- Bared to You
I don't remember much of what happened after we arrived. Camera flashes burst around us like fireworks as we walked the length of the press gauntlet, but I scarcely paid them any mind, smiling by rote. I was drawn into myself and desperate to get away from the tension radiating in waves from Gideon.
The moment we crossed over into the building, someone called his name and he turned. I slipped away, darting around the rest of the guests clogging the carpeted entrance.
When I reached the reception hall, I snatched two glasses of champagne from a passing server and searched for Cary as I tossed one back. I spotted him on the far side of the room with my mom and Stanton, and I crossed to them, discarding my empty glass on a table as I passed it.
"Eva!" My mother's face lit up when she saw me. "That dress is stunning on you!"
She air-kissed each of my cheeks. She was gorgeous in a shimmering, fitted column of icy blue. Sapphires dripped from her ears, throat, and wrist, highlighting her eyes and her pale skin.
"Thank you." I took a gulp of champagne from my second glass, remembering that I'd planned on expressing gratitude for the dress. While I still appreciated the gift, I was no longer so happy about the convenient thigh slit.
Cary stepped forward, catching my elbow. One look at my face and he knew I was upset. I shook my head, not wanting to get into it now.
"More champagne, then?" he asked softly.
I felt Gideon approaching before I saw my mother's face light up like the New Year's ball in Times Square. Stanton, too, seemed to straighten and gather himself.
"Eva." Gideon set his hand on the bare skin of my lower back and a shock of awareness moved through me. When his fingers flexed against me, I wondered if he felt it, too. "You ran off."
I stiffened against the reproof I heard in his tone. I shot him a look that said everything I couldn't while we were in public. "Richard, have you met Gideon Cross?"
"Yes, of course." The two men shook hands.
Gideon pulled me closer to his side. "We share the good fortune of escorting the two most beautiful women in New York."
Stanton agreed, smiling indulgently down at my mother.
I tossed back the rest of my champagne and gratefully exchanged the empty glass for the fresh one Cary handed me. There was a slight warmth growing in my belly from the alcohol and it loosened the knot that had formed there.
Gideon leaned over and whispered harshly, "Don't forget you're here with me."
He was mad? What the hell? My gaze narrowed. "You're one to talk."
"Not here, Eva." He nodded at everyone and led me away. "Not now."
"Not ever," I muttered, going along with him just to spare my mother a scene.
Sipping my champagne, I slid into an autopilot mode of self-preservation I hadn't had to use in many years. Gideon introduced me to people and I supposed I performed well enough - spoke at the appropriate moments and smiled when necessary - but I wasn't really paying attention. I was too conscious of the icy wall between us and my own hurt anger. If I'd needed any proof that Gideon was rigid about not socializing with women he slept with, I had it.
When dinner was announced, I went with him into the dining room and poked at my food. I drank a few glasses of the red wine they served with the meal and heard Gideon talking to our tablemates, although I didn't pay attention to the words, only to the cadence and the seductively deep, even tone. He made no attempt to draw me into the conversation and I was glad. I didn't think I could say anything nice.
I didn't become engaged until he stood to a round of applause and took the stage. Then I turned in my seat and watched him cross to the podium, unable to help admiring his animal grace and stunning good looks. Every step he took commanded attention and respect, which was a feat, considering his easy and unhurried stride.
He looked none the worse for wear after our abandoned fucking in his limo. In fact, he seemed like a totally different person. He was once again the man I'd met in the Crossfire lobby, supremely contained and quietly powerful.
"In North America," he began, "childhood sexual abuse is experienced by one in every four women and one in every six men. Take a good look around you. Someone at your table is either a survivor or knows someone who is. That's the unacceptable truth."
I was riveted. Gideon was a consummate orator, his vibrant baritone mesmerizing. But it was the topic, which hit so close to home, and his passionate and sometimes shocking way of discussing it, that moved me. I began to thaw, my bewildered fury and damaged self-confidence subverted by wonder. My view of him shifted, altering as I became simply another individual in a rapt audience. He wasn't the man who'd so recently hurt my feelings; he was just a skilled speaker discussing a subject that was deeply important to me.
When he finished, I stood and applauded, catching both him and myself by surprise. But others quickly joined me in the standing ovation and I heard the buzz of conversations around me, the quietly voiced compliments that were well deserved.
"You're a fortunate young lady."
I turned to look at the woman who spoke, a lovely redhead who appeared to be in her early forties. "We're just...friends."
Her serene smile somehow managed to argue with me.
People began stepping away from their tables. I was about to grab my clutch so I could leave for home when a young man came up to me. His wayward auburn hair inspired instant envy and his eyes of grayish-green were soft and friendly. Handsome and sporting a boyish grin, he lured the first genuine smile out of me since the ride over in the limousine.
"Hello there," he said.
He seemed to know who I was, which put me in the awkward position of pretending I wasn't clueless as to who he was. "Hello."
He laughed, and the sound was light and charming. "I'm Christopher Vidal, Gideon's brother."
"Oh, of course." My face heated. I couldn't believe I'd been so lost in my own pity party that I hadn't made the connection at once.
"I'm sorry." I offered a sheepish smile. "Not sure how to say I read an article about you without sounding awkward."
He laughed. "I'm flattered you remembered it. Just don't tell me it was in Page Six."
The gossip column was notorious for getting the goods on New York celebrities and socialites. "No," I said quickly. "Rolling Stone, maybe?"
"I can live with that." He extended his arm to me. "Would you like to dance?"
I glanced over to where Gideon was standing at the foot of the stairs that led to the stage. He was surrounded by people eager to talk to him, many of whom were women.
"You can see he'll be awhile," Christopher said, with a note of amusement.
"Yes." I was about to look away when I recognized the woman standing next to Gideon - Magdalene Perez.
I picked up my clutch and managed a smile for Christopher. "I'd love to dance."
Arm-in-arm we headed into the ballroom and stepped onto the dance floor. The band began the first strains of a waltz and we moved easily, naturally into the music. He was a skilled dancer, agile and confident in his lead.
"So, how do you know Gideon?"
"I don't." I nodded at Cary when he glided by with a statuesque blonde. "I work in the Crossfire and we've run into each other once or twice."
"You work for him?"
"No. I'm an assistant at Waters Field and Leaman."
"Ah." He grinned. "Ad agency."
"Gideon must really be into you to go from meeting you once or twice to dragging you out on a date like this."
I cursed inwardly. I'd known assumptions would be made, but I wanted more than ever to avoid further humiliation. "Gideon's acquainted with my mother and she'd already arranged for me to come, so it's just a matter of two people going to the same event in one car rather than two."
"So you're available?"
I took a deep breath, feeling uncomfortable despite how fluidly we moved together. "Well, I'm not taken."
Christopher flashed his charismatic boyish grin. "My night just took a turn for the better."
He filled the rest of the dance with amusing anecdotes about the music industry that made me laugh and took my mind off Gideon.
When the dance ended, Cary was there to take the next one. We danced very well as a couple because we'd taken lessons together. I relaxed into his hold, grateful to have him as moral support.
"Are you enjoying yourself?" I asked him.
"I pinched myself during dinner when I realized I was sitting next to the top coordinator for Fashion Week. And she flirted with me!" He smiled, but his eyes were haunted. "Whenever I find myself in places like this...dressed like this...I can't believe it. You saved my life, Eva. Then you changed it completely."
"You save my sanity all the time. Trust me, we're even."
His hand tightened on mine, his gaze hardening. "You look miserable. How'd he fuck up?"
"I think I did that. We'll talk about it later."
"You're afraid I'll kick his ass here in front of everyone."
I sighed. "I'd rather you didn't, for my mom's sake."
Cary pressed his lips briefly to my forehead. "I warned him earlier. He knows it's coming."
"Oh, Cary." Love for him tightened my throat even as reluctant amusement curved my lips. I should've known Cary would give Gideon a big brother threat of some sort. That was just so like him.
Gideon appeared beside us. "I'm cutting in."
It wasn't a request.
Cary stopped and looked at me. I nodded. He backed away with a bow, his gaze hot and fierce on Gideon's face.
Gideon pulled me close and took over the dance the way he took over everything - with dominant confidence. It was an entirely different experience dancing with him than with my two previous partners. Gideon had both the expertise of his brother and Cary's familiarity with the way my body moved, but Gideon had a bold, aggressive style that was inherently sexual.
It didn't help that being so close to a man I'd so recently been intimate with seduced my senses despite my unhappiness. He smelled scrumptious, with undertones of sex, and the way he led me through the bold sweeping steps made me feel the soreness deep inside me, reminding me that he'd been there not long ago.
"You keep running off," he muttered, scowling down at me.
"Seemed like Magdalene picked up the slack quick enough."
His brow arched and he drew me closer. "Jealous?"
"Seriously?" I looked away.
He made a frustrated noise. "Stay away from my brother, Eva."
"Because I said so."
My temper ignited, which felt good after all the self-recrimination and doubts I'd been drowning in since we'd screwed like feral bunnies. I decided to see if turnabout was fair play in Gideon Cross's world. "Stay away from Magdalene, Gideon."
His jaw tightened. "She's just a friend."
"Meaning you haven't slept with her...? Yet."
"No, damn it. And I don't want to. Listen - " The music wound down and he slowed. "I have to go. I brought you here, and I would prefer to be the one who takes you home, but I don't want to pull you away if you're enjoying yourself. Would you rather stick around and go home with Stanton and your mother?"
Enjoying myself? Was he kidding or clueless? Or worse. Maybe he'd written me off so completely that he wasn't paying attention to me at all.
I pushed away from him, needing the distance. His scent was messing with my head. "I'll be fine. Forget about me."
"Eva." He reached for me and I stepped back quickly.
An arm came around my back and Cary spoke. "I've got her, Cross."
"Don't get in my way, Taylor," Gideon warned.
Cary snorted. "I get the impression you're doing a smokin' job of that all by yourself."
I swallowed past the lump in my throat. "You gave a wonderful speech, Gideon. It was the highlight of my evening."
He sucked in a sharp breath at the implied insult; then shoved a hand through his hair. Abruptly, he cursed and I realized why when he pulled his vibrating phone out of his pocket and glanced at the screen.
"I have to go." His gaze caught mine and held it. His fingertips drifted over my cheek. "I'll call you."
And then he was gone.
"Do you want to stay?" Cary asked quietly.
"I'll take you home, then."
"No, don't." I wanted to be alone for a bit. Soak in a hot bath with a bottle of cool wine and pull myself out of my funk. "You should be here. It could be good for your career. We can talk when you get home. Or tomorrow. I'm going the couch potato route all day."
His gaze darted over my face, searching. "You sure?"
"All right." But he looked unconvinced.
"If you could go out and ask a valet to have Stanton's limo brought around, I'll run to the ladies' room real quick."
"Okay." Cary ran his hand down my arm. "I'll get your shawl from the coatroom and see you out front."
It took longer to get to the restroom than it should have. For one, a surprising number of people stopped me for small talk, which had to be because I was Gideon Cross's date. And two, I avoided the nearest ladies' room, which had a steady flow of women pouring in and out of it, and I found one located farther away. I locked myself in a stall and took a few moments longer to finish my business than absolutely required. There was no one else in the room besides the attendant, so there was no one to rush me.
I was so hurt by Gideon it was hard to breathe and I was so confused by his mood swings. Why had he touched my face like that? Why had he gotten mad when I didn't stay by his side? And why the hell had he threatened Cary? Gideon gave new meaning to the old adage about "running hot and cold."
Closing my eyes, I shored up my composure. Jesus. I didn't need this.
I'd bared my emotions in the limo and I still felt horribly vulnerable - a state I'd spent countless therapy hours learning to avoid. I wanted nothing more than to be home and hidden, freed from the pressure of acting like I was completely pulled together when I was anything but.
You set yourself up for this, I reminded myself. Suck it up.
Taking a deep breath, I stepped out and was resigned to finding Magdalene leaning against the vanity with her arms crossed. She was clearly there for me, lying in wait at a time when my defenses were already weak. My step faltered; then I recovered and made my way to the sink to wash my hands.
She turned to face the mirror, studying my reflection. I studied her, too. She was even more gorgeous in person than she'd been in her photos. Tall and slender, with big dark eyes and a cascade of straight brown hair. Her lips were lush and red, her cheekbones high and sculpted. Her dress was modestly sexy, a flowing sheath of creamy satin that contrasted beautifully with her olive skin. She looked like a fucking supermodel and exuded an exotic sex appeal.
I accepted the hand towel the bathroom attendant handed me, and Magdalene spoke to the woman in Spanish, asking her to give us some privacy. I capped the request with, "Por favor, gracias." That earned me an arched brow from Magdalene and a closer examination, which I returned with equal coolness.
"Oh, dear," she murmured, the moment the attendant stepped out of earshot. She made a tsking noise that scraped over my nerves like nails on a chalkboard. "You've fucked him already."
"And you haven't."
That seemed to surprise her. "You're right, I haven't. You know why?"
I pulled a five-spot out of my clutch and dropped it in the silver tip tray. "Because he doesn't want to."
"And I don't want to either, because he can't commit. He's young, gorgeous, rich, and he's enjoying it."
"Yes." I nodded. "He certainly did."
Her gaze narrowed, her pleasant expression slipping slightly. "He doesn't respect the women he fucks. The minute he shoved his dick in you, you were done. Just like all the others. But I'm still here, because I'm the one he wants to keep around for the long haul."
I maintained my cool even though the blow had been a perfect hit right where the most damage could be done. "That's pathetic."
I walked out and didn't stop until I reached Stanton's limousine. Squeezing Cary's hand as I got in, I managed to wait until the car pulled away from the curb to start crying.
"Hey, baby girl," Cary called out when I shuffled into the living room the next morning. Dressed in nothing but a loose pair of old sweats, he was stretched out on the couch with his feet crossed and propped on the coffee table. He looked beautifully disheveled and comfortable in his own skin. "How'd you sleep?"
I gave him the thumbs-up and headed into the kitchen for coffee. I paused by the breakfast bar, my brows lifting at the massive arrangement of red roses on the counter. The fragrance was divine and I inhaled it with a deep breath. "What's this?"
"They came for you about an hour ago. A Sunday delivery. Pretty and super pricey."
I plucked the card off the clear plastic stake and opened it.
I'm still thinking about you.
"From Cross?" Cary asked.
"Yes." My thumb brushed over what I assumed was his handwriting. It was bold and masculine and sexy. A romantic gesture for a guy who didn't have romance in his repertoire. I dropped the card on the counter as if it'd burned me and fetched a mug of coffee, praying caffeine would give me strength and restore my common sense.
"You don't seem impressed." He lowered the volume on the football game he was watching.
"He's bad news for me. He's like one giant trigger. I just need to stay away from him." Cary had been through therapy with me and he knew the drill. He didn't look at me funny when I broke things down into therapeutic jargon, and he didn't have any trouble shooting it back to me the same way.
"The phone's been ringing all morning, too. I didn't want it to disturb you, so I shut the volume off."
Aware of the lingering ache between my legs, I curled up on the couch and fought the compulsion to listen to our voice mail to see if Gideon had called. I wanted to hear his voice, and an explanation that would make sense of what happened last night. "Sounds good to me. Let's leave it off all day."
I blew steam off the top of my mug and took a tentative sip. "I fucked his brains out in his limo and he turned arctic afterward."
Cary watched me with those worldly emerald eyes, eyes that had seen more than anyone should be subjected to. "Rocked his world, did you?"
"Yeah, I did." And I got riled up just thinking about it. We'd connected. I knew it. I'd wanted him more than anything last night, and today I wanted nothing to do with him ever again. "It was intense. The best sexual experience of my life, and he was right there with me. I know he was. First time he'd ever made it in a car, and he was kind of resistant at first, but then I got him so hot for it he couldn't say no."
"Really? Never?" He ran a hand over his morning stubble. "Most guys scratch car banging off their fuck list in high school. In fact, I can't think of anyone who didn't, except for the nerds and fuglies, and he's neither."
I shrugged. "I guess car banging makes me a slut."
Cary grew very still. "Is that what he said?"
"No. He didn't say shit. I got that from his 'friend,' Magdalene. You know that chick in most of the photos you printed off the Internet? She decided to sharpen her claws with a little catty girl chat in the bathroom."
"The bitch is jealous."
"Sexual frustration. She can't fuck him, because apparently girls who fuck him go into the discard pile."
"Did he say that?" Again, fury laced his quiet question.
"Not in so many words. He said he doesn't sleep with his female friends. He's got issues with women wanting more than a good time in the sack, so he keeps the women he bangs and the women he hangs out with in two separate camps." I took another sip of my coffee. "I warned him that sort of setup wasn't going to work for me and he said he'd make some adjustments, but I guess he's one of those guys who'll say whatever's necessary to get what he wants."
"Or else you have him running scared."
I glared. "Don't make excuses for him. Whose side are you on, anyway?"
"Yours, baby girl." He reached out and patted my knee. "Always yours."
I wrapped my hand around his muscular forearm and stroked my fingers gently along the underside in silent gratitude. I couldn't feel the multitude of fine white scars from cutting that marred his skin, but I never forgot they were there. I was thankful every day that he was alive, healthy, and a vital part of my life. "How'd your night go?"
"I can't complain." His eyes took on a mischievous glint. "I shagged that busty blonde in a maintenance closet. Her tits were real."
"Well, then." I smiled. "You made her night, I'm sure."
"I try." He picked up the phone receiver and winked at me. "What kind of delivery do you want? Subs? Chinese? Indian?"
"I'm not hungry."
"You're always hungry. If you don't pick something, I'll cook and you'll have to eat that."
I lifted my hand in surrender. "Okay, okay. You pick."
I got to work twenty minutes early on Monday, figuring I'd skip running into Gideon. When I reached my desk without incident, I felt such relief that I knew I was in serious trouble where he was concerned. My moods were shifting all over the place.
Mark arrived in high spirits, still floating from his major successes of the week before, and we dug right into work. I'd done some vodka market comparisons on Sunday and he was kind enough to go over those with me and listen to my impressions. Mark was also assigned the account for a new e-reader manufacturer, so we began the initial work on that.
With such a busy morning, time flew swiftly and I didn't have time to think about my personal life. I was really grateful for that. Then I answered the phone and heard Gideon on the line. I wasn't prepared.
"How's your Monday been so far?" he asked, his voice sending a shiver of awareness through me.
"Hectic." I glanced at the clock and was startled to see it was twenty minutes to noon.
"Good." There was a pause. "I tried calling you yesterday. I left a couple messages. I wanted to hear your voice."
My eyes closed on a deep breath. It had taken every bit of my willpower to make it through the day without listening to the voice mail. I'd even enlisted Cary in the cause, telling him to restrain me forcibly if it looked like I might succumb to the urge. "I did the hermit thing and worked a little."
"Did you get the flowers I sent?"
"Yes. They're lovely. Thank you."
"They reminded me of your dress."
What the hell was he doing? I was beginning to think he had multiple personality disorder. "Some women might say that's romantic."
"I only care what you say." His chair creaked as if he'd pushed to his feet. "I thought about stopping by...I wanted to."
I sighed, surrendering to my confusion. "I'm glad you didn't."
There was another long pause. "I deserved that."
"I didn't say it to be a bitch. It's just the truth."
"I know. Listen...I arranged for lunch up here in my office so we don't waste any of the hour leaving and getting back."
After his parting, I'll call you, I'd wondered if he would want to get together again after he settled down from whatever trip he'd been on. It was a possibility I'd been dreading since Saturday night, aware that I needed to cut him off, but feeling strung out from the desire to be with him. I wanted to experience again that pure, perfect moment of intimacy we'd shared.
But I couldn't justify that one moment against all the other moments when he made me feel like crap.
"Gideon, we don't have any reason to have lunch together. We hashed things out Friday night, and we...took care of business Saturday. Let's just leave it at that."
"Eva." His voice turned gruff. "I know I fucked up. Let me explain."
"You don't have to. It's okay."
"It's not. I need to see you."
"I don't want - "
"We can do this the easy way, Eva. Or you can make it difficult." His tone took on a hard edge that made my pulse quicken. "Either way, you'll hear me out."
I closed my eyes, understanding that I wasn't lucky enough to get away with a quick good-bye phone chat. "Fine. I'll come up."
"Thank you." He exhaled audibly. "I can't wait to see you."
I returned the receiver to its cradle and stared at the photos on my desk, trying to formulate what I needed to say and steeling myself for the impact of seeing Gideon again. The ferocity of my physical response to him was impossible to control. Somehow I'd have to get past it and take care of business. Later, I'd think about having to see him in the building over the days, weeks, and months ahead. For the moment, I just had to focus on making it through lunch.
Yielding to the inevitable, I got back to work comparing the visual impact of some blow-in card samples.
I jumped and spun around in my chair, startled to find Gideon standing beside my cubicle. The sight of him blew me away, as usual, and my heart stuttered in my chest. A quick glance at the clock proved that a quarter hour had passed in no time at all.
"Gid - Mr. Cross. You didn't have to come down here."
His face was calm and impassive, but his eyes were stormy and hot. "Ready?"
I opened my drawer and pulled out my purse, taking the opportunity to suck in a deep, shaky breath. He smelled phenomenal and looked even better.
"Mr. Cross." Mark's voice. "It's great to see you. Is there something - ?"
"I'm here for Eva. We have a lunch date."
I straightened in time to see Mark's brows shoot up. He recovered quickly, his face smoothing into its usual good-natured handsomeness.
"I'll be back at one," I assured him.
"See you then. Enjoy your lunch."
Gideon put his hand at the small of my back and steered me out to the elevators, garnering raised brows from Megumi when we passed reception. I shifted restlessly as he hit the call button for the elevator, wishing I could've made it through the day without seeing the man whose touch I craved like a drug.
He faced me as we waited for the car, running his fingertips down the sleeve of my satin blouse. "Every time I close my eyes, I see you in that red dress. I hear the sounds you make when you're turned on. I feel you sliding over my cock, squeezing me like a fist, making me come so hard it hurts."
"Don't." I looked away, unable to bear the intimate way he was looking at me.
"I can't help it."
The arrival of the elevator was a relief. He caught my hand and pulled me inside. After he put his key in the panel, he tugged me closer. "I'm going to kiss you, Eva."
"I don't - "
He pulled me into him and sealed his mouth over mine. I resisted as long as I could; then I melted at the feel of his tongue stroking slow and sweet over mine. I'd wanted his kiss since we'd had sex. I wanted the reassurance that he valued what we'd shared, that it meant something to him as it had to me.
I was left bereft once again when he pulled away.
"Come on." He pulled the key out as the door opened.
Gideon's redheaded receptionist said nothing this time, although she eyed me strangely. In contrast, Gideon's secretary, Scott, stood when we approached and greeted me pleasantly by name.
"Good afternoon, Miss Tramell."
Gideon gave him a curt nod. "Hold my calls."
"Yes, of course."
I entered Gideon's expansive office, my gaze drifting to the sofa where he'd first touched me intimately.
Lunch was arranged on the bar - two plates covered in metal salvers.
"Can I take your purse?" he asked.
I looked at him, saw he'd taken off his jacket and slung it over his arm. He stood there in his tailored slacks and vest, his shirt and tie both a pristine white, his hair dark and thick around his breathtaking face, his eyes a wild and dazzling blue. In a word, he amazed me. I couldn't believe I'd made love to such a gorgeous man.
But then, it hadn't meant the same thing to him.
"You're beautiful, Gideon." The words fell out of my mouth without conscious thought.
His brows lifted; then a softness came into his eyes. "I'm glad you like what you see."
I handed him my purse and moved away, needing the space. He hung his coat and my purse on the coatrack, then moved to the bar.
I crossed my arms. "Let's just get this over with. I don't want to see you anymore."