December 4, 2015
April 1, 2016
Midnight at Tiffany’s
From Manhattan With Love Book #0.5
”Although just over 70 pages, I feel as if I know Matilda and Chase more than I know many heroes and heroines in full length romances, and I was captivated by both..”– A- Desert Island Keeper Review. All About Romance
Matilda circulated carefully among the glamorous crowd, trying to keep her eyes off the glittering view of the Manhattan skyline and concentrate on keeping the tray steady. The last thing she needed was another catastrophic spill. She’d already had one warning from her boss and even though, technically, her last disaster hadn’t been her fault she knew another accident would get her fired. Her brief was to be invisible, and she considered herself perfectly qualified for the job.
In a world where extroverts were celebrated, she was an introvert. She’d spent most of her life blending into the background. First in the playground, where she’d hidden away in books written by other people, and then at college, when she’d hidden in the books she’d written herself. Lost in her own fictional world, she became each and every one of her heroines and endowed them with qualities she herself coveted, namely courage, communication skills, and coordination.
Her current creation was Lara Striker, small-town girl finally returning home and trying to live down her bad-girl reputation.
Matilda stared through the crowd, her mind absorbed.
What would it be like to have a reputation as a bad girl? How would it feel to live a life of daring and adventure, full of wild affairs, and travel to far off places? To walk into a room and know that people were nudging each other and whispering in awed tones “that’s her.”
Matilda blinked and returned to the real world.
There was only one person who used that caustic tone when addressing her. Her boss. Her nemesis.
Cynthia, Director of Events.
She gripped the tray a little tighter.
Over Cynthia’s shoulder she saw her colleague Eva pull a face and make the shape of a shark’s fin with her hands. It cheered Matilda up.
As always, Cynthia was wearing her corporate smile; the one she wore for every event along with her Star Events uniform. It sat there like an accessory, never reaching her eyes.
This, Matilda thought, was her reality. The closest she came to being a bad girl was thinking very, very bad thoughts about her boss.
“You’re staring into space,” Cynthia hissed between her teeth. “You’re here to work, not to gaze.”
Lara Striker would have punched Cynthia right in the middle of that fake smile and added another crime to her already impressive list.
Matilda simply nodded.
In fiction, characters could punch their bosses and get away with it.
In real life, you lost your job, and then you were dining on Cup-A-Soup seven nights a week instead of four. That was a fact of life, and at least this job allowed her to write.
Her colleague Eva was mouthing something behind Cynthia’s back. Matilda couldn’t make out what she was saying, but it made her feel better to know she wasn’t alone.
Apart from Cynthia, she worked with a great team of people, which was another reason she didn’t want to punch her boss. Working with Frankie, Eva and their team leader, Paige, was the most fun she’d had in her working life. She didn’t want to spoil that. When Cynthia was out of the office, they had fun. For the first time in her life, she felt as if she fitted. Not with the company, but with the group of women who were her colleagues. And friends, she reminded herself. As someone who was cautious with strangers and didn’t make friends easily, those friends were more precious than any of the jewelry on display tonight.
“I realize there are celebrities here,” Cynthia managed to speak without disturbing the smile, “but you need to look through them. I don’t employ you to stand there gaping like a goldfish.”
Lara Striker would know exactly where to put a goldfish.
Matilda bobbed her head again. Experience had taught her to agree to everything. The best way to stay employed was to fly under Cynthia’s radar. She liked to think of herself as a stealth plane, traveling through life undetected. Of course, she was the passenger, whereas Lara Striker would have been in the pilot’s seat, her focus absolute.
“I’m trying to keep the tray straight, Cynthia.” Someone with her co-ordination challenges might have been better choosing a profession other than waitressing, but this job gave her the perfect opportunity to people-watch. She was able to observe the world through the rising bubbles in the champagne glasses without being expected to speak or socialize.
Who were these people? What secrets were they hiding beneath silk, velvet and jewels? Who did they become when they returned home and stripped off the disguise they presented to the world?
Pondering those questions was the reason she loved the job.
That and the fact that she had access to some of the most exclusive venues in New York City.
Like this one.
The rooftop terrace offering panoramic views of Manhattan, far above the busy streets filled with discordant noise and the blur of yellow cabs. In another month or so, the pumping summer heat would be brutal, but for now a light breeze cooled the terrace. Everywhere you looked there were lights. They sparkled like the display in the windows of Tiffany’s, twisted through the elaborate greenery that adorned the edges of the terrace, adding more lights to a city that already had more than enough. High above there were stars in the sky, but it was as if they’d given up competing. At night, New York City felt like one big party. City of dreams.
They were other people’s dreams, of course, but Matilda didn’t mind that. She didn’t think about the hard grind that was her life, because there was nothing she could do to change that reality, and most of the time she lived in a fictional world of her own creation.
She could have stood and stared for hours, but even five minutes would have gotten her fired.
Before she’d taken the job, she’d been warned that Star Events were known for their ruthless attitude toward their staff. The economic downturn combined with a glut of staff meant that if you didn’t perform perfectly, you were out.
She couldn’t afford to lose her job.
Remembering that, she held the tray a little tighter.
“I’m concentrating, Cynthia.”
“Tonight is a huge opportunity for Star Events. This is our second event for the Adams Construction Group and it’s catapulted us into a different league. We need to impress. Business creates more business. That account is worth more to us in a year than all the others put together, and tonight I intend to meet the man himself. Chase Adams. Did you read that article in Forbes? ‘The Man Who has Everything’. He is richer than Midas.” Cynthia lowered her voice in reverence. “He is here somewhere.”
Probably hiding behind a curtain, counting his millions, Matilda thought, wondering if Cynthia actually knew what had happened to Midas. It hadn’t turned out so well for him. She hoped Chase was having better luck.
She didn’t mention to Cynthia that she was hoping to meet him, too, but for different reasons.
Chase Adams was a collector of rare books. He even had a library in one of his homes. She’d seen photos online and admired the oak cabinets and the books lined up in uniform rows, the lettering on the rainbow of spines offering tantalizing hints as to the worlds concealed inside.
Matilda couldn’t imagine a house big enough to include a library. If she brought more than two paperbacks into her apartment, she had to throw something out to make room.
Her main interest in meeting the legendary Chase wasn’t his library or his interest in books, though, it was his brother. Brett Adams ran a publishing company, and she was desperately hoping to find a way of getting her book to him. It made her shake even thinking about it, but she was just about desperate enough to push through her natural preference to hide from people and find the courage to speak to Chase.
To do that, she thought about her mother.
Never let fear stop you going after your dream.
Matilda lifted her chin.
She had a USB stick in her pocket, and a printed copy of the manuscript in her bag, stowed safely in the cloakroom.
“I hope you manage to find him, Cynthia. And I hope he continues to give us lots of business.” It crossed her mind that relying on one company for the lion’s share of business probably wasn’t great practice, but it wasn’t her place to say so.
Lara Striker would have said it, but it would have taken more than a man with money in the bank and a library in his house to impress Lara the lioness.
Matilda’s mind wandered as she played with a few ideas for tweaking her character. Should she add in a few idiosyncrasies? Give Lara a few endearingly normal traits to make her more human? Perhaps she could be clumsy. No, she wouldn’t wish that on anyone.
She realized Cynthia was frowning at her. “Is something wrong?”
“Your skirt! What’s happened to your skirt?”
Matilda looked down in alarm, but her skirt looked the same as it had when she’d dressed hours earlier in the cramped single room that was home. One of the things she liked about the Star Events ‘uniform’ was that in her black skirt and shirt she looked the same as every other waitress working tonight. Just taller. And a little more clumsy and awkward.
“There’s something wrong with my skirt?”
“It’s shorter than the regulation length. You’re not supposed to turn it up.”
This same scenario had been repeated several times in her life and it never got any easier.
Handcuffed by the drinks tray, Matilda couldn’t even tug at her hem. “It is the regulation length, but I have long legs so it sits in a different place. I usually wear a slightly lower heel to compensate.”
At school they’d called her Giraffe. She’d taken to sitting down whenever she could so that people didn’t tease her for being tall. She’d lost herself in books, because things happened in books that never happened in real life to tall, bespectacled, introverted teenagers.
“It’s barely decent. You need to do something about it.”
“My legs?” Matilda was bemused. “They’re—er—attached to me.”
Lara Striker would have smacked one of her long legs right into Cynthia’s head with an impressive martial arts turning kick that would have left the other woman dazed with concussion. Then she would have pinned Cynthia to the wall and lectured her on the importance of fostering positive body image.
Matilda chose a different option. She tried to make herself smaller. She hated doing it, because it made her butt stick out.
All her characters were normal-sized and delicate boned. They didn’t have any of these problems.
Cynthia’s smile vanished briefly. “Next time, wear a longer skirt. And if you see Chase Adams, don’t talk to him, and for pity’s sake don’t spill anything on him. Come and find me.” She stalked off before Matilda could point out that the likelihood of her identifying Chase Adams was slim, given that she had no idea what he looked like. His library, she would have recognized in her sleep, but as for the man himself, she had no idea. She was relying on someone else to point him out.
Glancing around the room, she tried to spot someone who might fit his profile. She assumed he was old and fusty.
The Man Who had Everything.
She’d read the piece, but there had been no photo of the man himself. Just images of glass and steel—properties that he’d built. And the library in his house.
According to the article, he’d taken over his father’s company and grown it to ten times its original size. He was ruthless and focused. Matilda had shamelessly stolen aspects of his character for her heroine.
Why should drive and ambition be the sole province of men? In her opinion, it shouldn’t be. That was another thing her mother had taught her.
The only thing a man has that a woman doesn’t is a penis.
Paige appeared by her side. “You’re doing a great job, Matilda. I really appreciate the extra hours you’ve put in on this one. We’re so lucky to have you on the team.”
Matilda relaxed slightly.
Paige was the opposite of Cynthia. In fact, Paige was the reason that half the staff of Star Events hadn’t resigned. She soothed and smoothed, was energetic and organized. Nothing rattled her, and no matter how much pressure was piled on her head from her superiors, she never let it leak through. Cynthia showered people with so much stress their skin shriveled like grass under attack from acid rain.
“She hates me.”
“She hates everyone.” Eva appeared and flashed her a smile. “You should put her in a book and kill her off.”
“I don’t write that sort of book.”
“You should. It would be cathartic. I’ll provide the weapon. We can make it look natural. Frankie knows all the poisonous plants. I could bake her a really tasty muffin. It’s super easy to disguise the taste of arsenic in baked goods.” Eva studied Matilda from the side. “Are you constipated? Because I have the perfect recipe for that.”
Matilda squirmed awkwardly. “What makes you think I’m constipated?”
“You’re standing weirdly. As if you’re about to sit on the toilet.”
“I’m trying to be shorter.”
“Why would you want to be shorter?”
“Because Cynthia thinks I’m too tall. Or maybe my skirt is too short. I’m not totally clear about the nature of the offense if I’m honest.”
“I didn’t realize height was stipulated in the contract.” Frankie joined them, her gaze roaming over the floral displays as if daring a single bloom to wilt on her watch. A floral designer, Frankie was wildly creative, a trait Matilda admired as much as her vivid red hair and fiery personality.
“You’re a perfect height,” Paige said. “You could be a model.”
“Except that most models are elegant, and I can’t put one foot in front of the other without falling over.” If she could change one thing about herself it would be that. She hated being clumsy. She longed to be delicate and feminine. Paige moved like a dancer, Eva bounced and Frankie stalked. None of them stumbled.
“Look at it this way,” Eva carefully straightened the tray Matilda was clutching, “you can look over the heads of all the over made-up women, straight into the eyes of the taller men. There’s an advantage in every disadvantage.”
“Ignore her,” Frankie advised. “She’s a cup half full sort of person. It’s annoying.”
Matilda was also a cup half full person, but usually because she’d spilled the other half. She’d decided long ago that Eva was the kindest person she’d ever met. She envied the strength of the friendship between Eva, Paige and Frankie, who had grown up together on a small island off the coast of Maine. Paige always joked that they were small-town girls transplanted into the big city. They’d swapped rural life for the excitement of New York, and the three of them shared a brownstone in Brooklyn along with Paige’s older brother, Matt. Matilda had met him once and immediately used as inspiration for one of her heroes.
Matilda had never told them, but she’d borrowed shamelessly from Paige, Eva and Frankie’s personalities when she was creating Lara. The result was a heroine who was the perfect mix of tough and sexy.
She’d chosen to give her heroine Frankie’s fiery red hair, but now she was wondering if she should have given her Eva’s golden curls. People invariably underestimated blondes, didn’t they? It would be fun to see someone underestimating Lara. That was a scene she would have had fun writing.
“I’m supposed to tell her if I see Chase Adams, but I have no idea what he looks like.” What did ‘the man who had everything’ look like?
She didn’t reveal her real reasons for wanting to meet him. She knew it was a long shot. She didn’t need anyone to tell her.
Eva glanced around. “I know what he looks like—insanely handsome as it happens—but I don’t think he’s here. I do, however, see Jake Romano, and he gives Chase a run for his money.”
Matilda followed her gaze and saw a wickedly handsome dark-haired man laughing with an incredibly beautiful woman.
She sighed. “They seem totally in love.” She glanced at Paige, expecting her to agree, and noticed the brief flash of pain in her eyes.
“The only person Jake Romano loves is himself.”
There was a shimmer of emotion in her voice and Matilda knew she’d inadvertently stepped into dangerous territory.
Did Paige know Jake? Did they have a history?
The last thing she wanted to do was hurt Paige, and she was about to say something when Eva gave a quick shake of her head and changed the subject deftly.
“You wouldn’t like Chase Adams. They say he’s a ruthless money-making machine with no heart or soul.”
Matilda didn’t care about that. She did care about the fact he might be able to give her his brother’s email address.
“Of course he’s here. How can he not be here? What sort of man wouldn’t show up at his own event?”
Paige smiled, her natural good humor restored. “Probably a man who knows Cynthia is looking for him.”
So he wasn’t old and fusty, Matilda mused. Insanely handsome. He sounded like someone her heroine would be seeking out. Luscious Lara had no time for the conventional rules of relationships. She would never wait for a man to call. She was a sexually confident woman who went after what she wanted. The words regret and apology didn’t appear in her vocabulary.
Chase Adams might consider himself to be the man who had everything, but he’d never had Lara. If she walked into his life, he’d soon discover what was missing. Lara would give the ruthless, cold-hearted Chase Adams a night he would never forget.
Tucked behind one of the pillars on the terrace, Chase Adams stood staring over the Manhattan skyline. He scanned the building closest to him; fifty-four floors of winking glass and gleaming metal, now providing corporate headquarters for three Fortune 100 companies.
He was familiar with every steel bolt.
His company had built it, as they had at least four other buildings within his line of vision.
Buildings were his life. His world.
As a child he’d played with Lego. This was more satisfying. He was creating something permanent, something that became part of the city he loved.
“Chase!” A soft, feminine voice told him that his moment of contemplation was over.
He turned, resigned. “Victoria.”
“I’ve been looking everywhere for you. There are people waiting to talk to you!”
Not because they were interested in him, but because they wanted something.
People always wanted something.
There were days when he felt every interaction he had was fake, including his relationship with Victoria.
His parents kept telling him she would be a perfect life partner for someone. It was obvious they were hoping he’d be that someone.
It was true that she was socially adept and confident. She would stand next to him at events like this one and make polite conversation with anyone and everyone from Presidents to Police Chiefs.
There was only one problem.
The thought of waking up next to Victoria for the next fifty years chilled him. He’d never seen her anything but perfectly groomed, and never heard her utter a word that hadn’t been carefully edited. There were times when he felt like tickling her to see if she was capable of spontaneous laughter.
Chase wondered what she looked like in the morning when she hadn’t spent half the day being pampered. Did she sleep in make-up?
What would marriage to someone like Victoria look like? Would she rush to the bathroom before he woke? Their relationship would be strictly regimented. Dinner would be scheduled into their calendars, a stiff formal affair. What about sex? Would he be expected to book that in, too? Their future would be a sea of diary notes and reminders, with no room for spontaneity. Soon he’d be going on more and more business trips to avoid her.
“I was enjoying the view.”
She laughed—a carefully modulated sound, not to loud and not too soft—and linked arms with him in a gesture intended to remind anyone watching that they were intimate. Close.
Chase had never felt more distant from her than he did at that moment.
“You are funny. The view from your apartment is vastly superior, and you’re wasting time staring into space. You need to mingle. There are so many people waiting to meet you.”
The thought lowered his spirits as much as the thought of spending the rest of his life with Victoria.
Was he being unfair? The time they spent together was at events such as these, and there was never time to talk properly.
“Let’s get out of here, Vic.”
“Excuse me?” She frowned at the shortened version of her name, and he wondered what he was supposed to call her if they ever made it as far as the bedroom.
“Let’s leave. Go somewhere.”
“I don’t know. Let’s be spontaneous. Walk and see where we end up.”
“Walk? Leave your own party?” She gave a breathless laugh, as shocked as if he’d suggested stripping off and dancing naked on the table. “You’re joking.”
“I’m not joking. Let’s take off these stupid clothes, change into jeans and go for a walk in Central Park. Let’s talk. Really talk. Not about stocks, shares or the state of the property market. Let’s talk about life. I need air. I need—” I need to work out if I like who you are.
And he needed to work out if he liked who he was when he was with her.
She withdrew her hand from his arm, her smile a little cooler. “I don’t own a pair of jeans, and these ‘stupid clothes’ as you call them, were custom made. I know how important tonight is for you and I wanted to make a special effort.” If her smile was cool, her voice was deep-frozen. “I’m not one of those women who needs compliments all the time, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate one when it comes my way, Chase.”
“You look great.” He wondered how many hours it had taken her to look that perfect. “But I want to spend time with you, not a dress.”
“You can. Right here.” Her voice was light. “There are important people here, Chase. People who want to talk to you.”
The problem was that he didn’t want to talk to them.
“If they all went away, if all this went away, would you still want to be with me?”
She stared at him blankly, as if he were speaking a foreign language and all she had to hand was a basic phrase book. “Chase, your company is booming. Daddy says he has never met a man with your business skills, and coming from him that’s a real compliment. You’ve turned your family business around. You’ve proved to your father that you can do it. What you have is never going away.”
“But what if I didn’t do this? What if I worked for the fire department or the police force, would you still want to be with me? What if I went back to building houses instead of paying other people to build them?” At the beginning he’d done that. He had the skills needed to build a house from scratch. He’d been interested in eco-designs, and sustainable features. He’d had plans; plans that had been derailed by his father’s first heart attack.
“Have you been drinking?” She frowned for as long as it took her to remember that frowning caused lines. “You’re not yourself.”
That was the problem. He was himself, but no one was interested in who he was. No one cared who he was, as long as he was still CEO of the Adams Construction Group. They wanted the man with the money.
He felt as if he were being suffocated.
He was the man who had everything, except the things that really mattered in life.
If he lost it all tomorrow, he knew he’d find himself alone.
Victoria’s presence had drawn attention to him, and people were starting to hover hopefully. His moment of peaceful contemplation was over.
“Chase!” Two men and a woman approached, but before the predictable flow of conversation could begin there was a massive crash from behind them as one of the waitresses dropped a tray of champagne. The sound echoed around the cavernous room and was followed by an appalled hush and a lone female voice.
“She’s ruined my dress!”
Everyone turned and stared. A few people moved closer and Chase pondered the darker side of human nature that meant they were so often drawn to gloat over another’s disaster.
He turned away, unwilling to feast on someone else’s embarrassment, and stared down the glittering canyons of Broadway and 7th Avenue to the darkness and shadows of Central Park, that lush urban oasis that offered New Yorkers a world beyond glass and steel.
At the moment he was living in the penthouse of the apartment block his company had built, but not for one moment would he have called it home. The media had salivated over that particular project, and every unit had been sold before hitting the open market.
Chase was ready to sell, but hadn’t yet decided where he was going to live once he did. His day was so busy it left him no time to think about it.
Taking advantage of the commotion, he turned and strode out of the room without looking back.
One phone call would have summoned his driver, but that would have meant being trapped inside a car. Tonight he was going to walk. Walking would clear his head.
Better to be alone and be himself than be someone else with a bunch of strangers.
Because that’s what they were. All of them. Even Victoria. Strangers. They didn’t know who he was and they weren’t interested.
Unobserved, he walked out of his own party without looking back.
Matilda found her bag, pulled out the emergency dress she always carried and dragged it over her soaking wet legs. It was nothing more than a long tee shirt, but it rolled into small spaces and was perfect for situations such as this.
The champagne had been vintage, apparently, so expensive that she was tempted to bend over and lick her own legs. It was the only way she was ever going to get close to champagne of this quality again.
She’d been fired.
It was bad enough that she’d lost her job, but worst of all she’d lost her chance to meet Chase Adams and engineer a way of sliding her manuscript onto his brother’s desk.
Maybe if she’d paid more attention to her surroundings and less to exactly what Lara would have been doing to Chase Adams in the bedroom, she might have seen the woman with the huge feathers sticking out of her dress. They’d caught the edge of a champagne glass and toppled the lot, like dominoes, only a great deal wetter.
The woman’s rage had been almost as great as Cynthia’s, not least because being showered in champagne had turned her dress see through, exposing support underwear. If the woman’s wrath was anything to go by, the need to wear support underwear wasn’t something she’d wanted broadcast.
Matilda tugged the stretchy dress over her damp body, stuffed her uniform into a bag and left it for Cynthia. It was an ignominious end to her time with Star Events.
She knew Paige and the others would be looking for her, but she couldn’t face seeing them. Couldn’t face the fact that she’d let Paige down. She’d recruited her when no one else would give her a chance, and now she’d screwed up. And all because she was clumsy and dreamy.
Dragging her damp, miserable, humiliated self to the elevator, Matilda stepped inside, relieved to be on her own.
But it seemed she wasn’t going to be granted even a moment of respite.
As the doors started to close, a strong male hand clamped the edge of the door and it slid open again.
Matilda watched gloomily, reflecting on the fact that if she’d done the same thing, the doors would have snapped shut on her hand. There would have been a hideous crunching of bones and she would have spent the night in the Emergency Room.
It seemed the doors had an inbuilt ability to sense authority, because they slid back meekly, allowing him access.
He strolled into the elevator and her idle glance turned to a disbelieving stare. His hair was midnight black, his eyes the color of the ocean. The expensive fabric of his tux fitted perfectly, highlighting powerful thighs and wide shoulders.
He was stunning.
He was also perfect hero material.
Matilda wanted to grab her notebook and scribble frantically.
Chiseled jaw, check. Razor-sharp cheekbones, check. Firm mouth, check. Muscles—everywhere.
Could she take a surreptitious photo?
No. Too risky.
As if the gods hadn’t already heaped enough good fortune on him with striking looks and great co-ordination, he was also tall. A whole head taller than her, which was unusual. She was used to looking down on men or, at the very least, being eye to eye. It made her feel clumsy and awkward even when she wasn’t knocking into anything.
This man topped six feet, and his formal dress told her he’d come from the party she’d just left. Was he one of the unlucky few she’d drenched by accident?
She slunk back against the wall and kept her head down, conscious that even her hair was damp and curling from the splashes of champagne. Please don’t let him recognize me.
Even without looking at him, she sensed his simmering tension. Trapped in the confined space, it was impossible not to notice that he was in a very bad mood. She sneaked another look and saw what she’d failed to notice at first glance. Strong brows pulled together in a frown, and a slim mouth set in a grim line that even an optimist couldn’t have pretended was a smile. He probably was one of the people she’d tried to drown in champagne, and judging from the look on his face it wasn’t top of his list of favored ways to die.
He lifted his hand and yanked his bow tie away from his throat as if it were strangling him. Then he opened his top button and—
Matilda’s thoughts came to an emergency stop.
Confronted by a tantalizing glimpse of bronzed skin and a hint of dark, masculine body hair she was incapable of doing anything but stare. Everything inside her shifted and tumbled.
Who cared if he was moody? With a body like that he could go through life with a face like thunder and still be forgiven.
Lara would have closed the gap between them, ripped open his shirt and taken a long, close look at whether the rest of his body lived up to the promise of that small glimpse. She’d use this man for her own sexual gratification until he could no longer—
“Were you at the party?” His voice, velvet deep shook her out of her erotic daydream.
“What?” So his voice was as sexy as his body. Her head was spinning with desire. “Me?”
“Yes, you. I saw you running for the lift. It’s obvious you’ve just changed out of one outfit and into another.”
“Why is it obvious?”
“Because half your hair is inside your dress and it’s tucked up at the back.”
“Oh.” She freed her hair and straightened her dress. Her face was as hot as the inside of a pizza oven. Still, at least she didn’t have toilet paper stuck to her shoe. As someone to whom that had happened on a million occasions, she’d learned to be grateful for small mercies.
“You were part of the champagne accident?”
Oh crap. “I was—er—caught in the crossfire.” Matilda tensed and waited for him to say something caustic but he frowned slightly.
“Why do people always crowd around when a person is in trouble? It’s something I’ve never understood.”
The last thing she’d expected was for him to be sympathetic. “It’s human nature. Like watching a hanging in medieval times.”
“It’s one of the very worst parts of human nature.” He pushed his bow tie into his pocket. “So, who are you avoiding?”
“I saw you hurrying toward the elevator. You were glancing over your shoulder as if you were escaping. You look like a woman with something to hide.”
It sounded so much more glamorous than the reality. “Well—”
“Don’t waste time denying it. I’m doing the same thing. Escaping. The champagne gave us both the distraction we needed. I won’t tell on you if you don’t tell on me. It will be our secret.” He smiled, and Matilda was so dazzled by that unexpected smile that for a moment she just stared. If Cynthia had been there she definitely would have told her off for gaping like a goldfish.
Then she smiled too. “Your secret is safe with me.”
She would have liked to discover a few more of his secrets. Especially the physical ones. She would have liked to examine every inch of his muscular body close up.
Lara would have stopped the elevator and had sex with him right there and then, but she wasn’t Lara. Unfortunately.
“How well do you know this building?” He glanced at is watch. “I need to find a discreet exit.”
“What’s wrong with the front entrance?”
“I’m hiding too, remember?” The smile reached his eyes. “I don’t want people to see me leave.”
She wondered who he was avoiding. Women, no doubt. Probably hoards of them. He was sexy enough to be fighting them off, and if he’d been a guest at the party then no doubt he was also wealthy, or at least heading that way.
Matilda, who had a whole bunch of people she never wanted to meet again, Cynthia included, sympathized. “There is another exit. Down to the basement, left out of the elevators, walk behind the—”
“You’re the one who knows where it is. Makes sense, don’t you think?”
“I guess so.” Being caught creeping out of the emergency exit with one of the guests would be the final straw, but she’d already been fired so what else could they do?
The doors opened and they both stepped forward at the same time.
The faint smell of aftershave mingled with the scent of soap and sexy man. Drugged by that delicious combination Matilda paused, absorbing the moment with all her senses so she could write about it later. She wanted to press her face against his chest and breathe him in.
Lara would have ripped off his shirt and licked him all over. And not because she was hoping to lap up a few stray drops of champagne.
The man paused, his powerful frame preventing the elevator doors from closing. “After you—”
Old-fashioned chivalry was so underrated, Matilda thought. She slid past him, wondering if he were equally chivalrous in bed. Not that she was an expert, but she was willing to bet this man never let a woman walk away unsatisfied.
She glanced at him and her gaze grazed his.
Heat uncurled deep inside her, and every nerve and muscle tingled with awareness. Still he stared at her until her knees became as liquid as ice cream left too long in the hot sun.
Shaken, she turned and walked through the basement, following pipes until she saw the set of steps that led to street level.
She reached for the door, fumbling, and he reached past her and pushed it open with the flat of his hand.
His body brushed against hers, and Matilda closed her eyes briefly.
She felt hard, unyielding biceps, and knew that beneath that jacket was a power-packed body, honed to the extremes of physical fitness.
It was barely a touch, and yet enough to render her immobile. She stood, hardly breathing. She might have stayed frozen to the spot forever if he hadn’t gently nudged her through the door.
“How did you discover this exit?”
It was the entrance used by staff, but she didn’t want to tell him that. “It’s part of my job to know all the exits.”
“So you work in security?”
Security. Matilda smiled to herself. That sounded glamorous. She could be FBI, or CIA or—something. She could be Black Ops. Well, maybe that was taking it a little far given that she hadn’t lifted anything heavier than a tray of drinks for months. Covert – no, she definitely wasn’t capable of anything remotely covert. She’d trip and land in the lap of the enemy. “I can’t tell you.”
His eyes gleamed. “Or you’d have to kill me?”
“Something like that.”
No way was she going to tell him the truth about her job. It might not kill him, but it would definitely kill the moment and she didn’t want to do that. Maintaining tension was her job. Her writing job. Unfortunately writing was now her only job, which was a shame, because it didn’t pay her anything.
“So you’re a woman of mystery.”
Matilda opened her mouth to correct him and then closed it again.
Why shouldn’t she be a woman of mystery for a moment or two? It wasn’t as if she was ever going to see him again.
“I can’t discuss my job.” It wasn’t a lie. She couldn’t discuss her job. Mainly because her job had only recently drowned in a puddle of very expensive champagne.
The street outside was alive with people. This close to Broadway there was no peace to be found. People merged together in a blur of color and sound; mostly tourists, because locals knew better than to frequent the area around Times Square. The numbers would increase as summer progressed, until walking because almost impossible in the square itself.
Matilda stepped over litter and dodged a couple locked in a tight embrace. She watched them curiously, the way she watched everyone, hyper-aware of the man by her side.
“I don’t recognize this entrance. Which direction is Central Park?”
“Make a right at the end, and then go straight and keep walking.”
He paused and turned to look at her. “Come with me.” His eyes dropped to her mouth. “That way I won’t get lost.” The way he was looking at her made her feel as if all her clothes might melt from her body and puddle on the floor.
“You don’t live in New York?”
“I do live in New York. I don’t often get to walk.”
‘”No? I walk all the time.” Mostly because she couldn’t afford public transport.
“Which makes you the perfect person to show me the way.”
She wondered if she’d misunderstood. “You want me to take you to Central Park?”
There were a million reasons. For a start, he was a stranger. Matilda knew better than to go walking in Central Park with a stranger. Matilda would make the safe, sensible choice, say no and go home to her one-room apartment that rattled and shook every time a train passed. She’d sit on her own, drink her sad little Cup A Soup and contemplate how she was going to support herself now that she’d lost her job.
That was Matilda’s life, but she was tired of being Matilda. Right now, being Matilda sucked.
There was a long, pulsing silence while she hovered between reality and fiction.
A champagne-soaked curl wafted in front of her eyes and he lifted a hand and gently pushed it back.
His touch was electric. Sensation shot through her, so sharp she almost gasped.
“I think that sounds like a great idea.” The words fell out of her mouth, and his mouth curved into a sexy smile that sent ripples of heat through her body.
“In that case we should at least perform basic introductions. I’m—” he hesitated briefly and then held out his hand. “Alex.”
Alex, she thought. It was a good strong name. Maybe she should change her hero’s name to Alex. At the moment he was Charles, but she was beginning to think that didn’t fit her character.
She imagined Lara murmuring ‘Alex’ as she kissed her way down his ripped, muscular frame.
“That’s right. And now it’s your turn.”
Distracted, Matilda stared at him. Her turn? Her turn to do what?
He raised an eyebrow in silent question and she realized he was waiting for her to tell him her name, not do unspeakable things to his body.
Silence throbbed around them. She felt the strength of his hand on hers and her heart thudded against her ribs like the drum in an orchestra.
“Lara,” she said huskily. “My name is Lara. Lara Striker.” Kick-ass heroine and all-around bad girl. “Pleased to meet you.”
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