With each word, his disbelief was chipped away into nothing. Only one person could have told her those personal details—Ziara herself. As much as he didn’t want to believe, it looked like he didn’t have much choice.
“What difference does it make to you?” he asked.
“Well, it means a lot to me.” She rubbed her fingers together in an age-old expression of greed. “With Ziara’s status, I’ll get myself a whole new makeover and access to an upscale client list.” Her yellow-toothed grin said she believed this delusion. There wasn’t enough plastic surgery and cosmetic dentistry in the world.... “Then we’ll both be living large.” She sidled a little closer, forcing him to back up flush with his car. “A woman my age could use a little retirement fund, so to speak. Of course, if I had someone like you in my life, I wouldn’t need one, would I?”
“And if I refuse?” There was always a catch.
“Well, you wouldn’t want Ziara’s secrets to get out, now would you? With your reputation, how many people wouldn’t believe claims of you takin’ advantage of the hired help? Those big-money contracts wouldn’t come your way nearly as often, if people around here didn’t want to be associated with you, huh?”
He wasn’t going to show how unnerved that made him. If Atlanta was suddenly filled with accusations of sexual harassment at his father’s company, no one would risk hiring him. Ziara and Eternity would look like the victims, thus keeping their reputations solidly intact while his crumbled.
One of her nails tapped the newspaper clipping. “So what do you say?”
He struggled to find a way out of this mess, but his brain remained stuck on the picture of Ziara, sleeping so innocently on the couch in his office. Disbelief still hung around because he did care, didn’t he? He’d fought it, hid from it, pretended it wasn’t there.
But it was.
Knowing she had him backed against a wall, he conceded. “Done.”
* * *
Ziara took a deep breath of cool air, savoring the softening fall weather, before pushing through the revolving door into the Eternity Designs building early on a Thursday morning. She felt much lighter after a good night’s sleep, although she’d missed Sloan’s warm body curved around her as she drifted off. Amazing how quickly she’d gotten used to that.
Now she was ready to face the Abominable Snowman again. A soft laugh escaped as she crossed to the elevator. Sloan’s attitude had finally pushed her over her limit, but when she’d smarted off in return, she’d felt a surge of adrenaline. Matching wits with him energized her, made her feel alive like she hadn’t in her entire life.
She smiled as she trekked down the hallway toward Sloan’s office, remembering a similar walk several months ago. Now, instead of dreading seeing him, she couldn’t wait. Instead of resenting her attraction to him, she reveled in it.
Turning a corner, she spied Patrick standing in the doorway to her office. He gestured for her to hurry.
“Ziara, get in here.”
Ziara rolled her eyes. Patrick tended toward the melodramatic, but she accelerated in anticipation of seeing Sloan. Even when he acted like a bear, he was a lovable bear.
At the thought, her body froze, her heart seeming to stop, then start again twice as fast. She could almost feel the shell encasing her heart give one last crack before bursting into a million tiny pieces. Left behind was a pure red, bigger, more feeling muscle that beat with the certain knowledge of her feelings for Sloan.
How did she even know what she felt? It wasn’t that she’d ever been in love before. Or loved anyone at all that she could remember. Maybe her mother at some point, but she retained few memories from her early childhood. She remembered very little before her tenth birthday. After that Ziara supposed she’d lost hope of it ever being returned, so whatever love she might have had died a painful death.
The only love she’d ever felt had been for her job.
Maybe that’s how she knew this was love—she’d never felt like this before, about anyone. She’d never felt so exposed, so vulnerable. So alive.
Patrick practically vibrated with irritation. “Come. On.”
Ziara jumped, then picked up speed as she moved toward him. “What?” she hissed.
Patrick started dragging her across the office before she could even finish the word. “You have to stop him—”
Her heels skidded as she halted just inside Sloan’s office. He stood in what she thought of as his “thinking” position: facing the floor-to-ceiling windows, head down as he contemplated those scurrying below him, his shoulders broad and square, hands clasped loosely behind his back. The surveyor of his domain.