Beauty is only skin-deep.
And so are scars...
Angela felt proud of Shane as he coped with the situation that was the gala dinner. He could easily have been the most handsome man in the room. He was certainly the tallest, most impeccably dressed, and sexiest.
Angela understood that people could be cruel, even without meaning too. They could make that face like, what was he doing here...how can he show himself in public looking the way he did? Some actually went as far as cupping their mouths to the ear of their companion and make those loud whispers that did nothing to hide what they were saying. That’s Shane Davis. He used to be able to get any woman he wants. Now he must have to pay someone to bear to look at him longer than five minutes.
Angela knew she was getting paranoid, thinking that they could be saying that whenever they whispered to each other. They could have been gossiping about anyone, not her or Shane. But they did stare, with looks of distaste and shock on their faces. Well, some of them. The others had more finesse, and came forward and smiled and shook hands. Cameras went off as Angela stood with Shane and she saw him flinch more than once. Felt his grip on her hand tighten almost painfully. She moved closer to his side, as if to offer more of her support.
A waiter passed with drinks and she saw him grab a glass. Another one. How many had it been in the last hour since they arrived? She didn’t want to count, but it did seem like it was a lot. Maybe the alcohol helped for courage. Knowing his background, it was a touch worrying. She wouldn’t know; she couldn’t imagine how he must feel, being the center of attention for all the wrong reasons. She tried to make conversation with him but he barely gave answers longer than two syllables. The president of the corporation and his wife were perfect hosts; they were the height of politeness to Shane, and at least they had the delicacy to interact with just the right amount of formality and charm without being fawning or overdoing things. Shane was after all, one of the biggest sponsors of the foundation.
At their table, Shane finally entered into conversation with the distinguished-looking guest on his right, a head of industry whom Angela recognized as a candidate in a recent political race. She couldn’t remember if he’d won or not. Angela looked around and tried to gauge the reactions of the other guests.
Thankfully, everyone else seemed too busy enjoying the nice food, wine and conversation at their different tables. Angela’s eyes swept to the left, only for her to start in surprise as she saw someone she recognized.
No one really important, just a guy she used to see. It never got serious, certainly not past the first few dates. She’d never have dreamed to see anyone she knew in such a gathering. And yet here he was, just across from her and seated with a beautiful companion who was saying something to him while her hand rested on his. He gave Angela a smile of recognition which she returned. There was that burning look in his eye like he was really seeing her for the first time. It reminded her a little of the way Shane had looked at her when she’d come down the stairs earlier.
“A friend of yours?”
Angela almost jumped at the sound of Shane’s voice beside her. She hadn’t realized he’d stopped talking with the person next to him. Neither had she imagined Shane would notice the lingering glance and smile she’d shared with the man seated on the other end of their table. She turned to him with a smile.
“Yes, actually. His name is Omar Gates. We met at a club or something some months ago. I had to leave town for LA soon after we met so it was just a really brief...”
“Fling?” Shane supplied, taking a drink from his wine. Something in his tone made Angela bristle.
“I don’t do flings,” she said a little sharply, yet keeping her voice low. “I told you. I’m not that kind of woman who throws herself around.”
“And here I was thinking it was just me,” he murmured, signaling the hovering wine waiter smoothly.
“No, it wasn’t just you,” Angela retorted. “I generally don’t give the time of day to men who treat women like mere objects. I have no patience for them especially when they feel the world owes them something just because they’ve had a twist of bad fortune.”
“Ah,” Shane drawled, tapping the fingers of one hand, the unscathed one, on the table cloth. “Why don’t you say what you mean, Angela? I’m sure like the rest of them you believe I had it coming? That I deserved what happened to me? I guess that’s true. I never really thought much about others. I lived for the moment and took a lot of things for granted. I’m all changed up on the outside from the wreck, but maybe you were right and a few scars aren’t going to make me any different from what I really am: flawed. But now in more ways than one.”
Angela bit on her bottom lip hearing the bitter humor in his tone. The waiter appeared at his side and refilled his wine. Angela was torn between anger and compassion for Shane.
But she knew he’d scorn her pity. His imperfections caused by his outer scars as well as his arrogance and cynicism on the inside should make him the last man she could ever care about. So why did she feel the need to cover her hand over his on the table and give a sympathetic squeeze? He’d suffered so much – was still suffering. Every time someone stared a moment more than necessary, or grimaced with horror, his fist tightened until the knuckles went white. But no one could tell unless they looked really close, like she was doing. And yet hadn’t she warned herself to stay detached no matter what? Why was that getting so hard to do? He made her mad, emotional and ruffled all at the same time. And she was only supposed to be one thing: indifferent. The only thing she was no longer able to do.
“Excuse me a moment. I need to go to the ladies room.” She’d barely got the words out before scraping back her chair and walking blindly from the table before Shane could even respond or rise as well.
Somehow, she found her way to the bathroom. She was there barely five minutes but it was the respite she needed. She stared at herself in the mirror and wondered for a moment what it would feel like to be with a man like Shane. He got to her on a level she didn’t begin to understand. They were so different; and she wasn’t even thinking about race or background. She was the uptight type; she’d never let herself succumb to the very things that drove her the most. Something about him called to something inside her but she fought it with all her might. The more she wanted him, the more she backed away. She wasn’t ready to face the implications of desiring a man like Shane. Of finding him sexually appealing, thrilling and exciting. How and when the hell did all this happen?
She didn’t want to deal with this right now. She had a job to do that didn’t include hiding out in the bathroom. Taking a deep breath, she washed her hands just to buy a few more seconds and then exited the restroom.
Angela bumped right into a solid frame of muscle. The body in the black tux was dark-skinned, much like her. She looked up to find herself face to face with Omar.
“Hey, sexy,” he murmured, a wolfish smile on his lean, handsome face. He had a goatee that she’d found faintly irritating while they’d been seeing; maybe because he always stroked on it when he had that appraising look on his face, like he was looking over a slab of meat.
“Omar! Such a surprise,” she said and tried to look happy to see him. “Uh, look, I have to get back to my date, so...”
“Hey, hold up baby,” he said quickly, as he took her elbow in an intimate grip. She turned to him again, trying to hide her irritation.
“I’d have thought we had more than the ‘hi and bye’ history. How about showing a brother some love, huh Annabelle?”
“It’s Angela,” she said disgustedly, snatching her arm away. “At least I had the decency to remember your first name. And guess what? We’re ‘history’ for a reason.”
Omar’s full lips slanted scathingly. “Yeah. I always wondered about that but now I know. You like them rich and looking like Shrek after a run-in with Wolverine.”
It took a few seconds for Angela to realize he was talking about Shane. Her eyes narrowed and she shook her head pityingly. “If you’re looking for someone whose defects deserve to be the brunt of bad jokes, all you need is a mirror.”
She made to walk away smartly after that comeback but Omar wasn’t having it. This time he grabbed her again, his hold was punishing. “Now look here, you b...”
But he didn’t get to finish as she slapped that word out of his mouth before he could finish it. The act was automatic and she felt an instant satisfaction seeing the shock on Omar’s face after the ringing smack that had had her whole arm behind it.
Angela was far from the violent type but this time she would gladly chuck it down to self-defense. Now she remembered why she’d never wanted to have much to do with Omar. He was shallow and self-centered, always looking to belittle others he felt were weaker just so he could feel good about his own lame self.
She saw the outrage that turned his face darker, and wondered if he was the type to hit a woman back. The look in her eyes as she glared at him dared him to.
“Is this man bothering you, Angela?”
Angela sank against the wall in relief as she saw Shane standing in the corridor. She hadn’t even heard him walk up. Omar scowled at the interruption, but it was Angela who said, “Not at all, sweetie. Omar here and I were just sharing some hard...truths. But now I’m sure we have nothing more to say to each other. Or do we?” she asked him pointedly. She almost hooted when Omar looked to Shane and then her, before brushing past them without another word.
Angela watched Omar disappear round the corner as she heaved an inner sigh of relief. She turned and met Shane’s expressionless gaze.
“You didn’t have to come after me,” she said lightly.
“Yes, I did,” was his plain reply. As always he didn’t have to say much to send a shiver down her spine. “Want to tell me what that was all about?"
Angela laughed hollowly. “Just a case of sour grapes. On his part, not mine. Apparently he still hadn’t got over the fact that I wanted nothing to do with him, then or now. Naturally he tried to say some shit about you and me. I didn’t pay any attention to it, trust me.”
Angela was glad Shane smiled at her comment. His humor quenched though when he looked down at her arm, turning it to see the fading bruise from Omar’s earlier grip. Angela saw Shane’s murderous rage and she quickly placed a restraining hand on his shoulder.
“Please, it’s fine. I don’t even feel it. I’m sorry if I caused any embarrassment to you because of this.”
“Forget about embarrassing me. That asshole put his hand on you...hurt you. You think I’m going to just let that slide?” Shane looked murderous.
“I’m okay” she stated firmly, smiling a little. “Can we now please go back to the party? I wouldn’t want to miss what promises to be a fabulous dessert.”
Shane made her stay still when he cupped her face, gazing down into her eyes. “I followed you to apologize. For the things I said earlier. I wish I could prove I’m not a total tyrant.”
“I never thought you were,” she said slowly, finding it difficult to think when he stood so close. When he looked at her like that. He looked so good in his black tuxedo. Everything seemed to fit him so perfectly, like they were made just for him. Well, maybe they were. But then it was more than his clothes; it was all about him, his persona that seemed to stir something deep and primal within her.
“There was no excuse,” he went on, his hand beneath her chin to tip it so she had to look up at him. “Oh wait, there was. I find I can’t stand the thought of anyone looking at you. Wanting you...knowing I want you all for myself.”
Angela’s heart pounded at his bluntness, at the feeling of his thumb stroking her jawline. His touch felt so good but she just couldn’t. Couldn’t let it pull her in.
Her lashes fluttered down and she began to shiver in her one-shoulder turquoise Versace dress. The atmosphere stilled as the air seemed sucked out of the area around them. Shane backed her slowly into the wall. She didn’t move, had no strength to struggle. No will to stop him as his lips feathered low to brush hers.
“You look...damn. Angela, you make me need things I shouldn’t. I came out tonight thinking I’ll hate every second. I was right. But you...all I have to do is look at you and none of that matters. Do you have any idea what are you doing to me?” His groan was rasped in the hollow of her throat. Angela’s head fell back as he nuzzled her sensitive spot there. Without thinking, her hands clutched his shoulders.
His body against hers was all man. She hadn’t felt the urgent need to melt and succumb to a man the way she did right then with Shane’s lips teasing her skin, kissing and breathing her in. Angela didn’t even care that someone might come round the corner and see them necking in the corridor like horny teens.
She reveled in Shane’s desire which surged and pulsed like a living entity against her.
“Shane. We need to go back. The dinner.”
“Fuck the dinner,” he said with uncharacteristic crudeness. His hands fell heavily on her hips and squeezed with masculine dominance. He shifted his lips to her ear, nibbled the soft lobe just above her pearl earring.
“Later tonight. Leave your bedroom door unlocked,” Shane commanded huskily. His tongue snaked out to sexily lash the inside of her ear. Angela bit down a shaky whimper.
“I can’t. I’m sorry. I just...no. It would be a mistake.” How many ways could she refuse him? Angela felt like she could keep saying ‘no’ but her body was telling him differently as she seemed to liquefy beneath his sensual attack.
He paused, and left Angela feeling inwardly bereft as he drew back slowly. “I understand.” There was no inflection in his voice, but when her eyes flew up to his face, she could see the expression there telling her more than she wanted to see right now.
“No you don’t,” she told him firmly. Now it was her making him look into her eyes. She stared right at him. She didn’t want him to think she was saying ‘no’ because of his face. It had never been about that. It didn’t make sense how little she cared about that part of him.
“I don’t want to get hurt,” she whispered, her temple resting against his as she closed her eyes briefly.
His hands closed gently around her throat and he urged her face up again to his. His expression looked pained. “You think I’d hurt you?”
She shook her head quickly. “Not like...not like that. I just...I can’t be a passing thing for you. I mean, we’re from different worlds. You and me...”
“Different worlds?” He smiled tightly. “Is it my money and background? You didn’t strike me as someone who gave a damn about any of that.”
“Maybe I don’t,” she said, eyes defiant as she looked up at him. “Maybe I don’t care what people think either, or what they say when they see us together. I don’t care about any of that. But I don’t think I’m ready for...whatever this is, between us. And it was supposed to be just business, remember?”
He seemed to flinch at the way she threw his words back at him. “It’s still business,” he said in that dangerously low voice that always seemed to twist her belly in knots. “But we can also get what we both want.”
“You don’t want me. You just want sex and any woman can give you that,” Angela replied, hoping he would convince her otherwise. She hated that he was right; that he could see through her and know that she wasn’t as immune to him as she made out.
But she got the opposite effect – he let her go. She told herself she felt no real disappointment, as she went with him back to the party. She hoped she didn’t look as flustered as she felt. She glanced at Omar’s end of the table. He was gone, and so was his companion. Angela curbed a sigh. At least that was one less aggravation to worry about.
The tail end of the gala dinner was no better than the beginning. But Angela put her best face forward, and did what needed to be done. She smiled, she laughed, she conversed. Played her role of perfect girlfriend. Posed for the pictures that someone seemed to be taking from every angle they sat. She wondered which tabloids she’d find those tomorrow.
Not that it mattered. None of this was real. Shane’s hand on the small of her back, his solicitous attention as the evening wore on. It was the hardest thing she had to do in her life, keeping aloof from him when all she wanted to do was soften to his touch.
But Shane’s expression looked anything but softened right then. He had a dark scowl on his face that said ‘keep off’ more than his disfigured face ever could. She sighed heavily. Like most men, Shane obviously didn’t take rejection very well.
That gala dinner was to set a pattern for the other occasions where she had to accompany Shane over the next several days. The animal shelter fundraiser one night, or a corporate sponsor party the next.
It was always something glamorous, a night of entertainment surrounded by wealthy people. Angela took it in her stride, even with the aspect that Shane was the cool, untouchable racecar driver millionaire she’d met that first day. Impassive and strictly formal, he never acted out of line. Angela told herself she should be glad.
At the fundraiser for the animal shelter, Shane gave a speech. Each night they went out it seemed easier for him to face the world outside. Angela found it admirable how much he’d come out of his shell. The first few days there were speculations in the papers about Shane’s racing comeback, with photos of him splashing every major society and sports column. Many times, Angela was caught by his side, at first labeled his ‘new mystery girlfriend’ until someone got the scoop and found out she was a little-known actress with only one minor, stand-out role. Their words, not hers. She didn’t mind the descriptions. Her agent Megan Shaw was thrilled for the publicity. All she was interested in was capitalizing on Angela’s sudden stardom since anyone on Shane’s arm would definitely draw massive public interest.
“Too bad your boyfriend said absolutely no interviews,” Megan had told her disappointedly. “I’ve got a few blogs interested in running something on how you two met, what gives and so forth.”
“Shane guards his privacy too well I’m afraid,” Angela said. “He’s has enough to do handling the attention that comes with his face.”
“Yeah, people are still talking about that. What a terrible thing to happen. But he came out all right, didn’t he?”
Angela didn’t know about that. Shane was such a tortured soul. He kept to his offices at the mansion where he was assisted by his friendly, assistant Linda who seemed able to multi-task to infinity. Angela tried to keep busy; she worked on her weight by keeping fit in the in-house gym or going for walks or jogging around the countryside surrounding the house.
Sometimes, she came upon Shane walking his massive terrier Asgard but he barely spoke to her over a few words of courtesy concerning her wellbeing. Angela tried not to think of how much his approach to the situation hurt her. She even began to look forward to their evenings out as those were the only times he was more than just civil to her. He played his role of attentive date perfectly, and once in a while she even caught his smile. But beneath the polite regard, raged the ever-present sexual awareness that made her throat tight every time she felt his lightest touch or gaze.
His cool treatment really got to her and she’d been dumb to let it show more than once. Like that night after they came home from the opening of a swanky new nightclub owned by one of his friends and which he had an investment in. The outing had been enjoyable enough even though Shane had shown no interest in dancing so they spent the whole time in their VIP section. She remembered how much alcohol he’d consumed back there though no matter what he never seemed to get drunk or even tipsy. She could tell he handled his alcohol well but that didn’t make her feel better to see him knock back that much booze. In the back of her mind was always the worry that he was secretly falling back into his old pattern of depression and drinking. Then again, how did she really know he’d ever left it in the first place?
Back in the limo he gave her a wide berth as usual and when they arrived home he escorted her politely to the stairs like he always did. And as always, Angela went up to her room feeling like an idiot for wishing he’d just talk to her. Couldn’t they at least be friends?
She couldn’t stop thinking about that last lingering look he’d given her as she’d walked away up the stairs. She listened carefully but didn’t think he’d come up himself. What could he still be doing down at that time of the night? God! Hopefully not more drinking?
Angela knew she was dumb, crazy and stupid for what she did half an hour later. After showering and wearing her pajama set and dressing gown, she retired to lie on top of her bed and read a book to help get her to sleep. She couldn’t get Shane out of her mind. She thought of how tortured he’d seemed tonight; more than usual. Beneath the semi-dark lights of the club, he’d seemed like every other guy having a night out with friends. Even though he didn’t dance, he laughed and talked and seemed to be having a good time but Angela could tell it was mostly a cover. He probably didn’t even want to be there. But he had something to prove and he’d stuck it out until it was time to leave.
Angela was too restless to go to sleep. The next moment she was jumping from the covers, tightening her sash around her and sneaking from the room and down the stairs. She found Shane exactly where she’d expected: in his study, seated behind his desk like that very first time. It was even more shadowy than normal. She pushed open the door quietly and called his name. Even though he didn’t answer she saw his form in the chair. On the table was a half-drank bottle of scotch and a tumbler.
Heart racing, she stepped in, her slippers making barely any sound on the hardwood floor. “Shane? Are you okay?”
Instinctively, her hand groped for the light switch on the wall, but his barked tone made her stiffen, “Don’t. No fucking lights.”
Angela nodded in understanding then felt stupid when she realized he might not see it. She stepped forward, blinking to get her eyes accustomed to the dimness.
“I’m worried about you, Shane. You...you really shouldn’t be drinking so much,” she offered. She knew she should leave him the hell alone. He was like a wounded lion; the last thing he’d need was any show of kindness or Christian concern which Angela told herself was what she was exhibiting. She also told herself she knew what was biting him and somehow felt responsible.
She was only asking for trouble. She knew that but she couldn’t just keep her heart hardened and unfeeling. That wasn’t how she was at all. He merely grunted in reply to her statement. It sounded more like a warning growl. But Angela couldn’t let herself get scared off by that forbidding attitude of his.
She made it to the desk without cracking her kneecap on any of the sturdy masculine furniture dotting the room. Her hand traced over the edge of the table as she went round it, just in time to catch the bottle as Shane lifted it straight to his mouth.
“This never solved anything, Shane,” she said gently while her touch was firm as she had to force the bottle out of his clutch. She placed it on the far side of the table and then turned to find his hand which had relinquished the bottle was now travelling up her hip to grab her waist. She dragged in a breath, catching his eyes that were like grey shards of icy fire.
Without thinking she lifted her hand to his face. She couldn’t really see but she could feel the tracks from the burns on the right side of his face. She felt more than heard the sharp intake of air that caused his chest to expand beneath his shirt. “Is that what you do now? Drink to hold off the pain? It still hurts, doesn’t it?” was her soft question.
He groaned low in his throat and turned his lips into her palm. “What, you mean the agonizing scars or the fact that people still flinch when they manage to look my way?” he replied.
“I know you’re suffering but alcohol isn’t going to make it better.”
“No. And I think we both know what can make it better but you’re not exactly obliging, are you?” he asked on a harsh laugh. “I mean, you refused to sleep with me for money but I can’t see you sleeping with me out of pity, either. Which one do you think would be harder for me to stomach? Having to pay for it...or having to beg for it instead? Because for you, Angela, I will beg. In a heartbeat, without hesitation. I want you that fucking much and if that’s what it’ll take...”
Angela scowled in the darkness down at him as she snatched her hand away. “Do you need to play the obnoxious rich guy? I mean is that your defense mechanism: make people hate you so that you never have to worry about not being worthy of their love, because of your scars?”
“Love means nothing to me,” Shane said gruffly. “No one deserves to be with me. No one would ever even want to. Not now. Not for real – and certainly not forever. But I guess it is what it is.”
Oh Shane, Angela thought tenderly as her heart swelled for him. She was so busy being touched by his words, she almost didn’t realize he’d pulled her close and set his cheek against her belly. At first she didn’t know what to do but then, found her fingers cupping his full head of hair, combing through the soft, silky locks.
His hands on her waist began to travel higher. He rubbed his face into her stomach and made her secret places quiver. He must have felt the tiny, tell-tale tremors; the next thing she knew her ass was planted against the desk as he rose from the chair to edge her flat on her back while his frame quickly covered hers. Shocked with arousal, Angela didn’t know what to do as she felt his lips trace kisses in the open V of her dressing gown. He nuzzled at her breasts half-spilling from the neckline of her gown. Just when she thought to protest, he dove far lower, making her gasp as his face became level with her crotch, thankfully encased in her somewhat baggy satin pajama shorts.
“I want to taste you,” he groaned deeply. “Inside out. Every single luscious inch until I make your juices run down my lips and tongue.” For emphasis, he buried his nose in the apex of her thighs and inhaled deeply. Angela wanted to faint with mortification and desire.
“Damn you smell so good. I just know you’ll taste even better.”
Merely thinking about Shane putting his mouth on her sex had her mind short-circuiting, but it took his hands reaching for her waistband to get her senses returning in earnest.
“Shane, don’t. You aren’t yourself. You’ve been drinking. Please stop.” She couldn’t believe it was Shane saying and doing these things. Her fingers were fisted in his hair, before she realized what she was doing and let the thick locks go abruptly. Her thrill at his touch and the feel of him seeking to master her with his passion had her body reeling. She wanted to, so much. He was lonely and so was she, in her own way. Love hadn’t been kind to her either. She would give Shane so much comfort with the softness of her desire and she knew his powerful arousal would be a rock-hard manifestation if she only gave them the chance.
With a groan, he moved back up again, leaning over her while his hand rested flat on her belly, only gently pinning her down. He ghosted his mouth close to her lips, his breath warm with a hint of scotch and a truckload of passion. “It will be so good. I promise,” he whispered thickly. “I will spend all night making it good for you.”
God, he was always doing that. Making her imagine the possibilities. I can make you want me, he’d dared her that night of their first kiss. Angela had wanted to give in to the challenge, but instead she’d turned to anger and then walked up to her lonely, cool bed. Would tonight be different? Would she finally yield to what swelled like a giant wave inside her core?
She already wanted him; he didn’t even have to do anything. It was just something that happened, like breathing. She couldn’t imagine how irresistible he must have been to the women in his past, who’d never had to look beyond the surface, such as his looks and wealth. But Angela wasn’t that shallow; she was grown enough to know the difference between what was real and what wasn’t.
And her desire for Shane was real; beyond skin-deep or the money and power he had. She didn’t understand the most of it yet, but it was potent enough to make her confused if she should stay or go. She wasn’t ready to walk away but she knew if she stayed any longer, she better be ready to face the consequences. The last thing she wanted was for him to think she was some tease.
Do it, Angela, her body told her. It doesn’t have to mean anything. Just hot, wild sex. Here on the desk, on the floor – against the wall if they could manage it. Heaven knew she’d been without for so long and besides; she’d never felt this height of arousal even at the best of times. But with Shane, her hormones were off the roof. She didn’t think she’d be able to fight him off if he persisted...
Angela stuck out her elbows as she tried to balance herself up on them, and somehow managed to knock the tumbler off the desk. The resounding crash sounded like thunder in the darkened room. Shit! Angela thought, even as Shane stiffened on top of her. For a second, all her brain could register was that the thickness of him was nudging long and hard against her thigh even through his pants. She shivered with want, only to feel the loss of his heat and solidness when he suddenly moved off her.
He swore harshly, spinning to face the window, pushing open the blinds and resting his forehead against the cold pane as he seemed to struggle to catch his breath.
The length of his body was outlined in the moonlight streaking into the otherwise dim room. The rigidness in each muscle in his back was defined beneath the thin fabric of his dress shirt.
“You need to go,” he said gruffly, not looking back at her.
Angela scrambled off the desk, trembling hands tying her sash more snugly. She ran her hand through her now tousled hair. “Shane, I...”
“Go,” he repeated, his harsh tone making her jump. “Please. Before I change my mind.”
Angela backed away slowly until she got to the door. Without a peep, she fled the silent, charged and dark study.