He shouldn’t be here.
Scratch that. He abso-fucking-lutely should not be here.
Even as the thought tracked through Reece Wilde’s head, he pushed open The Bean Gallery’s front door. 9:00 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, and the coffeehouse was dead silent. Its tables, each depicting a different famous painting, sat empty of the usual eclectic crowd of patrons. No college students cramming for exams. No hipsters philosophizing over lattes. And certainly no businessmen stopping for a convenient caffeine fix before their next meeting.
That was how he’d discovered this place. Just a quick stop between back-to-back morning meetings to re-caffeinate before back-to-back afternoon meetings.
And this was where he first saw Shelby Bremer, the woman who held a starring role in his every sexual fantasy for the past several months. The woman who was so fucking far off-limits, she might as well have the words “access denied” tattooed on her forehead.
When they first met, she’d been a patron here, eating breakfast over in the corner at the table painted like Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Reece glanced over at that table now. Someone had stacked the chairs on top of it in preparation for closing time, but he could still see her sitting there so clearly, the image of her short skirt and combat boots seared into his mind like a brand. Normally, he wouldn’t have given a woman with pink-streaked blond hair, tattoo sleeves, and an eyebrow ring a second glance, but there was something about her that fascinated him. As he’d waited in line for his coffee, he hadn’t been able to take his eyes off her. When she noticed him staring and blew him a kiss with her middle finger, a switch had flipped inside his head, and his viciously repressed sex drive roared to life. Everything in him demanded he take her, dominate her, bend her over that badly painted table and leave his handprint on her ass for that saucy gesture of defiance. The need had been so instant, so intense, it scared the ever-loving hell out of him, and he’d scrammed as soon as he had his coffee in hand.
But he’d come back. Day after day. She was always at the same table, and she’d started watching for him, a spark of interest and heat in her blue eyes. Although they had never said a word to each other, he’d all but given in to the inevitability of the two of them fucking sooner or later. And for the first time in a very long time, that idea didn’t make him want to run in the opposite direction.
Then he’d found out she was his brother’s fiancée’s sister.
Which was exactly why he shouldn’t be here.
Shelby worked at The Bean Gallery now, and she had the closing shift tonight.
Not that he was stalking her or anything like that. Just keeping tabs at the request of his brother. Eva—his soon-to-be sister-in-law—constantly worried her half sister’s impulsive nature would lead to Shelby hurting herself or burning down the house, and whatever Eva worried about worried Cam. So Cam had recruited his brothers to covertly keep an eye on Shelby.
And this visit was just Reece’s brotherly duty. Just like all the others.
His fantasies hadn’t ended just because Cam had asked him to keep tabs on Eva’s little sister. Hell, if anything, the request had only revved him up because now, not only was Shelby something exciting and exotic, but she was forbidden. The hacker in him loved the forbidden. He couldn’t look at the woman without wanting to strip her naked and taste every tattoo on her body, and Cam sure as hell wouldn’t consider that a brotherly duty.
Voices floated out of the back room, and Reece stopped short, caught by his own indecision halfway between the door and counter.
He should leave.
Yeah. Leaving would be a good plan, because he had no logical reason to be standing here other than the fact he couldn’t stay away. And if he didn’t leave now, he wasn’t going to until he got a taste of Shelby and put this goddamn uncharacteristic infatuation with her to rest.
He didn’t move.
One of the other baristas appeared first, a middle-aged woman with gray-streaked brown hair and brown skin baked to cracking. Reece vaguely recalled her name was something like Jane or Jenna, but he’d never exchanged more than a few pleasantries with her. The second to emerge was Stephanie, a sweet, bubbly college student who worked at the coffeehouse part time. She was ready for a New Year’s party in a glittery dress that covered about as much skin as a Band-Aid. Sky-high shoes dangled from her fingers. She was young, but she had class in spades. Give her five years and she’d grow into the kind of woman Reece should be interested in, the kind of woman his ultra-conservative business associates would approve of. Instead, all of his focus zeroed in on the woman trailing Stephanie through the door.
His pulse kicked up despite reminding himself she was related to Eva. For fuck’s sake, she was practically family. In a few short days, when Cam and Eva tied the knot, she would be.
And just like all the other times, the reminder did nothing to douse the firestorm of lust burning through him.
Her outfit tonight was relatively tame for her—black cropped jacket over a black tank top and a ruffled purple plaid skirt—and still, he wanted to see what was underneath. Hell, she could be dressed in a burlap bag and he’d want to see underneath. Her hair spilled over her shoulders in a shock of turquoise and purple, and he noticed a new piercing, a small turquoise gem glinting from her nose.
That shouldn’t be sexy.
Goddamn, but it was.
“Are you sure you don’t want to join us, Shel?” Stephanie was saying. “It’s going to be the party of the year!”
“No, my sister would kill me.” Shelby’s voice carried a permanent sensual rasp, the kind of voice that brought to mind twisted sheets and writhing bodies, and it worked on him like a drug, making him jones to hear her speak again.
Jane-slash-Jenna finally noticed him standing there and skidded to a halt. “Sorry, we’re closed. You’ll have to come back after the holiday.”
Shelby glanced over at him, at first uninterested, but then she did a double take and grinned. “It’s okay, Jana. Hey, Suit and Tie.”
Jana. Right. That was her name.
The older woman scowled. “You know him?”
“Yeah, and if I had to guess, he’s my babysitter for the night.” Shelby sighed and met his gaze. “Did Eva send you?”
Fuck, no. Eva would castrate him—slowly—if she knew he was here, but he wasn’t about to lay it all out on the line in front of an audience. “She thought someone should give you a ride.”
Shelby lifted a brow and he realized a half second too late how sexual that had sounded. He added, “Home. A ride home.”
“Of course she did.”
Stephanie made a face. “I don’t know why you let your sister boss you around like this. You’re a grown-ass woman.”
“I owe it to her,” was all Shelby said in reply, then shooed the two women toward the door. “Go on. I’ll see you girls in a few days. Happy New Year.”
“Same to you,” Jana said and left, still scowling at Reece as she passed.
“Happy New Year,” Stephanie chirped, but then paused halfway out the door. “Don’t forget I start student teaching on the fourth, so my availability’s going to change.”
“I’ve already left a note about it in the office so I’ll remember when I start the next schedule.”
“Thanks. You’re the best.” With a flirty wave at Reece, she followed Jana out. Shelby crossed to the door and waved as she clicked the lock into place then flipped the sign from open to closed.
“So,” Reece said, searching for a way to break the awkward silence. “They made you a supervisor?”
“Don’t sound so surprised.” She moved from window to window, drawing down blinds over the glass. As soon as the last window was covered, she whirled to face him, hands on her hips. “Are you stalking me, Rolo?”
He made a concerted effort to relax his jaw before he broke his teeth. “My name is Reece.”
“It’s all candy to me.” She lifted a shoulder and breezed past him. “Do you honestly think I haven’t noticed all the drive-bys? And, c’mon, you used to be a one-coffee-a-day guy. Now you’re here at least three times a day.”
“Maybe I need the extra caffeine.”
Her nose crinkled. “You do look exhausted all the time, but I doubt caffeine will help with that. You should go on a vacation.”
“I don’t take vacations.”
“Humph. You really should. You need to pull that stick out of your ass before it does permanent internal damage.”
He closed the distance between them. “You have no fucking clue what I need.”
She paused on her way back to the register and glanced over one shoulder, eyebrow raised. Her piercing glinted in the overhead light with the movement. “Wow. That sounded like a threat. Or…was it a promise?”
Dial it back, he told himself. He stopped, still a good five feet away from her, and released a pent-up breath. “I’m only here to give you a lift home.”
“Uh-huh.” She opened the register with a key and took out the cash-filled tray. “Well, I have some things to do first, so make yourself comfortable.”
She took the tray and credit card receipts into the back room. He waited a handful of moments and debated his own intelligence before he finally followed. Of course he was going to follow. He couldn’t seem to not follow this woman. As if he were a dog and she were his mistress in control of his leash.
And, okay, that thought should not have lit him up like a damn light bulb.
Jesus, he was a sick fuck.
He found her at a desk in the office behind the kitchen area, counting out the day’s bank deposit. Her tongue poked out of the corner of her mouth in concentration, and the sight of the pink tip peeking from between her purple-painted lips was somehow both adorable and insanely erotic. For a second, he could only stand there and fantasize about all the things that tongue could do to him, and the room grew uncomfortably warm. He loosened his tie, tried to find a train of thought that was less…explosive.
“Uh, you seem to have settled into the life of a responsible adult.”
She held up a finger in a classic hang on gesture and finished counting, then wrote down the amount and stuffed the bills into a plastic deposit bag. She dragged her tongue over the flap and sealed it closed, then smirked up at him. “Word of advice, Hershey. Insulting me is not the best way to get into my skirt.”
“It’s Reece. And what makes you think I want into your skirt?”
Her gaze dropped pointedly to the front of his trousers. “That boner you’ve been rocking since you walked in wasn’t enough of a clue? Unless you’re just really turned on by coffee. In that case, weird. But to each his own.”
Reece shifted on his feet and, as unobtrusively as possible, folded his hands together in front of his body. At that moment, he kind of wished he’d melt into the floor, because the heat burning across the back of his neck almost surely meant he was blushing. And he didn’t blush. Goddammit. “It’s not…uh, I-I’m not…”
“Oh, you mostly certainly are, sweetie.” Standing, she gathered the deposit bag and turned to the wall safe behind the desk. Once the money was closed inside, she propped herself on the edge of the desk and studied him, amusement dancing in her eyes. “You’re cute when you’re flustered. I like that about you.”
“I don’t get flustered.”
She raised a sculpted brow and the hoop there glinted in the overhead lights. Her expression said it all—the hell you don’t—and frustration roared through him, chasing away the embarrassment. Nothing ever went smoothly when Shelby was involved. Nothing was ever easy, and if he had any goddamn sense left in his head, he’d bail out now.
Instead, he dropped his hands to his sides and stalked forward, not entirely sure what he planned to do until he caged her against the desk with an arm on either side of her body and crushed his lips to hers. He just couldn’t stand not knowing if her kiss was as spicy as her attitude. And, holy fuck, she ignited in his arms as if he’d set a match to her. Fingers raked through his hair, nails dug half-moons into his scalp. Even though he was the one who had her caged, he suddenly felt trapped, captured.
Never breaking contact with his mouth, she pulled herself up to sit on the desk and used his tie to drag him into the spread vee of her legs. His mind scrambled through all the reasons they shouldn’t be doing this.
She was Eva’s little sister.
Cam would kill him.
They were in her boss’s office…
And his body was saying who the fuck cared? He needed her out of his system. He needed to be able to think straight again and not like a teenager with his first crush. Most of all, he needed her to scream his name. His real name, not the stupid candy-themed nicknames.
He broke away from her lips and went to his knees in front of her, trailing his hands from her hips to her knees and then back up her inner thighs.
She wasn’t wearing panties. Why did that not surprise him? And she was all slick and soft and she moaned when he parted her, slipped a finger inside. Her inner muscles clenched, and he liked the tremble that shook through her body. He added a second finger, watched her head fall back and her nipples bead against the fabric of her tank top. He smiled before adding his mouth to the action, tasting her, circling her clit with his tongue until she finally cried out something that might have been his name. He couldn’t tell with the roaring inside his head and his own body about to combust–
Shit. What was he doing?
He jerked away from her and, panting, stumbled several steps back.
“Reece?” His name came out on a surprised gasp. “What’s wrong?”
Jesus. What wasn’t? This was all wrong. His attraction to her and…everything. “I should…leave. Yeah. I’ll go.”
She was leaning back on the desk with her thighs parted, eyes heavy, cheeks flushed, but at his words, she bolted upright. “What?”
He still tasted her on his lips, and it took far more willpower than he imagined to walk the six feet to the office door. “Go home, Shelby. This never happened.”
“What?” she said again.
“This. Never. Happened. And it won’t happen again.” He couldn’t look at her as he stepped into the kitchen. Ran trembling hands through his hair. Took a moment to gather himself…
And only then did he notice the smoke, stinging his nose with a strange burned coffee scent. Thick and black, it billowed along the ceiling, poured in from the front dining area, where he saw the dance of fast-moving yellow flames.
Jesus, no wonder he was dripping sweat. He hadn’t heated up. The room had.
“Fire!” He whirled to grab Shelby from the office, but she was already behind him. Fear chased away her indignant expression, and her complexion drained of color, leaving her so pale her faded purple lipstick stood out in stark contrast.
She raised a hand to her mouth. “Oh my God.”
“Where’s the nearest exit?”
She pointed across the kitchen to a spot on the far wall. Where the smoke was heaviest, naturally.
“Yeah, of course it’d be there.” He stripped off his suit coat and wrapped it in a makeshift bandana around her face, tying the arms behind her head.
“Wha—what about you?” she sputtered.
He untucked his button-down shirt and lifted the front to cover his mouth and nose. “All right?”
She shot a glance at the thickening smoke and firmed up her shoulders. Nodded. Her show of bravado would have been convincing if he didn’t feel her trembling when he closed his hand around hers.
“Stay low. We’ll be out of here in no time.”
The walk to the fire exit seemed endless, each step taking them deeper into the blackness, until Reece shoved open the fire exit and pushed her out ahead of him. Shelby’s eyes and lungs burned, scoured raw by the smoke that rolled from the door behind them, thick and black. It seemed to reach out and wrap itself around them as if it planned to drag them back inside to their deaths.
Her heart was trying its damnedest to swan-dive out of her chest. When she saw those first dark tendrils creeping across the ceiling, she had never been more frightened in her life. Which was saying something, since she’d landed herself in some pretty scary situations over the years.
But the whole time, Reece never let go of her hand, and she drew strength from the connection. It calmed her. Allowed her to function past the fear that threatened to paralyze her. If she had been alone, she honestly didn’t know if she’d have made it out of the building.
Across the street from The Bean Gallery, the shock finally caught up to her, and she lost her footing on the ice-slickened sidewalk. Reece was right there, his arm a solid weight around her waist, keeping her upright. She tilted her head back, stared up at him through blurry eyes. His tidy white dress shirt was no longer tidy or white, and soot streaked his face, coated his hair.
“I have you,” he said softly and tightened his grip.
Reece Wilde—genius, workaholic, millionaire muckety-muck—had her, the girl from the way wrong side of the tracks. And he wasn’t just slumming it for a night like she first suspected. Oh, no. Because if that was the case, he wouldn’t want to be publicly associated with her in any way other than through their siblings’ upcoming marriage, and he’d be outta here before the fire department showed. Instead, he looked as if he had no intention of leaving. Which maybe was a good thing since he was all but holding her up at the moment.
No, tonight hadn’t been about slumming. Had it been his clumsy attempt at…courting her? He was just that type of guy to court a woman, all hero with a core of pure goodness and solid honor. He was the type of man to stick around. His freak-out in the office when she would have let him do just about anything to her on that desk proved as much, made her realize how uncomfortable he was with the whole idea of a slam, bam, thank you, ma’am.
So, yeah, he’d stick around. Maybe for good, which kinda scared the hell out of her, because she didn’t do permanent anything. Except for her tattoos, but that was different, because they were the storybook of her life, the forever-present reminders of her mistakes and her triumphs. But in every other aspect of her world, she was completely, 100 percent anti-permanent. Hell, even her hair color changed every other week.
Reece was the human equivalent of tattoo ink. She was henna.
But for a moment, with his arm around her and the heat of his body easing her shocked shivers, she did wonder…
Oh, no. What was she thinking? She so wasn’t about to rehash Pretty in Pink with him. For one thing, he didn’t need her kind of trouble in his life.
She shrugged out of his arms and turned to watch the fire eat away her one chance at a normal, straight-and-narrow life. Smoke and flames roiled from the broken front window and blackened the outside brick. She rubbed her hands over her eyes and only then did she realize his suit coat was still wrapped bandana-like around the lower half of her face. She yanked it off and scrubbed away the tears that made her vision go all wavy.
Dammit, she loved that place. Had put her heart and soul into it. And now it was gone.
A siren wailed somewhere close by. The firefighters were on their way, which meant her sister, detective extraordinaire, wouldn’t be too far behind. And along with her sister would come Reece’s brother.
“You should go,” she told him, still staring at the flames. “We both know Eva didn’t send you here tonight. You’ll catch hell from Cam.”
He made a noncommittal sound and didn’t move. She faced him. “I’m serious. Go before they see you.”
“You think I’m afraid of Cam?” A hint of a smile turned up the corner of his too-serious mouth. “I used to dig up worms in our backyard and chase him around with them until he cried. I’m not afraid of my little brother.”
“Maybe not. But you should be very afraid of my big sister. If Eva finds out what we were doing in there before the fire broke out…”
If she wasn’t mistaken, a flush filled his cheeks underneath the soot. “We’re both consenting adults. And as I said, it’s not happening again.”
“Humph. Tell Eva that. See how well it goes over. I’ll give you a hint: lead balloon.”
“It’ll be fine.”
“Keep looking on the bright side, Starburst. One thing, though. You weren’t planning on ever having children, were you? Because Eva will make sure you don’t.”
She patted his shoulder, then on impulse stood on her toes to kiss his cheek. He was just too damn cute. “Do us both a favor and leave. Please. It will make this about a billion times easier for me, okay?”
He stared down into her eyes for a long moment, and she hoped to all things holy he couldn’t read any of her secrets. Because she got the feeling he could, and it chilled her to the bone.
“Please,” she said again on barely a breath of sound and held out his jacket. As grateful as she had been for it during their dash through the smoke, she didn’t want Cam or Eva to see her with it now.
The fire engine’s lights flashed red and yellow against the snow clouds hovering over the city. They were less than a block away at this point, and she feared he was going to be stubborn, but he finally gave a short nod and took the jacket. “We’re going to talk later.”
He left her standing on the sidewalk and climbed into an SUV that was worth way more than she’d ever made in her lifetime. She wished she could hate him for it, but when she tried, the worry she’d seen in his eyes edged out all the negative emotions and filled her with the warm fuzzies.
Ugh. That man was dangerous.
The fire truck screamed to a stop in front of the building, and they wasted no time hooking up their hoses. Streams of water filled the air and within minutes, they had the fire under control.
One of the firefighters came over to her with a blanket. It was just cold enough that the mist from the hoses was already freezing into ice on his helmet and, for the first time, she realized how cold she truly was. And here she thought it was only shock.
He draped the blanket over her shoulders. “Are you okay? Do you need medical attention?”
She shook her head. “I’m fine.”
“What happened here?”
She opened her mouth to tell him how she was preparing the bank deposits before leaving for the night—true—when she noticed smoke and escaped out the side exit—also true—but a car pulled up behind the fire truck, lights flashing in its grill. The fireman glanced over, and then did a double take when Eva and Cam slid out of the vehicle.
“Hey, Detective Cardoso. Someone call homicide?”
“No,” Eva said, and her tone was all omg-I’m-going-to-lock-Shelby-in-a-plastic-bubble-and-never-let-her-leave. “Deluca, this is my sister.”
Shelby managed to keep her wince internal. Someday she wanted Eva to say that without looking like she just bit into a lemon.
“Oh.” Deluca’s eyes narrowed as he looked from Eva—tall, thin, dark hair, and olive skin—to Shelby—petite, curvy, turquoise-and-purple-for-now hair and fair complexion—and then back again.
“Half sisters,” Shelby explained helpfully, then regretted drawing attention to herself, because Eva whirled on her.
“What the hell happened?”
Shelby sucked in a breath and gave her sister the story she’d been about to tell Deluca. When she finished, Cam frowned and scrubbed a hand through his dark hair. It was a thoughtful expression, which was so Cam-like she kind of wanted to hug him. Always steady and solid, he was the rock of Gibraltar in his family. She couldn’t wait until he became her brother-in-law.
“Anybody here with you?” he asked.
Oh, shit. Steady, solid, and way too frigging perceptive. “No, not now.”
“On the way in, I thought we passed…” He trailed off, shook his head. “Nah, forget it. Was it arson or an accident?” he asked Deluca.
Deluca shrugged. “Won’t know until the fire’s out and one of our investigators can get inside. But, I gotta tell ya, just between you and me, that broken front window is looking suspicious.”
“Well. If something had exploded inside the building and broke the window, there would be shards of glass on the sidewalk, but there aren’t.”
“Meaning something from outside the building broke the glass,” Cam said. “Something like a Molotov cocktail thrown through the window.”
“You got it.”
Arson? Shelby’s stomach flipped over, and she hugged the blanket tighter around herself. Oh God. If Reece hadn’t been here with her…
Someone wanted her pushing up daisies.
Maybe it shouldn’t surprise her, given the life she’d lived up until a few months ago, but it did. It really did.
Holy batshit, Robin.
“Shit,” Cam muttered, succinctly echoing her own thoughts. “Mind if I take a look?”
“Once the flames are out, sure.” As the two men started toward the fire truck, she heard Deluca add, “We’ll need to contact the owners—”
“I’ll do it!”
They stopped, turned, and Shelby realized she’d sounded far too eager. “I mean, the blow might be softer coming from someone they know. I’ll contact them.”
After a beat, Deluca nodded. “You do that.”
Stupid, she scolded herself as she watched them walk away. Stupid, stupid. Should’ve told the truth. Which, yeah, meant she’d have a lot of ’splaining to do. The kind of explanations she really wasn’t ready to give and some she couldn’t.
Behind her, Eva cleared her throat. “Shelby.”
She glanced over, saw her sister’s arms crossed, boot tapping out an impatient rhythm in the slush on the sidewalk.
“I can tell something’s going on,” Eva said.
“Besides my place of employment burning to the ground as we speak?”
“Besides that. Did you start the fire? It’s okay if it was an accident. You just have to come clean.”
Shelby blew out a breath. Of course Eva thought that. In her sister’s mind, she was a walking jinx. “No, I didn’t start it. You heard the hottie fireman. He thinks it was arson, and Cam seems to agree.”
Eva ran her hands through her loose, bed-tangled hair. Didn’t take a genius to figure out what she and Cam had been up to before they heard about the fire.
Which, of course, made her think of Reece. And the bone-quaking orgasm he’d been on the verge of giving her.
Despite everything, a blossom of lust unfurled low in her belly. The way he’d touched her had been…unrestrained. Sweet, a little clumsy, and uncharacteristically enthusiastic. So not what she’d expected from Reece stick-up-the-ass Wilde.
And, dammit, she wanted more.
Was there a female equivalent of blue balls? Because she had a mean case of it, which the adrenaline rush had only exacerbated.
Eva waved a hand in front of her face. “Planet Earth to Shel, come in.”
Shelby shook her head, dislodging all thoughts of Reece. “Sorry. What?”
Eva frowned, concern etching lines around her eyes. “Are you okay? Maybe we should take you to the hospital.”
“No, you don’t need to do that. I’m exhausted and zoned out for a sec. No biggie. What were you saying?”
“Oh God. Shelby, you scared me, you know?” Eva stepped forward and wrapped her up in a hard hug. “You were here closing by yourself, and when I heard the call come across the scanner…”
Shelby held her just as tightly and breathed in the leathery scent of her sister’s jacket mixed with the clean scent of soap from a recent shower. It did wonders to calm her still-racing heart. “I’m so sorry, Evie. But I’m okay. Honest.”
“Whatever’s going on with you, you know you can tell me, right? I can’t promise I won’t get mad at first, but I’m always here for you, no matter what.”
“I’ve never doubted that.”
“So then what aren’t you telling me?”
Oh, so much. So very much that she didn’t even know where or how to begin.
She clung to her sister and watched the firemen douse the last of the flames. The front end of The Bean Gallery was nothing but a blackened shell now, and tears pricked her eyes. And for a heartbeat, warm and comfortable in her sister’s embrace, she considered spilling everything. All she had to do was open her mouth and start talking.
But then she caught sight of a familiar face in the crowd of bystanders that had begun to gather on the sidewalk, and her heart dropped to her toes.
Shitballs. And here she’d thought this night couldn’t possibly get any worse.