His to Claim #1
By Opal Carew
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2014 Opal Carew
All rights reserved.
Melanie's heart stopped as the bell over the door rang and she glanced up to see a tall man in a dark gray suit walk in. Something about his tall, broad-shouldered form and expensive suit reminded her of Rafe for a moment. But it was just one of her regulars.
"Hey, beautiful. The usual."
They chatted while she fixed him his typical latte, then she handed it to him with a smile. He winked and then headed for the door. She knew he was flirting with her. It had been going on all week, and although he was a very attractive man, she wasn't interested.
She glanced around the store. The few customers were happily chatting over their coffees and there was no sign of a new customer coming into the shop.
"I'm going in the back to grab some more sugar," she said to her friend, Sue, the other barista on duty, who was currently refilling the thermoses of milk after their recent rush.
The fast-paced influx of customers had left Melanie a little drained. She wasn't used to being on her feet for eight hours a day. But it was better than the intense attraction to her boss, Rafe, driving her mad every day.
"Okay. Then if you don't mind, I'll take my break," Sue said.
She opened the storage cupboard and grabbed a pack of raw sugar, another of white sugar, and some artificial sweetener, then carried them to the lobby and started filling the condiment stand with the small packets. Once done, she returned to the bar and tucked the leftover sugar packets under the counter.
The bell over the door rang, signaling a new customer. Melanie stood up and glanced toward the door to see a man in a charcoal suit talking to Sue. She sighed. It looked like her admirer was back, and she knew Sue would do what she could to play matchmaker. Sue pointed in Melanie's direction and the man turned.
Melanie's heart stopped when she saw his face. This was not the customer who'd been flirting with her all week.
As soon as he saw her, his lips turned up in a sexy, crooked smile — the one that always melted her heart — and he walked toward the bar.
He was a striking figure in his expensive, well-tailored suit that accentuated his tall physique and broad shoulders. His dark, glossy hair was combed back and his stunning sky blue eyes ringed in navy were locked on her.
He chuckled. "Haven't I always told you to call me Rafe?"
She nodded. His authoritative brother, Dane, had insisted on being called Mr. Ranier, but Rafe had always preferred a more casual address.
"Rafe, what are you doing here?"
"Getting a coffee for starters." He glanced up at the board. "What do you suggest?"
"Iced coffees are quite popular right now. We have one with a hint of cinnamon and orange." She knew his brother would want a regular coffee, but Rafe was always willing to try something new.
"To take with you?" she asked as she reached for a takeout cup.
"Actually, that depends. Can you join me?"
"Of course she can." Sue smiled as she returned to the bar. "In fact, Melanie was just about to go on break."
Melanie glanced at Sue. "I thought you were going now."
"I'll go later." She glanced at Rafe and smiled. "In fact, you go sit and I'll make you both something."
"But if the manager sees ..." Melanie said under her breath.
"She's gone for the day, and I'm not going to tell."
Melanie walked to a table in the back corner, wanting to be discreet.
"This is cozy," Rafe said as he sat down across from her.
"So why are you here?" Melanie asked with a smile. "Besides the coffee."
"Does there have to be a reason?"
"This isn't anywhere near where you work or where you live."
"Why don't you think I was at a meeting nearby?"
Her eyebrows arched. "Were you?"
He shook his head. "No, I came here to see you."
Her stomach clenched at the admission. She didn't work for him anymore. They had been friendly in the office, but they hadn't been friends. He'd been her boss. There was only one reason she could think of for why he'd be here. The one reason she'd been dreading, and hoping she wouldn't have to deal with.
He wanted to know why she'd quit.
And she didn't want to tell him.
She'd worked for him for over two years and ... she'd fallen in love with him. But in all that time, he'd never given her a second look. Then when he'd fallen in love with her best friend, Jessica, it had broken Melanie's heart. It had just been too painful to keep working with him, and to watch the two of them together.
That's why she'd quit.
And she couldn't tell him any of that.
Sue came to the table with two iced coffees, then returned to the bar.
"I was surprised to find you were working as a barista. It's quite a change from an office environment." He sipped his coffee.
"How did you find out where I was?"
He shrugged. "I checked your personnel file. Someone from this location called for a reference."
"So you just came by to see if I was here?"
She shook her head. "I still don't understand why."
He leaned forward, his sky blue eyes intent. "I just want to make sure you're okay."
She straightened her back. "Of course. Why wouldn't I be?"
"You up and left a good job ... a job you seemed to be happy at ... for no good reason. And here you are working at a job for probably minimum wage. I don't get it."
"I needed a change. I like the freedom I have here."
"I'm not tied to a nine-to-five existence. I'm not tied to a desk. I don't have a boss hovering over me." As soon as she said it, she realized he'd take it the wrong way.
"Did I hover over you? Is that why you left —"
"No, I don't mean that. It was the nature of the job. I couldn't leave my desk without getting someone to cover for me and handle phone calls. I needed to keep on top of both your schedule and your brother's. What I did was totally driven by what other people needed."
"Isn't that true here?"
"People come in for coffee, and maybe something to eat. It's not a big commitment."
He frowned. "I'm sorry, Melanie. I didn't realize you were unhappy."
"No, it's not that. I wasn't really unhappy."
"If I had known, I could have found something else for you. Something you'd enjoy doing. It's a big company." He leaned toward her. "We still could. Say the word and I'll call personnel."
Sweet, helpful Rafe. "No, thanks. I'm happy here." She finished her iced coffee and stood up. "I should get back to work."
"Wait, Melanie. Just give me another minute."
She sank back into the chair.
"Please tell me one thing."
She stared at him, dreading whatever question he was about to ask.
"Did I do something?"
"No, Rafe. You didn't do a thing."
In fact, that was the whole problem.
* * *
As soon as her shift was over, Melanie changed and grabbed the bottle of nail polish she'd stashed in her purse this morning. She couldn't wear polish to work, and she was a real fanatic, so she carried it with her and put it on after her shift if she was going out. She was meeting Jessica after work and she hated going out with naked nails.
She rolled the bottle between her hands to mix it up without creating air bubbles. It was actually part of a collection of polishes Rafe had given her to thank her for helping him pick out a gift for Jessica. He was always so thoughtful.
She brushed on the polish. A simple two-coater in turquoise, but with trendy black speckles for interest. She finished with her favorite fast-dry topcoat.
She didn't see her former roommate Jessica much these days. Jessica had moved into Mr. Ranier's place. And who wouldn't? Not only was she staying with the man of her dreams, who happened to be beyond gorgeous, he was also a billionaire who lived at the Ritz-Carlton residence where his luxury apartment had a spectacular view of the Philadelphia skyline.
Melanie grabbed a bus to the great little deli she and Jessica had discovered a month ago.
When Melanie stepped into the restaurant, she saw Jessica at a table by the window, a drink in front of her.
"Hey, how's it going?" Melanie asked as she tossed her purse on a chair, then sat down across from Jessica. But she didn't need to ask because the glow in Jessica's face said it all. Now there was a woman in love!
"We picked out the flowers today," Jessica said. "It was so funny being in a florist shop with Dane. The two women who worked there stared at him in awe, and they seemed intimidated by him, even though he was as charming as could be."
"Well, he does have a very commanding presence. You know that." She leaned in close. "I'm not surprised he brings that quality into the bedroom," she said with a grin.
"Does he ever." Jessica laughed, not at all embarrassed. That's one of the things Melanie loved about her friend. Jessica was willing to jump into an exciting situation and run with it.
Jessica had also told her about the exciting Dominance/submission relationship she had going with Mr. Ranier, which made Melanie weak in the knees just thinking about.
"You're really lucky, you know that?" She smiled. "You found the right guy and now you're getting married."
Jessica nodded. "I know it. But as you recall, it wasn't easy."
"Nothing ever is."
Jessica reached out and placed her hand over Melanie's. "You know, there's no reason you and Rafe —"
"Jessica, forget it. It'll never happen."
"No. It didn't happen after two years of working together. Most of that time was before he met you. But he was attracted to you right off." She shook her head sadly. "I have to face it. The guy just isn't into me."
"It's all in the context. You were his secretary —"
"And you were Mr. Ranier's personal assistant."
Jessica squeezed Melanie's hand. "If you gave Rafe a chance to get to know you outside the office, I'm sure everything would change."
"Look, can we just change the subject?" Melanie had been intending to tell Jessica about Rafe coming into the store today, but not now. Jessica meant well, but Melanie just didn't want to think about what might have been. More like, what couldn't be. "Are you going to tell me what the surprise is you told me about?"
Jessica smiled broadly. "Okay. Well, I know that your birthday isn't until next week, but I want to give you your gift now."
She handed Melanie a lilac envelope with her name written in Jessica's lovely script on the front. Melanie opened it and inside found a gift certificate for a tattoo studio. She'd once told Jessica that she'd always wanted a tattoo, but they were expensive and she couldn't justify it on her budget.
Melanie stared at the certificate. "This is so generous of you. I really shouldn't accept."
"It's from Dane, too, and he insisted. We all miss you at Ranier Industries and we hope your tattoo gives you a little reminder every day of how much we care about you."
"Okay, I'm not going to argue. You two are ..." Her voice quavered a little, so she just nodded while she drew in a deep breath. She shrugged. "... terrific."
She'd never had a friend as sweet and considerate as Jessica. The two women had taken to each other instantly — it was like they'd known each other for years. Melanie believed this could be a lifetime friendship.
"So how did you pick the place?" Melanie had been asking around for recommendations. If she was going to have something inked onto her body she wanted to ensure that the place was reputable, high quality, and that the artist was talented.
"I asked a friend who is very discerning. The artist you'll be seeing is Charlie. He came highly recommended and the online samples of his work are gorgeous. He books up pretty fast, so I called last week and made an appointment for you on Saturday, since I know that's your day off, and I also knew you'd be anxious to get it. You can move it if it's not convenient, but it'll probably mean waiting a couple of weeks."
"No way. I want to do this as soon as possible. Of course you'll go with me, right?"
Jessica frowned. "I'm afraid not. I already have plans and I can't change them."
Jessica smiled. "I promise, I'll try to be there for the next, brand new, wild and crazy thing you do."
Melanie nodded. "It's a deal."
* * *
As Melanie opened the door to Devil's Ink, she was greeted by the cheerful tinkle of a bell. She stepped into the clean, brightly lit studio. The walls were a warm, brick red covered with framed artwork of large, detailed tattoo designs. There was a glass reception counter on one side and black chairs along two walls with a coffee table covered with magazines and binders. A large tropical plant stood in one corner.
"Can I help you?" A tall, lanky woman in a navy tank top and jeans, with several face piercings and her arms sleeved with tattoos, stood up from her chair behind the counter.
"I have an appointment with Charlie at three o'clock. I just wanted to be here ahead of time."
"Sure. There's some design books on the table there. Coffee machine's over there. Help yourself."
"Thanks." Melanie sat in one of the waiting chairs and leaned forward to riffle through the black binders laid out on the low, square table in front of her. She grabbed one and opened it, then scanned through it. There were a broad range of designs, sorted into categories. The shading on the designs was very well done, something she'd been told to watch for.
The bell over the door tinkled and in her peripheral vision, she saw a man in well-worn jeans, a chain dangling from his belt loop into his pocket, walk past her.
The man walked to the counter and Melanie glanced over the book at his back and couldn't help but admire his broad shoulders and thick, muscular arms, showcased by the black tank top he wore.
Two men stepped into the room from a hallway, one a tall, bald man with a beard, his solid chest, arms, and neck covered with tattoos, and the other a man with white gauze on his bicep.
"I'll be right with you," the bald man said to the newcomer. "Hey, Rika. Bob's done."
"Be right there, Charlie," the tall, lanky woman called from the other side of a doorway, then she walked back to the counter and smiled at the man with the gauze.
The bald man, who seemed to be the artist she was here to see, turned to his next client and said, "Okay, now let me see what I'm working with."
The new client pulled off his tank top and walked toward him. Melanie's gaze landed on the hard, rippling muscles.
"So, you're sure you don't want me to alter the moth now that the chick has dumped you? Maybe change it to an angel?"
This man had a moth tattoo? Rafe had gotten a moth tattoo when he'd been dating Jessica.
"Naw. An angel's not my style."
The sound of the man's familiar voice stunned Melanie.
The artist chuckled. "Yeah, until a chick asks you for it, right?"
She raised her gaze up the broad, tattoo-covered chest, to the man's face.
She put down the book she'd been scanning and stared at him with wide eyes. She never would have believed Rafe would ever look like this. Muscle bound, inked, and breathtakingly hunky in a sexy bad-boy way. He was gorgeous beyond belief in his designer suits but, man, that was nothing compared to what lay underneath.
Rafe turned to her. "Melanie?" His lips turned up in that wide smile of his, paired with the warmth in his eyes that always made her feel special. "What are you doing here?"
* * *
Rafe gazed at Melanie. Her dark blonde hair hung loose, rather than tied back like she usually wore it at the office and the coffee shop she worked at now. It cascaded past her smooth, bare shoulders in soft waves, gleaming in the sunlight flowing through the big window.
She shrugged. "Same as you. Getting a tattoo."
His lips turned up in a grin. "Really?"
Charlie grabbed a piece of paper Rika handed him, probably the artwork Charlie had worked up from the basic design Rafe had sent him.
Rafe watched as Melanie walked toward him.
"I'm afraid I'm a virgin," she said.
Suddenly, Rafe saw her differently. Not as his sweet, innocent secretary, who wore demure suits and conservative flats. In those jeans and that lace-edged, black camisole top that showed off her shapely form, she looked anything but virginal.
Her cheeks heated. "As far as tattoos, I mean."
Her gaze gliding over his broad shoulders, then down to his abs heated him like the caress of the noonday sun.
"You're obviously very experienced," she said.
Charlie chuckled again.
Rafe found himself tightening at her words, his mind filled with images of her, wide-eyed and vulnerable, lying in his bed. Fuck, what was wrong with him? This was Melanie.
"It's just that, I'm kind of nervous about this. I've always wanted one, but it's so permanent — and I know it's going to hurt."
He quirked his head. "Would you like me to stay with you?" He grinned. "Maybe hold your hand."
She just nodded, and a need to be there for her, and protect her, washed through him.
"Could I watch while you get yours done?"
"You don't have any problem with that, do you, Charlie?"
Charlie grunted. "The more the merrier."
He turned and headed to the hallway leading to his room. Rafe gestured for Melanie to precede him, and he followed her down the hall, his gaze settling on the delightful sway of her hips. Once in the room, Charlie glanced at Melanie and pointed at a nearby chair. "You can sit there." (Continues...)
Excerpted from His to Claim #1 by Opal Carew. Copyright © 2014 Opal Carew. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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