t exactly have a choice.”
“Wilde is the best protection and security firm in the country.” And the fact that she was there—yeah, okay, sure, after he got past the happy-to-see-her part—hell, he was worried. “What’s wrong?” Because you didn’t come to Wilde unless you had a problem. A very dangerous and deadly sort of problem.
Her arms wrapped around her stomach as she continued to peer out at the city. “I’m not looking for some sort of favor. I mentioned your name at the front desk, but I can certainly be assigned to someone else.”
Uh, no. Never in a million years. He had her, and there was no way he’d pass her off to another agent.
“I don’t normally name drop, but I wanted to be seen today. I wanted to be taken seriously.”
“I take you very, very seriously.” He crept toward her. Inhaled her scent. Same lush strawberries and cream scent that used to drive him to madness. “Tell me what’s happening, and I’ll eliminate the problem for you.”
She glanced over her shoulder at him.
“Fire extinguisher, remember? I can stop whatever is bothering you.” Whatever or whoever.
Her throat moved delicately as she swallowed. “How much is your rate?”
Like he’d have her pay a dime. No way. He’d square things with Eric. “It’s negotiable.”
“That’s not an actual number.”
Holden shrugged. “We can get to the rate after you tell me about your problem.” Why was she hesitating? “Look, you’re at Wilde because you need protection. That’s the reason most people step through the shiny doors downstairs. You got a clinging ex? Someone who is harassing you? Someone who—”
“Wants to kill me?” Again, soft. Husky. But her words rocked through him as if she’d shouted.
His mouth hung open in surprise. He finally managed to snap it closed so he could snarl, “Who the fuck would want to kill you?”
“I have no idea.” Her hands fell back to her sides as she swung to fully face him once more. “I was hoping you could help me figure it out.”
Rage built inside of him. The idea of someone physically hurting Claudia…of someone actually trying to kill her… “You’ve gone to the cops?”
Her gaze cut away from his.
“Claudia.” Rough. Demanding.
Her stare darted back toward him.
“You’ve gone to the cops.” A statement this time, not a question.
But her head moved in the smallest of negative shakes as her tongue swiped across her lower lip.
“Why the hell not?” Holden exploded as he surged toward her.
She immediately backed up a step. Then another.
They stared at each other.
Thick tension suddenly hung in the air between them. A stark awareness as the past and present tangled together. The last time he’d seen her, he’d surged toward her then, too. She’d retreated, when normally, she never retreated from him. Claudia came running to him. She smiled at him and her eyes lit up, and she stared at him like he was some kind of conquering hero. She didn’t retreat as if he was the bad guy.
Yet she’s definitely retreating from me.
Right. Because in her eyes, he was a bastard. Hell, not just her eyes. Most of the world saw him that way. Truth be told, he was a bastard, and he’d never had a problem being one. Until now.
“The cops were at the scenes,” she said, clearing her throat. “Each time, they took my statement, so I guess you could say I have talked to them. But everything—it all seems so random that not even Cooper believes me.”
Cooper. Another blast from the past that Holden would deal with, later.
“There’s bad luck,” Claudia continued with a twist of her full lips, “and then there’s what has been happening in my life.”
“Tell me everything.”
But her gaze drifted around his office. “I…ah, maybe I should talk to another agent. I’m sure the last thing you want is to be working on a case with your ex.”
“Having to be close to me again is probably a nightmare for you, and, like I said, I just used your name to get inside. I needed to be seen today. I-I’ve had friends who worked with Wilde, but I didn’t exactly want to tell them about my situation. Bad enough that my brother thinks I’m imagining things, but if word spreads, well…” A shrug of her shoulders. “I’ve had more than enough gossip circulated about me over the years. I’d rather stay below the radar as much as possible.”
Because the heiress who’d been left at the altar had gotten a ton of press after the wedding-that-wasn’t. Her face had been splashed everywhere. At the time, he’d been an MMA star. Scandal and fighting and money? Hell, yes, that was a mega story. She’d been dragged through the mud because of him, and every time he’d seen her face on social media or on some gossipy news site, he’d wanted to go to her.
Fuck it. The sad, twisted truth? He’d become a stalker for a while. Shit that he wasn’t proud to admit. But, yeah, he’d secretly dodged her steps for a time. Because he’d needed to know she was safe.
I still need to know it. Some habits were very, very hard to break. “You could never be a nightmare for me.”
Her long, thick lashes flickered, but her gaze didn’t return to him.
He wanted to look into her eyes. The eyes were supposed to be windows to the soul, wasn’t that how the saying went? And when he looked into Claudia’s eyes, he’d always been able to read her emotions so easily. She’d never held back from him. Hadn’t played games. In a world where everyone seemed to be working an agenda, Claudia had been different. A true lamb surrounded by wolves.
Then she’d had the misfortune of becoming engaged to the baddest wolf in the pack.
“It has to be bad,” Holden said, voice gruff as he fought the urge to touch her. To run his fingers over her silken cheek. To catch her hand and enfold it in his. To wrap her into his arms. “Very bad,” he continued, “if you’re so desperate you came to me.”
Because five long years had passed, and she’d made a point of staying away from him.
“I don’t want to die,” she told him simply. “Seeing you is certainly the better alternative when compared to death.”
Well, fuck. “Don’t pull any punches. Tell me how you really feel.”
Now her eyes did meet his. “You’re a fighter. You’d hate it if someone pulled punches with you.”
Her stare was…different than it had been before. Same blue eyes with the sparks of gold inside, but her emotions were shielded. A careful mask. She’d never worn a mask before.
But five years was a very long time. People changed in five years. I sure as hell have changed.
“Take a seat,” he advised her with a wave of a hand toward one of the waiting chairs. “Brief me. I have to know what I’m up against so we can get a plan of attack going.”
Her delicate brows arched. “That’s it? You’re taking the case? Just like that?”
He needed to put some space between them because his control was not going to last. If he stayed so close to her for even another minute, he would be touching her. Neither of them would be ready for that. In the past, when he’d touched her, savage need had immediately blasted through him. His response to Claudia had never been normal. More like off-the-charts ballistic. Primitive and basic, he’d hungered for her as he had never needed another.
“Just like that.” He turned away. Exhaled heavily when she couldn’t see his face and strode for his desk chair. He sat down and the chair rolled with him back into position. At least with the desk in front of him, she wouldn’t notice the very physical and very obvious reaction he had to her presence.
His eager dick had taken one look at her and immediately stood to full attention in a salute.
She nibbled on her lower lip, because, clearly, she liked to torture him, then Claudia edged back toward the seat she’d been in before. With her usual grace, she slid into the chair, crossed her sensual, killer legs, and lightly swung one high-heeled foot. “Do you always take cases so quickly? Is that a Wilde thing?”
“No. It’s a me-and-you thing.”
“You need me, I’m there. No questions asked. Done.”
“It’s…it’s been a while.”
Five years. Three months. Six days. Not like a guy could forget what could have been his wedding day. Not like a man could forget her.
“I wasn’t sure you’d even want to talk to me,” she added.
He flattened his hands on the desk and leaned forward. Was she serious? “You were the one who wouldn’t talk to me.” He’d tried. Several times. He’d been frozen out. Then she’d been gone. Flown to Paris.
And stories had started circulating about her and some prick who owned a vineyard.
His jaw clenched. Now was not the time to walk down jealousy road and yet…“Does your boyfriend know what’s happening?”
“I don’t have a boyfriend. I’m not involved with anyone right now.”
Hell, yes. Hell, the fuck yes. But his expression didn’t change. “So who does know what’s happening?”
“Cooper. Me.” A pause. “You.” Her foot swung a little more. “Cooper thinks I’m exaggerating things. That I am blowing stuff out of proportion.”
“You’re not the type to do that.”
Her foot stopped swinging. Her gaze collided with his.
“Start at the beginning,” Holden urged her. “Tell me everything.”
“Then you’ll decide if I’m exaggerating?”
No, he’d already told her she wasn’t the type to do that. “Then we’ll come up with our plan of attack,” he reminded her gently. He’d already told her that before, too.
Her fingers tapped against the arm of the chair. “This is a really nice office. I didn’t expect—”
“For an asshole fighter to work his way to the top?”
Her eyes widened. “No, ahem, I was going to say that I didn’t expect for you to get out of fighting. You loved it so much that I couldn’t imagine you giving it up for anything.” A pause. “By the way, you’re the one who just called yourself an asshole, not me.”
“Ah, come now, we both know what you think I am.”
She didn’t deny the charge. What would have been the point in that? He knew she hated him. But she’s here. Desperate, scared, but there. And the twisted, sad part of it all? I will take her any way I can get her. Finally, he had Claudia back in his life, and Holden was so thrilled he could hardly stand it.
He was fucked up.
Then Claudia began explaining… “It started with a flat tire. Not a big deal, right? Happens all the time. Except the tires were brand new. And it was like something had been done to the tire to make the air slowly leak out so that when the car stopped, I was on a long, dark, and empty stretch of road.” Her breath shuddered out. “There was no cell service in that area. I got out, and when I checked my spare, it was flat, too.”
His muscles tightened.
“I was standing at the back of my car when I saw the headlights coming toward me. At first, I was grateful, thinking maybe I could wave down the driver and get help.”
No way did he like this setup. A beautiful woman, on an empty stretch of road. No means of calling for help. “What time was it?”
“Eleven p.m.” She inhaled. “The car stopped about twenty feet away from me, and the headlights were on bright. I couldn’t see the driver, but I started walking toward the car.”
He didn’t move.
“The driver side door opened. A man got out. He had on a thick coat with a hood. And—and I could see something in his hand.”
“What was it?”
“It looked like a knife. The hood was pulled low over his head, and the headlights were so bright…and then he started walking toward me, and the light hit the blade.”
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
“I ran. I just turned and ran into the woods, and he chased after me. He never said a word, didn’t yell, didn’t call out at all, but I could hear his footsteps thundering after me.” Her words came faster. “The bushes and the twigs pulled at me, and I didn’t even know where I was going. I just knew I couldn’t let him get to me. Then—then I burst out of the woods and into the road…and a semi nearly ran right over me.”
His back teeth had clenched. Rage and fear gnawed in Holden’s stomach.
“I jumped out of the way, and the driver pulled over. She radioed for help when I told her what was going on and…” Once more, Claudia’s stare cut away from his as she peered toward the floor. “The police arrived, but the other vehicle was long gone by the time they got there. The cops thought I had gotten confused in the dark. They thought maybe he’d come out with a screwdriver or a small jack—something to help with changing my tire. They basically told me that I’d overreacted. Said it was natural to be afraid when you were alone in the dark like that.”
“I don’t remember you being afraid of the dark.”
Her lashes lifted as she looked at him once more. “Back then, I wasn’t.” Her delicate nostrils flared. “I am now.”
He didn’t want her afraid of anything or anyone. “What else happened?”
“A string of what Cooper calls ‘exceedingly bad luck’ happened. The locks jammed on the front and rear doors at the Fairmont Winery one night after closing, and I got locked inside. The security system went down at the same time, and all of the electricity turned off. I was trapped in total darkness.” Flat. Emotionless. “I was supposed to be there alone, but I could have sworn I heard footsteps in the dark with me.”
“I broke a window and climbed out to escape.”
His hands curled into fists. “What else?”
“A fire broke out at my place. I was sleeping at the time. The fire inspector believes candles were left burning in the den, and they caused the fire.” She pressed her lips together, then said, “I did not burn those candles. The last time I saw them, they were in my closet. I don’t even know how they got into the den.”
He had an idea. “Someone came into your home. Took out the candles and lit them.” So fucking bad.
“The candles caught fire to the curtains in the den. I have smoke detectors that should have gone off, they didn’t. The downstairs detectors never went off, only the ones upstairs. When the fire inspector examined one of the scorched detectors from the den, he found out that there were no batteries inside.” It was her turn to lean forward. “I put fresh batteries in all of my smoke detectors every six months. Someone else took the batteries out. Someone had to take them out.”
A flat tire that had left her as vulnerable prey in the dark. An attempt to trap her at the family winery. And a fire in her home. Bad luck? Hell, no. Someone is after her. It was clear as glass. Why wouldn’t her brother believe her? Why hadn’t Cooper already surrounded her with a security army?
“There have been other things,” she said in her hushed, sensual voice. “Mostly nuisance stuff that began long before the flat tire.”
“What kind of things?”
“A broken windshield on my car. When I was at a crosswalk, someone accidentally shoved me forward when a bus was coming.”
With a hand that slightly trembled, she once more tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “Maybe it wasn’t so accidental. I can tell you that it’s quite terrifying when you look up and see a bus barreling straight for you.”
Yeah, he was certain it had been terrifying. “How the hell long has this been happening?”
He surged out of his chair. “And you’re only coming to me now? You should have come to me on day one!” He rushed around the desk. Loomed over her. Some bastard is trying to kill Claudia. And he hadn’t known. She’d been in danger, and he hadn’t been there.
A little furrow appeared between her brows as she looked up at him. “Not like we’re close. I can’t just run to you with my problems.” A weak, nervous laugh slid from her.
Screw that. He put his hands on the arm rests of her chair and leaned in toward her, pinning Claudia in place. “You should have come to me sooner.”
“We haven’t spoken in years—I didn’t even realize you worked with Wilde until I read that story about the long lost princess recently and saw mention of your name.” She shook her head. “Bet that was some case. You made international headlines with it.”
Fuck that case. He loomed closer. Yes, dammit, he was all up in her space. He should back away. He had zero intention of doing so. “You get scared, you come to me. Some jerk tries to hurt you, you come to me. You know the rules. We’ve always had them in place.”
Her head tilted back. “That was then,” she murmured, the words barely seeming to be a breath. “The rules changed for us long ago.”
He wanted her mouth. He wanted her. Seeing her had brought his past crashing back on him. Every single one of his hopes and dreams and fantasies? They were all tied up in her. “The hell they did. I will protect you, always. I will protect you from any pain—”
“Except the pain you cause me?”
Her words were like ice water pouring over him. Yes, dammit, yes, he was the one who’d hurt her.
Jaw locking, Holden let go of the chair arms and straightened. “I won’t cause you any more pain. That’s a promise.”
She peered up at him with her bring-a-man-to-his-knees eyes. “You shouldn’t make promises you can’t keep.”
He’d keep this one. “I need a list of everyone close to you. Friends, lovers—”
“I told you, I don’t have a—”
“Ex-lovers,” Holden cut in to say. “Anyone with a grudge against you. Any business competitor you’ve angered. We’ll get the names, and Wilde can start running checks on everyone while I make sure that you’re protected, twenty-four, seven.” He spun away and reached for the phone on his desk.
“I lied.” Soft. Low.
His hand hung in the air. Slowly, his hand lowered. He eased back toward her. “Say again?”
Claudia huffed out a breath. “I lied. Or, I just told part of the truth. When I said that I name dropped you in order to get inside today…I-I actually came because I wanted to see you, specifically.”
He eased a hip onto the edge of his desk as Holden angled to watch her. Euphoria spread through him. I wanted to see you. Fucking finally. She’d come back to him. They were going to pick up where they’d left off. Well, fine, not exactly where they’d left off because he had no intention of leaving her at the altar. Claiming her? Keeping her? Definitely part of the plan. He would—
She bent down and started fishing in the very large, black bag that sat on the floor near her chair. Then her hand lifted, and she pushed a big, brown envelope toward him.
Curious, he took the envelope. “What’s this?”
“Open it and see.”
He unhooked the top of the envelope. It had been secured by one of those little metal prongs. His fingers eased inside, and he pulled out photo paper. Several large photos of…
“Fuck me.” Stunned, he stared at the photos.
“Actually.” A delicate clearing of her throat. “I think that is me, fucking you. Or you, fucking me. Both. Either.” Another throat clearing.
Stunned, he thumbed through the photos. “This is us. Having sex.” His gaze rose to collide with hers. “What in the hell is happening?”
“I was hoping you could tell me.”
He looked back at the photos. Absolute savage lust had been stamped on his features in those pictures. “Where did you get these?”
“You didn’t take them?”
What. The. Actual. Fuck? He shoved the photos back in the envelope. “No, I didn’t take photos of you without your permission—”
“Or a video? You didn’t make a video of us?”
Holden lurched off the edge of the desk. “I didn’t make a sex video of us!” What he’d done with her had been private, for them alone. Because she is only meant to be mine.
“You didn’t?” Claudia asked, biting her lower lip.
“I did not,” he gritted.
Her shoulders fell. Wait, hold up, was she actually disappointed that he hadn’t made a video or taken pics?
“If you didn’t do it, then who did?” Her voice and her eyes seemed lost, as the mask finally fell away, and her emotions blazed through again.
“When did you find the first picture?” A snarl.
“The day after I had the flat tire.”
Sonofabitch. There had been three pictures in the envelope. “And the others?”
“I found one in my office at the winery, the night I got locked inside. And the third—it had a note on the back, did you see it?”
He snatched the pictures back out of the envelope and flipped them all over. He read the note and swore viciously.
You were even better in person. Lucky thing I have the videos so I can relive those moments. And if you’re not good to me, I’ll let the whole world see just how dirty you are.
He wanted to rip those pictures into pieces. But they might contain evidence Wilde could use. Slowly, carefully, he put the photos back into the envelope once again. Turning his back to her, he lowered the envelope to the desk. Released one breath. A second. Deep breathing wasn’t exactly helping to quell the fury coursing through his veins.
The message to her had been printed on the back of the photo, not handwritten. And the fact that the photos had arrived in conjunction with the dangerous incidents in her life? So not good. And, unfortunately, her visit to Wilde was making even more sense now. “You came to see me today because you thought I was the one tormenting you.” That was why she’d gone to Wilde instead of a different protection firm. Why she asked to see me.
“You were in the pictures with me.”
He whirled toward her. “I didn’t take them. I didn’t leave the photos for you to find. I didn’t have some freaking camera hidden in my bedroom while I was making love to you.”
She rose. Elegance and grace but with fear in her eyes. “If you didn’t, then who did? Who was watching me way back then?” A shake of her head. “And who is trying to hurt me now?”
He didn’t know, but Holden intended to find out. Then he’d destroy the bastard. “Say that you hire me.”
“Say that you hire me. We’ll sign the paperwork soon. Right now, I just need the words to get the ball rolling.” So I can obliterate some deserving jackass out there.
“I-I hire you?” A definite question. Then she nodded, more certain. “I want to hire you.”
He extended his hand toward her. They’d shake on this deal.
Her gaze darted to his hand, then back up to his face. Her hand cautiously extended toward him. Her soft palm brushed against his.
His fingers closed around hers, the grip tight but careful. Because with her, he would be very, very careful. “Sweetheart, you just got yourself a bodyguard.”