Eight Years Earlier
“Mother, I’ve been here for five months. Can’t Daddy let it go?” Every time I got on the phone with my parents, I asked myself why I bothered calling. Climbing a jagged cliff with no safety rope would have been easier.
“Vivian, he’s busy. Hasn’t even made it home yet.” The lie rolled off my mother’s tongue with such ease, I bet she even believed it was true. It was after six o’clock in Dallas. If my father wasn’t home by then, somebody needed to send out a search party.
“Tell him I called, okay? I gotta go.” I let out a long, frustrated sigh. I knew how they were. Why I thought they’d change, I didn’t know. “Love you.” It was too late. She’d already hung up.
I threaded a gold chandelier earring through my lobe, stuffing down disappointment. My father hadn’t spoken to me since I’d boarded the plane to New York what seemed like only a few minutes ago but in reality was months. I hadn’t conformed to his plan, and he knew how to hold a grudge like nobody’s business. He’d told me to keep my ass in Dallas after college, that New York was too big and would swallow me whole. Said I had no business gallivanting around, and he didn’t want to hear it when I came home crying.
He’d cut me off, and I’d yet to thank him for that since he wouldn’t speak to me. With a little time and distance between us, the pain hadn’t really subsided.
It hurt that they’d basically shrugged when I’d proudly shared the news of my position at Hamerstein and Associates. The prestigious accounting firm was not only selective with their wealthy clientele, but also with their interns, the vetting process rigorous. Somehow I’d proven I was worthy. At the time, the salary had sounded like a Brink's truckload of money, though reality had quickly set me straight.
New York was expensive. I barely had enough money to eat, even though I’d paid a year’s worth of rent up front for the shithole in Alphabet City I fondly called home. While my parents thought I’d blown through the money they’d given me over the years on frivolous things, I’d been saving it all. The internship, the apartment…I’d done it on my own. That gave me a sense of pride I’d never had before. But it was the things money couldn’t buy that I craved.
I shoved one foot in a stiletto while I leaned on the sofa, my only piece of furniture. Lucky me, the day I moved in, a couple was putting the old thing out on the street. They’d even helped me carry it up the stairs to my apartment. The springs had sprung. When I moved, it squeaked. But it was better than nothing. I’d gotten kind of attached to the thing.
Once I had my other shoe on, I looked around the room, trying to remember what else I needed for the evening. “Purse,” I said to myself, scooping it up off the floor.
I took one more cursory look down at my dress to make sure nothing was out of place. It was a little black number. Three-quarter-length sleeves hung from the shoulders, the dress fitted to the knee, and the neckline plunged modestly. I’d purchased it before leaving Texas to wear to an awards banquet for one of the many golf tournaments my father and ex-boyfriend participated in every year. Translation: an excuse to drink.
Tonight was a fundraiser for Paths of Purpose, a group Hamerstein and Associates was closely tied with. I’d been volunteering at the shelter for abused women and children in what little spare time I had, finding it fulfilling just knowing the people there. Their iron will to build a better life for themselves, to overcome the hardships they’d faced…If I’d been through what some of those women had, I wasn't sure there would be anything left of me.
I was excited when my supervisor sternly suggested the interns make an appearance tonight, and I hoped there would be lots of generous hearts in the room. I’d seen so much that could be done, heard from others who volunteered how far extra money could go. And though I wasn’t certified yet as an accountant, I’d offered to take a look at the books to see if there was anywhere we could stretch their dollars.
A man who was getting on up in years had done the accounting since the beginning, though when I met him, I’d gotten the distinct impression he was about ready to give it up, his failing health making even everyday tasks difficult. Because of the close link between the shelter and my firm, I’d been surprised to find out Hamerstein and Associates didn’t do the bookkeeping.
My stomach growled as I descended the worn wooden stairs of my apartment building, a stark reminder that I hadn’t had anything to eat since that morning when I’d snagged a couple of blueberry muffins after a meeting. Hamerstein’s habitual catering to their high-end clients provided the sustenance that was keeping me from starving. By the time my bills were paid, there wasn’t much left for food. I had no kitchen to speak of, so my options were limited, and I wasn’t much of a cook anyway. I had visions of a steak dinner and garlic mashed potatoes in my head, but God only knew when I’d be able to splurge like that. For tonight, heavy hors d'oeuvres would have to do.
The silent auction was in full swing when I arrived at the art deco ballroom in the Four Seasons Hotel. Though the decor was sophisticated and opulent, what really had my blood pumping was the number of people in attendance. I’d been to my fair share of country club functions, but this was a whole new level of wealth. Everyone looked expensive, and this wasn’t even black tie. As I perused the auction items, I was pleased to see a frenzy of bidding taking place.
After I’d circulated a bit and eaten enough to silence my grumbling stomach, I came to the end of the display of items up for bid. A donation table had been set up for those who wished to do more than participate in the auction. My purse burned me where it was nestled between my arm and body. The auction was out of my price range, but I wanted to help. I wanted to give. Hamerstein and Associates thought I had come to the event because they’d forced the issue, but nothing could have been further from the truth. I’d come in sole support of the charity that had sunk its hooks into my heart.
My salary was nothing compared to the checks being written by the other attendees, and I couldn’t spare a single cent. My MetroCard had a low balance, my power bill was due next week, and the heels of my stilettos were wearing down to nubs.
But in the moment, all of that was secondary. I’d figure out a way to make it. The women and children Paths of Purpose served needed the money more than I did. I approached the table, picked up an envelope, and emptied all the cash in my purse into it. I grinned as I lifted the flap of the envelope up to my lips, not an ounce of regret inside me. Payday was four days away. I could scrape by until then.
“May I seal that for you?”
I stilled. That voice penetrated straight to my core. Once I turned and got a look at the face that belonged to the voice, I clutched my bag a little tighter and leaned my thighs against the table in front of me for support. There were billboards all over the city of gorgeous men, and I honestly wondered more times than not if they were even real. This man beat them all by leaps and bounds. He was easily a head taller than me, with broad shoulders and a face that was impossible to look away from. He was both classically handsome and rugged, as if an angel and a warrior had mated, and this was their creation.
An untouchable aura surrounded him, yet it felt like he’d let me slip inside the invisible barrier. His piercing look put me off balance; I felt safe and anything but that at the same time. There was only one other person I’d ever seen with eyes like his. I saw them in the mirror every single day. My onyx eyes had the slightest flecks of aquamarine in them if they were in the right light, but his were black holes to get lost in. And I did for a moment, until I remembered he’d asked me a question, and I’d yet to answer.
“No,” I flatly refused. I had to be hard for self-preservation. This angel warrior was the type of man who would be too easy to make a fool of myself over.
I’d been so excited to unload the contents of my purse that I’d missed the fancy tape dispenser perched on the table in front of me. I wanted to roll my eyes at myself. No one at an event like this would lick their donation envelope to seal it. I held out my hand and arched my brow expectantly. “Pass the tape, please.” I spoke politely enough, but I didn’t smile. I was demanding.
His features lit in amusement. No man had ever affected me like this. I wanted to coax a full-blown smile out of him to see if I could do it, which irritated me.
I stepped around him gracefully and pulled off a strip of the clear tape. I sealed the envelope and gave it to the girl behind the table, then walked away as if neither she nor the most incredible-looking being I’d ever seen were there, shoving the image of that delectable mouth with its addictive half smile out of my mind.
For the rest of the party, I managed to successfully avoid that man, though at odd times I’d feel this presence, as if someone was watching my every move. But when I’d look around, there was only a sea of party-goers. I was motivated to circulate. I needed to impress my boss and was determined to do so, staying until the very end of the event. I declined an offered ride home in one of the hired cars, something in my gut telling me it was inappropriate for an intern to accept. And then my gut got outside into the freezing October air, and I kicked myself. My MetroCard balance was too low to make it home and then to work the next day, and a taxi fare might as well have been a payment on a Rolls Royce.
I huddled in my sweater, tugging it tightly to me as a shield against the wind. It was useless. My internal thermostat was set to Texas swelter, so it felt like I might as well be in Antarctica. My mother had emailed me a picture from their outdoor patio only a few days before of her in a halter dress, her note complaining about the heat. I’d been surprised that she’d responded to my email at all, certain it was the gin constantly in her hand that had prompted it. Right about now, I’d take a shot of that heat—and a pair of tennis shoes or bedroom slippers or anything besides these damned high heels. It was a long walk back to my apartment, and in the morning, I’d just have to make the trek all over again.
I opted for the office. I could spend the night on the sofa in the breakroom, and I had a red cardigan to put on over my dress so I wouldn’t look like I was wearing the same outfit as the night before. It would be warm there, so I had a good chance of avoiding hypothermia.
There were enough people around that I wasn’t too nervous being on the streets at night. I was still young enough to think I was invincible, but I kept my guard up, aware of my surroundings. When a car so dark it almost blended into the night slowed beside me, I kept moving at a steady pace. If I sped up, whoever was behind those tinted windows would know I was nervous. I lifted my chin, putting on an air of confidence even though my heart rate had accelerated exponentially.
I’d only heard that voice once, yet it was branded on my memory. “No shit,” I replied without turning toward him, the angel warrior. I kept moving. He laughed, and I nearly tripped, but I held it together despite feeling every note of his laughter all over my body. I’d never heard a laugh like that, and I got the feeling he didn’t let it out all that often. It was deceptively alluring, and it was dangerous. I already felt myself warming toward him when I didn’t want to.
“Get in. You shouldn’t be out here on your own.” Just like I hadn’t asked for that tape to seal the envelope, he wasn’t asking me if I needed a lift. He was commanding me. It both turned me on and pissed me off at the same time.
“I’ll take my chances,” I tossed back, continuing toward the office without looking at him. If I saw that face again, I’d be in trouble, and it was taking a valiant effort to avoid temptation.
“Don’t be foolish just to prove a point.” His accurate assessment sent a shiver through me. The car continued to creep along beside me, all other traffic be damned. I didn’t give in. It was far less dangerous out on the street than it would have been in there with him.
He laughed again, and I had to keep myself from walking faster. “That’s something I’ve never had a woman say to me before.”
“There’s a first time for everything. Even at your age,” I added, hoping the little dig would insult him. He couldn’t have been older than his early thirties, but I was grasping at straws to get him to leave me alone. I didn’t like people who made me nervous, and this man made me quake like no one ever had.
“Don’t make me get out of this car.”
I hated threats, but coming out of his mouth, the warning was sexy. What will you do if I make you get out? I dared him in my mind.
A group of six people approached, laughing as they strolled. I seized the opportunity to join them when they veered off into a discreet club. I made a beeline through glow-sticks and black lights directly to the back door, where I exited into a dingy alley. Most of the floodlights overhead didn’t work, and I all but ran back to the main street, peering around the corner to make sure that damn black car was gone. The coast was clear, and my walk was brisker than the wind for the remaining few blocks to the building where the Hamerstein and Associates offices were housed.
Once I was inside stretched out on the breakroom sofa, I didn’t sleep a wink. All I could think about were those eyes and that laugh that was still rumbling through me. He wasn’t like the boys at school or even the men who were friends of my father. I couldn’t put my finger on it, struggled to find a single word in the English language to adequately describe him.
Sex wasn’t something I had time for. Johnny Caldwell was a mistake I had no intention of repeating with just anyone. But I knew the man with the seductive laugh would have left me with a different outlook if he’d had me first. He drew out this desire in me I hadn’t known was there, a potent yearning for his hands and that mouth to touch me anywhere they could. I now regretted wasting myself with Johnny in a way I hadn’t before, yet I knew if I let that raven-haired god touch me, there would be no coming back from it. How could there be, when he’d left me breathless after the briefest of encounters?
I stared at the ceiling, my eyes adjusted to the dark, every so often checking the time on the green digital display of the microwave clock. My heart wouldn’t settle into a normal rhythm as I worked over why a stranger had had such a profound effect on me. I was smart, but I was at a loss, this sort of thing beyond my realm of knowledge. So I did the only thing I could. I got up, put on a pot of coffee, and focused on something that would actually benefit me…work.