She was trapped.
He had her cornered between the ten-foot-high potted silk fig tree--which looked surprisingly real, she noticed, glancing to her left for a means of escape--and the wall to her right. The only way out was through him and, considering he was at least six inches taller and sixty pounds heavier than she, that wasn't much of an option.
Defeated, Kylie Rogers pasted an interested look on her face and prepared to spend the evening listening to Bradley Nelson pour out his version of "My Life as an Up-and-Coming Country Music Star." She supposed this was her curse for having a sister who was a famous singer. Every rock, country, jazz, or rap music star-wanna-be who couldn't get an audience with Robyn Rogers latched on to Kylie instead.
" ... and when I was ten, my dad took me on vacation to Nashville. That's when I knew what my destiny was," Bradley expounded with all the sincerity of a televangelist.
Kylie felt her left foot beginning to cramp and wiggled her toes, silently cursing the inventor of high-heeled shoes. Taking a sip of wine, she watched a drop of condensation roll down the stem and drip onto the hardwood floor. Someone had opened the French doors to the cool night air, butthe room inside was warm from the crush of bodies. Kylie wondered what the neighbors thought of the loud music blasting through the stillness of their exclusive Seattle suburb as she waited patiently for her chance to escape.
" ... at twelve, I got my big break--the church talent contest," Bradley droned on.
Tuning out his monologue, Kylie studied the man in front of her. Bradley Nelson could be considered handsome, with his tall, lanky frame, sandy brown hair, and dark eyes. Tonight, he was wearing the standard all-black uniform of the country music crowd: black jeans with a button-down shirt, a belt with a silver belt buckle shaped like the state of Texas, and a fascinating pair of snakeskin cowboy boots. Kylie was beginning to think those cowboy boots were, unfortunately, the most interesting thing about Bradley Nelson. She should have known she'd spend the entire evening at music mogul David Gamble's lakeside home fending off her sister's castoffs. If she hadn't had her own reason for attending the party, she would have begged off. As it was, she wasn't accomplishing much, trapped here in the corner by Bradley Nelson as she searched the crowd for Robyn's telltale platinum blond head.
"I got a letter from Willie Nelson when I was thirteen and, shucks, that's when I really knew that music was my calling," Bradley drawled, interrupting her perusal of the crowd.
Kylie slid a glance at her watch. Mickey's big hand was on the nine and his little hand was on the twelve. She figured that at this rate, Bradley wouldn't get past puberty till long after midnight. Desperate measures would need to be taken. Surreptitiously, she slid her arm behind her back and watered the fake fig tree with her Chardonnay.
"Boy, I sure could use a drink. Would you mind getting me another while I freshen up?" Widening her eyes innocently, Kylie held out her empty wineglass.
"Uh, sure." Bradley glanced over his shoulder at the huge crowd at the bar. "I'll be right back," he promised.
"Great." Kylie smiled, waiting until his back was turned to make her move. Her short blue skirt swirled around her legs as she bolted from her prison in the corner.
"I knew we should have taken separate cars," she muttered, once again searching the loud throng of people for her sister. Robyn loved these overcrowded, raucous parties where she was usually at the center of attention. Kylie herself didn't mind them as long as she had a reason to be there. She'd thought tonight's party would give her a chance to meet some new people, maybe even talk to David Gamble about donating some money to her pet charity, the EmCee Foundation. Unfortunately, the elusive Mr. Gamble had disappeared shortly after she and Robyn arrived, just as she was being cornered by Bradley Nelson.
So, rather than spending the evening trying to solicit donations for a worthy cause, she was stuck listening to yet another aspiring musician's life story. It was her curse for being born into a family of entertainers, she supposed, but at times it got to be a bit tiring.
Taking her melancholy mood down a deserted hallway, Kylie searched out the peace of a powder room. Trailing her fingers along the dark patterned wallpaper, she thought about the home's owner. Even before she'd moved to Seattle two months ago, she'd known about David Gamble, founder and president of Gamble Records. He was one of Fortune magazine's top-forty under forty; one of the nation's young, wealthy bachelors who had started his climb to success with a small, independent record company that he'd built into a multibillion-dollar empire by leveraging the power of the Internet.
According to one of the articles she'd read, Gamble.com had been one of the first successful e-tailers. They'd started off as nothing more than an Internet record store, allowing Gamble Records to become their own distributor rather than having to rely on the national chains, who took so much of a small record label's profits. Their success would have probably ended there, making David and his employeesmoderately wealthy, but, in a move cited as nothing short of prophetic, he had pushed technology even further.
In a television interview Kylie had seen recently, David Gamble had asked, "Why should consumers have to wait four days, or even one day, for music to be delivered to their homes when the technology exists for them to download it right off the Internet today? And why should you have to buy an entire CD if all you want are two or three of your favorite songs? Just think," he'd said, looking into the camera with his intense, midnight-blue eyes, "no longer will you be at the mercy of record company executives forcing you to buy music you don't want. This technology is good for consumers, and it's also good for the artists, who will receive a larger cut of the profits for the songs they record."
Of course, it had also been good for David Gamble, Kylie thought as she pushed open the door to a cavernous bathroom. He'd become an overnight billionaire with an Internet site that was now a household name.
There was no doubt in her mind that he could afford this mansion in one of the best neighborhoods in Washington State, but Kylie shuddered as she looked around the oversize room. It was done in stark contrasts: all black except for the glaring white fixtures. The floor was tiled in black marble and the walls were papered with some kind of textured material. Kylie rubbed a hand across the surface and decided it felt like bamboo. Unable to stop herself, she peered around a glass block wall into the shower area. As she had suspected, it was spotlessly clean--not even a half-used bar of soap to mar the pristine perfection of the place. She resisted the urge to open the cupboard under the sink, feeling she'd already pushed the line between innocent curiosity and outright snooping too far.
"It's so impersonal," she said, looking around the room again, trying to imagine David Gamble here. She had yet to meet him in person, but had seen him in interviews so often, she had no trouble conjuring up his image. Unfortunately,her active imagination conjured him stepping out of the shower, droplets of warm water falling from his naked, tanned body onto the cold marble as he reached for a towel. All at once, the room didn't appear quite so impersonal, and the temperature seemed to have increased a few degrees.
Kylie glanced in the mirror above the sink. Almost involuntarily, she raised a hand, touching her cheek. Instead of feeling the smoothness of her own skin under her fingertips, she imagined that she could feel the roughness of David's beard just before he shaved, the crisp stubble gently abrading as her fingers moved toward his firm chin. As her fingers reached the end of her own, softer chin, she dropped her hand and laughed guiltily.
Robyn was right. She needed to get out more if just being in David Gamble's bathroom was enough to set her pulse racing.
Kylie exhaled a deep breath and pulled a bright red lipstick out of the tiny purse draped across her shoulder. She smoothed a fresh line of color across her lips and ran her tongue across her teeth to make sure none of her lipstick had ended up there. Shaking off the last of her images of the elusive Mr. Gamble, Kylie flipped her head upside down, fluffing her shoulder-length brown hair. Feeling her skirt ride up in the back, she moved her hands to the bottom of the gauzy blue material only to find that she was about two inches from showing off more than she ever wanted revealed in public.
"Note to self: Never do that outside of closed doors," she said with a smile into the empty room.
Flipping her head back up, she figured she'd given Bradley enough time to get tired of waiting for her. Blowing an errant curl out of her eyes, she opened the door and headed down the darkened hall, the clicking of her high heels silenced by the richly colored rug running down the center of the hardwood floor.
"I'll just find Robyn and tell her I'm ready to go," Kyliemurmured, inching closer to the high-ceilinged, cream-and-brown-toned living room and peering cautiously inside. She spotted her sister across the room, holding court with two of Gamble Records' top artists and several of the city's most popular deejays. Although she hadn't thought it possible, the immense living room seemed more crammed with partygoers than when she'd left. Smoke hovered over the room like a rain cloud. The music had been turned up to a tooth-rattling level and people raised their voices to be heard over the din. By all counts, Gamble Records could chalk this party up as a huge success.
Leaning against the wall, Kylie wondered where David was. She had spotted him briefly when they'd arrived two hours ago, but he'd disappeared with a beautiful brunette before she could extricate herself from the corner with Bradley Nelson. Kylie wondered if he were having a party of a more intimate nature with Lisanne O'Neill, Gamble Records' newest star and, it was rumored, David Gamble's most recent conquest.
"Lucky girl." Kylie sighed, gazing over the crowd for a glimpse of her host's dark hair and dazzling blue eyes. Chatting up their handsome host would sure beat hiding out in the hallway, hoping to escape further conversation with Bradley.
A flash of movement out of the corner of her eye caught her attention. It was Bradley, and he hadn't yet latched on to some other poor unsuspecting victim. Kylie looked from Bradley to her sister. She couldn't get Robyn's attention without attracting Bradley's, too. He turned toward the hallway just as Kylie stepped back into the shadows.
Kylie did what any desperate woman would do in the situation--she ran, weight balanced on her tiptoes to silence the tread of her heels on the hardwood floor as she hugged the wall. The closest means of escape was a closed door on the left side of the hallway. She opened the door just enough to slip through, quietly pushing it shut behind her.
Standing behind the closed door, Kylie listened to the heavy tread of Bradley's cowboy boots as he walked past the room and down the hall to the bathroom. Looking around, she realized she was in an office. It was small in comparison to the other rooms she had seen in the house. From the moonlight shining in from a large, high window opposite the door, Kylie could see the built-in bookshelves that flanked the wall to her right. One bookshelf was almost completely filled with a complicated sound system.
Just the sort of thing one would expect to find in the office of the president of a record company, Kylie thought with some amusement.
The other bookshelf was filled to overflowing with books. It wasn't light enough to read the titles but Kylie figured, considering the occupant of the house, they were probably books about how to run a more efficient business, with a biography or two thrown in just for fun. Her own bookshelves were stocked with all her favorite romances and mysteries. She'd be hard-pressed to find a nonfiction book among the bunch.
The only furniture in the room was a comfy-looking overstuffed leather chair and ottoman in the corner to her right, a massive desk facing a wall of black-and-white pictures, and a swivel chair behind the desk that was turned toward the window. On top of the desk were some neat piles of paper, a pen and pencil set, and an antique Tiffany lamp with stained-glass flowers on the shade.
"Kylie?" The loud whisper jolted her out of her observation of the room.
Bradley was still out in the hall. Kylie contemplated giving herself up, but the idea of two more hours stuck listening to yet another musician's boring life story helped make her hasty decision.
She'd have to go out the window. Right outside that window was her car, and freedom. She could hunker down in the backseat and wait until Robyn finally decided shewas partied out. Bradley would never think to look for her out there.
Resolutely, Kylie marched over to the large ottoman in the corner and dragged it across the carpeted floor. Pulling off her shoes, she hopped up onto the burgundy leather, opened the window, and pushed out the screen.
The air was chilly, even for an early autumn night in Seattle. The wind raised tiny goose bumps on her arms as she peered out the window to the ground below. It was farther down than she had hoped. On top of that, she would have to clear the row of bushes surrounding the front of the house like a moat.
"Here goes nothing," she whispered, tossing her shoes out the window and positioning both hands on the ledge for leverage. She flung her right leg over the sill. Teetering halfway between in and out, Kylie grimaced as the cold metal of the windowsill made contact with her warm inner thigh.
From his seat in the swivel chair behind his desk, David Gamble watched as one of the woman's shapely legs disappeared out the window. Her skirt settled itself high up on her remaining thigh. The filmy, almost transparent material caressed her stocking-clad skin and David felt his body respond instinctively. He took a deep, controlling breath, searching his mental Rolodex for the identity of his midnight intruder. He was very good with names and faces, and he was sure he would have remembered if they'd been introduced. It was obvious that the woman was trying to escape, but he wasn't going to let her go without knowing who she was and what in the world she was doing leaving through his office window.
"May I help you with something?" he asked politely.
Startled, the woman jerked her head in the direction of his voice.
The sudden movement threw her off balance. Before she could steady herself, she lost her hold on the windowsill.Her left leg flew up in the air and she tumbled out the window into the shrubbery below.
David stared at the place where the woman had been just a moment ago, surprised at this sudden turn of events. Having women tumble out of his house was not a usual Saturday night occurrence.
Stepping up onto the ottoman, David rested his folded arms on the windowsill. There was a rustling from the boxwoods below.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
Before she could answer, he heard a tentative knock on the door behind him as it opened.
"Excuse me, Mr. Gamble. Have you seen a woman with brown hair, about so tall?" a man wearing a black cowboy hat asked, holding his hand up around chest-level.
David paused. In the bushes, the woman with brown hair, about so tall, vigorously shook her head. He shrugged. If she didn't want the cowboy to find her, he had no problem playing along.
"No, I haven't seen anyone," David answered, leaning nonchalantly against the wall as if he often stood on the furniture to get a better view of the shrubbery. The cowboy was obviously not the suspicious type because he seemed to accept David's answer as he closed the door behind him.
"That was close." David heard the woman's relieved comment from the bushes.
He looked out over the sill. "May I ask why you chose to leap out the window rather than use the front door?"
"It's a rather long story," the woman replied, trying in vain to extricate herself from the greenery.
David hoisted himself up onto the windowsill. His jump to the ground was much better executed than hers. He cleared the shrubs by at least a foot. "Here, let me help."
Grabbing the woman gently under her armpits, he hauled her out of the bushes. His stomach muscles clenched as he felt the warmth of her fingers through his shirtsleeve. As she straightened, the fresh scent of her hair filled his nostrils.David felt a silky curl brush against his arm. Unable to resist, he reached out a hand to touch its softness.
She looked up at him questioningly. The corners of her brown, almond-shaped eyes crinkled with amusement when he showed her the twig he'd plucked from her hair. It was as good an excuse as any for touching her, he supposed.
"Thank you. I wouldn't be surprised to find birds nesting in there after this." She grinned infectiously, shaking her head to dislodge anything else that might be caught.
The woman bent over and stuck an arm in the bushes. David watched as her filmy skirt crawled up the back of her legs. The urge to reach out and trace his fingers up the path the skirt had exposed was so strong that he shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans to resist the temptation. She straightened, one navy shoe in her hand, and the hem of her skirt shifted back to its original position. David felt a conflicting mixture of relief and disappointment.
"Lost one." She held it up for his inspection, as if he might need verification that she was one shoe short of a full pair. Holding onto his arm for balance, she picked up her right foot, dusted off the bottom of her stocking, slipped her foot into the shoe, and then did the same with the left one.
She smiled at him, and David stood still, feeling like a tongue-tied teenager rather than the self-confident, successful businessman he was supposed to be. It wasn't that she was beautiful. She was hardly the type of woman who would stop traffic, but there was something about her brandy-colored eyes, or maybe it was her bright smile, or her unruly hair ... Hell, he didn't know what it was that had him gaping at her like an idiot as the silence between them lengthened.
She obviously sensed the awkwardness between them as well. "Thanks for a great party. The, uh, the wine was great. And your home is very, um ... well, the view is great, too."
Nodding her head as if to reinforce her politely delivered lines, she turned and started walking toward the line of carsin the driveway. The gravel crunched under her feet and David felt himself being pulled inexorably along behind her.
He caught up with her. "So, why don't you like my house?"
She blinked up at him, apparently surprised that he'd caught her slip. "It's a nice house."
"But you don't like it."
She shrugged, giving him a small smile. "I don't have to live here."
David let the matter drop. She obviously didn't want to say anything impolite about his house, but if the truth were told, he wasn't all that fond of the place himself. He'd bought it a year ago, furniture and all, and hadn't changed anything except his office and bedroom. He spent so much time at work that it hadn't mattered that the furnishings weren't exactly to his liking. Besides, everything was in excellent condition and he hated to buy new things if there wasn't a good reason. He'd learned early in life that it didn't pay to be frivolous with one's money. So he'd kept the bland furniture and the stark, almost shocking décor that had apparently suited the taste of the house's previous occupant.
"You still haven't told me why you were so desperate to escape the party," he said as they continued their walk down the drive.
"Bradley Nelson," she answered, as if that explained everything.
"What about him?"
"He was trying to tell me his life story."
Either she wasn't making sense or he'd lost all of his heretofore formidable mental capacity. David wasn't sure which one of the two he'd put his money on. "And?" he encouraged.
"Not the Reader's Digest condensed version. I mean the whole thing from conception forward."
"He was boring you so you jumped out the window to escape him?" David asked incredulously.
"That about sums it up."
"Why didn't you just tell him to get lost?"
The woman stopped abruptly and turned to face him. "But that would have been rude," she said, her eyes opened wide with astonishment. "I didn't want to hurt his feelings."
"I see." David paused, not really understanding at all. It seemed that she had gone to an awful lot of trouble just to avoid hurting the cowboy's feelings.
David studied the night sky in the comfortable silence surrounding them. The trees bordering his driveway showed up black against the inky sky, and the white moon peeked in and out among the branches moving with a slight breeze. The woman had stopped near an antique cherry red Mustang with a gleaming white leather interior. He presumed this was her car, since she leaned against it with her back against the driver's-side door. His perusal of her stopped abruptly at the third finger of her left hand. A large, obviously expensive diamond ring glittered mockingly in the moonlight. David felt his jaw clench.
"You're married," he said, without meaning to voice his observation.
The woman followed his gaze to the ring on her left hand. "Oh, no. Left-handed," she answered cryptically.
"I'm left-handed. It feels awkward wearing rings on my right hand." David watched as her brown eyes warmed to the color of finely aged brandy. "My dad gave this to me years ago."
"Hmm." The last thing David wanted to talk about was family, so instead he fished in his breast pocket for a pack of cigarettes and offered one to the woman.
"No, thanks. I don't smoke."
"I quit years ago myself, but I keep a pack around just in case."
"Just in case what? You get arrested and need toexchange smokes for a spoon to dig your way out of jail?"
The unaccustomed noise of David's laughter sounded rusty, even to his own ears. He continued the bantering, surprised to find that he was actually enjoying himself. "Even worse. I keep them on hand in case one of our highly temperamental artists has nicotine withdrawal. You haven't seen chaos until you've seen a nineteen-year-old singer holding up a studio full of musicians because she hasn't had a cigarette in five minutes."
"Yes, I could see where that might get dicey. There are lots of sharp implements in a recording studio, aren't there?"
"Yeah, sometimes we have to hand out Kevlar vests with the cigarettes. By the way, I don't think we've been properly introduced." He held a hand out to her. "I'm David Gamble."
He enveloped her small hand in his and looked at her expectantly.
Kylie stared down at their intertwined hands, wishing this moment would never end. It had been so pleasant talking to him, and she couldn't help but wonder how his attitude would change once he knew she was Robyn's sister. They were so different, she and her sister. Robyn was petite, beautiful, blond, and above all, incredibly talented. Compared to her sister, Kylie was so ... well, so average. She knew her own limitations, and, for the most part, she was happy with her lot in life. But now, staring into the eyes of the most attractive man she'd ever met, even knowing that she'd probably never see him again after tonight, she couldn't bear to watch the inevitable mental comparison she always saw whenever she told someone her name.
David shifted his weight, pebbles crunching under the soles of his shoes, and Kylie realized that she still hadn't given him her name. His hand, warm and firm, continued to hold hers.
"I'm Kylie McGillicuddy. Pleased to meet you," she blurted.
"Nice to meet you, Kylie McGillicuddy."
Her name rolled off David's tongue, sending a tickle of awareness down her spine. His voice sounded huskier than it had moments before. Kylie raised her eyes to his and fell into their deep blue depths. He increased the pressure on her hand, and Kylie didn't fight the urge to lean into him. She knew he was going to kiss her, and she knew that she wanted him to; wanted it more than anything in her entire life.
She shivered from the cold and a hint of anticipation. David leaned closer, the heat from his body wrapping around her like a cloak. Kylie froze with her other hand on the door handle, her fingers suddenly nerveless at the intense look in his eyes. She felt hypnotized by his presence, like a mouse caught under the spell of a cobra waiting to strike. Her mouth went suddenly dry and her heart began to race. She wondered if the mouse felt this same sense of dread and anticipation as it waited for the snake to make its move, and licked her newly parched lips.
David placed one large, warm hand under her chin and her lips parted on a soft sigh as his mouth met hers. She pressed closer and his hands moved to her hair, embedding themselves in the unruly mass of silken curls.
It was heaven. His tongue teased hers; and it felt so right to be here, being held in David's arms as the cool late-September air caressed her skin. Kylie put her arms around David's waist, crushing her blouse as she pulled him closer. She felt his strength, in the solid arms he wrapped around her, in the tautness of the muscles of his thighs pressed against her. For a brief, intoxicating moment, Kylie felt protected, cherished, and, even better, desired.
Pressing her against the car door, David ground out her name as his mouth moved to the sensitive hollow under her ear. She leaned back against the cold car, her body heating the metal where she touched. Never before had she wanted a man like this. Right here, right now. If she'd been physically capable of moving away from him long enough,they'd both be lying naked in the backseat of her Mustang. As it was, David had her pressed so tightly against the car that she could barely move. Her skin had gone from chilly to feeling as if someone had set her on fire. She felt David's hands through the material of her shirt, cool now on her hot skin.
Having completed an assault on the delicate skin of her neck, David reached again for Kylie's mouth. The tastes and smells of her muddled in his mind, leaving only vague impressions of sweet wine, spicy perfume, and the earthy scent of boxwoods. He wondered what she would look like, naked here in the moonlight, as he reached for the top button of her shirt. His progress was slowed as he felt Kylie's hands running down the length of his back. Involuntarily, his hips pressed against hers and a wave of desire shot through him.
At that moment, David knew he was in danger of losing control like some uninitiated teenager. He was not going to make love in the backseat of a car, especially with so many people around who could easily discover them. He was not about to become the subject of some tabloid story. He could just imagine the title some sleazy reporter would pound out: "Local Billionaire Buck Naked in Backseat."
It would be his worst nightmare, his private life exposed for everyone to see and ridicule.
Intending to cool her down slowly, he reached down to stop Kylie's wandering hands. And instead of deepening the kiss further, he gently pulled away from her heated body.
"Kylie, stop." His breathing was ragged against her mouth.
It took a moment for Kylie's brain to register that David was retreating. The cool air between their bodies hit her like a spray of cold water. She heard a woman's voice in the distance calling David's name, and all at once she was mortified. His girlfriend was calling; he had to go. She was such a fool. Of course he'd been willing to take what shewas so obviously offering. Kylie closed her eyes, feeling a heat of a different kind creep into her face. Pushing herself away from him, she yanked open the car door and hurriedly slid into the driver's seat.
David held the door open when she would have slammed it shut in his face.
"Wait a minute," he pleaded, cursing Lisanne's bad timing and his own hesitation for not jumping into the car with Kylie and driving away to someplace where they could continue this in private.
Ignoring him, she shoved the key in the ignition, pulled the door out of his grip, started the car, and drove down the long driveway, not bothering to look back.
David stood, unmoving, watching until he saw her turn onto the paved road. Disregarding Lisanne's summons, he absently raked his hand through his hair. Fingers of cold night air slipped through his shirt, chilling the places Kylie had touched. His fingers strayed to the pack of cigarettes in his pocket and he fought back the urge to slide one out of the pack. His answer to Kylie's question about why he kept them around was not quite truthful. He did not keep cigarettes around to appease the artists he worked with. He kept them to prove to himself that he could control his impulses. It was something he had become quite good at, actually, he thought, giving the pack one last reassuring squeeze before dropping his hand to his side.
David lifted his gaze to the moon. A thick, dark cloud had wrapped itself around the bright crescent. He turned and walked back to the party, his eyes hard and empty.
Copyright © 2002 by Beverly Brandt.