“Figures,” Ella grumbled, staring up at the imposing building that housed the headquarters of Reynolds Industries. Over the past few days, she’d done her research and, although the Duke of Theeds, Edward Reynolds, was still alive, he wasn’t active in the social world anymore. But he hadn’t passed his title or wealth on to his son, Malcolm Reynolds. In a way, Ella respected Malcolm more because he’d created so much from nothing. He hadn’t inherited his wealth, like so many rich aristocrats in the world. He’d created a massive empire through grit and determination. He was thirty-six years old and a billionaire many times over. He bought ailing companies, fixed them up, and sold them off. So he didn’t really own anything, other than a huge amount of land and real estate, all of which was separate from his investment company.
And yet, she remembered that shiver of awareness a couple of days ago at the restaurant. The man was tall and arrogant, she thought. But if there was one thing that had never impressed her, it was wealth. In fact, because of the way Edward Reynolds had treated Ella’s mother, the way the arrogant jerk had simply tossed her out of his house because he could, his disdain for decades of loyalty and service had caused Ella to despise people with a disproportionate amount of wealth. They had too much power and, in most cases, wielded that power with contemptuous disregard for anyone outside of their social circle.
But staring up at this imposing building, Ella felt…something. Something strange that…well, it wasn’t important, she thought. “He’s just compensating,” she muttered.
“What do you suspect I’m compensating for?” a deep voice asked from behind her.
Startled, Ella swung around, finding Malcolm Reynolds much closer than she’d anticipated. Much closer and…had he grown a few inches over the past few days? The man was crazy tall! Well over six feet. Ella was five feet, seven inches, so she was relatively tall for a woman. Plus she’d worn black boots with three inch heels. But good grief! Malcolm Reynolds still towered over her!
“What are you doing out here?” she gasped, stepping back to put some space between them.
Those cobalt blue eyes sparkled with amusement, the corners crinkling enticingly. “Am I not supposed to be outside?”
Her eyes narrowed as she realized that he was teasing her. “You’re supposed to be inside, destroying people’s lives,” she retorted with a defiant lift of her chin.
“Ah,” he laughed, leaning back slightly. “Well, I broke up ten families this morning, so I thought I’d take a break. Would you like to come inside?” he offered. “We can throw a dart on the wall and see who I should destroy this afternoon. Would be fun….”
Ella bristled at his tone. “This is funny to you?” she demanded, her temper increasing with his mocking attitude.
“A little,” he replied with a soft chuckle, putting a hand to the small of her back as he led her into the building. “I think that you are a brilliant reporter, Ella. I’ve followed your career over the years and I’ve been impressed with not only by your bravery at reporting on horrible situations, but also your talent at conveying those issues.”
He pressed a button on the elevator and, almost immediately, the elevator appeared. With that hand still at her back, he nudged her into the elevator and, they rose. Since this was a glass elevator that looked out at the city, Ella automatically stepped away from the glass and the scary heights. Unfortunately, she stepped back…against him. For a stolen instant, she could feel the hard muscles of his chest against her back and his strong arms around her waist. It was a shocking but pleasant sensation and, since it had been a long time since she’d even kissed a man, it took her a moment to pull away.
“Sorry,” she muttered, jerking away from him. But she didn’t move too far. The glass of the elevator might be thick, but she didn’t trust anything to keep her safe this high above the ground. Unfortunately, that left her standing awkwardly in the middle of the elevator and she almost jumped through the doors when they finally opened on the executive floor.
Breathing deeply, she looked around, trying to calm her racing nerves. Obviously, Ella wasn’t a huge fan of heights and she looked up at Malcolm, bracing herself for his amusement at her expense.
“This way,” he said and gestured towards one end of the elegantly decorated hallway. No jokes about her fear of heights? No pity or laughter in his eyes? Ella was confused because…he wasn’t going to laugh at her?
Reluctantly grateful, Ella followed him down the elegantly decorated hallway, looking around, trying to take in everything as she passed. Feelings, smells, other people’s expressions. Everything would be included in her story.
Malcolm paused at an older woman’s desk. “Nancy, would you order some lunch for us? We’re going to be a while.”
Ella frowned. “I’m not staying for lunch,” she told him, even though she was famished. She’d skipped breakfast this morning, wanting to check in with her editor before coming to meet with Malcolm.
Nancy ignored Ella and nodded to her boss before turning back to her computer. Order lunch online? That would be excellent! Ella had been out of the country for so long, living in mud huts, tin-roofed houses, or tents…none of which had had reliable internet service. She’d read articles about these conveniences, but since she’d only been back in London for a few days, she hadn’t experienced the glory of ordering food from one’s phone and having it delivered, hot and yummy, to one’s doorstep. Her idea of convenience over the past few years was picking ripe fruit from a tree.
Ella tore her curious eyes away from Nancy’s computer and hurried after Malcolm into the office.
“Close the door,” Malcolm ordered.
Ella had to restrain herself from slamming it while curtsying. Sarcastically, of course. But she stepped back and quietly closed the door, then turned to face the man she was going to put into prison.
“I read that story you did on last month on human trafficking. It was brilliant. Do you think it will do any good?”
Ella had written about the desperate situation in several countries, which created an environment where teenage girls could be enticed to apply for “jobs” in other countries. Unfortunately, the modeling jobs, nanny positions, and housekeeping roles never materialized. Instead, those vulnerable girls were forced into horrible situations, beaten and drugged, sold off as prostitutes, and never seen by their families again. Most of them died and were simply tossed into the streets or a pit somewhere out of the way, easily replaced by yet another girl trying desperately to “make it” in the world.
“I don’t know. I ensured that the articles also ran in the smaller newspapers. So if the article saves even one girl from being kidnapped and used, then that’s a good thing.”
He nodded sharply, those cobalt blue eyes sharp and intelligent. “I agree. What are you working on now?”
She smiled, sitting down in the club chair across from him. “I’ve come across some interesting leads for a story that, I suspect, started decades ago. Maybe longer.”
“I’m intrigued.” He opened his mouth to say more, but a knock sounded and Nancy stepped into the office carrying a full tray. “Thank you, Nancy,” Malcolm said and she smiled, set the tray down onto the table between them and walked out quietly, pulling the door closed behind her.
“Please, help yourself,” he said, referring to the tray of small sandwiches. There were small plates and fruit along with sodas.
“I’m fine,” Ella replied, waving the food away.
“Do you mind if I go ahead? I’ve been in meetings since early this morning and I’m starving.”
Ella shrugged. “Fine by me,” she told him, then watched, fascinated as he put several of the small sandwiches onto a plate.
“You were telling me about your next revelation?” he prompted.
“I’m working on putting you and your rich cronies into prison,” she announced.
That got a smile out of him and Ella wondered about it. Was he so confident about his social status as an aristocrat that he thought of himself as immune to conviction? Or was he innocent of whatever was going on with the secret society?
“That is really going to put a dent in my social life,” he chuckled. “What do you think I’ve done to warrant a prison sentence?’ he asked, leaning back and taking another bite of his sandwich.
Ella watched him, oddly fascinated by his hands. They were strong, with long, deft fingers. What was it about those hands was so interesting?
She jerked her eyes away from his hands and looked up at his features. “Um…” focus! “Have you ever heard or seen a symbol like this one?” she asked, pulling out her notebook and flipping to the page where she’d sketched the flaming hand symbol.
Malcolm leaned forward, his eyes looking over the picture before leaning back. “What does it mean?” he asked.
Ella noticed that he hadn’t answered her question. Interesting, she thought. “I don’t know what it means. Yet,” she paused significantly. “But I’m going to find out, Malcolm.”
“Where did you first see that symbol?” he asked.
She shook her head. “Doesn’t matter. But what do you know about it?”
“Oh, I’m sure that there are secret societies all over the world, Ella.”
She smiled predatorily. “Another evasive answer.”
He laughed and Ella ignored the jump of her stomach at the deep, rich sound. “You’re not giving me a whole lot to go on. Perhaps if you tell me when you saw the symbol, I might be able to help you a bit more.”
She shook her head. “I don’t give out my sources, Malcolm. You should know that, being in business and all.”
“Being in business isn’t nearly as mysterious as investigating crimes, I suspect.”
Ella tilted her head, fascinated by his answer. “I would have thought that our jobs were pretty similar. I find out a small bit of information, a thread of mystery. And I keep tugging on that thread, discovering those mysteries. In your line of business, you find a clue that a previously strong company has been mismanaged, am I right?” she asked.
“I hunt down companies that are struggling financially,” he confirmed.
“And then you keep tugging, looking at data and financial records, checking on the company’s sales and stock values.”
“You’ve done your research well,” he replied, setting the now-empty plate on the table. “And you think that this symbol,” he pointed his chin towards her notebook still open on the low coffee table, “involves something nefarious, dark, and evil?” he asked. “This is the string at which you are pulling, looking under rocks and behind the curtains to find out what’s going on.”
She stood up, feeling the need to get away from his distractingly handsome smile. “I’m going to find out what this means, Malcolm,” she warned, stuffing her notebook back into her messenger bag. “And I’m going to treat you exactly as you treated my mother when she told your family that she was sick.”
He’d stood as well, moving closer to her. “I’m very sorry about what my father did to your mother,” he said.
Ella jerked, startled by his words. Looking up into those blue eyes, she felt…something strange again.
Pulling back, she blinked and stepped away from the chair. “Right. Well, it’s in the past.”
“Is it?” he asked gently. “I remember the day that my mother passed away.” His jaw clenched and he shook his head slightly. “My father announced that she’d passed and that the funeral was in three days. He ordered me to wear my dark suit.” Malcolm’s hands slid into his pockets. “I don’t think one ever truly gets over the death of a parent, do we?”
Was he closer now? Ella realized that she’d been staring up into his eyes and hadn’t noticed him walking towards her.
“It was…years ago.” And yet, she could still remember holding her mother’s hand in the hospital, seeing the pain in her eyes as the cancer slowly destroyed her.
Malcolm reached out, brushing a light finger down over her cheek. The touch both burned and soothed…it short-circuited her brain.
“You’re quite lovely, Ella,” he murmured, almost as if he were talking to himself.
Startled, she looked up into his blue eyes, not sure what to say. Never in her wildest imagination would she have expected him to say something like that. Lovely? She wanted to snort with disbelief. Naya was lovely! Cassy! She was a gorgeous woman! Ella knew that she wasn’t ugly, but…she wasn’t lovely.
But standing here, in front of Malcolm, for some strange reason, she did feel…oddly beautiful. For all her life, she’d pushed to be smart and brave, to confront the injustices in the world. Never had she felt beautiful. This man… his eyes and his electric touch …caused her to feel pretty.
Why wasn’t she leaving? They were standing there, the silence and tension expanding as they stared into each other’s eyes. Ella told herself to walk away. But her feet didn’t move.
That’s when he did something even more astounding.
Ella watched in stunned fascination as he leaned in and kissed her! His lips, so firm and temptingly commanding, brushed over hers, eliciting a startled response from her own. The tingling in her lips was so astonishing that she forgot to pull away. He did it again and again, his lips brushing back and forth against hers and Ella stood there, taking it. No, not just accepting the kiss…her lips actually moved, actually participated in the kiss!
The ache in her belly and the burning sensation against her lips was so new, so strange that she finally pulled away. For another long moment, she just blinked at him, wondering what the hell had just happened!
“Right,” she whispered into the silence.
With that, she turned and walked out of his office, feeling stunned and…tingly. And ashamed! She’d just kissed Malcolm Reynolds! What in the world? Why? Why had she simply stood there? Why hadn’t she slapped him and given him some pithy set-down that would humiliate him?
Ella stepped into the elevator, too stunned and confused to even fear the glass-enclosed space as it whisked her silently down to the lobby. Down and away from the man she wanted to see in prison.
The man she’d just…kissed!
Malcolm stared at the now-empty doorway, more intrigued than before as he replayed Ella’s soft, trembling response to his kiss. Ella was startlingly beautiful, but also tough and sexy with her tight jeans and black boots. Her messenger bag was scruffy and well worn, but was of obvious quality. Her clothes weren’t rumpled, as he’d expected she’d requested a meeting with him. She was…lovely. Her blonde hair was straight and long, shining in the overhead lights. While other women of his acquaintance would have done something to bring his attention to their long hair, flipping it over their shoulder or twirling a lock around their fingers…Ella’s hair was brushed but forgotten.
She wore minimal makeup, just a touch of mascara and lipstick. Her skin was soft and creamy, making her appear youthful and strong. She was a capable woman wrapped up in soft femininity that, Malcolm suspected, the lovely Ella tried hard to hide and ignore.
An impossible task, he thought with a chuckle as he stood and walked to his desk. Ella couldn’t hide her beauty any more than she could ignore a mystery. It was all part of her lovely package and…he was determined to get to know her better. Ella Fleming had always intrigued him. But now, with maturity and bright determination, she got to him in different ways. She was more than simply a curiosity.
She was a challenge!
Damn, she was beautiful! And smart and didn’t give an inch! He liked that about her.
What he didn’t like was that she might be getting close to something that he and his friends had been working on for the past several years.
Picking up his phone, he dialed a number. “Jenna,” he replied as soon as his friend answered. “I just spoke with Ella Fleming and, apparently, she’s onto us.” He paused, listening. “Right. But we need to be a bit more discreet. Otherwise, the whole operation could be revealed, which would put our people in danger.”
Hanging up, he wondered if…was his father still countering the group’s efforts? Were his father and his cronies still active? Malcolm had thought that their efforts had been shut down, but perhaps it was time to make sure.