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The Wilde Side
By Janelle Denison
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2004 Janelle Denison
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Happy thirtieth birthday, Ashley. Make a wish and blow out your candles."
Make a wish ... three beguiling words that tempted Ashley St. Claire to seek her heart's desire. To make a provocative, erotic wish unlike any she'd ever made before, then make it come true.
Sitting at a private window table at The Metropolitan Club, an elite, fine dining establishment located on the sixty-sixth floor of the Sears Tower in downtown Chicago, Ashley glanced from the cake in front of her to the guests at her table. She was surrounded by the people she loved the most for her celebratory dinner-her parents, her younger sister Madison and her husband, and their six-month-old baby girl, Sophie.
The only one present who wasn't a blood relative was Evan Monterra, the man her father, Charles, had made president and CEO of the St. Claire Hotel chain when he'd retired from the business two years ago. But still, Evan was treated as part of her family, like the son that Charles and Georgia St. Claire never had.
Make a wish. Again, that naughty little voice inside her head beckoned Ashley to shed the conservative, practical facade she'd lived by the past three years and be daring and adventurous: to give in to the sexual needs invading her dreams at night that left her breathless and aching for the touch of a man's hands, instead of her own, sliding over her aroused body.
That was her wish.
Her family was happy, healthy, and wealthy, so there was no sense asking for things they already possessed. Her parents had given her a ten-karat diamond tennis bracelet to commemorate the milestone of her turning the "big 3-0," and she'd spent the day with her sister, Madison, at the Genacelli Spa getting massaged, plucked, waxed, and pampered. Then they'd gotten their hair and nails done and gone shopping on Michigan Avenue for a few new outfits.
Her life as a St. Claire was good, if not a bit staid and predictable, and she'd never lacked for anything ... except a man in her life who didn't have ulterior motives, unlike her ex-boyfriend, Greg Derryn, who'd seen her as a profitable commodity and had attempted to blackmail her with a possible scandal that could have tarnished her family's name and standing in the community.
Ashley would be forever grateful her father had met the other man's outrageous monetary demands, which had saved her and her parents from public humiliation. The entire scene had been a lesson well learned, but had left her cautious and guarded with men she didn't know, afraid to trust her own instincts and wary of their reasons behind their interest in her.
Even the select men she'd opted to date since that incident were more drawn to her family's fortune and how it could improve their own standing in their social circle, as well as what kind of opportunities the St. Claire name might provide for them. Those she'd met in passing or in a casual setting were equally fascinated with her wealth once they discovered who she was-an heiress to the St. Claire fortune-instead of the woman inside.
Out of frustration and disgust, she'd taken herself off the market, much to her parents' dismay since they'd made no secret of wanting her to get married and settle down with a family like her sister had. Preferably to someone who'd fit well into the family. Someone like Evan Monterra, the good-looking, respectable man sitting next to her father at the table.
She'd also remained celibate for much too long, for fear of putting herself in the same kind of situation she had with Greg, and instead poured all her energy into work, traveling from Chicago to New York to San Francisco managing the exclusive boutiques in her family's hotels.
But lately, she couldn't deny that she was feeling a restless yearning to break free of the chaste, good-girl mold that had become such an ingrained part of her life the past few years. She was itching to embrace the sensual, daring woman inside who secretly wanted to disregard rules of propriety, along with her affluent last name, and take a walk on the wilder, unrefined side of society for just one night.
Apparently, it was time to shatter her vow of abstinence.
"Come on, Ash," her sister urged from across the table as six-month-old Sophie blew a raspberry Ashley's way. "Hurry up and make a wish before your candles melt and make a mess of the cake."
"Hold your horses, Maddie," Ashley teased, then smiled at her cherub-faced niece, whom she adored. "This is a big one, and I want to make sure I get it right."
And then, finally, she closed her eyes and made her birthday wish. What she desired most of all was a hot, unforgettable night with a sexy bad boy who'd let her be as uninhibited and naughty as she dared-a stranger who had no idea who she was and couldn't threaten her reputation or touch her emotions. She wanted to seduce and be seduced and experience the thrill and excitement of giving in to lust and pure physical attraction without the doubts or second thoughts that had kept her too virtuous since Greg's blackmail attempt.
Tonight, as a gift to herself on her thirtieth birthday, she'd make her wish come true. And come the morning, with a wealth of sensual memories to look fondly back on, and no one the wiser, she'd return to being Ashley St. Claire: the older, reliable sister; the proper, responsible daughter she'd vowed to her parents to be; and the efficient, sophisticated woman who managed the boutiques for the St. Claire hotels.
She blew out the candles, and everyone clapped and cheered their good wishes for a happy birthday. Her father motioned their waiter over to cut and serve the cake, and they spent the next half hour eating the dessert while Madison regaled the family about their day at the spa and how much fun they'd had together. Before long, Sophie decided she was done being happy for the evening and started to get fussy, and not even her daddy's tickling could make her smile or giggle.
"It's after seven, and she's getting tired," Madison said as she pulled a bottle of formula out of the diaper bag and gave it to the little girl before she could start howling for her drink. "I think we should take her home."
Madison's husband, Adam Montgomery, nodded in agreement. "It's getting close to her bedtime."
From across the table, Ashley caught her sister giving her husband a look of longing as they both stood up and gathered their things. It was as if Madison was gazing at Adam, seeking something from him she desperately wanted but couldn't have.
Which made no sense to Ashley since Madison and Adam were such a perfect couple, blessed with a great marriage, a beautiful daughter, and the kind of close, intimate relationship Ashley envied. Adam was brown-haired and green-eyed handsome, he came from a wealthy, prominent family and worked with his brother and father in their investment firm, and he fit in so well with her family. Also, he'd always adored Madison, and it was evident that he was equally smitten with Sophie.
"Your mother and I should get going, too," Charles said, as he scooted out of his chair and stood, then helped his wife up, too. "I have a six A.M. tee time in the morning, and you know how your mother likes to get out in the garden early on Sunday mornings before it gets too hot to be outside."
"Yes, I do." Her parents had a routine they liked to follow, and Ashley was glad that after thirty-two years together they still enjoyed each other and their lives so much. She was equally grateful that they were calling it an early night, because she was anxious to fulfill her birthday wish.
"Thank you, Mom and Dad, for the lovely birthday dinner, and everything else," she said, and gave her father a hug. "You spoil me."
His big, broad chest echoed with a harrumph. "It's our right as your parents to spoil you," he said in that deep baritone of his. "You only turn thirty once."
Ashley smiled. Her father said that about her birthday every year.
"Ahh, Ashley," her mother sighed as she gently clasped Ashley's face between her soft hands and gazed into her eyes. "We just want you to be happy, sweetheart."
Ashley knew that her mother was referring to more than just material possessions. Georgia desperately wanted her oldest daughter to put the past behind her, find someone, fall in love, get married, and live happily-ever-after. Madison had been fortunate enough to find a man who loved her for the woman she was, despite being a St. Claire, and Madison was crazy about him in return.
Ashley had yet to be so lucky to find such unconditional love.
"I'm happy," she told her mother, and tried not to analyze her reply too closely or that odd emptiness in her chest that made itself known from time to time and told her she could be happier. She felt selfish for even thinking such a thing.
Hugs were passed around, and they walked to the elevator together. But once her parents, Madison, Adam, and the baby's stroller were on board, there wasn't much room left for anyone else. They all tried to scoot closer, but it was obvious that it would be a cramped ride down if any one else tried to squeeze their way in.
"It's okay," Evan said in that easy-going way of his that made him so good with the employees at the hotel. "We'll wait for the next one."
Ashley waved good-bye as the doors closed shut, and within seconds another arrived. Evan's hand settled at the base of her spine as he ushered her onto the lift, the gesture warm and familiar, but lacking any kind of sparks or jolt of physical awareness. Evan was a gentleman, through and through, and as such his manners with a woman were impeccable, including something as simple as escorting her onto an elevator.
"I take it you had a nice birthday?" he asked once they were alone and the elevator started its smooth descent to the parking garage.
"It was wonderful." A fond smile of remembrance lifted the corners of her mouth. "It's been a while since I've spent the day with my sister, so that was exceptionally nice."
He tipped his head speculatively and pushed his hands into the front pockets of his trousers. "Well, you're definitely glowing from all that pampering at the spa."
Sure, she'd had an acid peel so that her skin was completely exfoliated and baby smooth to the touch, but she was certain any "glow" Evan witnessed on her face was due to anticipation of what the rest of the night might hold.
Since Evan had driven her to the restaurant, she slid into the passenger seat of his Mercedes and waited for him to get behind the wheel. He turned the key in the ignition, rested his arm on the console, then glanced her way.
"Would you like to go out and get a drink somewhere?" he asked, his tone casual. "Just the two of us?"
Ashley caught the hopeful look in Evan's gaze and knew she'd disappoint him with her answer. "Actually, I already have plans with friends."
She hated to fabricate an excuse, but there was no way anyone could discover what she had in mind tonight. While she had every intention of finding an out-of-the-way bar that no one she knew would ever set foot in, she still had the St. Claire reputation to uphold, and that meant keeping her secret to herself-not that she would have shared her plan with Evan anyway.
He nodded in understanding and put the gear in reverse to back out of the parking space. "Another time, then."
She touched his arm, just to let him know she appreciated his offer. "Definitely."
A comfortable silence settled between them as he drove her back to the St. Claire Hotel, and Ashley snuck a quick glance Evan's way as he concentrated on navigating the streets of Chicago and the busy Saturday evening traffic. With his thick, sandy blond hair, chocolate brown eyes, and charming personality, Evan was actually quite a catch-a bachelor worthy of pursuing and, eventually, marrying.
Unfortunately, for as much as Ashley had grown to care for Evan over the years, and had even dated him for a while after her near scandal with Greg because her father had encouraged her to do so, her feelings for Evan remained more as a friend, rather than a lover or husband material, despite the fact that Evan had professed that he'd fallen in love with her.
Leaning her head back against the leather seat, she gazed out the window. Ashley knew her father was still holding out hope that she'd eventually fall madly in love with Evan, which would be the perfect match considering his position within the company, and her own interest in the hotels, as well. But that spark and intimate connection just wasn't there for her, no matter how hard she'd tried to make it happen.
And for her parents' sake, she had.
Unable to reciprocate Evan's feelings, and not wanting to mislead him into believing there was more between them than there actually was, she'd ended the relationship as amicably as possible. She knew he'd been shocked and hurt by her decision, but being the consummate gentleman, he'd managed to put his personal feelings aside out of respect for their working relationship.
Surprisingly, they'd managed to remain good friends-comfortable, trustworthy friends who knew they could depend on each other if they ever needed anything at all-but still, she was all too aware that beyond their friendship, Evan still wished for something more with her.
Evan turned his car into the hotel's circular drive and came to a stop at the curb by the front entrance. A valet immediately came up to her door and opened it for her.
"Thank you for the ride."
"Anytime. You know that." Smiling, he leaned over the console separating them and brushed a warm, chaste kiss on her cheek. "Have fun tonight."
Oh, she planned to. An evening of wicked, wild fun. "I will," she said, and stepped from the vehicle.
Once inside the hotel, Ashley made her way across the lavishly decorated lobby, then used a key card to open a locked door next to the registration area and slipped inside. There were offices on either side of the carpeted corridor, including Evan's, and halfway down was a private elevator that led to the penthouse suite where she lived. At the end was another door, and this one led to a restricted garage with limited parking for herself, Evan, and her family-so they all could come and go as they pleased without employee scrutiny.
She pressed the button for the elevator, which immediately opened. Stepping inside, she punched in a code on the key pad, and the lift took her directly up to the forty-fourth floor of the hotel ... and the place she called home. No one had access to her level except herself, her family, and Evan for emergency purposes-and all of them respected her privacy and never came up to her place unless they called beforehand.
Excerpted from The Wilde Side by Janelle Denison Copyright © 2004 by Janelle Denison. Excerpted by permission.
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