Hunted (An AAPI man/White woman, workplace romance) by Lisa Hughey

Life couldn’t get any better.

Tupua “Dwayne” Lameko sauntered toward his boss’s office, whistling contentedly. Last night had been just what he needed. He was relaxed, sexually sated, and full of good humor. Anticipation fizzed through him. Jillian Larsen, cofounder of Adams-Larsen Inc. and Associates—or ALIAS, as the employees liked to call it—had called him in early this morning, and he was hoping for an exciting new assignment.

He was anxious for heart-pumping action.

Maybe something with physical protection where he got to use his body. But whatever he did, he’d be in the field and away from—

“Oh.” He stopped, nearly stumbled.

Behind the receptionist’s desk outside Jillian’s office sat Maria Torres. The woman he needed to get some distance from.

For some bizarre reason, she turned him into a bumbling, unconfident rube. “Uh, you’re here early.” Smooth, Lameko.

Maria flushed and ducked her head.

Dwayne took a step back, trying not to crowd her. She’d been through enough and he sure as hell didn’t want to scare the poor woman.

Her silky ebony hair shone in the low office light. Her fingers tightened on the folder she held in front of her like a shield.

Dammit. He had scared her. “Jill here?”

“Go on in.” Her soft tones were barely audible even though there was an expectant hush in the office. “She’s waiting for you.”

Dwayne hustled into Jill’s office and let out a stressed sigh. Why did that woman, who should be the least threatening woman on the planet, rattle him?

Before he closed the door, he shot a final glance at Maria. Her head was bent while she stared at her desktop.

The vulnerable nape of her neck was scattered with fine hairs—appearing soft, but certainly not weak. She had kicked major ass. Every time he came face to face with her deep burled mahogany eyes, rounded cheeks, lush plump lips, and full-figured curves, his immediate, completely inappropriate, thought was she would be a lusty armful.

And that’s why he was going to hell.

Because he was inconveniently, ill-advisedly, out-of-his-freaking-mind, attracted to her.

Her overblown figure and slumberous eyes tripped his trigger in a major way. But what really did it for him?

Her spirit, her sheer bolos, to triumph over insurmountable odds, to move across the country to live in a city where she knew one person, Jill, was the cherry on top of her gorgeous forbidden sundae.

Lately he’d taken to one-night stands—a fact his mama was not happy about—just to try and fuck away his attraction to the off-limits Maria Torres.

She’d begun to come out of her shell, and her personality was as attractive as her physicality. Except when he was around. Then she was skittish, on the shy side, and definitely uncomfortable. He hated that she was afraid of him.

So even though he was crazy attracted to her, there was no way in hell anything was happening between them. He’d been cordial ever since she’d come to work at the office. But he knew he scared her and that was not acceptable.

“Dwayne,” Jill said brusquely.

He blinked, came back to awareness.

“Good to see you.” Jillian Larsen was Maria Torres’s polar opposite. Slender, platinum blonde, fair skin and slate-gray eyes, always clad in neutral tailored suits that were subtly sexy. She and her friend Marsh Adams had teamed up to start Adams-Larsen, a private witness protection firm. Every day Dwayne was thankful for this job, where he was making a difference.

“Morning.” He nodded.

“We have a situation.”

#

Maria Torres blew out an annoyed breath.

Dwayne—the player—Lameko always seemed one step away from bolting whenever he came into her sphere. As if she were the spider rather than the fly caught in his sexual web.

Ha.

She wanted him. Bad. But she had no idea how to go about getting him. The guy who had no compunction about picking up a woman for the night—assuming the office rumors were true—would not even come close to her. He seemed to go out of his way to flee from her.

Her shoulders slumped.

Maybe that in and of itself was telling. He didn’t want the damaged freak.

Her friends in California would say, “Go after him, girl.”

She’d escaped a morally bankrupt politician who had held her hostage in solitary confinement for more than eight years, but some days she wondered if she’d used up all her bravado planning and executing her escape from her prison.

She was afraid.

She didn’t want to be afraid, but she couldn’t seem to stop.

Her default was either scared or angry, except around Dwayne, when she became inept at forming words. Her heart banged against her ribcage and crowded her throat until she could only mumble in his presence.

And since that attraction was a dead end, she needed to focus on her life and what she was going to do next. The problem was…she had no idea. But it was time to consider her future.

When he closed the door to Jill’s office, she relaxed.

The front doorbell buzzed.

Maria peered at the security monitor, wondering who was here this early. Probably the client Jill and Dwayne were waiting for. She depressed the intercom button. “Hello.”

The girl at the door jumped about a foot in the air, then twisted her head back and forth, searching for a hidden enemy, her terror plain to see.

“Camera up and to your right.”

The stick-thin girl in a luxurious wool coat wrapped her arms around her waist protectively. She peered at the camera from underneath the matching knit cap that hid most of her face, revealing thick long eyelashes that glimmered with tears. She seemed to shake off her fear and pressed the intercom button. “I’m here to see Jillian Larsen.”

“Name?”

“I’d rather not say.” She glanced around furtively.

“Are we expecting you?”

“Sort of.”

“One moment.”

Fear rolled off the woman. Nausea swirled in the pit of Maria’s stomach. Her first impulse was to let her inside but she followed protocol and confirmed with Jill that the woman-girl scared of her own shadow did, in fact, have an appointment. Maria hustled down the stairs and opened the front door.

The girl threw herself inside the restored old brownstone and slammed her back against the closed door. One hand over her heart, she closed her eyes, the thick fan of her caramel lashes dark against her bleached white cheeks, her chest heaving. “Sorry, sorry.”

It wasn’t Maria’s place to judge, so she put away her concern and the glimmer of anxiety that transmitted from the woman and into her. The girl was stunning—gorgeous smooth cream skin, perfectly shaped eyebrows, hair a multitude of shades from auburn to caramel to a honey blond, and aristocratic cheekbones dusted pink. Her lips were a glossy cotton-candy pink that matched the bits of color in her bouclé wool coat.

The girl with no name was so shiny and perfect that she didn’t seem real. Except for the fear.

The girl shook off her insecurity and regained her composure before Maria’s eyes. Her shoulders relaxed, her chin elevated, and her mouth curved into a plastic, impersonal smile. “Well now that I’m inside—Elizabeth Vandenbeek—but call me Bitsy.”

Bitsy?

She extended her elegant, bony fingers and Maria clasped her hand with reluctance.

Maria was…solid. Not fat, but not ultrathin like this woman, and her pudgy fingers felt large in the woman’s grasp.

But if she’d been a delicate flower, she’d have never made it out of her prison. So, yeah. There was that.

Maria pulled her hand away, still uncomfortable with being touched.

“You seem familiar.” Bitsy squinted at Maria as if trying to place her.

Hopefully she didn’t follow politics or the crime pages.

“I don’t believe we’ve met.” Which of course they hadn’t, because for all her progress, Maria mostly went from the office to her studio apartment, and back again. The irrational panicky fear that hit her at odd times restricted her movements as easily as if she were tethered by an actual ball and chain. Maria turned to lead her to the office upstairs. “Jillian’s office is this way.”

Bitsy followed Maria up the grand staircase to Jill’s office. Her boss was her savior, her role model, and her confidante all in one.

Maria headed to the closed door, but after she knocked, Bitsy gasped.

“What’s wrong?” Maria whirled, her fight-or-flight response kicking into high gear. She put the girl behind her and searched for the threat.

“It’s you.”

She was what was wrong? Maria didn’t follow.

“I mean, you’re her.”

All the fight went out of her. Oh, that. She guessed it was too much to hope that Bitsy didn’t follow the news. Even though she’d tried to stay out of the limelight, some pictures of her had made it into the media during the trial.

“Everyone was talking about you. About how brave you are.” The girl grabbed Maria, her clasp surprisingly strong for such delicate bones. “Were you terrified?”

Maria’s hands went clammy, shook. She didn’t want to annoy the client, but she hated to be touched without warning.

Her stomach revolted but she clamped down and smiled tightly.

She didn’t talk about what happened to her.

She’d been offered a lot of money to tell the world about her ordeal. About the sheer terror of her abduction and then her horrified disbelief when they’d taken away the other girls and left her to rot in that underground cell.

About how her hope had slowly withered and died, just like the crops in the fields after the harvest. The crushing sense of loss in her heart when she finally accepted that no one was coming for her.

But it was private, personal. However that didn’t stop the media and the public from speculating about her.

Bitsy gripped Maria’s arm tightly. “You know how scary this is.”

Maria wanted to rip the girl’s fingers from her arm. Instead she gently removed the girl’s hand. “I’ll let Jillian know you’re here.”

Curiosity sparked as she wondered what this naïve young girl was doing at Adams-Larsen. But that didn’t matter. Bitsy Vandenbeek had nothing to do with her.

The girl reached for her again. Maria shoved Bitsy into the occupied office, for once so rattled that she didn’t have time to stutter around Dwayne.

“Bitsy Vandenbeek to see you.” Then Maria shut the door.

She sank into the chair behind her receptionist desk. Would the unrelenting fear, the aversion to physical contact, and the rage that seemed to explode with no warning ever go away?

Now that the girl was in Jill’s office and she was done dealing with Ms. Vandenbeek, Maria could breathe.

The intercom buzzed. “Maria. We’re going to need you.”

***

Why do they need Maria? And will she ever work up the nerve to talk to Dwayne? Click here to read Hunted.

Happy Reading!

<3 Lisa