“That woman,” Tyrell aimed his finger like a gun at the blonde across the hall, “is a bitch on wheels.”
Angela set a calming hand on his arm. “That’s why she’s here, Ty. That’s why they sent her.”
He paced away from Angela, then back again, eyes locked on the object of his fury. She was talking on a cell phone, angled away from him so all he could see was her smooth French twist and the simple gold hoop in her right earlobe.
“She’s got ice water in her veins,” he muttered. “Or arsenic. Or whatever the hell they embalm people with.”
“She’s just doing her job. And in this case, it’s a thankless one. They can’t win.”
Ty turned his roiling eyes on Angela. He would have started in – again – about hired-gun lawyers from New York City coming down to Texas thinking all they had to do was bullshit a bunch of good ole boys who’d never made it past eighth grade, but just then the clerk stepped out of the judge’s chambers.
“Ms. Sanchez,” she said to Angela. “Ms. Westin,” to the blonde. “We have a verdict.”
Across the hall, the blonde snapped her phone shut and dropped it in her purse, snatched her briefcase off the tile floor and, without looking at Angela or Ty, or anyone else for that matter, walked briskly through the massive oak doors and into the courtroom. Ty followed several paces behind, staring bullets in the back of her tailored navy suit.
Twenty minutes later they walked out again. A reporter fromHouston Tonight stuck a microphone in Ty’s face.
“The jury obviously believed you, Mr. Brown. Do you feel vindicated?”
I feel homicidal, he wanted to snarl. But the camera was rolling. “I’m just glad it’s over,” he said. “Jason Taylor dragged this out for seven years, trying to wear me down. He didn’t.”
He continued striding down the broad hallway, the reporter jogging alongside.
“Mr. Brown, the jury came back with every penny of the damages you asked for. What do you think that means?”
“It means they understood that all the money in the world won’t raise the dead. But it can cause the living some serious pain.”
“Taylor’s due to be released next week. How do you feel knowing he’ll be walking around a free man?”
Ty stopped abruptly. “While my wife’s cold in the ground? How do you think I feel?” The man shrank back from Ty’s hard stare, decided not to follow as Ty strode out through the courthouse doors.
Outside, Houston’s rush hour was a glimpse inside the doors of hell. Scorching pavement, blaring horns. Eternal gridlock.
Ty didn’t notice any of it. Angela caught up to him on the sidewalk, tugged his arm to slow him down. “Ty, I can’t keep up in these heels.”
“Sorry.” He slowed to half speed. Even as pissed off as he was, Texas courtesy was ingrained.
Taking her bulging briefcase from her hand, he smiled down at her in a good imitation of his usual laid-back style. “Angie, honey,” he drawled, “you could separate your shoulder lugging this thing around. And believe me, a separated shoulder’s no joke.”
“I’m sure you’d know about that.” She slanted a look up from under thick black lashes, swept it over his own solid shoulders. Angling her slender body toward his, she tossed her wavy black hair and tightened her grip on his arm.
Ty got the message. The old breast-crushed-against-the-arm was just about the easiest signal to read.
And it came as no surprise. During their long days together preparing for trial, the cozy take-out dinners in her office as they went over his testimony, Angela had dropped plenty of hints. Given their circumstances, he hadn’t encouraged her. But she was a beauty, and to be honest, he hadn’t discouraged her either.
Now, high on adrenaline from a whopping verdict that would likely boost her to partner, she had “available” written all over her. At that very moment they were passing by the Alden Hotel. One nudge in that direction and she’d race him to the door. Five minutes later he’d be balls deep, blotting out the memories he’d relived on the witness stand that morning. Memories of Lissa torn and broken, pleading with him to let her go, let her die. Let her leave him behind to somehow keep living without her.
Angela’s steps slowed. He was tempted, sorely tempted.
But he couldn’t do it. For six months Angela had been his rock. It would be shameful and ugly to use her this afternoon, then drop her tonight.
Because drop her, he would. She’d seen too deep inside, and like the legions preceding her, she’d found the hurt there and was all geared up to fix it. He couldn’t be fixed. He didn’t want to be fixed. He just wanted to fuck and forget. And she wasn’t the girl for that.
Fortunately, he had the perfect excuse to ditch her.
“Angie, honey.” His drawl was deep and rich even when he wasn’t using it to soften a blow. Now it flowed like molasses. “I can’t ever thank you enough for all you did for me. You’re the best lawyer in Houston and I’m gonna take out a full page ad in the paper to say so.”
She leaned into him. “We make a good team, Ty.” Sultry-eyed, she tipped her head toward the Marriott. “Let’s go inside. You can . . . buy me a drink.”
His voice dripped with regret, not all of it feigned. “I wish I could, sugar. But I’ve got a plane to catch.”
She stopped on a dime. “A plane? Where’re you going?”
“Paris. I’ve got a wedding.”
“But Paris is just a puddle-jump from here! Can’t you go tomorrow?”
“France, honey. Paris, France.” He flicked a glance at the revolving clock on the corner, then looked down into her eyes. “My flight’s at eight, so I gotta get. Let me find you a cab.”
Dropping his arm, she tossed her hair again, defiant this time. “Don’t bother. My car’s back at the courthouse.” Snatching her briefcase from him, she checked her watch. “Gotta run, I have a date.” She turned to go.
And then her bravado failed her. Looking over her shoulder, she smiled uncertainly. “Maybe we can celebrate when you get back?”
Ty smiled too, because it was easier. “I’ll call you.”
Guilt pricked him for leaving the wrong impression, but Jesus, he was itching to get away from her, from everyone, and lick his wounds. And he really did have a plane to catch.
Figuring it would be faster than finding a rush-hour cab, he walked the six blocks to his building, working up the kind of sweat a man only gets wearing a suit. He ignored the elevator, loped up the five flights of stairs – why not, he was soaked anyway – unlocked his apartment, and thanked God out loud when he hit the air conditioning.
The apartment wasn’t home – that would be his ranch – just a sublet, a place to crash during the run-up to the trial. Sparsely furnished and painted a dreary off-white, it had suited his bleak and brooding mood.
And it had one appliance he was looking forward to using right away. Striding straight to the kitchen, he peeled off the suit parts he was still wearing – shirt, pants, socks – and balled them up with the jacket and tie. Then he stuffed the whole wad in the trash compactor and switched it on, the first satisfaction he’d had all day.
The clock on the stove said he was running late, but he couldn’t face fourteen hours on a plane without a shower, so he took one anyway. And of course he hadn’t packed yet.
He hated to rush, it went against his nature, but he moved faster than he usually did. Even so, what with the traffic, by the time he parked his truck and went through all the rigmarole to get to his terminal, the plane had already boarded and they were preparing to detach the jet way.
Though he was in no frame of mind for it, he forced himself to dazzle and cajole the pretty girl at the gate into letting him pass, then settled back into his black mood as he walked down the jet way. Well, at least he wouldn’t be squished into coach with his knees up his nose all the way to Paris. He’d sprung for first class and he intended to make the most of it. Starting with a double shot of Jack Daniels.
“Tyrell Brown, can’t you move any faster than that? I got a planeful of people waiting on you.”
Despite his misery, he broke out in a grin at the silver-haired woman glaring at him from the airplane door. “Loretta, honey, you working this flight? How’d I get so lucky?”
She rolled her eyes. “Spare me the sweet talk and move your ass.” She waved away the ticket he held out. “I don’t need that. There’s only one seat left on the whole dang airplane. Why it has to be in my section, I’ll be asking the good Lord next Sunday.”
He dropped a kiss on her cheek. She swatted his arm. “Don’t make me tell your Mama on you.” She gave him a little shove down the aisle. “I talked to her just last week and she said you haven’t called her in a month. What kind of ungrateful boy are you, anyway? After she gave you the best years of her life.”
Loretta was his Mama’s best friend, and she was like family. She’d been needling him since he was a toddler, and was one of the few people immune to his charm. She pointed at the only empty seat. “Sit your butt down and buckle up so we can get this bird in the air.”
Ty had reserved the window seat, but it was already taken, leaving him the aisle. He might have objected if the occupant hadn’t been a woman. But again, Texas courtesy required him to suck it up, so he did, keeping one eye on her as he stuffed his bag in the overhead.
She was leaning forward, rummaging in the carry-on between her feet, and hadn’t seen him yet, which gave him a chance to check her out.
Dressed for travel in a sleek black tank top and yoga pants, she was slender, about five foot six, 120 pounds, if he was any judge. Her arms and shoulders were tanned and toned as an athlete’s, and her long blond hair was perfectly straight, falling forward like a curtain around a face that he was starting to hope lived up to the rest of her.
Things are looking up, he thought. Maybe this won’t be one of the worst days of my life after all.
Then she looked up at him. The bitch on wheels.
He took it like a fist in the face, spun on his heel and ran smack into Loretta.
“For God’s sake, Ty, what’s wrong with you!”
“I need a different seat.”
“Who cares why. I just do.” He slewed a look around the first class cabin. “Switch me with somebody.”
She set her fists on her hips, and in a low but deadly voice, said, “No, I will not switch you. These folks are all in pairs and they’re settled in, looking forward to their dinner and a good night’s sleep, which is why they’re paying through the nose for first class. I’m not asking them to move. And neither are you.”
It would be Loretta, the only person on earth he couldn’t sweet talk. “Then switch me with someone from coach.”
Now she crossed her arms. “You don’t want me to do that.”
“Yes I do.”
“No you don’t and I’ll tell you why. Because it’s a weird request. And when a passenger makes a weird request, I’m obliged to report it to the captain. The captain’s obliged to report it to the tower. The tower notifies the Marshals, and next thing you know, you’re bent over with a finger up your butt checking for C-4.” She cocked her head to one side. “Now, do you really want that?”
He really didn’t. “Sheeee-iiiiit,” he squeezed out between his teeth. He looked over his shoulder at the bitch on wheels. She had her nose in a book, ignoring him.
Fourteen hours was a long time to sit next to someone you wanted to strangle. But it was that or get off the plane, and he couldn’t miss the wedding.
He cast a last bitter look at Loretta. “I want a Jack Daniels every fifteen minutes till I pass out. You keep ‘em coming, you hear?”
* * *
This can’t be happening. Victoria Westin shut her eyes and counted to ten, opened them again . . . and he was still there. She’d actually believed that her day couldn’t suck any worse, but now Tyrell Brown was sitting beside her, wrestling with his seatbelt and cursing under his breath.
Up close like this, he seemed a lot bigger than he had in court. Maybe it was the jeans and cowboy boots, or the UT shirt stretched across his chest, showing off his arms. She’d only seen him in a suit, and while he’d been a lean and imposing six foot two, he hadn’t looked like this, like he could snap her in half without breaking a sweat. Now he looked more than capable of it.
And if she was reading his body language right, that’s exactly what he wanted to do.
Not that she blamed him. The person she blamed was her mother. Adrianna Marchand, of Marchand, Riley & White, the premier civil defense law firm in New York City. Adrianna, who was a senior partner, had stuck her, a lowly associate, with an unwinnable train wreck of a case and then refused to let her settle it.
“The plaintiff has nothing but his own word to prove that the deceased ever regained consciousness before she died,” her mother had said in her most pedantic tone. “Surely, Victoria, you can convince six jurors of questionable intelligence that he’s highly motivated to lie. Nine million’s a lot of motivation for a jerkwater rancher. Shake him up. Trip him up. If you can’t think of anything else, then bloody well smile at him.” She smirked at her daughter. “Your smile flusters any idiot with a penis. And frankly, after five thousand in orthodontics, it ought to.”
But Adrianna had been wrong about all of it. The jurors were two doctors, a college professor, a newspaper reporter, a retired judge, and a grad student, all of whom were unquestionably intelligent. The “deceased,” as Adrianna euphemistically termed Lissa Brown, had been a bright, young, universally loved, kind-hearted rescuer of abused animals.
And the “plaintiff,” who was sitting beside her right now, had a 50,000-acre cattle ranch, a Ph.D. in philosophy, and the saddest eyes she’d ever seen. The sympathetic jury had hung on his every word. As a result, when Jason Taylor’s five-year sentence for drunk driving and vehicular manslaughter was up next week, he’d have to sell most of what he owned to satisfy the verdict.
Her mother was going to kill her.
If Tyrell Brown didn’t do it first.
* * *
Somehow, while she was brooding, they’d reached cruising altitude. Now the flight attendant, who was apparently friendly with Tyrell, asked for her drink order.
“Club soda with lime,” she managed to get out.
Ty made a sound of disgust, then snarled at Loretta, “I’m still waiting for my Jack Daniels.”
“And you’ll wait a little longer,” she shot back. But her pat on his shoulder as she walked by belied the bite in her tone. Vicky shivered. Maybe Loretta would help him hide her body. They could probably fit her in a trash bag if they folded her up tight.
When Loretta returned with their drinks, she handed Ty his whiskey without a word. Passing Victoria her club soda, she smiled. “What brings you to Texas, honey?”
Victoria’s hand shook. She covered it by taking a sip, then said, curtly, “Work,” hoping Loretta would take the hint and quit trying to converse. She couldn’t understand these Texans, they’d talk to anyone, poke their noses in anywhere.
“What’s your line?” Loretta went on, undeterred.
Ty threw back his drink, waved the empty glass in front of Loretta’s nose. “Stewardess,” he sneered, “how about a refill here? You’re not getting paid to flap your jaw.”
Loretta arched a deadly brow. For a long moment, they eyed each other. Then, deliberately, she took the glass. “Be right back, honey,” she said to Victoria, without once breaking glares with Ty. Then she turned, slowly, and walked away.
For an instant, just an instant, Victoria and Ty were united in their relief.
Then she opened her book and pretended to lose herself in it. He flipped through the Skymall catalogue with the same intense concentration.
Of course, she wasn’t really reading. How could she, bombarded by the waves of resentment rolling off Ty? He’d relived his worst nightmare on the witness stand, and it was clear to everyone in that courtroom, including her, that he’d never recovered from his wife’s death. Even though he’d won his case, his heart had been raked over the coals in the process. And she’d been holding the rake.
From the corner of her eye, she watched him nervously. He was really putting away the whiskey. What if he got drunk and went postal? She’d be the first to go.
To her horror, his head whipped around as if he’d felt her watching him. She flinched.
Had she really thought his eyes were sad? Beautiful, yes, root beer brown shot through with gold. But they were murderous. She snapped her gaze back to her book, praying she hadn’t set him off.
* * *
Of course, Ty wasn’t really reading either. How could he, when Victoria Westin was sitting there in his seat, so cold and controlled. There was no heart in the woman, no heat, no compassion. Was she even alive? Maybe she was a vampire.
Still, he wasn’t altogether proud that he’d made her flinch. As if he’d ever hit a woman. In his thirty years he’d been in more fights than he could count – fists, knives, even guns a time or two – and he liked to think he’d struck fear into a few hearts.
But never a woman’s.
If he didn’t hate her guts so much, maybe he’d apologize. But he did, and he wouldn’t. He crossed his arms. Better yet, she should apologize to him for thinking he’d ever lift a hand to her. Sure, hewanted to twist her head off like a bottle cap, but he wouldn’t really doit.
She had a lot of nerve making him feel like a bully.
Loretta finally showed up with a second Jack Daniels, waited while he knocked it back on top of the first, then stalked off with the empty glass. He scowled at her receding back. For sure, she’d make him wait for the next one.
* * *
“Beef for you,” Loretta slapped it down on Ty’s tray table, “and Ms. Westin, here’s your vegetarian entree.”
Ty gave her a grin. “Why, thank you, Loretta, honey.” She ignored him, but he didn’t mind. They were two hours into the flight and his jagged edges had smoothed out considerably. He’d gotten the wedding gift out of the way – matching massage chairs from the Skymall catalogue – and while he was at it, polished off his third and fourth Jack Daniels. Now, deep into his fifth, he was feeling more philosophical about life in general, and his situation in particular.
Glancing over at Victoria’s steamed veggies, he wondered idly why anyone would pass up filet mignon for broccoli and rice.
Without meaning to, he asked the question out loud.
Victoria fumbled her cutlery. Cautiously, she turned her head to look at him. “I-I’m sorry, I didn’t hear what you said.”
Her wariness made him feel like a dick. And now that he’d gone and opened his big mouth, clamming up again would only make things worse. So he took a stab at his usual laid-back delivery.
“I said, why chew on leaves and twigs when this filet here melts like butter?”
“Beef’s bad for you,” she said, then flushed bright red.
Ty bit back a smile. She’d obviously just recalled that he owned a cattle ranch. Cocking one brow, he said lightly, “In Texas them’s fighting words, but seeing as we’re considerably east of Texarkana, I’ll let it slide.”
He forked another bite into his mouth, washed it down with a slug of whiskey. Then, because she was looking at him like she expected more, he aimed his fork at her club soda. “Liquor bad for you too?”
“I don’t drink when I fly. It diminishes oxygen intake.”
Ty’s eyes widened. He broke out in a smile. “Well hell. I should be flopping around like a fish on land by now.” He sucked down the last drops in his glass, caught Loretta’s eye and pointed to it.
* * *
Victoria pinched off a smile before it could form. She didn’t trust this new, affable Tyrell Brown. True, the whiskey seemed to have mellowed him. But he was unpredictable. He could strike out in an instant.
Still, she couldn’t look away from him. His smile – which she’d never seen in court – was an appealing flash of full lips and white teeth that crinkled his eyes and transformed his handsome face into a heartstopper. With his tawny hair, streaked like a surfer’s, a little too long and usually mussed, it was no wonder his attorney had such an obvious crush on him.
Loretta appeared with his drink. “Loretta, honey,” he said, “tell this young lady here that you’ve got plenty of oxygen on this plane.”
Loretta tilted her head to one side. “Tyrell, am I gonna have to cut you off?”
“I’m serious. She thinks,” he waved his glass at Victoria, “that if she has some wine with her leaves and twigs, she’s gonna run out of air or something.”
Loretta turned to Victoria. Deadpan, she said, “We’ve got plenty of oxygen on this plane.”
Victoria’s smile slipped its leash. “What a relief.”
“So,” Ty grinned at her, “what’ll you have?”
She started to say that she didn’t want anything, then decided it would be simpler just to give in. “I’ll have a cabernet,” she told Loretta. After all, she could pretend to sip it. At least she wouldn’t seem like such a dork. Beef’s bad for you . . . liquor diminishes oxygen intake. Good grief.
“I knew it,” said Ty, “I knew you’d pick red wine. Antioxidants, right?”
She lifted one shoulder, a silent admission. God, she really was a dork.
He nodded, smugly. “Yeah, I got this.” He ticked it off on his fingers. “Yoga twice a week for flexibility. Pilates on the weekends for your core. Daily meditation, fifteen minutes morning and night, to keep you centered. Monthly massage to release toxins and stimulate your immune system.” He dropped his voice confidentially. “Or that’s what you tell yourself. Truth is, it just feels good.”
She laughed. He was funny. Handsome and funny, a killer combination.
And he’d nailed her routine. It sounded so . . . so regimented when he reeled it off in that laid-back drawl.
Loretta brought the cabernet. Deliberately, Victoria took a big swallow, then another. So what if the airlines reduced the percentage of oxygen in the air to save money. Look at Tyrell. He was three sheets to the wind and he was breathing just fine.
Another glug, and she got up the nerve to say, “Core muscles, daily meditation. You’ve been reading your Oprah magazine.”
He held up a hand. “Only for the articles. I swear I never look at the pictures.”
She giggled, something she never did. She hadn’t eaten a thing all day, and the wine had already gone to her head. She ate a quick bite of stirfry, too little too late.
Ty sipped his whiskey. “Met her once. Oprah, I mean. She had a sit-down with some cattle ranchers back when she stepped in a pile of shit, taking that dig at beef on her show. My Daddy ran the ranch back then. He brought me and my brother along to hear what she had to say.”
He shrugged. “Seemed like a nice lady. Well-spoken. Sincere. I liked her. Even if my Daddy didn’t.”
She took another long swallow of cabernet. It was delicious. She really should drink wine more often. After all, it was loaded with antioxidants.
Another swallow, and she said, “I met Dr. Phil. On a plane, just like this.” She flicked her hand back and forth between them.
“Dr. Phil? No shit. He give you any free advice?”
“He told me I should break up with my fiancé.”
He held up two fingers to Loretta. Angled his body toward Vicky, just a fraction, and she noticed that she’d done the same, just a little bit, just enough to wrap the first delicate threads of intimacy around them. She took another sip.
“And did you? Break up with him?”
“Not right away. But I should have. He ended up cheating on me, which Dr. Phil predicted.” Another swallow. “Of course, my mother blamed me for it.”
Ty’s eyes widened. “She blamed you for his cheating? Why?”
“Why does she blame me for anything?” She snorted a laugh. “That’s what I should’ve asked Dr. Phil. Why does my mother hate me? And why do I keep trying to make her love me?”
And this, she thought, is why I shouldn’t drink.
She went back for another sip anyway, realized her glass was empty just as another round arrived. Ty plucked the empty from her fingers and handed her a fresh one. She smiled at him. He had such expressive eyes. She couldn’t imagine why she’d ever thought them murderous. They were maple syrup and butter, liquid and warm, and focused on her like she was the only woman in the world.
She angled a little more in his direction.
* * *
Ty forgot his filet, let himself be pulled in. “What makes you think she hates you?”
“Where should I start?” She held up a hand. “Okay, I’ll skip the formative years and go straight to college. I wanted to go to Williams – small, rural, with a great theater program. But no. According to my mother, as an actress the only line I’d ever have to learn is, ‘Can I take your order?’”
She took a pull on her wine. “Just because her own mother took off for Hollywood and never came back, I can’t be trusted anywhere near a stage. Apparently I’m too impractical, too . . .” she fluttered her fingers, “flighty to know what’s good for me. So Mother decided my future for me. It had to be Yale, and it had to be pre-law.” She sipped, shrugged. “I gave in, of course. I always do.”
Ty swirled his drink, tried to imagine his folks pushing him in a direction he didn’t want to go. They wouldn’t. And if they’d tried, he’d have dug in his heels. An hour ago, he’d have bet his ranch that confident, in-control Victoria Westin would do the same.
“You’re an adult now,” he said. “Tell her to whistle up a rope. Take yourself back to school and study what you want to.”
She looked baffled. “What I want to? I don’t even know what I want anymore.” She shrugged again. “It’s too late now. I’m stuck with the law, like it or not.”
“Well, do you like it?” In the courtroom she’d seemed so cold and aloof, nothing like the warm-blooded woman beside him now. Even her blue eyes had heated up, from arctic ice to warm October sky. With her brow knit over them as she considered his question, she looked approachable and vulnerable and, well, pretty too.
“It has its moments,” she said at last. “Probably like being a cop or a firefighter. You know, hours of tedium punctuated by moments of stark terror.” When he chuckled, she said, “Okay, it’s not life or death, but it’s still months of boring paperwork and preparation, and then the trial – which is the terrifying part – is over in a couple of days.”
She paused to hit the wine again, and it must have dawned on her that trials were bound to be a sore subject, because her eyes widened, her swallow turned into a gulp.
Ty could have told her not to worry, because after working hard to get there for the last few hours, he’d finally reached the zone he’d been striving for. He was, quite literally, mind-numbingly drunk. In this state, which he’d frequented many times in the past seven years, he could still carry on a conversation and even remember it in the morning. He could make jokes, wax philosophical, and fuck like a seventeen-year-old after the big game.
But he couldn’t think of Lissa.
It was a programmed response that had probably saved his life, and he’d gotten the ritual down to a science. When his memories overwhelmed him, he’d drink whiskey steadily until his fingers started to tingle. Then, and only then, he’d let himself shut off the part of his mind where she lived and forget her for a while.
He’d reached that place half an hour ago, and while most men would be sliding under their tray table, Ty was in the bubble. For another half hour, he’d be good company. The best. Then he’d go down hard and sleep for eight straight.
He’d dream about Lissa, that was the downside. But when he woke in the daylight, he’d be able to deal with it again.
“So.” Victoria changed the subject in a hurry. “What’s in Paris?”
“An old girlfriend’s getting married.”
“You’re going to an ex’s wedding?”
“Weird, huh? Thing is, about three months in, we both figured out that we like each other a lot, but it wasn’t going past that.” He shrugged. “We did the friends with benefits thing for a while. Now we’re just friends.”
* * *
Victoria couldn’t imagine being friends with her ex. Aside from the fact that he’d crushed her heart like roadkill, Winston wasn’t exactly fun to hang out with. They’d have to do whatever he wanted to do, just like always.
“How about you?” Ty asked. “What’s in Paris?”
“Actually, I’m headed to a wedding too, in Amboise, a couple of hours outside the city. My brother. Well, technically my half-brother, from my mother’s second marriage.”
“Second out of how many? Wait, let me guess.” He closed one eye, calculating. “Assuming she’s about fifty. . . .”
“Okay, fifty-four, and a looker, I’ll bet.” His smile said he meant it as a compliment, and her cheeks warmed in response. “A lawyer,” he went on, “so she’s financially independent, used to being her own boss. And based on her attitude about college, a control freak too, right?”
“Oh yeah, she’s into control.” She swallowed more wine.
He looked thoughtful. “Yeah, I’m gonna say she’s on number four.”
“Close.” She bobbed her glass in salute, drank again. “Number four just got kicked to the curb. She’s keeping his name, though, so she won’t have to change the firm’s letterhead again.”
“Add practical to her list of virtues.”
Victoria snorted, very unladylike. Her mother would disapprove. Then she shrugged one shoulder. “To be fair, she probably wouldn’t be so hard to live with if my father hadn’t died. He was her first husband. She really loved him.” She looked down into her glass, swirled the last inch of wine. “The rest of her husbands, her boyfriends too . . . well, Dr. Phil would say she’s trying to fill the hole Dad left.”
“How did he die?”
“Cancer. I was only three, but I remember him. Helping me blow out the candles on my birthday cake, stuff like that. And the funeral, I remember that. Mother crying and crying like she’d never get over it.”
The minute the words were out of her mouth she wished them back. Damn it, she kept stepping on land mines. First trials, now tragic death and heartbreak. What next, drunk drivers?
“So, what do you do with your Ph.D.?” she blurted, hoping he was too anesthetized to notice another abrupt topic change.
* * *
Ty noticed, but he rolled with it, untroubled by where the conversation had been and unconcerned with where it was going.
The truth was, in the slightly detached manner of the comfortably intoxicated, he was enjoying himself. Now that Victoria had come out of her cold hard shell, he kind of liked her. She had layers. He liked layers. He liked it when things weren’t what they appeared to be on the surface. Must be the philosopher in him.
And honestly, with her hair around her shoulders and that curve-hugging outfit in place of her lawyer suit, she looked good. He didn’t usually go for the pale, porcelain-skin type. Too fragile looking. And he liked more meat on his women. Still, he was a sucker for blue eyes, and he had to admit that what meat she had was in all the right places.
Effortlessly, he shifted into flirting mode.
“Mostly I dazzle the ladies with Descartes.” He wiggled his brows. “Empiricism’s always a turn-on. And rationalism? Another aphrodisiac.”
* * *
Victoria widened her eyes, playing along. “Philosophy’s sexy? Who knew?”
His smile was smug. “Make fun if you want to. But I did my dissertation on the perception of sexual experience under those two competing doctrines, and trust me, a lot of women thought that was sexy.”
Sure enough, she felt a frisson herself. She doused it with the last of her wine.
Propping her elbow on the armrest, she set her chin on her fist, scrunched her forehead into a pitying moue. “Please don’t tell me that’s your pick-up line. It’s pathetic.”
“But effective. Check it out.” He closed his eyes, made a show of slipping into character.
When he opened them again, Victoria nearly gasped. Ty the joker had vanished.
In his place was this loose-limbed, sloe-eyed cowboy straight off the range. Lanky and sexy and in no hurry at all, everything about him said baby-I’ve-got-all-night-and-I’m-gonna-spend-it-fucking-you-right.
Taking his time, he dragged his gaze down her body, languid, smoldering, raising her temperature by ten degrees, then slowly dragged it up again, lingering on her breasts, her throat, her mouth, until he locked eyes with her. Then he smiled, a slow, bone-melter of a smile.
Her heart thumped so loudly he should be able to hear it.
“Honey,” he spread his drawl like butter, “I got a favor to ask you.” Reaching across the space between them, he drew one finger down her arm, tucked it into the crook of her elbow. The slight pressure on her pulse set it racing.
“I’m doing some research for my dissertation.” He nodded slowly, encouragingly. “Yeah, that’s right, sweetheart, it’s college stuff.”
She would have chuckled but her throat had closed tight. Flecks of orange glimmered in his tiger eyes. How had she missed those before?
His teeth caught his bottom lip, tugged lightly until it popped free. “I’m studying the perception of sexual experience under the competing doctrines of rationalism and empiricism.” Drawing his finger up her arm again, he cuffed her wrist gently. “That’s all right, sugar, you don’t need to know what all those big words mean.” His voice dropped to a husky whisper. “It’s the sex I need your help with. Hours and hours. Hot and sweaty–”
She burst out in a shaky laugh. “Okay, I get it. Philosophy’s sexy.”
He sat back with an I-told-you-so smirk. “So, you want to know the upshot of all my research?”
Did she? “Uh huh.”
His lips curved in a wicked smile, and his eyes twinkled, she’d swear they did.
“I concluded that I’m definitely an empiricist – I absolutely believe that to truly understand what sex’ll be like with another person, I can’t just think about it like a rationalist would.”
He paused a beat.
“I have to experience it.”