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"Come on, Ms. Reese," Marcus Warren called over his shoulder. "It's not that hot."
He paused in the middle of the jogging path to wait for his executive assistant, Liberty Reese, to catch up with him. He looked around, checking for any vans with dark windows that didn't belong. It was an old habit, keeping an eye out for danger. But as usual, aside from some other runners, he and Ms. Reese had the shoreline to themselves. Thank God. The past was in the past, he repeated to himself until his anxiety faded.
Man, he loved Lake Michigan. The early-morning light made the rippling water a deep blue. The sky was clear and warmed by the sun, which seemed to hover just about a foot over the surface of the water. Later today, the heat would be oppressive, but right now, running along the lakefront with a cool breeze blowing in from the water?
This was as close to free as Marcus got to feel.
He checked his Fitbit. His heart rate was falling. "You're not going to let the heat beat you, are you, Ms. Reese?" he teased, stretching out his quads.
Ms. Reese puffed up next to him. "May I take a moment to point outagainthat you're not taking notes while you run?" she said, glaring at him.
But he wasn't fooled. He saw the way the corner of her lips curved up as she said it. She was trying not to smile.
He kept stretching so she could catch her breath. "But I'm talking. That counts for something, right?"
She rolled her eyes and finished off the water. That made him grin. He was Marcus Warren, heir to his father's Warren Investments financial empire and his mother's Marquis Hotel empire. He was the sole owner of Warren Capital, a venture capital firm he'd started with his trust-fund money. He owned half of the Chicago Blackhawks and a quarter of the Chicago Bulls, in addition to 75 percent of the pro soccer team, the Chicago Fire. He was one of the richest bachelors in the country and possibly the richest one in Chicago.
People simply did not roll their eyes at him.
Except for Ms. Reese.
She tucked the bottle back into her belt. Then, her fingers hovering over the Bluetooth earpiece she wore at all times, she asked, "So how do you want to proceed with the watchmakers?"
Rock City Watches was a boutique firm that had set up shop in downtown Detroit and wanted a fresh round of investing to expand its operations. Marcus looked at his watch, made just for him. The 24-karat gold casing was warm against his skin. "What do you think?"
Ms. Reese sighed heavily and began to plod up the jogging path again. She was not a particularly graceful runnerplodding was the only word for itbut she kept up with him and took notes while they ran. It was the most productive time of day. He did his best thinking while they ran.
Which was why they ran every single day, in rain or heat. Ice was about the only thing that kept them indoors, but he had a treadmill in a room off his office. Ms. Reese could sit at a small desk and record everything and provide her opinion.
He let her get a few feet ahead of him. No, she was not terribly graceful. But that didn't stop him from admiring the view. Ms. Reese had curvesmore than enough curves to give a man pause.
He shook his head, pushing all thoughts of her backside from his mind. He was not the kind of billionaire who slept with his secretary. His father had done that enough for both of them. Marcus's relationship with Ms. Reese was strictly business. Well, business and running.
He caught up to her easily. "Well?"
"No one wears watches anymore," she panted. "Unless it's a smart watch."
"Excellent point. I'll invest twenty-five million in Rock City Watches."
Ms. Reese stumbled a bit in surprise. Marcus reached out and steadied her. He didn't allow his hand to linger on her warm skin. "You okay? We're almost to the fountain." Buckingham Fountain was the point where they turned around and headed back.
She gave him a hell of a side eye. "I'm fine. How did you get from timepieces are a dead market to let's invest another twenty-five million?'''
"If no one wears watches anymore, then they become what they once werea status symbol," he explained. "Only the wealthiest consumers can afford a watch that costs several grand. The timepiece market isn't dead, Ms. Reese. The mass-market timepiece market is. But the luxury timepiece market?" He held out his wrist. "It's a hell of a nice watch, don't you think?" This particular watch went for $4,500.
She nodded. "It'll be great PR, as well. Made in America and all that."
"But they need to accept the realities of the market." She nodded. "Such as?"
"Marketing and wearables. Let's get back to the Rock City Watch people with requests to see their marketing mock-ups. I also want to set up a meeting to discuss a hybrid devicea luxury watch that can slot wearable tech into the band."
They reached the fountain and she stopped, her head down and her hands on her knees as she took in great gulps of air.
"What else?" he asked.
"You have to make a decision about attending the Hanson wedding," she said in between gasps.
Marcus groaned. "Do I have to?"
"You're the one who decided you should go to this wedding," she told him flatly. "You're the one who decided you should take a date. And you're the one who decided to kill two birds with one stone by scheduling the meeting with the producers of Feeding Frenzy the day after the wedding."
Marcus allowed himself to scowl at his assistant. Her lack of sympathy was not comforting. Attending the Hanson-Spears wedding in Los Angeles had not, in fact, been his idea. Who the hell wanted to watch his former fiancée get married to the man she'd cheated on him with? Not him.
But his mother had decreed that Marcus would attend the wedding with a date and put on a happy face so they could "put this unfortunate event behind them." Of course, if his mother had had her way, Marcus would have married Lillibeth Hanson anyway because what was a little affair in the grand scheme of things? Lillibeth came from old money. Marcus came from old money and made new money. Together, his parents had reasoned, they could apparently rule the world.
Marcus didn't see the point. He'd refused to reconcile with Lillibeth and he'd thought his parents had accepted that decision. But then the wedding invitation came.
And the hell of it was, his parents were not entirely wrong about the effects the scandal had had on Marcus's business. To some, his inability to see the truth about Lillibeth until it was too late might also indicate an inability to make good investment choices. So his parents had strongly suggested he attend the wedding to show that everyone was on good terms. And they strongly suggested he take a date because it would be an admission of defeat to show up at your ex's wedding alone.
All Marcus had to do was pick a woman.
He looked at Liberty. "What are my options, again?"
Marcus cringed at the celebutante's name. "Too shallow."
"Too Russian Mafia."
Liberty sighed heavily. "Emma Green?"
Marcus scowled harder. He had actually gone out with Emma several times. "Really?"
"She's a known quantity," Liberty explained. "No surprises."
"Wrong. People would think that us dating again is a sure sign of wedding bells." Specifically, his parents.
Marcus had done many things to keep the peace with his mother and father. Hell, he'd come damn close to getting married to Lillibeth Hanson, all because they thought that was best.
He wasn't going to risk that kind of trap again. "The options are limited and time is running short, Mr. Warren," Liberty said in exasperation. She jammed her hands on her hips. "The wedding is in two weeks. If you insist on attending with a date, you need to actually ask someone to go with you."
"Fine. I'll just take you."
The effect of this statement was immediate. Liberty's eyes went wide and her mouth dropped open and, in a fraction of a second, her gaze dropped over his body. Something that looked a hell of a lot like want flashed over her face.
What? Did she actually want him?
Then it was gone. She straightened up and did her best to look imperial. "Mr. Warren, be serious."
"I am serious. I trust you." He took a step toward her. "Sometimes I think
you're the only person who's honest with me. You wouldn't try to sell all the details of a date to the gossip rags." Which had been a huge part of the scandal with Lillibeth. She had capitalized on her affair, painting Marcus as a lousy boyfriend both in and out of the bedroom.
Liberty bit at her lower lip. "Honestly? I don't think you should go at all. Why would you give her the chance to hurt you again?" Her voice had dropped and she didn't sound imperious at all. Instead, she sounded
as if she wanted to protect him.
It was a fair question. He didn't want to go. He didn't want to give Lillibeth the chance to cut him down again. But he'd promised his parents that he'd put a good face on it and make sure the Warren name still meant power and money.
"And for the record," she went on, "I think doing that Feeding Frenzy reality show is also a bad idea. The whole problem with Lillibeth was that your private life suddenly became public fodder. Going on television to bid on investment ideas? You're just inviting people to further make a commodity out of you."
"It's supposed to be a good way to build my brand."
Liberty rolled her eyes again, as if that was the stupidest thing she'd ever heard. "Seriously? You've built a successful venture capital firm without being a celebrity. You have plenty of people dying to pitch to you. Heck, I'm surprised we haven't been accosted by a 'jogger' lying in wait to pitch you his million-dollar idea yet."
He tensed at the idea of being accosted by anyone. But nono suspicious vehicles with armed men were around. The past was in the past.
"But you know what?" Liberty took a step toward him, jabbing at him with her index finger. She could be a formidable woman in her own right. "You do this reality show, that's exactly what's going to happen. You won't be able to run along the lake without plowing through idiots in running shoes who want a piece of your time and your fortune. Don't feed the machine, Marcus. Don't do what 'they' think you should do. For the love of God, do what you want."
Marcus. Had she ever called him by his first name before? He didn't think so. The way her lips moved over his namethat was the sort of thing he'd remember. "Maybe I want to take you to the wedding."
It was hard to say if she blushed, as she was already red faced from the run and the heat. But something in her expression changed. "No," she said flatly. Before he could take the rejection personally, she added, "Iitwould be bad for you."
He could hear the pain in her voice. He took a step toward her and put a hand on her shoulder. She looked up, her eyes wide andhopeful? His hand drifted from her shoulder to her cheek and damned if she didn't lean into his touch. "How could you be bad for me?"
The moment the words left his mouth, he realized he'd pushed this too far. Yes, Liberty Reese was an exceptional assistant and yes, she was beautifulwhen she wasn't struggling through a summer run.
But what had started as an offhand comment about a date to a wedding now meant something else. Something more.
She shut down on him. She stepped out of his touch and turned to face the lake. "It's getting warmer," she said in a monotone voice. "We need to finish our run."
"Do you have any water left?"
She looked sheepish. "No."
He held out his hand. "Give me your bottle. There's a water fountain a couple hundred yards away. I'll fill it up."
She unhooked her bottle and handed it over. "Thanks," she said, sounding perfectly normal, as if he hadn't just asked her out and touched her face. As if she hadn't turned him down flat. Somehow, it made him admire her even more. "I'll wait here. Try not to get any brilliant ideas, okay?"
Marcus took off at top speed. He heard Liberty shout, "Show-off!"
The water in the drinking fountain was too warm. He let it run for a few seconds, hoping it'd cool off. As he waited, he looked around. There was a trash can only a few feet away, boxes and bags piled around it on the ground. Marcus scowled at the garbage. Why couldn't people take care of the park, dammit? The trash can was right there.
As he filled the water bottle and debated calling the mayor about the garbage pickup schedule, he heard a noise. It was a small noise, but it didn't belong. It wasn't a gull crying or a squirrel scamperingit was closer to a
a cat mewing?
Marcus looked around, trying to find the source of the noise. A shoe box on the ground next to the trash can moved.
Marcus's stomach fell in. Oh, nowho would throw a kitten away? He hurried over to the box and pulled the lid off and
Sweet Jesus. Not a cat. Not a kitten.
Two Breathing hard, Liberty admired the view as Marcus sprinted away from her. When he reached the water fountain, she turned her attention back to the lake. It wouldn't do to be caught staring at her boss's ass. Even if it was a fine ass. And even if the owner had just made one of himself.
Instead, she took the time to appreciate the gift that was this morning. She hadn't set foot in a church in a good fifteen years. But every morning she stood here and looked out on Lake Michigan and gave thanks to God or the higher power or whoever the hell was listening.
She was alive. She was healthy. She had a good job that paid for food and a safe apartment. There was even some money left over for things like running shoes and haircuts.
"Liberty?" Marcus yelled from the water fountain. "Liberty!"
Even though Marcus couldn't see her, she glared at him. What the hell had gotten into him this morning? One of the reasons she worked for himaside from the insane salary he paid herwas the fact that he treated her as an equal. It was a bit of delusion on her part to pretend that she was on par with the likes of Marcus Warren, but it was her delusion, dammit.
And that delusion worked only because it was just her and Marcus on these runs, both in running clothes. The delusion didn't work when he was wearing a four-thousand-dollar suit and she had on the finest suit she could find on 80 percent clearance at Macy's. And the delusion sure as hell wouldn't work if she accompanied him to a three-day destination wedding extravaganza that no doubt cost more than she'd ever earn in her lifetime.
Someone would see through her facade. It'd get ugly, fast.
"Liberty!" He was even louder this time.
Was he not used to women saying no to him? Oh, whom was she kidding? Women didn't say no to him. Why would they? He was gorgeous, single, richer than sin and eminently respectable. "What?"
"I need you!" he yelled over his shoulder. "Hurry!"