Excerpt: Pretending With The Playboy
Book 2: In Love With A Tycoon
Carter Richardson groaned and rolled over, the pounding in his head rousing him from sleep. Blindly, he reached out for his cell phone on the nightstand and felled a lamp, rustled an empty condom wrapper, and knocked over a glass.
But no cell phone.
The throbbing in his head was relentless. Had he really drunk enough to warrant aftereffects? Cautiously, he opened one eye, tensing for the expected stab of pain, and was relieved when it didn’t occur. Thank God for blackout curtains. Opening the other eye, he lay still for a moment, taking inventory of his body and memories. Late-night celebrating. The latest deal he’d closed for Pearson Enterprises.
Showing up on his doorstep in heels, a yellow vinyl raincoat…and nothing else.
Scotch for him, wine for her, and hours later he was alone and naked in—for fuck’s sake, why wouldn’t the pounding in his head stop? That’s when he realized the hammering wasn’t an internal punishment caused by a hangover. Someone was knocking on his front door.
Cursing, he swung his legs around, stood up, and grabbed the pants pooled on the area rug at the foot of his bed. He shuffled out of the room and winced, his view of the Potomac River giving him front-row seats to the sunlight reflecting off the water’s surface. No blackout curtains for his living room windows. In fact, no coverings at all because he usually loved that view. This morning, not so much. It should be illegal for the sun to shine so brightly. He still had—he stopped at the kitchen counter when he spied his phone—twenty minutes before his alarm went off.
The asshole pounded on his door again, as though auditioning for a spot with the young bucket drummers who performed at the entrance to the metro station. Carter picked up the pace, his heart pounding in his chest, annoyance and anger combining like a raging beast. He wrenched open the door.
“Dude, I’m two seconds away from—”
It took a moment to register it wasn’t some random asshole at all.
The eyes of the woman on the other side widened, a mixture of amber and emerald, surrounded by long, thick lashes. She stepped back, tightening her fingers on the straps of the large black bag that hung from her shoulder.
His heart continued to pound and his pulse kicked up for an entirely different reason. He narrowed his eyes. Is that—?
“LoLo?” he asked, staring at his aunt’s social secretary and his…what?
“We need to talk,” she said.
Four words guaranteed to elicit terror in the hearts of most men. Yet uttered in her smooth jazz-’n’-bourbon tones, they had the power to induce lengthy emotional exchanges.
But that was most men. He stood his ground.
“How long has it been?” he asked. “Five, six years?”
“Ten,” she said. “And no one calls me LoLo anymore. It’s Lauren.”
“Huh. You look…different.”
Pink tinged her round cheekbones, disturbing the pale complexion that was fair enough to “pass,” as she’d once said, but with a creaminess that hinted at her biracial heritage.
“And people pay you for your powers of observation.” She sighed. “Are you going to let me in or are we going to have this conversation in the hallway?”
He leaned an arm against the doorframe. Her gaze traveled down his naked chest and her blush deepened. A knowing grin tilted his lips and he lazily scratched the base of his throat. “Is there an option C?”
Her mouth tightened. “No.”
“Will I be safe?” he asked teasingly. “The last time we were alone you felt me up.”
He hadn’t seen her since the party at his aunt’s house six—no, ten—years ago. Not since that kiss. The kiss that had shocked the hell out of him. His mind taunted him with the memory of her wide eyes, flushed cheeks, and full, moist lips. Lips so plump and kissable that he’d been unable to resist going back for seconds. Which had been a mistake. He’d been twenty-three and in law school across the country. She’d been eighteen and starting college, there in Chicago. The last thing he’d needed was to form an attachment that would tie him to the very place he’d needed to escape.
“As I said, that was ten years ago. And while I’ve matured in that time, you’ve stayed disappointingly juvenile.”
He swept his arm wide. “Then come on in.”
“Said the spider to the fly,” she mumbled, entering the condo.
He laughed. She was still a smart-ass. Her clean, cool, tropical scent teased his nose as she passed and his body tightened.
He closed the door and turned, studying her. Her fine features had ripened into a countenance of beauty. She’d straightened her thick reddish-brown curls and tamed them into a sleek knot. An expensive navy blue pantsuit covered her slimmed-down physique. Before him stood a classily composed, grown-up version of the girl he remembered.
Interest stirred low in his belly. Girl? Not anymore, he thought, focusing on the outline of her generous breasts, which her suit couldn’t hide. Oh yeah, she’d definitely matured. And he approved of the changes wholeheartedly.
“Are you done?” she asked, her tone sharp enough to cut glass.
He tilted his head to the side and motioned with his hand. “With the front. Now, if you’ll spin around so I can check out the back…”
The glance she swept over him was so cold he could feel his balls huddle up into his body. She turned quickly on her heels and continued down the narrow hallway that opened into his great room, her staccato steps clicking on the hardwood floors. He followed in her wake, appreciating the sway of her hips as she moved.
“That was too easy,” he said. “Are you always this accommodating when entering a man’s home?”
She faltered, but caught herself.
He smirked. Like getting phone numbers at happy hour.
She set her bag on the kitchen counter and moved to stand near his sofa, facing him. “We have to talk about—” She squinted at his sculptural, glass-topped coffee table.
Or rather, what was on the glass-topped coffee table.
The lipstick-stained wineglass and diamond bracelet sat brazenly next to his own highball glass.
“Are we alone?” she asked, looking around.
He frowned. They’d better be. He didn’t do sleepovers. And he was hip to the old “leave something behind for an excuse to come back” trick. Olivia was getting too comfortable. He made a mental note to messenger the bracelet back to her.
“Are we alone?” LoLo repeated.
“Why? Do you have something in mind?”
Irritation at the nickname that only she had ever used grazed his emotional funny bone and set him on edge. The grin slipped from his face. “Yes, we’re alone,” he said.
He stalked past her into the kitchen, grabbed a pod from the coffee rack, and started his first cup of coffee. He looked over to find her moving around the room, like an archeologist studying an ancient civilization. She picked up and neatly replaced the metal sculpture of a nude feminine torso sitting on his bookcase, and trailed her fingers over his prized collection of Hong Kong action DVDs. Long, slim fingers that would look good wrapped around his cock. Blood raced to that area, as if his thoughts would make it so, and he looked down at his body. Seriously? She was the last woman in the world he should think about bumping uglies with.
LoLo stopped in front of a framed art piece on his wall. “Neo-Expressionism,” she announced.
“What?” he asked, confused since the blood that powered his brain had taken a trip down south.
“This piece. By Francesco Clemente. It’s from the Neo-Expressionism movement.”
He shrugged. “My decorator picked it out.”
“It’s intense,” she said, her voice distant as though her mind was elsewhere.
What was she doing here? What had happened to bring his aunt’s social secretary to his doorstep? She sure as hell hadn’t come all this way to study his art.
“Did Aunt Dorothy send you? Are you here because she’s found the perfect socialite or celebutante to marry me off to? If so, you’ll have to break the news to her: I’m not interested.”
Not in any of the women she continually threw in his path nor in a stroll down the aisle. He’d never be ensnared by the shackles of commitment. One woman for the rest of his life? No way. He was having too much fun. Which was why LoLo was off-limits.
She finally turned to face him. “She’s been trying to call you for three weeks.”
“That’s it? That’s why you flew all the way from Chicago?” He scoffed. “There’s this new invention called the telephone—”
“It only works if the person on the other end answers.”
“What’s the big deal? I talked to her a month ago.”
“No, you talked to me.”
He opened his mouth to deny it, but then stopped and frowned. She was right. He’d called to talk to Dorothy but LoLo had answered her phone instead. The time before, it had been a text message. Now that he thought about it, when was the last time he’d actually talked to his aunt? Three or four months?
“I’ve been busy. Being chief legal officer of the fifth largest commercial real estate conglomerate in the U.S. is a demanding job.”
With the toe of one polished black pump, LoLo edged the strap of a red lace bra from underneath an end table.
“Yes, Richie, I can see how full your hands are.”
He ignored her acerbic tone. “Why are you here?”
“I told you. We need to talk,” she said.
“Why? So you can lecture me on not returning a few phone calls? Have you added Richardson family enforcer to your duties?” At his words, his mind flooded with images of her in a black vinyl bustier, thigh-high boots, and a riding crop clenched between her teeth. “On second thought, I might enjoy a reprimand from you.”
She rolled her eyes. “I’m here because of Dorothy. She wants to talk to you.”
He rubbed the back of his neck. “No offense, but every conversation with my aunt inevitably leads to a set-up or a guilt trip about coming back to Chicago and fulfilling my responsibilities to the family and the business.”
“She misses you and wants to see you more often.”
“We see each other,” he said. “We spent time together last year when she came to DC on business for RichCorp.”
The family business his aunt had run for the past twenty years, ever since his father’s death. His stomach twisted and anger ripped through him as it always did when he unsealed that mental compartment. His father didn’t just “die.” After Carter’s mother passed away, his father gave up on life, taking the coward’s way out despite having a son who’d needed him.
He pushed those thoughts aside, not wishing to dwell on things he couldn’t change, and granted her a smile. “My hosting efforts have been subpar. Can I offer you something?”
“I’m fine,” she said, impatience twisting her features.
“I don’t keep much here, but there’s coffee, bottled water, an energy bar?”
“No…thank you,” she added.
“You used to have a healthy appetite.”
Her gaze was steady, but she grabbed the edge of the sofa, her knuckles starkly visible as she pressed hard into the furniture. “You’re a bastard.”
“LoLo, that’s not what I meant.”
“It’s Lauren, damn you!”
She thought he’d been making fun of her. Nothing could be further from the truth. The first time he’d seen her, a young girl just crossing the teen threshold, she’d been plump, but certainly not overweight. A few years later, poised on the brink of womanhood, she’d sprouted curves only a blind man would have failed to notice.
Of course, there was always Braille…
He hadn’t stuck around to see what she would grow into, but he had thought about it and he knew it’d be the stuff of swimsuit centerfolds, lingerie catalogues, and frat boy fantasies.
And he’d been right.
The tickle of her curls against his skin, the tanginess of berries against his tongue, her whimpers of pleasure penetrating his defenses.
His body reacted to the memory again and it troubled him as much now as it had back when it had actually happened. “Look, I’ve got to go to work. I’ve got back-to-back meetings with all of the department heads today.”
LoLo frowned. “I’m not done.”
Tough. This little reunion had started out as an amusing distraction, but he was more than ready for her to state her business and leave.
“I don’t have time to pull it from you. What was so damned important that you had to show up on my doorstep at the crack of dawn?”
She shoved her hands onto her hips and shifted her weight. “You think I want to be here? I have better things to do than chase down poor, little Richie Rich because he can’t be bothered to answer the freaking phone.”
He ground his teeth. He hated that fucking nickname.
“Let me make this quick and easy for you. I’m not coming back to Chicago to live. I’m not interested in the debutante du jour Aunt Dorothy has lined up for me. And I’m not going to run the family business. Why don’t you both get a clue and leave me the hell alone?”
“You might get your wish.” Her voice was solemn, the fight bleached from her countenance.
A breeze of intuition whispered over his soul. Dread clogged his throat, making it difficult to cycle fresh air into his body. Noise faded to nothing, like he pressed mute on his life’s soundtrack, until the only sound he could hear was the powerful marching of his heart.
“Dorothy’s dying. She doesn’t have long to live.”