MILLION DOLLAR MISTAKE
That afternoon, Raven had escaped to the library. As a child, she'd spent many hours among the books at her home, both from inclination and from a need to hide from her family, think things over and dream. Funny how she never outgrew some childhood experiences, regardless of how far she came. She rolled her eyes. A psychologist would probably explain that she was still hiding from reality, judging by her adult behavior.
Up in the loft, Raven tucked herself deeper into a wing chair placed in an alcove of books located near the top of the winding stairs. She was well hidden up here in her cozy haven, but could still see some of the room below. Rubbing her chin, she considered her awkward situation. Since the snow was falling more heavily, all thoughts of leaving immediately were out. She'd have to think on her feet and improvise.
She started to rise when the strident sound of angry voices changed her mind. Jackson and his father entered the library in the midst of a volatile argument. She shrunk farther into her chair, praying no one would see her.
"Save your breath, Father," Jackson said. "I'm an adult. I will see whom I wish, when I wish." "Goddammit, Jackson," J.R. exploded. "You're playing with fire here, don't you know that? Have you any idea of this woman's reputation? What she could do to you?"
"She makes me laugh and takes my breath away when I look at her. That's what she does to me."
"Hell's Bells, son, I could introduce you to a dozen high-priced whores who could do the same thing."
"Watch yourself," Jackson warned. "You're talking about the woman I'm considering marrying."
Raven almost jumped out of her chair. Marry? Ohmigod. She was right.
"Marry, is it? Have you lost every bit of sense you were born with? You can't marry her. I forbid it."
"You forbid it? I'm not a child, I'm twenty-eight. I'll marry anyone I damn well please."
"No, you won't. I control the money, Jackson. And I'm still the head of the family. I haven't worked all these years to see my son throw it away because the front of his pants are too tight."
"I haven't even had sex with her. My feelings are stronger than that."
"Oh, listen to yourself. You sound like a lovesick calf. If you want to moon over someone, moon about Lorianne. She's someone who can do you some good."
"Will you stop shoving Lorianne down my throat every two seconds?" Jackson snapped.
"Not till you come to your senses."
"Lorianne is part of my childhood. I grew up."
"Grown-ups fulfill their obligations, son."
"Their obligations?" Jackson's voice was not only hot with temper, it dripped with sarcasm. "Don't you mean I'm supposed to fulfill your political ambitions? Did you ever ask me if it's what I want?"
"It's always been understood that—"
Jackson gave a sharp, unpleasant laugh. "If it means so much to you, Father, why the hell don't you run for office instead of laying it all on me?" A slamming door punctuated the end of Jackson's statement.
"Son of a bitch," J.R. swore, "what did I ever do to have such an ungrateful, idiotic pup? Damn boy takes after his mother." Leaving that statement hanging in the air like wet wash on a line, J.R. left the library, too.
Only then did Raven dare exhale. She could practically feel the scorch marks where J.R.'s tongue had flicked fire at her character, or lack thereof. Her face flushed with shame. She didn't want to be the object of derision. No one did. Nor did she want to be a chisel prying a father and son apart. Snow or not, she'd have to pack and leave.
That decided, Raven rose and tiptoed across the loft toward the second floor doorway, which she'd discovered the day before. She eased the door open, glancing in each direction before setting a cautious foot into the hallway. She skulked along the corridor. Just as she passed the stairs to the main floor entrance hall, the doorbell rang, its distinctive sound echoing around the huge center foyer below her. Raven stopped, turning to glance over her shoulder, looking down at the people below. Lorianne and Margaret had just wandered in from the sitting room when the bell peeled, while Jackson was crossing the hall toward the back of the house, his father in hot pursuit. The only person missing was Nana, who had retired to her room for a brief rest after lunch.
Lorianne pulled open the door, stepping back out of the way as a gust of wind and snow blew in along with a six-foot-two inch male. He was clapping his hands to rid his gloves of snowflakes, then he stopped and shook his broad shoulders and dark head like a dog coming in from the rain.
"Oh," Lorianne gasped, struggling with the door as the wind continued to gust. The man merely stretched a long arm and closed the door in a competent manner. "Oh, thank you. The wind's very strong."
Nicholas Demetrious looked down, giving Lorianne a charming smile, his teeth very white against his dark tanned skin, his eyes warm and amused. "My pleasure," he said, his voice smooth chocolate liqueur mingling with the rich cream of a slight southern drawl.
Stunned by his sudden appearance, Raven shivered as she watched Nicholas work his sexy magic on Lorianne. There was power there. Power accompanied by a sense of humor that always made Raven wonder what he found so amusing. He set her teeth on edge and had since he'd first turned his quizzical glance on her as a child. She and Nicholas were like oil and water after the match was dropped. He was a magnificent and very sexy animal. She could appreciate him, even as she was wary enough to keep her distance. For all of Nicholas's smooth sophistication and charm, he reminded her of a panther dressed in a too-tight tuxedo. If he ever really unbuttoned—
Raven shivered again.
"Good timing. Got here just ahead of another big storm, I see," J.R. said.
"Barely. I got caught in one on the way here yesterday. I had to stay in some little motel last night." Nicholas unbuttoned his overcoat and removed his gloves to hand both to a hovering Lorianne. "The roads are really getting treacherous."
Raven shook her head and recovered her wits. What the bloody hell is Nicholas doing here?
Coincidence? Could be. But knowing how Nicholas worked, she doubted it. No matter, if fate in the shape of Nicholas was stepping in, then she'd use it.
Raven moved closer to the railing in the upper hall, feeling as if she were seated in a front-row theatre box. The moment and the players were etched onto her memory. The hallway thrown into sharp shadows from the storm outside, the titter of polite conversation, and Nicholas—all charm and appealing danger—standing calmly in the center of it.
Her nerves continued to tingle as Nicholas greeted Jackson, who suddenly resembled a teenage pup standing in the shadow of a mastiff. Nicholas was only three or four years older than Jackson, but in terms of experience and sheer presence, he overwhelmed the man shaking his hand. That's when she got the idea. Her lips curved in a smile that her mother, had she been around, would have told everyone in the vicinity to beware.
She must have made some sound because suddenly she found herself looking straight down into Nicholas's alert gaze. She couldn't pull away. Her breath caught as he took a small step forward, head lifted, eyes gleaming. Suddenly, she remembered that she couldn't wrap him around her finger as she did most men. For a moment she faltered, then stiffened her resolve. Showtime.
"Nicky," she purred, loud enough to capture attention as she tilted her lips into her most alluring smile.
Raven ran along the hall to the stairway and practically danced down the steps, her hand trailing lightly over the railing for balance. Her eyes never left Nicholas's, not even when she saw the wary question in his.
She spread her arms wide and raced toward him, giving everyone the impression that she was a woman on her way to her lover from whom she'd been separated for eons.
"Oh, Nicky, you came."
She flung herself into his arms, leaping up to clamp her legs around his hips, her arms encircling his neck.
Thank God the man had good reflexes. With a sharp exhaled "Whoosh!" he grabbed her and adjusted his stance as he wrapped his arms around her body to pull her close.
Without giving herself time to consider the wisdom of the move, Raven fastened her lips to his, but not before she caught a glimpse of uncharacteristic astonishment in his eyes. That shocked her so much—Nicholas always seemed in control—that she forgot to be careful. Her lips sank into his, stunned by the soft texture of that firm, well-shaped mouth that was usually scowling at her.
But not now.
Her lips opened, relaxing into the kiss, the heat of him warming her, beckoning her to come closer, to singe her wings. Then for an instant, reality returned.
What am I doing?
* * *
Nicholas walked over and shut the door, then turned back to Raven. "Your turn, I believe."
"I don't need you to carry me anywhere."
"We'll see about that later," he said, grinning before strolling back and nodding at the pool table. "Meanwhile, let's set the game up again. It's your turn to break."
Raven reached for the rack and set up the balls again. "You asked for it."
Nicholas chuckled. "Get ready to lose, sweetheart."
"Is that a challenge?"
"Nope, more a number-one fact."
Raven picked up the chalk, rubbing it on the tip of her stick as she refocused on the table, then on him.
As her eyes met his across the green felt table, Nicholas recognized the look—determination mixed with a bit of taunting. Just the attitude he'd come to expect when he goaded her.
"Facts can be disproved. It all depends on the interpretation."
He grinned at her tart response and sparkling eyes. He loved the way she threw herself into things, that joy she could summon on the spur of the moment—and never more than when she was trying to give him a hard time. "Still up for that game of strip pool, sweetheart?"
Head tilted, she drawled, "Darling, you'd be lucky to have your watch left after I wipe the table with you."
"Big talk. Want to put your little black dress where your mouth is?"
"Afraid?" he taunted.
"Are you sure?"
"The reason I'm not willing to participate is more basic than that."
"Uh-huh. Sure," he said, knowing his tone would annoy the hell out of her.
"Strip games of chance are so yesterday."
Nicholas laughed. "Great excuse for copping out because you're afraid."
"No, I'm fashionable. That's a different thing."
"Our cousin Darcy fell in love during a game of strip poker."
"I don't intent to repeat his mistake."
Nicholas grabbed her arm. "And yet you offered a game to Jackson."
She shrugged off his arm instead of answering, did a half-turn and marched around the pool table to line up a better shot. "Are we going to play or talk all night?"
Nicholas sent her a wolfish smile. "I thought we were playing, sweetheart."
Raven almost growled as she drew back to slam her stick against the white cue ball, which responded by galloping down the table and crashing into three other balls causing them to whirl off in all directions but the one direction they were supposed to go. Raven remained hunched over the table as if in pain before straightening to send him a warning look.
Ducking his head to hide a grin, Nicholas murmured, "Nice shot."
Raven curled her lip at him and then practically flounced away from the table, heading straight for the liquor cabinet in the far corner of the room.
Watching her, Nicholas called, "I could use a refill."
She ignored him, taking a small bottle of chilled water from the fridge and guzzling it straight down before she turned back to look at him.
"Or water would be good, too," Nicholas said, grinning before bending over the table and calculating his angles to make his shot with his customary panache. The ball disappeared into the pocket. After a quick glance at Raven who was sauntering toward him with her hips rolling in a sensuous movement guaranteed to send blood away from his brain, he shot again, wincing as the next ball missed the pocket by a cat's whisker.
"Oh, too bad," Raven commented, slapping a bottle of water into his hand as he straightened.
He tucked his stick under his arm and removed the cap. Taking a big gulp, he challenged, "Next time."
Raven leaned over until her ripe lips were touching his ear. "We'll see about that, darling."
The game was on, with both taking their time, using all their skill and discipline to win.
Much later, they were coming down to the final shots. The game was neck and neck.
"Red in the far right pocket," Raven announced, surveying the remaining balls on the table as she calculated angles and lined up her shot.
Nicholas studied the shot. "A bit cocky, aren't you?"
"Confident. A little number-one fact of my own," Raven said, her grin pure recklessness.
"Five bucks says you don't make it," he challenged back.
"That's all you can afford?" Raven teased. "Wouldn't you like to up the stakes?"
Nicholas studied her. "What have you got in mind?"
"All or nothing." Raven threw the words down like a challenge.
"Like the game you were playing tonight?" Nicholas asked.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
His eyes narrowed. "Jackson."
"Lorianne," she snapped back.
He ran his finger over his top lip. "Ah, Lorianne."
When he said no more, she finally asked, "What's up with you and that little blonde? I thought you let that stupid flirting idea go before you left the barn."
"Didn't look like it."
"Darling." Nicholas smiled. "I do believe you're jealous."
"Of what? Of you?" Raven pushed her hair back. "Don't be ridiculous."
"Oh yes, that's usually a role the men in your life play, isn't it?" He offered a look that managed to be disappointed, accusing and amused all at the same time.
Raven stabbed her finger at him. "You're a fine one to talk. You haven't been living like a monk."
Nicholas grinned. "There might have been a few—"
"Blondes. In the past, you were partial to blondes."
"Maybe that's why I find Lorianne so delightful."
Raven stared at him for a moment. Then she leaned close to him. "Did you want to kiss her, Nicholas? You looked very attentive. Did she put her lips up and tease you until you wanted to break?"
He said nothing, just looked at her with an impassive expression on his face. At least he hoped so. With her alluring mouth so close, his juices were starting to stir.
She leaned even closer, bringing her lips against his as she nipped his bottom lip then withdrew an inch. "Can she make your blood boil like I can?"
"What makes you think you can make my blood boil?" he asked, hardly hearing the words because of the roar in his ears.
"Because of what happens when I do this." She threw her pool stick to the floor, rose on her tiptoes to slip her arms around his neck and kissed him. What started as a teasing gesture on her part quickly turned into something else as he pulled her against him, sliding his palms down her back to cup her buttocks, pulling her up to press against his growing erection.
Raven freed her mouth long enough to say, "This is only a demonstration not a—"
"Shut up," Nicholas replied, tilting his head to slant his mouth across hers. His tongue teased her lips, opening them as if he was the only man who had the key.
His lips met hers, sinking into the velvet of them, letting the feel of them soothe him even as they excited his senses. He felt as if he was rounding third and coming home. Here, now with Raven in his arms, with her lips caressing his, with her tongue tangling hotly in his mouth, he lost control. He dropped his guard and just felt, let himself live in the moment. There was no yesterday, no tomorrow, there was only now and—
"Raven," he groaned as he pulled her tighter, swinging around to lift her so she sat on the polished cherry ledge of the pool table. He stepped forward, nudging her legs apart until he pressed against her. With a gasp, Raven spread her legs wider then rocked forward against him to clasp her legs around his hips. He fit there as if he'd been born to do so. Just as his hands were born to caress her, he thought, as he slid them up her back and into her hair to hold her head still for his deepening kiss.
It wasn't enough.
Lips, tongue and emotions plunging, he removed the soft cashmere cardigan she wore. His hands returned to caress the warm satin of her skin as he slid them over her shoulders. He drew back and looked at her, taking in her tousled hair wound into wild curls by his restless fingers, her flushed cheeks, her hot swollen mouth and eyes stunned with surprise, dreamy with secrets and clouded with desire. The heart-shaped bodice of the little black dress molded lovingly to her breasts, held there by gravity and the slender straps that caressed her shoulders, straps that his fingers toyed with before sliding underneath.
"Do you own any clothes that aren't sexy as hell?" he breathed in complete wonder.
She focused on him for a moment, eyes suddenly glinting with humor, voice husky with arousal. "Scooby-Doo flannel PJs."
"Even that doesn't deter me." He smiled back as he slipped her straps off her shoulders and followed them down her arms. His gaze shifted to the neckline of her dress as it dipped low, the black jersey practically begging to continue its fall. His fingertips traced the edge of material, meeting in the center cleavage, that mysterious shadow hinting at hidden delight. He bent his head and traced the neckline with his tongue as his hands came up to her breasts. Raven stirred under his touch, pushing forward to spill over his cupped hands. He rubbed his knuckles over her hard nipples and she moaned. The moan did it. He snapped, leftover edges of control were gone as he pulled her dress to her waist and replaced his knuckles with his mouth.
"I could get drunk on the taste of you," he murmured.
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