The bell above the door clanged as morning customers flooded into the cramped coffee shop. Through the steam of the espresso machine, I scanned the faces, nodding to those I knew and giving each one a smile—until the last one. Brown, mischievous eyes met mine over the glass countertop. A shiver ran down my back—the pleasant kind—because those thick-lashed eyes were set into the handsomest face I’d ever seen and attached to a body built for sin. The way he walked, muscles coiled beneath a snug black T-shirt and low-slung camouflage pants, suggested power and confidence and arrogance, all the traits I loved to hate in a man.
This guy, Carter Eckhouse, was no stranger. He was my sister’s boyfriend’s best friend, and that meant I had to tolerate his childish, misogynistic behavior to keep the family peace. While I bounced between attraction and dislike, one corner of his mouth curled up in an enigmatic grin, inspiring a dozen questions inside my head. Was he laughing at me? His gaze dropped a few inches below my chin then further still. Unnerved, I glanced down to see the swells of my breasts pushing up through the V neck of my T-shirt.
“Dick,” I muttered under my breath. Oh, no. Heat rushed into my face. Did I really say that out loud? I glanced around, but no one else seemed to have noticed. Business had slowed to a snail’s pace. The last thing I needed was to offend the other customers. I loved the coffee shop and the people who visited us every day. Well, everyone but him. Why, why, why did he have to come here? There were dozens of coffee shops in the city. Why mine?
“Nice to see you, too, Jo.” His deep, gravelly voice hit low in my belly, the edges of his words rough and teasing. A voice like that was made for hot, dirty talk, the kind that made my panties dampen and my thighs clench.
“Double espresso and a large water, right?” I fought to keep the tremble out of my voice. What was it about him that unsettled me so much? It couldn’t have anything to do with the impossible width of his shoulders or the flat stretch of his abdomen underneath that tight T-shirt.
“You know it.” Thick brown eyebrows lifted. “I’m surprised you remember.”
“It’s my job to remember.” How could I forget? Twice before, he’d visited with Rhett and Bronte, then several times on his own. Every time he came within ten feet of me, my knees dissolved, and a strange flutter happened in my tummy.
“Keep the change.” From his wallet, he withdrew a crisp ten-dollar bill. I stared at his long, calloused fingers, so manly and strong, the bones of his wrist, the thick vein running up his forearm to his swollen bicep. A dull throb blossomed between my legs. He cleared his throat; he was waiting for me to take the money while I drooled on the counter.
“Have a seat. I’ll bring it over when it’s ready.” Most people waited on their order, but I needed to put distance between us before my self-control cracked. I eased the bill from his grasp. His fingers grazed my palm in what might—or might not—have been a deliberate caress. I fought against the prickle of gooseflesh crawling up my arm and stabbed at the cash register with an index finger.
“I’ll be right over here. Waiting.” That dirty voice curled around the words and curled my toes in the process. He lingered for a moment longer, like he had more to say, before heading to a table by the window.
I braced a hand against the cash register, undone by the strong tug of physical awareness. If I was seriously considering Carter as an end to my sexual drought, I needed an intervention, and fast. His cavalier attitude toward women rubbed me the wrong way. Many times, I’d overheard him bragging about his casual hookups with Rhett. He never bothered to lower his voice, detailing the women like they were prize mares at a horseshow, regaling the impromptu fucks after a night of drinking, the way he left them the second they finished. And once, after I’d argued with Rhett, Carter had propositioned me. Do you want to angry-fuck? I’d stuttered an irate refusal, while my womb had rippled at the thought of those big, rough hands on my ass and his narrow hips between my thighs.
“I said mocha latte, not vanilla.” Lyle, my assistant manager, pushed the steaming mug back into my hands and frowned. He was a good kid, even though he spent his breaks getting high in the alley. “Are you feeling okay? Your face is bright red.”
“I’m fine.” Lyle’s censure ended my musings, and for the next ten minutes, I focused on work. When Carter’s order came up, I placed it on his table and kept my expression neutral. I was, after all, a grown woman capable of controlling her hormones. “Here you go.”
“Thanks,” he said, shifting back in his chair. The movement stretched his T-shirt tighter across his chest, outlining the roundness of his hard pecs, the line down his sternum, and the outline of a nipple ring. A nipple ring. Lordy. The flush returned to my cheeks. I fanned my face with a cardboard drink coaster from my apron pocket. Why did he have to be so fuck-hot? Bastard.
“No problem.” But it was a problem, one I needed to get a grip on before I embarrassed myself. I tilted my nose to the ceiling, drew in a lungful of cinnamon- and coffee-scented air, and tried to center myself.
“Are you helping Rhett and Bronte move this weekend?” Morning sunlight streamed through the window. The bright rays illuminated his irises and the flecks of gold in them, turning them to liquid amber. He reminded me of a lion, powerful and golden, with his sun-streaked brown hair spilling over his shoulders. I didn’t like long hair on men, but he knew how to rock it like no one’s business. In my fantasies, I dug my fingers into his hair and pulled until he growled.
“Um, no. I mean, yes.” The question caught me off guard. Aside from forced pleasantries and the occasional inappropriate proposition, this was the closest we’d ever come to having a conversation. “You?”
“Yeah, Rhett suckered me into it.” His index finger circled the rim of the espresso glass, drawing my attention to his thumb ring and the star tattoo right below it. “Crazy, isn’t it? The two of them? I’d never have guessed.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” My thoughts turned dark and mistrustful, as they always did with men. I narrowed my eyes and prepared to light his ass up. Was he digging at Bronte’s disabilities, her OCD and autism? Family meant everything to me. No one—and I mean no one, no matter how hot—dissed my family. “She can’t help the way she is.”
“Don’t get your panties in a twist. I’m Bronte’s biggest fan. The girl is scary smart. I meant that I’m glad they met.” His eyes widened. I bit my lower lip, knowing I was out of line but unable to help it. Something about him made my skin itchy hot on the inside, an itch that couldn’t be scratched by simple conversation. He dropped a spoonful of sugar into the espresso and stirred, the silver clanging against the ceramic cup. “Bronte’s one in a million. She’s been good for him.”
“They’re good for each other.” I searched his face for signs of insincerity but found none. My shoulders, which had been inching toward my ears, lowered a notch. “I never thought she’d find someone who understands her, but Rhett seems to be a good guy.”
“He’s the best.” Placing his strong, capable hands flat on the table, he held my gaze. “I’ve known him all my life. When Amy died, I thought he’d never recover, but Bronte changed all that. I hope they’re always as happy as they are now.”
“Yeah, me too.” Somehow, this womanizing pig had managed to voice my exact thoughts better than I could. My younger sister had always been career-driven, preferring the solitude of her laboratory to the company of men, while I’d been a serial dater since the age of fourteen. She’d hit the lottery with Rhett and found her bliss. After clearing my throat, I tapped a finger on the table, eager to escape his knowing eyes and oppressive maleness. “Well, enjoy your coffee. Let me know if you need anything else.”
He jerked his chin in acknowledgment then turned his gaze to the window. With a sigh of relief, I cleared one of the tables, happy to be free of his spell. Unfortunately for me and my damp panties, instead of leaving after his drink, he stayed for another two hours and consumed enough espresso to give a normal person heart failure. I made Lyle refill his cup while I steered clear of him.
My eyes continued to drift in his direction, and the tension between my thighs continued to grow. After Harold had dumped me, I’d haunted nightclubs, picking up a guy here and there, but had carefully guarded my heart. No dates, no sleeping over, just sex. Because, well, sex. No one should go without it. Lately, I’d been too exhausted from work and caring for Dad to do more than crawl home at night and collapse into my bed. Being around Carter reminded me how long it had been and how much I missed a man’s touch.
Catching my stare, Carter made a beeline toward me, a delicious, cocky smirk on his face. Damn it. I tried to push through the swinging doors into the kitchen, but Lyle was on his way out from the other side. I came up short, cursing under my breath, narrowly missing a black eye. Lyle brushed by with a brief apology. I smiled and stepped aside. Just be cool. He’ll be gone in a minute. Instead of leaving though, Carter paused at the register and waited until I lifted my gaze to his.
“I was wondering if you might be free after work,” he said, catching me off guard for a third time.
“Uh, what?” I dropped the empty tray I’d been holding. It clattered on the floor.
“I thought maybe we could grab a bite to eat or something.”
Holy sweet baby Jesus. I gripped the counter with both hands, head spinning. “You mean, like a date?”
“No, like two people having a late lunch.” His lips twitched. “Or we could hook up. I’m good with that too.” Okay, there was the Carter I knew—crass, bold, and unapologetic. “Unless you have something else to do.”
“Yes.” I shook my head, clearing away the fog of pheromones. “I mean, yes, I have something to do.”
“Maybe I could give you a lift home then?”
My car, a rusted and tired Chevy Cavalier, had finally given up, leaving me without transportation until I could save enough to fix it or buy something else. I hated riding the bus and couldn’t afford taxi or Uber service. However, the thought of sitting in close confines with him might prove too much for my sex-starved ovaries. And what I needed to do after work required total secrecy. “It’s okay. I wouldn’t want to take you out of your way.”
“It’s not a problem.”
Before I could protest, several things happened in rapid succession. The bell over the door rang. A familiar young man wearing jeans and a polo shirt stepped into the order line. Carter pushed me behind the cash register. Stunned into silence by his rough action, I gaped. The young man took one look at Carter, turned an impressive shade of gray, and sprinted toward the exit. Carter pounced. The two of them tumbled to the floor, rolling and grunting, overturning a table in the process, shattering the display of specialty muffins into a hundred pieces.
“Stop it!” I lunged toward Carter, slipping on the mess. “You’re destroying my shop.”
“Get back,” Carter growled. He held me away with one hand while pressing a knee into the back of the struggling young man.
“What are you doing? Let him go.” I shoved Carter’s hand aside.
Seeing his chance for escape, the captive took advantage of Carter’s distraction. He squirmed from beneath Carter’s weight and crawled on all fours toward the door. Carter caught him by the ankle, but the guy had reached the threshold. Gripping the door frame with both hands, he levered himself onto the sidewalk, found his feet, and broke into a gallop across traffic. Carter rocketed out the door, hot on his trail, and disappeared between two taxis.
The couple at the table next to me scurried out the door, abandoning their untouched coffee. The rest of the patrons followed in rapid succession.
“Oh, no. Please.” I scrambled after them. “Everything’s fine now. They’re gone. Please don’t go.” It was too late. The door banged shut behind the last customer, leaving me alone with Lyle and the mess on the floor. “Oh, no. No, no, no.”
I gripped my head with both hands and debated if I should curse or cry. Business had been sketchy for the past few months. Even though I’d cut staff and expenses to the bone, we hadn’t turned a profit in six months. The little bit of money I’d set aside for emergencies had dwindled down to pennies. With the arrival of a new national coffee franchise down the street, I couldn’t afford this kind of bad publicity.
“Grab a broom and a trash can,” I said to Lyle. Moping and whining would have to wait. “I’ll get the mop.”
The bell dinged over the door again. Hopeful, I turned to greet whoever it was. The smile slid from my face. Damn. It was the bastard. “No. Hell no.” I pointed to the door. “Out. Out, out, out.”
“Do you have any idea what you just did?” The amount of anger in his voice forced me back against the wall. His brows drew sharply together. He took a menacing step toward me, fingers clenched at his sides.
“Me? Are you kidding? Look what you did to my place.” The nerve of this guy. I accepted his challenge, closing the gap between us until we were less than a foot apart. I glared up at him. Geez, he was a lot bigger up close—all bulging muscle and teeming with testosterone. Even in my anger, I recognized the scent of his shampoo and body wash, fresh and outdoorsy, masculine and clean.
“I’ve been chasing that guy for months. If I don’t bring him in, I’m out ten grand.” He shoved a hand through his hair, temporarily distracting me from my anger. “Now I’m never going to catch him.” A deep growl rumbled through his chest. “Fuck.”
My heart skipped a beat. I was still pissed but oh so turned on by his show of temper. A guy with that amount of passion had to be a stallion in bed. I had a quick, inappropriate flash of him between my legs, directing that emotion into a more constructive activity. Sweat beaded on my temples. I glanced away, searching for anywhere to look but into his angry, delicious eyes. Then my gaze fell on the tumbled table, the broken chair, the spilled coffee and crushed muffins. My temper flared.
“I don’t feel sorry for you. Look at this mess.” I swept a hand around the empty room. “You destroyed my shop, drove away my customers. This place is a total disaster.” Tears stung my eyes. I blinked them into submission and tried not to think about the mounting utility bills, payroll taxes, and the overdue rent. “Everyone left. They’ll tell all their friends that Joe’s Java Junction is full of crazy psychos. They’ll never come back, and I wouldn’t blame them.” I poked an index finger into his chest. It was like poking an oak tree. “You— You’re—” I sputtered, searching for something bad enough to call him. “You’re a caveman.”
“Is that the worst thing you can think of?” He grabbed my finger, wrapping it in his strong, calloused fingers. An electrical current coursed up my forearm into the tips of my breasts, tightening the nipples. His gaze fell to the offending body parts. They poked through the thin cotton of my T-shirt. I wanted to leap into his arms, wrap my legs around his waist, and yank on that long, glorious hair. Horrified, I jerked my hand free and crossed my arms over my chest, but not before a smirk curled the corners of his mouth.
“Don’t you dare laugh. It’s not funny. Not at all. You have no idea what you’ve done.” I shook my head and focused on the damage. My shoulders slumped in defeat. In my experience, this was what men did. They left a trail of brokenness in their wake, expecting the women to clean it up. “Just get away from me. Get out of my shop.”
I left him in the middle of the room, went to retrieve the mop bucket, and prayed he’d have the common sense to leave. When I came back, he was still there, broom in one hand, dustpan in the other. I froze, certain this had to be a hallucination.
“Don’t just stand there,” he said, not looking at me. “Let’s do this.”
We worked together in silence. Tension stretched between us, so thick it made my lungs ache. I tried to ignore the swell of his biceps as he righted the table and the intoxicating scent of his cologne whenever he ventured too close. Thirty minutes later, the place looked tip-top, almost as good as new. The damage to my business, however, couldn’t be repaired by soap and water.
I returned to my place behind the counter, preparing to close out the register.
He followed me and dropped a wad of money on the cash drawer. “For the damages.”
I stared at the folded bills, stunned, before thumbing through them. A thousand dollars? “This is way too much,” I protested, but he had already walked out the door.
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The cab stops in front of Seaforth Towers. After so many years abroad, Laurel Falls feels more foreign than France. I stand in front of the revolving doors and stare up at the twin spires. They project into the clear blue sky, dwarfing all the other skyscrapers in the city, a testament to my father’s influence. Following his fall from power, I’ve been given the reins to his empire. A few months ago, I was languishing in a miserable marriage, and today I’m CEO of Seaforth Industries. The way life changes when we least expect it never fails to amaze me.
I take the elevator to my office on the top floor. A line of desks flank the approach to my door. Tension charges the atmosphere. Heads snap to watch me pass. I nod, offering greetings to each of the employees. Because I’m so new, I still don’t know all their names but vow to learn them before the end of the week. My assistants, Ivan and Elena, scurry to my side.
“Good morning, Ms. Seaforth,” they say in unison.
“Good morning.” A thrill flutters in my stomach. I’ve waited all my life for this opportunity, a chance to prove I’m more than the rich guy’s daughter or the diplomat’s ex-wife. Ivan extends a steaming cup of espresso roast, my favorite, with a dollop of whipped cream on top. “I’ve told you a dozen times, you don’t have to bring my coffee. I’m perfectly capable of getting it.”
“It’s my pleasure, Ms. Seaforth,” he says, but his somber expression lightens. He’s a trim thirty-something with soft brown eyes and slender, sensitive hands.
“How’s your wife? And the baby?” I ask.
“They’re doing well, thank you.” His eyebrows lift the smallest amount. I have a feeling my father never asked about the welfare of his employees. He certainly never asked about mine. “The doctor says they can come home tomorrow.”
“Babies are such a blessing. Did you take tomorrow off? You should.”
“No, I didn’t want to miss work. My mother-in-law is going to pick them up.”
“Nonsense. You need to be there. This is important. Work will be here, but a new baby only comes home from the hospital once.” This talk of kids causes my heart to squeeze. My children are half a world away with their father. I miss them more than I ever imagined. Giles, my ex, had been adamant on shared custody. They spend the school year with me, summers with him and his new twenty-two year old wife. I blink away the sting of tears and force a smile.
“Company policy doesn’t cover personal leave unless you’ve been on the job for a year. I’ve only been here for eleven months.” He shakes his head then glances at Elena, like he can’t believe his ears.
“I’m sure we can work something out.” Before I turn to my office, I stop and speak to Elena. “Would you get with the head of HR and set an appointment for us to meet? I’d like to review the policies.” Knowing my father, he’d washed his hands of personnel relations, but I intend to remedy any oversights. A happy employee is a loyal employee.
“Certainly.” She taps a note into her tablet.
“Can I just say again how thrilled we are to be working for you?” The enthusiasm in Ivan’s voice breaks a bit of the ice surrounding us. “Before you came along, the atmosphere around here was unbearable. You’ve already lightened the mood considerably.”
“Thank you. I’m thrilled to be here.” Which is the understatement of the year. I still can’t believe it. I feel like an imposter, posing as the head of America’s largest conglomerate. Any moment, I expect someone to burst through the doors and usher me out.
Elena remains expressionless, taking my briefcase and coat. An air of calm capability swirls around her, soothing my nerves. “Your brother is waiting in your office.”
“Ugh.” I can’t resist rolling my eyes.
Ivan clears his throat to hold back a chuckle.
Sure enough, Sam sits behind my desk, his back to the door, staring through the wall of windows onto the cityscape outside. When I close the door, he swivels to face me. He looks comfortable there, dressed in a sharp gray suit and electric blue tie. A wave of inadequacy knots my stomach. If I screw up, Sam will know.
“Don’t you ever sleep?” I ask.
“I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” Sam rocks back in the chair. “It’s seven-thirty. Half the day is gone already. You’re going to have to up your game if you want to play with the big boys.”
“Spoken like a true Seaforth.” His resemblance to our father rattles my fragile composure. The same square jaw, blazing green eyes, and air of command. Sunlight sparks in his blond hair. Aside from the disparity in ages, they could be twins instead of father and son. By contrast, I look more like my mother; dark blond, busty, classic features.
Elena trails behind me and sets my briefcase on the credenza. “Do you need anything before I go?”
“No, thanks. I’m good.” I give her a smile. “But you could get my brother a life.”
He smirks. A mischievous twinkle brightens his eyes. “I have more lives than I can handle right now.”
We’ve been apart for half of our lives, but the years fell away quickly when we reunited. He helped me obtain a divorce from Giles and backed my campaign to lead Seaforth Industries. His wife, Dakota, has been welcoming. The rediscovery of my family has left me overwhelmed and grateful. “Thank you for helping out. I appreciate it.”
“No problem.” Even as a boy, Sam was a man of few words. He smooths his tie. “We need to go over the financials. I’ve asked the accountants to meet with us after lunch. Did you look at the reports I sent to you?”
“Yes. I made some notes.” He’s still sitting in my chair. I cock an eyebrow.
“Sorry.” By the tone of his voice, he’s not sorry at all.
My temper bristles. When he doesn’t move, I crowd the chair. “Do you mind?”
He chuckles, reminding me of our childhood, and the way he used to pull my pigtails if I challenged him. “Lighten up, Vanessa. You look like you’re about to get a root canal.”
“I just don’t want to screw up.” It’s the first time I’ve admitted my insecurity to anyone other than the bathroom mirror.
“Relax. I’m on your side.” The hard edge of his voice softens for the briefest moment. He stands and squeezes my shoulder. “Remember, you asked for this.”
“Right.” How can I forget? My father fought my involvement from the very start, certain a woman was incapable of managing his baby. Sam had been the one to back me up. While he remained the overall man in charge, he had his own empire to run, leaving me to hold the reins. “But you don’t think I can do this.”
“Running a billion-dollar enterprise is nothing like managing a mid-level corporation.” I open my mouth to reply, but he raises a hand. “Which you did to perfection at your last job, may I add. However, Maxwell has mismanaged everything from the bottom up. We need to pool our resources if we want to save Seaforth Industries. Stock is down. Some of the subsidiaries are ripe for a takeover. Trust me, I know.”
One of Sam’s many talents is the ability to sniff out weak companies, sneak beneath their radar, and acquire them for a fraction of their worth. If anyone knows the situation, it’s my brother.
“Yes. I get it.” Still, I can’t hold back a note of irritation. “I don’t need you to hold my hand.”
His laughter rings across the room. “There’s the sister I remember. Good to have you back.” In a flash, his demeanor sobers, and his attention turns to a stack of folders. He takes one from the top and hands it to me. “We’re having breakfast with the head of Seaforth Media—” he pauses to glance at his watch, “—in thirty minutes. He’s uncomfortable with the change of management and wants to discuss a plan for recovery. This is the Cliffs Notes version of Seaforth Media’s status.”
“You couldn’t have given this to me yesterday?” I hate being unprepared. With a scowl, I open the folder and riffle through the pages. The front page contains a list of the key players. One name in particular catches my eye. My heart screeches to a full stop. Cameron Blackwood? I blink, certain I’m hallucinating.
“I didn’t have all the numbers until late last night.”
I miss the rest of what Sam says. I’m too busy trying to hold onto my sanity. “Cameron is running Seaforth Media?” My Cam? How did I not know this is? He was my father’s first choice after Sam to head Seaforth Industries, but I never thought we’d brush shoulders. In retrospect, the idea is naive.
“He’s the main partner there, yes.” Sam’s eyes narrow.
“No one told me. Why didn’t anyone let me know?” Panic edges my words.
“Why are you being crazy?” Both of his eyebrows lift, reminding me to lower my voice. As far as I know, Sam has no idea of my past relationship with Cam, and I want to keep it that way. He’s the skeleton in my closet, the dirty secret no one wants to tell.
“Michael Gordon is the president.” This has to be a mistake. Since the epic failure of our relationship, I haven’t seen Cam—not once. Why is he suddenly in my face? Karma must really be having a laugh this morning.
“Gordon had a heart attack, and Blackwood weaseled his way in there. This meeting is his doing. He insisted.” Disdain oozes from every inch of Sam’s body. I don’t know their history, but by the twitch above his eye, it’s not good.
“Great.” I pour a glass of water and chug down the entire thing, using the time to pull my head together. Sweat beads on my brow.
“We need to be on our toes with him. He’s been breathing down my back for the past two years. I don’t trust the guy any further than I can throw him.”
“Me neither.” Blood thunders through my ears, rendering me deaf. I walk with Sam toward the conference room, nodding, pretending to hear what he says, but all I can think about is a warm bed on a cold winter’s morning with a naked Cam beneath the sheets.
“Have you found an apartment yet?” Sam’s voice breaks into my panic.
“What? No. I’m moving to the hotel across the street tonight.” The strength ebbs from my legs at the sight of the conference room door. My chest constricts. I brace a hand on the wall. Sam grabs my arm. I’ve never had a panic attack, but this seems relatively close.
“Are you okay?”
I nod. “I’m fine. I just need a minute.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Cam is on the other side of the door. The last time we met, he broke my heart. I erased all traces of him from my memory after that day, but now the hurt and betrayal come flooding back.
“You’re allowed to be human, you know?” His expression softens. “This is a lot to take on. I know how devastating divorce can be. Maybe it’s too soon. Maybe you should take a couple of weeks to get your act together. No one will blame you.”
Although the divorce was uncomfortable, Giles and I remain good friends, and I’m more relieved by the separation than anguished. I smooth sweaty palms over my skirt. At least I look good. The black suit is new, perfectly tailored to accentuate my figure, tasteful but not severe. Even though my finances are temporarily exhausted, I sprang for a few new wardrobe pieces, suitable for the chief executive of a billion-dollar business.
“I don’t need time off,” I snap. “I need to work. Blackwood will expect me to be weak. I won’t let him come into my building and push me around.” My words are bold, but my insides still quake. I’m no longer a nineteen year old college student wearing her heart on her sleeve. Time and experience have obliterated the last vestiges of that girl. I know who I am and what I want from life.
“Excellent. Put on your game face, and let’s show this guy who’s in charge.” The steel in Sam’s voice shores up my strength. “Blackwood is a snake, but we hold all the balls in our court, and you’re now the most powerful woman in this city. Remember that.”
The door opens, and the room spins around me. Eighteen faces stare expectantly at us. Most of them belong to my team, but I wasn’t expecting so many people. The women nod and smile, the men stand, all but the one at the opposite end of the table. Before I see his face, I know who he is by the prickle along my skin.
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At eight o’clock in the morning, I opened my eyes to bright sunshine and a disturbing case of temporary amnesia. I blinked twice, wincing at the grit beneath my eyelids, and tried to focus on something—anything—to determine my location. Through heavy velvet drapes, a balcony offered views of iron scrollwork and shuttered windows. Bourbon Street. Flashes of the previous night blinked past my mind. I sat up and clung to the scraps of memories. I might not remember any of the details, but at least I knew where I was—New Orleans on the morning after Sam’s bachelor party.
A wave of nausea squeezed my guts, followed by the bitter aftertaste of vodka. I swallowed the urge to hurl and rubbed my eyes. I gripped my forehead with one hand and pushed aside the bedcovers with the other. The silken threads of the rug tickled the soles of my feet. Soreness taunted my thighs and lower back, the kind of pleasant pain that came from a night of fucking. Serious fucking.
Tangled sheets twisted across the bed and around my total nakedness. A pair of skimpy panties dangled from the lampshade. The sound of running water in the bathroom put my senses on high alert. I wasn’t alone. Snippets of the previous night teased from the shadowy fringes of my brain. Shots. Lots and lots of them. Naked girls dancing on a stage and grinding against my lap. More shots. More girls. Rinse. Lather. Repeat. And then—nothing. Nothing but a blank wall until this very moment.
I tried to relax, but something seemed off, something I couldn’t put a finger on. It wasn’t the first time I’d brought a random girl back to my hotel room, and God willing, it wouldn’t be the last. By the number of used condom wrappers littering the nightstand, it had been quite a night. A surge of smug male ego swelled my chest and mitigated my anxiety. I might not remember it, but apparently I’d had one hell of a good time.
The water shut off in the bathroom. I steeled myself for the awkward conversation of the morning after. I had plenty of experience in this area. I would offer to call her a cab, walk her to the hotel lobby, and—depending on how things went—exchange phone numbers. I wracked my brain for clues as to her identity and came up with nothing.
The bathroom door opened to reveal a long-legged girl clad in my white T-shirt. A tumble of glossy blond hair cascaded over her shoulders. My gaze swept up the smooth stretch of calf and thigh, over the swell of perfect breasts, up the creamy column of her neck, and stopped at the very blue, very turbulent eyes of my best friend’s little sister. Venetia Victoria Seaforth.
“Fuck me,” I said and rubbed the back of my neck. Her eyes narrowed. I stumbled backward in alarm and tripped over a pair of stiletto heels at the foot of the bed.
“Again?” One of her shapely eyebrows lifted, trademark smirk in place. Her shrewd gaze slid down my body before returning to my face.
My cock twitched in a traitorous show of agreement. “Jesus.” I ripped a sheet from the bed and wrapped it around my waist. For the first time in my life, eloquence eluded me, and I stuttered like a fool. “Y-y-you and I? Last night?” She nodded. I sank to the bed and tried to calm my thundering pulse. “How did this happen?”
“You don’t remember?” The full pout of her mouth twisted into a frown. I shook my head. “Any of it?”
A knock rattled the door, and we both flinched. Sam’s deep voice floated through the barrier of walnut and brass. “Beckett? You up?”
“Shit.” I sprang from the bed and trundled Venetia toward the bathroom. I shoved her over the threshold and tossed her clothes into the room behind her.
“I’m not hiding from my brother.” Her soprano voice trembled, a flush high on her cheeks.
“Sam will kick both our asses if he finds you here, and you know it,” I growled.
“Don’t you mean he’ll kick your ass?” An adorable smile tilted the corners of her lips.
“Either way, I’m not into it.” I remembered the way Sam had reacted when our buddy Tucker had taken her out on a date. One date. It had been hell for all parties involved.
“Don’t be a drama queen.” Her jaw tightened. “Sam will just have to deal.”
“Sam won’t have to deal, because Sam is never going to know.”
Her mouth opened to form a retort.
Before she could continue, I slammed the door shut between us. “Just stay in there and be quiet while I get rid of him.” Blood thundered through my veins. I was going to have a heart attack in the prime of life, all because my pecker couldn’t behave himself. Stupid, horny bastard.
Sam knocked again, louder this time. “Beckett, get up, you lazy fucker.”
I drew in a deep, calming breath, shoved a hand through my hair, and opened the door.
His gaze swept over me, taking in the sheet clutched at my waist, and shook his head. “Rough night?” Sam’s eyebrow lifted in a gesture identical to the one his sister had bestowed upon me thirty seconds earlier.
“Uh, yeah.” My focus flickered to the bathroom and back to Sam. Unease prickled along my skin. I prayed Venetia would have the common sense to remain hidden. “What’s up?”
“We’ve got lunch at the plantation in an hour.” Like his sister, Sam was tall and blond and brimming with self-confidence. He pushed through the door and into the room. I shifted from foot to foot, nerves on edge. “Have you talked to Tucker?”
“No. Why?” In spite of my best efforts, my gaze kept darting to the bathroom door.
“I tried his room and no answer.” Sam’s attention swept the room. When he turned his back, I brushed the condom wrappers into the trash can beside the bed.
“Maybe he got lucky last night.” My voice sounded too high, too thin for a thirty-year-old kick-ass attorney.
“Probably.” Sam walked to the lamp and took the panties from the lampshade. “Looks like he’s not the only one.” The scrap of blue silk hung suspended from his index finger. His eyes twinkled with mischief. “Very nice. Stripper?”
“No.” Geez. Could this get any worse? If he knew those panties belonged to his baby sister, he’d annihilate me. My mouth went dry. At six feet seven and two hundred pounds, I didn’t fear many men, but Samuel Seaforth was a different story. As a corporate predator, he’d made a fortune through hostile takeovers and ruthless behavior. I might be able to overpower him with my physical size and strength, but Sam could ruin my career forever with a few well-placed phone calls. Even worse, it would destroy our friendship, a bond I treasured more than my career.
A crash sounded in the bathroom, followed by a string of muffled profanities. I shifted into emergency mode with a calm buoyed by years of high-pressure courtroom experience. “Hey, man, I need to take care of this one.” I jerked my head toward the bathroom. “Let me get rid of her, and I’ll meet you downstairs in fifteen.”
“No need. I’m leaving now. Dakota and I have a few things to discuss this morning.” His eyes sparkled at the mention of his fiancée. “You and Tucker can meet us there. Grab Venetia on your way, will you?” He balled the panties in his fist and tossed them to me. “Don’t be late.”
The door had barely closed on Sam’s back when Venetia bounded out of the bathroom, fully dressed and teeming with anger. If the situation had been less dire, I might have been inclined to stop and admire the sight of her. She’d piled her long hair into a messy bun atop her head. Tanned and toned, she exuded lithe sensuality. A tight white tank top and dark skinny jeans molded over the swell of perky breasts and slender thighs. I swallowed hard to dispel a vision of my hand inside the waistband of her pants. I blinked away the memory to find her standing in front of me, one hand outstretched, palm facing upward.
“Panties, please.” Her delicate nostrils quivered with indignation.
I placed the scrap of silk into her hand and tried not to think of her going commando. “Sorry.”
“Yes, you are.” She turned and stomped toward the door. Her bottom swung inside the tight denim. I felt a traitorous twitch in my groin. “But not as sorry as me.”
I closed my eyes and tried to quell the random thoughts bouncing around inside my head. I’d known Venetia since she was fourteen. I’d seen her awkward phase, plagued with braces and acne, saw her dyed hair and pierced nose during a rebellious phase, and watched her date teenaged jerks unworthy of her. During those years, I’d regarded her in turns as a nuisance, a burden, and an amusement. Never had I considered her to be a potential sex partner. Thoughts like that could only get a man in trouble. I rubbed the back of my neck. Shit. Who was I kidding? I was in trouble. Deep, deep trouble.
“Wait.” I grabbed her arm and spun her around to face me. “I really am sorry.”
“You said that already.”
“I mean it, V.” The angry lines around her mouth softened the smallest amount. “I think we can both agree this was a mistake.”
She snorted and crossed her arms over her chest. “You’re telling me.”
“Look. We just need to get through the rest of today and the wedding tonight without tipping anyone off. You can do that, right?”
Her eyes searched mine. An unfamiliar and heady thrill rocketed through me. For the space of a heartbeat, I forgot who we were and drowned in the bottomless pools of blue staring back at me.
The spell broke when she blinked and looked away. “Fine. If that’s what you want.”
Without another word, she opened the door and disappeared into the hallway. I shut the door behind her, leaned my back against it, and blew out a sigh of relief.