Tall, Dark and Off Limits

Book Three in The Men of Maddox Hill

His job is to protect his best friend’s sister… not seduce her!

When it comes to his best friend’s sister he’s tempted to be much more than her protector…

Assigned to keep an eye on social media darling Ava Maddox, security expert Zack Austin is more than up to the task. After all, she’s like family. But dealing with the dynamic beauty requires every ounce of patience… and sexual control. They’ve been denying their forbidden feelings for way too long and soon professionalism gives way to passion. Zack’s willing to face her overprotective family’s wrath, but is Ava’s talent for finding trouble about to explode in his face?

Book 1: His Perfect Fake Engagement
Book 2: Corner Office Secrets
Book 3: Tall, Dark and Off Limits

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Chapter One

“How long has this been going on?”

The fury in Zack Austin’s voice rocked Ava Maddox back in her chair.

Whoa. She’d come to his office for advice from him. Insights. Ideas. Professional experience. Maybe even a little comfort and reassurance.

She had not come here to be scolded like a bad little kid.

“A while now.” She kept her voice cool. “I’ve been noticing the trolls for about a year now. But it really escalated in the past few weeks. I started getting worried about it after I got back from my trip to Italy. Then the last couple of weeks, they started really swarming me. Then came the hack. So call it five weeks, give or take a couple of days.”

“Five weeks.” Zack’s voice was savage. “Five goddamn weeks, Ava. That’s how long it took you to say something to me about this.”

“I’m saying something now.” Ava’s voice sharpened, despite her best efforts to stay calm. “It started small, you understand? In the comments section of my videos and posts. Cracks about my body, sexual stuff, ‘shut up and make me a sandwich’ comments. It’s a shame, but professional women get used to it. I haven’t been hiding anything from you. I’m just cultivating a thick skin and trying not to sweat it. As one does.”

“And you let it get to this point before you said something? Seriously?”

Ava opened her mouth to let him have it, and then closed it. She inhaled. Let out a slow, relaxing breath, counting down. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Calm.

Maybe coming to Zack hadn’t been such a great idea after all. The chief security officer of her uncle’s architecture firm, Maddox Hill, was totally beside himself. And Zack Austin was intimidating even in a good mood.

Why all this thundering intensity, for God’s sake? She had not seen that coming. The general sense she got from Zack could best be described as chilly disapproval. And it had been even chillier ever since that fateful night at his apartment six years ago.

The one she could barely stand to think about without writhing in embarrassment.

Now look at him. Towering over her with those burning eyes and balled-up fists, a muscle twitching in his jaw. The exact opposite of chilly. It was almost scary.

“It started out about a year ago, on complaint sites,” she told him, keeping her voice low and even. “Those are websites that let people anonymously harass anyone who pisses them off. I tried to get the posts taken down, but it’s almost impossible without paying them off, and I will not give those leeches money. I’ve talked to the police at various times, but they made it clear that there’s not much they can do, since I can’t prove physical danger or monetary damages.”

“They don’t think this indicates physical danger?” Zack stabbed his finger at the photo, which she’d taken this morning with her cell phone.

SLUT was spray-painted across her garage in big red letters. Her haters knew exactly where she lived. And they wanted her to think about that fact. All the time.

“They’ll investigate, of course,” Ava said. “But up until now, it’s just been toxic ugliness. No crimes.”

“I’ll set the cybersecurity team on it immediately,” Zack said. “Sophie should be back from Italy soon. I want her to make this her first priority.”

“I doubt she’ll have much luck,” Ava said. “Whoever these people are, they’re very good. I’ve had my computer wizard friends look into it for me, and they told me that whoever’s posting always masks their IP and scrubs their metadata.”

“We’ll see,” Zack said darkly. “We’ll just see about that.”

“I was trying to look on the bright side until this morning,” Ava admitted. “The posts were nasty, and they’re engineered for good SEO, but I have a robust online presence and lots of preexisting content, so they never floated too high in the search engine results. Then yesterday I got hacked, and my social media feeds were flooded with this crap. And this morning was the vandalism. The detective I’ve been in touch with suggested a security camera. Which I already have, but it hasn’t been working, and I’ve been too busy to get it fixed. I will, of course, take care of that as soon as possible.”

“You don’t have a working security camera?” Zack sounded personally offended. “Good God, Ava. I’ll get someone over there first thing to get a system installed.”

“Please, don’t worry about it. I can take care of it myself.”

“You haven’t been taking care of anything, from what I can see. I should have known about this from the very first rude comment that showed up. And while your brother and your uncle are away, I’m responsible for—”

“Nothing.” Her voice rang out, loud enough to be heard outside his closed office door. “You are responsible for nothing, Zack. I am a grown woman. I run my own company. I have spoken to the police. They don’t think I’m in danger, but they suggest that I be cautious, and I intend to follow their advice. Coming to you was just a courtesy. I wanted you in the loop. So would Drew and my uncle, I’m sure.”

He flicked through the pictures and screenshots on her tablet again. “You’ve given all this to the police, I assume.”

“Of course,” she said. “I’ve been documenting it from the beginning.”

“Jesus,” he muttered. “LyingCheatingSluts. Scammerbot. NaughtyGirlsReports. It just pisses me off that these filthy scumbags can post absolutely anything they want, with no fact checking. No accountability.”

“And no recourse,” she said. “The sites won’t respond to emails. It’s a nightmare.”

Zack paused over one post, one she recognized even from a distance and at an extreme angle, one of the ones posted on the She’sASkank site. A not-so-hot picture of her, in her black-rimmed nerd girl glasses, hair wildly mussed, mouth wide-open like she was yelling at someone, with a banner across her that read, Impostor. Fraud. Skank.

The caption on the bottom read, “This drug-addicted hooker and known sexual deviant is trying to go legit. She’s passing herself off as a PR expert. Don’t fall for it. She’s nothing but trash. Remember…you were warned.” The Gilchrist House address for Blazon PR & Branding Specialists, along with all their contact info, was included.

The whole thing was jacking up her anxiety to stratospheric heights. She would have called her brother, Drew, or her best friend, Jenna, for emotional support, but as it happened, they were off on their blissful honeymoon. She might even have confided in her moody and difficult uncle, Malcolm, but he was gone, too, off to Italy, to get to know his recently rediscovered biological daughter, Sophie Valente. Ava didn’t want to upset the dynamics of that budding relationship. In fact, she’d gone to Italy herself at the beginning, just to check Sophie out for herself, and she’d concluded that Sophie was fabulous. Strong, kind, funny, smart. A cousin well worth having. So that was all good.

That said, being alone with this problem sucked. She was looking over her shoulder, and she felt nervous and vulnerable, even inside her own locked house.

So here she was with Zack, the security expert. But the look on his face made her doubt her judgment in having told him. She’d been afraid that he would think she was blowing things out of proportion. Trying to garner attention. Suddenly, out of nowhere, she was the one trying to calm him down.

“It makes me so angry, I want to kill someone,” Zack said.

“Ah…I’m gratified at your concern,” she said carefully. “But don’t, okay? I have enough problems right now.”

Zack made an irritated sound in the back of his throat and got up, turning his back to her to stare out the window at the downtown Seattle skyline, glittering in the darkness. Which gave her the always-welcome spectacle of the amazing way his white shirt fit over his big, broad, hard-muscled back. His long, strong legs. The way his dress pants hugged his taut, magnificent backside. Wow.

Noticing that made her pissed at herself. Because yes, in spite of his coldness, in spite of the hard, flinty look in his gray eyes, she still found the guy ridiculously hot.

He wore his hair buzzed to almost military shortness, a nod to his tours in Iraq with the marines. That was where he’d met her brother, Drew Maddox, the firm’s CEO, and Vann Acosta, the CFO. A trio of overachievers, set to take over the world together—in a good way. Drew and Vann had let their hair grow back out to civilian lengths, but not Zack. He still had that tough, sexy-soldier-boy vibe going on, and it just got to her. Every time she saw the back of his muscular neck and his thick scrub brush of shiny brown hair fading to stubble on his nape and ears, she imagined how it would feel to touch it.

She’d bet it would feel both crisp and soft against her fingertips. Delicate friction.

But she’d never made any headway in charming the guy. Maybe that was why she had such an outsize crush on him. How kinky and self-defeating was that.

And the insanity of that night six years ago didn’t help. She still couldn’t believe she’d gone to his apartment. He’d mixed up a pitcher of margaritas, and she had pounded those until she got up the nerve to throw herself at him. Tried to kiss him.

That was as far as she remembered. She’d woken up in his bed the next morning, fully clothed, a blanket laid over her. Head splitting. He’d brewed coffee, left a bottle of Advil on the counter next to it and gone to work. No word, no note, no call. No clue.

Zack had never said a word about it. And in six long years, she still hadn’t worked up the nerve to ask him what the hell had happened that night. It was anybody’s guess.

No wonder he was cold. Disapproving. God knew what he must think of her.

She had tried for years to convince herself that Zack just wasn’t her type. Not mentally, not emotionally, even physically. He was too damn big, for one thing. Rough features, big head, broad face, square jaw. That deep, scratchy voice, usually barking orders to someone. Pale gray eyes, sharp and electric, and narrowed to suspicious slits, or at least they were whenever she was around. A grim, sealed mouth. She had seen him smile before. Just not at her. He had a gorgeous smile.

Even so, with his crooked, bumpy nose and the diagonal white slash through one of his thick eyebrows, he looked like he should be in full body armor with an M-4 carbine slung over his shoulder. He had that rough-and-ready warrior vibe, even in a bespoke suit.

He’d made it clear that he considered her public relations and social media management for Maddox Hill to be frivolous make-work. Something to keep her busy. Her uncle was the firm’s founder and her big brother was the CEO, so nepotism, right? Calling her to work as a PR consultant was just throwing the little rich girl a bone. Keeping her out of trouble.

She activated the inner mantra that she always used when dealing with Zack.

Repeat after me. You do not need to prove yourself to that man.

Yup, good thing she didn’t need Zack Austin’s approval to do her professional thing. And to crush it, too, for that matter.

“Which detective did you talk to at the police department?” he demanded.

“I spoke to Detective Leland MacKenzie. But there’s no need for you to get involved. I can handle the police.”

He turned back. “I’d rather be in the loop. If this escalates, I’ll want to coordinate all possible resources to go after this filthy scum.”

The violence in his voice startled her afresh. “Whoa,” she said. “Don’t overreact.”

“That trash was right outside your house last night as you slept. With nothing but a lock between him and you. What kind of locks do you have on your door?”

“There’s only one, and I can’t tell you off the top of my head, but it looks big and substantial,” she assured him. “I’ll text you a picture of it when I get home.”

“You aren’t going home,” he said. “Not alone, anyway. That’s out of the question. You can’t be anywhere alone until this bastard is pulped.”

Ava held up her hands. “Zack, take a deep breath.”

“Do not jerk me around. I know that’s your specialty, but not today.”

Ava shot to her feet, stung. “My specialty? Where the hell did that come from? When have I jerked you around?”

“I’m sorry. That came out wrong. But this is dead serious, and I can’t let you—”

“I know! But I’m better off handling it on my own than watching you freak out about it! Excuse me, Zack. I’m out of here.”

Zack stepped between her and the exit, blocking her. “Wait.”

“No.” She glared up at him. Damn, the man was tall. “Get the hell out of my way, and I’ll get the hell out of yours. Now would be good. Scoot over, please.”

“Ava.” His voice was quieter now. “No.”

The sound of her name, spoken by that deep, rough voice, made her shiver. And that pissed her off even more. “It’s not up to you,” she snapped. “Don’t force me to make a scene. It would be embarrassing for us both.” She fixed him with her best sudden-death glare. “I swear, I will screech like a banshee.”

Zack didn’t budge. “I shouldn’t have said that. It was unfair.”

She let out a sharp laugh. “Ya think?”

“I apologize,” he said gruffly. “It just… This situation really got under my skin.”

She swallowed. “Mine, too,” she admitted.

“Please,” he urged. “Sit down. Please, let’s talk about this like normal people.”

She realized, after her butt hit the chair, that the guy had herded her smoothly right back into her seat, using she knew not what tricks of mind magic and charisma.

She clutched the arms of the chair. “I should go now.”

“Please understand, I can’t just let this be,” Zack told her. “I might not be responsible for your choices or your behavior, but as CSO of Maddox Hill, I am responsible for your safety, and I take that responsibility seriously.”

He was casting a spell on her. Those intense eyes. This close, she could see his beard shadow. If she touched the stark angles of his jaw and ran her fingers against the grain, she’d feel that fine, sandpaper rasp. Supple and hot. She had to stop this. Right now.

“Zack,” she said. “It’s been a long day, so be clear. Are you apologizing to me or bullying me? Because you can’t seem to make up your mind.”

That actually got a smile out of him, because miracles did happen. It was brief and fleeting, but she saw it, and it involved amazing dimples. Long, deep-carved dimples that accented the gorgeous lines that bracketed his mouth.

“I’m apologizing,” he said. “And I’m laying down the law. Respectfully.”

She snorted. “I didn’t know law could be laid down respectfully. I believe that’s usually done by force. Which I’m not in the mood for, if you haven’t noticed.”

He studied her thoughtfully, like he was pondering how best to manage her.

Her heart thudded. Because he’d smiled. Because of all this intense interest he was displaying. She was reacting to him exactly like the kind of silly, attention-hungry bubblehead he already thought she was.

Pull yourself together, girl. Stay tough.

It took all her nerve, but she manufactured a cool, remote smile and twitched the tablet back. “I’ll just take that, thanks.” She closed the files, slipped the tablet into her briefcase and stood. “Lay down all the laws you want. I’ll get on with my day. `Bye.”

He glanced at his watch. “It’s eight forty p.m. You have more day to get through?”

She shrugged. “That’s nobody’s business but mine.”

“At the risk of being rude, it’s my business now. And your agenda for the evening just changed.”

She blinked at him. “Did it? Good to know.”

He ignored that. “Tonight, we’re going through your life with a microscope and tweezers. I want to know everyone who could be angry at you. Disgruntled employees, professional rivals, ex-boyfriends, jealous girlfriends of ex-boyfriends, rejected would-be boyfriends—the sky’s the limit. Anyone who might hold a grudge. Whatever you had planned for the evening, it’s off. You’re not leaving my sight until we fix this.”

Ava was astonished. “I beg your pardon?”

“You heard me.” His eyes were like points of bright, cold steel.

She tried to breathe, but the air wouldn’t go in. She had not anticipated this intense, intractable, incredibly difficult version of Zack Austin.

“Let me get this straight,” she said. “You want a comprehensive list of everyone who might disapprove of me before bedtime? That’s not happening.”

“You piss people off that much?”

“Yes, I do,” she said. “Blazon does all kinds of different work, and some of my projects are controversial. I try to make them go viral, and often I succeed. Eliciting strong emotions is my stock-in-trade. It’s an unfortunate law of nature that any time you try to change anything big, someone will get upset about it. Particularly if you’re a woman.”

Zack looked puzzled. “Change what? I thought your job was to boost Maddox Hill’s search engine optimization and raise our profile on the social media platforms. What’s controversial about that?”

Oh, God, where to even begin. “Maddox Hill is just a small slice out of the pie chart of my professional activity, Zack,” she explained patiently. “I’m a consultant. Blazon has many different clients. Maddox Hill is only one of them.”

“Ah,” he said. “I did not know that.”

“You learn something new every day,” she said. “If you pay attention.”

His eyes were locked with hers. The seconds ticked by. She held the connection.

“I’m paying attention now.” He sat down at his desk and folded his arms, leaning toward her. “Tell me about the rest of the pie. Slice by slice. Go back as far as you can remember.”

“We’d be here until tomorrow morning, and we’d have only just begun,” Ava warned him. “I’ve got a lot of stuff happening. Blazon is a boutique branding and marketing company, so every project is different. We tell stories about products or services, in whatever manner or on whatever platform resonates with the target audience. We also design trade show exhibits. An offshoot of a job I had a few years ago. I’m still partnered with the people who produce and deliver the physical booths. But my real love is making the videos. That’s what I enjoy the most, and what I want to focus on.”

“Like the videos you made for Jenna, for Arm’s Reach?”

Ava was startled that he knew about those videos. She’d made them to help her best friend and now sister-in-law, Jenna, an engineer who designed cutting-edge prosthetic arms. “Exactly. They’re becoming more like documentary films. I’m thinking of hiring more staff so that I can concentrate on that. When this troll problem is solved, of course.”

“How many of these video projects have you done?”

She shrugged, trying to count. “I don’t know,” she said. “At least six or seven the past year or so. Maybe fifteen more in the three years before that.”

He tapped his fingers against the desk, considering options. “We’re going to need to get some dinner,” he said. “Shall I order in, or do you want to go out?”

Ava realized something all at once. She’d had that sour, heavy feeling inside her for so long now. Whatever else she might be doing during the course of her day, she was also simultaneously worrying about her online haters and their toxic hostility. The anger, frustration, intimidation…it was like a cold rock inside her. Weighing her down.

But since she’d been in this room with Zack, she hadn’t felt that cold weight inside. Not even a little bit. She’d had all the feels, for sure. But not that one.

And this dizzy, dangerous buzz was way more fun.

That did not, however, mean she had the nerve to hang out with Zack Austin in the Maddox Hill building all night, in his office, with darkness and silence all around.

“Let’s go out,” she said. “We can talk at the restaurant.”

“Fine. Do you have any preferences? Italian, steakhouse, barbecue, sushi, fusion?”

“Anything is fine,” she said. “Surprise me.”

He hit his intercom. “Amelia? Are you still there?”

“Just heading out,” his administrative assistant said through the speaker.

“Before you go, could you make a last-minute dinner reservation for two? Nearby. Something quiet, preferably with booths. We’re ready to go now.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Amelia told him.

“Thanks.” He put the phone down and met her gaze again. “So? Make the call.”

“What call?” she asked.

His brows came together. “To cancel your evening plans.”

She almost laughed. Her evening plans had involved going back to the Blazon office at Gilchrist House to take care of some final paperwork for the trade show and calling a car to take her home. Then maybe some yogurt and a piece of fruit, and she’d at least try to get some sleep. She probably wouldn’t succeed, but hope sprang eternal.

And Zack thought she was going out clubbing in a sequined gown. Wild thing.

She’d almost prefer he keep thinking that, but she didn’t have the energy to lie.

“No plans,” she admitted.

His eyes narrowed for a moment before he spoke. “Good.”

The rough satisfaction in that single word felt like a physical touch. It set off a million tiny fireworks inside her. Fizzy excitement, keeping bad feelings at bay.

Damn. It was just body chemistry. A cheap trick. Endorphins buzzing through her body. It was an absolutely terrible idea. She’d end up feeling worse before she was done.

But in Zack’s current bulldog mood, she couldn’t shake him off anyhow. So what the hell?

She might as well indulge.

End of Excerpt