She was ready to beg him.
Virginia Hollis shuddered. She wrapped her arms around herself and stared out the back window of the sleek black Lincoln as it wound along the darkened streets of Chicago. People strolled down the block, hands in their pockets, chins neatly tucked to their chests to shield their faces from the biting wind. Men held cell phones to their ears; women struggled with their shopping bags. glimpse made it seem like such a regular evening. An ordinary night.
But it wasn’t ordinary. It couldn’t be.
Because Virginia’s world had stopped turning.
The men who’d knocked on her door this morning had had a message for her, and it had not been a kind one.
She inhaled deeply and glanced at her simple black dress and the delicate strappy heels on her pink-toed feet. It seemed important for her to look nice— not just respectable, but sophisticated, noble—because the favor she was to ask was anything but.
And she could think of no one else to ask but him. God. Just thinking of humiliating herself like this in front of him made her stomach churn.
Nervously, she tugged on the pearl strand draped around her neck and tried focusing on the city again. The pearls were smooth under her fingers, genuine and old, the only thing Virginia had been able to salvage from her mother’s belongings.
Her father had lost it all.
Bet by bet, he’d lost the cars, the antiques, the house. Virginia had watched with a combination of helplessness and rage. She’d threatened, screamed, pleaded with the quickly aging man, all to no avail.
There was no stopping him. No stopping the gambling.
There was nothing left now. Nothing but her.
And she could not, could not, turn a blind eye to those men—to the threat they posed. To the threat they had succinctly delivered. No matter how much she frowned upon what her father did, and no matter how many times she’d promised never again to speak to him about it and he continued gambling anyway, he was her father. Her only family.
Once he’d been a businessman. Respected, admired even. Now it saddened her to think what she’d become.
Virginia didn’t know how much he owed. She’d rather not know. All she knew was the deal she’d struck with those three surly men that morning. She had a month to come up with one hundred thousand dollars, during which time they would leave him alone.
In her wildest dreams, Virginia had never imagined coming up with that amount of money, on such little time. But while she couldn’t, Marcos Allende could.
The little hairs on her arms pricked to attention at the thought of him. Her boss was a quiet, devastatingly handsome man. Some said he was gifted; his touch was that of a Midas. While Virginia had only been his assistant for a year—his third of three assistants, because it seemed one alone couldn’t handle the daunting task of having him as boss—in that length of time, she had seen enough of him to agree.
The man was out of context.
He was bold, ruthless and proud. Single-handedly, he’d spotted, bought and righted troubled companies, and he’d created an empire. He inspired respect and admiration among peers and fear among his enemies. Judging by the overwhelming number of phone calls he received from the female population of Chicago, Virginia could tell they adored him. And in Virginia herself, the man inspired things she dared not consider.
Every morning when she stepped into his office, he would study her with that
dark, compelling gaze and disturb every inch and atom of her body with the hot intimacy in his eyes. She would always try to act professionally, to look away when his stare became inappropriately long. But his eyes had a way of undressing her, of speaking in silence, of summoning visions in her mind about him and her and skin and sweat. Yet tonight she was on her way to him for one purpose only, and she reminded herself that her visit to his lair at such a late hour might not be welcome.
With his assistants he was always the firm, quiet boss, but Marcos Allende was reputed to have a hell of a temper, one she might witness tonight for the very first time.
Her stomach clenched when the car pulled into the ample driveway of one of the Windy City’s most luxurious apartment buildings, situated on the heavily trafficked Michigan Avenue. A uniformed valet opened the door.
She mumbled a quick “thank you” and stepped out of the car, walking into the sumptuous apartment building with an eerie calm that belied every one of the roiling emotions inside her.
She made no eye contact with the people milling around the area, but instead focused all of her attention on the polished bronze doors at the far end of the lobby.
“Mr. Allende is expecting you.”
An elevator attendant waited for her. He slipped a card into the top slot inside the confined elevator space and lit the top P before stepping out with a bow. “Good evening, madam.”
The doors closed and Virginia stared at her blurry reflection. Oh, God, please let him help me. I’ll do anything. Anything…
Long seconds later, the doors rolled open to reveal the penthouse—a vast room with black granite floors, dimly lit and lavishly furnished. The walls could’ve been covered in crisp green bills and screamed the owner’s net worth just as loudly. To a mortal, his place seemed as inaccessible in price as the owner was claimed to be in character.
Virginia stepped inside. A pair of elegant, willowy bronzes flanked the entry and a massive oil painting with vibrant black brushstrokes hung at the end wall. Before she could absorb the rest of the opulent area, as though drawn by some unknown force of nature, her gaze landed on him. He stood next to the bar at the far end of the living room. He was as elegant and unmoving as the designer furniture surrounding him. Dark, tall, detached. He faced the window, his broad back filling the shoulders of his jacket. Her heart thumped as she took a step forward, the click of her heels on granite magnified in the silence.
“I trust you had a fine ride.”
Her flesh pebbled at the hum of his voice. So husky. So mellow. As though he were no threat to anyone. The crackling energy around him dispelled the notion fast.
“I did. Thank you for sending a car, and for seeing me on such short notice,” she said quietly.
Starting to shake inside, she advanced toward the living room, stepping lightly across a plush Persian rug. He didn’t turn. Virginia wasn’t certain she even wanted him to. Every time their gazes met, a bolt of electricity would shoot through her. Sometimes he didn’t even need to speak. His eyes did it for him.
And in her mind, he said the wickedest things to her.
Now here she was, in his apartment, ready to face that bold, virile man she’d fantasized about. Ready to beg him.
Never mind Virginia had her modestly successful life, which she’d tried to live by the book. Never mind she’d paid her bills on time and tried first and foremost to stay out of trouble. Never mind anything but what had to be done. Saving her father. Doing anything she had to, to make him safe again.
She could’ve sworn Marcos read her thoughts just now, for he whispered, “Are you in trouble, Virginia?” While still gazing out the window as though mesmerized by the tiny flicker of city lights.
She swallowed, eyeing his back. “It appears I am.” “And you came to ask for my help?”
A ball of unease settled in the pit of her stomach, and the words seemed to be wrenched from her throat. “I do need your help, Marcos.”
He turned, and she was rendered motionless by the sheer black power of his stare. “How much?”
Her heart pounded faster. His face was so exquisitely masculine, and there was something so naughty about him—his attitude, his dark good looks, his accent— that a dormant part of her found thrilling and frightening at once. Every inch of his Latin blood showed in his bronzed skin, the very masculinity oozing from his pores.
His inquisitive gaze traveled with interest down the length of her body until she could bear no more. She lifted her chin with pride, though the way she wrung her hands before her wasn’t all that convincing. “I—I don’t expect anything for free. I wanted to see you about an advance. A loan. Perhaps I could do more work for you. Special projects.”
His eyelids dropped as he sighted her lips. “You’re very pretty tonight, Virginia.”
The low seduction in his words made her heart clench in a fistful of thrill. She fought the thrill, telling herself he was a sexy, virile man—and that he must look at all women this way. Which was why they called him. All. The. Time! When those eyes were on her, he made her feel like the sexiest woman alive—like the only woman alive.
“I’m trying to raise…” She paused, summoning all her courage. “I’m trying to raise one hundred thousand dollars. Can you help me?” she asked him then, lowering her face. As she spoke, she felt so…so cheap…so humiliated to be asking for money…
“Is that all you need?” he asked softly. As though it were nothing. A paltry sum. And to him, with all his billions, of course it would be.
He surveyed her in silence. “May I ask why you need it?”
Her gaze flicked up to his, and she shook her head. She couldn’t bear it.
His lips twitched and the corners of his eyes crinkled, almost—almost— managing to make him less threatening. “You won’t tell me?” he prodded.
“If you don’t mind,” she mumbled. She tugged the hem of her dress to her knees when his gaze ventured to her legs and lingered. “So there’s nothing I could do for you? In exchange for this…incredible salary?” God. She couldn’t even say the amount it seemed so out of reach.
He laughed, and Virginia didn’t think she’d ever heard him laugh before. The sound resembled the roll of distant thunder.
He set his glass on the nearby bar and signaled to the twin leather couches. “Sit.”
She sat. Her back was stiff and straight as she tracked his lithe moves around the room. How could a big man move with such grace? How could—
He poured two glasses nonetheless. His hands moved skillfully—too skillfully not to notice—and brought one to her.
She grasped the fluted glass and stared at a faraway bronze sculpture, trying not to breathe for fear of what his scent might do to her. He smelled so amazingly good. Earthy and musky and male. She drew in a shaky breath until he dropped onto the couch across from hers.
When he stretched his arms out behind him, he made the couch appear small, his wide frame overwhelming the bone-colored leather designer piece. Under his jacket, the dress shirt he wore was unbuttoned at the top, gifting her with a view of smooth, bronzed skin and a polished gold cross.
She wanted to touch him. She wondered what that bronze skin would feel like under her fingers, if his cross was cold or warm…
Suddenly sensing his scrutiny, she raised her chin and smiled.
Lifting one black brow, Marcos opened his hand and signaled to her. “You’re not drinking.”
Virginia started, then obediently sipped. “It’s…good. Very…um, rich.” “Have I ever bitten you?”
She almost choked on the wine, blinked, and then, then she saw the smile. A prime smile. Rare, like everything valuable, higher on one end than the other.
“I can see this is difficult for you,” he said, with a glimmer of warmth in his eyes.
“No. I mean, yes. It is.” He had no clue!
He set his glass aside, crossed his arms over his chest, and snuggled back as if to watch a movie. “You don’t trust me?”
Her heart skipped a nervous beat.
Trust him? She respected him. Admired him. Was in awe of him and, because of his power, even a little afraid of him. And maybe, she realized, she trusted him, too. From what she’d seen, Marcos—quiet, solid, heart-of-gold Marcos— had proved to be nothing but a champion for his people. A lion protecting his cubs. When Lindsay, assistant two, had been weeping for months after her twins were born, Marcos had hired an army of nannies and sent her off to a second honeymoon in Hawaii with her husband.
Lindsay was still talking about Maui.
And when Mrs. Fuller’s husband passed away, the over-wrought woman had cried more tears reminiscing about all that Marcos had done to support and aid her family than she had cried at the funeral.
No matter how humiliating this was, how awful her situation and having him know it, she knew, like nothing in her life, he was as steady as a mountain.
Holding his gaze, she replied in all honesty. “I trust you more than I trust anyone.”
His face lit in surprise, and he scraped his chin between two blunt fingers. “And yet you don’t tell me what troubles you?”
The thought that he—the man she most honored, esteemed—would know her life was in such shambles squished her heart like a bug. “I would tell you what I need the money for if I thought it mattered, and I would tell you if that is the only way you’ll give it to me.”
With an expression that would befit a lone hunting wolf, Marcos rose and strode over, then pried the glass from her fingers. “Come with me.”
Unnerved that she couldn’t even begin to guess the thoughts in that unique, labyrinthine mind of his, Virginia followed him down the wide, domed hallway of his penthouse, becoming acutely aware of his formidable frame next to her.
And she couldn’t help but wonder if maybe she wasn’t a little bit the fool for trusting him after all.
Predatorily, Marcos studied her profile, her nose, the untamed, unruly bounce of her curls. She bit her lip in nervousness. Where was he taking her?
Visions of a bedroom flicked across her mind, and her cheeks flamed hot. He opened the last door for her, and Virginia entered the darkened room,
shamed at her own quickening pulse.
“Your home office?” she asked. “Yes.”
He flicked on the light switch, and the room burst to life. Bookshelves lined three of the four walls. A Turkish rug spread across the sitting area. Five glossy wood file cabinets formed a long, neat row behind his desk. No adornments. No picture frames. No distractions. As fine in taste as the rest of his apartment, with a state-of-the-art computer perched atop a massive desk, his office screamed two words: no nonsense.
“I like it.” She strode inside, the knowledge that this was his private, personal space making her blood bubble. Her fingers itched with the overwhelming urge to organize the stacks of papers on his desk.
“I know about your father, Miss Hollis.”
Dread sunk like a bowling ball in her stomach. “You do?”
She spun around, and when he stepped into the room, Marcos achieved the impossible: he made it shrink in size.
“You do not exist in the world I do without being cautious about everyone who comes into your inner circle. I have a dossier on everyone who works in close proximity with me, and I know every detail of their lives. Yes, I know about his problem.”
What else did he know?
He passed her as he crossed the room, and she stifled a tremor as if he’d been a cool hurricane wind. “Why didn’t you come to me before?” he asked, matter of fact.
“I’m here now,” she whispered.
Halting behind his desk, he shoved the leather chair aside and leaned over the surface. His shirt stretched taut over his bunched shoulders and his eyebrows pulled low. “How bad is it?”
“It… The gambling comes and goes.” Flushing at his scrutiny, she turned to busy herself with the books on the shelves, and then said, as if he’d expertly unlatched a closed door which had been near bursting with secrets, “He’s out of control. He keeps betting more than what he has and more than I could possibly earn.”
“Is that the only reason you’re here?”
His voice grew so textured, a jolt of feminine heat rippled through her. She
spun around—shocked by the question. Shocked by the answering flutter in her womb.
Her breath stopped.
His gaze. It was open. Raw. Revealed a galvanizing wildness, a primitive hunger lurking—lurking there—in the depths of his eyes, like a prowling beast.
Pent-up desire rushed through her bloodstream as he continued to stare. Stare at her in a way no man, ever, should look at a woman and expect her to survive. “Is that the only reason you’re here tonight? Virginia?”
As if in a trance, she moved forward on shaky legs, closer to his desk. “Y-yes.” “You want nothing else? Just the money?”
How to talk? How to think? Breathe? Her heart felt ready to pop from the pressure of answering. “N-nothing.”
In the back of her mind, she vaguely realized how simple and unassuming her needs sounded as she voiced them. When they were not. They were tangled.
They had grown fierce with his proximity. Out of reason, out of context, out of control.
“Will you help me,” she murmured as she reached the desk, and somehow the plea sounded as intimate as if she’d asked for a kiss.
“I will.” Deep and rough, the determination in his answer flooded her with relief.
He was going to help her.
In her soaring mind, Marcos was mounted on a white charger holding up a flag that read “Virginia.”
And she…well, hers might be a banner. A neon sign. A brand on every inch of her body and possibly her heart. Marcos Allende. God, she was a fool.
“I don’t expect something for nothing,” she said. Her voice throbbed even as a
tide of relief flooded her.
It was as if some unnatural force drew her to him, pulled her to get closer and closer. Did the force come from him? From her? If it weren’t for the desk— always the desk between them—where would she be?
No. The obstacle wasn’t a desk. It was everything. Everything. Nothing she could ever arrange or fix or clean.
Marcos raked one hand through his hair, then seized a runaway pen and thrust it into an empty leather holder. “I’ll give you the money. But I have a few requests of my own.”
“Anything,” she said.
His gaze was positively lethal. His hands—they made fists. “There’s something I want. Something that belongs to me. Something I must have or I’ll lose my mind with wanting it.”
A shiver ran hot and cold down her spine.
He wasn’t speaking of her—of course he wasn’t—but nonetheless, she felt something grip inside her as though he were. What would it feel like for Marcos to want her so fiercely? “I…understand.”
He smiled bleakly at her, then continued around his desk.
He swept up a gemstone globe from the edge and spun it around, a lapis lazuli ocean going round and round. “Here.” His finger stopped the motion, marking a country encrusted in granite for her eyes. “What I want is here.” He tapped.
Tap tap tap.
She stepped closer, longingly lifting a fingertip to stroke the length of the country he signaled. Travel had seemed so far down the line of her priorities she hardly gave any thought to it now.
“Mexico,” she whispered.
His finger slid. It touched hers. He watched. And she watched. And neither of them moved. His finger was blunt and tan, hers slim and milky. Both over Mexico. It wasn’t even a touch, not even half a touch. And she felt the contact in every fiber of her lonely, quivering being.
He turned his head, their faces so close that his pupils looked enormously black to her. A swirling vortex. He whispered, as though confessing his every hidden desire and sin, “I’m after Allende.”
She connected the name immediately. “Your father’s business?” “The business he lost.”
He set down the globe, and again, his finger. This time the back of it stroked down her cheek. Marcos touching her, Marcos looking so strangely at her, oh, God. He smelled so good she felt lightheaded.
“And you believe I can help?” she asked, one step away from him, then two. Away from his magnificent, compelling force, away from what he made her want.
He scraped a restless hand down his face. “The owner has managed it poorly and contacted me for help.” A tiny muscle ticked at the back of his jaw. “I’m usually a sucker for the ailing, I admit, but things are different in this case.” Disgusted, he shook his head. “I do not intend to help her, you understand?”
“Yes.” She didn’t understand, exactly, but rumors around the office were that no one mentioned Allende to Marcos unless they wanted their head bitten off.
He paced. “I’m taking it hostilely if I have to.” “I see.”
“I could use an escort.” Escort.
“I need someone I can count on. Most of all—” he crossed his arms and his enigmatic black gaze bored into hers “—I need someone willing to pretend to be my lover.”
Her hands went damp and she discreetly wiped them at her sides. “Lover.” When his long steps brought him over to her, she instinctively backed away until her calves hit a small ottoman.
Unperturbed, Marcos headed over to the bookshelf, his strides sure and unhurried. “Would you be interested in doing this for me?”
Her head whizzed with unwelcome, naughty thoughts. Thoughts of Mexico and Marcos. Martinis and Marcos. Mariachis and Marcos. “Yes, definitely.” But what exactly did he mean by pretend? “So what would you expect of me, for how long?” An unprecedented thrill was trickling along her veins.
He rummaged through the books, moving tome after tome. “A week as my escort in Monterrey, and perhaps some work after hours until I’m able to close. I’ll be sure to handle your…little problem.”
He shot her a look of incredulity. “That’s not enough?” She just smiled. And waited.
The muscles under his shirt flexed as he reached the top shelf and pulled out a huge leather volume.
“Maybe your company at the Fintech dinner?” he continued, winged eyebrows flying up. “Would you mind? Going with me?”
She fiddled with her pearls, unable to stop fidgeting. “You… I can always arrange a date for you.”
His lips curved upward as he waved the heavy book in her line of vision as easily as if it were a mere piece of paper. “I don’t want a date, Miss Hollis. Here. You can take this—a bit about Monterrey, if you’d like.” He set it on the ottoman. He had a lovely, lazy kind of smile, and she felt it curl her toes.
“I feel like I’m robbing you blind,” she said, lifting the shiny book.
He paused in the middle of the room and stared at her with his deep gypsy eyes. “If I allowed it, it wouldn’t be robbery, would it.”
She saw his cool, brief smile and flattened the book tight against her breasts when they pricked. Traitors. But he’d smiled three times tonight. Three. Or more? Three or more just had to be a record.
“You’re an asset to my company,” he continued in an unnaturally husky voice, stalking back around the desk. “A week of your time is valuable to me. You’re hard-working, smart. Loyal. You’ve gained my trust, Virginia, and my admiration—both difficult feats.”
A feathery sensation coursed along her skin. She was certain he used that same self-assured tone in his meetings, but she wondered if it had the same thrilling effect on the members of his board.
When she couldn’t seem to find anything useful to do other than ogle stupidly, she automatically did what she always did to cure herself. She set the book aside and began arranging the papers at the edge of his desk—from a messy pile to a neat pile. “T-thank you for the compliments. I enjoy working at Fintech very much. And for you…of course. Which is why I don’t want to jeopardize my position.”
She continued arranging, aware that he was doing nothing—nothing—but towering a few feet away and watching her. Like he did in the office sometimes. He would stop what he was doing and watch with those black, exciting eyes.
“What will we say at the office?” she rambled.
Gossip could be ruthless at Fintech. To think Lindsay or Mrs. Fuller might believe she’d done something un-professional to land a business trip with Marcos gripped her with unease.
When Marcos didn’t reply, she looked up and caught the wicked sparkle in his eyes. She had the strangest sensation that he’d been staring at her bottom. “We will say that I ordered you to accompany me, of course. You are my assistant, after all.”
His brows drew together and he peered at her hard, as though daring her to argue with him.
But a pang struck her right where it hurt; she knew she could never be more than an assistant to him. He was Marcos Allende. He could be Zeus himself, he was so unattainable.
Virginia was dreaming if she wanted more than a seat outside his office. Dreaming if she thought the desire in his eyes was for her. Dreaming to think that, even if it were, he’d do something about it and she’d dare let him.
No. She could not, would not allow herself to continue harboring those foolish nightly fantasies about him. The daily ones had to go, too. It was hopeless, and it was hurtful, and it was stupid. He was offering her an assignment.
When the pile couldn’t be a more perfect tower, she straightened it with as much dignity as she could muster. “I’d be happy to be your escort.”
He nodded slowly. “Good. Great. Excellent.” His voice was strangely terse, so utterly rich it seemed to sink into her body until it pulsed inside of her. “I knew we’d come to an agreement, then.”
Dealing with a tumult of emotions without betraying herself proved difficult. Excitement warred with worry, gratitude with desire.
week with him in Mexico. Playing his escort, his lover—a role Virginia had slipped into plenty of times in her mind. But this would be real, a real pretense, where she—inexperienced and naive in the ways of men—would pretend to be lover to a hunk, god and legend. Where she could even seize the moment, do something reckless she would no doubt come to regret and plant a kiss on the lips of the man who was unknowingly responsible for Virginia not wanting others. Did she dare? Did she fly? Did she have magic powers?
Was there even the possibility of being a good pretend lover to him after he’d
dated actresses, duchesses, centerfolds?
Growing more and more unsettled at her new assignment, she picked up the book, Monterrey: Tras el Tiempo, and headed for the door, stealing one last glimpse of him. “Thank you, Marcos. For…everything. Good night.”
“Virginia.” When she was halfway down the hall, he caught up and seized her wrist, urging her around. His clasp sent a shiver skidding up her arm. “It’s a five- hour flight. I mean to leave tomorrow afternoon. Can you be ready by then?”
Ready, she thought wildly.
She could be a virgin Mayan princess prepared her whole life for this ultimate sacrifice, be an Anne Boleyn laughingly led to her beheading, and she would still not be ready for Marcos Allende.
But she smiled. Her nod came out jerky.
He seized her chin and raised it slightly. She sucked in a breath at the contact, and the tips of her breasts brushed against his chest. “Will you be ready, Virginia?” he persisted.
Her legs quivered. All kinds of things moved inside her body. His breath was hot and fragrant on her face, and his lush, mobile mouth was so close, a moan rose to her throat, trapped there. Like the wanting of a year, trapped there.
How would he feel against her? His mouth? His hands?
He was so hard all over, so unlike any other man she’d known. He made her feel safe and protected and special, but he also made her burn, frightened her with the way she needed something from him more than she could possibly bear or understand.
She suppressed a shiver. “I’ll be ready,” she assured, a nervous excitement flourishing in her breast as she took a healthy step back. “Thank you. I know…I know you could ask someone else to do this for you. And I doubt you’d have to pay for her company.”
His eyes smoldered, and his face went taut with some unnameable emotion.
“Yes, but I want you.” I want you.
A ribbon of hope unfurled inside her. It feathered from the top of her head down to the soles of her feet. She didn’t trust it. Marcos didn’t mean the words the way they had sounded to her ears. Ears starved for anything he ever said to her.
She told herself, firmly, until it was embedded in her brain, that Marcos wanted someone trustworthy, someone biddable, and his lionlike instinct surely prodded him to help her.
And, oh, how she had wanted to be different. To him. Not charity. Not like his stepbrother, a reckless playboy Marcos had to rescue time after time—not like all the strangers and friends who called him every day, seeking his counsel, his power, his help.
Everyone wanted something of Marcos Allende, for underneath the hard exterior lay a man with a strong, solid heart of gold. His faith in people was inspiring, his ruthlessness rivaled only by his mercy. Marcos…took care of you. And those early mornings when Virginia had stepped into his office to find his broad shoulders bent over the desk, his shirt rolled up to his elbows, his silky black hair falling over his forehead, his voice husky and his eyes tired from lack of sleep, her heart had ached with wanting to take care of that big, proud warrior. Who gives you back what you give, Marcos Allende?
Is there anyone out there who takes care of you for a change?
Now she determined that whatever he wanted, she would give. “You won’t regret it, Marcos,” she softly promised. “Helping me, I mean.”
His lips twitched. That amused smile did things to her stomach, but it didn’t seem to reach his eyes. Those remained hooded, unreadable. He ran the back of one finger down her cheek, the touch sparking fire. “It is I who hopes you never regret this visit.”
He Has Changed One
The He Has Changed by https://abooklover.com has been updated to One
In He Has Changed One,The plot has begun to change, and the relationship between the male and female protagonists is in crisis. What will they do next? Follow He Has Changed One novel and the updates in the next chapter by https://abooklover.com.
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