Beth Styles took a breath and entered the already overfilled room. Two dozen or so journalists jostled each other, trying to look like they weren’t jockeying for a place near the front. One of the coveted spots near the stage. Which is exactly what they were trying to do, of course. Which Beth herself had zero interest in doing.
She hated this assignment. Hated that she was given the assignment because no one else wanted it. Hated that her boss was probably using this job to decide whether or not Beth was capable of accepting a permanent position at Between the Sheets, the punchy magazine where she’d been temping for the last few months. But what she hated most of all was Parker Stephenson. The self-centered, self-absorbed donkey of a CEO who’d called this press conference in the first place.
She knew the press liked to hang off his every word. He was supposedly smart. Supposedly handsome. Supposedly generous with the millions he made off his real estate development and property management company. But it was easy enough to be generous with millions of dollars just kicking around, waiting to be spent. Beth couldn’t help but resent the way the papers made him sound so giving. And even though he clearly had a dislike for the press, they ate it up. Thought he was quirky. An absolute darling.
Ugh. No way.
To Parker Stephenson, a hundred thousand dollars was probably pocket change. Real character – the kind built on surviving life rather than relying on dollar bills as a reputation bolsterer – was a little harder to come by.
And now there was this…further proof that even the most hard-nosed journalists could be misled.
“Arrogant jerk,” she muttered.
“You think so?”
The deep, rumble-like-an-avalanche voice came from behind her, just above ear level, startling Beth so badly that she barely managed to keep from jumping straight up out of her high heels. She inhaled to steady herself. It was a mistake. Her deep breath brought in a lick-abley delicious scent. Subtle. Spicy. Masculine.
She refused to turn around to see who was attached to the voice and the lovely smell. If he was a troll, she’d be disappointed. If he wasn’t…She might be in trouble. A sexy voice was high on Beth’s list of to-die-for qualities in a man. And the absolute last thing she was looking for at that moment was a man. Or at any moment, for that matter.
“Well?” prodded Mr. Sexy Voice.
“Yes, I do think so,” Beth confirmed, eyes kept carefully forward.
“Why?” Now the voice was laced with amused curiosity.
Still not turning around.
“Parker Stephenson made a claim that he could make any woman fall in love with him. Then train her to be a good wife. It got caught on video,” Beth stated. “I’d call that irrevocable proof of his arrogance. And jerkiness.”
“Are you sure you don’t mean irrevocable proof of his drunken ability to run his mouth?”
Beth snorted. “You think that’ll be his excuse?”
“It might be.”
The whoosh of the doors behind them signalled another influx of pre-screened reporters. Each one would’ve been read the riot act on not asking questions, not taking pictures, and not causing a scene. All on Stephenson’s orders.
Arrogance at its finest.
One of newcomers pushed forward, and Beth stumbled. Immediately, a warm, rough hand landed on her elbow, pulling her back and enveloping her in something that bordered on an embrace. And that spicy scent hit her again, this time even harder.
Beth braced herself to turn around and thank him – no way could a man who smelled that good be troll-like in nature – but froze as he spoke again, this time so close that her ear vibrated.
“So if the jerk wasn’t drunk,” he said softly. “Then maybe he was telling the truth.”
Beth delayed her turnaround yet again. This time because her body was alight with unexpected tingles of interest. All from a voice. And she was afraid that if the man was as attractive as he sounded, she might not be able to scoff so effectively.
“The truth?” she repeated. Full-on scoff. So there.
Damn the sarcastic rumble that made her toes want to curl. A male phone sex operator. That’s what he ought to be. Not a journalist.
Then it wouldn’t matter if he was a hideous beast, she thought, but followed it immediately with a firm, self-directed command. Stop it!
She tried to turn around, but his grip tightened, just enough to hold her in place.
“No man can make a woman fall in love. And training her? Not a chance,” she said firmly, pretending she’d chosen to stay put.
“You’re sure of that because…?”
“Because women aren’t dogs,” Beth retorted. “We’re people. Relationships aren’t about one person teaching the other how to behave.”
“Maybe he meant something else entirely then. Or maybe he just never thought anyone would see it.”
A woman in front of them turned her head toward them with a frown.
“Sorry,” Beth mouthed, realizing that her tone had become a little loud. And a little heated. “Listen,” she went on in a quieter voice. “It doesn’t even matter if he was drunk or if he thought he was right or if he meant something else. What matters is that he said it and it got recorded and went viral.”
“Oh, that’s what matters?”
He was amused again. Which irritated Beth.
“Yes!” she exclaimed.
The journalist in front of them shot another dirty look their way.
But Beth still brought her voice down. “Of course it’s what matters. Unless he can redact his statement, Parker’s ridiculous claim will destroy his credibility. And even if he manages to make himself look good – somehow – he’ll still take a hit with his female clientele. A lot of rich women out there. Parker will wind up living in a box instead of one of the stunning properties he’s developed.”
“You think the arrogant jerk develops stunning properties?”
She shrugged, then wished she hadn’t, because her shoulders bumped into his solid chest. “Overblown. But stunning.”
The man let out a low chuckle. “Oh, really?”
“Maybe some women want to fall in love and be trained,” the man offered. “Maybe he’ll actually see a bump in the number of female clients.”
Beth jerked herself away from the almost-embrace. “They do not want that.”
“Not even a maybe?”
He was still so close that she could feel his shrug. “That’s your angle, then? Stephenson ran his mouth because he’s a jerk and a woman-hater and now women will hate him in return.”
Beth sighed. “I don’t have an angle. I report the truth.”
Damn that sexy tickle when he made that noise. Beth brushed it off.
No. Brushing it off implied something easy. What she did was force it aside, then give it a mental stomp.
“I’m serious,” she said.
“Sounds like it.”
Ugh. Speaking of jerkiness…
“People need to be held accountable for their behavior.” Beth knew she sounded a little too invested in the statement, and when the man behind her answered, it was clear he’d picked up on the extra amount of feeling.
“People? Or someone in particular?”
“People!” Beth whisper-snapped, wondering why she was arguing so vehemently with this self-righteous stranger, but unable to stop herself anyway. “Especially people like Stephenson, who are in positions of power and authority and influence.”
“Power and authority and influence? Whoa.”
The man’s flip sarcasm finally got on Beth’s last nerve, sending her from the mildly irritated zone to the full-on pissed off zone in a breath. So in spite of the short-on-space situation and her phone-sex operator slash troll worries, she turned around. And when she did, her jaw dropped. Her temperature spiked. Because the man holding her elbow possessively was singularly the most attractive one she’d ever laid eyes on. At least in person.
Movie star perfect.
Chiseled jaw. Sparkling silver eyes and dark, fingers-run-through-it hair. Perfect, perfect shoulders.
And oh, how Beth appreciated a pair of perfect shoulders. A second personal weakness, not too far below the bedroom voice.
Only one problem.
The breathtaking man behind her – wait, he was kind of in front of her now – was the man of the hour. Parker Stephenson himself.
“Dammit,” Beth muttered.
“Yep,” he agreed. “Dammit indeed.”
And with that self-satisfied statement, he winked at her – winked! – and he pushed through the crowd.
It was the word rolling through Parker Stephenson’s mind as he made his way toward the stage. It was the way he felt right that second. A predilection he often had to curb, and something he’d been called regularly over the years.
One of the nicer things, he thought, just shy of bitter.
Reckless, ruthless, and yes, both arrogant and jerk, often found their way onto the list, too.
Parker didn’t care. Usually.
Sticks and stones…
He lived his life the way he wanted to, and the way he wanted to live it was straightforward. Without having to answer to anyone. Accountable for his behavior? Only to himself.
So why did it bother him so much that the leggy brunette had muttered the insult within his hearing without actually knowing he could hear her? It galled him that some girl he’d never met, with her curve-hugging skirt and loose, not-quite-sheer blouse, called him something that he’d been called a thousand times before.
Yeah, he acknowledged. He was one.
Often. Especially where business was concerned. He’d probably been one just now with the pretty girl, in fact. She’d definitely recognized him at the end there, and hadn’t been impressed. Not that he had an interest in impressing her. The media was a tool to be used. To be controlled. Guided. Not a friend or a lover who needed to be soothed. He had a reputation with the press and he was happy to keep it the way it was.
Except…Now Parker was sure those luminous brown eyes of hers were fixed on his back as he moved through the crowd and he was…curious about what she thought of him.
Luminous and curious? Really Stephenson?
When he got to the bottom step below the stage and turned to face the audience, his gaze sought the girl immediately. He was damned right, too. Her eyes were luminous. So was the rest of her. In a heart-stopping, pants-tightening way. Rich brown hair tucked into some kind of twisty thing at the back of her head. Sleek, suck-able throat that dipped down to her barely visible – but somehow undeniably ample – cleavage. She was curvy in that perfect way. Even if he hadn’t had her pressed to his chest just a few seconds earlier, he’d be able to tell from looking at her that she was just the right amount of soft and just the right amount of firm.
And just the right amount of furious.
“Whoops,” Parker murmured.
Should’ve asked for her name, he thought. At least then you’d know who you were ticking off.
Those luminous eyes were definitely flashing. No contrition or embarrassment at having been caught badmouthing him. Just plain old anger.
He suppressed a smile. Maybe that was why she so thoroughly held his attention. In Parker’s experience, the average reporter – hell, the average anyone most of the time – reined in negative emotion around him. They were too afraid of getting on his bad side. Which was, by all accounts, far reaching.
The brown-eyed, brown-haired beauty had a look on her face that said she didn’t care at all. Parker liked that, which surprised him a little. Usually, he preferred to keep his challenges in the boardroom and out of the bedroom.
How had his brain gone from insults to the briefest of touches to an angry stare to the bedroom of all things?
Still…He couldn’t look away. And his renewed examination was that much more lascivious. Her hair, unbound, would be softer than silk, smoother than satin. The rest of her skin would have the same sun-kissed glow as her neck. All of her would shimmer against the Egyptian cotton sheets Parker preferred. He’d bet his left foot and his Italian leather shoes that under that blouse and skirt she was wearing a matching bra and panty set. She had that look.
He was so involved in the way his imagination was working that he didn’t notice his latest, foot-tapping, personal assistant until he all but tripped over her.
“First day with your new set of legs, bro?”
Parker lifted his eyes, then narrowed them at the speaker. His oldest friend, business partner, and perpetual thorn in his side. Gino. Who flipped back a lock of his blonde mop and grinned. Not even close to an assistant.
What was he doing there?
Parker knew Gino would want him to ask. So he didn’t. He just relaxed his expression into the determined look that personified his professional existence – the one that Gino hated – and tipped his head.
The brief frown was the only betrayal of his friend’s irritation as he held out a sheath of paper. “Brought the notes for your statement and – ”
Parker cut him off. “Gino?”
“Did you help screen the journalists?”
“You know that I did. That’s why you pay me the exorbitant salary.”
“Good. Earn it then. There’s a tall woman at the very back of the room. Brown hair, army-green skirt. Tell me who she is.”
Gino craned his neck for a second. “Why?”
Parker heard the genuine curiosity in the other man’s voice and refused to indulge it.
“Because this is my press conference,” he said in his mildest, none-of-your-business voice. “And she seems like a loose cannon.”
“Just tell me who she is.”
Parker rolled his eyes. “Please.”
His friend sighed. “That’s Elizabeth Styles from Between the Sheets. It’s a women’s magazine. Monthly print-run, weekly online run. Opinions, celebrity gossip, advice. Good little editorials, entertaining without being fluffy.”
Elizabeth Styles. Good. Not fluffy.
Whatever that meant.
Absently, he wondered if she went by Liz, or if she went by Beth. Then he wondered why he was even wondering.
“Parker?” Gino prodded.
“Your notes?” He held them out again.
“I don’t need those,” Parker said firmly, his eyes darting once more to the brunette in the crowd before coming back to rest on his friend.
“Yes, you do.” Gino’s tone was more sure than argumentative.
Aha. That explained the man’s presence. He wanted to make sure Parker stuck to the plan.
Impulsive, he thought again.
The notes were designed with one purpose. To help him curb that impulsivity.
Well. Parker wasn’t in the mood to placate the masses.
Especially not since the striking journalist with the perfect lips had already trashed the plan he and Gino had put in place.
She was right, anyway, Parker admitted.
He couldn’t simply dismiss the damning statement – the one that had, in fact, gone viral, as she’d noted – as a drunken mistake. It would be a lie. A bad one. It sure as hell wouldn’t help his reputation any.
“Parker! I know that face. And I strictly forbid you from getting onto that platform without these notes.”
The statement was finally enough to bank Parker’s libido and bring his mind into focus. “You forbid me? I forgot that you were suddenly assigned the role of my mother. No. Wait. My mother knows better.”
Gino didn’t back down. “I’m not going to take no for an answer.”
“Fine,” Parker said. “I’ll take the notes.”
He snatched the papers from his friend’s hands. He yanked the sheets from inside the sheath. Then very quickly and very efficiently crumpled each of them into a ball and handed them back.
“Thank you, Gino,” he said evenly. “I think you know where you can shove these.”
Then, ignoring the big blonde’s scowl – and relieved that whatever spell he’d been under was broken – Parker stepped up onto the stage and nodded at the group of eager reporters. His normal, aloof demeanor was back in place.
At least it was until he opened his mouth. And Elizabeth Styles opened hers.
End of Excerpt