Book: Release Me



Release Me



Titles by Ann Marie Walker & Amy K. Rogers

Chasing Fire Trilogy

Remind Me

Release Me







Release Me











Ann Marie Walker & Amy K. Rogers

InterMix Books, New York

Release Me

AN IMPRINT OF PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE LLC

375 HUDSON STREET, NEW YORK, NEW YORK 10014

RELEASE ME

An InterMix Book / published by arrangement with the author

Copyright © 2015 by Ann Marie Walker and Amy K. Rogers.

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

INTERMIX and the “IM” design are trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

For more information about the Penguin Group, visit penguin.com.

eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-19477-9

PUBLISHING HISTORY

InterMix eBook edition / July 2015

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

____________________________________

Penguin Random House is committed to publishing works of quality and integrity. In that spirit, we are proud to offer this book to our readers; however, the story, the experiences, and the words are the author’s alone.

Release Me

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ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

When we started writing this book it had already been sold. Some agents might have felt their work was done, but not Pamela Harty. She not only got the ball rolling, but her support and encouragement throughout the process kept us sane. Pamela, it has been a privilege to call you our agent, but even more so to call you friend.

To our editor, Leis Pederson, we will never stop thanking our lucky stars that something about our writing made you pick up the phone. Without you, Hudson and Allie’s story would exist only on the pages of Google docs, and for that we will be forever grateful. To Erin Galloway and Ryanne Probst, thank you for helping us introduce Hudson Chase. You both are a wealth of knowledge and your mad skills have been invaluable!

To our amazing street team: Jill Cahr, Lori Schricker, Margaret Fahey, Michelle Fields, Megan Schopp, Natalie Shaw, Sarah Blair, Sarah Gutchall, Tracey Wess, Colleen O’Brien, Eunice Jaquez, Julie Stroop, Misty Villanueva, and Michelle Kirn. Thank you for not only agreeing to be our early readers but for cheering us on and making us believe someone might actually like our little story. To Kaylee Simonetti, there is a special place in heaven for someone pimping books while in the ER. You are certifiable and we couldn’t love you more! And for Maggie Roache, thank you for being our grammar guru and for always knowing the perfect Taylor Swift or Beyonce song to pull us through.

To the book bloggers who devoted their time to reading and reviewing our work, you are the reason so many have welcomed Hudson Chase into the ranks of their beloved book boyfriends. We would be nothing without your unwavering support. Forget buying you a cocktail, we need to throw a rager.

And last but not least, to the readers, thank you for taking a chance on us. You spent your hard earned money on a pair of debut authors and we couldn’t be happier to have you along for the ride. The tweets and Facebook messages you have sent literally from around the world never fail to humble and touch us. Thank you for sticking with us . . . we hope to do you and Hudson proud.














To David Gandy, for your continued inspiration and well wishes, we are eternally grateful.











CONTENTS

Titles by Ann Marie Walker & Amy K. Rogers

Title Page

Copyright

Acknowledgements

Dedication

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter Twenty-three

Chapter Twenty-four

Chapter Twenty-five

Chapter Twenty-six

Chapter Twenty-seven

Chapter Twenty-eight

Chapter Twenty-nine

Chapter Thirty

About the Author








Chapter One







Allie tried her best to ignore the blue flashing lights in her parents’ driveway. But from her seat in the living room she had a clear view of the brick-paved courtyard just beyond the front door. And she knew that just beyond the courtyard’s limestone fountain stood a row of uniformed officers forming a human barrier along yellow tape. And beyond that tape stood a crowd of reporters with cameras and microphones, all jockeying for a better position among the curious who had gathered at the gates.

Instead she focused her attention on the detective standing in front of her. The middle-aged woman wore clothes more suited for a man and her hair was pulled back in a tight bun. Yet despite her hard-as-nails appearance, there was an undeniable kindness in her eyes when she told Allie it was time to take her statement.

Allie nodded but didn’t speak. She hadn’t said more than a handful of words since placing the call to 911.

The detective stood and reached inside her jacket for a small notebook. Her movements revealed the badge she wore clipped to her waist and the gun she kept holstered at her side.

Allie’s eyes drifted shut and her mind filled with images of gunshot wounds and blood.

So much blood. . . .

“Alessandra.”

She opened her eyes to find Benjamin Weiss, general counsel for Ingram Media, making his way through the foyer. As always, he was impeccably groomed in a dark suit and tie with a perfectly folded handkerchief peeking out of the breast pocket. Only this time his tie was askew and a thin sheen of sweat covered his forehead.

“My apologies,” he said, out of breath. “I came as soon as I heard, but the roads are clogged with news vans.”

As soon as he heard? Allie had no idea who had called Mr. Weiss, but she was glad to have him at her side. Benjamin Weiss was more than just the family’s attorney; he had also been her father’s best friend.

A few quiet words were spoken between Mr. Weiss and Detective Green, and then she was ready to begin. She sat on the coffee table across from Allie and uncapped her pen. “Walk me through what happened after you pulled in the driveway,” she instructed. Her tone was all business; just another day at the office for a homicide detective.

Allie tried to speak but her words came out on a strangled sob.

Mr. Weiss placed his hand on her shoulder. “Would you like some water?” he asked, glancing toward the kitchen and paling as his gaze fell on the scene unfolding in the dining room.

Don’t look.

Allie kept her stare trained on the detective’s pen as she answered Mr. Weiss. “I’m fine.” There wasn’t a person in Chicago who would’ve believed that statement, but a bottle of water wasn’t going to make things any better. And with the way her stomach felt, she doubted she’d be able to keep it down anyway.

“Just take it slow,” Detective Green said.

Allie drew a shaky breath and began to retell the events of the past few hours. “I knew something wasn’t right as soon as I opened the front door.”

“How so?” the detective asked.

“The alarm didn’t make any noise.”

“You mean it wasn’t armed?”

Allie shook her head. “No, I mean it wasn’t working. Even if it’s unarmed, the system still chimes to announce when a door or window has been opened.”

Detective Green scribbled a few notes on the small pad of paper in her hand. “What happened after you came in the house?”

“I could see the light was on in my dad’s study, so I headed that way first.”

Tears clouded Allie’s eyes as she looked across the expanse of the paneled living room to the hallway just to the right of the front door. Her throat tightened as she thought back to how confident she’d felt striding down that hall. For as long as Allie could remember, every aspect of her life had been dictated by what was best for the family legacy. But this time her parents had taken it too far. Going behind her back to arrange a marriage that was nothing more than a business transaction was the last straw. She was done playing the role of the dutiful daughter and she’d planned to tell them so in no uncertain terms.

But when she’d reached the door . . .

“And that’s when you discovered the body?”

“Yes,” she whispered, recalling the image of her father’s lifeless body slumped over his desk. Her gaze shifted to the Kleenex she held clutched in her hand. It had been twisted into something more closely resembling twine than tissue.

“Is your father normally home during the day?”

A few months ago Allie could have answered without a doubt. Her father would have never been home in the middle of the day. But lately he’d been scaling back, letting Julian lead some of the day-to-day meetings as he prepared to take the helm after their wedding.

Julian.

Just thinking about her former fiancé sent a chill down her spine. Her finger touched the remnants of the black eye he’d given her the week before. She’d done her best to cover the shadow of a bruise with concealer, but the makeup had surely been washed away with tears by now.

“Miss Sinclair?” Detective Green prodded.

“Oh, um, no. Usually it’s just my mother and the housekeeper.” Allie gasped.

“She’s fine,” Detective Green assured her. “She was out running errands until just a short while ago.”

“I assume you’re taking her statement as well?” Mr. Weiss asked.

The detective nodded. “We’ll need confirmation from the medical examiner, but it looks like this all took place shortly after she left. If that’s the case, the perpetrators may have waited for her to leave, assuming no one else was in the house.”

A flash came from the dining room, and without thinking, Allie turned toward it. Flash. A photographer stood with his back to her, his camera pointed at the mirrored wall. Allie watched his reflection as he focused his lens on the blood splattered across the wall right behind the spot where her mother had last stood. Flash. He stepped closer, his lens telescoping, and she knew he was capturing details of the images she’d seen when she’d first stumbled into the room—blood and gray matter mixed with shards of mirror and bone. Flash. A moment later he squatted beside the blood that had pooled on the Aubusson rug, photographing her mother’s face, her eyes open and frozen in fear.

Allie tasted bile in the back of her throat, and for a moment she thought she might throw up. This was not her life. This was some horrible dream, the result of watching one too many police procedural shows. It had to be.

“Why are they doing that?” she whispered, not really meaning to say the words out loud.

Detective Green looked up from her notebook. “Doing what?”

“Why are they bagging her hands?”

The detective’s eyes darted to Mr. Weiss, then back to Allie. She hesitated for a moment, but when she answered her voice was level. “To preserve any physical evidence that may have resulted from a struggle.”

A commotion by the front door drew Allie’s attention. Two men in black jackets wheeled a gurney across the marble floor. CORONER was printed in white lettering across their backs, and when they turned toward the library she could see a long black bag stretched the length of the bed.

Oh, God . . .

An involuntary sob escaped her lips at the thought of her father being zipped into a vinyl bag.

Mr. Weiss offered her his handkerchief and she took it.

“If you don’t mind, I’d like to get Miss Sinclair home,” he said, his voice tight. “She’s been through quite an ordeal.”

Detective Green regarded Allie for a moment, then stood and smoothed the wrinkles from her wool pants. “I’ll need to take a more detailed statement in the morning.” She held out her business card. “But in the meantime, if you think of anything else.”

Mr. Weiss took the card. “Thank you, Detective.” Before she walked away, he assured her his office would call to set up an appointment.

“I’ve arranged for a car to drive you home,” he told Allie once they were alone. “And for private security to be stationed at your brownstone tonight.”

Her eyes grew wide.

“Just as a precaution,” he quickly added. “Right now the police think this was nothing more than a home invasion gone wrong, but I’m not taking any chances with your safety.”

Allie nodded.

“Is there someone I can call for you?”

Hudson.

His was the first name that came to mind, just as it had repeatedly for the past few hours. She needed him now more than ever. Needed the strength of his arms around her, holding her up when she felt too weak to stand.

But she wouldn’t let herself call him. She couldn’t. Not after the way he’d deceived her. She had to keep moving forward. No looking back.

Hudson Chase was out of her life. For good this time.

“I’ll call my friend Harper,” Allie said.

“She’s not a redhead by any chance, is she?”

“Yes, why?”

“She saved you the trouble of a call.” He smiled weakly. “She’s been raising hell at the barricades for the past hour.”

Yep, that would be Harper. “Would you mind bringing her around back to the garage and having the car meet us there? I really don’t want to deal with the crowds out front.”

“Of course. And I’ll see that both your cars are returned to the city in the morning.”

Allie stood. “Thank you for . . .” Her voice trailed off. She knew she’d never get through the rest of that sentence.

His eyes crinkled and he gave a quick nod. “There is one more item we need to discuss before you go.”

“Can it wait until tomorrow?”

“I’m afraid not. Although I imagine some of the press corps will leave once they realize you’re no longer in the house, a few will remain until a statement is released. I can have the PR department draft something from the company as a whole, or you can certainly write your own if you’d prefer. There’s also the matter of an internal memo to your employees, but we can address that tomorrow.”

“My employees?” What in the world is he talking about?

He met her confused expression with one of his own. After a moment the crease in his brow relaxed. “Forgive me, I thought you realized.” His voice was soothing yet firm. “As you know, your mother and father were both heavily invested in Ingram.”

This wasn’t news. In fact, for decades the company her maternal grandfather built from the ground up had been privately owned. It wasn’t until a rough patch in the late seventies that her father had been forced to take the company public, but even then the family had retained controlling interest.

“As the sole heir to their estate, those shares are now yours. Alessandra, you are the new majority shareholder of Ingram Media.”

Allie rubbed her forehead. She hadn’t even considered the effect her parents’ death would have on the family business, let alone what role she’d play. Hundreds of questions raced through her mind, but the pounding in her head was making it hard to focus.

“I’m sorry. I know you’re tired. We can hold off on everything else until tomorrow and just release a statement from the company tonight. I’ll have the PR team draft something, and if you prefer I can run it by Mr. Chase.”

Allie’s head snapped up. Hudson? Why in the hell would he run it past him? She realized the answer just as Mr. Weiss began to explain.

“Over the past few months there have been various investment groups quietly purchasing shares of Ingram. It wasn’t until recently that we realized these purchases were on behalf of one individual.

“How this will impact day-to-day operations remains to be seen. A fair amount of shares are still held in smaller quantities by numerous individuals, but Mr. Chase’s most recent acquisitions make him the second largest shareholder outside of the Sinclair/Ingram estate.” He exhaled a heavy sigh. “We can discuss this more at length after we get through the next few days. I don’t want to overwhelm you right now.”

Too late. “Okay.”

“I’ll go find your friend.” He gave her arm an awkward pat before turning toward the door. A question popped into her mind as she watched him walk away. It seemed ridiculous in light of what was happening all around her, but for some inexplicable reason, she needed to know.

“Mr. Weiss?” she called out before he reached the foyer.

He turned to face her. “Yes?”

Allie took a deep breath. Maybe it wouldn’t be too bad. Maybe she could limit their interaction. “What’s the margin?”

“Pardon me?”

“The difference in stock percentages, between me and . . .” Her voice caught on his name. She cleared her throat and tried again. “What’s the difference in stock percentages between . . .”

Damn it. Why couldn’t she get the words to come out of her mouth?

“Between you and Mr. Chase?”

She nodded.

“One percent.”

The weight of the day crashed down around her and Allie sank to the couch. On top of everything else, it seemed Hudson Chase was her new business partner.








Chapter Two







Allie barely looked at the two caskets during the morning service at Fourth Presbyterian Church. Instead she kept her attention focused on the pastor as he spoke of eternal life, the organist as she played hymns to accompany the choir, or the specks of dust that drifted across the rainbow of light streaming through the stained glass windows. Anything and everything to avoid facing the reality of why they were there. Even as she stood at the podium to address five hundred strangers, she somehow managed to convince herself it wasn’t real. The two people she eulogized weren’t her parents. They were a businessman and his philanthropic wife, not her and father and mother. Not the only family she had in the world.

But as she sat under a tent in the first row of wooden folding chairs, it was impossible to avoid the two mahogany caskets lying side by side in front of her. The smell from the cascade of lilies draped over the top was almost smothering despite the crisp November breeze. And the sight of them, perched above a discreetly covered but freshly dug grave, was a brutal reminder of her loss. Both her parents were dead, gunned down in their own home by what the police were suspecting was a random act of violence. She knew it was ridiculous to think of herself as an orphan at her age, and yet that’s exactly how she felt. It didn’t matter that she was twenty-seven years old; her parents were gone, and she’d never felt more alone.

Her grief over the past few days had been overwhelming, an almost debilitating sadness woven with a rage that burned deep within her. She suspected it was that rage that kept her moving forward. The idea that each day might bring a new lead was the only thing getting her out of bed when she woke from a fitful sleep filled with gruesome images. But she wasn’t just angry with the shooter, she was angry with her parents. They were gone and now she’d never get the chance to confront them, to tell them she was done living by the unwritten code of the Ingram-Sinclair empire. She’d never have the chance to tell them how angry she was with them for attempting to control her life. How much she hated them for trying to manipulate her into marrying Julian. How hurt she was by the endless stream of lies. Or how no matter what, deep down they were still her parents and she loved them.

Her body shook with a silent sob.

Harper reached for Allie’s hand and squeezed it tight. “Are you okay?” she whispered from beside her.

Allie met her friend’s concerned gaze with watery eyes and gave a small nod. Harper had been a near constant presence in Allie’s life since storming the barricades the night of the murders. She’d insisted Allie stay at her apartment, an offer that proved to be a godsend when their driver reached Astor Place only to find the entire block filled with news vans and satellites. Harper had braved the media frenzy alone, leaving Allie cocooned behind the limo’s tinted glass while she gathered items from the brownstone. And that was only the beginning. Whether sitting beside her as she selected headstones or hovering in the kitchen while she met with detectives, Harper had seen Allie through what had arguably been the worst five days of her life. There was no way Allie could have made it through the ordeal without Harper, and she would be grateful to her for the rest of her life.

The wind shifted and the air crackled with a charge of electricity that swept over Allie’s skin. Her every sense sprang to attention, and instinctively she looked up and to her left. She hadn’t noticed the size of the crowd that had accompanied the two hearses, but as she looked across the cemetery she realized there had to be at least three hundred people seated in and around the white tent. A sense of anticipation coiled in Allie’s stomach as she scanned row after row of faces, searching for the one whose presence she could feel as tangibly as if he were the one sitting beside her holding her hand.

Hudson Chase.

Just the thought of him caused her heart to race. He’d always had this effect on her, from the very first moment she saw him ten years ago. Her friends at the yacht club might have viewed him as nothing more than another townie looking for trouble, but Allie saw past the stereotypical exterior of ripped jeans and a leather jacket. She knew the real Hudson. The one who took her for long walks along the beach. The one who made her laugh so hard she cried. The one whose kisses made her knees go weak.

When she’d turned around to find him standing behind her two months ago, the mere sight of him took her breath away. Even after ten years the connection was still there, so tangible she could almost see it pulse in the air between them. Everything about him called to her on some primal level. From the dark, unruly hair she longed to run her fingers through, to the intensity of his gaze when his blue eyes locked on hers, to the way he held her on the dance floor, her body responding with a longing it knew for no other. He’d felt it too, and despite her engagement had pursued her with an unrelenting passion until she was his, body and soul—and then betrayed her in the worst way possible.

A woman in a wide-brimmed hat shifted in her seat, and Allie’s breath caught. She looked away after only a glimpse of the dark, wavy hair, but she was certain. It was him. Her hands curled into fists in her lap, her fingernails biting into her palm. How dare he show his face here? After everything he’d done to steal her father’s company out from under him, Hudson Chase had the nerve to attend his funeral?

Bagpipes began to play but Allie could barely hear them over the sound of the blood roaring in her ears. Harper reached for her elbow, urging her to her feet as the pastor approached to offer his final condolences. Allie’s knees wobbled as she extended her hand.

“They were wonderful people, Alessandra. Their loss will be felt by the entire congregation.”

A quiet “Thank you” was all she managed in reply.

Harper leaned closer. “Maybe you better sit back down. You look as white as a ghost.”

“No, I need to . . .” Allie looked over Harper’s shoulder just as the man behind the wide-brimmed hat rose to his feet. Her chest tightened.

It wasn’t him.

“You need to what?” Harper asked.

“Nothing,” Allie mumbled. What the hell was wrong with her? Hudson Chase was the last person she should want to see at her parents’ funeral. And yet of all the emotions waging war inside her, there was no denying the fact that at the moment the strongest was . . . disappointment.

A quiet murmur built around her as the mourners began making their way back to their cars. Some lingered, and selfishly Allie hoped they wouldn’t approach. As the new majority stockholder of Ingram Media, she knew there were people she should greet and hands she should shake. But as the only child of the two people about to be buried under six feet of dirt, she wanted nothing more than to be left alone. Actually, despite her feelings of anger and betrayal, in that moment what she truly wanted was nothing more than to have Hudson’s arms around her. To feel the soothing touch of his hands stroking her hair. To hear the rasp of his voice whispering in her ear, telling her everything would be okay, and to know that despite all evidence to the contrary, it would be.

Allie straightened. She had to stop thinking of Hudson as some white knight riding in to save the day. He was a dark knight whose duplicity had hurt her far too deeply to ever let him back into her life.

Elizabeth Prescott waved a gloved hand at her from across the tent. Allie cringed. She was definitely not up to a round of country club small talk with her mother’s friends. She glanced around, and within seconds wide shoulders stepped between Allie and the rest of the mourners.

“The car is ready when you are, Miss Sinclair. Just say the word.”

Allie tried her best to muster a smile. “Thank you, Clayton. I’m ready now.”

He gave a curt nod and whispered discreetly into a microphone barely noticeable at the cuff of his dark suit. Having a bodyguard wasn’t something Allie had ever wanted, but Mr. Weiss had been adamant, insisting the additional security was necessary to ensure her safety during the ongoing police investigation. In the end she’d agreed to the added precaution on a temporary basis. At the time her concession had been more to relieve his worry than hers, but she had to admit Clayton’s shielding presence came in handy at moments like these.

“This way, ma’am.” He gestured toward the rear of the tent.

In the distance Allie could see the black limo waiting at the bottom of the hill. She paused, her hand reaching out to rest on the gleaming wood of her father’s casket, before turning to leave. She and Harper had nearly reached the car when she heard someone call her name.

“Alessandra,” Benjamin Weiss said, hurrying to catch up to her. “A word, please.”

“I’ll wait for you in the car,” Harper said. She slid into the limo and Clayton closed the door behind her before assuming his post a few feet away. Allie knew that behind those dark sunglasses his razor-sharp gaze was scanning the crowd, and that beneath that well-tailored suit a loaded gun was holstered. She tried not to think about why, focusing her attention instead on Mr. Weiss.

“I’m sorry to bring this up now,” he said, “but the board has called for an emergency meeting at Ingram headquarters. I’d hoped to put this off until at least next week, but between your parents’ passing and the revelation of Mr. Chase’s acquisitions . . . Well, I’m sure you can understand their concern.”

Allie nodded. Of course the other board members were concerned. Richard and Victoria Sinclair were gone, and now their daughter, a relative stranger to them, was at the helm alongside a man who’d spent the past few months covertly acquiring a substantial portion of their stock. When he wasn’t fucking her on every available surface, that is. At least the last part wasn’t general knowledge. It was going to be hard enough to face that room with Hudson sitting across the table from her. Thankfully no one on the board knew about their personal involvement.

“When?” she asked.

“Tomorrow morning.” Mr. Weiss gave her a quick rundown of the proposed agenda before ducking into the back of a waiting town car.



Allie pulled her coat closed and crossed her arms over her chest, holding the pieces of herself together as she stared out across the top of the limo at row after row of headstones. When she’d walked out of Hudson’s penthouse two weeks prior, she hadn’t planned on ever seeing him again. Now she had a little less than twenty-four hours to prepare for her first board meeting with him. She had no idea how she would react once they were in the same room, but one thing was certain: she had to keep her distance. And never, under any circumstances, allow herself to be alone with him.








Chapter Three







Worst. Fucking. Day.

Scratch that. Shit days were piled up behind him, so this one was going to have to take a number.

Hudson hooked his finger into the immaculate knot at his throat and gave the expensive noose a sharp tug as he stepped off the elevator and into his penthouse. The silence wasn’t a surprise. In fact, once upon a time, he had infinitely preferred it. But now it was a killer. His loafers pounding against the wood floor were too loud, and as he pulled his tie from around his neck it sounded like sandpaper grating against the fabric of his collar. He thought of the numerous times he’d come home, beat to hell from work, to find music blaring or a fucking video game plastered across the theater screen. Instead, the place was a mausoleum. God, he’d give anything to have that noise polluting his penthouse now. At least it would muffle his thoughts, which at the moment were like loud screams jackknifing through his brain.

He reached for the stool at the breakfast bar and his fingers curled around the edge as he contemplated throwing the thing. He wanted to disturb the silence and emptiness, wanted to punch through the reality of the present and invade the past, altering its course. If he could, his parents would still be alive, Nick wouldn’t be a goddamn junkie, and—his head dropped and he exhaled a sharp breath—he wouldn’t have royally screwed things up with Allie.

Quitting the white knuckle routine on the barstool, Hudson stripped out of his jacket, draped it over the back of the stool, and then tossed his tie on top. As he did, he remembered his phone. He flipped the lapel back and reached into his pocket for his cell, but when he pressed the button to fire up the screen, he found a whole lot of nothing. No messages. No missed calls. What the hell did he expect? It had been two weeks and Allie hadn’t returned a single one of his calls.

He stared at the screen, lit up with a photograph of Allie taken during their trip to Lake Geneva. She was straddling his Harley, beckoning him with a smile, her cheeks still a little flushed from the wine. But instead of that perfect smile all he could picture was how fragile she’d looked sitting in front of two matching caskets, clinging to the redhead seated next to her. The anguish etched in the delicate features of her tear-streaked face had shredded him. And when her shoulders shook with the sobs she was trying to hold in, he knew he should have felt grateful for her friend’s support. Instead he’d envied her purpose. Hudson wanted it to be his arm she gripped. He wanted to be the one she counted on to hold her up as the world as she knew it bottomed out.

He punched the button on the phone, cutting off the self-torture.

Fuck, he needed a drink.

Shoving his phone in the front pocket of his pants, Hudson strode to the Subzero and yanked the door open, only to find it empty of the beer he was craving. Cursing, he snapped it closed and stalked upstairs toward the game room. He didn’t bother turning on the lights. The glow from the glass door fridge behind the bar provided the only light he needed to hit his target. He grabbed a Heineken, cracked it open, and flicked the cap off with his thumb. As he watched it slam dunk into the trash, he suddenly realized where Nick had picked up the nifty little trick.

Hudson flinched at the sound of his phone echoing through the cavernous room. He set the bottle on the bar and dug his cell back out of his pocket.

“Chase,” he answered, not bothering to screen the call.

A gravelly voice came from the other end. “Hey.”

“Nick, hey, how—”

Nick cut off the hi-how-are-ya’s. “Has it been on the news?”

“Couple lines in the Trib, but nothing more.” Hudson wasn’t surprised. Dead drug dealers didn’t make headlines. Nick blew out a relieved breath, but Hudson could still sense the undercurrent of stress. “You’re not to worry about it, clear? I’ve handled it.”

“What do you mean? The cops gotta be looking for me. APB or some shit, right?”

Hudson ran a hand through his hair. “No one is looking for you.”

“How can you be sure? What if someone saw the—”

“Not like this, Nick. Not on the phone.”

“Why? Do you think someone’s listening?”

“No. But I—”

“Holy shit, is your line tapped? Are you being watched?” Hudson could hear the wild panic gaining momentum.

“Jesus Christ, Nick, no. But my presence has already been requested at the police station in regards to the Sinclair murders. I’m not taking any chances.”

Nick snorted. “Yeah, like you’d kill Allie’s parents.”

“They have to rule me out as a suspect and I intend to cooperate.” Anything to keep the police from having a reason to dig too deeply into his life. Looking into the shit buried in his past was like pulling a thread. Yank on one and the whole thing would unravel.

“What if they’re just playin’ you? What if they know something?”

“Like I said, don’t worry about it.” Nick was a first-rate addict and the last thing Hudson wanted was for him to relapse and die by his own hand. Not on his watch. If it took stint after stint at high-priced rehab facilities, so be it. There wasn’t a chance in hell he was going to hit a brick wall when it came to saving his little brother. “Focus on getting yourself clean, understood?”

“I’m clean as a fucking whistle, Hudson. So stop the song and dance bullshit. Level with me.”

“Well, let me switch it to a different tune.” Hudson tightened his grip on the cell phone until he heard the thing squeak. “Sober, Nick. You need to cut the shit with the booze, the drugs, the life you’re living.” His voice grew more powerful with each word. “Goddamn it, I don’t want to bury you next to them.”

Silence stretched out between them, filling the line with white noise.

“It wasn’t your fault.” Nick’s voice came quietly through the phone. He’d been saying the same thing for the past ten years, but the fact was Hudson was wholly responsible. He’d never forgotten his litany of failures, and every time he tried to get some shut-eye a motherfucking slideshow played in his head: Nick being ripped away from him; gruesome images tinted with red; his mother’s cold, lifeless body staring up at him; and finally, Allie in the elevator as the doors slid closed.

He couldn’t lose his brother or suffer through long, dark months of not knowing where Nick was or whether he was alive or dead. Hudson choked back anger laced with fear. “I don’t want to lose you too, Nicky.”

“Not happening, no fucking way. I got a new lease on life, ya know?” Nick chuckled, no doubt to break the tension they both felt, but then dove headfirst into another minefield. “Have you heard from her?”

“No. She won’t return my calls.”

“Did you go to the funeral? Shit’s been all over the news. Even made The View.”

“The View?”

“Yeah, ladies in here dig it, and I’m kinda stuck for the ride. Good thing that one chick has a nice rack.”

“Fuckin’ A, Nick.” Hudson laughed for the first time in two weeks.

“So did you talk to her?”

“No.” Hudson rubbed the back of his neck. “She didn’t even know I was there.”

“Dude, why the fuck not?”

“Wasn’t the right time.”

“Chicken-shit pussy.”

“It’s complicated, Nick.”

“Yeah, what do I know? Hey bro, I gotta run, people waiting in line to use the horn.”

“I’m glad you called.”

“Yeah.” Nick cleared his throat. “Me too. I’ll catch ya later?”

“Sure. Bye, Nick.” Hudson waited until he heard his brother hang up before ending the call, then fisted the beer that was sweating it out on the bar and took a long swig. He glanced around the dimly lit room, from the dartboard to the pool table to the bar and, finally, to the column. That fucking column. Images of her were everywhere. There wasn’t a goddamn place he could look and not be reminded of her. Alessandra Sinclair had not only come back into his life, but had taken up residence in his heart.

And tomorrow he was going to see her.

Hudson took another drink of his beer. There might be a conference table between them at the board meeting, but before the day was over he planned to get her alone in a room. She’d have no choice but to hear him out.

He wasn’t taking no for an answer.








Chapter Four







Allie made sure she was the first to arrive. The emergency board meeting wasn’t scheduled to start for another half hour, but she wanted to give herself plenty of time to get the lay of the land. Of course she’d been in the Ingram Media conference room numerous times over the years, but that had always been to attend events as Richard Sinclair’s daughter, not for an official meeting of the board of directors, and certainly not as their new majority shareholder. Holiday parties and photo ops were a far cry from the proceedings about to take place on the thirtieth floor of the Ingram Building.

She walked the length of the room, her eyes drifting over glossy mahogany. Allie knew she had a lot to prove to the people who would be assembling around that table. As her fingertips trailed along the high back of each leather chair, she found herself picturing the crowd that would be arriving in a matter of minutes. Some were lifelong friends of her father’s, who she suspected would still see her as a little girl in blond curls and frilly dresses. Some were powerful leaders of the city’s most successful businesses, who she feared would view her as grossly unqualified to hold a position she’d only earned through nepotism. And while the former might like the idea of an Ingram remaining on the board, their business savvy would no doubt push them to side with the latter.

But as daunting as it was to imagine facing that audience for the first time, it wasn’t what had her pacing the room.

It was him.

Allie made her way to the windows that looked out across the Michigan Avenue Bridge.

As she watched the Chicago River flow into Lake Michigan, she thought about the last time she’d seen Hudson Chase. It was the morning she’d uncovered the truth about his plan to take control of Ingram Media. She stared unseeingly at the gray horizon and her thoughts began to drift back to that day. Hudson standing in his foyer, a towel slung low around his hips as water dripped onto the hardwood floor. He’d begged her to let him explain, but what explanation could have possibly justified his lies and betrayal? She’d refused to hear him out, and while in her heart she knew it had been the right decision, the look on his face as the elevator doors slid closed that morning had haunted her ever since.

Behind her the conference room door opened with a soft click and the low murmur of voices told her the other board members had begun to filter into the room. But instead of greeting them and engaging in the sort of sympathetic small talk that had consumed the past few days, she remained by the windows, enjoying the last moments of calm before the eventual storm.

There was a sudden flurry of activity outside the meeting room, and instinctively she knew he had arrived. A wave of anxiety rolled through the pit of her stomach, but she took a deep, calming breath. These board meetings, while infrequent, would be inevitable. The sooner she got used to seeing him in this setting, the better.

She turned around, and a moment later Hudson Chase strolled into the boardroom. The hum of quiet conversation ground to a halt and all heads turned as one to assess the corporate raider who’d quietly amassed the second largest percentage of Ingram shares right out from under their noses.

The sight of him nearly took her breath away. Wearing a charcoal suit, white shirt, and silver-gray tie, he looked every bit the powerful, in-control CEO. But Allie knew the passion that burned behind those eyes, and when she looked at his dark, unruly hair, she knew he’d run his fingers through it just before stepping into the room. He moved with measured grace, his muscles flexing beneath his perfectly tailored suit. Allie knew every inch of that body intimately, how it felt beneath her touch, how it moved over her . . . inside her. She knew the man, not the corporate myth. He was the one who she’d fallen for. He was the one who’d broken her heart.

She had meant to look away, to show him nothing more than a passing indifference, and yet she was utterly transfixed as she watched some of the most powerful players in Chicago greet him with a mixture of wary fascination and awe. Even as the outsider, Hudson still commanded the room, offering his hand to some, a curt nod to others. His demeanor was courteous and professional, but there was an air of casual confidence about Hudson that sent a clear message to those in the room. He was a man who got exactly what he wanted.

Well, not this time—not when it came to her.

As if feeling the intensity of her stare, Hudson turned and his gaze met hers. The corner of his mouth lifted in an almost involuntary smile, then quickly faded. Yet despite his sobering expression, there was nothing he could do to hide the intense longing in his blue eyes. Allie felt it hit her like a physical blow, her entire body responding to the sight of him.

Without taking his eyes off her, Hudson murmured something to the gentleman next to him and began making his way toward the windows. Allie’s heart beat faster with his every step, until the sound of the blood roaring in her ears drowned out the rest of the room. Her throat felt dry and tight when she swallowed, and she suddenly wished she’d had the presence of mind to pour herself a glass of water when she’d arrived. Then again, with the way her hands were trembling, she’d have likely spilled most of it on her burgundy dress. In that moment Allie realized she was wearing the same dress she’d worn the first time Hudson kissed her in his office. It seemed more like a lifetime than two months had passed since that first encounter, and yet the desire she felt was undeniable, even now. She fisted her hands at her sides and squared her shoulders. This was it; she just had to get through the awkward pleasantries and then focus on the meeting’s agenda.

Hudson came to a stop directly in front of her. “Allie,” he whispered. His voice was low and rough and washed over her heated skin like a lover’s touch.

“Mr. Chase,” she said, firing the first shot. It was important he understood the terms of their new arrangement right from the start. She felt a surge of satisfaction when her voice remained steady.

Hudson blinked and his expression faltered. He regarded her for a moment and then opened his mouth, but Mr. Weiss appeared at his side before he had the chance to speak.

“I’d like a moment with you both before we begin.” He ushered Allie and Hudson toward the corner of the room, speaking only once they were out of earshot of the rest of the board. “I thought perhaps I should say a few words to begin today’s proceedings. The past few weeks have been stressful in many regards.” He glanced briefly at Hudson before turning his attention back to Allie. “As chairman, your father would normally run the meeting, but . . .”

Mr. Weiss cleared his throat. With all that had transpired over the past few days, Allie hadn’t had much opportunity to think about the toll this had taken on him. He’d been handling everything with his usual calm, efficient manner, but he’d lost his lifelong friend and the stress was written all over his weathered face.

“Assuming neither of you has any objection, that is?”

Hudson gave him a quick nod. “That will be fine.”

Allie waited until Hudson stepped away and then placed her hand on the elder gentleman’s forearm. “Thank you, Mr. Weiss.”

“My pleasure.” He smiled, but when his eyes met hers she saw the sadness he hid behind his professional exterior. “And Alessandra, please call me Ben.”

Calling a man she’d known since childhood by his first name felt awkward, but if she had any hope of convincing the board to see her as more than Richard and Victoria Sinclair’s daughter, she had to start acting like it. She returned his smile and lifted her chin. “Thank you, Ben.”

“Ladies and gentlemen.” He addressed the room as he moved toward the head of the table. “If you’d like to take a seat, I believe we’re ready to begin.”

One by one the other board members took their seats. Hudson waited until Allie had sat on Ben’s right, then pulled out the chair directly across from hers. She could feel the weight of his stare on her, but kept her focus on the charcoal-gray folder in front of her with the words INGRAM MEDIA embossed in silver across the top. Allie opened it and scanned the typed agenda as Ben thanked everyone for adjusting their busy schedules to accommodate the urgency of the meeting. At the top of the list was the first order of business: Appointment of Temporary CEO. She shouldn’t have been surprised. As a publicly owned company the transition of power had to be swift and seamless.

Allie traced the foil logo at the top of the letterhead with her finger, and all at once the enormity of what was about to take place hit her. This wasn’t just any company, it was her family’s legacy. Her maternal grandfather had started out selling newspapers on a street corner, and by the time of his death had grown Ingram Media into one of the largest companies in the country. Her father had dedicated his life to continuing that growth, expanding their scope far beyond the printed word, first with cable television networks and later into various online platforms.

Now she was the estate’s sole surviving heir, and in a matter of minutes the board would vote on who should man the helm. For the first time in company history, it might not be an Ingram. Despite how much she hated being used as a pawn in her father’s negotiations, her family’s legacy still meant something to Allie. And following in those footsteps on her own terms was a far cry from the fate that had awaited her just a few weeks ago. In that moment she wanted nothing more than to control her own destiny while at the same time carrying out her grandfather’s mission. But would the board back her in her bid or would they side with the man who’d spent the past several months plotting a hostile takeover of this very company? The question was still echoing in her mind when she heard Ben broach a topic that wasn’t on the written agenda.

Julian.

Her head snapped up at the sound of his name, and when it did she met the stare she’d been so carefully trying to avoid. Hudson’s piercing gaze held hers, and in that frozen moment so much passed unsaid between them. Her memories of Julian reflected in his blue eyes, everything from cutting in on their dance to the night Hudson rescued her from his attack.

“As most of you are already aware, Mr. Laurent is no longer with Ingram,” Ben said, tactfully omitting the fact that he was also no longer Allie’s fiancé. The irony was its own form of cruelty. The only obstacle that had stood in their way was gone, but in the end it hadn’t even mattered.

“What’s the fallout?” a distinguished looking African-American gentleman asked from beside her. Allie knew from her research that his name was James Tolman and that he ran one of the largest real estate investment firms in the city.

“Financially, none,” Ben answered. “Luckily, we’re under no obligation since the agreement was terminated from his end.”

Hudson cocked his head to one side in silent question. He knew Julian and the rules of the game well enough to know luck had nothing to do with the man’s sudden decision to relinquish his position. But what he didn’t know was how Allie had mustered every last ounce of strength to call him the night she and Hudson broke up. Confronting Julian in person would have been too risky. Her stomach rolled at the mere thought of looking into the cold eyes that had regarded her with such hatred. And blackmailing her former fiancé wasn’t something she would have likely been able to pull off in person anyway. Hearing his voice had been bad enough, but she’d been angry and hurt, and more than anything else, tired of being pushed around by people who claimed to love her. She’d needed to unleash that anger, and no one was more deserving of the receiving end of that wrath than Julian. He’d been surprised to hear from her, but even more so when she’d laid out her demands. It was simple: get out of Chicago and out of her life. In return she wouldn’t press charges against him for assault and attempted rape. Julian might have lusted for power, but just as she’d suspected, the prospect of time spent in an orange jumpsuit was enough to get him to sever all ties with Ingram.

Allie broke their gaze, feigning interest in a random item on the agenda and making notes in the margin.

“But as you know, Richard had spent the past few months grooming Mr. Laurent to take the reigns after his retirement at the first of the year.”

Her grip on the pen tightened. After his retirement. More like after her December wedding. No matter how she grieved her parents, the anger and resentment she felt toward them was never far from the surface.

“Which of course brings us to the first item on our agenda this morning.” Ben glanced down at the papers in his hands. “With the passing of both Richard and Victoria Sinclair, their estate, along with the majority of Ingram shares, is now controlled by—”

“It’s a slim majority, isn’t that right?” a woman two seats down interrupted. Melanie McCormick. On husband four, or maybe it was five now? Allie couldn’t say for sure. But they’d all had one thing in common: twice her age and at least ten times her original net worth. Not only was Melanie’s trackrecord clear, but so was the unabashed appreciation she seemed to have for the newest addition to Crain’s Top Ten. While she might have been speaking to Ben Weiss, she never took her eyes off Hudson Chase.

“Yes, that’s correct, Melanie. Mr. Chase holds a significant portion as well. Through Chase Industries, that is.”

Someone at the opposite head of the table cleared his throat. Duncan Wentworth, a man with money older than anyone else in the room, and who not only wielded an indisputable influence, but had probably never worked a day in his life. Allie had met him several times at the country club and had never once enjoyed the experience.

“No offense to young Alessandra here,” he said, no doubt making a point to call her by her first name, “but what the hell does she know about running a company?”

Probably as much as you do, Allie wanted to say. But a response to his callous remark came from across the table instead.

“No offense, Duncan?” Hudson asked. “The diplomacy in your remark is offendable. Richard Sinclair obviously had enough confidence in his daughter’s capabilities to leave her his entire estate.” He set his pen down on the documents in front of him and eased back into his chair. “And Miss Sinclair’s work at the Ingram Foundation speaks for itself.”

Wentworth let out a short, harsh laugh. “Planning events is hardly the same as running a multibillion dollar media conglomerate.”

“And being a three percent shareholder doesn’t necessarily qualify you to sit at this table, yet here you are.”

“Gentlemen,” Ben interceded. “Let’s try to stay focused on the issues at hand.”

“While I don’t agree with Duncan’s approach . . .” James shot his fellow board member a terse look. “The fact remains that Miss Sinclair, although quite successful in the endeavors she’s undertaken on behalf of our foundation, has little to no experience in these matters.”

“I certainly hope you’re not suggesting we turn the reigns over to an outsider?” a woman farther down the table asked.

Allie listened as the members of the board discussed the matter as if she and Hudson weren’t even in the room, let alone seated at the table.

“A member of the Ingram family has sat at the helm since this company was founded.”

“This is a matter of fiduciary responsibility, not nostalgia. There are shareholders to consider.”

“You’re assuming she’s even interested in the position.”

“Despite his obvious success, can we trust someone who came by their shares in such an unscrupulous manner?”

“Can we risk everything on a relative unknown all for the sake of bloodlines?”

The voices blended into a cacophony of chaos until one silenced the rest.

“If I may?” Hudson asked. His voice was calm and level yet demanded nothing short of full authority. “I believe I have a solution that will satisfy your concerns.”

“By all means,” Ben said. He gestured for Hudson to continue.

“I’d like to propose a temporary solution that would appoint Miss Sinclair and me as acting CEO’s.”

Allie had to make a conscious effort to keep her mouth from dropping open in shock. She stared at Hudson in disbelief as he outlined a very well-thought-out plan that would have the two of them working side by side at Ingram. This was no sudden inspiration. It was an ambush.

“We could reconvene shortly before the annual shareholder’s meeting in March,” Hudson concluded. “At that point the board can finalize their decision.”

James Tolman nodded. “It’s important we present a united front at the shareholder’s meeting. There can’t be any sense of dissent.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Wentworth added.

Melanie McCormick cleared her throat. “With the narrow margin of stock between Alessandra and Mr. Chase, they are essentially strangers who have just become business partners. And that would certainly be the case if we adopt this proposal.”

Allie watched Hudson’s eyes narrow almost imperceptively as Melanie referred to them as strangers. The slight kink in his calm exterior was so subtle she was sure it went unnoticed by the others. But not by her.

“What I’d like to know,” Melanie continued, “is logistically, how will this affect the day-to-day operations?” She touched the three strands of pearls at her neck. “And how much can we expect to see of Mr. Chase?”

Hudson placed his elbows on the arms of the chair and steepled his fingers.”I’m quite confident Ben will be able to bring Alessandra up to speed quickly. And she is welcome to use her father’s office, since her base will be here at Ingram Media. I will be maintaining my office across the river at Chase Industries, as there are other interests that will require my attention.”

Allie was so relieved to learn Hudson wouldn’t be moving into an office down the hall, that for a moment she almost felt herself relax. But Wentworth was less than thrilled.

“I’m not sure that arrangement would be in Ingram’s best interest,” he said.

Was he kidding? This from the man who only went to his corporate office to attend the holiday party?

Hudson pinned Wentworth with a shrewd stare as he addressed the board as a whole. “I recognize that some of you may think I’m spread thin in regards to my ventures. But I can assure you Ingram Media will receive the full benefit of my attention. And while my base will remain at my Dearborn location, I intend to take a very hands-on approach and will be a frequent presence in this office.” His gaze shifted to Allie. “I can only speak for myself, but I’m sure Miss Sinclair will agree it’s important that we work closely together to ensure a seamless transition, not to mention taking Ingram Media to the next level.”

Wentworth sat back in his chair with a smug grin on his face. “I’m relieved to hear that, Mr. Chase. And I’m sure Alessandra will be grateful for the chance to learn from your business acumen.”

Allie wanted to tell Duncan Wentworth just where he could shove his business acumen. But unfortunately he was right, at least to a certain extent. She didn’t know anything about running a corporation the size of Ingram Media, or any other for that matter. But she was going to work round the clock to learn everything she could. She might have to deal with Hudson now, but the stronger she became in this room, the less likely he’d still be in her life come March.



“The idea has merit,” Tolman said. “And if Ben agrees to serve as chairman over the proceedings, I think this is a solution that would benefit all parties.”

A motion was made and seconded, and within minutes a vote made it official. She and Hudson were co-CEOs of Ingram Media. Congratulations were offered and hands were shook.

Allie smiled and grit her teeth. This was his plan all along. Hudson could have made a play for sole control of the company. The board knew he had more experience than she did; his track record at Chase Industries was testament to that. But instead he took the high road, and in doing so had basically backed her into a corner. She’d have no choice but to play nice, at least in front of the board and their employees. If she was resistant to working with him and fell flat on her face, she’d appear to be nothing more than a bratty heiress who wouldn’t share her new toy. Thanks to his proposal, and their new titles, she’d have to work side by side with him.

Bottom line, if she wanted a future at Ingram Media, then there was no avoiding Hudson Chase.








Chapter Five







“Where’s the mountain with the crew cut?” Harper asked as soon as Allie swung open the door. She was holding a brown paper bag in one hand and a bottle of red wine in the other.

“Who?”

Harper nodded to the empty hallway. “The storm trooper who’s been your shadow for the past week.”

“Clayton? I let him go.”

“Why would you do that?” She lifted the bag and bottle so they were in Allie’s direct line of sight. “And are you going to make me stand here all night or are you going to invite me in?”

In spite of her crap day, Allie laughed. “Since when do you need an invitation?”

“True.” Harper brushed past her and headed to the kitchen with what smelled like Chinese takeout. From the looks of it she’d come straight from work. Under her cropped jacket she was wearing what Allie could only refer to as “business funk,” a bold black-and-white striped skirt paired with red Dr. Martens lace-up boots. The result was the perfect combination of quirky sophistication. Allie would have never been able to pull off such daring choices, but on Harper they totally worked. “And Weiss was okay with you ditching the bodyguard?”

Allie shut the door and followed Harper into the kitchen. “The man is head of security at Ingram, not my personal babysitter. It was ridiculous for him to spend all his time following me around.”

“Where’s the opener?” Harper asked after searching through a few drawers.

Allie frowned. “Not sure.”

“I got this.” Harper reached inside her purse and pulled out a small bottle opener. She smiled when she met Allie’s bewildered stare. “What? You never know when there will be a wine emergency.” She pointed to the bottle of Merlot on the counter. “Case in point.”

“What can I do to help?”

“Nothing. This is a full-service delivery. Just park it on a stool.”

Allie pulled out a barstool and sat while Harper grabbed two wineglasses from the overhead cabinet. She filled them each with a generous pour and slid one across the granite counter. Allie wrapped both hands around the goblet, watching in amazement at the buffet currently being assembled on her breakfast bar. “How much food did you order?”

“I couldn’t decide so I went with a little bit of everything. Potstickers, fried wontons . . . damnit, they forgot one of the egg rolls.”

“You can have mine,” Allie said. She was well acquainted with her friend’s motivation: when all else fails, show up bearing comfort food. And wine. But as grateful as she was to have Harper in her life, with or without fried carbs, there was no way she could eat half of what she brought. The way she was feeling, she’d be lucky to stomach plain rice. Seeing Hudson that morning had been harder than she’d expected. And to realize, on top of everything else, that they’d be working side by side nearly every day was the cherry on top of the shitstorm that had become her life.

“Mongolian chicken or kung pao?” Harper asked, pulling Allie back into the conversation as she pulled the last two containers out of the brown paper bag.

“Either’s fine.”Allie picked up a set of chopsticks and split them apart. “You didn’t need to do this, you know.”

“I know, but it’s your first night back here since . . .” Harper’s voice trailed off but she didn’t need to finish her sentence for Allie to know what she was thinking. It was written all over her face. A moment of silence passed before she asked the question that seemed to be on everyone’s mind lately.”Do the police have any leads yet?”

Allie realized people meant well when they asked, and certainly no one wanted answers more than she did. But words like “investigation” and “evidence” triggered images of blood and violence, even when spoken by a concerned best friend. “No. But Detective Green said she’d be in touch as soon as she had an update.” She mustered a reassuring smile. “Thank you for letting me stay with you this week.”

“You know you’re always welcome.”

Allie saw the tears welling in Harper’s eyes. Knowing if she started to cry, Allie wouldn’t be far behind, she quickly changed the subject. “Now get me a plate or I’m going to go all caveman on you and eat right out of the carton.”

Harper snorted. “Yeah right, like that would ever happen.” She turned, still shaking her head as she pulled two plates out of the cupboard. But Allie knew better. And for a single moment she wished she could go back in time to the night she and Hudson sat in his penthouse kitchen, splitting a bottle of wine and eating pizza straight out of the box.

Cut it out, Sinclair. After the day’s strange turn of events, it was more important than ever that she keep her head clear when it came to Hudson Chase.

Allie watched as Harper heaped piles of rice and chicken onto each of the plates, then added an assortment of appetizers. When she finished she carried them both to the other side of the counter and took a seat on the stool beside her.

“Where’d you get this food? It smells great.”

“New place over off LaSalle. If you like it we should definitely try the dine-in option. There was a hunk of perfection working at the bar.” Harper gave a little shudder. “If I didn’t love you so much I’d have parked my ass on his barstool for the night instead of yours.”

“And pass up a carbfest like this? He must have been pretty hot.”

“What can I say, it’s been . . .” A crease formed between Harper’s brows. “Well, that’s depressing. Let’s just say it’s been a while and leave it at that.”

“No cute waiters lately?” Allie teased. Harper had a knack for combining her two favorite topics, men and food, turning even a simple lunch into a chance to find her perfect match. Problem was, she also had a tendency to be attracted to all the wrong guys. Allie wished just once Harper would find a guy deserving of her affection. Someone who would appreciate her quirky style, her dry humor, and her loving heart.

“Actually yes, and this one is a med student by day. We’re having dinner this weekend.”

“Really? Tell me more,” Allie said before taking a sip of the Merlot.

“Not much to tell yet. His name is Scott, he’s twenty-four, from Milwaukee originally.”

“Has brown, perfectly mussed hair and dark, brooding eyes?”

Harper’s mouth dropped open.

Allie laughed. “Don’t look at me like that. You have a type.”

“And you sound like you’ve been reading a few of my favorite romance novels.”

“Hardly.” Allie wrinkled her nose. “And don’t think I’m buying this ‘not much to tell’ crap. I know you, Harper Hayes, and I’d be willing to bet that last wonton you know everything from his shoe size to his underwear preference.”

“Well, I did catch a glimpse of a Calvin Klein waistband when he bent over to pick my purse up off the ground.”

Allie raised a brow.

“Okay, I may have dropped it on purpose. But it was just to start a conversation, not to gawk at his backside.”

“And the shoe size?”

Harper lifted her wineglass to her lips. “Twelve from the looks of it,” she mumbled before taking a sip.

That was more like it. Allie popped a water chestnut into her mouth and smiled.

“Speaking of hot men with ridiculously sexy hair . . . did you see him today?”

“Yes,” she said, the smile slipping from her face.

Harper paused with a broccoli crown suspended between two chopsticks. “And?”

Allie exhaled in a rush and sagged against the back of the barstool. “And it was worse than I imagined.”

“Start talking,” Harper said. She grabbed the wine bottle and topped off both their glasses, then listened as Allie recounted the details of the morning’s board meeting, everything from her initial reaction to seeing Hudson to the details of his co-CEO proposal. “So you think that was his plan all along?” she asked.

Allie washed a bite of food down with a large gulp of wine. “I don’t know for sure. But he could have made a play for the whole thing, and probably won. Sympathy and nostalgia was only going to get me so far. They all know he’s more qualified for the job.”

“Maybe he really is sorry for the mess he created. This could be his way of apologizing.”

“How, by backing me into a corner? I told him I didn’t want to hear any of his excuses, and I meant it. There’s no justification for lying to me every moment we were together.”

“So what did he have to say for himself when it was all done?”

Allie poked at the food on her plate. “Nothing.”

Nothing? The man who tried to set the Guinness Book of World Records for number of voicemails left in a single day had nothing to say when the two of you were finally in the same room?”

“He didn’t have a chance.” When the meeting had finally ended, Allie couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there. But Hudson lingered, chatting with a few people and occasionally glancing in Allie’s direction, all the while strategically placed between her and the door. “I caught Ben’s attention just as he was about to leave and asked if he had a moment to discuss a few items. Hudson had no choice but to step aside and let us pass.”

“You won’t be able to avoid him forever.”

No, but she could sure as hell try.

“I’m actually surprised he wasn’t waiting outside your door. That is one determined man. And when he locks those baby blues on you . . .”

“Well, he was gone by the time Ben and I finished,” Allie said, interrupting Harper before she had a chance to point out everything Allie was trying her best to forget. “And I spent the rest of the day interviewing new assistants.”

“Not keeping your dad’s?”

Allie shook her head. “It would feel like my grandmother was my assistant. She’s going to work in Mr. Weiss’s office.”

“Any promising candidates?”

“One. And I think he’d give you a run for your money when it comes to snarky jokes and collecting the phone numbers of hot waiters.”

“I am not snarky,” Harper said, feigning offense. She pushed a stray curl out of her eyes and tucked it behind her ear. “Although I could use a wingman. Especially since my BFF is a hardworking CEO now.”

“Co-CEO,” Allie corrected. “And you cannot start hanging out with my assistant.”

“Why not?

“Because my personal and professional lives are complicated enough.” Allie yawned before she could even finish the sentence.

“You must be exhausted,” Harper said. She stood and started gathering the paper cartons.

“Leave it. You cooked, I’ll clean.”

“Yeah, I slaved all day over a hot stove.”

“You know what I mean,” Allie said. “And thanks again. This was just what I needed.”

“What are friends for if not to binge on Chinese food and borrow your designer handbags?” she said with a laugh. “Hey, do you want me to spend the night?”

“No, I appreciate the offer, but I’m a big girl—I need to start acting like one. But there is something you can do for me.”

“Anything. Name it.”

“My mother was supposed to be presented with some humanitarian award at a black-tie gala at the Art Institute Friday night and they’ve asked me to accept it on her behalf. Will you go with me?”

“Not sure if I can get a tux on such short notice,” Harper teased.

“Oh wait, what night is your date with Doctor Hottie?” Allie asked, using the opportunity to tease Harper with a nickname for once.

“Friday, but I’ll just see if we can reschedule for his next night off.”

“No way.”

“Yes way. Chicks before dicks and all that.”

“Well, this chick has let you sacrifice enough of your own time to sit and hold her hand at some miserable event.”

“Fancy hors d’oeuvres and an open bar? You’re right, that does sound miserable.” Harper rolled her eyes. “You can’t uninvite me. It would be rude.”

“Watch me. I’ll take my new assistant. Technically it’s a work event anyway.”

Harper cocked her head to one side. “Are you sure?”

“Absolutely.” She pulled Harper into a hug.

“If you change your mind about the sleepover . . .”

“Go.” Allie pushed her friend out the door and closed it.

“Fine, be that way,” Harper said with a laugh from behind the door.

Allie waited till she heard the outside door open and close before making her way back to her bedroom. It was barely nine o’clock, but after the day she’d had a hot shower and an early bedtime sounded like heaven.

On her way to the bathroom she noticed the duffel bag she’d taken to Lake Geneva still sitting in the corner of her room. With all that had gone on since the night she’d returned, unpacking a bag of hiking clothes had been last on her list of things to do.

No time like the present.

She hauled the bag onto the bed and began dumping items of clothing into the laundry hamper. The bag was almost completely empty when she pulled out a pink lace nightgown.

This is definitely making the trip. A survival necessity.”

Hudson’s words echoed in the very room where he’d first spoken them. Allie closed her eyes and just like that, unbidden and unwelcome images flooded her mind. They were in the bedroom of his cabin and he was behind her, sweeping her hair to one side as his lips found the curve of her neck.

“Put this on.” He held out his arm and her baby-doll nightgown dropped down from his hand. “And when you return, I want to tie you to my bed.”

A soft moan escaped her lips as he ran the tip of his tongue up the column of her throat.

“Look at the bed, Allie.” Her heart raced with a mixture of excitement and anxiety. “Imagine yourself completely at my mercy. Now go change.”

Turning, she met his heated gaze, so full of dark, delicious promise that her knees went weak.

“Don’t make me wait.” His voice was gentle but commanding.

Allie took the lingerie from his hands and made her way to the master bathroom. She changed quickly, her fingers trembling from the thought of what lay ahead. She would have never considered it a turn-on to surrender control, but there was no denying she loved it when he was like this.

When she stepped into the room, she paused at the doorway, taking a moment to enjoy the view. Through the French doors Lake Geneva shimmered in the distance, but that wasn’t the sight that held her totally spellbound. It was Hudson, standing with his back to her wearing only his faded jeans, that held her gaze. His stance was relaxed as he stared out across the water, and in that moment Allie realized that this cabin was more than just a vacation destination—it was the one place he considered home. Hudson was a man of few words when it came to his feelings and emotions. But the fact that he’d brought her here, that he wanted to share this side of himself, told her all she needed to know.

Hudson turned and his lips parted on a sharp intake of air. “Allie . . .”

Her mouth watered at the sight of him, lit only by the moonlight filtering in through the arched windows above the doors. Everything about Hudson Chase set her blood on fire, from the way his blue eyes burned bright with excitement to the way his impressive erection strained heavily against the fly of his jeans.

“Do you trust me?” he asked. His voice was gentle but firm.

Her pulse raced but her breathless answer was honest. “Yes,” she whispered, because it was true. She trusted Hudson not only with her body, but more and more with each passing day, her heart.

He approached, pulling something out of the back pocket of his jeans and holding it up for her to see. Allie recognized it immediately as the airline sleep mask Hudson had used on her the day she’d been cuffed to the beam in his game room. Heat pooled between her thighs at the memory of that afternoon. He’d teased her relentlessly with his fingers and tongue, bringing her to orgasm again and again. Being bound and helpless against the onslaught of pleasure had been an experience unlike any she’d ever known. And even though she had no idea what he had planned this time, she already knew it would be a night to remember.

Hudson led her to the bed, where she noticed the blue silk necktie that had been placed on top of the duvet. Once she was seated, he slipped the mask over her eyes. Almost instantly she became keenly aware of everything around her. The sound of her own breathe, coming much too quickly. The feel of the cool air, making her nipples harden against the rough lace of her negligee. And the masculine scent of Hudson’s skin, all the more intoxicating given the current state of his arousal as he stood mere inches in front of her.

“Your other senses will be heightened this way, but I only want you to focus on what you feel.” His hands were on her hips, gathering the fabric of her lingerie before sweeping it over her head. That didn’t last long. She almost smiled at the thought but then his fingers cupped her jaw, tilting her face toward his, and the only thought that remained was how badly she wanted him to kiss her. “As much as I like the nightgown, I prefer you naked.”

She licked her dry lips, eliciting a noise from Hudson that was more growl than groan. In a heartbeat he sealed his mouth over hers. There was nothing gentle about the way he kissed her. It wasn’t slow and savoring but hungry and raw, and made her restless for what was still to come. He hadn’t even touched her and yet she felt as though she were already melting in his hands. She wanted to reach for him, to pull him down to her, to feel the weight of him against her. But this was Hudson’s game, and as much as her body silently begged for more, she couldn’t deny the thrill she felt from being under his control. So although her heart hammered against her chest, she let him set the pace, kissing him back with the same passion he showed her but taking it no further.

When he finally broke the kiss she was more than ready to do whatever he commanded.

“Lie back on the bed.”

Her body hummed with anticipation as she did as she was told.

“Give me your hands.”

She followed his orders without hesitation. Hudson bound her wrists together with the silk tie, tugging the fabric until it was snug against her skin. Then he pulled her hands above her and secured them to the headboard.

“Is it too tight?”

She shook her head. The way he’d restrained her gave her little room to move, but it didn’t hurt.

“Good.” He moved off the bed. A moment later she heard the metallic sound of a zipper and the rustle of denim as he removed his jeans. The mental picture of him standing there naked made her entire body clench with need.

His fingers curled around her ankles and pulled her legs apart. “I want you open for me.”

Cool air rushed against her. Even without the benefit of sight she knew he was watching her, drinking in every detail. She could almost feel his gaze as it traveled over her skin. But to her surprise she didn’t feel vulnerable or exposed. Instead she felt sexy and wanton.

“You look so beautiful like this, Allie, bound and waiting for me. You have no idea how hard it makes me.”

She sunk her teeth into her lower lip. “Show me. Please.”

The mattress dipped and she knew he was beside her. “Open your mouth.”

She obeyed and a moment later the tip of his erection brushed her lips. Her tongue darted out to flutter over the smooth skin, already slick from wanting her. She couldn’t use her hands, but she lifted her head, taking him as deep into her mouth as she could. A sharp breath hissed between his teeth as she sucked him rhythmically, and after a moment his hips began to flex, thrusting himself into her greedy mouth.

“That’s enough,” he said, stopping abruptly and pulling back. She almost whimpered from the loss. “I have plans for you and they don’t involve my cock. Not yet.”

He moved away.

And then nothing.

She waited, listening intently, but heard nothing that gave any hint as to what he had planned for her. In fact, the sound of his breathing, slowly returning to normal, was the only indication he was even still in the room.

After what seemed like an eternity, something brushed across the nipple of her left breast. Her body jerked in response.

“Still, baby. I want you to be still for me.”

She bit back a moan. A moment later it returned, softly tracing the curve of her breast. She was more prepared this time and concentrated on the sensation, trying to determine what it was. A feather, maybe? Hudson dragged it along her rib cage and across her stomach. She quivered beneath its tickling touch but fought the urge to pull away, remaining as still as possible.

“Good girl,” he said.

The unexpected warmth she felt from his words had barely registered when something cold trailed down her inner thigh. Ice. But as quickly as it appeared, it was gone again. Then the bed shifted and Hudson’s lips surrounded her nipple. The ice was in his mouth now, and as he sucked and tugged her tightened flesh, she was overwhelmed by what could only be described as icy heat.

Then the feather returned, stroking between her legs. It was just enough to make her ache, but too soft to bring her any relief. Her body trembled as the gentle brush of the feather contrasted with the cold bite of the ice. Her nerves came alive under the dual assault, but she could do nothing more than absorb the riotous sensations Hudson elicited from her body.

He moved lower with agonizing leisure, teasing and taunting her with a trail of cold, openmouthed kisses, all while the feather brushed against her wetness.

She pulled on the restraints, her hips lifting, desperate for friction. “Please, Hudson, touch me . . .”

“Is this what you want, Allie?”

Her entire body tensed as his finger finally skimmed her entrance.

“God, yes.” She was practically panting with need.

“You’re so wet for me.”

“Please . . . I want you inside me.”

“All in good time.”

She groaned as his hand fell away. Then his tongue licked the length of her sex and her hips bucked from the bed. She wanted to reach for him, to twist her fingers into his hair and hold him tight against her. But bound as she was, she was helpless to do anything but submit to his delicious torture.

“I love the way you taste,” he murmured, his warm breath fanning over her damp skin.

“You’re driving me crazy.”

“Do you want me to stop?” His voice was low and rough and vibrated against her sensitive flesh. But he didn’t stop. Even when her head thrashed against the pillow, he kept her thighs firmly spread, licking, nipping, and sucking her until she could finally take no more.

“Yes, stop,” she panted. “I can’t take anymore.”

She swore she felt him smile against her skin. “Are you sure?”

Then his mouth was on her again, his tongue plunging into her quivering body.

“Ah, God,” she screamed as a massive orgasm rolled through her. Sensitive and swollen, she tried to squirm away, but he didn’t let up until she came a second time against his lips.

He moved over her, his face just inches from hers and his erection pulsing hot against her sex.

“Tell me you what you want,” he said, his voice tight with restraint. A second later the blindfold lifted away. “Open your eyes and tell me that you want me.”

Allie opened her eyes. But she wasn’t in Hudson’s arms. He wasn’t about to make sweet love to her for hours in a cabin high above the treetops. She was in her brownstone apartment and the love she’d felt for him that night was nothing more than an illusion built on lies.

She looked down at the pink lace nightgown, fisted tightly in her hands. With a sharp tug the fabric was torn to shreds.

Just like her heart.








Chapter Six







The interrogation room sat in the back of the precinct, as far as you could get from the foot traffic of the sex-for-hires and drunks being hauled in for any litany of infractions that ended with being caught with your pants down—literally, with the former. The room was about the size of a cubicle and practically naked. No pictures. No computer. No how-to’s on CPR or evacuation procedures. The place was designed to maximize a suspect’s discomfort and sense of powerlessness from the moment he stepped inside. Exposure, unfamiliarity, isolation, and a shit-ton of get-me-the-hell-out-of-here: all part of a masterful game of cat and mouse.

The ultimate mind-fuck.

Hudson crossed his legs at the knee. He could feel himself being sized up through the two-way mirror on the opposite wall. But he was calm, cool, and collected, which meant whoever was watching him through the looking glass had learned absolutely nothing in the fifteen minutes he’d been sitting there.

The lock behind him disengaged with a soft click. Hudson turned, tracking the movements of the female detective as she shut the door and rounded the table.

“Mr. Chase, I’m Detective Green. We spoke on the phone.” She met his stare. Her green eyes were intelligent, Sherlock-fucking-smart. This was a woman who could bounce a quarter off her bed, all business. And probably the sense of humor of a paper napkin. “Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to come down here.”

“I didn’t get the impression this meeting was optional.”

The detective dropped a manila folder on the table and the corner of an eight-by-ten glossy slid out of one side. Without looking Hudson knew it was a crime scene photo he had no inclination to see. The news and media outlets had leaked enough of the gruesome scene.

“Are you sure you wouldn’t like to have your attorney present?” she asked, taking a seat in the metal chair across from him.

“You’re not charging me with a crime, Detective Green, simply requesting my cooperation. And with the exception of perhaps a few unpaid parking tickets, I have nothing to hide.” Hudson smiled, but the word ‘motherfucker’ ricocheted inside his skull. Fact was, he didn’t want Chicago’s finest digging into his closet of skeletons.

“We’re questioning everyone.” The detective’s tone was a mix of suspicion and pissed-off frustration that was no doubt the result of having an unsolved murder on her desk.

“You wouldn’t be doing your job if you didn’t.”

The navy suit and the heavy-on-the-starch white button-down she wore creased as she leaned forward and rested her elbows on the table. “You seem like the type of guy who doesn’t thrive on bullshit, so I’ll cut to it. Where were you on November first?”

“I was in Wisconsin.”

“On business?” She pulled a pen out of the interior pocket of her jacket.

“No, I was visiting my brother at a rehabilitation facility.”

Green nodded. “Seems drug addiction runs in the family.” She flipped the folder open and began reading her handwritten notes. “Parents deceased. Mother OD’d, father—”

“I’m more than happy to cooperate,” Hudson interrupted. “But I have no interest in running through my family tree.”

She set the top sheet aside, revealing a more formal report below. “Your brother has quite a rap sheet. In and out of foster homes, ran away from one, short stint in juvie.”

“Teen rebellion.”

“Teen rebellion is blowing curfew, not taking a neighbor’s car for a joyride that ends in the lake.”

“Your point, Detective?”

She raised a brow. “Nothing stronger than the bond of siblings. But I digress. Did you spend the night or return to Chicago?”

“It’s rehab, not the Hilton.” Hudson’s gaze was rock-steady as he recalled the lady at the front desk of the facility. She’d been drillsergeant strict on protocol, insisting he sign in, wear a visitor badge, and surrender his phone. Being bossed around was not something he was accustomed to, but Nurse Ratched was now his alibi and he was thanking his lucky-fucking-stars he had a paper trail to prove it.

“But you own a home out there on,” she glanced at her notes, “Lake Geneva.”

“I own a cabin there, correct.”

She whistled through her teeth as she looked over the next piece of paper. “Judging by the real estate records, it’s a pretty luxurious cabin,” she said, accenting the last word. “What was the rush to get back to Chicago?”

“You’re right, Detective Green, circling bullshit isn’t my game. There were any number of issues requiring my attention that day. I run a company with numerous subsidiaries around the world. There is great responsibility that comes with that.”

“Your most recent venture being Ingram Media?”

“Correct again.”

“Quite the score for your portfolio.”

“No argument. I’m a businessman who seizes opportunities when presented.”

“But Richard Sinclair was standing between you and controlling interest of the company.”

“Hardly.” Leveling his stare, Hudson leaned forward and rested his elbows on the table. “I had no motive to kill Richard Sinclair, Detective. I’d been purchasing shares at an accelerated rate. It was only a matter of time until I secured the necessary percentage to gain a majority stake hold.”

Detective Green set the last page of notes aside, revealing the stack of crime scene photos. The first was a shot of Richard Sinclair, slumped over his desk, blood pooling on the leather top. “On October twenty-eighth you took a meeting with Mr. Sinclair?”

“Yes.”

“What was the nature of your business?”

“I offered him a lifeline.”

“To save his company? Why would a corporate raider like yourself propose striking a deal?”

“Sinclair’s company was going under. I met with him to make a generous offer that would pull Chicago’s most iconic company out of financial ruin.”

“What was the offer?”

“I would take ownership of the conglomerate with Ingram Media becoming a subsidiary of Chase Industries. Richard Sinclair would still run the day-to-day operations.” He leaned back in the chair. “In essence nothing would change, other than I would be his boss.”

“I’m assuming he wasn’t interested?”

Hudson smirked. “Pride commeth before the fall.”

“Meaning?”

“Richard didn’t want to work for me. He preferred to keep the business in the family. He was convinced he could salvage his company using the funds he’d secured from Julian Laurent.”

“And Mr. Laurent is his daughter’s fiancé?”

“Was.”

“My mistake.” She eyed him speculatively before making a notation in the margin of one of the pages. “So Sinclair cut off negotiations at that point?”

“I believe his exact words were ‘go fuck yourself.’” Hudson glanced at his black pearl-faced Rolex. “If you have no further questions, Detective, I have pressing business to attend to.” None of which involved him spending the afternoon under a spotlight while Chicago’s finest poked around in his past looking for trigger points.

“That’s all for now.” Detective Green gathered her notes and stuffed them back into the folder. As she stood, a uniformed officer opened the door from the outside. “I’ll be in touch if anything else comes up.”

Hudson shook the Detective’s outstretched hand, and just like that, he was out of there. But as he exited the interrogation room he could feel her watching him, and something in his gut told him he hadn’t heard the last from Detective Green.








Chapter Seven







Allie crossed her legs in the back of the limo and adjusted her black evening gown. With its square neckline and figure-skimming silhouette, the sleeveless, floor-length dress had always been one of her favorites. But tonight she’d chosen it simply for its color.

The ride from her Astor Place brownstone to the Art Institute was a short one, but the traffic moved at a crawl down Michigan Avenue, and the wait at each red light only gave her more time to think about the evening that lay ahead of her. She’d attended more charity events than she could count, as a guest and then more recently as part of the fund-raising team at the Ingram Foundation, but this was different. This time she was the only surviving member of the family and she was attending the event to accept a posthumous award on her late mother’s behalf.

As the limo rolled to a stop in front of the museum, it wasn’t the two bronze lions flanking the stone steps that caught her eye. It was the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on the opposite side of the street that drew her gaze. Light glowed in the soaring arched windows, and as she watched the patrons mingling in front of the glass, she felt a sense of peace unlike any she’d felt in weeks.

“I’ll have security back them up before I open the door,” her driver said, grounding her in the moment. It was just as well. There wasn’t time for a trip down memory lane. She had a press line to face¸ the first one since her parents’ murder. And judging by the photographers surrounding the limo, more than a few tabloid freelancers to deal with as well. She needed to keep her focus on that, not box seats and velvet curtains.

Event security did their best to herd the paparazzi back to the sidewalk, and the limo door swung open as soon as a path was cleared. The flash of cameras blinded her the moment she stepped out of the limo, and she felt a sudden surge of panic as the images captured by the coroner’s flashbulbs fired in sequence through her mind. She pulled her velvet wrap tighter and took a deep breath. She could do this. She was Alessandra Ingram Sinclair. And while she might have come to resent the way her parents had raised her, in essence her entire life had prepared her for what she now had to face.

So despite how she was feeling inside, Allie held her head high as she walked the length of the press gauntlet. She’d told the event organizers she wouldn’t be taking any questions, but that didn’t stop the photographers from shouting to her as they clamored for the perfect shot. The badged press mostly called out her name or requests to “look this way,” but the freelancers behind the barricades were more creative. There was no limit to the depths to which they would sink in their attempt to garner a reaction they could capture on film and sell to TMZ.

“No date tonight?”

“Show us some skin, baby.”

“Any truth to the rumor it was a professional hit?”

The last one almost broke her but she somehow managed to keep her mask firmly in place, smiling and nodding at the appropriate times, as she made her way inside.

Her new assistant was waiting for her just inside the doors. With his boyish grin and wayward, light brown hair falling casually over sexy green eyes, Colin James looked more like the member of a popular British boy band than an executive assistant. But his résumé proved he was more than just a pretty face. Top in his class at Northwestern, he’d explained during his interview how he was looking to get a few years of experience under his belt, not to mention cash in his bank account, before pursuing his MBA. His classes at Medill had given him a keen insight into cutting-edge media, and his passion for classical music rivaled her own. Allie had liked him right from the start.

“Would it be unprofessional of me to tell you how beautiful you look?” he asked, cocking a lopsided grin.

Allie raised a brow. “Flattery won’t get you a raise, Colin. You’ve only been on the job one day.”

“And look at me.” He waved a hand in front of his black tuxedo, perfectly paired with a simple yet elegant straight black tie. “I’m already at the event of the weekend.” His grin widened. “I think I’m going to like this job.”

“I’ll remind you of that the first night I keep you at the office past midnight.”

Colin laughed. “As long as you buy me breakfast after you use me and abuse me.”

Allie smiled. Working with Colin was never going to be dull, that she knew for sure. And if his letters of recommendation were any indication, he was going to be a valuable asset as well. “Shall we?” she asked.

“Lead the way, boss lady.”

Colin followed Allie up the marble staircase to a reception area where they were immediately greeted by a server passing a tray of pink champagne. Allie took one and sipped it while taking a mental inventory of the room. Tuxedo-clad waiters passed trays of the usual fare of beef Wellington, crab cakes, and spring rolls, while event organizers busied themselves with the silent auction. The décor was elegant and understated with stately columns lining the atrium, bathed in up-lighting to draw the eye to the soaring glass ceiling. In the center of the room, linen-draped tables of ten were arranged around a dance floor where a band played customary songs. She was surprised to find guests were already dancing, but other than that everything about the event was exactly what she’d expected, right down the clusters of middle-aged women gossiping behind champagne flutes while their husbands congregated around the bar. Allie recognized most of them as friends of her parents. She glanced at her watch. With any luck dinner would be served soon, keeping the inane small talk to a minimum.

“Alessandra,” a voice called out from behind her. Allie turned to find Elizabeth Prescott, her mother’s former doubles partner, cutting a path in her direction. She approached in a cloud of Chanel and greeted Allie with an air-kiss to each cheek. “Darling, you look beautiful considering the circumstances.”

Allie briefly wondered why even a compliment somehow sounded like an insult when it came out of that woman’s mouth, before deciding it wasn’t worth the effort. “Thank you.” She took a gulp of champagne while listening to a scathing review of an event that had barely begun.

“I mean, is it too much to ask for a decent Chardonnay? The ticket prices keep going up but they insist on serving the house wine.”

Colin stepped forward, his hand touching Allie’s elbow. “Care to dance?” When he was met with Elizabeth’s questioning stare he simply flashed her a disarming smile. “Sorry, it’s just that I’m a huge Sinatra fan.”

“If you’ll excuse me. I can’t very well say no to Sinatra, now can I?”

Colin led her to the dance floor. “I hope I didn’t overstep there, but you had a decidedly pained expression on your face.”

Allie laughed quietly. “Sounds like I need to work on my game face.”

He pulled her into his arms and they glided effortlessly around the dance floor. It seemed Colin was not only a mind reader but a skilled dancer as well, traits that would no doubt prove invaluable at future events.

“Swanky events aside, I think I’m going to like working for you.”

Allie tilted her head back to look at him. “You haven’t seen me before coffee. You may change your mind.”

“Ah, yes—cappuccino, skim milk, extra foam with a smattering of cinnamon. But that’s only in the afternoon. For the morning it’s a skinny vanilla latte, two pumps, light foam.” He grinned down at Allie’s wide eyes and shrugged. “I did my research.”

“How did you—”

His grin turned sheepish. “Okay, I grilled your friend before I put her call through this morning. She’s quite a trip, that one.”

Allie shook her head and smiled. “Well, don’t believe a word she says. Except about the coffee; that part was right.”

He chuckled. “I’ll keep that in mind.” They twirled across the parquet floor, and for the first time in days Allie felt herself relax ever so slightly.

“Dear lord, is that Taylor Kinney?” Colin asked.

Allie followed his gaze to the bar. “Could be. His show films here and the cast is very involved in local charities.”

An audible gasp escaped his lips. “You don’t think Gaga is here with him, do you?” Colin’s eyes darted around the room, no doubt looking for a blonde in a sheer beaded gown and elaborate headdress. Allie took the opportunity to steal a glance over his shoulder. The last of the guests were filtering into the atrium and she scanned their faces, making a mental note of who she’d need to greet before making her escape. Despite Colin’s best efforts at distracting her, she was anxious to accept the award, shake a few hands and get the hell out of there. Allie knew this was an important event, not only for honoring her mother’s memory, but for establishing herself and her new title within the business community. Still, after everything she’d endured the past two weeks, it would have been nice to catch her breath before diving in headfirst. The thought of yoga pants, ice cream, and a late-night movie was the only thing getting her through the next hour of high heels, catering food, and networking.

By the time the song came to an end she’d added three more “must sees” to her list.

“Thank you for the dance,” she said. “And the rescue. Now go check out the Seurat before they announce dinner.”

Colin backed away with an exaggerated bow, and for the second time that night Allie laughed. But when she turned to the mingling crowd her smile slipped from her face. Her breath caught and her steps faltered.

Hudson.

Allie stood motionless, unable to look away as he entered the reception area and shook hands with several people. The expression on his face was all business, and yet there was something so inherently sensual about the way he moved. He wore a black tuxedo, Ralph Lauren if she wasn’t mistaken, that fit the contours of his body in a way that made it impossible not to imagine the hard planes of muscle that lay beneath. But it wasn’t the sight of Hudson Chase in a tuxedo that caused an unwelcome tightness in Allie’s chest. It wasn’t even his dark wavy hair, perfectly messed with that sexy, just-rolled-out-of-bed look that made her fingers flex with an instinctive desire to touch it. It was the voluptuous brunette draped on his arm.

Sophia.

Allie recognized her immediately from the event at the Field Museum the night she and Hudson had first become reacquainted. She looked as stunning as she had that night. Her dress wasn’t red this time, but instead a champagne color a few shades lighter than her flawless bronze skin. And her long dark curls were piled loosely on top of her head, not cascading over her bare shoulders, but the effect was no less devastating. The woman had the curves of a centerfold and a face worthy of the cover. Hudson had insisted they hadn’t been seeing each other, but Allie got the distinct impression their arrangement was more than just a few casual dates. It was obvious the way Sophia’s hand stroked Hudson’s forearm, she was under that impression as well.

He flicked his gaze briefly to her hand, then back up. When he did his eyes met Allie’s and he stilled. A crowded ballroom stood between them, but in that moment it felt as though they were the only two people in the room.

Then Sophia shifted in front of him, her perfectly manicured fingers reaching up to straighten his already immaculate tie, and the spell was broken. Allie let out the breath she hadn’t even realized she’d been holding and quickly scanned the room for the nearest exit. She needed to get some fresh air, touch up her makeup, or even just wander through an exhibit. Anything to put enough distance between the two of them for her to regain her focus.

She’d barely made it ten yards when someone stepped in front of her, blocking her way. Instinctively she knew who it was and her heart hammered inside her chest. She looked up and met Hudson’s steely glare. He moved quickly, catching her by surprise. His hand wrapped around her arm, and before she could form a word, much less a sentence, she was being propelled out of the atrium.

“What are you doing?” She struggled against his grip, but deep down a thrill shot through her at his primitive display. Obviously she’d misjudged the lengths to which he’d go to win her back.

“Isn’t it obvious? I’m causing a scene.”

“Let go of me.” Allie glanced over her shoulder to the corner of the room and was relieved to find the press corps otherwise occupied.

Hudson followed her stare. “No, they haven’t noticed yet. But they will, so do us both a favor and stop resisting me.”

She almost laughed out loud. Of course she had to resist him. She couldn’t let her guard down because if she let him get close enough, if she let him touch her, she’d never have the strength to tell him to stop. As it was his mere proximity and the way his body brushed against hers as they walked caused a ripple of awareness to rush like a fever across her skin.

He pulled her toward a set of double doors and into an empty corridor.

“Why are you here?” she asked the moment they were alone.

His gaze traveled over her face before finally settling on her eyes. He narrowed his, and for moment she thought perhaps he could see the fissure in her fragile determination. A simple step back would have cleared her head, but Allie was frozen, overwhelmed by the sheer masculine scent of him.

Hudson lifted his hand as if to touch her cheek and Allie felt her breath quicken. If he stepped closer, if his lips brushed against hers, would she have the resolve to push him away? Or would her hands find their way into his hair, pulling him closer as she pressed her body to his? The thought alone caused her traitorous body to betray her. Her nipples hardened against the bodice of her gown and heat pooled between her thighs. In that moment she knew if he lowered his mouth, if he coaxed her lips apart with gentle flicks of his tongue, she’d all but beg him to take her—in the museum, the limo, his bed—anything to dull the shameless ache she felt for him.

But he dropped his hand and then shoved it through his unruly hair. “I bought these tickets weeks ago. I thought perhaps we’d be attending this event together.”

Hudson stepped back enough for Allie to regain an ounce of composure. The physical need for him faded and in its place surged feelings of rage and betrayal, made stronger by the anger she felt toward herself for continuing to react to him the way she did. It was as if she was drawn to him by some inexplicable unseen force that rendered her all but helpless. Or maybe it was him, the sheer force of his will. Either way it had to end. Hudson might have been able to orchestrate it so he wasn’t out of her life completely, but at the very least he was out of her bed. And judging by the display she’d just witnessed, he hadn’t wasted any time filling the vacancy.

Allie squared her shoulders. “Well, lucky for you, Sophia was more than happy to take my place.”

Hudson frowned. “It’s not what it looks like. I didn’t come here with her.”

“Well, it certainly looks like you’re leaving with her,” she fired back.

“If we’ve learned anything from our past, Alessandra, it is not to make assumptions.”

“And yet history keeps repeating itself, doesn’t it?”

A door swung open at the end of the hallway and several waiters emerged carrying trays laden with entrees. Hudson’s jaw tightened but he waited until they’d passed before speaking. When he did, his voice was lower than it had been before.

“We need to work this out,” he said.

“No, what we need is for you to stop. There’s nothing to work out. I don’t feel—”

“Don’t bother denying it,” he said, cutting off the lies she was about to spew. “It’s obvious you still have feelings for me or you wouldn’t be running out of here.”

“I wasn’t running anywhere. I needed a quiet place to look over my notes before my speech.”

He gave a harsh laugh. “If you say so.”

Anger burned in the pit of her belly as she regarded his smug expression. “It’s over.”

“The hell it is,” he growled. When he reached for her she stepped back. “Don’t do this, Allie.”

“I’m not doing anything, Hudson. You broke my heart all on your own.”

Allie heard Hudson’s sharp intake of breath but Colin rounded the corner before he could reply.

“There you are.” Finding her with Ingram’s other CEO stopped him dead in his tracks. “Mr. Chase, I didn’t realize . . .” His voice trailed off as he took in the sight of the two of them, locked in a physical and emotional standoff. “Is everything okay?”

“Everything is fine,” Hudson said, shooting her new assistant a glare that would have withered most men. But Colin didn’t so much as flinch, holding his ground and once again confirming what Allie’s instincts had told her right from the start.

A tense moment passed between the two men before Colin turned his attention to Allie. “They’re about to begin the presentation. I can stall them if you need more time.”

Allie caught Hudson’s gaze and held it as she answered. “No. We’re finished,” she said, before turning to follow Colin back to the reception. The heat of Hudson’s stare burned into her as she walked, but she fought the urge to look back.

When her speech ended and the crowd stood to applaud, she couldn’t help but notice the empty seat at the table near the front.








Chapter Eight







Hudson stopped in front of the bank of elevators and shoved his hands into his hip pockets, his dark blue Armani suit coat parting to the sides. He stood there, his stare focused on the vintage cast-iron dial, circa 1930, as it crept smoothly upward. The steel cables and pulls rattled and lifted the elevator higher and higher up the post-Depression era skyscraper, which was the paragon of a man who had taken pride in outward appearances versus nurturing a stable infrastructure. Hudson Chase was the opposite of such theoretical bullshit. But that was the irony; he was putting on one hell of a poker face while inside he was tap dancing on quicksand.

The dial continued to glide over the arch, and with each passing floor Hudson contemplated his latest merger. It was the icing on the fucking cake of his portfolio and he should’ve been full of high-octane joy. But he didn’t simply want another billion-dollar merger. No, what he wanted, what he needed, was the woman who avoided his stare at all costs. And when she did flick her steely gaze at him, her pain was directly communicated into his own chest until it was his heart being cleaved apart.

Bottom lining it, his victory was her personal loss, and the truth of that twisted in his gut.

At his side the high-priced suits squared off like a couple of pit bulls in a deceptively calm discussion. Hudson knew he should engage in their Monday ritual, but at the moment he could think of nothing but Allie and the way she’d looked standing in the corridor of the Art Institute on Friday night. She’d lost weight, goddamn it, too much weight, and although her sharp tongue had been a verbal blow torch spitting fire, her tear-rimmed eyes had revealed the pain that lay beneath.

The elevator chimed, plugging him back into the present, and when the doors slid open his eyes locked on Allie’s slim figure. The knot between his shoulder blades tightened further and the verbal boxing match beside him receded into white noise. She held his gaze and for a split second looked as if she was ready to go bare knuckle with him. There wasn’t a chance in hell that she would have him, much less forgive him, and yet his body behaved with the stupidity of a teenager and insisted on responding to hers. But the only glint of passion that flared in her eyes was an anger that cut so deep he feltit down to the marrow of his bones.

Fuck. Was the damage irrevocable?

Hudson held up two fingers to halt his already in-motion hounds. “Take the next one,” he said, his voice low, deep, and with a hard edge. With a nod his colleagues immediately took a step back, nodoubt planning to use the extra time to go toe-to-toe over what his next venture should be in their pursuit of world domination.

When he stepped onto the elevator, Allie shifted to the opposite corner. Without question his presence angered her. Fuck that, she was straight up pissed that he was breathing the same air. But even in her anger she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.

The doors shut and the elevator lurched into motion. Hudson turned to face Allie, her stillness reminding him of the consequences of his ambition.

“If you’re going to try and persuade me to side with you at the board meeting tomorrow then you’re wasting your breath.” Defiance blazed in her eyes. “It’s a terrible idea.”

Hell if it was. His proposal to liquidate the newspaper division and transition to a solely digital format was a flash of brilliance, not to mention that it made sense for balancing the books. But at the moment spreadsheets were the last thing on his mind.

“I don’t give a damn about that right now. We need to talk.” With a quick movement he punched a card into the control panel and the elevator jerked to a halt.

Allie’s eyes darted to the panel and her spine straightened. “We talked at the gallery.”

“That wasn’t a conversation.” More like verbal sparring.

“I said all I needed to say.” She appeared to be completely composed, but Hudson could see the rise and fall of her chest, the white-knuckle grip on her bag.

“You may have unloaded, but hell if I have. And no matter what it takes you’re going tohear me out. Even if it means keeping this godforsaken elevator stopped all fucking day.” He tried to remind himself that anger would get him nowhere. Calm, levelheaded domination was the key to pressing the advantage, except he was way past that. With her he felt like he was gripping sand and every grain was slipping through his fingers.

“Stop trying to control me, Hudson.” Allie turned and lifted her chin. The anger was gone and in its place was a mask of complete indifference. Goddamn, it shredded him. He’d take anger over apathy any day.

He took a deep breath. She was going to ride this facade like the Macy’s Day Parade, marching through their little exchange as if they were nothing more than business partners forced into a resentful coexistence. He had to get her to drop her guard, to let him in. And if pissing her off was what it took to incite a reaction, then so be it.

“It’s never been that way between us and you know it, Alessandra.” Hudson flashed a slight smirk as he prepared to drop the H-bomb. “Well, except for the bedroom. And if memory serves, you enjoyed it.”

He braced himself, expecting a slap to light his face on fire, but instead her eyes dilated and fixated on his mouth. Her lips parted and her breath quickened. He had her. No matter how unaffected she pretended to be, she couldn’t help but respond to him. And the longer they stood mere inches apart, the more desire took over and became a downright menace.

Never one to miss an opportunity, Hudson reassessed on the fly. He stepped closer and his voice dropped to a low, seductive murmur. “Is that what it will take for you to hear me out?” He swept a hand across her collarbone and up the side of her neck. “You, tied to my bed as I move down your body.” His mouth hovered just inches from hers and his fingers cupped the soft skin at her nape. “Your every sense heightened by my touch.”

Allie’s eyes closed, her chest rising and falling with each breath she labored to control. Up close he could see the flush coloring her delicate skin and the lashes fanning out against her cheeks.

“Do you feel me? Feel my breath on your skin, my tongue flicking across your nipples, biting and tugging until you tremble beneath me?”

She licked her lips and his cock punched against his fly, every instinct telling him to fuck her until they were both too exhausted to fight.

“Is that what you want, my hands gripping your hips, anchoring you so you don’t move while I slide the head of my cock inside you, slowly, with just the slightest of movements.” With that, he pressed her against the wall of the elevator and her hands fell to his shoulders.

“I hate you,” she whispered. Her words were venom but they lacked conviction. Her hands flattened against his chest and her biceps tensed as if she were going to push him away, but instead her fingers curled around the fine fabric of his suit jacket, holding him in place.

Hudson took a deep breath through his nose. His heart pounded, pumping adrenaline through his body. “You wish you did,” he rasped in her ear, then tugged the lobe between his teeth.

Allie’s head thudded back against the elevator wall. “Bastard,” she breathed.

“I know, baby, I know.” His mouth slanted over hers, ravenously licking across her lips and sucking her tongue into his mouth. Sweet hell, he wanted her. Every inch of this woman was his, and he’d crawl through hell with his dick on fire before he’d let any other man put their greedy hands all over what was his and his alone.

A deep growl escaped his mouth as he found the damp lace between her thighs. “I want this,” he murmured. Moving the fabric aside, he slid his fingers over her slick skin. “And so do you. You’re wet for me.” He pushed two fingers inside her and she gasped. Like a bullet shooting out of a steel barrel, he crushed his mouth to hers, his tongue thrusting into her mouth as his fingers worked her sex.

Moaning, Allie arched into him, giving herself over to what he knew was going to be raw fucking. She grinded herself against his hand, rocking her hips at the same time her fingers reached for his fly. The belt came undone and the zipper was just as accommodating. And then his cock, his rock-hard, aching cock, sprung from his hips and fell heavy into her palm. The moan he let out could’ve probably been heard through the metal doors ofthe elevator but he was too far gone to muzzle his response. He wanted to leave his mark on her, and by the time he was through he was going to be all over her, inside and out.

With a sharp tug he turned her lace panties into nothing more than shredded artwork, then grabbed her by the hips and tilted them to the angle he wanted. Her thighs obeyed before an acquiescence could move past her lips. His palm shifted between her spread legs, grasping one and curling it around his hip. In a white-hot possession he pushed into her on a solid stroke. When he started to move, she grabbed his shoulders, bracing herself against his relentless drives. It was complete domination, his body pumping in and out, his hips rolling in a sensuous motion that became faster and faster until he felt like his balls were going to explode. And to top it off, at any moment Chicago’s 911 could yank the doors open with their jaws of life and catch him fucking her as if his life depended on it.

Her hands slipped under the lapels of his jacket and her nails raked across his skin. He felt the bite of pain through the fabric of his shirt, but it quickly faded into a sweet utopia that carried him deeper into an ulterior universe. A universe where the past was permanently pitched into oblivion. A cosmic motherfucking do-over.

He wished.

Hudson’s fingers dug into the supple flesh of her ass as he slid her up and down, working her along the length of his thick erection. “God, Allie, I’ve missed being inside you.”

“No talking,” she groaned.

“You love it when I talk dirty.”

Allie shoved her hands into his dark waves and dragged his mouth to hers. “Shut up and kiss me.” With a raw need, his tongue thrust inside her mouth, mirroring the driving strokes of his cock. All the while her hips met him thrust for thrust and her breathless moans whispered across his neck. “Don’t stop,” she murmured again and again. Her words took him to the next level and he pounded her bare ass against the oak-paneled interior until the elevator walls vibrated.

Mine.

The word volleyed around his skull.

Fucking mine.

He wanted to say it out loud, but it would’ve been a buzzkill on a moment he was hell-bent on making last forever. Closing his eyes, he concentrated on the feel of his cock going in and out of her. The sensation of her impending orgasm pulsing around him nearly wiped out his vision.

Her hand gripped the collar of his shirt and with an involuntary yank the top button was sent airborne as her body seized against his. He glanced down to where they were joined, watching the head of his cock slip out before driving deep again, and he was done for.

“Fucking hell.” He cranked his eyes shut and buried his face into her neck as his orgasm broke free. There was no way of holding back, and the feel of her own climax gripping his cock like a vise was a direct sucker punch to the gut. Bastard that he was, he wanted to ricochet her into one orgasm after another, until she was crying out his name as if it were a benediction.

But like everything else between them, the moment was only temporary. And as he pulled out and the cool air hit his cock in a rush, he felt like he was leaving his goddamn fucking heart with her. She was the only woman that gave it another function other than beating behind his rib cage.

He lowered her leg to the floor and she stepped away. His belt clanked as he tucked himself and his shirttails back into his pants, while across the elevator Allie yanked her skirt down and swept her massacred panties off the floor. Hudson lifted his gaze from his fly to her eyes. He didn’t know what to say.

The elevator filled with a heavy silence.

She just stared at him. She didn’t look away; she didn’t even flinch. But those eyes, those fucking eyes of hers were obliterating him with a slow, resenting burn. And yet the way he still wanted her just about stalled out his lungs.

“Allie . . . I—”

“Don’t.” She yanked the key out of the panel and let it drop to the floor. The doors slid open on the thirtieth floor, and without another word she was gone.








Chapter Nine







Allie stepped off the elevator and her legs nearly gave out beneath her. Her mind was racing as fast as her pulse, but she couldn’t even let herself think about what had just happened until she was safely behind closed doors.

Hudson didn’t follow. And when the elevator doors whispered shut behind her, she didn’t look back. The haunted look in his eyes when she’d left him that morning at his penthouse was already ingrained in her memory. The last thing she needed was to see that sadness and confusion again, especially since now it would be a mirror reflection of her own.

So instead she moved as quickly as unsteady legs on four-inch heels would allow, praying she could make it to her office unseen.

The thirtieth floor was usually a hotbed of activity. All day long assistants, mail clerks, clients, even reporters, would zigzag through the hallways. But as Allie rounded the corner, she was relieved to discover there wasn’t a soul in sight.

Unfortunately, that relief was short-lived.

When she pushed through the glass doors that lead to the executive offices, her steps faltered. Colin was seated at his desk just outside her office door. Judging by the deep crease between his brows, he was concentrating hard on whatever was displayed on his computer monitor. Even so, Allie knew he’d look up and greet her as she approached, just as he had every other time over the past three days. Only this time she knew she had the look of someone who’d just been thoroughly well-fucked. Colin had a keen eye, and in the short time he’d worked for her had proven quite adept at reading her expressions. But in this case no special intuition would be needed. One look at her disheveled hair, smeared lipstick, and rumpled clothes and he’d know exactly what she’d been up to.

“Hey there, boss lady,” he said as she blew past his desk.

She kept her head down, running a hand through her hair in an attempt to not only restore some order, but in the hopes of hiding her flushed face as well. “Hold my calls, please, Colin.”

“Sure thing,” she heard him reply as she closed her office door.

Dazed, she stumbled to her private bathroom, where she sank to the ground and dropped her head in her hands. With a heavy exhale the tears began to fall. Tears of grief, sadness, regret. But most of all, anger. What the hell had she been thinking? She’d been doing so well keeping Hudson Chase at arm’s length. And while yes, it was partly to punish him for the lies and deceit, it was also to protect her heart. But instead of telling him to go to hell when he’d pinned her against the elevator wall, she’d let him fuck her. And at Ingram headquarters, no less.

Way to be professional, Allie.

A harsh laugh cut through her silent tears. Because despite everything she was feeling, she had to admit it wasn’t her unprofessional behavior that was in the forefront of her mind. It wasn’t even the anger she felt toward herself for giving Hudson the satisfaction of knowing he’d broken through her defenses. No, what consumed her thoughts as she sat on the cold tile floor was how much she’d enjoyed every minute of it. And how if Hudson had followed her, she’d likely have let him do it again. On her couch, over her desk, in her shower . . .

This has to stop.

She scrambled to her feet and stepped in front of the vanity. The sight made her wince. Her hair was even worse then she’d imagined, the once-soft curls now a matted, tangled mess. Her lips were swollen from Hudson’s bruising kisses, the edges smeared with the remnants of pink lipstick. Her cheeks were raw from the scrape of his stubble against her skin, and her eyes were streaked with mascara from where she’d swiped her tears away with the back of her hand.

And on top of everything else, she was without panties.

Just fucking great.

She pulled the shredded lace out of her pocket. What a mess. When she and Hudson were named co-CEOs, she’d devised a plan. No matter what he said, she would keep their dealings professional, steering the topics back to Ingram whenever he digressed. It shouldn’t have been difficult. She should have been able to resist him, no matter how sexy he looked in that damn Armani suit. And yet there she was, less than a week since their appointment, cleaning herself up after a walk of shame back to her office. What the hell had she been thinking?

As if taunting her rhetorical question, the memory of Hudson’s fingers stroking the damp fabric between her thighs filled her mind. She shook her head hard to clear it, then looked her reflection in the eyes and told herself in no uncertain terms that what happened was a mistake. Granted it was a mind-blowing mistake that had her coming so hard she’d ripped the buttons from his shirt, but a mistake nonetheless. A lapse in judgment. And it would never happen again. Ever.

Feeling a new sense of determination, Allie tossed her ruined panties into the trash. She dabbed her face with a wet towel, ran a brush through her hair, and after a quick reapplication of makeup, was almost good as new. But although she might have looked presentable, the ache between her legs as she walked back to her desk was a cruel and constant reminder of what had just happened.

Work. She needed to get Hudson Chase out of her mind and concentrate on work. Luckily, there were piles of it waiting on her desk. Not to mention the prep she needed to do for the battle that was looming at tomorrow’s board meeting.

Hudson had made his feelings on the newspaper division painfully clear. In his opinion it was outdated and a drain on the bottom line. While that might be true, there was also a considerable amount of respected brand recognition with consumers and a legitimacy that came along with that. Allie’s grandfather had started his entire empire with that paper. She wasn’t giving up on it without a fight. With any luck she’d be able to convince the board to retain their flagship division by offsetting any print losses with the lucrative streaming component she was going to suggest for their online content. But before she and Colin could put the finishing touches on that proposal, there were affiliate contract renewals to review.

She’d barely gone over the first one when there was a tap at the door.

“Come in.”

Colin slipped into the room and closed the door behind him. “Sorry to disturb you, but Detective Green is here to see you,” he said. His hushed tone explained why he hadn’t simply used the intercom. “She doesn’t have an appointment, so if you’d rather, I can tell her now’s not a good time.”

As shaky as Allie felt, was there ever going to be a good time to discuss the details of her parents’ murder with the investigating officer? Might as well get it over with.

“No, I’ll speak with her.” One more reason to wish she’d never crawled out of bed this morning.

Colin nodded but didn’t move. He simply stood there, regarding her for a moment. “You okay, boss lady?”

Allie really needed to work on her poker face. “I’m fine. But can you give me just a minute, though?”

“Sure thing. Buzz me when you’re ready.”

She signed and initialed the contract, then stacked it neatly in her outbox. After a few deep breaths, she hit the button on the phone’s intercom and gave him the go-ahead to send her in.

A moment later the door opened.

“Thank you for seeing me, Miss Sinclair,” Detective Green said, striding toward Allie with her hand extended. She was dressed in another dark, boxy suit and wore her brown hair in the same no-nonsense bun she did every time Allie saw her. The gold shield wasn’t clipped to her belt this time, but Allie knew that a gun was holstered beneath her jacket. And after seeing the damage a bullet could do firsthand, the mere proximity to a gun, even one carried by a police detective, made her uneasy. “I would have called first, but I was in the area on another case and thought I’d take a chance you were free.”

“It’s not a problem,” Allie said. She shook the detective’s hand, then motioned to a chair in front of her desk. “Please, have a seat. Can I offer you something to drink?”

“Coffee would be great.” She looked at Colin. “Black, one sugar.”

He nodded. “Anything for you, Miss Sinclair?”

Coffee was the last thing Allie needed given the current state of her nerves. “Maybe a cup of tea?”

“Right away,” he said. But he lingered, regarding her a moment more before crossing to the bar on the far side of the room.

Allie watched as the detective’s shrewd stare took in her surroundings. Even though her office wasn’t a crime scene, it was obvious she was cataloging every detail. From the oversize mahogany desk to the cluster of wingback chairs arranged near the bar, to the gallery of historic headlines framed in chronological order on the far wall, nothing went unnoticed.

“This was your father’s office?” Green asked.

It wasn’t a tough assumption to make. Everything about the room resonated with a sense of masculine power. If her position at Ingram became permanent, Allie would eventually redecorate. Something lighter, more in keeping with her own personality and taste. But for now she had bigger concerns than replacing tapestry with silk. “And my grandfather’s before that.”

Colin returned with two china cups. Allie glanced up to find his handsome face etched with concern. “Thank you, Colin.” She gave him a reassuring smile. “I’ll call you if I need anything else.”

The moment he was gone, Allie turned her attention to the woman seated across from her.

“What can I do for you, Detective?” she asked, cutting right to the chase. Detective Green hadn’t stopped by just to tell her there were no new developments. Or to have a look at Ingram’s executive offices. There was a purpose for her impromptu visit, and as far as Allie was concerned, the sooner they got to it, the better.

Green put her cup back on its saucer and reached for the leather satchel at her feet. “There are a few things I’d like you to look over.”

A lump formed in the pit of Allie’s stomach. Surely this woman hadn’t come to her office in the middle of the day to show her crime scene pictures? Or worse, her parents’ autopsy photos? Regardless of the rocky start to her morning, Allie didn’t think she’d ever be ready to see those images.

She breathed a sigh of relief when Detective Green dug through her bag and pulled out not eight-by-ten photos, but a stack of papers that appeared to contain some sort of list.

“This is the complete inventory of your parents’ Lake Forest home. We’ve given a copy to the insurance company and asked them to cross reference it with the policy riders to see if they can determine what was taken.” Green slid the printout across the desk. “We’d like you to look it over as well.”

Allie pulled the list toward her and with trembling fingers flipped through page after page of items: artwork, furs, crystal, silver, jewelry.

Jewelry. An audible gasp escaped her lips.

“What is it?”

With wide eyes she met Detective Green’s curious stare, but when she spoke, her words were barely a whisper. “Her ring.”

“Excuse me?”

She swallowed hard to find her voice. “When they were bagging my mother’s hands, she wasn’t wearing her engagement ring. Would they have removed it?”

“No, they wouldn’t have tampered with the evidence.”

“My mother always wore that ring. She never took it off.”

“Can you describe it for me?”

“The center stone is an oval Ceylon sapphire,” she said. “About ten carats, I believe. It’s surrounded by a ring of diamond solitaires.”

The detective glanced up from her notes. “Like Princess Diana’s?” Allie nodded and the detective scribbled a few more lines in her notebook. “Is there anything else that jumps out at you?”

Allie scanned the list a second time. “It’s hard to say. Nothing as obvious as that, but I’ll have to think about it.”

“Take your time and let me know if you come up with anything. In the meantime, I’ll follow up with the insurance company and make sure a list of stolen property is given to area pawnshops as well as the local precincts. That ring would be hard to fence, but if someone tries to move any of the other items, we’ll be ready.”

“So you’re still going on the assumption that this was just a burglary?” Allie asked. It wasn’t hard to miss the hope in her voice. As much as she hated the thought that her parents’ death was due to some random act of violence, it was even worse to imagine they’d been targeted specifically.

“Right now we’re not ruling anything out. That’s actually the other reason I’m here. In addition to going over the household inventory, I’d like you to compile a list of any of your parents’ known enemies.”

“I’m not sure I’d classify anyone in their life as ‘known enemies,’ Detective. My mother’s friends at the country club can be catty bitches, but they’re relatively harmless.” She thought about that and added, “For the most part.”

“I know this is difficult, Miss Sinclair. No one wants to imagine such a heinous crime could have been committed by someone they knew. But your parents lived in a very elite, powerful circle. And at this point in the investigation, we have to look at any and all possible leads.”

Green leaned back in her chair and crossed an ankle over her knee as Allie turned her attention back to the list of household items. She’d just begun working her way through the section marked ART & COLLECTIBLES when the Detective clarified her earlier comment.

“Although you’ll be relieved to know we met with your new business partner on Thursday and have cleared him as a suspect.”

Allie’s head snapped up from the papers in her hand. “Hudson—I mean, Mr. Chase—was a suspect?”

“Given the recent revelation that he’d been targeting Ingram for a hostile takeover, and for some time it seems.”

She cringed at the mention of how long Hudson’s plan had been in the works. “Hostile is an expression, Detective Green. These types of acquisitions, while unpleasant, don’t involve murder.”

“I happen to agree with you, Miss Sinclair. And as it turned out, Mr. Chase had an airtight alibi.” She flipped the page on her notebook. “Visiting his brother at a rehab facility in Wisconsin that day. But we have to look at every possibility, and once we’d learned he’d met with your father—”

Allie felt the blood drain from her face. “He did?”

Detective Green nodded. “A few days before the murders.”

Why in the world would he have done that? And a better question, why hadn’t he told her?

“I’ll be in touch in a few days. But if anything comes to mind . . .”

“Yes, of course, I’ll call you immediately.”

Detective Green tucked her notes back into her leather satchel. “Sorry again for the impromptu visit.”

Allie began to stand but the Detective held up her hand. “Don’t get up, I can see myself out. I’ve taken up enough of your day already.”

The office door had barely clicked shut before Allie spun her chair around and booted up her father’s desktop computer. She’d spent the first week working off her laptop, not quite ready to sift through her father’s numerous files. But if what Detective Green had said was true, and she had no reason to believe it wasn’t, then Hudson had met with her father shortly before his murder. In this very office. A fact he had somehow failed to mention. She sighed. Just one more item on what seemed to be an ever-growing list. Then again, she thought as a headache formed behind her eyes, he might have mentioned it if she’d let him say more than two words to her.

Allie pinched the bridge of her nose while she waited for the calendar program to open. When it did, she discovered meticulous, color-coded notes indicating meetings, times, and topics. She scrolled through each of the dates, scouring the screen for any mention of Hudson’s name. It was so small she almost missed it. At the two o’clock entry on October 28, the words H. CHASE were typed in a simple black font.

October 28.

A cold chill ran down her spine as she read the date again. It was the day Julian returned unexpectedly from France. The day Hudson had come to her rescue, saving her not only from Julian’s attack, but from a life she no longer wished to live. He was the one she wanted to spend her life with. She’d made up her mind that morning after they’d returned from their weekend in Lake Geneva. But as anxious as she’d been to tell him the news, she’d wanted to do it in person, not over the phone. So she’d fought the urge to call him all day, only to later realize he hadn’t reached out to her either. At the time she’d meant to ask him what had kept him so busy, but with everything that had happened, the question had lost its significance. Until now.

Allie leaned back in her chair, trying to process what her father’s own calendar had just confirmed. She had no idea why the two men met, or what they had discussed, but one thing was certain—after tomorrow’s board meeting, she was damn well going to find out.








Chapter Ten







Hudson wasn’t accustomed to losing a battle, especially not in the boardroom. Liquidating the newspaper division made perfect sense when balancing down to the bottom line. But Allie maintained the print edition was the cornerstone of Ingram, what her grandfather had built his empire on, and had cleverly used that nostalgia to her advantage.

She’d backed up her claim that it was the most identifiable brand within their holdings by coming to the meeting armed with meticulous numbers and a shit-ton of research. When someone targeted her theory she fired back, countering the naysayer with brass facts. More importantly, she presented expansion options for the current online content to include streaming media components that were projected to more than compensate for any resulting loss in revenue.

He had to hand it to her, she’d done her homework, presented her case, and persuaded the votes she needed to lock in the new direction of Ingram Media. Hot-fucking-damn, he should have been pissed she’d persuaded the board to side with her, but instead he was impressed. And it took all of his self-control not to clap his palms together when the meeting ended.

As everyone filed out of the room, Allie shuffled some papers around, then tapped them against the mahogany. A slight smile pulled at the corner of her mouth as if she were finding some satisfaction, even a little joy, from her victory in their power play.

Despite being out of options, Hudson’s will remained the same. He still wanted the woman who was doing everything in her power to ignore his presence. But she was giving him nothing to grab onto, nothing to draw her to him and make her see how fucking sorry he was. Without her the world no longer made sense. All he had were memories that bled into the horrific morning when she discovered his deception. The lies that cost him everything and left him a giant void in the shape of a grown man.

Allie looked up at him. Her smile smoothed out and the room became as cold as a morgue. “What are you waiting for?”

“I wanted to apologize for my behavior yesterday. That wasn’t exactly how—”

“Don’t.” She cut him off with a sharp wave of her hand. “I meant, why aren’t you buying more shares of Ingram? One percent isn’t much at the aggressive rate you were acquiring stock. You could have surpassed me by now and then you wouldn’t have lost today’s vote.”

Hudson sucked in a breath and exhaled in a rush. “I’m not taking your father’s company away from you, Alessandra.”

“Why not? Wasn’t that the plan? Snatch Ingram out from under him while his daughter was under you?”

“Sleeping with you was never part of the plan.” Hudson remained calm, keeping his hands in his pockets and one ankle crossed over the other as he leaned against the wall. His eyes, however, were locked on Allie with the stealth and shrewdness of a hawk.

“But there was a plan, wasn’t there?”

“Not one that involved you.”

“No? So I was just an added perk then? Or maybe I’m flattering myself. Maybe it was all part of some twisted revenge for what I did to you ten years ago. Maybe you hated every minute of it.” Her words gained momentum with every syllable she lashed at him.

“Enough.” Hudson pushed away from the wall and drew his hand out of his pocket as he methodically moved toward her. On the outside he appeared calculated, while on the inside his spine started to vibrate. It was a sensation he’d grown familiar with around her, a big two-ton fuck me. He wanted her back and in the dangerous-edge kind of way. “Verbal daggers are getting us nowhere. Surely you know me better than to think I’ll give up. Hear me out; give me a chance to explain.” He played the only card he had left. “Then if you want, I’ll leave you alone.”

Allie regarded him for a long moment, then crossed her arms over her chest. “Fine, I’m listening.”

“I swear in the beginning I didn’t know.”

“But eventually you did know. And yet you said nothing. Not even when we were at the lake.” Her voice wavered. “In front of the fire.”

“I planned to tell you.”

“Making a decision is not taking action, Hudson.”

“Goddamn it, Allie.” Hudson balled his hand into a fist. He wanted to punch something, but all the fucking walls were glass, nailing them into a goddamn fishbowl. Lucky for them the conference room came with the frost-yourself special. Hudson jutted out an arm and hit the switch. Instantly the glass turned opaque.

“You really think it was all some scheme for revenge?” He laughed in a short burst. “You’re giving me too much credit. Hurting you wasn’t on my business plan.” He pivoted and ran a hand through his hair. When he faced her again, it was head-on. “You think that low of me?”

“I don’t have evidence that says otherwise. You’d lied to me the entire time we were together.”

“Not about how I felt, Allie, never about how I felt. I should have been honest with you about the rest, but the feelings I had for you were real.”

Now she was the one to let out a mocking laugh. “Feelings? Do you have any idea what it feels like to be deceived by the people closest to your heart?”

The reality of what his omission had done to her weighed heavily on him. Fuck that, he might as well have been wearing lead shoes at the bottom of the ocean.

“I lost you, I lost my parents. I lost my life as I knew it and everything I’ve ever known to be true.”

“Allie, listen, please . . .”

“It’s too late for this, Hudson. The damage is done.” She glared at him. “And this time it wasn’t me who royally screwed things up. You took care of that all on your own the day you decided to target my family.”

Hudson rubbed his temples and a vicious frown pulled at the corners of his mouth. “It wasn’t a personal attack on your father. It was business, nothing more. I was after the company, same as any other I’ve acquired, and I wasn’t seated alone in the crowd of prospective buyers. The fact that Ingram Media was on the verge of bankruptcy was public knowledge.”

“If it wasn’t personal, then why did you meet with him?”

Hudson blinked. “I met with your father to offer him a deal. The day after we came back from Lake Geneva, I was having second thoughts about—”

“Second thoughts?” Allie cut him off.

“About not salvaging Ingram Media. It’s a viable company with a wealth of potential. What I proposed was that the acquisition go through and Ingram become a subsidiary of Chase Industries. I told your father he could remain on as president.”

“He wasn’t interested in taking you up on the offer?”

Hudson paused and considered his answer. He seemed to be stepping into one pothole after another, and like hell if he was going to twist his motherfucking ankle on this one. But he swore to himself that he would never lie to her again, despite how much the truth hurt. Scratch that, he couldn’t tell her how her father had lashed out at him with anger sharper than any blade and handed him a one way ticket to “Go to hell” that read “Fuck you” on it.

“No,” he said with heavy sigh. “He wasn’t going down without a fight. He wanted a family member to man the helm and push Ingram Media into the future. Despite what transpired, the hell he was pushing you into with that French fuck, he loved you and believed in you. I believe in you, Allie.” The gravel tone of his voice was pleading, and when Allie met his eyes, there was a subtle softening; a pain mixed with an unrequited need. “I’m sorry.” The words didn’t even begin to cover it, but in the end it was the best he could do.

“It doesn’t change anything.”Allie’s eyes drifted shut. “You have to let me go, Hudson. Release me.”








Chapter Eleven







As Hudson hit the exit of the rehab facility he felt like he was being chased, which was goddamn insane. There wasn’t anyone of threat behind him, except the biography of people bottoming out after snorting cocaine through deviated septums. The similar tie to them all was that the disease was a destroyer and it had not only claimed his mother, but was a grim reaper circling, ready to take his little brother down.

Fuck if that was going to happen.

What was behind him was a coin perpetually being tossed in the air with disaster on one side and shit out of luck on the other. The trouble was, he’d been trying to bury it there and had no plans of resurrecting it. And that little family group therapy session made him anxious as fuck to get the hell away from all the Kumbaya shit.

He must have checked his watch every ten minutes. All that sharing had his heart doing jumping jacks and his palms sweating, and the closer it came to his turn for a one-on-one with his brother, the worse it got. But even once they were out of there, away from all the other people visiting their loved ones, the things said in that room still crowded between them as they headed down the cobblestone sidewalk in silence.

When they hit the damp grass, the leaves that had fallen from the trees crunched under their feet and teardrops formed on the tops of their shoes. Nick stopped in front of a wooden bench and took a seat. He pulled the collar of his black pea coat tighter as Hudson shoved his hands into the pockets of his gray wool pants.

More silence.

But the noise couldn’t get any louder for Hudson. He pinched the bridge of his nose and debated what to say to his brother other than that he was proud of him for sticking with rehab.

In the end it was Nick who finally spoke. “The whole reason for this family stuff is to talk. You didn’t say but two words in there, Hudson. You’ve put up with a fuck-ton of my crap for, like, ever, man. This is our chance to work that out so we can toss our shit hand over our shoulders.”

Hudson rubbed the back of his neck and took in a deep breath, smelling the dried leaves. “That session is for you to . . .” He wanted to say unload, dump on, play the blame game. “Tell me what I can do to help you stay clean, not for me to pontificate to a room full of strangers.”

“It’s supposed to educate you, bro, on all this rehab stuff. The counselor is there to keep my ass from justifying why I feel the need to choke down a handful of drugs with a beer chaser.”

“I’m aware of that session’s intent,” Hudson said tightly.

“It only works if you work it.”

Sweet hell, his brother was talking in goddamn bumper stickers.

The truth was, that little family group session brought up everything from their past that was straight-up out of a horror flick. Hudson wasn’t interested in some peace-is-love-let’s-hug-it-out asshole holding him accountable for his failures. He knew he was responsible for Nick’s joyride that read like a scene from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

God, he sounded like a bastard. The program was saving his little brother’s life, better than any attempt he had made. For that, Hudson thanked his lucky-fucking-stars.

But that didn’t mean he wanted to talk about it.

“We went through a lot of the same shit. You’ve been cleaning up my messes for too long.” Nick looked up at Hudson, his boyish face grimly set. “Hear anything about, you know?”

“The body was found. And as I predicted, there have been no questions with regards to another junkie taking a dirt nap in an alley. Case closed.”

“You sure?”

“You’re off the hook, Nicky. Focus on . . .”

“My skill building? Making that arts and crafts shit out of twigs and feathers?”

“Yeah, what the fuck is this?” Hudson picked up the willow loop he’d set on the bench between them. On top of it a loose network of thread was woven into a web.

“Yo, bro, there is deep meaning to all that.”

“By all means, enlighten me.”

Hudson’s grin broadened as Nick cleared his throat, preparing to give some thorough lecture on Native American art.

“The design is to allow only the good dreams to filter through. It catches the bad dreams like a badass, and they disappear in the day. The kick-ass dreams, maybe even some sex dreams—not that you need those—slide down these feathers.” Nick ticked the tendrils with his fingers. “Into your pretty little head.”

“And where do I put this magnificent work of art?” There was more than a hint of sarcasm in Hudson’s voice.

“Nice, real appreciative of all my hard work. I think I have carpal tunnel from weaving that shit. Put the thing over your bed, dude.”

Hudson’s brow shot up. “Over my bed?”

“Yup, then the magic happens.” Nick’s mouth curved into a shit-eating grin.

The only thing Hudson could do was laugh. “If you say so.” He examined the matrix of threads. If only this thing could really put an end to the nightmares that cleaved into his subconscious on a nightly rotation. “Thanks, Nicky,” he said, standing and tucking the loop into his leather jacket. “I’ll hang it up.”

Nick stood up, nearly eye-to-eye with Hudson. “Thanks for coming. It means a lot to me that you’re taking this seriously.”

“I’m proud of you.” Hudson pulled Nick into a hug. “So damn proud. Keep it up.” As he released his little brother, they both got their manly back-slapping routine on.

“Uh, I’d ask you to stay for dinner but the food in this joint sucks. Couldn’t you have hooked me up with some place in Malibu with a celebrity chef?”

Hudson threw his head back and laughed. “That’s not rehab, its vacation.”

“Well then, for fuck’s sake, help your little brother out and bring me some Al’s Beef.”

“Speaking of food, can I spring you for Thanksgiving?”

“Nah, not a chance. I’m not done with my thirty-day sentence. And holidays supposedly cause an itchy trigger finger or something. Sends us addicts into relapse. So it’s lockdown with turkey rolls and mashed potato paste.”

“I’ll catch you next week then.” Hudson zipped up his jacket and pulled his keys from the pocket.

“Hey, Hudson, don’t spend the holiday working. Call Allie, make amends.”

It had been nearly two weeks since Allie put the final nail in that coffin. She’d let him say his piece, but hell if it had made any difference. And now just hearing her name was like a knife to the heart.

Hudson looked down at the ground and exhaled a sharp breath before looking back up at Nick. “Yeah, I tried that, Nicky. It wasn’t enough. We’re done. For good this time.”








Chapter Twelve







Reality twisted and the nightmare seized him, tunneling through his subconscious with a silent domination. Every moment became impossible, a sense of “this can’t be happening.” Yet the convenience store became more distinct, the pungent smell of copper infiltrating his nose. The slick sensation of being wet made his skin itch as blood soaked his jeans, and the screams that peeled out of his mother’s mouth morphed into the screeching sirens that ricocheted inside his eardrums.

The dream tantalized him with the false idea that he could roll back the clock sixty seconds earlier. When Hudson tried to hit rewind, the nightmare took control and made him relive the tragedy as it flickered through his psyche. But none of it was enough to snap him out of the replay.

Blood was everywhere, glistening and crimson under the fluorescent lights that hung low on the ceiling. The man who lay bleeding on the cheap linoleum with a gaping wound to the chest wasn’t a stranger to him, he was the man he looked up to. Now his blue stare, slowly losing its color, penetrated Hudson and paralyzed him with a death grip on his father’s soaked shirt. He willed him to say something, to reassure him that everything was going to be okay. But all Hudson heard were gurgling sounds from his father, and the hard burst of his own breath as he stared down at the eyes that were losing their focus.

More strained breaths and gurgling.

Between one blink and the next, he was being torn away from his father. He looked back at him. The skin that had once been golden tan was now going gray.

A scream came out of his mother’s mouth at the same time one was ripped from his.

Hudson jackknifed off the bed. With his breath coming sharp and fast out of his mouth, he swung his feet over the side of the bed and flipped on the bedside lamp. He closed his eyes and tried to reboot, but the bright bouquet of red stained the backs of his lids.

“Fuck,” he muttered. It was the same horror show the past four nights in a row. The repeats were inevitable since Nick decided to open the door with C-4 and rattle the skeletons he’d locked up in the darkest place of his mind. Now his subconscious was burping that shit up like a bad trip through the Haunted Mansion.

Taking shallow breaths and doing his best to think of absolutely fucking nothing, he pushed unsteadily to his feet and staggered to the bathroom. Once inside the room he didn’t bother with the lights; the moon was providing enough as it filtered in through the floor-to-ceiling windows. When you sat at the top of the world there wasn’t a threat of being caught naked, but like he gave a flying fuck.

Hudson reached into the shower, cranked the faucets, and turned the water on as hot as he could stand it without stripping off his first layer of skin. He braced his palms against the marble and leaned into the spray as he let the water wash over him. The hot water was a blessing, rinsing away the wake of the nightmare, slowly but not entirely.

Hanging his head he felt the hot rush sluice over the back of his skull, split off his shoulders, and cascade down his chest and back. As he stood there, he thought of the only thing that seemed to ground him to the present.

Allie.

The way she felt under him when he was buried deep inside her. The sight of her body arching into his as he drove them both toward the edge. The sound of her moans in his ear as they climaxed together.

And instantly he was hard.

Rock hard.

Hudson shut his eyes and gripped himself with both hands.

Allie was on her knees. “I want your cock.”

“Where do you want it? Show me.”

She leaned forward and parted her lips over his glistening tip. Her mouth was hot and wet.

Hudson grew even harder as he forgot where he was and that it was his hand grasping his cock, which was a poor fucking substitute for having her lips wrapped around his shaft. Nothing compared to what it felt like to slide himself in and out of her beautiful mouth, to see her look up at him with a heat that mirrored his own.

He shifted his legs apart, his breath easing in and out of his heavy chest as she took him all the way into her mouth. The head of his cock hit the back of her throat and the pleasure shot up and down his spine.

“Just like that,” he groaned as he fisted a hand into her hair. “Deeper.”

She got into it, relaxing her throat to take more of him then sucking hard as he pulled out. Hudson thrust forward and slipped even deeper. “I love fucking your mouth . . .”

Allie wrapped her arms around his thighs and squeezed his ass as he pumped into her mouth. He looked down and the sight nearly made him come. Fuck him, he was ready, but he wanted to feel her for as long as he could.

She sucked harder and grazed her teeth up the length of his cock

Sweet fucking hell. His balls tightened up as hard as a fist. The sensation alone was almost too much to handle, but how she worshiped him kicked him up into another dimension.

Finding a rhythm, he watched his thick head move in and out of her mouth. The weeks he’d spent without her had nearly killed him. Everything in his life was flipped upside down, yet with her in it, fell into perfect place. Without her his heart beat only to serve one need, to pump blood and oxygen through his body.

The tip of her tongue traced the pulsing vein along the underside of his cock. His whole body felt the sensation. “Jesus, God in Heaven.” He slammed a palm against the tile, the hunger punching through any shred of civility he had left and running down into a base need. Just then the orgasm threatened the head of his cock. “Damn, Allie,” Hudson hissed. His grip tightened in her hair. “Don’t stop. I’m going to come in your mouth and you’re going to swallow it all.”

A curse exploded out of his mouth, his body bowing forward and his head listing back as his release rocketed out of him and into his hand.

***

After Hudson dressed in his version of “Black Friday”—black pants and a black cashmere V-neck with a gray tee underneath—he hit the button on the elevator to shoot him straight down to the garage. The moment he stepped in, a muffled ring came from his pocket. He yanked the phone out, but before he could give his usual greeting, a cheerful voice fired off on the other end.

“Happy Thanksgiving, bro.”

“Happy Thanksgiving.” Hudson wasn’t feeling so happy despite his little fantasy session, but for Nick’s sake he was going to sing and dance. “Giving you a feast in that place, or what?” He strode out of the elevator toward his fleet of cars. What he wouldn’t give to have his bike right now, he thought.

“Yeah.” Nick let out a sarcastic laugh. “Mashed potatoes, powdered gravy, and some box shit stuffing. Nothing like Mom used to make.”

Hudson frowned as a memory shot through his mind. Nick had reached way back for that little nugget. Their mom had been gone for years, but it had been even longer since she’d made them a home cooked meal, let alone a holiday spread. “That was a long time ago, Nicky.”

“I know.” Nick’s voice softened. “I miss her, too, Dad.”

Hudson slid into the waiting limo. “To the office.” Max nodded and shut the car door.

“On Thanksgiving?” Nick said. “You work too fucking much.”

“Business doesn’t stop for holidays.” Hudson really didn’t want to get into the subject of his parents right now, or how many hours he clocked, for that matter, so he made a move to flip the convo on its ass. “What else they got going on for you?”

“Movies and shit. And a group session later to talk about how the holidays make us feel.” Nick emphasized the last word but Hudson knew it was for his benefit. Nick was drinking the rehab Kool-Aid at this point, but Hudson couldn’t have cared less. He’d spoon feed the shit to his little brother himself if needed.

“Nicky . . .” His voice trailed off as Max took a turn onto Michigan Avenue at the same time Allie stepped out of a taxi. In his ear he could hear Nick going on about stale food and adolescent games of charades, but Hudson’s focus was on nothing but her. As they idled at the red light, he watched her pull her jacket closed before making her way across the icy sidewalk and into a local coffee shop. He imagined her delivering a complicated order to the barista and a slight smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.

“Hey, bro, gotta jet, apparently an expert bottle cap flicker is needed.” Hudson heard the crack of knuckles through the receiver.

“That’s the best use of your time?”

“Nah, dude, just kidding. Gotta have some fun.” Nick laughed. “Catch ya later?”

“Yeah, Nicky. Proud of you. I’ll see you Sunday.” Hudson pressed the intercom. “Pull over, Max.” He slid forward on the leather bench as the car pulled to the curb and slowed. But when it came to a stop, he paused with his fingers curled around the door handle. Allie had made it clear she wanted nothing more to do with him, no matter how hard he pursued her, and he’d promised to leave her alone if she heard him out. She’d held up her end, it was only fair he did the same. So despite how much he wanted her in his life, Hudson dropped his hand and ordered Max to continue on to Chase Industries.








Chapter Thirteen







Allie pushed through the revolving doors of the Grand Lux Café and took the escalator to the second floor. With its Venetian-inspired décor and soaring ceilings, the Michigan Avenue eatery offered a relaxing atmosphere along with a menu that required nothing short of a binder to hold all the options. But Allie knew her best friend well. The real draw for Harper wasn’t the opulent theme or the entrees that ranged from Malaysian to Caribbean. It was the extensive variety of specialty drinks and the dessert case that ran the length of the lobby that kept the restaurant in Harper’s “Top Ten.”

Stepping off the escalator, Allie found herself directly in front of the glass display of decadence. Her mouth watered at the sight of the molten lava cake and crème brûlée. No way, she thought. The liquid calories she planned to consume would be bad enough. Her thighs certainly didn’t need a few beignets tossed into the mix. With the hours she’d been putting in at Ingram, gym time had grown scarce. And while she was comfortable with her curves, her recent dependence on comfort foods had to stop.

“One for dinner?” the hostess asked.

One for dinner. Were there three more depressing words in the English language? Maybe when followed by “alone at the office.” And although lately that seemed to be the case most nights for Allie, at least on this Thursday night it wasn’t.

“No, actually, I’m meeting someone.” The words had no sooner left her mouth when she caught sight of Harper, her head thrown back midlaugh. “And looks like I just found her.”

Allie made her way to the bar where Harper sat perched on a stool. She wore a purple sweater with a white Peter Pan collar and cuffs, perfectly paired with a whimsical black-and-white polka-dot skirt. The black patent leather Mary Jane pumps seemed almost understated, but they nicely offset the black tights inscribed with literary quotes that ran the length of her leg. Allie thought of the clothing she wore beneath her coat: a conservative black pencil skirt and a white wrap-front blouse. The only things daring about her outfit were the black garter and lace-top stockings hidden underneath. For the life of her, she had no idea why she wore them. It wasn’t like anyone was going to see them. But they’d caught her eye in the drawer when she’d been getting dressed that morning and thoughts of Hudson, teasing her about wearing them on the back of his bike, made her all at once so angry and aroused that she’d put them on in some sort of defiant fit that seemed rather silly now.

As she grew closer, she heard Harper chatting away in an animated voice. “And that is why you will never catch me anywhere near the circus. Ever.” She gave an exaggerated shudder that made her red curls sway from side to side.

“Hey there,” Allie said. “Sorry if you were waiting long.”

“Not at all. And it gave me time to get to know Vince here,” she said, lifting her glass to the bartender and smiling. “He makes a killer pear martini.” A moment later the pager on the bar top began to vibrate and flash red. “Looks like our table is ready.”

The hostess led them through the restaurant, crowded not only with the usual after work customers, but with holiday shoppers laden with bags from nearly every store imaginable, to a booth overlooking Michigan Avenue. The bird’s-eye view of the twinkling lights covering the trees lining the Magnificent Mile only added to the festive atmosphere. Below them the rest of the city was celebrating the holiday season: a car inching through the traffic with an evergreen tree strapped to its roof, a Santa ringing his bell as good Samaritans dropped coins into his kettle, and children staring with wide eyes at the elaborate window displays. Christmas in Chicago was a sight to behold.

Too bad Allie felt like Ebenezer Scrooge.

“Earth to Allie.”

“Sorry.” She reached for her glass of water and took a long sip.

“No problem.” The sympathetic look in Harper’s eyes quickly faded to one of mischief. “But dessert is on you. And I’m not sharing this time, so order your own beignets,” she added with a laugh.

“Deal. Now tell me about Vince.”

Harper shrugged. “Eh.”

Allie’s eyes grew wide. “Eh? Since when do cute bartenders who make killer pear martinis get an ‘eh?’”

“Since I discovered how much med students know about . . . anatomy.”

Allie gaped at her friend, whose cheeks were suddenly as red as her hair. “Harper Hayes, are you blushing?”

“Let’s just say you’re a few episodes behind in this particular soap opera.”

“Sounds like it. So start talking.”

But instead of rattling off the intimate details of her love life, Harper let out a heavy sigh. “I knew this would happen.”

“Knew what would happen?”

“That it would be this way when we weren’t working together.” She flipped open her menu and began turning the pages. Allie knew from experience that she was headed straight to the appetizer section. “I hate having to schedule time to talk to my best friend. I feel like I talk to your assistant more than you.”

“Yeah, about that,” Allie teased, trying to lighten the mood. “Stop distracting him.”

A smile tugged at the corner of Harper’s lips but she feigned innocence as she perused the menu. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, please,” Allie said with a snort. “His desk is right outside my door. I hear him chatting away before he puts your calls through.”

Harper looked up from the menu, her green eyes wide with sincerity. “All joking aside, I hate having to schedule time to see my best friend.”

Allie reached across the table and squeezed Harper’s hand. “I know. And I’m sorry. This transition has been really tough. Hopefully things will settle down a bit after the first of the year.”

“It’s fine.” She gave her a warm smile, then turned her attention back to the menu. “But if you’re going to try to take this further than holding my hand, you better be planning to pay for dinner and not just dessert.”

Allie laughed. “Fair enough. So what are you thinking? Empanadas, volcano shrimp, or do we go for broke with the pot roast cheese fries?” After rattling off the choices, she pulled her cell phone out of her purse to add an hour at the gym to her Friday morning calendar.

“I’m thinking I better stick with the lettuce wraps.”

Allie glanced up from the phone screen, her mouth hanging open. “Who are you and what have you done with my friend?”

“She’s right here. She just ate enough sweet potato casserole last week to bust the zipper on her stress jeans.”

While she certainly sympathized, Allie couldn’t help but smile at the description. Harper had clothes designated for moods. There were stress jeans, meltdown surgical scrubs, and for really extreme scenarios, the I’m-going-to-join-a-convent elastic waist sweatpants.

“How was your trip home, aside from the binging?”

“Good. My sister was there with her new baby, so the picture taking and ‘goo-goo ga-ga’ stuff was a bit over the top. But my Uncle Eddie kept his pants on during the football games, so all in all I’d say it was a success. Still wish you would have come with me.”

“The last thing your mom needed was my mopey face at her table,” she said, only half joking. While Allie had appreciated Harper’s offer to spend the holidays with her family in St. Louis, she didn’t think she could have handled being around an extended happy family. Not only because she’d never spend another holiday with her own family, but because she knew with all certainty that being with Harper’s family would cause her to mourn the loss of the holidays she never had. Growing up Allie’s mom had made sure each and every celebration was picture-perfect, but not in the Norman Rockwell kind of way. More in the “stand still, you’ll wrinkle your dress” kind of way. A firsthand look at a normal holiday, even one with an uncle watching football in his underwear, would have been just too hard to take. “Besides, it all worked out for the best. I had a very productive weekend.”

“Productive? That’s not how people usually describe our nation’s day of gluttony.” Harper closed the menu and set it down on the table. “Please don’t tell me you spent the entire weekend working in your office alone?”

“Okay, I won’t tell you.”

Harper raised a brow but said nothing. It was unnerving.

“Fine. Yes, I worked all weekend.” Allie held up her hand in an attempt to stop the inevitable lecture. “But not always at the office and not always alone. Colin came in on Saturday and Sunday.”

Harper rolled her eyes. “Oh, I bet he loved that.”

“He was well paid and well fed, so I don’t think he had too many complaints.”

“So when do I get to meet the Sexy Secretary?”

Again with the nicknames. It was bad enough when Harper came up with creative monikers for the men in Allie’s life, but it was hardly appropriate for her employees. “First of all, he’s my executive assistant. Second, how do you know he’s sexy? And third, that’s sexual harassment.”

“First, semantics. Second, Facebook. And third, its only harassment if he works for me, which he does not. He would, however, be lots of fun to go drinking with. Oh, and dancing. I bet young Colin has some moves.”

The waitress arrived to take their orders and promised to return with a basket of bread, which Harper politely declined.

“Wow, you weren’t kidding about the stress jeans, were you?”

“It’s a DEFCON Five situation.” Harper leaned forward and rested her elbows on the table. “So what do you say?”

“About what?”

“You, me, and the Sexy . . .” She stopped herself. “You, me, and Colin. Drinks and dancing on Saturday?”

“This Saturday? As in two days from now?”

“Yep.”

Allie shook her head. “Won’t work. He’s going out of town this weekend. Sort of the trade-off for working over Thanksgiving.”

Harper shot a hopeful look across the table. “So maybe just the two of us can hang out, then?”

“I’m not sure. I have a lot of work to wrap up before everyone scatters for the holidays. And with Colin gone all weekend, it’s going to be tough.”

“Oh c’mon, I heard on the radio this morning that they’re doing the Nutcracker at the Joffrey Ballet, even have the Chicago Philharmonic playing.”

“Stop.”

“What?”

The waitress set the lettuce wraps on the table between them, along with two glasses of Pinot Grigio. Allie waited until they were alone before busting Harper’s plan wide open. “I know what you’re doing.”

“I’m simply trying to make plans to go to the ballet,” Harper said, stuffing a roll of the leafy greens in her mouth.

“You have zero interest in the ballet. Or classical music, for that matter.”

Harper washed the wrap down with what was left of her martini. “Men in tights, what’s not to love?”

“And if it were a midnight showing of a Cary Elwes movie at the Music Box, I might believe you.”

“Maybe I just want to broaden my horizons.”

“Harper, I know what Saturday is.” Allie helped herself to one of the cool leaves and filled it with spicy chicken. “And while I appreciate what you’re trying to do, I don’t need a babysitter this weekend.”

“It would have been your wedding day.”

“Honestly, I’m not losing sleep over the fact that I won’t be Marquise Laurent come Saturday.”

“Well, I know that much,” she said with a roll of her eyes. “And thank God, because if I think the current sitch is bad, I would have never seen you after Julian whisked you off to his castle in France.” Her shoulders sagged. “But so much is different than you expected it to be this weekend, I just thought maybe . . .”

Allie set her lettuce wrap back on the plate and looked her friend in the eye. “There’s a lot about my life I wish I could change, but ending my engagement to Julian isn’t one of them.”

A quiet moment passed between them before Harper spoke. “I saw him.”

She didn’t have to say anything else, because Allie knew without asking exactly who she was referring to. And as much as she wanted to grill Harper for every little detail from what he said to the tie he wore, she resisted. Instead she turned her attention back to the appetizers, taking a bite while attempting to maintain an air of complete indifference. “These are pretty good,” she said, dabbing her mouth with a napkin, “for low carb.”

“I stopped at Rosebud to get takeout one night and he was there. Alone.”

“I’m sure he was meeting someone for dinner.” The lettuce wrap suddenly felt like a rock in the pit of her stomach as the image of Sophia’s perfect face popped into her mind.

“Nope. He already had his food, although he hadn’t eaten very much. Looked to me like he was just sipping a glass of Cab and reminiscing.”

Clearly Harper had no intention of letting the subject drop. And against her better judgment, Allie took the bait. “Reminiscing? You got that from a man drinking wine in an Italian restaurant?”

“Oh, didn’t I mention he was sitting at the same table where you two had your never-ending ‘just talking about the foundation’ coffee?”

“No, you didn’t.”

“Well he was. And he looked like shit,” she added matter-of-factly.

“The additional hours are probably taking their toll.” Allie had no idea how Hudson was managing the demands of a conglomerate like Chase Industries while at the same time maintaining a near-constant presence at Ingram. No wonder Harper thought he looked like shit—the man had to be operating on very little sleep.

“I don’t mean he looked like he could use a nap,” she said as if reading Allie’s mind. “I mean he looked like a guy whose heart was broken.”

Allie let out a harsh laugh. “Now I know you’re full of shit.”

“Why?”

“You make it sound like he was the male equivalent of being curled up in sweatpants nursing a pint of ice cream. There is no way Hudson Chase was anything but composed. I’d bet my life on it.”

“Oh he was, at least on the surface. Christ, even on his worst day that man looks perfect. I mean seriously, how in the world are his eyes that blue? And that hair, I swear, one of these days I’m going to run my fingers through it and I don’t care who’s watching. But when he asked about you—”

“You spoke to him?”

Harper nodded. “Just the usual small talk. When we’ll get the first snow, how was your Thanksgiving, that sort of thing. Oh, and PS: he worked through the holiday, too, so a fine pair you make.”

“Harper,” Allie said, trying to redirect her focus. “What did he say about me?”

“He asked how you were doing.”

“And?” Allie braced herself. There was no telling what Miss Good Intentions said to him. Allie knew she meant well, but sometimes Harper spoke before she thought.

“And I told him he would probably know better than I would since he works with you now, not me.”

That wasn’t so bad. Could have been a lot worse, actually.

“But he said he wanted to know how you were doing when you weren’t at the office in Terminator mode.”

Allie raised a brow.

“Okay, maybe those weren’t his exact words. But it wasn’t how he asked that killed me. It was the look in his eyes. Honestly, the man is hurting.”

Allie sat quietly for a moment as Harper’s words settled over her. Then in a hushed voice, she asked, “What did you tell him?”

Harper took a deep breath before letting the words tumble out of her mouth in a rush. “I told him that you’ve been just as miserable as he looked and that he shouldn’t give up on you, because one of these days you might stop being so stubborn and actually forgive him and get on with your lives.”

There it was. “You did not.”

“I most certainly did. Not that it makes much difference. You’ve told him to leave you alone so many times that now he’s actually doing it.”

“Is that what he said?”

“Pretty much.”

Hudson was letting her go. Unexpected tears stung her eyes at the thought.

“You’ve lost a lot these past few weeks, but Hudson doesn’t have to be part of that list. Can’t you give him another chance?”

A hot tear slipped down Allie’s cheek. She swiped it away with the back of her hand but didn’t answer.

“He tried to make it right. He went to see your dad after your weekend in Wisconsin.”

Allie finally opened her mouth to speak but Harper was on a roll.

“And don’t bother saying it was just some attempt to make a hostile takeover less hostile. From what you’ve told me Hudson went to great lengths to gain control of Ingram, all those shell companies and the other crap I can’t even begin to understand. Do you really think he would have backed off even an inch when he was about to close the deal? Someone like Hudson Chase didn’t get where he is today by giving things away. Have you stopped to ask yourself why he really did it?”

“What do you mean?”

Harper shook her head. “For someone with all the fancy degrees, you sure are dense sometimes. He did it for you, Alessandra. He was trying to fix the situation because of his feelings for you.”

Was Harper right? Did he do it for her? Was Hudson really willing to compromise the deal he’d spent months strategizing? Their time at the lake that weekend had felt different; they’d made a connection. Or at least Allie thought they had. And when she’d returned, she’d known she had to end things with Julian, that she wanted a future with Hudson. Had he felt the same way? Surely he’d known everything would blow up when the truth came out that he was the one behind the takeover at Ingram. Was he trying to undo what damage he could by brokering a deal with her dad because . . . he wanted a future with her?

Questions ricocheted in Allie’s mind, questions neither she nor Harper could answer. But one person could. She glanced at her watch. It was almost six o’clock. “He’s probably still at the office,” she said, not even realizing she’d spoken the words out loud.

“So what are you waiting for?” Harper asked. The gleam in her eye told Allie she was already one step ahead of her.

Allie slugged down the last of her Pinot Grigio and gathered her coat. “Wish me luck.”

“You don’t need luck, my friend. Well, except maybe for hailing a cab.” Harper laughed at her own joke as Allie slid out of the booth.

“I’ll call you later.”

Harper smiled and reached for her wine glass. “Jeez, let’s hope not.” She lifted her glass. “In fact, here’s to hoping I don’t hear from you till at least Monday.”

Allie shrugged her coat on. “Don’t get carried away. I’m going to talk to him, that’s all. And I have no idea what he’s going to have to say for himself.”

Snow was falling when she stepped out into the cold night air. The city thrummed around her, taxis and pedestrians clogging the street and sidewalks as the start of their weekend took them up and down the Magnificent Mile. She stood at the curb, her arm raised as she tried in vain to hail a taxi. One finally approached, but instead of stopping, it sped past to make the light, sending a spray of icy water in her direction. She jumped back and cursed under her breath.

Impatient and convinced she could walk the half mile faster than she could hail a cab on a Thursday night, Allie set off on foot. Snowflakes the size of cotton balls swirled in the wind as she made her way north on Michigan Avenue, weaving between window shoppers, tourists, and commuters.

By the time she reached the river she was covered with snow, but she hardly noticed. And as she crossed the bridge, her heels slipped on the frost that had formed on the iron grates, but she kept her pace. Her fingers were numb and her feet were wet, but none of that mattered. Her entire focus was one goal: finding Hudson. She could see his building in the distance along the south bank of the river. The Leo Burnett building, or Chase Industries building, as it was now known, was a formidable presence on the Chicago skyline. From the charcoal-gray granite to the black glass and the chrome accents, the postmodern building was as masculine and powerful as the man whose name was emblazoned above the door. Her gaze traveled up the fifty stories to the top floor, where light glowed from Hudson’s corner office. Was he there, burning the midnight oil, or was it merely the cleaning crew, hard at work after he’d left for the night? Maybe to meet Sophia. Or what if she’d stopped by after work and was with him now? An increasingly familiar ache burned inside her chest as she suddenly pictured Sophia there with him, her voluptuous curves pressed beneath Hudson’ s hard frame on the very couch where he’d kissed her not three months before. Was that what she was about to charge in and confront?

There was only one way to find out.

Allie spun through the steel-frame revolving doors. The lobby was nearly empty except for a man standing in the corner beneath a bronze sculpture, his briefcase at his feet as he texted feverishly on his smartphone. The heels of Allie’s shoes clicked and echoed off the travertine floors as she made her way to the security desk.

“Evening, Miss Sinclair,” the security guard said with a nod.

Allie’s gaze shifted to the brushed silver bar pinned to his blazer, but the name engraved on it didn’t ring any bells. “Forgive me,” she said, embarrassed. “Have we met?”

The guard’s eyes crinkled with a warm smile. “No, ma’am, but there’s a standing order to send you up. No call needed.”

Allie returned his smile as if everything in her life was okay, as if she wasn’t about to risk what was left of her heart in an impulsive move that had her racing like a crazy woman through the snow-covered streets of Chicago. Hurrying past him to the elevator bank, she pressed the call button over and over in a futile attempt to make the car arrive more quickly. A ping alerted her to which set of doors would be opening, and she moved to stand in front of them. They’d barely opened before she was inside, repeating the button routine until the elevator began its glide to the top floor. With no music piped in after hours, the only sound she heard in the confined space was the pounding of her heart, which seemed to grow faster with each passing floor.

After what felt like an eternity, the doors slid open. The couches in the reception area were empty and the lights were dim. The entire floor appeared to be vacant except for Hudson’s assistant, Darren. As she bolted past, his head snapped up from his computer monitor and his eyes grew wide.

“Miss Sinclair.” There was a rustle of activity as he disentangled from his headset and a moment later he was tight on her heels. “If you wouldn’t mind taking a seat,” he said, slightly out of breath. “I’ll let Mr. Chase know you’re here.”

Keeping her eyes locked on Hudson’s closed door, Allie didn’t break stride. Not even when Darren caught up to her.

“Please, Miss Sinclair. He’s not alone.”








Chapter Fourteen







Somewhere in the back of Allie’s mind Darren’s words registered. Not enough to slow her down, but enough to reignite her earlier fears. The ache in her chest returned as she reached for the knob. She opened the door and jerked to a halt.

Seven heads turned as one.

“Why did you do it?” she blurted out.

Hudson sat at the head of the small conference table at the far side of his office, surrounded by six of his core team members. He wore a navy pinstripe suit, a brilliantly white shirt, and a tie that perfect shade of crystal blue to match his eyes. The sight of him hit her like a brick wall. Even from across the room the attraction was an undeniable, almost magnetic pull. Her hands clenched at her sides and her heels dug into the carpet in an attempt to hold her ground. Fighting the urge to run to him was more than just a struggle against a physical desire. It was as if her very soul needed a connection with his.

“Can you give us a minute?” he said. It wasn’t really necessary. The six executives were already gathering their belongings and fleeing the room, no doubt afraid blood was about to be shed. Given the tension between she and Hudson over the past few weeks, Allie couldn’t really blame them.

He pushed his chair away from the table and stood. Stepping closer, he searched her face for some hint or explanation. From a distance he’d seemed so composed, the executive at the helm of his ship. But up close she could see beneath the exterior Hudson showed the rest of the world to the tattered edges that lay beneath. His expression was guarded, his blue eyes clouded and dark.

They stood in a heavy silence until the door clicked closed behind them.

“What do you want, Alessandra?” His voice was solemn, level, resigned.

In an attempt to calm her racing heart, she took a slow, deep breath before repeating the question she’d practically shouted as she’d burst through the door. “I want to know why you did it.”

A frown creased his brow. “So you said. Why did I do what, exactly?”

“Why did you offer to let my father stay on at Ingram? The company was well within your reach by then. Why would you even care?”

His scowl deepened. “We discussed this.”

“Yes, but when we discussed it before you only told me what you proposed. You didn’t tell me why.”

“You didn’t ask.”

“I’m asking now. Why would it matter to you if my father stayed on at Ingram?”

He gave a sad half smile. “Your dad wondered the exact same thing.”

Allie drew a shaky breath. Picturing her father and Hudson in the same room was hard enough. Hearing their conversation replayed in her head was excruciating. “And what did you tell him?”

Hudson sighed and looked down at his shoes. When he lifted his gaze, it was wary. “I told him it was because I loved his daughter.” His voice was quiet but his conviction was clear. He’d tried to broker a deal with her father because he loved her? The revelation caused her heart to hammer inside her chest, but the momentary high was short-lived. He said loved. As in past tense. Had her efforts to push him away been successful? Had she finally proved more trouble than she was worth?

A lump formed in her throat, choking the words that came out of her mouth. “And now?”

His eyes roamed over her face for long moments before he spoke. “And now I feel like I’ve lost a piece of my fucking soul.”

Tears welled in her eyes. “But you said loved, as in the past—”

“I love you, Allie. I always have, and God help me, I think I always will.”

“I love you, too, Hudson.”

He reached her in two strides, his hands framing her face as he sealed his mouth over hers. His fingers trembled against her skin but his kiss was strong and confident, his lips taking hers with an undeniable possession.

As if a sigh of relief, Allie melted against his hard frame. Her lips parted, letting his tongue slide against hers in lush, deep strokes she felt echo to her very core. This was what she’d missed the past few weeks; this was what she’d needed to feel whole. The thought that she’d almost lost him forever collided with her burning need and it was too much. The emotion of the moment swept over her and a broken sob escaped her lips.

“Don’t cry,” he rasped. His lips brushed across her face, kissing away the tear that spilled down her cheek. “I know how badly I’ve hurt you, and it kills me to see you cry.”

She shook her head. “It’s not that.”

Hudson leaned back, his gaze soft and unfocused. “Then what is it?”

The tears flowed freely now. She cupped his face with her hand, wanting him to understand their meaning. “Yes, you hurt me, Hudson, probably more than anyone ever has or ever could, because you’re not like the others. You see the real me, you always have. My life was a mess when we found each other. But with Julian out of the picture, I finally had the chance to start over. And I should have given you that chance, too. I should have let you come clean and have a fresh start, let us have a fresh start.” She took a stuttering breath. “We finally had the chance fate had denied us for ten years, and I let my pride and anger ruin it. I pushed you away.”

He pressed his lips to hers. “I’m right here, Allie.”

“I want you, Hudson. I always have.”

“You’ve got me, baby.” He teased her with gentle licks, coaxing her lips apart. “I’m not going anywhere.”

His words ratcheted her desire for him to an almost debilitating need. With a soft moan she deepened their kiss, her tongue darting out to meet his. One hand fisted his shirt while the other tangled in his thick, wavy hair, holding him to her. She’d spent so much time pushing him away when what she really needed and wanted was to pull him closer. And now that she’d let her guard down, now that she was letting him in, she couldn’t get close enough. She needed his skin touching hers. She needed him inside her. Now.

“I need you,” she gasped as his mouth slid down her throat. “Need you inside me.”

A growl vibrated deep in his chest. His hand slid down her back, cupping her backside and yanking her hard against his erection. “Feel what you do to me, Allie. You make me so fucking hard it hurts.” His arm banded around her waist, lifting her onto the edge of his desk. Papers fluttered to the ground in one fell sweep, and a moment later she was beneath him, his body pressing hers against the mahogany top.

Reaching down, Hudson’s hand slipped under the edge of her skirt. His breath caught when his fingers found the garters clipped to the top of her silk stockings. “Goddamn, Allie,” he murmured against her lips. He tore his mouth from hers, leaving her panting with anticipation as his gaze traveled down her body. His fingers stroked the exposed skin at the top of her thigh.

“Since the day you walked into my office, I’ve wanted you here, spread out on my desk while I fucked you senseless over Chicago.”

“Ah God, yes.” She grasped his tie, pulling him back down. With a groan he took her mouth again, crushing his lips against hers in a ravenous kiss. She lifted into him, needing to relieve the ache she’d felt since the moment she’d laid eyes on him. With a roll of his hips he ground the thick ridge of his erection against her. She writhed beneath him, her legs tightening around his waist. Her skin was damp, her breasts heavy and full. This was the effect he had on her. In a matter of minutes he had her on the edge, desperate to come.

“Hudson, please . . . I want you.” She reached for his belt but his fingers curled around hers, halting her as she fumbled with the buckle.

“Stop.” His voice was hoarse and tight with a barely leashed restraint.

“What?” Allie lifted her head from the desk, watching in disbelief as Hudson pushed to his feet.

“No.” He tucked his shirttails back into his pants. “Not like this.”

Allie tried to form a coherent thought but words escaped her. She knew he wanted her, the evidence was right in front of her, straining against the zipper of his Tom Ford suit. Why the hell was he stopping?

Hudson held his hand out to her. When she took it he pulled her to her feet and into his arms. “I want you, Allie. But not here, not like this.”

“You’re not trying to pay me back for the last time we were in your office, are you?” she asked, teasing.

He smiled. “Hardly. Believe me, my cock is calling me an SOB right now.” He ran a hand back through his hair. “But I want to take my time with you. I don’t want to fuck you on my desk. I want to make love to you in my bed.” His smile was almost shy. “Well, for starters, anyway.”

Stretching on tiptoe, she pressed her lips to his jaw, leaving a trail of soft kisses as she worked her way to his ear. In a breathy voice she whispered, “Why don’t you fuck me on the desk, for starters, and we’ll make it to the bed . . . eventually.”

His breath hissed when her tongue traced the shell of his ear, but his resolve remained steadfast. “Allie, please, let me do this right.”

She reared back to look at him. A mixture of sincerity and lust burned bright in his eyes. “You’re serious about this?”

He nodded. “I’ve never been able to date you. There’s always been something that was standing in our way. Your parents when we were younger.” A muscle in his jaw tensed. “And then your engagement.”

Her gaze dropped. She’d been such a fool to hide her feelings for him, whether at seventeen or twenty-seven. The wasted time was something she would always regret, but most of all she hated the thought that she’d ever made him feel he was anything but loved.

“I’m not blaming you,” he said, as if reading her mind. Cupping her chin, he lifted her face, forcing her to meet his gaze. “But for the first time there’s nothing to hide. I can take you out and the world can know you’re mine.”

A thrill shot through her. She was his. She always had been. There was no reason or point to deny it anymore. And hearing the possessive words come out of his mouth had her wanting to push him back down on the desk.

“Let me do this. Please.”

The request was so earnest and sweet, it was impossible to deny. A smile spread across her face. “So you want to take me on a date, Mr. Chase?”

His answering grin took her breath away. “Indeed I would, Miss Sinclair. Will you do me the honor of joining me for dinner?”

“Dinner?” She lifted a brow. “I don’t know, sounds rather . . . conventional. I mean, what happened to the man who had to have me in a box at the symphony? Is he gone now that we’re out of hiding, as you say?”

A wicked gleam lit his eyes as he reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. “Oh, Alessandra, have a little faith.”

Her body quivered in response to the seductive timbre of his voice. Allie might not have known what Hudson had planned for the evening, but one thing was for certain: it was going to be a long, torturous, unforgettable night.








Chapter Fifteen







Allie had walked past the John Hancock Center countless times over the course of her life. Situated between the Drake Hotel and Water Tower Place, the iconic building was not only one of the most recognizable silhouettes on Chicago’s skyline, but it sat in the heart of one of the city’s busiest tourist destinations. She’d even been inside the one hundred-story structure once or twice for meetings when she worked at Better Start, but she’d never been all the way to the top, much less dined at the famous restaurant it housed.

Hudson placed his hand on the small of her back and guided her into the elevator. “I still find it hard to believe you’ve never been here. Isn’t this place on the must-see list of every guidebook? At least the observation deck.”

Allie’s eyes grew wide. “Please tell me your plans don’t include that tilting thing,” she said, referring to the latest attraction that dangled tourists a thousand feet above the street. “Because there’s no way you’re getting me to lay on a piece of glass. I don’t care how safe they claim it is.”

“Safety is relative. The only danger you’re in is from me making you come over and over again until you’re begging for a reprieve. As for laying you out, rest assured Iwill have you on your back before the end of the evening.” His words sent a surge of pleasure coursing through her. “But as for the restaurant, you’ve never dined here?”

She shrugged. “I guess it’s one of those things locals always say they’ll get around to but never actually do.” And considering the image he’d just conjured, she was really wishing she wasn’t doing it now, either. But Hudson seemed ecstatic to be dining with her amongst the clouds.

“So a first, then,” he said, “for both of us.”

“One of many, I hope.”

“Indeed. This wasn’t even at the top of the list, but given I had about ten minutes to plan this evening . . .”

“You have a list?” she interrupted.

“Oh, yes. It’s quite long. And varied. One even involves an unexpected visit to my office. Rather like tonight.” He smirked, “But with a few adjustments.”

“Sorry about that. It wasn’t very professional of me to storm into your office like that.”

“You can storm into my office any time you’d like, Alessandra.” His eyes darkened. “Although preferably naked under your coat next time.”

“You expect me to walk to your office naked?” She barely recognized the sound of her own voice, shocked and yet undeniably aroused all at once.

“Hmm.” Hudson’s hand slipped inside her coat and cupped her breast through the thin fabric of her blouse. “Your bare skin against your coat. Imagine how hard your nipples would be from rubbing against the rough material, how they would ache for the soothing feel of my tongue.” His fingers skimmed over her waist and hip. “Think about how the cool air would rush against you,” he said, his hand discreetly kneading her backside beneath her coat. “How wet you’d be by the time I was finally inside you.” He pressed against her, right where she ached for his touch, and her lips parted on a silent gasp. “Are you wet for me now, Allie?”

The elevator dinged their arrival on the ninety-sixth floor. Hudson dropped his hand. “After you,” he said, stepping back and gesturing for her to exit.

Allie wobbled off the elevator and into the Signature Room. The Art Deco interior and warm wood accents set a tone of understated elegance, but they paled in comparison to the main event. Floor-to-ceiling windows spanning the entire building offered dazzling three-hundred-and-sixty-degree views of the city. If her head weren’t already spinning from Hudson’s rather detailed account of his office fantasy, the breathtaking view would have been enough to do the trick.

A man in a black tuxedo greeted Hudson within seconds of their arrival. “Good evening, Mr. Chase.”

“Good evening, Ernesto. I trust you were able to make the arrangements I requested.” He helped Allie out of her coat and handed it to a woman who had appeared out of nowhere at his side.

“Absolutely. And it was our pleasure.”

“Thank you. I realize it was a lot to ask on such short notice.”

“Not at all. We were happy to accommodate you.” Ernesto smiled at Allie. “Especially when you mentioned it was a special occasion.”

Hudson wrapped his arm around Allie’s waist. His gaze was soft and warm on her face as he spoke. “Very special, indeed.”

“Camille will show you to your table. Please let me know if there’s anything else you need.”

“I thought you said you’d never eaten here?” Allie whispered as they weaved through the crowded lounge.

“I haven’t.”

“Then how did you know his name?”

The corner of Hudson’s mouth quirked up in a confident grin. “I’m considering a silent partnership in their management group.”

Allie smiled and shook her head. Hudson Chase had clearly taken Chicago by storm. It was only a matter of time until he’d turned the country’s third-largest city into his own personal Monopoly board.

The hostess led them to a round marble-top table next to one of the windows and handed Hudson the leather-bound wine list. When the waiter arrived a moment later, he ordered a bottle of Dom Pérignon.

“We’re currently out of the 2004 Dom Pérignon, sir. Might I suggest the 2003 Bollinger?”

“That’ll be fine.”

The contrast to Julian’s reaction in a similar situation was hard to miss. She’d only experienced that tirade over the phone line, but even hundreds of miles away it had made her uncomfortable. Once again she found herself wondering not only what she ever saw in him, but how she could have been so blind as to have actually agreed to marry him. She pushed the unwelcome questions from her mind. Tonight wasn’t about the past, it was about the present and the future. A future she hoped to share with the man seated across from her.

Allie watched as he handed the wine list to the relieved young man and turned his attention back to her. “Champagne?” she asked with a lifted brow.

“Customary for celebrations, is it not?”

She met his smile with one of her own. “Yes. Although I must warn you, champagne goes straight to my head. I can’t be held accountable for my actions after two glasses.”

“Duly noted. A second bottle it is.”

She laughed. “Let’s start with one and see how it goes.”

The waiter returned with the champagne, which he opened with an understated flourish. After filling two crystal flutes, he placed it in a sterling silver ice bucket that stood conveniently next to the table.

Hudson raised his glass. “I suppose I should say something profound. But at the moment the words escape me.”

What Hudson failed to understand was that for Allie, no words were necessary. The way he was looking at her said it perfectly. She smiled and lifted her glass, clinking it gently against his. “Cheers.”

They both sipped their champagne in silence for a moment, each of them drinking in the sight of the other. Allie wondered idly if the other patrons noticed the unabashed lust that pulsed between them like a tangible force. Not that it mattered. She and Hudson were finally together, and there wasn’t a person in the world who could ruin this moment for her.

“Drink your champagne,” he said. “I have plans to take advantage of you later.”

Thank God. With a little luck, maybe she could even convince him to skip dinner and call it a night after cocktails. She drained the rest of her glass, hoping he’d take the hint. Almost instantly she felt the warmth bubble inside her. “You could have taken advantage of me in your office, you know. No champagne needed.”

“I’m aware.” He shifted in his seat. “A missed opportunity, to be sure.”

She held her glass out and watched as he lifted the bottle out of the ice bucket and refilled the delicate flute. Outwardly, he was the picture of composure. But she knew he was just as affected as she was, perhaps more. A hopeful smile stretched across her face. “Why Mr. Chase, you’re not regretting that decision, are you?”

He chuckled quietly to himself as he worked the bottle back into the ice. “Only since the moment we left my office.” He lifted his glass and licked his lips. “But the anticipation will make it all the sweeter.”

Damn. She slugged back another gulp of champagne. It was going to be a long night.

Behind her a string quartet began to play. Allie turned to find a parquet dance floor where several couples swayed to the music.

Hudson stood and held out his hand. “Would you dance with me?”

As if she could deny him anything.

Allie placed her hand in his, unable to take her eyes off him as he led her to the dance floor and pulled her into his arms. Something was different. The shadows that had marred his beautiful face at his office were gone, and in their place was a smile unlike any she’d ever seen on him. He looked relaxed, yes, but it was more than that. She just couldn’t put her finger on it. “What’s that look for?” she finally asked.

“Happiness,” he said, tugging her closer and pressing his lips to her temple. “It’s not every day a man gets what he’s always wanted.”

She reared back to look at him, confused. “We’ve danced together before.”

“If you’re referring to the gala at the Field Museum, it was hardly the same.” He spun them slowly through the now sizable crowd. “And if you’ll recall, that dance was cut short.”

How could she forget? She’d been so caught up in the memories of her teenage romance with Hudson that she’d barely remembered her own name, much less that she had a fiancé. When Julian put his hand on her shoulder that night, she’d nearly jumped out of her skin.

“I was thinking more about the night we danced barefoot in the living room of your lake house,” she said.

“That was nice.” The gleam in his eye told her exactly where his thoughts had wandered. “What followed was even better. Left a distinct impression, if memory serves. But dancing with you wasn’t what I was referring to.”

She tilted her head to one side. “Then what did you mean?”

“This, out with you at my side. Looking at me as if nothing else exists in the room but the two of us.”

And at that moment, nothing did. Allie’s world narrowed to just him. The way his eyes darkened as they drank her in. The way his hand cradled hers as he held her in his arms. The way his lips parted as they hovered a breath away.

Their dancing slowed to nothing more than a gentle sway. “Allie, I . . .”

Someone bumped into her as the couples surrounding them made their way back to their tables. Allie glanced around the nearly empty dance floor. When had the music stopped?

Over her shoulder something caught Hudson’s eye and he gave a tight nod. “It appears our table is ready.”

Allie started toward the grand staircase that led to the dining room one floor below, but Hudson stopped her with a hand on her elbow. His lips brushed against her ear. “Go to the ladies room and take your panties off,” he whispered.

She gaped at him. Her first thought was to ask if he was serious, but the look in his eyes left no doubt as to his intentions.

“Go,” he commanded quietly. “And when you’re done, meet me in the Michigan Room.”

Allie blinked up at him. “We’re not dining in the restaurant?”

“No, I’ve arranged for a private room.”

“I thought the whole point was to take me out in public?”

“I shared you with the rest of the world during cocktails, but I’m a selfish man, and for dinner I want you all to myself. Besides, as much as I like tormenting you in public, knowing you’re wet and naked under that skirt will undoubtedly make my cock hard.” He leveled his dark stare. “Now go.”

Allie turned, her heart pounding a furious beat as she made her way to the restroom. Once inside, she bypassed the vanity and headed straight for one of the stalls. If she gave herself time to think about what she was doing, she would never have the nerve to follow through. Reaching under her skirt, she shimmied out of her panties. The cool air rushed against her aching core and she shivered. She suspected her reaction had less to do with the temperature of the room than it did with the idea of Hudson touching her overly sensitive skin. The mere thought of what he had planned for her during dinner had her body trembling with anticipation.

On her way out she stopped to check her appearance in the mirror. Her eyes were bright and her cheeks were flushed, but other than that she looked completely presentable. No one would suspect she was about to walk through the restaurant pantyless, consumed by the thought of Hudson’s skilled fingers bringing her to climax again and again.

The Michigan Room was on the south end of the building. When Allie pushed the door open she found the intimate space to be completely empty except for one lone table. Draped in white linen, it was set for an elegant dinner for two. Black-and-white china with gold accents sat atop gold chargers, perfectly accenting the city lights that glimmered in gold at her feet. Groupings of crystal stemware flanked each setting, and in the center of the table flickering votives circled an arrangement of fresh flowers.

But it wasn’t the sight of the sumptuous private accommodations that rendered Allie speechless as she walked into the room. It was Hudson, standing against the backdrop of the city’s skyline, that took her breath away.

“Hi,” was all she managed to say when she was finally standing in front of him.

He smiled as he pulled out her chair. She sat, taking note that the other chair was adjacent to hers at the square table and not across. The words ‘within arm’s reach’ popped into her mind and she shifted slightly in her seat.

“You look so lovely in the candlelight,” he said, joining her at the table. “But then, you look lovely in any light.”

Allie felt a warm flush spread across her cheeks. Why in the world was she so nervous? Was it because she was sitting at a table perched high above the city with her panties in her purse? Or because she was sitting at a table perched high above the city with the man she loved? While it should have probably been the former, she suspected the latter was more to blame. Sex had never been a problem for them. They jumped into that rather quickly and their chemistry was undeniable. But a relationship was unchartered territory for them. How would it be now that they didn’t have to sneak around? How would their friends and co-workers react?

Co-workers.

The thought hit Allie like a cold bucket of water. She’d been so busy basking in the glow of their newly professed feelings, she hadn’t even stopped to consider the ramifications their reunion would have at Ingram.

“Hudson, we need to talk about . . . ,” she began. But a commotion on the far side of the room interrupted her midsentence. A waiter backed through the door pulling a cart laden with dome-covered plates.

“I hope you don’t mind, but I took the liberty of preordering.”

Allie tried to feign righteous indignation but couldn’t pull it off. “Looking to forgo a lengthy ordering process?” she teased.

“Perhaps.” He wore a sheepish grin. “You do have a tendency to, how should I put it, complicate the process.” When her mouth popped open Hudson reached across the table and took her hand. “And I wouldn’t change a thing.” His thumb stroked the back of her hand, the simple gesture sending a tingle down her spine. “But yes, I’d like to get you home and beneath me before midnight if at all possible.”

Allie glanced over her shoulder. The waiter was busy arranging platters.

“He didn’t hear. And once the dinner is served, he won’t be returning.”

Every muscle below her waist clenched in response to the seductive tone of his voice. Forget about privacy once the dinner was served. The way she was feeling, she was likely to spontaneously combust before the man had even poured their wine.

She reached for her water and took a calming sip.

“I decided to forgo the first course, so we’d be sure to have room for dessert.” Hudson winked. “I know you have an insatiable appetite for guilty pleasures.”

She choked on her water.

“Are you alright, ma’am?” the waiter asked, suddenly beside her.

“Yes, yes, I’m fine.” As ladylike as possible, she wiped the water off her chin while Hudson watched, clearly amused.

The waiter poured a tasting of wine into Hudson’s glass, and after being given the go-ahead, filled both their glasses. He returned a moment later pushing the cart.

“So what’s on the menu for the evening?” Allie asked. Hudson’s eyes widened infinitesimally and she knew at once her innuendo hadn’t gone unnoticed. Good. She smiled to herself. Two can play this game.

“Perhaps you’d be so kind as to do the honors?” Hudson asked their waiter.

“Of course.” He began to uncover plates of food, describing them in detail as he placed them on the table. “Tonight the chef has prepared a surf and turf featuring a petite filet and lobster tail, served with a pink peppercorn buerre blanc, toasted farro, and haricot verts, as well as a sautéed salmon prepared with a Parmesan risotto and a tomato relish.” He reached for several smaller plates. “We also have a side of roasted mushrooms, cauliflower with a bacon crust, and Lyonnaise potatoes.” After arranging the side dishes around the entrees, he asked, “Can I bring you anything else?”

Anything else? Could there possibly be anything left to order?

No, thank you,” Hudson said. “That will be all.”

Allie took in the spread with wide eyes before meeting Hudson’s curious stare.

“Expecting a few more guests?” she asked.

“Hardly.” His lips curved into a lascivious grin. “I might be a kinky bastard at times, but I’m not about to let someone watch you.”

Allie swallowed hard. Watch? Watch what?

“I simply wanted to make sure I ordered something to your liking.” He reached behind him and lifted the silver dome from the only plate remaining on the cart. Allie’s mouth watered at the decadence beneath. “Although for dessert I knew you’d want the chocolate mousse cake.”

She shifted her gaze to Hudson and all thoughts of chocolate mousse left her. “I’d rather have you.”

He narrowed his eyes. “Are you sure I wouldn’t be a close second? I know how you feel about chocolate, Alessandra.”

“A tie, perhaps. So how about a compromise—you, covered in chocolate mousse?”

He chuckled. “I’m not sure Ernesto offers that on the menu.”

Allie matched his mischievous grin, “Well I’m quite sure he could arrange for dessert to go.”

“Eat,” he said, setting the plate with the filet and lobster tail in front of her.

“How do you know that’s the one I wanted?”

“I know your body, Alessandra.” His voice was low and seductive. “Let’s just say your reaction when he set that plate on the table was vaguely familiar.”

She rolled her eyes, but there was no denying he was right. And as much as she would have rather ordered takeout and eaten it while lounging in Hudson’s bed, now that the food was in front of her she was acutely aware of just how hungry she was.

The setting in front of Hudson remained empty. Instead of eating, he was merely sipping his wine, gazing at her over the rim of his glass as she cut into the tender beef. “Oh no, none of that ‘I like watching you eat.’ You need your strength tonight, Chase.” She waved her fork at the remaining plates. “Dig in.”

Hudson smiled and shook his head as he pulled the salmon closer.

Allie watched him take a bite, then drop his hand beneath the table. Her legs parted slightly in anticipation, but he simply reached for his napkin.

“How is it?” she asked.

“Excellent, which bodes well not only for the evening, but for the investment.” His voice was so level she actually wondered if he’d forgotten that he’d told her to take her panties off. It was just as well. For now. Her earlier thoughts were weighing on her, and although she didn’t want to spoil the mood, the conversation she’d started before the waiter arrived needed to happen sooner rather than later. Might as well get it out of the way so they could enjoy the rest of the night.

After a few more bites she broached the topic again. “Hudson, there’s something we need to discuss.”

He paused with a forkful of risotto midair. “Judging by your tone, I’m assuming the topic is not your current lack of undergarments.”

So he did remember. “No.” She smiled. “Although we should address that as well.”

His fingertips brushed the hem of her skirt. The unexpected touch made her jump.

“You were saying?” he asked, his fingers pushing the fabric of her pencil skirt higher. He continued eating with his right hand, his expression curious and sincere and giving no indication as to what his left hand was doing under the table.

“We need to talk about Ingram.”

Hudson lifted a dark brow. Below the table he began tracing circles on her knee. “You really want to discuss business now?”

“Not business per se. More us. And how this,” she motioned between the two of them, “will affect business.”

“I don’t see as how this should have any effect on the business.” He smirked. “Well, aside from the obvious perks.”

“Perks?”

His fingers stroked the underside of her knee. “Hmm, working late at the office will certainly be more enjoyable.”

He was missing the point. Allie took a deep breath and went for it. “I’m not letting you sell the newspaper, Hudson. No matter how many times you make me come.”

The hand below the table pushed her skirt even higher, letting cool air rush against her overheated skin. “I would expect nothing less.”

Allie covered his hand with hers, halting its smooth glide up her thigh. “I’m serious, Hudson. I know I’m not qualified for this job, and most of them see me as just some spoiled heiress who should be happy cutting ribbons and playing tennis, but I’m trying really hard to learn everything I can about Ingram, and in the process maybe earn a little respect from the board. I can’t have our relationship undermine that.”

Hudson’s gaze softened and the hand below the table squeezed hers. “Allie, I assure you I would never do anything to undermine you, either in the bedroom or the boardroom. And while I wouldn’t call you unqualified, you were certainly dropped into this position through unusual, not to mention stressful, circumstances. Yet you’ve flourished. The sheer volume of material you’ve had to absorb over the past month would overwhelm even the most seasoned executive, and you’ve not only risen to the occasion but managed to best me in the process, something that doesn’t happen often.” His lips curved in a ghost of a smile. “But it was clear you’d done your homework. You presented a case based on nostalgia but backed with hard facts. And your revenue replacement plan was cutting edge. It didn’t surprise me in the least when you were able to sway the necessary votes your direction. And while I certainly hope to lay you out on that conference table some night when the two of us are burning the midnight oil, I am nearly as intrigued by the idea of facing off on the multitude of topics on which I’m sure we will disagree.” He raised their linked hands to his mouth and pressed a gentle kiss to her wrist. “I am in love with you, Alessandra, and impressed by you more often than you know.”

Allie didn’t think she could ever love him more than she did at that moment.

“Did that address your concerns?” he asked. His tone was gentle and warm, perfectly matching the look in his eyes.

She nodded, unable to speak past the lump in her throat.

“Very well.” He smiled, then checked his watch. “Then for now, Madam CEO, I’d like to make a motion that we table any discussions pertaining to business. I have a surprise for you and it’s set to begin any minute.”

He stood, and with their hands still clasped, led her to the window. When they reached the glass he tugged her to stand in front of him, wrapping his arms around her waist. As if on cue, two rockets of light soared into the air, exploding in a canopy of red and gold over Navy Pier.

Allie gasped. “Fireworks?”

“Do you like them?”

She turned in his arms. “I love them.”

Hudson dropped a soft kiss on her lips. “Then watch,” he said, nodding toward the glass. His hand splayed across her belly, pulling her tight against him, his erection prodding her backside.

“You’re hard for me,” she said.

“Always,” he murmured, his lips drifting up her neck. When he reached her ear he nipped at the lobe. “And you, are you wet for me, Allie?”

“Maybe you should feel for yourself.” Her soft voice sounded desperate and needy, but she didn’t care. His breath in her ear, his lips on her skin . . . it was too much after hours of foreplay and dinner sans panties. She needed his hands on her and she didn’t care who might walk in and see them.

His left hand slipped into the open V of her wrap blouse, kneading her breast, while the right slid down the front of her skirt. A low, sexy sound vibrated through his chest when his fingers encountered her slick flesh. “You’re soaked for me and I haven’t even touched you yet.” He teased her, tugging her hardened nipple between the fingers of one hand while circling her quivering opening with the other. “Do you want me inside you, Allie? Are you aching to feel my fingers and my cock?”

“God yes,” she moaned. She wanted him to take her right there, to fuck her hard from behind with her bare breasts pressed against the cold glass.

“You’re a naughty girl, Alessandra.”

“Only for you,” she panted, her breath fogging the glass in front of her. “Only for you.” It was true. For her entire life she’d been the quintessential good girl. But being with Hudson brought out a side of her she never knew existed. With him she was wild and wanton. No one could elicit the reaction from her body that he did. They were made for each other.

He eased a finger inside. “You’re so ready for me.”

She was. She was on fire for him, her body responding to every skillful stroke of his finger. But it wasn’t enough. Turning her head, she pressed her cheek to his. “More. I need more.”

He squeezed her swollen breast and added a second finger. “Is this what you need?”

“Yes,” she hissed. She was so close. Her hips churned, riding his hand as she chased the orgasm building inside her.

On the other side of the glass, sparkling canopies of blue-and-green light reflected over the dark lake. While inside the room her body trembled, clenching around his fingers as he pumped them in and out of her, again and again.

The buzz from the champagne mixed with her overwhelming desire. In front of her, the finale began. One explosion after the other filling the night sky with a kaleidoscope of color. She leaned her head against Hudson’s shoulder, surrendering to the rhythm of his unrelenting fingers.

His teeth grazed her neck. “Don’t come,” he breathed against her ear. “I want to be inside you when you do.” The sky above the lake grew dark as his movements slowed, bringing her back from the brink. When his hand fell away she nearly whimpered. “I think it’s time I take you home.”

The man was evil. Pure, sexy as hell, evil.

But she knew he was just as turned on as she was, and as she retied her blouse, she wondered if they’d actually make it back to his penthouse. In the elevator, with their fingers entwined as they undressed each other with their eyes, she was pretty sure they wouldn’t. And when the limo door swung shut, cocooning them in total darkness, she knew they didn’t stand a chance.

Before she’d even settled in on the seat, his mouth was on hers, kissing her fiercely. As if he had to. As if the past few hours had been excruciating to endure. She loved it when he was like this, so raw and untamed in his lust for her. It made every cell in her body come alive. She moaned, and when her lips parted he deepened the kiss, his tongue stroking hers with expert skill.

As far as Allie was concerned, all bets were off. She climbed into Hudson’s lap, pulling her skirt high enough to straddle him and revealing her garters in the process. His hands smoothed up her thighs while hers ran down the contours of his chest. She could feel the hard ridges of his abs beneath his dress shirt and the urge to have his bare skin sliding against hers was more than she could bear.

The traffic on Michigan Avenue flowed around them, cars and pedestrians alike, but it didn’t matter. In that limo, nothing else existed but the two of them, their lust, their need. And what Allie needed more than anything was to feel the connection she’d longed for all night.

But when her hands dropped to his belt, he caught her wrists. “I thought we agreed to wait until we got home,” he murmured against her lips.

She kissed and sucked a path along his stubbled jaw. “That was before you turned me into a quivering mess during dinner.”

Hudson wrenched open her blouse and dipped his finger into the lace cup of her bra, freeing her breast. “It’s only two blocks. Surely you can make it that far,” he teased, just before sucking her nipple into his mouth. She swore she felt him smile against her skin.

Bastard.

“Enough is enough, Hudson. You’ve wined me and dined me, now fuck me . . . please.”

He chuckled. “Ever the romantic, Miss Sinclair.”

Allie took his face between her hands and lifted his head to look at her. The light from a passing car flashed across his blue eyes. They flickered with amusement but reflected the same carnal intent she felt. “This has been the most romantic night of my life, Hudson. And I promise, we can make love till the sun comes up. But I need you inside me. Right here, right now.”

As if to make her point, she rocked against him, his breath hissing as she stroked herself along his hardened length. This time when her fingers went to his buckle he didn’t stop her. He merely reached for the button on the panel above them.

“Take the long way home, Max.”

“Sir?” came the reply. Allie looked out the window. The limo was half a block from the Palmolive Building. No wonder he was confused.

“He thinks you’ve lost your mind,” Allie whispered.

“Not far from it,” Hudson muttered under his breath before hitting the intercom button again. “Take us up Lake Shore. To the end and back, please.”

The light turned green and the car sped past Hudson’s building. “Seems I’m all yours for the next fifty-eight blocks and back.” He smirked. “Whatever will you do with me?”

Allie bit down on her lip. “I can think of a few things,” she said, lowering his zipper and freeing him from the confines of his boxers. He groaned as she caressed him, velvet soft and yet hard as stone. His hips flexed against her hand and instinctively she tightened her grip, stroking him from root to tip. Her thumb brushed over his sensitive head, collecting the evidence of his arousal. Holding his gaze, she brought her thumb to her lips, slowly licking his taste from her skin.

“Fuck, Allie. Put me inside you. I want to feel you riding my cock.”

Rising up on her knees, she positioned him at her entrance. Her body ached for him, but she took her time, wanting to make the moment last. Wrapping her hand around his length, she rubbed him back and forth between her slick folds, teasing them both as she coated him with her wetness.

“Go slow,” he ground out, his voice thick with restraint. “I want to feel you taking every inch.”

Just the thought of him filling and stretching her made her body quiver. Then his thick head penetrated her, spreading her open, and she gasped. His hands went to her hips, guiding her descent at an excruciatingly slow pace.

Her gaze never left his. She watched him, his lips parting and his chest expanding on heavy breaths, as she lowered her body onto his. This was the connection she’d missed. This is what she’d craved all those lonely nights. When they were together like this, nothing else in the world mattered. Nothing could touch them.

His head pressed back into the seat when she’d taken him fully. He was so deep, she thought she might come from the fullness alone. Then he shifted, his hips flexing, and she knew she needed more. More friction, more of him. Wrapping her arms around his neck, she rose up and down in fluid movements that started slow but grew more frantic with every stroke.

“Fuck, you feel so good.” His mouth was on her, leaving a trail of searing kisses as he worked his way down her neck.

She groaned and her head fell back, offering him her aching breasts. Her hands went to his hair, her fingers twisting in the wavy locks, holding him to her as his teeth closed around her nipple. She gasped as he bit down, then soothed her with laps of his tongue. Then his hand slipped between their bodies, his thumb rubbing her in circles that had her core clenching around his cock.

“Yes, like that, make me come.” The words had no sooner left her mouth when a massive orgasm overtook her body in a dizzying rush. It went on and on, pulsing through her like waves as his hips pumped up, riding out the spasms of his own release.

Allie collapsed against the heavy rise and fall of Hudson’s chest. “Sorry about that,” she said. Her breathing was as erratic as his.

Hudson’s hand stroked up and down her back. “Sorry?”

“For jumping you the minute we got in the car.” She peeked up at him. “I sort of derailed your plan.”

A chuckle rumbled deep within him. “It’s quite all right. Besides, if memory serves, there were certain promises made.” He smirked. “Till the sun comes up, if I’m not mistaken.”

She couldn’t stop the wide grin that spread across her face. “Planning to keep me up all night, Mr. Chase?”

“Indeed I am, Miss Sinclair.” He lifted his head from the back of the seat and looked out the window. The limo had reached the end of Lake Shore Drive and was turning around. “But for now . . .” The arm banded around her waist tightened. Without breaking their connection, Hudson rose and in one swift move had her beneath him on the leather bench. “We still have the ride home.”








Chapter Sixteen







Hudson woke to the sensation of a soft hand sliding around his waist and a smooth leg hooking over his thigh.

“Play hooky with me,” Allie said.

“Sounds like an offer I can’t refuse. What did you have in mind?” He hitched her higher on his chest and pressed his lips to her temple. Her curves fit perfectly against the hard edges of his muscles. He couldn’t contain the hum of a content and happy man that vibrated in his chest as his long fingers caressed up and down Allie’s naked spine.

“I don’t know.” She shrugged and her soft skin shifted against his, instantly waking his body and shooting the blood feeding his brain cells straight down to his cock. “We have a lot of wasted time to make up for. Maybe we could spend the weekend together.” Allie moved her leg up his thigh, her knee making direct contact with the head of his hard on. “Starting now.”

Hudson hissed and rolled her beneath him. “I’d love nothing more than to be locked up with you all weekend.” He leaned down and brushed his lips along her jaw. “But I have plans with Nick after his AA meeting tonight.”

“I didn’t realize he was out of rehab.”

“Just this week.” Hudson met her stare, his eyes tracing the delicate contours of her face. “I would cancel, but it’s the first time we’re getting together since they sprung him.”

“Don’t be silly. Nick has to come first right now.” Her gaze softened. “How’s he doing?” With any other woman he might have registered disappointment in her expression or tone, but with Allie there was nothing but sincerity and genuine interest.

“So far so good. He seems to be taking to the program. Although I think he’s concerned about the holidays, called them a trigger. Not that they were ever a big deal growing up.” Hudson’s brow furrowed and a frown pulled at the corners of his mouth. “Then again, maybe that’s why . . .”

With a hard slam, the steel gates opened and memories of the holidays he and Nick had shared were unleashed like a criminal out of jail. Most adults loved to recount their holiday traditions, but Hudson wasn’t one of them. For him there were no happy memories of singing the Twelve-fucking-Days-of-Christmas, or of opening presents the morning of rather than Christmas Eve. And there certainly wasn’t a mother in the kitchen, frying bacon as her smiling kids played with the toys she’d labored over selecting.

In the early days things had been different, but those memories were blurred and faded to the point that sometimes he wondered if they were just a figment of his imagination. After his father died everything had changed, and those were the images that filled his mind when he thought of the holidays: his mother, counting the days of Christmas by the number of pills she had left in the bottle; Nick, begging him to get them a tree and being thrilled with the discarded Charlie Brown version Hudson would drag home from some dumpster; or him, scraping enough cash together to buy Nick something to open the morning other kids would wake to a living room full of toys. These were the memories he couldn’t shake. They were like the black mold that crept up a wall and slowly took over.

Allie framed his face with her hands, anchoring him in the moment. “You know, they have meetings you can go to as well. Family support groups.”

“Your concern is one of the things I love about you.” Hudson’s lips curved sinfully before he dropped his head to her neck, sucking the sensitive skin. “But I’d like to know more about this hooky idea.”

Her fingers threaded into his hair, her nails raking against his scalp. Goddamn it, she knew all his trigger points.

Allie gasped and yanked his head up. “Let’s go Christmas shopping,” she said, her face lighting up with a smile that was her fucking Hail Mary.

“I have people who do that.” He lowered his head again, his tongue flickering over the hollow of her throat.

“Don’t be such a Grinch. It’s not Christmas without a trip to Macy’s on State Street.”

Hudson smiled against her skin. “Ah, I do enjoy Macy’s.”

She laughed. “I wasn’t talking about the dressing rooms.”

“Damn.” His fingers flexed as he shoved the thirteen-million-thread sheet count down, exposing her body.

“I meant the Walnut Room, lunch under the giant tree . . . Oh! Let’s get a tree.”

He palmed her breast, his thumb brushing over her nipple. “I don’t usually decorate the penthouse.” He exchanged his thumb for his index finger, stroking until her nipple hardened under his touch.”There’s a service that does that at the office. I could call them.”

“What fun would that be?”

Hudson didn’t reply. Instead he claimed her nipple with a gentle bite.

Her hands shot to his face, and his lips tugged free of her breast. “I want to do this, Hudson. I want to make this special forNick.” Her voice lowered to a whisper. “Besides, this will be the first holiday without my family.” Her eyes were haunted by both the reality of being alone and the gruesome scene continually on replay. But as he stared at her he saw hope flicker in their depths, igniting her to move forward and create new memories. Memories with him in it.

Just like that, Allie had located the crack in the foundation of his hardened heart, the tiny fissure that allowed her to squeeze her way past his dark memories that were the antithesis of a Norman Rockwell painting. Hudson’s perspective shifted as he realized he couldn’t see beyond the two people who were his life. He couldn’t imagine living out his days in the darkness that shadowed him like the Grim-fucking-Reaper. But like death, his memories were always there, lingering in the background, waiting for the opportunity to slam him into a brick wall.

Shaking off the residual feelings from his trip into Christmas past, Hudson engaged himself in Christmas present. Allie need him, needed the distraction of throwing herself headlong into the holidays. And fuck him, he’d wear a goddamn Santa suit if it would keep a smile on her face.

“Okay.” He brushed his lips against hers, then teased her with slow flicks of his tongue.

Allie smiled broadly against his mouth. “And when we’re done shopping we can swing by Daley Plaza . . .” She rambled as he dipped his head and his tongue did a slow sweep across her collarbone. “The Christkindlmarket is open.”

“The what?” He moved lower, his tongue curling around her nipple, his mouth enveloping the taught peak, then sucking.

“The Christmas village. The tents are all set up. We can get a tree there, I think . . .” When her nipple tightened and swelled in his mouth, he shifted to give her other breast the same attention. “And maybe pick out an ornament,” she continued, carrying on a conversation with herself.

“Jesus Christ, woman. I’m hard as a rock here. Can we talk about this shit later?” He moved down her stomach, leaving a trail of kisses in his wake.

“I wonder if they can deliver it this weekend?”

He flattened his tongue and licked leisurely through her slick lips. As he circled her opening, Allie’s breath hitched and a soft moan rushed out of her mouth. “Oh . . . okay . . .”

Jackpot.

He felt her muscles tighten around his tongue as he tormented her tender flesh, completely seduced by her taste.

“That’s it . . .” He glanced up from between her legs, across all that perfect female skin. He wanted to see her face, but her back was arched and all he could see was the tips of her nipples as her chest heaved.

“Don’t stop,” Allie begged. Her fingers twisted almost painfully in his hair.

“Wouldn’t even if I could, baby,” he said, smiling to himself as he hooked her leg over his shoulder.








Chapter Seventeen







Allie stared up at the fifty-foot spruce that towered over Daley Plaza. All at once memories of her as a small girl, wearing a white fur coat and standing on a dais between her parents as the mayor flipped the switch to light the city’s official Christmas tree, filled her mind. She remembered the collective gasp from the people who gathered in front of the stage and the hundreds more who milled around the Christkindlmarket. Year after year she’d had the best seat in the house. But secretly she’d longed to join the other children, eating fried dough covered in powdered sugar while watching with wide eyes as glassblowers created ornaments for their parents to take home and hang on the family tree.

“So what exactly is a Christkind?” Hudson asked, pulling her from her childhood memories. He’d groused about their little holiday adventure, lobbying hard for a day in bed as opposed to one spent among “the masses of people buying items they neither need nor really want.” But he’d come around once they were out on the snow-covered streets. And looking at him now, his hand linked with hers as they stood side by side amidst complete holiday mayhem, Allie couldn’t help but smile. For as different as their backgrounds were, when it came to the holidays at least, they had one thing in common: neither of them had fond memories. As she reveled in the love reflected in his warm gaze, Allie realized this was a second chance for both of them. They had each other now, and together they could create new memories that would slowly replace the old ones. Together they would find their way.

“Well, the Christkind,” she began, reciting the story she’d heard dozens of times growing up, “is a fairylike angel, dressed in white-and-gold robes and wearing a crown on top of her long golden hair. According to folklore, she is the bearer of gifts to children in German-speaking countries, leaving the presents under the Christmas tree and disappearing before they can catch a glimpse of her.”

“So a cross between the tooth fairy and Santa Claus?” Hudson somehow managed to keep a straight face, but the amusement in his eyes was evident.

Allie laughed. “Something like that.”

“And all this?” He gestured to the red-and-white striped tents arranged in rows under the shadow of the steel Picasso.

“This is the Christkindlmarket.”

He lifted a dark brow. “Which is?”

“C’mon,” she said, tugging him. “I’ll show you.”

Hudson chuckled quietly as she pulled him into the crowd. Although only a few blocks away in actual proximity, the Christkindlmarket seemed a world away from the retail giants of State Street and the Magnificent Mile. In the plaza outside Daley Center, dozens of merchants sat in small tents selling classic German products like nutcrackers, cuckoo clocks, and beer steins, while others offered handmade jewelry, clothes, and toys. Some even demonstrated their handiwork for customers, carving wood or blowing glass for those captivated by the idea of purchasing items directly from their workbenches.

They strolled hand in hand through the maze of tents until Hudson paused in front of one selling what appeared to be small wooden carousels. Each had several tiers decorated with intricately carved figurines and were surrounded by small white candles at their base. On top sat what looked like helicopter blades.

“We had one of these when I was a kid,” he said. His voice was so soft, Allie barely heard him.

When he was a kid. Hudson hardly ever mentioned his past, must less his childhood. A hundred questions popped into Allie’s head. But wanting to take things at the pace he needed, she kept herself from bombarding him and instead asked only one. “What is it?”

“A Christmas pyramid. When the candles are lit the heat rises and spins the propellers.” He reached out and with one finger gave the delicate paddles a gentle push. All at once the tiers began to rotate in alternating directions.

“It’s beautiful.” Growing up, her house had been decorated by the same people who did the windows at Marshall Field’s. And yet as she watched the pyramid turn, picturing a wide-eyed Hudson watching it as a child, she realized she’d never seen a holiday decoration she liked more.

“Nicky was obsessed with the damn thing, constantly trying to figure out what made it work. Only problem was, as soon as he touched it all the blades would fall out.” His lips were pressed together in a hard line, but at the mention of his brother a small smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “He would get so frustrated. But then I’d rebuild it for him and he’d do it again not five minutes later.”

Allie touched Hudson’s arm. “You’ve always been so good with him.”

Hudson frowned. “My mom used to put it on the table like a centerpiece. Even after . . .” His voice trailed off and they stood quietly for several moments until the spinning slowed to a stop.

“Let’s get one,” Allie said. “We can put it on the dining room table at your penthouse.”

He shook his head. “I don’t need a bunch of clutter. I like things simple, orderly.”

She placed her hand on the side of his face, urging him to look at her. “I’d like to have one. And imagine how excited Nick will be to see it.” She could see the internal debate flit across his eyes. “And as for clutter, you better get over that right now, Chase, because I have carte blanche when it comes to decorating.”

He lifted a brow. “Carte blanche?”

“Well, for the next few weeks, at least.”

“On whose approval?” he asked, unable to hide his grin.

“Mine. Didn’t you get that memo?” she teased.

“No, I must have missed that one among the hundred or so others.” He brushed his lips across hers. “You’re quite remarkable, do you know that?”

Allie leaned back to look at him. “Does this mean we’re getting one?”

“Hmm. Seems I’m incapable of denying you anything. Pick your favorite.”

“Oh no,” she said. “You’re the resident pyramid expert. You choose.” She smacked a swift kiss against his lips. “Meet me at the wrapping paper tent when you’re done.”

Hudson groaned, but as she walked away she stole a glance over her shoulder. He looked relaxed and happy as he chatted with the woman boxing up the pyramid he’d selected. Allie wondered idly if it was similar to the one he’d had as a child. Not that it mattered. The important thing was he’d faced a memory from his past. And more than that, he’d been willing to share it with her.

She smiled to herself as she wandered over to a table covered with every type of wrapping paper and ribbon imaginable. For several minutes she sifted through the rolls of brightly colored foils and prints, debating which ones would be best suited for the gifts they’d selected earlier for Harper and Nick.

“You didn’t tell me they sold beer,” Hudson said, strolling up beside her. He was holding a stein of beer in one hand and what appeared to be a tiny boot in the other. “Genius, really. Makes the Christmas shopping experience all the more tolerable.” He held out the boot for her to take.

“What’s this?” she asked.

“Something called gluehwein, which according to the man dressed in lederhosen, is a hot spiced wine. Complete with a souvenir cup,” he added with a smirk. “That I somehow suspect is going to end up on display in my game room.”

Allie smiled. “What a wonderful idea. It will look great behind the bar. You can put it on one of the glass shelves right next to the Baccarat.”

“Keep teasing me and I won’t buy you that fried dough you’ve had your eye on since we arrived.”

Allie’s mouth popped open. How in the world did he always seem to know exactly what she was thinking?

Hudson’s mouth twisted into a wry grin. “Like I said, Alessandra, I’ve become quite adept at reading your body.” He dropped his lips to her ear. “Especially what it hungers for.” His words were like an incendiary device, setting her every nerve aflame. “Drink your wine.”

She took a sip of wine from the small boot, letting the spiced liquid warm her insides. Something on the display in front of them caught Hudson’s eye. He lifted a wide spool of red satin ribbon from the table.

“This looks promising,” he murmured, adding it to the pile of wrapping paper Allie had already selected. He dug his wallet out of his back pocket and handed his credit card over to a woman in a green elf hat.

“Planning to wrap a few presents, Mr. Chase?”

“One in particular.” A wicked gleam flashed in his eyes. “And I plan to unwrap it as well.”

Allie smiled over the rim of her cup, loving his playful, happy mood.

Hudson gathered their bags. “Now tell me, what’s left on your list of Christmas torture?”

“Why can’t you just admit you’ve enjoyed this?”

“While I’ll admit I have enjoyed spending time with you, I’m ready to get you home.” He lowered his voice to a rough whisper. “And naked.”

Allie looked around and was relieved to find no one within earshot.

“I let you convince me the ride to State Street was too quick for a limo reenactment, and I was even on my best behavior at Macy’s, despite some very fond memories making me inconveniently hard while you debated two shades of blue I’m quite certain were exactly the same. But if I’m out here much longer I won’t be held accountable for my actions. There’s bound to be an empty tent somewhere in this village, and if you don’t let me take you home soon, I’m going to fuck you in one of them and I don’t care who hears us.”

Allie nearly choked on her wine. “You wouldn’t dare.” The words left her mouth without much forethought and she regretted it the moment they did. The look on Hudson’s face told her not only would he absolutely follow through on that dark promise, but that he was seriously considering acting on it at that very moment. He opened his mouth to reply and she pressed her fingers to his lips. “Don’t answer that.”

He lifted an impatient brow.

“I need to get a gift for my new assistant and I really should get something for Ben Weiss. But other than that, just the tree.”

Hudson groaned against her fingertips.

“Two hours, tops.” She lifted her fingers from his lips and replaced them with a soft kiss. “Then I’m all yours for the rest of the night.”

“You’re all mine for a hell of a lot longer than that,” he murmured against her lips before pulling back and making his counter offer. “I’ll agree to ninety minutes and not a second more.”

She was about to lodge a protest but he cut her off.

“Relax. They’re selling trees at the far corner of the plaza and I’m fairly sure even your Olympic caliber debating skills can decide on a tree and two gifts in an hour and a half.”

“Hudson, I can’t possibly do all that in ninety minutes.”

He looked at his watch. “Eighty-nine. Do you really want to stand here discussing this?” he asked with a smirk.

Oh, he was impossible. And aggravating. And . . . and what the hell was wrong with her? The man standing in front of her, looking unbelievably sexy in dark jeans, a black leather jacket, and perfectly mussed hair, wanted to take her home and fuck her senseless and she was negotiating shopping time?

Seriously, Sinclair, pick your battles.

Hudson wrapped his arm around her shoulders, pulling her tight against him as he led her to the far side of the plaza where she selected an evergreen tree in record time. She checked her phone while Hudson paid the salesman and arranged for the delivery. There were a few e-mails from work, a list of messages from Colin, all of which could wait until Monday, and a text from Harper.

Assuming lack of call = hot night of unbridled passion?

Allie laughed as she replied: You read too many romance novels.

Little dots appeared almost immediately to indicate Harper was typing. Allie shook her head. Sometimes it seemed like that phone was surgically attached to her.

1.You can NEVER read too many romance novels.

2.How are you texting me with your hands cuffed to a headboard?

Allie felt her face blush a deep red. She’d never divulged the kinkier details of her time with Hudson. Actually, come to think of it, she’d never really divulged any details at all. But Harper had a vivid imagination and no qualms about sharing it. Only problem was, this time she was right.

We’re shopping for a tree.

Her phone lit up with: Assuming shopping for tree = hot afternoon of unbridled passion? Which was followed almost immediately by: Have I asked you if the Buff Billionaire has a brother?

Call you Monday.

Monday?! Wow, this is gonna be good. I better hear the whole . . .

Harper was still typing as Allie tucked her phone back into the pocket of her jeans. Hudson was suddenly behind her, his arm wrapped around her waist and his lips at her ear. “You disappoint me, Miss Sinclair.”

Allie turned to find his other hand holding a sprig of mistletoe high above their heads.

“All this talk of Christmas traditions and you failed to mention the most important one.” His lips hovered just above hers. “I’d have thought you more thorough than that.”

“Whatever will I do to make it up to you?” she breathed. Cupping the nape of his neck, she pulled his mouth down to hers. She’d meant for it to be nothing more than a sweet, tender kiss, something suitable for public consumption. But then her lips parted and his tongue slid inside, savoring her in lush, deep strokes, and all thought of where they were left her. All she could think about was this man, this moment, and how desperately she wanted him.

He groaned into her mouth as he deepened the kiss, his tongue licking, tasting, teasing in that way that made her long to feel him kiss the rest of her body with the same fervor. And when his hand slid down her backside, urging her tight against him, she raked her fingers into his hair.

His head lifted and he gazed down at her with hooded blue eyes. “Christ, Allie, please tell me we can go home now.”

“Miss Sinclair?”

Allie turned to find her assistant standing not three feet away. “Colin,” was all she said, then they stared at each other for several beats of awkward silence. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Hudson attempt to discreetly rub her lipstick from his bottom lip with the side of his index finger. While she appreciated the effort, after what Colin had just witnessed, it was way too late for discreet. And what the heck was Colin doing at the Christmas village in the middle of the afternoon, anyway?

“So, taking a late lunch?” she asked in a lame attempt to deflect attention away from the elephant in the room. Hell, forget the room, the elephant was charging the plaza, stomping all over the Christmas trees.

Colin pressed his lips together to stifle the grin that was threatening to bust his face wide open. “Things have been slow today with the boss lady home sick.”

Beside her Hudson laughed out loud.

“Touché.” After a resigned sigh she came clean. “I assume I can trust you to keep quiet about this?”

“Pfft.” His hand batted the air. “Please, I’ve known since the gala.”

Allies eyes grew wide. “Well, alrighty then.” She looked at Hudson, who was absolutely no help at all, then back to Colin. “I guess I’ll see you Monday.”

Colin gave a quick nod to them both before beating a hasty retreat toward the cuckoo clock tent. Once he was out of earshot she turned her attention to Hudson. “This is going to be an issue.”

“It doesn’t have to be.”

“The last thing I need is people gossiping about us, Hudson.”

He pulled her back into his arms. “Allie, take a breath. We were never planning on keeping this a secret. At least I sure as hell wasn’t. As long as I’ve known you there’s been something or someone standing in our way. We’re finally together and it fucking works. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let fear of a little office gossip keep us apart.”

He had a point. But still, she hadn’t planned on her assistant catching them grinding on each other like a couple of teenagers. Jesus, she needed to get a grip. The thought had no sooner entered her mind when Hudson lifted the mistletoe back over her head.

“Now, where were we?”

The phone in her pocket began to ring.

“Don’t answer it,” he said, leaning down to kiss her neck. “You’re home sick in bed, remember?”

She rolled her eyes as she fished the phone out of her pocket. “I need to get this,” she said when she saw their general counsel’s name flash on the screen.

Hudson groaned against her skin.

“What can I say, comes with the territory when you’re dating a powerful executive,” she teased just before pressing the green answer button. “Hello,” she said into the phone.

Hudson resumed his amorous pursuits, letting his lips drift up the column of her throat.

“Alessandra, I’m sorry to bother you, but this really couldn’t keep until Monday. There’s been a break in the case. They found the person who killed your parents.”

Allie stepped back, trying to process what she was hearing. “Are they sure?”

Hudson’s brow knit together. “What is it?” he whispered.

“Yes,” Weiss said. His voice wavered when he added, “he had your mother’s ring.”

Allie rubbed at the stabbing pain in her chest. “Have they arrested him?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

There was a long silence. “He’s dead. Apparent heroin overdose.”

Dead? Dozens of emotions ran through Allie’s mind, ranging from anger to frustration and then, finally, relief. There would be no trial, no long drawn-out media display. She could mourn her parents in private and get on with the business of living her life. “So it’s over?”

“Not quite.”

“What do you mean?”

“The police were able to identify him.” Weiss paused, and she imagined him taking a sip of water, or maybe wiping his brow with the starched handkerchief he always kept folded in his breast pocket. She heard him take a deep breath. “He’s a professional, Alessandra. A hit man. The police have had their eye on him for a while, with other cases, but haven’t had the proof they needed to bring him in.”

Allie’s throat grew tight.

“I wish you’d reconsider letting Clayton go,” he said after a few minutes of uncomfortable silence.

“I appreciate your concern, Ben, but I’m not interested in having a bodyguard.”

“What the hell is going on, Allie?” Hudson asked. He wasn’t even trying to keep his voice down anymore. He ran a hand back through his hair, impatiently waiting while she ended the call. “What happened?” he asked the moment she hung up the phone.

“They found the man who shot my parents.” She felt the words come out of her mouth, but the voice that was speaking them didn’t sound like her own.

“I gathered that much. Why didn’t they arrest him?”

“He’s dead.”

“Thank fuck.”

Allie shook her head. “No.”

“Why, what else did Weiss say?”

“He was a hit man,” she whispered.

Hudson dug his phone out of his pocket without saying another word. The tension in his body was palpable, rolling off of him in waves.

“What are you doing?”

“Calling Max.” He pressed the phone to his ear. “I want him to have a team in place within the hour.”

Allie reached for his phone. “No, you heard what I said to Mr. Weiss. I’m not interested in having a bodyguard. Whatever enemies my dad had, they’re not mine.”

He blew out an exasperated breath. “You don’t know that.”

“I know that I’m happy, Hudson, really happy. And I’m not going to let some businessman with a grudge ruin it.”

Hudson glanced anxiously at the hundreds of people milling around the plaza. “At least let me get you out of here.”

“We still have the two gifts—”

“Allie, stop. I just got you back. It scares the hell out of me that some lunatic might take you away from me.” He swallowed. “Please, let me take you home.”

Yes, home. That was what Hudson was to her, and that was where she needed to be. She nodded and he exhaled a sigh of relief as he pulled her into his arms.








Chapter Eighteen







Considering the hardball convincing he’d attempted to get Allie to hang at his place that night, Hudson couldn’t believe he was letting her out of his sight. There was an unknown variable out there targeting the Sinclair family and probably gunning for Allie next. He needed some modicum of control over this sitch, along with a shit-ton of security cocooning her from harm. A man in his position had the corporate version of Blackwater at his disposal: ex MI6, FBI, Special Forces, even Israeli Intelligence. He’d utilize the fuck out of them if it meant keeping Allie safe. But at the moment all he had to offer her was Max, and while he trusted the man with his own life on a daily basis, having Allie beyond the penthouse walls put him on edge.

The elevator let out a discreet bing. Nick stepped off, not bothering to look up from texting on his cell phone as he strolled into the foyer. “Yo, bro, gotta do something about that new door dude. The dipshit wanted to play a game of twenty questions and who-the-fuck-its.” Nick’s thumbs rapid-fired over the phone screen. “Asshole,” he muttered under his breath.

“He’s doing his job, Nick.” Hudson slid Allie’s coat over her shoulders at the same time she tugged her hair free from the collar. “And quit putting so much effort into looking like shit,” he added after getting a better look at his kid brother. Forget about the long overdue haircut, the clothes he favored needed to bypass a thrift shop and head straight to an incinerator.

“Like your sorry ass looks any . . .” Nick looked up and halted midsentence as Allie breezed past him toward the elevator.

“Hi Nick, bye Nick.” She glanced over her shoulder at Hudson. “Don’t decorate that tree without me.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Hudson said with a dry exhale. “Let me walk you out.” He strode past a stymied Nick. “Not a word from you, feel me?”

“Ah, shit, bro, you make it too easy.” Nick shoved his phone into the pocket of way overwashed jeans with holes splitting the knees.

Hudson stopped in front of Allie as she wrapped the cashmere scarf around her neck. He could feel his brother’s eyes on them. “Don’t you have a fridge to raid or something?” he asked him.

The smart-ass grin on Nick’s face as he strolled out of the room would have pissed Hudson off if he weren’t so fucking glad to see him smile. udson poff of her werenmt so fucking lgald to see him smil

Still, he waited until Nick was in the kitchen making himself at home before launching a last-ditch effort.

“I can’t strengthen my case on why you should stay here?” He popped a button on her coat, and just as she finished doing it up, he’d freed another.

Allie laughed. “Quit.” She batted his hand away and made quick work refastening the button. “I told you, I’m not intruding on ‘boy’s night.’”

“You won’t be. This place has three floors, for Christ’s sake. Watch a movie in the theater or . . .” Hudson’s lips curved into a sinful grin. “Lounge in my bed naked, waiting for me. Whatever you want. Though I prefer the latter.”

“I’ll be fine. Besides, it will give you a chance to miss me.”

“I’ve spent a lifetime missing you.” He dropped a kiss on her lips.

She smiled. “Then you’ll survive one more night.”

“Max is driving you and will wait at your brownstone until morning.”

“Hudson, that’s not necessary.”

“It’s non-negotiable, Alessandra. If you’re leaving my place, he’s going with you. Here.” Hudson handed her a key card with carte blanche access.

Allie raised a brow.

“This way you won’t have to call up tomorrow. Of course, if you wanted to come by later, I certainly wouldn’t object.”

“Ah, settin’ up a booty call,” Nick said as he cut through the foyer. He had a bag of Doritos in one hand and a box of Swedish fish in the other.

“Shut up, Nick.” Hudson glared in his direction, but Nick was already bounding up the stairs two at a time.

“Oh, I can tell tonight is going to be one for the books,” Allie said. As she backed into the elevator a slow smile curved her lips. “But who knows, maybe I’ll surprise you with a wake-up call.”

Hudson groaned and pushed a hand through his hair. The look she gave him made his cock twitch, but when the doors hushed closed the ache he felt whenever she left set up shop in his chest. His brother better fucking appreciate this, he thought as he turned on his heel and stalked up the stairs.

“Well, well, well, how the mighty have fallen,” Nick said the moment Hudson walked into the game room. He’d already stripped his jacket off and flung it on the leather chesterfield. “That’s a new development. Finally relocated your balls and called her, huh?”

Hudson cut his brother a sharp look. “Don’t start, Nick.” God help him, tonight was going to be an eternity without her, not to mention painful if his brother kept up this shit.

“Well, I’ll be damned.” Nick shook his head, a shit-eating grin on his face and a not-letting-this-go gleam in his eye. “You’re even more pussywhipped than you were back in the day.”

“Zip it, Nick.”

“Come on, bro, lighten up.” He laughed. “You’re like the pussy whisperer. You usually got them lined up.”

Hudson came to a halt. “Don’t push me on this. She’s just . . .” He thought about Allie and all her quirks. That it took her ten minutes to order a damn coffee, the way she had fifty questions lined up after he said a single sentence, and how the only way to shut her up was to kiss her senseless.

“She’s just what, got you by the balls?”

“The heart, man. The fucking heart.” He exhaled and cocked a slight grin. “I love her.”

“Hey, sorry for poppin’ shit. But that’s what little brothers do, ya know?”

“Yeah, I know. Now can I school your punk ass in a game of pool?”

“As if.” Nick flopped over the back of the couch and stretched out on the tufted leather. “I think I missed this room most of all.”

Hudson chuckled. “This is what you missed the most?” The game room was a dark, luxurious space that kept in time with the era of the building, but with a modern spin. The place had it all: poker and pool tables, flat screens and surround sound, couches to comfortably seat ten, a fireplace to take the chill off or to set the mood, a bar with every conceivable liquor, beer, or beverage of choice, and of course, the infamous dart board. Nick always said the only thing missing was a peanut warmer and permission to toss his shells on the floor. But after thirty days locked up with nothing but basic cable and institutional food, Hudson wouldn’t have thought the game room topped Nick’s list.

“Shit, yeah. Your house is Disneyland for adults. And not Anaheim Disney, but frickin’ Orlando Disney.”

Hudson smirked. He and Allie had certainly turned the room into their own Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, rattling a few chains, so to speak.

“Then there’s your ‘Black Book,’ which is Magic Mountain. You know they have an app for that? A stripper pole would make it heaven, icing on the cake.”

“Not a chance in hell.” Hudson hit the switch to the Art Deco Tiffany chandelier spotlighting the table’s red baize.

Nick sat up and dragged a hand through his hair. Damn, the two of them were more alike than he’d ever admit. “Ah, come on. Don’t go soft on me. You’re like, shit, I don’t know, the god of Penthouse.”

Playboy.” Hudson corrected. “The place was the headquarters of Playboy. And I excel at never being soft.”

“TMI.” Nick collected the balls from the pockets and racked them up. He gave them a quick one-two rollup and back and they clacked together. “My bad.” He hung the triangle back on its designated hook. “Dudes in rehab were like, when can I come over and kiss the wood Hefner walked on? You could charge admission.”

Hudson grabbed a couple of cues off the wall. “Admission and stripper poles, huh? Any other plans you have for my apartment?”

“Nah, that about covers it. And apartments are rinky-dink in the size department. This is a penthouse. An apartment is what I live in.”

“Wouldn’t know it with how much time you’re parking your ass over here.” Hudson tossed a cue to Nick, who caught the stick in midair.

“I like being here.”

“Go ahead and break.” Hudson walked over to the fridge behind the bar and gripped the cool steel handle. “Something to drink?” Fuck, the question was as ritualistic as brushing your teeth in the morning. He looked through the glass into the fully stocked stainless box. He was an asshole, he thought, for not cleaning the thing out. “Shit.” His hand dropped, and he did a one-eighty to face his brother. “I’m sorry, Nick.”

“Look, I’m cool.” Nick chalked up his cue. “Old habits die hard, huh?”

Hudson let out a short chuckle. “Case in point.”

“Have a beer, whatever you want. I’m good.”

“I don’t want to make it harder on you than it already is.”

“Part of the deal is learning how to cope with people drinking around me. So for fuck’s sake, bro, have what you want.” Nick took his shot and the balls cracked together and scattered. “Besides, I’ll still kick your ass,” he said as three balls sank with that one stroke. “Solids.”

“Jesus, Nick.” Hudson yanked open the fridge and grabbed two sparkling waters. Usually pool and the cold and frothy were synonymous, but tonight he was more interested in being with his brother than having a beer. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d simply played a game of pool or just hung out with Nick, listening to him spout off wisecracks. Although, he wasn’t completely at ease. Allie was outside of these walls, and his past kept showing up in his head like a goddamn slideshow. But he was no more ready to Dr. Phil those memories than he was to have a root canal. And he sure as hell wasn’t ready to lose this game.

Nick missed his next shot. “Ah, fuck. You’re up.”

“Luck only gets you so far,” Hudson said, walking around to the opposite side of the table before leaning over the felt. “Skill always prevails.” He took his shot and sank two stripes.

Nick cranked the surround with Volbeat’s “Pool of Booze, Booze, Booza.” Strong guitar riffs and the deep baritone of the lead singer’s Denmark accent pounded off the walls. Nick cocked a smart-ass grin. Leave it to his brother to find the humor and lighten the mood.

Hudson shook his head and smiled. “Nice choice.” As he sank another ball, all the shit he was stuffing down sank with it. But he was a bomb ready to explode.








Chapter Nineteen







Allie slid the elevator key Hudson had given her into the panel and pressed the button for the penthouse. Immediately the car began its smooth glide to the top floor of the Palmolive building. She took a deep breath and kept her eyes trained on the wood carvings that decorated the inside of the doors. As the numbers on the display above them grew higher, so did the level of her anxiety.

Her grip tightened on the shopping bag that held the baking supplies she’d bought the night before. And her clothes. And her panties. What the hell had she been thinking? She shifted restlessly from one foot to the other. The movement rubbed her bare breasts against the fabric of her coat in a not so subtle reminder. It was Hudson, and the fantasy he’d described the night before, that had her arriving at his penthouse wearing nothing but heels, a coat, and a smile. Well, at least the heels and the coat. The smile was beginning to waiver.

She’d come up with the idea when he’d given her his key. It had seemed like a fabulous plan at the time, and much less daring than strolling down Whacker Drive au naturel. But now that she was standing in his elevator, she wasn’t so sure she could pull it off.

A horrified gasp escaped her lips as another thought crossed her mind. What if Nick had spent the night and was still there? The image of Hudson offering to take her coat while his little brother sat eating his cereal at the breakfast bar had her reconsidering the entire plan. She’d decided a return trip to the lobby restroom was her safest bet when the elevator doors slid open. A low growl that sounded more animal than human echoed from the rear of the penthouse.

Hudson.

Without a second thought, Allie dropped the bag and hurried to the master bedroom. She found him in the throes of a nightmare, writhing on the bed. His neck was arched and his face contorted.

Bile rose in her throat. She couldn’t bear to see him hurting, and whatever haunted his sleep was causing him pain as real as any physical blow. “Hudson,” was all she managed to choke out.

He moaned and shifted restlessly, his legs tangling with the sheet.

“Don’t leave,” he groaned. For a moment she thought he was talking to her but then she realized he was pleading with someone in his sleep. His head thrashed back and forth.

This had to stop. She had to bring him back from whatever dark place he was in. She climbed onto the bed and knelt beside him. “Hudson,” she said, louder this time. Her hand went to his shoulders and she gave him a gentle shake. “It’s Allie. Wake up.”

Hudson jerked and his eyes opened. “Allie?” The sound of his voice, hoarse as if he’d been screaming, gripped her heart, and a hot tear slid down her cheek. He blinked up at her, confused, but after a minute it seemed as though a fog lifted. “What’s the matter, what’s wrong?”

“You were having a nightmare.”

He sat up, resting his elbows on his knees and dropping his face into his hands. The muscles in his arms and legs corded with the tension that gripped his entire frame.

Allie waited until she heard his erratic breathing begin to slow. “If you want to talk about it . . .”

“I don’t.”

She knew he wanted her to let it go, but the image of him writhing in pain was too fresh. If there was any way to reach him, to help him through this, she had to try. “It’s not the first time this has happened. Maybe if you talk to someone . . .”

“I said drop it,” he barked. His harsh tone made her flinch. Immediately, Hudson’s features softened. “I’m sorry, Allie. I didn’t mean to snap at you.”

“It’s okay.” She reached out to touch him but, unsure if she should, dropped her hand. “I love you, Hudson. Whatever is doing this to you, I want to help.”

“I know you do.” He shoved both hands through his hair. “Just let me handle this my way.”

Allie nodded even though she didn’t agree. Clearly Hudson’s way of dealing with the issue wasn’t working. But Allie had only been back in his life a little over twenty-four hours. It would take time to get him to open up to her, time she was more than willing to give him. And when he was ready, she’d be waiting. Whatever haunted his dreams, they would deal with it together.

Slowly the last remnants of the nightmare left him and Hudson began to visibly relax. After several long, quiet moments, something else occurred to him. His head shot up and his alarmed gaze met hers. “How did you get here?”

“Max drove me.”

“Good. I’m assigning him to you full time until this situation is resolved.”

“Don’t you think that’s a little extreme?”

“No, not when it comes to your safety, Alessandra.” She opened her mouth to speak but he gently cupped her chin and closed it. “This isn’t up for debate,” he said. The decisiveness in his tone was impossible to miss.

On any other day, under any other circumstances, Allie would have had plenty to say about his need for control running dangerously into the Neanderthal zone. But he was obviously worried about her safety. It was etched in the lines that marred his beautiful face. And after what she’d just witnessed, the last thing she wanted to do was add to the stress he was already feeling.

“Fine, but just until the police close the case.”

He eyed her speculatively for a moment, no doubt finding it hard to believe she’d agreed without a fight, before flinging back the sheet and climbing out of bed. “Well, if that’s settled,” he said, standing up and stretching his arms high above his head. “Feed me, woman. If I’m to be subjected to elf duties, I can’t do it on an empty stomach.” It wasn’t until Allie stood that he noticed her attire. He cocked his head to one side. “Why are you still wearing your coat?”

She felt her face turn bright red, although for the life of her she had no idea why she was suddenly so embarrassed “Oh, um . . .”

Realization dawned and Hudson grinned from ear to ear. “Why Miss Sinclair, you didn’t come to my penthouse wearing nothing but your birthday suit and a cashmere coat, did you?”

Her hands went instinctively to the lapels, pulling them more tightly closed. “Well . . . I . . . you . . .”

His blue eyes glowed with mixture of amusement and astonishment, but that wasn’t what drew her stare. It was the hard ridge of his arousal straining against the front of his drawstring pants that commanded her full attention. “Why the hell didn’t you say something sooner?”

Before she could form an answer he pounced, tackling her to the bed.

Allie laughed as he rolled her beneath him. “I take it you approve?”

The buttons of her coat opened one by one under his dexterous fingers, and within seconds she lay exposed to his hungry gaze. “Damn right I approve.” He dipped his head and fluttered his tongue across her nipple.

Her breath caught as the sensation echoed throughout her core. “I thought you were hungry?”

His eyes flicked up to hers. The look he gave her could have scorched timber. “Starved,” he said, before sucking the taut peak into his mouth.

***

Allie sat on the floor amid rolls of foil paper, ribbons, and tape. She’d just added the finishing touches to the box that held Harper’s gift and was taking a moment to admire her handiwork.

“You know I had an entirely different idea for that ribbon when I bought it.”

Allie looked across the living room to where Hudson stood, hanging the last of the ornaments on the tree. They’d spent the first half of the day trimming the tree together, but after lunch she’d left him to his own devices and set up an impromptu wrapping station in the middle of the floor.

“Behave. We are seriously behind schedule thanks to this morning’s delay.”

He paused with his hand in midair and lifted a brow. “Delay?”

“Granted it was an amazingly mind-blowing delay, but still.”

He chuckled. “Are you familiar with the television show Friends, Alessandra?”

“I’d think long and hard about making a Monica joke if I were you.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it. Especially not after that obvious innuendo.” His back was to her as he hung the last ornament, but she could tell by the sound of his voice that he was smiling. She loved this side of him, so relaxed and playful. And for the hundredth time that day she vowed to do anything to ease the suffering she’d witnessed that morning.

“Would you like to put the star on top?” he asked.

“It’s your home, Hudson. You should do the honors.”

“Yes, but it’s our tree.”

Our tree. She liked the sound of that. So much so she couldn’t hide the ridiculous grin that spread across her face as she clamored to her feet and made her way to where he stood, holding the gold star.

“What are you smiling about?”

“You. Us. This.”

“How very specific.”

“I’m happy. An emotion I didn’t think was possible this holiday.”

He handed her the star and went to fetch one of the dining room chairs. “Speaking of the holidays,” he began. His tone was meant to be light but it sounded almost nervous. “I was wondering . . .”

“Yes?”

Hudson set the chair down beside her. “I was wondering if you’d like to spend the holidays with me and Nick. I mean, it won’t be anything as elaborate as what you’re probably used to, but we could go out, or have dinner here, open presents.” He shrugged. “That sort of thing.”

She’d never seen him so flustered. It was downright adorable. “Sounds perfect. I’d love to spend the holidays with you and Nick.”

He smiled, then offered his hand to steady her as she climbed onto the chair. She still couldn’t reach the top. The tree hadn’t looked nearly this big at the lot. Of course there it had been in the shadow of one that stood fifty-feet tall. She stretched on tiptoe to reach the top and had no sooner set it in place when she lost her balance. Hudson caught her as she fell back into his arms. He held her cradled against his chest, rather like a groom carrying a bride across a threshold. She laughed at her own clumsiness and braced herself for Hudson’s inevitable quip.

But when she met his gaze she found his expression somber. “It would have killed me if you’d married him today.”

His ardent declaration and the thought of how close she came to losing him forever caused a lump to form in her throat. Her fingertips stroked his cheek. “I love you, Hudson.”

He dipped his head, kissing her sweetly, almost reverently, before setting her on her feet. “So, what’s next on the never-ending list?”

She smiled. In spite of his Grinchlike exterior, Hudson was enjoying himself. He was just too proud to admit it. Or maybe he just enjoyed teasing her. Either way, she was having more fun than she’d had in years. “I need to put the last batch of cookies in the oven. Why don’t you build the pyramid?”

“Bossy little thing, aren’t you?” he said dryly. “Perhaps I’ll put that ribbon to good use after all.”

“If that was supposed to be a deterrent, it failed.” She sashayed to the kitchen, swinging her hips in an exaggerated motion. The groan from the dining room confirmed it hadn’t gone unnoticed.

Allie shook various colors of sugar crystals onto the last batch of cookies and then placed the tray in the oven. When she turned back around Hudson was sitting at the dining room table, sorting the delicate wood carvings now piled in front of him. As she watched him assemble the base of the pyramid, she was struck by how the scene would look to any outsider. Hudson working on a project while she fussed about in the kitchen. It was downright domestic, and so. . . . so . . . She searched for the right word to complete her thought before finally settling on normal, because this was what normal couples did on the weekend. It felt right, the two of them spending a quiet Saturday together, and yet strange. They had an undeniable connection, but there was still so much they didn’t know about each other. Even more she didn’t know about him.

Images from earlier that morning flooded her mind. To the rest of the world Hudson Chase might have seemed the always-in-control CEO, master of not only his own destiny, but so many others as well. Underneath that perfect exterior, however, was a man with demons that surfaced when he was asleep and at his most vulnerable. Having seen the effects firsthand made her desperate to help him. But to do that, she’d have to get him to open up to her, and that would take time. Based on what little she knew, she suspected it had to do with some trauma from his childhood, something even worse than what he’d already shared. But what could be worse than losing his mother to a drug overdose and his younger brother to a system that shuttled him from one foster home to another?

“What are you thinking about over there?” he asked.

Allie met his curious stare. “Hmm?”

“You’re frowning. Is there some kitchen crisis that needs to be averted?”

She gave a small laugh and shuffled the decorating supplies on the granite counter. “No, just wondering if I bought enough icing for the cookies.”

Hudson shook his head and smiled as he turned his attention back to the small pyramid taking shape on the table in front of him. The second tier was in place and he was about to add the third. “You do realize there will only be the three of us?”

“Yes, I know that.” She rolled her eyes, knowing full well he couldn’t see. “I just want to make this special for Nick. And you,” she added quietly.

His gaze flicked up to meet hers and his eyes softened. “It will be special because you’re here. The rest of this,” he waved his hand vaguely through the air, “while appreciated, is inconsequential.”

A feeling of warmth spread through her. “Thank you, but I happen to like all of this, so get building,” she teased.

“Ribbon, Alessandra. Plenty of it left.”

“Bring it on, Chase.” She laughed. “But after you’ve finished your work.” Leaning her hip against the counter, she watched as he placed tiny figurines on each level. As he did, the expression on his face changed. Gone was the devious grin that had accompanied his delicious threat, and in its place was something much more innocent. Hudson had always seemed so much older than his twenty-nine years, but in that moment it was if he were a young boy again, marveling at the decoration his parents had put on display.

“Is it like the one you used to have?” Her voice was hesitant. As much as she wanted to know about his past, she didn’t want to push him to a place he wasn’t ready to revisit.

“I have no idea,” he murmured.”I have a picture in my mind, but I’m not sure if it’s accurate. My mom stopped putting it out after my dad was gone. She stopped celebrating Christmas altogether.”

Allie’s chest tightened at the thought. Hudson had never mentioned his dad, much less why he wasn’t in his life, but clearly that had been the case for quite a while. It was hard enough to imagine two little boys growing up without their father. But picturing them with a mother so despondent she couldn’t bring herself to celebrate the holidays caused tears to prick the backs of her eyes. She was about to go to him, to wrap her arms around him and tell him he’d never be alone again, when he surprised her by saying more than just those few initial words.

“Nick and I would sit at the table, watching, while my dad built it,” he said. “He’d let us play with the little guys until he was ready for them. Nick would cry if he didn’t get to hold Santa Claus, even though my dad told him the most important one was the baby in the manger.” He gave a half smile. “But that baby wasn’t the one bringing presents, so Nick couldn’t care less.”

One by one Hudson began adding the thin propeller blades to the top of the pyramid. Allie held perfectly still, not wanting to interrupt the moment in any way. Hudson was talking, sharing a memory from his childhood, and a happy one, no less. Which only made her all the more curious as to what had happened to so devastatingly alter their lives.

“When he was finished he’d let me light the candles.” When the last blade was in place, Hudson gave them a gentle push and the levels began to spin in alternating directions. He sat back in his chair, watching it turn.

The oven timer chimed and Allie jumped. Hudson looked up and all traces of the young boy vanished. “Better not let them burn,” he teased. “The woman in charge around here is a real nightmare.”

“Only when her elf is slacking on the job,” she shot back, relieved to see his mood hadn’t taken a dark turn. “But since he’s completed everything on his list, he’s in the clear. Might even get a reward.” She grabbed a hot mitt and bent over to pull the last tray of cookies out of the oven.

Hudson was suddenly behind her, his hands cupping her backside. “I can think of a few rewards I’d like to claim.”

Allie gave her hips a little shake and he smacked her on the ass. She yelped as she stood. “You’re lucky I didn’t drop these,” she said, setting the tray on the counter to cool.

“They smell delicious.”

“Thank you. But don’t be too impressed, I only baked them.” Allie had never been much of a cook, but she’d found a box of pre-cut, ready-to-bake Christmas cookies at the store that were allowing her to fake her way through it quite well. At least so far. She’d baked half of them with colored sugar and left the other half plain for decorating with icing. It had seemed simple enough at the time, but now that she was faced with covering a dozen or so cookies with decorative icing—and having them resemble something slightly appetizing—she wasn’t so sure.

Hudson reached past her to steal a cookie off the tray, but she batted his hand away. “Those are too hot to eat.” She turned and offered him one from the cooling rack. “Here, try one of these.”

He took the cookie and settled back against the counter. Crossing his ankles, he watched her as she arranged several cookies on a piece of parchment paper. Pulling off a Martha Stewart routine was going to be hard enough. Doing it with Hudson watching her every move was going to be damn near impossible.

“Don’t you have an empire to run or a football game to watch?” Something. Anything.

“Nothing more entertaining than this.” He finished the last of his cookie and brushed the crumbs from his hands. “Can I help?”

“You want to decorate cookies?

“Yes.” His expression was sincere.

“Okay.” She placed a piece of parchment paper in front of him and set a star-shaped cookie on top of it.

“Lacking confidence in my abilities?”

She laughed. “Start with the star and we’ll work you up to the snowman.”

He stared at the tubes filled with various colors of frosting for a moment before reaching for the blue one.

“Just hold it with both hands and squeeze,” she said, without looking up. Beside her Hudson stilled and she had to bite her lip to hide her smile. If she played her cards right, perhaps he wouldn’t notice her lack of culinary skills after all.

Allie reached for the green icing and began piping it onto a cookie cut into the shape of a tree. When she finished she added a few multicolored sprinkles. Not too bad, she thought. It actually resembled a Christmas tree. And not one decorated by a four-year-old.

“How did I do?’ Hudson asked.

Allie gaped at his cookie, perfectly decorated with an intricate snowflake pattern covered with sparkling sugar crystals. Seriously? “Umm, not too bad.”

“Hmm. Once I found the right spot to exert the perfect amount of pressure, it came quite easily.” His description made every nerve in her body come alive. And judging by the smirk on his face, he knew it, too. “Am I ready for the next level?”

Complicated household appliances like overpriced espresso machines might have been more than Hudson could handle, but clearly he harbored some previously unknown, at least to her, artistic ability. Allie tucked that bit of information away to ponder at another time. Right now her competitive streak required she focus all of her attention on cookie decorating.

Hudson lifted a brow as she placed a snowman on each of their parchments. “I do believe I sense a challenge.”

“Just frost your cookie,” she muttered.

He chuckled. “Keep it up, Alessandra, and I’ll take you on the kitchen floor. Although if memory serves, you quite enjoyed it the last time.”

Ignoring his comment, Allie set about the task of decorating her snowman. But her mind was far from thoughts of corncob pipes and button noses. All she could picture was their first morning together and, more specifically, how they’d ended up a sweaty, panting mess on the kitchen floor. She was so consumed by the thought, she forgot all about keeping an eye on the competition.

When she finally stole a sideways glance, an involuntary giggle escaped her lips. On the counter in front of Hudson lay a very voluptuous snow . . . woman wearing a red bra and panties. “You did not just draw boobs on a Christmas cookie.”

“I most certainly did.” He gazed at her impassively for a moment before sucking a bit of frosting from his fingertip. “And they’re quite delicious.”

Hudson’s eyes flicked down to where her nipples pebbled beneath her thin sweater and then to the tube of icing he held in his hand.

Allie narrowed her eyes at him. “You wouldn’t dare.”

He didn’t answer, but the wicked gleam in his eyes told her he absolutely would.

She took a step back. “I’m serious, Hudson. Don’t even think about it.”

His lips twitched into a lascivious grin. “Oh, it’s much too late for that, Alessandra.”

A frisson of exhilaration ran through her as Hudson took a slow, predatory step forward. Allie chewed on her bottom lip, trying to anticipate his next move. She shifted to her right and he followed, mirroring her movements, all the while never taking his eyes off hers. With one more step she was past the breakfast bar. The dining room table was in her peripheral vision. Two or three strides and she’d make it.

“Well, you’ll have to catch me first,” she challenged, knowing full well she was raising the stakes of their game.

“Count on it, baby.” Quick as a flash, he lunged for her. Allie squealed as she turned and made a run for the table, only pausing once it stood between them. Hudson shook his head, his eyes blazing with excitement. “And you know what will happen when I do.”

Adrenaline spiked in her veins. She watched him, pacing the length of the table as she shifted back and forth along the opposite side. He wanted her, and damn if she didn’t want him, too. In fact, right there on the table would do just fine. But she’d started this thrilling game of cat and mouse, and now she had to finish it.

She backed toward the living room, her smile growing wider as she dashed around the couch. “Bring it on, Chase.”

Hudson’s eyes flared. “Taunting me?” he asked. But he didn’t wait for an answer. Instead he lurched forward in a few powerful strides, palming the back of the couch with his free hand and leaping over it.

Shit.

With her heart pounding, Allie took off in the only available direction. When she reached the stairs, Hudson was right behind her, taking them two at a time. She gasped as his fingers grazed her hip before dropping to catch her ankle.

He yanked her down as he prowled up her body, his hips surging against her backside as he lowered his mouth to her ear. “I’ve caught you, baby.” He buried his hand in her hair and pulled her head to the side. She moaned when his lips found the spot on her neck that never failed to drive her wild. Pleasure shot through her as he sucked on the sensitive skin and she writhed beneath him, her sex clenching and releasing in response to his hardening arousal. “Now, what shall I do to you?” he growled, grinding against her.

Her lips parted on a ragged breath. “Whatever you want.” And she meant it. In that moment she was on fire for him, desperate to have him anyway he wanted.

Turning her on her back, Hudson leaned in with one hand pressed into the stair behind her head. When his eyes met hers they were full of dark intent. “I believe there is the matter of some decorating.” She watched as he squeezed a small bead of red frosting onto her bottom lip.

“You like the frosting, do you?” Her chest heaved but her voice was nothing more than a whisper.

He licked his lips. “I might need another taste, just to be sure.” The tip of his tongue traced her lower lip. “Hmm, even better on you.”

She lifted her head in an attempt to deepen their kiss, but he reared back.

“Would you like to try some?” he asked.

“Yes,” she breathed. His eyes flared when she added a breathy, “Please.”

“As you wish.” He arched over her, sealing their mouths. She moaned as his skilled tongue slid over hers, hot and velvety and tasting of a delicious mix of sweet sugar and Hudson Chase.

Allie heard the tube of frosting drop on the stairs, and then his hand was beneath her sweater. He wrenched it up and over her head before tossing it aside, then jerked down the lace cups of her bra. One of the straps broke, but she didn’t care. She was too busy watching with coiled anticipation as Hudson reached for the discarded frosting. A moment later a thin line of icing circled one of her nipples. “Even better this way, I’m sure,” he said in a husky voice.

She arched her back. “Perhaps you should take a taste.”

Hudson groaned his agreement against her skin as he latched on to her nipple, sucking it gently before releasing it and blowing a stream of cool air across the glistening tip.

Allie’s hips began to move of their own accord, gyrating against him as he dragged his tongue across her chest, leaving a smear of red icing in his wake. His teeth closed around her nipple and it was almost more than she could bear. She couldn’t wait any longer. She needed him to take her, right there on the stairs. Her fingers twisted into his hair, tugging his head up to hers. “Hudson . . .”

He gazed at her with hooded eyes. “Do you want me inside you?” he asked. The rasp of his voice sent a shiver of awareness down her spine. His hand smoothed up her ribcage, caressing the side of her breast. She glanced down at the heavy rise and fall of her chest as he brushed his thumb back and forth across the swollen nipple.

“Yes,” she panted. “Hudson . . . please.”

She felt his rough stubble on her skin as he dragged his tongue down the center of her stomach in a sleek, wet glide. “Slow and easy or fast and hard?” he murmured against her skin. His hands glided up her thighs. In one smooth movement he pushed her skirt up and swept her panties down her legs. They fell open, shamelessly offering him more room to maneuver. “Which is it, Alessandra?”

Allie’s head dropped on a frustrated groan, her body sinking back against the hard and uncompromising stairs. “Either . . . both . . .” She knotted her fingers in Hudson’s hair as a barely audible whimper escaped her lips. “I want you.”

He settled his shoulders beneath her thighs.”Mmm, hard and fast then. I want to feel you come against my mouth.”

Her lips parted on a silent gasp as his tongue, slick and warm and right on target, tortured her, flicking and stroking her sensitive flesh. His arms looped under her legs, holding her in place as she tilted her hips to match his strokes. Then his lips closed around her, sucking in an unrelenting rhythm, and a single finger pushed inside.

“Is this what you wanted?” he asked, although he didn’t need to. Hudson knew her body so well, he knew without asking that she needed more. But he wanted to hear her say it. The realization made her skin tingle with anticipation.

“More,” she pleaded. “I need more.” She rocked against his hand, near mindless with the need to come.

He eased a second finger inside. “Does it feel good, Allie?”

“God, yes . . .”

His mouth was on her again, his fingers and tongue stroking her rhythmically, driving her hard and fast to the release her body so desperately craved. She glanced down, and the sight of him, his head moving between her thighs and his fingers moving inside her, sent her over the edge. She cried out, spiraling unexpectedly into an orgasm that stunned all her senses. Hudson’s hand shot to the small of her back, holding her tight to his mouth. Only when the last convulsing wave of pleasure wracked her body, did he position himself between her thighs. Lifting her leg, he entered her on a solid stroke, shoving her further up the stairs. Almost immediately he began an unyielding rhythm that had her insides quickening once again.

“That’s it,” he coaxed, his words and body driving her to the clenches of another orgasm. “Give it to me.”

Allie’s hand curled around the lip of the stair as a second orgasm rolled through her, no less devastating than the first. Hudson followed a moment later. He came growling her name as his hips jerked in one last powerful thrust.

Pressing a kiss to her temple, he slid an arm under her boneless body and gathered her up. He held her tight against his chest as their bodies cooled and their breathing slowed.

When he finally spoke his voice was a hoarse whisper. “I believe we’ve settled the matter of the decorating competition.”

Allie nearly snorted. “Hardly.”

“How do you figure?”

“You had an unfair advantage decorating, um . . . nonedible items.”

A soft chuckle vibrated deep in his chest. “I beg to differ on the nonedible.”

She gave his shoulder a shove. “You know what I mean. I was limited to cookies.”

The words had no sooner left her mouth when a decidedly naughty thought crossed her mind. She reached for the tube of frosting and her gaze dropped to Hudson’s already hardening arousal. Slowly and deliberately she swept her tongue over her bottom lip. “Of course there’s one way to level the playing field, so to speak.” Shifting off of Hudson’s lap, she slid to the stair below. “If you’re game for a rematch, that is.”

He grinned as he repositioned himself against the stairs, bending a knee and dropping back on his elbows. “I’m not stopping you, baby.”








Chapter Twenty







The doors to the walk-in closet stood open, and in the bathroom steam still hung in the air. On the bed a deep crimson silk tie lay strewn across a crisp dress shirt. At Allie’s insistence, formal had been ditched for comfort. So in a quick shift, Hudson ducked his head through the neck of a navy V-neck sweater and pulled the cashmere down his torso. He had offered to take her out to some fancy dinner, as was the thing among the Gold Coast crowd she ran with. Shit, and according to his address, so did he. But Allie had wanted to cook for the three of them. She’d had enough formal holidays to last a lifetime and wanted something small and intimate, the opposite of what her mother used to throw to please her whims and fancy.

On his way out of the room, Hudson paused in front of the full-length mirror for a quick check of his fly. He stared at his reflection and thought of the way his life had played out and an unfamiliar feeling took shape. He was happy. The two things that mattered most to him were coming together.

One was his brother, who he’d do . . . had done, the unimaginable for. The other was the woman who owned him and was probably making a damn mess of his kitchen. Like he gave a flying fuck. As it was, women’s clothes were multiplying by the day, and for some reason he didn’t care if tampons appeared next to the toilet paper. Then he thought of the time he’d spent shaving and arranging his hair. And the gel, he’d even used goddamn gel and it still looked like shit.

He hit the lights on his way out, laughing quietly at what a whipped sonofabitch he was, and set off for the kitchen. In front of him Mother Nature was delivering a white Christmas to Chicago and snow swirled outside the floor to ceiling windows. But it was the sound of the door slamming shut on a Viking oven and the clanging of pots and pans that drew his attention. The scents wafting through the living room teed off his hungry stomach as he closed in on the source of all the noise.

Allie, in his kitchen.

God, she was a sight.

He leaned against the wall just on the periphery of the room and watched her, absorbing her determination to make this dinner the best damn one in history.

She pirouetted to grab pot holders that were taking a nap in between two mixing bowls. When she pulled them up, two wooden spoons clattered to the floor. Allie was clearly in way over her head. His lips twitched on a suppressed laugh as he surveyed the damage. The granite counters were littered with bowls, spoons, knives, and cutting boards of every size, make, and model. The sink was piled high with colanders, more bowls, and what must have been his entire set of All-Clad. He wondered if there was still a clean dish left. If there was, it was only a matter of minutes before it would be used and abused.

She bent over to check the bird in the oven, giving him one hell of a view of her ass. As he watched her body move, he felt himself begin to harden. And knew just how long it would take him to get her out of those pants and be buried deep inside her.

“Looks good.” Hudson grinned. When she straightened, he saw she wore a white chef’s apron, the string wound twice around her waist and knotted in the front. He owned an apron? Who knew.

“You think so?” Allie bent down and looked through the window once again, then popped back up.

His head cocked to the side. “Absolutely.” He moved toward her like a predator, his shoulders rolling with his stride.

“The turkey should be done right on time. The potatoes are done, the stuffing . . .” she ticked each item off with a finger “. . . rolls, cranberry sauce . . . from the can, as requested.” As if reading his mind, she started to back away from him, only to bump into the counter.

He stopped in front of her, his arms coming around her and settling on the small of her back, urging her closer.

“Hudson.” Allie tilted her head to the side at the same time his lips made contact with her neck. “There’s still so much to do.”

“Numerous things,” he said, his hands slipping under her sweater and smoothing up the sides of her ribcage. His cock hardened between them and he sealed his mouth over hers.

“I want you,” he murmured.

“You just had me just a few hours ago.”

“Wasn’t enough. I feel like I can’t breathe unless I’m inside you.” He covered her mouth with his once more and she melted into his kiss. As she leaned into him, the pressure increased against his cock and he groaned into her mouth. “Fuck.” He drew the word out, his pecs tightening as his fingers flexed against her skin. He would have moved into position lighting-fucking-fast, but sweet hell there wasn’t an inch of counter that wasn’t covered with kitchen appliances he didn’t even know he owned or have shit spilled on it from her sojourn into Martha Stewartdom.

His palm cupped her breast and kneaded it through the thin lace of her bra, his fingertips brushing over her nipple. Then his tongue slipped into her mouth, lazily fucking it, before sucking her bottom lip between his teeth.

“God, yes,” Allie breathed against his lips. The sound she let out was part hum of approval and part moan. Screw the counter action, the floor would work just fine. He wanted his mouth on her, his tongue thrusting up inside her so he could taste her slick sex. He needed her naked skin against his, her breath hot and pleading in his ear. She was right, it had only been a couple hours but that length of time was a goddamn killer, making him more aware of the heartbeat pounding at the head of his cock.

Just as he was going to prove to himself how fast he could have her out of her clothes and flat on her back with his face between her thighs, the dull ding of the private elevator sounded in the distance.

“Your brother is here,” Allie mumbled against his mouth.

Hudson growled before dropping a kiss on her mouth and adjusting the hard-on in his pants.

Nick cleared his throat. “Yo, dude, you have eighty rooms in this joint. Get one.”

Hudson flipped his brother the bird over Allie’s shoulder.

“Nice. Real Christmas spirit.” Nick chuckled. “Where’s the fuckin’ love?”

Allie started to laugh. If it wasn’t snowing like a bitch outside, Hudson would’ve tossed his brother out on his ass and made him wait while he made love to his woman in every-single-mother-fucking-room. Twice.

A sharp gust of wind rattled the windows. “Weather dude is predicting record snow and shit.” Nick shook out his jacket and tossed it on the back of the couch.

“What the hell, Nick? Get your wet coat off the couch.”

“Seriously? You going on all fancy schmancy on me?” Nick grabbed his jacket, stopping short at the sight of Allie’s version of Santa’s Village. “Holy shit.”

As expected, she really had overdone it. Hudson’s penthouse looked like one of the window displays at Macy’s on steroids. If there was free space she’d thrown garland and lights on it. Christ, there were enough tiny lightbulbs to land a 747 in his living room. But he knew her heart had been in the right place, and it gave her something to focus on besides it being the first holiday without her family. Plus, the expression on Nick’s face was priceless. Hudson hadn’t seen that look on him since they were kids. And seeing the two people he loved most in the world happy was all that mattered to him. Even if his house looked like Clark Griswold’s.

Allie had scored a winner. And in that moment he crashed even harder for her.

Nick’s eyes darted from the tree that rivaled the one standing front and center in the Walnut Room to the table set with red-and-white poinsettias and mosaic votives. The candles were lit, making the place smell like a potpourri of spices that sucked the coldness out of his highly stylized penthouse. It was the first time his place had felt like a home, and it had everything to do with the woman currently destroying his kitchen.

As if on cue, Allie appeared at Hudson’s side. He threw an arm around her shoulder, then kissed the crown of her head, watching as Nick zeroed in on the wooden pyramid. He reached out to give the thin wooden paddles a spin, but the moment his finger made contact the intricate contraption fell apart; angels fell from heaven, propellers hit the ground.

“Jesus Christ,” Hudson muttered under his breath. “Some things never change.”

Allie covered her mouth to hide her laugh as he strode over to the wooden carnage.

“I just wanted to make the little guys spin faster, dude.” Nick gathered the paddles that had flung in every direction while Hudson rescued a fallen angel from the ground.

“Does the concept of leaving shit alone ever enter your head?”

“Does chillin’ the fuck out ever enter yours?” Nick plugged one of the propellers into its designated hole, his hand hovering over the pyramid until he was sure it would stay put.

Hudson pushed Nick’s hand aside. “Give it to me.”

“Hey, leave the CEO at the office. I got it.” Nick popped another paddle into position, then another before wood took another trip to the ground. “Son of a bitch.”

“Move.” Hudson shoved Nick out of the way as his little brother played pick-up sticks.

“Have at it.” Nick dropped the propellers into a pile on the table and sauntered over to the tree. “Dude, that’s a mountain of boxes.” He squatted down and started rifling through the packages. “I see a ton of shit with my name on it. What’s the holdup?”

“After dinner.”

“After dinner? Hells no. I know when you’re hiding something. And when you do, it’s worth it.” Nick stood up. “C’mon, man. What’s the fuckin’ deal?”

“Hey, there’s no ‘fuck’ in Christmas.”

Allie leaned closer, whispering so only he could hear. “That’s not what I heard in the kitchen.”

“That was different.” Hudson brushed his lips against her temple.

“Now or later, bro, you’re still going to give me the prezzie. I know you and you can’t resist. So hand it over.”

“No. Later.”

“Oh, please.” Allie rolled her eyes. “You’ve been excited about this all day. Just give it to him.” She’d busted his balls on that one.

“Fine, you can open one.”

With that, Nick dove for the mass of boxes under the tree and began his own version of a scavenger hunt. He surfaced with a huge rectangular box that had his name scratched on it in Hudson’s handwriting.

“That’s your choice?”

Nick grinned. “Bigger is better.”

“Not necessarily.” Hudson strode toward the tree and closed in on a small red box with silver satin ribbon tied in an elaborate bow. All Allie’s doing, of course. He had no patience when it came to wrapping presents, always opting for a stick-on. Peel, slap, done.

“The little one?” Nick eyed it skeptically.

“Fine, if you would rather have the box with the cashmere sweater in it. Your choice.”

Allie looked on, unable to contain her smile as Nick’s eyes volleyed between the big box in his hands and the little one Hudson held in his palm. “You know what they say about big things coming in small packages,” she prompted.

Nick laughed. “That’s what she said.” He tossed the larger box aside and snatched the smaller one out of Hudson’s hand. After ripping off the ribbon, he lifted the lid to find a silver key nestled inside with a chain that read HARLEY DAVIDSON. Nick was speechless for about a nanosecond, then his head shot up. “No fuckin’ way.”

“There’s still a few minutes before dinner’s ready,” Allie said. “Why don’t you take him down to the garage and show him.”

“It’s here?”

“You want to go see it?”

“Uh, hell yeah.” Nick dropped the box and was on his feet, bouncing on the balls like he did when he was a kid.

Hudson crooked an elbow around his little brother’s neck and dragged him toward the foyer with a knuckle to the head. “Get the lead out, little man.” It was possible he was as excited as his brother was. They were hanging out again and Nick was flashing a smile that reminded him of when he was a kid opening up some POS present Hudson had managed to scrape enough money together to buy. But this time he was giving his brother something that made up for a childhood of crap cars with wheels that fell off after a week. This time his brother was getting the real-fucking-deal Hot Wheels.

Nick broke free and ran ahead. He punched the button for the elevator. “C’mon, old man. Ditch the walker and hurry up.”

Hudson had barely stepped onto the elevator when Nick thumb-punched the Door Close button. He thought his brother was going to bounce off the walls during what must’ve been the longest elevator ride of his life.

In three . . . two . . . one . . . the doors opened.

Parked next to Hudson’s gun-metal gray DB9 was Nick’s unicorn, a Harley Davidson Fat Boy, laid back and luxurious with the unmistakable nostalgic profile.

Hudson Chase didn’t fuck around when it came to motorcycles.

Nick moved toward the shiny black classic as if he got too close, the mirage would disappear. “Is this mine?”

Hudson chuckled. “Yeah, merry Christmas.”

His brother let his hand drift over the chrome badge emblazoned on the side of the leather strap tank, then threw his leg over the bike.

“It’s a Twin Cam 103 with six-speed cruise drive transmission. It’s got a chrome speedometer and ignition switch console.” Hudson pointed. “All the info you need at a quick glance.”

Nick’s hands darted to the handlebars that were set wide and made of stainless steel with bare-knuckle chrome risers. “This is one sick-ass bike.”

“If you don’t like the color or the make, we can trade it in.”

“No way. This is the best present in the world, bro. I love it.” Nick kicked back on the throne of metal, surveying the concrete wall in front of him like it was the open road. “When are we going riding?”

“Bike, snow, not a good combo.”

“Ah, come on, buzzkill.”

“No bike in this weather. Not to mention you’ll freeze your balls off.”

“Like I said. Buzz. Kill.” Nick cocked a grin.

“Common sense.” Hudson took two quick strides forward. “It has mirror chrome wheels and a NextGen security system that automatically arms and disarms the ride,” he said, pointing out the bells and whistles. “The thing is better than what’s on my bike.”

Nick was touching everything, skimming his hands over every inch. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Try thank you.”

He looked up. “Thank you, Hudson.”

“You’re welcome. Glad you like it.” Hudson felt his phone vibrate in the ass pocket of his pants. He dug the thing out and with his thumbs working, punched a message before slipping the phone back in his pocket. “Dinner’s ready.” As soon as he finished his sentence, his phone vibrated again.

“We better get our asses upstairs,” Nick said, swinging his leg over the bike in a dismount.

“Yeah.” Hudson typed a reply and put the phone away again, then shot his brother a stern glare. “No drinking and riding, feel me?”

“Dude, when are you going to let up? Sober, remember?” Nick reached into his pocket and pulled out a thirty-day chip. He flicked it at Hudson.

Hudson caught the chip, studying one side, then the other. There were numerous things to say, yet he stood there with not a damn thing coming to mind except, “This is my Christmas present, Nicky.” He cleared his throat. “We better hit it before Allie starts texting my ass again.”

Nick laughed. “So whipped.”

“No denying.” He grinned. “And one day, it will happen to you.” Hudson clapped his brother on the shoulder as they headed toward the elevator. On the ride up, he launched into more details about Nick’s new piece of horsepower. While he pontificated, sound effects rumbled out of Nick’s piehole and echoed off the wood paneling.

When they stepped off, Allie looked up from setting a platter of food on the table.”Perfect timing. Grab a seat, you two.”

“Can I help you with something?” Hudson brushed his lips against her cheek.

“No. Oh wait, yes! The wine.” She jockeyed between the table and the kitchen, trying to work out which way to go.

“I got it.”

Allie stopped him with a touch to his forearm. “Unless you’d rather not.” She glanced at Nick, who was sticking his finger in the sweet potatoes.

The affection this woman had not only for him, but for his brother as well, was an arrow to the heart. “We’re good, baby.” Nick had made it clear he didn’t want everyone walking on eggshells around him. He wanted things as normal as possible, and since Hudson would normally serve wine with a dinner, he would tonight as well.

He’d just returned from grabbing a bottle of Chardonnay out of the wine fridge when Allie came out of the kitchen. Her arms were loaded with yet another dish, but damn it was his favorite: green bean casserole with extra crispy onions. The dish might have been low-rent to some, but hell if it wasn’t a classic.

“You’ve outdone yourself,” he said. As out of her element as Allie had seemed, everything was pulled together perfectly.

Hudson released the cork with a soft rush of air and started to fill their glasses. Allie brought out the last dish, and fuck him, he was going to drop down on bended knee.

“Oh shit, are those scalloped potatoes?” Nick blurted before he could even get a word out.

“You got it.”

“Dude, Hudson, she’s a keeper. Don’t fuck this up.”

“Not a chance in hell.”

“Sit, please. Eat while it’s hot.” Allie sat down, and just as she did her phone let out a muted shrill of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”

Hudson raised a brow at the 1980s tune that was a pop-culture anthem to do just that.

“Harper.” She smiled sheepishly. “She programmed it, not me.”

Hudson and Nick both laughed at her quickly offered defense.

“Hey there,” she said into the phone. “How’s St. Louis? Uncle Eddie still have his pants on?” A frown marred her perfect brow. “You’ve been at O’Hare this whole time?” She stood and moved toward the panoramic windows overlooking Lake Shore Drive. Snow shifted one way, then sharply to the other with each gust of wind. “It’s coming down pretty hard, but traffic is moving.” There was a beat of silence. “Well obviously you’re not getting a flight tonight . . . No, we haven’t eaten yet.”

Hudson slid the napkin from his lap, resting it on the table.

“Why don’t you hop on the L and come spend Christmas Eve with us? . . . No, it’s no trouble.” Allie was back at the table lifting the platter of scalloped potatoes as Nick was spooning into them. “Oh no, the food won’t be ready for another thirty minutes, so it works out great.”

Hudson and Nick shot each other a look that their own hunger might become a liability.

“Head on over,” Allie said before ending the call. Without pause, she turned to Hudson and Nick. “Will you give me a hand with the rest of these?”

“What the fuck?” Nick’s words rushed out under his breath as Allie left the dining room with an armful of platters.

“Just go with it.” With that they both worked on hauling plate after plate of food to the kitchen. Allie raced to set another place setting and Hudson reached for his phone.

“Max, there will be a feisty redhead arriving soon by the name of Harper Hayes. Send her up.”

Allie gaped at him. “Max is working tonight?”

“Yes.”

“Send the man home. It’s bad enough you’ve had him follow me everywhere for the past two weeks, but it’s Christmas Eve.”

“Crime doesn’t break for the holidays.”

“I’m in your penthouse. Nothing is going to happen to me here.”

Hudson exhaled. “After she arrives, you can leave for the night,” he told Max.

She lifted a brow.

“And I’ll see you on the twenty-sixth,” he added reluctantly before hanging up the phone. While he wanted Max on standby, Allie was right. He shouldn’t keep the man from enjoying time with his family.

“Thank you.” She kissed his cheek. “Maybe give Nick the rest of his presents?”

“I could think of a better way to spend the next half hour.” He wrapped his arms around her and pressed a quick kiss to her lips. “Drop the cookie, Nick,” he said, without looking up. He turned to catch his brother red-handed, then kicked his chin in the direction of the tree. “There are more presents with your name on them.”








Chapter Twenty-one







“Sweet hell,” Hudson muttered under his breath when the elevator doors opened. Harper looked like she’d brought her whole damn closet in the guise of two suitcases the size of an Escalade. With his hands planted on his hips, he checked out the set of mix ’n’ match luggage. If he didn’t know better he’d have sworn the redhead was moving in.

Allie rushed to the elevator at the same time Harper started to unravel herself from the layers of clothes she’d armored herself with against the weather. All he could see at the moment was a set of bright green eyes.

“Oh my God, you must be freezing,” she said.

“Not too bad.” Harper’s teeth chattered and the snowflakes along for the ride dusted his wood floor. She sat down on the bench in the foyer and tugged off her . . . Christ, were those fire-engine red boots?

“And I didn’t know you had all this luggage.”

“Hello, have you met me?” Emerald-green gloves came next, falling to the floor with a wet slap.

“We should have met her at the L stop.” Allie shot a frustrated look at Hudson. “Come on, let’s get you in front of the fire.” She glanced over her shoulder at him and Nick as she ushered Harper toward the living room. “Will you take care of those?”

The two brothers looked at each other. Hudson ran a hand through his hair and bit back a curse. It was bad enough he was playing host-with-the-fucking-most, but now a goddamn bellhop? Jesus Christ, he was going to drag his brother down with him. “Well, don’t just stand there, make yourself useful.” He threw out his arm, slapping Nick against the chest with the back of his hand.

“Ouch.” Nick mock-flinched. “Know your own strength, bro?”

Hudson moved toward the elevator, and as soon as he reached it, jerked one extending handle up while Nick grabbed the other. The two brothers hauled Harper’s luggage—a multicolor polka-dot and a rainbow stripe—into the foyer and clicked the handles back down. When they were done, they found the two women sitting in front of a roaring blaze. Allie had obviously tossed in a couple more logs, turning the living room into an inferno.

“Why in the world do you need that much luggage?” she asked. “I thought you were only going for a few days.”

“One has the presents for my nieces, my mom’s Frango mints, and . . .” With her head finally free of outerwear, Harper fully took in her surroundings. She let out a descending whistle as her eyes darted around the Great Room, from the oversize tree that was visible from space to the Kapoor sculpture, to the Fazoli piano and the vaulted ceilings.

Hudson had only met Harper a few times, but gauging by the opportunities he had, he was sure as hell that few things ever cut off her capacity for speech.

“Holy cow,” she finally said.

“I sort of overdid it with the decorations, huh?”

“Sort of. But crap, this place is huge.

Nick laughed. “There’s no half-assing it with my brother. It’s always ba—”

Hudson cut Nick a look, effectively silencing him from finishing what he knew was a sentence that would contain the word “balls.” “Something to drink, Harper?”

“Um sure, thanks. Maybe a glass of wine?”

“Red or white?”

“Whatever everyone else is having is fine by me,” Harper said. She shrugged out of her coat and any further thoughts on host duties were derailed by the outfit that was revealed. Allie’s friend was done up in a mixture of patterns and colors that might as well have been an outfit from 1985, with a retro twist of the hipster movement. Hudson was clueless when it came to women’s trends, but even he could tell this woman marched to the beat of her own drum.

“Get her something to warm her up a bit first,” Allie said. “She can have the wine with dinner.”

Demanding little thing. Hudson smirked at her, then lifted a brow at Harper. “Scotch?”

“Sure, why the hell not.”

He felt his stomach growl as he made his way to the bar. Cocktail time had expired about two hours ago, but the fact that he was pouring scotch and starving to death was proof he’d say or do anything to keep that look of happiness on Allie’s face. Hell, who didn’t deserve a good shot of happy?

“So what’s the story with the redhead?” Nick asked. Hudson cut his brother a glance out of the corner of his eye and as he poured the amber liquid, having a brief moment of concern over Nick being in such close proximity to the liquor.

“Allie’s . . .” He paused as he put the crystal stopper back in the decanter. “BFF.”

Hudson held back on doing the whole finger quotations, but Nick couldn’t stop himself. “BFF?”

“Yeah, ‘Best Friends Forever,’” he said, picking up two crystal glasses full of high-octane scotch.

Nick laughed. “How long did it take for you to figure that one out, bro?”

“Hell of a lot faster than you.” Hudson strode over to the two women huddled together by the fire, deep in some female, fast-as-lightening convo.

“So after three delays and an aircraft switch, we were all set to board and then the tower closed the runways.”

“Your mom must be so disappointed.”

“She’s been in a panic since this morning.” Harper mimicked her mom’s voice. “‘Al Roker is saying it’s going to be worse than the blizzard in 2011.’” She shrugged. “But hey, it could be worse. I could be like those people stuck at O’Hare, sleeping on a cot on Christmas Eve. At least I get to have dinner with my bestie and sleep in my own bed.” Hudson held out the tumbler and Harper took it without missing a beat. “Thank you.”

“Did they rebook you for the morning?”

“Yeah, if this snow ever stops.” She glanced at the flakes coming down in a curtain of white outside the window, then took a sip of the scotch and choked. “Whoa, that will put hair on your chest.”

“Sign of a good scotch.” Hudson smirked. “Too much?

Harper took another sip. “Nope, all good. Although this one better be careful,” she said, nodding to Allie. “One glass and I’m liable to spill all her secrets.”

Hudson watched as Harper took another slug of scotch. Well, well, well. Perhaps the evening would be more interesting than he first thought.

Allie pushed to her feet. “Okay, loose lips—”

“Sink ships?” Harper smiled and Nick chuckled.

“Put the drink down and come help me get dinner on the table.”

Harper uncurled herself from the couch. “How about I bring my drink with me and help get dinner on the table? I’m starved!”

Good God, that made two of them, Hudson thought as he took another swig of his scotch. “Need help in there, baby?” He crossed his legs ankle to knee and hoped like hell she didn’t drag his ass into the kitchen and find another apron for him to sport. Though Nick looked to be game-on.

“We got this.” She bent to press a quick kiss to his lips and he was a goner.

Hudson cupped the back of her head, holding her to him. “Make it quick, I’m eager for dessert,” he murmured against her lips. Allie turned and walked into the kitchen with Harper’s arm slung through hers. He watched her leave, then glanced at his watch, counting the minutes until dinner would be over and he could have her under him shouting his name.

‘Tis-the-season-of-giving.

From the kitchen he heard Harper’s voice pitch to a new octave. “Shit, this kitchen is the size of a studio apartment.”

He chuckled into his glass.

“Looks like the white stuff is really piling up,” Nick said from behind him.

Hudson craned his neck. In the distance the frozen lake was barely visible. He joined his brother at the window for a better view. The cars below them moved at a snail’s pace down Lake Shore Drive and were nearly covered with the snow.

“Dinner is served,” Allie said. She and Harper came into the room carrying two dishes a piece.

Already in motion, Hudson moved aside the table settings that seemed to be multiplying by the hour and found space for the platters weighing down their arms. “Smells amazing,” he said. When she smiled it knocked him upside the head: this was her Elysium. This disjointed family coming together at the last minute, weather be damned, was exactly what she needed.

Cutting through the sentimental meditation was Nick’s baritone laugh and Harper’s cheerful voice. “It sure does,” she said. Her gaze dropped to the empty place settings and a string bean that had jumped ship. “But seriously, guys, you didn’t have to wait for me. I’m sure the last thing you wanted was to put dinner back in the oven.”

Allie’s mouth popped open in surprise.

Harper rolled her eyes. “Please, like I couldn’t hear all those plates clanking together. And for the record, I totally pictured you snapping your fingers at these two,” she swung her pointed finger between Nick and Hudson, “to help you race it all back to the kitchen.”

Nick laughed. “Sounds like she’s got your number, Allie.”

“Like I said, I know all the secrets.” Harper smiled at Nick as she lifted her glass to her lips and took another sip of the throat-burning scotch. “You know,” she said glancing down at the crystal tumbler. “This stuff gets a lot smoother the more you drink.”

“Definitely no more for you, then,” Allie teased as Hudson filled the wineglasses.

“So where are you supposed to be tonight?” Nick asked.

“St. Louis,” Harper said, digging into the sweet potatoes and scooping up extra marshmallows.

“Is that where you grew up?” Nick asked. He’d loaded his plate with protein and the sum of a teaspoon of veggies.

“Yeah. Allie told me you guys grew up in Michigan. What part?”

Nick halted the spoon midscoop in the stuffing and shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Um, yeah, we moved around a lot.”

“Northern peninsula, mostly,” Hudson interjected. Nick’s discomfort mirrored his own. Their past was a closed subject as far as he was concerned. Needing a change, he switched gears to a safer topic. “So tell me, Harper, what sort of celebration is going on in St. Louis tonight?”

“Oh jeez, let’s see.” Harper heaped another spoonful of potatoes on her plate and it dipped from the added weight. “Well, my mom for sure made a big bowl of her famous eggnog, the one Aunt Sue swears doesn’t affect her even though she’ll start singing show tunes on the way to midnight mass. My nieces and nephews are probably so amped up on cookies and candy canes by now that if we open the window we can probably hear my sister yelling about Santa’s hotline all the way from here.” Harper set her plate down and glanced at her watch. “And in about an hour Uncle Eddie will be passed out on the couch watching It’s a Wonderful Life with his hand tucked into the waistband of his pants.”

“Not sure we can compete with all that.” Hudson chuckled. “But I might have a copy of It’s Wonderful Life upstairs in the theater.” He lifted his fork and met Allie’s gaze with a warm smile. “And I’m quite certain Alessandra stocked the fridge with enough eggnog to inspire a song or two.”

Harper’s eyes grew wide. “You have a theater in this place?”

“Yeah,” Nick answered. “And a sick game room. If you want I can give you a tour after dinner. Maybe play a bit of pool?”

Hudson shot his brother a look, but he just shrugged. When did his place become Nick’s personal fun house?

A sly grin curved Hudson’s mouth as he contemplated putting a spark into the conversation at Allie’s expense. “Do you play darts, Harper?”

“I’ve played a bit at pubs, but I can’t say it’s a big hobby of mine, no.”

“Alessandra is quite good. Especially when blindfolded.”

Allie sputtered into her wineglass.

“Are you alright?” he asked, placing his hand on her back. She nodded and wiped her mouth with her napkin, then pegged him with a hard stare that warmed as he cocked a grin.

“So tell me more about yourself, Nick,” Harper said before lifting a fork loaded with a combination of potatoes, cranberry, and turkey to create the perfect bite.

Nick looked suddenly shy and maybe. . . holy shit, was his brother nervous? People would be ice-skating in hell tonight. He took a big gulp of sparkling water and managed to choke out two syllables. “Like what?”

Harper stabbed a green bean with her fork. “I don’t know . . . boxers or briefs?”

Now it was Nick’s turn to choke on his beverage. Jesus Christ, this shit kept getting better. His brother was actually blushing. But knowing anything was liable to come out of Nick’s mouth, Hudson held a breath and hoped like hell he wasn’t going to answer her question with a solid “commando.”

“I, um . . .” Nick stalled.

“I’m kidding.” Harper laughed. “How about something easy, like what do you do for a living?”

Nick would have been better off if she’d stuck to underwear, Hudson thought as he cut into his turkey.

“I just started a new job, actually.”

Hudson stilled with his fork in midair. “You did?”

“Yup. You’re looking at Starbucks’ newest barista.”

“That’s great, Nick,” Allie said.”Which location?”

“Dearborn and Division.”

“If you needed a job you should have come to me,” Hudson said before popping the forkload into his mouth.

“Nah, bro, it’s all good. You’ve done enough for me. Besides, I know what kind of ship you run.”

Harper smiled. “I hit that location almost every weekend. Maybe I’ll see you there sometime.”

“We could go together,” Allie tacked on.

“Oh, lord.” Harper’s eyes grew wide. “I’m not sure Nick is ready for your special orders yet. Better give him a few weeks before you hit him with a request for a two-pump skinny vanilla latte, extra hot, light on the foam.”

Allie turned to Hudson, who threw up his hands in surrender. “Don’t look at me to defend that one.”

“Fine.” Allie directed her attention to Nick. “Then maybe you can teach your brother how to use his espresso machine.”

“Sorry, but dude’s a lost cause.”

Everyone laughed at his expense, but Hudson couldn’t have been happier. The conversation flowed easily between the foursome, and he couldn’t help but notice how Nick and Allie smiled throughout dinner. Harper joined in, even pitching Nick a roll from across the table. For nearly two hours the room was filled with the sounds of forks clinking, wineglasses chiming, and the laughter that was the icing on the cake.

Nick leaned back in his chair and patted his stomach. “Damn, Allie, that was good.”

“Did anyone save room for dessert?”

Christ no, Hudson thought as he dropped his napkin on the table. He was stuffed, not to mention that dinner had gone on long enough. He was ready for Frick and Frack to say their good-byes and hit the road so he could be alone with Allie.

“I couldn’t eat another bite,” Harper said. “Hats off to the chef.”

Thank fuck. For a moment Hudson wondered if he’d said the words out loud. But since he hadn’t been kicked in the shin under the table, it was safe to assume he hadn’t.

Everyone stood up to clear the plates from the table, piling one on top of the other, then loading the silver on the top.

“Oh, fuck,” Nick said.

Hudson’s gaze snapped up to his brother, then shot to the window. Outside, Lake Shore Drive had become a snow-covered parking lot. At least two feet of snow had accumulated over the course of the evening, blowing and drifting across the lakefront road. One by one people were abandoning their cars as they ran out of gas.

“Oh, shit.” Allie moved closer to the window. “We can’t send them out in that,” she whispered to Hudson as he came up behind her. “They won’t even be able to get a cab.”

Goddamnit, she was right. “No, of course not. They’ll stay here. I have plenty of room.”

Allie lifted up on her tiptoes and planted a soft kiss on his cheek. A far cry from what he had in mind, but the night was still young. With a little luck their guests would get to the sugar plums dancing in their head portion of the night sooner rather than later.

***

Being relegated to his bedroom put a serious kink in Hudson’s plans. And not in the way he preferred. While he’d enjoyed the hell out of the evening, when he agreed to the whole deck-the-halls thing, he’d envisioned utilizing the tree, the roaring fire, and the twinkling lights to create the perfect setting for his own version of Christmas festivities. But Mother Nature had other plans. Like him hosting a slumber party for his brother and his girlfriend’s eccentric best friend.

Allie came into the room and shut the door behind her. When she flipped the lock it became clear she had some plans of her own.”I have a surprise for you.”

He cocked his head to the side. “You already gave me your gift.”

“That was just something to put under the tree that you could open in front of Nick.” Her eyes held a wicked gleam that shot his intrigue into the outer limits. “This gift requires a more private venue.”

In succession, her fingers began working the dainty buttons that ran down the front of her red sweater. The two sides split open little by little as she went, until the top edges of her lace bra were revealed along with the gentle swell of her breasts. His hands curled at his sides. Sweet hell, that’s what he wanted.

He took a step forward but Allie turned and headed toward the bathroom. As she did, she glanced back and purposefully let the shoulder of her sweater drop, showing him the soft female skin he knew covered her entire body. Hudson let out a groan as he began to feel the effects of her, the sharp edges of his hunger recontouring inside his pants. At the same time he heard Allie’s soft laugh from behind the bathroom door.

He cursed under his breath, and after a quick adjustment strode into the office connected to the master suite. He moved around the massive desk that anchored the room and slid the top drawer open. The sight of the long, thin box embossed with the Cartier logo sparked a now familiar ache in his chest as the remnants of the teen boy of his past collided with the hope he felt for the future.

After Allie he was never going to be the same again. She was what had been missing in his life. He’d never felt truly whole with other women. He could travel on business for extended periods and never miss them. He could have one latched to his arm and forget she was in the same room. And he’d walked away numerous times without a second look back. But Allie consumed him. Challenged him. When they made love, he felt complete.

He tucked the box in his pocket and strode back into the bedroom. Allie stood before him in a black satin-and-lace baby-doll. The sight of her stopped him dead in his tracks, and all the blast from the past mumbojumbo became a distant-fucking-thought. He sucked in a breath; she was a knockout.

“Do you like?” Her hazel eyes focused on him and her soft blonde curls fell against her pale skin. A juxtaposition of the innocence she still possessed and how incredibly uninhibited she could be with him.

Only him.

“Do I like?” His brows shot up as he moved closer to her. “I love.” His fingertips brushed the top of her breasts, tracing the edge of the satin cup. “Damn, Allie, you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever laid eyes on.”

Allie smiled and a gentle blush colored her cheeks. “Well, it was either this or the slutty Mrs. Claus.”

He chuckled. She could have sauntered out in sweatpants or even a damn potato sack and he would have loved it, because it was her. He wasn’t a guy who was hung up on all that expensive lingerie, stockings, and bra’s that pushed what he wanted to unleash up to a woman’s chin. But he was also a red-blooded male who wasn’t about to complain. Jesus Christ, she was perfect. Blowing out a harsh breath, he told the hard-on behind his fly to cool it. “I have a present for you.”

“I don’t need anything else, Hudson, I have everything I could possibly want under this roof.” Her arms slid around his waist.

“I disagree.” He pulled the leather box out from behind his back. It was tied with a red bow, the signature of a Cartier Christmas, and although a black bow would have normally fit his mood around the holidays, this year the cheerful red suited.

Allie opened the box and gasped. Nestled inside was an anklet like none other, custom made with Hudson’s distinct specifications. Delicate white-gold ropes intertwined and were anchored in the middle by a single seashell charm set with flawless diamonds.

“It’s beautiful,” she breathed. Tears welled in her eyes, and he wondered if she was remembering a similar exchange ten years prior when he gave her the carnival trinket.

“I thought this would be more appropriate than that cheap thing you’ve been wearing tucked inside your boots.”

“I love that ‘cheap thing,’” she said. “And the fact you kept it all these years . . .”

Hudson closed the distance between them. He brushed his lips against hers once, twice, then kissed her deep and slow. He was gentle and careful, tilting his head and stroking the inside of her mouth with his tongue.

Christ, every time he kissed her, it was better than the time before.

Allie’s hands slid underneath his sweater. They were soft and cool against his hot skin. He shifted back and in one motion yanked the cashmere over his head and pitched it to the side.

“Hey, what’s wrong?” His hand cupped the side of her face and his thumb wiped a tear from beneath her eye. “Why are you crying?”

“Because tonight couldn’t have been more perfect. Because I love you.”

“I love you, too, Allie. More than anything.” It was true. He loved her more than the company he built from the ground up. More than any future that was spread out in front of them. He loved her more than himself.

With that, Hudson dipped his head and kissed her again, a slow, intense, full-mouthed seduction that had her fingers raking into his hair. He gathered her into his arms and laid her out on his king-size bed, then stretched over her with a tempered control that was a complete contradiction to the pounding erection in his pants. His hands brushed her hair away from her face, his thumb lingering to caress her cheekbone.

“I love the way you feel on top of me.” Allie slid her foot along his calf.

Hudson’s hand smoothed down her thigh and curled her leg over his hip. “How do I feel?”

“Hard.” She rocked her hips against him and smiled. “Very hard.”

“Fuck, Allie,” he hissed.

She pressed her lips to the straining muscles in his neck, running her mouth up until she got to his jaw. It was a matter of seconds before he needed more, so much more. He needed all of her, every inch of her flesh, hot and writhing against his. He needed to make love to her with the starved desperation of a dying man in search of God.

He swept the sheer fabric of the baby-doll to the side and up her ribcage. Her body arched and her nipples strained through the thin fabric. With an impatient hand he tugged the satin down and the tip of her breast tightened further from the cool rush of air. Unable to stop himself, but like he would if presented the choice, he curled his tongue around the peak, sucking it into his mouth. His tongue swept in and out, flicking then sucking while his hands roamed and her body undulating under his. Impatient fingers curled around the edge of her lingerie. “I want this off.”

Allie stripped the fabric from her shoulders, then pulled it over her head. When she tossed it, the material floated to . . . the bed? The ground? Hell if he cared. His eyes were locked onto every inch of her perfect skin. His hands caressed from her neck to her hips and he followed their path with his open mouth. He moved over her, leisurely pressing kisses to her skin, letting his lips linger longer the lower he went. When he’d finally settled between her thighs, he swept a hand up her leg, gripped the back of her knee, and lifted it over his shoulder.

Dipping his head, he ran the flat of his tongue right up the center of her. Allie’s breath hitched and the air rushed out of her lungs. He stroked her in long, slow sweeps, then dragged his tongue deeper, getting a perfect taste of her.

“Oh, God . . . Hudson . . .” Allie moaned, and her fingers twisted into the sheets.

“Feel good?” He flicked over the most sensitive part of her.

“Yes . . .” Her voice trembled just like her body.

“So sweet, you kill me.” A dangerous lust took hold of him, and with a deep rumble in his chest he locked his hands onto her thighs, splitting her wide and penetrating her with his tongue. He thrust into her with deep, sensuous laps, and in no time she was shattering apart under his mouth and glistening his lips. Her head fell back and her spine arched as she bowed off the bed. And shit, the sound of her crying out his name made his cock kick behind his fly, dying to get out. He reared up and nearly ripped his zipper off as he yanked the thing down, pitching the pants to the side with the same urgency.

With a shift, he settled his weight back onto her, his biceps flexing as he propped himself up on his elbows. The tip of his cock brushed against her hot core, and a fresh wave of need crashed into him.

She gazed up at him. God, if she spent the rest of her life looking at him that way, he was liable to spend the rest of his inside of her. “Make love to me, Hudson.”

“Always.” He dropped his mouth to hers as he surged inside her, her nails digging into his shoulders. He drew his hips back, then the base of his spine flexed as he pushed into her again. Allie’s slender hands drifted down his back to his bare ass, pulling him deeper.

Hudson’s head shot up and a groan broke free of his mouth, his muscles chorded and tight from the pleasure that coiled up from his lower body. His broad back flexed and released with each thrust of his hips, the rolling penetrations gliding him in and out as he found a rhythm that had his body on the perfect type of autopilot.

“Ah, God . . .” Allie arched, her chin lifting toward the ceiling and the tips of her breasts brushing against his chest. Fuck, the sight of her beneath him about made him come right then and there. He closed his eyes, but this time he wasn’t plagued by the contaminating thoughts of the past. No nightmares threatened the pureness of his pleasure. It was just the two of them straining against each other, their panting breathes mingling with the sounds of their lovemaking.

Allie locked her legs around his waist, a throaty version of his name rolling off her tongue as her body began to tighten around his cock. He crushed his mouth against hers and began to really move, his hips swinging of their own volition. His thrusts became shorter, faster, and tighter with each relentless drive.

“I want you to feel me come inside you.” He managed to force the syllables out of his mouth between breaths.

“Yes . . . Don’t stop . . . I’m so—”

Fast as a lighting strike, an orgasm seized her body. The vise grip she had all around him was too much, and the release that had been brewing deep within him shot down his spine. He came hard, his body snapped tight, his hips locking against her sex, while the lingering pulses of her orgasm just about shorted out his brain.

Collapsing on top of her, he turned his face into her neck and tried to catch his breath.

“Merry Christmas,” she murmured as her fingers stroked languidly down his back.

And it had been. All thanks to her. Despite everything, Allie had gone to great lengths to make their first Christmas together special, not only for the two of them, but for Nick as well. The realization not only hit him hard, it made him fall in love with her all over again.








Chapter Twenty-two







Hudson opened one eye. The first thing he saw was the woven pile of feathers, twigs, and string that now dangled over his bed. He’d half expected a family of birds to set up shop in the thing, but if it actually managed to keep his nightmares at bay, so be it. The second was Allie, standing beside the bed wearing a pair of his pajama pants and one of his long-sleeve T-shirts.

“What happened to the woman I took to bed last night?” He rolled over on his side, the sheet shifting down on his hips.

Allie gave a small laugh. “You didn’t expect me to cook breakfast wearing that, did you?”

“No, I expected you to ride my cock wearing nothing.”

She gasped as he gave her hand a sharp tug and yanked her back into bed with him. “Hudson, Nick and Harper are here.”

“I wasn’t planning on inviting them to join us.” Harper struck him as the type of woman who valued sleep, and there was little doubt that Nick was still clocking in the Z’s. When he was using he’d be up for days, but now he had likely slept soundly for nine out of the ten that had passed. “And if memory serves, their presence didn’t stop you from enjoying yourself last night.”

He started to push her shirt up but she batted his hands away. “I mean they’re probably hungry.”

“I’m hungry.” He went to work on the string of her—make that his—pants.”Besides, I thought you were supposed to open your presents on Christmas morning?”

“I believe you opened your present last night.”Allie smiled as she squirmed out of his grasp. “More than once.”

Hudson groaned and ran a hand through his dark waves. He knew he had the look of being freshly fucked, although without the benefits it appeared. “Remind me again why we hosted a godforsaken slumber party.”

“Because,” Allie said as she retied the string on her borrowed pajamas and rolled the waist, “Lake Shore Drive was a parking lot, that’s why.”

“Well, if it’s not clear this morning I’ll shovel the damn thing myself.”

“Pants.” She reached for his hand and tugged him out of bed.

“This is not at all how I pictured the morning playing out,” he grumbled as he shuffled to the closet.

“And how did your version go?”

Hudson emerged from the walk-in tying his drawstring pants. Allie took one look at the expression on his face and began backing toward the double doors of the master suite. He caught up with her in three strides and planted his palms against the rich wood on either side of her head. “I envisioned,” he purred, his mouth hovering over hers, “diving under the sheets and fucking you with my tongue.”

The noise she made was practically a whimper. “Breakfast,” she breathed, “then you can have me all day.”

That promise clogged his mind as he reluctantly opened the door. He followed her down the hall, his arms wrapped around her waist and his lips pressed to her neck as he murmured all the ways he planned to have her naked. To punctuate the way he wanted to take her from behind, he swatted her ass. She yelped and covered herself, then came to an abrupt halt.

Hudson crashed into her.

“What the . . .” His voice intruded upon the scene in front of him: Harper and Nick looking warm and cozy in front of a fire crackling with its last breath of life. Jesus-H-Christ, they’d turned his living room into their own private campground. Thank fuck they were still wearing their clothes from the night before.

Allie composed herself quickly, a hell of a lot faster than he had, and greeted their guests with a wide smile. “Good morning, you two.”

“Hey, morning.” Nick quickly pushed to his feet. “Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas. How did . . .” Allie stumbled in the most marvelous way. He knew without a doubt that she was about to ask how they’d slept, but judging from their attire they hadn’t gotten one wink of shut-eye. “Ready for some bacon and eggs?” she recovered.

“The Alessandra Sinclair breakfast special?” Harper stood and ran a hand through her disheveled red curls.

“Hey, my breakfast-cooking skills have had rave reviews.” Allie glanced over her shoulder at Hudson, nearly knocking him flat on the ass with her knowing smile.

He was so shoveling that road.

She started toward the kitchen but stopped short at the sight of one last present he’d managed to sneak under the tree while she slept. Stealthy SOB that he was.

“What’s that?”

“If I tell you it defeats the purpose of wrapping.” An almost childlike grin curved his lips. “Open it and find out.”

Allie retrieved the box from under the tree and read the tag. Her eyes met his. “But you already gave me my gift last night.” She pulled one leg of the pajama bottoms up to reveal the diamond anklet he’d fastened to her at some point during their lovemaking. His cock nearly swore out loud thinking about it.

“Open it.”

Allie tugged at the black-and-silver ribbon, then lifted the glossy white lid revealing two tickets to . . . “The Orient Express?”

Hudson nodded. “We leave for Venice on Sunday and the train will have us in London by New Year’s Eve.”

“Are you serious?”

“You, me, and the mysteries of the Orient Express.”

She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him hard on the lips, completely unconcerned by their audience.

And Hudson was so on board with it.

He slipped his arms around her and his shoulders rolled as he bent down to kiss the ever-loving hell out of her.

“Wait.” She pulled back and her face fell. “Will the airports be back to normal by then?”

His smile widened. “Private plane, baby.” He placed his lips softly over hers, kissing her once, twice . . .

“Don’t you two ever quit?” Nick’s voice sucked the mood right out of the room.

Hudson groaned. At the moment he wasn’t feeling very down with the host-with-the-most gig, and hoped like hell that when breakfast was over the roads would be clear.








Chapter Twenty-three







Allie had flown on private planes countless times. Ingram Media had had a corporate jet for as long as she could remember. And although it was mainly used for business, over the years her mother had no problem commandeering it for vacations or last-minute shopping excursions to New York. But she’d never taken a private flight with the man she loved, and certainly not as part of a ridiculously romantic trip through Europe.

She reached across the limo bench and gave Hudson’s hand a gentle squeeze.

“Are you excited?” he asked.

“Very.” The same goofy grin she’d worn for the past few days stretched across her face. “I still can’t believe you were able to arrange this so quickly.” They’d only been back together for a little over two weeks, and yet during that time he’d somehow managed to plan a whirlwind trip aboard the Orient Express while simultaneously running two multibillion-dollar corporations. Not to mention indulging her every holiday whim.

“I’m a very resourceful man, Alessandra. Especially when there’s something I want.”

They pulled onto the tarmac, and after presenting their passports, boarded a white Gulfstream with the Chase Industries logo emblazoned on the tail. A flight attendant greeted them the moment they stepped onto the plane. She was a pretty girl in her midtwenties with jet-black hair pulled back in a scarf that matched her navy suit.

“Good evening, Mr. Chase, Miss Sinclair,” she said with a wide smile.

Hudson greeted her with a curt nod. “Evening, Natalie.”

“May I bring you something to drink before takeoff?”

“Pinot Grigio for Miss Sinclair, and I’ll have a scotch. Three fingers.”

“Right away.” She waited while Hudson helped Allie out of her coat, then shrugged off his own. He’d no sooner handed them over to Natalie when his phone began to ring. He glanced at the screen and frowned. “My brother,” he said before pressing the button. “Give me a minute.”

Hudson wandered toward the rear of the plane, allowing Allie a quiet moment to take in her surroundings. Unlike the Ingram jet, which was purchased with mainly corporate travel in mind, the Chase Industries plane was the pinnacle of sophisticated luxury. The décor was neutral with navy-blue accents and warm wood trims. A cream-colored leather sofa ran the length of the left side of the plane, while matching club chairs sat clustered around a flat-screen television on the right. Everything about the spacious interior was a statement of tasteful elegance. And whereas Ingram’s plane featured a long conference table in the back room, Allie was willing to bet the doorway Hudson had disappeared through led to a bedroom. One they’d no doubt make use of seeing as it was an overnight flight. A thrill shot through her at the thought of the two of them spending the night a mile high.

“Penny for your thoughts?” Hudson was behind her, powering off his phone.

“Just thinking about our flight plan,” she answered with a smile. “Everything okay with Nick?”

Hudson’s brow knit together. “Seems my brother is entertaining your friend in my home theater.”

“Oh?” Thoughts of the afternoon she and Hudson spent in that theater flashed across her mind. “Oh . . . ,” she said again.

“Indeed.”

“They’re probably just hanging out together since everybody else they know is out of town.”

The blizzard had backed up flights at O’Hare so badly that Harper had ended up canceling her trip home altogether versus spending three days on standby. The last Allie had heard she was considering driving down for New Year’s if the weather allowed. And now she was hanging out with Nick? Surely she would have said something if the situation between them was turning into more than she’d first claimed. Seeing as how turnabout was fair play, Allie had thoroughly grilled her friend on the topic of their all-nighter. But Harper had insisted that nothing had happened between them on Christmas Eve, even going so far as to swear on her one and only pair of Jimmy Choos. Then again, Allie thought, Nick was exactly Harper’s type. Big brown eyes, lashes that wouldn’t quit, and dark hair worn just a little bit too long. Add that to the lost puppy look Nick was currently sporting and . . .

Oh shit.

She made a mental note to text Harper as soon as they landed, then turned her attention to the commotion at the front of the plane. Natalie had returned with their cocktails just as Max boarded the plane with their luggage.

“Any problems with the runway?” Hudson asked him.

“No sir, and the pilot informs me we’re good to go.”

Hudson took the squat tumbler from Natalie and passed Allie her glass of wine as he continued his conversation with Max. “How’s the weather looking?”

“Clear skies tonight. Plus our cruising altitude will be 51,000 feet, so we’ll be well above most turbulence or commercial traffic.”

“Excellent.”

“I’ll be with the crew if you need anything,” he said before ducking through a door that lead to what appeared to be the galley.

“Max is coming with us? “

“Yes, he’ll be coordinating with local authorities,” Hudson said matter-of-factly.

Someone on the outside closed the cabin door. Natalie secured it before heading off in the same direction as Max. Allie didn’t say a word, but she knew the look she was giving Hudson spoke volumes.

“Alessandra, you didn’t think I would take you to Europe without some sort of security in place, did you?”

She crossed her arms over her chest. “I thought this was a romantic getaway, so yes, I thought we’d be traveling alone.”

“It will be romantic. You won’t even know he’s there.”

“Might be a little crowded in the sleeper car, don’t you think?”

“We have a suite. But nonetheless, I assure you Max won’t be sharing it with us.” He smirked. “Now, come get buckled up. We’re cleared for departure.”

Clearly the conversation was over as far as he was concerned. Allie had a lot more she wanted to say on the subject, but she knew Hudson’s overprotective instincts stemmed from his almost overwhelming need to keep her safe. And the more she’d thought about it, the more she was convinced it was all tied to whatever haunted his sleep. So despite the fact that she found a personal bodyguard unnecessary, much less an entire European team, she decided to let it go and simply enjoy the time with the man she loved.

When Hudson offered his hand she took it and let him lead her to two leather captains’ chairs facing a polished marble table. Hudson waited until she’d secured her seatbelt, then raised his glass and clinked it against hers. “To the first of many trips.”

“I like the sound of that.” Allie sipped her wine while the plane taxied to the runway. “How long will the flight take?”

“All night.” It was impossible to miss the carnal intent in Hudson’s eyes as he gazed at her over the rim of his glass.

The plane surged forward, hurtling down the runway. Allie’s stomach fluttered as the wheels lifted from the ground, but she suspected the sensation had less to do with gravity than it did with the man seated next to her. She watched him as he stared out the small oval window, his handsome face reflected back to her in the glass, thinking just how lucky she was to have Hudson Chase back in her life. And for good this time.

When the holiday season began, Allie had assumed it would be six weeks of misery leading up to a new year of more of the same. And while there was still so much about her life that was in utter chaos, with Hudson by her side she felt a sense of peace and contentment she would have never thought possible just a short time ago.

As if sensing the weight of her stare, Hudson turned and met her gaze. Without saying a word, he reached for her hand, bringing it to his lips. His eyes roamed over her face for long moments before he finally spoke. “I’m grateful for you every day,” he murmured.

And just like that she fell even deeper.

The pilot announced they’d reached their cruising altitude and Natalie served a light supper of grilled chicken and vegetables.

“More wine?” Hudson asked, hovering the bottle over Allie’s glass.

“Mr. Chase, if I didn’t know better I’d say you were trying to get me drunk. Planning to take advantage of me?”

Hudson’s mouth curved into a wicked grin as he refilled her glass. “I have a few things in mind to pass the time.”

“Care to enlighten me?”

“No.”

Allie gaped at him as he casually set the wine bottle back in the ice bucket and went about the business of finishing his meal.

So it’s like that, is it?

Deciding the best reaction she could give him was no reaction at all, Allie chose to feign complete indifference, despite the fact that every nerve in her body had sprung to life wondering what he had planned for their transatlantic flight.

Very slowly she wiped her mouth with her napkin and piled it in top of her plate, along with the silverware.

Hudson paused with his fork in midair. “Did you not enjoy it?”

“It was delicious. I’m just not very hungry,” she added with a sweet smile. “But take your time. I’ll read up on some of the sites.” She leaned down to grab the tote bag stowed under her seat and pulled out a guidebook on Italy. Settling back against the soft leather seat, she flipped through the pages, not even sure exactly what she was looking for until she found it.

Oh yes, this will do nicely.

“Too bad we’re not staying in Venice for New Year’s Eve,” she said as nonchalantly as possible.

One dark brow lifted. “Why’s that?”

“Sounds like they have a pretty amazing celebration at the Piazza San Marco.” She turned the book toward Hudson to show him the page that had caught her eye. In the picture, hundreds of couples were shown locked in a steamy embraces as fireworks exploded over a clock tower in the public square. “Apparently the Venetians take their midnight kisses very seriously.”

“So it would seem.” His eyes were lit with amusement.

Allie reached for her glass and took a large sip of the dry white wine. Knowing Hudson was watching her every move, she purposefully licked her lips before turning her attention back to the tourist guide.

“They call it the communal kiss,”she said, then began to read the description from the book. “The communal kiss in Piazza San Marco hosts hundreds of visitors filling the square to enjoy music, toasts, fireworks, and the midnight kiss! What is more fun than kissing amongst strangers? Plus, the body heat is a quick way to get warm.”

“Body heat?” Hudson chuckled. “All things considered, I’d prefer to enjoy your body heat in a hotel room with a bedside view of the fireworks.”

“But then we’d miss out on the other tradition.”

“And that would be?”

Allie lifted the book high enough to hide the smile that tugged at her lips as she continued reading. “And don’t limit yourself to just one kiss. Grab a stranger and embrace other die-hard romantics in this gesture of brotherhood on the last day of the year.”

From the other seat came nothing but silence. Allie lowered the guide and peeked over the top of the pages. Hudson was staring at her, his expression unreadable.

“Are you trying to make me jealous?”

“Not at all.” Allie pressed on, even though she knew she was playing with fire. “But you know what they say, ‘When in Rome.’” She gave a small laugh. “Or I guess in this case, Venice.”

He very precisely and methodically set his knife and fork on his plate. “Do you really think I would share you?” The scorching look in his eyes told her it was a rhetorical question. He held her gaze as his fingers found the clasp of her seat belt. After releasing the latch, he leaned closer until his lips brushed her ear. “I want you to go back to the bedroom,” he said in a low voice. “I’ll join you in a moment and when I do, I want you naked and waiting for me to fuck you.”

Allie’s breath caught at his unexpected command. It was demanding, authoritative, and hot as hell. Very slowly she rose from her seat. Her body hummed with anticipation as she made her way down the narrow corridor to the rear of the plane. As she suspected, the back of the aircraft contained not a boardroom, but a bedroom. It was small, the bed only a double, but it was luxurious, with a décor that reminded her of a five-star hotel. Crisp white linens covered the bed, and in the middle a long bolster in silvery blue and chocolate brown sat propped against white euro pillows. But as inviting as the bed looked, what caught Allie’s eye were the slats on the dark wood headboard. As she undressed, she wondered if Hudson’s plans included her cuffed or tied to them. The thought alone sent a shiver of desire down her spine.

She hung her clothes in the small closet and climbed onto the bed. The duvet felt cool against her bare skin, making her acutely aware of how exposed she was as she lay naked on the bed, waiting. And waiting.

It seemed like an eternity had passed when the door to the bedroom finally clicked open.

Hudson stepped into the room, closing the door and locking it behind him. His eyes glittered in the soft light, but he didn’t say a word as he slowly and deliberately worked the buttons on his shirt. Allie took the opportunity to drink in every detail, from the way his abs rippled as he pulled his shirttails free of his pants to the way his biceps flexed as he shrugged out of the sleeves. Watching Hudson Chase undress was its own unique brand of foreplay. But when he reached for the buckle of his belt, the show came abruptly to an end.

“Turn over.”

Without hesitation, Allie rolled onto her stomach. Behind her she heard the slow drag of a zipper and then a rustle of fabric. She knew he was naked and no doubt heavily aroused. Was he stroking himself as he watched her? The thought of him pleasuring himself while gazing at her caused a rush of warmth to pool between her already slick thighs.

“On your hands and knees,” he said in a voice so low and rough she could almost feel the vibration against her skin. “I want to fuck you facedown, ass up.”

The blunt, crude way he told her what he wanted set her blood on fire. As much as she loved when he was gentle and romantic, she couldn’t deny the effect it had on her when Hudson took total control. When he was like this he was the ultimate bad boy, every dirty fantasy brought to life.

The bed shifted behind her. “So beautiful,” he whispered. She felt his hands on her, smoothing up the back of her thighs and over her ass before coming to rest on her hips. He pulled her further down the mattress until her knees were at the edge and he was standing behind her.

Leaning in, his hand swept her hair to one side. She felt his open mouth drag across her bare shoulder, and when his lips pressed against her throat, she wondered if he could feel her pulse hammering inside her neck.

“Have you been thinking about me while you were lying here waiting, imagining all the things I might do to you?” He pushed her legs further apart and then his finger skimmed her sex. She heard his breath hiss when he discovered how wet she was. “Oh, I think you have.” His fingers circled her in a slow, measured caress. “You’re soaked for me.”

She didn’t need him to tell her. She could feel how wet she was by the way he slid through her slick folds. When his hand fell away she heard a quiet sound of appreciation. “And you taste so sweet.” The image of him licking her arousal from his fingers made her long to feel his tongue against her wetness, tasting her in wide, sweeping strokes.

But instead he continued teasing her quivering entrance with his fingers until her core clenched with need. She felt so empty, her body actually ached. Desperate to feel any part of him inside her, she pushed back into his hands. “Please, Hudson.”

“Hush,” he purred. “It’s a long flight, baby. We have hours.”

Allie couldn’t help the whimper that escaped her lips.

Hudson bent over her again and this time she closed her eyes, trying to focus on the sensations of the moment—his lips drifting over her skin, his hair tickling her back—and not the persistent throbbing between her thighs.

“Tell me, what is it that has you so greedy for my cock?” he whispered against her overheated skin. “Is it the anticipation that turns you on, Alessandra? Or is it being poised at the end of this bed, so open and exposed, knowing I’m about to fuck you good and hard?” His teeth grazed the shell of her ear. “Or is it both?”

“Yes, both,” she panted.

He stood and gripped her hips, his fingers digging into her flesh. Somewhere in the back of her mind a part of her hoped they left a mark. She wanted a reminder of how she felt at this moment, how his total possession had ratcheted her desire to an almost debilitating level.

“Please, I want you. All of you.”

He growled and plunged inside her in one long, powerful thrust. Allie gasped, feeling every exquisite inch of him stretching her, filling her. The sensation alone was almost enough to make her come. Wound as tight as she was, she knew she wouldn’t last long once he started to stroke his hard length in and out of her swollen flesh. But he didn’t. Instead he held still, buried deep inside her, until she couldn’t take it any longer. She tried to move her hips, but his grip tightened.

“Don’t move,” he ground out. The strain of his barely leashed control was evident not only in his voice but in the way his fingers flexed against her skin. “I just want to feel you around me.”

Her breath came in short pants as she waited, her body pulsing around him. It was too much; she needed more. She squeezed her inner muscles in a desperate attempt to spur him on. He groaned, a low guttural sound, and then he started to move, thrusting fast and hard and deep.

The bed rocked beneath her as his thighs hit the end of the mattress with each punishing drive. She tried to steady herself, her hands reaching out blindly, clawing at the sheet and twisting it in her grasp. When her arms and legs began to tremble, she dropped to her elbows, her face pressed to the duvet as he continued to fuck her. Because that’s what this was. It wasn’t the slow, sweet lovemaking of the night before. It was raw, carnal fucking, and she loved every minute of it.

“Fuck, Allie, I can’t get enough of you. You feel so good sliding around my cock.”

She garbled incoherent pleas into the duvet. Words like more, harder, deeper. Hudson changed his angle, hitting a spot inside her that brought her to the edge. His breath grew choppy, his rhythm faster and sharper. Then one hand left her hips, sliding around her stomach to the top of her sex. The dual assault was too much. A low, keening cry escaped her lips as his fingers circled and pressed.

“That’s it. Fucking come for me,” he grunted. “Now, Allie. Let me feel you come on my cock.”

She came with a muffled scream, her body clenching around him in waves as one orgasm rolled into another. Hudson stayed with her, his perfectly measured thrusts suspending her in a white-hot bliss while she writhed and bucked beneath him, lost to the mindless pleasure. This was what he did to her, what only he could do.

Behind her Hudson made a rough sound of agonizing ecstasy. His body jerked and shuddered as he emptied himself inside her. “I love you,” he whispered as he collapsed against her. The weight of him, pressing her into the mattress as his chest heaved for breath, soothed and calmed her trembling body.

“I love you, too,” she murmured. And she did. She loved him more than she ever thought possible.

Hudson rolled onto his back, pulling her with him. She nuzzled against his chest, her limbs loose and her eyelids heavy. As the plane dipped and banked to the left, Allie drifted into an exhausted sleep, secure in the fact that the man holding her would always be in her life.








Chapter Twenty-four







The knock that woke Julian was a real pounder, loud as a ball being shot out of a cannon. He had no idea who it was, or how long they’d been beating on the doors to his master suite, but he was a hair’s-breadth away from shredding them a new asshole.

“Pour l’amour de merde.” He coughed to get his vocal chords working. “Arrêter cette incessante frapper. Je viens.” When he finally opened his eyes, it felt as though the morning light streaming through the windows singed his corneas. He squinted down at the slender arm draped possessively over his chest and shoved it off. The woman—for the love of God he couldn’t remember her name—rolled over with a soft moan as the appendage flopped to the mattress.

Julian swung his feet over the side of the bed, then rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands. When he opened them he got his first full look at the room. Clothes were draped on every surface—the twin set of wingback chairs, the lampshade, the dresser—there was even a bra hanging from the chandelier above the bed. Empty bottles of champagne littered the floor and ashtrays overflowed on the bedside tables.

More fucking knocking.

“Une minute.” Palming a pack of Gitanes, he withdrew a cigarette, slid it between his lips, and lit it with a quick rasp of a gold lighter engraved with the letters JL. The first drag was always the best, and once againit seemed to do the trick. He tossed the lighter on the nightstand and shifted to his feet. He stood there for a second to let the sudden case of vertigo pass before grabbing the silk paisley robe that hung over the footboard of the intricately carved canopy bed.

As he headed toward the knocking, he slipped the robe over his shoulders and tied the sash. When he yanked the door open, he exhaled, blowing a rocket of smoke out of his nose. “What?” he barked in his accented English.

“Monsieur Lau—”

Julian interrupted the man with the arch of a brow.

“Marquis Laurent,” he said, quickly correcting his mistake. If there was one thing Julian had learned about his hired gun, it was that despite his slip-up, the guy was all about protocol. A soldier broken and reprogrammed by some military regime from which he was undoubtedly AWOL.

“Oui, Philippe?”

“I have an update.”

Julian swung the door open the rest of the way. “Entrer,” he said around the cigarette dangling from his mouth. He gestured for the man to follow as he sauntered toward the wingbacks in front of the fireplace and took a seat.

Philippe’s shrewd gaze scanned the room, stopping abruptly at the ornate turn-of-the-century bed where two women were still passed out from the night before. The statuesque brunette with the olive skin was on her back, one arm over her eyes as if to block out the sunlight and one leg bent at the knee, exposing herself. The other, a blonde, was on her stomach with her arm now draped across the other woman.

Julian smirked. The women were as significant as the brocade curtains that framed the windows. Just as useful, too, but a hell of a lot more fun.

Philippe circled the wingback, unbuttoned his dark suit coat, and took a seat opposite Julian. “I have information on the whereabouts of Alessandra Sinclair and Hudson Chase.”

Julian took deep drag of his cigarette, the tip glowing bright orange. “I don’t give a fuck about that prick.” His thick accent curled around the words and smoke wafted out of his mouth with the syllables.

Philippe pulled a small notebook out of the breast pocket of his jacket and flipped it open. “Miss Sinclair will be boarding the Venice-Simplon Orient Express in a few hours, final destination London, with a brief stopover at 48.8567 degrees latitude and—”

Julian cut him off. “Enfer putain. In English, as the Americans say.”

“Yes, sir. Paris, France.”

His eyes grew wide. “When?”

Philippe consulted his notebook again. “Tomorrow morning, zero-eight-hundred.”

“Perfect.” Julian’s lips drew back in a sneer. Things couldn’t have worked out better, even if he’d been the hands of God pulling the strings. He leaned back in the chair and stubbed his cigarette out in a crystal ashtray.

It was time to put his plan in motion.








Chapter Twenty-five







Allie had never been to Venice. Rome, Milan, even Florence, but never to the waterfront municipality commonly referred to as the “floating city.” She loved the idea of visiting what was arguably one of Europe’s most romantic locations for the first time with the man she loved. Which was why she was so disappointed when they spent the majority of their one day in Venice sleeping off their jet lag.

Most travelers tried to sleep on the plane during their overnight flights, arriving the next morning well rested and acclimated to the time zone. But other than her one brief nap, there’d been no sleep aboard Hudson’s jet. Not that she was complaining. A smile curved her lips as she thought of their transatlantic flight and almost involuntarily she sought him out across the hotel lobby.

He was standing at the front desk speaking to the concierge. His back was to her, affording her the opportunity to admire his very fine, denim-clad backside. As smoking hot as Hudson Chase looked in a suit, there was just something about the way the man wore a pair of jeans that had her shifting in her chair.

As if hearing her wayward thoughts, Hudson turned. Judging by his expression, it was quite possible he had read her mind. That or he’d merely caught her checking out his ass. She watched him as he sauntered across the marble floor, marveling at how he managed to make even a simple pair of jeans and a cashmere sweater look so fucking sexy.

“You have that look on your face,” he said, his blue eyes lit with amusement.

“Which look is that?”

“The one that says you’d like me to check us back into the hotel.”

Allie blushed. “Tempting. But we’d miss our train.”

“Ready to go?”

She stood, gathered her purse and coat, and smiled. “Lead the way.”

Hudson placed his hand on the small of her back. But instead of guiding her to the front door of the hotel, where she’d half expected to find Max and an Italian security team waiting with an armored car, Hudson led her to the rear entrance.

“Aren’t we headed to the station?” Allie asked as they stepped out into the crisp morning air. The temperature hovered just under fifty degrees, but in the sun it felt much warmer.

“I thought we could take the canal.” He gestured toward a gondola waiting alongside the hotel’s dock. “Couldn’t have you leave Venice without experiencing their most famous form of transportation. I’m afraid it’s not as romantic as it would be at night, but—”

“It’s perfect.” Allie launched herself at him, throwing her arms around his neck and pulling him into a tight embrace.

Hudson steadied them and laughed. “I take it this was a good idea, then?”

She pressed a quick kiss to his lips. “It was a great idea. Thank you.”

His gaze softened. “I’d do anything for you,” he whispered. Then his mouth slanted over hers, kissing her long and slow and deep. Her arms tightened around his neck, holding him to her as their tongues stroked and their breaths quickened. His hand slipped inside her jacket and she felt the weight of his palm pressing against her back. She arched into him, wishing she could feel his bare skin against hers and wondering if it was too late to explore the idea of checking back into the hotel.

Behind her someone discreetly cleared his throat. Allie turned to find their gondolier gesturing to the boat. He was dressed in the traditional uniform of black pants, a black-and-white striped shirt, and a wide-brimmed straw hat with a red ribbon tied around the middle.

“Scusi, but the stazione,” he said in a mix of English and Italian.

Hudson glanced at his watch. “Grazie,” he thanked the gondolier, then to Allie he whispered, “We’ll continue this on the train.”

Warmth spread through her body at the silky, sensual tone of his voice. “I’ll hold you to that, Mr. Chase.”

His answering grin was almost boyish as he climbed gracefully onto the rocking boat. He held his hand out to Allie and she grasped it, somehow managing to climb into the gondola without tumbling into the canal.

“What about our luggage?” she asked as they settled onto a bench that was fashioned to look like a tufted red-velvet settee.

Hudson reached for the folded blanket on the table in front of them and draped it across their laps. “Max took it in the car. He’s meeting us at the station.”

Allie reared back to look at him. “No security? Aren’t you afraid ninja scuba divers might attack us?”

Hudson tried his best to hide his smile. “No, Alessandra, I’m not worried about ninja scuba divers. But we’re covered in the event that they do.” He nodded to the far side of the canal. Allie followed his gaze to a small motorboat driven by two rather imposing-looking men in dark jackets and aviator glasses.

She rolled her eyes. “I feel like I’m in a Bourne movie.”

Hudson chuckled. “Just enjoy the ride.” He wrapped his arm around Allie’s shoulders and pulled her tight against his chest as the gondolier took his place at the rear of the boat. With a smooth stroke of his oar, they began to glide forward through the water. He steered them effortlessly through the winding waterway, past hundreds of pastel buildings dating back as far as the fourteenth century, until they reached the terminal.

The Venezia Santa Lucia sat at the foot of the Grand Canal and served as the main train station in Venice. It was a modern building made of concrete and glass, which made it look more than a little out of place among the grand palazzos and hotels. Outside, dozens of people crisscrossed through the courtyard, and even from the dock Allie could see the large crowds milling about the expansive terminal. But once they reached the platform it was though she and Hudson had taken a step back in time.

With its restored 1920s vintage cars, the mere sight of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express conjured images of the elegance, sophistication, and romance of a bygone era. The carriages themselves were nothing short of a rolling work of art. Painted a gleaming midnight blue, they were trimmed in gold and capped with a snowy white roof.

A row of stewards dressed in a livery of white jackets and gloves stood in a line alongside the train. As they approached, one stepped forward and greeted them by name.

“Mr. Chase, Miss Sinclair.” He bent slightly at the waist. “Welcome to the Orient Express. My name is Andrew and I will be your steward for the duration of your journey,” he said in a refined British accent. “Should you require anything at all, please don’t hesitate to ask.”

Allie smiled. “Thank you, Andrew.”

“We’ll be departing precisely at 10:57, where upon our chefs will preside over a three-course lunch in our Etoile du Nord dining car. If you’d like to go ahead and get a table, I can wait for your driver to arrive and see to it that your bags are delivered to your cabin suite.”

Hudson thanked the man with a generous tip before helping Allie up the steps of the dining car. The interior of the world’s best-known luxury train was a heady mix of prewar glamour. Varnished marquetry panels lined the walls of the car along with antique light fixtures and tapestry drapes. Along each side sat tables covered in starched white linen and surrounded by dark green velvet chairs. The crystal goblets sparkled in the late morning sun, and the silver was polished to a high shine. Everything was ready to whisk one hundred travelers on a mystical journey through the Italian Dolomites and the Swiss Alps.

Once the train pulled out of the station, Allie and Hudson enjoyed a leisurely lunch for two, gazing at each other more than the Italian countryside. Andrew appeared shortly after the waiter served dessert to inform them the train was about to arrive at their first destination. Allie was grinning from ear to ear by the time he finished talking.

“I assume Verona is a city you’d like to tour?” Hudson asked when they were alone.

“I’d love to visit Casa di Giulietta.”

“Ah yes, Juliet’s house,” he said, referring to the home where the Cappelletti family is said to have lived.

“I know they might have only been figments of Shakespeare’s imagination, but—”

“But never underestimate the power of storytelling,” Hudson said, finishing her thought.

Allie nodded. “Exactly. So can we go?” Excitement bubbled up inside her. She was practically bouncing in her seat as she waited for his reply.

“I was thinking we could spend the time in our cabin, perhaps pick up where we left off at the hotel.” He smiled at her indulgently. “But if you have your heart set on Juliet’s balcony, Verona it is.”

***

The driver dropped them at the Piazza delle Erbe, where they wandered the cobblestone streets eating gelato and browsing the various vendors selling everything from jewelry to soccer jerseys. Max was never far behind, although he followed at a discreet distance. Allie still thought the security unnecessary, but Max’s constant presence brought her comfort of a different kind since she knew his watchful eye allowed Hudson to relax and enjoy himself.

When they reached the center of the square they stopped in front of a marble fountain so Allie could consult her guidebook. “It says we should look for the graffiti-covered sign post.”

Hudson read over Allie’s shoulder. “It also says that Shakespeare never even visited Verona.” He lifted the book out of her hands and continued reading while following her through the crowded streets. “And that the balcony was added by the local government in the 1930s to increase tourism.”

“Shhh,” she shushed him, ignoring his dose of reality. Because while it was true that Romeo and Juliet were likely nothing more than fictional characters, what Hudson failed to understand was that their actual existence was inconsequential. The thousands of tourists who flocked to the thirteenth-century home each year came not to stand on the actual balcony where Juliet caught Romeo’s eye, but to experience, even for a moment, what that balcony represented.

Allie rocked on her tiptoes, scanning the alleys and passageways until she found what she was looking for. A smile stretched across her face. “Come on,” she said, grabbing Hudson’s hand and leading him to a stone archway. A plaque with one of Shakespeare’s most famous quotes hung above them while in front of them stretched a long, dark tunnel covered with thousands of small scraps of paper.

“What’s with all the notes?” Hudson asked.

“They’re love letters. Legend says that posting a letter to your true love on Juliet’s wall will make that love everlasting.” Allie slowly walked the length of the tunnel, stopping every so often to read a few of the messages. “It’s a shame people don’t write love letters anymore. All these emotions poured out onto paper. Imagine if they’d have sent them to the person instead of sticking them to a wall with . . .” She lifted the edge of a pale blue page and grimaced. “Chewing gum.”

From behind her, Hudson wrapped his arms around her waist. He dropped his lips to her ear. “Would you settle for a naughty text message?”

“Not quite Romeo and Juliet.” She laughed. “Then again, things didn’t work out so well for them.”

“Good point.” He tucked her under his arm as they strolled the rest of the tunnel. When they reached the brick and stone courtyard, Allie asked a woman to take their photo. She was quite sure Hudson found posing for a photo in front of the legendary balcony on par with posing for a picture with Mickey Mouse, but he humored her nonetheless.

“What’s inside the house?” he asked.

“A museum, costumes and props from the Zeffirelli movie.” Allie started toward the house. She’d only taken a few steps when she realized Hudson hadn’t followed. “Aren’t you coming inside?”

Hudson looked up from the guidebook. “If memory serves, the balcony is for Juliet. You go ahead. I’ll be over there.” He nodded to a bronze statue in the corner of the courtyard. A wicked gleam lit his eyes. “According to this book of yours, rubbing Juliet’s right breast brings good luck.”

“Might need to knock the other fifteen-year-olds out of the way first,” she teased.

“I’d rather rub your breast,” he said with a smirk. “But I didn’t think that was an option at the moment.”

Allie turned, laughing and shaking her head as she made her way inside the stone building. She moved quickly through the various exhibits, pausing only once to snap a photo of the platform bed used in the Academy Award–winning film. Her phone was still in her hand as she stepped out onto the balcony. The moment she did, it vibrated with an incoming text. Her heart swelled as she read Hudson’s words, artfully blended with those spoken by Romeo as he watched Juliet from the courtyard below.

What light through yonder window breaks. . . And in a glance, in the wake of a moment, you’ve seized my heart . . . Oh, it is my love.

Allie’s gaze lifted, searching the crowded courtyard for Hudson. She found him not standing in line to grope the breast of a bronze statue, but leaning against the entrance of the tunnel with his phone in his hand. The instant their eyes met she felt it, the connection that had vibrated between them since the day they’d first met. It had always been there, even when she’d tried her best to push it to the far corners of her mind. And Hudson felt it, too. It was evident in the way his eyes darkened when they raked her from head to toe, in the way his stance changed when she entered the room, or the way his lips parted when she touched his skin.

She clutched the phone to her chest and mouthed the words, “I love you.”

“Let’s go,” he mouthed back.

Allie couldn’t get downstairs fast enough.








Chapter Twenty-six







On the car ride back to the station, Hudson held Allie’s hand, running his thumb in circles across her skin. The contact, though small, was undeniably intimate. Each stroke of his thumb echoed through her core, torturing her with the promise of what was to come.

Biting her lip, she gazed up at him.

“You have that look again,” he murmured.

This time she knew exactly what look he was referring to, because this time it was intentional. “I want to kiss you,” she whispered back.

Hudson nuzzled the side of her face. “I intend to do a lot more than kiss you.” His tongue traced the shell of her ear and then his teeth nipped at the lobe. The sensation shot a sharp twinge of pleasure straight to her groin. “Come,” he said. “We’re here.”

In a matter of minutes they had boarded the train. Hudson moved briskly through the corridors, tugging Allie by the hand as she hurried to keep up. But when they reached their cabin, he stopped abruptly. Turning, he pushed her against the door, pinning her with his hips.

“I want you naked. Now,” he growled, before sealing his mouth over hers. Allie heard the jingle of keys behind her back. A moment later the door gave way and they tumbled into the suite, all hands and mouths and tongues.

A startled British accent greeted them. “Mr. Chase, Miss Sinclair.”

Allie and Hudson turned as one to find their steward bent over a small table, fussing with what appeared to be an already perfectly arranged setting of tea. “Afternoon tea is customarily served in the guest’s cabin. I assumed you’d be arriving shortly for departure, so I um, I took the liberty of . . .”

“It’s wonderful, Andrew,” Allie interrupted, trying to put the poor man out of his misery. When he looked up she gave him a reassuring smile. “And just what we need after dealing with those crowds.”

Hudson mumbled something under his breath, and although Allie couldn’t make out what he said, she had a pretty good idea as to the sentiment. The thought had her stifling a giggle.

Andrew straightened and smoothed his starched white jacket. “Cocktails will begin precisely at five o’clock in the bar car,” he began, reciting what was undoubtedly a well-rehearsed spiel. “After which a leisurely four-course dinner, prepared on board by our French chefs, will be served in the Côte d’Azur dining room.”

The description sounded lovely and was exactly what Allie had expected. But she was willing to bet Hudson had merely zeroed-in on the word “leisurely.” Her suspicion was confirmed when he blew out an exasperated breath as he moved to the adjoining cabin. Out of the corner of her eye she saw him adjust his jeans before running a frustrated hand back through his hair. He turned to his left and then to his right before opening a narrow door covered in lacquered marquetry. Behind it stood a small sink and oval mirror. “Where is the bathroom?” he asked.

“The lavatories are at the end of the corridor in the adjoining car,” Andrew replied.

Allie hadn’t given much thought to the restroom situation on a passenger train built in the 1920s. Judging by the look on Hudson’s face, neither had he. Until now.

“And the bed?” he asked with a frown. “Is that down the corridor as well?”

“No, sir.” The steward chuckled, obliviously thinking Hudson was making a joke. “While you and Miss Sinclair are enjoying our five-star restaurant, I will be busy transforming the seating area into a cozy bedroom.”

Allie tried to catch Hudson’s eye but he was too busy regarding the sink with a perplexed scrutiny.

“Thank you, Andrew. We’ll see you at dinner?” she said, hoping he’d take the hint and beat a hasty retreat. But instead he continued giving his rundown of the evening’s agenda.

“Dinner is formal, with black-tie optional but encouraged. The seatings are either in pairs or with another couple. If you have a preference, I can advise the maître d’.”

Hudson’s head snapped up. “We’ll be dining alone.” The look he gave him would have withered a lesser man, but Andrew took it in stride. It seemed the young steward was much better equipped to deal with frustrated CEOs than he was couples wrapped up in a passionate embrace.

Andrew pulled a small leather notebook from his pocket and made a notation before moving into the adjoining room. For the first time Allie noticed their suitcases, propped open on wooden stands. “If you’d like to join Miss Sinclair for tea, I’ll just finish the unpacking and see to any steaming or ironing.” He gestured for Hudson to step forward then reached for the pocket doors that divided the two rooms. “You won’t even know I’m here,” he said before sliding them closed.

But instead of joining Allie on the velvet sofa, Hudson stalked toward the door. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

With a rattle of the cabin door he was gone.

Allie leaned back against the seat with a heavy sigh. She raised her hand to the fringe edge of the tapestry curtain and pulled it back. Staring out the window at the passing countryside she wondered how her afternoon could have taken such a disappointing turn. Somehow over the course of the past thirty minutes, she’d gone from reading romantic texts on Juliet’s balcony to sitting alone in their cabin with a china tea set in front of her and a very thorough steward in the next room.

She knew Hudson was disappointed, but although Allie appreciated the gesture he made by planning this trip, details like the location of the bathroom were no more essential to her than the actual existence of Romeo and Juliet. Spending time together was all that mattered. Somehow she needed to show him that.

And she knew just the way to do it.

Reaching into the pocket of her jeans, Allie pulled out her phone and opened Hudson’s text. Calling upon her memories of high school English class, she typed a reply that, like his, blended Shakespeare’s words with her own.

Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?

Her phone buzzed with a reply.

I’m apparently back in college. The bathrooms are like a dormitory. But without showers.

No showers? Allie was suddenly very thankful they would be arriving in London the next day. But she chose to ignore this development and pressed on with her creative use of the Bard’s most famous play.

O, then dear saint, let lips do what hands do; And have my lips . . . around your cock.

A few moments passed before the little dots appeared to indicate he was typing.

That was a very naughty text, Alessandra. And if memory serves, not quite a literal translation.

Complaining, dear sir?

On the contrary, but it makes me want to do very dirty things to you. Particularly your mouth.

Like?

Allie felt her face heat as she began to read Hudson’s reply, and she about jumped out of her skin when Andrew knocked on the pocket door. “Yes,” she squeaked before clearing her throat.

“Your clothes for this evening are ready, Miss Sinclair,” he said through the frosted glass panel. “May I be of any further assistance?”

A slow smile curved her lips as an idea took form. “Actually yes, Andrew, there is something you can do for me. One second, please.” She typed a quick reply telling Hudson she would meet him in the lounge car in thirty minutes, then closed the text screen. “Andrew,” she called to him as she slid open the pocket doors. “Do you think you could find me another place to get ready?”

***

In the literature Allie had read earlier in the week, the Orient Express was often referred to as a museum on rails. It was a description that rang true for all of the vintage carriages, but even more so at the Orient Bar. The lounge, or bar car as it was referred to onboard, seemed to be stopped in time, suspended in the golden age of luxury rail travel. Guests in formal evening wear sipped drinks at round tables adorned with vases of fresh flowers while others gathered around a baby grand where a pianist wove classical music with nostalgic romance.

Allie stopped at the entrance to the car, smoothing the ivory gown that clung to her every curve. She’d been saving the low-cut Grecian-style dress for a special occasion, and right now she couldn’t think of any place she’d rather wear it. Her eyes roamed the carriage until she found Hudson, dressed in a Tom Ford tux and sitting at the bar at the rear of the car. His back was to her, but even that view of Hudson Chase was enough to cause her heart to race. Her gaze slid from his broad shoulders to his dark, wavy hair. The mere thought of how her hands would grasp that unruly mane later that night had her fingers flexing against her beaded clutch.

“May I bring you something, Mademoiselle?” a young waiter asked.

“No, thank you,” she said, her eyes locked on Hudson. “I see what I want.” She made her way through the crowd, weaving between the small tables until she stood behind him. “Excuse me. Is this seat taken?” She barely recognized the sound of her own voice, the perfect combination of innocent inquiry and breathless anticipation.

Hudson swiveled to face her and amusement lit his eyes. “Not at all.” He waved a hand toward the empty barstool. “Please, join me.” His gaze dropped as she crossed her legs, intentionally allowing the deep slit to expose her bare thigh. “Champagne?”

She smiled coyly. “I’d love some.”

Hudson caught the bartender’s eye. “A glass of Cristal for the lady.”

“So what brings you to the Orient Express?” she asked, continuing their game.

“Hmm.” He took a sip of scotch from an intricately cut crystal tumbler, the facets catching the light as he lifted it to his lips. “I intended a romantic getaway with the woman I love. But there seems to be a conspiracy in place to prevent that.”

Allie smiled. “Sounds like a very lucky woman. And something tells me she’s enjoying herself immensely. Besides, the night is young. And tomorrow is New Year’s Eve.”

“Indeed it is.”

The bartender set a flute of champagne in front of her on the polished wood bar. Allie took the glass and lifted it in the air. “To new beginnings.”

Hudson clinked his glass against hers. “To new beginnings,” he said, holding her gaze as she sipped the sparkling wine.

“So what are our plans for New Year’s Eve, anyways?”

“I had it in mind to surprise you, but I’m afraid you may be disappointed since you seemed intrigued by the possibility of kissing every damn person in Italy,” he said with a smirk.

Allie smiled over the rim of her glass. “You know I was just yanking your chain a bit.”

Hudson lifted a brow at her unintentional innuendo and Allie blushed from his unspoken reply.

“Tell me, please?”

“No need for the puppy eyes, Alessandra,” Hudson chuckled. “As if I could deny you anything.”

“I do not have puppy eyes.”

“Oh yes, you do.” He shook his head. “And God help me, it works very time.”

She took another sip of champagne. It was crisp and light, and the bubbles made her feel warm all over. “Well?”

“I’ve arranged for us to spend the night aboard a private yacht on the River Thames. We’ll watch the fireworks over London Bridge, then head below deck for the remainder of the evening.”

“A boat? I’m sensing a theme here. Planes, trains, and automobiles?”

“I believe we’ve already covered planes and automobiles . . .”

“So that just leaves trains,” she said, finishing his thought. The promise held in the look that passed between the two of them sent goose bumps racing across her skin.

“Mr. Chase, your table is ready,” the maître d’ said. They followed him to the Côte d’Azur Room, a luxurious dining car decorated with opaque glass panels designed by René Lalique. Either one of them could have suggested they cut the dinner short, or even skip it altogether. But the anticipation of the night to come combined with the knowledge that they not only had all night, but a lifetime of nights to come, was an intoxicating mix. So by silent agreement they remained at the table, savoring each other while enjoying a four-course meal of decadent food, fine wine, and lingering glances. Hudson’s every move, from the way he stroked the stem of his glass to the way he licked the wine from his lips, pulled Allie deeper under his spell. By the time dessert was served, the desire charging the air between them felt like a tangible force, enveloping them in a world where nothing else existed but the two of them, their longing, their need.

“Ready to go?” Hudson finally asked.

“Yes,” she breathed, barely able to speak in her overheated state.

Hudson stood and offered her his hand. He watched her intently, his eyes darkening as she placed her hand in his and rose from her seat. “That’s a lovely dress,” he said. “I believe I was remiss in mentioning that earlier.” His gaze raked over her, and she knew he was thinking about what she looked like beneath that dress, her nipples pebbled and taut, her sex slick and ready.

“Thank you.” She stepped closer, her body shielding her hand as it slipped between them. Hudson went from semi-hard to granite in a matter of seconds.

He quirked an eyebrow. “Find something you like?” he asked. His voice was husky and low.

Allie leaned in so her lips brushed against his ear. “Something I’d like to have inside me,” she breathed. Her fingers curled around his length, and when he twitched against her palm, she couldn’t help but smile. She loved the effect she had on him, that he was as helpless to control his reaction to her as she was to him.

A low groan rumbled deep within his chest. “Let’s go,” he growled.

Wrapping his arm around her waist, he guided her through the train’s corridors until they reached the door to their cabin. Allie pressed herself against his back as he fumbled with the key, her hand reaching around to stroke him through his tuxedo pants. “Trouble with the lock?” she asked, not even bothering to stifle the giggle that bubbled up inside her.

Hudson gave a small laugh. “Perhaps if I wasn’t so distracted.” The sound of a lock unlatching was followed immediately by the creak of hinges as the door finally swung open. “Are you fucking kidding me?” he practically shouted.

Allie peered over Hudson’s shoulder. A promised, Andrew had indeed transformed the cabin into a cozy bedroom. The lamp on the small table had been left on, the fringed shade casting the room in a soft orange glow, and classical music was coming from what appeared to be an antique radio. Small chocolates had been left atop plumped feather pillows, and the luxurious linens had been turned down to entice the guests into bed. Only problem was, the accommodations consisted of two Pullman-style beds, one atop the other.

She followed him into the room and closed the door behind her.

“It’s fine,” she offered, attempting to head off the volcano that was no doubt about to erupt. “Authenticates the experience.”

Hudson met her reassuring smile with bewildered eyes. “It’s not fine, Allie. It’s anything but fine.” He shoved a frustrated hand through his hair. “This was supposed to be a romantic train ride through Europe and I’ve hardly had two minutes alone with you. Tea and tours and goddamn seating charts. And look at this place.” He flung his arms out wide. “It’s bad enough I have to go to the next car to take a piss, but fucking bunk beds?”

He yanked his bow tie loose as he made his way into the adjoining room, bumping into the luggage stand on his way to the makeshift sink and cursing under his breath.

“Who says we need a bed,” she murmured.

The seductive, breathy tone of her voice stopped Hudson in his tracks. He turned and his eyes followed her hands as she slowly lowered the zipper on the side of her dress. She peeled the fabric off her shoulder and down her arm so that it slipped from her body and pooled at her feet in a cloud of ivory silk. Beneath the gown she wore an ivory brocade corset and matching lace thong.

Hudson’s lips parted on a sharp intake of air as she stepped out of the dress. His hungry gaze traveled over every inch of her body, but he said nothing. He just watched her, his eyes dark with desire. Being like this for him, trussed up in ribbon and lace and sky-high heels while he stood there fully clothed, made her feel sexy and wanton and utterly his. Just thinking about how it would feel when he finally took her had her pressing her thighs together in an effort to relieve the pulsing ache between her legs.

“I take it you approve?” she whispered, though she already knew the answer. He was hard, his arousal a visible ridge against his fly.

His fiery gaze met hers and he nodded slowly. “Don’t stop.”

Allie’s heart pounded as she untied the ribbon that crisscrossed over the front of the corset. With a smooth tug the ribbon slid through the loops one at time until the fabric finally fell away. Hudson’s eyes flared at the sight of her hardened nipples and his tongue darted out to lick his lips.

The vibrations of the train hummed through her entire body, taking her need for him to an almost unbearable level. She wanted him so badly she trembled. Even though he stood on the other side of the cabin, she could feel the attraction that pulsed between them, same as it had been since the very first time she saw him on the beach all those years ago, a magnetic pull drawing her to him. But she fought the urge to reach for him, choosing instead to let the moment build as she waited for him to make his move.

His fingers flexed at his sides, but other than that he remained perfectly still. “This won’t be gentle,” he warned.

The rough, barely reined timbre of his voice made her core clench with greedy anticipation. She loved him gentle but she might have loved him wild even more. Because in those moments she knew he craved her with the same overwhelming desire she felt for him; knew he needed to be with her, against her, inside her, more than he needed his next breath. It was that knowledge that made the intensity of the feelings she had for him bearable. And it was what allowed her to trust him completely.

She lifted her chin. “Do it.”

He reached her in two strides, shoving both hands into her hair and tilting her head to the angle he wanted. His mouth covered hers, his skilled tongue invading, exploring, dominating. She clutched his hair with both hands and kissed him back, holding him to her as if he could somehow vanish into thin air.

“Too many clothes,” she breathed between desperate kisses. She shoved his jacket from his shoulders as he backed her against the wall of the small cabin. But when she reached for his belt he grabbed her hands, pinning both of them above her head with one of his while his other hand reached between her legs. With a tug he tore the scrap of lace away and then thrust two fingers deep inside her. Allie’s head fell back against the window on a low moan. She closed her eyes and focused on the sensations. The pulsing click of the wheels on the tracks, the howl of the wind rushing by the glass, and Hudson’s fingers pumping hard and quick into her quivering flesh.

“You want me.” The roughly spoken words were more statement than question, but she answered anyway.

“Yes. Now,” she panted.

He spun her, his weight pressing her against the cold glass, and she gasped from the feel of it on her overheated skin. It was dark outside the windows, nothing to see but the shadowed countryside lit by a sliver of moon. And no one to see them. Still, the thought of how they must look with Hudson’s body caging hers against the glass sent a thrill through her body.

“Ask me,” he growled.

“Please, Hudson, fuck me. Hard.”

He reached between them to unzip his fly and a heartbeat later he was grasping her hips and plunging forward, filling her in one long, punishing thrust. He groaned as he pulled out, then drove deep again and again. As promised, the sex was hard and fast. And exactly what she needed. The whole time his voice rasped against her ear, telling her how good it felt to push his cock into her, how he’d never been so hard, and no matter how many times he fucked her, it would never be enough.

His hand slid around her, his fingertips giving her the friction she craved. But still she wanted more. Mindless in her need to come, she arched into the glass, the rumbling motion of the train moving through his hand as he pressed hard against her sex. The rhythm of the metal moving beneath her while Hudson moved inside her was too much. Her legs shook and her fingers clawed at the glass, grasping in vain for something to steady herself as she spiraled into an orgasm that had her entire body quaking.

Hudson’s arm banded around her waist, supporting her weight as he drove to the hilt once more, then stilled. “Allie,” he cried out, her name a passionate plea as he emptied himself inside her. His head dropped to her shoulder, his breath heavy in her ear, his heart thudding against her back.

Unable to move, Allie lay limp against the window, her ragged breath fogging the glass. When she found the strength, she turned her head and pressed her lips to his temple. “You’re still dressed,” she murmured against his damp skin.

A deep chuckle vibrated in his chest. “Well then,” he said, turning her in his arms. “What are you waiting for?”








Chapter Twenty-seven







The early morning sunlight streamed through the window, waking Allie. As her eyes fluttered open she became aware of her surroundings: a too-tiny bunk bed in a small cabin, the floor cluttered with frantically discarded formalwear and the air heavy with the lingering scent of sweat and hard sex. A slow, sleepy smile formed on her lips. She couldn’t think of more decadent accommodations if she tried.

Hudson was still sound asleep with his head on her chest, one arm wrapped possessively around her waist and his legs tangled with hers. Allie loved these quiet moments before he woke. It was a rare occasion that she was up before him, but when it happened she relished the chance to focus on nothing but the feel of his body against hers, the warmth of his skin, the easy rhythm of his breath and the steady beat of his heart.

“Hmm,” a low sound vibrated in his throat as he began to stir. His arm tightened around her waist and he nuzzled her chest. “Something to be said for close quarters after all.”

Allie stroked her fingers down his back. “Good morning. Sleep well?”

“Surprisingly yes,” he murmured against her skin. His voice was rough with sleep, but his body was wide awake, an impressive erection already prodding against her hip. One hand palmed her right breast, his thumb brushing back and forth across the nipple, while his lips and tongue paid homage to the other. Allie’s back arched as his teeth nipped and his fingers tugged. When he bit down she groaned, the sweet sensation echoing through her core. He’d only been awake for a few minutes and already she was melting in his hands.

The solid weight of Hudson’s body shifted over hers and she spread her legs for him, wanting to feel him inside her despite the lingering soreness she still felt from the night before.

There was a knock on the door and Allie stilled. Hudson raised himself on one arm, no doubt ready to tell whoever it was to get lost. But after a second knock it became clear the sound was coming from the cabin next to theirs.

“Just a minute,” said a muffled voice on the other side of the wall.

Hudson looked down at her, clearly amused. “They didn’t invest much in sound insulation back in the roaring twenties, did they?”

Allie had expected Hudson to be annoyed, aggravated, or maybe even angry. But certainly not amused. She frowned, confused by his reaction until realization dawned.

“Oh, shit!” She clasped her hand over her mouth for a moment, then whispered, “If we can hear them, then . . . that means they heard . . .”

Hudson’s blue eyes gleamed as he nodded slowly.

Allie felt her face heat. “This is mortifying.”

He dipped his head to press a soft kiss to her shoulder. “Perhaps they just think you’re very religious.” She felt him smile against her skin as his lips drifted up her neck. “All those shouts to God and whatnot.” He chuckled.

Allie swatted him on the shoulder. “That’s not funny.”

“Oh, but it is.”

She pushed him back so she could look him in the eye. “And it doesn’t bother you in the slightest?”

The sound of squeaking cart wheels could be heard through the wall, followed by more muffled conversation.

“No, but the thought of our ever efficient steward interrupting for a breakfast delivery does.”

Oh jeez, as if she wasn’t already embarrassed enough. The last thing Allie needed was another “in flagrante delicto” moment with poor Andrew. “Let’s get dressed and head to one of the dining cars.” She managed to wriggle out from under Hudson, but when she tried to scramble out of the bunk his arm banded around her waist, pulling her back.

“Don’t move. I finally got you into this tiny bed. I’m not letting you out.”

She opened her mouth to protest, but Hudson silenced her by pressing his finger to her lips. “I will tell the steward you are sleeping in and not to be disturbed. Then I’ll go to one of the dining cars and bring you breakfast in bed.”

“Breakfast in bed?” She glanced around the tiny cot. “There’s not really room for plates.”

Hudson’s eyes flashed with a wicked gleam. “Who said anything about using a plate?” He trailed his fingertips across her belly and she shivered. “I think I’ll ask the chef to prepare strawberry crepes, extra whipped cream.”

Allie watched as he gracefully climbed out of the bunk. “Don’t move.” He dug a pair of jeans out of his suitcase and pulled them on, commando, then donned a T-shirt and shoes. When he was finished dressing he leaned down and grasped her face with both hands. “I mean it,” he said before dropping a quick kiss to her lips. “Don’t get out of this bed.”

He’d been gone just a few minutes when Allie’s phoned pinged with an incoming text. She rolled out of the bunk and pulled her phone out of the beaded clutch she’d used the night before. The screen was lit with a text from Hudson.

Andrew has been instructed to not disturb you.

She laughed as she typed her response. After yesterday he was probably relieved.

True.

The message had no sooner filled the screen when dots appeared to indicate he was typing. Allie climbed back into the bunk as she waited for the reply.

I told you not to get out of bed.

She rolled her eyes. Then why did you send me a text?

A test.

Looks like I failed. She lay back on the mattress, grinning at the phone. Am I in trouble?

Indeed you are, Miss Sinclair.

Whoa, Miss Sinclair. Allie knew exactly where this was headed, and the realization had her biting her lip as she read his next message.

Now you will come twice for me before I share these crepes with you.

Holy hell, he was good at this. Allie propped up on her elbow, trying to think of some sort of sexy response that would even attempt to rival his. But everything that came to mind sounded like a cheesy pick-up line. She typed and deleted three different replies before finally settling on:

Hurry or I’m starting without you.

She put her phone down on the floor beside her bunk and waited, convinced Hudson would be arriving any minute. Then again, she thought, maybe he wouldn’t. He’d once told her it was a fantasy of his to watch her pleasure herself. If he thought taking his time would encourage her to put on such a display, he might intentionally delay his return.

A surge of heated pleasure shot straight to her core as she imagined Hudson opening the door to find her lying on the bed with her fingers between her thighs. She pushed the sheet lower, imagining it was Hudson who was baring her body, and drew a deep breath. Her hand skimmed over the soft skin of her stomach, her hips lifting almost involuntarily when she reached the top of her sex, already slick from anticipation.

When she closed her eyes, she could hear his voice, deep and soft, commanding her. Spread your legs wider. Show me how wet it makes you to think about having my cock. She could picture the look on his face, see his tongue dart out to wet his lips as her fingers stroked through her silky folds. She could feel his hand on her, his finger gliding up the inside of her thigh before plunging in and out alongside her own. That’s it, Allie, come for me.

The phone pinged on the floor.

Allie’s eyes flew open and her thighs instinctively closed. She’d been so lost to the fantasy of Hudson she’d nearly come before he even arrived. Her face flushed as she sat up and reached for the phone.

But instead of another naughty message from Hudson, the screen displayed an incoming text from an unknown number. When she opened it, an image appeared. It was a grainy, black-and-white photo of two men standing side by side with a third lying on the floor. A crease formed between Allie’s brows as she stared at her phone, and she startled when it suddenly rang in her hand. The call was from the same number that had sent the mysterious photo.

“Hello,” she said. Her voice was soft and tentative.

“Good morning, Alessandra,” a French accent purred.

Allie’s breath caught in her throat. Julian.

“Are you enjoying the train? I found the accommodations quite lacking myself.”

Her entire body tensed and her heart raced with the adrenaline that coursed through her veins. She pulled the sheet higher and swallowed hard. “What do you want?” she managed to choke out.

“I trust you received my text?” he asked, ignoring her question. “I know it’s hard to make out what you’re seeing. The video is much better.”

The back of Allie’s neck prickled with apprehension. “What video?”

“The one that shows your white knight for the vermin he really is.”

“Go to hell, Julian,” she bit out between clenched teeth. “I thought I made it clear I never wanted to hear from you again.”

From the other end of the line came a mocking laugh. “Now, now, ma petite cherie, is that anyway to speak to your fiancé?”

“We’re not engaged anymore.”

“Only because you failed to hold up your end of the bargain.” She could hear the snarl in his voice.

“I was never part of that and you know it.”

“No, but promises were made. And now Ingram is in the hands of an imbecile and her murdering lover.” His words hung in the air. “What’s the matter, mon amore, cat got your tongue, as they say?”

She knew he was baiting her, trying to get a reaction. But she couldn’t help it. She had to know what he was up to. “What are you talking about, Julian?”

“Look closely at the photo, Alessandra. Surely you recognize the two men standing over the lifeless body.”

Allie zoomed in on the photo and a gasp escaped her lips. The image was even grainier when enlarged, but it was clearly a picture of Hudson and Nick.”

“I will give him credit,” Julian said. “He was able to cover his tracks. For the most part. Thanks to his money the case has been filed as nothing more than a tragic accident. Would be a shame to have this surface and dredge the whole mess up. I’m sure the other news outlets would love to sink their claws into this story.”

Allie’s grip tightened around the phone.

“Of course they’d find more than just this skeleton if they start to dig,” he said. His words reeked of condescension. “The brother alone could fill an entire tabloid.”

Every fiber of her being had instinctively reacted to a threat against the man she loved. But to drag Nick into this as well? Her heart ached every time she thought of the trauma he’d faced as a child, the grips of which he was just beginning to work his way free. A trial, or worse, jail time, would surely seal his fate. She would do anything to protect Nick, and in a moment of clarity she realized that was exactly what Hudson had done. Whatever happened to the man in the photo, there was only one reason Hudson would have covered it up. To protect Nick.

And now Julian was threatening to hurt them both out of some twisted need for revenge against her. “You’re blackmailing me?” she asked, although in reality it was more of a statement than a question.

“Ah, you’re a quick study, Alessandra. Of course you’re no stranger to the concept. I seem to recall you did the same when pushing me out of Ingram.”

“You attacked me,” she said. Her voice was barely a whisper.

“Semantics.”

Allie’s blood seethed at his cavalier tone. But she knew she needed to remain calm, she needed to think of Hudson and Nick. She needed to get Julian out of their lives once and for all. She took a deep breath. “What do you want?”

“My ring.”

What?”

“The ring I gave you. It’s rightfully mine. I want it back.”

That’s what this is about, that stupid ring? Allie exhaled a sigh of relief. She knew Julian was obsessed with the twelve-carat diamond Louis XIV had bestowed upon the first Marquis Laurent. But as far as she was concerned, she’d be happy to never lay eyes on it again, much less wear it on her finger. But could she trust Julian to hold up his end of the bargain? “How do I know you’re giving me the only copy of the file?”

“I will give you the original. Copies can be discredited as doctored. They’re useless.”

“Fine. I’ll send it to you.”

“Send?” He let out a harsh laugh. “You do not send a priceless heirloom.” A cigarette lighter clicked to life near the mouthpiece of his phone. “Your train is about to arrive at Gare de Paris-Est station. Cancel the last leg of your journey and bring the ring to my chateau this evening.”

“I don’t have the ring with me.”

“Then I suggest you make the necessary arrangements.”

“When I get back to Chicago, I’ll have my assistant fly it over.”

“Not good enough. You will deliver it to me personally. Tomorrow.”

Tomorrow? I need more time, Julian.”

“You have until noon, Alessandra. That’s it, not a minute more. And if I find out you’ve told that prick you’re currently fucking about any of this, then the deal is off.”

Her mind raced with questions, and without thinking she spoke some of them out loud. “How am I supposed to get it here that fast . . . and what reason do I give for getting off the train?”

“Not my problem.” She heard the heavy exhale of a steady plume of smoke. “Tick tock, Alessandra. You have until tomorrow. After that this little film goes viral.”

The line went dead.

“Who was that?”

Allie’s head snapped up to find Hudson standing in the doorway of their cabin holding a dome-covered plate. “Um, nothing, just checking my voicemail.” She dropped her gaze, unable to look him in the eye. How she was going to pull this off if a small lie about a phone call had her thrown for a loop?

Hudson stepped into the room and shut the door behind him. “Everything okay?”

Allie looked up and gave him a reassuring smile. “Absolutely.” She forced herself to hold his gaze, her smile firmly in place. Hudson knew her better than anyone. If he even suspected something was amiss he’d ask questions she couldn’t answer.

He studied her face as he set the plate of food down on the small table and joined her on the bunk. “You look like you have something to say.”

Fuck. She couldn’t blow this. She had to convince him everything was fine. She didn’t want to lie to him, but if he knew the truth he’d never allow her to meet with Julian. And then everything would blow up and it would be all her fault. She couldn’t let that happen.

“I do, actually.” To her great relief she somehow managed to keep her voice level.

“Tell me.”

“I was thinking about Paris,” she said, trying to be as casual as possible.

His brow rose. “Is that so?”

“Mmmhmm. How would you feel about spending the night there instead of going directly to London? New Year’s Eve in the City of Lights?”

A warm smile formed on his lips. “Whatever makes you happy, Allie.”

“I want you to be happy, too, Hudson.”

“With the exception of perhaps a communal kiss,” he smirked, “I’m happy being anywhere with you.” He leaned forward and pressed a soft kiss just below her ear.

In spite of everything, Allie let out a small laugh, partly from the memory of Hudson’s reaction to the Venice celebration and partly from the sensation of his lips and tongue, sucking and kissing her sensitive skin. “No, no communal kiss under the Eiffel Tower, I promise.” Her hands found their way into his hair as his lips drifted down the column of her throat.

“Hmm, perhaps a king-size bed with a view of the Eiffel Tower instead.”

She tugged his hair until he raised his head to look at her. “Are you sure?” she asked. “We’d miss the lovely evening you planned on the River Thames.”

“We can charter the boat next week if you’d like?”

“I’d like. Very much.” A genuine smile stretched across her face at the thought of romantic dinner cruise with Hudson the following week. By then all of this mess with Julian would be behind them and they could get back to enjoying the new life they were building together.

“Then it’s decided. I’ll notify the conductor and arrange to have our bags unloaded at the next stop.” He stood and dug his phone out of the front pocket of his jeans. “Penthouse at the George V sound good?” he asked.

She smiled. “Sounds perfect.”

Hudson lifted the silver dome and snagged a piece of bacon before strolling out of the room with the phone pressed to his ear. Allie was dialing Harper’s number before the door had even fully closed.

After what seemed like a dozen rings, the call was finally answered.

“Hello.” The voice on the other line was so quiet, for a moment Allie thought in her haste she’d dialed the wrong number.

“Harper?”

“Who is it, babe?” a deep voice, thick with sleep, asked from somewhere close to the phone. Allie glanced at the time. It was just past noon in Chicago.

A few muffled words were spoken before Harper came back to the line. Normally Allie would have been all about asking for details about the mysterious man, but there was no time for that now.

“Hey you, aren’t you supposed to be sipping champagne in the French countryside?”

“I need your help.”Allie’s tone must have conveyed the urgency and anxiety she felt, because Harper was completely alert the next time she spoke.

“Give me one second,” she told her overnight guest. After a bit of shuffling she was back. “What’s wrong?”

The alarm in her friend’s voice brought the reality of the situation crashing down around her. Allie squeezed her eyes shut to stem the tears that stung her eyes. “It’s Julian,” she said past the lump in her throat.

“What’s that fucker done now?”

“He wants me to return his ring and he’s threatening to make trouble if I don’t.”

“Did you tell Hudson?” She let out a decisive snort. “I’m sure he could show Julian a whole new meaning for the word.”

Allie wanted nothing more than to tell Hudson everything. He would know the best way to handle Julian. But more than that, because it was killing her to lie to him. Secrets and lies had torn them apart. The last thing she wanted to do was have something else wedged between them. But this was different. This was about protecting Hudson and Nick.

“I don’t want to drag Hudson into this. Julian is my problem. I’ll give him his precious ring and then he’ll be out of my life. For good.”

“You can’t trust him.”

No, she couldn’t. But he’d left her no choice. “Will you bring me the ring?”

“To Paris?” Harper squeaked.

“Yes. I’ll take care of everything. All you have to do is get the ring from my brownstone and head to O’Hare with your passport. I think there’s a British Airways flight leaving around five thirty.”

Tonight?”

“Yes, it should get you into de Gaulle around nine tomorrow morning. I’ll meet you there.”

“Whoa, slow down. Believe me, I’d like nothing more than to hop a jet to France. And you know I’d do anything for you. But I’m not so sure this is a good—”

“I wouldn’t ask if there was any other way,” Allie interrupted, her voice wavering with emotion. “Please.”

A moment of silence hung on the line. “Tell me what I need to do,” Harper said.

Allie gave her a quick rundown of the ring’s location, and after thanking her profusely and swearing her to secrecy, hung up to make the necessary arrangements. When she was done, she dressed quickly and packed up the rest of their things. As she zipped the suitcase she couldn’t help but wonder how she was going to make it through the next thirty hours. Hudson knew her so well, knew her moods, her expressions. It was going to be damn near impossible to act as though nothing was wrong. She took a deep breath. Somehow she’d find a way. She had to. Hudson and Nick’s very lives depended on it.








Chapter Twenty-eight







Paris had no shortage of luxury hotels, but the George V was inarguably the place to stay. An eight-story landmark just minutes from the Champs-Élysées, the hotel was the epitome of elegant sophistication. And after being crammed into a boxcar with goddamn bunk beds, Hudson was more than happy—make that thrilled—to trade in the one-of-a-kind experience through the European countryside for a king-size bed with sheets having a thread count to match the U.S. national debt. Not to mention a place where he didn’t have to walk down the hall to take a piss.

The concierge had greeted them immediately, taken care of checking them in, and quickly instructed a bellhop to escort them to their room. The private elevator with secure access had shot them up to the penthouse smoothly and efficiently. And the room itself was even better than advertised with a view that offered the perfect vantage point for enjoying New Year’s Eve fireworks from the comfort of a luxurious king size bed. But as the day wore on, the sixteen-hundred-square-foot space began to feel like a shoebox.

As the morning had turned into an afternoon that darkened into night, Allie seemed to withdraw. She became more isolated, offering what felt like forced laughs or strained smiles. Something was off. Logic told him it was nothing, that it was all a matter of his own perception. But the pit of his stomach told him otherwise.

Hudson fought the feeling and took a deep breath, trying to relax.

Hell of a lot of good that did.

In the bathroom, he planted his left palm on the marble while his right cranked the hot and cold. In a rush, water cascaded out of the faucet and began to fill the oversize infinity tub that was smack in the middle of the room. Turning his head, he saw Allie in the living room, staring out the double doors that openedto a terrace with three-hundred-and-sixty-degree views of the city. But she seemed oblivious to the night sky, the ambient glow of the city humming below her, and the Eiffel Tower glittering in the distance. Instead her empty gaze was indicative of someone stuck between two polars, concentrating hard on something while at the same time trying to get away from it. Hudson knew all about that; he was a pro at shutting down and sending out the hands-off message when the world was getting a little too clear.

The level of the water rose and steam began to billow from the tub. As it did, he replayed the past few hours, then the past few days, trying to figure out what, if anything, he could have said or done to cause this disconnect. On the train he’d left in search of confections with extra whipped cream, and when he’d returned the air had shifted and the mood had altered.

It didn’t make sense.

Any of it.

When it came to her, his senses were sharp. But right now he couldn’t nail the source of her reserve to anything specific.

“Allie?”

Her head turned. God, she was beautiful and the one woman he’d always wanted. In her white waffle-cut robe with her blonde hair loose around her shoulders, she struck him stupid. Still.

Hudson strode across the room. The candles he’d lit wafted in his wake, but did nothing to infiltrate the distinct chill in the air. Without a word he slipped his arms around her waist. She turned, running her hands up to his shoulders and linking them behind his neck. When her hazel eyes finally met his, there was honest-to-God emotion in them. His hands clasped the sides of her face and tilted her head before sealing his lips over hers. His tongue licked inside her mouth in lazy glides, tantalizing her as he waited for her to respond. And when she finally did, when she finally gave herself over to him, he groaned, drinking in the taste of her.

“Take a bath with me,” he whispered against her lips.

“Okay.” Her breathy voice was the only green light he needed. Hudson embraced her tightly and lifted her off her feet. His cock throbbed for attention, pounding between them as he carried her to the bathroom. The water was still running and the place had gone tropical, but the fog forming on the mirrors that covered the walls did nothing to hide their reflections.

In a coordinated sequence he set her on her feet, pulled the sash of her robe, and peeled the fabric off her creamy shoulders, letting it pool at her feet. She was just so goddamn beautiful. Although not in a modern, overdone way that was all about excess—too much makeup, fake nails, and over-the-top extensions. Allie was naturally beautiful, with delicate features reminiscent of Grace Kelly.

He spun her around to face the mirror above the twin sinks. The candlelight reflected off the beveled edgesand bathed her skin from head to toe. He lifted a hand and brushed his knuckles up the contours of her ribcage then along the gentle slope of her breast. Her eyes drifted to his hand, tracking its movement. The tension in her body was unbearable; she seemed anxious.

“Look at me. Don’t drop your eyes.” He dipped his head but his gaze remained locked to hers as he ran his tongue along the planes of her shoulders. Her skin was soft, smooth as satin under the caresses of his hands and against his tongue, and gradually he felt the strain ease out of her muscles.

His hand dropped between her thighs and a groan rumbled deep in his chest. Christ, she was wet. He had command of her body but he wanted her mind along with it. He slid his middle finger inside her, eased it out, then back in with a second.

Allie moaned and pushed back against his hand. “Hudson,” she whispered.

His tongue traced the pulsing vein in her neck. “I know what you want, but I need to hear you say it.” He was rock-hard and dying to be inside her, to feel her sliding slick, hot, and wet around his cock. But despite the burn that was spreading up his legs and through his groin, he held back, wanting her with him. He pulled his fingers out and thrust gently back into her. “Say it, Allie.”

“Take me.” Allie’s back arched and she clenched around him. In that moment he knew she needed the connection as much as he did.

Hudson reached for the belt of his robe and yanked it from the loops. The fabric split wide and his cock jutted out from his hips, hard, strong, and proud. He gripped himself and slid the tip between her glistening lips. The first touch against her slick sex nearly made him lose it.

In a split second the tension in the room was replaced with raw lust. He seized her hips, and when his fingers sank into her flesh he felt the need to tether them there, as if he was grounding them both in the moment. With a hiss, he entered her on a solid stroke that brought his body flush against her ass. Allie cried out, her fingers curling around the lip of the counter. He pulled out to the tip, then thrust sharply back inside her. The groan he let out vibrated throughout his whole body, and a harsh breath rushed out of her mouth.

Steam slicked their skin and the sound of water trickling over the edges of the tub behind them mingled with their collective moans. Glancing to the side, Hudson caught their reflection. He watched his hips roll and then pump into her, his lower abs flex and then release, as his cock was stroked from every angle. “Look at us,” he ground out. Each word was punctuated with a thrust of his hips. “Watch me fuck you.”

Her gaze landed on one mirror then the next and the next, and he knew she saw what he did in the multiple reflections. They were a prism of naked bodies all moving in unison, working together. Sweet hell, an orgasm was already perched at the head of his cock and the slow burn was creeping up his spine.

“Give me your mouth,” he growled. Allie craned her head back and he forced her chin up. He locked onto her mouth without apology, his lips crushing against hers in a desperate attempt to seal the fissure he feared was growing into a canyon between them. His tongue slid over hers in lush strokes and his hips moved in relentless drives.

When he felt her impending orgasm begin to coil around his cock, he moved his hand around her and massaged his fingers over the top of her sex.

“Please,”she begged.

“I have you.” Hudson bit down on his molars and locked his lower back in order to keep the steady pace. “Look at yourself. Look how beautiful you are. See what I see as you come.”

Allie arched her back, and as if on cue her release snapped free. “Hudson,” she cried out, his name a plea. The breathlessness of her voice surged the need in him and his body took over. There was nothing slow and easy, he was all rough and raw.

“That’s it. Give me what’s mine.” He gripped her hips and yanked her back along his length, feeling her pulse along his shaft and fucking her with the desire to erase anything and everything that was threatening to stand between them.

As he focused on the way his body slid and fit inside of her, he felt a wave of pleasure move up his legs and vibrate in his balls. But at the same time he felt the treasonous shift of her mind as her head dropped forward, hiding her eyes from his view. He smoothed his palm up her spine, wrapped her hair around his wrist, and gently pulled her head back up. “Don’t you fucking look away, I’m about to come for you.” Their eyes met in the mirror but he still felt like he was clawing through the fog to reach her.

“Fuck.” The word shot out of his mouth as he began to come, his body rearing back and his cock kicking deep within her. Allie dropped forward on her elbows and he caught her around the waist. He leaned over her, pressing a kiss between her shoulders, and they stood there for a moment with nothing but the sounds of their panting breaths echoing off the cold marble.

It was Hudson who finally spoke. “I’ll never let you go,” he murmured against her skin. “Never.”








Chapter Twenty-nine







Allie had spent the entire night staring at the ceiling of their penthouse suite. She knew every detail of the ornate cornice moldings and exactly how many crystal teardrops hung from the chandelier above the bed. But when the sun began to peek through the silk curtains, she was still no closer to coming up with a plan.

What reason could she possibly give Hudson for leaving him alone in one of the world’s most romantic cities? This was their first trip together. Under any other circumstances, nothing could convince her to leave his side. But her circumstances were anything but normal. And as much as she hated the thought of being away from Hudson for half the day, much less lying to him about where she was going, Julian had left her no choice. He was threatening to hurt the man she loved. If delivering a ring to Julian’s chateau would keep Hudson safe, then so be it.

The irony of the location Julian had picked for the exchange was not lost on her. Had she married him as planned, then they would have just been wrapping up their three-week honeymoon. The extensive itinerary had allowed for the last leg of the trip to include a weeklong stay at his chateau, culminating in a second reception her mother planned to host for Julian’s extended family, as well as their European friends who were unable to make it to the ceremony.

While it was true that many on the guest list would have been unable to attend either due to the holidays or the short notice, Allie suspected her mother’s motivation had more to do with impressing Bernadette Beauchene than it did with entertaining Julian’s distant cousins. Bernadette had been her mother’s roommate at Vassar. And while the Ingram name was often said in the same breath as Vanderbilt, Kennedy, and Rockefeller, it lacked the pedigree that came with hundreds of years of nobility and wealth. Hosting a ball at the country estate of her daughter, the new Marquise Laurent, would have no doubt been a means of leveling that field. The idea would have bothered Allie more but her mother’s motivation for planning a party at Julian’s estate paled in comparison to the lengths which her parents had gone to arrange the marriage in the first place. Not that any of it mattered anymore. Her parents were gone, as was her mother’s unspoken rivalry with Bernadette Beauchene.

And then it hit her. Bernadette was the perfect excuse to slip away for a few hours.

Careful not to disturb Hudson, Allie reached for her phone. She typed a quick e-mail to Bernadette, and had just returned her phone to the nightstand when Hudson stirred.

“I know what you’re doing,” he murmured from behind her.

Allie stilled. “You do?”

“Hmm.” He reached for her, one arm sliding around her waist as he pulled her to him, his chest against her back. “You’re checking your e-mail, something I’m quite sure I was told was off-limits while in bed. And besides, it’s a holiday. Nothing urgent to attend to.” He pressed his lips to her shoulder and she felt him smile against her skin. With a shift of his hips, an impressive erection prodded her backside. “Other than this.”

Arousal surged through her body. With no more than a few words and the feel of his skin against hers, she was slick and ready. All it would take was a subtle flex of her hips and he would be inside her, filling her, stretching her. She ached for him the way she always did, her body a slave to his. More than that she craved the connection of being one with him on the most intimate level. But there were arrangements to be made and a plane to meet.

It was just as well. Because as amazing as the night before had been, what lay ahead had weighed heavily on her mind, and she knew Hudson had picked up on it. He had sensed it in her mood, in the tension radiating through her body. And even though he’d eventually broken through and reached that part of her only he could touch, the fact that it had been so difficult brought a sadness all its own. She needed to deal with Julian. Once he was out of their lives, everything would go back to the way it was.

Hudson nuzzled against her neck while he began tugging and rolling her nipple between two fingers. She squeezed her eyes shut, fighting the wave of pleasure and gathering the strength to move away from the man who owned her, body and soul.

“It wasn’t work.”

He nibbled and sucked the sensitive skin beneath her ear. “Well, whatever Harper’s latest man crisis is can wait, too.”

It took every ounce of self-control, but somehow she managed to place her hand over Hudson’s, halting his amorous assault. “Actually, it was a friend of my mother’s. Sort of like an aunt to me.” That was a ridiculous exaggeration, but she had to make the story believable.

Allie sat up, pulling the sheet around her as she moved to the edge of the bed. “She wasn’t able to make it for the funeral, so when Ben told her I was in Europe, she started e-mailing, asking to get together.” Hudson’s watchful gaze made her suddenly aware of how quickly she was speaking. She took a steadying breath, using the time to do a quick calculation. Assuming her flight was on time, Harper was due to land just before nine. Allowing for customs, then the round-trip drive to Julian’s chateau, she should have no problem making it to the station by two. It wasn’t as though she and Julian would be having small talk over tea. “Anyway, I thought maybe I could have brunch with her this morning and meet you at the station later?”

Hudson swung his legs over the other side of the bed. “I’ll go with you.”

“Don’t be silly.” She darted across the room, gathering clothing off the floor as she made her way to the suitcases that sat propped open on brass luggage racks. “I would never dream of subjecting you to brunch with Bernadette. I mean, I love her like family, but she’s my mother on steroids.” She laughed nervously. “Only with a cigarette and a thick accent.”

Hudson stared at her from across the room, looking more than a bit annoyed. “I think I can tolerate one brunch.”

“I love you for offering, but it’s not necessary. Enjoy a lazy morning, go to the hotel gym, read those e-mails you keep sneaking peeks at.” She smiled over her shoulder. “I’ll meet you at the station at two and we’ll be in London in time for cocktails.” Clean clothes in hand, she dashed toward the bathroom, pausing briefly in front of Hudson. “Thank you, though,” she said, pressing a swift kiss to his lips.

Hudson caught her wrist as she turned away. “If you think I’m letting you go without a proper good-bye,” he said, tugging her sharply into his lap. One of his hands cupped her nape, holding her in place as his mouth claimed hers in a passionate kiss. And for one blissful moment, all thoughts of Julian and threats of blackmail left her and she kissed him back. As if nothing existed but the two of them.

“Now you can get ready.” He set her back on her feet and swatted her behind. “I’d join you in the shower, but then poor Aunt Bernadette would be dining on croissants alone,” he added with a knowing smirk.

Allie showered and dressed while Hudson ordered room service. It was being delivered just as she was about to leave, but food was the last thing on her mind. At the moment all she could think about was getting to the airport. According to the airline’s website, Harper’s flight was on time. With any luck she’d breeze through customs and Allie could stay on schedule. Julian hadn’t given her much time, but if all went according to plan, the whole mess would be behind her in a few hours.

“Dining room, s’il vous plaît.” Hudson held the door open for the young man as he wheeled in a linen-draped cart. Allie was by his side before he had a chance to close it.

“I wish you’d reconsider and take Max with you,” he said as she shrugged into her coat.

“I’ll be fine with the hotel’s car and driver.” She offered him a seemingly lighthearted smile. “And this way Max can get you and all of my luggage to the station on time.”

Hudson pulled her coat closed and began to fasten the buttons. “You do give new meaning to the term ‘packing light.’ I think the concierge thought a UN delegation had arrived last night.” His tone was teasing, but his eyes were full of concern. “No detours. Straight to the station after brunch with your aunt.”

“I’ll be fine, Hudson. Try not to worry so much.”

A deep frown creased his brow as he gazed down at her. The intensity of his scrutiny was unnerving, and for a moment she feared he’d seen right through her flimsy excuse. “I will worry until you’re back in my arms,” he finally said. He leaned down, his lips gently touching hers. “You’re my life, Alessandra. I would do anything for you. All you need to do is ask.”

Allie’s chest tightened. “I know,” she murmured against his lips. “I’ll see you soon.”

She kept her eyes trained on the elevator as she made her way down the long hall. Hudson was watching her from the doorway of their suite. She could feel it. If she stole even so much as a glance over her shoulder, she knew she’d run back into his arms and tell him everything. But Julian had been adamant she handle this alone, and so that was exactly what she had to do.

Whatever it takes to keep them safe.

Over and over the words played in her head during the ride to the airport, and as she waited in the concourse, anxiously checking her watch. When Harper finally came through the doors, Allie pushed her way through the exiting passengers and threw her arms around her friend.

“Whoa, glad to see you, too,” Harper laughed.

Allie squeezed her tight. “Thank you.”

“No problem. Never celebrated New Year’s Eve at thirty-five thousand feet. Not exactly the mile-high club I had in mind, but . . .”

An overwhelming sense of gratitude collided with the tension coiled deep within her, and a strangled sob escaped Allie’s lips.

Harper leaned back to look at her. “Oh hey, it’s okay.” She wiped the tear that slipped down Allie’s cheek. “Although, can I say for the bazillionth time, that I think meeting with Julian is a terrible idea?”

“I know. But it has to be this way.” People surged past them, rushing to meet family members or connecting flights. “Come on, let’s get out of this mess.” Looping her arm though Harper’s, she lead her to a cluster of chairs near the windows. “Did you have any trouble finding it?”

Harper shook her head. “No, it was right where you said it would be. But it was terrifying traveling with this rock.” She pulled a leather box out of her carry-on bag and pressed it into Allie’s trembling hands. “How in the world did you walk around wearing it? I’d be afraid someone would chop my finger off to steal it.”

The image Harper conjured only added to the nausea rolling in the pit of Allie’s stomach, but she kept her focus on the task at hand. “I have a driver from the George V waiting for you downstairs, but he’s going to drop you at the Ritz Carlton. I booked you a room there because with my luck you’d run into Hudson in the lobby.”

“Where does he think you are now?”

Allie frowned. “I told him I was visiting one of my mother’s friends.”

“I’d point out the many ways this whole thing is a bad idea, like how lies are what tore you two apart the first time, or how Julian is a snake in the grass, or how Hudson is going to flip when he finds out . . .” Harper paused and her expression softened. “But I’m guessing you already know all that.”

Allie nodded and swallowed past the lump in her throat. When she spoke, her voice was barely a whisper. “He’s threatening to hurt Hudson. And Nick.”

Harper’s eyes grew wide. “All over that ring? I mean, it’s a freaking monster, but couldn’t he afford, like, a dozen more?”

“He could, but according to him, this one is priceless.”

“Jeesh, glad I didn’t know that part on the flight over.”

“Good riddance to both of them, as far as I’m concerned.” She tucked the ring box into her purse and handed Harper a large manila envelope. “Everything you need is in here. The hotel registration is under your name but I gave them my credit card, so raid the mini bar, go to the spa, order room service, whatever you want.”

Harper peeked into the envelope. “You didn’t need to do all this.”

“Yes, I did. You dropped everything and flew to Paris on literally a moment’s notice. The least I can do is make sure you enjoy yourself while you’re here.”

“So what’s the plan?”

“Not much, really. I’m going to grab a cab to take me out to Julian’s, then stop by Bernadette’s on the way to meet Hudson at the train station.” Allie was a horrible liar. If she had any hope of pulling this off, she’d have to actually sit down for a quick cup of tea with her mother’s friend. “With any luck this will all be over in an about two hours.”

“Call me on your way to the train?”

“Will do.” After one last hug, Allie hurried through the crowded concourse to the nearest taxi stand. During the drive she gazed out the window as the scenery changed from bustling urban to scenic vista, bracing herself for the inevitable. She’d hoped to never lay eyes on Julian Laurent again, and for a short time it seemed like that might be possible. But now she was not only going to see him again, she was going to be alone with him.

Her heart rate spiked and her skin broke out in a cold sheen of sweat as memories of the last time they were together flooded her mind. She could see his face, contorted with anger, his nostrils flared with rage. She could smell the sour stench of alcohol mixed with the sweet scent of his cologne. She could feel his hands on her and the blood that dripped down her face. But most of all she could hear him. The snarls and grunts and harsh breaths as he bent her over the couch and forced her legs apart.

“We’re here, Mademoiselle.”

Allie startled. “Pardonnez-moi?”

The driver nodded to the iron gates in front of the car. “This is as far as the car can go. The road is too narrow.”

“Too narrow?”

“Oui, Mademoiselle. It was built for horses, not automobiles.”

She peered through the window. Beyond the gates was a cobblestone bridge that stretched across . . . a moat? Allie couldn’t believe her eyes. She knew the chateau had been in Julian’s family since the sixteenth century, but an actual moat? While she’d expected it to be as ostentatious as everything else in Julian’s life, she had to admit that took her by surprise.

“Do you still want me to wait?”

“Absolutely. This shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.” She tossed fifty euros on the front seat and slid out of the taxi.

The iron gates seemed even more foreboding once she was out of the car. They towered over her in a flourish of swirls and interlocking scrolls that met in the middle to form a giant letter L. Taking a deep breath, she somehow managed to propel herself forward on shaking legs.

As she moved across the weathered stones, she took in her surroundings. Below her the water moved under the bridge in slow ripples, with lily pads and moss floating along the gentle current. In the distance she could see meticulously trimmed topiary dotting the elaborate gardens, and beyond that a large stable and several smaller houses she assumed to be servant quarters. But the true focal point was the main house. The massive three-story home loomed in front of her like a scene from a movie. With its towers and spires and flags it more closely resembled a castle than a chateau. As she neared the entrance she wondered idly if under different circumstances she’d consider the whole scene to be straight out of a fairy tale instead of ripped from her worst nightmare.

The oversize wood door swung open as she approached. When she reached the top stair, Julian appeared in the doorway. He was holding a crystal glass that undoubtedly contained straight vodka and wearing a pair of tan pants and a blue button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled to his elbows.

“Alessandra.” His lips drew back in an expression that was decidedly more sneer than smile. He gestured for her to enter then stepped aside to let her pass, taking a sip from the crystal glass as she did. “Welcome home,” he murmured.

Allie stepped into the dark, dimly lit foyer. She’d barely had time to process his words before the heavy door closed behind her with a resounding thud.








Chapter Thirty







Hudson felt like he was about to explode. It was a quarter after two and Allie was still a no-show. The moment she’d walked out of the hotel room, his fuse was lit. Her failure to arrive was the detonator.

He stalked the length of the platform in an attempt to work off the nervous edge that was doing nothing but burning a hole in his stomach. No such luck. It wasn’t like her to not call or at least text if she was running late. This wasn’t a blown dinner reservation—their train was about to depart. And she was well aware of his concerns for her safety. There was no way she’d be out of contact this long.

Too long. Way too fucking long.

Hudson cursed and picked back up with the pacing routine until he reached the last car. From there he had a clear visual of the two doors leading out of the terminal, and beyond them the taxis and town cars unloading passengers at the curb. He was half-cocked with anticipation for her to come bounding through the doors, her blond curls bouncing, her face flushed, and words of apology rushing out of her mouth.

He dragged a hand through his hair then checked his watch for what must’ve been the hundredth time, the cuff of his shirt and coat falling back into place when he dropped his arm to his side.

Twenty after.

His instincts raged. Nothing about this situation was right. Scratch that, it was so fucking wrong. And every moment that passed was spiraling his mood even further into the shitter.

He dug his phone out of the breast pocket of his black wool coat and tried Allie again. The call went directly to voicemail. Again. He brought up Max’s number on the speed dial. It rang once . . . twice. . . . then he canceled the call as he remembered Max wasn’t the one who drove her to her destination.

Goddamn it. Why the fuck had he let her out of his sight?

He dialed the George V next. The hotel would have a record of their passengers if for no other reason than to bill his Black Amex with the damage.

“Bon après-midi, le Four Seasons George V. C’est—”

Hudson cut off her pleasantries with a sharp tone. “I need to know where one of your drivers took a guest this morning.”

“Pardon?”

Get in control, he thought. He forced himself to calm down and took a deep breath through his nose. Eventually he was able to replace his alarm with cool sanity.

“This is Hudson Chase.” His voice was steady, unlike the hand holding the phone. “I was a guest there last night, in the penthouse, with a Miss Alessandra Sinclair.” His throat tightened. “Your car service took her to a residence this morning. I need the address.”

“Of course, Mr. Chase, one moment.” The woman switched to English, but as if to not totally betray her native tongue, finished her thought with, “s’il vous plaît.” No further Q&A was needed. After all, he was a business traveler with the frequent flyer miles to prove it. And he’d stayed at the George V whenever business brought him to Paris. Granted, not in the penthouse. He didn’t need all that square footage for a lap top and a few suits.

He could hear the rapping of keys through the phone, each one a drum pounding against his skull in a rhythm that mirrored the beat of his heart inside his chest. How long did it take to type in a damn name?

He checked his watch again. Two-thirty. Shit. The train was leaving in ten minutes.

“Do you have an address?” His impatience carved each syllable, the hum and hiss of the train’s idling engine only grating against it.

“Still checking. Hold please.” Music filled the line.

The muscles of Hudson’s jaw flexed as he grit his teeth. He kept his eyes focused on the entrance to the station, willing her to come through the gates, and as he did, scenes from their evening together flashed through his mind. Steam billowing and fogging dozens of mirrors, their joined bodies reflected from every angle, their cries of pleasure ricocheting off marble walls. He thought he’d reached her, but this morning the deep canyon he’d worked to bridge was back. She remained aloof, twisting out of his grasp, making up excuses despite the fact that her body was responding to his, and even covering herself with the sheet. She wasn’t normally shy about being naked in front of him. What had her on guard? What changed?

The conductor bellowed the five-minute warning. Son of a bitch. Where the fuck was she? Fear blanketed the air around him—the repercussion of wanting, needing, and loving someone—making the double dose of anxiety jack up a notch. Fuck him, he’d sojourned into his worst nightmare.

The music came to an abrupt halt and he pounced. “Any luck?”

“Oui, Monsieur. The driver took Mademoiselle Sinclair to Charles de Gaulle Airport.”

“What?” His breath left his lungs in a rush. “You’re certain?”

“Oui.”

“Were there any other stops?”

“I’m sorry, Monsieur Chase, but I have no further information at this time. Perhaps when the driver returns.”

Hudson hung up the phone. All the blood drained from his head and extremities, reuniting in his chest simply to keep his heart beating.

He dialed Max, who picked up immediately. “Mr. Chase.”

“Notify the pilot I’ll be flying out of Paris instead of London.”

“Yes, sir. When would you like to depart?”

“I’m not sure yet. Have him on standby. And I need you to run the usual on a Bernadette Beauchene.”

“Yes, sir. Anything else?”

“No, but I need that information ASAP. Two hours.”

“I’ll have it in one.”

“Remind me to give you a raise when we get back.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”

Hudson ended the call but kept the phone gripped tight in his hand. The conductor yelled the equivalent of all aboard and the last of the stragglers rushed past him as they clamored to get on the train.

Fuck. She was leaving him.

As the train pulled away from the station, Hudson felt like he was living in the split second before a car crash, with time grinding slowly to a halt.











Look for the final novel in the Chasing Fire series

RECLAIM ME

Available October 2015











Though thousands of miles apart, Ann Marie Walker and Amy K. Rogers are in constant contact, plotting story lines and chatting about their love of alpha males, lemon drop martinis, and British supermodel, David Gandy. They are the authors of the Chasing Fire novels, including Remind Me.

Release Me




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