Revenge and Redemption
An Enemies To Lovers Romance
"That bloke has been staring at you forever."
Claire Morse followed her assistant manager's gaze to the man sitting in the back of her tearoom. The man conspicuously engrossed in the month old gardening magazine clutched in his big, strong hands.
She frowned. "Trust me, I am the last woman in the world that man would be interested in. Well, second last," she corrected herself as she slid a non-fat chai-latte across the benchtop and thanked her customer.
"Nonsense," Karen said with a frown. "Why do you always put yourself down like that?"
Ignoring the question, Claire nodded at their topic of conversation, a man who still had the power to make her knees wobble and her pulse race at the mere sight of him. "Do you know who that is?"
Her frown quickly replaced by a dreamy stare, Karen sighed. "He's tall, dark and sinfully delicious. Who cares who he is?"
"His name is Luke Hardcastle."
"You know him?" Karen said, her voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper as she cleaned the benchtop.
"Mostly by reputation."
Claire ignored Karen's upraised eyebrows and impish grin. "You know those overbearing, self-absorbed, stupidly wealthy playboys with the endless string of model girlfriends and the holier-than-thou attitude that you hate so much?"
"Yeah," Karen said, her tone cautious as she drew the word out.
"Meet their leader."
Claire laughed. "If it makes you feel better he wasn't always an arsehole, not really."
"Not sure, but a couple of years ago his women started getting thinner, blonder and more frequent."
"Typical. I tell you what though, he's looking at you again." Claire shifted her gaze to Luke's and got caught in his stare. "Are you blushing?" Karen whispered with no small amount of amusement.
Claire turned away and cleared her throat. "I'm going to do the rosters. I'll be in the office if you need me," she called over her shoulder, then took off downstairs and winced at the thunderous sound of her footfalls on the ancient timber staircase.
Located at the rear of the bookstore, her office was roughly the size of a largish toilet. Not the ideal workspace by any stretch of the imagination, but at least it was hers. Sucking in her stomach, she squeezed past the boxes of newly arrived bestsellers then slumped into the cheap plastic garden chair at her desk. She wriggled in her seat as she tried to find a comfortable position and cursed herself again for breaking her office chair.
Still amazed the chair was the only thing that got broken, Claire frowned as she remembered the night she’d tripped over in the dark and landed awkwardly on the stupid thing. The fact she'd been drunk at the time hadn't helped relieve the guilt of breaking something she'd spent almost half a week's wages on.
Of course the only reason she'd been drunk in the first place was because her so called date that evening had been a total wanker. He'd actually admitted during the entrées that he'd only asked her out because she was Amanda Morse's niece and he'd been hoping for an introduction, a shortcut into the corporate shark tank that was Morse Industries, her aunt's blood sucking corporate demolition company. It was shortly after that little revelation that she'd stopped paying attention, to both her date and how much wine she'd consumed.
When it came down to a choice between talking about her aunt with forced civility or suffering a blinding hangover, the hangover was definitely the lesser of two evils.
Claire huffed out a sigh. Why did every man who asked her out want to talk about her aunt? How did every one of them buy into the lie that was Amanda Morse? Of course she knew how. Because Amanda was an expert at hiding her true colours until it was too late. She was the spider, they were the fly and eventually everyone got caught in her web.
But Claire still thought it might be nice if just one man actually wanted to date her for, well, her. Surely there had to be someone out there who didn’t see her surname and salivate at the career potential. There must be someone who appreciated smart chicks with fat bums and a penchant for chocolate cake and antiquing.
Of course not, Claire. Don't be daft.
Staring vacantly at the spreadsheet open on her laptop, she wondered if Luke Hardcastle ever dated someone like her. Probably not. Not "Love 'em and leave 'em Hardcastle". Claire knew his preferred type well enough. Models. Tall, blonde, snap-in-half-in-a-stiff-breeze-willowy, butter-wouldn't-melt-in-their-mouths models. Women who oozed sophistication and grace. Not a tall, overweight, brunette klutz who'd opened a tearoom above her bookstore because she appreciated the sheer indulgence of pretty china tea settings, miniature cakes and finger sandwiches and thought skim milk was a crime against nature.
Luke wouldn't be caught dead dating someone like her.
What is he doing in Novelteas?
Claire hadn’t laid eyes on the man in eighteen months, not since the unpleasantness that got her sacked from Morse Industries. It didn't make any sense for him to be in her shop—surely he had people who could fetch him a cup of tea when he wanted one. She guessed it was possible he didn't know who owned the place. He probably didn't even remember her. Officially, they'd only met twice before and the second of those times had basically entailed her trying not to burst into tears while he hurled obscenities at her for twenty minutes straight. Or maybe he did remember her and that's why he'd tried hiding behind the magazine.
Either way, speculating about Luke’s agenda wasn’t getting the rosters done. But just as she refocussed her attention, someone knocked on her open door.
"Come in if you dare," Claire said, thinking it was Karen with a Luke update, but when she glanced up she was surprised to see the man himself.
In a moment of panic she shot to her feet and knocked her chair backwards, then in typical Claire form, as she tried to step over the protruding chair legs, she tripped. The only thing stopping her from face-planting into a pile of boxes was a strong, warm hand gripping her forearm.
An equally strong, warm voice accompanied the action. "Do be careful, Miss Morse. We wouldn't want you to have a fall in the workplace. The paperwork alone is a nightmare."
Claire stared, wide-eyed and slack-jawed as his deep, rich voice filled her tiny office and wrapped itself around her like a lover's arms.
Oh no, not again.
She'd had the same fanciful reaction the first time they'd met face to face, ten years ago when she was a shy, nervous nineteen year old interning for her aunt. And again eighteen months ago when he’d stormed Amanda’s office.
But it wasn’t just his voice that made her insides quiver with awareness.
Ten years of unrequited yearning surged through her body at the feel of his flesh against hers, at the fantastic sensation of scorching heat flowing from his fingertips and into her arm. She pressed her thighs together as her body flushed with wanting.
All he'd done was touch her arm and she was behaving like an idiotic schoolgirl, staring at the man like a deer caught in headlights.
Claire groaned inwardly.
Why him? Why couldn't she crush on some nice normal bloke with a regular job and a boring little life? She knew why. Because no man like that had ever made her feel the way this man had. No nice normal man had ever made her heart thump out of her chest just by touching her arm.
Did it matter that he had a reputation for being a womanising pig, or that he made more money in a day than she did in a year? Apparently it didn't make a lick of difference to her libido.
Not a lick.
Claire softened as she let her gaze drift over the man standing in her office doorway—a man tall enough to hold her the way she'd always imagined a man should hold a woman, and strong enough to lift her freakishly large body effortlessly in his perfectly sculptured arms. Not that she'd seen those arms first hand, but photos of him topless appeared on the cover of enough supermarket tabloids to give her a pretty good idea. That coupled with a fairly decent imagination meant she had some very nice arm porn tucked away in her spank bank.
But it was his face that really did her in. Luke Hardcastle was a disturbingly handsome man with a wide, sensuous mouth that she just knew could satisfy her every carnal fantasy, and golden amber eyes that sparkled with the promise of mischief. Eyes that were… narrowed under an arched brow as he stared at her.
Snapping her mouth shut, Claire managed to pull herself together long enough to free her arm from Luke's strong grip. "Thank you," she muttered as her cheeks flamed with heat.
Shoving his hands in his pockets and leaning against the doorjamb, Luke said, "Quaint little office you have here. Cosy."
That hit a nerve. She folded her arms across her chest. "Do you need something?" she said as politely as possible, which truthfully wasn't very polite at all.
"As a matter of fact, I do," Luke said, his voice and manners all practiced charm as if she hadn't just snapped at him. "I wish to speak with you about a personal matter. I'd like you to come by my office so we can discuss it."
"A personal matter?" Claire repeated, her brow pulling down in confusion.
What personal matter could Luke Hardcastle possibly wish to discuss with me?
As soon as she finished the thought, she was struck by another. The realisation Luke thought she would simply drop everything to accommodate him. And that pissed her off even more than his snide remark about the size of her office.
"I have a business to run, Mr Hardcastle. Getting across town in the middle of the day for no good reason is a waste of time I don't have. If you wish to speak with me about anything, you're welcome to step inside my office. Cosy as it may be."
Luke's perfect mouth twisted and his eyes narrowed. "Fine," he said, then stepped inside and struggled to shut the door, shoving it past the same stack of boxes she'd squeezed past earlier.
"I'd offer you a seat but…." Claire said, leaving the statement hanging as she gestured at the lack of available space. Turning away from him, she righted the garden chair, sat down and waited for Luke to speak.
As he leaned against the boxes he sniffed the air. "What is that smell?"
Breathing deeply, Claire smiled. Best smell ever. "Knowledge."
"Okay, technically it's the degradation of the chemical compounds used to make paper, ink and the polymers used to bind them together into books. But 'knowledge' sounds nicer."
For a fleeting moment Claire could have sworn she saw a genuine smile grace Luke's handsome face.
And for a moment she forget to breathe.
Recovering her senses, she cleared her throat. "What did you wish to say to me?"
With his implacable mask back in place, Luke said, "I own you."
Claire folded her arms again. "That's funny. I don't remember being for sale."
Luke inclined his head. "I misspoke. I meant I own your shop. I've bought up all the property in this section of Merthyr Road."
"I see," Claire said slowly, her voice cautious. "And you're telling me this because…?"
"The previous owner told me some of the other retailers look to your business acumen and expertise when dealing with the landlord, so consider this a courtesy call. I'm your new landlord, and I wish to discuss the parameters of the new lease agreements. I thought you might like to take a look at them before I speak with the other retailers."
Frowning, she said, "I thought you said you wanted to discuss a personal matter?"
"I would have thought the future of your business was a personal matter, Miss Morse. We wouldn't want anyone going out of business unnecessarily now, would we?"
Claire felt the heat drain from her face and ice skittered over her skin. "I don't suppose you happen to have one of these new agreements on you?"
The bastard smirked. "Not at present, no. But if you would follow me to my office…."
"I told you, I can't just up and leave in the middle of the day. Unlike some people I can't afford to swan off whenever I feel like it."
The smirk slipped. "What time do you close?"
"Can you be at Hardcastle Tower by five-thirty?"
Claire pasted on a smile and tightened her arms across her ample chest. She didn't miss Luke's gaze darting to her breasts, lingering. "I don't drive, so, probably not." Even on its best days, public transport was notoriously unreliable.
Flicking his gaze back to hers, Luke said, "I'll send a car for you." Then he was reaching for the doorknob as though everything was done and settled, but before he opened the door, he looked back at the boxes of books and shook his head.
Slipping his suit jacket off, he handed it to Claire. "Hold this." Then he leaned into the stack and shifted it back just far enough that the door could swing freely again.
Claire stared at his body as he moved, watched his back flex and his biceps bulge with the effort of shoving 200 hardcover novels out of his way. He made it look so easy, as if the boxes weighed next to nothing instead of the 150 kilograms she knew them to be. She half expected his muscles to burst through the stitching of his business shirt, Incredible Hulk style.
And she tried not to stare when he took his jacket back and slipped those strong arms inside the sleeves, hiding them from view.
She did, however, bite her lip.
And maybe squeeze her thighs together.
Luke didn't seem to notice. "A car will be here at five o'clock sharp to collect you. I suggest you don't keep me waiting, Miss Morse."
And just like that, her interest waned as the urge to tell Luke to get the fuck out of her quaint little office bubbled up inside her, but she bit her tongue instead. Changes to her lease meant possible changes to her income, and Claire had a mortgage to pay, and wages, and insurance premiums, and electricity bills and a hundred and one other day to day expenses that sucked her bank accounts dry every month.
She couldn't afford to be rude.
And the arsehole knew it.
Afraid of what she'd say if she dared to open her mouth, Claire nodded sharply.
"Good. I'll see you this afternoon, then." Then he shut the door behind him and disappeared back into her bookstore.
Claire wanted to scream. She wanted to rail and hit and scratch Luke's golden-boy eyes out.
For a moment there, when she was ogling the live-action arm porn, she'd forgotten who he was. Who he really was.
He wasn't someone to be admired and he certainly wasn't someone she should be drooling over.
Luke Hardcastle was the man who'd gotten her sacked.
"You're going to be late."
Luke shuffled the deck then dealt the cards. "She can wait."
Luke matched his younger sister's warning tone. "Lottie." Then asked, "What's with the purple hair?"
Picking up her cards, she said, "I've been helping out in the children's ward, reading to them, playing games, that sort of thing. The purple hair makes them smile. It helps distract them. And distracting them distracts me. But don't change the subject. What's wrong? You don't seem as enthusiastic about our plan as you did last week. Did something happen?"
Raking his hand through his hair he eyed his sister with caution. After eighteen months of nagging her to fight back she'd finally relented and agreed to join him in his quest for vengeance against Morse Industries.
Only now he was having second thoughts.
Because of Claire Morse.
It had been so long since he'd last seen her, he'd forgotten the effect she had on him.
"Are you sure you want to do this, Lottie?"
She raised a brow at him. "A bit late to be asking me that now, don't you think? Are you having second thoughts?"
Luke stared at his cards. "Honestly? Yes."
Lottie smirked. "Is this because you still have a thing for Claire Morse?"
"I do not have a thing for Claire Morse."
I might have a thing for Claire Morse.
He'd preened in her office, for fuck's sake. He'd flexed his muscles and moved a huge stack of boxes out of her way then gloried in her open sexual response to him. He hadn't missed her perfect white teeth sinking into the pillow of her bottom lip, or the way she'd pressed her thighs together as her gaze raked over his chest and arms. The speed of his erection under her unfettered stare had caught him off guard and he'd beat a hasty retreat.
"Uh-huh." His sister grinned. "You're thinking about her right now, aren’t you?"
"I admit to nothing," Luke said, rearranging the cards in his hand. Then he pinned her with a serious stare. "Lottie, you're my baby sister and you know I would do anything for you. But I need to know you're comfortable with what we're doing, and not just doing it to appease me. This is some serious shit and it could get very nasty. I don't want you to have any regrets."
"If everything goes according to plan, I won't have any regrets. I know it's the right thing to do," she said, and Luke's heart sank. But he smiled at her anyway. "I don't know how much time I have left but I want to accomplish something worthwhile before I die. Taking Morse Industries down and making sure that evil company can't hurt anyone else seems like a pretty freaking noble endeavour, if you ask me. So no, Luke, I'm not doing this to appease you. I'm doing it because it needs to be done."
Luke stared at his sister for a long moment then nodded his head. He would proceed with the plan. He would ignore the lust he felt screaming through his body every time he saw Claire and he would use her to take down Morse Industries from the inside. Luke would seek vengeance on his sister's behalf and he would shove aside his misgivings and focus on the goal.
Destroy Morse Industries.
Destroy Amanda Morse.
Rid himself of Claire Morse once and for all and forget she ever existed.
Easier said than done.
"Do you have any nines," Lottie said, pulling him from his thoughts.