Page 19 of Hardline (Hacker 3)

“Oh, thanks,” I said shyly.

“So tell me about Clozpin. What have you been up to?”

I cleared my throat, hoping I didn’t look as awkward as I felt. I looked up at Blake. “Um, I’d love a drink.”

A crooked grin curved his lips. “Sure thing. Alex?”

Alex raised his glass. “I’m good.”

Blake maneuvered with grace toward the bar. My body cooled where he’d held me by his side. I took a quick breath. I needed some space to say what I’d come to say to Alex. I met his eyes with a small smile.

“I’ll be honest, Alex. The business has been going great. We’ve picked up some big name advertisers, and there has been an impressive growth spurt in the very short time we’ve been funded. The trajectory is strong. However, a competitor site recently popped up. They’ve essentially cloned us and are now trying to poach our advertisers.”

He frowned. “That must be frustrating.”

“Very, but it’s been an eye-opener too. Our team is stronger than we’ve ever been, our foundation is very solid, and I think we could transition to the next level pretty easily and leave this copycat in the dust.”

He took a sip off his drink.

“How do you plan to do that?”

“That’s where you come in. I’m open to suggestions, but this seems like a perfect time to partner with someone who could use our traffic to build sales of their own and help us grow in return. I checked out your site after the conference, and while ecommerce has always been in the back of my mind, I’ve admittedly had my hands full growing our current business model. I wasn’t ready for a major shift until recently.”

He nodded slowly. A ghost of a smile curved his lips. “I can see why Landon invested with you.”

I laughed nervously, not quite knowing how to respond. My thoughts went to Blake as Alex’s words echoed in my mind. I cocked my head and studied him a moment.

“I don’t remember mentioning that Blake was an investor, but perhaps that was obvious.”

“I might have assumed, but no, we spoke a bit today over the phone. He just wanted to touch base and it came up. Don’t worry, he was determined to let you pitch me. He failed to mention the copycat though, which makes me all the more impressed that you were honest with me about it.”

My jaw set. I didn’t know whether to be annoyed with Blake or proud that I’d impressed Alex. But why was he always meddling? When would he realize I could hold my own? My brain reminded me that he wanted to help, compulsively so, but another part of me wondered if he truly believed I could handle it.

Alex’s voice broke me from my thoughts. “Sounds like a promising start though. Let’s meet up tomorrow to talk details. I don’t want to pull you away from the party. I’m sure Blake’s eager to show you around. Plenty of people to meet here.”

He nodded beyond me. I followed his gaze, suddenly more determined to find Blake’s face in the crowd than I was to butter up my prospective business partner. When I found him, my heart fell into my stomach. The chiseled outline of his profile faced Risa. She twisted a lose strand of her jet-black hair around her finger as she spoke, mouthing words I couldn’t read. She looked as put together as ever in an all black designer suit. But her expression was tentative, her eyes wide and her body leaning back slightly from the unmoving column of Blake’s body.


I turned my attention back to Alex.

“Are you fine meeting for lunch tomorrow?”

My thoughts suddenly scattered. “Yes, that’s fine.”

“Great. Let’s meet at the hotel restaurant around noon.”

“Sounds good. I’ll look forward to it.”

Then Blake was beside me, circling a hand around my upper arm. His grip was firm enough to send warning signals to my brain. When had I become so in tune to his moods? And when did my body start reacting so acutely to them?

“Alex, will you excuse us?” Blake’s voice was no longer relaxed and casual. Instead the words came across curt, as if Alex were no longer an old friend, but just another business acquaintance.

“Of course. Have a great night, you two.”

Alex waved us off without another word. Blake led me toward the exit we’d just arrived through, his hold on me tightening a fraction. I resisted the urge to yank out of his grasp and call him out on getting to Alex with my pitch before I had a chance to. I wanted to be angry with him for unnecessarily butting into my professional life yet again, but something was definitely wrong beyond all that.

“What is Risa doing here?”

“She’s here for the same reason everyone else is here. To see and be seen.” The words came through gritted teeth.

My stomach knotted with worry. We slowed in front of the bank of elevators, and he hit the button hard.

“What did she say?”

The bell rang, and we entered the mercifully empty car. The doors closed slowly and he backed me toward the mirrored wall of the elevator, pinning me there with the closeness of his body. He grasped my jaw, forcing us eye-to-eye. I couldn’t evade the intense eyes that burned into me.

“I’m going to ask you one last time. And you’ll tell me the goddamn truth. If you don’t, we’re finished. Done.”

The knot in my stomach doubled at hearing his threat.

“You lied to me once, because you thought you were protecting me, but if you lie to me right now, it’ll be the last chance you’ll ever have.” He took a short breath. “Tell me the truth, and we’ll figure it out.”

I thought my heart might pound right out of my chest at its current pace. I was too stunned to respond for a few seconds.

“’re scaring me.”

His jaw worked, as if wrestling with the words he held behind the firm line of his beautiful lips. “Did. You. Fuck. James?”

My heart stopped. I looked into his eyes, desperately searching for a reason for his unexpected question.

“No,” I whispered.

The car came to a stop, and he left me, moving swiftly down the hallway. I hurried out, following him into our room. I lingered by the door, my mind still racing. What had Risa said? What had spurred this intensity from him, seemingly out of nowhere?

Blake tossed his jacket off. It landed on a chair and he moved to the window. Shoving his hands through his hair, he faced the sprawling city view.

I simply stared. In awe, in fear, in love. I didn’t know what was happening between us tonight, but I hated how far away he already felt. I took a step toward him and stopped short when he turned to face me. My breath left me when our eyes met again. Stone cold. As dark and unfeeling as I’d ever seen them. No longer my sweet and romantic lover, the man in front of me was the ruthless billionaire who wouldn’t be crossed.