Turned out she was dead wrong.
Lowering her thickly coated lashes, Keyonna placed down her glass of wine on the table next to where she was seated with Mark in the palatial ballroom of the Tucker mansion. Mark’s aunt, his father’s older sister and now the matriarch of the family since Mark’s parents died over ten years ago, had managed to make the night’s event an elaborate one.
There was live music playing all the classic tunes, and what Keyonna had thought would be a simple, formal affair was actually a full-blown welcome home bash, complete with a fabulous buffet, themed settings and all the champagne you could drink.
The many guests were all gorgeously dressed, and as classy as one would expect in such a glamorous gathering. Mark’s family were serious old money, built upon a massively successful manufacturing and supermarket chain spreading over key cities in the country.
Keyonna was glad that she’d followed her instincts and taken more effort than usual with her appearance. She’d done her hair in long, wavy tresses swept over one shoulder, and had on one of her most flattering evening gowns in a deep shade of purple. It was knee-length and showed off her sleek legs to their best advantage, her feet shod in elegant, bling-studded high heeled sandals.
All around them were Mark’s friends, relatives and special guests and icons from both the military and business community who had close ties with the family. Everyone was busy having fun power chatting, dancing or helping themselves to the flowing food and drink.
Thankfully no one seemed to be paying attention to her and Mark right then, seated on one of the corner sofas while the party swirled around them. Despite the sense of seclusion, Keyonna still felt far from comfortable with the line their intimate conversation was taking just then.
Keyonna quietly slipped her hand from where it had lain beneath his, between them on the plush cushions. The bubble of conversation and music from the crowded room stayed in the background as Keyonna tried to gather her thoughts to respond to the question Mark had only just put to her.
“Will you marry me?” he had asked, catching her off-guard.
“I can’t marry you, Mark,” she told him as softly as she could. “I can’t believe you’re actually asking me to. Here. Now. After all this time.”
He burst out in a quizzical laugh. “Do you think I’m joking? It may seem too soon since I only just got back, but I was so sure that now that I’m home you’d want us to get it over with and get on with our lives.”
“Listen to yourself, Mark,” Keyonna said in exasperation, glad for the noise all around them keeping her from whispering. She smiled slightly to try to ease the sting of her words. “You’re talking about getting married like its some ordeal. “Get it over with.” She was shaking her head at him. “Look, it’s not too soon; it’s too late. I simply don’t love you anymore. Too much has happened while you’ve been away.”
Keyonna flinched to see the way he seemed to slump at her words, his shoulders bent within the impeccable cut of his dinner jacket. She was unable to meet his dismayed gaze and looked away quickly, only for her eyes to clash and hold with those of a man seated just across from them on another sofa.
He was nursing a bourbon in his hand; sitting back casually while on his face was a distinct look of contempt.
Keyonna recognized him instantly.
His name was Nick Vitale, whose family owned half the city in terms of real estate development. In her line of work she had come in contact with him on occasion. Their encounters were always brief and strictly business especially when Keyonna had been working as an intern with Irma Orsino’s renowned design firm.
Keyonna felt a jolt at seeing him, but even more so she was surprised by the antagonism she always seemed to sense coming from him and directed at her each time they met. She’d always had the distinct impression he disliked her for some reason. She’d never let it bother her before and yet now his unconcealed distaste turned her blood cold.
Well she couldn’t say she was a fan of his either.
Rich as the devil, unbearably arrogant and handsome to a fault, he’d struck her early on as a man to avoid at any cost judging by the edge of steel she sensed in his personality.
From the little she knew about him, he seemed to be from one of those mafia-type Italian American crime families - but without the crime. They ran legitimate trading from the high-flying skyscrapers of Wall Street to Texas oil fields to real estate.
That evening, Nick Vitale was dressed in a dark jacket, white shirt and grey tie, looking even more gorgeous than ever. Which was no surprise because Keyonna had long ago – grudgingly – admitted to herself that he was undoubtedly the best looking man she’d ever seen.
It wasn’t that hard to see why; considering how women’s eyes followed him wherever he was though only a few had the guts to come closer. He had the kind of physical presence that would be hard to ignore; his face finely chiseled in jaw, forehead and nose. His eyes were dark brown and sinfully lush, hair equally dark with thick, unapologetically wavy locks – and a gorgeously tan skin that could only have come from his known Italian legacy. And all this encased in a superbly well-kept frame that was both athletic and masterly from his broad shoulders and torso to his trim lower half.
Truly a hunk in every sense of the word - if only he didn’t always look at her like she’d crawled from beneath a rock. So even as she caught her breath in awareness of his utter masculinity which he conveyed so effortlessly, at the same time his expression started to penetrate her.
She had a sinking sensation he may have overheard something of their conversation and her face went hot with anger and mortification before she became chilled beneath the cold condemnation in his laser-like gaze.
Mark, however, was totally unaware of Nick Vitale’s presence just seated yards from them. Keyonna forcefully returned her attention to Mark, wanting to kick herself for letting the other man get to her. Swearing to ignore him, she met Mark’s troubled gaze.
“But...I don’t get it,” Mark was saying, looking like the whole building had collapsed around them. His face was twisted with emotion, and his eyes grew earnest. “I mean, I know this is hardly the time or place to bring this up, but I couldn’t help but say how I feel. I wanted to wait until we had some time alone before I sprung the question, but the moment you walked in tonight and I saw you, it became impossible to hold back. I can tell this seems far from romantic, especially without a ring but we can fix that detail as soon as you like. You can pick out the most fabulous diamond you could ever wish for. I’ve never been really good at showing emotions or being romantic, but I'm not ashamed to confess that I never stopped loving you, Keyonna.”
His tone rang with heart-felt depth as he grasped her hands in his. “You’ve got to believe me. It’s the memories of the happy times we shared that kept me going all that time I was stuck in some hellhole in Afghanistan. And now you’re saying you don’t want to marry me?”
Keyonna grimaced helplessly. “That’s what I’m saying. It’s not really your fault. I just...I can’t.”
Mark drew in a ragged breath, and seemed to square his shoulders before asking gravely, “Is it another man?”
He was actually glaring at her now and Keyonna started, pulling her hands from his. But he went on before she could think of replying. “You can tell me, Keyonna. I won’t be mad, I promise. After all, it’s been two whole years. I really shouldn’t have expected you to wait that long.”
Keyonna gasped in shock at the injustice of those words. How dare he try to make her feel guiltier than she already did? It wasn’t like he had made her any true promises. Hell, he’d barely even kept in touch in all this time and she was meant to be hanging on for his return? What with the way he’d let communications fade out between them, was he really so surprised by this outcome? The last thing he should be doing, Keyonna felt, was trying to guilt trip her for something that was his fault.
And yet, she did feel a pang of conscience. They had been a couple and had never officially broken up. So maybe she shouldn’t be so hard on him. After all, he did look deeply sincere and heartbroken.
If only I still had feelings for him, Keyonna thought with an inner sigh. Or even better, if only there was another man...
Unable to help herself, Keyonna permitted her eyes to rove and seek those of Nick Vitale and to her chagrin, she found he was still very much present. He hadn’t budged an inch, and was still pointedly looking, if not listening to every word they were saying.
Damn, it was so frustrating! Why did he have to be here tonight of all nights? This wasn’t his usual setting. How could he have received an invitation? And then she remembered noticing that many movers and shakers in the city had made it in deference to the very influential Marilyn Tucker, Mark’s aunt who, though in her sixties still straddled the family’s many business concerns.
Keyonna sent the offensive man across from them a dirty glance which caught a thin, careless smile slant his beautifully curved lips. Piqued beyond endurance, she turned once more to face Mark.
She squeezed his hand gently. “Please, Mark, I feel like I’ve ruined your night so much already. But I don’t think we should continue this discussion here. For one thing, there’s the music and then there’re so many people around.” Smiling lightly, she drew them both up to their feet. She fully intended to get them away from their present location and if possible, get him to forget his track of thought in terms of a proposal.
As they made their way out of the crowded room, they were intercepted several times by guests wanting to give their good wishes and warm words. It took long minutes before they reached the privacy of the balcony. Once they were alone in the night air, Mark began to pursue the dreaded topic again to Keyonna’s deepest dismay.
“I can take the truth,” he began, turning them face to face as he took hold of her bared shoulders. “Maybe I was a fool to think I still held your heart. If you’re in love with someone else, then say so.”
Keyonna rolled her eyes expressively. “You’re mistaken, Mark. There’s no one else in my life. I’ve been far too busy for any romantic involvement and certainly for anything serious with anyone.”
“I don’t believe you,” Mark said in a suddenly chilly voice. “My aunt Marilyn and Trisha have told me how successful you’ve become. And a woman with your looks has to have someone in the background, keeping you happy. Don’t tell me no one has even tried?”
Keyonna’s lips twisted wryly as she thought of Marilyn and what the old woman might have said about her. She’d spoken to Mark’s aunt earlier in the evening and was glad that unlike in the past, Keyonna didn’t feel so intimidated by the domineering woman’s persona. Keyonna wasn’t the insecure young woman of back then who’d felt out of place around Mark’s loaded family which was one of the richest in the city while Keyonna had a far more humble upbringing.
“Of course I’ve had offers – and some of them not so honorable,” Keyonna finally replied as she tried not to feel offended by his words. And I won’t deny I’ve tried out the dating scene a number of times but no one has been interesting enough to tempt me.”
“So you’re saying you’re still unattached?” Mark pressed.
“Yes, dammit!” Keyonna snapped before she could hold back. She really was sick of repeating herself.
“There’s no man in my life right now and there hasn’t been. Why can’t you just accept that I don’t want to be with you or marry you?”
“But why?” Mark went on relentlessly, causing her to let out an exasperated breath as she turned away from him.
Keyonna felt his hand on her shoulder as he added grimly, “You know what? You still love me. I can tell that you do. Why else hasn’t there been anyone else?”
And then his tone melted like chocolate, his fingers now caressing on her bared flesh. “Keyonna, if you want me to woo you all over again, I will. Just...”
Before he could say more, one of the hostesses for the evening appeared, her smile apologetic. “There you are, Mark. We were wondering if you’d like to make your speech now. Your aunt is thanking the guests for coming and for their generous donations to the innovative military medicine fund. Just wondering if you had a few words...”
“Of course; thanks. I’ll be right there,” Mark said with a nod, and the beautiful woman nodded, smiled and retreated back to the party.
When they were alone once more, he turned to Keyonna with a silky look. “Our discussion isn’t over, baby. But for now, let’s go in and I’ll make that speech. I’m honored that my aunt chose this occasion to also raise funds for my favorite charity. I feel much better about all the attention now.”
“Hey; you’re her only nephew and she’s so proud of you,” Keyonna said with a smile. “But you go on. I just need a moment then I’ll be joining you.”
To Keyonna’s relief, he nodded without argument and soon, she was left in blessed peace. Releasing a pent-up breath, she leaned her palms upon the balustrade and went over her present predicament as calmly as she could. From the moment she’d walked in she’d known the night would be an ordeal. First there’d been Mark’s aunt, as condescending as ever when Keyonna had politely greeted her. And then there’d been Trisha, who was Marilyn’s adopted daughter.
When Mark’s parents had died five years ago in a car crash, his childless, widowed aunt Marilyn Tucker had taken him under her wing. She’d always kept her family’s name and when she’d adopted Trisha, had raised her nephew and daughter as siblings. Keyonna knew Mark saw Trisha simply as a younger, adorable sister. But Keyonna’s feminine intuition had always told her that Trisha was more than a little attached to Mark and not in a sisterly sense.
Keyonna wondered about Trisha’s attitude when she’d arrived earlier that evening. Their meeting again had been far from cordial, and Keyonna figured the bad blood was still there between them. Was it possible Trisha could be jealous of the prospect of Mark rekindling his romance with her?
Damn. Keyonna told herself she did not need this drama. If the other girl wanted Mark, then she was welcome to him...
“Quite the heartbreaker, aren’t you?”
Keyonna swiveled round in surprise at the sound of that deep, unmistakable voice. There Nick Vitale was, standing on the balcony just in front of her. His face was shadowed in the semi-darkness, the moon not bright enough to totally ward off the gloom. Instantly, Keyonna’s heart began to pound at his somewhat overwhelming presence. His voice, the way his clothes fit to his body, the icy rings in his deep brown eyes...they hindered her breathing as she instinctively backed away when he stepped closer.
A sudden light breeze wafted over, lifting the flowing hem of her dress. But it wasn’t the unexpected chill that made Keyonna give off a shiver.
“Excuse me?” she heard herself mouth somewhat stupidly as she stared up at him. He was smiling but his dark brown eyes were as cold as ever.
“Oh, you heard me,” he drawled. He moved with long, easy strides of a panther and Keyonna had the distinct impression he might just be on the prowl. What on earth did he want with her anyway?
“Pardon me for asking, but did you get some kind of kick, from turning the poor guy down like that?” He was standing inches away from her, looking forward into the gardens beyond so that Keyonna had a clear view of his profile. She was busy admiring the aristocratic planes of his features when his words suddenly hit her.
Keyonna spluttered for a few moments, her outrage surfacing at the evidence of this man’s sheer gall. “What? I can’t believe this,” Keyonna gasped. “It’s bad enough finding out you were eavesdropping on a private conversation – but then you actually had to come out here and hound me? Do you get some kind of kick from sticking your nose in other people’s business?”
“Wasn’t my intention to eavesdrop,” Nick Vitale said with a careless shrug, still not looking at her. “There I was, sitting in the corner, when you both came to occupy the other couch. I really couldn’t block out the conversation now could I? But the fact remains that I really did hate to see a decent guy trampled in the dust by the woman he loves – the woman who, unfortunately, doesn’t even deserve him.”
“Oh really?”Keyonna breathed, hand on her hip as she glared sideways at him. She dearly wanted to smack that judgmental look off his gorgeous face! Where did he get off speaking to her in such a manner?
“Yes, really,” he said mocking, finally turning to face her fully. Keyonna felt a clap of thunder hit her chest as he speared her with his penetratingly dark gaze. Damn but he was one fine, sexy bastard, Keyonna thought, glaring into his sinfully handsome face and wondering how it was she could detest a man so much and still find him hellishly attractive at the same time.
She must have her hormonal wires crossed or something because Nick Vitale was everything she loved to hate in a man: egotistical, too handsome and rich for his own good. Keyonna told herself she could feel his disdain and aversion for her coming through in waves.
“I mean, that poor guy must have really been living in delusion all that time he was away, thinking he had a devoted lover waiting patiently for his return from the field. He was right; you couldn’t wait, could you? Girls like you never can,” he drawled.
Keyonna’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “Girls like me?”
Nick Vitale actually laughed with derision at her tone. “You know; the cold, manipulating kind. Beautiful, but heartless. We’ve only had to connect a few times, Ms. Hayes, but I’ve been able to figure out a lot about you.”
Keyonna was so shocked and outraged she was struck with silence as he continued in that chilling voice of his.
“I pity the man dumb enough to actually fall for you. In fact, women like you repel me. You lead a guy on, and then break him up into tiny pieces when you realize you don’t want to play the game anymore.”
His words of condemnation really hit her hard but Keyonna was nothing if not matured and confident in her own worth. Growing up in a large family, surrounded by positive influences as well as her own personal development over the years from a shy young female to an accomplished professional woman gave her a strength not so easily shaken.
She was almost too furious to form words but she managed to let out angrily, “How dare you make such conclusions about me? You know nothing about what’s going on, least of all about the kind of woman I truly am.”
He merely huffed and Keyonna would have clubbed him then. She’d honestly never been spoken to in such a manner that smacked of disrespect; especially not from a stranger who didn’t know a damn thing about her. Why Nick Vitale’s opinion even mattered was lost on her, but it hurt all the same that he thought so negatively of her. She really, really wished she could punch him in the face for saying the things he had.
But before she could react with physical violence as she so longed to do, Keyonna’s eyes shifted to beyond Nick Vitale’s shoulder and saw that Mark was making his way back. She could see him approaching the balcony as he weaved through the crowded room beyond the bay windows close to where she stood, heading straight for where she stood with Nick Vitale, both of them glaring at each other.
And then out of nowhere came the craziest, wildest idea. Keyonna was almost snickering with glee as she thought of it.
Her mind racing, Keyonna turned to Nick Vitale with a calculating, half-hooded look that had his dark brows furrowing with instant suspicion. But she merely smiled sultrily.
“Mmmm...and what game am I playing now, Mr. Judge and Jury?” Keyonna purred, leaning close and wrapping her arms around his neck.
She felt his solidly built frame go rigid with shock, right before she inched upwards on tiptoe and locked her lips firmly with his.
His mouth stayed pursed beneath hers and still they felt as soft as silk yet deliciously manly. Keyonna’s heart pounded with excitement as she shut her eyes to the dazed look on his face, tightening her hold around his neck. She was faintly conscious of Mark now standing in the open entrance of the balcony where she heard him come to an abrupt stop.
Meanwhile, Keyonna continued to kiss Nick Vitale with all the passion she could fake.
Fake? Well...maybe she wasn’t being totally honest. Because just at that moment, he’d let his lips finally thaw against hers, opening up his moist heat to her probing tongue which he now incited with his while his hands clamped heavily on her waist.
Keyonna kept chanting to herself that this was just a ploy; to put this damnably arrogant man in his place – as well as to show Mark that she truly, honestly did not love him anymore.
And yet all of a sudden, the tables turned and Keyonna realized she wasn’t proving anything – not to Mark. Maybe to herself though.
Because now she knew that all those smoldering tingles she felt whenever she was near this handsome, undeniably sexy man called Nick Vitale wasn’t dislike as she’d believed, but an earth-shattering attraction she could no longer deny.