AS I WALK THROUGH THE DOOR of my beach bungalow, exhaustion claims me. I used to enjoy my party-girl ways. Of course that had been in London where I could indulge myself without any consequences. In Brazil, however, I’d been a totally different person. I’d worked countless hours to make the project a success, and when I’d felt the need to cut loose, I’d head to Natal and the anonymity of the big city. There I would choose an attractive, reasonably-clean lover, rent a room for the night and fuck his brains out. But now—
Things have changed.
My performance in the boteco is guaranteed to inflict damage—property as well as the bodily injury type. It’s taking more and more out of me every time I go through the paces. What once was so easy, now seems a chore. But I can’t stop. Not now.
Needing to wash away the stink of the dive bar, I head for the bathroom and turn on the shower. The warm water soothes my weariness, but does nothing for the troubled thoughts rattling around my head. Once upon a time, I belonged to the aristocracy. That’s no longer true. At my father’s funeral, I found out I’m not a legitimate member of the Storm family. The Earl of Winterleagh fathered me, but his wife, the Countess, is not my mother. I’m nothing but a mutt, born from the wrong side of the blanket. No idea who my mother could be. But with my father’s penchant for strumpets, I can only imagine.
As I step from the shower, a knock sounds on my front door. Who the blazes could it be? It’s after midnight, for heaven’s sake. I throw on a robe, pad barefoot to the glass door, and slide it open an inch.
The outside lamp illuminates the man standing on my porch, and my breath catches. Tall, dark-haired, bloody gorgeous. My former keeper. “Jake.”
“Hello, Lady Brianna. May I come in?”
His deep voice skitters down my spine like it always has. Not that I ever did anything about it. He may set my every sense reeling, but I do nothing for him. Never have. Never will. I was only an unwanted chore to him. What the blazes is he doing here in Brazil? Did Gabe reinstate him as head of security? Did he come to apologize for not saying so much as ‘Ta’ when he walked out of my life? Fat chance of that happening. That’s simply not his style. But I’m not going to find out with him standing out there, so I glide open the door and let him in. “Yes, of course.”
Hauling a duffel bag over his shoulder and a suitcase behind him, he strolls in like he owns the place, just like he’s always done. One thing about Jake, he commands whatever space he’s in. His Navy Seal training required him to make himself at home in everything from a rough mountain terrain to hot desert sands. An air-conditioned bungalow must seem like paradise compared to some of the harsh environments he inhabited in the past.
I slide the door shut behind him, but don’t bother to lock it. He won’t be staying long. As soon as I figure out the purpose for his visit, he will be gone. “What are you doing here?”
He takes his time searching every nook and cranny, more than likely looking for threats. That’s Jake. A professional, first, last and foremost. Finally, his gaze returns to me, and no doubt finds me wanting like it always has. “I’m resuming my bodyguard duties.”
Bollocks. “No. You’re not. I don’t need you as my security guard. I have Hamish.” I gesture toward the porch where my current keeper spends the night.
“No. You don’t. I dismissed him.”
I catch my breath and jerk the curtains open. Sure enough, the chair where Hamish usually spends the night lies empty. This can’t be happening. Not now. Not with what’s at stake. I might be able to fool Hamish, but Jake? He’ll see right through me. And then everything will be blown to hell. “You can’t boot him. Only I can do that. And I don’t want you as my bodyguard. Not anymore.”
Eight years ago when I was eighteen and a freshman at Oxford, my brother Gabe hired him as head of security for Storm Industries and to watch over me. But last year, after our brother Edward returned from a five-year self-imposed exile, Gabe fired Jake for keeping Edward’s whereabouts secret from him. Jake left without so much as a goodbye. That hurt. A lot more than I cared to admit at the time.
His eagle-eyed stare drills into me. “Doesn’t matter what you want. You’re causing trouble. And I’m here to put a stop to it. Whatever it takes.”
Bloody hell. Can’t imagine he dropped in out of the blue without Gabe’s knowledge. No. They arranged this, the blighters, without telling me. He’s dressed for the tropics. Black t-shirt, tight across his hard-sculpted chest. Iron-hewn legs encased in khaki cargo shorts. The man’s a maniac when it comes to working out. But if he’s going to keep watch from my veranda, he knows better than to sport such attire. “And you’re planning on spending the night out there dressed like that? Not very wise of you. The mosquitoes will eat you alive.”
“I’m not sleeping out there. I’m staying inside. With you.”
What?!! He’s never done that. In all the time he watched over me, he’d kept his professional distance, only stepping into my sanctuary on those rare occasions when I asked him in. And now he’s telling me he’s sleeping in my house? Without asking for my permission? Not bloody likely. “I don’t share my accommodations when I’m working on a project. You know that.”
“You will with me.” He drops the duffel on the floor, and the thump of heavy metal echoes in the room.
“What do you have in there? A small artillery?”
“More or less.”
I can only imagine what he’s carrying. Guns, his weapon of choice, and probably a high-powered rifle. Not a surprise, given he was a sniper in the military. But that’s neither here nor there. I’ll be damned if I allow him into my private space. “I don’t need them. And I don’t need you. I can defend myself.”
He tucks a thumb inside his right pocket, a habit of his, narrows his gaze at me. “Not against several men, you can’t.”
“What are you talking about?”
“That little performance of yours in the boteco?” He tips his head in the general direction of the place.
Cripey. He caught that? “You were there?”
“Yes.” He crosses his arms across his chest, and his monster biceps bulk out. “After you left, I wanted to get the lay of the land, so I remained behind. Some of those men slobbering over you? They hunched around tables, plotting the best way to get to you.”
I hitch up my chin. “I’ll gut the first man who tries anything.”
“You might gut the first one, but the others? They will get to you. And after they’ve raped you, they’ll kill you.”
Rape. A punch to the gut that word.
As always, he stands legs apart, master of his domain with that damn censuring look of his. The same look he’s always worn around me. I hate it he’s here, and I especially hate he’s sporting that expression. I’m so tired of seeing it on his face. “Gabe should have called me. Warned me you were coming.”
“You sure he didn’t?” He asks in that deep voice of his.
I recall the numerous phone calls from my brother. The ones I didn’t take. Maybe he had. I toss my head. “He shouldn’t have asked you to come. I’m doing okay. We’re doing okay.”
He snorts. “No. You’re not. Equipment’s being stolen, damaged. Storm Industries is paying more for this venture than originally budgeted. If this keeps up, your brother might have to scuttle the entire project.”
The barb strikes home, and I flinch. “And you think that’s my fault?”
“Not directly. But with the equipment thefts and vandalism, the men are uncertain about the future of the project. And those performances of yours at the boteco are more than likely contributing to the general unrest.” He blows out a breath, glances once more around the place as if searching for an answer. “Something odd’s happening, something I never sensed before. It will take time to sort out, but I will find out. Eventually.”
My breath hitches. I can’t have him mucking about. He’s bound to figure out what’s going on. He’s good at that. It’s after all what he’s trained to do. I tremble at the consequences should he discover the truth. I’ll need to come up with a plan to get him off track. And there’s one sure way to do so. Keep him so busy watching over me he won’t have time to investigate. I can’t make it easy for him, though. He’ll suspect something if I give in to his demands too swiftly. “So you think you can just ride in and fix me? I have news for you, mate. I don’t need to be fixed.”
“You need . . . something.” His gaze roams over me, taking in my state of undress. In the past, his scrutiny had been guarded, respectful. But this one’s the gaze of a hungry lion who’s been starving for days and has finally spotted his next meal.
My nipples perk up from that heated scrutiny. I wrap my terry robe tight around me, band my arms across my chest to hide my body’s reaction from him. What caused this change in him? Why is he looking at me as if I’m a woman, and a desirable one at that? He’s never acted this way before. “If you stay here, everyone will think we’re . . . lovers.”
One corner of his mouth kicks up. “That’s exactly what I want them to think.”
The breath whooshes out of me. Well, that explains that heated look, doesn’t it? It’s an act. “But we’re not lovers. We never have been. We never will be.”
He steps close to me, forcing me to tilt back my head so I can maintain eye contact. He’s one of the few men who towers over me, especially when I’m not wearing heels. “They don’t know that. And you’re not going to tell them any different. If I’m to protect you, they must believe that we’re burning up the sheets. That you’re mine. Do you understand?”
Mine. It might be just a lie, but something inside me thrills at that word. To be his. That would be something, wouldn’t it? Of course, it wouldn’t last. He’s too rigid in his ways, and I like sex too much to belong to only one man. Even if that man were Jake. “That’s rubbish.” I turn on my heel and flounce toward the bedroom, where I intend to lock myself in.
But he trails after me, refusing to take the hint.
As soon as he steps into the room, I glare at his suitcase, glare at him. “You’re not sleeping in my bed.”
A hint of a smile curls around his lips, one I’ve never seen before. “If I were in your bed, we wouldn’t be sleeping.”
Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to divine the meaning behind his words. Fuck. That’s what we’d be doing. But it wouldn’t be because he desired me, but as a way to control me, chastise me, punish me. The Jake Cooper I know would do anything to get the job done, including shagging the spoiled rich girl he’s been talked into guarding. Something deep and dark howls within. I don’t want to be his Calvary, his cross, his crucible. I want to be something more. Problem is I don’t know what. And as matters stand, I can’t afford to find out.
He gestures toward the living room. “I’ll take the couch.”
Well, at least it’s not my bed.Return to Storm Conquered