I had ruined my life.
Which was a problem, because I, Jennifer Ward, MBA, CPA, and business consultant, liked my life.
The minute I opened my door to a giant in an FBI coat holding up a piece of paper, along with a black, square-shaped object that he flipped open and then closed again, I knew it. I blinked and both were gone, but I assumed from the paper I couldn’t rip my eyes away from, it was a badge.
An FBI agent plus a warrant? Yep. I had ruined my life. Stupid morals. Why had I reported them? Was it really the right thing? Yes. Insider trading was a big deal. And illegal. And that mattered to me, no matter how much it destroyed everything I had built.
“Jennifer Ward?” He waited for my nod before continuing, “My name is Special Agent Nicholas Kelly. I’m with the FBI. We have a warrant to search your house and office.” He scanned me before one eyebrow lifted. Just like Spock from Star Trek. Well, if Spock had been a six-foot-six brunet with hazel eyes and powerful shoulders that looked like he would fit in on the field of some sport. Damn. I was not going to admit how sexy that was. “Also, as much as I appreciate the view, it might help if you put on more clothing.”
This was a learning experience. Leggings and a camisole without a bra didn’t cut it for the FBI investigative team. Any other time, I would have appreciated him letting me change. Today? Today, I was too mortified to think rationally, which was my excuse for snapping back.
“I’m sorry I didn’t dress to impress. What’s the normal dress code for letting the FBI search my house and home office? An orange jumpsuit and a straitjacket?” Oh, please don’t let my lawyer hear that I said that. He might fire me as a client right then and there.
He took another long look, running his eyes up and down me as he thought, his lips twitching slightly upwards. I had amused him.
I ignored the tingles his gaze caused, focusing on my disapproving frown instead. I was not going to find someone like him attractive. Nope. With a ready smirk, relaxed stance, and confidence seeping out of every pore, here stood a charmer, a lady’s man, a rake. I had gone out with bad boys before and this man was their king. He probably had plenty of girls at every stop. Ones he never thought of after he was gone. I didn’t need another playboy. They were never as much fun as I always hoped. This giant version was not going to make me crack. I wanted a nice man. Responsible. Faithful. That was what I was looking for. Someone loyal and boring.
“Well, I don’t think orange would be your color, but it’s your choice.” Then he stopped, his eyes stuck south of my face, a slight ring of red coming to his cheeks. “Yeah, I would definitely recommend changing.”
I looked down and ran away. Tingles and no bra were a bad combo. Abandoning the door since I couldn’t stop him and any other agent with him anyway, I made a beeline to my bedroom, because a bra was needed, and it was needed now. I made sure the door was closed before I took off my camisole, grabbing underwear and a more conservative blouse from my closet.
Why was everything I owned fashionable and form-fitting? I didn’t want to be cute right now. I wanted to be… was there a word for unattractive without actually being unattractive? If not, there should be. Unisex? No, that wasn’t right.
“I can’t actually have you in the house without supervision. You might be destroying evidence in there,” came the deep voice through the door.
“You open that door and I may have to kill you.”
He wouldn’t open that door. Would he? I froze, staring at the knob, praying that it didn’t open before I got my shirt on.
Shit. If I had limited time to get dressed, freezing was the wrong call. I pulled the professional button-up blue shirt over my head, sweeping my hair into a messy bun instead of brushing it into a neat ponytail and jumped to the door, swinging it open before he could.
He was on the other side grinning at me. “You know, threatening a federal agent is against the law.”
“I’ll take my chances,” I muttered back. “What do you want?” Stupid question. I stood behind it anyways.
“We have a warrant to search your home and office for evidence of insider trading from one of your clients.”
Today’s federal agents were a gift from Tony Harris himself. I would have to thank Tony with a basket of snakes the next time I saw him. Non-poisonous ones, of course. I wasn’t stupid enough to kill him. Just maim him a little. Tony Harris was a horrible man that my firm had been representing for years, up until a few months ago, when we dropped him due to conflicts with his business account.
Those conflicts really had been me, not that I told my business partner, Henry, that. Finding out that Tony had been doing insider trading and that my partner had been covering it up had really broken my trust. As far as I knew, no one had found out who’d reported it in the first place.
No one knew I had betrayed them.
No. I reported them. It wasn’t betrayal. It was morally right. It just felt like betrayal.
I needed to clean something. Anything. There had to be something to clean. There wasn’t, not that the agents would let me, anyway.
“Fine.” My lawyer had been very clear on this point. Don’t bother the federal agents. Let them look at anything they wanted to. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t try to maintain some control. Maybe I could try to protect my other customers a little bit. “Tell me what files you want—”
“Not how this works, sweetheart. You sit over in the living room and I will be over to interview you.”
Sweetheart? Oh, no. Uh-uh, nay, nope, negative, vetoed.
I could feel my face turn hot, but I pressed my lips together to keep anything stupid from coming out of my mouth. I was a professional. I could stay calm and respectful.
I would just let him know that I would not be condescended to like that. Not in my home. I didn’t care if he was a six-foot-six giant of a man with the most beautiful hazel eyes that I had ever seen. They started out blue on the outside, before a starburst of brown exploded in the center, spreading out like someone had spilled golden paint—
No. He was condescending. A bad boy. And he thought that I might be a criminal. He was not a dating prospect.
Also, I would not be relegated to the couch as his team of… of… people came in and… did their job. That rant went downhill quickly. It didn’t matter. I was still angry. I wasn’t going to let logic stop me. My life was going down in self-created flames. And I needed someone to blame for it.
“I will not be told to sit down like I’m a criminal.” Again, maybe that wasn’t the best argument. Since my business partner might have been a criminal, and all. “Fine. I will wait in the living room.” No, that was too easy for him. I couldn’t let it go like that. “After I make some tea.”
“Some tea?” he asked, his head tilted to the side slightly. “What kind of tea?”
“Like you care.” I stomped away, trying not to notice that he was following instead of meeting with the other FBI agents mingling around my house. No, refusing to notice was passive, and I was not passive. I was just going to ignore him following me. Actively.
I was attempting not to obsess over the fact that I didn’t let them in. I had lost control of our business and now my own house. I clenched my hands to stop myself from kicking them out. Restoring order. No, right now the only control I had was over myself, and I was going to be fabulous at that. I was going to stay in control. No matter what.
I was not going to worry that they were moving my stuff. Although, now that I noticed, I had to admit they were moving it very carefully, searching through items before putting them back in place where they found them.
Which was weird, right? I mean, on TV shows, the police and federal agents would tear everything apart trying to find the missing information. The people in my house were polite. Yes, they were going through my stuff, but slowly. Methodically. Then returning it to nearly the same condition.
It was weird. Appreciated, but weird.
But still, I hadn’t let them in. They just came in.
Court-approved entry. They were in charge. I was in hell.
Making it to the kitchen, I pulled out my loose leaf tea pot brewer, the one that had the tea in the center and heated the water to the perfect temperature based on the type, and started putting together a cup of my vanilla Ceylon tea. Hmm, I hadn’t worked out today. Maybe I should go light on the sugar? I loved my curves, but currently I was a little too curvy, right around my waist.
“What kind of tea is that?” he asked, staring at the brewer with his nostrils flaring as he inhaled the scent from where he stood.
He was going to make fun of my tea, I just knew it. He was probably a coffee drinker. I looked him up and down. Black. I was willing to bet he drank coffee black; sugar and crème being too wussy for an agent like him.
“Does it matter?” Scratch the diet. I could already tell that this was not a diet day. Extra sugar. Maybe it would improve my mood. Sugar makes me happy and happy people don’t kill FBI agents. Yep, I was sacrificing my diet so I wouldn’t go to jail.
“I guess it doesn’t. I was just curious.” He meandered through my kitchen, picking up things and then putting them down. Because that wasn’t obnoxious to someone who liked control as much as I did.
“I don’t have any evidence in here,” I snapped. I needed to calm down. Calm and professional. It was expected that they would look around my house. This was their job. This wasn’t their fault; it was Henry’s for helping to commit a crime.
And maybe a little of mine for betraying and turning in my mentor and business partner for that crime.
I turned to face the counter as my heart constricted in my chest. No, I had done the right thing. It wasn’t my fault. Mostly.
“Probably not. I was just getting to know you a little more.”
“And what have you figured out?”
“Workaholic, but I knew that from your work hours. Neat freak.” He nodded around the room, pointing out that everything was in its place, every dish cleaned. “Single, and from the look of the book collection, chronically so.”
I felt my face flush at his last statement. Yes, I was chronically single. My last boyfriend was a huge, cheating, man-whore mistake that I tried not to think about, and Barrow Bay wasn’t the best place to try to attract a man. I looked at the self-help dating books he referenced. I knew how many there were. Six. Six times that I had decided to take my own happiness by the horns and find the love I wanted. I had failed. No, it was worse— I’d barely tried.
The real problem was that I worked too much. It was hard to compete with girls that actually remembered their accounts and responded back when it came to online dating. I would get lost in work and forget to respond. A lot. It was almost as bad as how often I forgot to buy groceries. I looked around. Which I hadn’t done this week, either.
“Hmm, no protest?” He watched me closely, waiting for an outburst.
I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction. I bit my lips closed and held myself still, not giving an inch.
“Contained.” He took a step towards me, meeting my eyes with a slight smile. “Meticulous.” Another step. “Detailed.” Another. “Passionate.” His voice trailed off as his last step took him next to me, his body inches away from mine. I lifted my chin so I could keep his gaze. “About your job. The perfect accountant.” His voice had lowered to a whisper. I was slightly dazed by his proximity.
Why was he so close?
He leaned closer to speak into my ear, his breath sending shivers down my spine. “I don’t trust perfection. It’s always hiding something. What are you hiding? Are you as morally bankrupt as your partner? Does your pretty face hide a black heart?”
I was so focused on his body and his breath that it took me a moment to understand what he said. He stayed next to me after he asked his question, holding me in his spell for a second longer than I should have allowed. He smelled so good. Spices and musk. I couldn’t stop myself from taking a deep breath before the moment broke.
“What?” Did he say I had a black heart?
Was he… did he just try to seduce me in my own kitchen? While his team looked through my house? For a confession? How. Dare. He.
I opened my mouth to lay into him.
He lifted a finger to tell me to wait while he answered his phone.
Did he just…? And I actually stopped…? No.
“Nic,” he grunted into the phone.
I watched as he nodded a few times, listening to the person on the other side of the phone.
“Right. I’ll be there in a few.” He hung up and turned to me. “I have to go, sweetheart, but I’ll be back.”
“Don’t call me ‘sweetheart,’” I ground out between my teeth as he began walking away.
“Why? Are you not sweet?” He sent me a smirk over his shoulder.
“Because you will never find out.” My teeth were clenched so tightly that my jaw hurt, but I hadn’t cracked completely. “Those of us with hidden black hearts are picky about who we let taste us.”
Oh my god. That sounded better and way less dirty in my head. Way less dirty. Like, epically less dirty. Shit.
His smirk spread over his face. He turned and walked back to me, crowding me once again to see if I would take a step back.
I should have, but I didn’t.
“You, sweetheart, might be worth the taste. Also, you might want to clear out while we search. It’s going to be a while. We can do the interview later.” Then he spun around and left.
He was everything I was taught Satan would be. Temptation wrapped in a package that would destroy me if I took the bait. So I wouldn’t. I hadn’t backed down. But I didn’t think I’d won that battle.