“Go. Just go. At a party like this, you could meet the love of your life.”
Cara Michal didn’t bother rolling her eyes, mostly because her friend Iris was giving her advice over the phone and couldn’t see her do it.
“I work on Wall Street, Iris. This is a company party, filled with guys I work with. None of them are 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?”
Cara sighed. In the past six weeks, she hadn’t had time to do anything but eat, sleep, work, and visit her mother and brother. Dating hadn’t even been a thought on the horizon. Heck, Iris already knew that, because they’d barely seen each other, but thankfully, the huge project Cara had been working on was over and she could now get back to a standard seventy-five-hour work week instead of what had been closer to a hundred.
“It’s been awhile,” Cara admitted. “But I knew when I started the four-year analyst program at Dubois & Mellan, that’s what I was signing up for. That’s why they pay me the big bucks,” she added dryly. Earning a six-figure salary three years after graduating college wasn’t anything to scoff at, but the reality was that the money didn’t go very far, either. Not for a single woman living in Manhattan with the kind of bills Cara had to pay, 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,” Iris said, confidence in her tone.
“I love analyzing numbers,” Cara pointed out.
It was mostly a true statement, but there were other things she loved more. Things she might have tried out as a career if her life had turned out different. Years ago, when her family had to move out of their little Long Island house to Brooklyn, she’d told no one except her new friend Iris about the financial scandal that had disgraced her dad, Hank Finch, and plunged the family into poverty when he couldn’t find work, unfairly accused of fraud he hadn’t committed.
He’d been hoodwinked by the comptroller of the township’s pension fund, who’d looted the money and given it to another enterprising son of a bitch on Wall Street who in turn had made a fortune and then some until the Securities and Exchange Commission had caught up with him. Her father had died of a premature heart attack before that happened, and even after the comptroller and Carl Davies were indicted, the comptroller ended up dying in a car accident, and Davies plea-bargained his case down to a few years in a golf-course prison. Meanwhile, Cara’s mother had barely survived a nervous breakdown. Even worse, her brother, Glenn, had suffered his first psychotic break. The doctors who’d finally diagnosed him with schizophrenia indicated that the shock of their father’s death and loss of their home could have triggered an earlier onset of his illness.
Now Cara helped support not just her mother, but Glenn. Meds helped him, but only to a degree. He’d found a balance in his life by living in an assisted-living facility, but it was private and cost a small fortune.
“You know it’s not as easy as that,” Cara said quietly. “If the firm offers me a permanent position, I’ll have to take it.”
“Even though the work is killing you?”
“Overly dramatic, much?”
Iris sighed. “Dead horse. Moving on. You still haven’t answered my question. Have you gone on any dates in the last few weeks that I’m unaware of?”
“Nope. I had drinks with a colleague a couple of times, though we also talked shop so I could justify it.” Greg Johnson was like many of the junior stockbrokers that Cara knew. Tall and attractive. Young. A bit cocky. Rock-hard abs and biceps threatening to bust the seams of his designer clothing. A dazzling smile made more dazzling by teeth whitening. Summa cum laude at Yale. But boring. So. Very. Boring.
“You’re talking about that guy Greg from your office, right?”
“Yes. He actually asked me to be his date to the party tonight but I declined. I certainly don’t want to give the impression that I’m his arm candy at an office function.”
“Plus the one time you actually had dinner with him you were bored to tears.”
“Yes, I was.” They’d started off at one of the French restaurants near their office, where Greg had attempted to illustrate his knowledge of fine dining and wine. He’d been loud and cocky, and while that had attracted the fawning attention of a couple of sleek young women at the bar, it had flattened her libido. Once the check came and he’d tried to convince her to go with him to a nightclub, she’d fake-yawned, thanked him politely, and said she’d already requested an Uber.
“Drinks with him weren’t much better, were they?”
Not really but then again it had only been drinks. “He was fine,” Cara said.
“Fine. Safe. Just like every other guy you’ve dated the past few years. Would you like me to fix you up with someone?”
“No thanks,” Cara said quickly. “I can manage. Besides, you and I seem to go after men that are complete opposites.”
“Yeah, you do have a thing for employed men,” Iris joked.
Cara laughed. 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. Usually the men were sexy as hell but so totally unreliable. And unreliability wasn’t something Cara could afford in her life.
“So about the party…What’s the occasion?”
“An important client is throwing it and there’s to be a big announcement. Attendance is strongly encouraged, which translates as show up and suck up. Maybe it’s about a new contract. Or someone’s retiring.” And by retiring, Cara meant checking in for an extended stay at a mental-health rehab facility. It happened in her line of work. A lot. Between the intensity of the work weeks—surgery residents and stock market traders were neck-and-neck for most hours worked per week—and the pervasive alcohol and drug use that came with trying to stay on top of the game, people crashed right and left. Not her, though. She stayed on the straight and narrow. Did her job and only her job.
Maybe that’s why lately she’d been feeling so…uneasy. Discombobulated. As if her world had shifted off center and she was standing at a tilt. The only thing that seemed to bring her any sense of satisfaction were those rare occasions when she went by herself to dance in nightclubs, although that obviously wasn’t cutting it anymore.
She rubbed her temple, trying to ease the headache slowly building.
“Whatever the announcement is, you should probably hear the news firsthand,” Iris said, interrupting Cara’s thoughts.
“You’re right. I suppose I’ll go.”
“As if there was any real doubt.” Iris snorted. “You live and breathe that job, Cara.”
“Yeah. Unfortunately.” Exhaustion hit, settling into her bones. She leaned back in her chair. How much longer could she push this hard? A memory of her childhood, an image of her family on the shore during summer, swam into her mind. How gentle and relaxed and warm that day had been…her and Glenn chasing waves up and down the beach, their mother reading a book under the sun umbrella, their father combing the beach for seashells…
Just as quickly, the mental image slipped away, leaving her with the sting of nostalgia and the strong desire to be back there, on the beach with her family and her once-idyllic childhood. Impossible, yes… “But—”
She started. She hadn’t realized she’d said the word out loud. “I do have three weeks of vacation I’ve never used. 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. Not quite like her childhood experience at the Jersey shore, but something similar…something relaxed. Maybe in the Bahamas or even South Carolina. Someplace where she could hear the roar of the surf at night and feel the heat of the sun during the day.
“You seriously should. So where’s the party at?”
“A private house along Long Island Sound.”
“Classy. You’ll have to 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 should dress up. With your long blond hair, skin an angel would pay to have, and body made for…well, you know. You never play up those amazing assets of yours, and you should.”
Iris was exaggerating about the plethora of work clothes in Cara’s closet, but only slightly. Cara had a few slinky dresses shoved in the back, though she only wore them when she went out dancing. For some reason, she hadn’t even told Iris about those escapades. Although she felt guilty about keeping a secret from her friend, she liked having a secret, something just for her, a small way to break free of the burdens working at D&M placed on her.
“I’ll do my best not to embarrass you with my choice of outfit, Iris.”
Iris scoffed. “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 your family. I just wish you’d take some time to live your life for a change. I hate seeing you give so much of yourself and take nothing in return.”
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.”
“I’ll start by trying to have a little fun tonight.”
“That’s the spirit! Maybe you’ll meet someone fabulous.”
As streetwise as Cara’s friend was, Iris was a closet romantic at heart. Thankfully, Cara had flushed that out of her system a long time ago. Romance was for those who had time and money to waste. Not her.
Still, instead of arguing, Cara merely said, “Maybe.”
“If you do, don’t let the opportunity go to waste. Reach out and grab something for yourself for once, even if it’s just a night of hot sex.”
For hot sex, she’d have to meet a hot guy who actually interested her, and what were the chances of that? “Got it. Reach out. Hot sex. If the opportunity comes along”—which it won’t, Cara knew—“I won’t let it go to waste.”
* * *
Two hours later, Cara quietly drained what was left of her drink before setting her glass down on a marble table with a clunk. Across the room, Greg and his friends were still doing what they’d been doing for the past hour, slamming down drinks, making dirty jokes about females at work and checking out women at the party. Greg was obviously pissed that she’d declined to be his date because he’d never acted more obnoxious to her. Then again, she was pretty sure he was high on something. She’d steered clear of him until he’d tugged her into a corner and tried to kiss her, ignoring her attempts to pull away. Fortunately for her—or for Greg, since she was getting ready to knee him in the balls—her friend Gail had come up and interrupted them. By the time Gail had taken off, Greg had once again joined his group of friends and occasionally they all looked over at her and laughed.
She’d wandered the party by herself and now a drawn-out conversation about equities with Jackson Riley, one of the young traders who sat on the bullpen on her floor, had her fighting to keep from yawning.
Gail had already taken off, claiming a headache, and her friend Tammie hadn’t shown, leaving Cara on her own. Her boss, Max Dubois, had awkwardly chatted with her for a short while before noticing one of their big clients and abandoning her at the drinks station. The host of the event hadn’t even made an appearance yet, and the major announcement that was to take place was on hold until he did.
Maybe he had gotten lost inside his own house. Hell, it certainly was big enough. When she’d arrived, she couldn’t help but compare the behemoth mansion, with its extensive verandah, vast lawn, and breathtaking view of the shimmering black water in the distance, with her small, worn down, childhood home in blue-collar Ashtogue, Long Island. Same city but world’s apart. Yet Cara had loved her home. It had been humble, yes, but she’d known only love.
Before everything came crashing down.
A cloud of sadness settled over her and despite how hard she tried to shake it off, it wouldn’t go away. More and more, it was as if the calm and competent facade she worked so hard to put up had slipped and every chink in her armor was being exposed. She felt like she was swimming in a fishbowl, vulnerable and alone.
Come on, Cara. Pull yourself together.
She just needed a minute to herself. Just needed to find someplace dark and quiet to catch a breath of air not redolent with five-hundred-dollar-a-bottle perfume and expensive liquor and costly ambition.
“Will you excuse me, Jackson,” she said, interrupting the young trader mid-sentence. “I just remembered an important call I have to make.” Not waiting for his response, Cara immediately headed to the grand foyer that adjoined the living room, thinking she’d step out onto the front porch, but the entryway was packed with people.
So much for fresh air.
Abruptly, she changed direction and headed up the mahogany staircase that rose in a classic curve. As she reached the landing, the incoherent chatter behind her died down, as if someone important had just arrived. Whomever it might be didn’t matter—she didn’t pause, didn’t look back, and instead 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 importantly, unoccupied.
Most of the doors in the long hallway were closed, but the door to the nearest room was open. She peered inside to see an impersonal but serene space dominated by a long, angular black leather sofa outlined with bronze studs. A low glass table stood in front of the sofa. A white cashmere throw, tossed over one well-padded arm with meticulous casualness, seemed to have been left there for anyone.
Cautiously, she stepped inside. The thick charcoal-colored rug beneath the minimal furniture muffled her footsteps. She decisively closed the door behind her then immediately headed to the sofa and sat down.
God, she was exhausted. She could barely think straight and the beginning of yet another headache tugged at her. She took a quick glance at the closed door, then impulsively kicked off her high heels then swung her legs up to lie down.
She’d rest for just a few seconds before heading back downstairs. Maybe she wouldn’t even stay. Maybe she’d just call an Uber and leave.
The enveloping silence of the room enfolded her, and a sense of contentment and safety washed over her. She surrendered herself to the calm. Took a deep breath and closed her eyes.
Then blinked them open when she felt something soft settle over her.
Abruptly, she sat up. She was slightly disoriented and realized with horror that she’d actually fallen asleep.
She looked down at the cashmere throw that now covered her. It was soft. And it smelled good. Clean. Spicy. Sensual.
How long had she been out? And who had—
When she saw the man standing across from her, she knew without a doubt it was his scent she was enjoying.
He was well over six feet, with broad shoulders and a lean, athletic build, wearing a suit that even her drowsy mind registered as expensive and definitely custom made. His hair was quite dark, maybe black. It was hard to tell in the shadowy room. But it looked mussed in contrast to the rest of his appearance.
His strong jaw had a tense set, but enough moonlight filtered through the windows for her to 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 both sensuality and displeasure.
Was he the party host—D&M’s mystery client? If so, of course he was displeased. She’d rudely intruded into his private space. An automatic apology hovered on her lips, but when a corner of his mouth flickered upward and his expression lightened, the words froze in her throat. A flush of heat spread through her core. Her stomach quivered and she swallowed against a dry mouth. A racing heartbeat had her parting her lips to breathe.
All she could do was stare at him, transfixed, and sternly tell herself that no, she couldn’t stand, grab his face, and pull him down for a kiss to see if he tasted as good as he smelled. Or could she?
What was it she’d told Iris?
Got it. Reach out. Hot sex. If the opportunity comes along, I won’t let it go to waste.