October 1, 2016
November 29, 2016
Miracle on 5th Avenue
From Manhattan With Love Book #3
2017 RITA® Award finalist in Long Contemporary Romance!
”The character quote snippets are priceless, but it's definitely the slow¬building, sizzling romance and the amazing connection she gives her duo that makes for an unforgettable read. 4.5* TOP PICK!” – Debbie Haupt. RT Book Reviews
”A delight of a book and a perfect holiday read for contemporary romance fans.” – Desert Island Keeper review, All About Romance
“There are plenty of fish in the sea, but that’s no use if you live in New York City.” Eva
“WE CANNOT SEND two turtledoves! I know he’s proposing at Christmas and he thinks it’s romantic, but it won’t be romantic when the room is covered in bird droppings. The venue will blacklist us and the love of his life will say no to his question, which will not give us the happy-ever-after we’re all hoping for.” Moving her phone to a more comfortable position against her ear, Eva Jordan snuggled deeper into her coat. Beyond the windows of the cab the snow was still falling steadily, defying attempts of those who tried to clear it. The more they shoveled the more fell, or so it seemed. In a contest between man and the elements, man was most definitely losing. The snowstorm almost obliterated her view of Fifth Avenue, the glittering shop windows muted and veiled by the falling flakes. “I’ll help him reframe his idea of ‘romantic’, and it won’t include calling birds, hens of any nationality, nor geese, laying or otherwise. And while we’re on the subject, one gold ring is more than enough. Who needs five? He wants exceptional, not excessive, and the two are not the same.”
As always, Paige was practical. “Laura has been dreaming about this moment since she was a little girl. He’s under pressure to make this perfect.”
“I’m pretty sure her dream didn’t include a menagerie of wildlife. I’ll come up with a plan, and it will be spectacular. No one does romance better than I do.”
“Except when it’s for yourself.”
“Thanks for reminding me my love life is extinct.”
“You’re welcome. And having agreed on the facts, perhaps you’d like to tell me what you intend to do about it.”
“Nothing at all. And we are not having this conversation again.” Eva delved into her bag and pulled out her notebook. “Can we get back to business? We have a month until Christmas.”
“We don’t have enough time to create anything elaborate.”
“It doesn’t need to be elaborate. It needs to be emotional. She needs to be overwhelmed by his words and the meaning behind them. Wait—” Eva tapped her pen on the page. “They met in Central Park, didn’t they? Dog walking?”
“Yes but, Ev, the park is buried under two feet of snow and it’s still falling. A proposal there could end in a trip to the emergency room. That could be memorable for all the wrong reasons.”
“Leave it with me. I’ll have plenty of time to think about it over the next two days because I’ll be on my own in this guy’s apartment decorating and filling his freezer ready for his return from the wilds.” She made a note to herself and then slid the notebook back into her bag.
“You’re working too hard, Ev.”
“I cannot believe I’m hearing that from you.”
“Even I take time off to chill occasionally.”
“I must have missed that. And in case you hadn’t noticed, our business is growing fast.”
“You taking an evening off to go on a hot date isn’t going to stop it growing.”
“Thank you, but there is one teeny tiny drawback to your plan. I don’t have a hot date. I don’t even have a lukewarm date.”
“Do you think you should try online dating again?”
“I hate online dating. I prefer meeting people in other ways.”
“But you’re not meeting people at all! You work. You go to bed with your teddy bear.”
“It’s a stuffed kangaroo. Grams gave it to me when I was four.”
“That explains why it looks exhausted. It’s time you replaced it with a flesh-and-blood man, Eva.”
“I love that kangaroo. He never lets me down.”
“Honey, you need to get out. How about that banker guy? You liked him.”
“He never called when he said he was going to call. Life is stressful enough without waiting around wondering if a guy you’re not even sure you like is going to call you and invite you on a date you’re not even sure you want to go on.”
“You could have called him.”
“I did. He screened my calls.” Eva stared out of the window. “I don’t mind chasing after a dream when it’s about building our business and our future, but I’m not chasing after a man. And anyway, everyone knows you never find love when you go looking for it. You have to wait for it to find you.”
“What if it can’t find you because you never leave your apartment?”
“I’ve left my apartment! I’m here, on Fifth Avenue.”
“Alone. To stay in another apartment. Alone. Think of all the great sex you’re missing. At this rate you’ll meet Mr. Right when you’re eighty and have no teeth and dodgy hips.”
“Plenty of people have good sex when they’re eighty. You just have to be creative.” Ignoring the hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach, Eva leaned forward to talk to the cabdriver. “Can you make a stop at Dean & DeLuca? If this storm is as bad as they’re predicting, I need to pick up a few extra things.”
Paige was still talking. “I’ve barely seen you over the past two weeks. It’s been crazy busy. I know this is a tough time of year for you. I know you miss your grandmother.” Her voice softened. “Do you want me to come by after work and keep you company?”
She was so tempted to say yes.
They’d open a bottle of wine, curl up in their pajamas and talk. She’d confess how bad she felt a lot of the time, and then—
And then what?
Eva looked down at her lap. She didn’t want to be that friend. The one who constantly whined and moaned. The burden. And anyway, telling her friends how bad she felt wasn’t going to change anything, was it?
Her grandmother would be ashamed.
“You have meetings downtown and then that dinner thing with Jake.”
“I know, but I could easily—”
“You’re not canceling.” She said it quickly, before she could be tempted to change her mind. “I’ll be fine.”
“If the weather wasn’t so bad you could come home and stay here tonight and then go back tomorrow, but they’re saying the storm is going to be a big one. Much as I hate to think of you all alone there, I think it’s better that you don’t travel.”
Eva chewed her lip. It didn’t matter where she was, her feelings stayed the same. She had no idea if it was normal to feel this way. She’d never lost anyone close to her before, and she and her grandmother had been more than close. She’d been gone a little over a year and the wound was as fresh and painful as if the loss had happened only the day before.
It was because of her that Eva had grown up feeling safe and secure. She owed her grandmother everything, although she knew that there was no way of attaching a value to something so priceless. Her payment, although she knew none had ever been asked for, wanted or expected, was to get out of bed every day and live the life her grandmother had wanted her to live. Make her proud.
If she was here right now, her grandmother wouldn’t be proud.
She’d tell her that she was spending far too many nights alone in her apartment with only Netflix and hot chocolate for company.
Her grandmother had loved hearing about Eva’s romantic adventures. She would have wanted her to go out and meet people even if she felt sad. To begin with she’d tried to do just that, but lately her social life revolved round her friends and business partners, Paige and Frankie. It was easy and comfortable, even though both of them were now crazily in love.
It was ironic that she, the romantic one, led the least romantic life.
She stared out of the window through the white swirl of flakes to the darkening sky. She felt disconnected. Lost. She wished she didn’t feel everything so deeply.
Still, at least she was busy. This was their first holiday season since the three of them had set up Urban Genie, their event and concierge business, and they were busy.
Her grandmother would have been proud of what she’d achieved in her work.
Celebrate every small thing, Eva, and live in the moment.
Eva blinked to clear her misted vision.
She hadn’t been doing that, had she? She lived her life looking forward, planning, juggling. She rarely paused for breath or to appreciate the moment. She’d been running for a year, through a freezing winter, a balmy spring, a sweltering summer and, here now, full circle, to another winter. She’d muscled through, pushing the seasons behind her, moving forward step by step. She hadn’t lived in the moment because she hadn’t liked the moment she was living in.
She’d done her best to be strong and keep smiling, but it had been the toughest year of her life.
Grief, she thought, was a horrible companion.
“Ev?” Paige’s voice echoed down the phone. “Are you still there? I’m worried about you.”
Eva closed her eyes and pulled herself together. She didn’t want her friends to worry about her. What had her grandmother taught her?
Be the sunshine, Eva, not the rain.
She never, ever, wanted to be the black cloud in anyone’s day.
Opening her eyes, she smiled. “Why are you worried about me? It’s snowing. If this blizzard eases I’ll go across to the park and build a snowman. If I can’t find a guy in real life, at least I can build a decent one out of snow.”
“You are going to build yourself a sexy guy?”
“I am. With broad shoulders and great abs.”
“And no doubt you won’t be using the carrot for his nose.”
Eva grinned. “I was thinking maybe a cucumber for that part of his anatomy.”
Paige was laughing, too. “You’re so demanding it’s no wonder you’re single. And, by the way, you have the sense of humor of a five-year-old.”
“It’s the reason we’ve been friends forever.”
“It’s good to hear you laugh. Christmas used to be your favorite time of year.”
It was true. She’d always loved it. Every smiling Santa, every happy note of music that played in the stores and every sparkly snowflake. She especially loved the snowflakes. They made her think of sleigh rides and snowmen.
To Eva, snow had always seemed magical.
Enough, she thought. Enough.
“It still is my favorite time of year.” She didn’t need to wait until New Year’s Eve to make a resolution.
She was going to get out there and live every day the way her grandmother would have wanted her to live it. Starting right now.
He hated it. Every smiling Santa, every discordant note of music that blared in the stores and every freezing snowflake. He especially hated the snowflakes. They swirled with deceptive innocence, coating trees and cars and landing on the palms of enchanted children who saw falling snow and thought of sleigh rides and snowmen.
Lucas thought of something different.
He sat in darkness in his Fifth Avenue apartment, staring out across the wintry expanse of Central Park. It had been snowing steadily for days, and more was on the way. It was predicted to be the worst blizzard in New York’s recent history. As a result, the streets far below him were unusually empty. Everyone who wasn’t already home was hurrying there as fast as possible, taking advantage of public transportation while it was still running. No one looked up. No one knew he was there. Not even his well-meaning but interfering family, who thought he was on a writing retreat in Vermont.
If they’d known he was home they would have been fussing over him, checking on him, forcing him to participate in plans for Christmas celebrations.
It was time, they said. It had been long enough.
How long was long enough? The answer to that eluded him. All he knew was that he hadn’t reached that point.
He had no intention of celebrating the festive season. The best he could hope for was to get through it, as he did every year, and he saw no point in inflicting his misery on others. He hurt. Outside and inside, he hurt. He’d been crushed and mangled in the wreckage of his loss, and crawled away with his life but very little else.
He could have traveled to Vermont, buried himself in a cabin in a snowy forest like he’d told his family, or he could have gone somewhere hot, somewhere untouched by a single flake of snow, but he knew there was no point because he would still be hurting. It didn’t matter what he did, the pain traveled with him. It infected him like a virus that nothing could cure.
And so he stayed home while the temperature swooped low and the world around him turned white, transforming his building into a frozen fortress.
It suited him perfectly.
The only sound that intruded was his phone. It had rung fourteen times in the past few days and he’d ignored each and every one of the calls. Some of those calls had been his grandmother, some had been his brother, most his agent.
Reflecting on what his life would look like if he didn’t have his career, Lucas reached for the phone and finally returned the call to his agent.
“Lucas!” Jason’s voice came down the phone, jovial and energetic. There were sounds of revelry in the background, laughter and Christmas music. “I was starting to think you were buried under a snowdrift. How are the snowy wastelands of Vermont?”
Lucas stared out across the Manhattan skyline, the sharp edges of the city muted by falling snow. “Vermont is beautiful.”
It was the truth. Assuming it hadn’t altered since his last visit, which had been a year ago.
“Time magazine has just named you the most exciting crime writer of the decade. Did you see the piece?”
Lucas glanced at the towering pile of unopened mail. “Haven’t gotten around to reading it yet.”
“That’s why you’re at the top of your game. No distractions. With you, it’s all about the book. Your fans are excited about this one, Lucas.”
Dread stirred inside him. Dark thoughts were eclipsed by sweaty panic. He hadn’t written a word. His mind was empty, but that was something he hadn’t confessed to his agent or his publisher. He was still hoping for a miracle, some spark of inspiration that would allow him to wriggle free from the poisonous tentacles of Christmas and lose himself in a fictional world. It was ironic that the twisted, sick minds of his complex characters provided a preferable alternative to the dark reality of his own.
He eyed the knife that lay on the table close by. The blade glinted, taunting him.
He’d been staring at it for the best part of a week, even though he knew it wasn’t the answer. He was better than that.
“That’s why you’ve been calling? To ask about the book?”
“I know you hate to be disturbed when you’re writing, but production is hounding me. Sales of your last book exceeded even our expectations,” Jason said gleefully. “Your publisher is tripling the print run for the next. Are you going to give me any clues about the story?”
“I can’t.” If he knew what the book was about, he’d be writing it.
Instead, his mind was terrifyingly blank.
He didn’t have a crime. Worse, he didn’t have a murderer.
For him, every book started with the character. He was known for his unpredictable twists, for being able to deliver a shock that even the most perceptive reader failed to anticipate.
Right now the shock would be the blank page.
It was worse this year than it had been the year before. Then, the process had been long and painful, but he’d managed to somehow drag each word from inside him by November, before memories had paralyzed him. It was like trying to get to the top of Everest before the winds hit. Timing was everything. This year he hadn’t managed it and he was beginning to think he’d left it too late. He was going to need an extension on his deadline, something he’d never had to ask for before. That was bad enough, but worse were the questions that would follow. The sympathetic looks and the nods of understanding.
“I’d love to see a few pages. First chapter?”
“I’ll let you know,” Lucas said, before proffering the season’s greetings that were expected of him and ending the call.
Lucas rubbed his hand over the back of his neck. He didn’t have a first chapter. He didn’t have a first line. So far the only thing that had been murdered was his inspiration. It was lying inert, the life squeezed out of it. Could it be resurrected? He wasn’t sure.
He’d sat at his open laptop hour after hour and not a single word had emerged. The only thing in his head was Sallyanne. She filled his head, his thoughts and his heart. His bruised, damaged heart.
It was on this day, three years ago, that he’d had the phone call that had derailed his seemingly charmed life. It had been like a scene from one of his books, except this time it had been fact not fiction. He’d been the one identifying the body in the morgue, not one of his characters. He no longer had to put himself in their shoes and imagine what they were feeling because he was feeling it himself.
Since then he’d struggled through every day, dragging himself from minute to minute, while outwardly doing what was needed to make people believe that he was doing fine. He’d learned early on that people needed to see that. They didn’t want to witness his grief. They wanted to believe he’d handled it and “moved on”. Mostly, he managed to meet their expectations, except for this time of year, when the anniversary of her death came around.
Eventually he was going to have to confess to his agent and his publisher that he hadn’t written a single word of the book his fans so eagerly awaited.
This book wasn’t going to make his publisher a fortune. It didn’t exist.
He had no idea how to conjure the magic that had sent him soaring to the top of the bestseller charts in more than fifty countries.
All he could do was carry on doing what he’d been doing for the past month. He’d sit in front of the blank screen and hope that somewhere in the depths of his tortured brain an idea might emerge.
He kept hoping for a miracle.
It was the season for it, wasn’t it?
“THIS IS IT?” Eva peered out of the window of the cab. “It’s incredible. He has a view of Central Park. What wouldn’t I give to live this close to Tiffany.”
The cabdriver glanced in his mirror. “Do you need help with all those bags?”
“I’ll manage, thanks,” Eva said as she handed over her fare.
It was bitterly cold and the snow was falling heavily, thick swirling flakes that reduced visibility and settled on her coat. A few flakes found the small, unprotected section of her neck and slid like icy fingers under her coat. Within moments the bags were covered and so was she. Worse was the sidewalk. Her feet slithered on the deep carpet of ice and snow, and finally lost traction.
“Agh—” Her arms windmilled and the doorman stepped forward and caught her before she hit the ground.
“Steady. It’s lethal underfoot.”
“You’re not kidding.” She clutched his arm, waiting for her heart rate to slow. “Thank you. I wouldn’t have wanted to spend Christmas in the hospital. I hear the food is terrible.”
“We’ll help you with those bags.” He lifted a hand and two uniformed guys appeared and loaded her bags and boxes onto a luggage cart.
“Thank you. I’m taking it all to the top floor. The penthouse. You should be expecting me. I’m staying a few days to decorate an apartment for a client who is out of town. Lucas Blade.”
He was a crime writer with a dozen global bestsellers to his name.
Eva had never read a single one of them.
She hated crime, both real and fictional. She preferred to focus on the positive side of people and life. And she preferred to sleep at night.
The warmth of the apartment building wrapped itself around her as she stepped inside, comforting after the chill of the blizzard swirling on Fifth Avenue. Her cheeks stung and despite wearing gloves her fingertips were numb with cold. Even the wool hat she’d pulled over her ears had done nothing to keep out the savage bite of a New York winter.
“I’m going to need to see ID.” The doorman was brisk and businesslike. “We’ve had a spate of break-ins in this area. What’s the company name?”
“Urban Genie.” It was still new enough that saying it brought a rush of pride. It was her company. She’d set it up with her friends. She handed over her ID. “We’ve not been around long, but we’re taking New York by storm.” She shook snow off her gloves and smiled. “Well, it’s maybe more of a light wind than a storm, given what’s happening outside the window, but we’re hopeful for the future. I have Mr. Blade’s key.” She waved it as evidence and his gaze warmed as he looked first at it and then at the ID she’d handed him.
“You’re on my list. All I need is for you to sign in.”
“Could you do me a favor?” Eva signed with a flourish. “When Lucas Blade shows up, don’t tell him I was here. It’s supposed to be a surprise. He’s going to open his front door and find his apartment all ready for the holidays. It’ll be like walking in on a surprise birthday party.”
It occurred to her that not everyone liked surprise birthday parties, but who was she to argue with his family? His grandmother, who had been one of their first clients and was now a good friend, had given her a clear brief. Prepare the apartment and make it ready for Christmas. Apparently Lucas Blade was in Vermont, deep in a book and on a deadline; the world around him had ceased to exist. As well as decorating, her job was to cook and fill his freezer and she had the whole weekend to do it because he wasn’t due home until the following week.
“Sure, we can do that for you,” the doorman smiled.
“Thank you.” She peered at his name badge, and continued, “Albert. You saved my life. In some cultures that would mean you now own me. Fortunately for you, we’re in New York City. You’ll never know what a lucky escape you had.”
He laughed. “Mr. Blade’s grandmother called earlier and said she was sending over his Christmas present. I wasn’t expecting a woman.”
“I’m not the gift. Just my skills. Saying I’m his Christmas present makes it sound as if I should be standing here wrapped in silver paper and a big red bow.”
“So you’re going to be staying in the apartment for a couple of nights? Alone?”
“That’s right.” And there was nothing new in that. Apart from the occasional night Paige slept over in her apartment, she spent every night alone. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been horizontal with a man, but she was determined that was going to change. Changing it was right at the top of her Christmas wish list. “Lucas isn’t back until next week, and with the weather this bad there’s no sense in traveling backward and forward.” She glanced at the snow falling thickly beyond the tinted glass. “I’m guessing no one is going to be traveling anywhere far tonight.”
“It’s a bad one. They’re saying snow accumulation could hit eighteen inches, with winds gusting fifty miles an hour. Time to stock up on food, check the batteries in the flashlight and get out those snow shovels.” Albert glanced at her bags, brimming with Christmas decorations. “Looks like you’re not going to be too worried about the weather. Plenty of Christmas cheer right there. I’m guessing you’re one of those people who love the holidays.”
“I am.” Or she used to be. And she was determined to be that person again. Reminding herself of that, she tried to ignore the hollow ache in her chest. “How about you, Albert?”
“I’ll be working. Lost my wife of forty years two summers ago. Never had kids, so Christmas was always the two of us. And now it’s just me. Working here will be better for me than eating a frozen dinner for one on my own in my apartment. I like being around people.”
Eva felt a rush of empathy. She understood needing to be around people. She was the same. It wasn’t that she couldn’t be on her own. She could. But given the choice she would always rather be with other people.
On impulse, she dug her hand into her pocket and gave him a card. “Take this—”
“Romano’s Sicilian Restaurant, Brooklyn?”
“Best pizza anywhere in New York City. It’s owned by my friend’s mother and on Christmas Day Maria cooks for everyone who shows up. I help her in the kitchen. I’m a cook, although most of the time now we’re running big events and I’m outsourcing to external companies and vendors.” Too much information, she thought, and gestured toward the card. “If you’re free on Christmas Day, you should join us, Albert.”
He stared at the card in his hand. “You just met me five minutes ago. Why would you invite me?”
“Because you saved me from landing on my butt, and because it’s Christmas. No one should be alone at Christmas.” Alone. There it was again. That word. It seemed to creep in everywhere. “I’m not going to hole myself away totally either. As soon as the snow eases enough for me to see my hand in front of my face, I’m going to pop across to Central Park and build a snowman the size of the Empire State Building. The Empire State Snowman. And speaking of giant structures, I have a tree being delivered later. Hopefully it will arrive before the blizzard stops everything. You’re going to think I stole the one from outside Rockefeller Center, but I assure you I didn’t.”
“The guy lives in the penthouse. The penthouse needs a big tree. I just hope we’ll be able to get it up there.”
“Leave it to me.” He frowned. “You’re sure you shouldn’t be getting home to your family while you can?”
His words poked at the bruise she’d been trying to ignore.
“I’ll be fine right here, safe and warm. Thanks, Albert. You’re my hero.”
She walked toward the elevator, trying not to think about everyone in New York going home to their families. Home to warmth, laughter, conversation, hugs….
Everyone except her.
She had no one.
Not a single living relative. She had friends, of course, great friends, but for some reason that didn’t ease the ache.
Why was the feeling always magnified at Christmas?
The elevator rose through the building in smooth silence and the doors slid open.
Lucas Blade’s apartment was straight ahead and she let herself in, thanked the two men who delivered all her bags and packages and carefully locked the door behind her.
She turned, and was instantly mesmerized by the spectacular view visible through the floor-to-ceiling glass that made up one entire wall of the apartment.
She didn’t bother putting on lights. Instead, she toed off her boots to avoid trailing snow through the apartment and walked in her socks to the window.
Whatever else he had, Lucas Blade had taste and style.
He also had underfloor heating, and she felt the luxurious warmth steal through the thick wool of her socks and slowly thaw her numbed feet.
She stared at the soaring skyline, letting the cold and the last of the snowflakes melt away.
Far beneath her she could see the trail of lights on Fifth Avenue as a few bold cabs made what was probably their final journey through Manhattan. Soon the roads would be closed. Travel would be impossible, or at least unwise. New York, the city that never slept, would finally be forced to take a rest.
The snow fell past the window, big fat flakes that drifted and swirled, before settling lazily on the already deep layer that blanketed the city.
Eva hugged herself, staring out across the silvery-white expanse of Central Park.
It was New York at its dreamy, wintry best. Why Lucas Blade felt the need to go on retreat to write, she had no idea. If she owned this place she’d never leave it.
But maybe he needed to leave it.
He was grieving, wasn’t he? He’d lost his beloved wife three years ago at Christmas. His grandmother had told her how much it had changed him. And why wouldn’t it? He’d lost the love of his life. His soul mate.
Eva leaned her head against the glass. Her chest ached for him.
Her friends told her she was too sensitive, but she’d come to accept that it was just the way she was. Other people watched the news and managed to stay detached. Eva felt everything deeply, and she felt Lucas’s pain even though she’d never even met him.
How cruel was it to meet the love of your life and then lose her?
How did you pick up the pieces and move on?
She had no idea how long she stood there or when, exactly, she sensed she wasn’t alone. It started with a faint warning prickle at the back of her neck, which rapidly turned to the cold chill of fear when she heard a nearby clunk.
She was imagining things, surely? Of course she was alone. This apartment block had some of the best security in the city and she’d been careful to lock the door behind her.
No one could have followed her in so there couldn’t be anyone else in there, unless—
She swallowed as a different explanation occurred to her.
—unless someone had already been in the apartment.
She turned her head slowly, wishing now that she’d taken the time to find the lights and switch them on. The storm had darkened the sky and the apartment was full of cavernous shadows and mysterious corners. Her imagination burst to life and she tried to reason with herself. The sound could have been anything. Maybe it had come from outside the building.
She held her breath, and then heard another noise, this one definitely inside the apartment. It sounded like a footstep. A stealthy footstep, as if the owner didn’t want to reveal himself.
She glanced up and saw something move in the shadows up above her.
Fear was sharp and paralyzing.
She’d interrupted a break-in. The hows and whys didn’t matter. All that mattered was getting out of here.
The door seemed a long way in the distance.
Could she make it?
Her heart was racing and her palms turned sweaty.
She wished now that she hadn’t removed her shoes.
She made for the door and at the same time grabbed her phone from her pocket. Her hand was shaking so much she almost dropped it.
She hit the emergency button, heard a woman say “911 Emergency—” and tried to whisper into the phone.
“Help. There’s someone in the apartment.”
“You’ll have to speak up, ma’am.”
The door was there. Right there.
“There’s someone in the apartment.” She needed to get downstairs to Albert. He’d—
A hand clamped over her mouth and before Eva could utter a squeak she’d landed on her back on the floor, crushed by the hard weight of a powerful male body.
The man pinned her. One of his hands was across her mouth and the other gripped her wrists with brutal strength.
If she could have screamed, she would have done, but she couldn’t open her mouth.
She couldn’t move. She couldn’t breathe, although bizarrely her senses were still sufficiently alert for her to realize her attacker smelled really good.
It was an irony that finally, after almost two years of dreaming and hoping, she was finally horizontal with a man. It was a shame he was trying to kill her.
A shame and a tragic waste.
Here lies Eva, whose Christmas wish was to find herself up close and personal with a man, but didn’t specify the circumstances.
Was that really going to be her last thought? Clearly the mind was capable of strange thoughts in the last moment before it was robbed of oxygen. And having written her eulogy, she was going to die, right here in the dark in this empty apartment mere weeks before Christmas, flattened by this gloriously smelling hunk of solid muscle. If Lucas Blade decided to postpone his return, her body might not be found for weeks. They were in the middle of a snowstorm, or a “winter weather emergency” as it was officially called.
The thought rallied her.
No! She didn’t want to die without saying goodbye to her friends. She’d found Paige and Frankie perfect Christmas gifts and she hadn’t told anyone where they were hidden. And her apartment was a total mess. She’d been meaning to tidy up for ages, but hadn’t quite found the time. What if the police wanted to look through her things for clues? Most of her possessions were strewed across the floor. It would be horribly embarrassing. But most of all she didn’t want to miss enjoying New York City at Christmas, and she didn’t want to die without having amazing, mind-blowing sex at least once in her life.
She didn’t want this to be her last experience of having a man on top of her.
She wanted to live.
With a huge effort she tried to head-butt him, but he took evasive action. She heard the rasp of his breath, caught a glimpse of jet-black hair and fierce, smoldering eyes, and then there was a hammering on the door, and shouts from the police.
Relief weakened her limbs.
They must have traced the call.
She sent silent thanks and heard her attacker curse softly moments before the police burst into the apartment, followed by Albert.
There were no words for how much Eva loved Albert at that moment.
The apartment was flooded with lights and the man crushing her finally relieved her of his weight.
Sucking air into her starving lungs, Eva screwed up her eyes against the lights and felt the man wrench the hat off her head. Her hair, released from the confines of wool and warmth, unraveled itself and tumbled over her shoulders.
For a brief moment her gaze collided with his and she saw shock and disbelief.
“You’re a woman.”
He had a deep, sexy voice. Sexy voice, sexy body—shame about his criminal lifestyle.
“I am. Or at least, I was. Right now I’m not sure I’m alive.” Eva lay there, stunned, gingerly testing the various parts of her body to check they were still attached. The man sprang to his feet in a lithe, fluid movement and she saw the expression on the police officer’s face change.
“Lucas?” There was shock on his face. “We had no idea you were here. We had a call from an unknown female, reporting an intruder.”
Lucas? Her attacker was Lucas Blade? He wasn’t a criminal, he was the owner of the apartment!
She took her first good look at him and realized that he did look familiar. She’d seen his face on book covers. And it was a memorable face. She studied the slash of his cheekbones and the bold sweep of his nose. His hair and his eyes were dark. He looked as good as he smelled, and as for his body—she didn’t need to study the width of his shoulders or the power of those muscles to know how strong he was. She’d been pinned to the ground under the solid weight of him, so she already knew all there was to know about that. Remembering triggered a fluttery feeling in her tummy.
What was wrong with her?
This man had half killed her and she was having sexy thoughts.
Which was yet more evidence that she’d gone far too long without sex. She was definitely going to fix that this Christmas.
In the meantime, she dragged her gaze away from the magnetic pull of his and tried to be practical.
What was he doing in the apartment? He wasn’t supposed to be home.
“She’s the intruder.” Lucas’s expression was grim and Eva realized that everyone was glaring at her. Everyone except Albert, who looked as confused as she felt.
“I’m not an intruder. I was told the apartment was empty.” The injustice of it stung. “You’re not supposed to be here.”
“And how would you know that? You research which apartments are empty at Christmas?” He might be sexy, but he didn’t give away smiles lightly.
Eva wondered how she’d suddenly turned into the bad guy. “Of course not. I was asked to do this.”
“You had an accomplice?”
“If I was an intruder, would I have dialed 911?”
“Why not? Once you realized there was someone home, it would have been the perfect way of appearing innocent.”
“I am innocent.” Eva looked at him in disbelief. “Your mind is a strange, twisted thing.” She glanced at the police officer for support, but found none.
“On your feet.” The officer’s tone was cold and brusque and Eva eased her bruised, crushed body into a sitting position.
“That’s easier said than done. I have at least four hundred broken bones.”
Lucas reached down and hauled her upright. “The human body does not have four hundred bones.”
“It does when most of them have snapped in half.” His strength shouldn’t have surprised her given that he’d already crushed her to the ground under his body. “Why is everyone glaring at me? Instead of interrogating me about breaking and entering, they should be arresting you for assault. What are you doing here, anyway? You’re supposed to be in Vermont, not skulking here.”
“I own the apartment. A person can’t ‘skulk’ in their own apartment.” His brows came together in a fierce frown. “How did you know I was supposed to be in Vermont?”
“Your grandmother told me.” Eva tested her ankle gingerly. “And you were definitely skulking. Creeping around in the dark.”
“You were the one creeping around in the dark.”
“I was admiring the snow. I’m a romantic. As far as I know, that isn’t a crime.”
“We’ll be the judge of that.” The officer stepped forward. “We’ll take her down to the precinct, Lucas.”
“Wait—” Lucas barely moved his hand but it was enough to stop the man in his tracks, “Did you say my grandmother told you I was in Vermont?”
“That’s right, Mr. Blade.” Albert intervened. “This is Eva, and she’s here at the request of your grandmother. I verified it myself. None of us knew you were in residence.” There was a faint hint of reproach in his voice. Lucas ignored it.
“You know my grandmother?” he asked Eva.
“I do. She employed me.”
“To do what, exactly?” His eyes darkened. It was like looking at a threatening sky before a very, very bad storm.
His grandmother had told her many things about her grandson Lucas. She’d mentioned that he was an expert skier, that he had once spent a year living in a cabin in the Arctic, that he was fluent in French, Italian and Russian, was skilled in at least four different forms of martial arts and that he never showed anyone his books until they were finished.
She’d failed to mention that he could be intimidating.
“She employed me to prepare your apartment for Christmas.”
“And what? That’s it. What other reason could there have been?” She saw the sardonic gleam in his eyes. “Are you suggesting I broke in here so that I could meet you?”
“It wouldn’t be the first time.”
“Women do that?” Outrage mingled with fascination. Even she couldn’t imagine ever going to those lengths to find a man. “How exactly does that work? Once they get inside they leap on you and pin you down?”
“You tell me.” He folded his arms and looked at her expectantly. “What plan did you cook up with my grandmother?”
She laughed and then realized he wasn’t joking.
“I’m good in the kitchen, but even I’ve never managed to ‘cook up’ a romance. I wonder what the recipe would be? One cup of hope mixed with a pinch of delusion?” She tilted her head to one side. “Not that I’m not one of those women who thinks a guy has to make the first move or anything, but I’ve never gone as far as breaking into a man’s apartment to get their attention. Do I look desperate, Mr. Blade?” In fact she was pretty desperate, but he had no way of knowing that unless he searched her purse and found her single lonely condom. She had hoped to give it a spectacular end to its so far uneventful life, but that was looking increasingly unlikely.
“Desperate wears many faces.”
“If I were to break into a man’s apartment with the intention of seducing him, do you really think I’d do it while wearing snow boots and a chunky sweater? I’m starting to understand why you need such a large apartment even though there’s only one of you. Your ego must take up a lot of space and need its own bathroom, but I forgive you for your arrogance because you’re rich and good-looking so you’re probably telling the truth about your past experience. However, the flaw in your reasoning is that you were supposed to be in Vermont.”
His gaze held hers. “I’m not in Vermont.”
“I know that now. I have bruises to prove it.”
The police officer didn’t smile. “Do you believe that story, Lucas?”
“Unfortunately, yes. It sounds exactly the sort of thing my grandmother would arrange.” He swore softly, his fluency earning him a look of respect from the hardened New York cop.
“How do you want us to handle this?”
“I don’t. I’m grateful for your speedy response, but I’ll take it from here. And if you could forget you ever saw me here, I’d be grateful for that, too.” He spoke with the quiet authority of someone who was rarely questioned and Eva watched in fascination as they all melted away.
All except Albert, who stood as solid as a tree trunk in the doorway.
Lucas looked at him expectantly. “Thank you for your concern, but I’ve got this.”
“My concern is for Miss Eva.” Albert stood his ground and looked at Eva. “Perhaps you’d better come with me.”
She was touched. “I’ll be fine, Albert, but thank you. I may be a little vertically challenged, but I’m deadly when I’m cornered. You don’t need to worry about me.”
“If you change your mind, I’m on until midnight.” He glared at Lucas, his expression suggesting that he’d be keeping an eye on the situation. “I’ll check in with you before I leave.”
“You’re really kind.”
The door to the apartment closed.
“You’re deadly when you’re cornered?” His dark drawl held a hint of humor. “Forgive me if I find that hard to believe.”
“Don’t underestimate me, Mr. Blade. When I attack, you won’t see it coming. One minute you’ll be minding your own business, the next you’ll be on your back, helpless.”
“Like I was a few moments ago?”
She ignored his sarcasm. “That was different. I wasn’t expecting anyone to be here. I wasn’t ready. Next time I’ll be ready.”
“Next time you leap on me and try to imprint me into your floor. It was like the Hollywood Walk of Fame only you were using my whole body, not just my hand. Your floor probably looks like a crime scene with the outline of my body right there.”
Lucas studied her for a moment. “You seem to have a close relationship with the doorman of my building. Have you known him long?”
“About ten minutes.”
“Ten minutes and the guy is willing to defend you to the death? Do you have that effect on all men?”
“Never the right men. Never the young, hot, eligible ones.” She changed the subject. “Why did the police not make an arrest?”
“According to you, you weren’t committing a crime.”
“I was talking about you. They should have cautioned you. You flattened me and scared the life out of me.” She remembered the way his body had felt against hers. She could still feel the hard pressure of his thigh, the warmth of his breath on her cheek and the heaviness.
Her gaze met his. The way he was looking at her made her think he was remembering that moment, too.
“You were creeping around my apartment. And if I’d wanted to kill you, you’d be dead by now.”
“Is that supposed to be a comfort?” She rubbed her bruised ribs, reminding herself that however her imagination played with the facts, it hadn’t been a romantic encounter. Lucas Blade was looking at her with a hint of steel in his gaze. There was something about him that didn’t seem quite safe. “Do you assault everyone who enters you’re apartment?”
“Only those who enter uninvited.”
“I was invited! As you would have found out if you’d bothered to ask. And I would have thought a man with your expertise in crime would have been able to tell the difference between an innocent woman and a criminal.”
He gave her a speculative look. “Criminals aren’t always so easy to identify. They don’t come with a twirling moustache and a label. You think you can recognize a bad guy just by looking at them?”
“I’m pretty good at identifying ‘loser guy’, and I definitely know ‘hot guy’, so I’m confident ‘bad guy’ wouldn’t slide under my radar.”
“No?” He stepped closer to her. “The ‘bad guys’ live among us, blending in. Often it’s the person you’d least suspect. The cabdriver, the lawyer,” he paused before saying, “the doorman.”
Was he intentionally trying to scare her? “Your doorman, Albert, happens to be one of the nicest people I’ve ever met so if you’re trying to persuade me he has a criminal past I’m not going to believe you. In my experience most people are pretty decent.”
“You don’t watch the news?”
“The news presents only the bad side of humanity, Mr. Blade, and it does it on a global scale. It doesn’t report the millions of small, unreported acts of kindness that take place on a daily basis in communities. People help old ladies across the street, they bring their neighbors tea when they’re sick. You don’t hear about it because good news isn’t entertainment, even though it’s those deeds that hold society together. Bad news is a commodity and the media trade in that.”
“You really believe that?”
“Yes, and I don’t intend to apologize for preferring to focus on the positive. I’m a glass half-full sort of person. That’s not a crime. You see the bad in people, but I see the good. And I do believe there is good in most people.”
“We only ever see what a person chooses to show. You don’t know what they might be hiding under the surface.” His voice was deep, his dark eyes mesmerizing. “Maybe when that kind man has helped the little old lady across the street he goes home and searches indecent images on a laptop he keeps hidden under his bed. And the kind person who takes their neighbor tea might be an arsonist or a dangerous psychopath and his, or her, intention is to get a closer look at how and where their neighbor lives to assess access points and vulnerabilities. You never know, just by looking, what a person is hiding.”
Eva stared at him, unsettled by the image of the world he painted. It was as if someone had sprayed ugly graffiti over her clean vision of life. “You may look good on the outside, Mr. Blade, but inside you need a makeover. You have a dark, cynical, twisted mind.”
“Thank you.” The faintest of smiles touched the corners of his mouth. “The New York Times said the same thing when they reviewed my last book.”
“I didn’t intend it as a compliment, but I can see that maybe you need to be like that to be successful. Your job is to explore the dark side of humanity and that has twisted your thinking. Most people are simply what they seem,” she said firmly. “Take me as an example. Take a good, hard look at me. And now tell me, do I look like a murderer?”
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