United Kingdom

October 22, 2015



Published in the US as
One Enchanted Moment

USA

April 26, 2016



Christmas Ever After

Book #3

Skylar Tempest has never understood Alec Hunter’s appeal. So what if he’s a world-renowned historian? He’s also cynical, aloof and determined to think the worst of her. So when a twist of fate finds her spending the lead-up to Christmas with Alec and his family, she’s not expecting the season to be either merry or bright. Alec has learned the hard way not to trust beautiful women—and Skylar is the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. But as he watches her throw herself into his family’s festive chaos, Alec realises there is far more to this blonde bombshell than meets the eye. With Christmas around the corner, Alec and Skylar return to Puffin Island, a tentative bond forged between them. Neither intends to fall in love, but as the nights become darker, and the fire between them grows hotter, could this be the chance for Alec and Skylar to find their own happy ending?
Read an Excerpt


Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

Skylar Tempest stepped out of her hotel and lifted her face to the sky. Soft, thick flakes of snow drifted down from a sky of midnight blue, dusting her hair and blending with the wool of her white coat. It was like standing in a snow globe.
She reached out and caught a snowflake in her palm, watching as it slowly dissolved, its beauty fleeting and ephemeral.
London was experiencing a cold spell and bets were on for the first white Christmas in years. The snow had been falling for a couple of hours and the streets were frosted white. It was easy on the eye and lethal underfoot, which was why she’d decided to take a cab rather than walk the glittering length of Knightsbridge to the gallery.
She didn’t want to arrive at the most important night of her life with a black eye.
Smiling at the doorman, she stepped into the waiting cab.
Cocooned in the warmth, she watched as people bustled along the crowded streets. They walked, heads down, snuggled in layers of wool to keep out the cold. Stores with elaborately decorated windows shone bright with fairy lights, beaming shimmering silver across the snow.
Drinking in the light and color, she fought the temptation to reach for the sketch pad she always carried. In a world that often presented its ugly side, Skylar looked for the beauty and captured it in her art. She worked in a variety of mediums, dabbled in ceramics, but her first love was jewelry.
The necklace she’d chosen to wear tonight was an example of her work and the only splash of color in her outfit. She’d designed it as part of her latest collection, but she’d fallen in love with the piece and kept it. The stones were a mixture of blues and greens, Mediterranean hues that added warmth to a cold December evening.
Tonight was her big night, she was in one of her favorite cities at her favorite time of year and Richard was joining her.
They’d been an item for over a year. A year in which his entire focus had been his political career. Since he’d won his senate seat, the pressures had intensified. They’d barely seen each other in the months leading up to the election and the time they had spent together had been marred by his incendiary moods. She’d resigned herself to attending the private showing of her collection alone, so his call from the airport had been a surprise.
Now she was eagerly anticipating the night ahead.
Starting tonight, everything was going to be different. With the stress of the election behind them, they’d finally be able to enjoy quality time together and do all the things they’d talked about doing.
He’d hinted that he had a special Christmas gift for her.
A trip to Florence maybe?
He knew how much she’d always wanted that.
Or Paris, maybe, to visit the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay.
Her mood lifted.
They’d celebrate her exhibition and later they’d enjoy a more intimate celebration. The two of them, her luxurious hotel suite and a bottle of champagne. Tomorrow, they’d visit the ice rink at Somerset House. She’d walked past it the day before and spent a happy hour people-watching. Her creative brain had soaked up the kaleidoscope of color and smiling faces. She’d absorbed it all; the uncertain, the wobbly and the graceful. Twirling teenagers, parents holding eager children, lovers entwined. After that, they’d visit The London Eye at night. She’d watched the slow, graceful rise of each capsule over the dark ribbon of the Thames and decided she wanted to experience that.
It would be romantic, and she and Richard needed to spend more time on their relationship.
She stared out of the window, thinking about it.
Was this love?
Was this it?
She’d always assumed that when she finally fell in love she’d know. She hadn’t been prepared for all the doubts and questions.
“Christmas party, love?” The cab driver glanced in the mirror and Skylar gave him a smile, glad to be distracted from her thoughts.
“Not exactly. A private showing. Jewelry, pots and a few pieces of art.” A series of watercolors she’d painted on a trip to Greece to visit Brittany. Having a best friend who was an archaeologist had expanded her horizons. That trip had been the inspiration for her collection. Ocean Blue.
“Where are you from?”
“New York, and it’s pretty cold there right now.” She chatted freely, loving how friendly the cab drivers were in London.
“I hope you brought your credit card. Prices are high in this part of London. Whatever you buy is going to cost you.”
“It’s mine.” Excitement mingled with pride. “My collection.”
He glanced at her in his mirror. “I’m impressed. To have your work on display in these parts at any age would be something, but for someone as young as you—well, you’re obviously going somewhere. Your family must be really proud.”
Her good mood melted away like the snowflake she’d held in her palm.
Her family wasn’t proud.
They were exasperated that she persisted with her “hobby.”
She’d invited them. Sent them a pretty embossed invitation and a catalog.
There had been no response.
Turning her head, she focused on the snowy scene beyond the windows of the cab. She wasn’t going to let that ruin her evening. Nothing was going to ruin the evening.
The cab driver was still talking. “So you’ll be flying back home for the holidays? Family Christmas?”
“That’s the plan.” Although not the reality. “Family Christmas” sounded cozy and warm, like something from a fairy tale. It conjured up images of prettily wrapped gifts stacked beneath a tall tree festooned with twinkling lights and homemade decorations, while excited children fizzed with anticipation.
Christmas at her parents’ house felt more like an endurance test than a fairy tale, more corporate than cozy. The “tree” would be an artistic display of bare twigs sprayed silver and studded with tiny lights, part of a larger display planned and executed every year by her mother’s interior decorator. Stark, remote and not to be touched at any cost. The “gifts,” artfully stacked on various surfaces for effect, would be empty boxes.
Any child hoping to find something magical under her family tree would be disappointed.
Those gifts summed up her family, she thought.
Everything had to be shiny and perfectly wrapped. Appearances mattered.
Leaning her head against the cool glass of the window, she watched as a man and a woman, loaded down with bags, struggled through the snow with two bouncing, excitable young children. She imagined them arriving home and decorating the tree together. They’d write letters to Santa and hang stockings, counting the number of sleeps until Christmas Day.
The most important things in life, she thought wistfully, couldn’t be wrapped.
She watched as the family disappeared down a side street and then looked away, impatient with herself.
She was too old for Christmas fantasies and with Richard arriving and her exhibition she had plenty to celebrate.
Her phone rang and she tugged it out of her bag, expecting Richard again.
It was her mother and surprise mingled with warmth.
She’d remembered.
“Mom? I’m so happy you called.”
“I shouldn’t have to call,” her mother’s crisp, cultured tones came down the phone, “but your father and I need to know when you’ll be home.”
Bridging the gap between hope and reality gave her whiplash. “You’re calling about my schedule?”
“Stephanie sent you an email. You didn’t respond.”
Stephanie was her mother’s assistant and Sky knew the email was probably sitting in her inbox, along with all the others she’d ignored while burning the midnight oil to get ready for this week.
“I’ve been busy, Mom. It’s my private viewing tonight, and—”
“We’re all busy, Skylar, and I’d appreciate not having to chase my own daughter for a response. Particularly when you’re the only one without a job.”
Sky thought of the commissions she had lined up. She had enough work to keep her busy through most of next year. “I have a job.”
“I mean a proper job. I’m doing the seating plan for Christmas Eve. We’ll be eighty for dinner. Lunch is more intimate—forty. When will you be arriving?”
Sky leaned her head back against the seat, not knowing whether to laugh or cry.
Forty? Intimate?
So much for a cozy family Christmas.
“I haven’t decided.”
“Then decide.”
Skylar imagined her mother seated at her elegant Queen Anne desk, ticking off the items on her to-do list.
Phone dreamy, wayward daughter.
“Christmas Eve.” At the last possible moment. “I’ll be home Christmas Eve, but I’ll make my own arrangements so you can cross me off your list. I’ll talk with Richard and see what works for him.”
“Richard has already sent through his plans.”
Without sharing them with her? “He emailed you? I was assuming we’d travel together.”
“You need to stop assuming and take action, Skylar. Richard’s career is on the rise, but he still found time to respond to my email personally. Your father is impressed, and we all know he’s not easy to impress.”
Sky’s fingers tightened on the phone.
She knew. She’d been trying to impress her father for years, so far with no success.
Something tugged deep inside her.
In third grade she’d painted him a picture. It had taken days of hard, painstaking effort to produce something she thought he’d like. She’d been excited by the result.
Look at this, Daddy. I painted it for your office.
He’d barely glanced at the picture and the next day she’d noticed it in the trash, buried beneath empty cans and juice cartons.
She never drew anything for him again.
She watched as snowflakes swirled and danced past the windows and tried not to mind that Richard had apparently succeeded where she had failed.
“He’s smart,” her mother was saying. “Persuasive. Charming.”
Except when he was under pressure. Then he was short-tempered and far from charming. But that wasn’t a side he showed to the voting public or her family.
She stirred in her seat, feeling guilty for not being more understanding.
This was his dream, and she knew how it felt to have a dream.
Richard Everson had nurtured ambitions of running for office since childhood. The occasional burst of irritability at this point was understandable.
Her mother was still talking. “You’re lucky to have found a man like him, but you won’t hang on to him if you’re dreamy and romantic. Relationships require application and hard work.”
And that, Skylar thought, was exactly how her parents’ marriage had always seemed to her. Work. More corporate merger than loving union.
Was that really what love was?
She hoped not.
“When is he arriving?”
“Christmas Eve, in time for lunch. He’ll be excellent at this sort of event.”
Event? “It’s Christmas, Mom.”
“I thought you would finally have grown out of romanticizing the holidays.” Her mother sounded impatient. “Your father has given a great deal of thought to the guest list. There are influential people attending. People who will be useful to Richard’s career.”
Not friends or family. People of influence.
“Anyone I know?”
“The list was attached to the email Stephanie sent. I hope you take time to prepare.”
“Preparing” involved absorbing and memorizing pages of notes on each individual. Likes, dislikes, topics to be avoided at all costs.
Even at Christmas it was all about networking.
A wild idea flitted into her mind. Christmas in a cottage on Puffin Island. Log fire, good wine and the company of her friends. She and Richard together without the pressures of the outside world.
It was a dreamy idea.
It was also heresy and it was never going to happen.
“I’m sorry you couldn’t be here, Mom.”
“You couldn’t have picked a worse time. You’re putting a great deal of pressure on Richard. As your father said when he spoke to him earlier, expecting him to fly to London right now is unreasonable.”
“Richard spoke to Dad?”
“He called this morning.” Her mother paused. “Choosing that man is the one thing in your life you’ve done right. Don’t make a mistake tonight, Skylar.”
Make a mistake about what?
“Wait a minute—what are you talking about?”
“I’ve said enough. The rest is up to you. Make good choices.” Her mother ended the call and Skylar sat for a moment, staring out of the window.
Make good choices.
Her family had never understood that, for her, art and the process of creating something tangible and beautiful, whether a pot or a necklace, wasn’t a choice. It was a need, maybe even an obsession. It came from deep inside. She had images clamoring in her head, ideas crowding her brain. Inspiration was everywhere, there were days where she was dizzy and dazzled by possibilities.
Choice wasn’t part of it.
She could no more have given up what she did than she could have given up breathing, but her family had never understood that. Their approach to life was analytical. Their appreciation of art was limited to its cultural significance or financial value.
Growing up, there had been days when she’d wondered if her parents had brought the wrong baby home from the hospital. They were good people, but she felt as if she was in the wrong house.
The phone rang again. This time it was Brittany and Emily, her friends who were both back on Puffin Island, in Maine.
“Tell us what you’re wearing.” Brittany’s voice came down the phone and Skylar grinned.
No doubt about it, without her friends she’d go insane.
Friends were like solar power, bringing warmth and light to dark corners.
“The silver dress with the white coat. Totally impractical.”
“No burgers, no ketchup and stay away from red wine. I bet you look like a snow queen. We rang to wish you luck because after tonight you’ll be too famous to talk to us. Are you excited?”
Skylar tried to forget the conversation with her mother. “I think so.”
“You think?” This time it was Emily. “Sky, this is huge. You should be so proud. We are.”
“Drink champagne, take photos and we’ll celebrate when you’re home.” Brittany’s voice echoed down the phone. “Wish we could be there with you. You shouldn’t be alone.”
Skylar hesitated, not sure whether to tell them or not. “I won’t be alone. Richard is coming.”
There was a brief silence and then Emily spoke. “That’s great.” Her voice was just a little too bright. “We thought he wasn’t going to make it.”
“Last-minute decision.”
“Why the change of heart?”
Sky wondered why the question should make her uncomfortable when she’d asked herself the same question. “He shifted his schedule. I guess that’s a sign that he cares.”
“Right. Well, we’re glad he came through for you.” Brittany’s tone was warm. “I hope having him there makes tonight even more special.”
They didn’t say anything more. They didn’t have to.
She knew they worried about her relationship with Richard.
Now that he’d won his senate seat, she needed to persuade him to spend more time with her friends. She was sure that if he knew them better, he’d love them as she did.
“I have to go.”
“Call us later! And if you see Lily and Nik, give them my love.”
The call left her smiling and she was still smiling as she stepped out of the cab.
The gallery was nestled between an antiques store and an exclusive boutique. Taking pride of place in the window of the gallery was one of her favorite pieces, a vase modeled on an ancient Greek amphora, the birds twisting sinuously against luminous blue glass.
Tempest Designs.
Maybe it had started as a hobby, but now it was a business. She had a small but exclusive international clientele and this was her first show in London. To be able to support herself doing something she loved had made the dream a reality.
So why were her mother’s words the loudest thing in her head?
You’re the only one without a job.
She paid the driver, reminding herself that Richard believed in her. He’d chosen to fly over for the weekend, which had to be the ultimate in romantic gestures and proof he was taking her choice of career seriously.
It didn’t matter what her parents thought.
This was her big night and nothing was going to spoil it.
*
Alec Hunter left the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, shoulders hunched against the sharp bite of the wind and the falling snow. He’d planned a late-afternoon stroll along the river but the lecture he’d delivered had ended later than planned and afternoon had blended into evening.
In front of him the River Thames wound, ribbonlike, toward the bright lights of the city. He turned up the collar of his coat, pulled his phone out of his pocket and walked upriver.
He had four messages.
One from the BBC following up on the meeting they’d had earlier in the week to discuss his possible involvement with a documentary on Antarctica, one from his mother asking him to buy extra champagne, one from his younger sister telling him he’d better have bought her a great present or he needn’t bother coming home.
That one made him smile.
He texted her back and received a flurry of emoticons in return.
The final text was from his friends back in the United States, reminding him that tonight was the VIP night for Skylar’s exhibition.
He could imagine them, gathered together in Harbor House on Puffin Island, sharing a bottle of wine and laughing while they sent a joint text.

You need to be there, Alec. The rat boyfriend has decided to show up and Skylar needs the support of her friends.

Rat boyfriend?
Several thoughts flitted through his mind. The first was that he and Skylar could hardly be described as “friends.” On a good day they tolerated each other for the sake of their wider friendship group; on a bad day they barely managed to be civil. His second thought was that Skylar’s choices in her relationships appeared to be no better than his own, and the third was that Brittany clearly had no idea how far Greenwich was from Knightsbridge.
He checked the time and calculated that by the time he got across town in the traffic, her VIP night would be over. But if he didn’t at least show his face, his life wouldn’t be worth living.
Brittany and Emily would both kill him and Ryan would cut off his supply of free beer at the Ocean Club bar.
With a faint smile he texted a reply promising to go and pocketed his phone.
He doubted Skylar would be pleased to see him, but he would have done his duty and with any luck would still be invited to spend Christmas at Harbor House.
Skylar, he knew, would be going home to her family in Long Island.
Walking away from the river to the street, he hailed a cab.
It was going to take a lifetime to cross London but hopefully he’d make it before the evening was over.
He’d congratulate her, she’d smile politely, he’d leave.
Duty done.
*
The room was buzzing.
“The turnout is amazing.” Judy, the owner of the gallery, was on her second glass of champagne. “Do you see who is over there? Cristiano Ferrara. He owns an exclusive hotel chain. Sicilian.” She lowered her voice. “Very sexy.”
“And very married. He commissioned a piece of jewelry for his wife, Laurel. She’s pregnant.” And that, Sky thought, was romantic. Not a stark piece of paper that declared you husband and wife, but thoughtful, loving gestures that showed how much you cared.
It was her favorite type of commission.
A gift designed as an expression of love.
And there was no doubt how much Cristiano loved his beautiful wife. When people approached him he was polite, but it was obvious that tonight was a treat for his wife and she was the focus of his attention. He looked at Laurel as if she were the sun, the moon and the stars all in one perfect package.
Sky watched them wistfully.
She wanted that. She wanted that intense passion, but most of all she wanted someone who thought she was the best thing on the planet.
Confused, Sky glanced across at Richard, who was working the room.
Did he feel that way about her?
And could she feel that for him? Did she feel enough? Was this all it was? Her head was full of questions she couldn’t answer.
She’d always believed that if she ever fell in love, she’d recognize the feeling instantly, but maybe it wasn’t that simple.
Richard had been the last to arrive and had barely paused to greet her before vanishing into the crowd. Now he was now talking to Nik Zervakis, the wealthy Greek-American owner of ZervaCo who had flown in with his fiancée, Lily, an archaeology friend of Brittany’s who had helped Sky with ideas for her new collection.
“Nik has given me free rein to buy anything I like,” Lily confided. “So far I’ve bought those gorgeous starfish earrings and that pot in the corner. It’s similar to one he already has at his home in Greece.”
“Your home, too.”
“Yes, my home! Unbelievable, isn’t it? I still want to pinch myself every day.”
“How did you know?” Sky’s mouth was dry. “How did you know he was the right one? That this really was love?”
“That’s a difficult question—‘ Lily pondered, her eyes on Nik. ‘I can’t describe it. But sometimes it feels as if my heart is too big for my chest.” She gave a half smile and walked over to the pot. “I really do love this.”
“I should be giving you that, no charge. None of this would have happened without your help. You’re the Greek ceramics expert.”
“Not anymore. I’m turning into a corporate wife. My choice.” Lily glanced at Nik again, her eyes sparkling like the lights on a Christmas tree. “Give my love to Brittany when you see her. Will you be spending Christmas on Puffin Island?”
“No. I’ll be spending the holidays with my family.”
Her family and a hundred and twenty strangers.
People of influence.
It would be as much fun as a trip to the dentist.
Trying not to think about that, she hugged Lily and then mixed and mingled, accepting compliments and answering questions about her work.
It occurred to her that the only person who hadn’t congratulated her was Richard.
Even after the two wealthiest people in the room had left to go on to another Christmas event, he continued to network, pumping fists and slapping backs as he made his way round the room.
Sky was starting to wonder why he’d bothered coming when she saw him speak to the gallery owner, clear his throat and get ready to make a speech.
Her heart sank. Was he going to congratulate her publicly?
She would have preferred a more intimate exchange, a few personal words that showed he was proud of her, but she understood that this was the way Richard did things. He was all about reaching the widest audience possible. Why charm one person if you could charm ten?
He lifted a hand to silence the hum of conversation. “I want to thank you all for being here tonight.” He delivered his most engaging smile, the one that had carried him all the way to Capitol Hill just weeks earlier. “We’re all busy people, but like you I couldn’t miss Skylar’s little party. I want to thank you on her behalf.”
There were a few “ahhs” but Skylar frowned.
Little party?
He made her feel as if she was back in kindergarten. And she didn’t need him to thank people on her behalf. She’d already thanked them, as he would have known if he’d arrived earlier. He’d blamed traffic and she’d felt churlish for thinking that he should have allowed more time.
There was a rush of cold air as the door to the gallery opened and she swiveled to see if she recognized the latecomer.
She caught a glimpse of ebony hair, a long black coat and powerful shoulders dusted in silvery snow.
Several women glanced toward the handsome stranger, and then he turned and Skylar saw that it wasn’t a stranger.
It was Alec Hunter.
A friend of Brittany’s, he was a maritime historian and his expertise and on-screen charisma had combined to give him a lucrative career that straddled academia and media. They called him the Shipwreck Hunter and he’d been credited with single-handedly making history sexy. Thanks to his adventurous exploits in front of the camera, he had droves of female admirers.
Skylar wasn’t one of them.
What was he doing here?
Yes, they occasionally socialized, but the truth was they tolerated each other for the sake of their mutual friends. He didn’t hide the fact he thought she was decorative and shallow. What had he called her back in the summer? A fairy princess.
If she’d been a dog, she would have been growling deep in her throat.
Telling herself that she didn’t care what he thought of her, she looked away.
It was one thing to try to please her parents for the sake of family harmony, but she’d be damned if she’d go out of her way to win the approval of a hardened cynic like Alec.
She knew he was a casualty of a bitter divorce and it didn’t surprise her. For her, the surprise was that someone had married him in the first place.
There was no way he would have chosen to come to her exhibition voluntarily, which meant that Brittany must have threatened or bribed him.
She stood still, making mental promises to kill her friend, and then realized that Richard was speaking directly to her.
“Skylar—” his voice carried across the room “—come up here and join me, honey. There’s something I want to say to you.”
Honey? Honey?
When did he ever call her honey?
Not wanting to make a public scene, Skylar walked forward.
Out of the corner of her eye she was conscious of Alec, his stillness setting him apart from the rest of the crowd. There was something remote and inaccessible about him. She knew that those perfect masculine features masked a sharp intellect and an equally sharp and sarcastic tongue. Most women found him insanely attractive. She found him superior and patronizing.
Leave, she thought. Go home. I don’t want you here ruining my night with your brooding scowl.
But he didn’t leave. Instead, he watched her with that intense, focused gaze that made her dress feel too tight.
Her skin prickled and heat whispered across her skin.
She nodded her head briefly in acknowledgment and then forgot about him because Richard took her hand.
Remembering Lily’s words, Sky looked into his eyes and tried to work out if her heart felt too big for her chest.
It didn’t.
As far as she could tell it was behaving as it should. Normal rhythm. Normal size.
Richard smiled. “A few weeks ago, I achieved a life goal. That achievement meant all the more to me because you were right there by my side.”
Forgetting about her heart, Skylar blinked in confusion.
This was her special night and he was talking about himself?
“Richard—”
“I promised myself that when I reached a certain point in my professional life, I’d turn my attention to my personal life. That moment has come. There’s something I want to say to you, and there is no better time than right now in front of our friends.”
Her only friends here had been Lily and Nik, and they’d left already.
The rest were acquaintances, high-profile clients and the press.
And Alec.
It niggled that he was here.
Good manners dictated that she speak with him, but what was she going to say?
Go home and stop ruining my fun.
No wonder you’re divorced…
All the options that came into her head were socially unacceptable and she knew that when the moment came she’d thank him for showing up. She’d offer him a glass of champagne and they’d make polite conversation about their friends.
Fake, fake, fake.
She wouldn’t mention the fact she knew he was here under sufferance, and no doubt he wouldn’t mention it, either. On the surface they’d be civil, even though neither of them felt remotely civil in one another’s company. She could keep up appearances. After all, she’d been trained by experts. She could talk about nothing for hours.
Richard lifted her hand to his lips. “I’ve been waiting for the right moment to ask you.”
Trying to forget Alec, Sky forced herself to pay attention. “Ask me what?”
“I want you to marry me.” He’d had voice coaching and training in public speaking and it showed in the way he addressed the room. “I want you by my side for the rest of my life. From now on, we’ll be pursuing goals together.”
Sky gaped at him, wondering if she’d misheard.
She opened her mouth. No sound emerged.
“You’re in shock.” He was confident. Sure of himself. A man dazzled by the light of his own rising star. He was an only child, the sole focus of his parents’ ambitions. Unlike her, he’d exceeded their expectations. “I didn’t buy a ring. I thought you could make your own and give me a discount.” He included the crowd in the joke and there was a ripple of appreciative laughter.
Skylar wasn’t laughing. Nor was she appreciative.
Marriage?
She thought about the conversations they’d had over the past year. Intimate exchanges where she’d revealed her dreams.
Had he not listened to a word she’d said?
Apparently not, or he’d know that marriage didn’t interest her.
Love? Now, that was a different matter. She wanted love. What she didn’t want was a flamboyant public proposal. He was paying more attention to the guests than her, to the point that she wanted to wave her arms in the air and yell, Hello, I’m over here!
Beyond Richard’s shoulder she could see Alec Hunter and discovered he wasn’t laughing, either. He was standing in the same place, the collar of his black coat brushing against the dark shadow of his jaw. She would have drawn him as a vampire or a wraith, she thought. A creature of the night. Even still and silent he had presence, a quality that had no doubt contributed to his success as a TV presenter and his large female fan base.
Had he proposed to his ex-wife in public?
No, because despite his public persona, she knew he was intensely private.
“Skylar?” Richard’s smile was a little tense around the edges. “We’re all waiting for a response.”
All? She wondered at what point a proposal had become a group activity.
Her real response was, You have to be kidding me, but she didn’t want that to feature in the press reports of her event the following day.
Grateful for the years of practice in producing fake smiles, she gave one.
“This is a surprise.” Keeping the smile in place, she turned to the guests. “I hope you’ll excuse us. Richard and I need a little time alone.” She turned and walked through the gallery and into the storeroom that was next to an office.
Her heels tapped on the wooden floor. Her knees shook.
She hoped he was going to follow her because she didn’t want to say what needed to be said in public.
There was a click as he closed the door behind them. “Sky? What the hell are you doing?”
“No, Richard, the question is what are you doing?”
“I was proposing. All you had to do was say yes and you would have had great media coverage for your little party. Instead you have to go for drama.” He shot her an exasperated look. “Always with you, it’s drama.”
“I—” She was speechless. “I honestly don’t know what to say.”
“The word you’re looking for was yes, but you missed your cue.” He spoke through his teeth and then inhaled deeply and smiled the smile that had first attracted her attention. “You were in shock. This is a big night for you, I understand that.”
She relaxed a little. Reminded herself they’d been together a long time, and that no one was perfect. “Good, because for a moment I wasn’t sure you did.”
His phone rang. “Excuse me one second, this could be important.”
She stood, her arms wrapped round her waist, wondering what could be more important than talking about their future.
She glanced around her, trying to stay calm. The room was an Aladdin’s cave of creative endeavor. Paintings were stacked against the wall, there were several bronze figurines on a shelf and a rolled-up carpet stood next to a table stacked high with boxes.
Not the most romantic setting.
Richard checked the number and silenced the phone. “It can wait.” Sliding the phone back into his pocket, he glanced at her blankly. “Where were we?”
“You were working out whether your phone call was a higher priority than a conversation about our future,” she said flatly, “and telling me you understood that tonight was a big moment in my life.”
“Of course I understand. A marriage proposal is a big moment in every woman’s life.”
There was a ringing in her ears. “Excuse me? That’s what you consider to be my big moment?”
“Getting engaged is a big deal.”
“We’re not engaged, Richard.”
“We will be when you’ve answered my question.” He gave her his most winning smile but she felt nothing but frustration.
He wasn’t listening to her.
Apparently he’d never listened to her. He steamrollered over her in pursuit of his own goals.
He had a five-year plan and apparently she was part of it.
“I don’t remember a question. You said ‘I want you to marry me.’ Much the same way a child might say ‘I want that candy.’” Too stressed to stand still, she paced the length of the room. “In the last year, how much time do you think we’ve spent together?”
“It’s been a crazy year, I’m not denying that. Of course, we would have spent more time together if you hadn’t insisted on spending so much time in your studio and on that island. But all that’s going to change when we’re married.”
“I thought I’d made it clear that marriage isn’t on my wish list. Didn’t you hear me?”
“I heard you, but we both know you didn’t mean it. Why wouldn’t you want to get married?” There was a hint of impatience in his voice. “Your parents have been married thirty-five years and never shared a cross word.”
And never a loving one, either.
Never, not once, had she seen her parents show affection.
They didn’t hold hands.
They didn’t kiss.
There were no lingering glances, no suggestion of a bond of togetherness.
She wanted so much more.
“What are you doing here? I mean, what are you really doing here?”
His smile lost some of its warmth. “I came to support you, although given the mood you’re in I’m starting to wonder why I bothered. I’m still finding my way around Capitol Hill. Coming here was the last thing I needed right now.”
“Thank you.”
“I didn’t mean—” He dragged his hand over the back of his neck. “You’re determined to misunderstand everything I say.”
“Maybe that’s because I don’t understand. You told me you weren’t coming tonight, so what changed?” When he didn’t answer, she answered for him. “You saw the guest list and thought there might be people here who could be useful to you. Be honest. Tonight was never about me.” But she’d wanted it to be. And her creative brain had spun the facts into a scenario that she could live with.
Her mother was right.
She was a stupid dreamer.
Richard met her gaze head-on. “I’m not ashamed to admit the value of networking. You want honest? I’ll give you honest. This hobby of yours is fine, but you are wasting your life. You paint pictures and make jewelry and that wouldn’t matter except that you’re smart and there are so many other more useful things you could be doing. Things that would make me proud.”
She felt dizzy. “You’re not proud of me?”
“You’re not exactly saving the planet, Sky. Even you can’t pretend that what you do is important.” With a few words he’d dismissed what she did, tossing her dreams into the trash as her father had done with her first painting all those years before.
She felt as if she had emerged from a deep sleep.
“The last necklace I made was taken from a broach left to a client by her grandmother. It had been sitting in a drawer for a decade and she wanted it made into something contemporary that she could wear. Something relevant to her life that would remind her of someone she’d loved very much. It was important to her. Emotions are important.” But she knew he wouldn’t understand that.
To him, money, power and influence were the important things.
He was like her parents. Which was why they got along so well.
He made a conciliatory gesture. “This is a pointless conversation. We need to move on.”
“My work is not ‘pointless,’ and by ‘move on’ I assume you’re saying that your ambitions take precedence over mine.”
He frowned. “No, but you can’t argue with the fact that I’m serving a lot of people.”
“Are you? Or are you serving yourself? Because sometimes, Richard, I wonder if your career is about your ambition, not a selfless desire to dedicate your life to public service.”
His features hardened. “You want to talk about being selfish? What do you think your actions are doing to your parents? It’s time you stopped thinking of yourself and made them proud.”
“Since when do my parents have anything to do with our relationship?” A disturbing thought slid into her brain. “Why did you call my father?”
“I told him I was going to ask you to marry me. He and your mother were thrilled and they’re looking forward to celebrating when we join them on Christmas Eve.”
Was it really all about her parents?
Desperately wanting to be wrong about that, she took a step forward. “What if I said that this year I don’t want to spend Christmas with my parents? We could have Christmas by ourselves, just the two of us. Rent a little cottage on Puffin Island and spend our time playing games and chatting. Log fire, a real fir tree from the forest, walks in the snow, making love in the warm.” She’d said it to test him, but the more she thought about it, the more she wanted it. “Let’s do it, Richard. Forget proposals, forget goals and careers—for once let it be the two of us and our friends. We’ll make a pact not to talk about work. Emily and Ryan are hosting Christmas at Harbor House and making it extra special for little Lizzy. Zach and Brittany will be there too and I’d love for us to spend more time with them. It will be perfect.”
“Perfect?” He looked appalled. “I can’t think of anything worse than Christmas on Puffin Island. What would be the point? Your parents have invited people who will be useful.”
“The point is it’s Christmas, Richard. It isn’t a business opportunity or an excuse to network, it’s Christmas.” How could she have been so deluded? They’d spent over a year together. She’d believed they had a future. “If not Puffin Island, how about Europe? We’ve always talked about going to Paris or Florence. Let’s do it!”
“This isn’t a good time.”
“It’s never a good time.” And she realized in a flash of painful clarity that she really had been fooling herself. When she cleared away the creative clouds of her imagination, the truth was right there, forming a stark picture. “When we first met I couldn’t believe how much we had in common. That first night—we stayed up until four in the morning planning a trip to Florence. Do you remember?”
He shifted. “Sky—”
“It seemed almost too good to be true, to meet someone who shared your dreams so exactly. There were so many things we were going to do, and we never did any of them. It seemed too good to be true, because it was.” She swallowed, finding it hard to look the truth in the eye because the truth made a fool of her. “My parents told you about me, didn’t they? You studied my interests so that you’d know exactly how to gain my attention.”
“There is nothing wrong with wanting to know someone.”
“What’s wrong,” she said slowly, “is that it wasn’t genuine. Love isn’t a business deal, Richard, it’s an emotion. It isn’t about convenience or ambition, it’s about feeling. Genuine feeling, not something manufactured for the purposes of manipulation.”
“There you go again. You expect a fairy tale and when you get reality, you’re disappointed. It’s the same with your attitude toward Christmas. You’ve always romanticized Christmas and it’s just one day.”
They were the same words her mother had used, and she knew it wasn’t coincidence.
The thought that they’d discussed her was horrible.
Almost as horrible as realizing what a mistake she’d made.
She felt humiliated and betrayed, foolish and a little embarrassed, but at least she had her answer.
She wasn’t the sun, moon and stars to him. She wasn’t even a speck of cosmic dust on the bottom of his shoe.
“Maybe it is just one day, but it’s an important day and this year I’d like to spend it with my friends.”
“Precisely, they’re your friends. They’re no use to me.”
“Friends aren’t supposed to be of use.” She heard her voice rise and tried to control it. “That isn’t what friendship is. It’s about giving, not taking.”
“What can they possibly give you? Your situation is nothing like theirs. You have family, they don’t. Emily had an alcoholic mother, Brittany’s mother clearly knew nothing about responsibility and don’t even get me started on Zachary Flynn. I don’t want to risk my reputation by being in the same place as him. Can you imagine what the media could do with that story?”
It was like looking at a stranger and she realized that up until now, he’d carefully shown the side of himself he’d wanted her to see. Even with her, he’d controlled his image. The only times it had slipped were the occasions when he’d lost his temper.
“If you’re forcing me to make a choice between you and my friends, there’s no contest.”
He relaxed slightly. “That’s good to know. Obviously you’d pick me.”
“No! I’d pick them. I love my friends.” And she was incensed by what he’d said. Incensed, deeply hurt and furious with herself for being so deluded. “And a friend would never do what you just did.”
She knew now there was no going back. No fixing.
“I know you love your friends, and that love makes you blind. It’s thanks to them you’ve lost sight of what’s important in life. We’re going to your parents’ for Christmas. They want the best for you. And so do I.”
She felt numb. Disconnected.
How could she have possibly thought this might be love? “I’m the one who will decide what’s best for me.”
“That’s the theory, but you always make the wrong choices.”
Anger flickered to life inside her. “Thank you for making it easy for me to say no to the question you didn’t ask.”
“Oh for—” He bit off the word and inhaled deeply. “Skylar Tempest, will you marry me?”
“Again, no!” Her voice sounded strangely flat. “And I can’t believe you’re still asking after the conversation we’ve just had. You wanted me to choose. I’ve chosen. Now get out.”
He swore under his breath. “My flight leaves tomorrow and I have to be back in DC on Monday. I don’t have time to play games. I want to spend the next few hours celebrating, not fighting. All I want to hear is two words, that’s all. Yes, Richard.”
“I’m not playing games. We don’t want the same things. Apparently we never did, but I’m only now realizing that. And even if we did have a single thing in common, I can’t be with someone who is so rude about the friends I love. They’re too important to me. It’s over, Richard.”
Her words fell into a simmering silence.
She saw the change in him and her heart kicked hard against her chest. She’d been with him long enough to be familiar with every shift in his mood. It was like watching the sky darken over Puffin Island, heralding an approaching storm.
His temper was the thing she’d liked least about him.
“I propose to you in public and your response is to break up with me? That’s not happening.” His tone was thickened. “You will not humiliate me. Next time we step out there it will be together and you’ll be smiling. This time you are going to make the right decision.”
“If you really knew me, you’d know that being proposed to in public would be the last thing I’d ever want. I don’t believe in fairy tales, Richard, but I do believe two people should be together because they love each other, not because it suits their career ambitions or because it’s part of a five-year plan.” She saw him take a step forward but she stood her ground, refusing to be intimidated. “You need to go now. If you’re worried about being seen then you can use the rear exit.”
“I’m virtually a member of your family.” His voice was an ugly growl. “Your father loves me.”
“Then marry my father and I hope you’ll be very happy.” She was calm, trying to diffuse a situation that was threatening to explode, but it was too late and she saw the moment his anger snapped the leash and bolted.
In the past she’d handled every incendiary moment with care, never allowing it to reach this point. She’d soothed, placated, and occasionally walked out, putting distance between them.
But it was too late for any of those options now.
The pin was out of the grenade.
His shoulders hunched. His features were contorted and ugly and in that single split second she wondered how she ever could have thought him handsome. On the outside he was perfectly wrapped, but on the inside…
“Richard, you need to get control of yourself.” Her voice was sharp. “Take some breaths.”
“You are a spoiled bitch.”
She flinched as if he’d hit her and then realized in a moment of suspended disbelief that he actually was going to hit her.
His hand came up and instinctively she sidestepped to evade the blow. Her heel caught on the edge of a box and she fell heavily, smacking her head on the corner of the table.
Pain exploded in her skull. Her vision went dark and there was a distant humming in her head. Something warm and wet trickled down her face and she opened her eyes dizzily, trying to see through the pain.
He stood over her, hands raised to ward off the accusation he was clearly afraid she might make. “I didn’t touch you.” There was a hint of panic in his voice. “I didn’t touch you.”
He made no move to help her.
Showed no concern for her well-being, only his own.
Her sense of betrayal deepened.
“Get out, or I swear I will damage more than your career.” Her voice sounded strange and distant. The world around her had blurred edges.
Oh God, she was going to pass out. Just when she needed to be strong and kick his ass, she was going to faint.
“It was an accident, Sky, a stupid accident because you didn’t look where you were going. You know how dreamy you are…”
“You wanted two words? I’ve got two perfect words for you. Fuck off.” She lifted her fingers to her head and they came away sticky. “Go. Now.”
Crap. Forget ketchup—she was going to get blood on her new dress.
“The press are out there.” He growled the words, his eyes wild as his brain computed the potential PR nightmare. “They’re supposed to be reporting our engagement. Instead you give them this? Damn you, Skylar. You did this, you deal with it. Maybe a blow to the head will wake you up. When you come to your senses, call me. I’ll think about whether or not you’re really what I want.”
Without looking back he strode out of the side entrance and into the night, leaving Skylar lying in her own blood.
*
What the hell were they doing in that room?
Alec prowled round the exhibition, ignoring the other guests. The crowd was thinning out, people melting away, some speculating on the romantic scene that was going on behind closed doors.
The public proposal had taken him by surprise.
Brittany had described him as the “rat boyfriend,” which hadn’t sounded to him like a relationship on the edge of happy ever after.
He’d found the proposal uncomfortable to witness, but judging from the oohs and ahhs from the women in the audience, he was alone with that feeling. That was probably why he was single. What did he know about romance? According to his ex-wife, nothing. She’d wanted sweeping gestures and frequent public demonstrations of his love.
Her insecurities and endless demands had made him feel as if he’d been given a life sentence for a crime he’d never committed.
Trying to delete toxic thoughts, he grabbed a glass of champagne and calculated how soon he could make his escape.
As soon as they reappeared, he’d offer his congratulations and leave.
He needed to remember to say what was expected of him—Congratulations, so pleased for you, I hope you’ll be happy—and not what he was instinctively driven to say—Are you both insane?
He paused, his eye caught by a display of jewelry, intricate silver artfully placed on silk the color of a Mediterranean sky. The design was eye-catching and original and the historian in him recognized the nod to shapes and styles used in Bronze Age Greece.
A woman approached and sent him a smile, her intention unmistakable.
Alec turned away without returning the smile.
He didn’t care if she thought him rude. Better to be rude now than have to extract himself later.
Another legacy of his marriage was his aversion to overpolished, high-maintenance women. His relationship with Selina had been six months of sex, followed by an elaborate wedding and two years of bitter arguments that had culminated in an acrimonious divorce.
At her insistence he’d attended two sessions of marriage guidance counseling, ostensibly to “learn about himself.” What he’d learned was that he didn’t like his wife any more than she liked him.
He’d also learned that he was better off alone.
He was too selfish to make a commitment to a woman.
He liked his life too much to sacrifice it for a relationship.
He glanced across the gallery again. The door remained closed, so he moved on. No doubt Skylar and her boyfriend were locked in a romantic moment, promising to love each other forever.
With time to kill, he prowled around the gallery. He knew Skylar worked in a variety of mediums, and it was only as he studied the pieces on exhibit that he reluctantly began to appreciate the range and extent of her talent.
He paused by a large painting, recognizing the rocky coastline of Puffin Island. He was no expert, but even he could see the composition was good. She’d captured the feel of the island perfectly, the sweep of a sandy bay, the movement of the sea and the threatening hint of a storm in the sky. Looking at it, he could feel the salty spray on his face and hear the plaintive call of the gulls.
He felt a pang of longing for his cottage on the wild north coast of Puffin Island. In a few days he’d be going back there and he’d be staying for a month. Long enough, he hoped, to finish a draft of his book. He was looking forward to the solitude.
The painting had a red sticker, which meant that someone had bought it.
Good choice, he thought, and then saw the tall, elegant pot in a dazzling shade of cerulean blue placed under a spotlight against a whitewashed wall.
Instantly he was transported to Greece. He could almost feel the heat, and smell the scent of wild thyme and jasmine.
Of all the pieces in the room, this was the one he would have chosen to take home. He could see at a glance that her inspiration had been a combination of Greek mythology and early Minoan ceramics. She’d artfully combined the old with the new and created a piece of startling beauty.
The crowd thinned a little more, but there was still no sign of Skylar.
A movement in the street caught his eye and he saw a tall, dark-haired man stepping into a waiting car.
Recognizing him, Alec frowned. Why would Richard Everson be leaving alone?
He waited for Skylar to come running after him, wearing that skintight silver dress and a megawatt smile, but the car pulled away with only one passenger.
Ignoring the voice inside him that reminded him it was none of his business, he moved silently across the gallery toward the door he’d seen her enter.
He tapped lightly, received no answer and opened it anyway.
The room was empty.
It was clearly a storeroom. There were paintings against the wall, a table stacked with boxes and—
A body.
Shit.
“Skylar?” In two strides he was by her side. “What the hell happened here? Speak to me. Are you—?”
He tilted her face and his hand came away sticky with her blood.
Her beautiful white-blond hair was streaked with it, her lips bloodless in a face drained of color.
His heart pounded. Whatever he’d expected to find, it hadn’t been this.
“Sky? Open your eyes.” He tried to scoop her up and then dodged as she swung her fist toward his face.
“Touch me and I swear the next thing you feel will be my stiletto in your balls.” She slurred her words and Alec swore under his breath and captured her wrist in his hand before she could do him serious damage.
“You might want to work on that pickup line, princess.”
Her eyes fixed on him and focused. Confusion changed to recognition. “What are you doing here? Did you come to gloat?”
“I saw Richard getting into a car and came to check on you. Good thing I did. I’m taking you to hospital.” Questions rose in his mind. What had happened? And why had Richard Everson walked out leaving her like this? He delved in his pocket for his phone. “I’m calling an ambulance. And the police. Did he do this?”
“No. I fell. And I don’t want you to call anyone.” She struggled to sit up, her efforts giving him a glimpse of long legs and silk underwear.
Her body is the biggest work of art in the place, he thought, and averted his eyes.
It irritated him that he found her attractive.
“You had a nasty blow to the head. You need to stay where you are.”
“People have to stop telling me what I need. I know what I need. Crap.”
He turned back to look at her and saw she’d closed her eyes. “What’s wrong?”
“Do you have a twin? I’m seeing two of you.”
“That’s not good.”
“You’re not kidding. One Alec Hunter is bad enough. Two is my worst nightmare.”
He took it as a good sign that she recognized him. “I’m relieved you’re still able to make a joke.”
“It’s not a joke.”
He gave a grim laugh. “I know I’m not your first choice of rescuer, but unfortunately I’m all there is.”
“Then it’s a good thing I don’t need rescuing.”
He wondered if she had any idea how badly she was hurt. “Let me take a look at your head before you stand up.” Leaning her back against the leg of the table, he gently moved her hair back so that he could take a closer look at her injury. He’d been on expeditions to some of the wildest parts of the world and his first aid skills were more than competent. “You don’t need stitches, but you have one hell of a bruise and you might have a concussion. I’m taking you to hospital.”
“I’m not going to the hospital. I don’t want anyone to see me like this. They might take a photo.”
He felt a rush of impatience. “Don’t worry, you still look beautiful and I’ll make sure they only get your good side.”
The look she gave him should have fried him to a crisp. “I don’t care how I look, dumbass. I care about what questions the press might ask. And I care even more about seeing their theories expounded in public. But it’s always good to know I’m the fortunate beneficiary of your good opinion. You can leave now. I appreciate you checking on me. I hope you break your nose on the way out.”
He breathed deeply. “It was a stupid comment. I apologize.”
She gave a weak laugh. “Wow. Now I am worried. I’m hallucinating, or hearing voices or something, because for a moment there I thought I heard you apologize. I don’t suppose you’d do it again? This time on your knees?” She gave a weak laugh. “Just kidding. Go, Alec. You’re done here. Off the hook.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“Why? You think I’m a vain waste of space. Why would you care what happens to me?” She closed her eyes again. “News flash. When a girl hits a crappy part of her life she needs friends around her, not someone who is going to make her feel more crappy.”
He ignored that. “Do you feel sick?”
“Yeah, but it will pass as soon as you’ve left. Don’t take it personally. You’re just not my type.”
It was a relief that she could still take a swipe at him. “Good to know. Come on, princess, let’s get out of here.”
“Princess? Did you seriously just call me princess again?” She cracked open one eye. “Are you trying to wind me up?”
“Yes. If you’re spitting mad, at least I know you don’t have brain damage.”
“You don’t think I have a brain. How can I have brain damage when I don’t have a brain?” Her muttered retort was so much in character that his concern eased slightly.
“In case you do have a brain, we need to get you checked out. If you don’t want an ambulance, we can take a taxi.”
“Why are you helping me? You hate me. Hence the reason you call me princess.”
“I seem to remember that last time we met you called me an asshole, so you’re not exactly complimentary.”
“Asshat, not asshole.”
“I think the exact phrase you used was ‘Professor Asshat.’” He rose to his feet. “Don’t move. I’m going to get a taxi by the back entrance. I’ll make sure no one sees you.”
He wondered who she was protecting. Richard Everson or herself?
He stepped out into the snowy street. For once luck was on his side and he hailed a taxi almost immediately. Instructing the driver to wait, he walked back through the rear entrance of the gallery and was surprised to find Skylar standing up and clutching the table for support.
He couldn’t believe she was on her feet. “I told you to stay where you were. I’m going to help you.”
“I don’t need you to help me. But my dress is covered in blood. It’s ruined.” She was shivering and Alec removed his coat and covered her up.
“Your dress is the least of your worries.”
“Not true. We princesses are very particular about how we look. We never know when a handsome prince might come riding by.”
Ignoring the dig, he eyed her bruise. “Right now you look more like a heroine from a Hitchcock movie than a princess.” Her hair was the glistening white gold of a Caribbean beach in the sunlight. Even streaked with blood, it was her most striking feature.
“Am I scary?” She gave a faint smile and let go of the table. She swayed and he scooped her into his arms and carried her to the waiting taxi without pausing to ask for permission. “Oh for— Put me down! I can walk.”
“You’ll fall, and that will draw more attention.” He tried to ignore the scent of her and the feel of her slender curves.
“Whatever. If it validates your manhood, go right ahead and sweep me up, but if you slip on black ice and put your back out, don’t blame me.” But she stopped wriggling. “This is the point where you tell me I don’t weigh anything.”
He waited a beat. “If I had to guess, I’d say you weigh the same as a small hippo.”
“You have no idea how much I hate you.”
“I know exactly how much you hate me.” He lowered her gently onto the seat of the cab. “Wait there.”
She eased herself into a more comfortable position. “Where are you going? To find a chiropractor?”
He didn’t bother holding back the smile. “I’m going to tell a few lies about where you are.”
Alec strode back into the gallery, found the owner, made up something that he hoped sounded plausible, picked up Skylar’s coat and bag and joined her in the taxi.
The driver looked at him expectantly. “Where to, mate?”
It was a question he hadn’t considered until now.
Alec looked at Sky. Her eyes were closed, the livid bruising darkening before his eyes.
“Sky?”
She didn’t move.
His instinct was to ask the driver to deliver them to the nearest emergency department but she’d begged him not to, and he understood now it was because she didn’t want to risk the publicity.
He didn’t even know where she was staying. Was she checked into a hotel somewhere with Richard Everson?
“Sky.” He nudged her and her eyes opened slowly, as if she had lead weights attached to her eyelids.
“Go away. I’m going to sleep, probably for a hundred years, and if you kiss me to wake me up I’ll kill you.” Her eyes drifted shut again and Alec leaned his head back against the seat, wondering what he’d done to deserve this. He was kind to old ladies and tried never to forget his mother’s birthday but apparently someone still thought he needed to be punished.
Unable to come up with a viable alternative, he reluctantly gave the address of the hotel where he was staying.
The cab driver did a U-turn and Skylar’s head flopped against his shoulder. Alec tried to shift her away, but her body settled against his as if it had been custom designed to fit.
The only way to stop her sliding off the seat was to put his arm round her and he did that with the same degree of enthusiasm he displayed when completing his tax return.
The coat he’d lent her was open at the front and he saw that the silver fabric of her incredible dress clung to her curves like a body stocking. A perfectly wrapped Christmas parcel.
She had the face and body of a Victoria’s Secret model.
He imagined unzipping that dress and revealing those curves and quickly averted his eyes.
No way.
Not only was she injured and involved with someone else, but their relationship bordered on adversarial.
Who was he kidding? They didn’t have a relationship.
So why did he suddenly want to strip her naked and bone her into next week?
What the hell was wrong with him?
Given the circumstances his response bordered on the depraved, but knowing that seemed to make no difference. His body was a throbbing ache and he tried again to ease away from her, but she nestled closer. Immediately he was engulfed by the light, fresh scent of flowers.
He glanced down again, to the shimmer of her nails and the elaborate silver cuff on her narrow wrist that was obviously one of her own unique designs, forcing himself to admit the truth—he was turned on by a woman who set off every alarm in his body. The type of high-maintenance female he went out of his way to avoid.
And he was taking her back to his hotel room.
Last time he’d helped a woman in trouble it had ended badly.
He hoped the minibar was well stocked because he was going to need every bottle in the fridge to get through the next few hours.
Merry Christmas, Alec.

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