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Authors: Myrna Mackenzie

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“What was that?” Wyatt asked, trying to leash his anger.

“That was me trying to avert a crisis.”

“That was you trying to get your pretty face and body rearranged. Again. Presenting yourself as a punching bag to enraged men is getting to be a habit, Alex. Do you
know
what one swing from one of those men’s fists could do to you?”

“This is nothing like that other time. Protecting that little boy was…well, anyone would have done that.”

Wyatt seriously doubted that. “So how is this different?” He gazed down into those sky eyes, waiting for her answer and for his heart to stop racing, but it didn’t. Watching her confront two full-grown angry men, listening to one of them try to hit on her…he wanted to swear.

“Two reasons. For one, the hotel’s reputation was at risk this time.”

He lost the battle not to swear. “Alex, you’re an amazing woman. You’re doing great things for McKendrick’s and you’ve become a customer favorite.”
My favorite
, he thought, but he couldn’t utter those words. He shouldn’t even be thinking them. “But I don’t want you to get hurt helping me.”
I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t want to be another man taking your help and then not giving anything back.

“Wyatt, I’m fine,” she said. “Look.” She held out her arms, as if to show him that she was all in one piece.

He raised an eyebrow. “Don’t try to schmooze me, Lowell. You know what I mean. You’re not to confront any more angry men. For any reason. Got that?”

For a second he thought she was going to do the right thing and meekly agree, the way any other employee would have. But Alex raised her chin and looked him square in the eye. “I’m sorry. I can’t agree to that. If I’m going to run my own shop, one I operate alone, I have to be able to handle any situation. That was the second reason I had to get involved.”

Wyatt growled. There was nothing he could say to that, was there? Except this. “I know you’re going to run a fantastic shop. People will visit in droves. Every customer will go away satisfied. But don’t practice your negotiating skills here, Alex. Not again. If any bullies come in and Security is otherwise occupied, you send them to me. If any workers get into an argument, you send them my way. Anything that might threaten you physically, you step away from. If I’m not here, you find someone bigger than you to handle it, and then you find me.”

“It was your day off.” She hadn’t lowered her chin even a notch.

“Where your safety is concerned, I have no days off. Understood?”

She blinked.

“Alex? Please.”

As if that one word did it, she nodded. “All right. Actually, I
was
just the tiniest bit concerned. When that one guy asked me who I was and looked at me as if he wanted to…do something, it made my skin crawl.”

And any thought Wyatt had of regaining his composure flew right out the window. He slid his hand around Alex’s waist and slowly drew her close, giving her ample time to tell him to stop or to push back. “I’m
not
going to let anyone touch you.”

But Wyatt was most definitely touching her. He pulled her even closer. For a moment, several moments, he just held her. He stroked her hair and whispered soothing words against her temple. She was warm and vibrant and so…
Alex
in his arms that he couldn’t stop himself from reacting to her, wanting her.

He drew back and gazed down into her eyes, his lips close to hers. “I’m going to kiss you, Alex.”

“Yes.” The word came out on a breath.

“You can stop me. You can say no. You know you have a choice.”

Her answer was to rise on her toes and press her lips to his. “I know,” she whispered against his mouth.

Heat seared him, desire flooded his soul, and he drew her closer. He kissed her again, opening his mouth over hers.

She met him, kissed him back.

He ran his hand down her spine, learning her curves.

She plunged her fingertips into his hair, licking his lips when they came up for air.

“Alex…” he groaned as he kissed her more, reached for more.

The door flew open. Without taking a breath, Wyatt imme
diately turned so that Alex was behind him and he was mostly blocking her from view. Jenna, who worked in the office, was standing there, along with several guests. His reaction, though quick, had obviously not been quick enough. They had seen Alex already, splayed up against his chest, locked in his arms.

As if on cue, Alex peeked out from beneath his arm. “Well, that was
so
great! Thank you so much for that demonstration of what I should do if anyone should try to sexually harass me, Mr. McKendrick. And that nifty move where I turn your thumb back and bring you to your knees? It’s one I’ve heard about but I’ve never actually met anyone who would allow me to try it on them. I mean, I’m really sorry your hair got messed up when you ended up falling during the demonstration, but I assure you that all this stuff is going to be incredibly useful. A girl really needs to know a few tricks to protect herself from the bad guys. Hotels are not immune from these things, you know, Jenna,” she said, shaking a warning finger at the woman. “Every guest should know at least a few basic moves.”

Then, as if she was completely unaware of this surreal situation that everyone was trapped in, Alex got that amazing, intense lightbulb look in her eyes that Wyatt was beginning to recognize. “I think maybe we could offer some basic self-defense classes in the ballroom. Just in case anyone is interested. Wouldn’t that be great? I’m going to get right on that.”

Then she smiled at the tour group again and left the room, her usual spring in her step.

“A self-defense class? That’s a wonderful idea, Mr. McKendrick—don’t you think?” Jenna asked.

Wyatt blinked. He was angry at himself for putting Alex at risk, and it must have shown on his face.

“I’m sorry. Did I do something wrong?”

Wyatt wanted to groan. “No, Jenna. And, yes, it’s a great idea. Alex has come up with another way to improve McKendrick’s.” What was he going to do when she had gone? he wondered, knowing he wasn’t thinking only of the hotel. He frowned again, then remembered Jenna. “So…you think it will work?” he asked her, trying to be encouraging. Jenna hadn’t been here very long. He didn’t want her to think he was crazy. The CEO of Champagne would certainly
love
that, wouldn’t he?

“Oh, I think it’d be great,” Jenna said. “I’d totally sign up if they were held here. What could be more convenient?”

The people in the group agreed, although some of them still looked as if they weren’t quite sure what had just happened.

Wyatt wasn’t sure, either, but it was probably a good thing that Jenna had interrupted. He was completely losing his self-control where Alex was concerned.

He could still taste her. He wanted to go looking for her to finish what they’d started. Only two things stopped him. Alex had been hurt so badly in the past that she had walked away from men and love forever. And he was still the same man he’d been this morning. A loner. Incapable of maintaining a long-term relationship. If he couldn’t offer her more than the disappointing men she’d already suffered through, then he didn’t have the right to pursue her. He refused to be the next disappointing jerk in her life. He couldn’t be the man who finally broke her spirit.

He wanted to
shore up
Alex’s spirit. She’d had to handle a nasty situation.
His
contribution couldn’t have made her day less trying, either. And if he was part of the problem…well, who did she have to share her troubles with? No one, it seemed. She was cut off from the home she loved, without her lifeline. There was no one with whom to discuss the problems her life as his concierge had brought about.

Wyatt swore. In the past couple of weeks he’d begun to learn how Alex operated. She went all out to help people, and sometimes people—unscrupulous men—took advantage of her good nature.
He
had taken advantage today, and once she had time to think, she might beat herself up for letting him kiss her again.

In fact, too much had happened to Alex since he’d yanked her out of the life she loved. She’d been pushed too far, thrown into situations she never should have been forced to handle. Alex needed backup, maybe even comfort.

For half a second he thought again about spiriting her away to the Haven, his hideaway…a place he never showed anyone. But he immediately dismissed the idea.

That wasn’t the right place for her, and he wasn’t the right person for the job. At all. But he knew who might be. Just because
he
had no need for friends didn’t mean that he had missed the fact that Alex
did
need them.

CHAPTER TEN

A
NTICIPATION
built within Alex as the limo dropped her off in front of Tableau, a restaurant located in an atrium, surrounded by pools. She opened the door and went inside.

Immediately she heard a squeal. “Alex!”

Molly came running up to her and gave her a big hug. Jayne and Serena were only steps behind.

Alex’s throat clogged with happy tears. Somehow Wyatt had managed to fly Jayne and Molly out, and he’d located Serena and arranged this meeting.

She couldn’t help wondering why. Wyatt’s explanation had simply been that he knew she missed her friends. That seemed too simple, but she
did
miss them. And she needed to see them, to get her head on straight.

After Wyatt had kissed her crazy in the conference room the other day, she’d gone to her room, bent over to keep from fainting and prayed she would get a brain, get a clue, and stop longing to be held in Wyatt’s arms. There was zero payoff in getting involved with him. This time, unlike the other times in her life, she’d been warned.

“Alex, you look so far away,” Molly was saying.

Alex shook her head. “Sorry. You know me. It takes a few minutes to come down from the clouds and forget work.”

What was it that was different about Molly? she wondered, looking more closely at her friend. Something wasn’t right there. But when she voiced her concerns to Molly, her friend wrinkled her nose.

“Hey, I’m fine. Serena and Jayne and I are the ones who get to play mother duck to
you
today. Still, I can’t believe Wyatt flew us all out here to see you! A private luxury jet. Wow!”

“I know, and I’m still trying to figure out the underlying reason for this trip,” Jayne said.

“Wyatt said that you needed people who could help you relax,” Serena said. “Alex, what does that mean? What have you been up to that the emergency friend forces have been called in?”

“Emergency friend forces?”

“You better believe it,” Serena told her. “I’ve got the tattoo. Jayne and Molly, too. We’d show you, but then you’d want one, too, and we know you’re allergic to needles.”

Alex laughed. She relaxed.

“Okay, enough stalling. Spill,” Molly ordered.

“There’s not much to tell,” Alex said, and she related the story of the boy and the ruined papers, the events she had been planning, and eventually the last incident with the angry workmen in the ballroom. No need to mention the latest out-of-control kiss with Wyatt, since she still hadn’t wrapped her own mind around what had happened.

“So…what’s happening between you and Wyatt?” Serena asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Flying your friends in? That’s not one of the usual employee perks.”

Of course nothing had been “the usual” between her and Wyatt from the very start.

“He’s a very different kind of man,” she said carefully.

“Uh-oh,” Molly said, and Serena and Jayne nodded.

“Different as in interesting and exciting?” Serena asked.

“Different as in an employer who goes the extra mile for his employees,” she said, looking at her friends sternly. “Look, you don’t have to worry. I’ll be home soon. I called a real estate agent in San Diego, and she’s looking for a shop for me to rent.”

Because after ending up in Wyatt’s embrace the other day what else could she do? The best way to stay smart was to pretend her time here was almost done, plan ahead, get involved in making her dream of a shop a reality. No more dwelling on Wyatt.

“Alex, that’s so great—but tell us more about Wyatt,” Molly said.

Alex gave her a “stop right there” look. “Nice try, Molly, but I have to tell you I
really
don’t want to do this.”

“Do what?”

“Answer a lot of questions about Wyatt. I know you’re asking because you care, but I really just need to be with you guys today and have fun. Wyatt told me that I wasn’t even supposed to utter the word McKendrick’s today. I was supposed to be totally lazy and decadent, and that’s what I want to be.”

“Great! Total decadence works for me,” Serena said with a grin.

“Sounds fantastic. So where should we start?” Molly asked.

“Let’s start with chocolate, and then double chocolate—maybe triple chocolate—and go from there,” Alex said.

“Chocolate what?” Jayne asked.

“Does it matter? It’s
chocolate
, Jayne,” Serena said.

“Excellent point,” Jayne agreed.

So they ate chocolate, and other things a bit higher up the food pyramid. They drank, shopped, and talked nonstop. They
tried on clothes they would never wear in public, shoes too high to walk in. And Alex indulged in her secret weakness—wild earrings she bought but could never find a place to wear. They reminisced about incidents in their past and shared private jokes. And if there were moments when the conversation slowed, when Serena looked sad, Molly appeared worried, Jayne seemed heartbroken or Alex drifted away to thoughts of Wyatt, none of them discussed those things. They had this one no-worries-allowed day, and they didn’t intend to waste it.

But eventually the day ended. Teary goodbyes were said. Five minutes after all her friends left, Alex got into the limo and turned toward McKendrick’s.

As if on cue her thoughts turned to Wyatt. She remembered the sound of his voice, how he had tried to protect her from the view of Jenna and the tourists, how he had promised not to let anyone touch her, how she’d felt when he had kissed her.

Her lips began to tingle, and suddenly the limo seemed to be moving too slowly. She wanted to see Wyatt. She couldn’t wait to see Wyatt.

That couldn’t be a good thing, and yet when she caught her first glimpse of him, it felt like a very good thing. That tendency to salivate at the sight of him like some Pavlovian puppy was going to be a problem.

If she let it.

Woof
, she thought, as she smiled and reached out to take his hands. “Thank you so much for today, Wyatt. It was exactly what I needed.”

She rose on her toes and kissed him on the cheek, her silly palm tree earrings dangling. Then she realized that they had an audience. Katrina, the restaurateur who obviously coveted Wyatt, was standing nearby.

 

Wyatt read Alex’s distress. She hadn’t considered the possibility of an audience…although they often had one. That was how she operated: straightforward, nothing held back. She would never consider not offering her thanks or her help if she felt either was needed. It was one of the most appealing things about her, and one that made him insane with worry for her. Someday someone would take advantage of her giving nature. Again. It had better not be him.

“My, aren’t we enthusiastic?” Katrina said, in that sultry, snotty way that had never bothered Wyatt before. Maybe because she usually reserved it for people who deserved it. Alex didn’t.

He shot Katrina a sheathe-your-claws look. She shrugged.

Then Alex did something he hadn’t seen her do before. She straightened her shoulders, emphasizing her full height. She was wearing silly but cute little dangling palm tree earrings that should have looked ridiculous but somehow didn’t. Alex was just an inch or so taller than Katrina, but it was enough to give her an edge.

She pulled her shoulders back. Then she looked down her pretty nose and smiled a truly feline smile. “Enthusiastic? I’m
always
enthusiastic, Katrina. You should try it. I hear it’s wonderful at preventing age lines.”

Ouch! How would Alex know that Katrina was touchy about nearing her thirtieth birthday? This was going to get ugly. He needed to step in before Katrina did some serious damage.

To his surprise, Katrina laughed. “So, the kitten has claws? Touché, Alex. I totally had that coming, but who knew you’d follow through? Interesting. I do appreciate a woman who doesn’t back down. Not that we’re going to be friends or anything.”

Alex blinked. Then she smiled. “Not that we are.”

“Nice earrings.” It wasn’t a compliment.

“I think so.” She shook her head, sending the little palm trees dancing.

“So…” Katrina went on. “Wyatt let you have a day off to play while he was here killing himself?”

“That’s enough, Katrina,” Wyatt cut in. “I don’t make my employees work seven days a week.”

“I don’t know why not.
You
do most of the time.”

“I own the place. I get to decide when I work. Now sounds good.”

“Is that a not so subtle hint for me to get back to Gendarmes?”

He smiled. “I appreciate the tip about the reviewer coming here tomorrow, Katrina. Thank you.”

She returned the smile and turned to Alex. “Since you’re going to be only a very temporary fixture here, I guess I can toss you a bone. I
do
like the earrings.” And she sauntered out, waving to Wyatt.

When she had gone, Wyatt looked at Alex. She was studying him, a frown line creasing her pretty brows. He was tempted, so very tempted, to gently trace a line right down that frown with his fingertip to get her to smile. The thought caught him off guard. He was not a man given to whimsy.

“What?” he asked.

“You
do
work all the time,” she said. “I know you want McKendrick’s to show well to the reviewers. I take it that Katrina’s got some hint that another one is on the way, and of course that means more hours for
you
. But do
you
ever take time off? Since I’ve been here you haven’t taken a break except for those couple of hours the other day. Weren’t you supposed to stay away all day?”

He had been. And he’d come back because she’d been invading his thoughts. “I had something to do,” he said.

“Wyatt,” she drawled.

“Alex,” he drawled back. “Don’t worry. I’ll take time off.”

“When? Don’t you ever need to just…kick back? What do you do then?”

Wyatt almost smiled. No one but Alex would ever ask him about “kicking back.” As for what he did…suddenly he had another burning desire to show her the Haven. That should have alarmed him. No one even knew he owned it. He’d never taken anyone there. And he never shared secrets with another person. Not Katrina. Not Randy. But…

“What do I do? Come on. I’ll take you there.”

“There?”

He shrugged, trying to look casual even though he felt anything but. “I have another hotel.”

She blinked. “No one ever told me that.”

He looked directly into her eyes. “That’s because I’ve never told anyone.”

Her eyes widened.

“You don’t have to come,” he said. And then he realized what this sounded like. A tryst. A man who might be planning on taking advantage of her. “If you’re worried, I can tell you that I’m not intending to jump you.”

She smiled and shook her head, those little earrings swinging wildly. “I’m not worried. I’m…I’m honored to be your first.”

Heat sizzled through him, even though he’d known she had meant that in a completely innocent way. She, however, had obviously finally realized how her words had sounded, and she blushed. Actually blushed. It was charming.
She
was charming. And he burned for her.

“I mean, that I’m honored to be your first visitor. Is it going to be the next McKendrick’s?”

He shook his head. “It’s definitely nothing like this place. McKendrick’s was a sure thing, a prime piece of real estate. The Haven is far less stable,” he said, mentioning the property by name for the first time. Trusting Alex.

She gazed directly up into his eyes. “You’re not sure you can make it a success.”

“Or that I want to try. Failure isn’t an option, and it needs…something.”

She stood there for a minute, just studying him, as if conducting a computer scan of his thoughts. He’d never had anyone pay that much attention to him, at least not in that way. Women were attracted to his money, his power, maybe even to his looks. But Alex was different. She aimed straight for the core of what made a person tick. He wasn’t sure his soul could survive that kind of close examination.

“It’s not a very impressive place. You can back out and I won’t be offended,” he said. But he hoped she would come.

“Why?” she asked. “Why now? Why me?”

He didn’t want to examine all the reasons. He didn’t want to dig that deep, look inside himself that closely, but he could tell her one true thing. “Because you see possibilities other people miss.”

“And if there are no possibilities?”

“I want you to be brutally honest.”

She gazed up at him with those soft blue eyes. “I don’t like hurting people.”

He held her gaze. “You can’t hurt me.” But he knew he lied.

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