“Go. Just go. You could meet the love of your life.”
Cara Michal didn’t bother rolling her eyes, because her friend Iris was giving out unwanted advice over the phone and couldn’t see her do it.
“I work on Wall Street, Iris. The guys I work with, the guys who will be attending this company party, aren’t interested in love. Even if they were, I’m not.”
“Well, apparently you’re not interested in fun or sex either. Jesus, Cara, just how long has it been since you’ve been on a date?”
Usually Iris wouldn’t have to ask the question. They normally got together at least once a month for a rom com movie and mani-pedi, or they chatted on the phone regularly, but the last six weeks had been so busy for Cara she’d barely had time to eat and sleep let alone check in with her friend. Thankfully the huge project she’d been working on was over and she’d be getting back to a 75-hour-work week instead of what had been closer to 100.
“A while,” Cara sighed. “But I knew when I started the four-year analyst program at Dubois and Mellan that that’s what I was signing up for. That’s why they pay me the big bucks,” she said dryly. Earning a six-figure salary three years after graduating college wasn’t anything to scoff at, but the reality was that it didn’t go very far either. Not for a single woman living in Manhattan with the kind of responsibilities Cara had, anyway.
“By this time next year that’ll all change. You’ll get your bonus for completing the program, dole it out to your family, and finally listen to me when I say you need to seriously rethink your chosen profession and do something you love.”
“I love analyzing numbers,” she pointed out.
It was mostly a true statement. She was good at it. Enjoyed it. Was comforted by it. But there were other things she loved more. Things she might have tried out as a career if things had been different. Only Iris knew the true reason she’d become a Wall Street analyst: after her father had died, she’d needed to make good money and make it fast, and if she had to sacrifice her personal life to do it, so be it. “Besides,” she said quietly. “You know it’s not as easy as that. If the firm offers me a permanent position, I’ll have to take it.”
“Even though it’s killing you?” Iris said.
When she said nothing, Iris sighed. “Dead horse. Not going to go there. But you still haven’t answered my question. How long has it been since you dated?”
“Um, I went out with a colleague a few times last month, though we also talked shop so I could justify it. Drinks once, dinner twice.”
“I detect a noticeable lack of enthusiasm,” Iris said pointedly. “Would you like me to fix you up with someone again?”
“No thanks,” Cara said quickly. “I can manage. After all, it’s not like you’ve been having much better luck with love.”
“At least you meet employed guys.”
Iris had been an artist, actress, gossip blogger, and stand-up comic. At the moment, she was waiting tables in Brooklyn at a dive that served nachos and two-dollar cans of beer to poets and artists. The borrowing type.
“There is that.” Cara leaned back in her chair.
“So who’s this colleague? What does he do?”
“He’s just someone I went out with a few times, Iris.” Greg Johnson was like many of the junior stockbrokers that Cara knew. Young. A bit cocky. Uninspiring.
“Ohhh. I get it. Not a romance. But—hey, did he ask you to go with him to this party? Is that why you’re on the fence?”
“No to the second question, yes to the first.” Cara sat up straight again and fiddled with a pencil, tapping it on her desktop. “Some important client of ours is throwing it. Attendance is strongly encouraged, which translates as show up and suck up. I get so little time off as it is; that’s not how I relish spending it.”
“What’s the occasion?”
“Something’s going to be announced, I think. Maybe someone’s retiring.” Or more likely checking in for an extended stay at a mental health rehab facility. It happened in her line of work. A lot.
She rubbed her temple, trying to dull the slight headache she felt coming on. If she was making jokes about mental health issues, even in her own head, she was definitely feeling off kilter.
“Whatever it is, you should probably hear it firsthand. And the thing is, you really don’t get out much.”
That was true enough. “I suppose I’ll go.”
“As if there was any real doubt,” Iris snorted. “You live and breathe that job, Cara.”
“Yeah. Unfortunately. But…”
“I do have three weeks of vacation that I’ve never used,” Cara said. “Maybe I’ll actually take a few days to escape.” She tried to imagine it. Warm sand and water. A frothy drink in her hand. Nothing to do but read a good book and flirt with a hot cabana boy or two.
More realistically, she’d probably stay close and spend most of the time visiting her mother or her brother, Glenn, who lived at a nursing facility. She normally tried to see him once a week, but those visits were often stressful and rushed. But that was mostly a product of where he was at right now more than what was going on in her life.
“You seriously should. But never mind the three weeks. Tonight would be, what? Three hours of your precious time?”
“Maybe four. I have to get there and back, you know.”
“And find something appropriate to wear in that black hole of a closet of yours. Seriously, you’re in dire need of some retail therapy. All you have in there are suits, suits, suits. Navy, black, gray. Blouses, blouses, blouses. Cream, ivory, white. You know, Cara, there’s nothing wrong with dressing up a little, is there?”
She had a few slinky dresses in her closet, though she only wore them when she went out dancing. Usually alone. “I’ll do my best not to embarrass you, Iris.”
“You don’t embarrass me. You make me damn proud, honey,” Iris said, a rare show of emotion in her voice. “You do so much for others, I just wish you’d take some time to live your life for a change.”
Cara closed her eyes and took a deep breath, then forced herself to smile. Iris couldn’t see it, but maybe she’d hear it in her voice. “It’s not forever, Iris. I’m lucky. I’ll have my time eventually.”
When I win the lottery, she thought. But although not having to worry about money would certainly make her life easier, it wouldn’t solve all her problems. She cleared her throat. “I’ll start by trying to have a little fun tonight. Promise.” After disconnecting with Iris, Cara called Greg. When he answered, she hesitated.
She didn’t want to go, she realized. She’d probably be more bored making small talk with Greg and a party full of co-workers than she had been having dinner with just Greg, and that was saying something. Still, her hesitation confused her. This was a work-related function. Whether she was going to be bored or not shouldn’t matter. This restlessness, this desire for more, wasn’t her. She was exactly where she wanted to be. Working hard. Making a decent living so she could support herself and her family. But still cognizant of the fact that everything she was working for could be taken away from her at any moment. She could never let her guard down. Never get too comfortable.
It was probably just Iris’s talk of love that was throwing her off. As streetwise as her friend was, Iris was a closet romantic at heart and Cara knew it.
Thankfully, Cara she’d flushed that out of her system a long time ago.
“Greg, it’s Cara. I, uh, decided to go. Did you still want to attend tonight’s party together?”
This. This is why dating coworkers is a bad idea, Cara thought later that evening as she watched Greg. Because now that I’ve confirmed I never want to see him again, I won’t be able to avoid him.
As soon as the thought formed, Greg caught her gaze from across the room and smiled before turning back to joke with his posse, something he’d been doing for the past twenty minutes. Cara quietly snorted, and drained what was left of her drink before setting her glass down with an audible clunk. Greg’s ability to be pleasant had disappeared about five minutes after they’d arrived—apparently, he turned obnoxious in social settings when surrounded by his friends. So obnoxious that Cara had decided wandering the party by herself and making conversation while she did so was infinitely preferable to spending any more time than necessary in Greg’s company. Of course, right now she greatly regretted the fact she’d come to the party at all and wanted nothing more than to run home, change into her pjs, and dig into a container of ice cream while watching her favorite movie.
The uncomfortable feeling that she didn’t belong here was beginning to get to her.
She looked around her, at all the fancily dressed people drinking their fancy drinks in the fanciest house she’d ever been in that no doubt belonged to some blowhard who was probably as boring—both in bed and out—as Greg. Not that she knew for sure Greg was no great shakes in bed, but it was a pretty safe bet given the few clumsy kisses he’d planted on her after their previous meet-ups, complete with roving hands that made a mammogram seem sexy.
Turning abruptly, she headed to the grand foyer that adjoined the living room. More well-dressed guests milled about, drinks in hand, polished shoes traversing gleaming marble as their owners inspected and clearly coveted this painting or that vase. The crowd was mostly young and predominantly male, as if a trading office building on Wall Street had emptied out and arrived en masse to drink hard and talk business and brag, before the last train or hired drivers got them back to Manhattan.
The gathering was sedate. But Cara knew that legendary orgies of yesteryear weren’t quite consigned to the past. Crazed parties with strippers and whatnot, staged for big clients who expected no less, still happened behind closed doors, far from the ears and eyes of lawyers specializing in sexual harassment cases with potential multimillion-dollar payoffs.
Getting blasted was still okay. But it wasn’t just booze that fueled the pulsing energy beneath the relatively polished manners of the guests. Some of the traders snacked all day on the same uppers they’d been prescribed since first grade, boosting the effect with the newer Modafinil. Whatever it took to make them feel smart and perform at peak was cool, so long as they literally kept their noses clean. The older guys in the office still reminisced wistfully about white powder and nosebleed binges, but plain old cocaine was passé.
Cara was pretty sure that Greg’s unexpected obnoxiousness was being ramped up by something synthetic, another strike against him, now that she was keeping track. She could tolerate boredom in exchange for occasional company, but not drugs. She never touched any of it, preferring to rely on self-generated energy and natural drive. She oversaw the direction her life took, every single step, from personal to financial to professional. That necessitated maintaining control, and Cara didn’t associate with anyone who might endanger that.
Right now she was feeling slightly less than composed. She needed a breather. Plus whoever was deejaying had amped up the volume.
Automatically, she began moving toward the front door, which was framed with high arched windows revealing a glimpse of shimmering black water beyond the vast lawn. Built on a spit of land that jutted out into the water of Long Island Sound, the mansion was extraordinary, with wraparound views.
The glamorous North Shore setting was in every way the opposite of Ashtogue, the blue-collar town where she’d spent most of her childhood, growing up in a white clapboard house built on the usual concrete slab. The other houses on her block looked much the same, except for the ones with added second floors or gabled rooms built on when more kids came along. The small lawns were carefully maintained or patchy with dandelions, depending on how much time the owners had to fix up their small piece of suburbia.
Cara had never wanted to revisit her childhood home. She preferred to remember the town the way it was. Before her family had gone under. Way before she’d moved to the outskirts of New York City with her brother and widowed mother.
No one among the noisy guests paid the slightest attention to her, which was perfect. She needed some moments of peace and quiet to regroup. It would be nice to breathe in air that didn’t smell of 500-dollar-a-bottle perfume and liquor and ambition. When the front door opened, only one power couple stepped inside, but Cara could see more cars coming up the circular drive.
Two Bentleys. A Maybach. Bringing up the rear, a couple of shiny new Mercedes Benz sedans, the poor relations. The nouveau riche were always followed by the strivers. She hated to think of herself as being in the last category, but it was difficult to deny. She was always striving to leave her past behind and move toward a kinder, gentler future. It wasn’t massive wealth she craved, but what she did want—respectability, comfort, and stability—necessitated accumulating a healthy supply of cash without going overboard and without advertising it either. Take her outfit—a simple cream skirt and blouse that Iris would hate. Add the fashionable shoes. Nothing outrageously expensive. Subdued enough not to stand out. Stylish enough to project class.
The old adage was true—it took money to make money. It also took money and quite a lot of thought and planning to project an image that you were not to be messed with—but also not worth messing with. Stay in the know and swim with the sharks but at the same time stay off everyone else’s radar.
For the most part, it was what Cara excelled at. But not now. Now she felt like she was swimming in a fish bowl, vulnerable and alone.
Abruptly, she changed direction and headed up the mahogany staircase that rose in a classic spiral. Almost immediately, the throbbing music and incoherent chatter died down for a few seconds as if someone important had just arrived. She didn’t pause. In fact, she moved even faster, practically running, until she finally turned a corner and made it to the next floor, which was dimly lit, quiet, and most important, unoccupied save for her.
Most of the doors in the long hall were closed but not that of the nearest room, an impersonal but serene space dominated by a long, angular black sofa outlined with bronze studs and a low glass table. A white cashmere throw, tossed over one well-padded arm with meticulous casualness, seemed to have been left there for anyone. The thick charcoal-colored rug beneath the minimal furniture muffled her footsteps.
Cara went inside and decisively closed the door behind her. Then, leaning back against it, she closed her eyes. With a twist of her mouth, she acknowledged that if someone was watching her, she’d likely resemble some air-headed actress in a horror movie, fleeing for her life before finding temporary sanctuary. Briefly, she imagined Greg wearing a hockey mask and wielding a chainsaw. She laughed out loud, then swiftly cupped a hand over her mouth to stifle the sound.
It wasn’t like he could hear her. She opened her eyes and looked around again, reassuring herself that she was alone. She most definitely was. As if Iris were nagging her from afar, Cara wondered how she could end up solo at a party with so many men. Not her fault—it was just that none of them were the right kind. That was nothing new.
Cara realized that the room was far more spacious than she’d thought at first glance and she studied the stark beauty of the understated décor more closely . Everything looked new, though nothing was ostentatious. Their host was likely someone who’d made it big on the Street and relatively recently at that. Presumably, a financier or hedge-fund king who could afford the best had added the property to his real-estate portfolio. She didn’t have the feeling that anyone actually lived here.
Cara ran a hand over a wall covered in something that wasn’t wallpaper, but something luxurious, with an unusual texture. Shagreen? Was that the right word? She wasn’t quite sure what it was exactly. She leaned against the wall and closed her eyes once more. Opened them. Immediately wanted to close them again. She hadn’t eaten before their arrival and had suspected that, combined with her late nights at the office, might make her drowsy. She’d waved away the catering-company waiters circulating with trays of canapés, and the drink she’d just downed had cinched it.
She rubbed her temples. Thought about going back downstairs. Bit her lip. She’d scream if she had to smile or make small talk with one more person. No, she’d much rather stay here. And if Greg wondered for half-a-second where she was and if she’d retrieved the rented car from the valet outside, abandoning him to find his own way home, even better.
She paced the room. After only a brief hesitation, she kicked off her high heels, sat on the sofa, then swung her legs up to lie down.
The cool leather of the sofa invited her touch. No doubt about it, whoever owned the mansion had taste. Of course, that was easy enough to buy.
The enveloping silence of the room enfolded her, easing her into something like sleep. A elusive sense of contentment and safety washed over her. She surrendered herself to it.
Until an odd sensation brought her out of it.
A hand caressed her cheek. Her slowly returning consciousness registered it as masculine, strongly so. Startled, Cara opened her eyes and struggled to sit up even as she clutched the cashmere throw that now covered her. It was soft. And it smelled good. Clean. Spicy. Even before she sensed movement, she knew he was there—and that it was his scent she was enjoying.
Almost frightened, she looked up into the intent dark gaze of the man standing over her.
He was well over six foot, with broad shoulders and a lean, athletic build, wearing a suit that even her drowsy mind registered as expensive and probably custom-made. His hair was quite dark, maybe black. It was hard to tell in the shadowy room. But it looked messed up, not styled, in contrast to the rest of his appearance.
A strong jaw had a tense set but she could guess what he looked like when and if he smiled. There were faint lines on either side of a mouth that had a sensual fullness. His lips tightened for a fraction of a second as he looked back at her, his expression somehow radiating blankness and displeasure all at once.
Of course he was displeased. She’d rudely intruded into his private space. An automatic apology hovered on her lips but for some reason, she couldn’t get it out. All she could do was stare at him, transfixed, and sternly tell herself that no, she couldn’t stand, grab his face, and pull his face down for a kiss to see if he tasted as good as he smelled. The fact she wanted to was a bit of a shock.
Despite not dating much, she still considered herself plenty experienced. There had been times in her life she’d enjoyed men. Sex. But her desire for both had always seemed, while probably quite normal, nonetheless slightly unremarkable. The intensity of her instant attraction to this stranger was anything but.
It was his eyes that really did it to her. The heat in their depths was startling. She fought against the wild notion that he wanted to take what he saw: her. Right now. Right here. Any way she wanted to be taken.
She fought even harder against the notion that that was exactly what she wanted. And that she yearned for him to show her ways to be taken she’d never even heard of.
But he stayed where he was. His hands were in his pockets. He’d put them there after he’d touched her. Unless she’d just dreamed that tender caress, of course.
“You weren’t enjoying the party?” His deep voice reverberated in the room.
She hesitated then said, “Everything was beautiful. First class.” I’m just more an economy class kind of girl, she thought.
He smiled slightly. “You weren’t enjoying it,” he said decisively. His calm self-assurance was very different from the young guys she worked with, although he didn’t look much older than they did. He was probably thirty. Just. But he had a tough, ruthless look about him, as if he’d literally fought his way to the top of the world.
Everything about him lent credence to her belief she was in his home. That she’d stumbled into his private sanctuary. But instead of seeking confirmation, she asked, “What time is it?” Slowly, she moved the cashmere throw down her body, touching the buttons of her cream blouse first to make sure she wasn’t carelessly revealing herself. Every button was in place. It was her imagination working overtime that made it feel like they’d jumped loose and given him a glimpse of her lacy bra before she’d opened her eyes.
She rose from the sofa, straightening her rumpled clothes. “I have to go.” Somewhat awkwardly, she slipped a foot into one high heel, then the other and stood tall. He was still a whole lot taller.
“You can stay if you like,” he said indifferently. “The party’s winding down.”
“I guess this must be your house.”
He inclined his dark head in a nod.
“Spectacular. Really nice.” Cara told herself not to babble. “And you are?”
“I’m Branden Duke.”
Not a prince but some kind of royalty nonetheless. “Nice to meet you, and thanks for the offer to stay, but…” The door was behind him. Closed.
He’d opened it, seen her sleeping, and come in, closing it behind him. Why?
As if he had picked up on the nervous question that buzzed in her mind, he turned and strode to the door, opening it again. But he came back.
Two things registered. First, she wasn’t being dismissed. Second, he wasn’t blocking her way and that appeared to be deliberate on his part. He’d known she felt threatened and had immediately acted to reassure her. With actions not words. In her world, that immediately set him apart from most.
She stepped toward him, fully intending to make a swift exit—and made the mistake of looking up. His dark, burning gaze hypnotized her for a moment longer. He raised a hand and ran his fingertips over her sleep-flushed cheek as if he couldn’t help himself.
Cara was mesmerized. The unexpected contact was tender and also erotic. Familiar.
“Don’t.” She was barely able to breathe out the single word. She wasn’t angry or afraid—just wildly confused by his daring and her own crazy reaction. He dropped his hand.
“Are you here alone? Do you work for—”
Frightened by the intensity of her attraction to him, she blurted out, “I came with Greg Johnson. He must be wondering where I am.”
Right. As if Greg looking for her would be some kind of protection from this man. If Branden Duke wanted something, wanted her, a little competition would hardly put him off.
Besides, she didn’t want Greg to come looking for her.
At the top of the list of the Reasons Why Not, which were coming back to her, was the inevitable water-cooler talk between the guys, discussing the party and instant replays of their conquests. She didn’t want to become Topic Number One during that bull session. But getting caught up here with this man, who had some mysterious connection to her company, wouldn’t do either.
Branden’s gaze flickered. “Greg Johnson. The stockbroker from Dubois & Mellan? He’s gone.”
That meant he’d taken her ride back to Manhattan with him. Bastard, she thought, but without much heat. After all, she’d contemplated doing that very thing to him. “You know him?”
“We were introduced tonight.”
“Great. Well, I really should be going—”
Cara stepped back, nearly falling when her leg connected with the low glass table. He reached out and held her arms, the strength in his large hands flowing into her somehow. She swallowed hard, reluctant to shrug him off.
The spell he’d cast didn’t break. Seconds passed. A minute. He didn’t release her. Instead, his soft grip slowly turned into caresses, with his hands smoothing over her arms and then up her neck until his hands lightly framed her jaw.
She still didn’t pull away. All she wanted to do was give in and see what happened.
“I’m thinking Greg Johnson doesn’t deserve you.”
It just popped out of her. “And you do?”
He smiled ever so slightly. Cocked a challenging brow. Stared at her with eyes filled with a taunting dare.
So what if we’re strangers, it said. You want to kiss me. So why not kiss me?
She could think of many reasons why not. But she didn’t want to think. The lingering dreaminess of being caught unawares and the intimate solitude of their chance encounter dissolved her resistance. In a heartbeat.
She rose on her tiptoes to give him her mouth, loving the ebony fire that blazed in his eyes just before she made contact. The kiss was a brush of the lips at first, then a searching, urgent opening of her mouth as his tongue met hers. Branden Duke kissed with expert sensuality. The strong body underneath the fine suit conveyed a rising heat as she relaxed against it, not surrendering just yet, but savoring the pleasure of a scorching kiss from a real man.
In its own compelling way, it was another first kiss. But absolutely not innocent, though his sensual skill made her feel like a beginner. Never, never had she so much as dreamed a kiss could be so powerfully erotic.
The desire he awakened could easily turn into obsession.
She didn’t know how much time passed. The kiss continued. His hands glided over her curves—front and rear, but mostly rear—but didn’t try to get underneath her skirt or blouse. She liked that. She thrilled to his touch, enjoying the subtle slide of material over her hips as he pulled her closer and made her move for him. He knew exactly what he was doing, bringing forth visions of platforms beds and silky sheets and ropes tied around her wrists—
She immediately flinched at the erotic vision of her bound and helpless to this man’s hands and tongue and cock. Whether it was at her movement or because he’d guessed at her thoughts, his kiss became rougher. His touch more possessive, pressing her against him with an unmistakable air of dominance.
She couldn’t help but respond. Cara raised her arms and draped them over his shoulders, breaking off the kiss to nuzzle his neck and press her nose into his heated skin, warmed by that delicious spicy scent. His chin rested lightly on her head and he groaned as she rubbed her blouse-covered breasts against his front, shamelessly enjoying the feel of her nipples tightening against the stretch lace. He drew in a sharp breath and then abruptly set her away from him, leaving her disoriented and cold. His grasp on her arms was hard, frantic yet conflicted, as if he wanted to keep her at a distance but was unwilling to let her walk away completely.
Then he landed his blow. “Maybe I was wrong. Maybe Greg was just your way of getting in here. Are you looking to trade up? Is that it?”
Instead of flinching this time, she actually recoiled.
He frowned, his grip loosening enough that she could rip herself away. She backed up several steps and simply stared at him. She couldn’t help it. He’d shocked her and she knew by the expression of regret that instantly flashed across his face that she probably looked like he’d slapped her.
He held up a hand. “But I could be wrong.”
His voice snapped her out of her paralysis. “You think?” she asked nastily. She immediately turned and strode toward the open door. She gasped when his hands gently grasped her arms from behind, stopping her in her tracks. She stiffened, but when he didn’t roughly pull her against him, she forced herself to relax. Let the bastard grovel, she thought. She’d enjoy it. Then she’d mentally knee him in the nuts and get the hell out of here.
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “You…that kiss…it took me by surprise.”
You think? This time she asked the sarcastic question silently. His tone seemed genuinely perplexed and she relaxed even more at his willingness to admit he could be taken by surprise. It was a concession of vulnerability he probably didn’t make a habit of giving.
Deliberately, she took three testing steps forward. As she’d expected, he didn’t try to stop her, instead letting her go completely. And he didn’t try to force her to turn around when she just continued to stand there, trying to get her bearings.
Cara felt dizzy. She didn’t want to. A wanton kiss that had just sort of happened was one thing. Sex with a stranger, and she’d admittedly seemed headed down that unexpected path, was another. For him to imply she’d been lying in wait for him had been insulting…but understandable given where he’d found her and how she’d initiated that mind-blowing kiss. With a sigh, she turned to face him. “I understand why you thought what you did. But you’re wrong. I was just looking for a place to be alone. I wasn’t expecting…”
At her trailing words he sighed. Ran his hands through his hair. “Neither was I. But I liked it. I don’t suppose you’ll forget what I said, though.”
The expression on his face—playful hopefulness—actually had her stifling a laugh.
“I think it’s best I go.” She slid her hands over her skirt and checked those blouse buttons. Still in place, every damn one of them. She hadn’t known it was possible to get that turned on fully dressed.
“Do you really?” The playfulness was gone. His tone seductive. The look in his eyes posing another question altogether: How about we fuck instead? All night long? God, the guy could switch it on and off. It was probably second nature to him. He was obviously used to getting his way.
“Yes. The party is over…”
“That’s right. The only people left are the ones who have something I want.”
At the charged tone in his voice, she turned back toward him. His gaze seemed to include her in the category he spoke of.
“Another woman? Or two?” she asked for some foolish reason.
Branden smiled. Big and wide. He was gorgeous period, but when he smiled…she felt like someone who’d seen the sun for the very first time.
“More like a baker’s dozen,” he replied.
Okay. That raised some unpleasant questions and answered a couple of others. She hadn’t been his Sleeping Beauty, just a girl who conveniently conked out in an upstairs room. And most likely he was no Prince Charming, even if he did own this cool waterfront castle and kiss like a sex dream come true.
“Oh. I see.” Cara gave him a thinly stretched smile and sauntered out into the hall. If the party had degenerated into some sort of upscale orgy, she wanted no part of it. The question was whether and how she could get a taxi. Cara realized that her money and ID were in her coat. Which was downstairs.
“Like I said, I should be going.”
“My driver can take you home.”
Her initial instinct was to politely decline. She didn’t. She needed an escape hatch and he’d just given it to her. She wasn’t about to turn him down. Without even saying thank you, she walked quickly to the mahogany staircase, going down the stairs with silent speed.
From the living room, Max Dubois, her boss, called out to her. “Cara, I didn’t realize you were still here! I—”
“I’m sorry, Max, but I have to run,” she called. True to her word, she practically ran to the foyer. Only once she was at the front door did she allow herself to look back and up.
Branden Duke was watching her, his strong hands resting on the banister of the upper landing where he had remained. Even at this distance, the intensity of his dark gaze was unsettling. He didn’t seem happy that she had escaped.
Tough luck. Cara told herself she should have known better than to fall asleep in a lion’s den. At least she’d never given him her name.
If she was lucky—and smart—she’d never see him again.
Despite the cold night air, Branden kept the car windows rolled down, craving the bracing rush of wind. He needed to clear his head and a solo drive in his latest luxury sports car did the trick. It had taken an eternity for the remaining guests—the junior brokers and their managers, plus the execs who were in on the takeover—to be ushered out. The wives and girlfriends in attendance had clustered together, chatting. A few of the officially unattached females, easy to spot by their microscopic skirts and staggeringly high heels, had been bold enough to come up the stairs and thank him for the party.
That had pissed him off but only because he hadn’t liked seeing them on the second floor. Where she’d been. Where they’d been together. He didn’t want anyone intruding on those memories, no matter how innocuous or swift the intrusion.
He knew her name now.
Based on their conversation upstairs, he’d assumed she was Greg Johnson’s date, not an employee of Dubois and Mellan. And because the other man had abandoned her, Branden hadn’t had any qualms about acting on the potent attraction he’d felt from the moment he’d seen her sleeping on his sofa.
He’d known he should wake her and get her the hell out of his house. Instead, he’d given in to the temptation to look at her, then to touch her. He’d wanted to rouse her, see those thickly lashed lids flutter open to reveal the color of her eyes.
When they had, he’d sucked in his breath at how spectacular her blue eyes were. They reminded him of a cross between aquamarines and sapphires. He’d wanted to kiss her then and there. He’d waited to see if she’d kiss him. Not simply because he enjoyed a challenge but because she was a stranger. Even when his cock ached to bury itself inside a woman, even when it ached in a way it never had before to bury itself in her—he knew better than to give in to temptation and jeopardize all that he’d worked for.
She’d snuck into his private domain. If she kissed him first, no matter how things progressed from there on out, she’d have a very hard time crying foul, especially because he’d have the security footage to back it up.
Thank God she actually had made the first move. He’d quickly taken over, shocked at how fast he’d surrendered to his need to touch her. To have her. When she’d rubbed against him, he’d barely stopped himself from shoving up her short skirt and bending her over the sofa so he could plunge inside her. His out-of-the blue comment about her looking to “trade up” had to be the stupidest, most egotistical, idiotically impulsive thing he’d ever said. Granted, she’d stepped back and he’d gained a few seconds of breathing room. But by the fire in her eyes, he knew he’d gone too far.
Why in God’s name hadn’t he been able to control himself? He slammed the steering wheel with an open hand. The car veered and he corrected it with a furious yank in the opposite direction. Too bad he hadn’t been able to do the same for himself when she was there, her luminous eyes never leaving his as she tried to straighten her messed-up clothes, not sure whether she should stay or go.
She was different than the women he was used to. Like no other, in fact. Despite the fact she was obviously capable of taking care of herself, she brought out his protective instincts.
His desire to protect her—if only from himself, he thought with renewed anger—had continued even after she’d left. He’d had every intention of seeing her again. And soon.
But then he’d heard Max Dubois call out to her. And when he’d gone downstairs to see to his remaining guests and spoken to Max, he realized he’d been wrong.
He learned her name. And he learned she did work for Dubois and Mellan.
As such, she was now his employee.
He’d just bought the company.
The big announcement was supposed to have been made at the party.
Only that hadn’t happened.
He’d missed his chance when he, like Cara, had gone upstairs for a moment’s peace. He’d found her instead.
Any hope of peace had been shot to hell.
Even now, hours later, even after learning that she was his new employee and that it would be wholly inappropriate for him to bed her, Cara Michal stayed on his mind. He couldn’t get her out no matter how fast he drove. That had been one hell of a kiss from a once-in-a-lifetime lady. He couldn’t help but imagine doing more with her. In a variety of thrilling ways, starting on the couch she’d been reclining on. He’d spread her out, with one of her legs thrown over the back of the couch, and the other hanging off the edge while he buried his face between her thighs, lapping her up.
Thinking about the soft, silky goddess he’d been privileged to hold and wanted to hold again, Branden sped up. Damn. It was as if she’d slipped through his fingers, never to be recaptured. Even worse, he would see her again, but not the way he wanted to. He went faster, angry with himself for letting her leave without getting another taste of her.
He slowed down a little, trying to snap himself out of his irritable mood. Stone bridges, ideal hiding places for an officer in a black-and-white, spanned the long curves of the roads on Long Island’s north shore. Zoom through and they got you on the other side. Especially in a Maserati.
He glanced in the rearview, almost expecting a blast of red whirling light and wailing siren. There wasn’t even another car. At four in the morning, he had the road to himself.
Plenty of room and plenty of time to keep right on thinking about Cara. But he’d be better off turning this roaring beast of a car around and doing that at home.
In a half hour, he pulled into the long driveway, clicking the remote to operate the security gate. The staff would have gone home—most of them were locals. He paid them well to not live in. Branden preferred to have his house to himself when not entertaining, though he didn’t spend much time here.
He mounted the stairs and looked into his sanctuary. What instinct had brought her there and who had left the door unlocked? The memory of her on the black leather sofa, her gorgeous curves all too evident under the white cashmere throw, dogged him. That golden hair, flowing like spilled honey as she moved restlessly in her light sleep. Her blue eyes when she’d awoken, disoriented and just a little frightened to see him.
He’d stood there like a fool, drinking her in. He’d been amused by the wary look in her searching gaze. Intrigued by the way she’d seemed flustered, checking her blouse to make sure it hadn’t come undone when other women would have leaned closer and tried to lure him in. He suspected she could take his face off with a single swipe of her pretty claws if he had dared to try anything. So he’d dared her instead. With just a look. But she’d gotten his message.
And she’d taken his dare and raised the stakes on him.
Branden sat down on the couch and stretched out, catching a faint and tantalizing whiff of her perfume on the throw.
Fuck it. He couldn’t have her. Not if she worked for him. Not given the true reason he’d purchased Dubois and Mellan, one that had nothing to do with business. If he made money on his new acquisition, fine. But he had plenty of that.
Still, even if he couldn’t have her, he could fantasize about doing her. His hand slid down and opened his fly. He gave in to the impulse, encircling his achingly stiff rod with a steel grip. Yeah. The same fingers that had stroked her sweet cheek and investigated all that luscious womanliness, curve by curve, tightened as he got himself off in pulsing jets. Intense, solitary satisfaction. Job done.
Yet his cock that didn’t feel like quitting. It wanted her. He wanted her. Naked. Vulnerable. Begging for pleasure beyond her wildest dreams. Tender and erotic to begin. Kisses that started at her mouth and moved down, down, down. Then he could really open her up. See what made her cry out. How deep she wanted it and where. Rough and raw if she liked it like that. Then sensual and slow. The mix had to be magic. He wanted to make it unforgettable.
Because the fantasy of her was going to have to last him.
Tomorrow morning, it would have to be all business between them.
But Branden knew keeping things strictly professional with Cara Michael would be impossible.
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