{Excerpt} Embrace My Heart by: AlTonya Washington

Embrace My Heart by AlTonya WashingtonChasing a man wasn’t something she did.

Come on, Vec, it’s Qasim Wilder.

Vectra Bauer thinned her lips and tried to drive the silent reminder from her mind.

She guessed that most women would likely deem Qasim Wilder a man worthy of being chased.

Truth be told, Vectra herself could easily subscribe to the same notion if not for the fact that the man in question had been acting decidedly weird for the past few months.

They had enjoyed what she’d considered a pretty nice friendship until he had very noticeably begun to distance himself. As a woman who maintained a short list of close friends, Vectra couldn’t afford to lose any—weird acting or not.

Which came to the point of her visit: chasing a man, indeed. She cast yet another speculative glance around the fortieth-floor private lobby outside the office for the president of Wilder. Qasim’s financial savvy was as coveted as his looks. His name was so well known, his skills so respected, that there was no need to add additional wording to the business moniker.

Money was Qasim’s game, and he was loved for it. If only I were here to discuss business, Vectra thought. She rubbed a clammy palm across the flaring hem of a casual cap-sleeved frock that hugged her unintentionally athletic figure.

She’d come to discuss a party, of all things. Vectra puffed out her cheeks and tried to preoccupy herself by attempting to count the cars crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, which stood in distinctive red splendor across the Bay. She managed to content herself with the fact that she at least didn’t have to worry over being turned down. After all, she wasn’t there to extend an invite.

The distinguished Mr. Wilder had made it very clear that a friendship with her was something he no longer had time for.

At least that was what his actions had suggested. Qasim had yet to come out and tell her what exactly had his boxers twisted. Rolling her eyes away from the stunning bridge, Vectra gave a mental sigh. Thoughts raging, she worked hard at putting her focus elsewhere. Periodicals were neatly arranged on a low marble coffee table set in the center of the lobby’s upscale reception area. She wondered if she’d be waiting long enough to pick one of them and dive in.

“Vectra?”

It took a second or three for her to realize someone had actually called her name and that it hadn’t been her trusty inner voice. She turned, an instant smile curving her mouth when she saw Qasim’s assistant, Minka Gerald. She stood a few feet away from the large oak desk that occupied a spot in the workplace, which claimed almost the entire wall opposite an impressive line of floor-to-ceiling windows.

Minka quickly closed the distance between them. “Gosh, it’s been forever!”

“It has.” Vectra squeezed Minka’s hands when the woman gave hers a shake. She could feel some of her apprehension dissolve as Minka’s sunny demeanor worked its charms upon her.

“What are you doing waiting in the lobby?” Minka stopped squeezing Vectra’s hands and tugged them insistently. “You’ll be a lot more comfortable in Qasim’s office.”

“Minka… ” Vectra bit her lip for an instant. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”

“Ah.” Minka poked out her tongue and buzzed out a breath. “He’s at lunch and won’t be a bit happy to find you waiting in the lobby. Even if it is a private one.”

Vectra didn’t have the heart to tell the woman that what would probably make her boss happiest was for her not to be there at all. She decided against arguing. She was returning to the waiting area to collect her bag when a man arrived at Minka’s desk.

“Mink! Sim around?”

“Hey, Will.” Minka threw a smile over her shoulder. “He’s still at lunch.”

The man tapped the edge of the thin manila folder against his palm. He appeared to be weighing his options. “Any idea how long he’ll be? I got some stuff for him to sign.”

“Well, he left before I did.” Minka secured her burgundy tote into a bottom drawer along the black credenza behind her desk. “I’m not sure how long he’s been gone and when he does get back you’ll still have to wait.” She gave a slight nod past the man’s shoulder.

“William Lloyd, Vectra Bauer,” Minka made the introductions.

Will met Vectra between the waiting area and Minka’s desk, where he shook her hand. “Pretty sure Sim’ll be much happier to see you here than me.”

Vectra smiled, humored by the man’s tease. “Don’t count on it.”

“Is there anything I can do, Will?” Minka offered.

“I don’t see why not.” Will turned, brows rising as his gaze crested above Minka’s head. He grinned. “But no need to worry yourself.”

“Sim.” Minka laughed. “Great timing.”

Vectra turned, too. She wasn’t all that surprised to find Qasim Wilder wearing a dour expression, which he aimed directly at her. “Hey, Qasim,” she managed, albeit softly.

“Vectra.”

She could detect obvious surprise riddling Qasim’s deep, soft voice. An edgier quality tempered the sound, however, before he seemed to lose all interest and completely dismissed her.

Qasim moved with his trademark stealth. An asset honed by his years in the military. He extended a hand toward the other man.

“Sorry for the bother, man.” Grinning, Will heartily engaged in the handshake. “I need the go-ahead for a few things. Need your name on the line before I can move forward. Hotel people are some picky folk.”

“What’s up?” Qasim took the folder Will offered.

“Mostly pricing details. They want to know if I’m authorized to accept the quotes.”

“All right.” Qasim scanned the folder’s contents. “I’ll get this back to you soon.” He passed the file to Minka. “Let’s see about drafting a document for Will to have on hand as proof that I’ve given him the authority to make any decisions needed to organize this thing.”

Minka smiled at Will. “I’ll have the folder ready as soon as Sim has time to look it over. We’ll have to give you a call once legal draws up the signing doc, okay?” She looked to her boss for approval.

Qasim’s nod was confirmation enough and then he left the group.

Feeling thoroughly snubbed as he strolled off without another word, Vectra forbade herself from making one move. From the corner of her eye, she could almost see Minka and Will exchanging curious looks over Sim’s slight. She gave a start when a loud knock echoed out over the space.

Qasim had returned to the lobby and was looking at Vectra from where he’d dropped the loud knock against the wall that shielded the long corridor leading to his office suite.

“You coming?” he called.

Vectra heard no hospitality in the words, only tense patience. She watched his inky-black stare scanning the length of her and wondered whether Minka or Will could read their boss’s mind as easily as she did.

Apparently, they had noticed their boss’s agitation. They quickly left her side. Minka returned to her desk.

“Nice to meet you.” Will squeezed Vectra’s arm on his way past.

“Same here,” Vectra called to his departing figure.

She could have easily been amused by the sense of dread filling the area were she not the one caught in the crosshairs.

Qasim didn’t wait for her to reach him at the corner of the hallway. Instead, he headed on down the carpeted, portrait-lined space. Vectra attempted to assess his mood as he walked before her. Not that his icy manner in the lobby hadn’t been hint enough, but he acted like she’d been the one to go all antisocial when it’d been the other way around.

At any rate, it was no hardship to follow and observe him at a distance. Qasim’s love for outdoor activity was evident even beneath his standard suit-and-tie work attire. That day, a walnut-brown three-piece suit adorned his toned, licorice-dark frame.

They had been friends long enough for her to know that he hated ties. He usually discarded whichever one he wore either just before or right after lunch. The guy loved his comfort and the fact didn’t diminish the stunning craftsmanship of his body or face.

Bottomless dark eyes competed with the ebony richness of heavy brows and the sleep cap of hair he wore close cut. His facial hair was tamed into an intentional five o’clock shadow that partly hid a cleft chin and the faint lines that proved he was easy with his smiles.

Vectra blinked suddenly, at once regretting and realizing how much time she’d taken to admire the man’s face and form. The fact made her wonder whether she’d subjected any of her other male friends to such scrutiny. Doubtful. Her male friends were just that—just friends. Or, rather, they had been…until she met Qasim; he was a male friend she would have preferred become much more.

He opened one of the towering maple doors leading to his office. Vectra quickened her pace when she realized he was going to hold it for her as though she were an actual welcomed visitor. In spite of his polite manners, however, she could’ve sworn she picked up on a low yet distinctive sound of agitation. That sound rumbled through his chest when she passed him on her way into the room.

If ever there was an office that personified its owner, it’s Qasim’s, she thought.

The place was a testament to pretty much everything he held dear. One far, expansive corner was a hive of activity with wide-screen monitors broadcasting both financial and sports news from their perches atop a pair of pristine maple desks. Towering bookcases lined the room and were filled with pictures, plaques, awards and books spanning a range of genres. Above the cases nearest the desks was a stock ticker.

Vectra set her tote on one of the square black leather chairs that surrounded an impressive gaming area. She wondered if nice or nasty was the way to begin their conversation. She didn’t have long to debate.

“Coming to invite me to another party, Vec?”

The words carried over Qasim’s broad shoulder as he headed into his work area. He removed his suit coat, slung it over the back of the sofa he passed and smiled in her direction when he turned.

Okay, then… she decided, accepting that the conversation would be a tad strained. “Actually, I came to ask why I’ve been selected as the lucky one to get the brunt of the petty side of your personality?”

He smiled. While the gesture held a great deal of humor, the air of agitation remained.

“Qasim?” Vectra’s attempt to remain steely gave way, and her curiosity got the better of her. “Why are you angry with me?” She didn’t care for the pleading tone that clung to her words, but she wanted answers.

Qasim appeared taken aback, but recovered soon enough. “I’m not angry with you.” He made a pretense of reviewing the folders lying open on his desk.

“Well, you’re something. What’d I do?” Curiosity had given way to a smidge of self-consciousness while she stood before him. Something changed. His smile was gone, and the look that replaced it was observant in a way that made Vectra flush with heat.

Another of the agitated rumbles surged in Qasim’s chest, and he pushed back the wide black leather chair behind his desk.

Vectra could hear nothing over her heart beating wildly as anticipation had its way with her.

Qasim didn’t take a seat in the chair; instead, he headed in Vectra’s direction and then shifted toward the maple wet bar, which displayed a wide array of liquor bottles in various shapes and sizes.

Quietly, Qasim went about preparing Vectra’s vodka tonic, which he set firmly upon the bar top. From the full-size black fridge behind him, he retrieved his beer of choice and popped the top.

He tipped the bottle to his mouth. “I’m not angry with you.”

Vectra stood in place, nervously rubbing her fingers together while she observed Qasim with a wary gaze. He motioned with his bottle for her to take the vodka. Vectra didn’t care how eagerly she accepted. The drink went a long way in calming her ridiculously frazzled nerves.

The lush line of Qasim’s mouth grew even lusher as a smile emerged. She rolled her eyes. “You said that already, so excuse me for not believing you.” She gave him her back, keeping the drink clutched securely between her hands.

Qasim allowed his emotions greater purchase while Vectra’s back faced him. He didn’t realize the blackness of his stare softened as it always did when just the mere thought of her stirred.

He watched her sip from the glass but noticed that she didn’t empty it. She put more distance between them, which gave him time to absorb the missed sight of her.

The more time they spent together, the more she stunted his ability to properly think or even speak. He’d masked it for as long as he could. When he could no longer do that, he latched on to his only option.

Because he didn’t want to be her friend. He wanted much more.

She finished her drink and turned on him. “You shut me out. I thought we were friends and then you—you stopped calling, stopped taking my calls. Why? What’d I do?”

Qasim took another swig of his beer and gave a half shrug. “Guess you won’t accept the ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ defense?”

“No.” She produced a cool smile and set her glass on the bar with more force than needed. “And I’ve got a good conversation starter since clearly you can’t get the discussion going. Robb’s party? It’s tonight. When we spoke a while ago, I got the impression that you didn’t have a date, either, so I thought we could go together. When you shot me down, I decided to ask someone else. He turned me down, too, but thankfully he told me why he had to say no before I ran off to embarrass myself by asking someone else.”

“Lew?” At her confirming nod, Qasim rolled his eyes.

Lewis Olin was a mutual friend who struggled with the concept of keeping secrets. While people tended to admire the man’s honesty, they often found the trait to be a nuisance.

“Why don’t you want anyone else to take me to the party?” Her voice was quiet.

“I didn’t tell him that.” Qasim finished his beer and turned to the bar fridge for another just to have a reason to shield the truth from his eyes.

“No, Qasim, you told Lew you’d break his hand before he could press the send button when he mentioned calling me to ask me to Robb’s party. Why would you say that?”

“I didn’t mean it.” Silently, though, Qasim feared that the threat had been all too real at the time. He lost his taste for the second beer, slamming the fridge door shut to round on her. “You’re an idiot if you don’t know why I wouldn’t want anyone else to take you out.”

“I’m no idiot, Sim.” At least not about that. “I just want to hear you say it.”

“I can’t be your friend.” Qasim pushed off the bar, massaging the bridge of his nose.

Vectra blinked twice in rapid succession. The words were like a slap, yet they hadn’t rendered her speechless. “You can’t be my friend and you don’t want anyone else to be my friend, either?”
© Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

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