“You, Dylan, are an asshole. This is, what, the fourth
time I’ve caught you with your hand up some waitress’s skirt?”
“Nothing happened. I said she had a great ass. She offered to let me cop a feel. That’s it.”
“Oh my God! Why am I even surprised that you don’t see anything wrong with that scenario?”
“Hey, baby, I’m a musician. Women love me.”
“You’re a viola player
, Dylan. I hardly think playing the viola is going to get you a reality TV dating show.”
A muted chuckle was Talia’s first clue that their conversation wasn’t completely confidential.
A dingy yellow bulb overhead cast the only light. Sounds of traffic and people drifted into the alley on Boston’s cool night breeze. Talia hadn’t chosen the spot on the back steps of the reception hall because it was private. She’d chosen it because she was mad as hell but couldn’t see losing a paycheck over causing a scene inside the building.
The telltale flicker of a cigarette burned in the darkness only a few feet away. Moments later she caught the scent of spicy smoke. It was too late to find a private spot. Their relationship had been living on borrowed time for too long already.
“You’ll get your cut from tonight’s gig, Dylan. But after that you’re on your own.”
His smirk made her blood boil. “Yeah, because a string trio sounds terrific without the viola.”
“Don’t kid yourself, nobody will notice for the thirty minutes left of this job. Besides, you’re easier to replace than you think.”
“Name one person.”
“Jen’s dying to take your spot on a permanent basis. She’s just been waiting for Leslie to get fed up with your bullshit, which she is. You’re done embarrassing her and you’re sure as hell done disrespecting me.”
His cocky smile faltered. “Where you gonna live if you try to replace me, baby?”
“You live with me
. My name is on the lease, remember, Bad Credit Boy?”
There was a chuckle from the general direction of the cigarette smoke.
“You’re going to regret this.”
“I don’t think so. And you’d better get your shit out of the apartment before I get home tonight, or it’ll be on the curb by morning.”
“Fuck you. You’re going to be sorry you screwed me over like this!”
“Not gonna happen.”
He crowded her into the wall and pointed his index finger in her face, taking a breath to say something else. A disembodied voice from the darkness cut him off.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Fuck off! No one asked you.”
Talia caught her breath as a man emerged from the shadows. He gave the cigarette in his hand a casual glance before elegantly flicking it over the railing onto the pavement. At six feet tall, his frame was slender, but the leonine way he carried himself said it all. He wasn’t cocky. He was confident. And there were probably more than a few reasons why.
Dylan took one step toward the stranger, hands fisted at his sides. “This is a private conversation. Why don’t you step off?”
a private conversation.”
Dylan’s glowering frown turned hostile.
“You made it my business when you started making threats.”
“The bitch is trying to kick me out of my apartment!”
The stranger’s gaze slid over Talia’s frozen features like a physical caress. Her core temperature soared as a jolt of awareness sent a thrill over her body, culminating at a point between her legs. She fought the urge to clamp her thighs together to relieve the unexpected pressure.
She’d never met anyone like him before. The only word that came to mind was sensual. The way he moved made her body remember she was female, he was male, and there was a specific reason they’d been made that way.
His dark brown hair was artfully tousled, and the ghost of a goatee dusted the strong line of his jaw. The expensive suit was tailored to a perfect fit, but her mind protested the idea of covering up a body that promised to be sexy as hell. In fact, covering up that expanse of muscle, sinew, and bone was a sin in and of itself.
She shook off her temporary loss of brain function and remembered the codependent sponge she was trying to get rid of. “It’s my apartment, Dylan. We both know this relationship is over. It’s been over for too long. Isn’t it time to move on?”
Dylan looked from Talia to the stranger, trying to mask the obvious fury on his face. “Move on to where? To him?”
The stranger quirked an eyebrow.
“He has nothing to do with this. Personally, I find it rather disturbing that you require a mediator for this conversation.”
“I don’t need one. You’re the one who isn’t telling him to go back inside and find some other pussy to chase!”
Talia fought the urge to claw his eyes out. It was no surprise that Dylan would immediately assume every guy was out to find an easy lay. Her gaze flickered to the stranger’s face, wondering what he thought of the twists and turns this discussion was taking.
A muscle leaped in his jaw, and he turned the full force of his gaze on Dylan. “I don’t chase. I don’t have to. Which is why I’m standing here now, attempting to convince you to salvage some pride, cut your losses, and leave.”
Dylan straightened with a disdainful bark of laughter. “Whatever. You can have her if you want her. She’s not that good a fuck. When you’re done, send her back my way. I might be in the mood for leftovers.”
Her face flamed red-hot at his words. She didn’t care what Dylan thought about her performance in bed. It could hardly matter. But to have him give such a low opinion in front of a total stranger was horrible beyond measure. His angry footsteps descended the stairs, traveling the length of the alley. She watched his retreat until the weight of the stranger’s gaze pulled her back to the moment at hand.
Slow and deliberate, his gaze raked her from head to toe. A smile began in the corners of his mouth, curving his full lower lip and sending a shot of heat to her center. Her previous embarrassment burned away into desire that rekindled her body’s awareness. She fought back the need to squirm in her damp panties. It was unfair that a man she’d only just met could do such devastating damage to her self-control.
Pressing her cool palms against her flaming cheeks, Talia lowered her gaze. No doubt the guy was sorry he’d ducked out for a smoke. Breathing deeply to adjust her equilibrium, she waited for the inevitable words of pity or remorse from the handsome stranger. He would apologize and say something awkward and unnecessary before they tried to make small talk.
The words never came. She strained her ears, desperate to know if he still stood before her. Silence blanketed the tiny landing only moments before another muffled click announced the stranger’s return to the party.
“Hell’s bells,” Talia muttered.
Embarrassment was bad enough. It would’ve been one thing to face him in the semidarkness of the back alley after hearing Dylan’s frank appraisal of her performance in bed. Doing it inside a room full of rich, privileged, Boston society people was too horrible to contemplate. But not even that would stifle her curiosity when she went back inside. After all, she gave as good as she got. Not that her sexy-as-hell hero seemed to have an interest in testing that theory.
Talia straightened her spine, smoothed her skirt, and sucked in a deep breath before yanking the door open and striding back inside.
* * *
“Where on earth have you been?” Desiree murmured as Erik took her arm.
“I needed some fresh air.” Erik caught the eye of a business associate across the room and offered a cool smile.
She gave an unladylike snort. “So what were you really up to? Or should I ask who?”
“Sneaking off for a quick fuck at our sainted mother’s wedding reception? Come now, Desiree, even I’m not that bad. Mother’s not getting any younger. The bridesmaids are hardly fuckable anymore.”
Desiree pulled back and smacked Erik on the back of the head. “I swear to God, you may be twice as tall as I am, but I’m still your big sister, and I can kick your ass if I want to.”
“In those heels?”
Desiree was momentarily distracted. “Do you like them? I picked them up yesterday. Jimmy Choos are irresistible.”
“Yes, lovely, I’m sure. I don’t even want to speculate how much of your trust fund you blow on shoes every year.”
“Oh shut up. I have you looking after my investments, don’t I? Surely I can afford to splurge once in a while.”
Erik grunted, eyes drawn toward the back door. She
was just slipping back into the cavernous ballroom. He would never have noticed her if not for the scene in the alley. She was short. Her body was curvaceous, but nothing like the leggy, busty, loose-hipped divas who generally caught his eye. And her hair was brown.
No, not just brown, more of a sable color.
He frowned. Whether or not her hair was plain Jane brown or rich mahogany shot with sable highlights shouldn’t have mattered. She wasn’t meant for him, and not even the mesmerizing effect of her blue eyes could change that.
Mesmerizing? What was the matter with him?
“What on earth are you staring at?” Desiree growled around her plastic smile.
“You know, those people over there with the instruments who make the noise so people can dance.”
“You are such an asshole.”
“You, Dylan, are an asshole
A smile tugged on the corners of his mouth at the memory of her caustic monologue. For a musician she certainly had a knack with words.
“You look ridiculous, Erik.”
“It’s this penguin suit. I think they get worse with every wedding.”
“Well, you’d better hope your date doesn’t think so. Your little woman is on her way over.”
“Fuck me sideways.” He plastered a welcoming smile on his face.
“My God, you really know how to pick them, little brother.”
He didn’t bother to respond. Desiree was right. He did know how to pick them. Not only was Courteney Colton heir to Colton Electronics, she looked as if her parents had genetically engineered her with their revolutionary microchip technology. She had long, soft blonde hair and pale blue eyes, and in heels her willowy body stood just a shade shorter than his did. Plus she had just the right ratio of breasts and ass to make her easy on the eyes and the libido.
“I spend my money on shoes; you use yours at Tiffany’s,” Desiree observed with amusement. “I’m surprised she can walk with all that bling weighing her down.”
He grimaced. “My accountant would agree.”
“Only you would put a price tag on commitment. And at this rate, by the time you finally have the stomach to pop the question, your investment will outweigh the returns from the merger.”
He didn’t bother to correct her. The truth was that if Courteney and Colton Electronics hadn’t come as a complete set, he would never have considered proposing marriage. She was an ambitious social climber who knew her way around a balance sheet. The moment they’d been casually introduced by his youngest sister, Courteney had been scheming her way into a wedding. He’d managed to avoid her trap until she’d enlisted her father and sweetened the deal with a billion-dollar merger his stockholders didn’t want to pass up.
“Your mother and Sebastian seem happy enough,” Courteney said as she approached Erik and Desiree.
He cast a glance at the dance floor where his mother and husband number five were sashaying around the ballroom to the melodic strains of Mozart.
Thoughts of the music sent his gaze questing automatically to the trio playing unobtrusively in the corner. Nobody seemed to notice that they were down to a duo. The cello and violin blended beautifully in the rising melody. It was the first time within recent memory that he felt a desire to kick back and listen to classical music. Though the musician was just as enjoyable as the sound of her instrument.
A smirk kicked up one corner of his mouth. He wasn’t surprised that Dylan was missing. If the guy knew what was good for him, he was packing his shit and vacating Talia’s apartment at that very moment. It occurred to Erik that he shouldn’t have any interest in her situation. Yet he did.
Talia seemed unperturbed by the status of her relationship, though it was hard for Erik to know exactly what the nature of it was from his limited contact. If he took into consideration the emotional impact their conversation had seemed to make, he suspected they’d been more than friends and possibly more than lovers. He frowned. It bothered him to think of that weak-minded little shit with Talia.
He gazed at her again. The cello was nestled firmly between her legs. Curling tendrils of her sable hair fell over her shoulder as she bent her head to the music. Her fingertips wavered on the strings, hand gently gripping the fingerboard as she gracefully slid the bow back and forth. It was strangely...erotic.
“Erik?” Courteney tugged at his sleeve.
“I’m sorry; were you saying something?”
“I wanted to know who designed your mother’s engagement ring. It looks custom.”
She sighed, casting an envious look at the rock on his newly married mother’s finger. Her hungry expression was no surprise. The woman spent half her time making a checklist of fashionable designers. But somehow her constant fixation on expensive possessions grated on his nerves.
“At least she’s learned the importance of custom ordering prenups to go with her engagement rings,” he muttered.
Murmuring his apologies and ignoring his sister’s murderous expression, Erik pulled his arm from Courteney’s hand and stepped away on the pretense of speaking to an acquaintance across the room.
* * *
Talia tried not to watch him making his rounds about the ballroom as the party wound down. But it seemed no matter how ardently she tried to focus on the music, her gaze kept drifting in his direction of its own volition.
Her curiosity was killing her. Who the hell was he? He seemed important from the way everybody sought his attention. But she half suspected he could be nobody and everyone would still pander to him. Something about that man appealed to the animalistic side of human nature. Some men beat their chests and acted like assholes to show their dominance. Men like him proved they were alpha with one expression.
He kept returning to a blonde who watched him with the hopeful possessiveness of a crazed Hollywood stalker. She was the type who’d been born beautiful and had spent every moment since having people confirm it. She had a tiny waist and legs a mile long, like any runway-worthy female. Though Talia couldn’t see from her seat across the room, she knew in her gut that the girl’s eyes were blue. It just fit the whole picture.
Tall, Dark, and Handsome would marry Pale, Blonde-haired, Blue-eyed Princess and have spectacularly beautiful babies with dark hair and blue eyes. It was so predictable Talia could even think up names for their perfect children.
Sick was what she was. It wasn’t as if she had any right to him. He’d never even officially introduced himself. In fact, her only claim to him was that he’d been present to hear her ex make an embarrassingly ugly comment about her performance in bed. What did she want? A chance to prove him wrong?
“I know you’re upset,” Leslie muttered. “But could you try to pay attention?”
“Only five minutes left, Tallie. After that you can shed a few tears for Dylan.”
“Other than hoping he’s gone by the time I get home, I’m not worried about him.”
“Who is that guy?” Talia lifted her chin and jerked it in Tall, Dark, and Handsome’s direction.
“Oh.” Leslie hissed an oath. “That’s the bride’s son. I think his last name is Aasen. I don’t remember what his first name is.”
“I suppose. If you like that kind of man.”
“What kind of man?”
Leslie shot her a dark look. “C’mon. Rich, powerful, probably snobby as hell with a serious reputation as a player.”
“Oh, that kind of man.”
Talia pondered that thought for several moments. She didn’t remember ever hearing about a man named Aasen, though that didn’t really mean anything. Her life was so damn busy she never had a second to worry about anything outside of her little sphere of existence. But he hadn’t seemed like that kind of guy when he’d played the unwitting part of knight in shining armor in the alley.
Though he had
mentioned he didn’t have to chase women.
Of course, there was a distinct difference between not needing help to find a date and fucking anything with a hole between its legs. And if he was involved with the golden princess, he could’ve simply meant he wasn’t in the market for a relationship.
Talia threw off her contemplations with effort as she drew the bow across the cello strings one final time. In her personal opinion, it was damned difficult to look dignified when playing the cello. She had to shift the skirt of her dress several times before she could set the thing aside and stand up. When she did, Talia found herself face to chest with Tall, Dark, and Handsome himself.