In her bathroom, she switched her curling iron on, then added black liquid-liner to her eyes and pink gloss to her lips. Once her hair regained its wave, she unplugged the iron, dragged her fingers through the strands and sighed in resignation.
This is as good as it gets .
Exiting the bathroom, she smoothed her moist palms over the tight fabric of her dress. The umpire-waist gown was on the small side—her breasts seemed bigger than usual, her hips rounder—making her self-conscious. She tugged the edges of her plunging V-neck closer together. Dipping into her hall closet, she plucked out a pair of maroon heels, more appropriate for the occasion than winter boots. Though, she’d never traipsed through a Denver snowstorm.
When she walked into the main room, she saw sexual fire snap to life in Logan’s eyes. “You look good.” He raked a heated gaze over her. “Too good.”
Maybe this dress was a bad idea. “I’ll change.”
“Hell no you won’t.”
When he grinned like that a dimple peeked out from his right cheek. God, he was gorgeous. She brushed past him, grabbing her coat. “Let’s get this over with.”
They drove thirty minutes to the five-star steakhouse downtown. As they passed the modern, glass-walled convention center and the grandly lit dome of the capital building, nerves jangled inside her.
Why had she let him talk her into this?
Hands twisting in her lap, she knew she didn’t belong at this gathering. Then again, she didn’t belong anywhere. Traveling with her parents as they gallivanted around Europe and Asia on the opera circuit, she’d lived out of well-appointed European hotels and reveled in the excitement backstage at the most elegant opera houses in the world. She’d also slept in small inns, messy trailers, and sometimes the back seat of a car. Her experiences in the U.S. turned out to be just as scattered, despite her ex-husband’s promise of the American dream, a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence. They’d moved around between run-down military housing complexes and army base bungalows. Her diverse background should make casual conversation easy. Instead, as they neared the work event, she felt more isolated than ever. What did she really have in common with them? With Logan?
She envied his perfect self-assurance. Seamlessly, he blended into any setting amidst all types, from his league of blue-collar system installers to the professional bodyguards he employed, to heads of state. Why he’d want her as his guest, when he could’ve invited someone better—like a senator’s daughter or a supermodel—was beyond her.
He swung his SUV up to the valet and handed the attendant his keys. Then he escorted her through the blustery night, held the door and ushered her inside. Glamorous chandeliers and glossy gold walls introduced them to the restaurant. He strolled up to the hostess. “Hi, Kendra.”
“Hello, Mr. Stone.” The hostess smiled and batted her lashes at him.
A typical female response, Allison had noted since she first met Logan at a security convention two years ago. Women couldn’t help themselves. She sighed. She’d succumbed to his charm herself. One night he seemed intent not to let her forget.
The hostess didn’t acknowledge Allison, the girl’s attention focused solely on him. “It’s good to see you again. Your party is right this way.”
They stopped at the coat check. Logan helped Allison remove her jacket, shrugged out of his, and handed the garments over the counter. Then they headed toward a bank of private rooms at the rear of the vaulted dining room.
When his hand settled on the small of her back, she stiffened. She walked a little faster.
“Relax,” he whispered in her ear.
Easy for you to say . He steered her toward the largest of the private rooms filled with dozens of people. She swallowed. “I’m having second thoughts.”
“You belong here as much as anyone. You need to take more pride in your work.”
She lifted her chin. “I take plenty of pride in what I do.”
It’s just she’d never navigated well in crowds. Right before they entered, she caught a glimpse of the packed room.
She dug in her heels. “I can’t do this.”
“Too late now.”
The instant he dragged her into the party room, everything froze. Conversations ended. People paused in the middle of sipping champagne.
Clapping rang out when he strutted forth as the guest of honor. Smiles adored every face. What an entourage . She wanted to melt into the floor.
“Thanks for coming tonight.” He beamed proudly, while she ducked into his shadow.
One of his receptionists raced up to him with an icy glass of dark amber liquid the color of his eyes. “Johnny Walker Blue label on the rocks, the way you like it, Mr. Stone.”
He lifted it high. “A toast,” he announced, “to my talented colleagues, who’ve worked hard to take us to the top. Cheers.”
“Cheers!” they echoed. Glasses clinked.
After taking a sip, he revealed a bold grin. “Now let’s get this party started.”
Laughter rose up. Conversations resumed.
Not before Allison caught plenty of stares directed her way.
Face hot, she broke from Logan’s side and bee-lined to the nearest corner. This happened to be the busy private bar, offering camouflage so she could gather herself.
He knew he’d be the center of attention when he walked in, placing her at the mercy of his spotlight. Like unsuspecting Laoula in the French Opera L'étoile.
Despite his charm and sex appeal, and how his smile could make her feel like the only woman in the world, he could also be single-minded and self-absorbed. And he still made her knees weak. The jerk.
Clenching her hands, she turned to the bartender. “I need a Cosmo martini.”
“What kind of vodka?” he asked.
The young man grinned. “You got it.”
While waiting, she peered over her shoulder. Putting distance between her and Logan seemed to have warded off coworker scrutiny. People made a cocoon around him, drenching him in praise, peppering him with questions about the bright future of Stone Security. A future she’d never see.
She should be used to coming and going without making an impact. As a professional facilitator she was hired on short-term stints to train government and private sector employees, a passing figure, temporary. How it’s supposed to be , she reminded herself. So at any moment she could quietly pick up and leave before she made a connection, before she developed friendships, before anyone considered her important enough to keep around. Or considered her a threat. Her ex-husband’s volatility spread like a forest fire, consuming everything in his path. No one deserved to get sucked into the raging menace that continued to stalk her. She’d bear that burden alone. As long as she kept moving, she was safe. So was everyone she came in contact with, or came to care about. Like Logan .