“I was fine when I had a coat,” I say, and he bursts out laughing. I like the sound of it, so free and easy and always unexpected.
He slips out of his jacket and drapes it over my shoulders, ignoring my protests.
“We’re going back inside,” I say, shrugging it off and holding it out. “I’m fine, really.”
He takes my shoes from me, but ignores the coat. “Put it on. I don’t want you catching cold.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” I snap, shoving my arms into the sleeves. “Do you always get what you want?”
His eyes widen, and I realize I’ve surprised him. “Yes,” he says.
Gotta give the guy points for honesty.
“Fine. Let’s go inside. Look at some paintings. I’ll tell you what I like, and then you’ll do whatever you want.”
He’s looking at me with a somewhat baffled expression. “Excuse me?”
“You just don’t seem like the kind of guy who actually takes anybody’s advice.”
“You’re wrong, Nikki,” he says, my name sounding like milk chocolate in his mouth. “I consider very carefully any opinion I value.”
The heat coming off him is palpable. I no longer need the jacket. Hell, the damn jacket is stifling.
I look away, at the sand, at the ocean, at the sky. Anywhere but at this man. I’m twisted up in knots, but that’s not the problem. The problem is, I like the feeling.
“Nikki,” he says gently. “Look at me.”
I look without thinking, and there’s no Social Nikki between us. I’m as naked as if I’d stripped off my dress.
“That man you were with. Who is he to you?”
Blam! Social Nikki is back on duty. I feel my face harden, my eyes grow cold. Damien Stark is like a spider, and I’m the foolish insect he’s going to devour.
I look away, but only for a second. When I turn back, I’m flashing the very same plastic smile that he saw on a stage six years ago. I should turn the wattage up and tell him that Ollie is none of his business.
But I don’t.
I’m not certain I understand the instinct that brings the answer to my lips, but it’s the one that I go with, and as soon as I’ve spoken, I turn my back to him and begin the walk up the stairs, my words lingering in the air behind me.
“Him? That’s Orlando McKee. We used to sleep together.”
This isn’t exactly true, but it’s close enough. It’s a story that I can spin and weave without losing the thread of reality.
It’s another layer of armor, and where Damien Stark is concerned, I need as much protection as I can get.
He is right behind me on the stairs, but they are too narrow for us to stand side by side.
“Nikki,” he says, his voice like a command.
I stop and turn to face him, looking down from my position three steps above him. It’s an interesting perspective. I don’t think there are many people who’ve had the opportunity to look down on Damien Stark.
“What is Mr. McKee to you now?”
I’m probably imagining it, but I think I see something vulnerable in Stark’s eyes.
“He’s a friend,” I say. “A very good friend.”
I think that’s relief on his face, and the juxtaposition of those two emotions—relief and vulnerability—make my breath hitch.
They disappear quickly, though, and his “Are you sleeping with him now?” comes out decidedly frosty.
I press my fingertips to my temple. His shifts from cold to hot to cold again are dizzying. “Am I on some sort of game show? Have you and your millions invested in a new version of Candid Camera? A spin-off of Punk’d?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You’re nice, then you’re ice.”
“Don’t even pretend not to know what I’m talking about. One minute you’re so rude I want to slap your face—”
“And yet you don’t.”
I scowl, but otherwise ignore the interruption. “And then you turn on a dime and you’re all warm and fuzzy.”
His brow lifts. “Fuzzy?”
“Point taken. Fuzzy is not a word anyone should use to describe you. Forget warm and fuzzy. We’ll go with hot and intense.”
“Intense.” He murmurs the word, making it sound much more sensual than I had intended. “I like the sound of that.”
At the moment, so do I.
I swallow, my mouth suddenly dry. “The point is, you’re dizzying.”
He looks at me with unabashed amusement. “I like the sound of that, too.”
“Dizzying and exasperating. And impertinent.”
“Impertinent?” he repeats. He doesn’t smile, but I swear I hear laughter in his voice.
“You ask questions you have no right to ask.”
“And you’ve steered this conversation in a very elegant circle. But you still haven’t answered my impertinent question.”
“I would have thought that a man as intelligent as you are would realize that I was avoiding it.”
“A man doesn’t get where I’ve gotten by allowing details to remain ignored. I’m both diligent and persistent, Ms. Fairchild.” He has me trapped, locked tight in his sights. “When I seek to acquire something, I learn everything I can about it, and then I pursue it wholeheartedly.”
I have to pause a bit to remember how to form words. “Do you?”
“I believe there’s an interview with me in last month’s Forbes. I’m certain the reporter outlined my tenacity.”