Cinderella for the Miami Playboy
His housekeeper in the spotlight…
Or his irresistible Cinderella?
Bianca Palmer’s world hasn’t been the same since going into hiding for her own protection. After taking work as a housekeeper, she’s shocked to discover her boss is Everett Drake—the man she shared a mesmerizing encounter with six months ago!
Face-to-face, their attraction immediately flares back to life. And when their relationship is suddenly exposed, a pretend romance with playboy Everett will protect Bianca by distracting the press. But will it risk her wanting more from this billionaire with so many secrets?
Cinderella steps into the glamour of the spotlight in this fake relationship romance by USA TODAY bestselling author Dani Collins.
Fun fact: Everett first appeared in Confessions of an Italian Marriage. The books stand alone, but if you want more Everett, look there.
Cinderella for the Miami Playboy
"Do not steal my car. That would annoy me and I am already very annoyed."
— Everett, Cinderella for the Miami Playboy
When I opened Confessions of an Italian Marriage, I needed someone to trigger Freja into running away from the wedding shop. It couldn’t be the hero, Giovanni. He uses a wheelchair so he couldn’t very well chase her down on busy Milan streets. In fact, Giovanni needed someone who drew him into the underworld of espionage and represented the pull that Giovanni still had to that life.
Enter Everett. He was only supposed to hang around for a few key scenes, but he and Giovanni had such a fun dynamic, I wound up making him into hero material. In fact, I broke convention for the epilogue for Confessions. It was in Everett’s point of view!
As soon as it hit the shelves, I began getting inquiries. Would Everett get his own story?
Heck yes. Here it is. But boy was he troublesome to write. Not only was he very mysterious, requiring three heavy rewrites, his heroine Bianca has a very complicated life. Oh, and of course I had to bring Giovanni and Freja onto the page. And my editors had to gently suggest I not write a book about them and maybe stick to Everett and Bianca. (Three rewrites. I wish I was joking.)
But I’m so happy with the result. I hope you will be too!
share this excerpt!
Cinderella for the Miami Playboy
New York, six months ago…
Everett Drake was in the worst possible mood for a man like him. He was bored. Bored was one step away from making trouble purely to stay awake.
You’re lucky. You’ll enjoy it, had been the refrain from the few people who knew of his retirement. I’m so glad you’re out of it, his mother had said of the end of his career handling agents and informants for the U.S. Government.
He was not glad. He was livid. Men twice his age moved to Miami to tinker with cars. He was in the prime of his life and ought to be doing something more meaningful, but he couldn’t. Wouldn’t. He was punishing himself and that was as it should be. He would live quietly. Authentically. The way normal people lived.
Well, normal people with buckets of wealth from multiple sources. Given his deep pockets, he could do anything he wanted, even be the dissolute playboy he had used as his cover for the last fifteen years.
Nothing about any of that appealed, though. Not the travel, not the parties. It was all empty as hell. He couldn’t even race cars or hydrofoils. His mother would drag him out by the collar and run him over herself.
Given his current ennui, that didn’t sound half-bad.
He gave up his overnight bag to the flight attendant as he climbed aboard the executive jet. The automotive parts he’d come to New York to source himself—because he was that desperate for something to do—were already stowed below.
Old habits had him glancing at the manifest to read the names of his fellow passengers. Only one. Bianca Palmer. The name was unfamiliar, and it didn’t matter, he reminded himself. He was no longer on guard against those who might seek to unmask him, or digging to find those who carried secrets like smuggled cargo.
He stepped into the main cabin, glanced at the woman in the luxury armchair on the left and a thousand impressions hit him at once, many of them the visceral reaction of a healthy male spotting an apparently fertile female. Alluring curves on a lithe build. Slender calves beneath a narrow skirt. Her ankles were crossed carefully to avoid scuffing her designer shoes. Her silk blouse was open at her throat, providing a view of her honey-gold upper chest, unadorned by any chain or locket.
That other more analytic part of him noted that her clothes were priced comparably to the bespoke suit and Italian shoes he wore. He judged her age at seven or eight years younger than his thirty-five. She was a professional, but not in a conservative career like banking. Something creative, given the way her rich brunette hair was side-parted and woven into a braid from one ear around the back of her head to the other, ending in a wavy waterfall behind her hoop earring.
She understood the value of appearances and how a style like that conveyed an eye for beauty and attention to detail. Sophisticated makeup emphasized her features. Bronze dusted her eyelids and playful cat tails decorated the corners of her eyes. Her complexion was a flawless, golden tan, almost olive. Her nose held an elegant curve at the bridge and her jawline was strong yet very feminine. Merlot-colored lipstick coated her wide mouth, glossy enough that her lips looked kiss-dampened and pillowy. Inviting.
Her dark chocolate gaze lifted absently from dropping something into her handbag and locked with his for no reason other than that they were sexually compatible. He wasn’t coy about such things. He had been told many times he was handsome, and he had zero problems dressing well and shaving daily to heighten that impression. She was vibrant and beautiful, and chemistry was a wonderful thing when it struck both parties equally, as it was doing right now.
A satisfying billow of desire moved through his chest like smoke before sinking into his belly and groin.
He watched her throat flex as she swallowed. Her eyes widened slightly before her gaze flickered all over him like an indecisive butterfly, leaving tickling touches at his shoulders and the middle of his chest, on to his tense abdomen and lower, following the sharp crease in his trousers to his freshly shined shoes.
As her gaze made its way back, the delicious tightness of arousal invaded the flesh behind his fly and climbed his spine, releasing an urge to pursue into his blood.
“Good morning,” he greeted.
“Good morning.” Her voice held a husky note. He wasn’t sure if it was natural or because they were having such an effect on each other. She dropped her gaze into her lap, where she was twisting her fingers.
A fresh impression struck him like a slap, one that was an even sharper cat nip than carnal hunger. He read tension, vulnerability, wariness. Secrets.
The hair on the back of his neck lifted, and there was a tang in his nostrils like the whiff off an extinguished match.
His ability to scent danger had kept him and others alive more often than he could count—and that one time when he had ignored it—
He brushed that incident aside, staying in the moment because that’s how you stayed alive when this happened, but his sexual interest had collided straight into that part of him he had severed like a limb. The part that chased intrigue and answers and knew that knowledge was power. The part that liked that power and enjoyed skating on the edge of icy cliffs.
He was an addict. That’s what he was. Whatever was going on with this woman was nothing to do with him. Ignore her. Go live your life, he ordered himself.
What life, though? The banality of his existence was likely to kill him quicker than his old life might have, but he had made his choices. He would live with the consequences.
“May I bring champagne? Mimosas?” The flight attendant arrived behind him and accepted the jacket he removed.
“Nothing for me, thank you,” Bianca said in her sensual voice.
“Coffee,” Everett requested, and seated himself across from her, resisting the urge to swivel his chair so he could see her better. Not for him. Not today. Not ever.
Bianca turned her face to the window and knotted her hands in her lap.
Ringless hands, Everett noted. Why couldn’t there be a band or a diamond there? He would have dismissed his attraction without another thought. Even in his previous life, he only lied as much as he absolutely had to. Entangling himself with a woman who happened to be cheating on her partner fell into unnecessary deceit.
But given the absence of rings or last-minute texting or chatty I love yous before switching to airplane mode, his libido urged him to make a pass. He didn’t get nearly as much sex as the profligate playboy he pretended to be. If she was amenable, why the hell shouldn’t he spend a night with her? He could stay at a hotel rather than take her home. Keep it to one night.
Just one drink. Just dinner. Just enough to find out what her story was.
It truly was the rationalization of someone with a substance abuse problem. Just no.
He was so damned aware of her, though. It was as if he sat next to a radiator that softly pinged as it baked his right side.
The ladder came up and the seal of the door locked them into a bubble of charged air. He knew she was chewing her bottom lip. Her head was still tilted toward the window, but he knew she was as aware of him as he was of her. A special sort of tension emanated off her. He knew she was sliding surreptitious glances from the corner of her eye because he was doing the same.
Nope, nope, nope.
Was he even reading her correctly? Or was his latent horniness tasting all this electricity and turning it into something it wasn’t? Maybe she was just a nervous flyer.
As the plane taxied and the attendant buckled into her own seat for takeoff, he remarked, “I use this charter company all the time. These jets are very reliable. You won’t feel any turbulence.”
In fact, he owned shares in the company. In his previous life, he would volunteer a detail like that. He had always liked to nurture the impression his fortune was inherited, passive and mildly obnoxious. That way he avoided inconvenient questions about what he did for a living. People presumed “nothing.”
That’s exactly what he did now, but he balked at this woman viewing him as shallow and aimless. He wasn’t sure why. It rarely bothered him what anyone thought of him.
She shot him a culpable glance, seeming briefly rattled before she visibly took hold of herself, stacking her hands and relaxing her shoulders, pasting on a smile.
“Am I that obvious?”
Wow. That blanket of false calm was such a deliberate application of control, as though she were sitting in a high-stakes poker game and realized she was betraying herself with a tell. His most sharply honed synapses fired in his brain.
Definitely not this one, his logic brain said firmly.
His lizard brain shifted his ankle onto his knee, hiding the fact he was growing hard. She was caressing all his buttons with that serene mask that disguised a mystery and the way her breath subtly hitched, causing her breasts to quiver.
“Allow me to distract you,” he suggested. Because if he was going to fall off the wagon, it ought to be with premium, hundred-year-old Scotch, right? Look at her. “Are you heading to Miami for business or pleasure? Visiting family?”
He didn’t like to waste time, he informed her with a sideways pull of his mouth, but how could she be surprised? Women with that much sex appeal were inundated with advances. They knew how to shut them down very quickly and he always respected that, but he found himself holding his breath as he awaited her reaction.
She blinked in disconcertion, and her finger and thumb worked the spot at the base of her naked ring finger as she considered how to handle his attention.
Ah. There was no ring, but there was a commitment in place, one that typically shielded her from sexual interest. Pity.
It was for the best—he knew it was—but he couldn’t remember ever feeling his inner animal rising so urgently with desire. He made himself sip his hot coffee to burn away the pall of disappointment in the back of his throat.
She didn’t mention a partner, however. Nor did she grasp at the armrest or show any sort of nerves as the engine roar grew and the plane gathered speed. She seemed perfectly relaxed as they were pressed into their seats by the climbing jet.
He didn’t take credit for taking her mind off her trepidation, though. Flying wasn’t what she was afraid of. He knew that in his gut, but all his willpower seemed to have been left on the ground. His entire being was awake and alive in a way he hadn’t been in months.
“I’m not sure how to answer,” she confided as they leveled off, forcing his mind back to the question he’d asked. “It’s a little bit of all of those. Business, pleasure and family. My grandmother passed recently.”
“I’m sorry,” he said politely.
“I didn’t know her,” she dismissed, but the corners of her mouth briefly tilted down. “She stopped speaking to my mother when Mom got pregnant and wasn’t married. We reached out a few times, but we never heard back. Then, out of the blue, I got a letter saying my grandmother had left me her apartment. I’m going to Miami to sell it.”
Her glance reflected resignation and… Damn. He knew that cagey look. She was hoping he was satisfied with what she’d given him. She was holding something back.
They were strangers, though. Sometimes that allowed a person to open up without reserve, but not all the time. Family was complicated, and convoluted stories didn’t always reap useful information. He left room for her to elaborate by saying, “That sounds troubling.”
“It is. Thank you for acknowledging that.” Her brows came together with annoyance. “Everyone seems to think I’ve won the lottery. All I can think is that I would have preferred a relationship with her. I mean, she didn’t even send me a card when her daughter died, but she made me her beneficiary? That’s bizarre, isn’t it?”
Perhaps that was the source of her tension. Her conscience must be bothered by accepting a windfall from someone who had hurt her mother.
“You can never be sure why someone holds others at arm’s length. Shame. Anger. Secrets.” Self-loathing. Guilt. Everett eschewed intimate relationships for all of those reasons.
“I know, but…” Her mouth twisted with frustration.
This time, as their gazes met, a deeper curiosity crept into her expression, one that stoked the heat in his gut. Her attention strayed over his clean-shaven face again and reassessed his shoulders and chest and thighs, all of which he ruthlessly kept in fighting form.
She tellingly eyed his left hand, which bore neither ring nor tan line.
Everett had tried long-term relationships. They had always withered from neglect, mostly due to work getting in the way. He had all the time in the world now, though, and a soft blush of attraction had risen under her skin, one that pleased him immensely as did the implied interest in her next words.
“And you? Why are you going to Miami?”
I live there. That’s what he should have said, but old instincts had him prevaricating.
“There’s a yacht I’m thinking of buying. I’m only in town the one night—” He always liked to be clear about his limitations and in this case, he should have shut his mouth ten minutes ago, but there was a war going on inside him. He knew, he knew not to ignore the way his scalp was tightening, but his interest in her was galloping like a wild stallion, determined to catch her and have her.
Lust won over logic.
“I’ll be free by six and dining alone unless you’d like to join me?”
Her head tilted as she considered his invitation. For one second, he had the impression of looking in a mirror. She was definitely hiding more than she was revealing.
Tension invaded his muscles. He ought to be hoping for a rebuff. It rarely happened, but when it did, it didn’t bother him. If she turned him down, however, he would be more than disappointed. He’d be thwarted.
Her guardedness relaxed a few notches as she offered a shy smile. “I would like that.” She leaned out to offer her hand. “I’m Bianca, by the way.”
As he took her hand, a punch of desire struck his middle. Her breath caught as though she experienced a similar impact. He swept his thumb across the back of her knuckles before releasing her, absorbing the fact she posed a type of danger he hadn’t ever experienced.
He really should retract and retreat. This was madness.
“Everett,” he provided. “I’ll make a reservation at my hotel.”
Present day, Miami
Bianca Palmer had what anyone would consider an ideal job, especially when one was hiding from the law, reporters and the white-collar criminals she had implicated when she had blown the whistle on them.
She hadn’t known what to expect when she had pulled a number off the We Can Find You Work flyer at the bodega near the sketchy room she’d been renting by the week, but Miami had a thriving underground economy. There were tons of companies that placed undocumented workers in domestic positions. Her desire for cash-only employment hadn’t raised any eyebrows and when she had offered a generous bonus for “extra privacy,” the manager had taken her payoff as a sweetener and sent her to interview for this cushy gig.
Despite the blue pixie cut she’d given herself when she had abandoned her old life, she’d been terrified she would be recognized, so she had also worn gray contacts and appropriated an old school friend’s Puerto Rican accent. After spinning a story about supporting her ailing grandmother, she had landed the position.
She lived in the pool house of a mansion on Miami’s Indian Creek. It wasn’t the most extravagant house in the neighborhood, but it was very swanky with two cabanas next to its free-form pool, five bedrooms in the main house, nine baths, a home theater and an elevator to a rooftop bar. The six-car garage held a motorcycle, an SUV, a modern sports car in pristine condition and two vintage ones in different states of restoration. The last bay was taken up with shelves of tools and parts.
Those fancy cars, virtually the only personal items she’d seen here, were extremely well protected. Every door and window of the house was wired and alarmed. A high brick wall surrounded the property and surveillance cameras monitored every exterior angle, including the path to the private beach where no watercraft were moored.
That always made her wonder. The dock was built for a large yacht, but there wasn’t even a little runabout. Of course, no one came or went from the road, either. The woman who had hired her—a housekeeper who had possibly hired Bianca for cash so she could take time off while her employers were away—had said the house was being held in trust while the owners were in divorce proceedings.
Bianca hadn’t asked for more information than that. It was too sweet a deal. Her accommodation was part of her compensation and her duties consisted of dusting, vacuuming, mowing the small patch of lawn and polishing the windows.
There were so many windows, probably with a square footage equal to the house. They all looked onto stunning views and were all tinted against the intense Florida sunshine. Bianca was well shielded from view if she wanted to stand in the main lounge next to the grand piano and speculate on what all those people in those skyscrapers in Miami Beach were doing as they went about their very normal lives.
She tried not to do that. It made her yearn to drag heavy bags onto the crowded subway and overhear lively conversations in languages she didn’t recognize. She wanted to drink in spicy food aromas mixed with the gritty stench of city streets and walk through a door calling out, “I’m home!”
She wanted someone to answer her back.
Instead, she skimmed the pool or did her yoga practice beneath the weighted branches of the orange trees and tried to convince herself this isolation was a gift. She was paid well and had a generous budget for groceries and household incidentals. Deliveries were left at the gate, allowing her to live expense-free and undetected.
It was a bizarre arrangement that she had leaped on when she’d been desperate for a means to support herself while staying out of sight. Now that she’d had time to dwell on it—seriously, nothing but time to dwell—she wondered if she had leaped out of the frying pan of financial fraud only to land in a roaring fire of something equally unsavory. That would make her not only an accessory, which she was trying to avoid, but also the world’s biggest hypocrite. Who exposed crimes only to assist in different ones?
Was the owner of this house a criminal? Wealthy people could be felons. Bianca knew that from her experience with Morris and Ackerley. Her fiancé had been a charming, Ivy League alum with generations of wealth behind him, but he’d still cheated average citizens out of their life savings.
She felt like such a fool for getting involved with him! For believing his flattery and letting him take advantage of her grief.
Thanks to her poor judgment, she didn’t have much choice even if she was being paid with dirty money. She’d made her bed and would have to keep sleeping in it.
With a sigh, she picked the ripe oranges and took them to the main kitchen, as she did every morning. She made her toast and ate it while she squeezed juice that she would freeze in ice cube trays. They made a nice addition to a glass of water or white wine, but she didn’t have enough room in her small fridge to keep it all there.
As she worked, she daydreamed about where she would go if she could leave. It was one of her preoccupations every single day, along with what sort of career she should retrain for since she had nuked her old one. Where and how could she start over, and would anyone want anything to do with her?
It was hard being inside her head all the time. She was hideously lonely. Aside from answering the intercom when drivers notified her of deliveries, she hadn’t spoken to anyone since the day she’d taken this job. She barely interacted with the outside world at all, staying offline and buying paperback romance novels and DVDs with her groceries.
At first, she had watched the news incessantly, but she could barely make herself do even that these days. Morris and Ackerley were being investigated, which was what she had wanted, but progress was glacial. The company was denying and deflecting and throwing mud on her name at every opportunity.
It was exactly what she had expected them to do, but it was hard to watch her character being assassinated. It made her want to defend herself, but no matter how tempted she was, she never, ever, ever reached out to anyone or checked her social media feeds.
Or checked up on him.
Her eyes drifted shut in a mixture of reminiscence and mortification. After meeting him on the plane to Miami, she had looked him up at the library while making her final preparations toward abandoning her old life. She’d still been of two minds as to whether she should meet him for dinner.
According to the tabloid articles, his father had been a renowned automotive engineer from Switzerland, who suffered a brain injury during a test drive. His French mother had been an interpreter at the UN. There had been scads of family money that had mostly come to Everett in his early twenties.
With all that gold falling out of his pockets, he had become a playboy in the most iconic sense. He traveled the globe on spontaneous adventures, seeing and being seen. There had been links to nightclub appearances and ski holidays and affairs with this or that socialite. For a time, he had raced cars. There had been a youthful photo of him in Monte Carlo, shirtless and with his arms around two extremely beautiful women dressed in gold shorts and eyelet bikini tops.
I wonder what he would think of those cars in the garage, Bianca sometimes mused.
She thought of him far too often, almost as if he was her companion here. It was an odd trick that her mind played on her, probably because she was so starved for company and because he was the last person with whom she’d had a meaningful interaction.
Meaningful, Bianca? For her, perhaps, but it had been obvious from the first moment that he was a serial pickup artist. Joining him for dinner had served her own purpose, but she had meant for it to only be dinner. Hookups with strangers weren’t her style at all.
He’d had a charming way about him, though, one that disarmed and encouraged her to trust him. He had fascinated her with his intelligence and nuanced opinions while drawing her out with what seemed like genuine interest in her. It had taken superhuman effort not to blurt out what she was about to do. Only her lifetime of keeping secrets had allowed her to compartmentalize and leave him in the dark.
Even so, she’d been in a heightened state, fearful of what she was about to do and eager for the distraction he offered. Given the huge step she had been about to undertake, it made sense that she had taken another uncharacteristic risk of letting a stranger seduce her.
Maybe she’d simply needed to be held.
Either way, that interlude should have made her feel empty and used, but she had reveled in it, letting go of herself completely. It had been a unique experience where the outer layers of her persona had seemed to burn away in the heat of their passion. When she had left his room, she had walked away altered at her deepest level. Centered and confident. New.
Or she was completely delusional, and he’d just been really good in bed.
She longed to see him again and find out. A far more sensible part of her suspected she would be hideously disappointed if she met him again. She doubted he had spared a single thought for her. He might not even remember her, which would be humiliating in the extreme.
Leaving here wasn’t an option anyway. She would be mobbed by paparazzi, if the way reporters were badgering Troy was any indication. All the letters of the alphabet seemed to be looking for her—SEC, FBI, DOJ. From what she’d seen of other whistleblowers’ experiences, she could face prosecution or be persecuted for leaking information. If she was offered protection, she would likely wind up exactly as she was, cut off from the world but with less agency. Most importantly, if Troy Ackerley and his partner, Kirk Morris, got their hands on her, the outcome could be life-threatening.
No, she was safest exactly where she was, even if she was claustrophobic and lonesome and bordering on despair.
She twisted the orange half with excessive force, trying not to cry.
Oh, stop it. She jammed the last of her toast into her mouth, not caring that her juice-coated fingers gave the PBJ a weird, tangy flavor. Pity parties solved nothing. She swallowed away the lump of toast and reached for the last orange.
As she touched the knife blade to the skin, a soft, measured sound came to her ears, a muted, rhythmic pattern of thumps.
That wasn’t the neighbor’s sound system. What was it? She held very still, listening, trying to place it. Not a bird or—heaven help her—a gator? One couldn’t get in here, could it?
With a lurch of her heart, she realized it was growing louder, coming toward the open sliding door to her left, the one that led onto the courtyard and the paved, poolside dining area.
She never left doors open, only this one, and only when she crossed into this kitchen from her cabana. She always felt safe leaving the screen in place because the courtyard was completely enclosed—except for the single locked gate that accessed the path down to the beach.
That gate was on the same circuit as everything else. She glanced at the computer in the nook beside the pantry. The monitor showed the screen saver, not the view from the cameras the way it was supposed to if motion had triggered the system to start recording.
Something was definitely out there, though. Someone?
As the sound closed in, Bianca’s breath backed up in her lungs. The wait became macabre. It was timed like footsteps, but that’s not what it was. It was longer and slower with a tap and a rest, a tap and—
A man on crutches appeared behind the screen and froze as he spotted her. They stared at one another.
He wore a gray-green shirt with a subtle palm leaf pattern and pale gray shorts, both tailored. His knee was bandaged and so were his knuckles. His cheekbone wore a garish purple shiner, and his eyes narrowed, projecting the warmth of an Ice Age glacier.
Despite all that, buoyant delight slammed through her.
“Everett!” She was ecstatic to see a familiar face, even as concern lurched through her at how banged up he was. She was glad to see him, flattered even, after thinking about him so much since—
Reality arrived in a breath-punching tackle. He shouldn’t be here. He was from her old life. This was her new one. How had he found her?
Her heart kicked into an unsteady gallop. Her scrambled brain tried to tell her body what to do. Adrenaline seared through her veins like a bullet train, but her muscles turned to stretchy rubber. Think, Bianca. Run.
She had a go-bag packed in the cabana, but Everett was swishing the screen open, hitching himself into the kitchen, placing himself between the screen door to the courtyard and the door to the lounge. He sucked all the oxygen from the room with his presence. His gaze flickered around as though searching out hidden dangers.
“Hello, Bianca.” His voice was harder than she remembered. His gaze came back to hers, and the easygoing confidence of a lothario had become a force field of power.
Some basic, primitive female in her absorbed that he had become even more appealing. His shoulders seemed broader, and his biceps bulged where he braced on his crutches. The other part noted his scowl was pure Hollywood hit man, sexy enough to turn her bones to pudding, but sending her into survival mode.
She spun and ran through the door into the garage. No bag, no cash, but she had a contingency plan in place for such an emergency. It was a terrible plan, but it was a chance. Her only chance.
She snatched the fob off the hook and ran for the fancy sports car—
“Bianca!” His thunderous shout was accompanied by a clatter.
She reflexively looked over her shoulder, stumbling into the coupe and crashing her hip into its side-view mirror.
“Do not steal my car,” he warned in a deadly voice. “That would annoy me, and I am already very annoyed.” He was using his shoulder to hold open the door to the kitchen, slouching as he tried to pick up the crutch that had fallen.
“Your car.” Her brain was trying very hard to think through the miasma of shock and disbelief, fear and compulsion to escape. The thump of her own heart deafened her ears.
“Yes. My car. My house.”
But— That wasn’t possible. The sheer coincidence meant he would have known who she was before she got here. Was he a mind reader? Had he known what she planned even as they had made love? Then somehow tricked her into coming here?
No one had known what she had planned.
None of this made sense, but all she could blurt was, “How?”
An exhale of tested patience left him. “Come inside. We need to talk.”
“I’m serious. Do not steal my car.” He got both crutches under his arms and swooped fully into the garage, allowing the door to slam shut behind him.
They were in a standoff in the filtered light through the row of small windows across the top of the big doors. She might be able to leap into the car and lock it before he reached her, but then what? He could disable the front gate in the time it took her to pull out of the garage and get down the short driveway.
He must have calculated all of that himself. His posture eased slightly while his gaze flickered over her face and shoulders.
“How are you? You look good.”
She doubted it and suddenly wished she looked like her old self, not a runaway from a punk rock band. Her brown hair with its faded blue ends hung around her face in air-dried frizz. She no longer owned makeup and her threadbare shorts and T-shirt had been secondhand when she had bought them from a Goodwill store six months ago.
“How—” Her throat kept going dry. He looked very disreputable and dangerous with his blackened eye and air of watchfulness. Murderous. “How did you get in? The security system is on.”
“I came by boat and used my phone to disable it before I walked up.” He drew his phone from his shorts pocket and tapped. His mouth twisted in a very poor imitation of a smile. “It’s fully armed again now.”
Meaning the garage doors would scream bloody murder if she opened one.
In the months of talking to herself without anyone around to be offended, she had developed quite a potty mouth and let one slip without thinking.
His brow went up. The corner of his mouth dug in with dark amusement. “I usually prefer some foreplay first, but I’m happy to accommodate if you’re feeling an urgent need.”
It wasn’t funny. All of this was deeply distressing. Her veins were burning with adrenaline, her chest tight at being trapped. Then there was that other betraying part of her that was overjoyed to see him again. All those bunched muscles that had gathered her up, those sexy lips set between the carved hollows of his cheeks. He had kissed her everywhere. The hot light in his eyes seemed to recollect it as vividly as she did, freshly burning those kisses into her psyche.
She had spent way too much time replaying their night together. Often, in the dark of night and the privacy of her bed, she had let herself imagine they had had more between them than pheromones and a free evening.
In stark daylight, confronting him, she acknowledged that she had been played by a player. He had been way too good at sex to be anything less, and he had clearly been ten steps ahead of her the whole time.
“I thought this house belonged to a couple in divorce.” Her voice wavered despite her best efforts to steady it. “The housekeeper—”
“Wanted time off. Her daughter was expecting.”
She blinked as she absorbed that. “Okay, but how did you arrange for me to come here?” She already knew. The offer had been too good to be true and she’d fallen for it anyway. “Why did you? Oh, God, do you work for Troy?” Her stomach bottomed out.
“No.” The smug amusement that had hovered around his mouth disappeared. “Your story broke a few days after we met.” His jaw hardened and the curl in his mouth became very cynical. “Once it became clear you had disappeared, I made it my job to find you.”
His brows winged up. “Why did you go into hiding?” The note of challenge in his tone suggested he knew the answer.
“Snitches get stitches.” She tried to shrug it off, as if her knees weren’t knocking with terror that she’d been located. And because it was true. People hated a tattletale. “A lot of rich, powerful people are either implicated or lost a chunk of their fortune.” Maybe Everett was one of them? She hugged herself. “I don’t imagine anyone is happy with me right now, but I can’t afford a bodyguard. My only choice was to disappear.” Even her last resort strategy offered no guarantee she would survive it.
“Don’t forget the paparazzi,” he said with mocking helpfulness. “There’s a six-figure price on your headshot.”
“You don’t have to make it sound like a bounty!” Her skin was clammy. She couldn’t even swallow, her throat was so dry and tight.
“That’s what it is.” He started to approach her.
She set one foot inside the car. If she jumped inside, she could get the door slammed and locked, hopefully pop out the other side before he had time to get around.
He only moved as far as the motorcycle, where it stood on its kickstand near a utility sink. He lowered to balance his weight against the tilted seat, releasing a small sigh as though relieved to take a load off.
It was a sneaky move, one that put him a lot closer to her and trapped her in the V of the open door. Rather than a whole car, now there was only the corner of the car’s short trunk between them.
He could probably move a lot faster than he was letting on. She remembered exactly how powerful his legs had been, hard as sculpted oak between her own.
She looked away, not wanting him to guess what she was thinking. Feeling. Tendrils of yearning were unfurling in her belly. Her blood had become molasses, making her breaths heavy and her movements slow.
“You did a good job of covering your tracks.” He sounded as if he admired her for it. “Took me over a week to find where you were staying.”
“You found me in a week?” Her stomach cramped. She had tried so hard to disappear. It was demoralizing to have failed so quickly.
In the next second, she wondered what it meant that he had looked for her, but as quickly as her heart lifted, it dropped like a stone. If he had wanted to see her, he would have appeared a lot sooner than six months after their night together.
“I’m better at finding people than they are at getting lost.” He spoke as if it was an absolute fact. I’m taller than average. I bench press two-forty.
The way he slouched on the motorcycle was like an old-time poster of a rebel hero with his stubble and bruises and pensive scowl. She’d never had a thing for that type. Not until right this moment. Why? It was self-destructive. Her mother had fallen for a bad boy and had been in hiding her whole life as a result. Bianca had stumbled into an engagement with a white-collar criminal, who had wanted to use her up then throw her to the wolves. Men with dark hearts were not worth the bother.
But all she could think about was Everett’s mouth in the crook of her neck, his hands on her arms and the small of her back. His weight on her and his thickness moving powerfully within her, filling her with tension and intense waves of pleasure.
Was there a carbon monoxide leak in here? She couldn’t catch her breath.
“When reward money climbs that high, landlords and employers grow tempted to line their own pockets. I had to draw you out and tuck you somewhere safe.”
“I got the number from a flyer in a bodega! How could you know I would call it?”
“I didn’t. It’s a numbers game.” He shrugged. “You didn’t have any income sources that I could discern so I put in listings with all of the under-the-table outfits. Dog walking, childcare, computer work… Anything that might catch your interest. My criteria made me sound racist as hell and kind of a pervert, but it filtered out ninety percent of the applicants. Within a week, you turned up.”
“You don’t even have a dog,” she noted with annoyance.
“I would have got one.”
If only she’d known, she might have had company all this time.
“You found me, then went to all that trouble to get me here without speaking to me or letting me know?” Her mind was derailing all over again, trying to calculate how much time, effort and money he had put into that. “Why? Are you a private investigator or something?”
His mouth opened, shut, then, “Not anymore.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means I’m off the clock. This is more of a hobby.”
“A creepy one!”
“I gave you a job and a safe place to stay. You were free to leave anytime. It’s not like I watched you on the cameras.”
“No.” He rolled his eyes as if she was the one being a weirdo.
“And I’m supposed to believe you,” she scoffed.
“Whether you believe me or not is your choice. If you decide to leave, go forth with my blessing. Not with my car,” he added, pointing a warning finger. “But walk away if that’s what you want to do. Understand by doing so, however, that I will get what I want, and you won’t get anything except a lot of attention, much of it negative. Dangerous, even.”
She clenched her fist at her side, asking warily, “What do you want?”
“For you to come out of hiding.” With a flat smile, he waved at his state of injury. “I’ve been implicated in your disappearance, Bianca. My name must be cleared.”
He’d been attacked because of her? She felt ill.
“How could you be implicated?”
“You left your luggage with the concierge at my hotel. Eventually, your… Have I got this right? Troy Ackerley is your fiancé?”
“Ex,” she assured him, but a hollow feeling opened up behind her breastbone. She couldn’t really see the color of his eyes in the low light, but she suspected they had turned frosty and forbidding. His voice sure had.
“I’m not sure he got that memo. He’s still feeling very proprietary.” Everett curled his lip. “His people were delivering a message as much as squeezing me for your whereabouts.”
She clasped the edge of the car door so hard she should have bent the metal.
“Did you…” Her tongue felt as though it had swollen too big for her mouth and her head grew light.
She couldn’t blame him for telling them where she was, but stark fear poured into her bloodstream, dampening her eyes. She looked to the wide garage door, mentally planning the route she would take to that other mansion if she was able to get out this gate. She was far more comfortable risking Everett’s wrath by stealing his car than that of Troy if he caught up to her. She would definitely need protection if that happened.
“I’m not an amateur, Bianca,” Everett said indignantly. “Of course, I didn’t tell them where you are.”
“Even though…” She looked to his bandaged knee. “Are you okay? Is it broken?”
He had fought them off. She shouldn’t find that sexy. It wasn’t. Violence was never a solution, but she was wavering in this space between worry for him and guilt that he’d been attacked because of her, yet he was brushing it off, confident that he had come out ahead. She couldn’t help being affected by that.
“If they think you and I are involved, they’ll come to your house,” she noted, blood turning cold.
“All my houses are held by numbered companies. Ackerley’s clown show took six months to draw a line from your abandoned luggage, through the hotel registry, to the fact we were on the same flight. I’m not worried about them finding us anytime soon, but they’ve become very annoying, trying to dig up dirt on me that doesn’t exist. You and I need to plan how you’ll come forward, so they’ll get off my back.”
Panicked at the mere thought, she vehemently shook her head. “I can’t come forward.”
She waited for him to argue, but Everett held his position in silence, as though there was no debate because in this case there wasn’t. Plus, he found people filled a silence in a very revealing way if he let them.
Besides, it gave him the chance to take a long sip, drinking her in like fine brandy. Her lack of makeup only accentuated how lovingly her features had been crafted. And those lips. She was biting the bottom one, making him want to suck it. Again. He wanted to bite his own lip and groan out his six months of celibacy.
He wanted to touch her. Her shapeless T-shirt and low-slung cutoffs were sexier than any French lingerie, making his palms itch. Her braless breasts lifted the cotton off her tanned stomach providing a glimpse of her navel. Her golden-brown thighs were smooth and soft and went on for miles. All of her was like that. Endlessly, sensually pleasing. He’d spent way too many nights reliving exactly how hedonistic and generous and responsive she was.
Yet he had forgotten this effect she had on him, the one where desire dragged all his brain cells into a knot of craving in his groin. Actually, he had underestimated it, thinking he could control it the way he controlled most everything else, but this yank on his inner animal was even more potent than he recalled.
This was the reason he had let desire override his instincts, buying her dinner and sleeping with her against his better judgment.
No. He had to be honest with himself. He had relapsed and embraced the risk in seeing her. The nature and level of risk had been a mystery, which had been part of the appeal, but rather than heed the prickle down his spine, he had given in and scratched his itch, arrogantly certain he could weather any repercussions that came from their night together.
And this damned sexual heat had muffled the signals. When her voice had thinned, or her gaze had dropped, he’d seen it as a reaction to the brush of his foot against hers or the fact their stare had already been locked too long as a moment ripened with anticipation. She had licked her lips and stammered, but only in response to his most innocuous questions. Should we order dessert? Are you cold?
That last had been in response to how her nipples had stiffened beneath the silk of her blouse. Such a physical sign of arousal wasn’t something she could fake, and she hadn’t realized where his gaze had strayed when she answered, Not at all.
He’d been on fire himself, skating on an edge between fascination and caution, as though she was a tigress who could turn on him, but since he was close enough, he was compelled to reach out, pet and stroke.
She had captured all his attention, lighting up when she laughed and challenging his opinions and growing wistful as she talked about her future. My work situation is complicated. I just broke my engagement, and he was my employer. I’m facing a life change.
He had already done a cursory search and knew where she worked. There hadn’t been a reason to linger on that dispiriting topic, so he’d ordered dessert. They’d shared it and held hands as they walked through the hotel grounds to the beach. They had kissed beneath the moonlight, her back shifting beneath his palms, hips tilting into his in a way that still heated his blood when he thought of it. He’d invited her upstairs and she had proceeded to reset his bar for one-night stands, making it impossible for him to settle for any of the pale imitations he’d been offered since.
When her face and name had hit the headlines a few days later, he’d been surprised, yet not. He had waltzed into her minefield on his own two feet, but he’d been angry at himself, feeling foolish and wondering if he’d been taken in by a pro.
He couldn’t imagine how, though. Nothing in her background suggested a history like his own, which had left him with an irritating amount of concern for her. She was a woman of limited resources pitting herself against a well-financed corruption machine. His conscience had compelled him to help her even though he had left the dark underworld of espionage so he wouldn’t be responsible for other people’s lives anymore.
Ensconcing her here had been his compromise. He’d stayed in New York, keeping half the Eastern Seaboard between them, digging into the Morris and Ackerley charges to better understand it. To help.
Because she’d haunted his thoughts no matter how hard he tried to dismiss her.
Then, yesterday, he’d been dragged into an alley and found himself fighting for his life. And hers. That’s what had given him the strength to put those men on the ground. Everett had been terrified for Bianca. He hadn’t breathed easy until he’d seen for himself that she was safe.
Which didn’t make sense. How could he care so much what happened to a woman he’d slept with once? Okay, they’d made love three times, but he barely knew her. And she’d pulled him into a rat’s nest of trouble, one to which he was rapidly becoming an accomplice. That peeved him deeply.
Worse, she was causing him to backslide into unraveling conspiracies and protecting sources. It wouldn’t do. He’d made promises to his mother. To himself.
Now that he knew she was unharmed, he would insist she clear his name, put some distance between them, and he would never see her again.
His stomach reflexively clenched in resistance, but he ignored it.
“Could I…” She finally broke, folding her arms and hunched her shoulders defensively. “Press releases are my forte.” Her head came up. “I could issue a statement, make it clear that I don’t really know you.” Her expression was sincere, as if that was a genuinely helpful suggestion.
“It’s true,” she said defensively, but her cheeks stained a darker pink. The way her chin dipped and her lips rolled in suggested she was recalling exactly how well acquainted they were.
That was gratifying, at least. If he was still hostage to this pull between them, at least he had a cellmate.
She tucked her jaw-length hair behind her ear, and even the fact it was rich brunette at the roots and distressed as old denim on the ends was sexy as hell.
He absently closed his empty hand, recalling the satisfying give of those thick, springy waves between his fingers. It was a lot shorter now, but he bet it still smelled of almonds and citrus. He wanted to pick it up and set his mouth in the hollow at the base of her skull, feeling her squirm, and push her bottom into his groin in response.
“I’m not dismissing the idea because we know each other in the biblical sense.” There had been nothing puritanical about that night. It had been delightfully debauched. “It’s a very naive offer from someone who struck me as intelligent. Have you not seen the news?”
“Not lately.” Her mouth twisted. “I stopped watching. It was too depressing.”
No doubt. Still, “You haven’t happened across any headlines?”
“I don’t go online. I was afraid of leaving digital footprints. I even put tape over the camera on the computer.” She chucked her chin toward the door to the kitchen, then sent him a baleful look. “I didn’t think of the security cameras, or I would have covered them, too.”
“I didn’t even peek at you today.” He had reviewed the map of sensors to see which house doors were open, surmising from there that she was in the kitchen. Then he had disabled all the cameras so he wouldn’t activate them as he entered.
“Look, Morris and Ackerley are pretending all is well, but they’re imploding. Their legal bills are mounting, and anyone who was able to pull their money out of the company already has. Their assets are frozen, employees haven’t been paid, more victims are coming forward and most are going to the press with their complaints. The fact that the whistleblower is missing is stirring up swarms of hashtags. Your fiancé—”
“Ex,” she reminded, teeth clamped on a nip of her cuticle while her fixed gaze impelled him to keep talking.
“Ackerley suddenly realized he could be on the hook for murder charges if you don’t turn up alive. He doesn’t know that I’m helping you, but he doesn’t care. Now that he’s figured out I was the last person to see you, he has issued an ultimatum. Either I tell him where you are or take the fall for your absence. It would make a nice distraction for him to sic the media and authorities onto me, and it would be highly inconvenient for me. Therefore, you have to reappear, make it clear I had nothing to do with your decision to expose them and draw the fire back where it belongs.”
“I’m really sorry.” Her tone held the placating tone of, I’d like to help you, but I can’t. “I wasn’t trying to set you up for anything like this.”
“No? Why did you sleep with me then?” Because, as she’d briefly evaded him with skills he usually only saw in a fellow operative, he had begun to suspect ulterior motives in her spending those erotic hours with him. Had she meant to entrap him?
She looked away, hugging herself as she flushed with embarrassment, mouth pinched with reluctance to speak.
“Because you made it sound as though you’d recently broken your engagement and wanted to move on, yet you were still engaged.” Everett didn’t know why he was so outraged by that. When he’d brought her to his room, he hadn’t planned to see her again. He sure as hell hadn’t expected to feel this roil of indignation if he did, especially one stained with such a dark green of possessiveness. But spiky barbs of jealousy sat sharply under his skin.
“I did want to move on. I was angry with Troy, but that wasn’t why I—” She cleared her throat before admitting in a strangled voice, “I was attracted to you.”
He wanted to cage her face in his palms and look into her eyes. He wanted to get right up against her to learn if this thing between them had been as real as it had seemed, but he kept his distance. His focus.
“That’s the only reason you slept with me? Attraction? You weren’t deliberately drawing me into your plot?”
Why indeed? It wasn’t as if he had a secret past that she might have discovered and thought she could weaponize.
She held his gaze, earnest tension sitting across her cheekbones.
“I knew I shouldn’t have dinner with you.” Her voice was tight with mortification. “I was planning to land, send my files and disappear, but when you asked me to dinner…” She showed him a pensive profile. “I was anxious to get away from Troy and everything else, but I was scared.” Her hands were flexing in remembered anxiety. “I wasn’t sure how to get rid of my luggage, but I realized that if I met you for dinner, I could leave it at your hotel as an insurance policy. If I chickened out on sending the files, I could pick up my bag and my life in the morning. If I went through with it, it would take the concierge some time to wonder why I hadn’t come back for it.”
Smart. And it rang true. “But you spent the night.”
“That wasn’t part of my plan. Truly. I don’t sleep with men I don’t know or like or, you know, want to sleep with.” She was blushing again.
He took a similar approach with his intimate partners, but had to ask, “Does that mean you were sleeping with your fiancé or not?”
“I wasn’t.” She shook her head in an urgent reassurance, as if it mattered as much to her as it did to him. “I was desperate to break the engagement, but if I had, he might have realized I was about to set fire to his great-grandfather’s firm so I made excuses for why I couldn’t spend the night with him.”
“Headache?” he guessed dryly.
She grimaced and her shoulders came up to her ears. “I claimed so many migraines, he booked me for an MRI.”
He refused to laugh, but a gust of relief left his lungs. This was what had transfixed him that evening. There was no chance for boredom when everything about her was unexpected. She veered effortlessly from introspective to playful, from sincere to sarcastic, then dipped to warm and sensual as her expression softened. A rueful smile touched her lips.
“Why did you get engaged in the first place?” It was the last question he should be asking, but he wanted to know. “Did you love him?”
“No. Not really. It just sort of happened.” She wrinkled her nose as though she still suffered regret. “When he hired me after I interned, I was really flattered. And yes, I realize my credentials were less a factor in my landing that job than the fact I fit the image they wanted to project.” She rolled her eyes.
No false modesty. She knew she was beautiful, knew it was an advantage, but didn’t wield it like a weapon. He liked that about her, too.
“Troy took a personal interest in my professional development. He kept giving me more responsibility and shifting me into different departments. My specialty is marketing, but my degree is business, so I thought I was elevating my skill set. Eventually I realized I was doing his work so he didn’t have to, but Mom was sick, and when she passed, he was really kind. He sent flowers and said my absence had made him realize I deserved a raise. Looking back, I see he was making sure he didn’t lose my ‘elevated skill set.’” She made air quotes. “But it felt good to be taken out for fancy dinners when I was feeling so blue.”
“It felt good to be taken advantage of when you were vulnerable?” He had nothing but contempt for men like that.
“I didn’t see it, but yes, that’s what he was doing. By the time I was plotting my escape, I was certain he had been keeping at least one woman on the side the whole time he was romancing me, but it felt genuine. I wasn’t thinking it would lead to marriage, though. Not until he took me into a corner office and said, ‘This can be yours if you say yes.’”
“And went down on one knee? What a tool.” He was so embarrassed by his own sex sometimes.
“Right? But considering how hard I’d been working I didn’t see it as nepotism or even a condition of our engagement. I had earned that promotion. He told me I had. He said he didn’t want to lose me to another firm or another man. I thought all these big gestures meant he loved me. My mom was gone, and I wanted a family one day. He seemed like a caring man who was a good provider. I thought grief was holding me back from deep feelings and decided, why not him?”
“Then you realized why not,” Everett deduced grimly.
“I did,” she said somberly. “I came across some transactions that I had done for him and… Basically, they were stealing. He was getting me to do his work so he could keep his own hands clean.”
“Exactly. He wanted me to take the blame if it came to light. Which is why I had to expose it.” She took hold of the open door of the car, wavered as though trying to decide whether to get in or close it. “It feels good to talk about it. To talk. To a human. But be honest.” She sent him a look of consternation. “Are you here to find out how much I really know? Or, like, hang me out to dry in some way?”
“I’m not an assassin, if that’s what you’re implying,” he said dryly. “I’m not a cop or a reporter, either.”
“What, then? What are you ‘not anymore?’” she amended, eyes narrowing as she recollected his earlier remark.
“We’ll save that for another time.” Like never.
“But I’m supposed to trust you?” She tsked and shut the car door, coming to the back of the car, where she leaned her hip next to the taillight.
He tried not to wince. The paintwork could be buffed.
“Is there a reason you don’t want to trust me?” he asked.
“Aside from the fact that you tricked me into staying here?”
“Where you’ve been very safe and comfortable,” he pointed out.
“A housekeeper. And the knowledge I did a good deed.” It had been so much more complex than that, but he rose and tucked his crutches beneath his arm, having learned that standing was a great way to close a topic and take command of pretty much anything.
Her solemn gaze met his black eye. “If ending up on crutches is what happens to someone who knows where I am, what will they do to me if I come out of hiding?”
His heart lurched.
“Nothing.” He swallowed the ashes that came into his mouth. “I’ll arrange protection. Security, a lawyer, a PR agent, a safe place to stay. Anything and everything you need.”
“Why? Do you have a grudge against Morris and Ackerley? Were you an investor?”
“This is just to keep your name out of it?”
“It’s that important to you.”
“What happens when someone realizes you’ve paid for all of those things?”
“Who will they think paid for it?” she asked with exasperation. “The woman who claims she didn’t have anything to do with defrauding all those people of millions of dollars?” She pointed at herself.
“I have work-arounds.” He shrugged that off. “How do you feel about a six-figure book deal? If you don’t want to write it, I can hire a ghost writer.”
“Where does that money come from?” Her hands went up in bafflement. “Are you a drug dealer? Arms? What?”
“I just want to know what’s going on! You’re such a good Samaritan, you want to give me a six-figure book deal to hide the fact that you’ve been helping me. Heck, you hid that information from me. Why? Oh, God.” Horror washed across her expression. “You’re not married, are you?”
“No.” If he wasn’t so aggravated with her, he would revel in the way she looked ill at the thought of him being committed to someone else. “When you started making headlines, I realized our night could surface and bite me, so I tucked you out of sight. That’s all.”
“So this was never about protecting me and always about protecting you?”
So smart and so maddening. “Yes.”
Barbed hurt flashed in her eyes, causing a pinch behind his heart.
“You’ve gone to a lot of trouble and expense to keep our night hidden.” She tossed her head. “It’s not like I was ever going to tell anyone that we hooked up. It was a onetime thing that didn’t mean anything to me, either. That’s why I left as soon as you were asleep.”
“I wasn’t asleep.”
Her head snapped around, appalled hurt flashing in her wide eyes.
He bit back a curse, annoyed with himself. He hadn’t liked hearing their night meant nothing and had struck back.
“Thanks, but no thanks,” she said frostily, pushing off the car and starting toward the door to the house. “I’ll take Option B, the one where I take my chances with the paparazzi and my fiancé.”
“Bianca!” He moved so fast lurching to catch her arm, he dropped a crutch, stupid damned things.
She yanked free of his touch and whirled to confront him.
“I wasn’t ashamed of being so easy that night until right now, when you made me feel like I curdle your image like sour milk. You shouldn’t have asked me to dinner if you’re embarrassed to be associated with me. Did you think of that? And don’t tell me to trust you! You could be leading Troy to me right now for all I know.”
Ah hell, she was shaking. Scared.
A cool space opened behind his breastbone. She wouldn’t be this close to falling apart if she had some master plan in place. She was flying by the seat of her pants and was running out of fuel.
“Really? What’s that like?”
He licked his lips, still enamored with that snappy wit of hers, but it struck him how hard these months must have been for her. In the past, when he left someone in a safe house, they had caretakers and he visited as often as he could, keeping their spirits up.
“I had the means to help you and I wanted to. I still do.” Don’t get further involved, the nagging voice in his head reminded. Clear your name, get her out of your house, never see her again.
She rejected his offer with a lost shake of her head, blinking and pressing her lips flat to hide their trembling.
“Bianca,” he chided. Pure instinct had him holding out an arm. “Come here. You don’t have to do this all by yourself. That’s why I’m here.”
Fool, that voice said, but when she gave a sniff and looked so damned slight and vulnerable, he couldn’t take it. He stepped closer and nudged the back of her arm.
A sob left her and she turned herself into his chest. Her arms went around his waist, hugging tight. She hunched close as though sheltering from the elements and a small shudder went through her.
The impact on him was cataclysmic.
He had thought about her constantly, wanting the feel of her narrow back under his hand and the tickle of her hair under his chin. He smoothed her spine, saying nothing while she took unsteady breaths, trying to keep a grip on her composure.
“You’re still very safe,” he assured her. “We’re only talking about what might happen. Nothing has changed. Not yet.”
“I kept thinking about you.” She drew back enough to look up at him. Her lashes were spiky with unshed tears. “I wished I had been honest with you. That I had given you my side before I turned up on the news. It’s like a hallucination that you’re even here. That I’ve been in your house all this time. I want to trust you, Everett. I do. But I don’t know if I can.”
Same, he almost said, but his senses were taking in her perfume of oranges and sunshine. He liked the press of her curves against his chest and abdomen and thighs. She was a puzzle piece that fit exactly into the landscape of his own shape, blending heat and sensation, filling his vision with color, blurring the space between them into nothing.
The atmosphere shifted. Her searching gaze drifted to his mouth. She swallowed.
They each nudged their feet a fraction closer, bodies leaning more firmly into one another.
Careful, Everett. Not in a million years would he make a move on a woman who was only seeking comfort, but as he drew a breath and started to pull back, the light in her eyes dimmed. Her beautiful mouth, which was right there, trembled with rejection. She firmed it and her chin crinkled. Her weight shifted away from his.
His arm instinctually tightened, trying to keep her from dissolving like loose sand through his fingertips.
Her gaze flashed up to his and, damn it, he’d been thinking of kissing her again for so long.
As he slowly, slowly let his head lower, she stayed right where she was. In fact, her body inclined more into his, melting and receptive, warm and welcoming.
He touched his mouth to hers and a tingling dance slid across his lips. Smooth, plump flesh gave way as he settled deeper into their kiss. A soft noise throbbed in her throat, one that added to the moans and sobs and cries of ecstasy that echoed in his erotic dreams.
There was a worth-the-wait quality to this kiss, but he groaned thinking that he had known where she was all this time and could have had a thousand of these kisses by now. He shouldn’t have wasted any of that time. She opened her mouth further and he drew her closer, sliding his arm around her as he rocked his mouth to deepen their kiss.
He became so lost in her scent and taste, he didn’t immediately catch the flavor on her tongue or the faint aroma clinging to the hand she raised to touch his cheek, not until his lips began to burn.
His lips began to burn.
He grabbed hold of her upper arms and set her back a step.
“How did you know?” he growled.
True fear sent his heart slamming with the force of a wrecking ball, nearly cracking his ribs. The prickling sensation was already spreading into his mouth and down his throat.
A clock began ticking in his head. He would never make it to the boat. Was there a first aid kit in the house? Why hadn’t he grabbed his pen? He always had one in his pocket, but he’d been fiddling with the security system on his phone and too impatient to see her. Idiot.
“How did I know what?” she asked as he swiveled away and hopped with one crutch toward the door to the kitchen.
“That I’m allergic to peanuts.”
This time it might actually kill him.