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Nya Lowe gazed across the lavish hotel reception hall and nearly choked on the shrimp appetizer she had just plopped into her mouth. Her heart began to beat rapidly, and a chill slid down her spine.
Oh, God, tell me that is not Russell!
As she watched that familiar swagger and saw that overly cheerful smile, Nya's stomach sank.
Russell Ewing, the man who had taken her to a restaurant to publicly dump her, when she'd been fool enough to believe he was going to propose.
The man she couldn't get over, no matter how many bad dates she went on.
Turning abruptly, Nya hurried the few steps over to the bar, where she squeezed herself between the wall of men gathered there. Hopefully, Russell hadn't seen her.
"What can I get you?" the bartender asked her almost immediately.
" Nya reached into her purse. "I've got this drink ticket." Each attendee at the gala to celebrate the launch of the Ocean City Firefighters' Calendar had received two drink tickets. "Can it get me a White Zin-fandel?"
As Nya watched the bartender pour her drink, she became aware of the fact that her breathing was all but nonexistent. It was as though Russell had sucked all the air out of the room.
She glanced over her shoulder and felt a spurt of panic. Russell was heading in her direction.
Even worse, there was a stunning, curvaceous woman on his arm. A woman Nya recognized. Topaz Gemclearly a pseudonymwas the lead actress whom Russell had cast in his independent film.
Were they a couple?
"There you go," the bartender said, and Nya was grateful that she needed to turn her attention back to him.
Nya was tempted to down the wine and promptly purchase another one. Then she asked herself, Why are you letting Russell get to you?
It was likely that she could go the whole evening without even running into him. There were enough attendees at the gala that two people could never even cross paths.
She glanced over her shoulder again. And her heart just about imploded. Not only was Russell heading in her direction, his eyes connected with hers.
Nya took a liberal sip of her drink as her brain scrambled to figure out what to do. Should she simply walk away?
Walk? Heck, she wanted to run as fast and far as her four-inch heels would take her.
But running would make her look like a coward. Or worse, it would make her look like she was still hung up on Russell.
Russell waved, making it clear that she'd lost her chance to flee. There went her plan of pretending that she hadn't seen him.
Nya swallowed. Darn it, she wasn't prepared to talk to him. She wasn't prepared to make nice with Topaz Gem, either, who was clinging to him as if he were Denzel Washington. She had never liked Topaz, who had overtly flirted with Russell after she was cast in the film. Nya had feared that Russell had crossed the line with her but had never had any proof. Now, however, she had to wonder if Topaz had been the reason behind their breakup
Oh, God. He's getting closer! What was she going to do?
No particular plan in mind, Nya found herself trailing her fingers down the arm of the man beside her. Stunned, his gaze whipped to hers.
Nya looped her arm through his. "Just go with it," she whispered.
The man, whom she now recognized as one of the firefighters featured in the calendar, narrowed his eyes in confusion.
"Baby," Nya purred moments before Russell reached her. "It's not polite to ignore me for so long."
"It's okay, I forgive you." And before he could say another word, Nya eased up on her toes, snaked a hand around his neck and pulled his head down. And then she kissed him.
She kissed him brazenly, despite the fact that they were in public. Her tongue forced his lips open, then slipped into his mouth. As she made out with this stranger, Nya was aware of just how delectable his lips were. Not to mention how amazing his muscular body felt pressed against hers.
Kissing him with the kind of passion reserved for the bedroom, Nya strummed her fingers along his neck. She could feel the man's surprise in the way his athletic body had tensed, but soon, he gave in and kissed her back.
Breaking free of him with an exaggerated moan of desire, Nya eased back. She shot a glance to her right, and yes! Russell was standing right there, staring at her with an unguarded look of surprise.
"Oh, hi," Nya said breathlessly. She placed her hand on the firefighter's chest, whom she now recognized to be Tyler Something-Or-Other. When he'd come into the studio where Nya worked to be photographed, she'd thought he was especially attractive.
Everyone was there tonight to celebrate the launch of the calendar, which Sabrina, her best friend and exceptional photographer, had created. The Ocean City Fire Department had been thrilled with Sabrina's final product, and the fund-raising gala they'd thrown had been going remarkably well.
Until Nya had seen Russell.
"Good evening, Nya," Russell said. His eyes flitted from Nya to Tyler.
"Wow," Nya said, her tone bright, "it's been a long time."
"A year and a half," Russell said.
"Since we broke up," Nya said. "But it's been a year and two months since we last saw each other. Not that I'm counting."
"Something like that."
Nya did her best not to glare at him. Instead, she concentrated on trying to prove to him that she had moved on. "Russell, I want you to meet Tyler. My boyfriend." The smile on her face was so fake that it hurt, but she'd be damned if she would let Russell feel any sense of power over her. He may have broken her heart, but he was going to see that she was over him.
Russell extended his hand to Tyler. "Tyler. Good to meet you. I'm Russell Ewing."
"Tyler McKenzie," Tyler said, pumping Russell's hand. "Firefighter."
"Yep, he's a firefighter," Nya gushed.
"Ah," Russell said. "A firefighter. One of our city's first responders. I salute you."
Topaz's eyebrows shot up. "Yes! You're November. I saw your picture. Very sexy."
"That's me," Tyler said.
"I didn't quite recognize you out of your uniform," Topaz went on.
Nya's eyes widened with alarm at the way Topaz's eyelashes fluttered. Was she flirting with her pretend man?
Nya held on to Tyler a little more proprietarily. Topaz had already stolen one man of hers, and she wasn't about to let her sink her teeth into her new fake boyfriend, as well.
Russell also didn't look happy.
"You remember Topaz," Russell said, snaking his arm around her waist.
"Topaz," Nya said, without an ounce of enthusiasm. "Good to see you again."
"Likewise," Topaz replied, barely able to force a smile on her face as she spoke. The tension only made it more apparent to Nya that Topaz had been involved with Russell while they'd been dating.
Nya wanted to ask her how long she had been sleeping with her boyfriend, and if it had started the moment Russell had cast her for his film. But she didn't bother. She was over Russell. All she wanted now was for him to know it.
"Russell and I are dating!" Topaz announced. "A little over a year and a half now."
"More like a year and a few months," Russell said, then chuckled uneasily.
Year and a half! Russell had definitely been cheating on her!
"Oh, right," Topaz said, catching on. "A year and a few months. We were working together and couldn't deny our attraction."
Not wanting to hear another word, Nya turned to the bar and began to search in her purse for her second drink ticket. She needed another alcoholic beverage, and fast.
Nya ordered a vodka tonic and promptly took a liberal sip.
When she turned around and tuned in to the conversation again, Russell was asking, "So how long have you two been together?"
"Not too" Tyler began.
"Six months," Nya interjected. "Six amazing months." Six months ago was the last time Nya had contacted Russell, foolishly asking if they could once again work on their relationship. He hadn't told her that he'd been involved with Topaz, but he had told her that she needed to move on.
"Great," Russell said. "I'm glad you're happy."
"We're very happy," Nya said, and placed a hand on Tyler's chest.
Feeling a jolt of heat, she withdrew her hand. And took another sip of her drink.
"Listen," Russell began, "I'm glad I ran into you. I finally finished the film. And the premiere is this Friday night. I would love for you and Tyler to come."
"You finished it?" Nya asked. "Wow." It was bittersweet. She had been working with Russell on the film, wearing many hats as he'd been trying to produce his first feature. Their breakup had meant the end of her involvement on the project, one she'd believed in.
"Yep," Russell said. "And it's time to introduce my baby to the world."
At Russell's statement, Topaz leaned into him, and Nya wanted to roll her eyes. He's not referring to you, dimwit.
Instead, Nya also moved closer to Tyler, taking his hand in hers. "I'm really happy for you, Russell," she said in a sweet tone. "But I'm sorry. I'm busy Friday night. Tyler and I have plans."
Tyler, who up until this point had been mostly silent, suddenly spoke. "Actually, that dinner fell through."
Nya's eyes shot to his. "Honey?"
"We can make it to Russell's screening." Then he faced Russell. "What time will it be?"
Nya wanted to elbow him in the ribs. What was he doing? Yes, she had kissed him without warning, but surely he must have figured out that she was playing a role. All she wanted him to do was look hot and stay silent.
"Seven o'clock," Russell said. "And there'll be an after party, as well. At The Diamond Club."
"Ooh, one of the best hot spots." Tyler leaned in close and kissed Nya on the temple. "We'll be there."
Russell beamed. "Excellent! It's a great film, if I do say so myself."
"What's the film about?" Tyler asked.
"Struggling alcoholic with an abusive past finds herself and redemption," Russell answered.
Nya cleared her throat. "Sweetie," she began, an undeniable edge to her tone. "Are you sure Friday night's engagement dinner is canceled? Because when I spoke to Jennifer, she said she was only waiting on confirmation from her brother." Turning to Russell, Nya explained. "Jen's brother is on the East Coast, and he's working on a huge ad campaign and isn't sure he'll be able to leave town. But he'll know by tomorrow. Which is why we can't confirm with Russell," Nya went on, looking at Tyler now. "Knowing Keith, he'll be on a flight early Friday morning to make sure he gets here. I'm sure it will go ahead, as planned."
Tyler was shaking his head even before she was finished with her story. "Nope," he said. "I spoke with Dave. He told me it's definitely canceled. Keith didn't want to be rushed, so they decided to put off the dinner. Jen doesn't want to have the dinner without him being there. After all, he's the only family she's got left."
Nya could smack Tyler. Truly, she could. Why was he throwing a wrench into her well-executed excuse? Wasn't it apparent to him that she was trying to avoid Russell? Weren't firefighters supposed to save people? Didn't he see that she needed saving?
For some crazy reason, Tyler seemed determined to beat her at her own game.
He winked at her. Then he looked at Russell. "We'd love to come."
Resignation swirling in Nya's gut like black tar, she faced Russell. "All right, then. Since the dinner is canceled, we'll be there."
Russell clapped his hands together. "Excellent." Then he reached into his jacket pocket and produced two tickets. "Here you go. These will get you into the premiere."
Tyler took them. "Thank you."
"I'm the lead actress," Topaz said to Tyler. "It's my first big role."
"Great," Tyler said. "I look forward to it."
With a nod, Russell said, "We'd better continue making the rounds. More people to see."
"Don't let us stop you," Nya said, her fake smile still plastered on her face.
"Good to see you again, Nya." Then, finally, Russell turned and walked away. Topaz turned, casting a lingering glance at Tyler as she started walking off with Russell.
The moment they were out of earshot, Nya turned to Tyler. "What did you think you were doing?"
"Tyler McKenzie," Tyler said, offering her his hand. "Pleasure to make your acquaintance."
Nya glared at him. "I know who you are. I work at the photography studio with Sabrina."
"Ahhh, that's right." He snapped a finger. "That's why you looked familiar."
"Nya," she told him, a little hurt that he didn't remember her. "Nya Lowe."
"Now that we've been properly re-introduced, are you going to kiss me again?" Tyler asked.
Her face flaming, Nya forced in an even breath. Then she felt a measure of disgust. "You men. You're all the same."
Tyler chuckled. "Excuse me? You kiss me, then you look at me like I'm some sort of creep?"
"Don't you have a fiancée?" Nya asked. She remembered that he had mentioned his fiancée during the photo shoot and had dashed her hopes of dating him in the process.
"I did," Tyler said. "It ended about four months ago."
"Oh," Nya said, feeling stupid. "I see. II'm sorry."
"No, don't be sorry."
"That was my ex-boyfriend, and I needed someone," Nya explained. "Happy to help."
Tyler grinned at her, a smile that was both charming and disarming. But still Nya wasn't impressed with his antics. "Obviously, you had to have realized that I was trying to escape Russell. Yet you accepted an invitation to a film I clearly don't want to go to. You're a firefighter. Don't firefighters rescue people?"
Tyler chuckled. "I've never quite had to rescue anyone in exactly that manner before
"You know what I mean," Nya said.
"You laid one on me without any explanation. If you wanted help, shouldn't you have just asked instead of kissing me?"
"You're right," Nya conceded. "Obviously, you had no clue what I was doing, and I'm sorry for the way I handled things. It's just, suddenly he was there, and I panicked." Nya paused, realizing that she was doing too much talking. "The problem is, you created a bigger mess for me by telling Russell that we'll go to the screening of his film."
"Or, what I've actually done is give you another opportunity to drive your point home."
"You clearly want to prove to this guy that you're over him. So why don't we get dressed up on Friday night and go to the movie premiere? After that, there'll be no doubt in his mind that you've moved on."
Nya's stomach fluttered. Just what was Tyler proposing to leave no doubt in Russell's mind? A night of hot kisses and close embraces?
"As much as I appreciate your willingness to help out," Nya said, "I'm going to refuse."
"Oh." Tyler's eyebrows rose, and a confused expression passed over his face.
"What?" Nya asked. "What's with that look?"
I thought you kissed me because of your ex, but maybe that's not why at all."
"I thought you used me to get to your ex, but maybe you were actually using your ex to get to me."