The glass tiers of intricate petit-fours and Kara’s Cupcakes, which had been customized with golden “P”s just for this party, and the bottles of champagne raised out of dripping ice to provide an endless pour of golden excitement—all of it irritated me. They were showing off. Look at me! Look at what I have! It was excessive. I wanted to spit.
The muscles on my face ached from smiling too much. I grabbed the door that led outside and pushed it. Desperate to get away from all the noise and people, I stepped outside and immediately sighed with relief. I wanted to be alone so that I could feel like crap without anyone asking me if there was something wrong.
A redwood porch with tables and chairs overlooked a sprawling garden and backyard. I clutched my shrug around my shoulders and shivered in the freezing, starless night. My shoulders curled forward as I set the champagne glass on the rail and leaned so that the wood dug into my ribs. The noise of the party shut out, I closed my eyes and let out a shuddering breath. The darkness reminded me of nights with Ben when I’d lie in bed and watch him sleep. I never felt so safe.
A husky voice shattered my sanctuary and my body turned—right into another body.
“Whoa.” I looked up and saw a broad chest. I backed away and saw a man standing in front of me, looking disheveled in his dark gray suit. It wasn’t his attractiveness that I noticed right away; it was the restlessness of his black eyes, which seemed to hold me still.
A slow smirk stretched across his rugged face. His dark hair flared around him, just as wild as the rest of his appearance: loose tie and shirt untucked, a shoelace trailing behind his scuffed patent leather shoes. He looked drunk, except he held nothing in his hands. There was no stink of alcohol.
“Speak for yourself.” I felt a surge of annoyance toward the man who spotted my dark mood. A bit of surprise registered in my brain. Normally, I wouldn’t be able to talk to an attractive guy like him, but I didn’t find him intimidating at all.
He gave me an unconcerned shrug. “What, this?” He tugged his collar. “I hate parties, but I’m always expected to go to them. I try to look like shit so people leave me alone.”
A smile flickered on my face and he grinned back. Even in his haphazard attire, he was handsome. He had a straight nose and hollowed cheeks. His flushed cheeks would have made him look like some sort of dark angel if it weren’t for his narrowed eyes. How could someone be so attractive but look like shit at the same time?
“I don’t want to be here, either.”
I normally wasn’t this honest, but something about him made me feel like being open. I shivered as he drew closer to me. There was so much energy behind his eyes that I felt suddenly warm and my skin trembled with the abrupt change. A jolt of electricity shot up my leg as his jacket slid from his sinewy shoulders so that he could drape it around me. His hand rested for a few seconds on my shoulder and I felt the absence of his warmth when he took it away like a swift fist to my stomach.
“T—thanks.” I stuck my hand out from his jacket. “I’m Natalie Porter.”
He took my hand and squeezed it. My heart fluttered as another surge shot through his hand into mine. The way his hand grasped mine made me wonder how his hands would feel around my hips. I snapped myself out of it.
Pardini? Oh, crap. I reflexively squeezed his hand. “You’re—you’re Luke’s—?” I couldn’t quite keep the doubt from creeping into my voice. He’s a member of that super rich family? He sure doesn’t look like it.
“Cousin. Yes,” he said in a tone that really said: Yes, unfortunately.
William didn’t look like a Pardini. Sure, he had the Italian features: black hair and eyes, a permanently tanned look, but he was dressed like a homeless person. It was as if they had plucked one of the homeless from Civic Center and shoved him into a designer closet.
He only released my hand when I pulled back. His hot gaze dipped down my dress and back up again. He was being blasé about checking me out, but there was no shame in his eyes.
All I could think about was how perfectly shaped his lips were and the slow drip of never ending solitude, of entire weekends constructed around a visit to the grocery store and checking my email obsessively. The hole in my chest throbbed like a festering wound and his eyes seemed to burn with the same desperate longing.
“So, what do you do?”
My hand flew to my neck to play with the necklace that dangled there. “I’m a graphic designer. I work at the San Francisco Bay Aquarium.”
He leaned on the rail beside me, stretching his body luxuriously as every bit of his eccentric energy focused on me. His tie was dangerously loose and I fought the urge to readjust it.
“You don’t sound very excited about it,” he commented.
Well, how could I? It was a dead end job, but the money was stable and that’s all I seemed to care about anymore. Safety. I wasn’t one for taking risks. Ben was safe. I wasn’t like Jessica, who practically emptied her bank account to donate her money to a soup kitchen. Stop comparing yourself to her. But I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t help but notice the irony in how our roles were reversed. Now she was the one with her shit together and I was the struggling one. Maybe I deserve this.
I shrugged at him.
“Are you any good?”
“I think so, yeah.”
He made an indistinct sound in his throat.
“What do you do?”
“I’m the VP of Marketing.”
“Sounds fun,” I said, echoing his deadpan tone.
His fingers rapped on the wood. “It’s okay, but what I really want is to become CEO. My dad is retiring soon. Luke’s dad is safely out of the way, so that goody-goody bore definitely won’t get the job. It’s a fight between me and my four siblings.”
My mouth hung open in shock. Safely out of the way? “He’s dead, not safely out of the way!”
He merely shrugged at my indignation. “Yeah, so?” he said defensively. “He was a jerk. Even Luke admits it.” Will suddenly sniggered to himself in the darkness and I jumped at the noise.
A savage grin filled his face as he looked at me. “I couldn’t believe that he hired that girl just to fool his dad—spent tens of thousands on her and even after all that, his dad only left him five hundred grand. What an idiot.”
The backyard rang with his laughter. It was such an infectious, loud laugh that I couldn’t help but smile. The shock of something so rude being said out loud and the layer of truth within it softened how offensive it was. A small giggle escaped my mouth.