Alexa Holland’s father was her hero—until her shocking discovery that her mother and she weren’t his only family. Ever since, Alexa has worked to turn her life in a different direction and forge her own identity outside of his terrible secrets. But when she meets a man who’s as damaged by her father’s mistakes as she is, Alexa must help him.
Caine Carraway wants nothing to do with Alexa’s efforts at redemption, but it’s not so easy to push her away. Determined to make her hate him, he brings her to the edge of her patience and waits for her to walk away. But his actions only draw them together and, despite the odds, they begin an intense and explosive affair.
Only Caine knows he can never be the white knight that Alexa has always longed for. And when they’re on the precipice of danger, he finds he’ll do anything to protect either one of them from being hurt again....
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PRAISE FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES AND USA TODAY BESTSELLING ON DUBLIN STREET SERIES
ALSO BY SAMANTHA YOUNG
This wasn’t happening.
This couldn’t be happening.
I curled my hands into fists to stop them from shaking as I made my way through the hallway into the open-plan living area of the penthouse apartment. It had high cathedral ceilings and a wall of windows that led out onto a huge balcony. The water from the harbor glistened under the sun. It was a beautiful building with a gorgeous backdrop and I could not appreciate any of it because I was too focused on finding him there.
My heart stopped at the sight of him standing outside on the balcony.
My head snapped around from Caine’s direction to the kitchen area where my boss, Benito, was surrounded by two laptops and various other equipment for the photo shoot. This was supposed to be the moment I smiled in greeting and told him to direct me where he needed me.
Instead I looked back at Caine.
The orange juice I had drunk that morning sloshed around unpleasantly in my stomach.
Benito was suddenly in front of me, frowning and glaring at me.
“Hi,” I said, my voice flat. “Where do you want me?”
Benito cocked his head to the side, looking up at me in a way that was almost comical. I was tall at five nine. He was only five six. But what he lacked in height he more than made up for in personality. “Please”—he gave me a long-suffering sigh—“tell me I’ve got my normal Alexa back. I cannot cope with the Mother’s Day–disaster Alexa. Today I’m shooting Caine Carraway for Mogul magazine’s Top Self-Made Men Under Forty. Caine is to grace the cover.” He shot a look over his shoulder at said cover model. “An obvious choice.” He raised an eyebrow at me. “Today’s an important shoot. In case you don’t know, Caine Carraway is one of Boston’s most eligible bachelors. He’s the CEO of Carraway—”
“Financial Holdings,” I said softly. “I know.”
“Good. You’ll also know he’s horrifically wealthy and incredibly influential. He’s also a very busy man and a hard man to please, so I have to get this shoot done right and done quickly.”
My attention drifted over Benito’s head to the man who had successfully started a private bank immediately after graduating from college. From there he eventually expanded his company, building a diversified business portfolio involving everything from corporate banking to home mortgages, insurance companies, investment trusts, securities trading, asset management, and so forth. Now Caine himself was CEO of a major holdings company that was home to a board of directors of influential and wealthy businesspeople.
According to reports, Caine had managed all this through ruthless determination, eagle-eyed attention to his organization, and power-hungry ambition.
At the moment Caine was busy talking on his phone to someone as Marie, a beauty assistant, smoothed the lines of his tailored suit. The designer navy suit fit his body to perfection. Caine was tall, at least two, if not three, inches over six feet, broad-shouldered, and visibly fit. He had a strong profile, with sharp cheekbones and an aquiline nose, and the hair he was now impatiently batting Marie’s hand away from was thick and as dark as my own. Although it was pinched tight right now, I knew from photographs that he had a sensual, brooding mouth.
Definitely cover model material.
And definitely not a man you crossed.
I swallowed past the lump that had formed in my throat.
How ironic that he should be standing there, right in front of me, after all the ugliness my mother’s recent and sudden death had brought to the fore . . . and he was a part of that ugliness.
Six years I’d worked as a personal assistant for Benito—one of the city’s most successful and temperamental photographers. Of course, Benito was never melodramatic around clients, just his employees. Yet since I’d worked with him for a long time, I should have felt secure after all these years. I didn’t.
Strictly speaking, I used to feel like I had job security.
But losing my mother three months ago had caused my family issues to rear their ugly heads, and unveiled some harsh truths I often wished I didn’t know. I went on with work, putting on a brave face. However, it’s not possible to be that strong when you lose a parent, and unfortunately I’d had a bit of an emotional breakdown during a photo shoot for a major women’s magazine. It was a shoot for Mother’s Day.
Benito had tried to be understanding, but I could tell he was pissed. Instead of firing me, though, he told me to take a much-needed vacation.
Thus a few weeks later, here I was with a mighty fine tan courtesy of the Hawaiian sun, and upon my arrival this morning I’d had no clue what this photo shoot was about or for whom.
I’d received a clipped e-mail from Benito when I’d returned from my trip with the address for the photo shoot but no other information. I was his PA and I had no clue what his latest job entailed—that didn’t sound good to me.
So I was tan, yes, but I still hadn’t really sorted my head out about my mom, and was now seriously worried that the job I’d been busting my ass over for the last six years was seconds away from being flushed down a very expensive penthouse toilet. Today had to go well for me.
My anxiety had increased tenfold when I strode out of the elevator and caught sight of the people buzzing around the hallway and in the open double doors of the apartment. There were way more people at the shoot than usual, suggesting we were shooting someone particularly important. I was panicked, then, when our intern, Sofie, relayed to me that the person we were shooting was none other than Caine Carraway.
My whole body had jerked in reaction to the name and I’d started to tremble.
I hadn’t stopped trembling since.
Caine suddenly looked sharply at me as if he’d felt my gaze on him. We stared at each other, me struggling to hold on to my emotions, while he finally let go of my eyes so his could travel over my body.
Benito believed that dressing casually around celebrities impressed upon them that he and his people were not intimidated because we were on the celebrity’s level talentwise. He believed that attitude made his clients respect him more. I thought that was superficial bullshit, but it meant I got to wear whatever I liked, so I didn’t air that opinion. On shoots I often opted for whatever was most comfortable. Today that was shorts and a T-shirt.
The way Caine Carraway was looking at me right now . . . I might as well have been naked.
Goose bumps prickled along my arms and a shiver ran down my back.
“Alexa,” Benito snapped.
“Sorry,” I apologized, attempting not to think about Caine’s heated gaze or the burning ache that was forming in my chest.
My boss shook his head impatiently. “It’s fine, it’s fine. Just . . . here, take the BlackBerry back.” He slapped the device in my hand. I’d given it over to him before I left for vacation so he could give it to the temp. Benito’s world was in that BlackBerry. It had all his business contacts, e-mails, his work calendar . . . everything on it. I saw the e-mail icon already had fifteen unread e-mails this morning. “Get the crew organized first before you get to work. We’re shooting on the balcony with the harbor as a backdrop. Then inside in the sitting area. It’s a little darker there, so set it up.”
From there I went into autopilot. I knew my job inside and out, and that was the only reason I managed to do anything competently, because my head was not on the work. It was on the man I could barely look at as I directed one of our guys to set up Benito’s camera and laptop out on the balcony and got the lighting crew to set up in the sitting room for later.
I knew more about him than I should because for the last few months if I heard his name or saw it in print I paid attention. Call it morbid curiosity.
Orphaned at thirteen and put into the system, Caine beat the odds and went on to graduate from high school as valedictorian and continued his education at Wharton Business School on a full ride. He’d barely graduated from college when he started up the bank that would lead to Carraway Financial Holdings. By the time he was twenty-nine he was one of the most successful businessmen in Boston. Now at thirty-three he was feared and respected by his peers, welcomed into the fold of Boston’s high society, and one of the city’s most eligible bachelors. Although he was immensely private, the society pages took snapshots of him whenever they could, mostly at glamorous events. He was seen with beautiful women all the time, but the same one was rarely pictured with him after a few months.
All of that said alone, lonely, and, closed off to me.
That ache in my chest intensified.
“Alexa, come meet Mr. Carraway.”
I felt my breathing increase exponentially and turned from Scott, our lighting technician, to find Benito standing beside Caine.
Trying to control my emotions, I walked slowly over to them both, my cheeks burning under the heat of Caine’s black gaze. On closer inspection, I could see his eyes were actually a deep, dark brown. His face was a perfectly blank mask, but his eyes were more expressive.
I shivered again as they raked over me.
“Mr. Carraway, this is my PA, Alexa—”
“Nice to meet you.” I cut off my boss before he could say my last name. “If you need anything, give me a shout.” And before either Benito or Caine could respond, I quickly darted back across the room.
Scott was staring over my shoulder, and when his eyes returned to me they informed me that Benito was not pleased by my behavior. “What’s with you?” Scott said.
I shrugged at my colleague, not sure how to explain why I was acting like a teenager. It would be a long explanation. Too long. Too personal. Because what was with me was that only three short months ago I had discovered my father was to blame for destroying Caine’s childhood.
Now he was right there in front of me.
At Benito’s snap of my name, I spun around to find him scowling at me and gesturing me out onto the balcony. The shoot was starting.
Standing behind Benito, looking at the photos on the laptop, and glancing up from those to the real man in front of me, I was able to safely study Caine. Not at any point did he smile. He stared broodingly into the camera and Benito didn’t dare to ask him to change his countenance. He directed him to turn his head and body this way and that, but that was as courageous as Benito got with the guy.
“He’s got that brooding thing down pat,” Sofie murmured in my ear as she handed me coffee. “If I wasn’t happily engaged I’d try to put a smile on his handsome face. You’re single. You should so go there. I definitely think you could put a smile on his face.”
I covered a reactive blanch with a smirk. “I think it would take a gymnast and her twin sister to do that, babe.”
We looked at each other, laughter we couldn’t quite hold down bubbling up between us. It was a relief to laugh under such intense circumstances.
Unfortunately our laughter drew Caine’s attention. We knew this because everything went quiet and we turned to find him staring curiously at me while Benito . . . Well, he appeared to be trying to fry both Sofie’s ass and mine with the heat of his glower.
Sofie skittered off.
“Let’s take a break.” Benito sighed and approached the laptop. “You’ve been acting strange all morning,” he said under his breath. “Am I missing something?”
“No.” I stared at him, trying not to give away the truth. “Coffee?”
He nodded, no longer angry, just slightly disappointed. Which was worse.
I wisely hurried back into the apartment and headed to the bathroom. I thought a splash of cold water on my face might do me good. My hands shook as I cupped my palms under the tap water. “Shit,” I whispered.
I was a mess.
Enough was enough. My job wouldn’t survive another public outburst. Sure, it was a crappy situation, but I needed to pull myself together and act like a professional. Resolved to do so, I strode out of the bathroom with my shoulders thrown back and almost walked into a coffee cup.
The coffee cup was clasped in a large hand that belonged to Caine.
Staring up at him, I was struck mute. Mostly because my pulse was racing so hard it was difficult to concentrate on anything else, let alone words.
Caine raised an eyebrow and pushed the coffee toward me.
I took it, completely unable to keep the bafflement off my face.
“A peace offering,” he said, and I shivered again at the sound of his deep, cultured voice. “It would seem I scare you for some absurd reason.”
Our eyes locked, and my pulse was racing for an entirely different reason now.
“What are they saying about me these days?”
For a moment I forgot everything but what it was like to be lost in his beautiful eyes. “Lots,” I answered softly. “They are saying lots of things about you these days.”
He grinned, proving me wrong—he did not need a gymnast and her twin to put a smile on his face. “Well, you have me at a disadvantage. You know me, but I don’t know you.” He took a step forward and I suddenly felt overwhelmingly, deliciously surrounded by him.
Oh God, oh God, oh God. “There’s not much to tell.”
Caine dipped his head, his dark eyes liquid with a heat I felt between my legs. “Somehow I doubt that.” His eyes flickered to my lips before returning to mine. “I want to know more, Alexa.”
“Um . . .” The old cliché “Be careful what you wish for” suddenly floated across my mind.
He seemed to mistake the fact that I was a flustered panicked mess for deliberately being enigmatic, because he warned, “I’m not finishing this shoot until you tell me something about yourself. Time is money.” He smirked. “Gotta keep the boss happy.”
Was he referring to himself or Benito?
I stared at him, feeling my palms turn clammy as my heart rate increased, speeding up by the mounting seconds of silence stretching between us. And that was when it happened. Overwhelmed and thrown by his sudden appearance in my life after only having just discovered he was the little boy who played victim to my father’s villain, I went into meltdown. “I know you,” I blurted out. “No, I mean . . .” I stepped forward, edging us farther down the hall where we had more privacy. The coffee cup trembled in my hands. “My name is Alexa Holland.”
Shock moved through him.
To witness it was awful. His whole body jerked like I’d hit him, and the powerful businessman visibly paled before me.
I forged on. “My father is Alistair Holland. I know he had an affair with your mom and I know how it ended. I’m so—”
Caine’s hand cut through the air between us in a gesture to silence me. Fury had replaced the shock. His nostrils flared with it. “I’d stop if I were you.” His words were guttural with menace.
“I just found out. I had no idea until a few months ago that it was you. I don’t even—”
“I said stop.” He stepped forward, forcing me back against the wall. “I don’t want to hear it.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” He slammed a hand against the wall above my head and I saw past the cultured, ruthless gentleman everyone else saw to a man who was far less polished and way more dangerous than anyone truly realized. “Your father seduced my mother and after introducing her to drugs, left her to OD in a hotel room because trying to save her meant watching his precious inheritance go up in flames.” His face was so close to mine now I felt the warm puff of his breath on my lips. “He destroyed my family. I want nothing from him or you. I certainly don’t want to breathe the same air as either one of you.”
He abruptly pushed away from the wall and marched out of the hallway.
Most women would probably be in tears after a verbal assault like that. Not me. Growing up, I’d watched my mother succumb to tears in every spat she ever had, and I’d hated that. When she was angry she cried, when all she really wanted to do was be angry.
So I never cried when I was angry.
And I was pissed at my estranged father for putting me in a position where I’d be painted with the same disgusting brush as him.
Caine’s last words penetrated through my thoughts.
“Oh, shit.” I rushed out of the hallway.
Caine was speaking to Benito in the kitchen.
My stomach flipped as Benito flinched at whatever Caine said. He looked over at me, bewildered, before turning to respond to the other man.
Caine glowered and whipped around, searching the room for someone. His eyes locked on a young man dressed in a stylish suit. “Ethan, I want a different photographer.” His voice carried across the room so everyone heard and caused them to halt in what they were doing. “Or I don’t do the cover.”
Ethan nodded militantly. “I’m on it, sir.”
I was horrified; my eyes flew to Benito, whose mouth had dropped open in equal horror. Caine didn’t stick around long enough to witness that, though. He was already striding toward me, and as he passed me to head for the exit, he didn’t even look at me.
I felt sick.
Benito’s tone was quiet, surprisingly calm. His words were not. “What the fuck did you do?”
* * *
My friend Rachel moved the restless child in her arms from one side of her lap to the other. “It’s been five hours. Calm down. Your boss will call you to clear this whole misunderstanding up.”
I eyed her daughter, Maisy, with growing concern. “Should Maisy’s face be that purple?”
Rachel frowned at the subject change and looked at her daughter. “Maisy, stop holding your breath.”
Maisy stared up at her stubbornly.
“Uh . . . she’s still holding her breath.” Why Rachel was not as worried by this as I was, I did not know.
Rachel made a face. “You won’t get a toy if you keep holding your breath.”
Maisy let out a comically long exhale and then grinned at me.
“She’s the devil,” I murmured softly, eyeing her warily.
“Tell me about it.” Rachel shrugged. “Apparently I pulled the old holding–my-breath-to-get-what-I-want trick when I was her age.”
I glanced down at my half-eaten lunch. “We can leave and go for a walk through the gardens if she’s getting restless.”
“We’re not finished calming you down.” Rachel waved at a passing waiter. “Two more diet sodas and an orange juice, please.”
I didn’t argue. Out of all of my friends, Rachel was the most persistent and overbearing. That was probably why she was the only one of them I still saw on a regular basis.
There had been four of us, close friends, in college: me, Rachel, Viv, and Maggie. Out of the four of us, I was the only one not married, and I was childless. Between them they had four kids. I’d lost contact with Viv and Maggie over the years, and now I only saw Rachel every few weeks. I’d been so busy with work and socializing with colleagues that I’d never bothered to make new friendships outside of the old or outside of my career.
If that horrible gut feeling I had turned out to be true, if Benito fired me, I was looking at a very grim future of no money, no pretty apartment, and no social life.
“Maybe you should make mine a vodka,” I grumbled.
Rachel heaved a sigh. “Benito is not going to fire you. Not after all your hard work. Right, baby?” She bounced her daughter on her knee.
Maisy giggled at me and shook her head, her dark curls flying into her mother’s face.
“Great, even the three-year-old knows I’m fucked.”
Rachel grimaced. “You can’t say fucked in front of a kid, Lex.” Our drinks arrived and she pushed mine toward me. “Now calm your shit so we can talk about me for a while.”
I smiled a real smile for the first time in a week. “Only if you tell me one more time I’m not going to get fired.”
“Lex, you’re not going to get fired.”
* * *
“Alexa, you’re fired!”
My stomach dropped at the irate beginning to the voice mail message Benito had left me.
“I don’t know what the fuck happened this morning, but you are done. And not just with me. Oh no! Do you know what you cost me today? You pissed Caine Carraway off so badly I lost Mogul and two other magazines from the same media company! My reputation is on the line here. After everything I’ve worked for! Well . . .” His voice lowered, which was even scarier than the shouting. “Consider yourself fucked, because I’m going to make sure you never work in this industry again.”
I pinched the bridge of my nose and sucked in a shuddering, teary breath.
This was bad.
This was so, so bad.
I stared stubbornly at my phone as I sipped a huge glass of red wine. “No.”
My grandfather sighed loudly, causing the speakerphone to crackle. “For once put your pride aside and let me help you. Or do you want to move out of that apartment you love so much?”
No, I did not. I’d worked my butt off to be able to afford to rent a place like my one-bedroom condo in Back Bay. It was beautiful with its high ceilings and tall windows that looked down onto the treelined street. I loved the location. I was a twenty-minute walk from my favorite part of the city—the Public Garden, Newbury Street, Charles Street . . . Location was everything, but the fact that my apartment was cute and homey was icing on a very nice cake. It was the kind of place I’d always wanted, and I had hoped that someday I’d have saved enough for a deposit to buy the apartment or one in the same neighborhood.
Material goods didn’t mean a damn thing. I knew that. But I just really needed my pretty apartment right now. It was a comfort thing.
Did I need it enough to sell my principles?
“I’m not taking your money, Grandpa.” I knew it wasn’t Edward Holland’s fault, but the diamond fortune he’d inherited from his family and gone on to expand with wise investments that diversified his business portfolio was the very thing that had polluted my father. I didn’t want anywhere near something so toxic.
“Then I’ll have a word with Benito.”
I thought about the fact that my grandfather had kept his relationship with me secret from the rest of his family. No one outside the family knew that Alexa Holland was a Holland—my dad had managed to keep the indiscretion with my mother that led to my birth from his family, excluding his father—and Grandpa certainly hadn’t confessed to them that he’d reached out to me when I was twenty-one and all alone in Boston.
I understood that it would have caused drama and irritation for him to reveal the truth, but I couldn’t say it didn’t hurt. Sometimes it felt like he was ashamed of me. Like it or not, though, he was all I had now and I loved him.
I bit down my resentment. “You can’t,” I said. “Benito has a big mouth. He’ll tell everyone who I am.”
“So, what, then? You find another job . . . Doing what?”
Any other job would come with a major pay cut. As an executive PA to a successful photographer, I made a nice income. More than twice that of standard PA positions. I sipped at my wine, looking around at all my pretty things in my pretty home.
“I didn’t even get to apologize,” I muttered.
“I didn’t even get to apologize,” I repeated. “He blew up in my face and then ruined my life.” I groaned. “Don’t even say it. I recognize the irony in that. My family ruined his . . . tit for tat.”
Grandpa cleared his throat. “You didn’t ruin his life. But you did take him off guard.”
Guilt suffused me. “True.”
“And I already told you my attempts in the past have failed. It isn’t our place to apologize.”
“I know that.” I did know that. I wasn’t disappointed, because I couldn’t apologize for my father’s sins. I was disappointed because in that moment, when Caine realized who I was, I saw a pain in his eyes that was so familiar to me. Seeing the pain that was clearly still raw for him, I felt a sudden, overwhelming sense of kinship with him. We were both part of a tragic legacy. I’d never been able to talk about it with anyone because of the secrecy of it all. For years I’d been left to bear the burden of the truth all by myself. Then three months ago my mom died and all the ugly shit came crawling to the surface, and during a tirade on the phone to my grandpa he’d finally let slip the name of the child who had been wronged.
Caine Carraway. The only other person besides my parents and grandfather who knew the truth. The only other person who could possibly understand.
I couldn’t explain the connection I felt to him. I just knew that it was possible I was the only person who could understand his pain, and . . . I found I wanted to be there for him somehow. It didn’t make sense. I barely knew him. I knew that. But I couldn’t help feeling it all the same.
It was gut-wrenching then to have him look at me like I was part of the problem. Like . . . I was to blame. I hated the idea that he could think that of me, and I didn’t want that to be the last time we ever spoke. I didn’t want to be part of a bad memory. “I should go over there and apologize for ambushing him. While I’m there I could ask him to fix this. One call to Benito and he can make this go away.”
“Alexa, I don’t think that’s wise.”
Maybe not. But I was desperate for my job back and to change Caine’s opinion of me. “Ever since Mom . . . I just . . . I need him to hear me out, and I see no harm in asking him to call Benito while I’m there.”
“That sounds an awful lot like what you need and not what he needs.”
I shoved that truth aside and rationalized, “Have you met Caine Carraway? I don’t think that man knows what he needs.”
* * *
The receptionist was staring at me as if I was ridiculous.
“You want to see Mr. Carraway of Carraway Financial Holdings without an appointment?”
I knew it wouldn’t be easy to walk into the huge rose-granite-walled building on International Place and expect to be escorted directly to Caine’s office. Still, the receptionist was treating it as if I were asking to see the president. “Yes.” I curbed my natural instinct to return her question with sarcasm. She didn’t look like she’d respond well to that.
She sighed. “One moment, please.”
I glanced over at the security guard who was manning the metal detectors situated before the elevators. Carraway Financial Holdings shared the building with another company, which meant there were security cameras everywhere. No matter what I tried to pull here, I was going to get caught. It was all just a matter of timing. I was okay with getting caught . . . as long it was after I got in to see Caine.
I sidled away from the reception desk while the pinchy-mouthed receptionist lady frowned at her nails. While her focus was elsewhere I smoothed on a fake look of nonchalance and began to walk toward the detectors.
“ID.” The security guard held out a hand to stop me from going any farther.
I stared up into his bearded face and noted the alertness in his eyes. Damn my luck. I couldn’t get a clichéd, unobservant security guy?
I smiled innocently. “The lady at reception told me they’ve run out of visitor ID passes. She told me to go on up.”
He narrowed his eyes in suspicion.
I gestured to her. “Ask her.”
He huffed and looked over at reception. I realized right away he was going to yell the question at her so he didn’t have to move from his post.
It was my only opportunity.
I skittered past him and rushed through the detectors and heard him shout just as I was hurrying into the elevator that would take me to Caine’s floor. The doors shut as the security guard’s foot came into view.
“You’ve lost it,” I murmured to myself as the elevator climbed. “You’ve actually finally lost it. You should have taken the therapy when it was offered.”
I heard a snort from my right. I was sharing the elevator with a guy who grinned at me as if I was hilarious. “It doesn’t work for some people,” he said.
I was confused. “What?”
“Therapy,” he explained. “Works for some, not for others.”
I took in his sharp suit and expensive watch. He was good-looking with perfect light brown hair and vibrant blue eyes, and I could tell with just one look that along with the designer suit he wore designer confidence. He was also vaguely familiar. “Did it work for you?”
He shrugged, his grin wicked. “My therapist worked for me.”
I laughed. “Well, at least you got something out of it.”
His smile widened and he nodded at the elevator buttons. “Carraway Financial Holdings?”
I nodded and my stomach flipped nervously at the thought of seeing him again. “I need to speak to the CEO.”
“Caine?” The guy’s eyebrows rose before his gaze roamed over me. “Should I tackle you and let security have you?”
“Mr. Carraway would probably prefer that, but he needs to let me have my say.”
“Uh . . . who are you?”
I shot him a wary look. “Um . . . who are you?”
“A friend. I’m supposed to have lunch with him.”
The elevator doors pinged open. “When I have it I’ll give you my firstborn if you let me cut into the first five minutes of that.”
He stepped out and I followed him. His gaze was appraising.
I waited, my eyes darting nervously to the receptionist, who looked awfully concerned by my sudden appearance.
“I’ll tell you what.” Elevator Guy drew my attention back to him, amusement lacing his words. “The detectors didn’t go off, and it’s clear you’re not carrying a weapon.” He gestured to my tailored shorts and tank top. “So I’m going to take you in to see Caine. But”—he cut me off before I could give him my relieved thanks—“I get to accompany you. I’m curious to hear how Caine knows someone like you.” He put his hand lightly on my lower back and started guiding me toward reception.
I wrinkled my nose, not sure if I’d just been insulted or complimented. “Someone like me?”
“Mr. Lexington.” The receptionist shot up from his chair, his voice high with panic. “I believe that woman just dodged security.”
“It’s fine, Dean.” The guy, who I now recognized from the society pages as Henry Lexington, the son of Randall Lexington, one of Caine’s business partners, waved away the receptionist’s concerns. “Let Caine know we’re on our way.”
Bemused, I let Lexington lead me down a corridor of offices. Near the end of the hallway, the space opened out and a glass desk as stylish as the reception desk we’d previously passed was positioned aside two large double doors. A brass plaque on the door declared that the room beyond belonged to Caine Carraway, CEO.
There were no windows into the office on this side, affording Caine complete privacy.
The young man I’d seen at the photo shoot stood up from behind the glass desk as we approached. His eyes darted to me and then widened with recognition. “Uh, Mr. Lexington—”
“I’m expected.” Lexington threw him a debonair smile that definitely worked for him and reached for the door.
The PA was cut off as Lexington led me inside Caine’s huge office. While there were no windows behind us, there was a wall of them opposite us and along the right side of the office. Light streamed into the modern but sparsely decorated space.
I barely took anything in, however, because my gaze zeroed in on Caine.
He looked equal parts enraged and baffled by my presence as he shot to his feet from behind a huge antique desk.
There was another dip in my belly, this one a little lower than the last. Although I’d already witnessed it, the power of his presence continued to surprise me.
“Henry, what the fuck?”
Lexington’s eyebrows rose considerably at Caine’s reaction to my appearance. He looked down at me and smirked. “Seriously, who are you?”
Both our heads whipped back in Caine’s direction.
Of course he was talking to me.
“No.” I took a step toward him despite the menace emanating from him. “We need to talk.” The muscle in his jaw flexed at my refusal to be cowed.
Inwardly I was pretty cowed, but he didn’t need to know that.
“Mr. Lexington here was kind enough to offer me five minutes of his lunch appointment with you.”
Caine shot him a furious look. “Did he?”
Henry smiled. “I’m a gentleman that way.”
“Henry, get out,” Caine said, the words quiet but forceful.
“Well, I made—”
Clearly Henry knew something I didn’t, because unlike me he didn’t appear at all afraid of Caine. “Of course.” He chuckled and then winked at me in a way that worked for him even more than the debonair smile. “Good luck.”
I waited until the door had closed behind Henry before I took in a deep breath and braced myself to interact with Caine. I noted his eyes flickered up quickly from my legs to my face.
I shivered under that Prince of Darkness stare of his.
“In two seconds you’ll be following him out of the door.”
You can do this. Make him hear you, Lex. “Throw me out and I will come back quicker than a boomerang.”
“I daresay a boomerang won’t fare too well against a locked door, Miss Holland.”
“Lock the door and I’ll find other, more creative ways to torment you. I have nothing left to lose at this point.”
Caine heaved an irritated sigh. “You have one minute. Use it wisely.”
God, he really was an arrogant SOB. I pushed down my irritation, reminding myself who he was and what he’d been through. “Two things. First, I lost my job.”
His response to that was to shrug and relax against his desk. He crossed his arms over his chest and then one ankle over the other and hit me with an insouciant “So?”
“So . . . it’s because of what happened at the shoot.”
“Then I suggest you act more professionally in the future. Now I have lunch to attend to . . .” He gestured to the door.
“Look.” I held up my hands in something akin to surrender. “I apologize. That’s the second thing. I apologize sincerely—”
“Fucking say it and I will throw you out,” he warned.
“For ambushing you,” I hurried to finish.
He relaxed only somewhat.
“I shouldn’t have done that. I had no idea we were doing a photo shoot with you. I showed up on-set and you were there and I’m in a weird place and I acted emotionally and it was really unfair to you.”
Caine merely blinked at my rambling.
“So I’m sorry,” I finished.
“Fine.” He stood up, his eyes moving over my shoulder, not concealing his impatience.
I took that “fine” as an acceptance of my apology and forged ahead again. “But the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.”
I was treated to another heavy sigh from him. “Tell me again why I should care if the daughter of the man who gave my mother the cocaine that killed her no longer has a job.”
I flinched. “My father’s actions were not mine.”
“Same blood runs in your veins.”
Any hope I had of battling my irritation with his arrogance went flying out the window. “Oh? Cocaine addict, are you?”
I regretted the words as soon as they were out of my mouth.
“Get out.” The words were said with barely leashed fury.
“Okay, okay,” I hurried to defuse that land mine. “That was a shitty thing to say. I’m really sorry. But you’re presuming to know who I am because of who my father is, and that’s shitty too.”
There was no response.
Cautiously I took a step toward the brooding businessman. “Look, you didn’t just get me fired. My boss lost Mogul and two other clients because of your ire. That means my boss blacklisted me. I won’t get another job in the industry again unless you fix this. Just . . . let Benito do the shoot. Please.”
A weighted silence fell between us as we stared at each other. I was pretty sure (or at least I hoped) Caine was silent because he was considering my request. The silence, however, just afforded me even more of a chance to soak in his rugged, dark handsomeness. Was it possible he was getting better- looking?
That was a problem for me.
My mom had always been so bowled over by my dad’s looks that she felt inferior to him, like maybe she was the lucky one to be with him and not the other way around. I’d hated that and I didn’t need a therapist to tell me it was the reason that I tended to date guys who were attractive but not so attractive they were intimidating. More important, my ex-boyfriends (and it wasn’t like there were lots of those) all made it clear that they thought they were punching above their weight by dating me. I didn’t look for that because I needed to feel more attractive than my partner. It was because I didn’t want to feel inferior.
Not like Mom had.
Which was why my reaction to Caine was an anomaly. I could admit when a guy was a hot guy. But I was never attracted to hot guys, because I’d hard-wired my brain not to shoot off all the chemicals that would make me attracted to hot guys.
With Caine, though . . . well, my thoughts had wandered into the indecent since the moment we met (if I was honest, maybe even before then) and I could feel my skin prickling with awareness under his fierce regard.
No? “What do you mean no?”
He quirked an eyebrow at me. “It’s one of the most commonly used words in the English language, Miss Holland. Shocking that someone who doesn’t understand its meaning would find herself unemployable.”
I ignored his sarcasm and flipped my hair over my shoulder with what I hoped was an air of defiance. “I won’t take no for an answer.”
Caine’s already dark eyes shadowed with irritation as he said with a threatening calmness, “You’ll take it and you’ll get out before I personally remove you from my office.”
I shivered again at the thought of him putting those big hands of his anywhere near me. I quickly threw that thought aside and replied, “Please be fair.”
The air around him thickened with anger. “Fair?” he said, his voice hoarse. “What part of you being here is fair? I’m going to ask you to leave one more time, and if you don’t I will physically remove you.”
I closed my eyes, unable to see the pain in his without wanting to hurt my own father. Because my father was a weak and irresponsible man, Caine Carraway had lost everything, and despite all the “everything” he had around him now, I wasn’t convinced from what I’d seen so far that he actually had anything. “I’ll go,” I whispered. When I opened my eyes he was staring stonily at me. My stomach sank at the realization that this was it. His opinion of me hadn’t changed, and I was still jobless. “I really am sorry. I just . . . I’m just stuck.” And I meant that in so many ways. I grabbed the handle on his office door and had started to pull on it when his irritated sigh stopped me.
“I’ll call your boss and tell him to take you back.”
Relief swooshed through me as I whirled to look at him, amazed. “Really?”
He gave me his back. “Yes, but I will change my mind if you don’t get out of my office in the next five seconds.”
I shot out of that office in three seconds flat. I didn’t get everything I came for, which was probably why as I drove home my relief was gradually outweighed by my disappointment. It occurred to me that I wished Caine could see what I saw—that we were the same in some ways. And I didn’t want to be someone he hated.
However, it was clear Caine needed me to leave him alone. And I would. Even if it was the absolute last thing I wanted to do.
The last day and a half of moping around my apartment had been torturous. With nothing but worry and time on my hands, I’d started reliving some pretty crappy memories, including that fateful day seven years ago when I found out the truth about my father and how he wasn’t an absentee father who gave up his jet-setting career in order to see us every day. No, he was a poor excuse for a man who abandoned his first family and took no responsibility for the woman who overdosed in his presence. This led to thinking about my relationship with my mom and about how shit things were before she died. None of those were things I wanted to remember, so I spent most of my time going over and over my accounts trying to figure out a way to stretch the savings I had. I could get by, living in my apartment without a well-paying job, for six months. This meant eventually giving up the apartment was inevitable.
Accounting was so depressing.
I lounged, legs dangling over the arm of my big comfy armchair that probably wouldn’t fit into the kind of apartment I’d have to move to if Benito didn’t hire me back, and I sipped at my Cherry Coke while Bing Crosby sang out “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” from my speakers.
“You sing it, Bing.” I raised my glass in the air in a gesture of solidarity and nearly spilled my soda as the much louder sounds of Bruce Springsteen singing “Johnny 99” blasted from my cell.
So I liked a relevant sound track to my life.
Heart racing, hoping the name I’d see on the screen was Benito, I rolled off the chair, landed hard on my knees, bit out a curse word, and scrambled along my floor, spilling Cherry Coke on the hardwood.
Almost smacking my nose against the wall, I got up onto my feet and snatched at the phone buzzing on my kitchen counter. I frowned at the number on the screen.
I didn’t recognize it.
Deflated, I answered in a pathetically sad tone, “Hello.”
“Hello, this is Ethan Rogers calling from Mr. Carraway’s office. Am I speaking to Miss Alexa Holland?”
My pulse started going wild again. “You are.” I held my breath.
“Mr. Carraway requests that you attend a meeting with him in his office tomorrow at noon.”
A meeting with Caine? What on earth— “Did he say why?”
“No, Miss Holland, he did not. May I tell him you’ll be available tomorrow at noon?”
Why, oh, why, after all his protestations did Caine want to see me again? What had happened since I crashed into his office? My stomach did that nervous flippy thing again. “Um . . .” Had Benito said yes or no? Or was this about something else? What did Caine want from me?
Did it matter?
He wanted to see me again, and that was an opportunity to change his mind about me.
“Sure. I’ll be there.”
* * *
Ethan led me into Caine’s office the next afternoon and I was surprised to find Caine not behind his desk but standing in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows staring out over High Street and Atlantic Avenue to the harbor beyond.
With his back to me, I stole that moment to fully appreciate Caine Carraway without him knowing it. So yeah, I couldn’t see his face, which was the best part, but with him standing with his hands in his trouser pockets, legs braced, shoulders relaxed, the view was delicious enough for me. His height, those broad shoulders, and let’s not forget that ass.
That was a mighty fine ass.
When the seconds ticked by without a response from him, I began to feel like a high school nerd waiting for the captain of the football team to pay attention to her.
I didn’t like that nearly as much as the view of his ass.
Caine turned his head slightly in profile. “I did.”
“And I assume there was a reason?”
He faced me and I felt that flush of attraction as his eyes swept over me. “You would assume right.” He sighed and strolled over to his desk, his gaze raking over me speculatively as he did so. “Do you own a suit, heels?” His scrutiny moved to my face. “Makeup?”
I looked down at my clothes. I was wearing jeans and a sweater, and no, I wasn’t wearing makeup. I had good skin. I’d inherited my olive skin from my mother, and despite those darn freckles sprinkled across the crest of my nose, it was blemish free. I rarely wore foundation or blush, and because my eyes were so light and my lashes so dark, I only wore mascara when dressing up for an occasion.
I knew I wasn’t glamorous, but I looked like my mom—I had her apple cheekbones, blue-green eyes, and dark hair—and my mom had been very pretty. No one had ever looked me over and considered my lack of makeup with disdain before.
I frowned. “Weird question.”
Caine relaxed against his desk in much the same pose as he had used the last time he pinched his lips at me in his office. And he was pinching his lips and inspecting me. I felt like I was being judged and found wanting, which was insulting normally but somehow even worse coming from a guy who looked as put together as he did.
“I couldn’t change Benito’s mind,” Caine informed me. “That little bastard can hold a grudge.”
If I weren’t so deflated by his news I would have laughed. “Bu—”
“So I thought about it,” he said, cutting me off, “and you can try working for me. You’ll need to invest in some appropriate clothing, however.”
Um . . . what? Did he just. . .? “I’m sorry. What?”
“Benito informed me that it kills him but he just can’t take you back after your behavior with a client lost him such big accounts. You’re the biggest disappointment of his thirties and before you went insane you were the best PA he ever had. The disappointment of your behavior on-set, and I quote, Broke. His. Heart.”
“Oh yeah, he sounds devastated.”
“Despite his flair for the melodramatic, it seems he has high standards and he has led me to believe that before you acted like an insane person you were intelligent, efficient, and hardworking.”
“Insane person?” That word had been used as an adjective to describe me twice now.
He ignored me. “I need a PA. Ethan is a temp and my previous PA has decided not to return from maternity leave. I have a job opening and I’m offering it to you.”
There was no other word for how I was feeling.
How could this man go from never wanting to see me again to offering me a job that meant I was going to be in his face? A lot.
“But . . . I thought you didn’t want me around.”
Caine narrowed his eyes. “I need a PA who will fulfill all my wishes and demands immediately. That’s not easy to find—most people have social lives. You, however, are desperate, and the way I see it, you owe me.”
I sobered at his reminder of the past. “So what . . . you get to act out some kind of vengeance by working me into an early grave?”
“Something like that.” He smirked. “It’ll be a comfortable grave, though.” He told me the salary and I almost passed out.
My mouth parted on a gasp. “For a PA job? Are you serious?”
I’d get to keep my apartment. I’d get to keep my car. Screw that . . . I’d be able to save enough money to afford a deposit on my apartment.
Caine’s eyes glittered triumphantly at my obvious excitement. “As I said, it comes with a price.” His grin was wicked and I suddenly felt a little breathless. “I’m a hard man to please. And I’m also a very busy man. You’ll do what I want when I want and I won’t always be nice about it. In fact, considering what your surname is, you can pretty much guarantee I won’t be nice about it.”
My heart thumped at the warning. “So you’re saying you plan to make my life miserable?”
“If you equate hard work with misery.” He considered me as I considered him, and that damnable little smirk quirked his beautiful mouth again. “So . . . just how desperate are you?”
I stared at him, this man who held up an armored shield so high in the hopes that nothing would penetrate it. But call it intuition or call it wishful thinking, I believed I could see past that shield of his—like I could feel the emotion he fought so hard to hide. And that emotion was anger. He was angry with me, whether because of my father or my sudden intrusion into his life, and this job . . . this job was his way of taking back control, of making me pay for throwing him off balance. If I took it I had no doubt he was going to do his best to test my patience to the limit. I was a pretty patient person normally. No way I could have worked with someone like Benito and not have been. But I didn’t feel like myself around Caine.
Not at all.
I was defensive and scared and vulnerable.
It would be a huge risk putting myself in his control.
However, I knew it was a risk I would take. And not just because he was offering me more money than I would ever make anywhere else, nor because this job would look great on my résumé. I would take this risk because I wanted him to see I wasn’t anything like my dad. I wanted Caine to see that if anything, I was like him.
I jutted my chin out defiantly. “I worked for Benito for six years. You don’t scare me.” You terrify me.
Caine slipped on that intimidatingly blank mask of his and pushed up off his desk. I held my breath, my skin prickling as he prowled across the room. I had to tilt my head back to meet his gaze as he came to a stop inches before me.
He smelled really, really good.
“We’ll see,” he murmured.
I felt that murmur between my legs.
I stuck out my hand. “I accept the job.”
Caine’s eyes dropped to my hand. I tried not to tremble as I waited for him to decide whether or not he wanted to touch me. Swallowing my misery at his reluctance, I kept my gaze unwavering.
Finally he reached out and slid his large hand into mine.
The friction of the rougher skin of his palm against the soft skin of mine sent sparks shooting up my arm, and arousal tightened my muscles, including those in my fingers.
Surprise flared in both of our eyes.
Quite abruptly, Caine ripped his hand from mine and turned his back on me. “You start Monday,” he said, his words curt as he made his way to his desk. “At six thirty. Ethan will give you the particulars of my morning schedule.”
Still shaken from the sizzle that had just passed between us, I said hoarsely, “Six thirty?”
Caine glanced over his shoulder at me as he shuffled some papers on his desk. “Is that a problem?”
“It is.” His tone brooked no denial.
Six thirty it was, then. “I’ll be here.”
“And dress appropriately.” I bristled but nodded at the command. “And do something with your hair.”
I frowned and touched a strand of it. “What do you mean?” I wore my hair long with a slight wave in it. There was nothing wrong with my hair.
Annoyed, Caine turned to face me. “This isn’t a nightclub. I expect your hair and clothes to be stylish but conservative. Image is important, and from now on you represent this company. Slovenly hair and clothes do not reflect the company image.”
Stylish but conservative? Slovenly hair and clothes?
I contemplated him and how pompous he could be. You have quite the stick up your ass, don’t you?
He glowered as if he’d read my mind. “Tomorrow you’ll receive employment contracts. Once you sign those I’m your boss.” When I didn’t answer he said, “That means you act the way I want you to act. That means you shelve the attitude and the twenty questions.”
“Should I shelve those next to ‘personality’?”
Caine did not look amused. In fact, the look in his eyes bordered on predatory. “That would be wise.”
I gulped, suddenly wondering why I’d thought it was smart to poke the tiger. “Noted.” Already I could tell this arrangement between us was not going to be easy, but I just had to remember my endgame here. “I guess I’ll see you Monday, Caine.”
He lowered himself into his seat without looking up at me. “Ethan will provide you with all the information you need before you leave.”
“Oh, and, Alexa?”
I froze but my pulse sped up. He’d never said my name before.
It sounded nice on his lips. Very, very nice.
“Yeah?” I whispered.
“From now on you will refer to me as Mr. Carraway and only Mr. Carraway.”
Ouch. Talk about putting me in my place. “Of course.” I took another step toward the door.
“And one other thing.” This time I halted at his dark, dangerous tone. “You never mention your father or my mother, ever again.”
My heart practically clenched at the pain I heard in his voice.
With a careful nod, I slipped out of his office, and despite the way he threw me off balance, I was more determined than ever that this was the right decision. Somehow this was where I was meant to be.
The hot water sluiced down over me and I waited for it to wake me up. So far, nothing. In fact, I was so tired I couldn’t even find the energy for first-day-on-the-job-jitters. I washed the conditioner out of my hair and stumbled from the shower.
I needed coffee.
I groaned and leaned back against the cool tiled wall of my bathroom and closed my eyes. I must have drifted off, because the next thing I knew I was jolted into full consciousness by the sounds of Rush’s “Working Man” blaring from my cell. It took me a minute to realize I’d made it my ringtone the night before.
I sleepily made my way into my bedroom and snatched the cell up off my bedside table. “’Ello?”
“I’m just checking if you managed to haul yourself out of bed,” Caine’s voice rumbled down the line.
It was like a double shot of espresso, shooting through my blood and waking me up.
“Of course I am,” I said, proud that I actually sounded alert. “I’ll be at the office at six thirty sharp.”
“I’d like a decaf latte macchiato on my desk when I get in.”
Uh . . . I glanced at the clock. I had not factored in coffee-buying time. “Okay, but I’ll probably be a little later, then.”
“No.” Caine’s voice suddenly lowered in warning. “You’ll get your ass in the office at six thirty with a latte or don’t bother coming in at all.” He hung up.
I sighed and threw my phone on the bed. Caine had warned me he was pretty much going to be an asshole, so I couldn’t be surprised by this. I also didn’t have time to be annoyed. If I was going to get him his damn latte and get into the office on time, I was going to have to forgo blowing out my hair. Instead I hurried around my room like a frantic person. I gave my hair a quick couple of blasts with my hair dryer and then coiled it up into a neat French knot.
The whole time I dressed I frowned, and it wasn’t just because of my cranky tiredness. It was because of the stockings I’d had to pull on, and the tight, ass-cupping black pencil skirt I was wearing. Rachel had accompanied me on a shopping trip to Newbury Street that weekend so I could find “appropriate” clothing for my new job. We’d barely made it two blocks before I dropped a small fortune on stylish, expensive suits and blouses so I could fit the image of a Carraway Financial Holdings employee. This meant I was heading to work in that darn figure-hugging pencil skirt with a blue silk blouse tucked into it, a black peplum jacket to match the skirt, and black three-inch Prada heels I already owned but had rarely worn.
I’d even swiped on a little mascara.
I stared at my reflection in my full-length mirror and nodded. Stylish but conservative.
I wrinkled my nose.
I missed my boy shorts and flip-flops.
There was no more time to glower at my reflection. I had coffee to get! I jumped in my silver-blue Miata, flew through the streets, and got to International Place in less than fifteen minutes. After parking in the underground garage of our building, I ran inelegantly in my Pradas to the coffee place around the corner since the one in the courtyard of our building hadn’t opened yet. When I got to the coffee place, I was surprised by the lack of a line.
And then I realized that not everyone was an obsessed businessman who started work at six thirty in the freaking morning! I glanced at my watch as I pushed into the coffeehouse.
I was fifteen minutes early.
All that panic for nothing.
Once I had Caine’s latte and my own double espresso, I strode into the building, mentally preparing myself for being pushed to my limits by my unyielding new boss. I flashed the ID Ethan had set up for me on Friday at the security guard and hopped on the elevator all the way up to Carraway Financial Holdings.
There was no one in the office except a cleaner. The sense of stillness in the place initiated those first-day jitters I’d been waiting for.
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