Manhattan’s Most Scandalous Reunion
BOOK 2 in the Secret Sisters Duet
He can’t turn her away, and it has nothing to do with the media storm outside his penthouse!
She left him.
That doesn’t mean she’s forgotten him.
When paparazzi mistake Nina Menendez for a supermodel, she takes refuge in her ex’s New York penthouse. Big mistake. Guarded Reve Weston is incapable of emotional intimacy—and is intensely seductive…
Reve has had enough of scandal. To keep his name out of the tabloids, he insists Nina stay with him. But as their spark reignites and she shares the mysteries of her past, Reve realizes his cynicism has a downside. If he can’t give Nina the fairy tale she dreams of, he’ll have to let her go…for good!
The print edition of this book begins shipping on August 24, 2021
The digital edition begins downloading on September 1, 2021
But you can pre-order now!
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It’s been so nice seeing you again, Reve. I can’t imagine why I told you to go to hell and walked out on you.
— Nina, Manhattan's Most Scandalous Reunion
I’ve written a few duets and the challenge is always to find two stories that are complimentary, take place in the same world, but are different enough to be interesting.
It’s especially hard when the main characters are siblings or, in this case, identical twins. In Book One, Married for One Reason Only, Oriel knows she’s adopted. When she learned the truth about her birth mother, it’s a shock, but she’s always had questions in the back of her mind.
When I came to write Nina’s story, I needed a fresh angle. Even though she knows of Oriel and has been told she looks like her, it never occurs to her to think, “Maybe she’s my twin.” As far as Nina knows, she is a blood relation to the family she’s always known. Once she learns she was given to strangers in secret, her entire sense of self is shaken.
And even though she and Reve ended their brief affair on a very sour note, she barges back into his life as hers is falling apart. He’s very cynical and guarded, but he couldn’t help but step in and step up to help her–which endeared him to me so much! I hope you love him as much as I do.
I hope you enjoy the unraveling of the mystery in my Secret Sisters duet!
For a long time, I had a phrase on my whiteboard that read Secret Royal Baby Twins. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it until my editor asked if I had any duet ideas and I started to pitch that to her.
But I was coming off of Ways to Ruin a Royal Reputation and I wasn’t ready to invent another fictitious kingdom (or two.)
My brain hopped around other types of pseudo-royalty–Hollywood? Bollywood. I was picturing a beloved Julie Andrews type of actor who couldn’t possibly have a baby out of wedlock without losing her career. At least, her manager convinces her that she will be ruined if she does. Of course, he’s more worried about his own golden egg, but he whisks Lakshmi to a discrete clinic in Europe to have her baby and pressures her to give it up. She winds up needing surgery and he forges her signature while she’s unconscious. The baby is gone when she wakes up.
I wish I could tell you how hard I laughed when I began telling my husband about this premise. He was very supportive and said, “Well, that has lots of meat. You can–”
“Wait,” I said. “There’s a second baby.”
He was so taken aback he staggered into the cupboard, saying, “Whaat?” It was priceless. I mean, it’s a duet, dude. Of course there’s a second baby.
This first book, however, is about the baby everyone knows about. Except they don’t. Oriel knows she was adopted, but she was given misinformation. She’s shocked when Vijay turns up as an emissary for her birth family–especially since they had a one-night affair and she’s just discovered she’s pregnant!
I hope you enjoy all the twists and turns and surprises in my Secret Sisters duet. Be sure to read Manhattan’s Most Scandalous Reunion for the story of the double-secret twin, Nina.
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Manhattan’s Most Scandalous Reunion
Nina Menendez was having a garbage day on top of a painful month in what was starting to look like a horrendous year. She’d didn’t need a pesky man with a camera getting in her face, accusing her of being someone she wasn’t.
“Oriel! Hey, Oriel.”
Especially not that woman.
Nina’s heart lurched in one direction while she veered in another, trying to hurry away from the Manhattan hotel where she’d tanked an interview with a British film star in town for a talk show. Nina didn’t even want to go into costume design. Did she? She didn’t know anymore. She didn’t know who she was or what she wanted. Everything was wrong in her world. She might as well go to the garden and eat worms.
If she only had a garden. At the rate she was going, worms were all she could afford.
“Oriel. Why are you here? Where is your husband?” The photographer skipped alongside her, maniacally snapping his camera in her face.
Paparazzi hung around the entrance to swanky hotels like that hoping to ambush the celebrities who stayed there. In her case, she’d been trying to get on with an indie project that the star was producing for herself in London. It wasn’t a big budget, and Nina had only been granted an appointment thanks to a friend pulling strings, but she’d said all the wrong things and was beating herself up over what felt like self-sabotage.
“Are you working again?”
Well, that was just mean, wasn’t it? She almost used her subway language, but kept walking, ignoring him.
The photographer kept after her and some of his colleagues did, too. They nipped like hyenas with baiting questions as they tried to get her attention.
“Why aren’t you in India?”
“Is it true you’re pregnant?”
“Look.” She had to stop at the corner to wait for a car to turn in front of her. “I know who Oriel Cuvier is, but I’ve never met her. I just happen to look a little bit like her.” Freakishly very much like her, but Nina was trying really hard not to think about that.
Being accosted and mistaken as her wasn’t helping. Why had she thought coming back to New York was a good idea? Oh, right, to find out why she looked so much like a stranger.
“Who are you then?” one demanded, following her into the next block.
“Nobody. Go home and compare our photos.”
That’s what Nina had done after a friend from work—back when she had had a job—had remarked on how much she resembled the French model. That had been eons ago, when Nina had arrived in New York for the first time, bright-eyed and full of dreams. The photo of Oriel Cuvier on a runway had been making the rounds in fashion circles for the professionally tattered and much-lauded gown she had been modeling.
Nina had found their similarities unnerving, but other events had soon consumed her.
Now, after licking her wounds in Albuquerque for three months, she’d scrambled to get back here for that stupid interview, and it was the worst possible timing.
Oriel’s star had already been rising, but Nina had nursed vague hopes of crossing paths with her. As she had arrived, however, Oriel had slipped out of the city, emerging in India, where she promptly began to dominate international headlines.
Oriel Cuvier was the previously unknown daughter of a Bollywood screen queen, and photographers were positively rabid to catch a photo of her.
“Her hair is different,” Nina pointed out, mostly to shut them up. Thanks to Nina’s sister’s love of tints, Nina had streaks of pinkish red in her otherwise very similar near-black hair. Of course, the streaks were hidden by the half bun she wore. She’d been trying to look professional for her job interview. Maybe that had been her mistake. Maybe they had wanted someone with flair.
Maybe she should quit worrying what others thought of her and be herself. Who was she, though? Ignoring the twist of anxiety that went through her, she kept talking.
“Her mouth is different, too.” The model’s wealthy parents had been able to afford braces. Nina had a slight overbite. Hopefully, the photographers wouldn’t look beyond that, because the shape of their full lips matched perfectly.
“Her profile says she’s five-eleven. I’m five-nine.” And three-quarters. Basically five-ten. Today, however, she was so dispirited she was probably five-three. “I’m not her.”
“Who are you then? Talk to us. Are you related to her?”
“Why are you still bothering me?” She walked faster, annoyed, and also growing alarmed. She was a twenty-five-year-old woman being swarmed by a half-dozen men. The bustling people they passed averted their gazes, signaling they didn’t want to get involved.
“Tell us why you’re not in India. Oriel!” One of the men grabbed her arm.
Nina’s self-defense training kicked in. She spun and jammed the heel of her palm into his nose.
The impact reverberated from her wrist to her elbow, all the way to her shoulder. A jarring rush of adrenaline poured through her chest like fire. She bounced back on light feet while her bag fell off her shoulder and swayed on her arm, knocking against her knee.
The man swore and bent, blood from his nose painting the sidewalk in bright blotches. The rest of the men fanned out, jeering and swinging their camera lenses between the injured man, who was straightening with a look of retribution in his eyes, and whatever terror was written into Nina’s expression.
Dear God, they were everywhere. She was surrounded. Her airway tightened and her wild gaze swerved every direction, seeking a path of escape.
A blue-and-silver awning struck her eyes. She had walked in this direction unconsciously on purpose because, deep down, she was a masochist.
Normally, she would have stayed on this side of the street and glared upward as she walked by, but in her agitation, she darted straight for the entrance, not computing that she was running into traffic.
A car squealed its brakes and stopped on a dime right before it would have struck her. The driver laid on the horn, then honked again as the horde of cameramen chased her, all of them batting and bumping into the car in their haste to get around it.
Nina brushed past the startled doorman and ran inside, straight to the security desk where Amir sat today.
“I’m sorry. Please, can I stand here a few minutes while I figure out what to do? They won’t leave me alone.”
She was quivering with reaction, breathless and barely able to speak. She looked back to see the doorman holding out his arms while he ordered the men, “Back off! No entry.”
Amir frowned at her, then at the disruption outside. One of the men evaded the doorman and pressed his camera lens to the window, clicking and flashing through the glass.
Amir picked up his phone and dialed.
Was he calling the police? Nina’s scrambled brain tried to decide whether she should involve them.
“It’s Amir, sir. Ms. Menendez is here in the lobby.”
“What?” she whispered. “I didn’t come here to see him.”
Her stomach began to churn. She held her breath in dread-filled anticipation.
“Yes, I understand, sir. But she seems upset.”
Her heart stalled out. How humiliating. After seducing her and leading her on, Reve had dumped her when she had asked if he wanted to meet her father. Three months later, he didn’t even want to see her.
She covered her face, turning her back to the windows so she had a shred of privacy while she tried to think of where she could go or who she might call. The few friends she’d made in New York had fallen away when she’d been fired and moved in with Reve. And the friend who’d gotten her today’s interview lived in London. The one who was loaning her his studio was backpacking in Australia.
She didn’t know what to do. She was upset by more than the fact those men had chased her. It was everything that had happened lately. Her ears were rushing with the sound of her galloping pulse. Her life was falling apart at the seams, but she couldn’t crawl home this time. Where was home? Who was she?
“Miss…” Amir’s voice was loud enough to make her jerk her head up. His frown told her he’d had to repeat himself to get her attention. She saw he had opened the doors for Reve’s private elevator.
“Mr. Weston will see you. Would you like me to come with you? You seem unsteady.”
She stared into the elevator, longing to see Reve even though she knew he only pretended to rescue damsels. Deep down, he was more of a dragon who lured them in and ate them.
Still, she could hear the doorman arguing with the men outside. She had to leave the lobby so they would disperse. She desperately needed to be transported out of her entire overturned, mixed-up life, and, God knows, Reve’s world was the furthest thing from her own.
Her feet moved her into the elevator, and she instantly flashed back to what seemed like a million years ago but was really only three months ago. She had felt on top of the world then. Staying in a penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park had a way of doing that to a person.
She had stood right here every day, convinced she was in love and barreling toward happily-ever-after. Rather than work for someone else, she had begun to sew her own collection. She had anticipated that, by the end of summer, she would have enough for her own show at fashion week. Just a small thing that was more like a gallery showing, but it would gain her exposure, help her network and maybe glean her a few orders from boutiques. She’d flounced about in her own creations, each one set off with handbags and shoes and bangles that Reve had paid for.
She’d left it all when she’d walked out, sickened that she had let him buy her for the price of soutache and organza, Microtex needles and glass-headed pins.
Oh, how the mighty had fallen. Today she wore a simple maxi-dress she’d made from fabrics left over from her college days. The knot of hair behind her crown had begun to fray while her natural waves had picked up the summer humidity, and flyaway strands were sticking to her face and shoulders.
She had hoped this look would project that she was casually chic, approachable and open to collaboration. Unfortunately, her portfolio said she hadn’t worked since last year and never in costume design. She wasn’t going anywhere and had nowhere else to go.
Being so self-pitying wasn’t her usual MO, but even her reflection had ceased to feel like it was hers. Not when another woman had claim to it. Not when defeat dragged at the corners of her mouth and her eyes were hollow from weeks of sleepless nights. The dusting of makeup she’d put on this morning stood out starkly on a complexion that was a pallid version of her natural golden tan.
The elevator stopped and the doors opened, startling her again.
For one second, she had forgotten what had sent her rushing into Reve’s building. She had to quell a compulsion to hurry into the belly of the penthouse in search of him the way she used to, calling his name.
Oh, what she wouldn’t give to throw herself into him and feel his strong arms close around her. To let him kiss the hell out of her and take her to bed before barely three words had passed between them. The outside world had always ceased to matter when they were lost in passion.
That was all in the past. And much as she would love to hide from reality, she had learned that it eventually had to be confronted.
She stepped tentatively into the foyer with its gold-veined marble and a round table holding a floral arrangement that was replaced every three days.
“Nina.” He appeared abruptly from the hallway to the bedrooms.
The mere sound of his voice awakened her blood. The sight of him fed a thirst she had vainly tried to ignore since she had left.
He wore crisp, dark gray trousers and his feet were bare. He was shrugging on a blue-and-white-striped shirt over his muscled chest and flat abs. There was a faint glow beneath his winter-in-Florida tan and a sheen upon it. His dark hair was damp and messy.
Even amid her confusion of shock and fear and dread, she was taken aback by how ruggedly handsome he was. The uncontrollable attraction she’d felt from her first glimpse of him burst to life inside her, starved for that hint of curl in his dark brown hair, his steely blue eyes, his square jaw and his impervious air of assurance.
It felt so good to see him again that a smile began to tingle in her cheeks and pull at her mouth before a painful realization struck like a jagged spear of lightning, cleaving her apart and leaving her soul nothing but an acrid whiff of its former self.
“You’re with someone.” She knew how he looked when he was climbing out of bed after lovemaking. Like this.
Her knees went weak. She was so nauseated by despair, she lowered herself onto the upholstered bench by the elevator and leaned forward, trying to keep herself from fainting.
This was what a mental breakdown felt like. In her head, she had known he would move on. Confronting it like this was the final straw, though. She was flattened. Destroyed. She couldn’t face him. She had to go, but her legs refused to work.
“I’m alone,” Reve said in a clipped voice. “I was showering after my workout when Amir called. But I am on my way out.”
That sounded like a warning. Don’t get comfortable.
She lifted her head and, despite the standoffish wall that seemed to form a barrier between them, his gaze searched hers. Maybe, if she hadn’t been at the very end of her rope, she might have thought there was a wary tension deep inside that look.
“Why are you here?” He scanned her thoroughly from her disheveled hair to her open-toed sandals, and whatever he saw made his brows slam together, thunderstruck. “Are you pregnant?”
“What?” She sat up so fast she bumped her head on the wall behind her and had to rub the hurt away. “No. Gawd, that’s all I would need right now.”
Only a complete fool would mourn the fact she had no lifetime reminder of her gullibility in getting involved with him. Then she must be a fool, because not being accidentally pregnant by him had made her very blue.
“Why do you think I’m pregnant?” Her dress was loose because it was midday and the hottest June on record, but she hadn’t gained any weight. She was one of those annoying people with a high metabolism and had been told her whole life she could be a model or a basketball player. The second one had always been discounted about five seconds after she fumbled the ball and chased it, kicking it away in the process.
“You look like you’re going to faint. Are you ill?” He had instantly gone deep inside himself in the infuriating way he had, becoming impossible to read.
“I’m fine.” She really wasn’t.
“Then why are you here? For your things?” He looked to each of his cuffs as he buttoned them, all business. “I texted to ask what you wanted me to do with it.”
She had blocked him. She had feared if she started talking to him, she would fall right back under his spell. Which she was in danger of doing right now. Help me, Reve. Save me. Love me.
“This was a mistake—” She rose abruptly, and the blood rushed from her head. She set a hand on the wall as she swayed dizzily.
Reve quickly stepped forward to catch at her.
She just as quickly pulled away, brushing his hands off her. She was pretty sure she would dissolve into tears if he touched her. In her haste, she staggered into the bench, dislodging it and causing its feet to screech on the marble.
It was classic clumsy, reflexive Nina, but her panicked reaction had shocked him. She saw his eyes flash with outraged astonishment, then a shadow of stunned hurt.
He quickly blinked it away and took a few steps back, holding up his hands.
“You’re totally safe here, Nina.” Now his voice was grave and reassuring and nonthreatening enough to make her all wobbly inside.
She was acting hysterical. She was hysterical. It was taking everything for her to hold back the tears swelling in her throat.
“I just need somewhere to collect my thoughts,” she mumbled, feeling foolish and messy and horribly gauche. Was this why he hadn’t wanted a future with her? Her whole family found her disorganized and overly sensitive and somewhat oblivious.
It was true. She often didn’t have a single clue despite what might be staring her in the face. She led with her heart and saw only what she wanted to see. That’s how she’d missed the fact she wasn’t actually related to any of her relations. That’s how she’d mistaken a wealthy man’s desire for a mistress as love at first sight.
“Do you want to come sit down?” He waved toward the living room.
She moved into the familiar space of his penthouse with its vaulted ceiling and wall of windows looking onto the terrace. As she sank into her favorite corner of the overstuffed sectional, the one that faced the fireplace, she pulled the cushion from behind her back and hugged it.
“Would you like something? Coffee? Tea? A drink?” He was keeping his distance, which made her feel again like she was being melodramatic.
It was his influence making her act this way, she wanted to say. When she was with him, he sharpened her reactions to everything. The sun shone brighter, food tasted better. Orgasms became otherworldly.
“No,” she murmured, biting her lip to distract herself from how much she had missed him.
It’s okay to love someone who doesn’t return your feelings, her sister had said when Nina had crawled home, a failure on all fronts. You still got to feel it. Love is never wasted.
Easy for her to say, married to her high school sweetheart and still deeply in love.
“Do you want me to call the police?” Reve’s carefully neutral tone was unnerving. He was an assertive man who always knew what he wanted. When he had an opinion, he voiced it. If he thought a certain action should be taken, he took it.
Treating her as though she was made of spun sugar was making her unravel even faster.
“I haven’t been attacked,” she mumbled.
“There’s blood on your bag. And your hand.” His voice wasn’t quite steady. His shoulders were a tense line.
She realized he was boiling with rage beneath that clenched jaw. She looked to the floor where she’d dropped her shoulder bag. One of the sagging ropes that formed the handle held a streak of red. The heel of her palm also had blood on it.
Wonderful. Now she had to scrounge up the energy to go to the powder room.
“I shouldn’t have barged in on you like this.” She rubbed her thumb on the stain. “I was at a job interview a few blocks over. Paparazzi chased me when I came out of the hotel. One grabbed me and I punched him in the nose.”
“Because you and I were involved?” Reve’s frown was instantly thunderous. He hated sensational publicity. Hated it.
He picked up his phone, not waiting for her to clarify before he spoke to someone she presumed was Amir. “Get the names of the men outside. Let them know charges of assault will be forthcoming.” He ended the call.
“Against me?” she asked with a thin laugh. “I hit him.”
“Good.” He moved to the wet bar and soaked a cloth under the tap. “We’ve all wanted to do it.”
“Not good. I feel awful about it.”
He gave the cloth a hard twist to wring it out and brought it to her. “We’re all entitled to defend ourselves. I guess those classes your sister dragged you to paid off.”
He remembered her telling him that? She’d mentioned it the first time he’d offered to drive her home so she wouldn’t have to take the subway. The classes had been the only way her sister would allow her to leave for New York alone.
“Thank you.” Nina accepted the cloth and wiped her hands clean. “But it wasn’t about you.”
How strange to acknowledge that when her life had been revolving around him from the moment she had met him on New Year’s Eve. She’d been at the party as an assistant to her former employer, Kelly Bex, one of New York’s top designers. Kelly had wanted to snare Reve’s attention for herself, not that Nina had realized it. Seriously, she was so clueless.
“Be nice to him,” Kelly had said. So Nina had made a point of introducing herself, saying something that had made him laugh. She hadn’t realized he was a self-made bazillionaire who had gotten his start selling used car parts and was now a driving force—pun intended—in autonomous vehicles.
They’d chatted for a half hour and, rather than going home with Kelly, Reve had taken Nina’s number, asking her to dinner the next evening. Nina had mentioned it to Kelly at work the next day, innocent as a spring lamb, asking if there was anything Kelly wanted Nina to bring up with him.
While Reve had seduced Nina that night, Kelly had browsed recipes for cooking and eating the hearts of her enemies. It wasn’t until Nina was holding a cardboard box of her things on the street a few days later that she’d realized she’d been fired in direct retaliation for her budding affair with Reve. Her roommate at the time had also been an employee of Kelly’s, so Nina had lost her sublet, too.
Reve was a much faster study. He’d understood the dynamic straight away but hadn’t been particularly remorseful. However, since Nina had had no job and no home, he’d taken her in and offered to make reparations by supporting her career aspirations. She had let him act like a superhero because she had thought he believed in her work and wanted her to succeed.
He had wanted her in his bed. That was all. That was the happily-never-after to that story.
Even after she’d figured it out and tried to move on, he had affected her life. He’d left her so hollowed out she’d abandoned her dreams and scurried back to Albuquerque, where she had struggled to even look for work. She had lived with her father and swept hair in her sister’s salon. When she did go on interviews, she failed to land jobs because she was walking around with such an angry look on her face.
Not today, though. Weirdly, this thing with Oriel Cuvier wasn’t about him. At least, it hadn’t been until she had run in here and drawn him into it.
Oh, heck. He was going to kill her when he realized that.
Reve took the cloth and threw it all the way across the room, where it landed in the sink with a dull thud.
“Why are they chasing you then?” He dropped into the armchair that faced her. “Some other man you’re seeing?”
She could have barked out a wild laugh at that. What did he think? That she had walked out on him for turning her into a paid escort so she could take up with another man in exactly the same capacity? As if she could even think about other men after him. Even as she sat here, she was thinking, Why couldn’t you have loved me just a little?
She gave herself a mental shake and said facetiously, “Yes. Duke Rhodes.” Oriel Cuvier had been at a premiere in Cannes with the actor six weeks ago. That’s what had started Nina down this rocky path of self-discovery. “Haven’t you seen our photos?”
“The has-been from those ‘Frantic and Fuming’ action movies?” He grimaced. “He’s too old for you.”
“I’m being sarcastic,” she said with exasperation. “You really haven’t seen them?”
“You blocked me, Nina,” he said in a tone that was falsely pleasant. “How could I see any of the photos you post?”
Wasn’t it supposed to feel satisfying when the object of your block realized it? She just felt petty and obvious. Now he knew how much he’d hurt her.
“They’re not my photos. They’re on the entertainment sites.”
“I don’t look at that garbage.” His face hardened with genuine anger. “But if they’re chasing you because of him, why the hell would you lead those vultures to me?”
“I didn’t! I was across the street and they surrounded me. I panicked and ran to what was familiar.” She hugged the pillow she was still holding. “I didn’t expect Amir to call you.” Her chin trembled. “I just wanted to catch my breath.”
Reve had been born skeptical. The life he’d led had honed his cynicism to a razor-sharp edge. The first time Nina had spoken to him, he’d seen her angle. She’d been cutting in line ahead of her own employer, a shark of a woman named Kelly Bex, to get to him.
That put Nina on his own level of ruthless buccaneering—not devoid of a conscience, but willing to leap on an opportunity when it presented itself in a bespoke suit with a Patek Philippe wristwatch and a gold credit card made from actual gold.
He respected that. Plus, she was pretty as hell. Mesmerizing with her silky, shiny hair and her expressive brows and her delicate oval face. She was curious and interesting and made him laugh, so he’d let her run her game. Why not? He liked to play as hard as worked.
He’d thought he was embarking on an affair with a like-minded partner, but their relationship hadn’t gone the way he’d expected. Nina possessed an artistic temperament. She was naturally passionate and sensitive and effusive. She challenged his assumptions, and pushed up against him and excited him. Sparks had constantly been flying, especially in the bedroom. They were an A-hazard combustible combination, and his body refused to forget it.
The lust she provoked in him had been her ticket into this penthouse. He’d known he was being a fool. Emotions were a tool for manipulating a reaction. He sat in marketing meetings all the time where they discussed how to stir up envy and turn it into a luxury car purchase, but he’d still allowed her to enthrall him.
When she had stormed out because he had declined to eat dinner with her father, he’d seen it as a tantrum intended to bring him to heel. He’d balked—hard—expecting her to come back once she cooled off, but she hadn’t.
Her social feeds had reassured him she was alive and spending time with her father, and then three days later he’d seen a “good to be home” post. The phone he’d bought her turned up at the desk downstairs, and he discovered she had blocked him from every aspect of her life.
That abrupt cutting of ties had thrust him into a fractured moment of fearing he had genuinely hurt her. Dread had leaned a sharp elbow into his integrity. He wasn’t the most moral of men, but he didn’t harm people. He didn’t use them up and throw them away.
He didn’t need them, either, but he felt her absence more keenly than he’d expected. It still put a sick knot in his gut recalling how discarded he’d felt for those few dark minutes.
Then he’d remembered that she’d left her precious sewing machine. This whole charade was a taunt. She had wanted him to chase her, but he refused. He’d sat back and waited, knowing she would turn up when she was ready, and here she was.
The part where she was claiming to have been chased here by paparazzi was an odd way to save face. Definitely not the quickest way into his good graces, but he knew how nightmarish those scrums could be and she seemed genuinely distressed. There was a haunted look around her eyes. Tension pulled at the corners of her mouth. Her cheekbones stood out as though she’d lost a few pounds. She was naturally slender and tall, but she had never struck him as fragile.
His heart sat crooked in his chest as he realized she hadn’t smiled once yet. In fact, she looked like a rabbit run to ground.
“Are you sure they didn’t hurt you?” he asked with gruff concern.
He was still twitching with adrenaline from noticing the blood on her hand. For a few seconds, he’d gone to a very violent place. He’d always been a scrapper, but today, imagining someone had hurt her so badly she was terrified of him, he had known he could kill.
It was sobering. And a stark reminder that she brought more tumult into his life than was comfortable. In fact, he was sitting here filtering through a thousand reactions when he ought to have already dismissed her from his life and left for his engagement.
“I’m fine.” She was rubbing her thumb into the heel of her palm. “I might have a bruise later, but I’m just…” She heaved a sigh that contained a metric ton of despair. “Tired.”
That he believed. The way she stared sightlessly at the fireplace, her mouth pouty with desolation, bothered him. He didn’t like seeing her like this, trampled and sad. It slipped past the armor he was donning and sank like an ice pick in his gut.
He fought softening toward her while she blinked slowly once, twice, then drew a breath and shot him a tight, brave, flat-lipped stretch of her lips that was evidently supposed to be a smile. She set aside the pillow.
“You’re right. I shouldn’t have come to you.”
His lungs tightened in a very visceral reaction. Why not him?
This was her strange power over him, though. She said and did things that tugged reactions from him with a barbed hook. He didn’t want to be the sort of man who could be led by his emotions. It left him open to all sorts of strikes.
He clenched his jaw against any declarations of concern or offers to help and stood.
She rose and shouldered her bag, tugging her hair free from the strap, making him want to reacquaint himself with how satin cool those wavy tendrils were and how warm and smooth her skin was.
He jerked his gaze away. “I’ll take you out through the underground parking and drop you wherever you’re staying.” It was the decent thing to do. That was the only reason he offered.
“A subway station is fine, thanks.”
“I’ll take you home,” he insisted. “Your things are in storage downstairs. It will only take a minute to have them load—”
“No.” She hit him with a look that accused him of hate crimes. “Why do you still have it? Sell it. Give it away. Throw it away. I don’t care, but it’s not mine.” She disappeared into the powder room and slammed the door.
And there was the flare of temper that lit his own, making him want to bang on the door and demand she explain herself.
No. He wouldn’t let her manipulate him again.
He went down the hall to finish dressing, determined to end their association once and for all. Determined to ignore the gravel that sat heavy in his stomach as he did.
“Do you need a few more minutes?” Reve asked stiffly as she joined him in the elevator. He’d put on a tie and jacket and looked fantastic, the bastard.
Nina looked and felt like the crumpled tissues in her hand. She was as tired of crying as she was of everything else, but why had he thrown her shattered dreams in her face like that? Why?
“I’m fine.” She felt his gaze on the side of her face, intense enough to leave a radiation burn.
His car was waiting by the elevator when it opened. He moved to open the back door himself and she slid in, slouching down even though the windows were tinted.
He came in beside her and gave her a disgruntled look, then flicked his gaze to their surroundings as though checking for cameramen.
“Where are you staying?” he asked.
“Lower East Side.”
“A friend’s studio. His lease runs out at the end of the month and he’s in Australia. He said I could use it. The price was right.” She spoke with indifference, as though she wasn’t dreading going back there. “Drop me at whichever subway station is along the way,” she told the driver, adding to Reve, “I don’t want to keep you from…whoever you’re seeing.”
She flicked her gaze to his razor-sharp lapels, trying not to contemplate who he’d dressed to see.
“It’s a lobbying fundraiser,” he said.
“Oh, well, you know I’d love nothing better than to keep you from giving crooked politicians your money. Take me home, then,” she said facetiously.
“Sorry to disappoint, but I’ve already paid for the tickets. Lower East Side,” Reve said to the driver, and closed the privacy screen.
“I was being sarcastic. The subway is fine.”
He put up a finger as he dialed his phone and brought it to his ear.
She looked out the window. The word tickets—plural—had stuck like a blade in her stomach. The knife twisted as she heard a woman’s voice answer his call.
“I’m running late,” Reve said. “I’ll meet you there.”
Nina did her best to transport herself out of body while the woman promised to “tell Daddy” and said, “See you soon.”
“Dating a politician’s daughter is not the way to stay out of the spotlight,” she remarked pithily when he ended his call.
“It’s cocktails on the lawn. I don’t make the rules, you know. I simply play them to my advantage.”
“Sounds like you’re playing her.” She used the voice of experience.
“She called me to say that if I bought the very overpriced tickets, she would join me to make introductions.” He dropped his phone into the inside pocket of his jacket. “That’s how the system works, and that’s how I have a chance to swing things into better practices than the ones you hate. I recently succeeded in getting emissions regulations tightened, so you’re welcome. Breathe easier.”
“Don’t act like that was about the planet. You’re only trying to make the field more even for your hydrogen fuel cells.”
“Air quality still wins.”
True. And she wasn’t swiping at him for chasing political influence. She was jealous. That was the ugly bottom line.
They drove several blocks in silence, the commuter traffic heavy but not awful.
“Why are you in the spotlight?” he asked in a tone shaded with skepticism. “You never said.”
“It’s a long and b—” She’d started to say boring, but it was tragic and painful and confusing and life changing. Potentially more so, if she pursued it, but she didn’t think she had a choice. Not if she was being chased through the streets demanding answers she didn’t have.
She dug into her bag, found her phone and then pulled up the photo of Oriel from Cannes.
Reve gave her screen the quickest, most cursory glance. His mouth twisted with faint disgust. “So you are seeing him.”
“Read the caption.”
He took her phone and stared longer. Frowned. “Oriel Cuvier?” He flicked his gaze to her face and back to the photo. “That’s you.”
“Nope.” She reached for the phone. “She’s a French model. Runway work, but also underwear and swimsuit ads. She recently landed one of the top brands for sunglasses. When I first came to New York, someone pointed out a photo of her and said we looked alike. I didn’t think much of it. We all look like someone, right?”
“Your dad was in the air force, wasn’t he?”
“Funny you should mention that, but don’t malign the fidelity of a man you refused to meet. Especially because if you had, you would know he’s white. What are the chances he would have two daughters with such dark coloring? If you say he must have a type, I will poke you in the eye.”
He held up a placating hand. “What’s your theory then?”
She looked at the phone, loathe to go to that other image because it made her seriously question her sanity. Her stomach had been nothing but acid since she’d seen it. She gathered herself and flicked, then handed her phone across, not glancing at the two photos that had been juxtaposed by the press in India. They showed a mother and daughter, both in their mid-twenties.
“That’s why Oriel Cuvier is making headlines right now,” Nina said to the window. “She was adopted by a French couple and raised in France, but she recently learned her birth mother was Lakshmi Dalal, a Bollywood star who died about twenty years ago.”
Reve scrolled to read the article beneath.
Nina dug into her bag for the keys to the building so she wouldn’t have to look at him. Was he thinking she was pitiful? Reaching for a connection that was laughably beyond her? Soft in the head?
He didn’t swear or give any indication of his reaction.
When she dared glance in his direction, he was watching her.
“Are you adopted?”
“No.” Her throat closed, making the word more of a squeak. The pressure in her chest became nearly unbearable. Her eyes grew so hot she had to clench them to prevent the tears from leaking out.
“So this is a coincidence?” he scoffed. “A quirk of genetics?”
“Must be.” She snatched back her phone, so abruptly it bordered on rude, and threw it into her bag. “Now all these stupid reporters think I’m her. I’ll have to go back to Albuquerque so they’ll leave me alone except I can’t.” She leaned to rap on the glass and then pushed the button to lower the screen. “Make a right at the light, please. I’m eight blocks up, but let me off wherever you can.”
“I’m not letting you off here.” Reve glowered as they rolled into a street full of stained awnings over pawnshops and moneylenders. There were homeless people sprawled with their belongings on the sidewalk. A woman in a short skirt paced alongside their slowing car and leaned suggestively, trying to catch Reve’s attention.
“It’s daylight. I’ll be fine. I’m in the middle of the next block,” she told the driver, pointing at a very dodgy building that had half its windows boarded up.
Reve swore and curtly ordered the driver, “Let us out here and drive around the block.” He turned back to her and added, “I’ll walk you in.”
He ignored her and stepped out of the car after her, taking hold of her elbow as they crossed the street and walked the remaining block. He sent alert glances in both directions and subtly placed himself between her and the man blocking the entrance to the building.
“Spare change?” the man asked.
Reve handed him a few dollars, and his grip tightened on Nina’s elbow as they moved into the darkened entranceway at the top of the steps.
“Why the hell are you staying in a place like this?” The simmering rage was back in his tone.
“I told you. It was free.” She tried the key, but the building’s front door had been broken in since she’d left this morning. It swung inward as she touched it.
“You’re smarter than this, Nina.”
“It’s not that bad,” she lied, secretly relieved that he was following her up the two flights of stairs. She unlocked the door to the studio and they entered what was admittedly a dim, squalid room of peeling paint and hard-used furniture. “See? Perfectly fine.”
“Why is the window nailed shut?”
“My friend was robbed a few weeks ago, but it’s safe now, right? No one can get in.”
“It’s a firetrap,” he said grimly. “Get your things. You’re not staying here.”
“It’s for a couple of nights. It’s fine.”
“There’s a full bag of garbage right here.” He pointed. “You know that attracts rats, right?”
“That’s actually my suitcase. I bagged it to keep the cockroaches out.”
He gave her the most condescending look in the history of condescending looks.
“So you’re already packed,” he said with muted fury. “Good.”
“I’m not staying with you,” she insisted.
“Well, you’re not staying here, so tell me which hotel you want to go to.”
“It’s been so nice seeing you again, Reve. I can’t imagine why I told you to go to hell and walked out on you.”
“Yeah, I’m awash in warm fuzzies myself. Do you have more than this?”
“I don’t have money for a hotel! And don’t you dare tell me you’ll pay for it. I already owe you thousands, and I feel sick about it every single day. So no, Reve. No.”
“What are you talking about?” he muttered crisply. “I have never expected—” His phone pinged. “That’s probably my driver telling me he’s losing the hubcaps.” He glanced at his phone and his expression turned to concrete. Accusation flashed into his eyes.
She fell back a step. “What?”
“My publicist is texting,” he said through his teeth. “Asking if I want to make a statement about my relationship with Oriel Cuvier, since she was seen coming into my building. There’s speculation we’re involved. So, yes, Nina. You will come home with me. You are going to tell me exactly what is going on, and we’re going to find a way to keep my name out of it.”