Flashbulbs exploded. Shutters snapped like automatic fire around him as reporters from rags of all caliber called for attention, each voice clamoring to rise above the rest.
"One more over here!"
Beneath the awning of the exclusive Chicago hotel, Nate Evans offered up a stock smile, responded to a few light questions with a handful of ambiguous words and waited for the question he knew would come.
It didn't take long.
"Mr. Evans! Care to explain your sudden absence from the social circuit these past months?"
The question shot through the early autumn evening, silencing all others with its gathering strength while narrowing the focus on him like an interrogator's spotlight.
They knew when they were onto something.
But he was ready for the assault. Invited it.
Feigning surprise at the inquiry, Nate paused in mock consideration before answering. "Guess I've been so caught up in business, I hadn't realized I'd gone off the map."
His answer wouldn't satisfy even the most limited curiosity. And more than that, it was a lie. He'd spent the last six months laying low. Flying under the radar to avoid notice while the nightmare of his life slowly, painfully, worked itself toward an unsatisfactory resolution. Six months out of the limelight, away from the cameras, only to find his absence conspicuous enough in itself to fuel new rumors and speculation as to the cause.
Who's the beauty behind this bachelor's broken heart?
The squelched headline had hit him like a sucker punch to the gut and he'd spent a fortune making it go away. Buying time. But if he didn't get a stranglehold on the situation, the trash hounds would dig and dig until they found the truth. And then they'd keep digging, making such a muck and mess that the dirt slung in their quest for ratings would reach anyone and everyone even remotely tied to his life.
His dad didn't need that.
Neither did Bella, the tiny baby who'd dragged a commitment from his jaded heart with a fist too small to wrap around his thumb. She was pure and precious and new. And though she didn't belong to him, he'd sworn to protect her from whatever hardships he could. And preventing a media circus from assailing her home and her motherwho wasn't in any shape to defend against itwas top on the list.
Which brought him to tonight. The first who's-who gala event available to spin the press off his scent.
He smiled his best cat-about-to-give-the-canary-a-go smile for the cameras. "Better find out if any of the ladies still remember me." And with that parting sound bite, he jogged the few steps through the grand entrance, looking for all the world as though he didn't want to miss a minute. As though he wouldn't rather be in his physician's office turning his head to the left to cough, than heading into the "society wedding of the season".
He needed a diversionand the sooner the better. So this was it.
He'd dive headfirst into tonight's sea of swank and silk, in search of the biggest scandal. He'd reel in a beauty he could splash across the tabloid pages. Someone with enough hook she'd drag the press's interest out of the past and secure it in the now.
Someone who knew the score.
That was the touchy part, because, when it came to his dates, Nate didn't do soft. He didn't do love. And he didn't do forever. He made certain his women knew what they were getting into with himand then he did them with enough attention and skill they didn't care there wasn't anything deep or lasting between them.
Scanning the throngs of social elite gathered within the gold-domed ballroom, he searched for a like-minded wave-maker. Except after barely five minutes, Nate realized he'd miscalculatedand in no small way. Finding a woman to flaunt was easy. There were at least a hundred willing candidates batting thick-fringed lashes at him. But with each toss of perfectly coiffed hair and every lingering glance, the apathy that had kept him so easily unattached these past six months turned to something darker.
More suffocating. Everywhere he looked, false claims and secret agendas lurked beneath the guise of enticement, and he found himself backing away rather than closing in.
And then he saw her.
Payton Liss, slinking through the crowd, using every evasive technique at her disposal to dodge the conciliatory hand pats, air kisses and general gossipy blood sport that occurred post nuptialsregardless of the social strata involved.
The good girl from his past. Brandt's little sister. Miss Off-Limits herself.
Payton didn't need his money. She wouldn't want his name. And she'd help him regardless of what went down with Brandt all those years ago because she habitually did the right thing.
Or make that, she mostly did the right thing.
The corner of his mouth quirked as, while he watched, she pilfered a dinner roll from the table closest to the kitchen access hall and slipped stealthily out the door.
Nate's feet were moving before his brain had even finished processing the plan.
Neck deep in a cloud of ill-fitting taffeta and tulle, Payton Liss pressed her shoulders into the wall behind her. Stretching across the floor of her hideouta miraculously unlocked utility room, discovered purely by accident three weddings beforeshe braced a foot against the door and straight-legged with the determination of a second-string bridesmaid on the run.
"Not a chance, Nate. The women will sniff you out. Go find your own storage closet."
Between the gap of the door and frame, ice-blue eyes slid over her, bringing to both mind and body the heart-pounding effect that gaze once elicited. "You open this door, Payton, or I'm heading straight back into that receptionand I'm telling every schmuck I can find you're alone in here crying." The last word he delivered with the smug satisfaction of a man who knew he'd already won.
Her breath caught as she stared in outraged indignation. "I am not crying!" Hiding, yes. Sulking, some. Crying, not a chance.
"It'll be like open season. Every guy intent on snaring himself a top-floor job in Liss Industries moving in for his white-knight moment. And the talk."
Her stomach seized. It was the talk that had driven her into hiding in the first place.
The "Poor Payton" talk.
" Such a good girl so desperate for a wedding of her own.so disappointed when he left her.what her father had wanted, but what did he expect."
She couldn't stand the sound of it anymore.
They were all wrong. But even if she bellowed out the truth, no one would believe her. She'd done too good a job for too long of forcing herself into the mold of a quiet-souled, docile-minded lady who didn't exist. And for nothing. In the end, no amount of perfect behavior could save her father from the weak heart that had plagued him the last fifteen years of his life.
Pushing back the well of emotion that still rose at the thought of losing him the year before, she shook her head. Nothing could upset him now. No defiant choice or willful stand for independence. He was at peace and, though his death broke her heart, it also set her free.
But no matter the changes she made, no one could see past the illusion she'd perfected to the real woman trying to break free. Which was why this had to be the last society event. She needed a life. One she could live on her own terms.
To try and set the record straight before she escaped would leave her sounding pettythe perfect complement to preexisting pathetic.
No, thank you
The bored sigh directed her way snapped Payton back to the present. To Nate, quite literally sticking his head back into her life after walking out of it all those years ago. "Last chance, babe, or I talk. Lot of hopefuls out there tonight waiting for a shot."
He'd do it, too, the bastard, she thought, giving into the inexplicable smile that seemed to rise from the ashes of every memory she had of the man. Nearly every memory anyway.
Nate knew no limits when it came to getting what he wanted. And nowafter a decade with little more than the most limited greetings passing between them, and only when absolutely necessaryhe wanted to get into her hideout.
With a reluctant sigh, and then a second, louder, more pointed version of the first, she gave up her hold on the door and scooted into a seated position against the wall where she'd arranged a pile of linens to pad the floor.
"Fine, come in. Just hurry up before someone sees you."
"Smart girl." He shouldered through the door, closing it with the sweep of one foot behind him. The swift, fluid move, executed with Nate's signature masculine economy of motion, took her back to the days of watching him tear across the soccer field. Fast and strong and skilled. Damp strands of sun-kissed gold whipping about his face as he drove toward a goal.
She hadn't been able to take her eyes off him.
Even now, attempting to pry her gaze from the man-sized version of the boy she'd wanted so badly, she only managed to skirt from one hard-planed, deep-chiseled element of his physique to the next.
It was no good.
He was more devastating in the looks he'd grown into than any man had a right to be. The waves atop his head were a few shades darker and a bit shorter, but remained utterly tempting in their unruly disarray. He was broader in the shoulders and chest, still athletically lean and exuded a power and confidence that dwarfed the world around him. Particularly in his tailor-made tux with a bottle of champagne hanging loosely from his fingers. The personification of careless elegance.
Intimidating in ways to which she was normally immune.
But then, this was Nate. It had been different with him from the start. He was everything she never let herself be.
Finally she asked, "What are you doing back here?"
His cool blue gaze locked with hers, and the corner of his mouth twisted upward to the slightest degree. "Looking for you."
Not in the imminent seduction way it sounded, she was certain. Nate didn't think of her like that and never would. She peered up from her spot on the floor, waiting for him to elaborate, but he glanced around the small room instead, taking in the shelves stocked with miscellaneous serving equipment, a rolling cart, table dressings. "Nice place you've got here. Built-in sound system and everything," he said with a gesture to indicate the strains of "Get Down Tonight" filtering through the walls.
"Thanks, it's coming together quite nicely, I think. A few more weeks and I'll be ready to entertain."
He cocked a brow at the makeshift seating she'd assembled. His gaze darkened. "Not expecting company now, are you?"
Heat splashed up her neck and cheeks as she realized what her little sanctuary might suggest to a world-class player like Nate. "No, no." She shook her head, her hands flapping as her explanation tumbled out. "Just settling in for the long haul. I shouldn't be seen leaving for at least another hour, but with all the talk I just couldn't stand to stay."
"I get it. They're like a pack of vultures out there." He gave her hip an indelicate nudge with the toe of his shoe. "Move it, I want in on the nest."
Inching over, she made room as he knelt downthe heavy muscles of his thighs flexing beneath the hug of his trousersand settled against the wall beside her. Her heart-rate went up with the temperature in a room she'd been sure was cool only moments ago.
Arms balanced atop his bent knees, he held the champagne in one wide palm, brushing his thumb through the condensation accumulating on the heavy glass. "What I can't understand is why the hell you would come alone. And I'm praying it isn't because you were hoping to hook back up with that chump ex of yours, Clint."
Payton rolled her eyes. Too much to hope that Nate wouldn't have heard the gossip surrounding her breakup. Yet another reason necessitating her imminent escape from the social scene. "No. God, no. This is my worst nightmare. I'd planned to come down with something contagious and unexpected and not be able to attend at all. But a bridesmaid beat me to it and I got promoted up from guest. Lucky me."
Nate's mouth twisted down as he looked her over. "If you say so."
She laughed out a breath and then turned, falling back into the conversation that had always come so easily between them. "Well, what about you? It's a wedding.and you've scored a slot on the world's most eligible bachelors list three years in a row. You'd need a date on each arm to escape unscathed. But stag? I'm amazed you made it out of the ballroom without the single girls setting up a numbered queue to get served."
"Get served?" This time it was Nate who laughed, letting his head loll back against the wall behind him. "Payton, Payton." He caught her with a questioning glance. "What kind of talk is that from a good girl like you?"
She stared at him, her heart skipping a beat as his focus shifted to her mouth.
"And why am I the only one who gets to hear that lip of yours?"
She couldn't have him looking at her like that, particularly when he had no intention of following through. She could handle her attraction to him, she'd done it for over half her life. Managed it. Tamped it down and stuffed it away. First because it was futile, and then because it was misplaced. But now. The last thing she needed was Nate reminding her of what she couldn't have. Flirting when he'd never see her as more than Brandt's little sister. The good girl.
Enough. She needed to know what the man who walked out of her life with barely a word all those years ago wanted with her now, and then she needed to get him out of her space before she did something stupid. Such as catch a bit of that unruly hair between her fingers and test its softness against her lips. "What do you want?"
The question hung between them. Nate raised the bottle to his mouth, tipping it back for a long swallow, before turning and pinning her to her spot with the full intensity of his gaze. "You. I want you, Payton."
"I need you to pretend we're involved. That we've been involved for the last month, actually."
Nate watched as Payton blanched and then went to beet, sputtering at length before she finally nailed that single-word demand for clarification. "What?"
Well, he hadn't expected her to simply agree and climb into his lap.
And, man, as much as he liked the hot flush across her skin, he definitely didn't need to think of Payton's lush curves and petite frame curling into the seat of his thighs. Not a good idea at all. Never had been.
"Take it easy, princess. Have a sip." He offered the champagne, only to have it pushed back at him. With a shake of her head, a silky blonde spiral sprang free at her temple. The first ruffled feather.