No Romance Required ONLY
a Romance Required novel by USA TODAY bestselling author Cari Quinn
Cory Santangelo is used to getting his way, both in the boardroom and the bedroom. Lately he hasn’t had much opportunity to do anything but work, but one unexpectedly sexy night in a gazebo with Victoria, his gorgeous and feisty interior designer, changes all that—especially when they’re caught on camera. Suddenly Cory’s sterling reputation is no longer above reproach. Since his impromptu encounter coincides nicely with his need for a girlfriend to get his well-meaning, meddling parents off his back, he decides to ask his lifelong frenemy for a favor.
To pretend to be his girlfriend for a month. No strings attached.
The only problem? Vicky Townsend wants those strings tied all around her. She’s battled a long-suppressed crush on Cory, and their combative work relationship has only fanned the flames. When he suggests his needs are more than she can handle, she’s ready to up the ante. And her bargaining chip is lots of delicious, inventive sex.
Until they discover nothing feels as good as making it real…
Title: No Romance Required
Series: Love Required, #3
Author: Cari Quinn
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Length: 281 pages
Release Date: August 2013
Price listed is for the U.S. digital format. Please confirm pricing and availability with the retailer before downloading.
Stories in the Love Required series by author Cari Quinn:
Book one: No Dress Required
Book two: No Flowers Required
Book three: No Romance Required
Book four: No Promises Required
Praise for No Romance Required:
“This book is sex, passion, humor, and romance all wrapped up into one!”
– New York Times bestselling author Mari Carr
An Excerpt from
No Romance Required
by Cari Quinn
Copyright © 2013 by Cari Quinn. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Cory Santangelo glanced at his watch. Again. He’d forbidden the ever-attentive press from attending tonight’s gala because he’d obtained an exclusive for coverage elsewhere. Wrong move, apparently. When a man paid handsomely—and secretly—for a notable photographer from the state’s largest newspaper to surreptitiously memorialize an event, he expected said photographer to arrive in a timely fashion. Preferably before the event ended.
Hell, he would have considered allowing the paparazzi to attend if he’d known the photog he’d secured wasn’t going to show.
Oh, it wasn’t over yet. Though the crowd of guests at Value Hardware’s annual Helping Hands charity benefit had definitely thinned, a stalwart number of partygoers would remain until the last drop of Cristal had been consumed. This gala had its roots in assisting the community, notably the underprivileged and down-on-their-luck, but many of those who came to their aid preferred to do so in gorgeous surroundings. Hence the yearly ball and its attendant auction, which always brought in the big bucks to help the foundation. Particularly this year, when a real-life romance had played out while the trinkets and baubles were offered up for bid.
His little brother, Dillon, had fallen for one of those down-on-their-luck types. Alexa Conroy owned a small, struggling flower shop in town and had fought a not-so-evil empire—which happened to belong to Cory—to save her business. Lex and Dillon had ridden out of there via motorcycle just a short while ago after putting on a show worthy of the daily soaps, complete with sweeping kisses and a frantic bidding war over a painting aptly titled Love at First Sight.
Now Dill was probably off biblically romancing his new girlfriend, and Cory couldn’t have been happier for him.
Especially since he’d hoped to milk the night for every drop of publicity it was worth. And that had been when he’d believed the only excitement would consist of Dillon’s large award for his volunteer work with the charity. The lovey-dovey melodrama was a news-at-eleven bonus, one that virtually assured that the charity and Value Hardware would get good press for days, despite Dillon the do-gooder’s publicity ban.
Or it would have assured it, had the photographer ever showed.
Cory pulled out his cell to call him. No reception bars. Of course. He needed to change plans. Or better yet, he needed his assistant to change them for him.
“Cory, wait.” He turned, glimpsing his mother and stepfather rushing toward him. He didn’t like the inevitable drop in his stomach as his mom gave him a quick hug and recounted the success of the night. All too often lately their discussions veered into a place he didn’t want to go, especially with his parents.
“Isn’t it wonderful about Dill and Alexa?” She sighed. “Dad and I were beginning to think he’d never fall in love.”
Here we go. “Isn’t that something that happens on its own timetable?”
“Of course, but you can help it along sometimes.” She grinned and pinched his cheek as if he were eight years old. As heat filtered into his face, he glanced around to make sure no one had seen her gesture. “It’s all about meeting the right people, sweetie. Something you don’t do enough of. You need to get out more, experience—”
“I experience plenty. Thanks for the advice, though.” He kissed her forehead and waved his phone at his stepfather, who stood stoically behind her. “Sorry, business.”
“Speaking of business…” Raymond Santangelo placed an arm around Cory’s shoulder, effectively halting his escape. He led him and Cory’s mother to a more private corner, where they stood between a potted ficus tree and a giant cardboard cutout of Dillon with the words “Volunteer of the Year.”
His mother tilted her head to the side, peering at him closely. “How long has it been since you’ve been on a date?”
Cory opened his mouth, then shut it. “Excuse me?”
His mother sighed and smoothed a hand over her neat auburn bob. “You remember dating, don’t you, sweetheart?”
“Dating isn’t part of my lexicon right now.” Cory pointedly glanced at his watch, furtively searching for an exit. Perhaps if he got out of there in a hurry, he’d head all of this off at the pass.
Raymond, who seemed completely unaffected by Cory’s attempt at bolting, stroked his short beard and shook his head. “We’re moving away in four weeks. You and Dillon are going to be on your own. Not that we won’t be available via phone and e-mail.”
“And Skype,” his mom added brightly.
Yes, Skype. Dillon had taught her how to use that particular piece of technology, damn him. Cory would make sure to thank his brother later. “I’m not a boy.” Cory met his stepfather’s gaze. “I think I’ve demonstrated my maturity and my ability to take care of myself. Of course we’ll miss you both.” He spared his mother a brief glance. “But this move is the best thing for your health, and Dillon and I are more than capable of running things.” The rest wasn’t worth discussing.
“You’re not any good to the company if you’re not good to yourself. And news flash, son, the circles under your eyes and your tendency to snap before your brain engages aren’t winning you any favors.” When Cory would’ve replied, his stepfather shook his head and tucked a hand in his pocket. “Look, we all knew this wouldn’t be an easy conversation. No one wanted you to feel like you were being attacked, but we all have a vested interest in making sure you’re happy.”
Cory tightened his jaw. “The bottom line.”
“No.” His mom’s face softened, her eyes going damp. “Do you really think that’s all you are to us?”
Cory turned away from the plea in her voice. He hated hurting her or worrying her for even a moment, but what did they expect from him? He didn’t have time to date, not with their looming retirement and the magazine launch. His free moments were chock full with store minutiae. Where, exactly, was he supposed to fit in this restorative dating?
“I have one unscheduled hour a day.” Cory pressed his fingers to his eyes. Waving his cell phone at his parents again, he added, “Look, can we finish this chat later? I really have to—”
“Not so fast.”
Should’ve known it wouldn’t be so easy. Wordlessly, he waited.
Raymond crossed his arms over his chest. Despite his kindly smile and penchant for friendly chats, the man could summon an iciness that glaciers would envy. “Customers don’t feel comfortable approaching you in the store. In fact, I got two complaints this week.”
“About what?” Cory couldn’t stem his outrage.
“About you. You blow people off when they say hello. You don’t think personal relations have anything to do with crunching numbers, and you’re wrong. In this economy, that personal touch is what keeps businesses like ours afloat. And if you’re not helping us, you very well could harm us.” Raymond’s jaw ticked. “Not acceptable, son. You need to take care of your responsibilities outside of the store, too. And that includes finding alternate ways of stress relief.”
Cory stared at him, sure he’d heard him wrong. “Sex?”
“We’re not talking about just physical relief.” How his mother could remain so placid when talking about sex in the presence of her grown son, Cory had no clue. “Who do you have to turn to when you need to talk?”
“I don’t. Need to talk,” Cory said when they all stared at him. “I have friends, of course, should the urge arise.”
He glanced away from the pity scrolling across his mom’s face. His stepfather was slightly more circumspect, but not much. They knew he didn’t have many friends. A spat with Victoria Townsend, who ran his company’s lifestyle magazine, usually was the extent of his personal conversations with people outside of his family or work associates.
“The kind of companionship you find in a relationship extends beyond friendship, son.” Raymond’s gentle tone didn’t lessen the steely glint in his eyes. He wasn’t backing down. Well, neither was Cory.
“I’m not a damn virgin. I’m almost thirty years old, for God’s sake, not twelve. I do know these things.” Cory raked a hand through his hair. He didn’t even dispute what they were saying for other people. Sharing a meal—or a bed—with someone appealed to him on some levels, but a relationship usually brought far too many complications.
“You already know so many lovely women, sweetheart.” Cory braced. Whomever his mom suggested, he would vehemently turn down. To do otherwise would break the unspoken mother/son covenant about dating advice created hundreds of years ago. “What about Melinda Townsend? She’d be perfect for you.”
Yeah, so he’d believed the several times he’d tried to set something up between them. Just to have a social companion, nothing more or less. He’d been resoundingly dismissed by Victoria’s sister.
Ignoring the question, Cory gave his parents a thin smile. Hopefully it didn’t hold the hostility he feared it did. “I’ll think over what you’ve said, I promise. And I do appreciate your concern.”
Or he would, once the sting wore off in a year or two. Did they really think he was such a loser that he needed his mommy and daddy to fix him up?
“Consider this a directive, rather than advice. I’m not letting the company run my oldest son into the ground. You’ve been sacrificing love and a family for power tools and spreadsheets. Well, no more. You have a stake in Value Hardware but I get to choose the CEO. If I need to replace you in that role in order to protect your physical and mental health, then I will. Do you understand?”
Cory felt the bile rising in his throat. Not run Value Hardware? Was his father serious?
“When we speak again, I expect this to no longer be an issue. And trust me, we will be speaking again, Cory. Soon.” With an air of finality, Raymond shifted toward his wife and traded his glower for a smile. “Mark Pendergast keeps trying to flag us down. Shall we go see what he wants?”
Shocked into silence, Cory looked away from his mom’s sympathetic glance as she and his stepfather headed over to speak to Mark, one of the charity’s biggest benefactors.
Phone in hand, he marched outside into the balmy late-summer night, determined not to let lack of cell service, publicity snafus, or familial interference further ruin his mood. He wasn’t about to lose his temper in public, so it was better that he get some air.
Lots and lots of air.
His parents were going to drive him mad and he’d just have to accept that fact. With one son paired off, they would redouble their efforts to matchmake the other.
But to issue a directive? That was crossing the line.
He was successful alone. Content. Why didn’t they get that?
They had no reason to question his methods. Business was good. Profits were up, and plans for the next two new Value Hardwares slated to open beyond their home base of Haven, Pennsylvania, by next spring were progressing on schedule. Simply Home, the magazine that would further brand his parents’ chain of stores as the full-service home beautification centers he’d always envisioned, was his brainchild.
His parents’ retirement was looming on the horizon. Soon he would be able to steer the company he’d been the de facto CEO of for the past few years in the direction that best fit his vision. Dillon would share in the plans, of course, and his parents would always keep their fingers in the pot, but once they were shipped off to Arizona, God bless them, he’d be the captain of his domain.
Directive, his ass. No one was keeping that from him.
He checked his phone. Still no bars. He’d have to try calling the photographer from the road.
Besides, the banquet was basically over. He’d made it this far, why not keep going? He had plenty of work to do and the only way he could be sure of maintaining his cool was leaving altogether.
His car was parked on the side street, the perfect spot for his earlier entrance and now exit. His escape was in sight. If his parents questioned why he’d left so soon, he’d tell them he’d decided to go home and cozy up with eHarmony.com. Why put off his chance for true love? Might as well start the search tonight, since he forecast it would take approximately half a lifetime to find a suitable candidate. Maybe longer. The chances of him finding someone who could tolerate his insane work schedule were slim to none. At least, he hadn’t met anyone so far who’d been willing to accommodate it.
He walked across the concrete portico toward the beckoning darkness of the well-manicured grounds that surrounded the banquet hall. The last thing he cared to dwell on tonight was his lack of a love life. If there was anything that would settle his mind—other than telling off his worthless photographer—it was recounting his successes. There were many, and there would be more. Dissatisfaction with his life surfaced occasionally. He was only human. But he didn’t long for anything he couldn’t satisfy within the columns of a profit-and-loss sheet.
Dillon was different, and he’d found someone to complement him. He and Alexa would be happy—at least until the inevitable squabbling and monotony of a long-term relationship set in—and Cory had done his part to help them along, in the form of paying off some of Alexa’s overdue bills. Money cured most ills, if one knew who to pay and had the wherewithal to do so. And he did.
Noises carried on the wind, laughter and conversation and the subtle clink of champagne glasses. The sounds faded the closer he grew to the property’s back exit, his expensive shoes whispering over grass damp from the sprinkler system. Earthy scents filled the air. The minty scent of wild bergamot, soil, and green things growing. Things that Dillon and Alexa would know how to nurture, whereas he only knew how to prolong their deaths. He’d never figured out to how keep a plant alive for more than a few months. The only green he knew how to take care of fattened his bank account.
At the back of the grounds stood a small gazebo, bordered on three sides by a thick hedgerow broken only by a quaint gate that led to the side street. He’d used that gate earlier to slip in undetected. Although given his family’s prestige, he never remained undetected anywhere for long. But he never stopped searching for the security provided by anonymity. Luckily his spotlight-hogging brother usually took up the bulk of the glare, and tonight was no exception. Dillon’s new romance would keep the local gossip hounds busy for weeks. And if that picked up the foot traffic in the store, so much the better.
He just wished he’d gotten pictures.
Ah well. The important thing was to focus on his priorities.
On his way past the gazebo, he glimpsed a slim figure leaning against the railing. He couldn’t make out many details in the dark, other than she had long, blond hair cascading down her bare back. The closer he got, the more he was able to discern. She wore what looked like a glittery gold scarf, except that scarf happened to wrap low on her back to cover her ass and upper thighs. Just barely. It probably counted as a dress in some obscure usage of the word.
He picked up his pace, intending to continue on, until he heard her voice. It was like silken honey, layering over his senses. His knees locked, halting his forward progress. He knew that voice.
Victoria, his interior designer and magazine consultant on Simply Home. As much as she annoyed him, she was also scarily efficient and had more creative ideas in one gold-toned fingernail than he had in his entire body. Hence why he hired her.
The annoying thing? He’d known Victoria since high school and they’d clashed numerous times. Pretty much every time they spoke. Their combative style of communication probably wouldn’t have worked for others, but it suited them just fine.
“You’re sure you’re okay, Bry? No, I know. Yeah.” The pause that followed was broken up by her continuous fidgeting. She played with her caramel-colored hair, stuck out her hip, even bent from the waist to stretch, accentuating the swells of her barely concealed ass.
Cory glanced away, but not before his stolen glance at that curvaceous part of her anatomy made him so hard so fast he didn’t even have time to curse. Jesus. Victoria didn’t make him aroused. Ever. That was statistically impossible.
He was overtired, that’s all. Too consumed by the conversation he’d just had with his parents, and his no-show photographer—
Speaking of the photographer, if Victoria could get service, he should be able to now as well. Cory whipped out his phone. Voilà. Actual bars.
So why was he continuing to listen to her phone call instead of making his own?
“I’m just worried about you,” Victoria went on. “If you’re hurting, you need to make sure you ease back. Boinking blond triplets does not qualify as relaxation.” Her laughter made Cory smile in spite of the erection from hell he was currently sporting. “Enough. TMI, dude. I’m serious. You need to take care of yourself. I need my big brother strong and healthy.”
The low plea she’d added to the end of that statement made Cory take a few steps forward, until he caught himself. What was he going to do? Comfort her? Him? He didn’t even know what was wrong. Even if he did, he didn’t console people. No one snuggled with work-obsessed CEOs when they were…crying.
Oh fuck, was she crying?
She’d ended her call and now stared out into the night. She’d bowed her shoulders and sniffled a few times, then seemed to gather herself enough to answer her ringing phone. “Hey Jill. Yeah. I’m at that stupid gala thing.” Cory frowned. His gala was not stupid. Okay, so it was technically Dillon’s gala, but still. It was for charity, for pity’s sake. “No, it’s totally lame. I mean, the cause is great. I donated and offered some stuff up for auction. But the rest? The pasta salad was full of peppers. Not just green, but red, too. And the table arrangements? I think some people from the hardware store put them together. You and I and Alexa would’ve come up with something way better. Ugh.”
Cory narrowed his eyes, his concern evaporating. Sure, if she didn’t have a hand in decorating something, it wasn’t up to snuff.
“No, I know. I’m just in a mood.” Victoria rubbed her forehead, her slim gold watch sparkling from the twinkle lights that ringed the gazebo. “I have something to take care of tomorrow. Yeah. That. I’m just so tired of being like this. Exhausted. Afraid.” He frowned at the idea that Victoria ever got frightened about anything. Impossible. She seemed fearless. “Sometimes it’s really overwhelming having to hide things all the time,” she added in a near-whisper.
What exactly was she discussing? Perhaps she had a secret lover? He knew he shouldn’t eavesdrop. He also knew he couldn’t leave yet.
She talked for another moment before slipping her cell into her tiny purse. Her heavy sigh lingered on the breeze, wafting over him much like her voice. Then she turned, already moving quickly, only to look up, see him, and come to an immediate halt.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
The exasperation that flashed over her beautiful features was a relief. He really hadn’t wanted to be put in the role of confidant, not when she’d insulted his pasta salad—those peppers had been perfectly robust, even if she couldn’t appreciate them—and his flower arrangements. And his gala, period.
“I’m on a nature walk.” Smiling thinly, he reached up to adjust his lapels. “There are slim pickings inside, so I decided I’d head down to the water tower and see who I might come across.”
He’d poked that sore spot of hers intentionally. She’d been caught making out with the captain of the football team at the water tower in high school and people still joked about it. Small towns were like that. If you did something notable—or even better, notorious—be prepared to hear about it until everyone in town alive at the time of the incident died.
It seemed like a low blow, but there was a method to his madness. Better to annoy her than to hear her start sniffling again.
Victoria cocked her head. “Oh? You didn’t bring a date tonight?”
“No.” He tucked his hands in his pockets as he walked up the steps of the gazebo to join her. He figured, what the hell? Sparring with her always got his blood pumping. His work could wait. “Neither did you, it appears.”
“I didn’t try to arrange one.” The diamond stud in her nose sparkled madly, somehow matching her subtle air of irritation.
Cory lifted a brow, almost unconsciously moving closer to her. She smelled as earthy and mysterious as the grounds that surrounded them. That woodland fragrance always teased his senses, drenching him in her whether or not he wanted to be. “And you’re assuming I did?”
“You’re just the boring—oh, I’m sorry—traditional type who usually avoids attending social functions alone.” She grinned up at him. “What will the masses think?”
“You honestly think I give a whit about public opinion?”
“Honestly? Hell fuck yeah.”
He stepped forward before he registered the impulse, his pelvis brushing against hers unintentionally. She went still, then her witchy eyes flickered up to his. “You’re not serious. You’re actually ha—”
“Don’t say it.” It had been a tactical mistake to move so close. He gripped her arm, hoping that would silence her mouth.
No such luck.
“Oh, let’s discuss this. You have an erection. A nice-sized one, too, from all appearances.” She tapped her fingers against her glossy mouth and stared in the vicinity of his painfully aroused groin. “Could it be that you’re attracted to me, a real, flesh-and-blood woman? Have you ever enjoyed one of those?”
Her line of questioning skirted way too close to the conversation he’d had with his parents. This notion that he couldn’t get a woman made his blood boil. He certainly could. He’d even go so far as to say he could get just about any woman he wanted, at least for long enough to make it worth both their whiles.
Even this one.
She moved into his space again, getting right in his face with help from her ice-pick heels. “Not that I can compete with the vixens in your daily life. C’mon, what’s sexier than spreadsheets, projections, and ooh, those long, hard calculations—”
He stepped closer and she fell silent. His entire body pulsed with tightly leashed need. For her. She’d pushed him to this point. Had been pushing him for way too long. Why not take what he wanted for once? Besides, if she kept talking, his brain would simply explode.
So he shut her up the only way he knew how—he kissed her.
Cory’s lips were on hers. Softly molding, gently pressing. His tongue, tasting of fruit and mint and him, twisted around hers, toying with her flesh the way she now wished he’d play with her tightly beaded nipples. And between her legs? Complete forest fire, no extinguisher needed. She’d brought her own moisture, thank you very much.
Holy fracking fuck, she wanted him.
Then the jerk pushed her back and rubbed his wrist over his mouth. It was an oddly sensual gesture, the way he brushed her taste away while his smoldering silver eyes told her he wanted to taste every part of her. Slowly. Thoroughly. Until she died from the pleasure.
She was already halfway there.
Still, she knew better. Cory might be as delicious as sin and twice as hot, but he was also a workaholic who thought being emotional meant springing for a Hallmark card on holidays. Even though she wasn’t some spineless chick who was looking for a man to prop her up, she still had feelings. She waged a daily battle against the ghosts of her past that wouldn’t quite stay gone, and she was mostly winning, through lots of hard work and attentive self-care. That meant minimizing contact with disruptive influences.
Like Cory Santangelo. His wavy dark hair, gunmetal gray eyes, and sinfully sexy body added up to a lethal package. His cunning brain and razor-sharp wit only magnified the potential destruction.
Getting involved with a guy like him—even just sexually—was a one-way ticket to a train wreck, especially for a girl with mommy issues and a desire to be in a relationship with a guy who…actually knew how to have a relationship. And that wasn’t taking into account potentially jeopardizing their work relationship if they hooked up.
Though, seriously, she’d never been smart before about men. Why start now?
Vicky stepped forward, her only intent to get more of him. He held her back with two fingers lightly pressed between her breasts. Which he looked at, his gaze as heated as a caress, for a moment before he spoke. “Victoria, no.”
What was she, a bad puppy? His clipped tone nearly killed the desire kindling in her belly. She forged on, pushing against his hand, smiling in triumph at the brush of his fingers against the side of her very appreciative breast. At least until he chilled her to the bone with his impervious expression.
She might be horny, and so might his dick, but his head? Nope. Not engaged. Despite the fact that he was still breathing hard from their kiss, he didn’t want to want her, so to hell with the dictates of his body.
Well, screw him then.
She gripped her purse and turned away. “You know what? Never mind. We’ll just forget this ever happened. Your virtue will be safe from any further breaches from me, I promise. Now I bid you good-night.”
She’d made it two and a half steps before he locked his hands around her waist and whirled her back to face him. For one startling instant, he stared down at her, a wild kaleidoscope of emotions ranging over his face. Fury, concern, amusement. Lust. Definite lust, overriding everything else. Now that he’d unleashed its full power, it practically emanated from his pores right along with his richie-rich cologne that made her eyes cross every damn day.
Not that he deserved to know that she’d kind of had an underground thing for him since high school, in the sense that one had a thing for Bradley Cooper. Hot, utterly doable, but never gonna happen. Cory was her Brad Pitt, during Legends of the Fall days. Her—
—ass was in his hands. Both of his hands. He had a full handful in each, and he wasn’t letting go anytime soon.
She didn’t want him to.
“Better?” he whispered against her cheek, pulling her up so that every part of her lined up just right with every part of him. The important ones, anyhoo. She let out a sound caught between a moan and a sigh at the thick length of his erection. She couldn’t think for the hazy longing that clouded her brain.
“Much.” Her lips twitched as she looked up at him. “I don’t want to take advantage of you. Maybe you’re drunk.” He glowered down at her and his chest rose and fell in those heavy heaves that reminded her of a runner’s after a series of laps.
His head dipped closer, so close she could smell the strawberries on his breath from dessert. She’d passed on the beignets and fruit, choosing instead to drown her sorrows in pricey champagne—sorrows about her impending visit to her mother in the group home and her worry about her football player brother’s injured knee. But it looked like she’d get to taste summer’s bountiful splendor right now. If he’d just lean in…
“You’re a horrible tease,” he said. “How haven’t I noticed?”
“Because I never teased you. We have a very somber, serious relationship.”
“Except when you’re chucking priceless artifacts at my head.”
Ah, the memories. “Stop arguing with my choices so much and we’d get somewhere. You, suit. Me, designer. My role doesn’t stop with picking out a pretty coffee table. You not only wanted me to set up the room shots, but also coordinate the articles that went with the layouts. As I understood it, my job was to create a lifestyle magazine without you having to oversee the placement of every cushion. You wanted to step back. So, yanno, do that.”
“You tried to foist green furniture on me.”
She rolled her eyes, trying to ignore his body pressed against her. Suggest one nontraditional sectional couch to the guy and you never heard the end of it. “It wasn’t green. It was olive.”
“Whatever, it was ugly,” he said, not so subtly backing her toward the railing and the padded bench that ringed it. Her knees bumped the wood and she lost her balance, throwing her hands back against the railing to catch herself. She was about to stand up again when she caught the intensity of his expression and realized just how erotic a picture she made. Bent backward, breasts thrust high, straining against her bodice.
Totally at his mercy.
“So is this how you’re going to exact your revenge?” She tilted her head sideways, her hair slipping over one eye. “I may fight you.”
Finally he smiled, if a momentary curve of lips could be called that. “I wouldn’t expect anything less.”
Rattlesnake-fast, he pushed up her dress, his big hands dwarfing her thighs. His palms were so hot on her skin. Burning her up. He made a sound deep in his throat at the sight of her barely-there lacy panties. And then he stepped forward into the vee of her legs, shifting them apart so that he could kneel on the bench. With the difference in their heights, he was at the perfect angle to surge up against her, one hard thrust that took her completely by surprise. She gasped, not nearly satisfied with the contact through their clothes. Her thong wasn’t much of a barrier, but his tux sure was. He thrust again, making that same low, needful sound. Coaxing the same from her, louder and keener.
She gripped the railing, arching into him, beseeching him without words to take her harder, to at least give her this if he wouldn’t go any further. She was already wet, the fabric chafing her at the press of his length. Oh God, was he thick, and harder than the wood she held on to for dear life.
Still it wasn’t enough. How could it be? The friction of his strokes was fabulous, but there was too much material between them. Not even the glittering intensity of his gaze could erase that.
“Now who’s being a fucking tease,” she said hoarsely, biting her lip in frustration at his parry and retreat.
Cory said nothing while he ramped up his siege between her legs. Grinding deep, saturating the flimsy strip between them. He dragged her legs farther apart, then farther still, arching up into her while his eyes locked on her face as if he were cataloging her reactions to study later. She wouldn’t put it past him. She wished she could give him a little something in return, but in this position she couldn’t do much. Other than sliding up and down, which he seemed to enjoy. A lot.
He bore down, leaning so close to her that his sweet breath wafted over her parted lips. She couldn’t take in enough air so now he offered her his. Her taxed lungs cramped and she flung her head back, the lights above blurring as he hit the exact right spot to stimulate her painfully swollen clit. Her nails scraped the wood, splinters slicing her skin. She didn’t care. He was moving faster, and she was moving too, bowing up so that if he lowered his mouth just a couple of inches he could take one of her achy nipples between his lips.
And then he did, just one swipe of his teeth and tongue over the sensitive tip through her dress.
The furor building inside her exploded, taking the last of her control with it. She didn’t scream, didn’t cry out. Just dragged her focus from those now-wildly-twinkling lights to fuse her gaze with his. All she could see were his pupils, so large and deep that she could fall into them and never want to leave.
Cory Santangelo had made her come, mere feet away from where the party to celebrate his family’s charity still raged on. Talk about insanity. The best kind.
She smiled. A kinda sucky, lonely night had turned around, after all.
The silence that descended between them was absolute except for the competition to see which of them could breathe harder. She was about to reach down to repay the favor when he jerked back, his jaw going to granite. He shook his head, brushing off her touch as if she were a mosquito. “No. This is enough.”
Questions sprang to her tongue. Denials. Even pleas. She wasn’t ready for her escape from reality to end, not after the day she’d had. Not when she remembered the long night alone she faced. But she had pride. She’d already thrown herself at the guy, encouraged by her fancy alcoholic enhancement, and that constituted enough humiliation for one evening.
She let go of the railing and sagged to the padded bench. Her thighs were still quivering. But her heart? That, thankfully, was already going cold, helped along by his indifference. “So go.”
He’d taken two steps away when he seemed to realize what he was acting like—an actual dick. Not that such an unrefined word would ever leave his mouth. “We had a moment, now it’s over.”
“Jeez, that’s beautiful. Should I cue my harp or do you want to grab your tiny one—” she glanced at his crotch “—first?”
His jaw firmed. “Are you certain you’re all right?”
Wow, did he actually care? “I’m certain,” she said, mimicking his cool tone. If he noticed, she couldn’t tell. “It’s all good. I got what I wanted, didn’t I?” She gave him a fleeting smile she so didn’t feel and waved her fingers. “Have fun in the shower.”
And he would. He couldn’t have faked that steely erection, even if he’d managed to make her believe for a few minutes that he could see her as a woman and not just a thorn in his side.
He stared at her for a moment longer, then nodded in his typical king-of-the-universe manner. “Very well. I’ll see you Monday.”
“Sure.” She couldn’t wait for their twice-weekly magazine strategy session. Tons o’ fun.
Still, he didn’t leave. He studied her, making her heated skin prickle uncomfortably. The throbbing flesh between her thighs didn’t really help her decision to be cucumber-cool, but she could adapt.
By getting the hell out of there.
She grabbed her purse and rose, stiffening at his retreating footsteps. She didn’t turn until she was sure he was gone. Then she gathered her long hair in a messy topknot with a band from her bag and took off before the night could get any worse.