Protecting His Assets (Book 2, Bad Boy Bosses)
When a sexy CEO needs protection…only the best will do.
CEO Steve Nolan is wealthy, successful, and in danger. Now, thanks to his business partner, he has a bodyguard—a rigid, controlled woman with a smoky voice that invites steamy thoughts of rumpled sheets and oh-so-satisfying sleepless nights. So if Steve has to play the game, he’s going to make damn sure he’s in charge of the rules…just as long as no one finds out.
April Porter has met incredibly handsome, high-powered men before. Guys just as smooth, who didn’t take her seriously, and who broke her heart. So she’s just here to do her job and stay focused and professional.
Even if Steve Nolan isn’t just another rich jerk.
Even if the sexual spark between them keeps getting hotter.
And even if protecting his business and his ass(ets) means April could lose her heart in the bargain…
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“This is bullshit!” There weren’t any appropriate words to describe what Steve Nolan was feeling right now…but that would do for starters.
He closed his hand into a fist on the thick oak desktop and glared at his business partner, Ben Harrison. “How am I supposed to get anything done with a babysitter dogging my every move?”
“Christ, Nolan. You’re the one who made this course of action necessary. Maybe if you’d told me what was going on so I didn’t get blindsided by emails from psychos, I would have given you the same consideration when I hired the security consultant.” Harrison stopped pacing back and forth in front of Steve’s office window long enough to level him with an expression of aggravation that managed to look simultaneously like heartburn.
Steve groaned and mentally talked himself down. The situation was making him crazy, and he hadn’t meant to take it out on his friend…or the as-yet-unknown bodyguard Ben had hired without consulting him, who wasn’t even here to defend himself. Yet.
“And just what the hell did you think was going to happen when I found out what’s been going on?” Ben continued.
“Nothing,” he said, still feeling stubborn, combative, and frustrated as hell. “Because it’s none of your damn business.”
“When it starts to affect Optimus Inc., you bet your ass it’s my business.”
Ben was right about that at least. Nolan sighed, stopping himself from dragging his hand through his hair. “Listen, I’m doing everything I can to find out who’s behind this, but I’m handling it. The police didn’t seem to think there was anything to worry about, so—”
“If you’re so great at handling this, why did I have to call the cops? Why haven’t you mentioned this before, done something about it sooner? Since when do you just shrug off a death threat?”
“Technically, it wasn’t a death threat. More like…an expression of peevishness.” In fact there’d been five of them. Five unsigned, undated notes slipped beneath his apartment doorway—and in one case, the door of a hotel room on the thirty-first floor of the Four Seasons. They may not have promised his death, but they’d threatened him with professional ruin and disfigurement of important personal appendages.
“Call it whatever the hell you want, but you aren’t fooling anyone anymore. Real danger or not, this is already affecting our company and has to be taken seriously. That ‘expression of peevishness’ was leaked to the press, and if any more similar notes find their way there, our freshly released, brand new stock is going to plummet down to less than nothing before we even get the certificates printed.” Ben glared. “And just for the record, the police didn’t say there was nothing to worry about. They said they would look into it and that you should be careful.”
Steve and Harrison had met through a common business associate and formed Optimus Inc. together. Nolan had the business savvy and public connections, while Harrison had the tech know-how. Their advanced machine-learning software specialized in AI analytics, and after a lot of work and an influx of capital from their new investors, they had finally released it three months ago to massive success.
“So I’ll be careful, but I don’t need a bodyguard,” he said.
“It’s a security consultant.”
Steve snorted. “You can call it what you want, that doesn’t change the fact that you’re trying to saddle me with a babysitter.”
“Too bad. I know you too well. Until we get some answers, this person sticks to you like glue.”
Ben snapped his suit jacket and started for the door before Steve could voice another of his many objections. “The consultant has been recommended by the police department itself, and so you’re going to facilitate.”
In that case, the dude must be effective. He snorted. “Facilitate?”
“Damn right. It means you hand over those notes and cooperate while we figure out who’s behind these threats. Understood?” His friend stopped with one hand on the doorknob and looked back at Steve with a fierce frown. “If you don’t, I’ll have no other choice but to bench you until the situation is under control.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“If you can’t cooperate with the police and your bodyguard, then you’re a liability to this company. I can’t have that, Nolan. We can’t have that. Especially not right now.”
“You can’t be serious. This is as much my company as it is yours.” But Harrison looked pretty damn serious. Shit.
“You seem to have forgotten we have stockholders now. It’s their company, too. Do you really think I’ll have any trouble voting you out if your problems threaten to cost them their investments?”
Steve was almost positive that Harrison wouldn’t really do that, but the threat proved how seriously he was taking this.
“You’re an asshole,” Nolan muttered. But he was an asshole who was right, and Nolan was an asshole for stressing his partner out about it. “Fine. I won’t fire the guy as long as he stays out of my way and doesn’t draw attention to himself.”
Harrison chuckled. “Don’t worry, I have a feeling the consultant will fit right in with your image, and everything will appear to be business as usual while the police figure this thing out.”
“The police aren’t going to figure out shit, and you know it.” He had no illusions about how investigations like this panned out. “But I agree with you that I shouldn’t have ignored this for as long as I did. You know I would never put the company in jeopardy.”
Harrison grunted. “I know that. And I understand why you didn’t want me to know about this, but you would do the same thing in my place to protect me or the company. Which also means you’re going to take care of this ASAP so Beth stops worrying about you. It’s cramping our wedding plans.”
Steve stifled a curse. Harrison and his fiancée were old business rivals who had reconnected at an industry event in the islands last year. Steve had kept this ridiculousness to himself specifically so his friends wouldn’t worry about him when they were supposed to be planning a wedding and wallowing in their gooey, romantic happiness. That, and because he’d already been involved in enough drama to last him a couple lifetimes. This stalker crap would only drag that up in the tabloids again and get blown way out of proportion.
“You just can’t stand that Beth likes me better than she likes you,” he teased.
“You’re right; she does like you. That must be why she named the new puppy Stevie.” Ben chuckled as he opened the door. On the way out, he told someone waiting in the hall to “Go on in,” and “Good luck.”
Steve groaned inwardly, but he stood up and came around his desk.
A woman stepped inside his office stiffly, without smiling. There, she pulled up short and didn’t move another muscle. She wore a stark black suit and sensible black shoes with short, square heels, and carried a slim leather briefcase in her hand. Her posture was stiffer than a board, and she looked him up and down as if examining a slug stuck to the bottom of her shoe.
He’d been expecting the bodyguard but was more than willing to put that particular meeting off for a few more minutes.
Besides being dark, it was impossible to tell what color the woman’s hair was, pulled back in the tightest bun he’d ever seen. But the style showed off high, prominent cheekbones, and when she raised her chin, he was struck dumb by her brilliant blue eyes. Eyes that could drag a man out of the darkest hole and into the light.
He didn’t know why she was in his office, but he was already making plans to take her somewhere more private and ruffle her up.
“Can I help you with something?” Had Kathy scheduled a meeting without letting him know?
“I’m here from the security agency…” God, her voice was all throaty. The stuff of midnight wet dreams. It made him instantly hard. “I’m the bodyguard.”
The sweaty, naked images he’d conjured up careened to a halt like a thirty-car pileup on the expressway.
What? She was…what?
He wasn’t sexist, and he had no doubt this woman was good at her job or Harrison wouldn’t have hired her, but…
“Do you have a problem with that?” She put one hand on her hip, but her smooth voice registered no surprise to his reaction.
He looked her over again, this time trying to focus on something other than the beckoning shape of her mouth, the graceful column of her neck, and the curve of her hip that was just perfect for his hands to hold on to. But no matter which way he turned, she still didn’t look like the bodyguard type. If she lunged in front of him to take a bullet, she wouldn’t even make a big enough target to keep him alive.
Not that he wanted her to take a bullet for him, of course, and it wasn’t ever going to come to that.
“No, of course there’s no problem. I guess I just expected a beefy dude with no neck wearing dark glasses, but you are much more my style.” He gave her his most disarming smile, but her eyebrows only arched over those ocean-blue eyes with disdain.
He wondered at her reaction. Had they met before? Had he slept with her and forgotten to call the next day? He was usually very careful to keep his assignations entanglement-free, but misunderstandings had been known to happen no matter how upfront he was about his intentions.
“I believe your partner hired a woman because you’re always surrounded by women, so nobody will think twice about my presence at your side.”
Even though it was impossible to ignore the derision in the woman’s purposely professional tone, Harrison was probably right. If Nolan had to have a bodyguard for a day or two, who better to have at his side than a beautiful woman? The tabloids were used to that, and it wouldn’t even be worth the memory space to snap a photo.
“I suppose that’s fair, but if you’re going to fit the image, you might have to take off that ugly suit,” he said, annoyed with her arrogant assumptions. By the pinched look on her face, she’d walked in here with her mind already made up about him, probably based on nothing more than the top five hits of a Google search.
She frowned and smoothed a hand over her jacket but didn’t protest his assessment of her outfit. He’d thought for sure he would have gotten a rise out of her that time.
He walked forward and caught the faintest hint of cinnamon. Not enough to be overpowering. Just enough to make him think about tasting her. He shook off the thought and stuck out his hand, realizing he didn’t know her name.
“I’m Steve Nolan, but I guess you figured that out.”
“Good afternoon. I’m April Porter.” Once again, her melodic voice wrapped around him like a velvet sheath, in sharp contrast to her austere appearance. It conjured unbidden images of darkened rooms and unmade beds. He self-consciously cleared his throat. She met him halfway and took his hand.
He was used to the clammy handshakes of his managers, all of whom seemed to bleed nervousness from every pore just being in the same room with their CEO, no matter what he did to put them at ease—although he tended to have much better luck with the women. But when Ms. Porter shifted her bag into the opposite hand and held out her arm, her palm was cool and dry, her grip strong. It proclaimed loud and clear that she would be difficult to intimidate, even more difficult to rile.
He couldn’t help his curiosity. How did a woman who looked like a goddess become so rigid and controlled? He’d never been able to resist a challenge, and she was so very stiff and sober-looking, it was like a carrot dangling from a stick in front of him. He might not want a bodyguard, but he wouldn’t mind the distraction of getting a woman like this to open up for him, like a juicy pineapple that was succulent and sweet once you got through the hard and prickly shell.
She clasped her hands over the handle of her bag and held it in front of her like a shield. This was a woman with something to prove, all right. The devil inside him was already aching to shake her up.
He waited for her to say something more, but nope, that was it. She looked as if she could stand there waiting patiently for an eternity. It made him vaguely uncomfortable. All that calm and stillness was unnatural, especially to someone whose longest stretch of inactivity was the four hours of sleep he crashed into every night.
Suddenly restless, he moved to the sidebar and opened the small refrigerator hidden behind a sleek mirrored panel. He and Harrison had finally been able to upgrade their offices just a few months ago, courtesy of a massively successful product launch, but now they needed another influx of investment capital to ramp production up to the next level. “Can I get you something? Water? Beer? Scotch?”
“It’s twelve thirty in the afternoon.” Ah, that voice. Despite the thread of disapproval, it was like warm caramelized sugar drizzling over his body—
“Then it’s legal, right?”
“I’ll pass, but thank you.” Her lips pursed. She definitely disapproved. This might actually be interesting…and probably very wrong of him.
He shrugged and straightened again, moving to the big windows as he twisted the cap off the bottle of water and tipped it back for a long gulp. He watched her reflection in the glass, wondering when she would get impatient, but she only stood there…waiting.
He’d just met her, but there was something about her that had immediately rubbed him…not wrong, but…he wasn’t sure. It felt like being in the cockpit of a jet and fighting the urge to punch it right into overdrive. He didn’t know why or how, but just looking at her, standing there all subdued and calm, provoked him. He turned his back on the windows to face her again. “This job is a waste of your time and abilities,” he said. “If you happened to want to hand in your resignation, I would make sure you still got paid.”
She took a step forward, the look on her face telling him that she was clearly considering it. And why not? It was easy money for someone in her position. She could take it and still get another client before the end of the day.
He met her halfway until he towered over her and they stood only inches apart. “That doesn’t mean we couldn’t still see one another,” he murmured, looking down at her pink lips and thinking about kissing her right here, right now. “Perhaps one night next week?”
With her head tipped back and that intensely direct gaze fixed on him, she lifted one slim brow, and his gut clenched with another hard stab of sexual awareness.
“That’s pretty bold,” she said, biting her lip suggestively.
He shrugged. “I don’t like to waste time when I see something I want.”
“And you want…me?” The rigid bodyguard persona had finally cracked, and her voice lowered to a delicious purr. His nostrils flared with triumph, letting him have more of her irresistible cinnamon scent.
“From the moment you walked in the door, baby,” he admitted, lifting his hand to the back of her neck.
She shivered and her eyes fluttered, her body swaying closer so briefly it might just have been his imagination. A few baby-fine tendrils of her hair had come free and brushed his knuckles. He wanted to bury his fingers in her bun and tug her head back until her lips parted in protest and allowed him access to her mouth. Then they’d see how long she could hold on to her restraint and control.
“Even in this cheap, ugly suit?” she asked in a husky voice, running her finger down the lapel of her jacket and into the collar of her blouse, pulling it aside to show him the delicate edge of a pink lace bra.
Shit, she was screwing with him…and he deserved it.
He realized his mistake right away and let her go. She spun away and crossed the room. He’d gone in too hot when he should have played this one cool.
In his defense, it had been a while since he’d contemplated getting with someone outside of his social circles, where the women understood who they were dealing with and they wanted the same no-strings, no-expectations sex that he wanted.
She turned back to him with her arms crossed. “Why don’t I stay for a little while?” Her voice was already cool and detached once more, but her eyes were still ablaze, and he had felt her reaction to his touch. She couldn’t hide that from him now. “At least until I look at the threatening notes you’ve received and see what I can do about finding out who sent them.”
“They’re nothing,” he said. “The police have a copy of the one that was emailed this morning, and they’re looking into it now. I assume they’ll track the IP address, find out the note was sent from the library or a cafe from a fake account, and that will be the end of it.”
“And if it’s not?”
“Then they’ll flounder around, pretend to chase non-existent leads for a few more weeks, and the entire incident will go into a neatly labeled file folder until someone gets tired of it being there in the cabinet a year from now and throws it away.”
“The file wouldn’t get thrown away. Left unsolved, it would be stored in—”
“Not the point,” he said, annoyed.
She cocked her head as if she were trying to pull him apart and find out what made him tick. Was she now realizing she couldn’t just rely on Google for all her information about her new client? “You don’t have a lot of confidence in the police’s ability, do you?”
“Is there any reason why I should?”
She shrugged. “I guess that’s why I’m here.”
“And what do you think you can do that they cannot?”
“We’ll see, won’t we?” A hint of a smile tugged at her full mouth, making his cock throb and his brain go there again. Just like that he was picturing those lips wet and bruised from a blistering kiss, parted in passion. Even without any makeup, her lips were a tempting pink. Not to mention exceptionally full and lush, despite her pinched reserve and stiff regard.
He liked confidence in a woman. And intelligence. And apparently he liked sass, all wrapped up in a straight-laced, tight-lipped bodyguard.
Damn, but he wanted her even more after that little tease than he had before.
He wanted to find out what made her tick. He wanted to make good use of that mouth as he was exploring every inch of her creamy skin, breaking her calm facade and uncovering all of her mysteries. But he’d learned his lesson, and he would be more subtle.
“In the meantime, I think I should stay close to you to ensure your safety,” she finished.
“All right, if you want to waste your time following me around, who am I to complain?”
“Thank you.” Her tone softened, and his breath caught when she unexpectedly smiled. “I know this was not your decision, and I’m grateful you’re taking it so well.”
“Save that thought until after you hear my conditions for your continued service.”
Her smile froze. “Conditions?” He returned to his desk and sat down, leaning back in the oversized leather chair and knitting his fingers behind his head as he looked up at her. When she didn’t follow his lead, he held out his arm and motioned for her to sit as well.
He took it as a good sign when her shoulders relaxed slightly and she placed the briefcase on the floor beside her and lowered herself into the chair. When she crossed her legs and tugged the hem of her skirt to her knees, he couldn’t help but watch. And when she bent over to pull a slim notebook from the depths of the bag and the front of her blouse gaped just enough to give him another shadowy glimpse of that fragile pink lace against her smooth, creamy skin, he felt like a seventeen-year-old boy again.
If he had any faith that a bodyguard—male or female—could actually be effective, he might have considered hiring Ms. Porter to watch over his mother and sister, just in case this threatened to touch them. He accepted that he would be stuck with her for a day or two to appease Ben and keep the shareholders from becoming alarmed. That said, if anyone found out that he had a bodyguard, it would only fuel rumors and gossip and create the kind of media circus that Optimus Inc. desperately needed to avoid now. If she couldn’t blend in, this wasn’t going to work.
“If word gets out that I hired security, it’ll be all over the internet in seconds. The email that got copied to the press has already started tongues wagging, and our shareholders are concerned. Any more drama could make them lose confidence in Optimus Inc. Whoever is doing this, they can’t be allowed to believe that they’ve succeeded in scaring me. I won’t let anyone ruin what Harrison and I have worked so hard to build.”
She frowned. “I think everyone would agree that your safety is more important than your public image, and your company should be able to withstand a—”
“If my safety were actually in peril, then sure, whatever you say. But that has yet to be confirmed, and right now…” It was a critical time for the company. Any more signs that there might be trouble could affect how the next few days played out. “I’m taking zero risks. We are not going to find out what my company can withstand. Got it?”
She nodded. “If that’s the way you want it. Then what are your conditions?”
He could still fire her, to hell with Harrison. But what would be the fun in that?
“I’ll allow you to conduct an investigation in whatever way you see fit, as long as it’s discreet, and as long as you run all of your findings through me before you talk to anyone else,” he said.
She nodded immediately. “Understood.”
“Good. And when it comes to the bodyguard thing, we’re doing it my way, despite what Mr. Harrison may have told you.”
She opened her mouth. “In my experience, a client doesn’t always know what’s best for his own safe—”
“This client does.” He shut her down before she could finish. “So if you want to keep this position and you insist on tagging along after me, you are going to have to remain completely inconspicuous.” He looked her up and down with a critical eye. “That means dressing like the type of woman I would be seen out in public with.”
He hadn’t meant that the way it came out.
Ms. Porter was a drop-dead gorgeous woman that any guy would kill to be seen with. She could be dressed in a burlap sack, and it wouldn’t matter. But this was about business, and if she stuck to him like glue in that ugly suit, combined with her rigid posture and stoic expression, it would be as effective as an ad in the paper announcing that there was blood in the water at Optimus Inc.
But her lips had pursed in reaction to his words, and at last another hint of emotion lit up those impossibly blue eyes. Even if it was only irritation…it would do for starters, so he didn’t bother to correct himself.
“It also means that none of this becomes fodder for the news hounds,” he continued. “In fact, I want you to sign an NDA. I’ll have my assistant draw it up.”
“A non-disclosure agreement? I don’t really believe that will be necess—”
“Well, I do. The only person who knows about your purpose for being here besides myself is my partner. So if I so much as hear a whisper in the media about Steve Nolan needing a bodyguard, I’ll know where it came from, and it’ll be your ass on the line.”
She frowned. “I would never—”
“Don’t bother to tell me what you’d never do,” he snapped, swallowing the bitter taste of remembered betrayal. “I’ve heard that one before.”
She paused, her gaze assessing. He tapped his fingers on the desk.
“All right,” she said finally. “I agree to your conditions.”
Let the games begin.