Aspen Starr is in a bind and not in a good way. His father is trying to use him to sweeten a business deal and being a bought boy toy holds no appeal. Just when he thinks he has no options left Sundae’s Custom Easter Baskets knocks at his door. Soon he finds himself blindly following a trail right into the path of a sexy new boss and a whole new mess of carnal complications.
Garren Thomas has rules and one of those is to never get involved with an employee. Easy to say, harder to enforce when Aspen is hired on. With each passing day Garren’s control slips until all he wants to do is spend his days with Aspen in his bed.
When faced with giving into his desires, Garren sees his simple life being torn apart. Can he get Aspen out of his system without losing his heart? Aspen isn’t much better off. He is drawn to Garren, but he can’t help the fear that the secrets from his past will destroy it all. As Aspen begins to lose himself within the confusion of sex and love one question plagues him: who sent the basket?
Garren Thomas glared at the vibrating phone that wiggled its way across the passenger seat of his black SUV. He knew without looking it was his business partner, Taylor. The man had been trying to reach him for the better part of the hour, but Garren persisted in savoring his last moments of vacation. He’d be at the office in a few minutes anyway. It could wait…hopefully.
He took time off once a year and traveled to the coast to enjoy the sound of the ocean waves. The books that had taken over his tablet finally got a chance to be read. While Taylor generally invited the newest female flavor of the week when he vacationed, Garren preferred spending the time alone. It amazed him that Taylor hadn’t tried to surprise him with a guest. But Taylor more than likely feared what Garren’s retribution would entail. They’d been in college together, and Garren had blindsided Taylor out of revenge on more than one occasion.
Garren pulled into the parking lot, and the building still stood. There were no people loitering outside, so he hadn’t missed any appointments. Of course, in the business of psychological evaluations, most people weren’t champing at the bit to get through the door. Half the time the clients didn’t bother to show if attendance was under their own steam. The other part of the time, Garren or Taylor went to the jail to do the evaluations with the supervision of guards for their safety.
As he shut off the engine, Taylor came strolling out of the office. His clipped pace said he had been waiting for Garren to arrive. Similar to every other day of the week, Taylor was impeccably dressed in a suit and matching tie. His shoes shone, and his brown hair was artfully styled. Garren stepped out of his car and grabbed his briefcase before turning to face Taylor.
“Morning,” Garren said. A note of suspicion colored the simple word. He strolled toward the office, and Taylor did an about-face to follow along.
“Hey, bud. Looking good. Is that a tan?” Taylor’s words bled together, exhaled on a single breath.
“What did you do?” Garren asked, his eyebrows raised. A tan on the Oregon coast in October? Oh, something was definitely off.
“Well, you know Helena…” Taylor started, and Garren stopped abruptly.
“Again?” Garren growled. “For God’s sake, man. You can’t fuck all our receptionists.”
“See, that’s just it. I found someone new. He’s licensed in psychometry, and he has office skills. So it’s kinda perfect Helena left,” Taylor explained. His eyes held a hopeful glint.
Garren ran his fingers through his hair, jerking on the strands. “She’d been here for four months, Taylor. We’d just finished her training. You have to stop this.”
“That’s why this new person is ideal. He’s a man. His name is Aspen, and his qualifications plus gender make him the perfect fit. I mean, we both know you won’t stray past the line of no return. No sneaking into the new guy’s pants for you, as you possess way more self-control.”
Garren started walking again. He silently counted to ten. They would have to train a whole new person. Taylor was right that it would help to have a psychometrist in office to assist them. Not that he would reveal that to Taylor. Garren hoped he could live up to the faith Taylor had in him to keep things platonic with the new guy. Garren did prefer to compartmentalize his private life from his work. Taylor remained too wrapped up in his romantic mishaps to bother to question Garren’s anyway.
Taylor grinned at Garren. “You’re going to like him, I swear. He’s a whiz. He even has a couple of years of experience. I’ve had him shadowing me, and so far, I think he knows the material better than I do.”
Garren snorted. “That wouldn’t take much.”
Taylor glowered and opened the door. “Just because I have a full life–”
“Sure, you live life on the edge. On the edge of a sexual-harassment lawsuit,” Garren muttered.
“Put on your happy face, Dr. Thomas; it’s time to perform,” Taylor replied.
Garren stepped into the office lobby with its scenic paintings, burgundy chairs, a couch, and potted plants. The glass door shut behind them.
“Burton and Thomas’s office. This is Aspen. How can I help you?” The slightly husky voice flowed over Garren. He turned to catch sight of his new employee. Son of a bitch.
Aspen had white-blond hair, shorter on the sides and kept longer on top. His face boasted high cheekbones and a delicate, narrow nose. His lips were full and tempting. Aspen glanced up, and Garren was snared by the most beautiful set of green eyes. They were light, not quite emerald, more sea-foam green. Damn, with Aspen’s creamy complexion and light hair, his eyes glimmered. Garren’s pants became a tad more restrictive.
Then Aspen smiled at them as he ended the phone call. “You must be Dr. Thomas.” He stood, strolled around the divider, and held out his hand to Garren.
Garren admired Aspen’s tight, small body. Even the black slacks and powder-blue polo shirt couldn’t conceal the enticing form beneath. Aspen barely came to Garren’s shoulders. The tempting morsel embodied the kind of twink Garren would pick up for a night.
Aspen frowned and nibbled on his lip. The nervous gesture shook Garren out of his stupor, and he took Aspen’s hand in his. Garren would be nervous too if his boss stood, boldly staring. The brief touch sent a shock of awareness zinging through Garren’s body. Garren dropped Aspen’s hand and stepped away. He needed more space between them so he could breathe without taking in more of Aspen’s intoxicating scent of citrus and vanilla.
Garren cleared his throat. “And you must be Aspen. Taylor has managed to give me your entire employment history from my car to the door. It is quite impressive,” he offered, proud of himself for the even tone of his voice while he quaked with confusion beneath his skin.
An endearing pink flush worked its way to Aspen’s cheeks. “I’m sure he exaggerated, but I’m excited to be working here.” He smiled, and a deep dimple on his right cheek briefly made an appearance.
“I have to go check my messages, but I would like to talk with you in more detail about your work experience,” Garren said.
A flash of uncertainty shifted across Aspen’s face.
“Don’t worry. I trust that Taylor did an adequate job in hiring you. This is more for my peace of mind.” It shocked Garren at how much his heart lifted when a small grin replaced the anxiety in Aspen’s expression. He hadn’t liked the thought that he’d caused the man even a moment of emotional strife, and yet he didn’t like the fact he cared about it either way.
Garren left the room and wrestled with his desire to turn and take one more look at Aspen.
Garren escaped to the security of his office and was astounded to see his desk wasn’t a disaster area with mail strewn across it, like in the past. Helena had been more interested in Taylor than in him. The previous employees were much the same or believed administrative tasks were beneath them.
Garren skimmed the documents and mail situated in organized stacks. They were arranged by date with a separate pile for more urgent documents. His appointment book lay open to the current date, with the files that pertained to those meetings placed next to it.
Color him impressed by Aspen’s efficiency. But sorting papers and meshing schedules did not a good psychometrist make. He’d have to shadow Aspen for the day while Aspen administered the testing. Giving the basic psych inventories could be easy, but performing the intelligence tests required more than a pencil and a timer.
A knock interrupted his musings, and he pivoted to see Aspen standing in the doorway with his hands twisted together and a look of apprehension etched on his face. Hell, he’d probably made the poor guy think he was going to get fired. Garren wasn’t that much of a dick. For the most part.
“Come in.” Garren gestured to a plush empty chair kitty-corner to his. “Thank you for organizing my documents. I anticipated a large, jumbled mess. It was a nice surprise.” His words of praise visibly relaxed Aspen, who sat in the chair, staring at Garren with an expectant gaze.
“Tell me about yourself, Aspen.” Garren steepled his hands and studied Aspen.
“Umm.” Aspen picked at a loose thread coming undone on a seam of the chair. “I’m from Bend. I worked at the Starr and Stone Forensic Psychology office, primarily on domestic cases that involved parental and child evaluations.”
“That’s why your name sounded familiar. How are you related to Dr. Starr?” Garren considered Aspen. He’d run into Douglas Starr on more than one occasion and come away with the impression of a pompous ass. When Garren had first established his business in Eugene, Douglas had come at him as though Garren would be attempting a hostile takeover of the whole northwest. Douglas had gone so far as to have the clients he worked with sign long-term contracts as opposed to working case by case.
Looking at Aspen, Garren wondered how much of Douglas Aspen had acquired while working with the man. Aspen didn’t project the air of entitlement Douglas did. Garren also didn’t see any familial physical traits. Aspen looked nothing like Douglas. The man had brown, thinning hair and hollow blue eyes.
“He’s my father,” Aspen bit out, refusing to meet Garren’s gaze.
“Why did you transfer here, then?”
“Let’s just say working in the family business isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”
“All right. I can understand your reasoning. You wanted to strike out on your own?” Garren found it strange that in the few dealings he’d had with Douglas, he’d never once heard about Douglas having a son. Garren hadn’t been to Starr and Stone’s offices, but the community of forensic psychologists wasn’t exactly huge.
“Yes. Bend is too claustrophobic for me. I always bore the weight of family expectations.” Aspen shrugged, and Garren wanted to soothe the stress he could see present in the frown lines on Aspen’s face.
“What kind of formal education do you have?” Garren tilted back in his chair.
“I have a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and I’ve been trained as a psychometrist. I have three years of experience through my father’s office.” Aspen gave Garren a small smile. “I know working at my father’s office may seem like the easy thing to do, but I did work hard there. I didn’t coast by on the Starr name.”
The vehement way Aspen said those words told Garren he must have experienced that surface assumption before.
“Since I know Taylor does a good amount of research before he employs anyone, I can deduce you must be more than just a name.” Why Garren felt it necessary to comfort Aspen was beyond him. Garren’d had to struggle to get to where he was. No family name to boost him through the ranks. Aspen’s vulnerability tugged at Garren’s heartstrings.
“Yes, I want to succeed on my merit.” The edge of sincerity in Aspen’s voice was intriguing.
“Their loss is our gain,” Garren declared.
Aspen smiled broadly, and his green eyes sparkled with relief.
“Thank you, Dr. Thomas. I swear you won’t regret keeping me on.” Aspen stood, still grinning. He seemed to be so full of energy and eager to please. Which didn’t make keeping his thoughts out of the gutter any easier for Garren. He could think of a lot more entertaining activities that would put Aspen’s energy to good use. Those thoughts had him turning away from Aspen and toward his desk to hide a more-than-obvious erection.
“I’m sure things will work very well.” Garren glanced over his shoulder and motioned to the open door. “You can go now. I’ll be shadowing you for your afternoon appointment.”
“Okay. I have to administer the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, and Dr. Burton also wants cognitive testing done.” Aspen’s enthusiasm for the job was infectious. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad having him here, so long as Garren could keep his thoughts out of the gutter and his hands off Aspen’s tight ass.
Garren fought not to sigh as that ass waltzed its way out the door. He banged his head on the desk. Now he had a small idea of what it must have been like for Taylor every day. Maybe he had been too hard on Taylor for all his dalliances with the female employees. That didn’t mean Garren had any intention of breaking the rules. I will not date someone I work with. I will not fuck someone I work with. Perhaps if he said it enough, he could convince himself to behave.
ASPEN PULLED THE door shut behind him and leaned on it. He breathed deep to calm his pounding heart.
He was relieved to be excused from Garren’s office. One more minute of staring into those sapphire-blue eyes and he would have dropped to his knees to check out the delicious equipment hidden beneath Garren’s crisply pressed khaki pants.
Damn. Garren was fuckin’ hot.
From what Taylor had revealed about him, Aspen had thought the guy would be a stuck-up, stuffed-shirt type of guy. More like Aspen’s father without the biting edge of bigotry. Taylor had said Garren was rigid and more than a little OCD. That was why Aspen had gone to such trouble to make sure Garren’s desk remained organized for when he returned. It couldn’t hurt to get on his boss’s good side.
Now all he had to worry about was not drooling when Garren came in a room. Taylor hadn’t gone into detail about Garren’s personal life, but Aspen definitely got the dominating-gay vibe. His gaydar had pinged with complete accuracy in the past. Not that it mattered. He’d be asking for a colossal amount of trouble if he made a play for his boss, especially with his job on the line. It wasn’t like he could depend on a new egg popping up to fix things if he screwed up.
Since he’d worked at Burton and Thomas, he hadn’t received any more eggs, but anytime he caught a bright glint of color, he stopped to investigate. Plus, he spent a great deal of time looking over his shoulder and wondering how long it would be before his father found him. He hoped his time wasn’t running out quite yet. He loved his job and the town itself. In his spare time, he’d managed to get out and go dancing. For the first time in a long time, he was having fun and looking forward to starting his day every morning. With Garren he had one more reason to get up and at least appreciate the view.
Aspen shook his head. They’d just met, and yeah, Garren was a tasty treat, but Aspen refused to act like a schoolgirl with a crush. All his debating and scenarios would have to remain locked in the land of never going to happen anywhere outside his lonely bedroom.
Aspen walked over and sat at his desk. Even having to perform the administrative assistant duties part of the time, doing psychometry the other part, and making about half as much as he had at his father’s practice didn’t dissuade his happiness.
He’d left Bend to get away from the rigid structure he’d grown up with. He had learned all he could under his father’s tutelage. All that remained to be taught was his father’s anger, resentment, and inability to accept anything different from what he deemed appropriate. All things Aspen could do without. At the end of the day, Aspen would always be far from appropriate in the eyes of his father. Most of the knowledge he’d gained that could be practically used was from Alex.
He felt a twinge of cowardice at his actions in leaving his friend in a bind, but he yearned to start a new life, not watch his whole world fall apart around him. He sought to walk into a more open existence, not crawl out of the rubble of his previous one.
“Survived?” Taylor’s voice interrupted his musings. Taylor personified a player personality, and Aspen knew that factored into why he’d gotten the job. Taylor had confided that the temptation of a female subordinate didn’t lend to a healthy business environment.
“Yes. Not a singe mark.”
Taylor threw his head back and let out a bark of laughter. “Oh, if you were a woman, you’d be in so much trouble.”
That was what he loved about working with Taylor. The man had no filter whatsoever. Such levity in the environment made the days go by faster.
“If I were a woman, you still wouldn’t stand a chance.” Aspen winked.
“Pish, you haven’t seen my charming, debonair side,” Taylor offered with a suave smile and a magazine-cover pose.
“That makes one person,” Garren said as he strolled into the reception area.
Aspen’s face heated, and he shifted back to his computer. He peeked over at Garren, and his fingers twitched with the desire to run through Garren’s thick, dark hair.
“Your allure aside, I’d like to sit in when Aspen gives Mr. Griffin his testing.”
Aspen could practically feel the warmth of Garren’s gaze on the back of his neck.
“Fine by me. I have to review a file for a guilty-but-insane hearing this afternoon,” Taylor replied.
“Oh?” Garren asked.
“Yes. A gentleman decided attempting to mow his wife’s lover down was a side effect of a jealous nature. Apparently he believes that means he couldn’t control his impulses.” Taylor shrugged.
The cases they worked on fascinated Aspen. In his father’s practice he had worked for social services on parenting and child evaluations, but those had been a very small component of his father’s business. Yet here, they came across the interesting underbelly of human nature. Their primary cases were all criminal evaluations and the building of cases either for or against the insanity defense. The characters he dealt with now both intrigued and disturbed him.
“Ah, the Bellevue case. What have the testing and interviews revealed thus far?” Garren placed his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels.
Taylor laughed. “If jealousy was a valid reason to warrant violence, well, my friend, I’d be dead. The lawyers are going to have to come up with a different defense.”
Aspen snickered. He’d have to agree. In his brief time working at Burton and Thomas, he had fielded more calls from Taylor’s ex and current lovers than he cared to remember. The amount of Post-it note messages he had given to Taylor from his harem was probably responsible for the destruction of a small forest.
“I live in fear of the day one of your conquests comes crashing through our front window,” Garren confessed with a sardonic grin.
Aspen fought the desire to let loose a sigh. With a smile like that, it was a wonder Garren didn’t win all his cases. Between those sensual lips, and the crinkling of lines near his twinkling deep blue eyes, Aspen had found the physical embodiment of his every fantasy.
“Very funny, Dr. Thomas. One of our clients is about to come in. Put on your serious face and make us some money.” Taylor disappeared into his office.
Garren speared Aspen with a piercing look. “Are you ready?”
For a second Aspen’s mind went blank. Was he ready for what? He let his starving gaze travel down Garren’s strong, broad, muscled body and wondered how a mild-mannered psychiatrist got a body like that.
A flush crept up his face. “Come again?”
If he could get away with an insanity defense right now, he would. Come again? What century did he live in? His dirty mind was going to get him in trouble.
“I asked if you were ready to do the testing on the nine-o’clock appointment. Have you read the file?” Garren’s brow rose as he stared. Aspen felt at a disadvantage to be looking up at Garren, but his body wasn’t cooperating enough for him to stand without providing a detailed outline of his anatomy.
“Yes. Yes, I have. I was in early. I reviewed the history. I–” He stuttered along. He hated feeling like he had been caught peeking into the boys’ locker room.
“Calm down, Aspen. I’m not going to grade you on your knowledge of the client’s file. I just want to know you have a basic overview of the client before we start. As long as you aren’t doing the collateral-informant interviews, the less you know, the better you are at being an unbiased tester.”
Garren’s speech gave Aspen enough time to pull his fractured mind and runaway libido into check. He was a professional, damn it. Shoring up his control, he gathered the mental-status exam, personality inventories, and intelligence testing.
Garren seemed more of a trial-by-fire kind of guy. Taylor might have had a simple sit-down interview with Aspen, but Garren didn’t strike him as someone who would work like that. Aspen would be judged, but based on what he could do, not on what he claimed to have experience at.
The client who sauntered through the door was as tall as Garren, but the client’s hair was greasy to the point of looking wet. He sported a goatee and a slender mustache. A cartoon villain come to life. Aspen halfway expected him to twist his mustache and laugh evilly. His eyes were black and hollowed, and when he smiled, he had more teeth missing than there. If Aspen had to highlight a drug of choice, he would say meth played some part in why the client was getting a psych evaluation.
While he felt bad for those who were addicted to drugs, he didn’t think it was a justifiable reason to commit crimes. From what he had seen and learned about Taylor and Garren, they were of the same mind-set. Letting drug addicts get off without consequences didn’t help anyone. He’d met one of the clients from a previous case who’d been helped through a drug-treatment program in the jail. He enjoyed that part of working with this practice. They actually seemed to want to help people.
“Good morning.” Garren stepped forward and held out his hand. “Mr. Griffin?”
“Yeah. I wouldn’t say it’s a good morning, though. It’ll be good when this bullshit is done.” The man took his hand back and ran it through his oily hair. The same one he’d used to shake Garren’s hand.
“I understand. The sooner we get started, the sooner we can get you out of here,” Garren said.
“How long is this gonna take? I have plans,” Mr. Griffin grouched.
“The whole evaluation process takes about six hours, and of course you’ll have a lunch break,” Garren replied.
Aspen cringed when the news sparked an angry expression.
“Fuck, I don’t have time for this,” Mr. Griffin exclaimed.
“Mr. Griffin, the way I see it is you don’t have a choice. This is court-ordered, and I’m fine with putting a big black check in your file that says you’re not cooperating. I don’t think that’s what you ultimately want. So I’d suggest we go to the testing room, sit, and get through this.” Garren’s voice remained level and his eyes stern.
Aspen had already learned that with criminal evaluations, compassion was generally not the way to go. The individuals they primarily worked with were manipulators. His old job had dealt with parents and children instead. This job held more of a challenge.
“Fine, whatever,” Mr. Griffin snarked with a shrug and a sullen glare.
It wasn’t until that moment the client turned to really take in Aspen’s presence.
“Will he be coming too?” He leered in Aspen’s direction, making Aspen’s skin crawl.
After work Aspen would have to go home and scrub his skin raw to get the filthy look, which felt more like a touch, to go away.
He fought a shudder of disgust. The only aspect of his job he wasn’t fond of was when the slimy clients who slithered in and hit on him. Aspen dressed very conservatively at work in order to avoid the attention. Obviously it didn’t always work.
“Mr. Starr will be assisting me in the testing, and I expect you to afford him the same respect you would give to your lawyer and to me.”
Aspen almost snorted. Garren would be lucky to get respect. Hell, he doubted Mr. Griffin’s lawyer received any. Public defenders spent a lot of time fighting their clients to defend them. It could be a nightmare of a job.
“Yeah. Sure. Whatever.”
Garren led Mr. Griffin to the testing office, and Aspen sat for a minute to gather himself. At least Mr. Griffin gave him a distraction from his attraction to Garren. Time to put on his game face and suppress his desire to gag every time Mr. Griffin suggestively eyed him.
He took a deep breath and followed the two men into the testing room.