Authors: Lori Foster
“She dates,” Dane argued. “Okay, not much, but I know a few months back she was seeing some guy.”
Harris scowled. “She was?” He turned to Clair. “When were you dating? Who was he?”
Ohmigod. No way in hell was Clair going to talk about Kyle. Not with his photographic efforts spread out in all their lack of glory on Dane’s desk. She swallowed, found her voice, and rasped, “Enough. From all of you.”
They stared at her. Three pairs of discriminating, curious eyes. Eyes that had just been looking at her in the most revealing poses.
“My personal business is none of your concern.” And before Harris could object, Clair added, “We
together, Harris. In no way does that entitle you to pry.”
Even if you have seen me in the nude.
Harris’s eyes narrowed and he crossed his arms over his chest. “Keeping secrets?” His hot stare threatened to bring on a swoon. “I’ll find out, you know.”
Over her dead body! She tucked in her chin and summoned her most serious, meanest voice. “You’ll leave me alone.”
Dane cleared his throat. “So you two are good friends? I thought you were just neighbors.”
Harris kept his gaze trained on Clair. “I told Dane and Alec that I learned about them through you.”
Alec gave her a fierce, speculative glance. “You make me sound fearsome, Clair. I’m not sure if I should thank you or not.”
She rolled her eyes. Alec Sharpe lived up to his reputation and he knew it. Marriage and kids hadn’t softened him. He was still dark as the devil and so strong and imposing that even in his mid-forties, he intimidated men with a mere glance. Dane wasn’t much better. Both men were walking icons of masculinity. Not that Harris seemed intimidated. No, if anything, he’d bonded. But then, in her opinion, Harris fit right in.
Dane put an arm around her. “Harris is right, Clair. You still look a little shaky. You want to take the day off?”
So they could get back to perusing her photos? Not a chance. “Of course not.” Inspiration struck and she said, “You want me to take something to the developers for you? You mentioned enlarging some photos.”
“I can do it on the scanner,” Alec said, ruining her chances to steal the photos. “You just rest up and regain your breath. You sound wheezy.”
Dane steered her toward her desk. “If you really want to help, you can do a search and find out who leased the building where the pictures and notes were found.”
Alec picked up the photo of her putting on her panties, making her go pale, then red-hot again. “Assuming the last guy who lived there took them, we can hunt him up and ask him about the...model.”
All three men grinned, and their humor in light of her disgrace rubbed Clair the wrong way.
“You know damn good and well that woman wasn’t modeling.”
“Probably not,” Dane agreed. “But neither was she objecting.”
Ready to blast him for his misassumption, Clair opened her mouth, but snapped it shut again. How could she explain without giving herself away? No, she hadn’t objected because she hadn’t even known the pervert was looking at her, much less that he had a camera. She’d only slept with Kyle twice, and both times were disastrous.
She hadn’t realized how disastrous until she saw the sneaky photos.
Clair closed her eyes. “All right. Sure.” She’d hunt from now till the end of time without giving them Kyle’s name. If they had a name, Alec and Dane would find Kyle. And then the jig would be up.
In fact, if she forced herself to face reality, she knew they’d eventually find him even without her help. They were good. Better than good, they were the best. They were, as she’d often bragged to Harris, awesome. If enough opportunities arose for her to sabotage their efforts, she maybe had a month. Less, if they did some of the computer work themselves, as they occasionally did.
Harris paced to a window overlooking the back lot. “I hope you can find him. It’s driving me nuts not knowing who she is.”
If Dane and Alec hadn’t been in the room, Clair would have kicked Harris in his sexy backside for that remark.
“We’ll find him,” Alec assured Harris. “Even if we don’t, we’ll figure out who she is. She had to be local, someone you come into contact with, maybe on a daily basis. Eventually someone will recognize her.”
Spots danced in front of Clair’s eyes. She gasped, drawing a lot of male attention. In a raw whisper, she pleaded, “Don’t tell me you intend to show those photos to people?”
“No.” Dane’s statement allowed her heart to slow to a more normal pace, until he added, “At least not yet. We’ll try other routes first.”
“What other routes?”
He shrugged. “We’ll hunt for the owner.”
And with any luck, she’d find Kyle before they did and rip his heart out—or at least his tongue, so he couldn’t tell them about her.
“We’ll talk to photography shops to see if anyone remembers developing any photos like those.”
A dead end for sure, since Kyle did his own developing. Not that it mattered, because by then her photos would have made the rounds of the neighborhood.
“But eventually it might come down to going door-to-door and asking about him or her or both.”
“That’s an invasion of her privacy,” Alec explained, “so a last resort. But if all else fails...”
Clair knew that if she didn’t get out of there right then, she was going to be sick. She plastered on a very false smile. “Well then, by all means, let me do my best to find him on the computer first.” She went to her desk.
Unfortunately, Harris followed on her heels. “You feeling better?”
No, never. “I keep telling you, I’m fine.”
She stared at him, adjusted her glasses, and said with succinct finality, “I’m. Fine.”
Harris held up both hands. “All right, all right. Don’t get in a temper. I have to get to work and I wanted to make sure you’re up to jogging tonight, that’s all. If you’re not, then I don’t want you to push it.”
She didn’t want to. She wanted to hide. But any variance in their routine right now might tip him off. She forced another fake smile. “I wouldn’t miss it.”
He nodded, still watching her curiously. “Great.” He started backing toward the door. “I’ll see you then.”
Once the door closed behind him, Clair started to relax, but Alec didn’t give her time. He came out of the office with the pictures in hand.
Straightening in her chair, Clair said, “He left them with you?” Maybe she could swipe them after all. Or spill coffee on them. Or...
“Not a chance. These are copies we ran off when he first got here. Your friend Harris is carrying the originals in his front pocket like a lovesick swain.” Alec smiled. “Funny guy.”
“He’s an idiot.”
“He has a secret admirer and he’s hooked. It’s understandable. Not only is the woman attractive and sexy as hell—”
“Being naked does not necessarily make her sexy.”
Alec’s slow smile looked positively wicked. “Yeah, it does.”
Well, hell. Clair slumped under another wave of embarrassment. So all it took was a little nudity for a guy to find a woman sexy? How stupid was that? What about her personality? What about her interests?
Alec seemed to read her mind. “She said some pretty profound things about him in her notes, too. Any guy would be intrigued.”
Profound? She’d only spoken the truth.
“I’m going to enlarge and enhance these,” Alec said, tapping the copies against his thigh, “to see if I can pick up any details.”
Details—like her identity? He disappeared into the backroom. Heart in her throat, her stomach in knots, Clair kept her eyes on that door for a full five minutes until Alec returned—carrying a stack of 8 x 10 photos.
The one on top was of her right shoulder, boob, and ribs.
Clair gulped. He’d taken each photo and divided it into fours, then enlarged each piece. When put together, her buck-naked body would be poster size.
Worse and worse and worse. But Alec didn’t so much as glance at her on his way back to talk to Dane, so he still hadn’t recognized her.
It took her a few more minutes of slowly dying inside before she realized Dane must not have recognized her either. No one budged from the office. There were no outbursts of hilarity, no accusing stares. They were probably too engrossed with ogling the oversize photos.
And here she’d always considered Dane and Alec astute. What was she, invisible? Clair pulled off her tortoiseshell glasses and looked at them. Like Clark Kent’s specs, were her glasses an ingenious disguise that instantly afforded her anonymity?
The door opened and Clair hastened to shove her glasses back on, almost poking herself in the eye. Her face burned. Much more blushing and she’d be permanently scalded.
Both men looked at her with expectant expressions. Clair shriveled inside, until Dane prompted, “Make any headway?”
She hadn’t even started. “Oh. Um, no. Not yet. I’ll keep looking.”
“Thanks.” Dane and Alec headed for the door.
“Where are you two going?” In a panic, Clair left her seat and rushed after them. Surely, they weren’t going to show those pictures around
Alec barely slowed. “I have to appear in court, remember?”
Dane paused. “I’m working on a missing person.” He stopped and faced her with concern. “Are you sure you’re okay, Clair?”
Did they have to keep asking her that? “Of course. I just forgot, that’s all.” Reluctantly, she asked, “What about the photos?”
“Harris is impatient, but we’ll spend a week or two exploring alternatives before we show them to anyone.”
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
“I think that’s best.” She couldn’t help adding, “Can you imagine how embarrassed she’ll be if she finds out that you showed them?”
On his way out the door, Dane laughed and pointed at her. “A good reason to never pose nude, huh?”
Or date photographers with sneaky streaks and lack of moral fiber. Clair groaned. With everyone gone, she ran into Dane’s office—and stumbled to a horrified halt. She pressed a fist to her mouth. They had the photos up on a pegboard. Pieced together.
Adrenaline carried her to the board in a flash. It took Clair all of thirty seconds to snatch them down and hide them under a stack of files, but she didn’t dare destroy them. That’d look too suspicious, and what was the point? They’d only make more.
She dragged herself back to her desk and collapsed in her chair, her face in her hands, her stomach roiling. Sooner or later, they’d know it was her—and then she’d have to quit and move to Outer Mongolia.
Unless... She swallowed hard and tried to think beyond her embarrassment. It wasn’t easy, but she tried to take an objective view of the situation.
First, Alec claimed Harris was smitten. And Harris had acted obsessed with the “mystery woman.” Heaven knew she’d been obsessed with him forever. But he hadn’t shown any sexual interest, and she was too proud to throw herself at him. So they were friends. Clair knew he liked her as a person, but she’d assumed he didn’t find her attractive in “that” way.
But judging by his rapt expression when he’d looked at the photos, he definitely liked what he saw.
So, secondly, what did she have to lose now? Not her modesty. After today, she had no modesty to protect.
And as to her pride...well, pride didn’t help much when you saw your own behind in an 8 x 10 glossy, held on a presentation board with a thumbtack.
Maybe, just maybe, if she worked this right, she could use her newfound knowledge of Harris’s interest to make him fall in love with her—before he found out she was his secret admirer.
It was either that or tell him straight up that he’d seen her naked and that she’d written those notes. He’d know all of her secrets then, leaving her soul as bare as her body. But if he felt the same, it wouldn’t be nearly as embarrassing.
She’d probably have to seduce him, and that wouldn’t be easy because she couldn’t take off her glasses and she definitely couldn’t take off her clothes. If she did, he might make the connection too soon. It’d be a tricky bit of business, but she’d figure something out. Maybe she’d just ensure they only got romantic in the dark. That might work.
Given Alec and Dane’s expertise, there wouldn’t be any time to waste. She’d jump-start Harris on their new relationship tonight. If she was good enough, maybe he’d even give up on the mystery woman and she’d never have to tell him anything at all.
* * *
HARRIS WAITED IMPATIENTLY for Clair to present herself. The storms had left the night air fresh and clean. It felt good, but it was warm. Deciding against a shirt, he wore only black jogging shorts with socks and running shoes. The shorts had a single back pocket to hold his apartment key—and the photo of his secret admirer reclining on the bed. He hadn’t wanted to leave her behind.
Not that he intended to show it to anyone. He appreciated Dane and Alec’s efforts to uncover the woman’s identity, but already he felt protective and possessive of her. He didn’t want anyone else, especially anyone male, to see her.
Something about her, some vague intangible thing, seemed familiar to Harris. He wished he could pin it down. Maybe she reminded him of someone. But who? While he stretched, preparing to run, his mind churned.
Work had been uneventful, which was a relief after the fire the day before. Unfortunately, that had given Harris too much time to think—about the notes, the sexy photos. And about Clair’s old boyfriend.
Neither Dane nor Alec would give him any details on the guy. They claimed not to have any. They said they knew Clair had dated, because she’d gotten a few calls at work. Period. Nothing more. They didn’t understand why he cared. Hell, he didn’t understand either.
But why hadn’t she told him? They were friends. Close friends. Didn’t friends share that kind of info?
Harris’s internal grumbling got interrupted when the entrance door to Clair’s building pushed open and she stepped out. The streetlight reflected off the lenses of her glasses. She, too, had trimmed down to the barest covering. Dressed in snowy white cotton shorts and a tank top, she looked...good. Real good.
She smiled at him, adjusted the white band holding her glasses in place and joined him at the street. “Ready?”