More Than Anything
A chance encounter in a deserted stairway leads to a magical Christmas for Hollywood actress Allie Gilbert and enigmatic billionaire Braden Rhodes.
Now, two years after a whirlwind romance, secret wedding, and a hasty separation, they would both rather forget that passionate Christmas when they fell in love…
…but fate has other plans.
It was a small Christmas Eve dinner with delicious food, expensive wine, tasteful holiday music interrupted every so often by the chink of silver and crystal, and under the polished cherrywood formal dining table, somebody’s foot was stroking my leg.
I was seated to the right of the hostess, Anna Douglas, a former model whose sole occupation after becoming the fourth wife of billionaire Henry Douglas was to give dinners and discuss her efforts on the boards of prestigious charities. Opposite me, my date for the night, Lilianna Arden, supermodel and twenty-sixth sexiest woman alive, was deep in a conversation with Anna.
Lilianna caught my gaze and gave me a wide smile. She was a sweet girl, very vain about her looks, uninterested in anything beyond fashion, the next runway appearance, and the luxuries she enjoyed by dating men like me. There was an extra fullness around her lips I hadn’t noticed earlier, and it made me chuckle. For Lilianna, getting work done was something one did as casually as popping into the salon to get a manicure.
She continued talking, but Anna gave me a meaningful smile, holding my gaze as she inched her foot a little higher.
“Will you be in St. Barts for New Year’s? I hear Oleg Gregovich New Year’s Eve party is going to be all the rave this year. Last year, it was in Dubai, at the Burj, far above the clouds. So marvelous, don’t you think?”
I turned from Anna Douglas’s brazen gaze to the woman seated on my other side, columnist Sally Felton. She had been best friends with Henry’s first wife and quickly switched that affection to the latest wife whenever he went through a divorce. She’d been trying to hold my attention all through dinner, but I wasn’t interested enough to wonder why.
I gave her a polite smile. “I don’t know, Sally. I’m far more likely to be working.”
She frowned, bemused. “You’re a billionaire—surely you don’t need to work on New Year’s Eve?”
“Braden is a workaholic,” Henry Douglas boomed from his place at the top of the table. “He reminds me of myself when I was his age.”
“I’m flattered,” I replied with a chuckle, wondering what he would say if he knew what his wife’s foot was doing under the table. There was no point in arguing about the workaholic part. I didn’t know how to be idle. There was always something to be done, and who better to make it happen than the person I trusted a hundred percent, me.
I worked hard, but I also made a point to play, very hard.
Anna’s leg was now inching up my calf. I met her gaze again, and her red lips parted, lifting in a small, sexy smile. She was beautiful, with porcelain skin, wide brown eyes, and gleaming auburn hair, the kind of woman many men would give their eyeteeth for a chance to fuck.
Right under her husband’s nose too.
But I wasn’t many men. Beautiful women throwing themselves at me was not something that excited me anymore. I chewed some more of the exquisitely prepared food and nodded when one of the waiters appeared at my side to refill my wine glass. I imagined that at some point after dinner, Anna would offer to show me the conservatory or a new painting, some excuse to get me into a corner and try to relieve her boredom with a ride on my cock.
Gently, I eased her foot away from my leg, ignoring the petulant frown that immediately stained her pretty face.
“Excuse me,” I told Sally, who was still going on about the party in St. Barts. I got up and made my way out of the formal dining room.
From the hallway, a beautiful paneled stairway led to the upper floors. At the very top, there was a domed ceiling covered with a colorful fresco from which a crystal chandelier dropped about one story. It was a beautiful house, probably one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in the whole world.
I knew my way around enough to easily find the door to the guest bathroom suite just off the hallway. Inside, I faced a large mirror mounted over gold veined marble sinks, smoothed my hair, and stared at my reflection, reluctant to return to the table.
I was bored.
Not just here, with the people at the table. I was bored in the way that couldn’t be relieved by a night with a willing, sexy woman. I was bored in a way that knew there was something more but hadn’t yet gotten a handle on just what it was.
I wasn’t surprised by the knock on the door. I’d known Anna would follow me. She wouldn’t be married to Henry Douglas if she was the kind of woman who gave up easily. The door opened, and there she was, leaning on the doorjamb, her surgically enhanced breasts rising beneath her décolletage like pale, soft cream.
“We’re missing you at the table, Braden.” Her voice was light but husky, artfully cultivated to be sexy and irresistible.
It annoyed me.
“And you came to find me?” I lifted an eyebrow. “What a dedicated hostess you are.”
She slid into the room and closed the door behind her, meeting my gaze in the mirror. “Anything for my guests,” she said lightly, coming to stand right in front of me. “I’m just checking on you. Weren’t you enjoying yourself at dinner?”
There were only a couple of inches between us, and I moved forward, closing the distance. Her chest rose, and the tips of her breasts touched the front of my jacket. “The food was delicious, Anna,” I said softly. “However, I’m afraid I have to leave now. Give your husband my apologies.”
She raised her face to mine, one slim hand finding its way onto my lapel. Her skin was flushed, her breathing fast. “Don’t go,” she whispered. “I can make you feel better.”
It wouldn’t even take much time, I thought. If I wanted, I’d have her moaning and climaxing in a few minutes, and tomorrow she’d have a diamond necklace or bracelet to show my appreciation.
If I wanted.
“Would you prefer for me to bend you over the sink, or maybe you don’t mind the floor?” I drew my fingers lightly over her arm, and she shuddered, her lips parting. With my other hand, I lifted her hem, letting my fingers travel all the way to the top of her thighs. “How about we go back to the table and do it in front of your husband? Maybe he’d like to watch.”
Her glazed expression turned into a frown, and she shook her head. “Don’t be ridiculous, Braden.”
“Sweetheart, the only ridiculous person here is you.” I stepped around her and opened the door. “Go back to your guests. I’m not feeling very much like company tonight.”
I didn’t wait to hear her reply. I strode to the entrance foyer, where one of the house staff handed me my coat. I muttered my thanks and shrugged it on, pulling on my gloves before stepping out into the cold.
There was an awning over the front steps, and I stood there for a moment, looking at the decorations along the street and listening to the faint sounds of tinny Christmas music from speakers I couldn’t see.
Dashing through the snow…
In the few seconds since I’d collected my coat, my driver, McGuire, had been alerted that I was leaving. My car rolled down the street, stopping right in front of me. I walked toward the gleaming black Audi, stopping McGuire with a wave of my hand as he started to exit the car.
“Boss?” His voice always sounded like something out of an eighties western.
“I’m walking,” I told him. “Stay and take Lilianna to her apartment when she’s ready to leave.”
He nodded. “Yes, boss.”
I raised the collar of my coat, pushing my hands into the pockets as I walked. It wasn’t snowing now, but there was a scattering of white on the edge of the sidewalk. I turned a corner and was met with the bright displays of high-end stores. A group of carolers sang beside a nativity scene and last-minute shoppers hurried past me.
I paused to admire the nativity scene, and a man walking behind me slowed too. I recognized him as one the hires from my security team. Of course, it was impossible that McGuire would let me out of his sight without an alternative arrangement.
I kept walking, amused at the effort my bodyguard was making to remain unobtrusive and yet alert. It was almost endearing.
I passed a couple kissing passionately, both bundled up in coats and scarfs. That’s one way to keep warm, I thought, a little jealous of their passion.
Just before I reached the entrance of my building, a marble residential edifice that had marked my arrival on the Manhattan real estate scene, a drunk Santa staggered close to me.
“Merry Christmas!” he roared.
“Merry Christmas,” I replied with a chuckle, edging around him. Across the street from the building, a few people were standing in the cold, armed with cameras. A couple of lazy flashes greeted my arrival, and I ignored them, heading straight for the doors, which opened from inside as I approached.
The lobby was warm and bright, with a large tree twinkling and winking in a prime position opposite the reception desk.
“How’s it going, Will?” I asked the night doorman.
He held up his hands and shrugged. “So-so. David Hurst is having a party, and I have never seen so many movie stars in the flesh all at once.”
“Good for you,” I replied, pulling off my gloves. So that was why there were paps camped outside. David Hurst was an award-winning Hollywood producer with at least three successful franchises to his name. He lived on the floor just below my apartment and liked to have parties whenever he was in the city. “The paps will be here all night,” I observed.
“I don’t like them,” Will said, “but it’s a rough way to spend Christmas Eve.”
Standing at the door all night can’t be much fun either, I thought, resolving to supplement the Christmas presents the building manager arranged for the staff with something extra for him, a generous gift card for a bookstore maybe. The doorman loved to read and collect books.
“Merry Christmas, Will,” I told him, shrugging off my coat. As I walked farther inside, my bodyguard entered the lobby, and I gestured to him.
“There’s a Starbucks at the corner,” I told him. “Get someone to order coffee for the photographers outside. Tell them it’s from an anonymous Samaritan.”
He snorted. “They’re vultures.”
I kept my eyes on him, and he stiffened, nodded, and hurried off to carry out my instructions.
People learned very quickly not to second-guess me. He would learn, or he’d be gone.
I passed a few people as I headed across the lobby, residents and guests, a few familiar faces that hinted at movie or TV appearances. Some of the women let their gazes linger. I ignored them and made for the dedicated elevator that went straight to my apartment. In seconds, it had deposited me in my foyer. I left my coat and went to the bar to pour myself a drink.
The apartment was empty. It was Christmas, after all, and most of the people who worked with me were gone for the holidays.
Armed with my scotch, I crossed the living room. It was tastefully decorated, designed by a world-renowned architect and a sought-after interior designer. Every piece of furniture was of the highest quality, every painting beautiful and perfectly suited to the space.
I walked over to a glass-walled nook that housed a gleaming Steinway and gazed at the view, then almost absently, I opened a large panel of glass. Immediately, the cold wind lashed at my face as noise from below floated up to my ears. It came from David Hurst’s apartment, reminding me of the party. There was a large patio attached to his living room. In the summer and spring, it bloomed with a wide assortment of plants; now, it was empty except for two ardent partygoers who’d decided to brave the cold for privacy and were now devouring each other in one corner of the patio.
I turned away. It was Christmas Eve, and I was alone. I felt like was missing something, but I couldn’t put my finger on it, whatever it was.
My eyes went back to the couple a few floors below—they were having sex now, pressed against a wall, and my body hardened just a little, an instinctive response to the wantonness going on below. I thought of Anna Douglas and her invitation, of Lilianna, who would be with me if I’d bothered to ask her to come, ready and eager to satisfy any and all of my desires.
There was nothing exciting about the thought.
I closed the pane of glass and went back to the bar. I started to refill my drink then stopped. I was alone, with no idea what to do. I had planned to work through the holidays, strategizing plans for the new year, but the thought wasn’t palatable anymore.
I went to my closet and stripped off my formal evening clothes, replacing them with black pants and a black sweater over a Henley. On my way to the foyer, I stopped and turned toward the kitchen and the entrance to the stairway. Where I was going, I didn’t need security creeping after me. I didn’t want a helicopter announcing my arrival. A two-hour drive followed by a night of solitude seemed like a better way to spend Christmas than watching people having fun and wondering why I wasn’t.
I’d been ready to escape the party from the moment I arrived, but my publicist had made me promise to spend a few hours at least. “Talk to people,” he’d begged, his innocent blues eyes earnest. He used that sweet, little-boy expression to deceive the unsuspecting world and got away with it every time, but Sean Collard was anything but innocent and earnest. He was a hound, the best at what he did: crafting public images for famous people.
I still wasn’t convinced I needed any image crafting. I liked to act. I also liked to stay home with trashy novels and entertaining TV shows. My interests were those of most people my age, but apparently, me being a regular twenty-five-year-old wasn’t good enough for the public.
What exactly was good enough for the public?
Across the street, a rabid crowd of paparazzi was camped out, waiting for me to leave the party so they could take more pictures. The required images of me stepping out of the limo with my co-star and supposed real-life love interest Guy Fletcher had obviously not been enough.
If I went outside hopelessly drunk and flashed them my tits, would they be satisfied and leave me alone for the night? A couple of days? Probably not. They’d follow me all the way to my hotel and bribe the service staff in the hope of finding something more…something the public would devour while deploring my descent from the throne as America’s newest, sweetest sweetheart.
“Sweetheart, have another drink.” It was David Hurst, genius director of many box office hits with two Oscars already under his belt. He was in his late thirties with a thin, hawk-like face and sharp eyes that gave the impression that he never missed a thing. Though I was sure he had missed a lot on this particular night, like his beautiful, surgically enhanced wife disappearing through the balcony doors with a young male model. I wondered if he would care if he knew; he seemed more interested in the champagne and the activity that had left a telltale dusting of white powder around his nostrils.
“I’m good,” I replied. “I just need the bathroom.”
“Over there,” David said, without pointing in any specific direction. I watched him walk a few steps to join a group of guests gathered around a large concert piano where a TV star was singing a slow rendition of a Christmas carol while playing perfect notes on the majestic instrument.
I waited until the performance was over and joined in the applause before abandoning that part of the room. I crossed an archway that led into yet another large living room where a beautifully decorated Christmas tree held pride of place in the middle of the room. There were snippets of conversation all around me.
“Apparently, he was fucking the maid, the nanny, and the piano teacher—who’s a man, by the way.”
“How exciting! Do you know who did his eyes? I know he had something done.”
“She’s an asshole in the worst possible way. No talent whatsoever, but she gives good head.”
“My therapist says I’m suicidal over my Oscar snub. She hasn’t met my wife.”
I didn’t have time to look in the direction of whoever called my name before I was pulled into strong arms and pressed against a male body that smelled heavily of cologne and booze. Thomas Kane, pop bad boy turned actor. He held me close, shoving his hips forward in a way that made his arousal was unmistakable as his hand drifted toward my butt. I slapped it away.
“Ally,” he crooned, unfazed. “It’s so good to see you.”
I pushed him away. We’d known each other in the early days of our careers, but since he’d become a big deal, so many girls had fallen into his lap he was convinced he just needed to flash a little cock in a woman’s direction and she’d be all wet and ready to ride.
“Tom.” My voice held a note of warning.
He grinned. “It’s me, your friend. It’s been too long. Let’s catch up. Let’s leave this dead party.”
He slurred the last few words, and I ducked my head under his shoulder, abandoning the archway and making for the first door I saw. It opened into a large kitchen, where some wait staff were bustling around. I ignored their curious stares.
From the kitchen, another door opened into a short hallway. There was a service elevator and a door that led to the stairs. I considered the elevator, mapping out my journey to the underground parking, finding a cab to my hotel…I’d likely be recognized before I made it that far, and it would turn into a hassle pretty quickly.
It was probably better to hide out in the stairway. Someone would come looking for me soon enough, but at least for a few minutes, I would be by myself.
I jogged briskly down the steps. It was just a little bit cold inside the concrete stairway, but it didn’t matter because of how rarely they were used.
Just before I’d left the apartment, Lilianna had called, unhappy about being left behind at the Douglases’ party, unhappy I’d instructed the driver to take her home instead of to my apartment, mad when I’d told her as gently as I could over the phone that it was better if we stopped seeing each other.
I dismissed her from my mind. She would find someone else soon enough, rich enough to afford her expensive requirements, maybe even interested enough to marry her and set her up for life.
I slowed down, wondering when my thoughts had become so jaded. There had probably been a time when I used to think the best of people, before I built a career in tech investment banking, before making billions with my own private equity firm. I’d seen the worst of people in the later part of my twenty-nine years, and it had colored my perspective.
Maybe I just needed some sweetness in my life.
I turned to go down the fourth flight and ground to a stop when I saw a figure seated midway down the stairs, facing away from me.
Waves of gleaming gold hair covered her neck and were swept over one shoulder to reveal the perfection of her bare back, arms, and shoulders. Even as she sat, I could see the hints of her sensational figure in the cut of her soft pink gown, the slim waist and the gently flaring hips.
I forgot what I was doing on the stairs, inexplicably drawn to the figure in front of me. Was she a guest at the party? It was very likely. What was she doing out here? Was she drunk? Or worse, crying in the privacy of the stairwell? I couldn’t decide whether to walk past her or just return to my apartment, somehow hesitant to disturb her solitude.
She raised a small hand to smooth her hair, and there was something vaguely familiar about the gesture. I frowned as it occurred to me that I’d been standing and watching her for far too long. Maybe she was waiting for someone, a boyfriend, in which case she wouldn’t be too grateful that I was standing there gawking at her.
I took a step forward, and the noise alerted her. She turned around, her eyes wide and startled.
I froze and reached for the handrail to steady myself against the force of her stunning emerald gaze. Recognition flooded me, followed by wonder, and for a moment I completely forgot who and where I was.
God, she was so fucking beautiful.
More so in the flesh than on screen. Her face was heart-shaped, with a delightfully pointed chin below full pink lips with a perfect Cupid’s bow. Her nose was small and straight, her eyebrows perfectly arched, but it was her eyes—those twin pools of cool, burning verdant—that made me unable to look away.
I stared, breathless, a memory of the first time I’d seen her face coming unbidden into my mind from a movie premiere I’d attended with a woman I could barely remember now. She had transfixed me, and throughout the movie, I’d been unable to take my eyes off her perfection.
Sexiest woman alive.
I realized I probably looked like an idiot, frozen and just staring at her. I couldn’t remember ever feeling so awkward around a woman, and I’d been around some of the most beautiful and sophisticated women in the world. I tried to tear my eyes from her face, but a stubborn part of me decided the loss would be too much. I wanted to look my fill, to drink in the beauty in front of me.
She cocked her head to one side and gave me a measuring look. A small frown flitted over her stunning face, and her eyes stayed on mine for a long moment of silence then her lips curved slowly.
I tried to smile back, but it felt like I had forgotten how. How was I supposed to react to running into a movie star in an empty stairwell? I’d never been interested in Hollywood people much. The faces usually came and went as the world gained and lost interest.
She, however, had been on the cover of every newspaper and magazine for the past year, words like ingénue, multitalented, and extraordinary beauty repeatedly used to describe her. She had been compared to every movie star of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and I could see now that neither the comparisons nor the praise had done her justice. She was too extraordinary for description, and I felt lost just looking at her.
“Seriously, you have to stop staring at me like that, or else I’m going to start thinking there’s something wrong with the way I look.” She sounded amused, and her voice was light and soft, making me think of satin sheets, of her naked body splayed over those sheets, her moans of pleasure sounding in my ears.
It took some effort to get rid of the explicit thoughts. “I’m sorry,” I said, wondering why I was so affected, so off balance. “I didn’t expect to find anybody here.”
“I was counting on that,” she said with a shrug of those slender shoulders. “Nobody being here, I mean. I got tired of all the noise and the partying.”
Of course, she had been at David Hurst’s party. That would explain the number of paps outside the building¬—people couldn’t get enough of her. A picture of her doing anything, even something as mundane as walking to the store, was in high demand long before it was taken.
“You weren’t at the party,” she stated, peering intently at me. I almost got lost in her voice again. When I’d heard it on screen, I’d convinced myself it was fake, a contrived whisper she put on for the cameras. Now, listening to her talk, so close to me, it felt real, even softer, lighter, more arousing.
I let out a soft breath, willing away the ache of arousal. I’d never wanted for a woman’s companionship in my life. I wasn’t vain, but I knew I was good-looking and rich—very rich—so there was no reason on earth that I should be feeling like an awkward teenager around any woman.
“No, I wasn’t,” I said in reply to her question.
“I thought so. I would have noticed you.”
I was silent, sad in a way I couldn’t quite explain. It was undoubtedly something most men felt when they met her, the realization that she would probably never be theirs. It was a feeling I wasn’t familiar with, but with her, somehow, I knew in my gut she wouldn’t throw herself at me just because of my money, and even if I pursued her for the rest of my life, she wouldn’t budge unless she really wanted to be with me.
Even though I’d only just met her, I knew I wanted that, almost desperately.
“You live here then?” It was a question. “You’re not one of the press trying to trick me into saying something for the headlines?”
I laughed, amused at the thought. “No, I live here.” I own the building, I almost added. Even though I was sure that wouldn’t impress her, I still felt the urge to try.
“I hope you’re not offended,” she said. “I just…you never know.”
“I understand. I’m not offended.” It was unlikely that anything she said would ever be enough to offend me.
“It used to be fun when they’d burst out of a hedge to take a picture. Now it terrifies me how they can appear everywhere. These days I check under the bed in hotel rooms.” We both laughed, and then she patted the seat beside her and looked up at me, one eyebrow raised in a silent question. “Won’t you join me?”
I didn’t need to be asked twice. I took the offered seat and stretched my legs two steps below. Her legs were bare, her pretty feet together, her toes painted a glossy nude, and her shoes, beautiful and uncomfortable-looking stilettos, were lying on a lower step. I imagined her legs in them anyway, long, bare and sexy…I took a deep breath and turned my gaze back to her face.
She was looking at me, her head cocked to one side, a small smile playing on her lips. “Why aren’t you spending Christmas with your family?”
“My family?” I shook my head. “My parents are vacationing in Europe. I had no desire to travel that far.”
She grinned. “I’m an awful flirt,” she said. “I should have asked if you were married since that’s what I really wanted to know anyway so…hey, I know we just met, and I don’t even know your name yet, but you’re kinda hot, and I want to know—are you married?”
Hot. She thought I was hot. “I’m not married,” I assured her quickly. I spared a small thought for Lilianna but I quickly dismissed it. We’d only been together for a short while, and it had never been a relationship in any real sense. “I’m very single at the moment.”
Allie raised perfect brows. “At the moment?”
I shrugged. “Well…”
She pursed her lips. “You’re a playboy?” Her voice was serious, but her eyes were teasing.
“I have no idea what that word means,” I replied with a smile.
She gave me a look from under long lashes. “It means manwhore, ladies’ man, womanizer, philanderer…” She drew the last word out, putting in a dramatic touch, obviously trying to keep herself from laughing.
“I’m not any of those things,” I said frankly, “but I do love women…and pleasure.” Our eyes held, and blood and heat rushed down to my groin. I swallowed, watching as her beautiful pink lips parted like a silent invitation to cover them with a kiss. My whole body tensed and then too quickly, she looked away.
“My parents are abroad too. They’re doctors spending this Christmas working in Bolivia so…” She shrugged.
There was an unmistakable note of loneliness in her voice. I thought of the thousands of screaming fans who would give their limbs to spend Christmas Eve with her, and yet, she was alone. “Well, I’m glad you’re here right now, with me, on these stairs.”
“Thank you.” She smiled then suddenly added, “I’m Allie Gilbert.”
“I know that.”
“Okay.” She chuckled. “You know they say all actresses of the same age look alike. We’re all surgically enhanced to fit into one boring mold of Hollywood beauty. I just wanted to be sure you didn’t think you were talking to someone else.”
My eyes drifted to her lips again, and I swallowed. “I’m sure nobody else looks like you.”
She smiled. “What’s your name?”
“Braden,” I told her. “Braden Rhodes.”
“Oh!” She frowned. “Oh…” she repeated the word, her brows going up. “Wow! Oh my God!”
I paused. “OhmyGod good or ohmyGod bad?”
“OhmyGod I can’t believe I’m sitting in a stairwell talking to Braden Rhodes. This is insane.”
At least she knew who I was. “It’s not that insane when I live here.”
“You probably own the building.”
I nodded. “I do.”
She shook her head. “You’re definitely not an ordinary guy.”
“Is that something you’re particular about?” I asked, holding her gaze. “Ordinariness?”
She held my eyes, the sparkling green of hers drawing me in until all I could think about was how her body would feel against mine. Then she looked away, choosing not to answer my question.
“I was reading about you a few days ago,” she said, changing the subject. “Gilt Homes—there was an article about one of your homes. There was no picture of you. There are hardly ever any pictures of you. If there were, I’m sure I would have recognized you before you told me your name.”
I wasn’t very fond of having my picture taken. “You mean Gracie House,” I said. I’d allowed the magazine to do a showcase on the newly restored mansion.
“Built as a holiday home for Gracie Asquith by her industrialist husband,” Allie smiled. “I love historic homes and some of the stories behind them. Kykuit, Rosecliff, The Breakers…I’ve visited most of them. You did a great job with Gracie. The pictures were lovely.”
“Would you like to see it?” I asked on impulse. “I could give you a personal tour.”
“You’re smooth,” she said with a small chuckle, but then she paused. “You’re serious?”
“I was already on my way over there,” I told her, hoping more than anything that she would say yes.
She paused for a long moment, her eyes searching my face. She took a soft breath and nodded. “Yes, I’ll come—if you can get me past the photographers outside.
I stood and held out my hand. Her hand found its place in mine, fitting perfectly and sending a tingle of awareness through me. I met her gaze, trying not to be unnerved by how much she affected me.
“Well,” I said. “What are we waiting for?”
The hard part was descending the stairway. Braden gave me his jacket, and I followed him down the many flights until we were out of breath as we stumbled into the underground parking.
I spared less than half a thought for the fact that I was leaving alone with a practical stranger. There was something about him that made me feel as if I wouldn’t mind going anywhere with him.
I’d felt him behind me on the stairwell, and when I’d turned around and met his beautiful blue-eyed gaze, it had felt like…magic, like a jolt of recognition inside me.
He was handsome, so handsome it was almost disorienting to look at him. Waves of silky black hair framed his face, just long enough to touch his collar. Deep blue eyes made me feel like he could pierce my soul with them. His nose was strong and finely cut, and his lips made me want to kiss them just to find out if they would feel as good as they looked.
His body didn’t disappoint either. He towered over me, his simple black clothing showing off broad shoulders and a litheness that pointed to an active, fit lifestyle. I knew his body would be hard and ripped under his clothes, and I didn’t care that just a few moments after meeting him, I was almost desperate to find out just how much.
I spent a lot of time around neurotic, vain, vapid men, but he was so different it was refreshing. He seemed like someone who knew who he was and what he was doing. He wasn’t eager to fill the air with the sound of his voice, and that was enough for me.
His name didn’t surprise me. Somehow, seeing him standing there, I’d recognized the demeanor of a man who made a success out of everything he touched.
Now, he led me to a gleaming black Vulcan, a beautiful car, powerful, like the man who would be driving it. Braden opened the door to the back seat and faced me.
“You have to keep your head down so the paps out on the street won’t see you.”
Temporarily mesmerized by his eyes, it took me a moment to reply. “I know the drill,” I replied, feeling a little tension in my belly as our bodies brushed, just a little.
I imagined what it would feel like to be crushed to his beautiful body, to feel his hands and fingers on me… Heat warmed my belly, and I lowered myself into the cool leather interior of the car. The seats were soft and almost creamy. In LA, I sometimes drove a Ferrari, a blood red machine that went from zero to one eighty in ten seconds. It had been expensive. I loved it, but in no way did it compare to the luxury of Braden’s obviously customized car.
He got into the driver’s seat and looked back at me as I lay with his jacket covering me. His gaze was somehow tender and full of concern. “You’re comfortable?”
He turned and started the car, making it purr to life before maneuvering it into the brightly lit street outside. I could hear the faint sounds of Christmas carols. I imagined the photographers losing interest in the car as soon as they decided it wasn’t occupied by a celebrity—not that Braden didn’t look like one. With the defined angle of his jaw and the faultlessness of his profile, he was what you imagined movie stars looked like in the flesh.
I watched him as he drove, his fingers holding the wheel lightly but firmly. He spared me a quick glance and caught me staring.
“I think we’re clear.”
I rose and looked around. We were still in the city, but there was no sign of relentless photographers. I heaved a sigh of relief, feeling free for the first time in a long time. No one knew where I was—not my agent, not my publicist, my assistant, or my manager. No one knew, and it filled me with a sense of joy I couldn’t describe. “How long till we get there?”
“With the weather, maybe three hours. The roads should be clear.” He paused. “Do you want to come over to the front?”
I scooted between the seats to the front passenger seat and settled in, pulling the belt across and fastening it. Braden gaped at me with something that looked like a mixture of shock and admiration. “That was incredibly unsafe,” he said with a dry chuckle.
“I know.” I shrugged. “But I didn’t want you to stop and have someone catch a glimpse of me. Don’t worry.” I smiled at him. “You know those rumors about me doing some of my own stunts?”
He laughed, a deep warm sound that made me curl my toes. “You really are something else,” he said softly.
“I am,” I agreed.
He smiled at me, and my heart skipped a beat. When he faced the road again, a feeling of pleasure unfurled in my chest, along with a smile I couldn’t wipe off my face.