by Penelope Douglas

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A compelling standalone novel from the New York Times bestselling author of the Fall Away series—who never fails to deliver a “powerfully written contemporary love story…”(Booklist).

Former tennis player Easton Bradbury is trying to be the best teacher she can be, trying to reach her bored students, trying to forget her past. What brought her to this stage in her life isn’t important. She can’t let it be. But now one parent-teacher meeting may be her undoing…

Meeting Tyler Marek for the first time makes it easy for Easton to see why his son is having trouble in school. The man knows how to manage businesses and wealth, not a living, breathing teenage boy. Or a young teacher, for that matter, though he tries to. And yet…there is something about him that draws Easton in—a hint of vulnerability, a flash of attraction, a spark that might burn.

Wanting him is taboo. Needing him is undeniable. And his long-awaited touch will weaken Easton’s resolve—and reveal what should stay hidden...

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780698408944
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/01/2015
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 129,822
File size: 918 KB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Penelope Douglas is a writer and teacher in Las Vegas. She is the author of the New York Times bestselling Fall Away series, including Falling AwayRival, Until You, and Bully. Born in Dubuque, Iowa, she earned a Bachelor's degree in Public Administration, then a Masters of Science in Education at Loyola University in New Orleans. She and her husband have one daughter. 

Read an Excerpt


While most Mardi Gras balls were lively, with performers from their parades that day in attendance to entertain the guests, this particular party overflowed with a very different vibe.

I looked around me, the rich and powerful that made up the guest list sizing everyone up, their connections and name more of a résumé than their education or career.

And while everyone around me appeared relaxed—due to the heavy flow of champagne, I was sure—it was just a mask on top of their masks.

They weren’t calm. They were working. Deals were being made, relationships bought, and the politicians were always on the job.

But still . . . there was a charge in the air. It was Mardi Gras in New Orleans, after all.

It was a time of year when many locals escaped the city, the tsunami of tourists clogging the streets and the traffic turning what was normally a fifteen-minute drive into three hours as constant parades blocked your route.

The city and its surrounding areas hosted between forty to fifty parades every Mardi Gras season, and each parade had a krewe—a not-for-profit organization that donated money to build the floats, some costing as much as eighty thousand dollars, while the krewe members enjoyed the privilege of donning masks as they tossed beads and other trinkets into bedlams of outstretch hands and screaming crowds.

This particular krewe was exclusive, almost aristocratic with its money and political connections. Lawyers, CEOs, judges, you name it . . . Anyone who was anyone in this city was here tonight. Hence why my brother accepted an invitation.

Jack knew that New Orleans society was like a candy-covered chocolate. You had to break through the shell to get to the good stuff.

Deals and relationships weren’t made at conference tables or offices. They were settled over glasses of Chivas at a cigar bar or around ten pounds of crawfish at a filthy seafood dive in the Quarter with calliope music from the Natchez steamboat drifting in through the open French doors. People didn’t trust signatures so much as they trusted your ability to bullshit while you were drunk.

All reasons I loved this city.

It held the history of weathered storms—of blood, sweat, music, agony, and death by people who expected to fall but knew how to get back up.

I offered the waiter a modest smile as I plucked another glass of champagne off his tray and turned back around, regarding the imitation Degas hanging before me.

Oil on canvas would burn quickly. Very quickly, I mused, inching closer as the chill from the champagne flute seeped through my manicured fingers.

God, I was bored. When I started fantasizing about inanimate objects going up in flames, it was time to call it a night.

But then I felt my phone vibrate against my thigh, and I straightened, pulling away from the painting again.

“Jack,” I whispered under my breath as I set down my glass on a high, round table and clawed my dress up my leg to get at my phone strapped around my thigh. I hated carrying purses, and since my brother was here with me and had the credit cards, all I needed was a place to secure my cell.

Swiping the screen, I clicked on the text notification.

If you say anything rude, my future is ruined.

I shot my head up, a smile spreading across my face as I scanned the ballroom. I spotted my brother standing in a circle of people but facing me with a warning eyebrow raised and a smirk on his face.

Moi? I texted back, looking at him like I was affronted.

He read the text and shook his head, grinning. I know your vibes, Easton.

I rolled my eyes at him, amusement tilting my lips up into a smile.

Jack most certainly did know my vibes.

But he should’ve known better. I would never let my brother down. I may have inherited our father’s quick temper and our mother’s inability not to say things that shouldn’t be said, but I was loyal. When my brother called, I came. When he needed me, I didn’t ask questions. For him, I would tolerate just about anything.

I shall endure, I replied, my usual sarcasm evident as I met his mischievous hazel eyes.

Jack was three years older and about to finish his third year of law school at Tulane. Time and again, he dragged me to benefits, luncheons, and galas as he schmoozed his way through the New Orleans elite, making his connections and building relationships. All so he could secure the right job offers when he graduated a little more than a year from now.

I hated wasting time on things that didn’t interest me, but Jack didn’t have a girlfriend to bore with these functions, so I often stepped in as the dutiful “plus one.”

Find something to play with, he teased. And don’t get dirty.

I cocked an eyebrow across the room at him, hoping he saw the dare in my expression. Even through my black metal half mask.

If you say so . . . I taunted with my eyes.

I’d hung in there with Jack as he had made the rounds when we arrived, conversing and networking, until they started talking mistrials and mitigating circumstances. That was when I made my escape, choosing to wander and ponder in silence rather than be forced to smile and nod as if I had any interest in what they were talking about.

But now, glancing around the crowd and trying to take Jack’s suggestion to find something—or someone—to occupy my time, I had to admit I wouldn’t even know where to start.

My brother could work the room like a fine instrument—laughing and shaking hands just like a good ole boy—but I muddled around the edges.

In but not quite in.

There was a time when those roles were reversed.

And there was a time when I cared.

Leaning down, I inched up the sheer red layers of my gown to tuck my phone away in a concealed carry strap secured around my leg. Not that I was concealing a weapon, but it served a purpose nonetheless.

I let the hems of my gown fall back down to my feet, loving the weightlessness of the fabric as it brushed across my legs. Since it was February, it was still fairly cold outside, but I had been unable to resist the indulgence of the flowing, lightweight fluidity of the fabric though it was probably meant for spring.

For a girl who’d spent most of her upbringing in sneakers and tennis skirts, the gown earned me looks from men meant for the woman I sometimes had trouble believing I’d become.

Falling to the tops of my feet, the gown hugged my torso in a crisscross pattern on the front and back, but flared out only slightly below the waist in an A-line fit. It was bright red, and looked perfect with my black metal half mask, which curved over the top of my left eye, down the right side of my nose, and covered half of my right cheek in a lace pattern.

My only other accessory was a pair of diamond stud earrings given to me by my parents when I’d won the US Open junior tournament ten years ago.

Bending over, I slipped my heel off, the only part of the outfit I hated.

I arched my foot and then pointed my toes, rolling my ankle. Everything ached from the pressure of being packed together, and I didn’t understand how other women lived in these every day.

Balancing myself on one leg, I grabbed my champagne glass and slid the other foot back into the shoe, but it stumbled out of my hand and fell to the ground.

Sighing, I leaned down to snatch up the heel.

But I stopped midbend, jerking back when someone grabbed my wrist and snatched the glass out of my hand.

“Careful,” a low, deep voice warned.

I blinked, my eyes shooting between the hand on my wrist and the floor where I had spilled half of my drink when I’d bent over.

I moved to straighten, but then I paused, seeing him set the glass down and immediately kneel in front of me on one knee, avoiding the spot on the carpeting where my drink had spilled.

“Allow me,” he suggested.

Ignoring the flutter in my chest, I watched as he took my ankle and slid my foot effortlessly back into my heel, his sure hands setting me right again.

The heat of his fingers spread up my leg, and I narrowed my eyes, a little annoyed that my heart was beating so fast.

He wasn’t wearing a mask like most of the other guests. According to my father’s general wisdom, it probably meant that he didn’t play games or feel the need to be a part of the crowd. He wanted everyone to know who he was. Fearless, bold, a rule breaker . . .

But my inner cynic would say he’d probably just forgotten his mask at home.

He glanced up at me, a pert tilt to his lips and his hooded eyes taking me in with interest. I knew right away that he was older.


Probably midthirties, judging by the faint lines around his eyes.

And although that wasn’t old, it was almost outside of my generation at twenty-three.

I liked that, too. If his hands were sure, maybe his tongue would be, too. Conversation-wise, I mean.

His black hair was cut close to the scalp on the sides and in the back, with the longer hair on top styled neatly. He was clean-shaven, and his tailored wool tux was a black deep enough to make everyone else’s here look faded. His shoes outshined his Rolex, and thank goodness for that. Men with bling were high maintenance.

And he was handsome. The narrow jaw and high cheekbones accentuated his sharp black eyebrows over stone-blue eyes.

He was more than handsome. He was seductive.

I felt a small smile tug at the corners of my lips.

“Thank you,” I said softly, moving my foot back to the floor.

His fingers grazed an inch higher on my calf before letting me go, and I had to fight the chills that spread over my skin.

He was bold, too.

I held his eyes—the color of a cloud heavy with unfallen rain—as he rose, standing tall and not making any move to back off.

“Losing shoes, spilling drinks . . . Are you normally such a hot mess?” he teased, the confident mischief in his eyes turning everything below my waist warm.

I raised my eyebrows, shooting him a cocky smirk. “Feeling up strange women, condescending remarks . . . Are you normally so rude?” I asked.

His eyes held a smile, but I didn’t wait for him to answer.

I plucked my champagne flute off the table and glided around him, back to the painting.

If he was the kind of man I’d hoped he was, he’d follow. He was attractive, and I was intrigued, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have to work for it.

I tilted the glass to my mouth, taking in the chilled bitterness of the bubbles on my tongue as I felt him watching me.

“You don’t appear to be having a very good time,” he observed, stepping up to my side.

His subtle cologne drifted through my nostrils, and my eyelids fluttered for a moment.

“On the contrary . . .” I gestured to the imitation Degas with my champagne. “I was just contemplating how some gasoline and a match would improve this painting.”

He laughed under his breath, and I loved how his eyes shimmered in the dim light of the ballroom. “That bad, huh?”

I nodded, sighing. “That bad.”

Standing next to him, I felt the full measure of his size. I was no shorty at five seven, but even in heels, I still came only to his shoulder. His chest was wide but lean, and I loved that I could make out the muscles in his upper arms when he crossed them over it. Even through his tux.

He looked down at me with the stern expression of a superior. “Do you often have pyrotechnic fantasies?” he asked, looking amused.

I turned back to the painting, absently staring at it as I thought about his question.

Pyrotechnic fantasies? No.

I had lots of fantasies, pyrotechnic and not, but how obvious would I be to tell him that. It was a cheap response to a leading question. I wouldn’t be so obvious.

“I don’t want to start fires,” I assured him, staring at the Degas with the flute against my lips. “I just like standing in the middle of burning rooms.”

Tipping back the glass, I finished off the champagne and turned to set it down, but he took the base of the flute, stopping me.

“How long would you stay?” he inquired, his eyes thoughtful as he took the glass from my hand and set it down on the table. “Before you tried to escape, that is?”

“Longer than anyone else.”

He looked at me quizzically.

“How about you?” I questioned. “Would you join the mayhem in the mad rush for the exit?”

He turned back to the painting, smirking. “No,” he answered. “I’d already be outside, of course.”

I narrowed my eyes, confused.

He grinned at me and leaned in to whisper, “I set the fire, after all.”

My jaw ached with a smile I refused to bestow on him. I didn’t like surprises, but he was interesting, and he looked me in the eye when he spoke to me.

Of course, I wasn’t so interested in his answers as I was in his ability to keep the conversation going. I could indulge in small talk, but this was more fun.

I let my eyes drift away from him.

“I’m sorry you don’t like the artwork,” he said, regarding the piece on the wall.

My thigh quivered with the vibration from my phone, but I ignored it.

I cleared my throat. “Degas is a wonderful artist,” I went on. “I like him. He aimed to depict movement rather than stationary figures in many of his works.”

“Except this one.” He nodded to the piece of the lonely woman sitting in a bar.

“Yes, except this one,” I agreed, gesturing to L’absinthe. “He also tried to show humans in isolation. This one was called ugly and disgusting by critics when it was unveiled.”

“But you love it,” he deduced.

I turned, slowly moving along the wall, knowing he’d follow.

“Yes, even when he is copied by bad artists,” I joked. “But luckily no one here will know the difference.”

I heard his quiet laugh at my audacity, and he was probably wondering whether or not to be insulted. Either way, he struck me as the type of man who didn’t really care. My respect probably wasn’t what he was after.

I felt his eyes wash over my back, following the lines of my body down to my hips. Other than my arms, my back was the only part of my body left bare by the fabric and crisscross work.

Turning through the open French doors, I walked onto the wide, candlelit balcony. The music inside slowly became a faint echo behind us.

“You don’t really care about Degas, do you?” I asked, turning my head only enough to see him out of the corner of my eye as I walked to the railing.

“I couldn’t give a fuck less about Degas,” he stated without shame. “What’s your name?”

“You don’t really care about that, either.”

But then his hand grabbed mine, pulling me to a stop. I turned halfway, looking up at him.

“I don’t ask questions I don’t want the answers to.” It sounded like a warning.

I curled my fingers, feeling my heart skip a beat.

While I’d gotten the impression this man had a playful side, I now understood he had other faces, too.

“Easton,” I acquiesced.

Turning back around, I pressed my hips against the railing and gripped the banister, feeling him behind me.

I breathed in, the scent of magnolias from the ballroom filling my nose along with a tinge of the ever-present flavor indigenous only to the Quarter. Aged wood, stale liquor, old paper, and rain all combined to create a fragrance that was almost more delicious than food on a quiet morning walk down Bourbon in the fog.

“Wouldn’t you like to know my name?” he asked.

“I don’t ask questions I don’t want the answers to,” I replied quietly.

I felt his smile even though I couldn’t see it.

I stared out over the Quarter, nearly losing my breath at the sight.

A sea of people covered Bourbon Street like a flood, with barely enough room to turn around or maneuver through the masses. It was a sight I’d rarely seen in the five years I’d lived here, preferring to avoid the French Quarter during Mardi Gras in favor of the local hangouts on Frenchmen Street.

But it still had to be appreciated for the awe-inspiring sight it was.

The streetlamps glowed in the late-evening air, but they served only as a decoration. The neon lights of the bars, jazz clubs, and restaurants—not to mention the throngs of beads flying through the air from the balconies and down to waiting hands—cast a colorful display full of light, music, excitement, and hunger.

Anything went during Mardi Gras. Eat what you want. Drink your fill. Say anything, and—I blinked, feeling him move to my side—satiate all of your appetites.

Mardi Gras was a free pass. One night when rules were taboo and you did whatever you wanted, because you’d wake up tomorrow—Ash Wednesday—ready to purge your sins and cleanse your soul for the next six weeks of Lent.

I envied their carefree revelry, wishing for the courage to let go, stop looking over my shoulder, and laugh at things I wouldn’t remember in the morning.

“Such chaos,” I commented, observing the crowds stretching as far as the eye could see down in the street. “I’ve never had a desire to be in the midst of all that.”

I turned my head, meeting his eyes as I swept my long, dark brown hair over my shoulder.

“But I like watching all the commotion from up here,” I told him.

He narrowed his eyes. “That’s no good,” he scolded with a hint of a smile. “Everyone needs to experience the madness of the crowds down there at least once.”

“As you sidestep the puddles of vomit, right?” I shot back.

He shook his head, amused. Leaning his hands on the railing and cocking his head at me, he asked, “So what do you do?”

“I finish my master’s degree in a couple of months,” I replied. “At Loyola.”

A moment of apprehension crossed his eyes, and I cocked my head. Maybe he had thought I was older than I was.

“Does that bother you?” I asked.

“Why would it bother me?” he challenged.

I tilted the corner of my mouth in a smile at his game. “You didn’t follow me out here for the exercise,” I pointed out, both of us knowing damn well where the night between two consenting adults could lead. “I’m still in college, for a couple of months anyway. We might not have anything in common.”

He narrowed his eyes. “I wouldn’t worry,” he replied, sounding cocky. “You’ve held my interest this far.”

My eyes flared, and I looked away, tempted to either laugh or chastise him in anger.

“So what do you do, then?” I inquired, not really caring.

He stood up straight and slid his hands into his pockets as he turned to me. “Guess,” he commanded.

I peered up at him, also turning my body to face his.


Okay . . .

Letting my eyes fall down his neck and chest, I took in the black, three-piece tux with the silk necktie fitted around the collar of his white shirt.

Every hair was in place, and his statuesque face gleamed alabaster in the candlelight.

His shoes were shiny and unmarred, and the face of his Rolex, with its black alligator-skin strap, reflected the colorful glow of the Christmas lights across the street, which probably remained up all year.

It was virtually impossible to tell exactly what he did for a living, but I could venture a guess.

Stepping up, I reached out with soft hands and slowly opened his jacket at the waist, seeing his arms fall to his sides as he probably wondered what the hell I was doing.

Looking up at him, I tried to keep my breathing steady, but the heat in his eyes as he looked down at me made it difficult.

I inched forward, my body nearly touching his, and then I licked my lips and let my eyes drop to his waist.

“Well,” I played, “I was going to say junior partner, but that’s a Ferragamo belt.”

His chest moved with his suddenly shallow breaths. “And?”

I looked up, meeting his mischievous eyes again. “And usually it’s BOSS or Versace for this set.” I nodded toward the ballroom, indicating the gentlemen inside. “But if you can spend four hundred dollars for a belt,” I clarified to him, “I’m going to say senior partner instead.”

He snorted but made no move to take my hands away.

“You’re a lawyer,” I finally stated.

He squinted his eyes, regarding me. “You seem to know a lot about men’s belts,” he observed, “and how to spot money.”

I almost rolled my eyes. He either thought I was a debutante, used to expensive things, or a woman on the prowl for a rich man.

I was neither.

“Don’t worry,” I assured him, leaning back against the railing. “If you’re lucky enough to get anything out of me, it will come free.”

His body tensed, and he tilted his chin up, looking at me like he wasn’t quite sure what to do with me. I dropped my eyes, grinding my fingers into my palms and trying to calm my nerves.

Why did I say that?

We weren’t in a bar, where it would be assumed that if we got along we might go home together. He was flirting, and I was flirting, but I shouldn’t have been so forward.

Even if it was what I wanted.

I may not do relationships, but that didn’t mean I didn’t like to lose myself in someone for a night. And it had been too long.

He stepped up, and my breath caught when he positioned himself in front of me, planting his hands on the railing at my sides.

Leaning down into my space, he spoke softly. “For such a young woman, you have quite a mouth on you.”

And then his eyes fell to my lips, and my knees nearly buckled.

“I can stop if you want,” I taunted in a quiet voice.

But he grinned. “Now, what fun would that be?” he shot back, still staring at my mouth.

I inhaled, bringing the scent of him into my lungs as my brain turned fuzzy with the aromas of spice and sandalwood.

“Tell me,” he started, “if I’m a lawyer, how do you know that?”

“Well.” I straightened. “Your nails are clean, so you don’t work in labor,” I pointed out, nudging my way out of his hold and walking past him to the stone vase filled with flowers. “Your clothes are designer and tailored, so you make money.” I looked him up and down, taking in his appearance. “And it’s New Orleans. You can’t walk two feet without bumping into a lawyer or a law student.”

I drew the flower petals between my fingers, feeling their silky softness as I sensed him approach my side.

“Keep going,” he insisted. “What brought me here tonight, then?”

My jaw tingled with a smile. He liked to play.

That was odd, actually. I wasn’t used to men who knew how to keep my attention.

“You were forced,” I answered, thinking about the man I wanted him to be. Not one of those stuffy men inside, smoking cigars and patting themselves on the back. I wanted him to be different.

I went on. “You don’t really know any of these people, and they don’t know you, do they?” I ventured. “You felt obligated to attend tonight due to family pressure or maybe by your boss’s request.”

He watched me, a hint of something I couldn’t place in his eyes.

“You’re just waiting,” I continued, “trying to determine when you can politely abandon the uptight political conversations, bad food, and roomful of people you can’t stand.”

He leaned against the railing again, regarding me as he listened.

“You’re restless,” I stated. “There are other things you wish you could be doing right now, but you’re not sure you should or you’re not sure they’re things you can have.” I raised my eyes, meeting his.

He stared back in silence, and I desperately wanted to know what he was thinking.

Of course, I’d been describing myself this whole time, but his gaze was locked on me, never breaking eye contact.

I moved closer to him, the February chill finally catching up with me.

“What will I do when I leave tonight?” he asked.

“You won’t leave alone,” I determined. “A man like you probably didn’t arrive alone.”

He cocked an eyebrow, challenging me, but he didn’t deny it.

I stared at him, waiting for his admission. Was he here with someone? Was he bold enough to come onto me with another woman around?

He wasn’t wearing a wedding ring, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t attached.

“And you?” He reached out and took a lock of my hair between his fingers. “Who are you here with?”

I thought about my brother, who’d probably been calling me, since I’d felt my phone vibrate twice.

“Never mind,” he refuted. “I don’t want to know yet.”


“Because . . .” He looked up, focusing over my head out in the distance. “You distract me, and I like it. I’m having fun.”

Yeah, I was, too. For the first time all night.

Attendees laughed and danced inside, while the two of us, alone in the cold night with only a few other people lounging around the large balcony, carried on with our stolen moment.

“I should really get back, though,” I suggested, pulling away.

My brother was no doubt looking for me.

But he reached out and grabbed my hand, narrowing his eyes. “Not yet,” he urged, looking behind me toward the ballroom.

I stopped, not making a move to take away my hand.

He stood in front of me, his chest nearly touching mine.

“You’re right,” he whispered, his breath falling over me. “I don’t really like a lot of those people, and they don’t really know me.” His voice turned hoarse. “But I like you. I’m not ready to say good night yet.”

I swallowed, hearing the soft trickle of a slow jazz tune drifting out from the ballroom.

“Dance with me,” he commanded.

He didn’t wait for a response.

Sliding a hand around my waist, he guided me in, and I sucked in a sharp breath, my body meeting his for the first time.

Raising my arms, I put my right hand on his shoulder and my left hand in his as I let him lead me in a small circle, remaining in our own small, private space. Chills broke out down my arms, but I didn’t think he noticed.

I let my eyes fall closed for a moment, not understanding what made him feel so good. My hands tingled and my legs felt weak.

There was rarely ever a time when I felt drawn to a man. I’d felt attraction and passion, and I’d enjoyed sex, but I’d never opened myself up to someone long enough to connect.

Now I found myself not wanting this evening to end any way other than in his arms.

That’s where I wanted this to go. I didn’t need his name, what he did for a living, or his family history. I just wanted to be close to someone and feel good, and maybe that would be enough to satisfy me for the next few months until I needed someone again.

Shaking my head slightly, I tried to clear my thoughts.

Enough, Easton. He was good-looking and interesting, but I didn’t see anything in him that I hadn’t seen in any other man.

He wasn’t special.

Looking up, I asked, “You’re not enjoying the party, so what would you rather be doing right now?”

He shot me a small, sexy smile. “I like what I’m doing right now.”

I rolled my eyes, covering up how much I also liked him holding me close. “I mean, if not this?”

He twisted his lips, looking me over like he was thinking. “I’d be working, I guess,” he answered. “I work a lot.”

So he’d rather be doing work than schmoozing and drinking at a Mardi Gras ball? I dipped my head, breaking out in a laugh.

“What?” He pinched his eyebrows together.

I met his eyes, seeing the confusion. “You prefer work,” I stated. “I can relate to that.”

He nodded. “My work challenges me, but it’s also predictable. I like that,” he admitted. “I don’t like surprises.”

I instantly slowed, nearly stopping our dance.

I said the same thing all the time. I never liked surprises.

“Everything else outside of work is unpredictable,” I added for him. “It’s hard to control.”

He cocked his head and brought his hand up to my face, running his thumb along my cheek.

“Yeah,” he mused, leaning in while his hand circled the back of my neck possessively. “But there are times,” he said softly, “when I like to lose control.”

I closed my eyes. Jesus.

“What’s your last name?” he asked.

I opened my eyes, blinking. My last name? I had kind of liked keeping specifics off the table. I didn’t even know his first name yet.

“Easton?” he pressed.

I narrowed my eyes. “Why do you want to know that?”

He stepped forward, charging me slowly and pushing me backward. I had to keep backing up so as not to fall. “Because I intend on getting to know you,” he said. It sounded like a threat.


“Because I like talking to you,” he shot back, his voice thick with a laugh he was holding in.

I hit the wall behind me and stopped, glancing over at the people sitting at the table across the balcony.

He closed the remaining distance between us and dipped down until his face was a couple of inches from mine.

I locked my hands behind my back, instinctively tapping the wall with my fingers and counting in my head. One, two, three—

“Do you like me?” He cut me off, a playful tilt to his lips.

I couldn’t keep the smile off my face. I turned my head, but I knew he saw it anyway.

“I don’t know,” I answered casually. “You might be too much of a gentleman.”

The corner of his lips curled, looking sinister, and he threaded his hand around the back of my neck and through my hair, gripping my waist with the other and pressing his body to mine.

“Which means I’m still a man, only with more skill,” he whispered against my lips, making my breath shake. “And there’s only one place I won’t be careful with you.”

I whimper escaped, and I felt his hand tighten in my hair. He stared at my mouth, looking like he was ready to eat.

“I think you like me,” he whispered, and I could almost taste his hot breath. “I think you even want to know my name.”

He inched in, and I braced myself, so ready for it, but then suddenly he stopped and looked up.

“Tyler, there you—” A woman’s voice stopped midsentence.

I twisted my head to see a beautiful blonde, maybe seven years older than me with a slightly surprised but not angry look on her face.


That was his name.

And I shifted, forcing his hands to drop away from me.

Tyler straightened and looked at the woman.

“They’re about to start,” she told him, clutching her small purse in both hands in front of her. “Come inside.”

He nodded. “Yes, thank you, Tessa.”

She cast me a quick look before spinning around and walking back inside the ballroom.

Well, she must not be his wife.

Not that I thought he had one anyway, with no wedding ring, but she’d called him Tyler, which meant she was familiar with him.

I smoothed my dress down and touched my mask, making sure everything was in place.

“She’s a date,” he pointed out. “Not a girlfriend.”

I shook my head, finally looking up at him. “No need to explain,” I said lightly.

I was glad he wasn’t married, but if he wanted to misbehave while he had a date in the next room, that was on him. I wasn’t going to feel embarrassed.

But I was disappointed.

I looked around, avoiding his gaze, and hugged myself, rubbing my arms. The cold had turned bitter, and it sank into my bones now.

I hadn’t wanted the night to end, but it was over now.

I’d liked it when I didn’t know his name. I’d liked it when I was waiting to find out.

He leaned in. “I—”

But then he stopped, looking up with a scowl on his face, as a voice came over the microphone from inside.

“Give me your last name,” he demanded quickly, pinning me with a hard stare.

“Now, what fun would that be?” I replied with his same sarcastic remark.

But he didn’t see it as funny.

He shifted, tipping his head up and listening to the man on the microphone and looking hurried.

Why did he look so nervous?

“Shit,” he cursed, and then leaned in to me, planting his hands on the wall behind my head.

“If you leave,” he warned, “there will be nothing holding me back when we run into each other again.”

A shiver ran through my chest, and my thighs tensed.

But I hid it well.

“In your dreams,” I shot back. “I don’t like lawyers.”

He grinned, straightening and looking down at me. “I’m not a lawyer.”

And with a smug look, he walked past me, back into the ballroom.

I let out a breath, my shoulders falling slightly. Damn it.

I was both sick with disappointment and filled with unspent lust. What an asshole he was for leading me on when he had someone inside.

I’d acted like I’d known he hadn’t come alone, but I hadn’t really believed it. Perhaps he thought he’d get my number, take her home tonight, and call me tomorrow.

But that wasn’t going to happen.

Sex happened where and when I wanted it. I didn’t wait for men who put me on a menu.

I felt my phone vibrate again, and I ignored it, knowing Jack was probably pissed I’d disappeared for so long.

Stepping into the lively ballroom, with glasses clinking and people laughing, I ignored the speaker on stage when I peered over the crowd and spotted my brother by the tall double doors.

He had on his coat and held mine in his hand, and he looked aggravated. I moved swiftly over to him, turning around so he could put my wrap on me.

“Where were you?” he complained.

“Playing,” I mumbled, not even trying to hide the teasing in my voice.

The speaker onstage droned on, slurring his words, and the audience laughed at his jokes, everyone else drunk enough to find them funny.

“Well, I want to get out of here before the NOPD parade comes down Bourbon,” Jack reminded me, and then turned to fiddle with his phone.

I’d forgotten about the parade.

At midnight on Mardi Gras, the New Orleans Police Department—in their fleet of horses, dogs, ATVs, cars, trucks, and officers—walked the entire length of Bourbon, clearing the streets, an act that signaled the end of Mardi Gras and the beginning of Lent.

Partygoers filtered down the side streets only to return as soon as the police had passed by. We had gotten a hotel room on Decatur for the night to avoid traffic back to school in Uptown, but we needed to hurry if we’d get through the crowd before the police blocked our route.

“Come on,” he urged, making his way out the doors while I began to follow.

“So, ladies and gentlemen!” the loud voice boomed behind me. “Please help me welcome a man who I hope will soon be announcing his candidacy for the United States Senate next year!” Everyone started clapping as he shouted, “Mr. Tyler Marek!”

I spun around, my eyes rounding as I saw the man who had just pinned me against a wall outside step onto the stage.

Holy shit.

“Damn, I didn’t know he was here,” my brother said, coming up to my side.

“You know him?” I asked, glancing at my brother before turning back to the stage.

“You’ve never heard of Tyler Marek?” he scolded. “He owns the third largest construction company in the world, Easton. Rumor has it, he’s running for state Senate next year. I wish I could’ve met him.”

A politician?

Jesus. I’d stepped into that one.

I should’ve been embarrassed. These people were clearly his friends—or associates—and the ball was, at least in some small part, in his honor. I’d insulted the food, the attendees, and while everyone seemed to know exactly who he was, I’d had no idea.

I tightened my wrap around my body, seeing him give the crowd a playful look I was already familiar with.

And just then, I stilled, seeing his eyes catch mine, and heat rose in my cheeks at the slow, self-satisfied smirk spreading across this face.

He started to speak, but I no longer cared to listen.

If you leave, there will be nothing holding me back when we run into each other again.

I arched an eyebrow at him and then leaned over to the empty round table next to the exit and blew out the small candle sitting there. Smoke drifted up, filling the air with its pungent scent.

And without a backward glance, I left the ballroom, my brother following behind.

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