Alex Grayson leaned back against the bar and watched Ella Clark make her way across the ballroom floor. For the last eight years he’d managed to steer clear of any social situations where he’d encounter her, but unfortunately his brother Jackson’s wedding wasn’t one he could ditch.
His avoidance tactics had nothing to do with not wanting to see her outside of work. It was because he wanted her too damn much. He slammed down the lust with the same ruthless determination he used in all areas of his life. Except this time it didn’t work—because yesterday she’d handed in her resignation, and he couldn’t wrap his mind around it.
She can’t be serious. He’d had no chance to talk to her about it, as she’d waited until the end of the day before giving him a formal letter.
A fucking letter…
He watched as she wound her arms around the neck of a guy the size of a gorilla. He took a long swallow from his beer and clenched his fist. Yesterday he could’ve just about handled it, but today, knowing she wanted out of Grayson’s, it was almost impossible.
Don’t think about holding her. He shoved the image into the black corner of his mind, where all thoughts of her had stayed, safe and untouched, for the last eight years.
Since that night when she’d been sweet sixteen. When it smashed into him he didn’t look on her as a little sister at all. Anything but.
She’d shocked the shit out of him by flinging her arms around his neck and kissing him like she wanted to eat him alive. Even now he could still remember the white-hot lust that had burned through him—and the fear that if he didn’t get the hell away from her he’d break her, the way he was broken.
Except he’d never been able to get away from Ella. She was friends with both of his brothers, and his gran looked on her as the granddaughter she’d never had. For three years he’d tried to avoid being alone with her, but she was always on the fringes of his life. And when she turned nineteen he’d given that plan up as a lost cause.
Five years ago when he’d set up Grayson’s, his bodyguard and security business, she was the only one he wanted to help keep their shit straight. Because despite how much he wanted her, she was family, even if she wasn’t related by blood, and Grayson’s was all about keeping his family together.
Keeping his family safe.
The gorilla grabbed her ass. She giggled. Alex turned his back and set his bottle on the under lit bar. Let it go.
The music thumped through his head. His kid brother Cooper strolled into the ballroom, his girlfriend Paris wrapped around him.
He’d always thought his brother would end up with Ella. Hell, Cooper and Ella should be together. Because if she married Cooper she really would be his sister. Mission accomplished. He’d no longer be haunted by visions of her on her knees before him.
He slowly turned around. Dozens of couples filled the dance floor but he only saw Ella with her spiky rainbow colored hair…and that gorilla who couldn’t keep his hands to himself. Alex knew who he was. Some dumbass who thought fame gave him the right to take whatever he wanted.
She could take care of herself. If she didn’t want the creep mauling her, he’d be doubled up in pain at her feet.
It didn’t improve his mood.
Fuck this. He needed to sort this out. Persuade her not to resign. He pushed himself from the bar and prowled toward her. “Hey.” He grasped the guy’s shoulder. “Mind if I cut in.”
It wasn’t a question.
“I do mind.” The jerk turned toward him. “Go find your own chick, asshole.”
He increased the pressure on the guy’s shoulder. “I don’t want any trouble.”
The guy glared at him for a second and then appeared to reconsider. He shrugged off his hand and turned to Ella. “Do you want a drink?”
“Sure.” She favored the creep with a smile that promised a lot more than just another dance, and then watched him walk away before she turned to Alex.
“I thought you’d gone home,” she said.
“I’m your ride, remember?” Not in this lifetime.
“Huh.” She pursed her multi-colored painted lips. Her purple nose ring glittered under the light of the birdcage chandeliers. “I think I can manage to get my own rides.”
“And that’s the best you can do?”
She laughed. “He’s Brock Wilkins the football star. Why would I say no to that?”
He could think of a dozen reasons. The guy was a jerk on and off the field. He also happened to be related to the bride. You’ll just be a notch on his bedpost. That comment would go down well, considering what she thought of his own sex life.
Walk away. While I still can. Except he couldn’t. He needed to talk to her.
Yeah, because talking business at J’s wedding makes complete sense.
Ella had a crazy sense of humor. Maybe her resignation was one of her insane practical jokes. “I don’t want to discuss Wilkins.”
“What do you want to discuss, then?”
“You ran off before I could talk to you yesterday.” And she hadn’t answered her cell when he’d tried to contact her. All she’d done was leave him a text last night, letting him know he didn’t need to pick her up today.
“I didn’t run off.” There was an edge in her voice. “I was late leaving work, not that you’d ever notice.”
Was she pissed that she often worked late? Was that what this was all about?
“Of course I notice. I’m sorry if you haven’t felt like I appreciate everything you do. I know it’s been crazy busy the last couple of months, taking on new guys.”
“That’s not what I mean. I don’t mind the mad hours. I just—well, I thought it’d be better if I wasn’t around, that’s all.”
“Look, if it’s about that raise we talked about in the summer—”
“Of course it’s not about the raise.”
“We said we’d renegotiate in the fall.” She knew better than anyone the state of their finances. Back in the summer she’d been the one to tell him they’d look at her salary scale in the fall. And it was only the end of October. It wasn’t like he’d forgotten about it.
“It’s got nothing to do with money. I just…I need to move on, Alex. That’s all.”
There was something she wasn’t telling him. Had to be. Maybe her mom’s constant demands had forced her to take a job with reduced hours.
Why hadn’t she told him? They could work around that. “Is there a problem I should know about? Is your mom okay?”
“Of course she’s okay. This decision’s got nothing to do with her.”
Well, hell. He was still racking his brains for a possible reason when Wilkins swaggered over.
“Here, sweet cheeks,” he said, offering her a massive red cocktail with orange slices. “Sex on the Beach, as requested.”
In your dreams, asshole.
She glanced at the drink as though she didn’t know what to do with it. “Thanks.” She didn’t sound that keen to pick up from where Alex had interrupted the two of them. She didn’t take the drink, either.
“Do yourself a favor.” He didn’t raise his voice but he still managed to wipe the leer from Wilkins’ face. “Move on.”
Wilkins looked at her. She shrugged. “Sorry. Alex is an old friend. I promised him a dance. Catch you later?”
Wilkins grunted something unintelligible and left them to it.
Alex is an old friend. Her careless remark hammered through his mind. Sure, he knew that’s all he was to her. Her teen crush on him had died the night she’d kissed him. She looked on him as an older brother, the same way she did Jackson and Cooper. Any other vibes from her over the years were nothing more than his own frustration giving him the bird.
She gave him a challenging look. “Well?” It was a clear dare.
“I don’t dance.” Just pull her into your arms already.
“Yes, you do. I saw you with the chief bridesmaid earlier.”
“That was a duty dance.” The bride’s best friend Harley had barely said two words to him. It wasn’t because she thought she was too good to socialize with him. He’d watched her flirt and laugh with both his brothers and plenty of Jackson’s friends.
No. It was him. She’d taken one look in his eyes and seen the darkness inside. For a minute there he’d thought she was going to keel over. At least he never had to worry about Ella doing anything freaky like that. She knew exactly how screwed up he was.
No she doesn’t…
“Not your type?” She sighed dramatically. “Too sweet?”
“Way too sweet.” He fought the need to wrap her in his arms and bury his face in her hair. Her scent was driving him crazy. “Too much sugar puts my teeth on edge.”
“Poor Alex.” Her trademark note of mockery was back. “You really should get laid at your brother’s wedding. You need to look harder.”
He didn’t need to look at all. The woman he wanted was right here. And he’d sooner cut off his hand than drag Ella into his fucked up life.
So why the hell was he doing this with her now?
You know why. Because you don’t want her to leave.
They could talk about her career on Monday. Except they weren’t even talking about her future plans anymore so screw that as an excuse.
“There’s no one here for me.”
Her smile turned brittle. “Picky bastard, aren’t you?”
He laughed. There weren’t many people who’d tell him that to his face. Come to think of it, apart from his brothers, she was the only one who’d dare.
She’d never cared about pissing him off. Not even when she’d been a pain in the ass kid of ten. Cooper and Ella used to follow him around like a shadow. Not cool for a boy of fourteen.
Two years later he would’ve done anything to go back to those days.
“Yeah.” He stared into her hazel eyes. She had the prettiest eyes he’d ever seen. “I know what I like. It makes life easier.”
“Dance with me, then. I’ll save you from all the desperate women here trying to get a piece of you. Or I guess I could always go find Brock, instead.”
Something about her taunt pressed all his buttons. Before he could stop himself he pulled her toward him and slid his other hand around her waist. It had been eight years since they’d been this close.
Right now, it seemed like only yesterday.
Even in the fuck-me-now heels she was wearing, she only reached his shoulder. She didn’t wind her arms around his neck the way she had with Wilkins, or plaster her body against him in silent invitation. She just palmed his biceps as though she wasn’t sure to follow through on her dare or push him away.
For Christ’s sake push me away. But she didn’t, and it felt too damn good to end things yet.
It’s just a dance.
Holy shit. Alex was dancing with her. Was the world about to come to a screeching end?
Stop gaping at him like a fish. She managed to give him the sardonic look she’d perfected by the age of sixteen—the mask she’d hidden behind when Alex had almost broken his neck trying to get away from her after that kiss they’d shared in a shitty back alley.
She’d gate crashed the party looking for him, then she’d gotten drunk for courage before cornering him.
He left the party, dragging her with him, and taken her home like she was his naughty kid sister.
He’d then spent the night with the cousin of one of her best friends.
Oh yeah. She knew what he liked all right. He liked it dirty and rough and with strictly no strings.
Handcuffs, yes. Strings, no.
She refused to grip his biceps the way she wanted to. Stop over-thinking it. Just do it. She might never get another chance to be in his arms.
Except he was holding her as though she really were his sister. There was no up close and personal. No sizzling glances from those beautiful brown eyes of his, no possessive slide of his hand over her ass.
He was her first crush when she’d been twelve. Her first kiss at sixteen. But everything else was all in her mind. They’d worked together for five years, and in spite of all the clues she dropped, not once had he ever guessed how she really felt about him.
All the preparations for Jackson and Scarlett’s wedding really hammered it home. Did she want to spend forever wanting a man who only saw her as his sister? Or was she going to finally break away? It was the reason she’d applied for a new job. No way could she get over him when she saw him most days at work.
Tonight was supposed to be the beginning of the rest of her life. A life without Alex in it. And he was breaking the unspoken no touching rule they’d lived by for the last eight years.
Why the hell is he dancing with me? He usually avoided bodily contact as though she might electrocute him or something.
What would you do if I kissed you right here, right now?
Would he kiss her back or run a mile? She didn’t want to find out.
“I think you’re safe now.” She pretended to glance around the regal ballroom with its floor-to-ceiling gleaming mirrors and intricate gilded trelliswork ceiling. “I’ve scared off all the other women.”
“I can scare off women without your help.”
“If they scare that easily, they’re not worth your time.” While most of her friends thought he was hot, they also believed he was kind of menacing. She guessed she couldn’t see it because she’d known him all her life.
“I don’t waste my time on women who can’t handle what I offer.” He gave a half smile and tugged her closer. The hell he did. Her imagination was in top form tonight. He’s only doing this to keep Brock away. He’d never liked any of the boys she dated growing up—because none of them had been Cooper.
“Wow. Last of the great romantics, you are.”
“Women don’t want me for a great romance.”
I do. She ignored that tragic thought and smiled up at him. “They just want you for great sex, huh.”
He rubbed his jaw across the top of her head. With anyone else she’d think they were doing it to breathe in the scent of her hair. But this was Alex. He didn’t do things like that. Not with her.
“You’d have to ask them about that. I wouldn’t want to brag.”
She laughed, even though a part of her wanted to hit him. “You just did.”
He smiled and for a fleeting moment looked younger than his twenty-eight years. It didn’t happen often. He was the eldest brother and took his responsibilities seriously. She stifled a sigh. I wish I could make you forget the past and just have fun for once.
She’d been trying to break through his walls for years. It was never going to happen. They could laugh together, and he’d do anything for her, but that’s as far as it ever went. Until tonight. Because it wasn’t her imagination. He had pulled her closer. His subtle cologne filled her head with forest scents and ocean spray, leaving her dizzy.
Surely it’s got nothing to do with me handing in my notice?
She stumbled on her insane heels, and his grip around her tightened. No mistaking it that time. All I needed to do was try and break my stupid ankle.
“You okay?” He tilted his head and frowned down at her.
Freaking wonderful. If he let go of her she’d fall at his feet. She was over trying to get him to notice her as an available woman. She was only hyperventilating because she was plastered against his hard muscled body in a way she’d only ever done in her dreams before.
No shit, Sherlock.
“I’m fine. Too much champagne, probably.” Yeah, right.
“You want to sit down?” He didn’t loosen his hold on her though. Interesting…
No, it wasn’t interesting. It was just him being all concerned and brotherly. If it were anything else, she’d feel it. And there was absolutely nothing going on between Alex Grayson’s legs.
“Hell no.” She slapped on the fake smile she’d shown the world since she was fourteen, when the bullies at school had turned on her when she’d cut off all her hair. Don’t fuck with me, assholes. It was easier not to care what jerks said when she could hide behind her war paint.
“These shoes were made for dancing, not propping up a bar stool.”
“Those shoes were made for something,” Alex said. “And it sure as hell isn’t dancing.”
Her heel wobbled dangerously, and she clutched his arms before she made a complete idiot of herself. If any other man had said that to her, she’d take it as a total come on.
His gaze was intense, all dark and smoky. Her heart slammed against her ribs, and the pit of her stomach fluttered. This is Alex. He definitely wasn’t hitting on her.
Yes, he is.
Her mouth went dry.
“What were they made for?” Her voice was husky. Don’t let me be wrong.
He leaned in close until his jaw brushed her cheek. Holy hell. This was better than any of her midnight fantasies.
“You don’t want to know, Ella.”
She slid her hands up his powerful arms and linked her fingers around the back of his neck. It was the closest they’d been since that fateful night when she’d been sixteen.
His cock stirred, hot and hard against her stomach. Well, hello stranger. She smothered the nervous giggle that bubbled in her chest. Alex Grayson didn’t look on her as his little sister after all.
Without releasing her, he led her off the dance floor. How had they ended up this side of the ballroom? They were right by the magnificent French doors with their sweeping crimson and gold velvet drapes that looked like something from a palace, and he pulled her outside onto the terrace.
Roses covered the wrought iron railings that surrounded the terrace, and their heady perfume drifted in the warm fall breeze. He still didn’t let her go or answer her dare but led her further away from the other guests until they were alone in their own moonlit world.
“Thought you weren’t a romantic.” She gazed up at him. The full moon cast a silvery glow across the lake, and he towered over her, dark and brooding. Her breath caught in her throat, and she ran her palm over his military cropped hair.
Feels so much sexier than I imagined. And she’d imagined a lot over the last few years.
He gripped her wrist and pulled her hand from his head. “I’m not.”
She flexed her fingers. His grip wasn’t light, but damn it felt good. “Neither am I.”
He backed her up against the brick wall and pinned her hand above her head. Yes…
“You deserve romance. Someone who’ll see you for who you really are.”
“Like you?’ She arched her back, and he didn’t retreat.
“No. I don’t do forever.”
“Who the hell’s talking about forever?” She knew he didn’t do long term. Just one night would be enough.
Didn’t matter. She’d finally given up on her teenage dream of happily ever after with Alex.
So why did it still sting when he threw the idea of forever in her face?
She dug the fingers of her free hand into his shoulder, and in a lightning fast reaction he imprisoned both of her wrists in one strong hand. The wall grazed her knuckles, but she didn’t care about that.
Does he want me or not?
He didn’t crush her against the wall with his body, but he was so close his heat enveloped her. Her nipples ached and her panties were wet.
Why couldn’t he just kiss her already?
“I’m not going to ruin what we have for one night of sex.”
Clouds distorted the moon, and the wind turned cold. One night of sex. That’s all he’d want from her. Why did it hurt, when she knew all along that was the most she could expect?
It took a couple of seconds before the rest of his comment fell into place. He might not look on her as his sister, but he sure as hell didn’t want her enough to risk their friendship. Why does he always have to be so fucking careful? She dredged up her faithful sardonic smile and focused on his nose so she didn’t have to look him in the eye.
“You don’t know what you’re missing, hon.”