Real estate mogul Micah Holt exerts absolute control over all aspects of his life. He keeps his dark side hidden away from the press, who will chase down any hint of scandal. He’s always in command of his world, careful to expose his closely guarded secrets only to those he knows he can trust. Then Allie Bennett shakes his legendary discipline. She’s beautiful, pure, untainted. But is Micah willing to sacrifice her innocence for his own selfish obsessions?
When that sexy smile makes her body burn, Allie tries with all her might to ignore it. For one thing, Micah’s her new boss. For another, he’s as complicated as he is devastatingly handsome. Still, Allie can only fight so much before she gives in to his dangerous games. She knows he’s got dark secrets. But when she discovers the true depth of his pain, Allie must decide how far she’s willing to go to light the way for love.
“Get here. Pronto. Shit is going down!”
There are only three reasons my real estate assistant, Liv Sloan, sent me the vague text on Monday morning.
One, the deal for my last clients, who fled the lively Haight-Ashbury area to raise their family in the quiet and quaint Cole Valley district, fell apart.
Two, our boss is in a mood.
Three, a pair of Liv’s beloved high-heel shoes suffered a wretched death.
Stuffed inside the elevator, a block away from Union Square, with rank perfume smells tickling my nose, I wonder over Liv’s message. All three reasons are totally up her alley. She’s dramatic, but in a cute, funny way that I love.
When the elevator doors chime open, I ease my way out, entering Richardson Real Estate, and frown. While I love my job, the offices are a whole other thing. They’re in need of a major upgrade, which is the very reason I’m late today. I’d never meet clients in this run-down horror show.
I pass the empty waiting room, scrunching my nose against the stale smell hanging in the air, then pick up my pace, turning the corner down the main hallway, finding Liv standing by the watercooler near our cubicles.
“You’re not going to believe what’s happened,” she says, practically bursting with energy.
“Aliens have invaded Earth?” I offer.
“What?” She gives her head a slight shake, her brown curls bouncing on her shoulders. “Guess again.”
“Santa came early and brought you new Louboutin shoes?”
She gives me a playful nudge, her big, round brown eyes squinting. “Ha, I can only wish! Holt has bought out Richardson.”
I pause, waiting for her to say she’s joking. “You’re serious?”
She nods. “Very serious.”
A knot of worry tightens in my belly then I force myself to go numb. I’m a top-selling agent at Richardson. My job can’t be in jeopardy. This has to be good news, right? Still, I can’t wrap my head around it. Holt has made billions of dollars dealing in commercial properties. Richardson’s sales are only in the multi-millions, with a handful of agents selling middle-income homes. Sure, that’s Richardson’s strength in the San Francisco market, but why would Holt want to add it to their portfolio? Isn’t the middle-class market messy pocket change to them? “What in the world does Holt want with Richardson?” I voice my thoughts.
Liv gets herself a drink from the watercooler and then faces me. “From what I gathered, Holt wants to gobble up the entire real estate market. Businesses, high-class homes, middle-class homes; they want it all. Including taking the top agents at Richardson into Holt.”
Greedy pricks. They can’t be satisfied having a corner of the market to make their billions, they need to suck the whole damn thing dry. I lean against the cubicle next to us, my back straight as a pencil. “So, their plan is to swallow Richardson up?”
“To be honest, I don’t really know what the plan is.” She leans closer to me and tells me quietly, “They offered me a job at Holt. Which I guess means they’re taking you, too.”
“Indeed, that is the plan,” says a strong male voice.
I hesitantly glance sideways and unfamiliar sparkling blue eyes hold mine. “I take it you’re Allison Parker?” the stranger asks.
“That’s right,” I reply. “But you can call me Allie.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Allie.” He offers a handshake. “I’m Anderson West, COO at Holt.”
I admire his blue suit while shaking his hand, thinking not only does this forty-something-year-old man have some serious style, but the Holt staff is very professional. Our own CEO, Henry, is typically found wearing loose-fitting khakis and sweaters to cover an aging midsection.
Anderson releases my hand and adds, “I take it Liv has filled you in on what you missed at the meeting.”
I smile. “Yes. I’m all caught up.”
“Excellent, saves me from repeating myself.” He shoves one hand into his pant pocket, straightening his spine. “As with Liv, we’d like to offer you a position at Holt.” He hands me a sealed white envelope with my name on the front. “Please know that the terms are negotiable. If you want we can discuss—”
“Ah, the straggler has finally decided to grace us with her presence.” Another unknown voice booms, from a man who appears to my other side. This one with even a more raspy, gravelly tone.
I gulp, realizing who the smooth silky voice must belong to, Micah Holt. His bluish-gray eyes narrow on me and my breath is gone, as the air whooshes out of the room. Everyone in San Francisco knows the famous billionaire, the tabloids make sure of that. This hot playboy is a weekly feature, not that I read the rags that often, but you can’t miss his face plastered on them as you wait in the grocery store lines.
Confronted by the real man, I understand why the tabloids are obsessed with him. The power he exudes is magnetizing, raising the hairs on my arms. He owns the space around him, making everyone else disappear. All I know is his sexy-as-hell eyes on me and how that act alone warms me from the inside out. I raise my hand and smile. “Hello, that’s me, I’m Allie, the straggler.”
By the arch of his brow, I assume the first impression I’m putting forward surprises him. Which it does me too, as I’m not usually a smart-ass, but he’s rattling me. I’m drawn to him, no matter that I don’t want to be, because I know this guy is a bad idea.
And I know that so definitely because I know his type. My half-brother is cut from the same cloth as Micah. I bet he’s a man who works from eight in the morning until eleven at night. He’s probably a guy who only has relationships to financially or sexually benefit him.
Regardless of what I know, the instant attraction is rich with velvety promise.
One side of his mouth slowly arches in the beginning of a smile and he finally murmurs, “Allie.”
A shifting feeling happens near my heart, a pang of sorts, leaving me aware of the delicious burn he’s stirring inside me. Oh, this guy is smooth. He doesn’t say someone’s name; instead, he rolls it off his tongue, savoring the syllables. Micah’s got game, no question, and I realize I’m going to have to be on my toes around him.
Of course part of my problem is that I haven’t dated in over a year and my force field is thinning. Perhaps if I’d listened to Liv and stopped being so damn picky, this guy’s well-played tactics wouldn’t be affecting me.
Micah’s hand moves toward me then, his strong fingers clasp mine, and there’s nothing professional about this handshake or my reaction to him. My nipples pucker beneath my bra into hard points and heat pools low in my body. Which by the slight grin on his face, I’m sure he’s well aware.
Anderson clears his throat, interrupting a moment that seems to have gone on way too long. “As I was saying to Allie, we can discuss the terms of her offer, if she would like.”
Smoky eyes on mine, undressing me where I stand, Micah slowly releases my hand. “Let me handle this negotiation.” He takes the envelope from Anderson. “Please follow me, Allie.”
Obviously I’m not the only one surprised, because the look on Anderson’s face tells me this isn’t normal behavior, and Liv notices, too, grinning and winking at me. I roll my eyes at her enjoyment at my expense, and exhale loudly, following Micah into the meeting room, noticing now that some of my peers are watching this parade.
Ugh. Get control of yourself, Allie. It’s a guy in a suit. Well, a totally hot guy in a suit, but still a guy that I met a hundred times growing up. Famous. Spoiled. Rich. Arrogant. Not the guy for me.
I take my seat at the rectangular office table, inhaling the fragrance à la Robertson—the moldy smell is worse in the conference rooms—reminding myself I’m a professional woman. I’m not one to be charmed by a man who thinks he’s all that. And I won’t let his good looks, charisma, and sexy smile distract me from negotiating my job.
He slowly opens his jacket, exposing his wide shoulders and thick chest beneath his black vest, all to tempt me, I’m sure. What’s frustrating is how much it’s beginning to work—my nerve endings tingle, and more and more warmth is sliding down between my thighs.
I expect him to begin negotiations, but he asks a question totally out of the blue: “Tell me a bit about yourself.”
My belly quivers with the low silky tenor of his voice and the power it has over me. He’s not looking at me. He’s fucking me with his eyes. Each long linger he gives me is like he’s imagining where he’d kiss me. The passion is right there and is so tempting I want to grab the flirtation between us and play with it a while. Boy, do I ever. But I can’t, I remind myself.
Micah lives a life I don’t want. A life of privilege that I once lived myself.
My mind leaves the meeting room, returning to a past that I wish I could forget. Shortly after my fifteenth birthday, my parents lost their lives in a plane crash. Fortunately, my older by ten years and very rich half-brother swooped in to save me from foster care and took me in. But a life of privilege isn’t the one I want and it’s not the life my mother would’ve wanted for me either. She wanted me to make my own mark on the world, and that’s exactly what I’ve done. It’s the very reason no one at Richardson—even Liv—knew I had millions in a trust fund.
I blink into the present, give Micah my most professional smile, and set to answering his question. “I’m twenty-five. Born in San Francisco. I’ve been a real estate agent for five years.”
His sculpted lips press tight. “I’m sure you know I didn’t want you to recite your resume.”
“Yes, I’m sure I know that, too.” I grin.
Judging by his soft chuckle, he’s enjoying the game between us. His playfulness isn’t helping the weight in my belly, but I need to keep my wits about me. This guy is so wrong for me that I know better than to give him a single flirtatious smile.
“We’re all business, then?” he practically purrs.
“On to negotiations,” I confirm.
He finally breaks eye contact to acquaint himself with the terms of my employment offer before addressing me again. “Please don’t feel nervous or unsure in what you want during these negotiations. I’m here to listen and discuss what you feel you deserve.”
Coming from any other guy, this speech would seem sweet and thoughtful. As it is coming from a guy dressed in an expensive tailored black suit, while he is leaning back in his seat, chest out, chin high, I refrain from snorting. Powerful men are all the same. And I certainly don’t need him to hold my hand. “Thank you. That’s very kind.”
His eyes narrow at my demure tone of voice, then his mouth twitches. Obviously he sees the amusement in this scenario; not to be shallow, but I am Richardson’s top producer—I think I can “negotiate” a contract. Jeez.
I keep silent; he grabs out a pen from his jacket pocket, never taking his eyes off me. I shiver—not from the coolness of the room, but because of his intensity. He exudes a frightening amount of power. And a confidence that I’ve rarely seen in a man his age; if I recall correctly, the tabloids pegged him at thirty-five.
The strength he projects seems hauntingly dark. But it’s not a darkness I want to run from. It’s a darkness that draws me in. A darkness that I almost want to absorb.
I shake the thoughts from my head. Let’s be logical here, this guy has nothing to offer me except lust. And I want more than that when it comes to a relationship; I want love, trust, and, dare I say, maybe even the white picket fence? Which I suppose explains why I’m still very single.
He taps his pen against the paper. “Go ahead and negotiate your terms.”
I glance at the document before me, thinking of my very successful half-brother and the lessons he taught me about negotiation. Ask for more than you think you’ll get, because then you’ll end up somewhere in the middle, he once told me.
“This is all great, and the health benefits are appreciated,” I say to Micah, keeping my eyes on the papers. “However, I have some conditions besides what I’m seeing here.”
“Name them,” he tells me.
I note the commission on the papers, which is the same as I get at Richardson—the offer states that I’ll receive 2.5 percent of the purchase price as my commission from the sales, then out of the money I earn on the deal, I’ll give Holt 30 percent as their cut. I’ve done my competitive research over the years, just to make sure I knew what the market would bear should I ever leave Richardson. “In section four where the commission is noted, I want Holt’s commission adjusted from 30 percent to 20 percent of my earnings.” I watch Micah’s brows shoot up and add, “And if you haven’t already given Liv a salary increase, then she’ll need that, too.”
A slow, dangerous smile crosses his face. “Anything else to adjust?”
I pause, ponder, then shake my head. “No, that’s all.”
“You drive a hard bargain,” he says, considering me.
Of course I did, my big bro taught me all about business. I figured Micah probably operated the same way. I had to address him with the same intensity he shows me or I won’t get his respect. “It’s not a bargaining technique,” I correct him, mirroring his slow, dangerous smile. “It’s simply what I deserve based on the market today.”
He leans back in his chair, regarding me with a long look. “It seems you have more experience than what I’d originally thought. Where did you work before Richardson?”
“No internship out of university?”
“I never went to university. I started at Richardson right out of high school, then obtained my real estate license.” Well, first I traveled Europe for a year with my best friend, Taylor Erikson, on a trip of self-discovery. The only discovery we made is that I can drink Taylor under the table. I became a real estate agent after working as a receptionist at Richardson, during which time I studied for and obtained my license. But these all are things he doesn’t need to know.
His smoky eyes narrow again. “You have no other business experience?”
“No, I’m afraid not.” Dammit, I need to dial back the confidence a tad. Everyone has secrets they hold dear and I have mine, too. My past isn’t something I want advertised. “Those are my terms. Are you in agreement?”
He taps his fingers against the table and then begins to swirl them in a slow circle against the dark wood, those eyes directly on my face. I’m ashamed by the way my lower body clenches, as I’m wondering how that touch would feel against my naked skin.
I force myself to look at his face when he finally addresses me again. “Holt will take 25 percent of your commission, not the 20 percent that you’re asking for or the 30 percent we originally offered. Will that suffice?”
I pretend to ponder his offer—25 percent is incredible. “Yes, I’ll agree to that.”
He clasps his hands on the table, and I feel like he’s stripping me layer by layer. It’s intrusive, but I’m not opposed to it. More heat spreads through me, tempting me to move a little closer to him.
I order myself to stay put when he arches a single brow. “You do realize that you’ll have to deliver high sales to prove you’re worth what you’re asking for.”
I nod. “Of course.” And I would prove my worth. Or Liv and I would, I should say.
A long moment of silence settles between us. He’s still regarding me, and within his confident stare I feel like he’s hiding something, or at least that’s how it seems. I don’t know exactly what it is, but it’s intriguing nonetheless.
His jaw clenches twice before he speaks again. “Well then, let’s hope you can deliver on the promises you are making here.” He moves his pen quickly over the document, changing the terms, and initialing the changes. “You’ll need to bring three signed copies of the offer when you arrive at Holt tomorrow morning.”
“Perfect.” I accept the papers from him. “Now, one more thing before we finalize this.”
Both of his brows shoot up. I can only guess he’s not used to having anyone dismiss a meeting—which, of course, is exactly why I said it. But the other reason is I’m concerned about my employer. “Before I sign this contract and agree to move to Holt, what is going to happen to Richardson?”
By the way he straightens in his seat, I wonder if I hit a nerve. I realize I’m asking a question that is totally none of my business, and when he folds his arms, closing himself off to me, I become a little nervous about his answer.
“You’re worried about a company you’re considering leaving?”
I can’t get a read on him. His expression is showing very little, so I reply, “Richardson gave me my start. The way I see it, I owe it some loyalty. And I want to know what your plans are.”
He’s watching me closely; a section of his jet-black stylish hair falls free. “Why does it matter? Richardson’s clients will be moved to Holt and all deserving employees will be hired on in some capacity.”
“Exactly my point,” I fire back. “What makes them deserving? Is your decision based on how much they made last year?”
Finally there’s a crack in his unreadable expression, and I can tell by the widening of his eyes that my question surprises him. “What they bring into the company is taken into consideration.” He pauses, and his attention lingers a little too long on me, like he’s sizing me up. “Would you expect it not to be?”
“In business, I do expect that,” I say with a shrug. “But what if they had a bad year? Take Sandy, she’s a longtime agent for Richardson—she lost her husband this past year and has been struggling.” His lips part, but I continue before he can cut me off. “Another employee, Jacob, recently found out that his young daughter has cancer. These are things that you don’t know about the people who work here. So, yes, I’m asking what will happen to them.”
He scrapes his fingers across his square jaw, and I notice his face is ridiculously chiseled, like the rest of him. “Your concern here is that your friends—”
“They’re not my friends,” I correct him.
He snorts softly. “You’re this worried about co-workers?”
“Yes.” Because if I didn’t say this now no one would. Micah is intimidating. I’m experienced at handling men like Micah and ensuring they don’t railroad people. These are things that need to be said, because Sandy and Jacob both deserve to keep their jobs, regardless that they had low sales last year.
Money isn’t everything.
His finger continues to stroke his chin from left to right when he asks, “If I say I plan on dismantling Richardson and can’t save every job, you would refuse to move to Holt, even if that means you would lose your job?”
I can tell he’s honestly interested, not judging me, so I’m bluntly honest with him. “I refuse to work for a company that can’t see past the bottom line and doesn’t care for its employees and treat them as people.”
He’s watching me again, and yet he’s completely unreadable. He wants inside my head, I’m sure of it, and I feel, for this second, that if I let him in he’ll awaken me in ways I’ve never known. I’m tempted to reach across the table and—
A knock on the door jerks my focus there, finding Anderson peeking his head inside the meeting room. “Yes?” he drawls.
I’m reeling, fighting my way back from the promise of satisfaction in Micah’s eyes, and trying to understand how in the hell he alerted Anderson that he needed him, when Micah rises from his chair. “Instruct the team to stop dismantling the company. Tell them to give me a report on Richardson’s financials ASAP. And keep all Richardson staff on board here, unless anyone willingly wants to move to Holt.”
Anderson frowns, stepping farther into the office. “Didn’t you say shut down this—”
“You heard me.” Eyes still intent on me, with that sexy little arch curving the side of his mouth, Micah asks me, “I’ll see you at Holt tomorrow, Allie?”
“You will,” is all I can say.
And just like that, he’s gone, and I’m alone, dragging in heavy breaths through my mouth.
The tabloid headlines at the grocery store spoke of Micah as being ruthless. But that’s not the guy I met today. Charming and seductive seems like an impenetrable armor to mask a certain dark intensity about him.
I press my hands flat on the table, hoping the coolness of the wood eases the fire in my veins. My nerve endings are tingling. My panties are soaking wet. But there’s a truth I cannot ignore besides the heat he awakens inside of me.
Men like Micah don’t do something out of the goodness of their heart. He made this choice because I asked him to.
This is his leverage over me.
And now I owe him.