Ricky trudged up Eloise’s four flights of steps on Friday night, so sad he’d nearly cancelled their evening together again. On Monday night, he’d gone to the hospital to read to the kids, as Regina had suggested, and it had been devastating. He hated seeing kids suffer. He couldn’t believe Regina had suggested he read to children so weak they broke his heart, reminded him of Blake, reminded him of how stupid he’d been. His son was dead because he’d never asked Blake’s mother to let him raise him. She was a party girl turned mother. He’d seen the difficulties she’d had fitting Blake into her life. She probably would have been happy to give him custody of Blake, as long as she got visitation, but he’d never asked.
Anger with himself had made his pulse race, and he couldn’t stay in the children’s ward activity room that night. He’d bowed out before the kids even knew he’d come there to read, so there was no harm done to them. But as he’d struggled to get through his week without thinking of Blake, without berating himself for not asking for custody, for not taking his son away from a woman who clearly wanted an out, he’d simply forgotten about Eloise Vaughn.
He almost laughed. Another man would think it impossible that he could forget a woman so beautiful she could be a princess. But that was his life.
When she opened her door to him, and he looked down at her dress, he blinked. The pale blue fabric complemented her pink skin tone and yellow hair, but it also glittered as if someone had woven tinsel into the material. She looked like a princess trapped in a snow globe.
His heart lifted a bit. “Wow.”
She smiled. “You know, even if nothing else comes of fake dating you, I’m getting a real sense of satisfaction out of your compliments on my sewing.”
He took her cape. When she turned for him to help her into it, he noticed this dress had a full back and sighed with relief. The gloom that hung over him like a dome loosened a bit. “You deserve to be complimented. I’d never guess you were taking old clothes and making them new.”
They headed down the hall to the stairs. “It’s not like I’m redoing things from the last century. Five years ago, my clothes were in style.”
“Then you went to university and your money had to go for tuition.”
She stopped at the top step and faced him. “Something like that.”
“Hey, unless you’re born into money, you’re going to suffer through university.”
A strange expression crossed her face. He wouldn’t be this far in his business dealings if he couldn’t read the look of someone who had something to say. The pinch of pain in her eyes told him it wasn’t something good.
But instead of a confession, she said, “Or starve.”
He smiled, but curiosity ruffled through him. She’d told him about her job problem, but it had never crossed his mind to think she might have had personal troubles in her past. Something that had broken her heart.
Still, he pushed it from his mind. He had problems of his own. And wondering about her wasn’t part of their deal. Getting to know her wasn’t even part of their deal. In fact, with as pretty as she was and as tempting, he might be wise not to ask questions.
In the limo, they talked generically about her job and his busy schedule as they drove to a hotel in the theater district. Lit for Christmas, Times Square took his breath away. So many lights. So much creativity in the Santa and sleigh that rode the tickertape around the jumbo video screens, and the Santa’s workshop filled with elves in the toy store windows.
He shoved back the memory of bringing Blake here for a private tour of the toy store and focused on getting himself and Eloise out of the limo.
Again, the night was cold and, as they stepped out, Eloise shivered. His arm rose in a natural reaction to pull her close, but just before he would have touched her, he stopped himself.
Too many things happened naturally with this woman, and although that probably added to the success of their charade, it wasn’t good for either of them personally. When they weren’t actually at a party, he would keep his distance.
A small stairway took them to the hotel lobby, where they were directed to an elevator to the ballroom. Lively music blared at them as the doors opened.
Eloise turned to him. “Are we late?”
“No. We’re right on time. Preston’s a music promoter. Expect the unexpected. Including the fact that he might have started the party early just because he wanted to.”
A laugh escaped, and he relaxed a little. Technically, he had to have fun and talk to her for the charade to work. “Cool? Maybe yes. Maybe no. But I’m betting on no.”
She happily exited the elevator and nearly walked into Preston Jenkins’s arms. High as a kite, their host took their coats and handed them off to a huge, beefy man who looked like a bodyguard.
He hugged Eloise effusively. “You are as gorgeous as the gossip mills are reporting.”
Her eyes grew round and shiny with what looked to be fear, and Ricky remembered how she hadn’t liked getting her picture taken the week before. Now she appeared deathly afraid of gossip.
“Which is why,” Preston slurred, “I’m thrilled that we are about ten feet away from mistletoe.”
Her eyes grew even larger, and this time Ricky understood. No woman wanted to be slobbered over by a stranger, regardless of how much mistletoe hung over doorways. Protectiveness rose up in him. She was date. She wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t brought her. He needed to get her out of this.
His brain scrambled for a way to save her, and eventually he simply opened his mouth and said, “Do you really think I’d let a schmoozer like you kiss my date?”
Preston slapped his arm. “Oh, such a kidder. I wasn’t going to kiss her. I’m getting pictures of everybody kissing their under the mistletoe.” He pointed to the huge bodyguard type, who displayed a camera.
His heart did something that felt like a samba. “You want me to kiss Eloise?”
Nudging Eloise and Ricky under the mistletoe, Preston grinned drunkenly. “Yeah. You kiss Eloise.”
Happiness tumbled through him before he could stop it, before he could think of Blake, before he could think of the myriad reasons this was wrong. It was as if time froze and there was only him and Eloise and mistletoe. No crowd. No past. No future. Just a kiss.
Eloise blinked up at him. Her pretty blue eyes round and curious. The curls of her soft blond hair framing her face. Her pink lips parted.
His pulse scrambled. He hadn’t kissed a woman in almost two years. And just touching the skin of Eloise’s back had set his hormones dancing. What would happen when their lips met?
His pulse kicked up again. He hadn’t felt fireworks in forever.
Longing, swift and sharp, rose up in him.
He silenced it. They were only fake dating. Kissing took them to dangerous ground.
Except he hadn’t kissed a woman in almost two years. Hadn’t felt alive in almost two years—
He glanced back at Preston, who waved dramatically. “Go on! Camera’s waiting!”
He caught Eloise’s gaze again. Need prickled his skin. Desire swelled. And he had to admit he wanted this. He wanted to feel alive again, if only for a few seconds. It was foolish. But it was also only a kiss. One kiss when he’d been so long deprived hardly seemed earth-shattering, and he could go back to being miserable after that. Plus, if he didn’t kiss her, he would ruin their charade.
He bent his head and barely touched his mouth to hers. Soft, smooth lips met his. She tasted like peppermint and felt like heaven, and his head spun. Had he said this wouldn’t be earth-shattering? He’d been wrong.
His mouth pressed against hers, and simple need bubbled like a witch’s brew in his gut. He knew he was flirting with disaster. But he couldn’t stop himself. He’d never wanted anything as much as he wanted to simply lose himself in her. The softness, the sweetness he’d never found in another woman.
One kiss. Then he would walk away.