Jaci is pretty desperate to avoid the wet and wandering hands of a lizard-like guest at a movie industry cocktail party so she throws herself at Ryan, hoping that he’ll catch a clue and kiss her back so that the Amphib will leave her alone. She has no idea how much trouble that one kiss lands them in!
This book was so much fun to write…hell, all my books are fun to write!
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Jaci Brookes-Lyon walked across the art deco, ridiculously ornate lobby of the iconic Forrester-Grantham Hotel on Park Avenue to the bank of elevators flanked by life-size statues of 1930s cabaret dancers striking dance poses. She stopped next to one, touching the smooth, cool shoulder with her fingertips.
Sighing through pursed lips, she looked at the dark-eyed blonde staring back at her in the supershiny surface of the elevator doors in front of her. Short, layered hair in a modern pixie cut, classic, fitted cocktail dress, perfect makeup, elegant heels. She looked good, Jaci admitted. Sophisticated, assured and confident. Maybe a tad sedate but that could be easily changed.
What was important was that the mask was in place. She looked like the better, stronger, New York version of herself, the person she wanted to be. She appeared to be someone who knew where she was going and how she was going to get there. Pity, Jaci thought, as she pushed her long bangs out of a smoky eye, that the image was still as substantial as a hologram.
Jaci left the elevator and took a deep breath as she walked across the foyer to the imposing double doors of the ballroom. Here goes, she thought. Stepping into the room packed with designer-dressed men and women, she reminded herself to put a smile on her face and to keep her spine straight. Nobody had to know that she’d rather stroll around Piccadilly Circus naked than walk into a room filled with people she didn’t know. Her colleagues from Starfish were here somewhere. She’d sat with them earlier through the interminably long awards ceremony. Her new friends, Wes and Shona, fellow writers employed by Starfish, had promised to keep her company at her first film industry after-party, and once she found them she’d be fine. Between now and then, she just had to look as if she was having fun or, at the very least, happy to be surrounded by handsome men and su-persophisticated women. Dear Lord, was that Candice Bloom, the multiple Best Actress award winner? Was it unkind to think that she looked older and, dare she even think it, fatter in real life?
Jaci took a glass of champagne from a tray that wafted past her and raised the glass for a taste. Then she clutched it to her chest and retreated to the side of the room, keeping an eye out for her coworkers. If she hadn’t found them in twenty minutes she was out of there. She spent her entire life being a wallflower at her parents’ soirees, balls and dinner parties, and had no intention of repeating the past.
“That ring looks like an excellent example of Georgian craftsmanship.”
Jaci turned at the voice at her elbow and looked down into the sludge-brown eyes of the man who’d stepped up to her side. Jaci blinked at his emerald tuxedo and thought that he looked like a frog in a shiny suit. His thin black hair was pulled back off his forehead and was gathered at his neck in an oily tail, and he sported a silly soul patch under his thin, cruel mouth.
Jaci Brookes-Lyon, magnet for creepy guys, she thought.
He picked up her hand to look at her ring. Jaci tried to tug it away but his grip was, for an amphibian, surprisingly strong. “Ah, as I thought. It’s an oval-faceted amethyst, foiled and claw-set with, I imagine, a closed back. The amethyst is pink and lilac. Exquisite. The two diamonds are old, mid-eighteenth century.”
She didn’t need this dodgy man to tell her about her ring, and she pulled her hand away, resisting the urge to wipe it on her cinnamon-shaded cocktail dress. Ugh. Creep factor: ten thousand.
“Where did you get the ring?” he demanded, and she caught a flash of dirty, yellow teeth.
“It’s a family heirloom,” Jaci answered, society manners too deeply ingrained just to walk off and leave him standing there.
“Are you from England? I love your accent.”
“I have a mansion in the Cotswolds. In the village Ar-lingham. Do you know it?”
She did, but she wouldn’t tell him that. She’d never manage to get rid of him then. “Sorry, I don’t. Would you exc—”
“I have a particularly fine yellow diamond pendant that would look amazing in your cleavage. I can just imagine you wearing that and a pair of gold high heels.”
Jaci shuddered and ruthlessly held down a heave as he ran his tongue over his lips. Seriously? Did that pickup line ever work? She picked his hand off her hip and quickly dropped it.
She wished she could let rip and tell him to take a hike and not give a damn. But the Brookes-Lyon children had been raised on a diet of diplomacy and were masters of the art of telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they immediately started planning the best route to get there. Well, Neil and Meredith were. She normally just stood there with a mouth full of teeth.
Jaci wrinkled her nose; some things never changed.
If she wasn’t going to rip Mr. Rich-but-Creepy a new one—and she wasn’t because she had the confrontational skills of a wet noodle—then she should remove herself, she decided.
“If you leave, I’ll follow you.”
Dear God, now he was reading her mind? “Please don’t. I’m really not interested.”
“But I haven’t told you that I’m going to finance a film or that I own a castle in Germany, or that I own a former winner of the Kentucky Derby,” he whined, and Jaci quickly suppressed her eye roll.
And I will never tell you that my childhood home is a seventeenth-century manor that’s been in my family for over four hundred years. That my mother is a third cousin to the queen and that I am, distantly, related to most of the royal families in Europe. They don’t impress me, so you, with your pretentious attitude, haven’t a chance.
And, just a suggestion, use some of that money you say you have to buy a decent suit, some shampoo and to get your teeth cleaned.
“Excuse me,” Jaci murmured as she ducked around him and headed for the ballroom doors.
As she approached the elevators, congratulating herself on her getaway, she heard someone ordering an elderly couple to get out of the way and she winced as she recognized Toad’s nasally voice. Glancing upward at the numbers above the elevator, she realized that if she waited for it he’d catch up to her and then she’d be caught in that steel box with him, up close and personal. There was no way he’d keep his hands or even—gack!—his tongue to himself. Thanks, but she’d rather lick a lamppost. Tucking her clutch bag under her arm, she glanced left and saw an emergency exit sign on a door and quickly changed direction. She’d run down the stairs; he surely wouldn’t follow.
Stairs, lobby, taxi, home and a glass of wine in a bubble bath. Oh, yes, that sounded like heaven.
“My limousine is just outside the door.”
The voice to her right made her yelp and she whirled around, slapping her hand to her chest. Those sludgy eyes looked feral, as if he were enjoying the thrill of the chase, and his disgusting soul patch jiggled as his wet lips pulled up into a smarmy smile. Dear God, he’d been right behind her and she hadn’t even sensed him. Street smarts, she had none.
Jaci stepped to the side and looked past him to the empty reception area. Jeez, this was a nightmare… If she took the stairs she would be alone with him, ditto the elevators. Her only option was to go back to the ballroom where there were people. Across the room, the elevator doors opened on a discreet chime and Jaci watched as a tall man, hands in the pockets of his tuxedo pants, walked out toward the ballroom. Broad shoulders, trim waist, long legs. His dark hair was tapered, with the top styled into a tousled mess. He had bright, light eyes under dark brows and what she imagined was a three-day-old beard. She knew that profile, that face. Ryan?
Neil’s Ryan? Jaci craned her neck for a better look.
God, it was the grown-up version—and an even more gorgeous version—of that young man she’d known so long ago. Hard, tough, sexy, powerful; a man in every sense of the word. Jaci felt her stomach roll over and her throat tighten as tiny flickers of electricity danced across her skin.
Instant lust, immediate attraction. And he hadn’t even noticed her yet.
And she really needed him to notice her. She called out his name and he abruptly stopped and looked around.
“Limo, outside, waiting.”
Jaci blinked at Mr. Toad and was amazed at his persistence. He simply wasn’t going to give up until he got her into his car, into his apartment and naked. She’d rather have acid-coated twigs shoved up her nose. Seeing Ryan standing there, head cocked, she thought that there was maybe one more thing she could do to de-barnacle herself.
And, hopefully, Ryan wouldn’t object.
Jaci stepped to her right and walked as fast as she possibly could across the Italian marble floor, and as she approached Ryan, she lifted her arms and wound them around his neck. She saw his eyes widen in surprise and felt his hands come to rest on her hips, but before he could speak, she slapped her mouth on his and hoped to dear Lord that he wouldn’t push her away.
His lips were warm and firm beneath hers and she felt his fingers dig into her hips, their heat burning through the fabric of her dress to warm her skin. Her fingers touched the back of his neck, above the collar of his shirt, and she felt tension roll through his body.
Ryan yanked his head back and those penetrating eyes met hers, flashing with an emotion she couldn’t identify. She expected him to push her away, to ask her what the hell she thought she was doing, but instead he yanked her closer and his mouth covered hers again. His tongue licked the seam between her lips and, without hesitation, she opened up, allowing him to taste her, to know her. A strong arm around her waist pulled her flush against him and then her breasts were flat against his chest, her stomach resting against his—hello, Nelly!—erection.
Their kiss might have lasted seconds, minutes, months or years, Jaci had no idea. When Ryan finally pulled his mouth away, strong arms still holding her against him, all she was capable of doing was resting her forehead on his collarbone while she tried to get her bearings. She felt as if she’d stepped away from reality, from time, from the ornate lobby in one of the most renowned hotels in the world and into another dimension. That had never happened to her before. She’d never been so swept away by passion that she felt as if she’d had an out-of-body experience. That it had happened with someone who was little more than a stranger totally threw her.
“Leroy, it’s good to see you,” Ryan said, somewhere above her head. Judging by his even voice, he was very used to being kissed by virtual strangers in fancy hotels. Huh.
“I was hoping that you would be here. I was on my way to find you,” Ryan blithely continued. “Ryan,” Leroy replied.
Knowing she couldn’t stay pressed against Ryan forever—sadly, because she felt as if she belonged there—Jaci lifted her head and tried to wiggle out of his grip. She was surprised when, instead of letting her go, he kept her plastered to his side.
“I see you’ve met my girl.”
Jaci’s head snapped back and she narrowed her eyes as she looked up into Ryan’s urbane face. His girl?
Her mouth fell open. Bats-from-hell, he didn’t remember her name! He had no idea who she was.
Mr. Toad pulled a thin cheroot from the inside pocket of his jacket and jammed it into the side of his mouth. He narrowed his eyes at Jaci. “You two together?”
Jaci knew that she often pulled on her Feisty Girl mask, but she’d never owned an invisibility cloak. Jaci opened her mouth to tell them to stop talking about her as if she wasn’t there, but Ryan pinched her side and her mouth snapped shut. Mostly from indignant surprise. “She’s my girlfriend. As you know, I’ve been out of town and I haven’t seen her for a couple of weeks.”
Weeks, years… Who was counting?
Leroy didn’t look convinced. “I thought that she was leaving.”
“We agreed to meet in the lobby,” Ryan stated, his voice calm. He brushed his chin across the top of her head and Jaci shivered. “You obviously didn’t get my message that I was on my way up, honey.”
Honey? Yep, he definitely didn’t have a clue who she was. But the guy lied with calm efficiency and absolute conviction. “Let’s go back inside.” Ryan gestured to the ballroom.
Leroy shook his head. “I’m going to head out.”
Thank God and all his angels and archangels for small mercies! Ryan, still not turning her loose, held out his right hand for Leroy to shake. “Nice to see you, Leroy, and I look forward to meeting with you soon to finalize our discussions. When can we get together?”
Leroy ignored his outstretched hand and gave Jaci another up-and-down look. “Oh, I’m having second thoughts about the project.”
Project? What project? Why was Ryan doing business with Leroy? That was a bit of a silly question since she had no idea what business Ryan, or the amphib, was in. Jaci sent her brand-new boyfriend an uncertain glance. He looked as inscrutable as ever, but she sensed that beneath his calm facade, his temper was bubbling.
“I’m surprised to hear that. I thought it was a done deal,” Ryan said, his tone almost bored.
Leroy’s smile was nasty. “I’m not sure that I’m ready to hand that much money to a man I don’t know all that well. I didn’t even know you had a girlfriend.”
“I didn’t think that our business deal required that level of familiarity,” Ryan responded.
“You’re asking me to invest a lot of money. I want to be certain that you know what you are doing.”
“I thought that my track record would reassure you that I do.”
Jaci looked from one stubborn face to the other. “The thing is… I have what you want so I suggest that if I say jump, you say how high.”
Jaci sucked in breath, aghast. But Ryan, to his credit, didn’t dignify that ridiculous statement with a response. Jaci suspected that Leroy didn’t have a clue that Ryan thought he was a maggot, that he was fighting the urge to either punch Leroy or walk away. She knew this because his fingers were squeezing her hand so hard that she’d lost all feeling in her digits.
“Come now, Ryan, let’s not bicker. You’re asking for a lot of money and I feel I need more reassurances. So I definitely want to spend some more time with you—” Leroy’s eyes traveled up and down her body and Jaci felt as if she’d been licked by a lizard “—and with your lovely girlfriend, as well. And, in a more businesslike vein, I’d also like to meet some of your key people in your organization.” Leroy rolled his cheroot from one side of his mouth to the other. “My people will call you.”
Leroy walked toward the elevators and jabbed a finger on the down button. When the doors whispered open, he turned and sent them an oily smile.
“I look forward to seeing you both soon,” he said before he disappeared inside the luxurious interior. When the doors closed, Jaci tugged her hand from Ryan’s, noting his thunderous face as he watched the numbers change on the board above the elevator.
“Dammittohellandback,” Ryan said, finally dropping her hand and running his through his short, stylishly messy hair. “The manipulative cretin.”
Jaci took two steps backward and pushed her bangs out of her eye. “Look, seeing you again has been…well, odd, to say the least, but you do realize that I can’t do this?”
“Be my girlfriend?”