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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

His to Claim

A Novel

Opal Carew; read by Julia Duvall

Macmillan Audio

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

No Strings



Melanie's heart stopped as the bell over the door rang and she glanced up to see a tall man in a dark gray suit walk in. Something about his tall, broad-shouldered form and expensive suit reminded her of Rafe for a moment. But it was just one of her regulars.

"Hey, beautiful. The usual."

They chatted while she fixed him his typical latte, then she handed it to him with a smile. He winked and then headed for the door. She knew he was flirting with her. It had been going on all week, and although he was a very attractive man, she wasn't interested.

She glanced around the store. The few customers were happily chatting over their coffees and there was no sign of a new customer coming into the shop.

"I'm going in the back to grab some more sugar," she said to her friend Sue, the other barista on duty, who was currently refilling the thermoses of milk after their recent rush.

The fast-paced influx of customers had left Melanie a little drained. She wasn't used to being on her feet for eight hours a day. But it was better than the intense attraction to her former boss, Rafe, driving her mad every day.

"Okay. Then, if you don't mind, I'll take my break," Sue said.

Melanie opened the storage cupboard and grabbed a pack of raw sugar, another of white sugar, and some artificial sweetener, then carried them to the lobby and started filling the condiment stand with the small packets. Once done, she returned to the bar and tucked the leftover sugar packets under the counter.

The bell over the door rang, signaling a new customer. Melanie stood up and glanced toward the door to see a man in a charcoal suit talking to Sue. She sighed. It looked like her admirer was back, and she knew Sue would do what she could to play matchmaker. Sue pointed in Melanie's direction and the man turned.

Melanie's heart stopped when she saw his face. This was not the customer who'd been flirting with her all week.

As soon as he saw her, his lips turned up in a sexy, crooked smile—the one that always melted her heart—and he walked toward the bar.

He was a striking figure in his expensive, well-tailored suit that accentuated his tall physique and broad shoulders. His dark, glossy hair was combed back and his stunning sky blue eyes ringed in navy were locked on her.

"Hello, Melanie."

"Mr. Ranier."

He chuckled. "Haven't I always told you to call me Rafe?"

She nodded. His authoritative brother, Dane, had insisted on being called Mr. Ranier, but Rafe had always preferred a more casual address.

"Rafe, what are you doing here?"

"Getting a coffee, for starters." He glanced up at the board. "What do you suggest?"

"Iced coffees are quite popular right now. We have one with a hint of cinnamon and orange." She knew his brother would want a regular coffee, but Rafe was always willing to try something new.

"Sounds good."

"To take with you?" she asked as she reached for a takeout cup.

"Actually, that depends. Can you join me?"

"Of course she can." Sue smiled as she returned to the bar. "In fact, Melanie was just about to go on break."

Melanie glanced at Sue. "I thought you were going now."

"I'll go later." She glanced at Rafe and smiled. "In fact, you go sit and I'll make you both something."

"But if the manager sees…" Melanie said under her breath.

"She's gone for the day, and I'm not going to tell."

Melanie walked to a table in the back corner, wanting to be discreet.

"This is cozy," Rafe said as he sat down across from her.

"So why are you here?" Melanie asked with a smile. "Besides the coffee."

"Does there have to be a reason?"

"This isn't anywhere near where you work or where you live."

"Why don't you think I was at a meeting nearby?"

Her eyebrows arched. "Were you?"

He shook his head. "No, I came here to see you."

Her stomach clenched at the admission. She didn't work for him anymore. They had been friendly in the office, but they hadn't been friends. He'd been her boss. There was only one reason she could think of for why he'd be here. The one reason she'd been dreading, and hoping she wouldn't have to deal with.

He wanted to know why she'd quit.

Even though Jessica had ultimately chosen Rafe's brother, Melanie had finally come to terms with the fact that she would never have a chance with Rafe. And she didn't want to tell him.

She'd worked for him for over two years and … she'd fallen in love with him. But in all that time, he'd never given her a second look. Then when he'd fallen in love with her best friend, Jessica, it had broken Melanie's heart. It had just been too painful to keep working with him, and to watch the two of them together.

That's why she'd quit.

And she couldn't tell him any of that.

Sue came to the table with two iced coffees, then returned to the bar.

"I was surprised to find you were working as a barista. It's quite a change from an office environment." He sipped his coffee.

"How did you find out where I was?"

He shrugged. "I checked your personnel file. Someone from this location called for a reference."

"So you just came by to see if I was here?"

"That's right."

She shook her head. "I still don't understand why."

He leaned forward, his sky blue eyes intent. "I just want to make sure you're okay."

She straightened her back. "Of course. Why wouldn't I be?"

"You up and left a good job … a job you seemed to be happy at … for no good reason. And here you are working at a job for probably minimum wage. I don't get it."

"I needed a change. I like the freedom I have here." And it was true. She might have left to free herself from her obsessive love for Rafe but she'd come to realize that she was seeking an even bigger freedom from the rules she always bound herself by.

"Freedom?"

"I'm not tied to a nine-to-five existence. I'm not tied to a desk. I don't have a boss hovering over me." As soon as she said it, she realized he'd take it the wrong way.

"Did I hover over you? Is that why you left?"

"No, I don't mean that. It was the nature of the job. I couldn't leave my desk without getting someone to cover for me and handle phone calls. I needed to keep on top of both your schedule and your brother's. What I did was totally driven by what other people needed."

"Isn't that true here?"

"People come in for coffee, and maybe something to eat. It's not a big commitment."

He frowned. "I'm sorry, Melanie. I didn't realize you were unhappy."

"No, it's not that. I wasn't really unhappy."

"If I had known, I could have found something else for you. Something you'd enjoy doing. It's a big company." He leaned toward her. "We still could. Say the word and I'll call personnel."

Sweet, helpful Rafe. "No, thanks. I'm happy here." She finished her iced coffee and stood up. "I should get back to work."

"Wait, Melanie. Just give me another minute."

She sank back into the chair.

"Please tell me one thing."

She stared at him, dreading whatever question he was about to ask.

"Did I do something?"

"No, Rafe. You didn't do a thing."

In fact, that was the whole problem.

* * *

As soon as her shift was over, Melanie changed and grabbed the bottle of nail polish she'd stashed in her purse this morning. She couldn't wear polish to work, and she was a real fanatic, so she carried it with her and put it on after her shift if she was going out. She was meeting Jessica after work and she hated going out with naked nails.

She rolled the bottle between her hands to mix it up without creating air bubbles. It was actually part of a collection of polishes Rafe had given her to thank her for helping him pick out a gift for Jessica. He was always so thoughtful.

She brushed on the polish. A simple two-coater in turquoise, but with trendy black speckles for interest. She finished with her favorite fast-dry topcoat.

She didn't see her former roommate, Jessica, much these days. Jessica had moved into Mr. Ranier's place. And who wouldn't? Not only was she staying with the man of her dreams, who happened to be beyond gorgeous, he was also a billionaire who lived at the Ritz-Carlton residence, where his luxury apartment had a spectacular view of the Philadelphia skyline.

Melanie grabbed a bus to the great little deli she and Jessica had discovered a month ago.

When Melanie stepped into the restaurant, she saw Jessica at a table by the window, a drink in front of her.

"Hey, how's it going?" Melanie asked as she tossed her purse on a chair, then sat down across from Jessica. But she didn't need to ask because the glow in Jessica's face said it all. Now there was a woman in love!

"We picked out the flowers today," Jessica said. "It was so funny being in a florist shop with Dane. The two women who worked there stared at him in awe, and they seemed intimidated by him, even though he was as charming as could be."

"Well, he does have a very commanding presence. You know that." She leaned in close. "I'm not surprised he brings that quality into the bedroom," she said with a grin.

"Does he ever." Jessica laughed, not at all embarrassed.

That's one of the things Melanie loved about her friend. Jessica was willing to jump into an exciting situation and run with it.

Jessica had also told her about the exciting Dominance/submission relationship she had going with Mr. Ranier, which made Melanie weak in the knees just thinking about.

"You're really lucky, you know that?" She smiled. "You found the right guy and now you're getting married."

Jessica nodded. "I know it. But as you recall, it wasn't easy."

"Nothing ever is."

Jessica reached out and placed her hand over Melanie's. "You know, there's no reason you and Rafe—"

"Jessica, forget it. It'll never happen."

"It could."

"No. It didn't happen after two years of working together. Most of that time was before he met you. But he was attracted to you right off." She shook her head sadly. "I have to face it. The guy just isn't into me."

"It's all in the context. You were his secretary—"

"And you were Mr. Ranier's personal assistant."

Jessica squeezed Melanie's hand. "If you gave Rafe a chance to get to know you outside the office, I'm sure everything would change."

"Look, can we just change the subject?" Melanie had been intending to tell Jessica about Rafe coming into the store today, but not now. Jessica meant well, but Melanie just didn't want to think about what might have been. More like, what couldn't be. "Are you going to tell me what the surprise is you told me about?"

Jessica smiled broadly. "Okay. Well, I know that your birthday isn't until next week, but I want to give you your gift now."

She handed Melanie a lilac envelope with her name written in Jessica's lovely script on the front. Melanie opened it and inside found a gift certificate for a tattoo studio. She'd once told Jessica that she'd always wanted a tattoo, but they were expensive and she couldn't justify it on her budget.

Melanie stared at the certificate. "This is so generous of you. I really shouldn't accept."

"It's from Dane, too, and he insisted. We all miss you at Ranier Industries, and we hope your tattoo gives you a little reminder every day of how much we care about you."

"Okay, I'm not going to argue. You two are…" Her voice quavered a little, so she just nodded while she drew in a deep breath. She shrugged. "… terrific."

She'd never had a friend as sweet and considerate as Jessica. The two women had taken to each other instantly—it was like they'd known each other for years. Melanie believed this could be a lifetime friendship.

"So how did you pick the place?" Melanie had been asking around for recommendations. If she was going to have something inked onto her body she wanted to ensure that the place was reputable, high quality, and that the artist was talented.

"I asked a friend who is very discerning. The artist you'll be seeing is Charlie. He came highly recommended and the online samples of his work are gorgeous. He books up pretty fast, so I called last week and made an appointment for you on Saturday, since I know that's your day off, and I also knew you'd be anxious to get it. You can move it if it's not convenient, but it'll probably mean waiting a couple of weeks."

"No way. I want to do this as soon as possible. Of course you'll go with me, right?"

Jessica frowned. "I'm afraid not. I already have plans and I can't change them."

"Oh."

Jessica smiled. "I promise, I'll try to be there for the next, brand new, wild and crazy thing you do."

Melanie nodded. "It's a deal."

* * *

As Melanie opened the door to Devil's Ink, she was greeted by the cheerful tinkle of a bell. She stepped into the clean, brightly lit studio. The walls were a warm brick red and covered with framed artwork of large, detailed tattoo designs.

There was a glass reception counter on one side and black chairs along two walls with a coffee table covered with magazines and binders. A large tropical plant stood in one corner.

"Can I help you?" A tall, lanky woman in a navy tank top and jeans, with several face piercings and her arms sleeved with tattoos, stood up from her chair behind the counter.

"I have an appointment with Charlie at three o'clock. I just wanted to be here ahead of time."

"Sure. There's some design books on the table there. Coffee machine's over there. Help yourself."

"Thanks." Melanie sat in one of the waiting chairs and leaned forward to riffle through the black binders laid out on the low, square table in front of her. She grabbed one and opened it, then scanned through it. There were a broad range of designs, sorted into categories. The shading on the designs was very well done, something she'd been told to watch for.

The bell over the door tinkled and in her peripheral vision, she saw a man in well-worn jeans, a chain dangling from his belt loop into his pocket, walk past her.

The man walked to the counter. Melanie glanced over the book at his back and couldn't help but admire his broad shoulders and thick, muscular arms, showcased by the black tank top he wore.

Two men stepped into the room from a hallway, one a tall, bald man with a beard, his solid chest, arms, and neck covered with tattoos, and the other a man with white gauze on his bicep.

"I'll be right with you," the bald man said to the newcomer. "Hey, Rika. Bob's done."

"Be right there, Charlie," the tall, lanky woman called from the other side of a doorway, then she walked back to the counter and smiled at the man with the gauze.

The bald man, who seemed to be the artist Melanie was here to see, turned to his next client and said, "Okay, now let me see what I'm working with."

The new client pulled off his tank top and walked toward him. Melanie's gaze landed on the hard, rippling muscles.

"So, you're sure you don't want me to alter the moth now that the chick has dumped you? Maybe change it to an angel?"

This man had a moth tattoo? Rafe had gotten a moth tattoo when he'd been dating Jessica.

"Naw. An angel's not my style."

The sound of the man's familiar voice stunned Melanie.

The artist chuckled. "Yeah, until a chick asks you for it, right?"

She raised her gaze up the broad, tattoo-covered chest, to the man's face.

"Rafe?"

She put down the book she'd been scanning and stared at him with wide eyes. She never would have believed Rafe would ever look like this. Muscle bound, inked, and breathtakingly hunky in a sexy bad-boy way. He was gorgeous beyond belief in his designer suits but, man, that was nothing compared to what lay underneath.

Rafe turned to her. "Melanie?" His lips turned up in that wide smile of his, paired with the warmth in his eyes that always made her feel special. "What are you doing here?"

Rafe gazed at Melanie. Her dark blonde hair hung loose, rather than tied back like she usually wore it at the office and the coffee shop she worked at now. It cascaded past her smooth, bare shoulders in soft waves, gleaming in the sunlight flowing through the big window.

She shrugged. "Same as you. Getting a tattoo."

His lips turned up in a grin. "Really?"

Charlie grabbed a piece of paper Rika handed him, probably the artwork Charlie had worked up from the basic design Rafe had sent him.

Rafe watched as Melanie walked toward him.

"I'm afraid I'm a virgin," she said.

Charlie chuckled.

Suddenly, Rafe saw her differently. Not as his sweet, innocent secretary, who wore demure suits and conservative flats. In those jeans and that lace-edged, black camisole top that showed off her shapely form, she looked anything but virginal.

Her cheeks heated. "As far as tattoos, I mean."

Her gaze gliding over his broad shoulders, then down to his abs heated him like the caress of the noonday sun.

"You're obviously very experienced," she said.

Charlie chuckled again.

Rafe found himself tightening at her words, his mind filled with images of her, wide-eyed and vulnerable, lying in his bed. Fuck, what was wrong with him? This was Melanie.

"It's just that, I'm kind of nervous about this. I've always wanted one, but it's so permanent—and I know it's going to hurt."

He quirked his head. "Would you like me to stay with you?" He grinned. "Maybe hold your hand."

She just nodded, and a need to be there for her, and protect her, washed through him.

"Could I watch while you get yours done?"

"You don't have any problem with that, do you, Charlie?"

Charlie grunted. "The more the merrier."

Charlie turned and headed to the hallway leading to his room. Rafe gestured for Melanie to precede him, and he followed her down the hall, his gaze settling on the delightful sway of her hips.

Once in the room, Charlie glanced at Melanie and pointed at a nearby chair. "You can sit there."

Rafe sat down and Melanie watched as Charlie applied the template, then peeled it off.

"That work for you?" Charlie asked.

Rafe was happy with the placement of the design and nodded.

Melanie admired the design he was getting on his chest. It was the words SAVAGE KISS in the shape of a guitar. "That's the name of your band, isn't it?"

Rafe nodded once. "All my life music has been an outlet for me, a way to let go of my anger after one of my father's beatings, or a way to burn off my frustration when I was pushed into a business I wasn't even sure I wanted to be in. So this tat is not only to remember the year I spent with my band, but a symbol of what a huge part of my life music has always been. It saved me when I had nothing else."

"That's beautiful." Melanie eyed the tattoo machine Charlie picked up and seemed to jump at the buzzing sound when he turned it on.

Rafe had done this enough times that he was used to it, so it didn't faze him when Charlie started the outline, but he knew for Melanie, being her first time, she might have a hard time with it. He hoped his relaxed attitude during the whole process would calm her, but he could see the distress in her eyes as she watched the angry swirls taking the shape of a guitar on his chest.

The tattoo took about an hour, and Melanie watched intently the whole time. Once it was done, he stared in the mirror at Charlie's handiwork. Perfect as usual. Anxiety filled Melanie's eyes as she stared at the redness around the edges. Charlie applied cream to the tattoo and placed the gauze over it, then Rafe stood up.

"I guess it's my turn now," Melanie said reluctantly.

"Who's doing yours?" he asked.

"I am," Charlie said. He walked over to the workstation and returned with a template. "Where's it going?"

"Oh, um … right here." She pointed to the top of her right breast.

"Okay. You wanna sit or lie down?"

She glanced at the padded table he had by the wall, then shook her head. "I'll sit."

Melanie sat in the leather chair, biting her lip.

"Don't worry. You'll be fine," Rafe said.

She nodded, but looked even more nervous as Charlie sat down and rolled his stool close to her.

"You gonna take off the top, or just pull down the edge?" Charlie asked.

"Oh," she gazed at Rafe, then glanced at the paper template in Charlie's hand, "will it work to just tuck it down?"

"Yeah, why not?"

Rafe's gaze locked on Melanie's fingers as she slowly tugged down the top edge of the fabric, revealing the swell of her breast.

God damn, she was sexy. But he shouldn't be thinking of her that way.

As she pulled the fabric lower, revealing more sweet, creamy flesh, he realized that she didn't work for him anymore, so he could think about her any way he wanted. As long as he didn't act on it.

Unless she wanted him to.

Would she, he wondered.

Charlie placed the paper on her round flesh, and as he rubbed it to make it smooth against her skin, Rafe wished he could be doing that. He longed to feel that lovely curve.

Charlie peeled away the paper, leaving a beautiful design of a bird taking flight.

"Nice." Rafe smiled.

"Thanks. I did the design myself."

Surprise skittered through him. He knew she liked to express herself with color, like her nail polishes, but he hadn't realized she had an artistic bent.

"It's beautiful. You're very talented."

"Thanks."

Her cheeks flushed pink. He didn't know if it was from the compliment, or the fact that half her breast was exposed.

"My parents weren't very supportive of my dreams either. They worked menial jobs and pushed me to go to college to be the family success story, to make all their sacrifices worthwhile. So I went and got my administrative degree, even though I really wanted to go to art school. But they never would have supported that—so the only way I ever got to express myself these past few years is through my nail art. But I really want to bring it back into my life. I love to imagine things and bring them to life through my artwork."

When Charlie turned on the tattoo machine, Melanie jumped at the sound. Rafe stepped to her side and rested his hand on her forearm.

"I'm gonna start now," Charlie said. "You gotta stay real still. Got that?"

She eyed him, nodding uncertainly.

"It's okay. It ain't gonna hurt too much."

Charlie was a little rough around the edges, but he had his compassionate side.

"Okay." But as he leaned toward her, Melanie's hand slipped around Rafe's forearm, and her fingers tightened.

Rafe covered her hand with his. "Breathe."

She drew in a deep breath as Charlie pressed the device to her skin. At the first contact, her eyes widened, but she didn't move.

"You doing okay?" Rafe asked.

She nodded again, watching Charlie work. Rafe watched in fascination as the artist glided the machine over her creamy breast, the skin reddening around the black line of the design as he moved. Melanie continued to breathe deeply, but soon began to relax a little.

He stroked the back of her hand with his thumb. "Not too bad, right?"

She nodded, as if afraid to utter any words.

When Charlie finished the outline, he drew away, getting ready for the shading. This part hurt more.

She gazed down at the design, which was taking shape nicely. Right now it was just an outline of the bird, but once Charlie filled it in with color, it would come to life.

"Do you want some water?" Rafe asked.

"Yes, thanks."

She drew her delicate hand from his arm and he immediately missed the contact. He grabbed a bottle from the small fridge Charlie had on the side and twisted off the cap for her.

He handed it to her and she took a deep swallow, just as Charlie returned to her side, a number of pigments doled out on his tray in little pools. He dipped the device into one of the blues, then began filling in the wings of the bird. She tensed again, and this time Rafe reached for her hand. She glanced up at him and smiled timidly, then gazed at Charlie's handiwork, her fingers clinging tightly to Rafe's hand.

"So why did you pick a bird?" Rafe asked, hoping to distract her.

"It s a symbol." She laughed tensely. "I guess that's true for everyone. But for me it represents freedom, and that's something I'm trying to embrace right now. Not getting caught up in other people's expectations, and just being true to myself and my own dreams, even if they're impractical."

She took another swallow from the water bottle. The bird took form as Charlie swirled the tattoo machine along her skin. Melanie seemed to want to concentrate on watching Charlie work, so Rafe just continued to stroke her hand. Although she was handling the pain, after a while it seemed to be getting to her, so he drew her hair back from her face, then curled his fingers behind her neck and kneaded the tense muscles. She gazed up at him in surprise.

"That's nice," she said. "Thanks."

She seemed to relax as she gazed at him rather than at the tattoo. There was something in her bright green eyes that disturbed and yet elated him. A warmth that he realized he'd seen before. Had she always looked at him that way and he'd never noticed?

A tightness coiled in his stomach. Or had he chosen not to notice? Shutting it out because, he realized now, he felt the same warmth for her but he would never act on feelings for an employee. He would never put her in that position.

They'd been close when he'd been her boss. At least, they'd shared a friendly camaraderie.

And he'd told her things he wouldn't tell just anyone, like when he'd fallen in love with Jessica during a year of soul searching, then lost her. When he'd found her working for his brother on his return to Philly, he'd hoped for a reconciliation, but that hadn't worked out.

But here was Melanie, looking absolutely sinful as a sheen of sweat appeared on the swell of her cleavage. She bit her full bottom lip, and his gut told him it was worth exploring where this might lead.

Charlie wiped the design with his cloth, then changed pigment. Melanie tensed when he started up again and Rafe continued stroking her neck, pleased that he could help her through this.

Charlie continued filling in the tattoo. Finally, he sat back and stared critically at the bluebird design for a moment, then nodded and smiled. As well he should. It was stunning. Charlie grabbed a big handheld mirror and offered it to her. She took the mirror and held it so she could see the design front on, rather than staring down at it. Her face lit up with a beautiful, beaming smile.

"Oh, it's beautiful!"

"It really is," Rafe agreed, though he found he couldn't drag his gaze from her stunning features.

High cheekbones and soft-looking, heart-shaped lips. A delicate chin and pert little nose. And big emerald green eyes that seemed to glow.

How had he never realized how beautiful she was before?

Charlie applied cream to the tattoo. The sight of his big fingers rubbing vigorously over the soft flesh of her breast sent a little jealously surging through Rafe. And a shot of adrenaline as his groin tightened at the thought of his own hand stroking her breast like that.

Charlie covered the tattoo with gauze and she stood up. Rafe followed her out the door, then to the reception desk.

Rika smiled. A new gem—deep red, probably a garnet—glinted from her lip. He hadn't noticed it when he came into the shop. It was her fifth, joining the blue, green, amber, and purple ones already there.

"I like the new piercing."

Her smile broadened. "Yeah, thanks. Happy with your new ink?"

"I am. As always." He glanced at Melanie.

She nodded. "It's beautiful. He did a fantastic job."

"Good. That's what we like to hear."

Rafe pulled out his credit card and slid it into the small device on the counter. He finished the transaction, then pulled out some twenties and handed them to Rika. "Please give that to Charlie."

"Sure thing." Rika placed the money in an envelope behind the counter.

Melanie placed her bag on the counter.

Rika smiled at her. "Oh, you're all set. Your gift certificate covered it."

"Okay, but … um…"

"If you're worried about the tip, hon, it was enough to cover that, too. No worries."

Melanie looked relieved, and Rafe realized she was probably on a pretty tight budget since her new job likely didn't pay anything near what she'd been making at Ranier Industries. He didn't really understand why she wasn't looking for something better.

* * *

As Melanie stepped outside, Rafe behind her, she regretted that this time with him was about to end. The tattoo had been painful, but not as bad as she'd anticipated. It had been so nice, though, having him there to literally hold her hand through it.

"Would you like a ride home?" he asked.

She gazed at him in his jeans and tank top, tattoos visible over his chest and flowing down his arms and she couldn't help laughing. "I just got a mental picture of you dressed just as you are now climbing into that shiny, black limo."

He shrugged. "Sure, why not? Would you like to ride in the limo?"

She had always wanted to. It seemed so glamorous and luxurious. It would be a taste of how the other half lived.

"Or, since it's such a nice day, we could ride my motorcycle."

She raised her eyebrow. "You have a motorcycle?"

"That's right. It's over there." He nodded his head toward a big, gleaming, burgundy Harley parked on the street in front of the shop. "But I know some women are a little intimidated by them."

Melanie laughed. "Not me. I've always wanted to ride one." She walked to the big machine and ran her fingers over the soft, black, leather seat. "I would love to ride with you."

His lips turned up in a devilish grin. "Really?"

She glanced at him and realized her statement might have sounded a little … sexual. Suddenly, an image washed through her of straddling Rafe, and slowly moving up and down on him, his big erection buried deep inside her. A wild surge of hormones vibrated through her.

As her cheeks blossomed with heat, she flicked her gaze to the seat again. "Um, yeah. It would be a real adventure. Then I can cross two items off my bucket list—getting a tattoo and riding a motorcycle."

"I never knew you had such a wild side."

Before she could respond, he opened the back compartment and handed her a helmet, then pulled one on himself.

She opened her bag and grabbed the light sweater she'd brought with her and started to pull it on. Ever the gentleman, Rafe grabbed it and held it up for her so she could easily push her arms into the sleeves. As she zipped it up, he pulled a black leather jacket from the storage bin and put it on.

Oh, man, he looked incredibly hot in denim and leather. He mounted the bike and she climbed on behind him.

Once she was settled, he glanced back at her. "You sure you want to go straight home?"

"No, take me for a ride." She smiled.

The big machine roared to life.

"Hold on," he said.

Melanie gazed at the broad shoulders in front of her and wrapped her arms around his waist. Her heart quivered at the feel of his big body so close, then when he took off into traffic, she hung on tight, her body pressed to his solid back.

He swerved around a car that suddenly pulled into traffic and she gasped, a surge of adrenaline shooting through her, but she knew she was safe with Rafe in control.

"You okay?" he asked.

"Yes," she said loudly over the sound of the engine.

Okay? She was in heaven.

Even if she died right now, she'd be a happy woman. For so long, she had dreamed of being close to Rafe, their bodies locked together. And now, riding on the back of his bike with nothing around them but rushing wind gave her the sensation that she was flying.

He turned right and she clung tighter, her cheek pressed against his back. She breathed in the subtle smell of his leather jacket, loving the soft yet masculine feel of it against her skin.

The vibration of the big machine beneath her, coupled with the feel of his big body so close had her whole body quivering with need. Fantasies of him pulling over and sweeping her into his arms, then kissing her silly vibrated through her brain. If he did that, she just knew she'd beg him to take her back to his place and have his way with her.

He slowed down and pulled into a parking space in front of a restaurant with a patio out front. Rectangular planters filled with petunias in vivid pinks, rich purples, and white were affixed to the wrought-iron railing defining the outdoor space. He stopped the engine and, reluctantly, she released his big body, wishing she could hold onto him forever.

He dismounted and pulled off his helmet.

"You like Italian? This place is great, and casual attire is okay."

"It looks lovely, and I adore Italian food."

She pulled off her helmet and he stowed it with his in the hard-shelled compartment on the back of the motorcycle.

As soon as they stepped inside, a man in a suit hurried to greet them.

"Mr. Ranier, my pleasure to see you this evening. Would you like a table on the patio? Or would you prefer to be inside?"

Rafe glanced at her.

"Do you mind if we stay inside?" she asked. "In case it gets cold."

"No problem," the host said. "I have a table right by the window. You'll have a lovely view."

"Thank you, Giorgio." Rafe gestured for Melanie to follow Giorgio as he led them to their table.

True to his word, Giorgio sat them at a table with a view of the street out front and the lovely flowers.

"The chicken marsala is one of our specials tonight. I know how much you enjoy that." Giorgio opened a menu and set it down in front of her, then did the same for Rafe. "Also, Antonio made a special lobster-stuffed ravioli with a rosé sauce."

A waiter placed ice water in front of them, each glass with a twist of lemon, then continued on his way.

"Lobster ravioli?" Melanie smiled. "That sounds delicious."

"Two raviolis it is, and a carafe of the house wine." Rafe closed his menu and handed it to Giorgio.

"Excellent." Giorgio scooped up her menu and hurried away.

Melanie picked up the cloth napkin and laid it on her lap. When she glanced up again, Rafe's sky blue gaze was upon her. She sipped her water, not quite sure what to do with herself.

"This is kind of strange," she said finally.

His eyebrows hiked up. "What is?"

"Sitting here with you. In a restaurant."

"We've been out for meals together before."

"Yeah, sure. At Christmas. Usually with a couple of the other staff."

"And on your birthday."

It was true. He'd always been very considerate that way.

"But you were my boss. This is different."

He smiled. "That's right. Now it's as friends."

She had to stop her smile from fading. Friends. Great. He'd gone from being her boss to being her friend. Not really what she'd been hoping for.

"We can be friends, can't we?" he asked.

"Of course. I'd like that."

"Good."

The waiter brought the carafe of wine and filled their glasses.

"So are you enjoying being back?" she asked.

After Rafe's father had died, Rafe had left Philadelphia and disappeared for almost a year. Their overbearing father had pushed Rafe to follow in his footsteps, heedless of what Rafe wanted, and once the man was gone, Rafe had needed to get away and discover who he really was. So he'd left Ranier Industries and pursued his dream of being a guitarist in a rock band, and right now, with his faded jeans and tattoos, he looked every bit the part.

Melanie could just picture crowds of women swooning when he came on stage.

"Do you miss it?" Melanie asked. "The rock star lifestyle, I mean."

"I enjoyed being on the road, but it made me realize that despite my difficulties with my father, I really do care about the company. It's the Ranier legacy, and it employs a lot of great people. Since I've been back, I've been doing more to develop green technologies, which has always been a passion of mine. And I'm pleased with all the positive changes Dane has made. The only thing that's hard to get used to is the rigid schedule."

"Well, you're the boss. You can keep your own hours."

"To an extent. But on the whole, business still needs to be done during business hours."

She understood what he meant. He could come in late if he wanted, and leave early, but a lot of what he did involved meeting with other people, and that mostly had to be done during the regular business day.

"Remember, during the past year, I've been playing with a band, and the hours are quite different."

"Well, you could always set a schedule where you only spend a few days in the office and take all your appointments on those days only. Then the other days are your own. Maybe you could play guitar somewhere local. Even a club out of town, if you want to reduce the chance of Ranier employees running into you as Storm."

He smiled. "You know me so well. I've already started looking into pulling together a band and playing at some clubs, but I hadn't thought of concentrating my office hours into a few days."

She smiled. "That's why you love me." As soon as she'd said the words, her gaze darted to his face.

He chuckled. "Yes, I do."

It was something he used to say when he would praise her after she offered a creative solution to a problem he'd been struggling with. It had actually started with him telling her he loved having her as his secretary, then eventually he'd shortened it to that's why I love you.

She knew he hadn't really meant it, of course, other than in an affectionate way, but it had still thrilled her every time he'd said it.

God, she was pathetic.

Their dinner arrived, and she picked up her fork and took a bite. The lobster-filled pasta and smooth, creamy sauce melted in her mouth.

"You know, that's why I really wish you'd come back. I miss working with you."

She compressed her lips. "Rafe, I already told you—"

He raised his hands. "I know. I'm sorry. You already know the offer's out there if you want to come back."

She nodded and took another bite. Then she gazed at him again. "But I won't, you know." She put down her fork. "And it's because of you."

His gaze shot to hers and he tilted his head in question.

"I just really admire what you did. You took a risk and walked away. You were living a life someone else had set out for you and instead of just accepting it, you decided to pursue your dream. And to figure out who you really are."

"I'm not sure I've really succeeded."

"Yes, you have. Or at least, you're on the right path." She sipped her wine. "And that inspired me to do the same. I'm not like you. I don't know what I have a passion for—yet—but I do know that I want to be free of rules, and as you said, the nine-to-five existence."

"Did I have too many rules?" he asked.

"No, they were mine. I always behaved the way I was expected to behave. I conformed to what my family wanted, and what society expected. I never really took the time to decide what I wanted. So now, with the generous severance Mr. Ranier gave me, I have the opportunity to figure it out."

"So you're working at a coffee shop."

"I don't intend to be defined by my job. That's just what I do to make money. But working there means I have variable hours and some mornings free, and it's the perfect time to paint and sketch—something I never had time for in the corporate world. I want to shake up my life, try new things, and question everything. Seeing what you did inspired me."

He smiled. "I'm glad. So what else do you want to do?"

"I don't know. Maybe meet a handsome guy and do something really wild and crazy."

His lips turned up in a grin. "You mean in the bedroom?"

"Oh, uh…" Ever since Jessica had told her a little about how exciting she found it to be dominated in the bedroom, Melanie had dreamed of trying that herself, but she hadn't meant to let that slip.

She glanced at him and his eyes twinkled with mischief. Her cheeks flushed hotly.

"I just meant we wouldn't do the same old boring things." This was not making it better. "You know, like dates where we go to the movies or whatever."

As he gazed at her speculatively, she stared at her wineglass, wrapping her fingers around the stem.

"I don't intend to fall into old patterns," she continued. "I want to push the limits on everything I do. At least, for a while."

She took the conversation back to her art, and before long, the waiter took away their empty plates, offered dessert, which they declined, and the bill arrived. They stepped out into the warm evening air and walked toward his big motorcycle.

"May I give you a ride home?"

"Thank you. I'd like that."

She climbed onto the big machine behind him and they sped across the city to her apartment building. Too soon he pulled up in front of the entrance and got off the bike, then retrieved her bag from the storage container and walked her to the glass door.

"Thanks again for dinner. And the ride home." She opened her purse and pulled out her key. She gazed up at him. "And I really appreciate you staying with me while I got the tattoo."

"It was my pleasure. You know, today I saw a whole new side of you, and I found it very intriguing." He smiled warmly. "I'd really like the opportunity to get to know you better."

She gazed at his handsome face, mesmerized by his twinkling, sky blue eyes, and returned his smile. "I'd like that."

She longed to reach up and stroke his spiky, dark hair. They stood in silence for a few seconds and she realized he was waiting for her to open her door.

It had been a wonderful evening and she didn't want it to end, but she was sure as soon as she opened her door, he would say good night and be gone.

"I … uh … do you think it was a good choice? The tattoo I mean?"

"Yours or mine?"

"Yours is gorgeous," she said. "Do you think mine looks as nice?"

"Yours is beautiful. I can't believe I didn't know you had such artistic ability. And you said it represents freedom. Because you're spreading your wings?"

She nodded. "Freedom and happiness. The bluebird of happiness taking flight."

He smiled. "I like that. And I like that I got to see the tattoo that only a few special men will ever see."

The warmth in his eyes sent a quiver through her. It had been embarrassing pulling down her top to reveal her breast with Rafe there. And exciting at the same time.

"Along with the stranger who put it there," she said.

Oh, man, why had she ruined the mood by saying that?

He laughed. "I guess that's true."

"Um…" She gazed up at him. "Do you want to come up and see it again?"

As soon as the words left her mouth, she thought she'd die. How could she say that?

Their gazes locked, and he hesitated.

"Oh, God, I shouldn't have said that." She stuffed her key into the lock and turned it, then pulled open the door. "I didn't mean it the way it sounded." Of course, she had meant it exactly the way it sounded, but his hesitation had spoken volumes.

The uncertainty in his eyes prompted her to continue. "It's just that I've never had a tattoo before and … well, I'm just being silly wanting you to look at it when I take the dressing off. I'm sure it's fine."

"If you're really concerned—"

"No, really. It's fine. Thanks anyway."

Oh, God, was he really buying that? But she definitely didn't want him to come up now. It would be so awkward.

He smiled. "I enjoyed today. Thank you." He tucked his finger under her chin and tipped her face up, sending tingles through her. His lips brushed hers in the barest whisper of a kiss, and she thought she'd faint.

This was how fantasies were born.

Then he stepped back. "Good night."

She nodded, then slipped in the door, glancing over her shoulder as she walked across the lobby. He waited outside the door until she turned down the corridor to the elevator before he walked away.

* * *

Rafe ensured Melanie got inside okay, then lingered as he watched her walk across the lobby.

What the hell was that? And now he couldn't drag his gaze from her delightfully swaying derriere. It looked so round and inviting in those snug jeans of hers.

Memories of the creamy swell of her breast, the virginal flesh exposed and ready for her tattoo, lingered in his mind. Ever since Charlie had covered it with the dressing, Rafe couldn't stop thinking about it. Couldn't stop longing to touch it.

If it had been any other woman, he would have flirted all through dinner, then suggested they go back to his place. Or hers. But when Melanie had invited him up to her place … to see the damned tattoo, no less … he had faltered.

She had denied coming on to him, but she couldn't hide the need in her eyes.

So why had he held back?

He flipped open the storage compartment on his bike and pulled out his helmet. There were times they'd worked long hours together, and he couldn't help but notice that hot little body she kept well hidden behind her conservative business attire. But he'd cared about her too much to jeopardize their working relationship.

So he'd suppressed his attraction to her. And with great success. He was sure neither Melanie, Dane, nor anyone else knew he could barely contain himself when she was near. He'd become such a master at controlling those feelings, he'd almost forgotten about them.

Almost.

But today … fuck, his groin ached with need.

As he pulled on the helmet and fastened it, he noticed something sitting in the bottom of the container, beside the helmet Melanie had worn.

Ah, damn it.

* * *

Melanie stepped off the elevator, then walked down the hall to her apartment. Once inside, she closed the door behind her, then leaned against it.

Now, if only she could forget the whole embarrassing incident downstairs. She cringed at the thought of her lame come-on, then the way she'd babbled in an attempt to deny it. He'd probably seen right through her excuse.

She unzipped her sweater and tugged it off, then tossed it over the back of the couch.

"I'm such a dumbass," she muttered as she walked into her bathroom and gazed in the mirror at the white patch on her chest. She was happy to distract herself by pulling off her top and gently peeling the dressing away, exposing the beautiful tattoo. The artist had done a wonderful job. She touched the reddened flesh around the design. It felt slick. She grabbed a fresh washcloth and dampened it, then wiped over the tattoo, as per the instructions they'd sent with her. Then she reached for the small tube of ointment from her dresser and applied it.

A knock sounded on her door. She pulled on her top again, then straightened it and hurried to the entrance. She smiled, assuming it was Jessica, coming over to see her new ink.

Oh, man, thank heavens Rafe hadn't come up after all. It would have been awkward if Jessica had arrived with Rafe here.

Especially since as soon as the man walked into her apartment, she probably would have thrown herself at him and torn off his clothes.

She grabbed the doorknob, anxious to show Jessica her new tattoo. When she pulled it open, shock vaulted through her.

There in the doorway stood big, sexy Rafe, a crooked smile on his face.



Copyright © 2014 by Opal Carew