His aunt was standing near the entrance with her partner of many years, Louise. Seeing him, she beamed and walked over as fast as she could in her elegant red gown, a petite powerhouse with golden hair cut in a chic bob, and brilliant blue eyes.
“My favorite boy,” she said, giving him a tight hug. “I’m so happy you came. And look at you!” She patted the front of his tuxedo jacket.
“Only for you, Aunt Margaret,” Noah said, bending to accept a kiss on the cheek before turning to Kit. “If you don’t recognize Kit, I’ll disown you.”
Laughing at Kit’s scandalized response, his aunt took Kit’s hand in her own. “I’m in awe of your talent, my dear.”
“The admiration is mutual.” Kit’s response was warm, her smile lighting up the room. “Everything looks incredible. I hope the gala raises hundreds of thousands of dollars for the foundation.”
“Oh, we’ll get it,” his aunt said, her tone steely. “Even if I have to stand over people to get them to open their wallets for the auction.” A wink. “At least I know one donor who won’t stiff me.”
Noah pretended to look up at the high ceiling as if fascinated by the old-fashioned moldings.
“Don’t make me twist your ear, Noah St. John.”
Grinning, he hugged his aunt with one arm. “I already transferred the money to the foundation’s account. Tonight I’m just going to outbid people to drive up prices for the auction items, then drop out so they’re stuck with paying but feeling like they got one over on the brat rock star.”
Kit nudged her shoulder to his in laughing agreement while Margaret’s responding expression held pure glee.
“That’s why I love you. Go on and mingle, you two. Prepare for a few starstruck types—they might be rich, but most can only aspire to bad reality television.” She put a neatly manicured hand on Kit’s arm. “There are a few people you might want to meet. Noah, make sure you introduce her to Cyril King and Lisa Fei.”
Kit recognized both names. Talk about money people. Slipping her arm through Noah’s as they left his aunt to move deeper into the huge atrium space that made the mansion perfect for gala events, she said, “I’m starting to feel guilty. I came to support you, but I seem to be getting everything.”
“Are you kidding?” Noah’s upper arm muscles grew rigid under her fingertips. “I’d already be climbing the walls if you weren’t with me.” He grabbed two flutes of champagne, handing her one and gulping half of his.
“Hey.” She put her frown in her voice, not her face, aware they were the focus of multiple pairs of curious eyes. “No getting drunk on champagne.” As far as she knew, Noah was always sober in public, but after the motel incident, Kit wasn’t taking any chances.
A stormy, dark gray glance that held echoes of the icy cold with which she’d seen him shut down others.
“Damn it,” he muttered. “Stop being the voice of reason.”
No cold there; he sounded almost sulky.
Lips twitching, she squeezed his arm. “Shall we go say hello to your parents? We can do it quick.”
“No.” With that flat statement, he turned her to the right. “Let’s go talk to Cyril instead. He’s a windbag but a funny one most of the time.”
However, they’d only gone a few feet when Noah was stopped by an older couple who looked very, very blue-blooded.
“Noah,” the lady said with a tight smile that seemed congenital. “It’s good to see you here.”
“Aunt Althea, Uncle Donald.” Ice now, each word dripping with it. “This is Kathleen.”
“Charmed, my dear.” Another prunish pursing of lips from the woman. “My grandchild tells me you’re to be a green… creature in your next movie.”
Kit put light pressure on Noah’s arm when his muscles bunched again. “Yes,” she said with her most dazzling smile, happy to see the male of the pair blink. “It was fun.”
“If you’ll excuse us,” Noah said coolly before his aunt could speak again. “I think I see my mother.” As they moved off, he slid away his arm to put his hand on her lower back again. “I’m sorry about that.”
Kit felt her eyes threaten to burn at the protective way he was trying to surround her, subtly angling his big shoulders to cut off those who might interrupt them. “Dear Aunt Althea looks like she walks around with a permanent bug up her butt—I’m not about to take anything she says to heart.”
Not seeing Virginia St. John, she said, “Where’s your mom?”
“Who knows? I just wanted to get away from old Turnip Face.”
Kit’s shoulders shook. “That’s awful.”
“Every time I came home from boarding school, she’d visit and she’d look me up and down like a piece of disappointing meat.”
“I hate her on your behalf.”
His smile reached his eyes. “Can I drink the rest of my champagne?”
“No. You need to keep a clear head so you can outbid everyone without ending up with a hideous souvenir,” she whispered as they reached the long table that held the items up for auction. “Look at that piece. Who thinks that’s art?”
“I think that plate’s worse.” He moved his hand slightly on her back. “Looks like a drunk threw up and decided to capture it in porcelain and paint.”
“Should I help you drive up the bids?” she said mischievously. “Bet we could get this up to at least ten thousand.”
“Aunt Margaret will love you for it.”
Noah’s spine stiffened at that patrician male voice. Forcing himself to keep his face expressionless, he turned toward a man who looked like an older version of him—except that Robert St. John had shorter hair that had turned a pure white and his face was set in hard lines. Noah’s face could look like that too, but it wasn’t his default face. This was his father’s default—if it wasn’t, Noah didn’t know it, since it was the only face he ever saw.
“Dad,” he said, keeping it civil because Kit was with him. “Where’s Mom?”
“Virginia is speaking to Althea.” Robert turned the glacial gray of his eyes to Kit. “Ms. Devigny, I’m happy to see you here. I know you and Noah have been friends for a long time.”
“I’m delighted to be here with him.”
Robert faced Noah again—except of course, he never quite faced Noah. His gaze was always a little to the left or the right. Robert St. John couldn’t bear to look at the son he’d once proudly called his heir.
“I heard your concert tour was a success.”
Kit covered the strained silence that followed his curt response. “I attended the New York show, and it was incredible. They blew the roof off.”
“Yes, I hear the band is powerful in concert.” A faint smile. “I wanted Noah to practice law, but as usual, he’s gone his own way.”
“Noah, darling.” His mother, skinny and sharp and fashionable, appeared around the side of his father. Unlike Robert, she didn’t even attempt to look at him, her gaze blank and deliberately unfocused as she rose toward him.
Noah turned his face so her attempt at getting a cheek kiss from him turned into an air-kiss against his own cheek. It was the best he could do for the woman who’d abandoned him when he’d needed her most.
Robert had been a distant figure throughout Noah’s childhood, always at court or at his office, but Virginia had been an involved mother. She’d taken Noah to nursery school, picked him up afterward, driven him to swimming lessons, then helped him study so he’d be smart going into elementary school. She’d been the quintessential soccer mom whose world revolved around her son.
Until that son wasn’t perfect anymore.
“Introduce me to your date,” Virginia said now, her social mask in place.
Noah made the introductions. Kit’s gracious warmth softened his own coldness, coldness he couldn’t hide. The ice inside him made him feel brittle, as if he’d crack with even the finest pressure.
“I’m so sorry,” Kit said just when Noah couldn’t take it anymore. “I see a studio exec Noah promised to introduce me to—do you mind if I steal him away?”
Robert and Virginia smiled their acquiescence, but Robert put his hand on Noah’s arm when he would’ve moved past. “I’ll call you tomorrow. We haven’t had a chance to talk properly for months.”
“Sure,” Noah said and moved on, having to fight the urge to brush his hand over his arm to rub off his father’s touch. Robert had stopped touching him in any way when Noah was just seven years old; these days, on the rare occasions when he did, Noah couldn’t stand it.
As for that call, he’d answer it, but only because he owed Robert one for helping out when Molly and Fox had needed urgent legal advice after a massive breach of their privacy during the tour. But any talking would be on Robert’s side—Noah’s father had no right to any part of Noah’s life.
“Hey.” Kit leaned in close, her voice, her scent, cutting through the ice as if it didn’t exist. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” He released a breath he hadn’t known he was holding until the exhale eased the pressure on his chest.
“Drink the rest of that champagne.”
He’d forgotten he was holding it. “No, you’re right. I need a clear head.” Placing the flute on the tray of a passing waiter, he grabbed a glass of ice water instead. “Come on, I’ll introduce you to Lisa.”
“I just said that to get us away.” Kit’s eyes lingered on his face. “We can sneak out now if you want.”
“We have to stay at least until the bidding starts.” Finishing off the water, he set it on another tray. “Thanks. I needed a friend back there.”
Amber eyes glowed with fierce emotion. “No thanks needed.”
The next hour wasn’t bad. He liked being able to introduce Kit to people who could help further her career, but that was as far as he needed to go—soon as someone met her, they were drawn into her orbit.
The clear sound of a bell silvered through the air not long after they’d finished a conversation with Cyril King. A minute later, Margaret went up to the podium to make her speech on behalf of the foundation. Noah listened with half an ear, the rest of his attention on Kit; he didn’t want to waste a minute of this night he’d been given as a gift.
A night where he could pretend he was good enough to stand by her side.
“If you don’t bid during the auction,” Margaret said at the end of her speech, “I’ll hunt you down and guilt you into writing a check, so you might as well get something for it.”
Everyone laughed, the mood happy thanks to the atmosphere, food, and drinks.
The auction began straight afterward, and true to his word, Noah drove up the prices with relentless determination, even acting affronted when he was outbid. He almost went too far with the vomit plate; only Kit’s elbow jab to the ribs stopped him from acquiring the monstrosity.
“I think we’ve done enough,” he whispered, leaning down to her ear.
Kit looked carefully around. “It’s shadowy with the soft lighting, and we’re at the back, while everyone’s looking forward. Let’s go take a break.”
Noah had already spotted the best door; it led deeper into the mansion, and as far as he could tell, it wasn’t locked. Almost there, he saw a waitress about to pass by with hors d’oeuvres. “Thanks,” he said and grabbed the whole tray. Winking at her when her mouth fell open, he slid out the door Kit had already opened. He saw her pick up a couple of glasses of ice water from a tray that had been by the door before she followed him out.
The corridor was only dimly lit, but he could see another hallway to the left. When they reached the spot, they found it barred by a thick red rope. “Place really is like a museum.”
He jumped over the rope, had the pleasure of watching Kit hike up her dress to expose those knockout legs as she climbed over. His body tightened at the sight, his breath caught in his chest, but he ground down the response. He would not ruin his friendship with Kit for sex. Sex meant nothing. Kit meant everything.
“Hey, look.” She pointed to a suit of armor down at the end, her voice a whisper. “I wonder if it’s one of Tierney’s exhibit rooms? Do you think he has the mummy in there?”
Grinning at one another, they walked quickly down the carpeted hallway and into a large room filled with plinths on which stood busts, vases, other objets d’art. Each piece was spotlighted from above, but that was the only light in the room. Not gloomy, more atmospheric.
“Carpet’s thick,” Kit said, keeping her voice low. “We can sit on it.”
“Wait.” Noah put down the tray, then shrugged off his tuxedo jacket and laid it on the ground. “Now you can sit, my lady.”
She half smiled, half shook her head at him as she turned the coat over so it was the inside surface that touched the carpet. Sitting down, she said, “Your shirt might get dirty, but at least you’ll be respectable when we sneak back in.”
“Good thinking.” He tried not to watch as she kicked off her heels and flexed her feet. The red lines the straps had made on each foot looked as if they could do with a massage, and he almost offered. Only he didn’t think he could have Kit’s foot in his lap and not betray how much he wanted her.
Not for fucking, for everything.
“Mmm.” She bit into a toasted little rectangle of bread topped with what might’ve been hummus and sun-dried tomato.
Her lips pressed together in pleasure so lush that— Shut it the hell down, Noah.
“Try this one.” Head bent to the tray, Kit picked up something on a toothpick. “I think it’s a prune wrapped in bacon and roasted.”
Thankful for the shadows that hid his internal battle, he accepted the dubious-sounding piece of food. His eyes widened on tasting it. “This is seriously good shit.”
“I know.” Kit ate two before dropping the toothpicks on the tiny pile they’d made on one side of the tray. “I always used to think this place would be creepy at night, but it’s kind of fun.”
The ensuing fifteen minutes passed by in a heartbeat. Afterward, Noah couldn’t have said what they spoke about, only that it felt like it had before—when Kit had smiled at him without masks and he’d been able to breathe. No weight pressing down on his chest, no knots twisting his guts. When he was with Kit like this, he could breathe.
“We should go back,” she said too soon, and he imagined he heard reluctance. “The auction will be over in a few minutes, and people will notice if you’re not there.”
Noah didn’t think he was the one who was the shining star, but he knew she was right. Someone was always looking for a story. Shrugging into his jacket, he stood in place while Kit went around the back and brushed it off.
“It’s not wrinkled enough that anyone will notice, especially with the gentle lighting.”
Picking up the tray while Kit grabbed the empty glasses after slipping on her shoes, they snuck back in, leaving the incriminating items on a table by the door and merging smoothly back into the gala.
He received the message from Thea less than a minute after that. “Bullshit,” he muttered, staring at the phone screen in disbelief. “You two are punking me, right?”
Peeking when he turned the phone in her direction, Kit grinned. “Konnichiwa,” she said in an oh-so-helpful tone. “It means ‘hello’ in Japanese.”
He scowled even though he just wanted to watch that silent laughter in the amber of her eyes. “I’m going to murder the damn designer who called her.”
“I think he has good taste,” Kit said, her smile even deeper. “You rock a tux.”
Okay, yeah, it felt good to hear her say that. Worth a trip to a gardener in Japan.
When the music started up seconds later, the final round of bidding complete, Noah could no longer fight his need. Waiting only until there were enough couples on the floor that they wouldn’t stand out, he leaned down to Kit’s ear. “Dance with me?”
Her lashes lifted, her eyes holding his for a potent moment that hung endlessly in time before she nodded. They moved as one onto the dance floor, one of Kit’s hands in his, his other arm around her waist, her free hand on his shoulder, fingers almost brushing his neck.
Noah danced often, onstage and in the clubs he hit with the others in the band, but never had a dance meant more. Swaying to the classical sounds filling the room, Kit in his arms, he felt… happy.
But the clock eventually had to strike midnight, and he had to take Kit home, watch her step inside. When she closed the door, she took the happiness with her.
Kit was dreaming of Noah’s arms around her, music soft in the air and the world beyond nothing but a hazy mirage, when that world intruded with a persistent and highly annoying ringtone. She came awake on a groan. That was her landline. Only a rare few people had the number, and if one of them was calling her at—she cracked open an eyelid—six in the morning, then it had to be important.
Stumbling to the kitchen where she last remembered seeing the cordless receiver, she managed to push the right button to answer it. “Hello.” It came out a mumble.
“Go throw some water on your face and get a cup of coffee,” Thea ordered. “I’ll call back in three minutes.”
The dial tone buzzed in her ear.
Kit stared at the receiver, almost sure she’d imagined the whole thing, but then why else would she be holding a phone in her hand while her publicist’s commanding tone reverberated in her head. Her publicist! Heart slamming into her ribs, she dropped the phone on the counter, flicked on the coffeemaker, and ran to the bathroom. If Thea was calling her this early, it either meant very good news or very bad news.