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Dangerous Relations

 

 

 

One

 

Brian Whitfield hissed at his watch.  Damn, it was almost eight o'clock.  Of all the nights to be late this was definitely the wrong one.  Claire would be put out with him.  He couldn't afford to have her irritated with him.  Especially now.  Not at this stage of his plan.

Claire Jones is his angel of mercy, exactly what he needs.  On top of her exquisite looks--dark green eyes, sexy black curls dancing to the middle of her narrow back, and classically feminine features--she's also filthy with money.  Just filthy with it.

"Thank you, Jesus!"  he shouted as he whipped into a parking spot directly in front of his apartment near 42nd and Broadway, his second apartment in New York City--the one used for his less than respectable ventures.  If he hurried through a shower and packed his toiletries quickly he wouldn't be any later than usual for his dates with Claire.  And he could always talk his way back into her good graces.  Hell, in thirty-two years he hadn't discovered a woman he couldn't charm into falling at his feet.

He stepped into the brisk October night, unlocked the front door of the building and effortlessly bounded up three wide flights of wooden stairs.  Halfway down the hall he stopped dead in his tracks, confused as hell over why his apartment door stood open.

Comprehension set in.  Then, alarm nipped at its heels.

Brian pressed his back to the wall and inched toward his apartment without making any sound.  He drew a deep breath to steady his nerves, then leaned around the corner and stole a glance into his living room.

A stumpy man with outrageously broad shoulders and black, straw-like hair had his back to the door as he rifled through Brian's desk drawer in the corner of the room before dumping its contents onto the floor.  Obviously sensing another presence, he spun around to look at Brian.

Brian flew back down the hallway.  He didn't look over his shoulder to see if the broad man was following him because he could hear, and feel, thunderous footsteps behind him.  He took the stairs at neck-breaking speed and thanked God he'd been given an athletic body.

He fumbled his keys out of his pocket as he burst through the front doors.  Diving behind the wheel of his BMW he punched the button to lock the doors, slammed the key home, and hit the ignition.

The wide bodied man pelted the glass of the passenger window with huge, hairy fists.  "You're dead, Whitfield!  Dead!"

Brian peeled away from the curb in a cloud of rubber smoke, covered with a sheen of fear induced sweat.

Well, shit.  His agenda with Claire had to be accelerated if he planned to save his ass.  And of course, he planned to do just that.

 

Brian was late.  Although Claire wasn't surprised, she was disappointed.  He'd promised their evening would be special, then had the nerve to be late.  Again.

After a last look in the bathroom mirror she killed the plentiful overhead lights.  She did not, however, turn off the brass lamp beside her bed.  The soft light, warmed by the burgundy chintz shade, always comforted her when she returned home.

She took the hall to the dining room and stopped at the aged walnut bar to pour a second helping of wine.

Claire loved her apartment, even though it was ridiculously large for a single person.  An open area with fifteen foot ceilings comprised the living and dining rooms.  The entire apartment was decorated in rich burgundies, dark blues, and accented with touches of vibrant gold.  It was elegant and classy without being gaudy or overbearing.

She moved to the wall of floor to ceiling windows in the living room, which overlooked Madison Avenue and part of Central Park.  The view from the twentieth floor was spectacular.  Especially at night.

New York City had always been her home.  Claire felt connected to it--as if she and The City had a deep bond to each other.  The City shared its many pleasures with her; the theater, the wonderful shopping, the fine dining and enrichment its varied cultures offered.  In turn, she used her vast financial resources to help save some of its historical landmarks and she employed thousands of its inhabitants.  She'd never been touched by any crimes or felt fear while in The City.  She simply felt like she was exactly where she should always be.

Her grandfather had started Jones Pharmaceutical and spent his life building it into a profitable little business.  Then, her father's genius turned that tidy little business into an international empire worth millions of dollars.

Her lifestyle had been that of a carefree, rich and spoiled brat.  She'd gone to college but couldn't decide what she wanted to become; a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, a veterinarian.  Finally, after five years of earning mediocre grades in a variety of courses, she received a Liberal Arts degree.

She then took a job in the Personnel Department at Jones Pharmaceutical.  That hadn't worked out.  At all.  Her father expected her to be there everyday, all day long.  Unfortunately, there were other things she preferred to do with her time; shop, be pampered at the spa, linger over extravagant gourmet lunches with her equally rich and spoiled friends.  Shop some more.

Robert Jones, Jr. soon tired of her whimsical ways and terminated her employment.  He also cutoff the excessive allowance she'd received since her teenage years.

In order to get back into her father's good graces, and his bottomless wallet, Claire returned to school.  This time she actually applied herself to her studies, maintained a four-point-oh grade point average, and earned a degree in business management.  During her second stint at college she grew up so much that when she went back to work for her father it was as his executive assistant.

He began teaching her how to handle all the facets of their multimillion dollar corporation.  She caught on quickly.  Even so, when he died in a car accident just over a year later she wasn't anywhere close to being prepared to step into his job.  She'd had no choice, though, because she was the only Jones left to run the company.

Upper management resented her taking her father's place.  They thought she was soft and spoiled, ignorant about the business, and would quickly run the company into the ground--screwing-up their jobs, insurance benefits and pensions.

The stockholders went ballistic.  Hundreds dumped their stock in a blind panic.  The value of Jones Pharmaceutical took a horrific and ungraceful swan dive.  Vendors severed lines of credit out of fear the company wouldn't survive with Claire at the helm.

Things had been very bad.  Terrible, in fact.  Scary.

Claire fought like crazy to hold it all together.  Her valiant efforts finally paid off because she won the battle.  Nine months after she took over, things settled down and began to run smoothly once again.

At last she had time to mourn the loss of her father, who'd raised her alone because her mother died from complications of giving birth to her.  Claire adored her father, still missed him desperately, and still grieved over him.

Tucker.

The single name sliced through her thoughts without warning.  Or invitation.  Thinking about Tucker always brought on so many memories, images, regrets.  And pain.  God-awful pain.

Stubbornly, she pushed the thought of Tucker out of her mind.  Despite how pleasant it was to remember their times together, and the glorious sensation he'd always produced in her; as if she were floating just above the ground, those memories always ended with a searing ache that hadn't lessened over the years.  And right now, just for this one night, she wanted to be happy.  Or at least not filled with remorse.

The door to her apartment opened, then softly shut.

Claire turned away from the window, and her thoughts.  Even though Brian was late, she was glad he was there to distract her from the unpleasantness of her past losses and the loneliness that always followed her.

Brian Whitfield could be refined and polished or flamboyant and lighthearted.  He drove a pricey car and wore only the finest clothes, whether he chose a tailored suit or slacks and a sweater.  He seemed at home in elegant restaurants but loved to go to dive bars and behave like a silly teenager on the dance floor.

Brian was exactly what she needed, exactly when she needed it.  He'd helped her move through the worst of mourning her father and given her a reason to smile and laugh--not to mention the physical pleasure he delivered.  He had brought her laughter at the most emotionally trying period of her life.  He'd shown her how to be carefree at a time when details nearly consumed her.  He'd made her feel wanted, just when she realized how alone in life she was.

As a successful stockbroker, he pulled his share of long days.  He understood responsibility and commitment and the personal sacrifices it took to survive in the business world in Manhattan.  Therefore, he never complained about the number of hours she worked, which saved her from feeling guilty about the time she spent hunched over her desk.

Due to their grueling schedules they didn't see a lot of each other--although they had standing dinner dates on Tuesdays and Thursdays, which always extended into the early hours of the morning.  Brian wined and dined potential clients on the weekends and Claire didn't mind rarely seeing him on weekends.  After working all day Saturday, frantically trying to catch-up on paperwork while the rest of the staff was gone and the executive offices of Jones Pharmaceutical were quiet, she needed the remainder of the weekend to unwind and have time to devote solely to herself.

Really, her relationship with Brian was perfect--no strings or pressure, the chance to have fun with a gorgeous, intelligent, charming man, and the added benefit of great sex.  For her, and this stage of her life, she couldn't ask for anything more from a relationship.

Brian stepped into the living room.  At six foot tall, he was her height.  His shoulders were wide, his body lean and well-formed.  Good humor usually lit his blue eyes and a pleasant smile, or an endearing grin, almost always rested on his attractive lips.  Tonight, however, his dark eyebrows were drawn together and his mouth held in a fierce line.

Claire frowned with concern and moved toward him.  "Brian!  What’s wrong?"

"I'm, uh, a little nervous."  He encircled her waist with his hands.

"About what?"

He kissed her lips lightly.  "Wondering if you'll refuse my proposal."

"That hasn't happened very often!"  she said with a throaty laugh.  "What are you proposing we do?"

"Get married."

She sucked in a sharp breath, certain she'd misunderstood him.  "What?"

Brian dropped to his knees and squeezed her hands between his.  "Marry me, Claire.  Please?"

"Oh, Brian, . . ."  She shook her head, overwhelmed by the idea.  "I don't think, . . ."

 He locked his arms around her waist and hauled her against him, pressing his cheek to her tummy.  "Please, Claire."

His hold was desperate.  A tremble shot through his solid body.  Something was horribly wrong.  The Brian Whitfield she'd come to know over the past two months wouldn't be so nervous about asking her to marry him.  In fact, he wouldn't ask her to marry him.  They were just dating for God's sake!  Having a good time.  Enjoying each other.  Claire shook her head again.  "Brian, I don't, . . ."

"Wait!  Before you answer, pack your bags."  He jumped to his feet and cupped her shoulders in his hands.  "I'm taking you away for a romantic vacation."

"Now?"  she asked in an unusually high voice while her head continued to shake back and forth.

"Right now.  Pack warm clothes because we're going to Montana."

She wondered what could possibly be of interest in such a remote location.  "What about work?"

"You have people capable of running the company for a few days.  I've got vacation time coming.  Let's just go, babe.  Come on!"

"What's gotten into you?"

"You have, Claire.  You've gotten into my system, into my heart."  He sipped on her lips, then leveled a serious gaze on her.  "Come on, babe.  Let's go away.  I'll prove to you that we have to be together.  Come on."

She caught the corner of her bottom lip between her teeth, a nervous habit she'd yet to break, and remained silent.

"Claire," he said, his tone and expression coaxing.  "What have you got to lose?  Even if I don't convince you to marry me, you could use a vacation.  Hell, after the year you've had, you deserve a vacation."  He arched one eyebrow at her.  "Just imagine all the wild, uninhibited, sex we can have without the obligations of regular life to deal with."

That idea intrigued her, and caused her to smile.