"Oh God, not now!" Carlie breathed a nearly silent sigh as she watched a man weave drunkenly toward her. On the top floor of the white, two-hundred year-old Victorian inn on South Tiana Road, Carlie Russo moved down the mansion's long, thickly carpeted hallway toward a large suite of rooms.
She almost smiled at the man who walked exactly as if he were on a rocking ship, lifting each foot higher than was necessary only to come down hard as if the floor was a bit closer than he had remembered. Close to forty, he stood just an inch or two over her five-foot-four frame and sported maybe thirty pounds of excess weight, sadly, most of it around his waist, which caused him to appear even shorter.
Carlie allowed another silent sigh as she realized his growing, slightly lecherous smile. She felt not a flicker of fear, knowing full well she could handle herself against a man in his inebriated condition. And if she couldn't, this particular floor held three large suites, all of which, judging by the traffic so far encountered, were occupied. She knew, should it prove necessary, a scream would bring many to her rescue. Only she didn't want it to come to that. A thread of mild annoyance made itself known, since she was already more than a half hour late and might be drawn into an unwanted confrontation.
Carlie thought a quick stop in the lady's room was in order but put aside the thought as quickly as it came, lest the man simply follow her inside. She shook her head. Far too dangerous.
Faster than she'd expected, he stood directly before her. Weaving still, grinning as well, he seemed to imagine himself quite irresistible. Carlie did her best to ignore him and moved to pass by him. He sidestepped, blocking her intended path.
"Excuse me," she said.
He chuckled for a response and didn't move an inch. "I've been partying," he announced as if the words were necessary.
Carlie shot him a quick look of annoyance. "How nice. My friend is waiting for me. Excuse me, please," she said pleasantly.
He ignored her obvious need to pass him. "You're a sweet little piece, aren't you? Why don't we have our own party?"
Carlie thought it best to keep the nasty words she was tempted to hurl to herself. There was no telling what this man might do in his present state. "As I said," she repeated with a touch of strained patience, "my friend is waiting."
"We could be friends," he said in a supposed sexy fashion, which actually came out as a drunken slur. He leaned forward, forcing her back against the wall in order to keep any distance between them. He leaned closer still, blocking any means of escape by placing his hands against the wall one on each side of her.
Suddenly, another man stood at the drunkard's side. A tall man, a man she'd never seen before. And Carlie only blinked her surprise as she heard him say, "Darling, I'm sorry I'm late."
As he said the words, he smoothly elbowed the man out of the way. The movement was neither gentle nor rough. Still the man, deep in his cups, wobbled dangerously before he reached for and held to the opposite wall. The taller man ignored the first and reached for Carlie. Carlie only blinked in silent astonishment as he took her into his arms, lifted her slightly and kissed her as if they were long-time lovers. She couldn't think what this man was about and never had the opportunity to ask, for like his arms, his mouth was suddenly and possessively holding hers.
She never closed her eyes as she watched the drunk give them both a nasty look, shrug, murmur something she couldn't make out and finally make his way toward the elevator. The bell rang as the door closed behind him, and Carlie, with a great sigh of relief, pulled her mouth from the man holding her and whispered, "He's gone."
"I know," the man returned even as his mouth came once again to hers. "Do you realize how good you taste?"
Carlie never thought to answer the question. Suddenly, all thought centered on this man's clean mouth. The softness of his lips, the sweetness of his breath, the firmness of his hold... God, she couldn't ask for more. She felt suddenly more at home in his arms than she'd ever felt with any man before. A stranger was kissing her, and she loved every second of it. Her lips parted under the pressure of his mouth, and his tongue slipped deep into her heat. She shivered and uttered the slightest whimper as she brought her hands to his shoulders.
He pulled back the upper part of his body, holding her still against the wall with the pressure of his hips, both of them gasping for breath. "I didn't hurt you, did I?"
"What?" she asked almost drunkenly, the word telling clearly the reason behind her whimper.
He smiled. A lone finger caressed her bottom lip. "You're lovely."
"Thank you," she returned, their mouths barely inches apart.
"I want to kiss you again."
"But not here. Can we go somewhere?"
"Yes," she replied then added a quick, "No. Perhaps later. I'm already late for the party."
He laughed at her momentary confusion. "Which party?"
"My friend, Toni."
He smiled as he allowed her to disengage herself from his hold.
"That could have been messy," she said to his grin, somehow knowing even as she said it, she'd been in no real danger. Had this man the inclination, he could have effortlessly taken care of two such drunks.
"Thank you," she breathed as she avoided what was proving to be a devastating grin and smoothed an already perfectly smooth dress.
Her rescuer's grin turned into a laugh. With his heavy brows moving quickly up and down, he teased, "No, thank you. Should we go to the party together?"
She returned his smile with one of her own. "Were you invited?"
"Actually, I was."
"You go. I have to make a quick stop in the lady's room. I'll be along directly."
It wasn't until the door closed behind her that Carlie realized she'd forgotten to ask how he knew Toni. Moments later, with her nerves under control, she stepped into the hall again. It was empty.
The hall, like every room in the inn, was richly appointed, boasting of framed maps, pictures of seamen and their old ships and a number of beautiful paintings of the sea. Two antique chest of drawers, the wood polished to a soft, rich luster, were placed one at each end of the hall, produced an atmosphere of calm gentility.
It had been forever since she'd taken a night off work. Forever since she'd last attended a social occasion. Before a hall mirror, she glanced at her reflection. Her black, silk dress hugged her body in all the right places and fell two inches short of her knees. Until tonight, she hadn't realized she'd grown so thin. Owning a restaurant should have put meat on her bones, but the work, the endless hours, combined with her constant anxiety had apparently eaten up every calorie she'd consumed and brought a slight hollowness below her cheeks. She studied her makeup and reapplied her lip color. Her long, dark hair looked good. Tonight, rather than her usual ponytail, rhinestone studded combs held her black curls from her face. Her large, dark eyes had needed only a touch of mascara and trace of smoky shadow to appear even larger, while her lips, generous to say the least seemed fuller with creamy, pink color. Satisfied she looked her best, her gaze moved from her reflection to the three men who had turned a corner and now stood before the door of suite 301.
At a turn of the knob, the door opened. Music and the sound of laughter filtered into the hallway. The tallest and darkest, the very same man who had saved her from the drunk, was the last to enter. He'd turned to close the door when, with a look of surprise, he caught sight of her.
Carlie's breath caught in her throat, as his eyes widened in obvious appreciation. She watched in silence, as his warm gaze moved slowly, purposefully and with some appreciation, over the length of her. No phenomena here. Men often looked at her, but Carlie had never been left shaken and oddly flustered by a look. She fought back a shiver, and her nipples tightened as his gaze lingered briefly at her breasts. He smiled as if he knew what his look had done. He'd moved a half step toward her when a woman from inside the room suddenly appeared at his side and took his arm.
Carlie heard the word, "Darling," as the same woman reached up and kissed his cheek, diverting his attention, while another man slapped at his shoulder a number of times and drew him into the room. The door closed.
As it did, Carlie took a deeply shaken breath. What in the world had just happened? She felt as breathless as if she'd taken a blow to her midsection, and she gave a quick shake of her head as she realized her cheeks were warm and she felt slightly light-headed. She frowned at the oddity. Had she been holding her breath? Her heart thundered in anticipation. She hadn't a doubt that they'd meet again within the next few minutes.
Thirty seconds and ten steps brought her to the same door. At her touch, it opened to one of the three executive suites, and her dark, brown gaze widened with surprise. It seemed more than fifty people stood in clusters and nearly filled the room to overflowing. A soft "Wow," slipped from her lips.
Two-hundred years ago, the building had been the home of a sea captain. Sometime after his death, it had been converted into an inn. The top floor now boasted of three suites, each of them easily holding thirty-five to forty people.
Besides the main sitting room, this one was comprised of four smaller, cozy rooms all decorated, like the rest of the building, in Victorian style, with flowering wallpaper, tasseled lampshades and copper pots of potpourri. Romantic and luxurious, the setting spoke of another era with its large, period pieces mixed with many other antiques. Its ambience contrasted sharply with the modern, twenty and thirty-something crowd that now occupied the suite, but the contrast hardly mattered when folks gathered to party.
Carlie didn't know most of the people here. Apparently, they were Toni and Diana's friends. Carlie almost frowned at the thought. It had been ages since she'd shared more than a quick phone call with her two best friends. She promised herself not to let that happen again.
Diana squeezed through the crowd and came to her side. They hugged. "You had me worried. I was beginning to think you weren't coming." Diana and Carlie were giving the party for their friend, Toni. Diana had organized it, but they'd shared the cost. "You might as well have joined a convent since you've opened that restaurant. I'm sure I'd see you just as often."
Carlie smiled. Thanks to her great Aunt Jenny and the inheritance she'd received upon her death, Carlie had bought Russo's, an Italian restaurant, over three years ago. It had taken that long to show a decent, steady profit. Diana was right. Carlie had been working hard, but she was young and not only loved her work but was proud of what she'd accomplished. Still, it had been ages since she'd last taken a night off.
"I told you I'd be here."
Diana grinned and nodded toward a doorway. "The bar is in the next room; food in the one beyond that. Get yourself a drink and mingle."
Carlie ordered a white wine. She was sipping at her glass, thinking she should probably move on to the next room and find something to eat, when a deep voice sounded behind her. "Tell me you're the entertainment."
Carlie turned to find a devastatingly handsome man, the very same man who had rescued her from the drunk's unwanted attention in the hall. Usually, she'd barely give a man like this a second glance. In her experience, gorgeous men were sort of into themselves and in fact rarely noticed her, but obviously not this guy.
Now that her mind was clear, her mouth against the rim of her glass rather than his lips, Carlie took in thickly fringed, dark brown eyes and a narrow nose above a wide smile that flashed even, white teeth. It took a long moment before she could force her gaze away from those warm brown eyes and contagious smile. When she did, she couldn't miss the subdued elegance of a black silk shirt with no tie or jewelry. Every other man there wore a tie, but he'd left the top few buttons of his shirt open, offering a smattering of dark chest hair and warm, olive skin. His shirt was barely a shade darker than his Armani suit, while the soft, luster of Gucci loafers peeked from beneath perfectly fitted trousers.
Understated, elegant, he wore the expensive clothes effortlessly, almost carelessly and outshone every man there. He was obviously in shape. Clothes didn't fit like that unless a stomach was flat, legs were long, hips narrow and a chest broad.
A trace of a frown creased her forehead. Did she know him? If she didn't, why did he look so familiar? Carlie shrugged the thought aside. It would come to her later, she was sure. She flashed a daring smile.
"Is there entertainment?" Carlie couldn't remember if Diana mentioned it.
"I don't have a clue."
She smiled. "Sorry. I might be entertaining, but I'm not the entertainment."
He grinned at her response. "That's too bad. I'd like to watch you perform."
Carlie blinked. This was a bold one. Intrigued, she smiled. "Mmm, that sounds interesting."
"What I'm thinking is interesting, I promise you."
She laughed. "Are you always this evil?"
"Less evil than wicked, I think," he easily corrected. "And only with a most special lady."
She bit her bottom lip, trying to harness her urge to laugh. This man was smooth, really smooth and more than a little experienced. Truthfully, his remarks were doing her ego no harm.
"Jesus, don't do that."
"Bite your lip like that. You need to let me do it for you."
She grinned. "Maybe later.
"How many have you found?"
"Special ladies," she reminded.
"Oh, you have to know there's only one. You want to dance?"
Carlie glanced to her left and right, a smile teasing her lips. "This place is literally wall-to-wall people."
"Come with me," he said, offering her no option as he took her hand and walked toward the terrace.
He cut quickly through the crowd. Before she knew it, they were outside. The wonderfully cool breeze was a most refreshing respite after the over-crowded, stuffy rooms.
Relishing the clean scent of the sea, she took a deep breath and said, "You know, you're very good. Do you always get your way?"
"I try to."
Oddly enough, the terrace was empty, but for a lone couple standing in a dark corner. Carlie smiled as the tall, dark man before her slouched against the exterior, clapboard wall and brought her to stand between his legs.
"We're not dancing," she reminded.
"I know. We'll dance later." His head lowered so his mouth might whisper across her cheek. "It's hard to reach you. You need to stand on something."
She pulled back slightly, one brow raised as her gaze narrowed with warning. "No cracks about my height, or I'll stand on you."
He smiled. "Sore spot?"
She shook her head in the negative and shrugged. "Only when strange men mention it."
He grinned. "They should be hung."
"I agree." Her lips began to tremble with laughter at the growing wicked look in his eyes. "And don't say it."
"What?" He was laughing as he asked, "Don't say what?"
"Anything about how you're hung."
"Because I don't care."
They were both laughing now. Carlie couldn't exactly say why, but she was enjoying this extraordinarily erotic conversation with this oh-so-tempting man. She leaned against him then away. "What's your name?"
"Do you want to bother with names tonight?"
She shrugged and looked slightly taken aback. "Do you want to keep them a secret?"
"Maybe just for tonight. We could tell each other our names in the morning."
"In the morning?" Her smiled widened; her dark eyes flashed with interest. "That's a thought. I should thank you again for your help."
"Yes, you should," he returned with a twinkle of humor in his eyes. "How are you going to go about it?"
She smiled as she studied his face for a minute. "Who was the lady?"
"The one who called you 'Darling' when you entered the suite."
"Oh, that was Stacey. She calls everyone 'darling'. I think she knows the birthday girl. Toni, isn't it?"
"Stacey is the wife of a business associate. She knew a few of us would be in town tonight and at loose ends, so she invited us to this party."
"Why do you look so familiar?"
"I have that kind of face."
"Are you sure we haven't met before?"
"Absolutely sure. I'm not about to forget someone who looks like you."
"Are you married?"
Carlie flashed him a sassy grin. "I almost didn't come tonight." Her tone and smile clearly revealed she was happy she had.
Smoothly, he twisted her words. "I think I can safely guarantee you'll come tonight."
She made a low, soft sound of amusement deep in her throat. "Again, interesting."
God, he was freaking gorgeous with warm brown eyes, thick lashes and dark brown curling hair that fell deliciously over his forehead. She felt the urge to compliment him, but thought it might be better not to add to his confidence. He seemed to have more than enough.
She assumed he'd noticed her look of admiration when he asked, "What are you thinking about?"
His hands, on either of her hips, held her in a loose embrace as their bodies fleetingly touched only to move apart and come together again. He never forced contact, but she felt the clear proof of his arousal at every convergence and shivered at the promise of carefully restrained passion, only a trembling heartbeat away. She breathed the heat of him, sensed the strength of hard muscle beneath his silk shirt and suit jacket. And the smell of him, she inhaled her delight on a sigh. He smelled good enough to eat, and Carlie had never felt so at ease, even as she experienced a nearly breathless degree of excitement. She hadn't a doubt she would take this man's obvious offer.
God, it had been forever since a man had held her in his arms. Longer still since she'd had sex. At this moment, she felt damn near starved for it and breathless with anticipation as her pussy swelled. Growing wet with an aching need, it grew heavier, wetter, just standing near him. What would she feel like when he touched her? She trembled at the thought. "I'm thinking I like the scent you're wearing. What is it?"
"If you really like it, I could send you some or better yet, later I could let you rub yourself all over me. That way you'll be sure to bring some home with you."
She smiled, leaned against him again and spoke against his jaw. "You'd let me do that, would you?"
He smiled at her teasing. "I'm a generous guy."
She surprised herself with a soft girlish laugh and wondered when she had last so enjoyed herself. Usually levelheaded, tonight she felt reckless, daring and unconcerned about tomorrow. Just for tonight she'd simply enjoy this gorgeous man. "And have you used it all over you?"
"I could let you search out the places where I have."
She backed away again. "You're right. That is generous of you."
"I thought so."
As they spoke, she'd been sipping at her drink, without tasting the wine. She looked at the glass, surprised to find it empty. "I hurried here from work and didn't get a chance to eat tonight. I need something, but more importantly, my glass is empty."
The truth was she hadn't eaten since breakfast, and that had only been coffee and a slice of toast. As often happened, she'd been too busy today to remember to eat.
He grinned and rose to his full height; her eyes came even with his jaw. He took her hand in his again. "We can't have that."