Read an Excerpt
People thought Dianne Leigh Harrington had the world on her personal yo-yo string. Strikingly beautiful with an exquisite face the camera loved, she was known around the world as “The Face,” the only model for the House of Harrington’s print advertisements and lead model for their runway shows. She was on the A list, got into all the exclusive nightspots, was voted one of the beautiful people in People magazine, was sought after by some of the richest men in the world.
Those who thought she lived a fairy-tale life were wrong.
In a one-of-a-kind, haute couture, strapless, blush-pink evening gown created especially to show off her smooth bare shoulders, shapely curves, and long legs, from the side split to midthigh, Dianne sipped her vintage champagne in a quiet corner of the lavish Plaza Hotel suite, and fought not to sigh.
She was lonely. So what else was new?
Dianne could recall few occasions in her life when she had truly felt happy and wanted. Tonight, with her two closest friends in the room, should have been one of those rare occasions. It wasn’t. She felt too much like the odd man out, just as she had always been.
So she did what she always did when she felt left out: smiled, sipped her drink, and pretended she didn’t have a care in the world. Too bad it wasn’t true.
She should be content for once to observe rather than be observed. But the more she watched the obviously in love couples circulate around the suite, the lonelier she became. Because, just like always, tonight when the party was over she’d go home alone.
While she enjoyed her glamorous career as a model and spokeswoman for the House of Harrington, and visited some of the most fascinating cities in the world, she wanted more out of life. She was frequently in the company of other models or people in the fashion industry. They tended to go out in groups, but before the night was over they usually paired up with someone in the group or with someone they’d met. Dianne wasn’t into casual affairs, so she always ended up alone.
The couples in the room had what she’d longed for all her life: unconditional love. She wasn’t jealous, she just wanted what they had, wondered what it felt like to be totally loved and wanted.
As an only child, she’d been barely tolerated by her self-absorbed parents. Her mother, beautiful, elegant, and always perfect, was a slave to fashion. Her handsome father’s unrelenting passion was golf. They looked good together, and freely enjoyed being the recipients of the Harrington fashion fortune. Neither would have dreamed of working. If they thought about Dianne at all, it was when it was convenient or when it made them look like the loving, charitable couple they pretended to be in public.
What a bunch of crock, Dianne thought as she took another sip. Her parents only loved themselves. They even bought their own Christmas presents since they reasoned that they knew what they wanted better than anyone. Dianne seldom made their Christmas list unless they hoped to gain from it somehow.
No matter how many years had passed, Dianne still thought of the Christmas Eve when she was five years old. With TV cameras rolling, her parents had made a very public display of donating her toys to those less fortunate. There had been no cameras the next morning when her mother presented herself with a flawless diamond necklace and earrings to match. Her father’s gift to himself was a membership at one of the most exclusive golf clubs in the country.
Dianne shook the memory away. She was her own woman now. She had her beloved grandfather to thank for that. A sharp pain lanced through her. She still found it difficult to believe he’d been gone for four months. He’d believed in her. He hadn’t thought she was too fat or too stupid for the D collection to be named for her. Both she and the line were instant hits. That had been fourteen long years ago. Modeling for Harrington was all she knew.
In the quiet of the night, that thought often frightened her. She should be able to do something beside strut down a runway, pose for a camera, and spout how fabulous these clothes made a woman look and feel.
Laughter brought her head up and around. Each woman there had accomplished something in her own right. The men were just as successful. Her parents would have forgone anything to be there. The women were beautiful, the men gorgeous, but it was the unmistakable love in their eyes when they looked at each other that drew Dianne’s attention, time and time again.
She was the only single woman there. She’d been invited by her best friend since childhood, Catherine Stewart Grayson, to help celebrate the successful closing of Sabra Raineau Grayson’s Broadway play. She was Catherine’s husband’s sister-in-law. There was already talk that she would win another Tony for her role. She could add it to her growing collection of awards, including an Oscar. There had been a cast party last night but Pierce Grayson, Sabra’s husband, wanted tonight to be just family and close friends.
In the room were Luke Grayson’s brothers and sisters, their spouses, Sabra’s sister, Laurel, and her new husband, Zach. Also in attendance were Shane Elliott and his wife, Paige, who was Zachary’s sister. Looking uncomfortable but resigned in a tuxedo was Trent Masters with his famous wife, Dominique, Luke’s cousin. They were all interrelated or friends. Luke’s mother, Ruth, along with her brother and his wife, had already gone to their rooms. Dianne was the outsider as she’d always been.
Her slim fingers tightened on the stem of the flute, then eased. She wasn’t going to feel sorry for herself. She wasn’t the only single person there at least. Her gaze turned to the silent man across the room. She met Rio’s unflinching gaze. He simply watched her. To another person his unblinking gaze might have been unnerving, but she had grown up with parents who looked through her.
“You’re all right?”
The sound of the rich baritone voice made her smile. Dianne turned, aware she’d see Alex Stewart, the only other unattached male in the room. Catherine’s big brother had been the extra-special bonus of having her for a best friend. “Of course,” she said, still smiling up at him. It had always been easy to talk with Alex. He had also been her first crush.
“Good,” he said, staring down at her with his handsome, serious butterscotch-hued face. He had thick lashes her friends would kill for, a straight nose, and a mobile, sensual mouth that she had been wondering how it would feel against her own mouth entirely too much lately. “You’re here to have fun.”
Dragging her gaze away from his lips, Dianne thought of the issue at hand. Alex had always looked after her. Somehow he’d always known what to do to make her feel better. She wondered if he could give her what she needed this time as well.
She wanted a man to look at her as if she were his world, as if she made his life better. She realized she wanted that man to be Alex. The realization didn’t surprise her. Somehow she knew he’d be a gentle, considerate lover. He was steady and dependable. He would also be discreet, another of her requirements.
Too many times she’d heard men brag about a conquest when the relationship ended. Some of her women associates shrugged it off. Dianne knew she wouldn’t be so blasé. It would wound her deeply. Outwardly she might look secure. She wasn’t. Growing up, she’d been told too many times by her parents how utterly worthless she was.
Alex didn’t think so, she thought, as she gazed up at him through a sweep of her lashes. But was he the man who could ease the ache in her heart and soul?
* * *
Alex stared down into the pensive, beautiful face of his one weakness, Dianne Harrington. He’d probably started falling in love with her the Christmas morning she was five years old and he was nine. He’d seen her crying on her porch steps because her parents had given away all her toys and Santa hadn’t left any to replace them. He’d quickly climbed off his new bike and made up a story about Santa leaving the wrong-sized bike at his house.
The wide-eyed happy smile on her tearstained face had been worth the lie. He’d happily pushed her around on his bike most of the morning; the next day, using his own money that he’d saved for a telescope, he’d purchased her a pink bicycle. He couldn’t explain to his parents why it had been important to use his own money, it just had been. They hadn’t asked any more questions, just told him how proud of him they were.
He’d long since accepted that he could only have Dianne as a friend. If she learned how he felt, it would be awkward for her and embarrassing for him. Dianne was like a star, to be gazed at and admired but not touched.
“We’re the only two unattached people here,” Dianne said, watching Alex over the rim of her flute. “You think they’re trying to tell us something?”
Alex, used to Dianne’s flirtatious ways, nodded toward Rio, his face blank, leaning against the wall. Dianne followed the direction of Alex’s gaze. Rio was gorgeous, and beneath his expertly cut tux he probably had a body that would make a woman drool, but there was also a dangerous alertness about him. She could never be completely comfortable around him the way she could be with Alex. “Not my type,” she said.
Alex’s brows knitted. There was something different about her tonight. He’d watched her from a distance, a lifelong habit, most of the evening. There was a sad wistfulness in her face that he’d caught glimpses of more and more that evening. Dianne was usually the life of the party, joking, laughing. Tonight she had been quiet and remained apart.
“You’re sure everything is all right with the House of Harrington?” he asked.
Dianne accepted that Alex had always been able to read her better than anyone, even Catherine. “Fine. I guess I’m just tired. My plane got in from Paris this afternoon.”
His long-fingered hand brushed up and down her bare arm, sending shivers in its wake. “Are you concerned about meeting with the new CEO?” Alex asked, apparently unwilling to let it go.
The smile on Dianne’s face vanished. The House of Harrington’s board had elected a new CEO a month ago to take her grandfather’s place. She swallowed the lump in her throat. Her grandfather had been the only relative who saw her as a person and not as a paycheck. “No,” she finally answered.
Alex’s frown didn’t clear. “With your grandfather gone, you need a contract.”
“My parents still have a controlling interest in Harrington. We both know money rules them.” She tried to say the words carelessly but, from the concerned way Alex looked at her, he knew how much it still bothered her that her parents didn’t love her.
“I could clear my schedule and go with you,” he offered.
Alex was watching out for her. Again. He’d do it and think nothing of it. Too many times to count, Alex had been there for her when she was growing up. “You’re a great friend,” she said, and watched something flicker in his beautiful black eyes.
“I’ll always be there for you, you know that,” he said softly.
She did. Alex was solid. He worked with one of the top law firms in New York, and was in line to be a partner. He had a Who’s Who list of clients, but he also took on pro-bono cases. Catherine had mentioned that he and his two best friends in New York were known as the renegades because they followed their own dictates. They cared about people more than the bottom line. Right, not money, ruled them.
But was the possibility of being the sole object of his affection for a short time worth the loss of his friendship when it was over? And it would end eventually. She wasn’t lovable.
Perhaps it was in her genetic makeup, or perhaps it was that she wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer. As her mother had pointed out more than once, if she hadn’t been the face of Harrington, there was no telling what would have become of her. Her mother, a former runway model, had managed to marry the son and only child of the founders of the House of Harrington, Aaron and Nora Harrington, before she turned twenty-three.
Dianne had no romantic prospects. There were men who wanted to have sex with her because of who she was or the way she looked or just to say they had, but none who wanted her, the woman behind “The Face.” She didn’t know why she felt tears prick her eyes. She bent to place her glass on the nearby table.
Alex felt a mild panic on seeing the sheen of tears in Dianne’s eyes. Lawyers didn’t panic. Without counting the cost, he pulled her into his arms. “Whatever it is, I’m here.” The warmth of her body against his, the soft sigh, made his unsteady heart beat out a warning, which he ignored.
His hand splayed in the middle of her bare back. Her skin was softer than velvet, smooth as silk. Heat and desire swept though him. He held her closer. There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t risk for this woman, even his foolish heart.
In Alex’s arms, Dianne felt safe, wanted. She’d experienced that emotion pitifully few times in her life. Reluctantly she pushed against the rock-hard chest and stared up into the face of the one man besides her grandfather she’d always been comfortable with.
At the moment, Alex’s dark brows were furrowed with concern, his piercing black eyes narrowed intently on her face. He cared. She could build on that if she dared. But she’d always been a coward; she’d been hurt too many times when she reached out, especially to her parents.
“I guess I’m still tired from my flight today.” She tried to smile, but for once her facial muscles refused to obey. “I think I’ll call it a night.” For a tense moment, she thought he would question her further.
“Let’s say good night and I’ll see you home,” he said.
Persistent, stubborn, loyal. There wasn’t a better man in the world than Alex. “Thanks, but I can see myself home. You aren’t leaving your family and friends.”
The long, elegant fingers of his right hand brushed down the bare slope of her shoulder. “You’re like family.”
The hot shivers that raced through her at his casual touch were at odds with his statement. She’d once thought she’d like to be a member of the loving, happy Stewart family, but she was suddenly glad she wasn’t.
“You can see me to a cab.” Pleased her voice wasn’t as breathless as she felt, she went to say good night to the others in the room, all the time very much aware of the solid warmth of Alex directly behind her. She couldn’t recall ever being so aware of him. She didn’t know if it was because of her thoughts about the possibility of them becoming lovers or something else.
“Thanks for the invitation, Catherine,” Dianne said to her oldest and dearest friend. She wasn’t sure how her childhood would have turned out if not for the connection she’d made with Catherine and Alex. “I had a wonderful time.”
“I’m glad you could come,” Catherine said, hugging Dianne. Glamorous and beautiful, Catherine wore an emerald-green gown that showed off her slender figure. “I wish we weren’t leaving so early in the morning so we’d have time to get together.”
“Me too,” Dianne said, swallowing the lump in her throat. It had been six months since they’d seen each other in person. Since Dianne’s plane had gotten in so late, they’d had only a short time to talk tonight. “The next break I get, look for me on your doorstep.”
“I’m holding you to that,” Catherine said, holding Dianne’s hands in hers.
“You’re always welcome,” Luke, Catherine’s husband, said as he slipped his arms around her waist. “Anytime.”
“Thank you.” Dianne leaned over to whisper in an aside, “You definitely picked a winner.”
“Don’t I know it, but he wasn’t easy.” Catherine laughed.
Luke chuckled. “You had me from the moment you got the drop on me with the semiautomatic.”
Those around them laughed as well. Luke had surprised Catherine at his cabin, and she’d greeted him with a gun. “That’s my girl, always cool and in control,” Dianne said.
Catherine and Luke shared a look. “Because of Luke,” she whispered, and leaned into his muscular body.
“Thank God,” Dianne said. Luke had rescued Catherine in more ways than one. Hugging both Luke and Catherine, she said her good-byes to the others in the room, then left with Alex.
Instead of taking her arm, he slung his arm around her shoulders. He’d done it a hundred times, but tonight she wanted to lean into him.
“The family is going to spend Thanksgiving again this year with Catherine and Luke’s family in Santa Fe. You know you have a standing invitation, Alex said.
Where she’d be the outsider. Her grandfather hadn’t been much on holidays since her grandmother had died when Dianne was eighteen. Last Thanksgiving she’d been stranded in the airport due to a snowstorm. Her Thanksgiving dinner had been a sandwich out of a vending machine while sitting in a hard plastic chair surrounded by strangers. By the time she’d finally arrived back in New York, she had to fly out again for a shoot in Hawaii. She punched the elevator button. “Thanks, I’ll check my schedule.”
“Why don’t I believe you?”
The elevator doors slid open. She stepped in and punched the lobby button. “You’re a lawyer,” she said, tossing him a teasing grin.
He didn’t smile back. “How about lunch tomorrow? You can tell me about the latest doings in the fashion world.”
She glanced up at him through a flirtatious sweep of lashes, aware this time she was doing it on purpose. Although she had an apartment in New York, she was seldom there because she traveled so much for fashion shoots, runway shows, and appearances, or was at their Paris location.
She could count on one hand the number of times in the past year she had spent more than thirty minutes at a time with Alex. One or the other, usually her, was always busy. But she always made a point of calling him whenever she was in town.
The elevator opened and they stepped off. “Your schedule is just as hectic as mine,” she said as they crossed the immense lobby. Overhead, huge Waterford crystal chandeliers glittered.
“How does noon at Le Cirque sound?” he asked as they went through the revolving door and outside. “Taxi, please,” he told the doorman.
Le Cirque was usually booked days in advance. “You’re going to ditch a client?” she asked.
“Not necessary,” he smiled, showing dimples that made him look like an adorable little boy. “You forget. I know people.”
She had forgotten, probably because, unlike a lot of people she associated with, Alex wasn’t a show-off. He was one of those self-assured men who were comfortable with who they were. He didn’t have to prove anything to anyone.
He came from a very wealthy and influential family. His father was a successful third-generation banker. His mother was a renowned California senator. His younger sister, Catherine, was a well-respected child psychologist, a past professor at Stanford, and a New York Times best-selling children’s author. If that wasn’t enough, her husband Luke’s cousin, Daniel Falcon, was enormously wealthy, and Luke’s baby sister was married to real estate billionaire Blade Navarone.
But Alex wasn’t a man to trade on the wealth and fame of others. He didn’t have to. He was wealthy and respected in his own right. Unlike her father, Alex didn’t use his power for his own selfish gain, and thus, when he sought people’s help, they responded favorably.
The cab pulled up to the curb in front of them. She stole another look at Alex. Her heart made that crazy knock in her chest again. There wasn’t a shred of doubt in her mind that he’d fulfill her every sexual fantasy and then some.
But was a brief, hot affair worth losing his friendship? “Why don’t I take a rain check and get back to you after I’ve had a chance to rest?”
She easily read the disappointment on his face. She masked her own disappointment. She liked being with him.
“All right. You have my numbers if you change your mind.” He opened the taxi’s rear door and waited until she was seated. “’Night. Don’t forget to take some fluids before you go to bed.”
She smiled. Alex was one of a kind. It would be difficult if not impossible to find another man who excited her like he did, and who always thought of her well-being. “I won’t. Good night, Alex.”
Shutting the door, he straightened. The cab pulled off. Through the rear window Dianne watched Alex, gorgeous and elegant, until traffic obscured him. She wondered if she had enough courage to proposition her best friend’s brother to be her lover.
Copyright © 2012 by Francis Ray