Lily Elliot took a deep breath and held it for a count of ten before she released it with a muttered curse in the direction of her manager. How the hell was she supposed to work like this? Did the damned man not understand how she worked? Her time was finite. Things like sleep were needed in order to survive, and it wasn’t an optional extra. She’d tried for the last five years to get him to see she wasn’t a machine who could jump from one project to the next without a break, yet here they were again, faced with the same situation.
I could explain it to him. Again.
Not that it would help. Daniel Walker was a good man, decent manager, agent, handler—whatever title he was using at the time—but he’d never understand what it was like to walk in her shoes. Hell, if you asked the man how long it took to put a piece together, he’d smile and mumble something about an hour or two before he blushed and sheepishly admitted he had no clue.
He could try. He’s been with me long enough to learn. It’s not like things are going to change anytime soon.
Maybe one day he would come to accept that she couldn’t snap her fingers and have a completed piece ready for a client.
“Still with me, Lily?”
Lily closed her eyes for a second before she turned in her chair and met Daniel’s gaze. “Yes, a little frustrated, that’s all. I’m going over everything you’ve lined up for me and wondering when, exactly, I get to sleep in the next couple of months.” She offered him a smile in the hopes of taking the sting out of her words.
Daniel’s pale-green eyes narrowed. “Now Lily, you know it’s nothing like that. You’re overreacting. You know you can do this; you’ve done it before.”
Was that what he truly believed? She wanted to protest, to find a way to get him to understand, but he didn’t give her a chance to argue.
“You can easily handle this. Hell, you could manage twice the workload and still have time to spare.” Daniel gestured toward her art table, then to the Cintiq screen attached to a powerful computer—one Lily had paid to be custom built for her work. “Between the traditional art and your digital work, I’ve handled enough inquiries over the past few months to keep you busy for at least a year.”
A year by his estimate. God alone knew what it would break down to in real terms. Tension built between her shoulder blades. She could protest, tell him to drop a few of the jobs, but then what? Her reputation would suffer because he’d already agreed to the work on her behalf.
And that was my first mistake, letting him pick and choose most of my commissions.
There’d been a good reason, at the time. She’d been swamped with family matters, and the emails and inquiries had piled up. Daniel had stepped up as a friend to help her out. Before she’d realized it, he’d taken over.
No, that’s not true. I knew what was happening; I was relieved to have the help and then didn’t want to upset Daniel by telling him to back off.
So, she’d tried the subtle suggestions instead.
It hadn’t worked.
“You should be celebrating.” Daniel took a step toward her and paused. “With all of this work, you’ll be able to build up the nest egg you keep talking about. Not that you need it. The house is paid for, you have a decent bank account, and you’re in a healthy position.”
“Sure, I’m stable right now, if I don’t get sick and I’m able to work for the rest of my life.” He would never understand, but as an artist, you couldn’t guarantee work. Nor could you plan on working until the end of your days. Which meant building up not just a short-term healthy bank account but funds to cover retirement, long-term illness, or care centers.
In other words, she had to plan for the reality of life, not only the here and now. “Celebrating? When would I get the chance?”
“I’ll help you plan something when you’re caught up,” Daniel offered.
“If I ever had the time to celebrate, then I’d do so. But with all this work and who knows what else you have lined up, I doubt I will ever have a chance to even enjoy a simple meal with friends in the next year.” Lily tried to explain. Add in her stalker, and who knew when she would be safe enough to step into a restaurant long enough to relax over a meal and a glass of wine? Maybe, if she were lucky, she would be able to persuade her new security to accompany her?
“You’re overreacting again.” Daniel rolled his eyes. “Look, I can’t make you take time off, but we both know it would be a wise idea. A night away, take in a movie or something, catch up with old friends. It will rejuvenate you. We both know it will do you the world of good.”
That was his idea of helping her plan a break? An hour or two with old friends? Didn’t he realize most of her friends lived in other states and her main contact with them was via email or social media? No, of course not, and she needed more than a couple of hours off. More like a weekend, or better yet, a couple of weeks, but the work kept piling up. The problem was when you were a freelancer, you worked when you could because you never knew when the next commission would land in your inbox. “You don’t get it, do you?”
“Of course I do. You’re overreacting. Buck up, kid. You can handle this.”
She bit back a sigh. “Daniel, I’ve asked you not to call me that.”
“What? You know I think of you as a kid sister.” He closed the gap between them and rested one hand on her left shoulder. “It’s why I’m protective of you.”
God, how she wanted to believe him, but her gut said otherwise. It was the same when he called her a girl as if she were nothing more than a child. It wasn’t about helping the woman but keeping her under his wing, regardless of whether she wanted him to or not.
“I understand, Daniel, but it doesn’t… I don’t…” She struggled to find the right words, but it didn’t work. No matter what she said to him, he’d continue to call her kid and overbook her. Maybe it’s time to find a new manager? One who doesn’t think I’m a kid who still needs adult supervision.
Her gut tightened at the thought. Daniel had been a part of her life for years. Could she step away from him? Would she be able to work with someone else? Maybe she didn’t need a manager anymore. She’d balanced that aspect of her life before Daniel had stepped into the mix; she could do it again. But only if she found the courage to say something to him.
“Is there anything wrong?”
This was it; she could tell him how she felt and then…then what? There’d be a fight? She’d lose a friend and a manager? God, she wasn’t ready for that right now. Not with everything else going on. Lily shook her head and pasted a smile on her face. “It’s nothing. Never mind.”
A flicker of something had flashed across Daniel’s features before it vanished. “Your new security should be here soon. Did you want me to be around for the meeting? I mean, he should know everyone in your life, right? That way he doesn’t jump me by mistake.”
The change of topic threw Lily for a moment. “Yes, I think it might be wise.” She caught the inside of her bottom lip between her teeth. “You know I don’t like this idea, having a stranger in my life like this.” Security. What would the damned man do? Act as if she was royalty or a big celebrity in need of constant watching?
Whatever he planned, she’d find a way to live with it until the stalker was caught and dealt with.
“Lily, it’s a necessity if you believe you’re in danger—”
“Believe?” Lily stood, her jaw tight, fingers clenched. “I know I am. You know I am. You’ve seen what’s been happening to me.” She pulled free from his touch and stalked to the far side of the room. What was wrong with him? He’d been there from the start, seen the buildup of problems from the first postcard to the boxes and phone calls. Daniel had arrived only minutes after she’d discovered the rose and card on her car. What did he think—this was all a joke? That she was overreacting to the idea of a stranger pushing their way into her life? Lily shivered as she turned and glared at him. “You’re the one who talked me into going to the police in the first place. You said I would need police reports to prove there was something going on.”
Daniel leaned back against the desk Lily had walked away from. “Yes, I did, but it was to help calm you down. Come on, Lily; you freaked out about small things. It was call the cops or call a doctor. It’s not like you’re in danger. This is a guy with a crush. What harm could he cause you?”
Is that what Daniel honestly thinks of me? I’m a scared kid unable to think straight?
Cold sweat beaded down the length of her spine, and she swallowed hard to bring her rolling stomach under control. “Small things? That’s what you call it? What harm? God, you don’t get it, do you? Women are killed by stalkers every day.”
“All right, maybe some of them aren’t small, but come on, Lily. You can’t deny you overreacted.”
“Is that what you call a stranger leaving packages on your client’s doorstep, Mr. Walker?” The strong, masculine voice caught her off guard, and she turned, searching for the source. “Personally, I’d call it a security risk, even if the items were left with nothing but good intentions. A risk someone else could easily exploit to the detriment of Ms. Elliot’s health.”
Her breath caught in the back of her throat as her eyes locked with a pair of ice-blue eyes framed by long pale lashes. A small scar marred the stranger’s features at the corner of his left eye, and as she took him in, she noticed the second scar under his chin. Lily’s chest tightened, and heat rippled through her body as she looked away from his face and let it move down the length of his body. Tight, toned muscles without the bulk that came from too much time in the gym moved beneath his dress pants and pale blue shirt as he walked into the room with a predator’s dangerous grace. For a moment, she let her gaze linger on his groin before she realized what she was doing. Only then did she push back her nerves and let her annoyance break through, her voice sharp as she forced herself to look at his face.
“Like what you see, Ms. Elliot?” A cold, wicked smile claimed his lips. “I don’t mind if you take a second look if you need a little more inspiration.”
Yes, she did like what she’d seen, even though every fiber of her being warned her not to get too close to the newcomer. Inspiration? What the hell did he think he was here for? Nude modeling? Maybe a gigolo? Fine. The ideas intrigued her, but damn it all, this was her home; she wasn’t going to be intimidated. She lifted her chin and forced herself to stand tall despite her lack of natural height. She wasn’t alone. If he was a danger to her, then Daniel would call the cops, but would they make it in time if this newcomer was the stalker? “Who the hell are you? And what are you doing in my home?”
His gaze moved from Lily to Daniel and back again, a mischievous smile flashing across his handsome features. “You didn’t tell her I was coming?”
Daniel coughed and cleared his throat. “Of course I told her, but neither of us heard a knock or a bell. You do have a bell on the door, don’t you, Lily?”
“Yes, of course I do.” And locks, ones she’d taken to double-checking each night or whenever she was alone. “How did you get in?”
“The door wasn’t locked.” The stranger shrugged. “You need to be more careful about security, given the situation. Don’t you think?”
“I always lock the door,” Lily protested. Why in hell’s name was she answering him instead of demanding his name again? Daniel obviously knew who the man was and once again was treating her as a child. This has to stop. I can’t go on allowing Daniel to do this to me.
“Did you remember when Mr. Walker arrived?”
“He let himself in; he has a key.” Realization struck hard and fast as anger flared into life. She turned to stare at Daniel and somehow managed to keep her voice calm. How could he have been so careless? “You left it unlocked?”
“I didn’t think anything about it. After all, I’m right here. It’s not as if anyone’s going to attack you when there are witnesses, kid,” Daniel explained, his jaw tight. “Do you believe I would put you at risk? You are completely safe with me.”
“It’s that sort of thinking that gets people killed, Mr. Walker.”
Lily wrapped her arms around her body and shrank into herself. How could she be safe with everything going on? Was Daniel that naive? No, this wasn’t about being naïve. It was about believing there was a problem to begin with.