Six Years Ago
Janelle Novak walked into the black-tie fundraiser wearing a red dress of her own creation, four-inch heels that almost made her tall, and someone else’s name tag pinned to her evening bag. She was excited to pretend to be her roommate for the night, even more grateful not to be part of the catering staff, which was the only way she’d ever attended these events. After three years since graduating from Parson’s School of Design, waiting tables was all that allowed her to work in fashion and afford New York City rent. If something didn’t break for her soon, she didn’t know what she was going to do.
Living paycheck to paycheck was exhausting. But there weren’t a lot of other options. She briefly considered going home to Fable Notch. She could always find work in some retail store. Sell t-shirts to tourists visiting the White Mountains of New Hampshire. And be there to answer her stepmother’s every beck and call.
Janelle shuddered. A thousand times no.
When she and her best friend, Eden Barrett, graduated from high school they promised each other they’d pursue their dreams and never look back. They’d fallen out of touch during college, but Janelle hoped her friend was off dancing with a company somewhere. Eden loved dancing the way Janelle loved designing clothes. She couldn’t explain to most people the thrill of making women feel beautiful and confident simply by putting them in the right outfit.
Not that anyone was giving her the chance to do what she was trained for. And most of the things she wore or designed these days were made from the thrifted clothes she found in shops around the city. Which, sadly, meant she was doing the same thing she’d done in high school.
So much for her fancy degree.
Not for the first time, she wondered if her education and time in New York had been a waste. If she’d gone to a state school, she’d still have the money her parents left her and…
And what? There was no future back there. This was her dream, and she was going to get it.
She squared her shoulders and brushed her worries aside. Tonight, she was going to have fun. Tonight, she was Theresa Nolan attending the Avant Guard annual fundraiser at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with her boyfriend, Michael, an up-and-coming financial manager. The real Theresa had woken that morning with a terrible flu and begged Janelle to take her place. Michael had become a museum donor because he was told it was an excellent way to network. From what Theresa said, he’d paid a small fortune for the tickets tonight hoping to meet future clients. Being a couple supposedly inspired confidence.
Truthfully, it hadn’t taken much for Janelle to say yes. Sure, she was losing the money from her usual Saturday night gig, but it was worth it to forget the frustration of her life. And it was a chance to show off the cocktail dress she’d created as part of her senior project. Who cared that no one would know she was the designer. She did, and the dress made her feel spectacular.
Arm in arm, she and Michael walked into the Temple of Dendur, and Janelle admired the beautifully decorated and dimly lit room, looking so different from how it did during the day when a wall of windows let in the sunlight. She’d first seen this space in the movie When Harry Met Sally and, knowing it was the site of the annual Met Gala, she’d visited soon after coming to the city.
As they moved through the space, taking hors d’oeuvres from a passing server, Janelle sent up a silent wish that someday her designs would be worn here by someone attending the famous event. Few things announced a designer had “made it” like being a part of that night.
Unfortunately, her doubts about her abilities were growing. She had a sizeable portfolio of ideas and designs, but her hopes of being discovered were diminishing daily as the grind of her work took its toll. She’d believed her degree from the prestigious college would open doors, and while she didn’t expect to be a lead designer in her first job, she was no closer to being able to present her work to someone in charge than she had been when she started.
She walked with Michael to a group of people where he knew one of the men. Introductions were made, and the networking began. Hoping this night could help her as well, she shared she was a designer. There was an immediate spark of interest from the women until it became clear she wasn’t doing any design work, then they turned their focus back to the group, dismissing her. It was almost as bad as being with her family. Her stepmother always called Janelle’s interest in fashion her “little hobby” and made it clear she didn’t think it — or Janelle — would amount to anything. Her daughters, of course, agreed. They were practically a hive mind of three.
Janelle was determined to prove them wrong.
But that was for another night. Dinner was announced, and she and Michael found seats at their assigned round table. Janelle remembered to introduce herself as Theresa to the man sitting on her right, but when she smiled at him, she found herself drawn to the man sitting three seats away. As he turned from shaking hands with the woman who wasn’t his date, their eyes met. She couldn’t tell from this distance what color his were, but there was something about his gaze that held her and had her thinking things she shouldn’t when she was supposed to be with someone else.
Too bad the word ‘rake’ wasn’t used anymore, because that’s exactly what he made her think of. He had a strong jaw that didn’t need the close-trimmed beard he wore. His hair was short except for a section in the front, and she imagined if he were bent over his work, he’d have to brush it back out of his eyes.
And then he smiled and something inside of her warmed. She smiled back and returned her attention to the person next to her who was making small talk, but every time she looked over, the other man was looking in her direction. Throughout the meal they continued to share glances and smiles. Janelle was intrigued. It had been months since she’d flirted with anyone. Considering he was also here with a date, it was unlikely to become more.
The food was presented beautifully and tasted wonderful, but the portions were small, and before the main course was complete, Janelle wondered if she could ask a server about any remaining appetizers. It probably wasn’t a good idea given the fit of her dress, but she was hungry. As if noticing her looking, her flirtation caught her eye again, and held up the breadbasket. She nodded and reached for it. When his hand brushed hers, she wondered if it was deliberate. The immediate tingle racing through her at the touch was a surprise. She usually needed to at least speak to a guy before she had a response to him. More flirting was definitely on the menu if the opportunity arose.
Arose. She giggled at her thoughts. Something must have shown on her face because he tilted his head to the side. She gave a quick shrug, mouthed “thank you,” as she put two rolls on her plate, and went back to ignoring him for a bit.
After dinner was cleared, Michael whispered to her that he was going to go talk to some people he’d met earlier. She waved him away and stayed seated, sipping the last of her champagne. She was wondering how long before dessert was served — and how small the serving would be — when the sexy stranger spoke.
“It looks as though we’ve been abandoned,” he said, indicating the empty chairs between them. There were three other people at the table, but they were on the other side.
“I can’t say I’m surprised,” Janelle said, nodding in the direction Michael had gone. “My date was here to network. He already knows me. How is it you’ve lost your companion?”
“Clearly, I’m not interesting enough to hold her attention this evening. I’m Ash,” he said, stretching an arm out in greeting.
She reached toward him automatically and the tingle returned. His handshake was warm and firm. Would other parts be? Get a grip on yourself, Janelle. Yes, it had been a while since she’d been with someone, and Ash was sexy as hell, but she could play it cool. “I’m Jan…, I mean, Theresa.” So much for cool.
“What an unusual name. Do you want to try again? Or pick another?”
Nice. A sense of humor. Almost more important than his looks. She leaned toward him and asked, “Can you keep a secret?” He slid across the two empty chairs to sit next to her. The fact that he continued to make eye contact and didn’t use her change in posture or his proximity to look down her dress was a point in his favor. “I’m here under slightly false pretenses.”
His eyebrows rose. “I’m intrigued. How’s that possible?”
“The man I’m with?” She pointed to where Michael was standing in a group of men. “We’re not a couple. He’s my roommate’s boyfriend.” She explained the logistics that led to her being here.
“Interesting. And very altruistic of you. Well, I won’t ask you to reveal your real name, but does this mean I can ask you to dance?”
“You can ask, but I’m not certain I can say yes.” He wasn’t there alone either. “What about your date. She won’t mind?”
“Considering she’s my sister and looks as though she’s found the next toy she wants to play with, I doubt it.” He gestured with his chin to the woman he’d been with, and Janelle turned to see his sister with her hand on the incredibly large bicep of a familiar looking, dark-skinned man. A moment later she’d pressed herself against his side. The man looked besotted.
And familiar. “Doesn’t he play for the Yankees?”
“Yes, which might become a problem because my family has always rooted for the Mets.” She laughed. She liked his playfulness. It wasn’t something she had much of in her life recently. She needed some fun. He removed his coat and draped it on his seat before holding out his hand. “Shall we?”
Janelle put her hand in his, pleased when the tingle returned, and allowed him to lead her to the dance floor. The small orchestra was playing standards, and she was delighted to see he moved confidently. Nothing worse than awkward moves on a hot guy. She also noticed the fit of his shirt and pants was impeccable. Whatever Ash did for a living, it paid well, and his taste was excellent.
She probably shouldn’t be looking at the cut of his pants and brushed it off with a thought of, ‘occupational hazard’.
Dancing while flirting was a favorite pastime of hers, although she was used to a club setting and wearing loose clothes. She wasn’t able to move the way she normally would in the cocktail dress, but she managed to sway and gyrate enough to hold his attention. When the music slowed, Ash caught her hand in his, then put one on her waist. The tingle became a zing that went straight to her core. She stepped closer, draping her arms around his neck, but left space between them. While there was a part of her that wanted to grind against him and see if she could drive him crazy, there was another part that enjoyed the forced formality of their surroundings.
They were now close enough for her to notice new things. His eyes were hazel, and his arms might not be as large as the baseball player’s, but she could feel the muscles under his shirt. To make certain he knew of her interest, she allowed her hand to move from his shoulder, down to his chest and back again. It was a small gesture, and perfectly appropriate, but when his eyes widened, she enjoyed the rush of power her action gave her.
After a second slow song, they returned to their table and discovered they had placed dessert. Michael was nowhere to be seen, and there was only one other couple seated. As she hoped, Ash sat next to her, and they dove into the chocolate cake. At the first bite she couldn’t stop a moan. It was decadent and sweet, and she knew it would be gone all too soon. Like all good things.
She enjoyed a second bite and then a third before he said, “I think I’m jealous of that cake.” She turned to see him watching her eat. For a second she was self-conscious, but his smile was warm and without artifice — and his dessert was mostly gone, too. When they’d finished, he grabbed the plate that would have been his sister’s. “There’s no way Odette is going to eat this, even if she comes back. I say we don’t let it go to waste.”
He put his fork into the tip of the cake and dragged it through the whipped cream artfully placed on the side. Then he held out the bite to her.
Nicely played, she thought. Just enough flirtation to show his interest and gage hers. Deciding to keep the upper hand for a little longer, she took the fork from him and before he could figure out what she was doing, she turned it so she could offer the food to him. He grinned the way a carnivore looked at meat and opened his mouth. Janelle felt heat pool between her legs. Oh yes, he was going to be her midnight snack.
As they finished the second dessert, Ash said, “I’m going to see if the bar is open.” He pushed his chair back and stood. “Can I get you a drink?”
Janelle reached for her water and said, “No, thank you. This is fine.”
“Are you sure?”
Time to lay her cards on the table. “Yes, I’m considering going home with you, and I want to be clearheaded when you ask me.” Ash sat back down, his eyes never leaving hers. Got him. “Not getting a drink?”
“Not a chance. I want to be clearheaded when you say yes.”
“Well, aren’t you the optimist,” she said, but she already knew her answer and while she loved to tease, coy wasn’t her style.
They left ten minutes later. As they waited for a cab, Janelle texted Theresa and told her to tell Michael she’d left so he wouldn’t look for her later.
On the ride to his apartment, Janelle buzzed with her attraction for him. With her hand resting on his thigh, Ash stroked the top of her hand with his thumb. Anticipation bubbled inside of her, and she hoped it wouldn’t take long to get to his place. She also hoped he had condoms because it didn’t occur to her to bring any.
When the car stopped, Ash paid, then helped her out, which was a good thing because the form-fitting dress wasn’t easy to maneuver in. Janelle assumed he was comfortable financially, otherwise he wouldn’t have been at the event, but it surprised her to see the doorman waiting for them at the entrance.
“Good evening, Kevin,” Ash said as they approached the building.
The man nodded and opened the door. “Good evening, Mr. Royce. Hope you had a nice evening.”
Before Ash could respond, Janelle put a hand on his shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, Kevin, he’s going to.” The doorman barked out a laugh then composed himself immediately. As they waited for the elevator, Janelle’s thoughts cleared for a second. “Royce. Your last name is Royce?”
Ash cringed. “It is.”
Holy shit. Janelle couldn’t believe it. Michael had come to the event to meet the right people, and she’d managed to leave with a key player for one of the most famous fashion labels in the country. Great, she finally met someone who could help her career, and she was planning to go to bed with him. Which meant she couldn’t let him help her. Life was unfair sometimes, but that wasn’t news to her. Trying to process what she’d learned, she stated the obvious and said, “You’re Ashton Royce. Your family is Royce Designs.”
“I am. They are. Is that a problem?”
For a second she wondered why it would be a problem for her, and then she remembered he had a reputation for being a bit of a playboy. A new woman on his arm every month, broken hearts in his wake. Fortunately, she didn’t let her heart get broken. “Not for me.” The elevator dinged, and they got in. She reached for the floor buttons. “Penthouse?”
He smiled at her cheeky suggestion. “Only if you want to barge in on my parents.”
She pulled her hand back quickly. “Really?” It would make sense. This was exactly the type of place she imagined people with generational wealth would live.
He laughed and pressed the button for the seventh floor. “No, they moved out of the city when my sister and I were little.”
“Good thing,” she said motioning to her outfit with her hand. “I’m not exactly dressed to meet parents.”
“You’re dressed amazingly, but I’m looking forward to having you undressed.” He took a step closer, pressed her against the elevator wall, and finally he did what she’d been craving all night. As his mouth covered hers, the tiny zings morphed into a full-blown explosion. Her hands worked their way under his jacket, and she savored the warmth of his chest through his shirt.
Janelle could always tell how a man was going to be in bed from the way he kissed. If he was tentative, then he’d be cautious and unsure, constantly concerned he wasn’t doing things right — and he probably wouldn’t. If he overpowered her and forced her to respond, he’d be demanding and rigid, expecting her to go at his pace no matter what.
But Ash… Ash knew how to kiss.
Maybe it was because of all his experience, but at the moment she couldn’t bring herself to care. He was with her, and his mouth was full and warm, his tongue hinting at wonderful things to come. He ran his hands through her hair as he moved his mouth to her jaw and neck, finding places where she was sensitive. She arched against him, wanting more.
Before they could get too carried away, the elevator opened, and they walked down the hall to his apartment. When he turned on the light, she tried not to gasp at the open space, so different from the tiny one bedroom she shared with Theresa. He had an actual living room and a kitchen with full size appliances. Part of her wanted to see more, but then he kissed her again, and there was only one room she wanted to see.