His kiss was firm and lingering as he cradled her head in one broad palm.
“Annie,” he murmured as he took in a breath. His hand moved to brush her cheek. He kissed her again.
Annie’s stomach churned while her lips went on automatic pilot. Kissing Rick Stebbins was nothing new and, frankly, less exciting every time. But in the moment, it seemed the safest choice among miserable alternatives.
She pictured where her blue Prius was stashed in the parking lot behind the modest glazed-brick office building. A small red duffel lay on the passenger seat and a compact suitcase on the floor. The denim bag she had carried since high school, on the desk she was leaning against, held her laptop in its padded case. Car keys hung from a belt loop on her jeans. Her cell phone was in a back pocket.
Annie Friesen was ready.
Rick would never admit to what she suspected. More than suspected. She was no lawyer, but she knew it would take more evidence to make an accusation stick.
And Rick was a lawyer. Her lawyer. Her intellectual property lawyer. If only he had not slipped that extraneous document between the pages of the last contract awaiting her signature in triplicate. Whatever she thought she felt for him dissolved with that test of her attention to detail. He was the one who failed. She would sign nothing more from Rick Stebbins.
Rick took another breath. The air he exhaled on her neck was hot, and his fingers moved down to the front of her neck, toying with the gold chain resting on her collarbone.
I am so out of here, she thought, and ducked her head to avoid further lip contact. She stroked his tie before putting her fingers lightly on his chest and pressing him away gently.
“I have work to do,” she said, “a meeting tonight. I told you about it.”
“You can be late.” Rick put his hands on her elbows.
She had seen him when he did not get his way—the weight of his hand slamming the desk in frustration, the set of his jaw, the frenzy of work that ensued. This time Annie did not plan to be anywhere in sight. He would calm down once he accepted that his plan would never happen. And then they would be over.
Annie shook her head and squirmed out of his grip. “You’re the one who said I have to protect my copyright at all costs.”
“Isn’t that what you pay me to do?” Rick asked. “Are you sure
I shouldn’t be with you tonight?”
To Annie’s relief, he did not move toward her again. “I want to try the civilized approach,” she said. “Barrett and I have worked together a long time. Surely we can still talk to each other.”
“He’s adamant the new program was his idea. He even retained his own counsel.” Rick laughed. “I guess he doesn’t trust me any more than he trusts you.”
“Our relationship has been no secret to anyone working here.” Annie picked up the denim bag and slung it casually over one shoulder. But it’s over now. That was your last kiss, buddy.
“Don’t sign anything I wouldn’t want you to sign.” Rick raised his dark eyebrows at her.
What he wanted her to sign was precisely the problem.
Annie opened her office door, stepped through, and waited for Rick to follow. She locked it behind him and concentrated on breathing evenly. No one would think twice about seeing them together at the end of the day leaving the building that housed Annie and Barrett’s small company.
They were more than successful. The first financial security software program Annie wrote, which Barrett marketed, sold rapidly. First, small credit unions bought it, then large ones, then conventional banks. Before long, a firm specializing in serving the financial industry recognized their program for the gem it was and bought them out. Annie was twenty-seven and had more money in her bank account than her parents had seen in all their working lives—or would ever see. She and Barrett decided to open another company and see if they could do it again, this time with a program that used store discount cards to track grocery inventory movement according to customer shopping habits and product placement. They also served a number of local companies with website design and custom software. These clients provided a working lab. Sometimes the problems she solved on a smaller level became just what Annie needed to get past a glitch in the bigger project.
Annie just wanted to write software. She was happy to see Barrett get rich right along with her. He was brilliant with the marketing and sales side and had earned his share of the fortune.
But Barrett wanted it all. He couldn’t write software to find his way out of his gym socks, in Annie’s opinion, but now that she was on the verge of a breakthrough, he wanted to squeeze her out of the latest deal.
And Rick was helping him. Annie was sure of it. She couldn’t prove it, but that didn’t mean she was going to lie down and let it happen. She merely needed a few days where she could think clearly and make a plan to fix this mess.
Outside the building, she pushed the button on her clicker, and the lights on her car flashed.
“Call me later?” Rick’s brown eyes glimmered in familiarity and suggestion.
“It might be late.” More like never!
“It’s never too late if it’s you.”
Aw. He can say the sweetest things. Not.
Annie let him peck her cheek and then walked briskly to her car while he seemed to saunter toward his on the other side of the lot. She navigated out of the maze of look-alike buildings in the complex and pulled out onto Powers Boulevard, a north-south arterial. Early on a mid-July evening, the Colorado Springs sky was still a stunning blue. The rush-hour traffic that glutted Powers in late afternoons had thinned—as much as it ever thinned on Powers—to midweek moviegoers, diners, and chain-store shoppers. Annie whizzed past one shopping center after another, a progression that also thinned and gave way to industrial complexes.
She glanced in her rearview mirror and glimpsed Rick’s bronze Jeep two lanes over and six cars back.
Maybe she should hire a private eye. Or another intellectual property attorney. Someone who had a clue what to do. But she could do nothing with Rick Stebbins hovering over her every move, waltzing into the office at his whim, and making plans for them every night. A room in a bed-and-breakfast in Steamboat Springs awaited her, but she had to slip off Rick’s radar.
Barrett was waiting—supposedly—and Rick was following. He was not even going to wait for a report from Barrett, apparently. Annie may have been trusting and naive up to this point, but she was not going to walk into a trap now.
Would he hurt her? Annie did not intend to risk finding out.
Heart racing, she turned right just where Rick would expect her to turn and headed west around the south edge of the city. A few seconds later, his Jeep slowly made the same turn. If she deviated from the predicted route too soon, Rick’s suspicions would go into high gear. And if she made the wrong turn, she would hit a dead end. Neighborhoods of Colorado Springs were not tidy little squares on a grid. They were full of curves and angles and cutoffs and one-way streets and dead ends. Annie had grown up in this town and had been driving her own car for almost ten years. At the moment, she wanted to slap herself for not being sure where these side streets would take her.
Annie jerked the wheel to the right and swung into a sedate neighborhood of lawns and front porches, as if decades ago builders were determined to recreate the Midwest in the high desert climate. She couldn’t squeal her tires without raising attention, but she pushed over the speed limit as much as she dared.
A moment later, Rick’s Jeep appeared. Was it her imagination, or was he following more closely?