Authors: Sherrilyn Kenyon
If she made a misstep and drew any attention, this bunch would boot her quicker than a cow pony from a herd of thoroughbreds.
That would give Stuey all the ammunition he’d need to get rid of her and the threat she posed to his family jewels.
Abbie smiled constantly, hoping to disarm those whose gaze slid down the ridge of their nose. She wandered about slowly, listening to the sound of classical melodies rolling off the ivory keys of a piano that deserved to be on that knee-high pedestal. Male and female catering staff wore tuxedos. One offered Abbie a flute of champagne she accepted before moving on past exotic
flower arrangements taller than her that were nothing short of artistic brilliance.
She slowed next to one gigantic floral display and leaned in to appear as though she sniffed the scent—an aromatic cuisine for the nose—but she actually searched the room for Gwen.
Would the Wentworth hostess use the dual stairway that anchored one end of the room for a grand entrance?
Abbie would. She’d never wanted to own something like this spread, but didn’t every girl think about walking down a fabulous curved stairway like that?
So far, no female matched the photos she’d studied of Gwen Wentworth, with her signature mane of natural blond hair that fell to her waist. The identifying mark was a silvery-white stripe running through the left side.
Strange for a woman not yet thirty.
After researching Gwen for the last forty-eight hours, Abbie felt sad for the woman, whose little boy had died right after birth two years ago. Under different circumstances, Abbie would have liked to film a documentary on the Wentworths ancestry. They had their share of dark secrets but deserved acknowledgment for all this family had donated across the world.
She hoped Gwen’s loss hadn’t hardened the woman, that Gwen had some compassion for other mothers. She didn’t allow interviews so Abbie had nothing beyond news bites on the reclusive woman. Nothing that would indicate how difficult it would be to convince Gwen to help Abbie’s mother.
Didn’t matter. Gwen sat at the head of the board of directors for the Kore Women’s Center. She would not want the damning information Abbie possessed released to the media.
Hopefully Abbie wouldn’t have to make that threat.
Stuart had rolled out a mile of warnings, starting with not annoying anyone since she wasn’t even supposed to be at this party. And not telling anyone she was with WCXB. He could have saved that breath. The quickest way to shut down a conversation in this crowd would be to identify herself as being with the media. The minute someone outed Abbie as being with WCXB and Gwen found out, security would see her off the property.
Abbie wasn’t after a media interview.
She wanted access to the Kore records on her mother but hadn’t told Stu when he demanded to know why this was so important to her.
He’d finally gotten the invitation, with a helpful suggestion from Abbie, then laid down his rules, telling her, “I don’t know why you’re hell-bent on attending the Wentworth event, but know this—I won’t stick my neck out to save you if you do anything that draws negative attention to the station, and God forbid you do something that reflects badly on WCXB. I told Brittany an aunt of mine wanted to go. And if Brittany finds out I’m taking her to New York for dinner and a play just so you can attend this party in her place, she’ll be looking for blood. I’m not donating alone.”
Stuey had reason to worry about Brittany questioning the motive for his surprise trip to New York. He lacked the imagination to come up with a better solution to yesterday’s standoff with Abbie and deserved the hit his
wallet was taking, but he was right about one thing.
Abbie’s head would be the first one to roll if her plan to pull out the PR hammer Dr. Tatum had given her backfired.
All the wrangling and manipulating she’d done to get inside this place would be for naught if she didn’t get close enough to talk to Gwen.
What if Gwen called security on her?
Don’t borrow worry,
as Abbie’s father would say.
She meandered around, taking pretend sips of her champagne. No drinking. Ignoring her low tolerance for alcohol six years ago had led to the most embarrassing night of her life with a guy named Samson, a hot guy even if he had looked wild with long hair and a shaggy beard.
Wild, but endearing in the way he’d only had eyes for her and… kissed. The embarrassing part had come the next morning.
Who could blame her for acting like a fool after the man she’d been engaged to had played her for one?
Not the time to think about that. She headed for the arched opening to a solarium where people sat and stood in clusters.
Maybe Gwen had come down quietly and was in there.
Just as Abbie neared the marble column supporting the left side of the archway she was stepping through, a woman on the other side laughed and took a step back… directly into Abbie’s path.
Abbie’s still-full glass of champagne sloshed over her hand and dripped on the gigantic rug she had a sick feeling would bring a record amount at a Sotheby’s auction.
Long silky black hair fanned along bony shoulders
of the woman she’d collided with. The scrawny twenty-something female spun to face Abbie. Her gasp of surprise exhaled on a huff of outrage as though she’d been assaulted. “Are you drunk?”
Was it Abbie’s imagination or had everyone within thirty feet heard that comment and gone silent? She felt a thick wall of eyes locked on her.
“No, I’m not drunk.” Abbie went for indignant, but the catch of worry in her voice might have ruined the affect. Clusters of curious faces popped into her peripheral vision. She tried to act as though her stomach wasn’t having a disco party at warp speed. “You backed into me.”
“I don’t think so.” The black-haired woman spit her words from perfectly shaped lips in plum-colored lipstick, adding plenty of how-dare-you-insult-me innuendo. The low V of her silky purple top split in a long cut to her waist, meeting the top of black bolero pants cinched with a braided gold and silver belt. She flexed her shoulders back and one of her surgically enhanced puppies came close to nosing its way out.
Abbie struggled between offering a polite apology and snapping at this witch for being so rude.
The woman sent a withering glance at the closest security guard… who took that as his cue to act.
Abbie could stand her ground and risk a scene or walk away with her tail between her legs.
She’d never backed down from anyone.
The security guard quietly asked Abbie, “Can I be of assistance?”
That sounded like a cultured “We got a problem here, lady?”
Abbie opened her mouth to plead her case and felt
someone’s large fingers close around her forearm.
Was someone trying to escort her out?
Of course they’d assume
was at fault.
One-tenth of a second before Abbie verbally scorched the muscle daring to touch her, a deep voice connected to that hand said, “Here you are, darling. Sorry I was detained.”
She turned to the man holding her arm and recognized him. The jaw-dropping blond male she’d stared at like a fool outside. He had bottomless green eyes, deep in color, as though stolen from the center of a mystical forest.
A forest that hid something dark and foreboding at the moment as his attention fixed on the woman in purple.
Abbie glanced back at Miss Uncongeniality.
Shock rode the woman’s face before her cornflower-blue eyes morphed into a bored look of amusement. Her plump lips curled with a malicious smile. When she spoke, intimate undertones smoked through her voice. “Surprised to see you here, Hunter, with—” She flicked a condescending glance at Abbie. “—
I had no idea your taste ran so… pedestrian.”
Abbie’s face flamed hot enough for her skin to turn tomato red. What she wouldn’t give for a decent retort, anything that would extricate her from this situation with just a piece of her dignity.
Nothing popped into her mind.
She’d anticipated a potential disaster, just not this soon.
My taste—” Hunter chuckled, allowing a vicious undercurrent to play beneath his words “—has
always run to natural rather than manmade, Lydia.”
Lydia Bertelli narrowed her unnaturally bright blue eyes to the point they turned into slits between thick eyelashes fanning her cheek. “Natural? Or dull and boring?”
The arm of the female he still held flexed at the insult.
If not for offering him an opening to meet the woman next to him, Hunter would curse his luck that Lydia was in attendance tonight. She’d normally be off on her father’s yacht cruising the Greek isles or working on a deeper tan to set off the sheet of black hair she wore like a queen’s mantle.
He did curse his stupidity for allowing his dick to convince him to let Lydia into his hotel room—once—a couple years ago.
In fairness to his libido, that had been before Lydia turned into a cosmetic surgeon’s wet dream, and she’d seemed like a perfect choice for one night. He hadn’t been with a woman in months and she showed up at his door wearing a fuck-me-where-I-stand dress.
He’d been on the receiving end of Lydia’s viper attitude since making it clear he wanted no repeat of their one night together.
Especially after he’d found out the next day that she leaked to the damned media that she’d spent the night with a Thornton-Payne. Lydia had used him to stir up jealousy in a rock star she hadn’t been able to close the deal with.
Women and their agendas.
“Is everything all right?” the security guard, Carlos Delgado, inquired in a firm voice.
Hunter had forgotten the BAD agent was present.
“Everything’s fine.” He shot a hard glance at Carlos.
“No harm, no foul,” the woman next to Hunter muttered, surprising him when she spoke. She drew her shoulders back and smiled with withering politeness. “Nice meeting you, Lydia. Gotta go.”
She had spirit, something Lydia and most of the women he encountered at these places lacked.
He met Lydia’s eyes and sharpened his with a warning that if she didn’t retract her claws she’d leave licking her wounds. When Curly Locks turned to walk away, he moved his hand to her back. “More champagne?”
“No, thanks.” She stepped up her pace, pulling away from his touch.
He lengthened his stride and caught up, placing his hand at the small of her back again.
She cocked her head, sending him a look that questioned his motives. “An old girlfriend?”
“Old nuisance.” He saw a pocket of space with a semblance of privacy. “Let’s step over there for a minute.”
She slowed. “Look, thanks for your help, but you can go now.”
Her apologetic tone harbored an insinuation that she was inconveniencing him. He was stunned. Didn’t she realize half this room would notice if he walked away from her now?
And the other half would hear about it by the end of the night.
“Humor me for a few minutes.” Hunter continued guiding her through breaks in the crowd, lifting his chin at familiar faces and inclining his head at others.
A scent teased his nose. Something fresh and different
that didn’t belong here among custom-blended perfumes.
He realized he was leaning closer to inhale a deeper breath and stopped himself before he gave anyone reason to think something really
going on between them.
Her curls bobbed with each step. Not professional hairstyling, but he liked the natural way she’d piled up the ringlets and used a sequined clasp to tame the rowdy mass.
She’d shown backbone, manners… and not a clue she’d been in danger of getting clawed. This one might have held her own under Lydia’s attack for a few more minutes, but she wouldn’t have for long.
Not a normal, everyday woman. A nice girl.
When he reached a giant bronze planter abutting a short wall that provided some privacy, Curly Locks took an extra step, then turned on him.
“Why did you do that? Act like you knew me?” she asked in a voice so loaded with suspicion he should be ducking for cover.
Of course, he’d be asking the same question in her shoes.
Hunter lifted a hand in dismissal. “Lydia lives for confrontation, regardless of collateral damage. She clearly stepped into your path. Once her head makes a full rotation she’s hard to bring back down to earth. Just figured I could defuse the situation before it got out of hand.”
“Why? You probably downgraded your social standing in the process.”
He’d have laughed if she had, but she’d thrown that out in honesty. He was used to getting the “you’re a snob” routine from BAD agents, but getting that attitude from a stranger—one he’d helped—pricked his temper.
The point of this meeting was to get her to talk, which wouldn’t happen if he let her bait him.
“I’m not concerned about what anyone here thinks.” He lowered his voice to an intimate level. “Besides, it gave me a chance to get you alone.”
He hadn’t expected this much resistance. Most women would have cooed over the attention and flirtatious line he’d given her.