What did you do for New Year's Eve? Are you a go-out-and-party person? A stay-home-and-watch-the-ball-drop-on-TV person? Or are you like me (I don't even make it to midnight anymore)?
How about starting the new year with accidental rock star Benjamin Lawson (ROCKIN' IT HOME) and his personal assistant, who go from the poshest of New Years Eve parties to... an Irish bar?!
Los Angeles, California
Danielle studied Ben across the limo. He wore a white shirt under a dark suit with gold lapels, gold pocket handkerchief, and gold cuff links. His tie was black with gold swirls. The underlying vest was also gold, with three black buttons accentuating his middle. His hair was spiked up in front and curled around his ear.
It struck just the right note about new years and new chances (which was exactly what Marla was going for).
It also made him look incredibly sexy.
He must have felt her gaze on him, because he looked up from his crib notes. He crooked one eyebrow. He looked relaxed, but she knew better; he was already freaking out about the “tell all” interview Marla had booked for him on the TODAY show just ten days away.
“You ready?” he said.
She realized with a start that their limo was already queued up at the dock. A glance out the windows behind Ben revealed the press. Her heart beat harder and faster.
While she’d been negotiating her comeback, she should have negotiated herself out of this event. What was she thinking, stepping foot on a yacht?
The driver was coming around the limo. Loren and Marla were to exit first, followed by her, and then Ben.
I can do this. It’s all good.
She took a deep, calming breath. “Are you ready?” she said.
Out came the dazzling smile. “I was born ready.”
Ben kept one hand on Danielle’s back as they negotiated the walkway, stopping every few feet to greet various media reps—to whom he’d casually mention the upcoming TODAY show interview as instructed—or to have their photos taken.
Danielle’s dress was a shimmery turquoise that made her eyes look even more piercing than usual. It was tucked at the hips and hugged her ass. The back was open, although mostly covered by her long dark hair, into which she’d weaved small braids around her face. Though Ben’s hand was placed on the silky fabric just below the opening, he couldn’t seem to stop brushing his thumb over the smooth skin of her back.
The contact both excited and grounded him, a strange juxtaposition.
At the threshold of the yacht, he leaned in and spoke into her ear. “You look stunning, Miss de Luca.”
To his surprise, she blushed. “Thank you, Mister Lawson. You look smashing, as well.”
He turned and waved to the cameras still flashing away on the dock. “Smile,” he said out of the corner of his mouth. “The hardest part is over.”
The hardest part is over.
As Danielle stepped into the luxurious stateroom, her heart thudded in her chest. She swallowed.
Easy for him to say.
“You need to mingle,” she managed to croak out.
His eyes studied her, and it was several moments before he said, “And you?” as if he sensed her discomfort and was reluctant to leave her side.
Discomfort? That’s an understatement!
“I can hold my own.” She forced a smile.
“All right, then.” She felt the light brush of his fingers on her lower back as he pulled away.
She accepted a glass of champagne from one of the passing waitstaff, then was almost immediately drawn into a conversation in which Marla was taking part.
She nodded politely as introductions were made, and tried to follow the conversation.
It worked—for a while. Until the group moved to a table near the floor-to-ceiling windows.
She made the mistake of looking out.
All that water…
Her pulse beat so loudly in her ear that she couldn’t follow the conversation, so she used the oldest ruse in the book: she excused herself for the ladies’ room.
She took the short stairway down to the bathroom on rubbery legs.
Immediately she knew she’d made a mistake. The small space made her feel claustrophobic, and the light shifting of the yacht as it floated on the water caused her stomach to turn in on itself.
She hadn’t had a full-blown anxiety attack in years, but she felt one coming on now. She needed to get off the boat—without making a scene.
There was a walkway on the outside of the glass windows. If she could reach it, she could get precious air into her lungs.
She had to reach it.
She missed the door handle the first time, but got it on the second try. She stumbled along, using the handrail as a guide. The fear clawed its way into her throat and robbed her of air.
Tears sprung to her eyes. Oh, God, why can’t I get off this boat?
Ben’s voice came as if from far away, but his touch on her back jolted her. “Ben!” she gasped.
“I have to get off the boat!” Her voice sounded panicked, even to her own ears. “I…”
She didn’t have air for words. The world spun and she reached out instinctively.
Her hand connected with Ben’s body, and she was swept up into his arms. “I’ve got you,” he said. “Hold on to me.”
The tears came in earnest as she wrapped her arms around his neck.
When Ben saw Danielle on the walkway outside the stateroom, he knew something was wrong.
Thank God he’d come after her.
Ben side-stepped along the narrow passageway, his back to the guests inside the stateroom. At the threshold of the yacht, a guard jerked ramrod straight at his approach. “Can I help you, sir?”
“My date’s not feeling well.” Ben gave the guard a look, hoping to convey without words that he wanted no additional questions.
The guard got the message. “Sorry to hear that, sir.”
Ben moved past the guard and scanned the length of the dock, then beyond, where a few reporters were still hanging out. What Danielle didn’t need was media attention. Then he spied what he was looking for: a ladder leading down to the water’s edge.
He kept his movements smooth and purposeful, hoping to avoid being seen. He took the steps somewhat clumsily (not surprising with the load he was carrying) and ducked under the dock. He followed the water’s edge until he’d gotten them away from potential prying eyes.
His arms began to protest their load, and when he spied a low stone wall, he decided they’d gone far enough. He lowered them to the ground, his back to the wall so that he held her on his lap.
“Your suit,” she protested weakly through labored breaths.
“Breathe,” he said.
He shifted his arms and propped one leg up so that he held her more tightly against him. He dropped his head back against the cold stones.
They’d left most of the lights behind, and he could see stars. He felt her breaths, in and out, against his chest, and she smelled like… sagebrush? No, that wasn’t it.
At length, she stirred, and he was forced to loosen his hold.
“I’m a mess,” she murmured as she swiped at her eyes.
“You’re beautiful,” he said. “But you scared the shit out of me.”
“Is it the boat, or the water?” he said.
“Both.” She sighed. “But mostly the boat.”
“Because of your mom?”
Instead of answering, she started to move off his lap. “Your dress,” he warned.
She chuckled weakly as she arranged the turquoise fabric into folds at her sides. “We’ll both be wearing sand.”
He missed the warmth of her on his lap. “You should have told me,” he said gently. “I never would have suggested you attend this event.”
She sighed. “I thought after all these years I would be over it.”
That sounded awfully familiar… like what he’d said about his relapse. After all this time…
She looked out at the water and shivered.
“Cold?” he asked.
She was breathtaking. There was simply no other way to describe her. His gaze lingered on her breasts, then moved to the curve of her neck… What would she taste like there?
She snapped him out of his impromptu (and inappropriate) thoughts when she said, “Did Derek tell you how she died?”
“No,” he said. “Just that it was a freak accident.”
“The yacht was moored near Santa Cruz when it caught fire in the very early hours,” she said. “The 34 passengers that were sleeping on the lower berth were trapped. They all died of smoke inhalation.”
“That’s awful,” he said.
She nodded. “It sounds terrible to say, but I didn’t really miss her.”
“Derek said your aunt and uncle pretty much raised the two of you, even before that,” he said.
She looked at him in surprise. “He told you that?”
“Was he not supposed to?”
She shrugged. “I guess it doesn’t matter now.” She took a breath. “My mother was a society lady. She didn’t get her hands dirty with diaper changes or bloody knees. She liked high-stakes gambling. That’s what she was doing on that yacht—and my father knew nothing about it.”
“He was so crazy about her that he ignored all the times she’d disappear, sometimes all night,” she continued. “He couldn’t see her faults.”
She looked at Ben. “When the public investigators ruled the fire an accident, he wouldn’t accept it. He hired a private investigator and a lawyer—very expensive ones—to fight the ruling. He should have left it alone,” she said bitterly.
He waited for her to continue.
“The PI found out she not only had a gambling problem,” she said. “She also had a lover.”
“Uh-oh.” Unconsciously his hand fisted in the sand.
She sighed. “My father confronted the man. Threatened him in front of a dozen witnesses. When that man turned up dead a few days later, my dad was a prime suspect.”
“No doubt,” Ben muttered. Since she’d already told him her father was in prison, he could guess the rest of the story.
“Dad still claims it was a setup,” she said. “Maybe it was. We’ll likely never know. My mom’s lover had suspicious connections, but nothing was ever proven.”
“And your father was convicted.”
She nodded, then looked away. “Even if he hadn’t been, I doubt he would have ever been the same.”
Ten years old when she lost both parents...
He wanted to haul her back on his lap, but he wasn’t sure she’d welcome that. He cleared his throat. “What were you and Derek doing during all this?” he said.
“Aunt Gloria and Uncle Antonio tried to shield us from the worst,” she said. “Losing Dad was hard.” She paused and her throat worked as she swallowed. “He was a good dad at one time.”
“Do you, um…” He wasn’t sure how to ask what he was thinking.
“Do I still see him?”
She pulled her knees up and the dress fanned out around her. She crossed her arms over her knees and rested her chin on them. “At least once a month Derek drags me there.” She looked at Ben. “It used to be the other way around. I had to drag him. Now…” She picked up a handful of sand and let it run through her fingers. “It’s just hard to see him the way he is.”
“I’m glad you have Derek,” he said. “And he has you.”
She smiled sadly, a ghost of her usual radiance, but he’d take what he could get right now. He crossed his legs at the ankles and leaned back against the stone wall. Gambling debts… expensive lawyers… Now he knew why she needed this job. At least he’d done the right thing in that regard, although he was definitely the beneficiary.
She broke into his thoughts. “You should go back to the party,” she said. “I can get Carlos to take me home.”
“I’m not interested in going back to the party,” he said. “And I’m not leaving you alone.”
She rolled her head to the side and peeked at him. “Some New Year celebration.”
“The rest of the year will be better,” he said. “Nowhere to go but up—and all that.”
He wasn’t sure if she’d catch on to his friendly teasing, but she said, “Very funny.”
She stared up at the sky, and he propped his hands behind his head and did the same thing. He’d stay out here as long as she wanted.
She glanced at him, then away. “What?” he said.
“I was just thinking…” Was that a note of mischief in her voice?
“Thinking can be dangerous,” he said.
She put both hands on the sand and turned to him. “You want to go to a real party?”
His crooked an eyebrow. “Define real.”
“One of Derek’s teammates owns an Irish bar,” she said. “Lots of Irish music, lots of Irish beer—sorry, we can get you non-alcoholic on the way—and lots of drunk Irishmen.”
“It doesn’t get any more real than Irish,” he said. “I’m in!”