Read an extract: Off Limits by Clare Connelly

Read an extract: Off Limits by Clare Connelly

PROLOGUE

 

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
—WH Auden

‘You’ve got the Prime Minister calling in ten minutes.’

Jack nods, showing not a flicker of response at the prospect of this. Then again, nothing about Jack Grant is what you’d expect. For a self-made billionaire-investor-cum-philanthropist-cum-sex-god, he is wild, disrespectful of authority and the establishment, and rough around the edges. Deliciously so.
Take this situation: Jack, in his bed, naked as the day he was born, uncaring that he should have been at his desk an hour ago. That I can see most of his beautiful back and backside. That my insides are clenching with hot, steamy lust.

‘About. . .?’

It’s a lazy drawl as he flips over and pierces me with those intelligent green eyes. His accent is pure Irish brogue. Like Colin Farrell after a night of cigarettes and booze: deep, hoarse and throaty.

‘The latest episode of The Great British Bake Off.’

I roll my eyes. We’ve been negotiating to buy a huge swathe of Crown land for the last six months; it’s at the highest level of negotiation and, given the media interest, the Prime Minister has become involved.

‘What do you think?’

His laugh is a rumble that barrels out of his chest. ‘Well, every man needs a good scone recipe.’
‘And you’ve got one?’

‘Sure.’

He grins. It’s a grin that is at once devilish and charming, and I know how easy it must be for him to get women into bed. And that’s before you factor in the body, the money, the power.

‘Nine minutes,’ I snap.

His grin unfurls like a ribbon on his face. My heart kerthunks. I ignore it. Stupid heart.

‘Did you book Sydney?’

‘Yes.’

He arches a brow at my impatient tone and, as if to contradict it, stretches in the bed, his arms high over his head, his body gloriously on display for me.

‘And, Amber?’

I don’t mean to sigh but when the Prime Minister’s office is calling I feel there should be some air of responsiveness. Jack, apparently, doesn’t agree.

‘All arranged.’

Lucy’s sister is taking a year’s sabbatical from her job as an executive at a bank to manage the foundation’s start-up year. She’s insanely qualified and personally motivated.

‘Salary agreed; she’ll be based out of Edinburgh, as we discussed.’

He nods, but makes no effort to move.

‘Seriously, Jack. Eight minutes. Get the hell up, already.’

‘Ouch. Did you get out of the wrong side of bed this morning?’

He runs his fingers down his chest, drawing my attention to the ridges of his abdomen, the flesh so perfectly smooth and sculpted. My mouth is bone-dry.

‘No.’

‘You’re even crosser than usual,’ he teases, and my lips tighten impatiently.

As it happens, he’s right. I got The Invitation this morning. The one that arrives every year, beckoning me to come and pay homage to my parents’ marriage.

Ugh.

It’s my least favourite social event—and the one time I’m forced to remember who I really am. The one time a year my parents recall me to the mother ship, reminding me that no matter what I do, professionally or personally, I’ll always be Gemma Picton. Lady Gemma Picton.

Ugh.

‘Sit down. Tell me all about it.’

He pats the bed beside him and I roll my eyes again, hoping he won’t know how sorely I’m tempted. Just once I imagine giving in to this—the electrical current that is arcing between us. I never would. . .never could. He is as off-limits as hell is hot—the stuff of fantasies and nightmares.

‘No, thanks.’

‘What is it?’

‘Nothing. Personal stuff,’ I say, and he shrugs.

But there’s curiosity in his eyes. A curiosity I have to ignore. Along with desire. Lust. Want. Need.

We have our boundaries and we definitely know better than to cross them.

Jack pushes the sheet off, exposing the tattoo that curls across his lower back and snakes around his hips to the tops of his legs. It must have hurt like hell to get it done—especially on the skin of his thighs, right near his cock.

I asked him once why he’d got it. His answer? ‘Seemed like a good idea at the time.’

He doesn’t care that I see him naked. It’s not the first time and undoubtedly won’t be the last. Sometimes I wonder if he’s goading me, waiting for me to react. After all, it’s classic workplace sexual harassment.

Except it isn’t. Because I’m not harassed.

I’m amused. And more than a little turned on.

In the two years since I started working for Jack I’ve probably seen him naked on average once per week. That’s over a hundred stare-fests and he is totally worth staring at. I don’t think he used to be like this. Before this there was her.

Lucy.

His wife.

But she got sick and died, and two months later I came to work for him and he was like this. Dark and brooding and desirable and sexy and messed up and mourning and fascinating.

This sleeping with anything in a skirt is post-Lucy. Same as the copious Scotch-drinking afterwards. It’s sensual self-flagellation but he won’t see it that way.

So, no matter how much I want to stare at his naked arse, I know he’s for looking at—not touching. Like when Grandma used to take me shopping at her favourite Portmeirion boutique and I was allowed to stare at the intricate floral and botanical artwork for hours on end, but never, ever to touch.

Because touching might lead to breaking—and, yes, touching Jack would, I fear, break me.

‘See something you like?’

Another drawl—he’s so good at that. He lets words slide out of his mouth like liquid chocolate.

‘Nope.’ My smile is saccharine. ‘Seven minutes.’

I spin on my heel and leave, a smile playing around my lips as desire pools between my legs.

***

Gemma is staring at me, and the mood I’m in I feel about two steps away from going all ‘Me Tarzan, You Jane’ on her. I want to grab her round the waist and pull her down on my length. No foreplay. No teasing. Just her. . .taking me deep.

In my fantasy she’s not wearing panties and she’s left her brain at the door—because real-life Gemma would quote me a thousand reasons not to have sex even as she was moaning in my arms.

Last night was fun. At least, it started off as fun. But the woman I brought here. . .Rebecca? Rowena?. . .talked too much.

She’d wanted to be romanced.

I wanted to screw.

So I gave her cab fare and showed her the door.

And now I have a raging hard-on and an assistant—she hates it when I call her that, so I do it often, even though she’s technically my in-house counsel—who seems to have moved into my sexual fantasies permanently. When did that happen?

I rack my brain, trying to pinpoint the moment I went from observing her to obsessing over her. From looking dispassionately at her in those suits she wears one day, and the next imagining how long it would take me to strip her out of one.

I don’t think it was one day, though, because that implies some switch was flicked. No, I think it was a look as she got into my helicopter in Spain. A laugh over dinner. Hearing her hum as she stared out of a window, her mind obviously running at a million miles an hour.

Then there was that blackout we were once caught in at the City office. The fire alarm shut the place down, closing us inside an elevator for close on an hour, with just the dim flicker of emergency lights that made her legs look so long and smooth. By the time they cranked the doors I was about ready to pin her to the carpeted floor and screw her senseless.

Yeah, that was probably the moment I realised how much trouble I was in.

I’m not interested in a relationship. But I do want to fuck her. And I think she wants it, too. I’ve seen the way her caramel eyes drop to my arse when she thinks I’m not looking.

But I’m always looking lately.

Chapter One

She might as well be naked. The dress is skin-tight, bright red and low-cut. Tiny straps slip over her shoulders. The dress is short, too. Not indecently short but, Jesus, her legs are long and smooth, and while she’s wearing that dress I find it impossible to look away.

She’s hotter than any woman here—and that’s saying something, given that this launch event has brought together most of London’s elite. There are models, actresses, singers, athletes, and lots of those women who’ve married for money and now make it their life’s work to live up to their husbands’ expectations.

And then there’s Gemma.

Her blond hair is pulled into a ballerina bun, her face is serious and her body is like pale silk that I want to wrap around me.

She’s said something funny, going by the way the guy with her leans forward and laughs. Is he her date? A frown pulls at my brow. I stare harder. Did she bring a date? Isn’t she technically here as my plus-one?

Seeing her with another guy does something dangerous to my equilibrium. A possessive impulse threads through me, knotting at my chest.

I pull a couple of champagne flutes from a passing waiter and cut through the room. I’m aware of people trying to get my attention but I have no time for them. Gemma is in my sights.

‘Jack. . .’

Her lips purse as I approach; her eyes flick to me in that way she has. How is it possible for one person to imbue a simple gesture with a measure of cold disdain even when there’s the hint of a smile somewhere in that symmetrical face of hers?

I hand her a glass of champagne and she takes it, her fingers briefly wrapping over mine. Immediately my mind puts them elsewhere on my body.

‘You remember Wolf DuChamp?’ she says. ‘He manages our accounts in New York.’

I remember his stupid name, but not the man himself Nothing memorable about blond, pretty-boy looks and that air of Ivy League he seems to wear like a coat.

‘Sure.’ I extend my hand, knowing I have to meet the convention even when my body is singularly focussed on Gemma.

‘Good to see you again, sir.’

Gemma’s lips quiver. I hate being called ‘sir’ and she knows it. Out of nowhere I have an image of her saying it to me, bent at the knees, her eyes moving up my body to meet mine as her lips clamp down on my length. Okay, maybe in some circumstances I could make an exception. . .

What the hell am I thinking? These fantasies are one thing, but screwing Gemma cannot happen.

Cannot happen. Might as well get that tattoo added to my collection.

‘I was just explaining the software overhaul we’re looking at to Gem.’

Is he trying to piss me off? First of all by removing the very nice image I was enjoying by talking about software. And then by referring to Gemma as ‘Gem’—as though they’re best buddies who paint their nails together.

‘I’ll summarise it for you later,’ she says, sensing my impatience though I suspect not the reason for it.

‘It’ll make a huge difference to our operations,’ Wolf pushes.

‘Gem’ angles her body a bit, turning away from me, giving me a chance to escape.

‘I’ll look into the feasibility. The problem is going to be short-term. We’ll need to make sure the systems are protected during the transfer of data. You handle some of our most sensitive work—a data breach would be unacceptable.’

‘I’ve thought of that, too,’ Wolf carries on—and I am dismissed, it would appear.

Across the room a platinum blonde with a sensational rack and legs that go on forever is trying to catch my eye.

I want Gemma, but I can’t have her. And I’m not one to wallow in self-pity. There’s plenty of fish in the sea.

I have two rules when it comes to the women I fuck.

No commitment.

No redheads.

Commitment was for Lucy.

And Lucy was a redhead.

I freeze. A vision of Lucy is in front of me, a scowl of disapproval on her face. I messed around a fair bit before we met, but nothing like this. I’ve taken it to a whole new level and I don’t care.

Except for that scowl. Even in death I don’t want to upset Lucy.

What did you expect, Luce? You left me a pretty big void to fill.

Don’t blame me, I hear her snap back. Your life. Your choice.

Yeah, right.

My eyes wander of their own accord back to Gemma. She’s got her head bent now, and Wolf’s fingers are typing something into his cell phone. She nods and smiles, then presses a hand to his forearm. My stomach rolls on a surge of emotion I don’t much care for.

I stalk towards the blonde as though she is the only woman in the room.

‘I’m Jack Grant.’

Her lips are painted a bright red. She purrs. ‘I know who you are.’

‘Then you have the advantage.’

Her lips part. ‘From what I hear, telling you my name wouldn’t serve much purpose. You won’t remember it tomorrow, right?’

I laugh, appreciating her honesty. ‘No. . .’ I lean forward so that my lips are only a whisper from her ear. My breath flutters her hair and I see a fine trail of goose bumps run across her skin. ‘But you’ll remember me for the rest of your life.’

Her laugh is husky. She’s everything I would usually find sexy, but in that moment she’s just passably acceptable. If I’m honest, I’m bored. It’s a phone-it-in flirt. A What the heck? situation.

‘We’ll see. . .’

‘Can I get you a drink?’

‘I can share yours,’ she murmurs, her eyes dropping to my champagne flute.

I didn’t even realise I was still holding it. I extend it to her on autopilot, watching as her lips shape over the glass and she tilts it back. The liquid is honey-gold. She passes the glass to me and I take a sip.

‘Let’s get out of here,’ she says, with a throaty laugh in the rushed words.

I nod, reaching down and putting a hand in the small of her back. Gemma and Lucy are both in my head now—a fascinating occurrence. A new occurrence. Are they ganging up on me? Would they even like each other?

Lucy was so soft and sweet. She looked at me like I was her saviour and I suppose I was. I ripped her out of her old life, away from a boyfriend who used her as a punching bag, and I made all her dreams come true.

But fate is a bastard of a thing, and it only had bad news in store for Lucy. For a while she managed to jump tracks and sit on a different train, and then—bam. It took her. You can’t outrun destiny, can you?

Gemma is nothing like her. Her personality isn’t so much hard edges as a single hard face. She is smart—smarter than me by a mile—and focussed in a way that is completely familiar to me. She is also sexy. I don’t know how I know that, but I do. She acts so damned cold around me—as though she’s never so much as heard of an orgasm, much less experienced one. It makes me want her more. Want to show her for the liar she is. To make her orgasm again and again until ‘cold’ is a very distant memory.

‘Jack.’

She catches me as I’m about to leave the room. Her eyes briefly meet the blonde’s. There is nothing beyond a polite acknowledgement of her existence. That iciness is there. I want to push Gemma backwards against the wall and kiss the hell out of her. Right here.

‘You’re scheduled to speak in twenty minutes.’

Whoops. Even for me that’s a bit of a slip. I don’t usually let anything get in the way of business—even my sex life.

‘We’ll be back by then.’

Blondie surprises us both. Her meaning is unmistakable.

Shit. I can’t remember the last time I had a quickie in the car. Is she seriously suggesting it?

Gemma shifts her attention to her phone. She runs that iPhone as though she designed the thing. Her fingers fly over the screen like it’s a part of her. Her complacency pisses me off.

‘Okay. The talk can be brief. Just an outline of what the foundation is hoping to achieve, thanking the commercial partners, yada-yada-yada.’

‘Yada-yada-yada?’ I grin slowly, my eyes linking with hers, daring her to forget the coldness and complacency.

She looks at Blondie and her smile is perfunctory. ‘Have fun.’

***

Of course Jack nails the speech. Not so much as a hair on his head looks out of place. The tuxedo is immaculate. The white shirt crisp. The bow tie in place as though glued. He speaks eloquently about the foundation and he also speaks with humour, so the crowd laughs.

I don’t.

I am wondering about the blonde.

No. I’m thinking about Jack—but they’re thoughts that I need to run a mile from. This can’t control me. I’ve worked my arse off in this job, twisting myself in mental knots to stay on top of my workload without breaking a sweat, and I am not going to let the fact that my boss is impossibly hot get in the way.

Instead I let my attention drift to Wolf.

He’s talking to someone else now—no doubt about that bloody software. His face is serious, and that makes me smile. Because Wolf is pretty much always serious.

Warning! Warning! Warning! It flashes inside my mind. Because I don’t do serious, and if I let the flirtation with Wolf keep going I think he’s going to see roses and candy and wedding bells.

God help me, I can’t think of anything worse.

I am suffocating at the very idea of being a bride in white, having Wolf waiting for me at the end of an aisle. He would definitely want children, too. Three of them. And he’d expect me to be the obliging baby-maker and carer. He’d look at me with those puppy-dog eyes, sadness and disappointment on his features, if I so much as dared suggest we get a nanny.

Maybe I could be like Marissa Mayer and have a nursery built into my office? The nanny could be based there, so I could still be one of those hands-on Pinterest-type mummies. Wolf would never even need to know I’d hired someone to help.

But Jack would. He’d hate that. A baby crying when I’m trying to talk to him about tariffs on our Chinese imports? No, he’d probably seduce the nanny and then I’d have to either fire her or kill her.

Okay, now who’s getting ahead of themselves?

But Wolf has caught me watching him and his heart is so on his sleeve he might as well be a cartoon character, with one of those thought bubbles popping out of his head. I have to let this opportunity pass me by. He’s not right, and when he realises that I’m not going to leave Jack and move to Manhattan, working with him will become a nightmare.

I look away.

Right at Jack.

He’s standing in front of me.

The band has started to play and I’ve been so lost in imagining the hell of my future with Wolf DuChamp that I haven’t realised.

‘Did you like the speech?’

‘Looking for compliments?’ I sip my champagne, pleased at how quickly I’m able to recover. ‘What’s the matter? Wasn’t she suitably impressed?’

His eyes clash with mine. He’s angry. Ooooh. Why? Have I hit the nail on the head somehow?

‘Are you wondering if I can please a woman in fifteen minutes?’

He shifts his body infinitesimally, but enough to spark something low in my abdomen. Anger. Resentment. Heat. Warmth. Need.

Fuck.

‘Believe it or not, I haven’t given any thought to your bedroom prowess,’ I lie, shifting my attention back to the room of people. London’s elite swirl around us, and I am wanting to swirl away with  them.

‘Liar,’ he says, so softly I think I’ve misheard.

Because we can’t go there! He knows that—I know that. Every bone in my body wants him, but my brain is still in charge. I don’t want to screw up my career, but it’s more than that. I love Jack.

Not in that way. I mean I love working with him. Even when he’s at his assholiest, he’s become one of the biggest constants in my life. How stupid would it be to rock the boat?

I imagine, briefly, that we indulge in an affair and it ends—because Jack doesn’t do permanent—and then I imagine not seeing him again.

It makes me ill.

I don’t want to think about it.

I don’t want to risk it.

‘The speech was good.’ I bring the conversation back onto far safer ground, trying to fold my desperate realisations away neatly into a box I won’t open again.

‘Tell me something, Gemma,’ he says, and the tone of his voice is still dangerous to me.

He hasn’t got my silent memo, obviously, because his words prick the blood in my veins until it gushes and gurgles through me—he’s flirting with me.

I use my most businesslike tone. ‘Oh, I don’t know if you really want me to do that. You might not like what I say. . .’

His eyes lance mine. It’s like being sliced through.

‘What’s the deal with you and that guy from New York?’

Who’s he talking about? Oh. Right. ‘You mean Wolf?’

His lips curl derisively—that’s one of my favourite of his expressions. I don’t know if he realises how devilishly sexy he looks.

‘Who calls their kid after an animal? Especially when he’s the least wolf-like person you can imagine.’

‘I don’t suppose they knew that when he was born,’ I say, but a smile is pushing at my lips. He’s right. Wolf is handsome, but in a very neat and tidy kind of way.

‘Is he a wolf in the bedroom?’

The question catches me completely off guard. It’s wholly new territory for us. Invasive in a way I don’t know if I like but am worried that I might.

Still, challenging Jack is what I do. That’s who we are.

I tilt my head to one side, assessing him for a moment, before volleying back, ‘How was the blonde?’

‘She was dull,’ he says with a shrug and no hesitation, apparently having no qualms discussing his sex-life with me.

‘Where is she?’

‘At her house. Waiting.’

‘For you?’

He shrugs. ‘I said I might stop by. It seemed like the only way to get rid of her.’

Wait. He hasn’t slept with her? No, not slept with. Fucked. The thought is oddly elating, though I can’t help but feel sympathy for the woman he flirted with and then sent packing.

‘You really are a bastard,’ I mutter. ‘Are you going to go to her?’

His eyes are probing mine now, and I feel like every single one of my fantasies, my dirtiest, hottest dreams, are playing out between us like a kinky Pensieve for his pleasure.

Yes, I’m a Harry Potter diehard. Hermione was one of my first role models.

‘Maybe.’

My stomach turns. I am used to this feeling with Jack. In the first six months we worked together I wasn’t so adept at dealing with his vivid love-life. I blushed whenever I found evidence of his nocturnal activities, and I couldn’t always meet his eye. But now? Well, now I’ve had two years to practise acceptance.

I smile blandly. ‘Well. . .’ I shrug as though my heart’s not racing and my nipples aren’t throbbing. ‘Have a good night.’

‘Wait.’ His words are commanding, and so too is the hand he clamps around my wrist.

I jerk my face towards his, the breath exploding out of me. We don’t touch. No more than an accidental brush of fingers from time to time. That’s impossible to avoid when you’re together as often as we are.

Definitely not like this.

His thumb pads across my inner wrist, and when I don’t say anything he pulls me, hard and fast, so that my body rams into his. We are surrounded and yet we are alone. There is a void that engulfs us. Like a sensual electric fence.

This is all new and all wrong. And so right.

His body is tight. Hard. Hot. Just as it is in all my fantasies. It takes every single ounce of my willpower to close my mouth and let my breath return to normal. To look at him as though he’s lost his mind, not made me lose mine.

‘Yes, sir?’

His eyes flare. I meant it to put him back on his guard, to remind him of the boundaries of our relationship, but I might as well have struck a match over gasoline. He doesn’t let me go.

‘Dance with me.’

The air around us is charged with expectation and I just know he’s asking for more than a dance. Does he expect me to say no? I don’t like living up to expectations, and I’m not going to give him a reason to think I’m afraid of what’s going on between us.

‘Fine.’ My smile is tight. It stretches over my face like sunburn.

He expels a breath, long and slow, and places a hand in the small of my back. No. . .just at the very top of my arse. His fingers are splayed wide and they press into me firmly, so that I’m propelled towards him. His other hand links with my fingers, wrapping through them.

I focus on the band, my eyes taking in the details of their appearance while I concentrate on looking completely calm. I’m not, though. I’m weak when I want to be strong, and I need something that I shouldn’t.

‘This dress is sensational,’ he says, immediately shattering my attempts to find calm.

‘Is that your informed fashion opinion?’

Too tart. I soften the snap with a smile. It’s a mistake. His eyes are mocking, his own smile sardonic.

I look away again immediately.

‘It’s my informed opinion as a red-blooded male.’

‘What do you like about it?’

Warning lights are flashing in my mind, clamouring for attention. They are bright and angry. What am I doing?

‘Let me see,’ he murmurs. ‘The colour. The way it’s literally glued to your skin.’

He drops his head closer and heat spirals inside me; my blood is a vapour of steam in my veins.

This isn’t right. It’s not us. He sleeps with other women and, sure, he flirts the heck out of me, but that’s harmless.

This doesn’t feel harmless.

The music slows and I slow with it, putting some space between us with what I tell myself is relief.

‘Get me up to speed on the New York situation,’ he says.

‘I intend to.’

I’m snappy because I’m uncertain. I’m completely wrong-footed by his nearness, his touch, and my own desire for him is swamping me. I need a minute to regroup, but his fingers are giving me no time. They’re throbbing across my spine, my arse, and I am heating up by the second.

‘Tonight. Now.’

I angle my head towards Wolf unconsciously. He’s still locked in conversation. I have no intention of going home with him, and yet I resent Jack’s implication that I don’t have a life of my own.

‘It’s not urgent.’ My words are stiff. ‘It’ll keep till tomorrow.’ And I force myself to pull completely free of Jack’s grip.

It’s the equivalent of grabbing a lifeline from the side of a sinking boat. It’s slippery, and I’m pretty sure I’m not strong enough to hold on to it for long enough to save myself. Drowning is inevitable.

‘I want to hear about it tonight.’

It’s a challenge. A gauntlet. He gives me a lot of latitude in my job because he knows how much I do. And I do it well. But at the end of the day he’s my boss, and I don’t know if anything is to be served by refusing him this request.

‘Fine,’ I say with a shrug of my shoulders. But I’m not going to let him think he’s won. ‘I just need. . .twenty minutes.’

I disconnect myself from him and try not to register how my body screams in frustration.

I saunter off towards Wolf before I can see if Jack’s reacting in the same way.

Wolf is deep in conversation when I approach. ‘May I have a moment?’ I look with a hint of apology towards the men he’s with.

‘Sure.’ He grins at me. A nice grin. He really is good to look at. Not groundbreaking, earth-shattering, but nice.

He puts a hand on my elbow but I am leading him, walking quickly out of the ballroom, seeking privacy for no reason other than to give Jack a taste of his own damned medicine. That and to send a loud and clear message. He doesn’t control every part of me.

‘All good for later?’ Wolf asks.

I smile. ‘No, it’s not. I have to work tonight, actually. I’m going to brief Jack on the software situation.’

‘Tonight?’ He arches a brow, his voice rich with disbelief.

‘He micromanages everything,’ I explain. It’s true. ‘And he’s impatient as hell. I just want to make sure I have all the information.’

He nods, not quite hiding his disappointment. ‘Let’s recap.’

And that’s how I spend the nineteen minutes I have. Well, eighteen. . . I allow myself one minute to pull a bit of my hair loose from its bun and to pinch my cheeks, making them appear flushed with pleasure.

Jack is waiting for me in the limousine twenty-five minutes after I left him. I imitate breathlessness as I step inside, and enjoy the way his eyes sweep over me with undisguised speculation.

‘Ready?’

It’s not what I expected. I nod, but as I do so I feel like maybe I’m agreeing to something I don’t understand. Like there’s a hidden meaning I don’t yet know.

‘Yeah. Let’s go.’


We hope you enjoyed this sample of Off Limits – one of our new DARE books. Click here to find out more.