Long fingers close around my throat. Not squeezing, not hurting, but commanding. I look at him. This man I love. This devil I adore. He’s gorgeous—dark hair, darker eyes, olive skin, body and features all chiseled hardness. But that’s not what makes my veins jump under his hand. That’s not what makes my skin slick with sweat.
There’s more to this man than meets the eye.
His thumb strokes my pulse, gleaning secrets right out of my blood. His mouth curls to the side, forming a smile that reveals he knows exactly what I’m thinking.
“Didn’t I warn you, Angel,” he says, and his thumb moves up to my chin, “that it’s not a good idea to love me?”
My pulse leaps from erratic to chaotic. I can’t answer, only listen in horrified fascination to what I know will come next.
He traces the groove below my bottom lip. “Didn’t I warn you my love would be bad?”
Shivers run hot then cold over my skin.
“Didn’t I tell you, you’d pay for my heart?” He touches my mouth, dragging my bottom lip down.
My body sings, my blood hums right down to my womb. I can’t resist him. He did warn me. He truly did. But I was greedy. I wanted him anyway.
I didn’t understand how bad he could be.
He’s the devil. Tempting me with what I desire most. Luring me to an irresistible destruction. A destruction I’m so close to I can smell it—taste it—touch it. Pain grips me, my insides bruise with it. My family believes I’m dead. The life I’ve left behind lies in tatters because of him. Because he keeps me.
He won’t let me go.
He tilts my face, brushing his cheek against my ear. “I promise it will be worth it.” His stubble chafes my earlobe, stinging and electrifying. I’ve felt those bristles scrape against my neck, my breasts, my thighs. There’s not an inch of me that hasn’t felt the sweet torture of their abrasion. “Can’t you see it?” he asks. “The future where you’re mine?”
My eyelids drift shut. I know it’s only the hand cradling my face that’s holding me up. I can see that future. I see it with fluorescent intensity. Life with the lights turned on. Life where living means more than existing. For everything he’s taken from me, he’s given me back more. He breathed a soul back into me. Without it, without him, I’d be a walking corpse.
I see our future. I ache for it, yearn for it, despise myself for it.
“Say it, Angel. Say, Haithem, I’m yours.”
For all intents and purposes, I’m a prisoner—captive—perhaps even a slave. Because I have no choices but the ones he gives me. Yet, he gives me this choice—or at least the illusion of a choice—to choose him.
To love him.
As if making a choice had ever been an option. The moment I met him, I may as well have been branded.
One month earlier.
Trouble. Nope, I didn't love trouble, even if my foot did have a tendency to find its way into steaming piles of it. Like the time I failed my driving test, swerving for ducks only to plow right over a letter box. Yet, when trouble walked in—snug suit jacket clinging to too-broad shoulders, the sharpest gaze I’ve ever seen ripping through the café—my attention homed right in on trouble.
His chin jerked toward the person next to him. The other man slipped ahead, responding to the silent command by making his way to the back of the room.
I stared. A little more. He just needed to move about thirty degrees clockwise and—
He shifted, blasting me with the full impact of him front on. His gaze met mine the way lightning meets the sea. Electric. Black eyes burned a trail over me. The dark of his irises flicked between darker lashes, taking me in and peeling back the world.
No more café. No more dry Melbourne heat pushing sweat from my scalp into my hair. No more job interview in forty-five minutes. Only the sharp angles of a face that could have been cut from granite.
Oh, sweet god of chin dimples.
I swallowed, the bitter linger of coffee bouncing off the back of my taste buds. Those eyes tracked the movement, almost as though he’d caught the secret slide of my tongue against my palate.
The table jerked. A cool spray splattered my neck.
The world burst back into focus—scraping chairs, humming voices, waitress walking right into my table…
“I’m so sorry.” She slammed the tray down not two inches from my open laptop and set the empty glass of juice, the contents of which trickled down my chest, upright. “It’s my first day.”
I ran my hands down my throat, attempting to halt the slide of liquids to my brand new job-interview attire. “It’s okay.”
She tugged napkins from the dispenser. “I’m really sorry. There’s orange juice on your shirt.”
I scooped the napkins out of her hands and patted over my chest. Yep, of course she was right. A slash of orange streaked between my first and second buttons.
I took a breath. “It’s okay. May I have a soda water?”
“Of course.” She scooped up the empty coffee cups from my table and collected the tray.
I glanced at the laptop, blessedly spared a juicy coating. The cursor flashed at the top of the article I’d been working on.
“Aged Care Crisis—How everyday Australians are at risk of homelessness.”
A laugh burst from my lips, and I clamped a fist to my mouth. The laugh turned to a nasal snort. Homelessness, not funny whatsoever. Yet the idea of turning up at Poise magazine, orange stain between my boobs, sweat I could literally feel spawning some kind of frizz demon in my hair, well, it would be no shock if they suggested I perform a little investigative journalism on the matter.
Like the deep-undercover, pushing-around-a-shopping-cart kind of investigative journalism.
“Here’s your soda water.”
“Thanks.” I took the bottle and cracked the lid, then poured some out onto fresh napkins.
“Can I get you something else?”
My belly piped up like the over-excited child it tended to be. But I hadn’t lost a dress size for nothing. “Just another coffee, please.”
I wiped at my blouse, undoing the top button for maximum stain access. Dammit, juice managed to soak into my bra. My nice white one, too.
Tiny bumps rose where I wiped, a shiver rippling through my extremities. I looked up, dropping the napkins.
He stood right where my gaze had left him—facing me. As though he hadn’t taken a breath since I’d stooped looking at him. His brows pushed together, as though maybe he were lost. I glanced behind us. People sat around tables. The man he’d been with earlier was nowhere to be seen.
I turned back to chin-dimple dude. His eyes moved just a fraction. It took a moment to realize where he’d stolen a peek.
I’d left my shirt open.
Heat flooded every limb, but something else, too. Something that made my spine go straighter and made my chest snap farther out. His gaze flew back to mine, and he smirked. An expression so close yet so far from a smile my chest hurt from it. Everything went liquid hot. My insides pounded warm and fluttery, yet also heavy.
There stood trouble all right. I experienced the full breadth of that trouble as a sucker punch to my vagina.
Did he want to see my boobs? That was a thing I could do. They’d have an “out the back” here, wouldn’t they? Like an alley or something? I could handle soft-core flashing. Why not? No one else had seen them since—let’s not even think about when.
Suddenly, he looked over me and strode through the café.
He walked right past me.
My arm almost shot out to stop him.
I forced my palm onto the table and let him go. My heart pitter-pattered around my rib cage. Air rushed from my lips. I knew this feeling…excitement. The real, actual kind. Not the supposed-to-be type. A slow smile widened until it stretched my cheeks to an ache. Well, that was nice. I could still feel that. It’d taken a while, but I was glad the feeling still lived in me. I’d almost given up.
The napkin scraped over the underside of my jaw before I scrunched it in my palm. She was a problem.
A problem that plowed through me like a train the instant I’d entered. Stealing the concentration from my mind.
Who the hell is she?
A billion possibilities swarmed. Had someone sent her to watch me? The waitress set a cup on her table. She smiled in thanks, cheeks dimpling. No, of course not.
Just a girl drinking coffee…
Yet, the thump under my ribs didn’t slow. Now even sweetly smiling women sent suspicions coursing—this is what had become of me. The men at my table babbled nonsense that didn’t bear listening to. I was about to educate them exactly how things would be.
She tossed her head again. A hand through her hair and chin to her shoulder. Did she think I wouldn’t notice?
Or did she want me to?
If so, I should find out why. I dropped the napkin into an empty glass. How did things proceed like this? In the day. In public. I rubbed my fingers against my thumb. When was the last time I’d met a woman in daylight? Or one who wasn’t ready, hand out, rules set?
From where we sat, I had the gift of her profile. It wasn’t enough. Her bottom lip caught between her teeth, then popped back out.
My balls contracted. Went full and heavy. I might excuse myself for a moment, go over and—
I expelled a breath. Whatever she was up to, she was too young for it. The girl was too young for me. Even if I couldn’t remember the last time a woman had made me fidget. Or made me want to crawl out of my skin just to get to her.
“Haithem,” Karim whispered.
This wasn’t the time for distractions.
Today’s company was a precious few that knew who I was and craved something from me other than spilling my blood. That didn’t warrant complacency. I focused on the men across from me. They already knew I was the real deal. The sweat beading across Steve Parker’s nose, and the way his tongue darted to the corner of his thin lips revealed negotiations would be wrapped up by the time I finished my tea. Steve’s partner, Brad, was harder to read. He didn’t sweat, didn’t shift, but I didn’t miss the tension corded in Brad’s neck, either. They knew what was going to happen—that they were about to be the first people in the world to gain access to something that until now had only been dreamed about. I’d have them folding before they knew bargaining had begun.
“So, do we have a deal or not? We’re losing patience.”
My chin lowered at Brad’s question. Direct. Good, things would move even quicker.
“There’s no reason to lose patience. Considering the personal risk I’m taking just in being here, I’m sure you can appreciate my reluctance to commit until all my terms are met.”
My gaze shifted over Brad’s shoulder. Dammit. She baited me again, pale eyes boldly flirting in my direction. Her cheeks were flushed, and her lips parted as if she’d been running or was freshly fucked—or perhaps just wanted to be…
Karim cleared his throat. I presented Steve my final offer. Time to finish this. There’d be opportunity for play later. Five years of hell and we were about to make the deal that would change the world—yes, change the world—and cement the price on my head. Normally, this kind of business was done at night, in empty construction sites or parking lots. But I’d learned that sometimes the best place to hide is in plain sight. To anyone listening, this would sound like any average business lunch.
They’d be wrong.
I didn’t need to look to sense her eyes on me once more. My muscles tightened, but I resisted the urge to give her a taste of my full attention. I studied her in my peripheral.
She rubbed the bare expanse of her arm below the sleeve of her blouse, and tilted her head slightly away from us.
The lust, only just acknowledged, morphed into something harder and meaner. Did she spy on me?
I responded to Brad’s futile negotiations without narrowing my vision.
Who is she?
Brad and Steve caved at half a cup of coffee then took their leave through the rear entrance of the café. Karim and I had agreed we’d wait ten minutes before leaving for the next meeting in the building across from us. I’d have waited anyway.
Waited just to find out what she thought she was doing.
I’d have waited to see if her voice was as husky as I imagined it’d be. Or if it’d be light and musical.
Husky, I knew it’d be husky.
If it wasn’t for today’s business, I’d be right over there, offering what she clearly wanted. Maybe. If I wanted to break the rules.
“It’s been too long since you enjoyed company, Haithem.”
I drained the remainder of my tea and eyed my assistant over the lip of the cup. “We’ve been busy.”
“Yes, and now you’re getting distracted. Invite the girl to a hotel for an hour and clear your head.”
I set down the cup with a clank. Too tempting, and a bad idea. She wasn’t my type. Not my type at all. Plus I didn’t like the way her attention fixed on me. “I’d need more than an hour.”
“Then take it. There’s a long trip ahead of us, there may not be a next time.”
We didn’t need to leave until morning.
I could take her now.
Just stride over there and tell her what I wanted, give her an offer she’d never refuse. My thigh brushed the table, and I glanced down. I’d stood without meaning to. A scowl twisted my lips. No, not what I needed. There was too much to be done.
Yet, it wasn’t only the twenty-five minutes of silent flirtation making me want to finish the job. I’d wanted her from the moment our gazes locked. There was something there—in those pale eyes. Secrets I wanted to uncover.
All reasons why I had to leave her alone.
My entire midsection reached critical-point spasm. I’d heard his voice at least three times. Not close enough for words to actually be distinguishable but enough that the sound of him vibrated along my nerves. My fingertips shook while I pretended to use the laptop. I should’ve eaten. Would it have hurt to have one biscuit with those three coffees? I breathed in. The control-top panty hose beneath my skirt clutched my hips like the devil’s tourniquet. My fingers splayed on my belly. That’s right, no food babies allowed before interviews with trendy magazines.
But I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, then there was this guy messing with my signals… Hunger and horniness all mixed together, encroaching on brain space, bringing about the legitimate possibility that I might go over there, eat that guy, then go hump the pastry counter.
Get. It. Together.
I shook my head and shoulders. Okay, commencing concentration. A voice, octaves lower than every other sound, filtered toward me. I brushed the hair back from my ear and tilted my head. Tried to get that sound as much in me as I could.
A scrape of chairs almost knocked my heart out of my chest.
Probably due to all the attempted eavesdropping. Not gonna lie—it wasn’t an accident. Whatever he was talking about, I was 500 percent sure was way more interesting than anything I’d heard today. Possibly ever. I glanced at my phone, then picked it up and unlocked the screen. Freaking hell, any moment he’d leave and I wouldn’t even have a photo of him to prove his existence to my best friend, Emma. Men like him didn’t just wander into little Melbourne coffee shops—at least, not when we were around to enjoy looking at them.
Slow, swaggering footsteps padded behind me.
The phone clattered from my hand onto the table and my folder jumped like a cricket onto the floor. I reached for the folder.
My hand landed on another hand. A bigger, browner one, smooth and warm under my fingertips.
My breath froze. He crouched beside the table yet managed to still tower. He leaned on his heels and stretched an arm toward me. The folder lay in his grasp. I couldn’t take it—no matter that’s what you’re supposed to do when someone hands you something. A smile twitched his cheek.
He looked up at me entirely too long before speaking. “You should be more careful, Angelina.”
His voice wafted over me like an exotic breeze. Deep, warm and laced with something foreign, a subtle clip of accent. Then his words sank in.
The heartbeat fluttering away against my ribs stilled. How the hell did he know my name? I recoiled against my seat.
His eyes widened a fraction before his lips spread in a grin—a freaking sexy grin, revealing teeth that could sell the crap out of toothpaste. He tapped my folder, a long finger pointing to the name printed in bold font, directly above the contact details on the résumé in his hand.
Just because I’d proved that hair color has no bearing on intelligence didn’t mean he should enjoy watching me squirm.
Dammit, of course a guy that hot had to be a prick.
I reached out, half smiling, then tugged the folder from between his fingers. My face lingered inches from his, close enough to see the chocolate flecks in his dark eyes.
“Oh, I’m always careful…” I enunciated slowly. But why stop there? “Sir.”
Those magnetic eyes intensified, and a look of something I didn’t quite recognize flashed in their depths.
“Is that so, Angelina?” My name curled like smoke off his tongue, and I swear the sound of it reached out and licked me.
It took three long heartbeats for realization to click into place. The implication of what I’d said settled slowly between us. Heat prickled my neck and up to my face.
Careful girls don’t accidentally stare at men. Careful girls don’t accidentally let strange men see them wipe their breasts. Careful girls don’t accidentally tip their folders at the feet of said strange men.
My stomach flipped over.
I clutched the presentation folder and turned away. He rose beside me. For a few pregnant moments, I sensed his stare boring into me. Whatever he waited for, I didn’t give to him.
“Very well… Good luck at your interview.”
His shoes clicked on the tiles. Some part of me wanted to look up, even call him back.
I breathed out and set the folder down and shut the laptop. Maybe it’s time to see the shrink again?
I packed up my things, curled the cords, stashed everything in my handbag and went to the counter.
“It’s all been taken care of.”
I stared at the waitress. Poor girl, it wasn’t her day. I hoped she didn’t get fired. But then she kinda sucked at waitressing, so maybe it’d be for the best.
“No, I sat over there.” I pointed at the booth. “Table five.”
“Yes, that’s the table. The guy you were speaking to took care of the bill.”
“Oh.” I blinked, then glanced between the booth to the front door. He’d paid my bill and left? “Um, thanks.”
I slid my purse back into my bag and left the café. Why’d he do that? Maybe it was an apology for being a smart-ass?
A delicious smart-ass…
It wasn’t as if he could get something out of the gesture. He must’ve done it because he liked me. Yeah, I’d leave it at that. He’d totally paid the bill because he was besotted with me. I snickered to myself. A girl’s entitled to her fantasies. A horn beeped. The crossing signal flashed.
I crossed the street to the building opposite and pushed the bewilderment from my system. Spotting the elevators at the far end of the room, I raced in my heels toward them. A rush of people exited. I stepped back. More people pushed out of the elevator than stepped inside—not surprising, given my interview was the last of the day. Two women stood in front of me. Their perfume filled the space, thick enough to coat my tongue.
Geez, I’d forgotten to wear perfume. Was I supposed to? They weren’t wearing shirts and skirts, either. They wore chic city dresses—the kind that made me choke when I looked at the price tag. My fifty-dollar shirt didn’t feel quite as fancy.
The elevator glided up. My nerves seemed to be racing up faster than the elevator was hitting floors. I squeezed the leather strap of my bag. Maybe this wasn’t the job of my dreams, it wasn’t writing plays for Broadway, but it was a writing job.
I’d be happy with that. Any writing job would do.
Any job that got me out of my parents’ house would be just fine.
Tina, Chief Editor for Poise, glanced up from my article. “Well, you can write. Very well, actually. And all this research, technically it’s a great article.” She looked at her colleague Fey. “It’s just that—”
Fey dropped her paper. “—it’s boring.”
“Yep, boring.” Tina nodded.
My chest, the great brick of tension that it was, bottomed out so hard I wondered that my blood still flowed. I knew it. I didn’t let my shoulders roll, though. The interview wasn’t over yet.
“Don’t you have parents, grandparents? Elderly people that you like perhaps?” My gaze flicked between them. “I volunteer in a hostel—these are important issues…”
“Aww, honey.” Fey leaned her elbows on the table separating us. “These are boring issues.”
Tina’s head bobbed again, her hair shuffling below her chin. “They really are.”
“No one wants to buy a magazine to read about homeless old people—yuck.” Fey’s identical haircut shivered around her ears. “That’s not sexy.”
I kept the cringe on the inside. They wanted sexy. Doomed. My specialty. Just look at today’s juice stain seduction model. You can’t teach that kind of talent.
My teeth clicked.
Maybe I didn’t want to work here. Tina and Fey had matching haircuts. It’s weird for colleagues to have matching hair. They might’ve wanted me to be their third, and I had way too much volume for any style above the shoulder.
So what if I didn’t get the job. Who needed to write for a syndicated magazine anyhow?
There were local gazettes I could try—so long as I didn’t ever need to make a living. My fingers curled in my lap. “I could come up with something fresh?”
Fey’s nose scrunched, but Tina leaned in. “What else do you have?”
“Something very…” I cleared my throat. “Sexy.”
“Oh?” Tina dropped her chin onto her palm. “Tell us about that one.”
“Well, it’s more of a concept.” I tried not to look at the snark and skepticism in Fey’s eyes. “There was this man in the coffee shop across the street from here.”
“What kind of man?”
I turned to Fey, and for the first time since I’d walked in her eyelids had opened all the way. She looked better without the squint.
I smiled, and my heart rose back to its rightful place. There was one sure way I’d get to work for Poise magazine. I let my elbow join theirs on the table and planted my chin on my hand. “It’s hard to say, really…he was pretty mysterious. Almost inexplicable…”
What in God's name did I just agree to?
I stood in the elevator, blinking at the reflection in the mirrored wall. At the shirt now knotted at a belly button that had never before seen the light of the sun. The collar this time left purposefully gaping.
Thanks, Fey, for “fixing” me.
My hands flopped at my sides. This is what I needed to save Poise from—how to be told you’re not good enough subject matter.
The elevator jolted then rose. Crap. I spun and hit the ground button, but too late.
I went up. Never mind, we’d go down eventually.
What I had to figure out was how to find my chin-dimple-heartthrob, and do one ridiculous exposé on his general mysterious gorgeousness. I just hoped he was actually as impressive as I recalled. My entire brain shrank around the memory of him that lit up the inside of my mind.
Blood pooled in all my sexy places.
Nope, we were good. Not exaggerated. But let’s face it, if I saw him right now, it wasn’t interviewing him I’d be interested in…
The lift stopped.
The doors slid open.
As if my wicked thoughts had tempted the universe, they revealed the man himself.
He stood in full, glorious person, suit jacket slung casually over one shoulder. His eyes flickered briefly before his face spread in a devastating smile.
His gaze drifted to my open button, and his smile turned voracious. In just a shirt, he was even more rugged than earlier. And damn, his shoulders were as muscular as I’d envisioned. Not muscleman muscles, just plain old I-am-a-strong-guy-with-lots-of-testosterone muscles.
I sagged against the wall. The magnetic pull of him went straight to my ovaries. If he touched me now, I’d probably have twins—or triplets.
He observed my changing expression and stepped through the doors to stand beside me. My skin tightened. Our arms brushed.
Make that quads.
He reached across me, all too close, and pushed the lower car park button. The side of his arm brushed my chest when he drew back. My mouth opened silently. The heat of his body next to me fried my brain. I almost forgot that I actually needed him. Not simply to fill my womb with his love goblins but as my highway to gainful employment. I turned and gave him a smile, complete with my own cheek dimples.
Our children will have all the aesthetic indentations.
“So, your interview went well, Angelina.”
There he went, using my name again. Not fair, especially since his name would be a great place to begin my investigations. Yet he didn’t look like the kind of man who knew the meaning of the word fair.
“Exceptionally well…sir,” I responded then lowered my voice. “It hardly seems right, though…”
“What’s not right?”
We were face-to-face. Or should I say, face to chest. I tipped my head back to look at him. The intensity of his gaze quickened my pulse, but I wouldn’t be intimidated. Not this time, anyway. “Well, that you know my name but I don’t know yours?” There were only three floors left before we reached the ground. “I think you just like hearing me call you sir…”
His eyes darkened, and a carnal flash crossed his face. I backed into the cool wall.
He watched me for the length of a breath before reaching across me again. What is he doing? His finger pressed the red button. The elevator shuddered, coming to a screeching standstill. I stumbled, foot twisting in my shoe. He grasped my arm before I could fall, and hauled me against him.
Holy crap, what have I done?
We hope you enjoyed this sample of Didn't I Warn You by Amber Bardan! Available now in print and e-book.
Angelina and Haithem's story continues in Didn't You Promise—coming soon!
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