“Julie James rocks!”
—Sandra Hill, USA Today bestselling author
A Lot Like Love
“Julie James writes books I can’t put down. A Lot Like Love kept me up way past midnight!”
—Nalini Singh, New York Times bestselling author
“Sexy fun, romance fans will pop their corks over this one.”
“Fueled by equal measures of seductive wit, edge-of-the-seat suspense, and scorching-hot sexual chemistry, James’s latest scintillating novel of romantic suspense is a rare treat.”
“[James] exhibits her trademark sizzle and wit.”
“You’ll fall head over heels for A Lot Like Love.”
“Julie James…is mastering the genre of romantic suspense.”
—The News-Gazette (East Central Illinois)
“James writes characters so real you can almost reach out and touch them. A delicious blend of romance and suspense.”
—RT Book Reviews
“Just the right balance of charm, love, action, and touches of humor and suspense.”
“There’s a whole lot to love about A Lot Like Love from Julie James. This is a superb read, plain and simple.”
—Babbling About Books, and More
Something About You
“Smart, snappy, funny yet realistic. I can’t count the number of times I laughed while reading the book…This is one book I can totally recommend.”
“From first impressions to the last page, it’s worth shaking your tail feather over…This is a contemporary romance well worth savoring, and laughing over, and reading all over again.”
—Smart Bitches, Trashy Books
“Just plain fun! James is a master of witty repartee.”
—RT Book Reviews
Practice Makes Perfect
“A tantalizing dessert—a delicious, delightful read that all hopeless romantics will enjoy.”
“A fast-paced romantic comedy, packed with hilarious situations and sharp dialogue…A talented writer…Expect a lot of sparks to fly.”
—San Francisco Book Review
“A sophisticated contemporary romance…proves that [James] is a master at conveying both courtroom and behind-the-scenes maneuvering.”
—Booklist (starred review)
Just the Sexiest Man Alive
“Fantastic, frolicking fun…Read Just the Sexiest Man Alive, and you will be adding Julie James to your automatic-buy list!”
—Janet Chapman, New York Times bestselling author
“Witty banter and an amazing chemistry…bring this delightful story to life.”
“Remind[s] me of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy movies: they have that funny edge.”
—Eloisa James, New York Times bestselling author
“Witty and romantic.”
Berkley Sensation Titles by Julie James
JUST THE SEXIEST MAN ALIVE
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
SOMETHING ABOUT YOU
A LOT LIKE LOVE
ABOUT THAT NIGHT
BERKLEY SENSATION, NEW YORK
I know you’re watching,
and I’m keeping that promise.
First and foremost, I owe tremendous thanks to John and Chris, two assistant U.S. attorneys who were unbelievably generous with their time in answering my many, many questions about federal criminal procedure and life as an AUSA. Since my days as a federal appellate clerk, I’ve had the utmost respect for the talented prosecutors who serve in those positions.
Special thanks as well to Special Agent Ross Rice and Assistant U.S. Attorney Russell Samborn, who opened the doors to their offices and gave me glimpses of day-to-day life at both the Chicago division of the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois. I’m grateful also to Dave Scalzo for sharing his business expertise and to Jen Laudadio for, well, you know what.
To Elyssa Papa and Kati Dancy—thank you so much for your wonderful feedback and insights, and for working with some really tight deadlines. Simply put, you ladies rock.
Thanks as well to my editor, Wendy McCurdy, and my agent, Susan Crawford, for their understanding, helpfulness, and patience during what turned out to be a very eventful year for me. I also want to express my gratitude to the entire team at Berkley—all of whom do such a fantastic job—including my incredible publicist, Erin Galloway, and Christine Masters, copy editor extraordinaire.
Finally, to my husband: I know I always thank you in my books, but—wow—I think I may actually owe you my first-born child after this one. Good thing he’s already yours, or I’d probably be in a lot of trouble with DCFS for that arrangement.
Table of Contents
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
SHE HAD SURVIVED.
Pressed against the wood-paneled wall of the bar, her chin resting on her hand, Rylann Pierce listened as her friends chatted on around her, quite content for the first time in a month to think about nothing whatsoever.
Along with five of her law school classmates, she sat at a crowded table on the second floor of the Clybourne, one of the few campus bars frequented by highbrow graduate students who demanded that their watered-down, four-dollar drinks be served in actual glasses instead of plastic. Everyone in the group was in the same section as Rylann, which meant they’d all completed their last final exam, Criminal Procedure, late that afternoon. Spirits were high and boisterous—at least boisterous by law-student standards—punctuated only by occasional lows when someone realized a point they’d missed during the obligatory post-exam recap.
Someone nudged her elbow, interrupting her reverie. “Hello? Anyone there?”
The question came from Rylann’s roommate, Rae Mendoza, who was seated at her right.
“I’m here. Just…picturing myself at the pool.” Rylann tried to hold on to the mirage for a few moments longer. “It’s sunny and seventy-five degrees. I’ve got some kind of tropical drink with one of those little umbrellas in it, and I’m reading a book—one I don’t have to highlight or outline in the margins.”
“They make those kinds of books?”
“If memory serves.” Rylann exchanged a conspiratorial smile with Rae. Like many of their classmates, they’d both spent nearly every waking hour of the last four weeks outlining class notes and textbooks, taking practice exams, staring bleary-eyed at Emanuel Law Outlines into the wee hours of the night, and meeting with study groups—all in preparation for four three-hour tests that would help determine the course of their future legal careers. No pressure there.
The rumor was that the second and third years got progressively easier, which would be nice—there was this interesting activity called sleep Rylann had heard of, and she was thinking about trying it out. Perfect timing, too. She had a week off before her summer job started, during which she planned to do nothing more strenuous than roll herself out of bed every day by noon and mosey over to the university’s outdoor pool, which was open to students.
“I hate to burst the bubble on your daydream, but I’m pretty sure they don’t allow alcoholic drinks at IMPE,” Rae said, referring to the university’s Intramural Physical Education building, which housed said pool.
Rylann waved off such pesky details. “I’ll throw a mai tai in my College of Law thermos and tell people that it’s iced tea. If campus security gives me any trouble, I’ll scare them off with my quasi-legal credentials and remind them of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibitions against illegal searches and seizures.”
“Wow. Do you know how big of a law school geek you just sounded like?”
Unfortunately, she did. “Do you think any of us will ever be normal again?”
Rae considered this. “I’m told that somewhere around third year, we lose the urge to cite the Constitution in everyday conversation.”
“That’s promising,” Rylann said.
“But seeing how you’re more of a law geek than most, it might take you longer.”
“Remember that conversation last night when I said I was going to miss you this summer? I take it back.”
Rae laughed and slung her arm around Rylann’s shoulders. “Aw, you know you’re going to be so bored here without me.”
Rylann was overcome by a sudden pang of sentimentality. Now that finals were over, Rae and nearly all their law school friends were heading back home. Rae would be in Chicago for the next ten weeks, working double shifts at a bartending job that sounded glamorous and fun and that would pay her enough money to cover nearly a year of tuition. Rylann, on the other hand, had scored a summer law internship with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of Illinois. While the internship was a prestigious and coveted position among law students—particularly among first-years—she would be paid at the not-so-glamorous GS-5 salary, which would earn her little more than what she needed to cover her rent and living expenses for the summer. Perhaps, if she were particularly frugal, she’d have enough left over for next semester’s textbooks. Or at least one of them. Those darn things were expensive.
But despite the meager GS-5 wages, she was thrilled about the internship. As much as she grumbled about her student loans, she wasn’t going to law school for the money. She had a six-year academic and career plan—she was big on having plans—and her summer internship was the next step in it. After graduation, she hoped to land a clerkship with a federal judge, and then she’d apply to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Although many law students had no clue what type of law they wanted to practice after graduation, this was not the case with Rylann. She’d known since she was ten that she wanted to become a criminal prosecutor and had never wavered in that, despite the lure of money offered by big law firms. Sure, that paid the bills—and then some—but civil litigation seemed too dry and impersonal for her tastes. Corporation X suing Company Y for millions of dollars in a lawsuit that could go on for years without anyone giving a damn except for the lawyers who billed three thousand hours a year working on it. No thank you.
Rylann wanted to be in court every day, in the thick of things, trying cases that meant something. And in her mind, not much could be more meaningful than putting criminals behind bars.
A male voice coming from across the table interrupted her thoughts. “Three months in Champaign-Urbana. Remind me how the girl who’s second in our law school class couldn’t work herself a better deal.”
The voice belonged to their friend Shane, who, like everyone else at the table, had a drink in his hand and a good-humored glow about him. Rylann could guess the reason for the glow. In addition to being done with finals, summer break meant that Shane got to return home to Des Moines and see his girlfriend, with whom he was adorably smitten—although being a guy, he naturally tried to conceal that fact.
“It’s not the place that matters, Shane,” Rylann said. “It’s how good you are when you get there.”
“Nicely said.” Rae laughed, high-fiving her.
“Scoff if you want,” Shane replied. “But my car is packed, gassed up, and stocked with snacks for the road. At seven a.m. tomorrow, come rain or shine, I’m blowing this popsicle joint.”
“Seven a.m.?” Rae looked pointedly at the drink in Shane’s hand, his third so far that evening. “I’m thinking that’s not going to happen.”
He waved this off, the drink spilling slightly. “Please. Like a little hangover’s going to get in the way of a man in love.”
“Aw. That’s very romantic,” Rylann said.
“Plus, I haven’t gotten laid in two months, and the reunion sex is awesome.”
“And there’s the Shane we know and love.” Rylann took the last sip of her drink and shook the ice in her glass. “Speaking of hangovers, I think the next round is mine.” She collected orders from the group, then scooted around the crowded table and headed over to the bar.
“Three Amstel Lights, one rum and Diet Coke, one gin and tonic, and a Corona with two limes,” she told the bartender.
A voice, low and masculine, came from her right.
“Sounds like a party.”
Rylann turned in the direction of the voice, and—
Guys like the one leaning against the bar next to her did not exist in Champaign-Urbana. Actually, guys like the one next to her didn’t exist anyplace she knew of.
His dark blond hair was thick and slightly on the longer side, just brushing against the collar of his navy flannel shirt. He was tall, with piercing blue eyes and an angular jaw that was slightly scruffy, as if he hadn’t shaved for a couple days, and had a leanly muscular body. He wore dark jeans and well-worn construction-type boots and, together with the flannel, looked ruggedly masculine and wholly, undeniably sexy.
Undoubtedly, she was not the first woman to blink twice at the sight of him, nor would she be the last. And he appeared to be fully aware of this fact. His blue eyes sparkled with amusement as he rested one elbow against the bar, all confidence as he waited for her response.
It was the first thought that popped into Rylann’s head.
Her second thought was that her first thought was ridiculous, and she nearly laughed out loud at herself. Run. Really? He was just some guy in a bar; having spent five years in a college town that allowed people to enter bars at the age of nineteen, she’d seen plenty of those.
She gestured to the crowd around them. It was after eleven o’clock, and the place was packed to the gills. “Last day of finals. It’s a party for everybody.”
He looked her over with assessing eyes. “Let me guess. You’re graduating this weekend. You just took your last exam, and tonight you’re celebrating your entry into the real world.” He cocked his head. “I’d say…advertising major. You scored a job with Leo Burnett and are about to move into your first apartment in Chicago, a quaint and overpriced two bedroom in Wrigleyville that you’ll share with your roommate over there.” He nodded in the direction of Rae, obviously having noticed which table Rylann had been sitting at.
She rested her arm on the bar. “Is this ‘guess my major’ routine your typical opening line or something you break out only on graduation weekend, hoping most women are too drunk to notice how generic it is?”
He looked offended. “Generic? I was going for confident and perceptive.”
“You ended up somewhere around clichéd and smug.”
He grinned, revealing two small dimples that added a hint of mischief to his angular jaw. “Or maybe I was just so dead-on perceptive that it scared you.”
The bartender pushed the six drinks Rylann had ordered in front of her. She handed over two twenties and waited for her change. “Not even close,” she said to Smug Dimples, happy to prove him wrong. “I’m a grad student. Law school.”
“Ah. You’re putting off the real world for another three years, then.” He casually took a swig of his beer.
Rylann fought the urge to roll her eyes. “I see. Now you’re going for clichéd and condescending.”
Smug Dimples looked her over slyly. “I didn’t say there was anything wrong with putting off the real world, counselor. You inferred that part.”
Rylann opened her mouth to respond, then shut it. Okay, fair enough. But he wasn’t the only one who could make quick assessments, and she’d bet that hers would be a lot more accurate than his had been. She knew his type—every woman knew his type. Blessed by an abundance of good looks and a corresponding amount of overconfidence, guys like him typically compensated by being short on personality. It was nature’s way of keeping things fair.
The bartender handed back her change, and Rylann grabbed two drinks to make her first trip back to the table. She was about to throw out a sassy parting remark to Smug Dimples when Rae suddenly appeared at her side.
“I’ll help you out with those, Rylann.” With a wink, Rae skillfully grabbed four drinks with both hands. “Wouldn’t want you to interrupt your conversation on our account.”
Before Rylann could utter a word in protest, Rae had already begun to ease her way through the crowd back to their table.
Smug Dimples leaned in closer. “I think your friend likes me.”
“She’s known for her exceptionally poor taste in men.”
He laughed. “Tell me how you really feel, counselor.”
Rylann glanced at him sideways. “It’s not ‘counselor’ until I graduate and pass the bar, you know.”
Smug Dimples’s eyes met hers and held them. “Okay, we’ll do first names instead. Rylann.”
She said nothing at first as she looked him up and down, coming to one inescapable conclusion. “You’re used to getting your way with women, aren’t you?”
He paused for a second. “Far more than I’d like, actually.”
He suddenly looked serious, and Rylann wasn’t sure what to say in response. Perhaps that was her cue.
She tipped her glass with a polite smile. “I think I’ll head back to my friends now. It’s been a pleasure…not quite meeting you.”
She walked back to the table, where her friends were engaged in a heated debate over the scope of the Fifth Amendment’s right to counsel during custodial interrogations. The guys in their group, including Shane, kept right on arguing as Rylann squeezed by, either not having noticed—or not caring about—her interaction with the guy at the bar. Rae, however, practically yanked Rylann into her seat.
“So? How did it go?” she asked eagerly.
“Assuming you’re talking about Smug Dimples over there, it didn’t go anywhere.”
“Smug Dimples?” Rae looked ready to smack her upside the head. “You know who that is, right?”
Surprised by the question, Rylann stole a glance back at Smug Dimples, who’d already joined his friends over at the pool table. Well, she’d had a theory up until that moment. Judging from the no-fuss jeans, flannel shirt, and work boots, along with the slightly too-longish hair, she’d pretty much assumed he was a townie, likely one of those guys in his twenties from Champaign who hung out with his friends at campus bars looking for easy pickings among the co-eds.
But now, given Rae’s implication that he was somebody she should know, she needed to rethink that assumption.
An athlete perhaps. He was tall enough, easily over six feet, and certainly had the body—not that she’d paid attention to that, of course.
Maybe he was the Fighting Illinis’ new quarterback or something. Rylann had been living in the insular world of law school for the past nine months and, frankly, didn’t have much of an interest in college football, so that could easily be the case. Although he seemed a bit older than she would expect for an undergrad.
“All right, I’ll bite. Who is he?” she asked Rae. She prepared to be wholly unimpressed.
Rylann stopped her drink midway to her mouth. Well. She actually did know that name. Virtually everyone at the university knew that name.
“The billionaire?” she asked.
“Technically, the billionaire’s son—but yes, the one and only,” Rae said.
“But Kyle Rhodes is supposed to be a computer geek.”
Rae shifted her position to check out the object of their discussion. “If that’s the new face of computer geek, sign me up. He can push my keyboard buttons any day.”
“Nice, Rae.” Rylann resisted the urge to look over again. She wasn’t familiar with all the details of his story, but she knew enough from the Time, Newsweek, and Forbes articles she’d read about his father, a Chicago businessman hailed as the epitome of the American dream. From what she recalled, Grey Rhodes had come from modest roots, graduated from the University of Illinois with a master’s degree in computer science, and eventually started his own software company. She didn’t remember much about his career, except for the one detail that really mattered: about ten years ago, his company had developed the Rhodes Anti-Virus, a software security program that had exploded worldwide to the ultimate tune of over one billion dollars.
She also knew that Grey Rhodes made generous donations to his alma mater, at least, she assumed that was the case, since the university had named an entire section of the campus after him—the Grey Rhodes Center for Computer Science. With his billion-dollar empire, he was easily the most wealthy and famous of the school’s alumni. And thus Kyle Rhodes, a grad student in computer science and the heirapparent, was also a name people knew.
So Smug Dimples had a name now, Rylann thought. Well, good for him.
She watched surreptitiously as Kyle Rhodes leaned across the pool table to take his shot, the flannel shirt stretching tight across his broad, seemingly very toned chest.
“You could always go back over there,” Rae said slyly, her eyes trained in the same direction as Rylann’s.
Rylann shook her head. Not a chance. “Didn’t your mother ever warn you about that kind of guy, Rae?”
“Yep. On my sixteenth birthday, when Troy Dempsey pulled into my driveway and asked if I wanted to go for a ride on his motorcycle.”
“Did you go?” Rylann asked.
“Hell, yes. I was wearing a denim miniskirt, and I burned my calf on the exhaust pipe. Still have the scar to this day.”
“There’s a lesson to be learned there,” Rylann said.
“Never wear a denim miniskirt?”
Rylann laughed. “That, too.” And stay away from bad boys.
They moved on from the subject of Kyle Rhodes and joined their friends in the Fifth Amendment fracas. Before Rylann realized it, over an hour had passed, and she was surprised when she checked her watch and saw that it was after midnight. She caught herself glancing in the direction of the pool table—her treacherous eyes seemed to have a will of their own that night—and noticed that Kyle Rhodes and his friends were gone.
Which was just fine with her.
THE BAR LIGHTS came on, a signal that it was time for everyone to clear out.
Rylann checked her watch impatiently, saw that it was a quarter past one in the morning, and wondered what could be taking Rae so long in the bathroom. She didn’t think her friend was sick—sure, they’d both had a few drinks that night, but they’d spread them out over several hours.
When another person, the third in the last five minutes, bumped into Rylann in the half stampede/half stumble of drunk patrons to the door, she figured she should check on what was keeping Rae. Moving against the herd, she waded deeper into the bar. Without warning, a guy slammed into her from the left, spilling his beer down the front of her black V-neck shirt.
Rylann cringed as the cold, sticky liquid trickled between her breasts and down her stomach. She glared at the culprit, a guy wearing a Greek-lettered baseball cap low on his forehead. “That’s just great,” she said dryly.
He managed a lopsided grin. “Sorry.” He turned around and pushed his friend. “Look what you made me do, asshole!”
As Asshole & Co. made their way out of the bar without another glance in her direction, Rylann shook her head. “Undergrads,” she muttered under her breath. No more campus bars, she decided. Sure, the drinks were cheap, but they clearly needed to find someplace with a more cerebral crowd.
“Now, now, counselor. Not so long ago, that could’ve been your pledge-dance date.”
Rylann recognized that teasing tone. She turned around and saw Smug Dimples, aka Kyle Rhodes, relaxing against the bar, his long legs stretched out in front of him.
She walked over, resolved to remain cool in the face of such undeniable attractiveness, and tried to decide how annoyed she was that his assessments of her were getting more accurate. She had been in a sorority and had, in fact, gone to pledge dances and several other functions with inebriated frat guys in baseball caps who inevitably ended up spilling beer on her at some point in the night. Good times.
She stopped alongside Kyle at the bar and pointed to the stack of cocktail napkins behind him. “Napkin, please.”
“You’re not going to tell me that I’m wrong about your pledge-dance date back there?”
“It was a lucky guess.” Rylann held out her hand and repeated her request. “Napkin.”
Kyle looked her over, then turned to the man standing behind the bar. “Think we could get a towel, Dan?”
“Sure, no problem, Kyle.” The bartender opened a cabinet underneath the bar and pulled out a fresh towel. He handed it to Kyle, who passed it over to Rylann.
“Thank you. They seem to know you around here, Kyle.” She pointedly repeated his first name so that she didn’t need to feign cluelessness if he offered it. For some reason, she didn’t want him to know that Rae had told her who he was.
“The manager is a friend of mine.” Kyle gestured to his two friends, who were playing pool in the corner of the bar. “He gives us free drinks. Can’t beat that deal.”
Rylann bit back a laugh. She wouldn’t have thought that a billionaire’s son would care about getting a deal on drinks. Then again, having never met a billionaire’s son before, she really didn’t know what they cared about.
She dabbed at her wet shirt with the towel, grateful that she’d worn black and didn’t have to worry about see-through issues. She half-expected Kyle to make some kind of smirky remark about the way the material clung to her chest, but he said nothing. And when she’d finished with the towel and set it on the bar, she looked up and found his eyes on hers, not zoned in on her boobs.
“So where are your friends?” he asked.
Shit! Rae. Rylann had completely forgotten about her after Frat Boy had dumped the beer down her shirt. “That’s a good question.” She looked around the bar and noticed that it was empty except for a few stragglers. Neither Rae nor her other law school friends were among them.
This was starting to get odd.
“She was supposed to meet me by the front door after she went to the bathroom, but she never came back…Excuse me for a moment.” Rylann left Kyle standing at the bar and strode into the ladies’ room. A quick check of the stalls revealed they were all empty.
After exiting the ladies’ room, she headed toward the wide wooden staircase that led to the second floor. A bouncer promptly cut her off at the pass.
“Bar’s closed,” he said. “You need to make your way to the door.”
“I’m looking for my friend who said she was going to the bathroom. There’s one upstairs, right?”
“Yes, but there’s no one in it. I just checked,” the bouncer said.
“Is there anyone still hanging out by the bar? Tall girl, light brown hair, wearing a red shirt?”
The bouncer shook his head. “Sorry. The whole floor’s empty.”
Kyle appeared at Rylann’s side as the bouncer walked off.
“Okay, now I’m worried,” she said, more to herself than to him.
“Does she have a cell phone?” Kyle asked.
Rylann frowned. “Yes, but I don’t.” She caught Kyle’s look and went on the defensive. Rae, and pretty much everyone else she knew, had been nagging her to get a cell phone all year. “Hey, those plans aren’t exactly cheap.”
He pulled a black cell phone out of his jeans pocket. “It’s called ‘free evening minutes.’ Welcome to 2003.”
“Ha, ha.” Rylann thought about leveling him with a withering stare but decided against it—she really could use that cell phone. The sass could wait.
She took the phone from Kyle, realizing that this was the second time she’d accepted help from him in the last five minutes. Common courtesy meant this obligated her to be at least somewhat pleasant to him.
She dialed Rae’s number and waited as the phone rang.
“Hello?” her friend answered in a perplexed tone.
Rylann breathed a sigh of relief. “Rae, where are you? I’m standing here like an idiot waiting for you to come out of the bathroom. But you’re not in the bathroom.”
Rylann scooted a few feet away from Kyle. “‘Carpe diem’? What do you mean by that?” She had a funny feeling she wasn’t going to like whatever her friend was about to say next.
“It’s Latin for ‘Don’t kill me.’ ”
“What did you do, Rae?”
“Okay, here’s what happened: when I came out of the bathroom, I saw Kyle Rhodes at the bar, checking you out,” Rae said. “I decided that if you aren’t going to treat yourself to a little fun after the long year we’ve had, then I’m going to make the fun come to you. So I grabbed the guys, and we all sneaked out the back door.”
“I did. He’s the son of a billionaire, Rylann. And he’s gorgeous. You should be thanking me, actually. We’re already a block away from Shane’s apartment, and I think I’ll hang out here for a while. Give you some space.”
Rylann lowered her voice further. “This goes against the woman code, Rae. We never leave one of our own behind. Now I have to walk home by myself.”
“Not if everything goes as planned…” Rae sounded very evil genius–like before her tone turned coy. “Whose phone is this, anyway?”
No way was Rylann going to answer that. “Come to think of it, I am going to kill you. And then I’m going to steal the black Manolos you bought last winter and dance in them at your funeral.” She hung up the phone with emphasis.
She walked over to Kyle and handed the phone back to him.
“So?” he asked.
Rylann quickly thought up an excuse. “One of our friends got sick, so Rae and the others had to get him home fast.”
“Or maybe she left you here so that you’d be stuck with me.”
Rylann threw up her hands. “Okay, that’s freaky. How would you know that?”
Kyle shrugged. “I heard the ‘carpe diem’ part and guessed. I have a twin sister. I’ve seen how her and her friends’ scary matchmaking minds work.”
Rylann blushed. “I hope you know that I had nothing to do with this.”
Kyle seemed more amused than bothered by Rae’s schemes. “Don’t worry, counselor, I won’t have you charged as a co-conspirator.” He nodded toward the door. “Come on. I’ll walk you home.”
Rylann began making her way toward the exit. “Thanks, but that’s not necessary. I only live eight blocks away.”
Kyle scoffed as he followed her to the door. “Like I’m going to let a woman walk home by herself at one thirty in the morning. My mother raised me better than that.”
“I won’t tell her if you don’t.” Not that it was Rylann’s first choice to walk home alone, but she’d be lying if she said she hadn’t made similar late-night treks across campus as an undergrad. Besides, Kyle Rhodes was a virtual stranger himself. Who said he was safe?
Kyle stopped her just as she reached the front door. “It’s not only what my mother would say; it’s what I think. My sister is a grad student at Northwestern. If I found out that some jerk let her walk home alone this late, I’d kick his ass. So it looks like you’re stuck with me. Like it or not.”
Rylann thought through her options. The speech about his sister seemed genuine enough. From what she could tell, Kyle Rhodes was cocky and trouble, but not that kind of trouble. “All right, fine. You can walk me home.” She paused. “Thank you.”
“See? Was it that hard to be nice to me?”
Rylann pushed the door open and stepped outside. As usual, the crowd was thick in front of the bar as students discussed the all-important questions of which after-hours party to go to and whether to make a pit stop at La Bamba for burritos along the way. “I’m sure there are plenty of women who are more than happy to be nice to you,” she said to Kyle while navigating her way through the crowd. “I figured I’d buck the trend.”
Kyle followed her. “Who’s making assumptions now?”
“You hang out at a bar preying on random women buying multiple drinks. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this isn’t the first time you’ve ‘escorted’ a girl home.”
“First of—” Kyle was cut off as he became momentarily separated from Rylann by a group of women walking in the opposite direction. Ignoring the women’s interested looks, he continued. “First of all, I don’t prey on anyone. Second of all, I don’t, as a habit, hang out at bars picking up women. Tonight was an exception. I saw you at the table with your friends and followed you to the bar when you walked over.”
He shrugged matter-of-factly. “I thought you were hot.”
“Thanks,” Rylann said dryly.
An inebriated undergrad stumbled obliviously as he walked past them. Kyle took Rylann by the waist and pulled her out of the man’s path just before they collided.
They stopped at the street corner, keeping a safe distance from the drunk guy, and waited for the light to change. Kyle looked her over. “I didn’t know then that you’d also be this…spicy.”
“You’re free to rescind your initial offer of interest.”
Kyle laughed. “Christ, you are a law geek. I’m not rescinding anything. I don’t mind hot and spicy. Actually find that appealing in a girl.” He cocked his head, thinking this over. “And chicken wings.”
Rylann turned her head and stared at him. “Did you really just compare me to chicken wings?”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing. Chicken wings are the bomb.”
Rylann had to fight not to smile at that one. “Why do I get the feeling you’re never serious?”
Kyle gestured with his arm to the surrounding crowd milling on the sidewalk and spilling into the street. The feeling in the air was tangibly ebullient. “Who wants to be serious tonight? Law school’s over for the year, counselor. Live a little.”
Frankly, she wasn’t quite sure what to make of Kyle Rhodes. The logical part of her knew that with the whole hot-billionaire-heir-wearing-work-boots thing he had going for him, she was likely one in a parade of women he’d hit on. Still, she’d be lying if she didn’t admit she found the attention at least somewhat flattering. This was a guy many women would chase after, and he was chasing after her.
At least for five minutes.
“Look,” she said to Kyle. “I appreciate you walking me home. Really. But just so we’re on the same page, that’s all this is. A walk.”
The light turned green, and they crossed the street in tandem.
“No offense, but you seem a bit uptight about the rules here,” Kyle said. “Don’t you ever just go with the flow?”
“I’d say I’m more of a planner than a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants type.”
He groaned. “I bet you’re one of those people with a five-year plan.”
“Mine’s six.” Rylann caught his look. “What? That’s how long it will take to get where I want to be,” she said with a touch of defensiveness. “Not all of us have the luxury of ambling our way through our twenties until we decide it’s time to grow up, Kyle Rhodes.”
Kyle spun around and stopped in front of her, so abruptly that she nearly barreled into him. “Listen, I’m going to fast-forward through the whole give-the-rich-guy-his-comeuppance speech. I’ve been dealing with that routine since high school.” He pointed emphatically. “And I don’t amble my way through anything. As a matter of fact, the reason I was out celebrating tonight is because I just took my qualifying exam to become a PhD candidate.”
She stood corrected. “Impressive. In the future, you might want to open with that line instead of the lame guess-my-major routine.” She smiled charmingly. “Just a suggestion.”
Kyle threw up his hands. “I swear, never again. This is what I get for approaching a strange girl in a bar. I pick the sarcastic one.” He stalked away in frustration.
Rylann let him go for a few feet before calling out, “You’re headed in the wrong direction.” When he turned around, she pointed innocently. “My apartment’s that way.”
He switched directions and coolly breezed past her.
Rylann watched with amusement as he walked by. She kind of liked this cranky side of Kyle Rhodes. It felt much more real than the Smug Dimples pseudo-charm routine. “I don’t think it counts as walking me home if you’re a half block ahead of me,” she called out to him. “I’m pretty sure there’s a five-foot rule or something.”
Kyle stopped but didn’t turn around. He waited in silence for her to catch up.
When she did, she paused before him, standing a little closer than before. “I suppose congratulations are in order. Tell me more about your PhD exam.”
“Oh, now you want to be nice,” he said.
“I’m considering it.”
They continued walking in the direction of her apartment. “I’m in the computer sciences grad program,” Kyle said. “My focus is on systems and networking research, specifically security. Protections against DoS attacks.”
“That sounds very…technical.”
Seeing her cluelessness, he explained. “DoS means “denial of service.” In basic terms, a type of computer hacking. Companies view them mostly as nuisances, but my prediction is that these types of attacks will continue to grow more advanced over the next few years. Mark my words, one day somebody is going to cause a lot of panic and mayhem if websites don’t start taking these threats seriously.”
“Your father must be very proud that you’re going into the family business,” Rylann said.
He grimaced. “Actually, that’s a bit of a sore subject. I’m not planning to work for him. I’d like to teach instead.” He caught Rylann’s look of surprise and shrugged casually. “Can’t beat a gig that lets you have summers off, right?”
“Why do you do that?” she asked.
“Put out this whole laid-back, don’t-take-me-too-seriously vibe. I assume that’s the reason for the work boots and flannel getup.”
“No, I wear work boots and flannels because they’re comfortable. In case you haven’t noticed, we go to school in the middle of a cornfield. Black tie isn’t exactly required around here.” He cocked his head. “Besides, why do you care what kind of vibe I put out?”
“Because I suspect there’s more to the illustrious Kyle Rhodes than meets the eye.”
They paused at a street corner, only two blocks from Rylann’s apartment. A cool breeze served as a quick reminder that she was wearing a damp shirt. With a slight shiver, she folded her arms over her chest and rubbed them to stay warm.
“Nope. I’m still the same jerk you thought I was with the lame pickup line.” Without discussion, Kyle pulled off his flannel shirt and handed it to Rylann. Underneath, he wore a gray fitted T-shirt that hugged the toned muscles of his chest, abs, and biceps.
Rylann waved off the shirt, trying not to stare at his body. And failing miserably. “Oh, no thanks. We’re only two blocks from my apartment. I’ll be okay.”
“Just take it. If my mother knew I let a woman walk home shivering in a wet shirt, she’d kill me.”
Rylann took the shirt from him and slid her arms into it. It was warm from his body. “Twenty-three years old and still listening to Mom. That’s cute.”
Kyle stepped closer and adjusted the collar of the shirt, which was caught underneath the neckline. “Twenty-four. And my mom’s pretty kick-ass—you’d listen to her, too.” He nodded, satisfied with the collar. “There.”
When his hand brushed against Rylann’s neck, her stomach did a little flip-flop.
“Thank you,” she said. Not this one, she firmly reminded herself. This guy had no place in her six-year plan. Hell, he had no place in her six-day plan.
Kyle gazed down at her. “I lied when I said I followed you to the bar because you’re hot.” He touched her cheek. “I saw you laughing with your friends, and your smile sucked me right in.”
Oh…man. Rylann’s heart did this strange skipping thing. She debated for a moment as she peered up into those incredible blue eyes of his, then decided, what the hell? After the year she’d been through, she had earned a little treat.
She stood up on her toes, lifted her lips to his, and kissed him.
The kiss was teasing and gentle at first, and he cupped her cheek as he slowly, seductively, claimed her mouth with his. She slid one hand up his chest, momentarily forgetting—or not caring—that they were standing on a street corner where anyone could pass by. She pressed up against him, and the kiss deepened as his tongue swirled around hers, hot enough to make her body feel like it was melting.
It felt like an eternity before she managed to slowly pull her lips away.
His hand was still on her cheek as their mouths hovered inches from each other. His eyes were a deep, burning blue. “What made you do that?”
“I thought I’d fly by the seat of my pants for a change,” she said, a little out of breath.
He raised an eyebrow. “And?”
Exhilarating. Rylann smiled to herself, having a sneaking suspicion that Kyle Rhodes had already heard enough compliments about his kissing to last a lifetime. So she shrugged noncommittally. “Not bad.”
Kyle scoffed. “Not bad? Counselor, there are two things I’ve got mad skills at. And computer science is the other one.”
All righty, then. Rylann rolled her eyes. “Seriously, where do you come up with these lines?” She turned away and began walking the remaining two blocks to her apartment, figuring there wasn’t enough room for her, Kyle Rhodes, and his ego on the sidewalk.
She’d gone a few feet when she heard him calling after her.
“It doesn’t count as a walk home if you’re half a block ahead of me,” he said, teasingly echoing her earlier words.
“I’m releasing you of all your obligations,” she shouted without looking back. She could hear his laughter, warm and rich, following behind her.
When she reached her building, she cut through the courtyard and walked straight to the weather-faded wooden stairwell that would take her to the second-floor apartment she shared with Rae.
She turned around and saw Kyle standing at the bottom of the stairs.
“I was wondering if you’re sticking around this cornfield for the summer?” he said.
“Not that it matters, but yes.” She sniffed. “I’ve got an internship with the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”
Kyle climbed up the steps to meet her midway on the staircase. “In that case, have dinner with me tomorrow.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
He tugged the collar of the shirt she was wearing. “You’re just going to take my shirt and run?”
She’d completely forgotten about that. She began to slide the shirt off. “Sorry. I—”
Kyle put his hand over hers. “Keep it. I like the way it looks on you.”
Darn sparks shot right down to her toes. She gave him her best no-nonsense stare. “This was supposed to be just a walk.”
“It’s only one date, counselor. We’ll get chicken wings and beer and bitch about how bored we’re going to be living here this summer.”
Actually, that didn’t sound half-bad. “And what if I’d said that I wasn’t sticking around for the summer?” Rylann asked. “What if you’d been right, and tomorrow I was leaving for Chicago to move into my quaint and overpriced two-bedroom apartment in Wrigleyville?”
He grinned, a smile that could melt the polar ice cap. “Then I guess I’d be driving two hours to pick you up for those chicken wings. See you tomorrow, counselor. Eight o’clock.” With that, he turned and strode back down the staircase.
A few minutes later, safely ensconced inside her apartment, Rylann leaned her head against the front door, musing over the evening’s turn of events. She closed her eyes, a smile curling at the edges of her lips despite all her attempts to fight it off.
AS FATE WOULD have it, however, the good feeling didn’t last.
Rylann waited until ten o’clock, two hours after the time Kyle had said he’d be at her apartment. Then she finally gave up and slid out of her jeans and heels.
He’d stood her up.
This was okay, she assured herself. Her internship, which she’d been looking forward to for months, started in a week, and she didn’t need to be distracted by first dates with a sometimes-charming sexy billionaire computer geek and the whole will-he-call rigmarole.
Poor Rae would be crushed, she thought. Before leaving for the summer, she’d left Rylann her black Manolos specifically for the occasion.
“I can’t have you running around in flip-flops for your date with a billionaire,” Rae had lectured, playing it cool and trying not to appear too sentimental as she’d handed over the shoe box to Rylann before getting into her car.
Rylann had hugged her friend. “You and the rest of your shoes need to get back here soon.”
“Call me tomorrow and let me know how the date goes,” Rae had said. “Maybe he’ll fly you to Italy for pizza or rent out a restaurant for your first date.”
Or maybe he’ll just forget the whole thing.
Resolved to ignore the disappointment she felt, Rylann changed into a camisole and drawstring pajama pants. No sense in being dressed up if she had no place to go.
She got comfortable on the couch and absentmindedly flipped through the television channels. It struck her how quiet her apartment was, and in the next moment, she realized how dangerously close she was to wallowing in self-pity.
No way, she told herself, refusing to go down that road. It wasn’t as though Kyle Rhodes was that great. For starters, he was cocky and too confident, and he dressed as if he’d just fallen off a tractor. And the whole computer thing? That was a snooze-fest of a conversation topic if she’d ever heard one.
Honestly, she hadn’t even liked the guy much.
THE NEXT MORNING, Rylann came out of her bedroom dressed and ready to go for a run. With all the studying she’d done over the last few months, she’d barely worked out and felt the need to rectify that situation. She suspected this enthusiasm would last for about fifteen minutes, until she collapsed in a gasping heap somewhere in the middle of mile two.
She was in high spirits for a woman who’d been stood up the night before. Most of this stemmed from the fact that she intended to toss Kyle Rhodes’s flannel shirt in the Dumpster on her way out, and also from the fact that she had this great one-liner planned in the event she ever did run into him again, about how she hadn’t gotten the chance to put his shirt where she’d really wanted to, so she’d stuck it in the other place the sun didn’t shine.
When she stepped outside her apartment—MP3 player in one hand and the soon-to-be-forgotten flannel shirt in the other—she saw the newspaper lying in front of her door. As she picked it up, the early morning sun made her blink, and somewhere in the back of her mind she was thinking about how it was going to be a warm, gorgeous May day. A perfect day for the pool, she thought. Maybe I’ll—
It took a moment for the newspaper’s headline to register. At first it seemed like any another tragic headline, the kind that makes a person pause at the brief sadness one feels when hearing such things. Then it dawned on her.
WIFE OF BILLIONAIRE ALUMNUS
KILLED IN CAR ACCIDENT
Without looking up from the newspaper, Rylann shut her front door, sat down at her kitchen table, and began to read.
Nine years later
THE CHILLY MARCH wind cut across Lake Michigan, an icy sting that could easily bring tears to one’s eyes. But Kyle barely noticed. When he was running, he was in the zone.
It was dark outside, after seven p.m., and the temperature hovered right around forty degrees. Every day for the past two weeks, he’d hit the jogging trail that ran along the lake and run a twelve-mile circuit from his apartment and back. His doorman, Miles, had commented yesterday on the routine, and for simplicity’s sake, Kyle had said he was training for a marathon.
In truth, he just liked the quiet solitude of running. Not to mention, he reveled in the freedom he’d come to appreciate while running. Ah…such glorious freedom. The knowledge that he could keep going, with nothing but physical exhaustion to stop him.
And, of course, a team of armed U.S. marshals if he went more than ten miles from home.
A minor technicality.
Kyle had quickly realized there was one drawback to his running routine, something he’d figured out around mile three the first morning: the electronic monitoring device strapped to his ankle chafed like a bitch while jogging. He’d tried sprinkling some talcum powder on it, but all that had gotten him was a white mess that left him smelling like a baby. And if there was anything a committed bachelor in his thirties did not need to smell like, it was babies. A woman got one whiff of that and suddenly all sorts of biological clocks came out of snooze mode and started ringing with a vengeance.
But, as Kyle knew full well, a man could have worse problems than chafing and baby powder. A man could get arrested, say, and be indicted on multiple federal charges and end up in prison. Or a man could find out that his stubborn, pain-in-the-ass twin sister had nearly gotten herself killed while working with the FBI as part of an agreement to secure his early release from said prison.
He still wanted to throttle Jordan for that one.
Kyle checked his watch and picked up the pace for the last half mile of his run. According to the terms of his home detention, he was allowed ninety minutes per day for “personal errands,” as long as he stayed within a ten-mile radius of his home. Technically, he was supposed to use those ninety minutes for food shopping and laundry, but he’d figured out how to game the system: he ordered his groceries online and had them delivered to his front door, and he utilized the dry cleaner located in the lobby of the high-rise building in which he lived. That gave him ninety minutes a day outside his penthouse, ninety minutes when life seemed almost normal.
On this evening, he made it back to his building with eight minutes to spare. He may have been gaming the system, but he wasn’t about to test it. God forbid he got delayed with a leg cramp and an alarm was triggered from his ankle monitor. All he needed was a SWAT team storming the beach and slapping him in handcuffs just because he hadn’t stretched properly.
The rush of warm air that hit Kyle as he entered the building felt stifling. Or perhaps it was just the knowledge that his return through those doors meant he would be trapped in his apartment for the next twenty-two hours and thirty-two minutes.
Only three more days to go, he reminded himself.
In little more than seventy-two hours—he’d started thinking in terms of hours ever since his prison days—he would officially be a free man. Assuming, that is, that the U.S. Attorney’s Office upheld their end of the bargain, which was a big assumption. It was safe to say that he and the U.S. Attorney’s Office were not on the best of terms these days, despite whatever deals they’d made with his sister regarding his early release from Metropolitan Correctional Center, the federal prison where he’d served four months of an eighteen months’ sentence. They had, after all, called him a “terrorist” both in open court and directly to the media, and in Kyle’s book, that got people a one-way ticket onto his shit list. Because a “terrorist,” as any moron with a dictionary knew, was a person who engaged in violence, terror, and intimidation to achieve a result.
He, on the other hand, had just engaged in stupidity.
Miles the doorman checked his watch as Kyle passed by the front lobby desk.
“Can’t even give yourself a break on a Saturday night?”
“No rest for the wicked,” Kyle said with an easy grin.