Riley Eames’ getaway should have been so smooth that no one, not even her sister, would ever have known where she’d been. That’s how it would have gone had the elevator not shuddered to a stop. The lights flickered before they went out completely, plunging the small space into darkness. Her knees buckled beneath her, and cursing out loud, she grabbed hold of the closest thing she could find—a man’s arm.
The moment Riley realized what she had grabbed on to, she let go, but not before the man’s other arm wrapped around her waist, pulling her upright.
“I’ve got you, luv,” he said in a deep baritone voice, his arm steadying her as the elevator groaned and the emergency light switched on.
As he let go of her, Riley took a step away from him, embarrassed. She leaned against the far wall, watching him open the panel marked For Emergency Use and pick up a red receiver.
“The elevator’s stopped,” he said in a clipped English accent. “Can you get someone to fix it, please?” 9
“Yes, sir. We’ve just been made aware of the malfunction. We’re doing our best to fix it right now,” said the tinny-sounding voice on the other end of the line.
“How long do you think it will take?” her companion asked. 3
“We’re not sure, but we hope we can locate the problem in the next few minutes,” continued the disembodied voice. “But this elevator isn’t for guests’ use, sir. Didn’t you see the sign in front of the doors?” 1
“No, there was no sign that I can recall,” he said though he made a silly face at Riley, who looked away. She’d ignored the sign informing guests to use the elevators in the main landing because she’d seen a hotel staff member use it earlier. There was nothing wrong with them, he had told her. They were upgrading their elevators, nothing more.
Apparently there was a large community of vintage elevator enthusiasts who loved nothing more than to go up and down in such contraptions and film the whole experience before posting them online, with full commentary.
“Anyway, I’ve got help coming, sir. I apologize for the inconvenience,” the man on the other line continued.
“It’s not a problem,” he said, and Riley wondered again how English his accent was, and whether she could qualify as an expert. Her only exposure to British men was through the BBC movies she watched at her sister’s house whenever she babysat her nephews, or on her laptop.
Was his manner of speech ‘posh’? Riley thought though she had no idea.
He smiled. “You heard the man. We shouldn’t even be here.”
Riley pretended not to hear him. She could have told him that shame had led her to choose the vintage elevator that opened at the other end of the lobby over the modern ones directly in view of the bar. That way, no one would have seen her leave.
Riley shouldn’t even be in the hotel. She had promised her sister she wouldn’t see the man who broke her heart three years ago. But she had questions that needed answers, and so she came.
And here she was now, stuck in an elevator with a stranger. She wondered if there were cameras inside and, if so, would the footage appear online, like they did when there was a scandal, like some superstar’s sister kicking her brother-in-law? Then Paige would know that she’d lied. As Riley fidgeted, she figured she might as well distract herself with something else before her guilt took over completely and made a mess of her in no time.
From the corner of her eye, Riley saw that her companion wore a dark jacket over a crisp white shirt unbuttoned at the neck. With tight dark jeans that hugged his long legs and leather boots, he cut an imposing figure opposite her petite frame. Partially covered by his jacket, a long blue scarf draped from around his neck, highlighting his deep blue eyes, a perfectly tapered nose, and a kind mouth. When he smiled, as he did to her perusal of him at that moment, his smile even reached his eyes. 11
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He was also sporting days-old stubble along his jaw, giving him an air of recklessness. She imagined running her fingers through his hair, so thick, so soft and styled to perfection like he’d walked out of a magazine spread. He reminded her of a movie star or a model. He was simply too perfect.
She’d gotten a whiff of his cologne when he had reached out to grab her, and it reminded her of someone who’d just stepped out of the shower just minutes earlier, clean and fresh with a light hint of citrus and verbena. Nothing strong enough to make her nose wrinkle and for that, she was grateful. Watery eyes and a runny nose didn’t exactly make a good first impression. 4
When Riley finally focused her attention on the number panel above them, she saw that the brass arrow pointed between two floors, 25 and 26. So much for getting into these old things, she thought.
“We can always pry the doors open,” she said.
The man shook his head as he hung up the phone. “Are you claustrophobic?” 31
Riley shook her head, not knowing if she was claustrophobic or not. But she figured, like the majority of the population, she didn’t like being stuck in elevators.
She pulled out her phone and checked her text messages. Sure enough, there were two messages from her sister and one from the ex-boyfriend, both of them wondering where she was. She bit her lip and texted back the message, I am not seeing him, to her sister while she decided that the ex-boyfriend would have to wait. Gareth Roman wasn’t exactly hurting for dates.
“I hope this doesn’t mean you’re late for a meeting with someone,” said the stranger in front of her with a grin.
“It wasn’t that important,” she said, returning her phone to her purse.
The man’s brow furrowed, his head tilting to one side. “A business meeting, perhaps?”
“You’re pretty nosy,” Riley said. “And no, it was not a business meeting at all.” 7
“What was it, may I ask?” His voice soothed her, reminding her of rich chocolate drizzled sensuously against a lover’s skin—just before she’d just lap it up because it would be too good to waste. Her face reddened at the thought, and she looked away, hoping he hadn’t noticed.
“I don’t know if I should tell you. It’s personal.”
He glanced at his watch. “If we’re going to be trapped in this elevator for a while, we might as well make use of time otherwise spent in awkward silence.”
“True, but we could also talk about the weather,” she said. But there was something in his voice and his demeanor that made her change her mind about discussing the weather, or anything related to it. Maybe it was the fact that though she was wearing a short dress with a plunging neckline meant to emphasize her key assets—twin globes she’d been trying to hide since she was in junior high—he kept his gaze on her eyes the whole time he spoke to her. Most people’s eyes usually drifted down within the three-second mark.
“Any more talk about the weather and I’ll be pulling my hair out,” he said, exhaling. “I’ve only had, what, eighteen different meetings today and every single one started with, ‘how do you like the weather?’ I’d love to hear something different—even original for a change.”
“Alright, I’ll give you something original. I was meeting an ex-boyfriend,” she said wryly. If he wanted a conversation that had nothing to do with the weather, he was going to get it.
“Not original but I’ll take it.”
She rolled her eyes. Beggars can’t be choosers, she wanted to tell him. “He tracked me down online, and we started to chat.”
“Ah, online connections,” he smiled. “The perfect place for exes to reconnect.”
“That’s for sure. But my profile is quite new, just two weeks old. My sister said that I was behind the times, and she helped me set up my profile. Then the ex-boyfriend managed to find me and said we should get together—for old times’ sake.”
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“I hope he, at least, offered you dinner.”
It’s called a booty call, you nosy doofus, she wanted to tell him but she stopped herself. There was no point in telling him more than he needed to know, especially if they were only killing time while they waited to be rescued. And no matter how charming he appeared to be, the less said about exes, the better. But Riley seemed to be having a problem with her mouth—she couldn’t stop talking.
“He said he was busy the whole day with meetings, and even had a working dinner to attend, but he was willing to blow that so he could see me. We have a few things to talk about—three years too late, but it’s better late than never,” she continued, each word she uttered a reminder of just how lame the excuse sounded. It was a booty call, plain and simple. “I was running late, so here I am, stuck in an elevator with you.” 5
“Yes, here you are indeed. Late for your date, and stuck in an elevator with an annoying stranger who asks you the most intrusive questions.” 2
“I don’t think I could call it a date, really,” she said. “Just two friends getting together, catching up.”
“Just friends?” he asked, one eyebrow moving upward. “He could have caught up with you online or on the phone. That is, if catching up was the only thing he intended to do. Do you like him still?”
Riley found herself chuckling. “Good question,” she replied. “I don’t know. He broke my heart a long time ago. You could say he traded me for a career in Hollywood. Since then, he’s been seen with gorgeous girls who wear dresses up to here, and high heels and all that. Back when we were together, I didn’t even own a dress, unless it was for work. Not that he minded then, so I guess I wore this to surprise him.”
Riley kicked off her high heels as she spoke, feeling silly. She flexed her ankles and toes on the floor, regretting having told the stranger that last bit for it made her seem desperate. Did she really look desperate? For someone who rarely wore high heels, preferring boots and canvas shoes, it sure looked like it, she thought.
“Why do I feel like I’m being interrogated? Who appointed you Chief of Stuck Elevators?” She pointed toward the emergency phone panel. “Can you call the elevator guys again and find out how much longer we need to be here?”
The man lifted the receiver and handed it to her. “Why don’t you do it?”
When Riley didn’t take it from his hand, the man placed the receiver back into its little panel and closed the door. Then he slipped off his jacket, folded it and draped it over his forearm.
“Would you like to sit down?” he asked. “I could put this on the floor for you.”
“Are all you posh Englishmen always this polite?”
He smiled. “I don’t know about all Englishmen, but this one was raised to be polite. I’m also not ‘posh.'” 8
Riley shrugged. What did she know? When it came to men, not much. And when it came to Englishmen, even less—even with Mister Darcy and the gypsy Heathcliff.
“I’m sure you want to sit down, and even if you don’t want to, I definitely do,” he continued, glancing at his watch. “I’m afraid this could take a while.”
With that, he lay his folded jacket on the floor by her side and patted it. Then he sat down across from her, straightening his long legs as he leaned his torso against the wall. It was a small elevator and his legs reached across the space between them. It was also growing warm, and his forehead was already beginning to glisten with sweat.
Still, he looked way too comfortable, Riley thought as she watched him lean his head back against the wall and close his eyes. But she had to admit that he was right. She did want to sit down. Standing on high heels had been pure torture and, really, who was she kidding? Had she really thought she could pull it off and resemble the girls Gareth liked?
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Leaning her back against the wall, Riley slid down toward the floor, holding her hands against her backside to keep the hem of her dress in place. That was the problem with short ‘fuck-me’ dresses. If she raised one knee just slightly, she’d probably have flashed him already. But then, with her companion’s eyes shut, even if she had flashed him, he was oblivious to it.
Or maybe he just didn’t care, she thought. After all, she wasn’t exactly a stunning beauty like her sister, a former top model before she got snagged by a wealthy older man and was now the lifestyle queen of Manhattan. But while Paige may have the face and slim body that designers looked for to model their dresses, Riley saw herself as plain, though many people told her just how beautiful her blue eyes were, and how her broad smile was bright enough to light up a dreary day. And then there was her thick blonde hair, falling along the small of her back in thick waves.
Even now, in spite of her ‘fuck-me’ dress and matching heels, she’d secured her hair a ponytail. Though she’d been blessed with a luxurious mane, mostly it was just a bother, getting on her face whenever she least expected it, not when she was busy blending espressos for customers at the Library Cafe. No one wanted a strand of hair in their coffee, that’s for sure. So she kept it up in a ponytail as often as she could, even when she was supposed to be at her sexiest—such as tonight’s meeting with the ex-boyfriend she had wanted so badly to dazzle.
As Riley sat down, she straightened her legs in front of her, her dress hiking to the top of her thighs as she did so. It really was short, she thought, placing her purse on her lap. She looked at the Englishman, his eyes still closed as he sat across from her, and wondered if he’d fallen asleep. Maybe he was just tired of making small talk with her.
That’s when she made up her mind to get out of her dress. She might as well do it now before anyone could see her in such a ridiculous get-up, most of all her sister. Riley zipped open her purse, pulled out a pair of canvas shoes that she set on the floor next to her, and jeans. She stood up, slipped one foot into each pants leg as quickly as she could and tugged the jeans up to her hips. Then she quickly zipped up the fly, afraid that her companion might have opened his eyes to see what was going on. But he still had his eyes closed, and Riley couldn’t help but feel a slight pang of disappointment. Was she really that boring that he couldn’t even be bothered to peek?
“Don’t open your eyes, but I need to change into something more comfortable,” Riley ordered as she pulled out a T-shirt from her purse and draped it over the railing. “I do have pepper spray, and I’m not afraid to use it.”
She might as well have been alone in the elevator, for the man didn’t even acknowledge that he’d heard her. She pulled out the black canister of pepper spray from her purse and placed it next to the T-shirt on the railing. The print on the can had long faded from the constant rubbing against other items in her purse. And while anyone else might have mistaken it for hairspray or one of those cheap imitation perfumes, Riley knew what it was, so she wasn’t worried. 1
What she was actually worried about was the second part of her plan to change from her dress to the T-shirt she had brought with her all because she had anticipated some action and maybe a bit of morning-after cuddling. After all, she and Gareth had lived together for three years and had grown up together—or at least, that was the story she was sticking to if the ex-sex did happen.
But now that her plan to see him had gone bust, Riley needed to discard any proof that she had been to the hotel at all. But as she reached behind her and pulled down on the zipper from the top of her back to the space between her shoulder blades, it stopped, stuck. And she realized then, as she tugged and pulled, that the only thing that stood between looking like a booty call in action and someone who just happened to be in the hotel in casual wear was a zipper—a hard-to-reach zipper.
So Riley brought her arms down to her sides and limbered her body up a bit with a shake of her shoulders and her torso. Then she brought one arm behind her back to try to reach the zipper pull, while the other arm tried to do the same thing from above. But the damn thing was right between her shoulder blades and out of reach of both hands. It felt like she needed to dislocate a shoulder just to get at it, but as long as no one was watching, who cared? How easy had it been to slip the dress on in her apartment when all she had to do was cinch the whole dress up to catch hold of the zipper pull and not worry about anyone seeing her. 3
“Allow me.” 3
Riley gasped in surprise. Her companion was standing behind her, a bemused smile on his face, watching her with her arms askew. She’d been so intent on her mission to grab the zipper that she hadn’t even heard him get up from the floor.
“That would be nice,” she said before she spun around to face him, eyeing him suspiciously. “You’d better not have a knife or anything because I have my pepper spray.”
“You’re way too attached to that canister of pepper spray,” he said, chuckling. “And in case you haven’t noticed, you’re too far to reach it—not with your arms looking like that. Now turn around, and let me help you before you dislocate a shoulder.”
Riley sighed. He was right, of course, and she really was being foolish. She turned to face away from him and felt his hands grab hold of the zipper, smoothing her dress down her sides just before he began to pull the zipper down. The sound the zipper made as it made its way down the back of her dress filled the silence of the elevator and Riley swallowed nervously. It was slow and deliberate, and she wondered if he was the type of man who took his time making love, the way he was now leisurely unzipping her dress. 6
Who knew the sound of a zipper could be so sensuous?