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One Year Ago
Cooper Davies crossed his ankles, leaned against the bar's marble countertop and scanned the black-tie crowd. Scowled. Checked his watch. Scanned the crowd again, which was, by his rough count, the ten millionth time he'd done so in the past hour.
There was still no sign of her.
"Shit," he muttered, killing the rest of his bourbon. Then he thunked the empty tumbler down in front of the bartender, who stopped slicing lemons long enough to eye him with concern. "Hit me again."
"You might want to slow down, chief," the bartender said.
Cooper fished a fifty out of his pocket and dropped it into the tip jar. "To thank you for putting a lid on the advice while you pour," he said with a tight smile. "And I prefer to be called boss."
The bartender shrugged and reached for the bourbon bottle. "Whatever you say, boss."
"Appreciate it," Cooper told him.
Why wasn't she here by now? he wondered moodily, taking his refilled tumbler, moving into the crowd and going through the appropriate social motions. He nodded at an elderly woman whose neck was weighed down with so many diamonds he wondered how she was able to breathe and shook his head at a passing server who offered him a lamb chop from his silver tray.
Cooper barely saw either of them. His relentless focus was on one thing and one thing only: Gloria Adams.
She had to be here somewhere, right? She wouldn't want to miss her sister's big night, would she? No. So she'd be there.
But-terrible new thought-what if she was out of town?
His gut gave a sickening lurch and leveled out somewhere near his ankles.
No. She'd be there. He just needed to be patient. Ha. As if he could be.
He and patience had rarely occupied the same room.
"Not bad, eh?" His adopted brother, Marcus Da-vies, materialized by his side and raised his voice over the crowd's dull roar and the pianist's plinking on the concert grand in the corner of the soaring atrium.
"Talia's got skills."
Staring up at the twenty-foot mural, Cooper nodded. It was the focal point of this whole overblown shindig at their family's Manhattan auction house, Davies & Sons, which he co-owned and ran with Marcus. Their cousin Tony Davies and his brother, Sandro, were also co-owners. Talia Adams was the artist who'd revitalized the building, and so she was tonight's guest of honor.
"Agreed," Cooper said.
"We've got skills, too," Marcus said. "We can pull a crowd."
"Yep," Cooper said absently, craning his neck and scanning heads. Maybe Gloria'd gone into the ladies' room
"And maybe you need to get your head out of your ass."
"True," Cooper said. A beat passed.
"Wait, what?" Cooper said, giving his brother a sidelong glare.
"What's your issue?" Marcus asked, eyes glinting with amusement. "You keep looking around like you're in the middle of a game of Where's Waldo?
Who'd you lose?"
The problem with brothers, Cooper thought, was that they noticed shit. Especially the shit you wanted boxed up and stored in a dark corner of your locked closet, never to see the light of day.
"Am I supposed to know what you're talking about?" Cooper tried to bank some of the intensity he was feeling, working hard to smooth out the lines that had to be grooving across his forehead. He'd never had much of a poker face. "Or is this just random blathering?"
Marcus, realizing he'd struck a nerve, even if he didn't know which one, grinned. "Keep drinking like that. I'll get it out of you."
He probably would, Cooper silently agreed.
Bottoming out this latest bourbon, Cooper glanced around to see how far he was from the bar and how many people he'd have to tackle to get there-
There she was! Coming out of the ladies' room with Talia, just as he'd thought! She was here! Right over there, with her back to him, talking to her sister! A crazy combination of excitement and nerves swooped through him, drying out his mouth and making his heart thud.
"And in a complete change of topic," Marcus was saying, "remind me to tell you what Johnson said about.. "
Cooper didn't give a damn about what Johnson, their building manager, or anyone else said about anything. Not when Gloria Adams was in the room.
Without another word, he thrust his empty glass at his startled brother and wove his way through the crowd. In a monumental feat of self-control, he managed to resist the urge to elbow people out of his way. Afraid she'd disappear before he could get to her, he stared at her to the exclusion of everything else, letting the promise of her reel him in like a caught marlin.
Man, she was something.
Her body was long and lean, willowy but curved where it counted, and it was poured into a slinky black number that was sleeveless and backless, draped along the sides of her toned back and dipping just low enough to taunt him with the flare of her ass, which was rounded and tight. The crowd shifted, giving him a quick glimpse of her legs, which were long and bare, and her spiky screw-me-now heels.
Desire swelled, hard and hot, deep in his belly.
He wanted her. He wanted to take the two sides of that expensive black dress, right where they skimmed across her shoulders, and rip it down the middle so he could get to that body. He wanted to run his tongue down that spine and bite that ass. He wanted those legs wrapped around his waist and then propped against his shoulders, and he wanted to take her and take her and take her
until neither of them could move and they'd both forgotten their own names.
He wanted her mouth, her lips. Wanted to kiss, suck and bite them, and then he wanted them running and licking all up and down his body, and then-oh, yeah-he wanted those big lips to suck him off as she took his hardened length as deep into her mouth as he could go and he slid his fingers into the thick silk of her shiny black hair.
And then he wanted it all again.
He'd thought and dreamed of nothing else since their first-and only-meeting a few weeks ago, when he'd met her at Talia's studio and they'd said hello to each other. That was the sum total of his interaction with her, despite his lingering interest, and he'd been debating what to do about it. The relentlessness of his wanting concerned him a little bit, to be honest, because he'd never felt anything like it. If anyone had asked him his preferred type of woman five minutes before he met Gloria, he'd've sworn up and down that it was petite blondes with big tits. And now?
Now things had changed. Big-time.
If he needed any further proof of that, it came when she turned just slightly, and her high-cheeked, straight-nosed profile was bleak, if not distraught. When she wiped her eyes with a tissue, his muscles bunched up and his nerves tightened down, and the protective, problem-solving section of his brain, which was about half to three-quarters, kicked into overdrive.
Did she need him to solve something for her? Fix it? Kill it?
Because he would. For Gloria? You bet he would.
And that was problematic. Because he didn't know her from Eve, and he sure as hell wasn't the white-knight type.
White? Yeah. Knight? Not so much.
"Ladies," he said, coming abreast of them, "is something wrong?"
Startled, they turned to face him, and his gaze locked with Gloria's. Her eyes widened with shock and then swept him up and down with subtle feminine appreciation, generating a pulse of electricity that seemed to dance across his skin.
He'd forgotten the fine details of her face, or maybe it was that his overwhelmed brain couldn't catalog all of her intriguing features. The almond-shaped eyes in blackest brown, a color so pure and crystalline that he felt sure he could stare into them for several fascinating hours without blinking. The sleek cheekbones, flushed with color. The plump
delicious curve of her full lips. Her amazing lips.
He wanted her with a vehemence that worried him-seriously made him wonder what the hell he'd gotten into-but he had bigger problems than that.
Gloria had been crying, and the telltale makeup smudges under her eyes made him long to see her dimpled smile again even more than he wanted to screw her.
And that was a whole freaking lot.
Some of his intensity must have shown on his face, because Gloria's eyes widened and he heard the slight hitch of her breath. Then she pulled out a compact and went to work powdering her nose, dismissing him without a word.
This rudeness seemed to embarrass Talia, who shot her sister a glare. "Gloria has, ah, decided to leave the party-"
"No, I haven't," Gloria interjected loudly.
Another glare. "And I'm going to throw her into a cab and send her home, so we're all good. Thanks."
Cooper frowned, wondering when he'd heard a worse idea. Set Gloria loose in midtown with all those men? In that dress? Not on his watch. "I don't think she should go anywhere by herself."
"I know," Talia agreed, "but I can't leave the party yet, and I'm not sure-"
"I can see her home," Cooper said quickly.
"-that I can. Wait, what?"
"I can see her home," Cooper repeated.
Talia hesitated. "Well."
Dark amusement almost made him smile. Talia was no dummy, clearly, and he was having a hard time keeping a lid on his attraction to Gloria. If Talia knew the kinds of things he wanted to do with her sister, she'd probably prefer to send Gloria off in a gypsy cab and give the driver instructions to take her directly to a Times Square bar.
"She's with me," he reassured Talia, playing at that white-knight crap again. Where the hell was that coming from? "Don't worry."
"I'm not sure you're safe with her, frankly," Talia muttered.
Cooper laughed. He could only wish.
Gloria closed her compact with a snap and tuned into the conversation for the first time. "What's the plan? Who's coming to the bar with me?"
"You're not going to the bar," Talia said flatly. "Cooper's taking you home."
"Taking me home?" Gloria asked, and there was a husky new note in her voice that made heat pool in his belly.
Which made him a rotten bastard because she'd been crying at a black-tie event and drinking heavily- he could smell the lingering fruitiness of champagne on her breath-two signs that pointed to man trouble.
Which meant that Gloria was wounded and vulnerable right now and would probably regret whatever she said tonight when the cold light of day hit her tomorrow. And he didn't want any part of Gloria's regret. He'd take anything else she wanted to give him, but not her regret.
"Making sure you get home," he clarified, taking her elbow. "Ready?"
"Hang on. Thanks, Cooper. You're a lifesaver." Rising on her tiptoes, Talia whispered in his ear under the guise of kissing his cheek. "And if you take advantage of my sister while she's drunk, I'm going to clip your balls, fry them up in a beer batter and serve them to you with hot sauce. Comprende?'"
This time he did laugh. "Oh, I comprende. And since my balls are very important to me, you won't have to worry about me taking advantage of Gloria." That would have been the perfect time to shut the hell up, but a sudden wave of seriousness hit him. For some inexplicable reason, he wanted them both to trust him. "Ever," he added.
Looking reassured, Talia nodded and moved aside.
But Gloria, who'd been watching Cooper's little speech with narrow-eyed suspicion, swiped at her eyes again and told Talia something that felt like a fist directly to Cooper's gut. "Learn from my mistakes, okay, Tally? Don't bother counting on a man. They never come through in the end."