There was always this moment, right at the top, when everything in the world went still. Dane Huntley closed his eyes and drew in a nice, deep lungful of clear Adirondack air. No smog and no climate control. No expectations or demands.
Fuck. It was better than anything—better than sex and better than a pretty little sub on her knees at his feet. He opened his eyes to bright blue skies and dark evergreens spanning out for miles. Water rushing beneath his feet and nowhere to go but down, down, down.
His blood sang as he clapped his hands together and tugged on the rope. Loud enough to be heard over the roaring in his ears, he crowed, “Let’s do this shit.”
His buddies behind him on the bridge whooped and hollered, goading him on, but it all blurred out. There was just his pulse and the breeze and the sun on his skin, and it was perfect.
One last deep breath. In. Out.
The wood of the platform shuddered with his every pounding step. You had to get just the right running start, and he’d done this jump enough times before. He hit the mark an inch from the edge and put all his will into it.
And it was even better than the moment back there at the top.
He spun in the air, tucking his legs up tight to his chest before spreading out into a dive, nose-down. The sheer rock and scrabble and trees to either side of the river flew past him, wind rushing into his lungs, filling him, making his heart go crazy behind his ribs. Screaming just to hear it echo back, he hurtled toward the ground. He was this tiny insignificant speck, and he was the most powerful fucking being on this planet, invincible, unstoppable, unkillable.
The cord might as well have snapped.
Was that what Jake had thought? Right before—
And Dane had flown a plane in a full three-sixty spiral before without ever feeling his stomach so much as twist. For half a second, he tasted his breakfast, though, and he swallowed hard. Nope. No way. He leapt off a goddamn bridge headfirst to lose this shit—not to gain it. He usually craved control, but this was the one place in the world where he let it go. Apparently, he’d let go of a little too much.
Pushing everything else away, he forced himself to look, to breathe, but it wasn’t the same. He was already slowing, the cord around his ankle doing its job and the exact opposite of what he wanted it to do. The water below surged to meet him, but the illusion had shattered. Before he knew it, he was rising again, floating up through the air. Drifting.
If there were anything but sky to beat his head against, he would.
Because this was how it always went. Jake and his fucking heroics had taken everything from Dane, and there wasn’t a place on this earth the pain couldn’t reach him, no matter how far he ran or how hard he played. One bad step and a lungful of smoke, and Dane had lost his chance to do what he wanted with his own damn life. He’d lost that big Montana sky.
And he’d lost his brother. His best friend.
The cord hit the other end of its limit. He bounced back and forth a few more times, the motion damping out. Hiding the expression on his face, he used his core to jackknife from the waist, shooting the double thumbs-up sign at his guys. They hauled him to the top again, and he bumped shoulders and fists before bending to unhook his ankles from their strapping. One of the dudes caught his eye for a second too long, but Dane shook his head. Shrugging, the other guy looked away.
By the time they’d all had their turn, the sun was more than halfway through its arc. A couple of the guys were making motions as if to pack up, and it was like that moment in the middle of his jump when Dane had almost lost it. His throat gave a threatening ripple.
He wasn’t ready to be done.
“Hey,” he said. “Anybody wanna make a run at Buck Hollow?”
It was a solid hour’s hike from here, and then there’d be the time it took to get set up. Another two hours from there to the car once they’d all jumped. It’d be tight, but they could fit it in before it got too dark.
Glances darted back and forth, doubtful faces peering at him, and the clawing in his chest went sharp.
“I don’t know, man,” someone said. “I got work tomorrow—”
“Fuck work.” Dane spat the words.
And it didn’t make sense. He had a good job—a great job. It paid awesome. The perks were out of this world.
For a second, he couldn’t stop thinking about one particular perk. Lexie. A hot little number with fire in her stare and an ass that wouldn’t quit. Long legs and perfect tits. Steel in her spine and a hidden softness to her he’d caught only the barest glimpses of.
He wanted to see if she’d purr for him. If he could manage to pull the giant stick out of her ass with a crowbar—or with a couple of nice, heavy swats or a flick of his crop.
Fat chance of her ever letting him, of course. At least as long as she was still his boss—a couple of years younger than his twenty-six and already on her way to running the world. And seemingly intent on taking him with her.
His gut twisted all over again, the vise around his ribs squeezing hard.
Fuck work. Fuck the life his brother had left him with. Fuck his mother’s shitty house in Queens and fuck his boss. The idea of going back to it all, of going inside and putting on that goddamn suit and breathing stale, recycled air for another week…
He hefted his pack onto his shoulder and jerked his head toward the pass that would take them even farther from their cars. “So?” He said it like a challenge and like the most desperate kind of plea. “Who’s with me?”
More uncertain glances.
Then, finally. “Okay.”
One head nodded and then another, and all the air rushed out of him in a whoosh.
“Okay,” he said. Clapping the nearest guy on the shoulder, he repeated it, but like a lifeline.
Like the single strand of cord tied tight around his ankles. The only thread between him and a watery death a thousand feet below.
He breathed out hard. “Okay.”
One more climb and one more jump. A handful more hours between him and the rest of the week, and he was so grateful for them he could have cried.
Instead, he hitched his pack a little higher. Turning toward the trail, he led the way.
“Okay, so here’s the thing. I have a theory, and I just need you to tell me if I’m right or wrong.”
Alexis Bellamy didn’t even have to look up from her screen. She’d know her brother Rylan’s voice anywhere. “Hmm?”
“When did you get in this morning?”
What did that have to do with anything? She glanced at the clock in the corner of her screen. It was just past nine. “A couple of hours ago.” She shrugged. “It’s Monday. I got a late start.”
“Uh-huh. You realize that most people don’t get here until, like, now, right?”
“I’m not most people.”
“Clearly. So here’s my theory. I think you never actually go home.” Rylan summarily dropped himself down onto the couch on the other side of her new office, and she winced internally in sympathy. It was the kind of furniture meant to keep unwanted visitors from staying too long: pretty as hell but hard as a rock. Sure enough, he made a pained sound and groaned. “Ugh. Never mind. I take it back. No way you sleep on this thing.”
Hiding her smirk, she kept on scrolling through her inbox. “Maybe I just don’t sleep.”
She and her brother had been having this conversation since they were both in school. He liked to harp on her for working too hard, and she liked to ignore him. She tapped at a report she’d been waiting on. Interesting—profits in their European division were stalling out worse than she’d anticipated.
“Have you looked at the new numbers yet this morning?” she asked.
“No.” There was a duh to the tone of his voice. “Because I, unlike you, went to my nice comfortable house and slept in my nice comfortable bed—”
“—next to your nice, comfortable fiancée, I know, I know.”
The words were said in jest, but they left a hint of a bitter aftertaste on her tongue. Made a knot of tension form between her shoulder blades.
It wasn’t as if she begrudged her brother his newfound happiness and stability. She liked Kate, and she liked the two of them together even more.
And yet. There was something about just how sickeningly happy they were that made the hollow place where her own glaring lack of a personal life was supposed to be get all twisted up inside.
The emptiness positively howled when her assistant, Dane, walked into the room.
With a single, rapping knock, the man strode through her doorway, dark hair just the right amount of mussed, his perfect jaw on display, skin clean-shaven and smooth. He always looked good, but the suit he wore today showed off the breadth of his shoulders even more eloquently than usual. As he came to a stop the requisite three feet from her desk, he dominated her view, blocking out her brother, the windows—hell, the sun.
He was just so big. This tall mountain of a man that God himself must have poured into expertly tailored menswear just for her.
She had to sit on her hands and clench her jaw against the urge to reach out and touch him.
Thing was, she’d seen the way he looked at her, and it matched the way she tried so damn hard not to look at him. He’d been respectful to a fault, never pressing. The electric charge in the air between them sparked and flared, but he maintained the distance she had asked of him.
Because for all that she was pretty sure he’d welcome her advances, she wasn’t going down that road again. She’d worked too hard to build her reputation. People around here might never see her as more than Daddy’s little girl, but damn if she was risking any more of her credibility on another office dalliance.
Especially not when the last one had been so stupid. When it had ended so spectacularly.
“Ms. Bellamy,” Dane said, then nodded at Rylan. “Mr. Bellamy.”
He was ever so slightly out of breath, and she frowned. Looking at him more closely, she caught the tiny details she’d overlooked in the face of all…that. The couple of hairs out of place and the spot he’d missed beneath his jaw. She glanced at the clock again and gave him a pointed look. “You’re late.”
“My apologies, ma’am. Won’t happen again.”
“I should hope not.”
He was normally meticulously punctual, arriving early and staying late at her request, but Monday mornings were the exception to the rule. She might have to start keeping better track of that.
Clapping his hands together, Rylan rose from her couch. “Well, then. I’ll let you two get to work. Status meeting at eleven?”
“We’ll be there.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “Maybe you’ll even have time to read your reports before then.”
“Nice, comfortable bed,” he teased, taking his leave.
And she almost missed it, but out of the corner of her eye, she caught the way Dane’s nostrils flared at just the mention of a bed. Heat shimmered beneath her skin at his reaction. At the way his gaze went immediately, unerringly to her.
For half a second, their eyes locked.
She’d just moved into this enormous office, but in that moment, she regretted not demanding an even bigger one. Whenever Dane looked at her like that, the room felt too small, the air suffocating and sultry, the neglected need between her legs suddenly sharp and desperate.
She forced herself to look away.
A few months ago, she’d plucked Dane from the temp pool more or less at random, unsuspecting of the big, rough-looking man who would arrive at her office dressed to kill. Unprepared for the way he would step into her life and her work, handling every task she threw at him with a quiet grace. Ruthlessly competent and ruggedly handsome, he pressed her buttons and tested her control at every turn, and there was a part of her that was tempted to throw him right back into the pool. Someone else would snap him up in an instant, and it would save her so much grief.
But then he took two steps forward, the warm amber scent of him washing over her and blanking her mind. Anticipating exactly what she needed, he plucked the files from the corner of her desk and held them up. “Checked, sorted, and filed?”
She nodded, throat tight.
He tucked the folders beneath his arm. “Skinny caramel latte.”
Again, she nodded.
What the hell had she been thinking, even imagining sending him away?
Recrossing her legs, she leaned back in her chair. His gaze blazed its way down the center of her body. It was shameless, and it was a thrill; it was playing with fire, but she had yet to get burned.
Fighting to appear unaffected, she sat up straighter, but she couldn’t keep the huskiness from her voice. “And then we’ll see.” She turned to face her desk, refusing to watch his ass as he left.
The instant he was gone, cool air flooded in all around her until she could breathe again. She sighed, her whole body deflating, and for a minute she had to close her eyes.
This simmering attraction between her and her assistant, this uncomfortable emptiness behind her ribs…they were nothing. She could handle them.
Or more likely, she could work through them.
Opening her eyes again, she reached for her computer, where the report from earlier was still spread out across her screen portending doom. A short bark of a laugh escaped her. Who’d have ever guessed she’d be so excited to see their European division in flames? Happy for the distraction, she dove into the numbers, scouring them for a pattern—or better yet, a way out.
She didn’t look up from them except to reach absently for the latte that had magically appeared beside her elbow while she hadn’t been paying attention. Not until almost an hour later when that single rap sounded out against her door. She whipped around to find Dane standing there, his gaze wary as he took her in.
No wonder. Her normally neat desk was a shambles, covered in printouts and financial statements, earning reports and stories from the news.
She lifted single document that mattered from the pile. Feverish, she said, “I know what we have to do.”
What the hell had gotten into Lexie?
Dane hastened his pace. He’d been running behind all day, oversleeping his alarm after getting home late from his weekend camping trip upstate, and then he’d returned from running Lexie’s morning errands to find her in the middle of some kind of capitalistic haze. She’d kept him jumping since. Clutching her second—ill-advised, if you asked him—latte in as many hours in one hand and the paperwork she’d had him rush past legal in the other, he got the handle of the conference room door with his elbow. Lexie’s coffee sloshed dangerously, a couple of scattered droplets flying from the opening on the lid, and he bit back a curse. His mom gave him enough shit about his dry-cleaning bill without his being careless.
Just his luck, the status meeting was already under way. He gave terse nods all around as he slipped in, with an extra-deep one to Rylan. He didn’t really care, and this one wasn’t even his fault, but it grated at him to be caught running late twice in one day. Taking the chair at Lexie’s side, he handed over her caffeine fix and her documents, accepting the folio and tablet she passed him in exchange.
“Thanks,” he said under his breath. He hadn’t had time to grab his things on account of her errands, but it wasn’t her job to cover him like that.
Maybe that was why he liked it so much when she did.
Dane was enlightened enough of a male not to go all caveman about having a woman for his boss—and a woman he was itching to take to bed with him at that. He could separate his preference to be in charge and his desire for control from his work. But the part of him that ached to put her on her knees sure stood at attention when she did anything like taking care of him. When she took the initiative to see to his needs.
In a moment of weakness, he gave himself a second to indulge the thought. To let his gaze really linger, sweeping from the cool blue of her eyes to her tits to the long lines of her legs beneath the hem of her skirt. Fuck, she looked good today. She always did, of course, manicured to within an inch of her life, and sometimes he ached to mess that perfection up a little. To see that silky black hair of hers curled loose around her shoulders or all mussed and ragged from a good, rough fuck. To watch porcelain skin gone pink from a stroke of his hand. To hear the sounds she made when he took her apart.
Shit. This was not the place to be getting a hard-on. He was at work, and her big brother was in the room, for fuck’s sake.
Forcing his gaze away, he snuck a hand beneath the surface of the table to adjust himself in his pants, struggling to focus on the meeting going on around him.
Fortunately, it didn’t seem like he’d missed much. Rylan finished giving his update on one of his new initiatives before turning to his sister. “So. Lex.” He twirled his pen between his fingers. “What the fuck is going on in Europe?”
She raised a brow. “I gather you had a chance to look at the new numbers?”
“I did, but take us through them anyway.”
One corner of Lexie’s wicked, red mouth twitched upward, a there-and-you-miss-it show of annoyance. Damn, Dane loved it when she showed her claws—and she had more than enough reason to, if you asked him. She worked harder than just about anybody here, and she always got short shrift. Rylan was good, but Dane still didn’t know why Lexie let him wear the crown when she could’ve run the place just fine on her own.
Lexie rose from her seat, her short black skirt riding up for a second before she smoothed it down. The red soles of her stilettos winked at him with every step she took, and Dane swallowed hard.
“So.” With a press of a button, Lexie displayed the main graphic from the report she’d been obsessing over all morning on the big screen. Walking a slow circle around the table, she pointed out the important bits. In the few moments he managed to drag his gaze away from the shapes of her calves, he took notes—not about what she was saying but about the reactions of the people around her. She always wanted to know that kind of thing. The girl was good at playing a room.
She’d been talking for a few minutes before her brother tapped the end of his pen against the table. “Basically, what you’re saying is we’re fucked.”
There went the edge of her smile again. “At present, yes.”
“And in the future?”
“I believe there are steps we can take to mitigate the loss.”
That was Dane’s cue. Unfurling to his full height, he passed out the prospectives she’d had him get printed between coffee runs. She flicked over to the next slide.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I present to El Escudo.”
Rylan cocked a brow. “Spain? Really?”
“The country as a whole has been hit hard by the current financial crisis, it’s true. But that’s why it’s so ripe for investment. This particular asset has a solid foundation, and its core business is bulwarked against the instability that’s plagued the sector as a whole.”
Rylan scanned the documents in front of him for a long minute. Nervous rustling of papers was the only sound in the room. Dane spent a moment scrutinizing each face in turn.
Scared. They were all scared. Passive, too. No one else was speaking up. Which meant that whatever Rylan decided was going to fly. And Rylan was pretty much always on their side.
Rylan set the papers aside. “You think you can make it turn a profit?”
“And bring the whole division with it.”
“Music to my ears. I want you handling this personally.”
The glow to Lexie’s face was subtle, but it took Dane’s breath away. She kept her cards so close to her chest most of the time, and she was doing a damn good job of it now, even. But he’d spent enough time with her. He knew her tells.
And inside she was dancing.
“I’ve already got a meeting booked. My flight leaves tomorrow evening.”
Okay, that part was news to Dane. His head whipped around. It shouldn’t bother him that she’d gone to someone else to get her travel arrangements sorted out, but somehow it did.
Their gazes met, and she all but rolled her eyes, glancing pointedly at the things he’d brought. Fine, sure, she’d had him running from the moment he’d walked in the door, but still.
She was…his. Sort of. Not in all the ways he wanted her to be, but in a lot of the ones that counted.
Before he could get too bent out of shape about it, Rylan leaned forward in his chair, sliding the report away. “Take a team. You and Dane, a couple of analysts. Smart ones, too. And someone from legal and accounts.”
“Excuse me?” Lexie’s calm exterior rippled.
She was still doing a hundred times better at hiding her surprise than Dane was. The bottom of his stomach fell out.
Rylan waved his hand in a dismissive gesture, like this was nothing. “If we mean business, make it clear that we mean business. We’re there to acquire. You don’t have to phone home to make decisions. You’ve got the full authority to act in the company’s best interests and the people you need to advise you. Tell them the minute you walk through the door—you’re not leaving until the deal is done.”
Oh Jesus. This was even worse than Dane could have imagined.
“Sir,” he said. Where the hell was he supposed to even go with this?
He’d just been volunteered by the CEO of a Fortune 500 company to go on an international business trip. An open-ended one. Fuck even knew how long that could go on. Weeks. Maybe months.
Months of being on call. He’d never been on a business trip with Lexie before, but he knew how she commandeered his time here in New York. Early mornings and late nights and calls at all hours, and he was fine with it. Being in close proximity to such a beautiful woman while not being allowed to touch was torture, and having to care about finances and jam himself into a fucking suit was almost worse. But he could do it. He’d been doing it for years now. Ever since Jake had died and his mom had whisked him clear across the country in her grief. Since she’d sat him down and told him all his plans, all his dreams—they had to go.
The only way he’d made it through his life in office worker hell was a strict policy of being out the door by five p.m. on Fridays and never walking in before nine on a Monday. That was his time, and he spent it however he wanted to, getting the rush he needed to be able to suck it up for other five days of the week. He found the control he’d lost over his life in the stripes he laid up and down a woman’s spine and in the shape of her mouth when she came. He let it go by jumping off mountains.
He clenched his hand into a fist against the instinct to be sick.
Months. He’d never make it.
“Sir,” he said again. Fuck, there had to be something. Some reason he couldn’t go.
But before he could get a word out, the pout of Lexie’s mouth hardened into a line.
Oh shit. He knew that look.
She threw her shoulders back, tension in every inch of her. But those cool blue eyes were all resolve.
Nodding, she said, “You know you can count on us.”