It only takes a moment to change your life.

Annie O’Connell has a business she’s built from the ground, a daughter she’s raised entirely on her own, and two younger brothers she’s protected all their lives. She’s the rock solid foundation of her family, but she relies solely on the only person she trusts to not let her down: herself.

Marcus Callison has loved Annie for as long as he’s been working at O’Connell Realty. Convincing her of this is a challenge he’s been facing for just as long. He would stand by her through thick, thin, and everything in between.

When tragedy strikes and Annie’s carefully constructed life is shattered, Marcus is determined to stand by her and help her through disaster…if only she’d let him.

 

The Forgotten Path is available at these retailers:

              

 

Chapter One

Marcus barged into his boss’s office. “We’ve got to stop meeting like this.”

Annie jolted, startled by his sudden appearance. She’d taken the pins from her hair, letting her blond strands fall around her shoulders, but it was a mess from running her fingers through it. She only did that when she was stressed, proving to Marcus this intervention was most definitely needed.

She dropped her reading glasses on the desk and looked up at him with curious gray eyes. “What’s that?”

He sat in his usual seat on the other side of her desk. “Meatloaf, potatoes, and green beans.”

“I didn’t order dinner.”

“Nope. You didn’t. But look at that.” He dropped the bag on her desk. “I brought it anyway. I’m vying for Employee of the Year.”

She smiled weakly as he tossed a packet containing plasticware and a thin napkin at her. “Why stop there? I’m sure you could get Real Estate Agent of the Decade if you wanted.”

“Nah. You’ve got that covered.”

“I’m actually not very hungry,” she said.

“It’d be rude not to eat with me, Annie. After all the trouble I went through to bring you dinner.”

She scoffed. “Your sister had this delivered, didn’t she?”

“She texted me earlier, and I mentioned we were working late. She knows how we are—all work, no sustenance.”

“Jen is a saint.”

He set a white Styrofoam container in front of Annie, eyeing her as she dug in a drawer and tossed a stack of sturdier napkins on the desk. Something about her had been off all day. She’d been unusually melancholy, and he was determined to figure out why. “Mallory graduates tomorrow. I’m surprised you aren’t home getting ready for the party.”

“It’s all taken care of and ready to go.”

“Oh.”

“Oh?”

“Well, you’ve been a thousand miles away all day. I figured you were stressing about seating and finger foods.”
Annie focused on her dinner and shook her head. “Nope.”

Silence hung over them while he cut into his meatloaf and then chewed a big bite. “How are sales?”

“Fine. We should meet our quarterly goals.”

“Good.” He took another bite as the quiet lingered. Their late night dinners didn’t normally go this way. They usually spent this time summarizing their days. Taking light-hearted jabs at each other. Laughing and unwinding from their day, not sitting in awkward silence. Finally, he sat forward. “Seriously, Annie. You’re killing me here. What is wrong with you today?”

She lifted her brows at him. “What?”

“Something’s wrong. Even Dianna noticed it. She asked me if I knew what was bugging you before she went home today.”

“Just because Di is about to become my sister-in-law, doesn’t mean she’s in tune with my feelings.”

“You have feelings?”

She cocked a brow at him, and he pointed a mashed-potato-topped fork at her.

“See? That right there. You let that fall. That isn’t like you.”

Annie focused on her food again. “Whatever.”

His amusement left him. She looked…sad. He couldn’t think of a time in the last five years that he’d seen her sad. Annie O’Connell didn’t let things get to her. She wasn’t a Pollyanna by any means, but when a problem came up, she tackled it and moved on. She didn’t dwell, but had been dwelling. “What happened?”

“Nothing.”

“Look, I know when something is wrong with you, and right now, there is definitely something wrong. You can tell me to piss off if you don’t want to talk about it, you can tell me I’m your subordinate and it’s none of my damned business, but don’t lie to me. You’ve been withdrawn all day. I’m concerned.”

She sighed. “My kid is graduating college tomorrow, Marcus. I’m feeling old.”

“Feeling old?”

“Yeah.”

“You are so full of shit.”

She stared at him, appearing to debate what to tell him.

“What is it?” he pushed. He wouldn’t get anywhere if he didn’t. The woman had never exactly been forthcoming with personal information. Marcus had worked for her for nearly a year before even knowing her birthday, and he only found out because her brothers, Paul and Matt, had sent her a huge bouquet. Her threats to do unseemly things with those roses had amused Marcus for days.

“Sometimes I get to thinking about things that I’d rather not think about. Mallory’s graduation is stirring the memory pot a little. But I’m fine.”

“Her dad?” Mallory’s “dad” hadn’t been in the picture since Annie had told him she was pregnant.

“He hadn’t even crossed my mind. Until this moment. Thanks for that,” she said flatly.

“You’re welcome.”

“Can’t we just enjoy dinner? Please?”

“Not when you’re sulking.”

“Sulking?”

“Spill it.” He stabbed his meatloaf.

She pressed her full lips together in the way she did when she was irritated, but he knew it also meant she was having an internal debate.

Finally, she shrugged and said, “I never went to college. My mom died when my brothers were young and…well, you know this story.”

He did, but again, it’d taken him years to learn that her dad had been a drunk and her mom had died in a car accident. Sixteen-year-old Annie had been the closest thing her younger siblings had to a responsible adult. Her childhood ended when their mother died. Annie started working for a real estate agent before graduating high school and was the breadwinner, primary caregiver, and everything else her brothers had needed.

“You’re regretting that,” he said quietly.

“No. Absolutely not. If I’d gone to college, Paul and Matt wouldn’t have. Paul wouldn’t be a successful attorney and Matt wouldn’t have his own business. They needed me to help them.”

“You’re wondering what life would have been like if your mother hadn’t died and you’d gone to college.”

Annie laughed softly. “Even if my mother hadn’t died, I wouldn’t have gone to college. We couldn’t afford it. The only reason I got it in my head that my brothers would earn their degrees was because I didn’t want them to follow in Dad’s footsteps. Working odd jobs to earn just enough to stay drunk? No. I wasn’t going to let them go down that road.” Pushing her green beans around, she exhaled loudly.

“You were a good sister.”

She looked up and smirked at him. “Past tense?”

“Are. But I was referring specifically from the time your mother died until you stopped financially supporting your brothers.”

“You mean until I got knocked up?” she snapped.

When their dad died from liver failure, Paul was just starting his career in criminal law, Matt was finishing college, and Annie got mixed up with the completely wrong kind of guy—the kind that would leave a woman pregnant and alone. Even that didn’t stop her from becoming successful enough to own her own real estate agency. Annie might appear aloof and career-driven, but Marcus saw the truth. She was driven by a need for security, and her business had become her security.

She blinked several times and cleared her throat, and he wondered if she were fighting tears. He almost regretted pushing, but then she lifted her face and the grief in her eyes let him know she’d been bottling this up far too long.

“I didn’t mean it to sound like that. I would be lost without Mallory. Sometimes I just feel like I never had a life, you know? My own life. That’s selfish—”

“No, it’s not. You were a kid when your mom died, and you were this close to being free from the burden she’d left you with when Mallory was born. It’s perfectly natural to feel like you missed out on something. You did, Annie. And it’s okay to think about it from time to time. We all think back on our lives and wonder if we made the right decisions.”

“I made the right decisions,” she said firmly. She wouldn’t say it any other way. She wasn’t prone to doubting herself. She stuck her fork in her meatloaf and pushed the container away. “Thank you for dinner.”

“I owed you. You bought burgers last week. Remember?”

She nodded. “Yes. I guess we really do have to stop meeting like this.”

“I actually kind of like this type of dinner over eating in the restaurant.”

“Why?”

“Because when you have the menu in front of you, it takes you forever to decide what you want.”

Annie cocked a brow, and he laughed.

“That’s the first real go-to-hell look you’ve given me all day. I hadn’t realized how much I missed it.”

She chuckled. “You’re so twisted.”

“Listen, Annie—”

“This conversation is over, Marcus.”

“No, it’s not.”

She gave him that look again, but this time it didn’t have a playful edge. She really didn’t want him to push this any further.

He shook his head. “You’re not shutting down on me. Let it out.”

“Let it out? Are you my shrink now?”

“I’m your best friend.”

Wow, she mouthed as she widened her eyes. “Employee of the Year and my new best friend? You are really proud of yourself today.”

He wanted to smile with her, but managed to keep his face deadpan. “You know it’s true. I’m the only person who likes you.”

She giggled. “That very well may be true.”

He grinned. “You know better than that.”

“Do I?”

“Everybody likes you.”

She snorted and leaned back in her seat. “Got your eye on Liar of the Year, too?”

“I am an overachiever.”

“You’re something.”

“Should I be offended by that?”

“Maybe.”

He held her gaze until she cleared her throat and looked away. That had been happening with increasing frequency… Like they somehow got lost in a moment. Those instances made his heart beat a bit faster.

The first time they got pulled into an intense stare, he’d damn near pulled her into a kiss, probably would have if they hadn’t been setting up an open house. Annie was a great boss—so long as she was happy with the work he was doing—but crossing that line would have undoubtedly gotten him fired. And probably slapped. However, he was becoming more and more convinced that he wasn’t the only one feeling the underlying tension between them. Tension was a bit of an understatement, at least for Marcus. His attraction to Annie was more like an addiction he hadn’t realized he’d developed until it was too late, now that he’d recognized the attraction between them, it all but consumed him. He spent nearly as much of his work day trying to find excuses to be near her as he did actually working.

In those moments when she clearly felt the pull, too, Marcus forgot how stupid it was to fall for his boss, especially when she made a second career out of keeping people at a distance. Her family and daughter were the only people he’d ever seen her even remotely let into her heart. He liked to think he was chipping away at the wall she’d built, bit by bit, but the reality was for every brick he knocked down, she put up two.

Sitting upright, she busied herself closing up her dinner container.

“Do you need help with anything tomorrow?” he asked.

“I don’t think so.”

“I thought I’d pick you up instead of meeting you there. If that’s okay.”

Her eyes widened as she turned them to him. “What?”

“For the ceremony.”

She stared at him blankly for a few moments. “You’re going to Mallory’s graduation ceremony?”

“She gave me a ticket. I assumed you knew.”

Annie opened her mouth, and Marcus realized she hadn’t a clue that he was going to be attending the event.
“Uh. No. I didn’t.”

“If you don’t want me to go—”

“No. It’s Mallory’s day. If she wants you to go…”

“But do you want me to go?”

She hesitated as she looked at him. “Do you want to go?”

“Sure. She’s the closest thing I’ll ever get to having a kid.” He didn’t think it were possible, but Annie’s eyes opened even wider. He damn near chuckled. “So you want me to pick you up?”

She slowly nodded.

“About noon? I’d like to get a good parking spot.”

“N-noon is fine. Sure.”

He tried not to laugh at her onset of the stutters, but it was so damned amusing when she was flustered. “Noon it is, then.”

*

“So,” Mallory drawled as she stepped next to her mother, “still mad I invited Marcus to my graduation?”

Annie cocked a brow, silently telling her daughter where she could go. She’d called before she’d even gotten home the night before, wanting to know why Mallory had invited Marcus—or more to the point, why she hadn’t told Annie about it. Mallory had causally said about the same thing Marcus had—besides her uncles, he was the closest thing she had to a father figure. He was the only man who had been steady in her life. Marcus had worked for Annie for five years, and from day one he and Mallory had hit it off.

Sure, Annie had developed a good friendship with Marcus, and because of that he and Mallory had spent some time together, but a father figure? That seemed over the top.

“I ask,” Mallory said lightly, “because you’ve barely stopped staring at him all afternoon. I wasn’t sure if that was because you were offended by his presence or because he looks so darned cute in that suit.”

Before she actually could tell Mallory to go to hell, her daughter laughed and walked off.

“Why do I get the impression she just bested you?” a deep timbre asked from behind Annie.

She closed her eyes as Marcus’s voice rolled through her. She took a deep breath, but heat burned up from low in her gut and settled on her face. She had no doubt that her cheeks were deep red, but, short of being rude, she had no choice other than to face Marcus. She tilted her head, pursed her lips, and narrowed her eyes in an attempt to get him to back off.

Instead, he laughed with the same enjoyment at her expense that Mallory just had. “Damn. Whatever she said must have been good. I’m sorry I missed it.”

Annie started to brush past him, but he put his hand to her upper arm and stopped her retreat. She jolted a bit—not from his touch, but how she felt the skin-on-skin contact all the way down to her toes. What the hell?

“Come on,” he pled, “you have to share.”

“She thinks she’s smart.”

“Well, she did just graduate college cum laude.”

Annie’s irritation faded and pride filled her. She couldn’t help but smile. “Yes, she did.”

He toasted her. “Congratulations.”

“Oh, I can’t take credit for that. She did it all on her own.”

“She has your brains.”

Annie shook her head. “I didn’t even go to college, remember?”

His face softened, and he looked at her in that way that made her breath catch. “You would have if you hadn’t been saddled with other obligations.”

She didn’t open up about her past often, but something about Marcus had made her drop her defenses. She hadn’t intended to, but she’d opened her mouth and spewed her emotional mess all over him. Who cared if she hadn’t gone to college? Who cared if she’d had a rough go of it? Paul and Matt were grown and successful, and Mallory had just taken one more step along that path. But that hadn’t stopped Annie from dwelling on things she shouldn’t have, and leave it to Marcus to dig in and make her feel all those…feelings.

She shrugged, just the slightest bit. “It all worked out.”

“Yes, it did,” he said with quiet sincerity. “You’ve done amazingly well for yourself. And your family.”

He tightened his fingers on her arm and ran this thumb over her bicep, as if to reassure her. Instead, it set her on edge, and she felt as if she were about to fall over. Damn it. What kind of voodoo was this man doing to her?

Annie’s focus shifted to her daughter in an attempt to undo whatever it was that had made breathing nearly impossible. Her smile returned as Mallory squealed and hugged a friend who had just arrived at the party.

“I can’t believe it,” he said. “Our girl just graduated college.”

Annie’s attention snapped back to him. “Our girl?”

“I know I didn’t have any part in raising her, but we’ve gotten close over the years. Like I said last night, she’s the closest thing I’ll ever have to a daughter.”

Marcus smiled and, as tended to happen these days, her chest tightened and warmth spread through her. His gaze softened as he stared at her, and she sighed.

She actually freaking sighed.

His deep blue eyes were like an abyss that she fell into every time he looked at her like that. Like that being with a tenderness he shouldn’t have for his boss.

She didn’t need anyone to tell her how inappropriate that was. She’d told herself a thousand times. That didn’t stop her breath from catching whenever he touched her or their gazes stayed locked a few seconds too long—like they were right now.

Thankfully, an obnoxious round of laughter pulled her from his gaze. Annie glanced at her brothers. “I was, um, on my way to the kitchen. Excuse me.”

She forced her feet to move her away from the tall drink of temptation in her living room. Alone in the kitchen, she shook her head and leaned against the island where the extra chips and platters were piled. She closed her eyes and let her head drop forward like it weighed a hundred pounds.

“Get a grip,” she muttered.

The door behind her opened, and she nearly laughed. She didn’t have to turn around to know Marcus had followed her.

“Need help with anything?” he asked.

“No. I was just…”

Her words faded when he moved to her side, much too close, and she couldn’t stop herself from looking up at him. Her eyes skimmed over his clean-shaven face. She was tempted to run her fingers along his oval jaw to see if his skin were as soft as it looked. Her self control was fading quickly. She’d used up damn near all her resolve during the graduation ceremony. He’d sat next to her, his arm resting along the back of her chair during most of the commencement. For nearly two hours, she’d sat stiffly, her hands clutched as she silently reminded herself not to lean into him. Not to put her hand on his knee. Not to smile up at him. Not to rest her head on his shoulder. And to breathe—just breathe, damn it.

Now he was that close again, and the urge to lean into him was nearly irresistible.

His smile faded, easing the deep lines around his eyes, and she did that stupid sighing thing again. Clearing her throat—again— she focused on the food.

“Chips,” she said. “I was…getting more chips.”

“Let me help—”

“No,” she snapped, but then tried to cover by softly laughing. “Go back out there. Enjoy the party.”

“This is Mallory’s party. You go enjoy it. You deserve to celebrate along with her.”

Her cheeks heated. He’d used that affectionate tone that struck a chord it shouldn’t and her heart picked up its pace.

She lifted the chips. “I’ll just take these out and then enjoy the party.”

“Wait,” he said.

The warmth of his hand gently grabbing her elbow spread like wildfire through her. She’d barely gotten control from when he’d touched her minutes before. Was he trying to kill her?

“Annie, I think we should—”

The swinging door to the kitchen opened. Annie’s sister-in-law Donna stopped in her tracks and looked from Marcus to Annie then back at Marcus.

Donna smirked a bit. “Sorry. I, um, I thought this was the  bathroom.”

Annie drew her eyebrows together. “That’s the best you can do?”

Donna giggled and disappeared, probably to run off and tell their family all about whatever she thought she’d just walked in on.

Marcus laughed quietly as the door swung closed. “Uh-oh. The gossip wheels are turning.”

Annie heaved a sigh—this time with frustration instead of whatever it was that made her exhale heavily when Marcus looked at her. “If Donna weren’t gossiping, I’d be worried something were wrong with her.”

“I’m sorry.”

She wasn’t. Okay, maybe a little, but only because she didn’t want to deal with her family questioning her about her relationship with Marcus. They were convinced that just because they were all happily paired off, she should be, too. Worse, none of them saw anything wrong with Annie dating Marcus. Not that they were dating. Not even close. They were just co-workers—friends—who shared dinner a few nights a week. And lunch a few times a week. And attended events such as Mallory’s graduation together.

And who had started this habit of staring awkwardly at each other.

She really wished her siblings hadn’t started dropping not-so-subtle hints about Marcus liking her. She hadn’t been this bumbling mess around him until the first time Donna and Dianna teased her about how Marcus looked at her. Hell, she hadn’t even noticed he looked at her at all. Then Paul and Matt got on board, telling her what a great guy Marcus was. As if she needed them to tell her that. She knew Marcus was great. That was why she had hired him.
That, and his stupid smile that make her stomach twist around itself.

She lowered her face and closed her eyes for a moment.

“Better refill the chip bowl,” he said.

Annie lifted her face. “Hmm?”

He jerked his head toward the living room. “The chip bowl.”

She looked at the bag in her hand for a second. “Oh. Right. Chip bowl.” A strange half-laugh sound left her. “Right.” She left Marcus and pushed the door open as she went back to the party. She ignored Donna and Dianna and frowned at the chip bowl that hadn’t needed filled.

*

An hour and a half later, and with the last guest barely out the door, Donna planted a kiss on Annie’s cheek. “Good night.”

Annie pulled away. “What do you mean good night? You said you’d help clean up.”

“Matt has…a thing.”

Matt shrugged.

“Marcus can help,” Donna said.

“Marcus is a guest.”

Donna creased her brow at Annie. “What am I?”

Family.”

“I don’t mind.” Marcus almost wished he hadn’t offered by the look Annie gave him. Her eyes widened, and her jaw set as if he’d offended her.

“We have to run, too.” Paul said, hugging his fiancée to him.

“Sorry, Annie.” Dianna’s pout was as fake as the thing Matt had to run off to do.

Annie narrowed her eyes at Paul, who smiled as he held his hand out to Marcus.

“It was good seeing you. Thanks for helping Annie.”

“No problem, Paul,” Marcus said.

The door closed behind her siblings. Annie and Marcus were alone in the house.

“You don’t have to stay,” Annie said. “I can clean up.”

He grabbed a box of big black trash bags and pulled one out. “I don’t mind.” He shook the bag and held it open as she turned with a stack of paper plates.

“I should have stopped Mallory from sneaking out before helping with this mess.”

“She was pretty eager to get home.”

Annie frowned. “Yes. I reminded her she will be responsible for any damage to that house.”

He laughed. “I doubt she’s having a party.”

She gave him a look of disbelief as she added trash to the bag he was holding. She frowned. “She applied for a few jobs in California.”

“She’s wanted to move west since I’ve known her. Why are you surprised?”

“I’m not,” she muttered.

He caught her gaze as she shoved a handful of napkins in the bag, but they didn’t get caught in a lingering stare this time. He was actually a bit disappointed. “Then what’s the problem?”

“There is no problem. I just…”

He laughed softly. “You’ve stuttered and tripped over your words more in the last two days than you have in all the years I’ve known you. Just tell me what’s on your mind, Annie?”

She sighed as she stopped gathering trash. Facing him, she tilted her head. “I want her to go out into the world and be her own person. I’ve raised her to do that. But now that it’s time for her to,” she flicked her hand as she searched for the words, “leave the nest…”

“You’re worried?”

She closed her eyes. “Marcus, I’m terrified. And I don’t know why. I don’t know what to do with all this”—she waved her hand again—“stuff.”

He grinned as she looked at him, silently pleading for him to understand. “They’re called emotions, Annie, and this is normal. This is maternal, empty nest syndrome stuff.”

“She hasn’t lived at home for three years.”

“But she’s here several times a week. She’s always dropping by the office, coming and going. She can’t do that if she’s in California.”

She groaned as she rolled her eyes. “Do you know how far San Diego is from Stonehill? One thousand, seven hundred, and fifty miles. I looked it up, Marcus. I actually looked it up just in case she gets a job there. I’m not that kind of mom. What is happening to me?”

He chuckled. “You are that kind of mom, Annie. You’re the kind who loves and worries about her kid. I hate to break it to you, but just because you raised her to be independent doesn’t mean you want her to leave. And do you know what is about ten miles from Stonehill? Des Moines International Airport. They have planes there that can transport people from Iowa to California in a matter of hours.”

Annie frowned and went back to gathering used cups.

“She’s just like you, you know.”

Her steel gray gaze snapped to his. “What does that mean?”

“She knows what she wants,” he clarified. “She’s going for it. She gets that from you, Annie. You aren’t afraid of anything.”

Her only response was a scoff and a shake of her head.

“If you hadn’t been left to raise Paul and Matt after your mom died, what would you have done?”

She shoved the last handful of paper plates into the trash bag. “I’ve never thought about it.”

“Don’t lie. You were thinking about it last night. We all think about what our lives would have been like if we’d just taken that one chance we denied ourselves.”

She paused with a tray of uneaten fruit in her hands. “What does it matter what I wanted, Marcus? This is what I have, and I have absolutely nothing to complain about. Except that my daughter wants to move halfway across the country because she thinks Iowa is boring.”

He grinned as he followed her. “Iowa is boring. Some people just like that.”

She stopped and turned. “Excuse me? Is that how you sell this town to people moving here? ‘If you like boring, this is the place for you’? Your job, sir, is to sell Stonehill and Des Moines and Iowa to new residents.”

“I’m a real estate agent, Annie, not the Chamber of Commerce.”

She frowned at him and he smiled. There it was. That look of annoyance that made his soul sing. Annie’s sharp wit was a never-ending source of entertainment for him. He wouldn’t say he intentionally irritated her, but there was something about the fire that lit in her eyes when she was agitated that made his heart beat just a wee bit faster. He loved the spark in her. Loved the challenge she presented when he refused to back down on something insignificant at the office.

“I should fire you here and now,” she said, backing into the kitchen.

They put away leftovers as she lectured him on the virtues of living in central Iowa—the parks, the growing economy, the low crime rate.

Marcus finished gathering the trash and tied the bag as she started in on the great education system. Just as Annie stepped from the counter, he turned toward the back door with the full bag and they bumped into each other.

He instinctively reached out and grabbed her upper arm. “Sorry ’bout that.”

Her cheeks turned a bright red shade that made his entire body tingle. She looked to her right arm where his hand was still resting, then cocked her brow at him.

“Oh,” he said and laughed awkwardly as he released her.

“Excuse me.” She brushed by him.

Trash bag in hand, he watched her head into the living room as he fisted his hand, still feeling the smoothness of her skin against his palm.

When there was nothing left for him to do in the kitchen, he collapsed the folding chairs. Once those were leaning against a wall, he folded the tables and carried two at a time to his truck while Annie helped carry chairs.
When the furniture was loaded, he lifted the tailgate and faced her.

She brushed her palms together as if to knock away any dirt she may have gathered. “Do you want me to follow you to the office to unload?”

“No. I’ll do that tomorrow.”

“Well, call me. I’ll come help.”

“Okay.”

“Thanks so much for sticking around, Marcus. I appreciate it. And I know Mallory appreciated you coming today.”

“I was glad to be here.” He shook his head. “I still can’t believe she’s got a college degree.”

“I know.”

The tinge of sadness in her voice made him want to reach out and hug her, and when she looked at him again, the urge twisted into raw desire. Standing in her driveway, the stars dim in the spring sky, the soft light from the street lamp reflecting off her blonde hair… The entire scene was the perfect setup, but he was certain if he closed the gap between them, she’d punch him in the mouth he so desperately wanted to press against hers.

She shifted on her feet as he continued to stare at her. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Yeah. Good night, Annie.”

He double-checked that the tailgate was latched, even though he’d done that already. He climbed into the cab and sat for several moments, debating if he should just risk everything and do what he wanted. Take that chance he had mentioned earlier—the one that everyone always looked back on and wondered what if.
But he didn’t. He started the ignition and pulled away, leaving another chance untaken.

*

“Knew it,” Annie whispered at the sound of the office door opening. She leaned back in her chair and peered into the lobby.

A moment later, Marcus appeared, his lips pulled into a disapproving frown. “What are you doing here on Sunday morning?”

“I had this sinking suspicion that you wouldn’t call for help putting the tables and chairs away. I figured I’d just be here to catch you in the act.”

“I’m pretty sure I can handle this.”

“I’m sure you can.” She pushed herself up. “But they were used for my daughter’s party, so I should at least help.”

As she stepped around her desk, she sensed his eyes skimming over her body and heat coiled low in her gut. She didn’t wear jeans and fitted shirts often, but she thought maybe she should reconsider that based on how he was looking at her. She cursed herself as soon as the thought occurred. Playing games of temptation with this man would be far too dangerous. She was already certain he felt as attracted to her as she was to him. The last thing either of them needed was her exacerbating this thing. She gestured for him to move—shooing him like she would a pesky fly—when he stood in the doorway, blocking her exit. He stepped aside, and she slid past him.

He followed her out of the building, passing her only when she stopped to wedge the door open. She reached the truck as he lowered the tailgate. When they had unloaded the chairs, she carried them inside while he lifted the awkward tables from the truck bed. They weren’t heavy, but were too big for her to carry by herself. Annie and Marcus sidestepped each other, smiling awkwardly as they moved out of the other’s way, carrying the furniture into the storage room at the back of the building. Annie focused on putting the chairs back into a neat row and tried to ignore the way discomfort filled her every time they crossed paths in the small room.

They’d been alone more times than she could count. This was nothing new, yet her nerves fired with every move he made and every time she got a whiff of his cologne. Annie silently chastised herself for being so damned aware of him, but that didn’t stop her from feeling like the room were closing in on her as he leaned a table against the wall next to her.

With the chairs organized, she turned to leave the storage room, uncomfortably conscious of him walking ahead of her. When he reached the door, Marcus faced her, leaning in the doorway, just as he had when he’d stood in her office door earlier. And just as before, he blatantly lowered his gaze over her before meeting her stare. Her heart did that flippy-flop thing, and her breath caught at the look in his eyes.

She cleared her throat and dragged her palms over her denim-clad thighs. “Is that everything?” She knew it was, but what else was she going to say?

“Yeah. Thanks for the help.”

“Thank you for hauling them around for me. I appreciate it.”

He nodded. She laughed a bit and did that shooing motion again. He didn’t move. This time, he held her gaze until she turned away from him and exhaled slowly in a futile attempt to calm her nerves.

“Annie, I’ve, um… I’ve been thinking about what I told you last night.”

She creased her brow. “Remind me.”

“About how it’s human nature to think about the chances we let pass. How I didn’t believe that you’d never considered what your life would be like if you’d made a different choice when you were left to finish raising your brothers.”

She shook her head. “Leaving Paul and Matt to fend for themselves was never an option.”

“No,” he said quickly. “I get that. That’s not what I mean. Not exactly.”

“Then what are you getting at?”

He bit his lip. Hard. As if trying to stop himself from saying what he was thinking. “Annie, I’ve been…”

Oh, God, don’t say it, she silently pled.

He tried again. “For the longest time…” A humorless laugh left him as he let his words trail again. Finally, he met her gaze again. “You’re probably going to fire me, but—”

She gave him a forced smile. “I can’t fire you, Marcus. You’re invaluable. Whatever it is, I’m sure you can work it out.” She took a step and tried to squeeze by him. “Just take a few days off or…” Great. Now she was the one who couldn’t finish a thought.

He dropped his hand to her hip, stopping her from leaving the tension-filled room. She closed her eyes. His touch sent volts of electricity shooting through her, lighting every nerve. She wanted nothing more than to lean up and kiss the life right out of the man. For some reason, though, putting herself in a position where she could be sued for sexual harassment didn’t seem like a wise business move. Not that she thought Marcus would ever go that far, but people change. Situations get awkward and out of hand.

It was best to avoid the possibility of things going wrong between them and just ignore how much she wanted him.

“Marcus,” she whispered.

“I have been attracted to you for so long, Annie. I thought I was alone in this,” he said in the same hushed tone, “but lately I’ve started to think…you feel it, too.”

She licked her lips and lowered her face. Shit. He said it. The elephant in the room was out there now and neither could ignore it any longer. “I’m your boss.”

“I know.”

“I can’t. We can’t.”

“I know. But I swear to God, I’m about to lose my mind from wanting you.”

Oh, damn.

Her knees actually went weak. She leaned back against the doorjamb to stay standing.

“I think about you all the time. I know it’s wrong. But all I can think about is how much I want to kiss you.”

A whimpering moan left her as he closed the distance between them. He stopped a fraction of an inch from her mouth and, goddamn it, the temptation gripped her so hard she could barely breathe.

“Tell me you don’t feel the same,” he whispered. “Tell me to stop. And I will.”

She should. She had to. But the words wouldn’t leave her.

“Tell me to go to hell, Annie.”

She wanted to, but her protest refused to form. She fought with everything she had, but then slowly gave in to need and gently pressed her hands to his face. He exhaled slowly, pressing his face against her palm and closing his eyelids, as if relishing in her touch. His heat radiated into her, burned its way down her arms, and stole her breath.

Her heart pounded so hard she barely heard the heavy sigh leave him as he opened his eyes.

“You son of a bitch,” she whispered, and he grinned.

She knew she shouldn’t, but with her hand on his face—his skin as smooth and hot as she’d always imagined it would be—she had no choice but to brush her thumb over the lips that had been taunting her for so long. As she did, he kissed her thumb, then her palm, then turned his face and kissed the inside of her wrist. The sensation of his lips on her flesh was more than she could resist. She’d wanted him to touch her like that for so long. She’d fantasized about it more times than she could count. Seeing him kiss her, feeling his breath tickling her skin and his lips pressing against her, was more than she’d imagined it could be. Her resolve crumbled like a sand castle in a hurricane.

He wrapped his arm around her waist and pulled her against him as he leaned back enough to search her eyes. She could read what he was thinking. This was her last chance to back away. She knew she should.

Don’t do it. Don’t let this happen.

But then she did. She lifted her chin, just a fraction of an inch, and put her lips on his.

Fireworks.

That was the only way she could explain what she felt in that moment. Heat erupted from their contact and engulfed her body. She was instantly dizzy. Her muscles melted. She dug her fingers into his hair, and his mouth moved over hers as he held her so tightly she couldn’t be sure he wasn’t trying to crush her. A moan filled her ears, and she realized it was hers. Fisting the collar of his shirt, she held him as she parted her lips and let him delve in. The sensation of his tongue sliding over hers went straight to her groin. She clung to him, holding him as tightly as he was holding her, as he kissed her until she was breathless. She gasped as she broke the kiss. He put his forehead to hers, panting just as heavily. She couldn’t recall the last time she’d been kissed so passionately or had kissed someone else so passionately. The lust between them was palpable. She was certain if she asked him to make love to her right there, he would. And she would let him.

And that was a huge problem.

“Shit,” she breathed pulling away from him. “I am so sorry. I should not have done that.”

He eased his hold on her. “No. I’m sorry. I instigated that.” He was saying the right words, but his tone conveyed disappointment.

“I’m your boss.”

“I know that.”

She pushed against his chest until he stepped back. “I’m not supposed to let things like that happen. It’s completely unprofessional. Goddamn it.”

“Come on, Annie. You’re only human. It’s not like you could resist my magnetic pull forever.”
She laughed softly. However, her amusement faded quickly as her guilt returned. “I’m sorry, Marcus. If you weren’t my employee…”

“I’ll quit.”

“No, you won’t. I can’t lose you. You’ve got connections that I don’t. You carry more than your fair share around here. I’d be lost without you. You can’t leave me.”

“And you can’t date an employee.”

She sighed and looked away. “No. I can’t.”

“Look, Annie, I know some people would see it as disreputable—”

“Because it is.”

“This isn’t a large corporation where nepotism could be an issue.”

“I still have standards and principles.”

“I wasn’t implying that you don’t. I’m just saying, maybe…” He brushed his hand over her arm again. “They could slip a little.”

She looked at him, licked his kiss from her lips, then shook her head. “No. It’s a risk I can’t take. I can’t. I’m sorry.” She brushed by him and went into her office, where she grabbed her purse off the desk and left before he could convince her to break every rule she’d ever put into place.

 

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