The Saturday of the gala came around before Kit knew it. It felt strange to her to be dressing for an evening out with Noah when she was now officially seeing another man, but Terrence remained fine with her attending the event. Partly because, as a result of work pressures, they’d only just gone on their third official date, so things were still new, and partly because Terrence knew Noah’s reputation.
“He’s taking you so his parents won’t hassle him about bringing his latest flavor of the night, right?” Terrence had said to her on the phone yesterday, not long after she’d finished a workout with Steve.
Lying flat on her back on the exercise mat, Kit had agreed—Noah’s strained relationship with his parents wasn’t her story to share.
Now she finished up the old-Hollywood glamour look she’d chosen for the night, her eyes deceptively simple but her lips coated in glossy scarlet. She’d parted her hair in the center and pulled it gently back into a deliberately soft knot, allowing a few tendrils to escape.
Normally she’d have asked Becca to do her makeup and hair, but given her friend’s loyal dislike of Noah, she’d decided on discretion and fallen back on Adreina’s teachings. At least with a look this classic, there wasn’t much she could mess up.
As for the dress—she rarely wore black, but Noah’s family was old-school, and this dress would fit right in while standing out, exactly what an A-list actress was supposed to do.
The latter words were Thea’s. “You’re hot right now, sweetie,” the other woman had said. “But you aren’t yet molten, and your place on the A-list isn’t set in stone.”
Blunt as always when it came to the industry, Thea had gone on to add, “The movies you’ve got on your slate will get you some traction, but we also need to capitalize on the current level of interest—part of that is continuing to build your image as elegant, stylish, and intelligent.”
“Thea, this is Noah’s deal.”
“It might be his deal, but as a woman you’ll be photographed as often, if not more,” Thea had reminded her. “The intelligent part is a given since this is a private gala hosted in the home of a renowned art collector. For elegant and stylish, the gown is going to be key, makeup to be decided once we find that gown.”
In the end, the two of them had settled on this sleeveless but not strapless floor-length gown that skimmed her body to the hips before opening out into a gorgeous skirt created of multiple layers of material. It draped in a way that meant it had a lovely flow in motion and a stunning line when she was still. The back was a deep vee, but not so deep that she was in danger of looking trashy, while the front neckline was cut straight across at an angle that gave the dress a point of interest suited to the high-class charity/arts event.
Jewels glinted in the light, the only hint of color in the entire outfit coming from her polished green nails and the long emerald-and-diamond earrings borrowed from a jeweler. She acted as his walking billboard; he gave her gemstones she couldn’t otherwise afford—courtesy of Thea’s contacts.
Thea had laughed when Kit sent her a photo from the nail salon earlier today. “I love it. Kathleen Devigny is still Kathleen Devigny, even when she’s going to a stuffy gala. No blending in for you.”
Slipping her feet into ankle-breaker Jimmy Choos that exposed her painted toenails when the dress moved, she picked up her simple black clutch and took a deep breath, released it as slowly. “I’m his friend, and he needs a friend tonight.”
The intercom buzzed, Butch letting her know they’d cleared Noah through.
“A friend,” she repeated again and walked to the door.
She opened it just as a gleaming black limo came to a stop in front of it. Noah exited from the front passenger seat a second later, and all the breath just whooshed out of her. He was always gorgeous, reminding her of a young lion in the summer when his hair turned streaky gold, but today he could’ve stood in as Prince Charming or as James Bond, depending on the smile he pulled out.
But the smile he gave her was wary.
“Wow.” Coming to the door, he stared at her, a sexy, beautiful man in a classic tuxedo that perfectly fit his frame. He was built like a model, she thought suddenly. Lean muscle, wide shoulders, slim hips.
“Wow yourself,” she replied after catching her breath. “You do clean up pretty.”
Some of the wariness receded. “Shall we go?”
Suddenly unable to bear the strain and distance between them, she said, “Feel in the mood for a friendly wager?”
He tilted his head to the side.
“As soon as the photos of you in this tux start hitting the airwaves, I bet Thea starts getting calls from designers who want to dress you or get you to front their campaigns.”
“Not happening. One night does not turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.”
She knew the fashion world far better than he did, was conscious it could turn on a dime and that the rules were different for men and women. As long as Noah looked this hot in their clothes when he wore them, the designers wouldn’t care what he wore the rest of the time. In fact, the contrast would only heighten interest. “So, bet?”
She tapped a finger against her hip. “If I win, you have to hunt down this specific plant I want for my garden—it can only be ordered from a cantankerous old gardener in Kyoto, Japan who refuses to sell to anyone he hasn’t met in person and vetted.”
“So let me get this right,” Noah said, eyes narrowing. “I’d have to not only fly to Japan, I’d have to win the approval of a crusty old man who might kick me out on my ass without a plant?”
“In that case, if I win”—that troublemaker’s grin that had been missing till now—“you have to get onstage at the next Schoolboy Choir concert, whenever that might be, and sing a duet with me.”
Her mouth dropped open. “And humiliate myself in front of thousands, maybe millions, if the video goes viral? I don’t think so.”
“You have a good voice.”
“For karaoke!” She folded her arms. “You’d only be humiliated in front of one old man who won’t even care who you are.”
“Fine, chicken.” Her grim-eyed response made his grin widen. “You just have to sing solo in front of the guys, Molly, and Thea. Song of my choice.”
“Done.” She set her alarm, then pulled the door shut.
Noah put his hand on her lower back as they moved to the limo, and that was when Kit realized exactly how bad a choice she’d made with this dress. That sexy vee at the back? It meant his rough, callused fingertips would rasp against her skin each time he placed his hand on her back—and no matter the dip in her stomach, the shiver that wanted to ripple over her skin, she couldn’t tell him to stop.
If she did, it would make them appear stiff and awkward in photos. That would spark far more rumors than if they acted naturally, one friend agreeing to act as a date for a family event of the other. So she’d suck it up and deal with the fact that in spite of her decision to move on, the chemistry was stronger than ever, electricity crackling over her skin.
“So,” she said once they were in the limo, the soundproof privacy screen up, “remind me of everyone in your family.”
Bracing his arm along the back of the seat, he undid the buttons on the tuxedo jacket and turned toward her, the crisp white of his shirt stretching across his chest. “My father is a criminal lawyer—Robert.”
“Not just a criminal lawyer,” Kit interrupted. “He’s a pretty big deal, right?”
“Yeah. He’s a shark.” A shrug. “Mom’s Virginia, a political lobbyist turned lady-who-lunches; she sits on countless charity boards to salve her conscience for having no moral compass.”
Kit frowned. “Why are you always so hard on your mom?” He didn’t get along with his father, but he always seemed far angrier at his mother.
A faint smile that wasn’t a smile at all. “Because I’m an entitled brat.”
“Katie,” he said in the same tone. “Forget about my fucked-up relationship with my parents—it’s a hellhole of no return.”
“What about Emily? Will she be there?”
“No, she’s away at school.” A real smile at the mention of his sister. “My aunt Margaret, the one who’s spearheading this gala, is my father’s much younger sister. She lived with us when I was a child.” Shadows darkened his eyes. “Margaret didn’t want them to send me to boarding school, but she was only a kid then, still in high school, so she couldn’t stop them.”
The smile returned before she could say anything.
“But that worked out all right—met Fox my first day at the school.” He ran his hand through his hair, messing up the neat strands and exposing a hint of the song lyrics tattooed on his inner wrist. “Aunt Margaret used to visit me once she was in college and could come down without my parents knowing. After she went to Europe for her postgrad, she sent me postcards and letters, presents for no reason.”
A pause, his next words quiet. “She got sick soon after that, was in the hospital for a long time. My parents wouldn’t let me visit except during official school vacations, so we didn’t have as much contact when I was a teenager, but she never forgot me.”
As his parents had forgotten him, Kit completed silently, hurting for the gifted, lonely boy become a rebellious teenager. Making the conscious decision to follow a happier thread, she said, “How did you and Fox end up roommates?”
“The school was full of rich kids,” he told her, not seeming to realize he was brushing his fingers over her nape.
Kit let it go rather than turning it into a big deal, though it was causing goose bumps up and down her body.
“It was exclusive and out in the middle of nowhere,” Noah continued, “lots of trees and playing fields. But they had this policy that no matter who your parents or grandparents were, you had to share a room.”
“Some parents must’ve complained.”
“Sure, but the school wouldn’t budge, and it had serious high-powered parental support. In the end, most people came around, because the school pitched it as networking from an early age.”
Laughing, he shook his head. “I used to say bullshit until Abe pointed out how many of our schoolmates are now in politics, law, other positions of power. I kid you not, one of the kids I used to get into trouble with doing illegal experiments in chemistry is now a head honcho at the NSA—we had a drink last time he was in town.”
“Talk about contacts!” Kit said with a shake of her head.
Noah’s fingers slid across her sensitive skin again, and at last he seemed to notice what he was doing. His eyes locked with hers, her breath held in her lungs, the moment full of so many words unspoken that it was a crushing pressure in the air. “Fox and you,” she prompted softly, because those words had to remain unspoken.
For her own sanity. For the friendship Noah needed.
Jaw a harsh line, he said, “I’d never shared with anyone, and Fox grew up with his grandparents, without any brothers and sisters, so we walk in and sit on our beds, staring at each other.” Noah could remember the knot in his stomach, the sour taste in his mouth, the cold fingers crawling down his back.
The idea of having to sleep in a room with a stranger, even if that stranger was a boy as small as him, a boy with green eyes and dark brown hair, had almost been enough to thrust Noah into panicked shock. “Then,” he continued, “Fox says, ‘Did you see we have a pet spider?’”
Kit’s shudder was so girlish he smiled. “A pet spider?”
“It was this huge black thing with skinny legs in one corner of the room. We spent an hour watching it spin its web, and we were cool after that.” It had been that simple, and yet not. Because that night Noah had a nightmare that left him huddled in another corner, shivering so hard his teeth had clattered against each other; Fox had come over and sat with him, bringing a blanket to cover them both.
That was the moment that had bonded them forever.
It wasn’t until he was much older that Noah understood Fox’s courage in making the first move by speaking about the spider. Unlike Noah, Fox didn’t come from wealth. He’d been dumped at the school because no one wanted him, the school’s wealthy environs unfamiliar and scary.
“Boys.” Kit shook her head on the affectionate word. “Did your pet spider survive?”
“We kept it safe for a while, but the cleaners came in one day while we were out, and we never saw Mr. Legs again.” His muscles began to coil as they turned into the drive that led to the magnificent Beverly Hills mansion that was the site of tonight’s gala.
The Tierney estate belonged to a renowned and somewhat eccentric art collector who also happened to be a close friend of his aunt’s. “Ready for the circus?” he said to Kit. “I heard Tierney has his own personal mummy.”
She reached up to fix his hair, the small intimacy doing things to him he couldn’t name. “We can sneak away and go hunt for it if the gala gets too boring.”
The limo came to a halt at the bottom of the red carpet, which fell in a cascade down the mansion’s museum-worthy front steps and continued on down the drive until it hit the drop-off point at the top of the circular turnaround for vehicles. Beyond was a much longer drive down which they’d just driven, and on either side of the red carpet—corralled behind thick velvet ropes—buzzed a phalanx of black-tie-clad photographers and reporters who’d been given a media pass to the event.
Noah opened his own door rather than waiting for the limo driver and stepped out while doing up the tux jacket, then held out his hand for Kit. She slipped her warm, slender hand into his, and his skin tightened, his body attuned to her on a level that was primal and hotly possessive.
And then she was standing with him, a stunning woman with a heart big enough to forgive him for the worst mistake of his life, to trust him once again with the gift of her friendship. He wouldn’t fuck it up this time.
No matter how loud the demons howled.
The cameras had started flashing the instant he exited the limo, but they went insane as he and Kit moved down the red carpet. He kept his hand on Kit’s back throughout, loathe to have the other men here believe she was on her own. Because she wasn’t. For this one night, she was his.
“Kathleen! Kathleen! Who’s your date?” a photographer called out. “What’s his name?”
Laughing, Kit turned her face up toward him, then they turned as a couple to the media. The flashbulbs were blinding, questions and exclamations rising in a roar as the photographers and reporters clicked on the identity of her date.
“Jesus,” Noah muttered without making a face because he didn’t want to ruin the photos, conscious this was an important opportunity for Kit. “It’s a penguin suit, people.”
“I hope your passport’s up-to-date,” Kit said on a dazzling smile. “Japan’s calling.”
“You haven’t won yet.” Coiled muscles eased, his cheeks creasing in a real smile. “I’m not getting any excited calls from Thea.”
“Pfft, the night is young, and you’re looking so pretty.” She moved with him to one of the official gala photographers on their side of the velvet rope, posing gracefully beside him. Then, bowing to requests, she stepped away to give the other photographers the solo shots they wanted of her and her gown.
Noah pretended not to hear the bloodthirsty mob calling for his own solo shots. This was why he didn’t fucking wear suits or brush his hair. It made him too goddamn pretty, though at least he’d grown into his face so that he had a harder edge.
Taking out his phone, he grabbed a few shots of Kit. She blew him a kiss, her eyes bright. Grinning at the resulting image, he asked her to strike a pose. The photographers went wild, clicking along with him. When she finally waved them down and walked over, he immediately placed his hand on her lower back, the silken warmth of her a near-painful pleasure.
“I didn’t realize how huge the media presence would be,” Kit said to him as they climbed the steps, Kit holding her dress just an inch off the carpet with flawless grace. “You’ve done me a huge favor, Noah. This kind of exposure…” She shook her head. “Money can’t buy it.”
“I have a feeling Thea leaked the news we’d be here.” Noah had intense appreciation for Thea’s smarts as a publicist. “She probably hooked up with Aunt Margaret to offer media privileges to an extended number of photographers.” A win-win situation for the charity and for Kit.
Kit bit her lower lip. “Of course she did—I didn’t even think about that. Do you mind?”
“Why would I mind? If I can help your career, I will.” Sadly, Kit’s shining talent wasn’t enough—she also had to win the media war, had to become a public darling America and the world wanted to see on-screen. “Speaking of which, you should turn here.” Her position on the steps, with the majestic columns of the mansion behind her, would make for a fantastic shot.
“Thanks.” Kit’s smile hit him right in the solar plexus. “I’m kind of high from the night already—it’s fun.”
“Yeah, it is,” he said, stepping away so she could be in the spotlight. He loved watching her move, loved watching her sparkle. The night was fun, but only because she was with him.
When she held out a hand, he took position beside her and they let the photographers snap a few shots of them together.
“Into the cauldron,” he said when they turned to continue on up to the entrance. The closer they got to the doors, the harder his muscles bunched, until by the time they cleared the entrance, he felt as if he was made of stone.