Storms ahead for Gemma and Jack. Read Off Limits, Part 5

TO celebrate the launch of Harlequin's DARE series of romance novels, we are proud to present a day-by-day serialised release of Off Limits by Clare Connelly. To navigate between the chapters head to the bottom of today's segment.

IMPORTANT: Before you begin reading, remember - this is Mills & Boon as you've never seen it before, with plot lines featuring empowered women and extremely steamy sex scenes - for adult subscribers aged 18 and over only. Find more titles like this one here.





His eyes meet mine, his smile disarming, and my body responds. I swear my breasts grin at him. Happiness settles around my shoulders.

'It's beautiful.'

A pizza box sits between us, the contents half-eaten. He reaches for another piece and I watch his fingers curl over the crust.

Making love by the pool broke something inside me and I'm glad - because it's rebuilt me in a different way. I'm different. He's different. Nothing is the same now.

'It's clean. New.' He smiles. 'Nothing like where I grew up.'

I have to shake myself into the conversation. I'm genuinely interested in where this is going, but the cobwebs of lust are hard to ignore.


'Yeah. Just outside it, anyway. A grimy little town to the east.' He wrinkles his nose.

'Do you ever get back?'

'Nah.' He throws the crust back into the box and stands up, holding his hands out to me.

I stand and put my hands in his. When did I stop questioning him and just become a part of him? And why doesn't it bother me more?

'My parents moved to Kerry - a little house overlooking the ocean, as far as you can see. It's beautiful there.'

'But you like cities?' I say as he pulls me towards him and holds me close.

He begins to sway, dancing with me on the balcony of his apartment as the moon casts a silver light over the Sydney Opera House.

'I like the pace,' he agrees. 'I'm not one for small towns.'

I tilt my head to the side. 'I don't know ...' I say thoughtfully. 'I think cities can be almost slower than towns. It just depends on how you spend your time. There's certainly a lot of anonymity in a city. Haven't you ever just wanted to get lost? You can walk down Oxford Street on Boxing Day and not be seen by anyone.'



Off Limits by Clare Connelly. Picture: Supplied
Off Limits by Clare Connelly. Picture: Supplied

He presses his cheek against mine. There it is again. That clicking inside me as I acknowledge how right this feels. I know it's a very dangerous thought - one that will certainly lead me to pain.

'I can honestly tell you I have never contemplated walking down Oxford Street - let alone on Boxing Day. Are you fucking mad?'

I smile against his chest. 'Yes, well, I suppose you'd send someone to get whatever the hell you need, right?'

His smile indicates agreement.

'Anyway, you live in Hampstead. That's basically as small town as it's possible to get inside London.'

'But so close to everything. And might I point out that you live there, too?'

'I moved to Hampstead because you live there,' I say sensibly, and then stop moving, looking up at him with obvious embarrassment. 'Because my job is there,' I correct, but my cheeks are pink and my eyes can't quite meet his. 'You know ... with the long hours it just made sense.'

'I know what you meant,' he says, his smile sending fire through my body. 'Where did you live before that?'

I let my breath out slowly, glad he's giving me a pass. 'Elephant and Castle.'

He laughs - a gravelled sound. 'Your parents must have loved that!'

They hated it. His insight shakes me. 'Why do you say that?'

'You had three nannies growing up, and a tree house big enough to sleep in. My guess would be they felt it was a bit of a fall from grace for you.'

I hide my smile by dipping my head forward. He lifts my hand and twirls me in his arms, as though we are dancing to a song that only he can hear.

'It wasn't their idea of sensible, no. But it was easy to get into work from there, and I had good friends in the area. Plus, I loved spending my Saturday mornings at Borough Market and it was an easy walk.'

'A closet foodie?' he prompts.

'No. I'm too busy to cook. But I'm a sucker for fresh flowers.' I exhale. 'And cheese. I would go from stall to stall buying whichever cheese took my fancy, savouring it that afternoon with a matched glass of wine.'

'Sounds pretty damned good.' He grins.


'And you gave all that up to work for me, huh?'

'Not all of it,' I say with a wink. 'There's a pretty amazing cheese shop on the high street, you know.'

'And flowers?'

'Always.' I tilt my head up to his and then immediately look past him, to the glittering view of Sydney by night. There is something in his face that calls to me, and I know it would be foolish to answer it.

'Let me guess. You like white Oriental lilies?'

I'm surprised that he even knows a variety of flower, let alone is hazarding a guess as to which would be my favourite.

'No.' I shake my head. 'I love peonies and ranunculus. There's something so wildly chaotic about them that it makes my heart sing.'

'So poetic!' he teases, curling me against him and holding me tight.

I can feel his hard edges and planes, so familiar to me, but my heart is racing as though it's the first time we've touched.

'I think they're naughty,' I say with a grin. 'As though someone has said to them, "We're going to make you the most beautiful, chubby little flowers in the world, but only if you grow straight up towards the sky." And then they looked at each other and said, "Nah." Have you ever really paid attention to their stems? The way they wind round and round as though they're dancing in a thunderstorm?'

His smile is mysterious. Enigmatic. He is, at times, impossible to read.


'No? You don't agree?'

'No, I've never looked at their stems to the degree you have. Nor have I anthropomorphised them.'

'Then you've led a very deprived life, sir.'

I feel his laugh rather than hear it: a rumble from deep in his body. 'Apparently. Do you want some dessert?'

'I can think of other things I want more.'

He laughs and shakes his head, stepping away from me and disappearing.

Thwarted desire flames at the soles of my feet.

He returns a moment later, two coffee cups in his hands. Except there's no coffee in them. They're filled with a single scoop of vanilla ice cream each.

It's sweet, but truly dessert is the last thing on my mind. Before I can tell him that he pulls a hand from behind his back and holds out two perfect fresh cherries.

I grin as he places one in each cup.

'The cherry on top,' he explains unnecessarily, and my heart turns over in my chest at this gesture that is at once both sexy and sweet. Sexy, because how can I ever see a cherry as just a cherry again? And sweet because it is our thing.

We have a thing.

He digs a spoon into the ice cream and brings it to my lips. I taste it, but as on that first night, with our first kiss, his mouth is on mine immediately, his tongue tasting me even as I taste the ice cream.

Dessert is forgotten.

His kiss is unlike anything I've felt with him. It's soft. Tender. Gentle.

He breathes in as though he's inhaling me and I do the same, smiling against his lips.

Despite everything we've shared, it feels like the most intimate we've ever been. As if we're connected on every level.

But then our desperate hunger takes over and his hands are pushing at my robe, connecting with my naked flesh with the same intensity that marked our first coming together. It's as though he's punishing himself now - punishing himself for wanting me in any way other than animalistic and wild.

He presses me back, his kiss hard against my face, his body firm against mine, until I connect with the glass balustrade that runs along the edge of the terrace. He drops his kiss lower, to my neck, and lower still, his stubble grazing along my front until he brushes a nipple, taking it into his mouth and sucking it, spinning whirls of pleasure through me.

He drops lower, and finally falls to his knees. His mouth against my clit is a welcome invasion, his tongue what I have been needing. I grip the railing, my hands tight around its edge, as he glides his tongue down and I moan, pressing deeper against him. He knows exactly what I like now, and it takes him only moments to stir me to a fever pitch of awareness.

I make a small sound in the night air, tilting my head back and staring up at the stars above Sydney as I fall apart against his mouth, my orgasm spellbinding in its intensity and strength. I sway, and almost fall forward, but his strong hands are gripping my hips, pulling me to him as he stands.

'You are beautiful,' he murmurs, pressing a kiss to my forehead.

My breath is burning hard in my lungs, supercharging my body. Everything about this moment is just that: beautiful.

I meet his eyes and - ridiculously - feel a stinging in the back of mine. Don't let me cry! How embarrassing. But there's something in his look that's spinning my gut, shifting through me with a sense of unreality. As though he's thinking something and doesn't know how to say it.

I watch him, waiting for my breath to settle and my pulse to slow. He opens his mouth. My heart is still. Then, with one of those rakish smiles I've come to love, he says, 'Let's go to bed.'

* * * * * * *

'So you're his other half? Professionally speaking.'

I smile at Clint Sheridan but my eyes are glued to Jack. Across the room he holds court easily, and a group of men and two women stand hanging on his every word.

'Technically, I'm his in-house counsel,' I say, with a sideways smile.

'But word has it that you pretty much oversee his entire workload.'

'Really?' I arch a brow and sip my champagne. 'His workload is pretty immense.'

'I can imagine.'


I like Clint. Given that he's going to be running the Australian operation, I'll have to work closely with him - certainly in the start-up phase. He's a bit nervous, but I think once he settles down into the role he'll be funny and fast. He's definitely relaxed a little, even over the course of the few hours we've been at his expansive apartment on Sydney's North Shore.

The view is spectacular - different to that from Jack's penthouse - and by night the city shimmers before us. The famed Harbour Bridge has been lit red, for some reason, and there's something almost eerie about the way it seems to glide over the water, an angry sentinel or a protective beacon. In the far distance there's a flash of lightning, and that only adds to the spectacle.

'Night show!'

Clint grins, as if following my gaze. Or perhaps he's seen the involuntary shudder - a response to the suggestion of thunder. I don't give in to temptation and ask if a storm is forecast. I'm not a little girl any more. I can recognise my phobia as just that - an illogical pattern of fear.

'Have you lived here long?' I ask.

'A few years.' He rests his hand on the back of a dark timber chair and sips his beer. 'Bought it off the plan. Thought I'd use it as a renter, but then - divorce.' He grimaces, as if the single word should communicate his entire backstory.

'I'm sorry. I didn't know.'

'Why would you?'

His smile is disarming. He's handsome, I realise. Strange that I didn't notice sooner. Oh, yeah? My brain is rolling its eyes again. It has a point. Finding another man attractive when I'm sleeping with Jack Grant is like taking a shower in the middle of the Niagara Falls. But there's no denying it. Clint has got eyes that are almost as dark as night, a thick crop of black hair, a swarthy tanned complexion - and he's built like a tank. Thick neck, muscled arms - like he'd be as at home on a rugby field as he would the boardroom.


'True. It's not really our concern if you're married or not.'

'Are you?'

My eyes lift to his, my smile hinting at a laugh. 'Definitely not.'

'That's funny?'

His eyes scan my face and there's curiosity there. I suppose I am of an age where women are generally on that path somewhere. Either dating, engaged, planning the wedding, married, just married, sick of marriage ... I'm none of those things. In fact, marriage really hasn't entered my head as a desirable state into which to enter.

Out of nowhere, the wedding anniversary party fizzes into my mind. I could definitely attribute my lack of faith in the whole institution of marriage to my parents. The silence of my childhood sits like a dull weight on my periphery.

'Only in that I barely have time to plan a holiday, let alone something as monumental as - ' I wave my hand in the air and the gold bangles I'm wearing jangle ' - that.'

'Smart move. The whole thing's overrated.'

I arch a brow, sipping my champagne. My eyes travel across the room distractedly. They're just skimming faces and people, travelling out of habit rather than on any specific quest. But they glance across at Jack and meet his eyes and everything inside me lurches almost painfully. A primal ache of possession unfurls in my gut.

With effort, I turn my attention back to Clint. 'I suppose it's easy to feel that when you've just come out of a divorce.'

'Should never have got married,' he says with a shrug of his shoulders. 'Taught me a valuable lesson, though.'

'And what's that?'


I tilt my head, my eyes locking with Jack's once more. He's right beside me, his face unreadable.

'Am I interrupting?'

'I've never understood why people ask that. You obviously are interrupting.' I soften the words with a smile, but Clint tenses beside me.

'Then by all means continue,' Jack invites, his eyes challenging me silently.

'Clint was just telling me why marriage is a huge mistake.'

I turn my body away from Jack, giving Clint my full attention. Only I've made a crucial error. Jack's right behind me, and my back is completely hidden from the room. His hand curls around my arse and I have to bite my tongue to stop myself drawing in a sharp breath.

His fingers stroke my flesh, and even I can feel his warmth through the dress.

My knees are shaking suddenly.

'For me it was,' Clint backpedals, his smile dismissive.

'Sorry to hear that,' Jack says, pressing his fingers in a little deeper, shooting arrows of desire through my flesh. 'I need Gemma for a conference call I'm expecting. Is there somewhere private we can go?'

My heart is racing, beating so hard I'm surprised it can stay lodged in my chest.

'Yeah, of course - my office.' Clint nods, turning on his heel and moving through the lounge area.

Jack runs his hand higher up my back and then drops it to his side as he moves to follow Clint through the luxurious apartment. Three doors down a long, well-lit corridor, Clint pauses, his smile professional. It's clear he has no clue how Jack's been touching me, nor what Jack and I want.

'Make yourselves at home,' he invites. 'Need water? Coffee? Anything?'

Jack shakes his head and Clint leaves, pulling the door shut behind him. The office is large, and offers another view of the harbour. There's a desk in the middle, a sofa pushed hard to the wall and a bookshelf that holds a coffee machine and a bar fridge.

My inspection is cut short by Jack.

His lips find mine and his arms curl around my back, lifting me up and bringing me closer to him.

'What are you doing to me?' he groans into my mouth, the words both a plea and a hope.

'I don't know what you mean,' I manage to say. But his tongue is fighting mine and no further conversation is possible.

His hands find the hem of my dress, lifting it just enough for Jack to be able to cup my bare arse. He groans as his fingers connect with naked skin and he pushes his arousal towards me, his cock hard and firm. My body is desperate to feel more of him. But he grinds against me and I grip his shoulders, my body weakening at this contact that is so good I can barely think straight.

He lifts one hand to my hair. It's loose around my face and he tangles his fingers in its ends then pulls up from my scalp, his fingers holding me against his mouth. His other hand slips between my legs and finds my warm heat. He runs a finger along my seam and I whimper into his mouth, so wet and hot for him.

He pushes into me - just a finger, and just enough to make my body throb. I need something. Space. Breath. But his tongue lashes my mouth as his finger teases my insides, and pleasure is a spiral I cannot escape, cannot control. It spins in my gut, my chest, my heart, my blood.

I whimper again - a tiny noise locked in the back of my throat - and his fingers tighten in my hair. I am trapped by him, by this, our need for each other. His finger swirls, finding my most sensitive cluster of nerves, and I am shaking all over, from head to toe, my body his to please and command.

'Come for me,' he instructs into my mouth, as though he has heard my thoughts and knows I will do anything he asks of me.

My knees can barely hold me. Without Jack's support I would be a puddle of bones and haute couture on the elegant carpeted floor of Clint Sheridan's office.

Jack kisses me in a rhythm matched by his finger's invasion and I am falling apart in his arms, with no chance of reprieve or pause. No break in the assault of pleasure he is inflicting on me. He kisses me as I moan, my breath snatched, my blood fevered. And even as my muscles clamp around him, squeezing the pleasure from my body, his finger continues to tease me, so that the pleasure and awareness is almost unbearable.

The first orgasm is crashing around me even as a second, bigger one builds, and I grip his lapels, holding him as my world shatters in a mind-blowing moment of sexual awakening. I am fevered and limp, broken and whole.

But he's not done with me. Even as wave after wave of pleasure crashes across my brow his hands reach down, finding his zip and freeing his arousal. I know I have only seconds to regain my senses. To exercise my control in this situation that is eating me alive.

'No,' I say, and the word is thick with desire, fevered by need.

He stops, his eyes locked to mine, anguish clear in his expression. But he stops. Waits.

'Sit down,' I say, nodding towards the sofa.

Something like relief spreads over his face as he nods and moves to the sofa.

'Do you have a ...'

He's reaching for his wallet before I can finish, fishing out a foil square. I groan as I slide it down his cock and then I am on top of him, straddling him, taking his length deep inside me, revelling in his possession and in his look of wonderment. Seeing that he is as lost to this pleasure as I am.

I move up and down his length, rocking on my haunches. His fingers dig into my sides, moving with me, but I am in control. When I feel him pump, so close to coming, I sit higher, so that only his tip is inside me, and he groans, tilting his head back as waves of pleasure engulf his being. I laugh softly, lowering myself back onto him and leaning forward, kissing his neck, his throat, tasting the desire that has overheated us both.

He holds my hips, keeping me low against him, and thrusts into me. My body is already on fire. It takes nothing for further flames to take hold, spreading like wildfire through my blood. My cry is muffled by his kiss, and he kisses me as together we explode.

Lightning flashes in the sky - closer now - but I barely notice. Even as rain begins to lash the windows I am aware only of this. Our own little storm, raging through our souls.




HE'S WATCHING ME, SO I try to subdue my reaction. But as lightning and thunder burst almost simultaneously, and rain hammers the enormous windows and the roof of the pool room, I am quivering.

'You're actually terrified,' he murmurs with bemusement, his fingers brushing my shoulder as he removes the lightweight jacket I wore to Clint's.

'I'm not,' I lie, stepping away from him before he can detect the fine tremble in my body.

I dig my fingernails into my palms, staring out at the raging storm. It's furious and I can't stand it. If I was alone I would put earphones in and dig myself under my duvet to wait it out. But I can't, and he's still watching me.

My voice is scratchy when I speak. 'It was such a nice day. Where did this come from?'

'It's the tropics,' he points out, stepping out of his shoes and shrugging free of his jacket at the same time.

His jacket is slightly crumpled at the front, from where I curled my fingers into it as he drove me to multiple orgasms.

'Heat builds up, then it breaks in a storm.'

'Why does that sound familiar?'

His half-smile shows he agrees. We are our own tropical weather system. Sultry heat, storm clouds and flash floods without warning. And plenty of lightning and thunder, too.

A spike of lightning floods the lounge with an eerie glow and I jump. 'God!'

'It's only a storm,' he murmurs, closing the distance between us, his eyes locked to mine as his thumb presses beneath my chin, lifting my face to his, exposing me to his curiosity and inspection. 'It will pass.'

My stomach twists painfully now as the metaphor takes on new resonance. Is he trying to be cryptic? Is he talking about the surge of awareness that thunders between us? About us? Of course this will pass. What else do I expect?

'Sit with me.'

He squeezes my hand and draws me to him, holding me to his side as we cross the lounge to the white leather sofa that offers the most spectacular view of the harbour. The opera house is ghoulishly lit in white, and the rain lashing against it creates the impression of fog and apocalypse.

'Even the air smells different.' I inhale the acrid, electrical thickness of the atmosphere.

'Yeah ...' The word is hoarse.

He sits, and I go to take the seat next to him, but he pulls me closer, landing me softly on his lap. And now his kiss is gentle. Soft. A kiss of reassurance that scares me all the more because of the way it shakes my heart to life.

I panic. This is too much. Everything is too much. I'm in the eye of two storms and I don't know if I'll survive either one of them.

'Tonight went well,' he says, his hand stroking my bare arm, comforting and confounding all at once.

'What do you think of the team?' I ask, finding what I hope will be common ground in our established business dynamic. Some reassurance from the familiarity of that life.

'Competent,' he says thoughtfully. 'I'm not sold on Ryan being a good fit.'

'What makes you say that?'

I feel him shrug, the movement brushing the crispness of his shirt against my skin.


'He comes highly recommended.'

'I know.'

He runs his hand over his chin and I hold my breath as I'm seared by the memory of him pressing his finger inside me, holding me as I fell apart. My gut clenches and my insides are slick with a swirling tempest of knowledge of what we've done.

'There's just something about him that seems wrong. I can't explain.'

I think back to the evening, trying to capture the same sense Jack has, and shake my head. 'We'll see, I suppose.'

'His contract has a three-month probation period?'

'Yes. I'll make a note to come over and review him at two months, though, if you're concerned.'


Lightning bursts again and I jump automatically.

He presses his forehead against my shoulder, the strangeness of the gesture not taking anything away from how reassuring I find it.

'Were your parents cross with you?'

'My parents? When?'

They'll be back in England now. I should probably go and see them. The thought cools the warmth in my body.

'The night you slept in the tree house.'

'Oh.' I shift a little, angling my body closer to his. 'Furious.' Then I shake my head. 'Actually, that's not true. They were disappointed.'


'Disappointed that I'd not been cared for to their standards. Embarrassed that people might think they'd hired substandard domestic staff.' I grimace. 'Perhaps ashamed they hadn't thought to check on me when they got home - most parents would, after all.'

'You're not close to them?'

'Why do you say that?'

'Just the way you speak of them.'

'No. I'm not close to them. They're not that thrilled with my life choices.'

'Really? Graduating with a double first from Oxford isn't what they had in mind?'

'Hell, no. I was supposed to marry someone fancy and respectable, with a country estate to match but not better our own. And to appear in Harper's Bazaar articles ... have tea at Kensington Palace.' I can't help rolling my eyes. 'I'm exhausted just thinking about what they wanted for me.'

'You don't strike me as someone who's into the society scene at all.'

'I'm not.' I shake my head. 'Their wedding anniversary is in a week, and it'll be a who's who of the British aristocracy. And, yes, Harper's Bazaar will be there.'

'You don't want to go?'

'I have to go,' I say. 'It's just - '

Thunder rolls around the apartment and I swear the windows shake in their frames. We're going to die.

He holds me tighter. 'It's just ...?'

I don't know if he's trying to distract me from the storm or if he's really interested in my dysfunctional family, but talking is distracting me and distractions are good. Besides which, having opened up to him, I'm not finding it easy to curtail my thoughts.

'I'm always trotted out as proof of their happiness. Their marriage is a success. They've had a child. An heiress. I swear they actually call me their heiress during their toasts every year - like that's my soul function in life. To inherit.' I shake my head. 'I hate that. I've hated it for as long as I have understood their expectations. Or lack thereof. My existing is sufficient for their needs. My ambitions are irrelevant and slightly offensive to them. And my working for you is definitely tantamount to slashing the family tapestries.'

'You make them sound like selfish bastards.'

I laugh. 'Do I?'

'Are they?'


His fingers are glancing over my skin, stirring warmth and desire inside my chest.

'They're products of their upbringings,' I say, and then shake my head, for it's disloyal to Grandma to implicate her in my father's cold-fishery. He's really a grump of his own creation. 'Or perhaps of society's expectations. I don't know. They're very ... stiff upper lip. Cold. Emotionless.'

His lips twist. 'Funny. That's just how I would have described you a few weeks ago.'

My eyes widen and I look at him. 'There's a huge difference between maintaining a professional distance and being cold.'

'Yes, there is.' His finger lifts higher, running a line over my cheek. 'You were doing both.'

'I was not,' I deny, offended by his description.

'You made ice look warm.'

I move to stand, but his hands still me. 'Why?' he asks. 'Why did you act like that around me?'

'It wasn't an act.' I sniff, staring out at the storm-ravaged harbour.

But Jack's insistent. 'You're not like it with anybody else. I never really noticed that until I saw you talking with Wolf DuChamp. And now I've paid better attention I see you weren't like it with anyone but me.'

'I ... I was. That's just how I am.'

'No.' He's adamant. 'The guys from the Tokyo transition team all call you "Gem", like you're some long-lost buddy of theirs. You're friendly with Rose and Sophia. Amber raves about you. It's just me.'

I open my mouth to deny it, but how can I? He's totally right. I met Jack Grant and every single one of my defences was raised because I knew. I knew there was trouble on our doorstep: a chemistry we would need to work our butts off to deny.

'So what is it about me, Gemma Picton, that had you acting as though I were the plague incarnate?'

My heart hammers hard in my chest. There is danger in this conversation. Danger of truth and honesty and far too much insight.

'Maybe I thought you'd see friendliness as encouragement,' I murmur, my tone light, going for a joke.

'But not with Wolf or Barry or Clint?'

My expression is calm, but inside I'm shivering. 'No.' It's a whisper.

God. What is he doing to me? He seems to have become 'just Jack', but my brain reminds me forcefully that the man made a billion-pound fortune virtually from scratch. He's brilliant, ruthless and incisive. And determined.

'When did you realise this was going to happen?' He runs his finger higher, teasing my nipple through the flimsiness of my dress.

I arch a brow, my breath trapped in my throat. 'Um ... around the night you kissed me and ... touched me ...'

It's a lie. I knew it from the moment I accepted the job. Proximity would feed inevitability. On reflection, I can't believe I stalled it for two years.

'I think you've wanted me longer than that.'

'Do you?' I clear my throat, and this time when I stand, he doesn't stop me.

I feel his eyes on my back as I walk into the kitchen and pour a glass of mineral water. The bubbles are frantic - hypnotic, even.


He stands, and I look at him helplessly.

'What do you want me to say?' I lift my shoulders. 'I knew you, Jack. I know you. I know that you're in love with your wife. I know that you sleep with women to forget her. Do you blame me for wanting to keep this insanity at bay?'

'No.' He drags a hand through his hair and his smile is ghostly on his face. 'I blame myself for not letting you.'

His shoulders are broad, and an invisible, enormous weight is upon them.

'I blame myself for not being strong, like you were. You wanted me, but you were never going to do a damned thing about it - were you?'

'Of course not. Apart from anything else, you're my boss. And that's before I think about the steady stream of women filing through your bedroom. This is probably the dumbest thing I've ever done.'

'Yes.' He nods, his eyes locked to mine. 'But you don't want it to end.'

I shake my head, seeking refuge in honesty at last. 'Do you?'

'No.' And now his smile is broader. 'Turns out I'm scared of something else.'

'What's that?'

'How much I want you. Need you. And I'm scared of hurting you, Gemma.'

'You won't.'

He nods, but I know he's not convinced. Nor am I. In fact, I would say Jack hurting me is as inevitable as the morning that will break over the harbour in the next few hours. But I don't care. Having given in to this, I am just a tree in the middle of a storm, trying my hardest to hold on, to stand tall even as it threatens to uproot me for good.

The mood is oppressive. Suddenly I want to lighten it. To make him smile. To feel his warmth and contentment.

'I bet you were a real little shit growing up.'

The ghost of our conversation lingers, but he makes a visible effort to push it away. 'Why do you say that?'

'Hmm ... remember who you're talking to? You're stubborn and selfish ...'

'Selfish, huh? I always look after you ...'

My face burns hot and I'm sure it's flame-red. 'I didn't mean in bed,' I mumble.

His laugh is my reward. Sweet and husky, it makes my nerves quiver.

'I see ...'

Perhaps he takes pity on me. He strides across the kitchen and props his arse against the kitchen counter. I imagine his tattoo through the tailored cut of his trousers and absent-mindedly slide my hand out and curve it over his hip.

'I was a good kid, actually,' he says, not reacting to my touch visibly.

I like the intimacy of this, though. Perhaps more than I should. Of being able to reach out and feel him, to sense his nearness.

'So your recalcitrance came later in life?'

He laughs. 'I guess so.'

His hand lifts and wraps around my cheek. I inhale. This moment, his fragrance - everything. I fold the memory away and store it for later delight. It is a perfect slice of time.

'I went away to school.'

'A boarding school?'

His nod is a small movement - just a jerk of his head. 'I won a full scholarship.'

'And you call me an overachiever?' I tease.

His smile is indulgent. 'I had no choice. There was only one way out of the backwater I grew up in. I succeeded because the prospect of failure was too depressing to contemplate. You, on the other hand, m'lady, are motivated by something I don't understand. You had everything ... You were born with a fortune and a family lineage that dates back to the Magna Carta ... It would have been so easy for you to stay within the boundaries of that life. And it would have been a good life.'

'It depends on how you define "good",' I say simply. 'I've never fitted in.'

'I find that impossible to believe.'


'You could fit in anywhere.'

'Trust me - I didn't want to feel at home in that crowd.'

His frown is just a very slight twist of his lips. 'So your parents are stuffy. What about your friends?'

'Most of my closest friends I met later. At university. Then at Goldman. Deloitte.'

'And here? With me?'

For a second my heart skids to a stop, because I think he's talking about himself and there is something so delightfully needy about the question that I ache for him.

But then he continues. 'Wolf. Barry. You seem to know everyone who works for me.'

'Oh, right ...' Emptiness is a gulf in the pit of my stomach. 'That happens. Your parents must be proud of you.' I shift the conversation to him, hating the vulnerabilities he's able to expose in me so easily.


He moves a little, bringing his body closer to mine, and then, before I know what he's doing, he lifts me onto the bench, spreading my legs and standing between them.

He's so close I'm sure he must be able to hear the thundering of my heart; it is surpassed only by the storm outside.

'My parents thought I would - at most - become an accountant. Like my father and his father before him. I was always good at numbers. It fair skittled them when I told them I'd bought my first company.'

'Yeah, I can see how that would bowl them over.'

His laugh is husky. He brushes his lips against the soft skin at the base of my throat, chasing the wildly beating pulse-point with his tongue. I moan, deep in my mouth, the sound strangled by my own hot, thick breath.

'You make it sound easy. Like you didn't want to be an accountant so you did this instead.'

'This?' He laughs, flicking the strap of my dress so it falls haphazardly down my arm, revealing my shoulder to him.

His kiss is sweet, like nectar. He finds the exposed skin and possesses it as only Jack Grant can, gliding his mouth over it, making me feel I have never before been kissed. It is at once intimate and simple and my back arches forward. Or backwards. Who can tell? The normal rules of gravity and physics seem not to apply.

'How do you know my family dates back to the Magna Carta?' I ask, though the words are squeezed tight from my chest, not quite coming out clearly.

But he hears. He understands. 'I looked you up,' he says unapologetically.

'You ...?'

His mouth drops lower and at the same time he lifts my hand, drags the kiss to my inner wrist. I squeeze my eyes shut as he finds another pulse-point, tracing it with his tongue.

'I searched you on the internet,' he confirms, dropping my hand gently and cupping my arse, pulling me closer to him.

I wrap my legs around his waist. 'Why?'

'Because you surprised me the other night. I realised I should have known this stuff.'

'What stuff?'

'All of it. Your dynastic birthright.'

I laugh.

'What's funny?'

'Just ... Only you would want to know more and decide to look it up rather than ask.'

'Asking would have taken time,' he says with an unapologetic lift of his broad strong shoulders.

'And we don't have time?'

'I'm impatient.' He grins.

'I had no idea.' Sarcasm is rich in my murmured tone.

His hands are on my knees and then they're tracing higher, his fingertips barely brushing my flesh as he searches for the softness of my inner thighs.

'Is that weird?'

I pause, concentration almost impossible. 'Is what weird?'

His lips are buzzing mine, just the smallest hint of contact making every nerve ending in my body sing. 'That I ran an internet search on you.'

'Oh.' I frown. 'It should be. But, no. For you it makes sense.'

His laugh is breathed across my skin, sending it into a break-out of goose bumps.

'Because I'm weird?'

'Because you're you,' I correct. 'Domineering, determined, somewhat wonderful you.'

He's still for a moment. Frozen by the compliment he didn't expect. Then he relaxes again, his lips are on my skin and my heart is flying out of my body, soaring above me. This is so right. So perfect. Out of nowhere I am in heaven.

'Are you saying you haven't done a search on me?' he teases, his hands lifting to the zip at the back of my dress and catching it lower, snagging it over my spine. My body is hypersensitive; I feel every single kink of his touch.

I have. I've looked him up and his wife. Something I am naturally hesitant to confess.

'I applied to work for you,' I say with a shrug. 'Of course I did.'

His laugh shows he knows me to be lying. Or at least being liberal with the truth.

'Why did you move your office from the City?' The question is blurted out of me before I even realise I've been wondering.

He pauses, the zip halfway down my back, his mouth so close to mine I want to push up and find him. But he's still, and the question hangs between us, and I realise I do want to hear the answer.



'I just ... Speaking of questions ...' My throat thumps as I swallow. 'Is it because of Lucy?'

His expression flashes with something. Anguish?

I shake my head quickly. 'Forget it. I shouldn't have asked.'

'No.' It's a gravelled denial. 'It's fine.'

But I might as well have lashed him with a stick dipped in lava.

'It was because of Lucy. She was sick at the end. I set my home up so I could be near her all the time. The room ... the bedroom near my office ... That was her room.'

Oh, God. How did I not know that? His little 'den of sin' held his dying wife's sickbed.

A shudder rips through me as the macabre sadness of it all washes over me.

'After she died I just ... I didn't want life to go back to normal. I resented the implication that it would.'

He expels an angry sigh and now his fingers are pushing my zip down almost dispassionately.

'There's no textbook on grief.'

'Of course there's not.'

'But I expected to cope better than I did.'

His eyes sweep shut. He's shielding himself from me, but at least he keeps talking. That's enough. It has to be enough.

'We had months to prepare. To brace ourselves. She was ready. Her life at the end was ...' He changes direction, as though he's somehow betraying Lucy. 'She was ready to go. My therapist tells me I spent so long being strong for Lucy that I had nothing left to give myself.'

'You have a therapist?'

'I did. Until he spouted that piece of pretty bullshit. As if there's a finite amount of support to give. As if I should have ignored Lucy's needs in favour of my own.'

'I don't think he meant that. Lucy's sickness must have been draining on you. I can imagine that you spent so much of your energy focussing on what she needed that you had no idea what to do with yourself once she passed.'

'It shook my world,' he said simply.

I'm so sorry for him. But I don't say that because I've said it before. My dress is loose around my waist. I'm not wearing a bra and his hands run up my sides and cup my breasts as though holding them is his only form of salvation.

'It still does,' I say softly.

'It's different now.'

He runs his thumb over my nipple, his eyes drawn downwards, his attention focussed on the physicality of my body, rather than me.

'Different how?' I need to know. I want to understand.

'I grieve for her, but I can function. The hardest days aren't the ones that fill me with sadness.'


'No, Gemma.'

He lifts me up, off the bench, wrapping me around him as he walks through the apartment, towards his bedroom. But I don't want him to close this conversation down.

'What are the hardest days?' I push as he shoulders the door inwards.

He lays me down on the bed and I scramble into a sitting position, not caring that my dress is simply a belt at my hips and my body is exposed to him completely.

'Days like this. Days when I am happy and distracted. Days when I forget to remember her. The worst days now are the days when I realise I haven't thought of her at all. Days like today, when all I've had room for on my mind is you.'

My heart turns over and, God, I am the worst kind of human because I delight in his admittance even as I realise I am triumphing over a dead woman.

Telling myself Lucy would want him to be happy, I stand up onto the tips of my toes so I can kiss him, and then pull him backwards onto the bed.

'Being happy doesn't mean you loved her any less,' I promise him softly as I flick his buttons open and run my fingertips over his chest. 'It just means you're human and that time is moving on. It's normal. It's natural.'

He doesn't answer, but his kiss is all the response I need. It is sweet and it is gentle and it is a promise from his body that I know he's not yet ready to make with his words.


* * * * * * *

The first week Gemma came to work for me I pushed her like a demon. I was so sick of the string of quitters before her that I'd developed a foolproof way to flush them out. I started them at six o'clock each morning, demanding different sets of information in advance and then what I actually required. This was to see how they thought on their feet.

She was amazing.

When she didn't have a ready answer she would procure it easily and without fuss. She was honest about what she didn't know and she stared me down when I tried to imply that her inefficiencies were a result of a flaw in her preparation.

She worked late, travelled to Paris with me on a minute's notice and never once complained.

And then one day I went into her office and found her asleep, just like she is now. Her head dropped on the desk, her hair like golden silk across her keyboard.

That was the first time I told myself she was off-limits. I wanted her even then. My body responded instantly, and in my mind I fantasised about acting on my desire. Making her mine. But it would have been a transient pleasure. And even then, when I hardly knew her, I knew she was a rare, fascinating object - someone I could never touch. Never hurt.

Yet here I am.

Here she is.

At some point during the night, after I'd fallen asleep, Gemma must have stirred and taken herself back to her room, respecting those unspoken boundaries we've erected even after I told her more about myself than I ever have another soul.

And that angers me. It angers me that she accepts those limitations even now.

It is not yet dawn, but the sky is glistening with the promise of morning and a hint of golden light steals through the blinds, marking her cheek and her arm. I wonder what it would be like to lift the cover and lie beside her. To wrap her to my chest and kiss her awake softly. To stir her body with mine.

But the day is breaking, and she is just as off-limits to me now as she was two years ago.




Text Copyright © 2018 by Clare Connelly

Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.