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"Is it just me or do all the men up in here look like broke-down versions of Boris Kodjoe?"
Niveah Evans laughed out loud at her best friend's assessment of the male guests at the Ritz-Carlton's annual New Year's Eve bash. Tickets to the black tie event had set her back a hundred dollars, and as she glanced around the elaborately decorated ballroom, she wondered what all the hype was about. Champagne flowed from a gold fountain and the performers suspended from the ceiling were giving one hell of a show, but it was nothing Niveah hadn't seen before. As a creative director for the largest advertising company in the U.S., it was her job to be up on the latest trends, and she'd seen the act six months earlier in a Paris nightclub.
"I can't believe no one's asked us to dance," Roxi Gonzalez complained, wrinkling her nose as if she'd just gotten a whiff of an old shoe. "I wasted the entire morning getting plucked, waxed and shaved and no one in here gives a damn."
Jeanette Miller released a deep, pitiful sigh. "This is turning out to be the worst New Year's Eve on record. I should have stayed home and watched the ball drop in Times Square."
"You're right, this is pretty bad," Niveah conceded, reaching for her mai tai, "but at least your boss isn't bringing in some clown from head office to babysit you for the next few weeks. I single-handedly landed that Discreet Boutique account, and now Mr. Russo thinks I need help. How am I supposed to shine with another creative director breathing down my neck? I have half a mind to complain to"
Her friends groaned.
"The next time you mention your job I'm out of here," Roxi threatened, leveling a finger at her. "I came down here to have a good time, not listen to you bitch about work."
Jeanette put down her wine flute. "Niveah, you know what your problem is? Your life has no balance. All you care about is impressing Mr. Russo and getting another raise."
"What are you talking about? I travel"
"For work," Jeanette chirped.
"I entertain on a regular basis"
"And I take the last Friday of every month off to recharge."
"Yeah, but that's because Mr. Russo forces you to!"
It was times like this that Niveah wished she hadn't befriended Jeanette at the company picnic five years earlier. Within weeks of meeting, they were working out together, gossiping about their colleagues and planning the first of many Las Vegas shopping trips.
Intent on being heard, Jeanette raised her voice above the rock song playing. "Working sixty hours a week is prematurely aging you. I didn't want to say anything because you just celebrated your birthday, but you've lost your youth, your shine, that healthy glow I always envied."
"You're so busy clawing your way up the corporate ladder you don't realize that life is passing you by," Roxi continued. "You're working like a dog to forget what happened with"
Niveah silenced her with a look. "Don't even think about mentioning that jerk's name. I've moved on, and I wish you guys would, too."
"We will, as soon as you start living again." Smiling sympathetically, Jeanette rested a hand on her best friend's shoulder. "You know what you need to do? Let your hair down. Live on the edge. Do something wild and spontaneous for once," she admonished.
"Ever since you started dating Tavares you've been obsessed with hooking me up," Niveah complained, running a hand through her naturally curly hair. She'd accomplished a lot in her thirty-four years, and contrary to what her girlfriends thought, she loved her life just the way it was. So what if she didn't have a husband, kids and a three-story house in the suburbs? She was successful and financially stable and that's all that mattered. "Quit badgering me, Jeanette. And for your information, I do tons of exciting things."
Roxi raised her eyebrows. "Really? Like what?"
"She's bluffing," Jeanette accused. "Niveah will do anything to stay in her boring little world, including lying about having an active social life."
"I have a lot of fun. Just last week I went rock climbing with some of the teens I mentor."
Roxi guffawed. "If that's what you call exciting, then you're worse off than I thought!"
"Niveah, you're never going to find true love if you keep hiding behind your attache case," Jeanette told her. "You need to take a page out of my book because once I quit stressing about work and started doing activities I enjoyed, I couldn't keep the men off me. And now I have Tavares, and my life is complete."
Roxi gave Jeanette a high five. "Me, too, girlfriend. It's just a matter of time before Cedrick pops the question, and once he does, I'll be all over the Saks Fifth Avenue bridal registry!"
"If you two are so blissfully in love," Niveah challenged, "then why are you at this party?"
"Keeping your rusty butt company!"
Jeanette and Roxi roared with laughter.
"Before the night's over, I'm going to find you someone to dance with. Someone like " Jeanette's gaze panned the crowd and after several seconds, she squealed. Bouncing up and down on her seat like an unruly toddler high on sugar, she clapped her hands and nodded her head. "Check out the hottie at the end of the bar. He's a perfect ten!"
Niveah didn't bother looking up from her drink. Jeanette's idea of good-looking was a lanky gangbanger plastered in tattoos; but Niveah preferred studious, conservative types. Not a square, just someone with manners and class, who'd treat her with respect. But as her ex-fiancé had so aptly proven nine months ago, looks were deceiving.
"That man is beyond fine! I'd do him in a New York minute!"
Niveah's ears perked up. If Roxi thought the stranger was fine, then he was. Despite being divorced twice, she was in the market for husband number three, and could spot a good-looking guy a block away.
Straightening in her seat, Niveah peered around the cluster of model-esque clones obscuring her view of the bar. Jeanette yanked her to the left, pointed an acrylic fingernail directly ahead, and yelled, "He's the one in the dark designer suit."
Niveah's mouth fell open.
"I told you he was perfect."
And he was. Words couldn't describe how truly gorgeous the stranger was. Bald, buff brothers didn't usually catch Niveah's eye, but this man had it seriously going on. Immaculately groomed, with clear skin, and defined features, he had a one of a kind look that instantly made her wet. His gaze was hungry, almost predatory, and his sexy mouth was rimmed with a neat, trim goatee. The brother owned the room, and the hearts of all the females in attendanceincluding hers. Her body hummed, and suddenly the grand ballroom felt hotter than a furnace. An aura of mystery surrounded the stranger, making him even more appealing. Staring at him, so intently, was bound to make Niveah go cross-eyed, but she didn't have the strength to look away. She was drawn to him, overtaken by a blinding sexual hunger she'd never known.
"If I had a man like that at home, I'd never leave," Roxi quipped, fanning her rosy cheeks. "I think I'll just go over and say hello."
Niveah cut her eyes at Roxi. "What about Cedrick?"
"What about him? Until he puts a ring on it, I'm keeping my options wide open."
Jeanette gripped her girlfriend's forearm, preventing her from rising from her seat. "Sit your big butt down. I picked him out for Niveah, not you."
"Girl, please. Miss Thang can't handle all that man. He's six feet tall and over two hundred pounds. He'd probably snap her skinny body in two." Cackling like a witch on a broom, she adjusted the neckline of her outfit. Roxi used every opportunity to show off her boobs, and her zipper-front dress served up an eyeful. "I on the other hand, specialize in turning out jocks, and that cutie's exactly my type."
Angry about being dissed, Niveah shot her soon-to-be ex-friend a scathing look. "You think you know everything about me, Roxi, but you don't. I'm every bit as daring as you are. If not more." To prove it, she stopped a passing waiter, ordered a cognac, and instructed him to deliver it to the gentleman at the end of the bar.
"Very well, ma'am. Would you care to include a message?"
Niveah shielded her mouth with the back of her hand. She spoke only loud enough for the waiter to hear, and when he departed, she couldn't help but smile to herself.
"So you sent him a drink. Big friggin' deal. You're as straitlaced as they come, and"
Roxi smirked. "I'd love to."
"Knock it off, you two," Jeanette ordered. "You sound like a couple of kids having a pissing contest on the schoolyard."
Roxi ignored her and addressed Niveah. "If I'm right about you being a Goody Two-Shoes, you'll have to hand over your new Gucci handbag. You know, the one I watched you drop a thousand dollars on at the mall yesterday."
"Okay, and I want your Oprah tickets."
Her face crumpled like a piece of paper. "B-b-but they're the tickets to her final show."
"Those are the terms. Deal or no deal?"
"You're on. That purse is going to look great with the dress I plan to wear to the show." Flashing a superior grin, she leaned forward in her chair, and rested her elbows on the table. "Did I tell you guys that Oprah will be interviewing her all-time favorite guests on the finale?"
"Only a million times," Jeanette grumbled.
"There are also rumors circulating that world-famous singers will be performing together. I can hardly wait! It's going to be "
Having heard this before, Niveah glanced absently around the ballroom. It was no surprise that her eyes strayed to the bar. Her mouth dried. He was staring right at her. Guests blew noisemakers, and boisterous laughter filled the room, but Niveah could still hear her deafening heartbeat. It was beating in double-time, throbbing painfully in her ears.
Wearing a broad, megawatt smile, the handsome stranger lifted his tumbler in the air, tilted his head toward her and downed his glass in one smooth swig.
"Go over there and introduce yourself," Jeanette encouraged, brimming with excitement. "He's definitely interested in you, girl."
Roxi shook her head. "Miss Thang is too much of a lady to approach a guy. Attending a high siddity university made her all proper and whatnot. See, I believe in taking life by the horns, so if you'll excuse me, that hottie at the bar is calling my name."
"Then, you need to get a hearing aid, because he's checking out Niveah, not you!" Jeanette laughed at her own joke. "I know it's hard for you to believe, Roxi, but you can't have every man you want."
"Oh yes I can," she snapped, twirling her index finger around in the air, "and besides, Niveah wouldn't know the first thing to do with a brother like that."
Niveah gripped the stem of her cocktail glass to keep from shoving Roxi off her chair. They'd had a love-hate relationship ever since Jeanette introduced them, and it was at times like this that Niveah wondered why they were even friends. "We'll see about that."
Niveah downed the rest of her mai tai, pushed back her chair and stood. Her legs wobbled as she walked across the sleek hardwood floor. I can do this. I'm smart and sexy and I have a lot to offer. Repeating the words she'd once heard on an afterschool special didn't bolster her confidence. Niveah wished she had another drink, because as she approached the bar, she felt an intense bout of the nerves.
The stranger stood against the counter, holding his Blackberry, oblivious to her approach. As Niveah came up beside him, she tried to think of something clever to say. Anything besides the standard greeting. "I hope you're enjoying your cognac," she said, in her sultriest voice, "you strike me as the kind of man who likes a strong drink."
Damien Hunter glanced up from his cell phone and his eyes bulged out of his head like a cartoon character. Standing before him in a slinky champagne-colored dress was a caramel-skinned goddess. A woman he felt an instant, undeniable connection to.
Examining her gave Damien great pleasure, so he did a slow, thorough appraisal. He took in every detail of her face, committing each exquisite feature to memory. Her blinding white teeth drew his attention to the delicate curve of her lips. To the pretty, full rosebuds he could already feel around his
Damien purged his thoughts. He was putting the cart before the horse. Conversation first, mind-blowing sex after.
Resting his arms against the counter, he continued his assessment. Loose, luscious curls grazed her shoulders, brushing lightly against her arms. Her mouth looked sweet, her hips were fine and he was itching to stroke her long caramel brown legs. She looked wholesome, like the kind of woman who baked bread and enjoyed playing with children, but there was nothing innocent about her sultry smile. It was provocative, tinged with lust and full of suggestion. In his profession, he mixed with a lot of attractive women, but no one had ever captured his attention like this sister with the bedroom eyes. Play it cool, man, the voice inside his head cautioned. She's just another crazy beautiful woman looking for a good time, and you're just the man to give it to her. "What's your name, beautiful?"
Niveah licked her lips. The sound of his voice, all deep and masculine, was enough to melt her panties right off. He oozed with confidence, pulsed with positive energy and smelled like expensive aftershave. "I'm Niveah. And you are?"
"Damien," he said smoothly. "I appreciate you buying me a drink, but now it's my turn to return the favor. What would you like?"
You, naked in my bed. The thought made a wave of giddiness sweep over her. Where had that come from? she wondered. Niveah hadn't had sex inhell, it had been so long she couldn't remember. That's why being in close proximity of this tall, dark and handsome man made her wet in all the right places. "Two cocktails are my limit, so I'll just have a ginger ale."
While he placed the order, Niveah checked out his profile. Jeanette was right about him being good-looking, but he was much, much more. On top of having a smooth-as-chocolate-pudding complexion, he had a straight nose, chiseled jaw and a chest that she was aching to lick, and stroke and caress. "Thank you," she said, taking the glass he offered. Electricity passed between them when their fingers touched, and it took a moment for Niveah to recover. "Tell me about yourself, Damien."
"I'm in town on business. What about you?"