Looking at him, I felt the earth tilt a little beneath me. I’d never reacted that way to a guy before, and I reached out a hand to grasp the railing, not sure if I entirely liked the feeling.
“Or maybe you’ve been overwhelmed by the cuteness,” he continued, glancing down to where the two roly-poly pandas sat on their rears eating bamboo. “I’m hoping that’s the case, because otherwise you’re going to shoot my ego all to hell.”
“How could anyone hurt your ego?” I blurted, then felt my cheeks go pink. “Sorry. That sounds—”
But I never finished my apology, because my words were drowned out by his quick laugh and the brush of his fingers against my bare arm. “Thanks,” he said. “Ego saved.” The corner of his mouth quirked up. “I really hate it when I’m upstaged by pandas.”
I matched his smile. “Yeah, but they’re such cute pandas.” I glanced back at the bears as if in confirmation. Of course, they’ve got nothing on you.
He was silent for a moment, and I suddenly feared that he’d read my mind. I filled the quiet by clearing my throat. “You’re here for the reception?” A foolish question, since the zoo was currently closed to the public, and the only people on the premises were staff and Brighton Consortium guests.
“I am,” he said. “You’re not, though.”
I stood straighter. “I most certainly am.”
“I mean you’re not really here. Your mind’s elsewhere.”
“Oh.” Considering I couldn’t argue with that, I didn’t. Instead I turned back toward the pandas, my hands resting on the railing. “Yeah, well. It’s been a rather horrible day.”
“Sorry to hear it.” He moved next to me and took hold of the railing as well. As he did, his finger brushed mine, and I felt that shock of connection. A sizzling kind of awareness that I’d never experienced before and had believed lived only in the pages of books.
Out of reflex, I glanced toward him, then felt my chest constrict when I caught him looking right back at me, the heat in his eyes so intense I thought it would burn right through me.
I looked away.
“No.” His hand gently cupped my chin and he turned my face back to him. “No,” he repeated, and this time I heard a plea beneath the hard sheen of command.
I started to protest, but he shifted his hand so that a finger brushed my lip, firm and sensual, and I wanted to draw him in and taste him. I felt giddy and lightheaded, drunk on the proximity of this enigmatic man who had so easily captured me in his spell.
I didn’t like it. And yet, god help me, I did.
“No argument,” he said. “No protest, no excuses.” He held out his hand to me. “You’re coming with me.”
“The hell I am.” I stood a little straighter as the earth leveled out beneath me. I was not the kind of woman who jumped simply because a man told her to. Quite the opposite, in fact. I was used to being the one in charge. To using a man before he could swoop in and use me.
One brow rose slightly, and I could tell that he was not the kind of man who was used to being challenged. Then the corner of his mouth curved up in a sexy grin. “I’d be honored if you’d take a walk with me.”
The world that had leveled out started to tilt again, this time knocked off kilter because he’d completely destroyed my expectations.
I caught myself taking a step toward him, and forced myself to stop as little bubbles of panic started to rise inside me, tempered by an unfamiliar current of excitement. “No,” I said slowly. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“No? Why not?”
Because I shouldn’t make decisions when I’m intoxicated, I wanted to say. But I’d had nothing to drink that night, and if it weren’t for his nearness, I would be stone-cold sober. “Because I don’t even know you,” I said instead.
“Don’t you?” His smile seemed to hold a thousand secrets, and I wanted to know each of them. “I’m Jackson. Jackson Steele. And I know you.”
“You do?” I couldn’t imagine how. I’d certainly never seen him before, because I would have remembered. And he wasn’t one of Reggie’s clients or contacts, because I didn’t recognize his name. He must have come as someone’s guest, but since I was only a lowly assistant, there was no reason for him—or for anyone at the reception—to know who I was. As if to illustrate that point, when Reggie and I had arrived, one of the Brighton group big shots had told the waitress to bring over a glass of sparkling water for “Reggie’s girl.”