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Oneiros Intelligence Services. The name on the door greeted Shea as she stepped off the elevator. As always, a shiver of excitement ran through her veins. The warm rush was pleasurable, but the dull ache in her head wasn't. Neither was the tight band of tension around her chest. Nervously, she brushed her hand down her skirt.
Maybe she should have rescheduled. This meeting was important, but she wasn't feeling very well. After last night's...incident she hadn't been able to get back to sleep. She hadn't even tried. It had been all she could do just to keep the panic at bay. Even now, if she breathed too deeply, she'd touch upon that dark fear.
So she wasn't breathing deeply.
And she wasn't thinking about last night.
She was here to do her job, and was glad for the distraction. She always felt like she had to be on top of her game whenever she came here.
Or anywhere near Derek Oneiros, for that matter.
The unexpected question made her flinch so hard, her briefcase bounced against her knee. "Excuse me?" she asked, turning on the heel of her white slingback.
A balding executive reached out and pushed the button for the elevator. "Are you heading down?" he repeated.
"Oh! No." Heat rose up into her face. "Thanks anyway."
Embarrassed, she stepped forward, gripped the handle under the stenciled sign, and determinedly pushed the heavy wooden door inward. Plush carpeting silenced her footsteps as she crossed the office suite to the receptionist's desk. "Good morning, Ellen."
"Good morning, Ms. Caldwell." The brunette rose from her chair and gestured to the office on her left. "Mr. Oneiros has been expecting you. Can I get you anything? Coffee? Tea?"
"Coffee would be wonderful." Anything with caffeine. Absently, Shea swept her hand along her cheek. At least the puffiness under her eyes seemed to have gone down. Now if only she could get her sluggish brain moving. "Cream with two sugars, please."
An infusion of glucose couldn't hurt, either.
"I'll bring it to you as soon as the pot is finished brewing," the receptionist replied. "Please, go right on in."
"Thank you." Tightening her grip on her briefcase, Shea turned toward the private office. She didn't know why she was so tense about this meeting; she worked with Derek all the time. He was the best at what he did. Yet he also challenged her. The man was just an uncanny mixture of GQ and genius.
"Get it together," she whispered softly under her breath.
She couldn't let him see her so unsettled. If he saw for a moment that she was weak or off-kilter, he'd have questions...or he'd be concerned.
Her forehead rumpled. Now where had that thought come from?
Shaking her head, she gave a quick knock on the door. She'd just give him the assignment and leave. Her gray matter wasn't up to much more than that today.
The deep, smooth timbre of his voice was surprisingly calming. Some of the tightness inside her unkinked, and she took the deepest breath she'd managed all day. Letting it out slowly, she opened the door. He was already halfway across the room, coming to greet her.
"Shea," he said, holding out his hand.
Automatically, she caught it in a handshake. "Derek."
His hand swallowed hers, his tough skin brushing intimately against her softer flesh. Inwardly, Shea sighed in pleasure. She may have hired the man for his intelligence, but she wasn't a nun. His GQ appeal was why she always conducted their business in person.
Confused by the direction of her thoughts, she pulled her hand back. "I hope I'm not late."
He didn't answer. Instead, his thumb dragged across the back of her fingers as if he didn't want to let her go. She looked up and found him staring at her.
A frown wrinkled his brow. "What's wrong?"
Her stomach took a dangerous dip, and her mouth went dry. So much for hiding anything from him.
Reaching out, he ran a fingertip along her temple. "Headache?"
She blinked when she felt her eyes unexpectedly sting. If only that was the extent of her problems. She felt panic start bubbling up, seeking escape and comfort, but she forced it back down. He was just being polite. "Do I look that bad?"
A derisive sound left the back of his throat. "As if you could."
He caught her by the elbow and directed her toward one of the chairs in front of his desk. "Sit down. Can I get you anything? Aspirin? A cold compress?"
Suddenly, sitting didn't sound like such a bad idea. Shea gratefully sank into the oversize leather chair. "I'm fine," she said as she set her briefcase on the floor beside her.
Her tension level shot back up, though, when she came upright and found him way too close. Instead of taking his own chair behind the desk, he'd settled his hips against the sturdy oak. His impeccable gray suit creased as he folded his arms across his chest and looked at her steadily. "Don't lie. I can see the pain in your eyes."
She licked her tongue across the back of her dry lips. She'd always found Derek an incredibly attractive man, but the way he was hovering over her made him seem bigger. Stronger. And with her emotions so close to the surface, all this fussing was making her downright...aware.
"It's not that bad," she insisted.
"I can pull the shades."
Her body heated as her thoughts went in a totally inappropriate direction.
"If it's too bright," he clarified.
The heat settled in her cheeks. What was wrong with her? "No need," she said, rubbing her palms against the smooth leather covering the arms of the chair. "Your receptionist is bringing me coffee. That should do the trick."
The lines on his forehead only deepened. "Caffeine withdrawal?"
Shea crossed her legs. On the job, Derek's tenacity was a distinct plus. Personally, though, it was disconcerting to be on the receiving end of that laserlike focus. "It was just a long night."
Silence fell upon the room and, too late, she realized the impression she must have given him. "Oh, no. Not that! I had trouble sleeping."
"Insomnia?" The question came out so quickly, he nearly spoke over her.
The reason for his concern became clear, and Shea suddenly wished the ground would open right up an swallow her. He didn't care whether or not she'd had a night of hot, never-ending sex. It was her lack of sleep. The entire city had recently endured an epidemic of sorts. For reasons unknown, people had gone through weeks without REM sleep. Unable to experience the recuperative power of the dream state, the victims had suffered terribly. And Derek's brother, Cael, had nearly been killed by a dream-deprived woman.
"It was just one bad night," she said.
She watched as his fingers wrapped around the beveled edge of the desk. One bad night or not, he was concerned. Impulsively, she reached out and laid her hand across the back of his white knuckles.
"Are you sure?"
"I'm fine, Derek." She gave his fingers a soft squeeze. "I've been dreaming. Lots and lots of dreams."
That seemed to settle him somewhat. He looked down to where she touched him. Even so, she was surprised when he turned his hand and caught her fingers between his thumb and palm. The contact sent a thrill through her. When she searched his eyes, though, his dark brown gaze looked haunted and uneasy.
"How is your brother?" she asked softly.
The question seemed to hang in midair. For a moment, Shea thought she'd crossed the line. As much as they'd worked together, she really didn't know Derek all that well. She had no right to be asking questions about his family, but he was worrying her.
A muscle ticked along his jaw. "He's better."
"Is he out of the hospital?"
"He's staying with his girlfriend." He looked down at her hand in his. With a soft touch, he aligned their palms more fully. "Cael's getting stir-crazy, though. Devon's going to have a fight on her hands if she tries to keep him away from the newspaper much longer."
"That sounds good," Shea said, trying to find her voice. The way he was holding her hand was doing funny things inside her chest. "Isn't it?"
"Yeah," he said absently. "It's good."
"So why aren't you more relieved?"
He moved their hands to his thigh. It was the look he gave her, though, that stopped her inclination to squirm. One look, and she was pinned.
"Why couldn't you sleep?"
For a split second, she was thrown right back into last night. Into her basement, into the dark. Cold fear knotted her gut, and the panic collided with the breath in her throat. His hold on her hand tightened, pulling her back into the present. Into the daylight and into the professional workplace...
Shea slammed a lid on her emotions and smoothed her face. "It was just one of those things."
His dark eyes sparked. "Which one?"
She forced a smile onto her lips and gave a firm tug on her hand. "I'm happy to hear that your brother is doing so well. I know that your family has been through a lot."
"Shea," he said, refusing to let her go.
"Derek." She wasn't going to wrestle with him, but she wanted her hand back. Now. A knock on the door saved her, and she looked at him pointedly. "That must be my coffee."
Derek stared down at Shea. Something was wrong; he could see it. He could feel it.
"Come in, Ellen," he called. As much as he didn't want to, he dropped his client's hand. Pushing himself away from the desk, he circled it before his assistant could get ideas.
"Here's your coffee, Ms. Caldwell," Ellen said as she entered.
"Thank you," Shea replied.
Funny how he knew she wasn't referring to the hot drink.
The china tinkled as his receptionist placed the cup and saucer onto the desk. "Can I get either of you anything else?"
A few ideas entered Derek's mind, but he kept them to himself. "Thank you, Ellen. That will be all."
Leaning back against the filing cabinet, he watched Shea speculatively. That had been fear he'd seen in her eyes raw, unfiltered fear.
The idea that she was having sleep problems bothered him a little too much.
He watched as she picked up the coffee cup. He knew he was staring, but that was inevitable. The woman was just...perfect. There was no other way to describe her. With that blond hair and tight, sleek body, she was gorgeous. That brain of hers was a major turn-on, too.
But something was different today.
He watched the way she held the delicate china as if it were a lifeline. Her hands looked dainty and fine. When they shook and the cup tinkled against the saucer, he pinpointed the difference.
Today, she seemed vulnerable.
He raked a hand through his hair. He'd never seen her in anything but top form. What had happened last night?
"Ah, that tastes wonderful," she said, settling back into her chair.
He pushed himself away from the cabinet and made himself sit down, too. "I hope it helps."
She wanted to keep things between them businesslike, but sleep was his business. She didn't know it and never would but he had a vested interest in her dreams. In everyone's dreams, he quickly chastised himself. They were his family's domain; their responsibility and charge.
He and his brothers were the Oneiroi, modern-day Dream Wreakers. Descended from Greek gods, it was their job to bestow dreams upon sleeping humans. At night while others slept, his kind slipped into the dream realm to do their work.
Yet they'd failed recently, and failed miserably.
The incident with Cael and Devon had opened a door that should have remained closed. He and his brothers were still cleaning up the mess. But even the slimmest possibility that Shea was somehow feeling the repercussions made him ill.
Pushing her on the issue obviously wasn't going to work, though. "How are things at Biodermatics?" he asked.
"Very well, thank you. We're quite busy these days."
Busy enough that she was losing sleep?
"I see that you've landed Audrey Lowe as a spokesperson. That's quite the accomplishment."
"It doesn't hurt to have a celebrity endorse your skin care products. We're already seeing an increase in sales."
And obviously an increase in headaches. He didn't think she realized it when she reached up to rub her temple, but he did.
He let out a calming breath. Okay, maybe he was overreacting. He had a tendency to do that whenever she came around: react. One sleepless night didn't necessarily mean that something was wrong. A neighbor's dog could have yapped all night. Maybe the summer heat had bothered her.
Unfortunately, neither of those explanations accounted for the stiff set of her shoulders or the lines of tension around her mouth. That soft, pink, kissable mouth...
"How is the intelligence business?" she asked.
He flicked open the notepad in the center of his desk with his forefinger. "You really don't want to know."
Opening the top desk drawer, he pulled out a pen. His company specialized in corporate intelligence, data mining, and information security. These days, it was difficult to keep up with the hackers, white-collar criminals, and scam artists.
"You mentioned on the phone that you wanted a background check done," he said gruffly. "Are you hiring a new research scientist?"
"Actually, no." Putting her coffee aside, she reached for her briefcase.
The movement pulled at her white suit jacket, and his gaze fell on the vee neckline in a decidedly unbusinesslike manner. She was wearing one of those close-fitting, tailored suits that made a man wonder what lay underneath. A bra strap...something lacy...skin?
His body started to hum. The tiny diamond pendant of her necklace swung to the side, though, and glinted at him in warning. Letting out a quick breath, he shifted in his chair.
"Phillip and I decided we need another secretary."
Phillip. Even with the warning, Derek wasn't prepared for the cold dash of water that was thrown over his libido. His pen poked a hole in the paper, and he grimaced. Ripping it off the tablet, he crumpled it and threw it in the trash.
"Tamika is great, but there's just too much work for one person," Shea continued as the latches on her briefcase popped open. "We really need someone to assist each of us."
Us. His hand fisted around his pen. Whatever had spooked her last night, good old Phil had certainly been there to take care of her.
The feel of her gaze on him made Derek tear his thoughts away from the unwanted visions in his head visions of Shea and her too-good-looking partner. He looked at the manila folder in her hand and tried to think.
"A secretary," he said dubiously.
"Yes." She glanced up as she put her briefcase back on the floor. "Why?"
Saying nothing, he opened the file. The applicant's résumé sat on top, and he gave it a quick once-over. The facts entered his head on autopilot, for his mind was already churning over other things.
Like maybe he'd been onto something with his original work stress idea.
Tapping his finger on the corner of the file, he shot her a look. "Congratulations."
"Congratulations? For what?"
"You've made a breakthrough."
He had to give her credit. Other than a slight widening of her eyes, she didn't give anything away. It piqued his interest even more.
"Things are going a bit better with my research," she admitted, smoothing the edge of her skirt over her knee.
He watched her closely. She was always so careful when she talked about her work. Part of it was humility, but there was something else....Sometimes he almost got the feeling she didn't want to jinx anything.
And he understood why. The implications of her research could be so far-reaching....
Skin care products were Biodermatics's primary market, but Shea's personal efforts were focused on the medical dermatological market. Specifically, she was working toward better treatments for burn victims. Very few people knew that, and she paid him good money to keep it that way. Even under a confidentiality agreement, she'd only given him enough information to do his job.
Yet the pressure had to be there. The stress could be getting to her, and stress could do bad things to sleep patterns.
Derek leaned forward onto his elbows. "You've never had me do this thorough a background check for a low-level employee before."
"I think we need to change that."
"Okay," he said slowly. "I'll get on it."
A shy smile of thanks pulled at her lips, and he felt his cock harden. Oh, yeah. Major breakthrough. The woman was smart, classy, and devastatingly sexy.
No wonder she was taken.
Rubbing the back of his neck, he glanced down to the résumé. "So, Lynette Fromm," he read. "What do you think of her?"
Shea cleared her throat. "She seems bright and enthusiastic. She's called several times expressing interest in the position."
She fingered her necklace. "But she's called several times expressing interest in the position."
He made a quick note. "Got it."
He skimmed through the information. "She has strong computer skills."
"And a degree in chemistry, so she should pick up on the technical lingo pretty quickly."
"There's a two-year break in her work history."
"She claimed she was taking care of an ill parent."
He flipped to the page of notes she'd taken. As expected, they were meticulous. "Her references seem to check out."
"But applicants always list people who will give them good recommendations. You taught me that."
He closed the file and set his pen atop it. Everything seemed straightforward enough except she had his brain scattered all over the place.
"This shouldn't take long," he said. "Is there anything else you want me to check into?"
It wasn't much for the trip over here. "All right. Do you want me to call you with what I find, or should I drop by your offices?"
She blinked as if he'd surprised her. He became even more curious when she blushed.
"You can stop by the lab," she said after a moment. "That's where I'm spending most of my time these days."
He nodded. Whatever she was working on, it was big. He just wished she'd let him in a little more on this and anything else she needed to share.
"How's the headache?" he asked softly.
Her lips parted in surprise. "Better."
Instinctively, his gaze dropped to her mouth. "Good; I'm glad."
He hated the idea of her hurting, especially if it had anything to do with sleep. "Shea, if there's ever anything else you need help with, you can always turn to me."
She hesitated. "That's very kind of you."
Kindness had nothing to do with it.
"It doesn't have to be work. You can trust me, whatever it is." He paused, suddenly unsure. "You know that, don't you?"
The air was suddenly charged with electricity, and she put down her coffee. She rubbed her hands together and reached for her briefcase. "Well, thank you," she said, uncrossing her legs. "I should get back to work."
He was on his feet before she could stand. "Why don't you go home for the rest of the day? Take it easy and get some rest?"
For some reason, her gaze went to his leather sofa and, suddenly, that look of fear was back in her eyes. "No, I have a lot of things I need to do today."
Quickly, he rounded his desk. "Shea, what happened last night?"
"Nothing. I'm sorry I'm so out of it." She began walking backward to the door. "Thank you for your time, Derek."
He glanced toward the leather sofa that sat under the picture windows of his office and cold sliced through him. "Did Phillip do something? Did he upset you? Or...hurt you?"
"Phillip?" Her eyes widened, and she shook her head quickly. "Why would you think...Phillip would never hurt me. It was just...a nightmare."
Derek's hand curled around the back of the chair beside him, his fingertips straining the leather. Her explanation had the ring of truth to it, but that didn't make him any happier. As a Dream Wreaker, he knew that people needed nightmares occasionally to deal with their issues, but hers must have been bad.
Really bad. She was afraid to sleep.
She looked at the sofa again and paled. Showing less grace than normal, she turned on her heel and headed toward the door.
Something inside him wasn't ready to let her go. "I'll drop by as soon as I've got the information you need. And Shea?" he called as she caught the handle.
She paused and glanced over her shoulder. "Yes?"
"Sleep well tonight."
Her pretty blue eyes widened. "I...I will. I'm sure last night was a one-time thing."
No, he was the one who'd make sure of it. As soon as she was out the door, he was going to find out what had scared her so badly. He wouldn't feel right until he knew for sure.
"Have sweet dreams," he said firmly.
Her cheeks turned pink.
"Only sweet dreams." Copyright © 2008 by Kimberly Dean