Corporate Heat/C4 Where Danger Hides: Chapter Four
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Corporate Heat/C4 Where Danger Hides: Chapter Four
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C4 Where Danger Hides: Chapter Four

Taylor slapped the folder on her desk closed. She’d read the clippings inside so many times the print had begun to blur. The letter from someone named Noah Cantrell, telling her it was urgent she contact him at once regarding Josiah Gaines, sat at the bottom of the pile, out of sight and out of mind. She’d had no trouble deciding not to answer it, but now he’d taken to bombarding her with phone calls, insisting he had to speak to her. She’d refused all of them.

Perversely, she opened the folder once more and the headline on the first clipping jumped out at her. International billionaire Josiah Gaines killed in ambush. Someone had waited for the man as he was driven from his offices in San Antonio to his ranch outside the city and had blasted his car, killing both him and the driver. Every alphabet agency in the country—maybe the world—was scrambling to find clues, but in a month, nothing had turned up.

Too bad I didn’t do it myself, Josiah. I’m sure you deserved it.

Even with all that had happened in the past few weeks, the shock of learning that her father was not dead as she’d always been told was still fresh in her mind. She’d had some childish vision of walking in on this man, the founder and major stockholder of a multinational conglomerate, and creating a family situation. What a fairytale that had been. She’d never even gotten past the reception desk, escorted out of the building like a criminal of some kind by two unsmiling security guards.

Of course, she’d realized that just as she’d never known about him, he hadn’t known of her existence. Her grandmother’s letter described in what could only be called venomous language how she and Taylor’s grandfather had tracked down their runaway daughter and the malicious manner in which they’d manipulated the end of her marriage to a man they’d considered both unsuitable and unacceptable. They’d brought her back to Tampa, determined to file for an annulment and wipe the incident out of family history, only to discover Laura had had the last laugh. She’d been pregnant and no amount of threats or pleas had convinced her to abort the child. It had been her last act of rebellion.

The myth of Taylor’s father had been contrived at once—the son of wealthy Europeans, killed in a plane crash shortly after the wedding. Then Laura had been bundled off to relatives in Maine until the baby had been born, while her grandparents had continued with their diabolical plans to keep the lovers apart and prevent any further contact. No wonder her mother had been so sad and defeated all her life. Taylor seemed to have been all she’d lived for. The day after having seen her daughter graduate from college, Laura Scott had swallowed an overdose of sleeping pills and taken herself out of the misery in which she’d lived.

Josiah Gaines’ refusal to see her had been the final swing of the wrecking ball against the structure of Taylor’s life, igniting the tinderbox of rage and resentment that had been accumulating since she’d received the letter. How else to explain her out-of-character behavior—getting drunk, picking up a strange man in the bar and spending the night indulging in the most erotic sex she’d ever had? Memories of it still made her blush and squirm.

Memories that, if she were truthful, swept over her on a regular basis.

Far too often for her comfort zone.

Her dreams were constantly invaded by images of Him. The Man. That was who he was to her—The Man who had taken her body and taught her the pleasure of uninhibited sex. The images flashed through her mind over and over like a slide show stuck on repeat. Her naked body. His. His hands on and in her. His mouth on her. Feeling the huge thickness of him inside her. The words he’d used. She awoke each morning flushed and heated and more tired than when she’d gone to bed.

Well, she was done with that, with the man who haunted her dreams, with Josiah Gaines and with this Noah Cantrell, whoever he was. He could go to hell, which was where she hoped Josiah Gaines was right now. They could all go to hell as far as she was concerned.

The past month had been exhausting as she’d gone through the business of settling her grandparents’ estate. But it also marked what she’d begun to call ‘the emergence of Taylor’. No longer did she go along to get along. She owed nothing to anyone but herself. Her carefully constructed little world had fallen apart and she had no desire to put it back together the way it had been. She had the money now to do whatever she wished. If only she could figure out what that was.

Not what she was doing now, that was for damn fucking sure. Damn. And fucking. Yes, prissy little Taylor Scott had also taken to cursing and using graphic language as her stifled inner self slowly emerged, propelled by resentment that continued to smolder like an underground fire.

Her first step had been to resign from the investment firm where she’d worked. Today was her last day. The partners had taken her to lunch but refused to call it a celebration, asking her one last time to change her mind. But Taylor was adamant. She needed to do something else. Or maybe do nothing for a while. She’d turned into someone she didn’t even know, carrying a chip on her shoulder larger than a boulder. Where before she’d been agreeable and adaptable, now she was often hostile. Yes, it was definitely time for a change. She’d lost the person she’d been and had to discover who she was to become.

Not someone who picks up a stranger and allows him to push my sexual boundaries.

The two Bankers Boxes on the floor next to her desk held the sum total of her years at Clemens Jacobs Financial Services, color-tabbed folders holding personal papers, precisely aligned just as her life had been until a month ago. She was seized by an overwhelming urge to drag them out of their boxes and toss them into a jumble, just as her life had been tossed about. She’d been so regimented for so long—except for her one lapse—she wondered how she would manage without the anchor of routine.

Leaning back in her chair, she closed her eyes and, as always these days, the picture of The Man danced across her brain unbidden. She rubbed her eyes, trying to erase the images that were always there no matter how she wished them away. That night had been at once the most erotic and embarrassing of her life. At least she’d broken out of her shell with a stranger, someone she didn’t have to see again.

You want to see him again, though. Quit kidding yourself. You want all those things he did to you, made you do. Maybe even more. That’s why you can’t stop thinking about them. About him.

A commotion in the reception area broke her train of thought and drew her attention. She heard the voice of Sheila, the receptionist, raised in protest over something and the angrier male voice overriding her.

“You can’t go in there,” Sheila was saying as the door to Taylor’s office flew open.

“I’m in. Miss Scott can throw me out if she wants to.”

There he was, standing in front of her.

Him. The Man.

She blinked hard, thinking for a moment she’d conjured up his image. But when she opened her eyes again, he was still there. Alive. In her office. In full alpha mode. The man she’d never expected to see again. The man who’d taken her far beyond the boundaries set by her inhibitions and who beckoned to her in her dreams each night.

He was even more impressive than she remembered, his presence filling her office and surrounding her. His custom suit and silk dress shirt—were they his uniform?—were window dressing for the barely leashed panther beneath the fabric of civilized clothing. Expensive hand-tooled leather boots on his feet. His hair tied back with a leather thong as before. His face still an unreadable mask. The sense of controlled power still there. A man larger than life. The panther was caged today, but just barely. This might be her office but he was definitely the person in charge.

Even as embarrassment and anger warred within her, her nipples hardened, her breasts tingled and her panties dampened with moisture. She felt every bit of blood drain from her face and drop to her feet. Waves of hot and cold rolled through her and she was sure all the air had been sucked from her lungs. Gripping the arms of her desk chair for support, she licked her lips, trying to moisten them.

Quick, lithe movements brought him to the front of her desk where he stood facing her, his face set, dark eyes probing hers. Eyes that for a brief second held a knowing look.

“Miss Scott?” Sheila’s worried voice cut through her fog. “Shall I call one of the partners?”

Taylor managed to find a functioning part of her brain. “No thanks, Sheila. It’s all right.”

“Would you like me to send someone in to carry your boxes for you? Walk you down to the garage?” Sheila wasn’t quite ready to let go.

Taylor forced a smile. “No, I can manage. Thanks for your concern. And for all your good wishes today.”

Sheila gave her a last worried look before she closed the door.

His eyes burned into Taylor’s, mesmerizing her as they’d done that night in San Antonio.

What is he doing here?

As if he’d heard her, he reached into his inside jacket pocket, extracted a card from a small leather case and dropped it on top of the folder.

She picked it up with trembling fingers and stared at it.

Noah Cantrell, Vice President of Security, Arroyo Corporation

Rage fired throughout her system, displacing the sexual hunger that had threatened to explode the minute she saw him. She tossed the card back onto the desk and curled her hands into fists.

“You knew who I was all the time.”

He nodded, his face expressionless.

“You tracked me down at the hotel.”

Another nod.

Taylor wanted to pick something up and throw it at him, but she refused to let him see how he affected her. A game. He’d been playing a game. What a fool she’d been.

“Well. I’m sure I gave you an interesting story to take back to your employer.”

“I told him I’d checked you out and you didn’t seem like a hustler or scam artist.” His voice was flat, uninflected. “He knew nothing of what happened between us.”

“How very kind of you.” She was shaking inside, panic and desire clashing wildly. The only protective shield she has was the anger she needed to feed. She had to get him out of there.

His face was a mask of stoicism but his unfathomable eyes glittered. “What happened between us was private and personal. I wouldn’t discuss it with anyone.”

“I’ll just bet.” He was standing so close to her she could count his eyelashes.

“When I took you to bed, I broke the trust of a man who was very good to me and who I respected—still respect—a great deal. I’ve been damned for it ever since. No matter how I try, I can’t get you out of my blood.”

She stared at him, shocked by his words. Even in her most farfetched dreams of him somehow finding her, she’d never expected the reality or the harshness of the words he’d spat out. Before she could move, he gripped her shoulders, bent his head and pressed his mouth to hers in a blistering kiss. His tongue was hot against the seam of her lips, pressing, demanding she admit him. When she did, he swept inside like a starving man seeking the last morsel of food.

She closed her eyes, barely able to breathe as waves of sensation washed over her.

At last, he released her. When she lifted her gaze to his eyes, they were so heated she was sure his look alone would scorch her skin. She stared at him, unable to move, touching her fingers to her bruised lips, her body thrumming with desire.

“Tell me you didn’t feel that as much as I did,” he demanded, “and I’ll call you a liar.”

Finally, she found her voice. “I should just tell you to get the hell out of here, you arrogant ass.”

“But you won’t, will you.” A statement, not a question.

“You seem very sure of that.”

Why is he here? What does he want? I can’t think when he’s in the same room with me. What the hell is wrong with me?

His voice jarred her out of immobility. “You still want to find out why I’m here. And I’m not leaving until I tell you. There’s too much at stake.” He folded himself into one of the client chairs.

Everything about his attitude said, ‘I dare you. To throw me out or to listen. Your choice.’

“Don’t make yourself comfortable. I didn’t answer your letter and refused all your phone calls. I have no interest in what brought you here. Josiah Gaines had no interest in me when he was alive. Dead, he means even less to me.” She reached for the phone to call security. Getting him out of there had become a priority.

“I don’t believe you.” Noah leaned forward and placed a hand over hers, gripping it. “And you’re going to hear what I have to say if I have to tie you down, little girl.”

His fingers on the back of her hand were like branding irons, searing her skin and sending a blast of heat through her body. She snatched her hand away.

“Taylor.” She gritted her teeth. “My name is Taylor. I’m not your little girl, or anyone else’s. And your threats don’t scare me.”

He shook his head. “I’m not leaving.”

“Look, Mr…” She made a show of looking at the card. “Cantrell, we have nothing to say to each other. You happened along at a bad moment in my life and I managed to thoroughly embarrass myself. I’d be very happy if you’d just get out of here.”

Noah rested his elbows on his knees. His bottomless black eyes captured hers.

“I haven’t forgotten one minute of that night. Or stopped thinking about it. Don’t tell me it hasn’t been on your mind, too.”

“I…” She wet her lips and started again, “That night is best forgotten. So are you and Josiah Gaines.” Her fingers played with the edges of the folder.

“Aren’t you curious about why I’m here?” His eyes challenged her again.

“I can’t afford to be. The message was quite clear when your employer had me tossed from his corporate headquarters by his thugs. All I wanted was five minutes of his time. Five stinking minutes to tell him who I was.”

A muscle jumped in his cheek. “Do you think I wanted to come here? The smartest thing I can do for myself is to stay as far away from you as possible. But Josiah made that impossible.”

“How did a man who’s now dead send you here on a mission you seem to resent?”

“Have dinner with me and I’ll tell you all about it.”

Have dinner with him?

Just being in the same room with him was dangerous. Sharing a meal would increase that danger. And what could possibly interest her about a man who’d thrown her out of his life?

“I want nothing to do with you or anything that relates in any way to that man.” She nodded at the folder. “Especially now that he’s dead. Murdered, the newspapers say.”

Noah’s face hardened. “That’s a big part of what I need to discuss with you.”

She glared at him. “Why should I even care? The man had no time for me when he was alive. And why would I want to spend one minute with a man who had no conscience about playing a charade with me?”

The muscles in his face tightened. “I couldn’t tell you who I was.”

“Oh.” She tossed her hair. “But now it suits your purpose to reveal yourself. If I didn’t answer your letters or return your phone calls, what makes you think I’d spend another five minutes with you?”

“Taylor. Miss Scott.” Frustration tightened his voice. “We have a serious situation here. You must listen to me.”

“Give me one reason why I should do that. Otherwise, you can just get out.”

A muscle twitched in his cheek as he took an envelope from his pocket and handed it to her. “Read this.”

She pulled out the single sheet and unfolded it. Her hands shook as she read it.

My dear Taylor,

There is so much I would like to say to you and I may not have the time. When I refused to see you that day, it was because I had no reason to believe I had a child. Your grandparents saw to that. But I had to satisfy myself and now I have. I loved your mother more than life itself. Losing her nearly killed me.

I hope to see you soon and make amends, but, if something happens, trust no one but Noah Cantrell. No one. He is the only person I would trust to do what I’ve asked of him.

Your loving father (much too late),

Josiah Gaines

“How touching.” She folded the paper and slid it back into the envelope. “Why should I believe a word of this? It’s just one more letter screwing up my life.”

He was around the desk and lifting her out of her chair before she had time to protest. He pulled her towards him, fingers digging her arms, and his dark eyes bored into hers.

“I’ll tell you two things. One. Have dinner with me and I’ll explain everything. Then if you want to walk away, it’s on your head, but I don’t think you will. Two. If you think that night in the hotel is the end of it with us, you’re very much mistaken. Much as we both might want to pretend otherwise, you know I could take you down on this rug right now and fuck you blind and you wouldn’t push me away.”

She was losing herself in the intensity of those bottomless onyx eyes.

“Don’t try to deny you feel the same,” he went on. “Your body’s already responding to me, even as mad as you are.”

Taylor tried to pull away. “You’re very sure of yourself for someone who showed up in my life under false pretenses then didn’t contact me for a month. You obviously knew who I was. If you wanted me that badly, why didn’t you come after me?”

Still he held her in an unrelenting grip, his face so close his breath was like a soft breeze against her skin.

“There are things I can’t tell you. Reasons why I wish we could make this…thing between us go away. Coming after you would have been a disaster for both of us.”

“Yet here you are, despite what you just said.”

Muscles jumped along the line of his jaw. “I have a job to do. I told you. And damn me for it, I can’t seem to keep my hands off you. I find myself losing control where you’re concerned.”

“And you want me to sit down to dinner with you? After all that?”

Taylor was sure her entire body was shaking. The heat and power that radiated from him enveloped her and his touch brought back every memory of every moment in that hotel room. Her nipples were so hard they felt raw as they pressed against the lacy fabric of her bra and her pussy throbbed with instant need.

Damn.

He gritted his teeth. “I think I can manage to keep from attacking you during a meal in a public place. What about you?”

She looked up at Noah Cantrell and knew she was stepping into more danger than she’d ever known. Taking a deep breath, she drew back her hand and slapped him.

He didn’t even flinch. “Mind telling me what that was for?”

“For not telling me the truth that night. For letting me get drunk and make a fool of myself. For staying away from me.” She jerked herself out of his grasp. “For…for a lot of things.”

“We’ll let that lie for the moment.” The ghost smile danced across his lips. “Feel better now?”

“Yes.” No.

“Good. Then can I assume dinner is on?” He was still crowding her space. “Hear me out before you make any snap decisions.”

“All right. Dinner. Then we’ll see.”

* * * *

Taylor knew at once she’d made a mistake in her choice of restaurant. She wanted one that was quiet and out of the mainstream, a place where she wouldn’t run the risk of seeing anyone she knew. She didn’t need to field questions about Noah Cantrell when she didn’t have any answers yet herself. But the atmosphere was more intimate than she’d remembered, the corner booth arranged so their knees touched beneath the table.

His presence was still overpowering, sensual, masculine. Panther had been a good word to describe him, with his caged power, jungle grace and the dark aura about him. But he also carried the air of a warrior and she wondered idly about his ancestry.

Neither of them had ordered alcohol, as if both were determined to keep things businesslike and operate with clear heads. And after the bomb Noah dropped on her, she wondered if she shouldn’t change her mind and make friends with Jack Daniel’s again.

“He did what?” She still couldn’t come to grips with what she’d heard.

“Made you his sole heir. Period. Oh”—he waved his fingers in the air—“he has a few bequests that have been stipulated for a long time, but the rest goes to you.”

“He knows nothing about me.” Taylor tried to kick her brain out of slow gear. “Had me thrown out of his building when I came to San Antonio. Why should he leave everything to me?”

Noah handed her a folder he’d brought into the restaurant with him. “He didn’t totally ignore your claim. Josiah was nothing if not thorough. That was one of the keys to his success. Read everything in here. When you’re through, I’ll answer questions.”

He watched her through narrowed eyes while she scanned the papers. A lab report. A credit report. A copy of her grandparents’ wills. Her college credits. And on and on. A complete record of her life. She was ready to take the folder and tear everything in it to pieces when she came to the last item, a black and white photo of a young couple smiling happily, arms around each other. The woman held a small bouquet of roses and the man had a rose pinned to his lapel. Even as old as the picture was, no one could miss the love that shone on their faces.

“Turn it over,” Noah told her.

She flipped to the back and her eyes widened.

I thought you might like this picture of your parents. Laura was the love of my life. Always. Your father, Josiah Gaines.

Taylor wanted to put her head down and cry. For herself. For the young couple so desperately in love whose lives had been torn apart by people who made no allowance for emotion. For everything that could have been and wasn’t.

“I think I’ll have that drink after all.” She signaled the waiter.

“I’d stick to wine, if I were you,” Noah cautioned. “We have a lot to discuss.”

“And I might lose my head and attack you again?” She curled her hands into fists. “Maybe this was a mistake.”

He grasped her hands. “This is no mistake. On any front. And next time I fuck you, little girl, it won’t be because you’ve consumed a week’s worth of alcohol.”

Her breath caught in her throat. “I’m not…”

“Yes. You are. And yes, we will.” His voice was low and intense. “Don’t think any of what’s going on will get in the way of what we both know is going to happen.” He released her hands and sat back, a strangely unsettled look on his face. “Whatever this is between us, we need to tame it and move on. We have business to conduct and more eyes than you can imagine will be watching us.”

Tame it. Move on. Like they were exorcising a demon.

If she had any sense, she’d get up and run from the restaurant as fast as she could. Away from Josiah Gaines’ legacy. Away from what Noah Cantrell had to tell her. But most of all, away from the man himself. She was angry and frightened and aroused all at the same time. And the erotic lust that he’d awakened deep within her was pressing hard to burst forth again.

With an effort of will, she pulled herself together.

“Forgetting about the personal stuff. What is so urgent about this situation? Couldn’t I just sign away any claim to the estate and you can all get on with your business?”

Noah shook his head. “It’s a lot more complicated than that. Something happened the week before Josiah was killed, but I don’t know what. Nothing seemed to stand out as unusual the day before he left on a trip and he was killed on the way home from the airport the day he returned. He’d called me as soon as he landed to tell me we needed to meet, but he did that often. Whatever it was, we never got to discuss it. He was killed on the way home from the airport.”

“My God!” Taylor rubbed her temples, trying to absorb what she was hearing. “Who’s been running the company since then?”

“Kate Belden, Arroyo’s executive vice president.”

His tone of voice said it all.

“You don’t like her,” Taylor guessed.

Noah gave his characteristic shrug. “Not my cup of tea. She’s a machine in human skin with lofty aspirations.”

Taylor raised an eyebrow. “How lofty?”

“She considered herself Josiah’s heir apparent. I know she assumed the board would automatically vote her into the CEO position. She’s been doing some active lobbying for the past month. You’ll be quite a shock to her.”

She frowned. “I don’t understand.”

“Josiah’s will gives you ownership of his sixty percent of Arroyo. I have proxies from most of the board appointing you temporary CEO.”

Taylor’s jaw dropped. “What? You’re kidding, right?”

Noah shook his head. “Not for a moment. I owe it to Josiah to keep together what he built and to find out what’s wrong. It appears you’ll have to be the glue.”

She took a healthy swallow of her wine. “What do you think I know about running a conglomerate like Arroyo? What did Josiah think?”

Noah took the folder she’d been looking at, flipped it open and pulled out two sheets of paper.

“I’d say a degree in business from the University of Tampa and an MBA from the University of South Florida aren’t a bad starting place. You graduated at the top of your class both times.” He flipped over a sheet of paper. “Excellent recommendations from your professors got you an investment counselor position at Clemens Jacobs Financial Services and you’re the top producer. The youngest person ever to be fast-tracked for partnership.” He looked up. “You probably know a hell of a lot more than the people you’re going to meet will give you credit for.”

She was struggling to comprehend his extensive knowledge of her. “How did you get all this information, anyway?”

“Most of this material is public record. And money can buy anything if you spend enough of it.”

Taylor pushed her hair back from her face. “Don’t I just know that.” She couldn’t keep the bitterness out of her voice. She opened the folder again, studying each sheet of paper. “This DNA test. I assume you used something from my hotel room. Is that what the whole thing was about?”

He gripped her wrist before she even saw him reach out.

“I wasn’t the one so hot I ripped off my clothes,” he pointed out in a tight voice. “But that isn’t important. What’s important is that I didn’t run away from it, damn me for a fool. And, no, I could have gotten what I needed a number of ways. I didn’t need to take you to bed to do it.”

Her face heated and she yanked her arm away. The sudden movement knocked over the wineglass and it spilled onto both of them. Taylor jerked and grabbed her napkin, blotting ineffectively at her skirt. She glanced sideways at Noah to see him wiping at his suit jacket with an implacable look on his face.

“I’m sorry.” She threw her napkin down on the table. “I’m making a mess of things as usual. This time, quite literally. Why don’t you just tell me how we got to this point and what you need, in the least number of sentences possible?”

“Fine.” His voice was steady, but when she looked at his face she saw the glitter in his eyes. “As to what’s in the folder, Josiah had me check out everything about you. He wanted to be sure he wasn’t turning his back on someone who was really his. When I brought him the folder, he locked himself in his den and got stinking drunk.”

“Drunk?”

Noah nodded. “I had to jimmy the door to open it the next morning. He was sitting at his desk holding the picture of your mother. He never told me what happened back in the day, but he gave me instructions.”

“Instructions.” She dropped her napkin over the spot on her skirt.

“Yes. He was in the middle of investigating what was happening with Arroyo or he would have asked you to come back right away. I drove him into San Antonio to a lawyer he’s used for private activities before and he had the new will drawn up. He’d already gotten the board’s proxies himself by that time, with the vote assigned to me for a new CEO.”

Taylor frowned. “Didn’t the board think it strange?”

“Maybe. I don’t know how he did it. He told me this was his fallback plan. Just in case. I do know he was planning to fly to Tampa to see you when he was killed.”

“Have the police made any progress in the case?”

Noah made a sound of disgust. “The police can’t find their asses with both hands. If anyone’s going to find the answer to Josiah’s murder, it will have to be me. All I can tell you is my gut says it has to do with Arroyo, and that now involves you.”

She leaned against the back of the booth, trying to make some sense of it all. “And what is it you want me to do?”

“Come back to San Antonio with me. Move into Rancho Arroyo, Josiah’s home. Take over the reins of the company. Help me ferret out what’s going on and who’s behind it. I can fill you in on the key players, help you with whatever you need. I will be with you every step of the way.”

“I’ll just bet.” She gave a short laugh. “Why did Josiah choose you for this? What do you get out of all this, Mr. Cantrell? Forgive me, but I can’t see you as being particularly altruistic.”

His jaw tightened and he took a long time answering her. “I owe him a great debt. One I’ll never be able to repay. I would do anything for him. And he trusted me. This is for him.”

“And exactly what—”

He held up his hand. “No. The details are not open for discussion.”

“Well.” She sipped at her water, trying to make some sense of things. “You don’t want much, do you? And when am I supposed to do all this?”

“Tonight. I’ll give you all the details and a rundown on the cast of characters on the plane.”

Taylor thought she’d faint. Tonight? “That’s impossible.”

Noah turned his gaze on her. “It’s necessary. What could possibly hold you back? I know you resigned from your position at Clemens Jacobs. And today was your last day. You have no close associates that you have to explain things to. No…relationships to keep you here.”

She jerked herself upright. “You checked out my love life? You are the most arrogant ass in the world.”

A corner of his mouth twitched. “Probably. But I had to know if you had any loose ends we needed to tie up. I had to have a complete picture.”

She clenched her hands around her water glass. “I’m sure you had a good laugh at how pathetic that picture is. I guess that explained why I threw myself at you in the hotel room.”

“I told you. What happened that night is a separate issue.” His eyes narrowed. “One we’ll definitely get to later.”

“And what about my house? Other things? I can’t just get on a plane and fly away.”

“Yes, you can. I brought people with me to take care of closing up your house and storing your car. We’ll hire a security service to keep an eye on things.”

She set her glass down carefully and looked hard at him across the table, hands folded in front of her, shoulders stiff. “All my life, people have been telling me what to do. Giving me orders. Setting my priorities. Then I find out these people had quite literally destroyed my mother’s life and would have gladly disposed of mine. So the quiet, complacent Taylor Scott has disappeared. No one is going to tell me what to do. Not anymore. Am I making myself clear?”

His answering stare was just as hard. “This is a little more than telling you what dress to wear and who to have dinner with. An entire corporation is at stake here. And all the people involved with it.”

She picked up the wine again, sipped the rest of it slowly then replaced it with a hand that shook just slightly. “If these people are determined to hide what they’re doing, to take over the company, what’s to stop them from killing me? They probably thought they were home free and now I pop into the picture.”

His hands tightened slightly then relaxed. “I won’t let that happen.”

“Really.” She laughed, but it wasn’t a pleasant sound. “You didn’t manage to keep Josiah safe.”

Anger flared in his eyes. “We weren’t expecting anything that drastic. We are now. We’ll be prepared.”

She stared at him, sudden knowledge flooding her. “You want to use me for bait.”

“Taylor.” He leaned forward. “Someone has to take the reins of this buggy before the horse thieves steal it. Josiah chose you. My options are limited.”

She fiddled with her napkin. “Do you suppose you’d get further if you asked me instead of ordering me?”

A muscle jumped in his cheek. “All right. I’m asking you. Will you please come back to San Antonio with me and do this?”

She sat silently, turning everything over in her mind.

Finally, he spoke again. “Chicken? Afraid to step into something this challenging? Afraid of a little danger?” His voice lowered. “Afraid of me, little girl?”

If anything would have pushed her to it, this was it. The new Taylor Scott wasn’t afraid of anything. And he was right. What did she have to hang around here for? Maybe this was a chance to find out about the father she never knew. To explore who she might have been if her grandparents hadn’t interfered.

“Damn it. I am not your little girl. Or anyone’s.” She chewed her bottom lip for a moment. “All right. I’ll come back with you. But I want some ground rules.”

He arched an eyebrow. “And those would be?”

“I know nothing about what I’m stepping into. I have to depend on you to get me through this, but with one stipulation. We’re on equal footing. No orders. I told you. I’m in charge of myself.”

She thought she saw the ghost of a smile twist his lips, then it was gone. “All right. What else?”

“I have some things to do before we leave. Packing, for one thing.”

Noah was already reaching for his wallet and signaling the waiter. “Don’t pack much. We have a personal shopper coming tomorrow with a new wardrobe for you to look at. She’ll know what the CEO of Arroyo and a top resident on the A-List needs to wear.”

Taylor just stared at him. “A shopper? You were certainly damn sure of yourself. Are you choosing my clothes for me, too? I don’t think so.”

He bit down on his obvious irritation. “You will need a wardrobe that says who you are. I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with the one you have, but you’re about to become someone else. Can you just trust me on this and not argue? You don’t have to take anything you don’t like.”

She swallowed her own annoyance. “All right. Point taken. What other surprises do you have for me?”

He shrugged. “Checking account. Credit cards. Other things you’ll need.”

Taylor slid out of the booth. “I suppose I should thank you for your efficiency.”

“I didn’t plan to leave without you, even if I had to kidnap you.”

For once, Taylor was speechless. As Noah guided her out of the restaurant, her mind whirled with the events she was being thrust into, and her body began to hum in anticipation of what this man might want of her in private. And whether or not she was willing to give it. Her only thought made use of her newly acquired graphic language.

I’ve lost my fucking mind.

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