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The cab pulled up to the midtown Manhattan restaurant whose large picture windows spilled forth a welcoming golden light. After paying the driver, Ana Corelli paused a moment with her hand on the door's handle. Nervousness caused her stomach muscles to clench painfully. Today she had made a decision that would change her life forever. If anyone would understand why she'd done it, Erik would.
With a determined grimace she opened the cab's door and stepped out. She shivered a little in the cold October night's air. "Thank you."
"My pleasure, Ms. Corelli," said the driver, craning his neck to smile at her.
Ana was no longer surprised when someone recognized her. Due to magazine covers, print ads, fashion shows and TV ads, her image was all over the world. She returned his smile. "You have a good evening," she said in parting, her Italian accent slight but present. She had grown up speaking both English and Italian. Her mother was an African-American opera singer who had married an Italian and moved to Milan. Ana, her brother, Dominic, and sister, Sophia, had been taught to revere both cultures.
After the cab sped away, she smoothed her leather jacket over her skirt and adjusted the bag on her shoulder before resolutely walking toward the restaurant's entrance. The hostess, an attractive African-American woman, smiled warmly as she approached her. "Good to see you again, Ms. Corelli, Mr. Whitaker is at the bar. We anticipate a twenty-minute wait for a table."
"Thank you," said Ana pleasantly. "I'll join Mr. Whitaker at the bar, then."
"Enjoy your evening," said the hostess, and returned to her post in time to greet a young couple entering the restaurant.
Ana stopped in her tracks when she spotted Erik sitting on a barstool at the cherrywood bar, a glass of lager sitting in front of him that looked like it hadn't been touched. She smiled. He wasn't a big drinker. Today, he was wearing a tailored dark blue suit with a white shirt and maroon-striped silk tie. It was Friday and he'd probably come straight here from the office. He rarely got out of there before seven.
She slid onto the stool beside him. He looked at her reflection in the mirror behind the bar, and smiled at her. Turning to her, his eyes swept over her face. "So, how does it feel to be back in the world of the living?"
She grinned, and leaned in to kiss his cheek. He smelled good, as if he'd taken the time to shave his five-o'clock shadow in his office bathroom before leaving to meet her. She placed her hand along his strong jaw. Erik looked at her in his enigmatic way. Those golden-hued eyes seemed to bore into her soul. "I finished the last painting only a few hours ago," she told him softly. "I slept for a couple hours then woke up, phoned you, and here I am. I've missed you."
"I've missed you, too," he murmured close to her ear. The sound of his voice, as always, made her warm inside.
She'd spent the last two weeks exiled in her Greenwich Village loft, completing paintings that would comprise her first show at a New York City gallery. Erik knew this. However he didn't know why she had asked to see him tonight.
She was about to blurt it out when a woman sat down on the other side of Erik and accidentally knocked her martini glass over, causing the drink to spill onto Erik's leg. Luckily, the woman had nearly finished the drink before sitting down so Erik only received a small stain on his pants' leg.
The woman grabbed a handful of napkins from the bar's top and began pressing the wadded up napkins on top of Erik's leg, apologizing all the while. "I'm so sorry," she said, screwing up her beautiful face in a pretty pout. "I'm such a klutz."
Erik laughed shortly, and held the woman's hand at bay. If she ran her hand any higher up on his leg, she would get entirely too personal for his comfort. "It's all right," he assured her. "It's an old suit."
The woman, who was dressed in designer clothes herself, obviously knew quality when she saw it. She was certainly looking at it. He was around six-one and in great shape. His clean-shaven, square-chinned face was handsome in a rugged, utterly masculine way. His eyes were so beautiful, she could drown in them, and if his voice were any sexier, she'd melt. She peered at his shoes, his watch, how perfectly his suit fit him, his skin, his teeth, his haircut, and realized that with him, money was no object. She wouldn't have conveniently spilled her drink on him if he had looked penniless.
"At least let me buy you a drink," she said. Her big brown eyes were very persuasive.
"That's sweet of you," said Erik, "but I already have a drink, and was just about to order one for my date." He indicated Ana with a nod in her direction.
The woman looked over at Ana who had watched the scene with an amused expression. She'd seen women use that "spilled drink" trick on more than one occasion. Erik was too much of a gentleman, however, to call the woman out on it.
"Oh," said the woman, her ample chest heaving with a sigh, "I see." Still not willing to give up entirely, she withdrew a card from her purse and placed it in Erik's palm. "Perhaps we can have that drink some other time," she said for his ears only.
She smoothly removed herself from the barstool, not giving him a chance to return her card, if he was of that mind. Looking at Ana, she said in parting, "Did anyone ever tell you you're a dead ringer for Ana Corelli?"
What nerve! Ana thought angrily. She sent mental daggers into the woman's retreating back. How desperate do you have to be to boldly accost a man who was obviously with another woman? She had to take several deep breaths before she trusted herself to return her attention to Erik who was watching her with a smile touching the corners of his generous mouth. "Where were we?" he asked, coaxing her back into their intimate circle.
For a moment, Ana couldn't form words. Heat flared in her face. Now she knew how being hot under the collar felt. For some reason that woman's behavior made her fiercely protective of Erik and ready to defend her territory. But Erik wasn't her territory. They were friends. In the beginning, he had told her he was attracted to her and wanted to date her, but at that time she had just gotten out of a disastrous relationship with an egotistical actor whose treatment of her had left her insecure. She'd told Erik that they could be friends, but she was giving up on dating for a while, but she hadn't dated anyone else since they had started hanging out together. Come to think of it, neither had he that she knew of. Could he have a secret lover? Someone he hooked up with on occasion to satisfy his needs? He was a red-blooded male, after all. She had longings herself. It only stood to reason that he did, too.
Suddenly she was wondering if she were standing in his way of a real relationship. Someone he could get serious about, and consider marrying. Erik, married and no longer a major part of her life? The thought made her cringe inwardly. She could not imagine life without Erik.
Ana realized Erik was waiting on her to tell him why she'd called. She cleared her throat. "I quit my day job," she announced.
Erik didn't look surprised. "You've been talking about it for a long time. Modeling doesn't make you happy, painting does. You should follow your heart."
"I still have to fulfill my cosmetics contract, plus my family's company is starting a new line of clothing for full-figured women. I'll be appearing in ads for it since I've put on a few pounds." She looked at him out of the corner of her eye to see if he'd respond to the mention of extra pounds. But there was no reaction whatsoever.
Erik only smiled. He had noticed. The added ten pounds or so made her look healthier and less angular. She'd filled out in all the right places, fuller breasts and hips, a rounder, less concave belly. He loved her new body. She had always been sexy to him. Now even sexier. He could tell she knew it, too. There was more jiggle in her walk, as if she were indeed feeling confident about her new body.
Of course, he couldn't say that out loud. They were supposed to be just friends. If she knew he coveted her body, often dreamed of making love to her, there was no telling how she would react. He remembered when he'd tried to date her in the beginning. She'd told him she'd given up on men. If he wanted to be a part of her life, he would have to be satisfied with her friendship, nothing else. It had been two long years. His frustration was coming to a head. He wanted, no, he needed more. Every time he resolved to tell her how he felt, however, he would talk himself out of it because having her in his life was preferable to not having her in his life at all. If she gave him any indication of feeling about him the way he felt about her, though, he would jump on the opportunity with both feet. All he needed was a sign.
The way she was looking at that woman who had come on to him could possibly be that sign. Could it be that she was possessive of him? The thought was intriguing.
The bartender took her drink order and once they were alone again, Ana regarded him with a contemplative expression on her face and said, "You and I have always been honest with each other, haven't we?"
A cautious man, Erik took a moment to wonder why she would ask that. "I've always thought so," he replied hesitantly.
Ana smiled warmly. Dimples appeared in both cheeks. Her deep brown eyes held his gaze. "Am I standing in the way of your future happiness?"
"What?" He looked genuinely puzzled. Then, he laughed. Looking down at the card lying on the bar the woman from earlier had given him, he said, "You mean that?" He met her gaze once more. "You know how I feel about you. I'm the man who's willing to wait, remember?" She detected no bitterness in his voice, which made her feel even worse.
She could let it drop but she had to get to the heart of the matter. "You don't feel as if I've been using you these past two years? I know you said you would wait until I was ready for a relationship. But maybe you've changed your mind and our being friends all this time has made you see me in a different lightas a friend. Not a lover."
Erik's brows raised in an incredulous expression. If anything, the time they'd spent together had made him fall for her even harder. They had met in Milan, on the opening night of Temptation, Ana's brother Dominic's modern opera, nearly two years ago. Initially, he had to admit, his attraction to her was physical. There was no denying she was gorgeous. Five ten and built for sin. Skin the color of toasted almonds. She had a heart-shaped face with big brown eyes, a well-shaped nose, full, sensually curved lips and a cleft in her chin, which gave her a distinctive look. Her naturally wavy black hair was long and usually falling down her back. Yes, all the physical parts fit together very nicely. But that was only part of why he loved Ana. To know her was to love her, and knowing her made him privy to her inner workings. For example, there was a great mind behind that beautiful face. She would rather be curled up with a good book than go to a social event where she would be the center of attention. Material possessions, though she could very well afford the best, were not of utmost importance to her. She gave generously of her time and money. And family meant more to her than anything else in the world.
"If you're asking if I'm no longer interested in you
romantically, then the answer is don't be ridiculous. Just give me the word and I'll throw you over my shoulder and take you to my place right now and make love to you all night long." His sensual perusal made her blush.
She demurely lowered her eyes and gave a contented sigh. So, he still wanted her. That was good to know. Now, what was she going to do about it? She raised her eyes to his. "Have you ever considered the idea of our being friends with benefits?"
Because she most certainly hadmany, many times!
The bartender walked up and placed her chilled white wine in front of her, then promptly departed. She took a fortifying sip as she awaited Erik's answer. What was wrong with her tonight, she wondered. Was the fact that she had made one big decision psychologically urging her to make an even bigger one? She had been dragging her feet about their relationship because she was so content with Erik in her life. Why mess with perfection? Her last relationship had ended after she'd become intimate with the guy. It was as if getting her into bed was the ultimate goal and once that was accomplished she wasn't desirable to him anymore. And the guy before him had dropped her because she'd wanted to wait until she knew him better before going to bed with him. He had been conceited enough to tell her a requirement to being with him was sex, and lots of it. He'd called
her a freak of nature! She was sure she was probably complicating her problem with men too much. She'd simply made bad choices in men. She was twenty-five and had had only one lover, and he'd turned out to be a bastard. Intellectually, she knew this. However, telling that to her broken heart was another thing, entirely.
Erik was so different from the others. He was solid and reliable. A brilliant businessman, he had taken his family's company to new heights. Of course, his father, John Whitaker, had given him a wonderful foundation to build upon but Erik was continuing the tradition of making the family name an honorable one in big business. Known for buying failing companies and turning them around, thereby saving the jobs of many Americans, Erik found satisfaction in a job well done.
His cognac-colored eyes held an amused expression when he answered her question, his tone seductive, "About twice a day, maybe four times a day on weekends."
Ana fanned her face. She'd flushed upon hearing him admit that. So, she wasn't the only one who had sex on the brain. "I've thought of it just as often," she admitted.