Page 41 of Unexpectedly Yours

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He ended the call and glanced at Caroline, who was smiling. “He’s going to hate you,” she said.

“He doesn’t have to like me.” He wanted to explain it to her, but didn’t know how to couch it. The business end of their meeting was straightforward. It was the personal side that was complicated. How did he tell her he hadn’t been able to get her out of his head all week? That he felt guilty as hell and he never felt guilty where women were concerned? “I only need him to do two things. First, he has to get this project right. Second, I need him to leave you alone.”

“You don’t have to fight my battles for me, Josh.”

“You really are a piece of work. What’s wrong with a little help from a friend?”

“It’s called being independent. You think I’m being difficult, but I’m not going to have you watching my back for the rest of my life.”

Josh almost answered with a simple“Why not?”but he put the brakes on before it slipped over his tongue.Holy hell.

That was forever talk.

Tamping down his reaction, Josh refocused. If he had to, he could hire a different consultant, but Caroline was another matter altogether. He’d done some digging, and found out that Mark was a serial abuser who had a history of harassing women. He was a fucking brilliant administrator, which was the only reason he was still employed anywhere. But if he kept after Caroline, there would be a whole world of hurt raining down on Mr. Strickland.

Josh hadn’t realized how much she’d gotten under his skin until that moment. This wasn’t going to be easy and he was almost regretting his friendship proposal. It was going to be torture. But she needed him.

He needed her.

The physical attraction? He got that, and he could understand it, but it was the other piece, the protective piece, that had him reeling. Josh should step into the “big brother role,” but he didn’t know if he wanted it. It felt wrong to him, dishonest, since Caroline stirred his libido like no one else. There was nothing brotherly going on at all.

He could see how much work agitated her when they were waiting for the elevator. She was twisting her fingers so vigorously he thought she might pull them off. He’d never seen anyone so tense.

Then Josh wondered if Mark was making her nervous, or if it was him. Was she anticipating a confrontation with her boss, or was she reacting to Josh’s presence? Josh knew she made him plenty nervous. It would be nice to know the feelings were reciprocated. They stepped into the elevator and Josh was grateful when the doors closed and they were the only ones in there.

“I was thinking, maybe we could go to a movie or something.”

The look on her face told him he’d just shocked her pretty thoroughly. Made sense since he’d shocked himself. “You mean like a date?” she asked.

“Yeah. I mean if you want to.” He sounded like a teenage boy asking out his crush.

“We could do that.” She cleared her throat. “But I want to cook dinner for you, too,” she said.

“Cook for me?”

Nodding, Caroline smiled. “Just a friendly dinner.”

“Of course,” he said. “Your place?”

She shook her head, and when she chewed on her lips Josh had to wonder if he was being played. “No, yours. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about your kitchen. I’m dying to try it out.” Damn. What did she mean by that? Her face, her eyes said they might do more than just cook. Maybe her confidence didn’t need as much work as he thought. The elevator door opened, and while Josh had to hope his raging hard-on wasn’t going to screw with his meeting, Caroline was looking pretty pleased with herself.

Yeah. He’d been played. Completely.

For the first time ever, Josh realized he’d lost the upper hand with a woman. And he didn’t know if he wanted it back.

The Fern was staring at them as they got off the elevator and Josh squeezed Caroline’s hand before she went back to work. Right on cue, Mark appeared, and Josh had to suppress the urge to kick the shit out of the guy, especially when he looked at Caroline like she was his choice on the menu.

“Josh, finally. So good to meet you. Mark Strickland.”

Taking Mark’s hand, he got a look at the guy up close for the first time. He was about five-ten. Couple hundred pounds. Square and stocky. Of course, Josh straightened his back, so at six-four he towered over the older man. What was he? In his early forties, maybe?

“I didn’t love the brush-off this morning. I hope that’s not going to happen again.”

At the end of the hallway he could see a nice conference room. The perfect spot for an ass-kicking. “You know how things can get. A problem that had to be dealt with.”

“Ah,” Josh said. “I do. Next time take care of it before our appointment.”

“Right, of course.” Mark motioned him down the hallway with one hand, but Josh noticed the other hand was clenched tight. Mark didn’t like being called out.