Annata St. James wet her hands in the marble sink and splashed her neck. Water dripped into the bodice of her sequined gown, but she didn’t care. Her eyes were wide in the ornate mirror of the women’s bathroom. Get a grip, she told herself. Tonight is important. The annual Christmas party, held in the posh Plaza hotel, was in full swing outside. She had to keep it together. This was her chance to show William that she could be the sophisticated, powerful person he would need as his new CEO. She wasn’t going to let HIM ruin it for her.
Annata took a white towel from the stack beside the sink and dabbed at her neck and cleavage. Ever since he had entered the ballroom, the heat seemed to creep up and up and up. Just thinking about him made her face flush again. She fanned herself with the towel, wondering why he was at the party. Had William invited him? No; it didn’t matter. Shaking her head, she checked herself one last time in the mirror. Her intricately designed chignon and airbrushed makeup were still flawless. She’d almost fainted when she’d seen the bill at the salon, but it was worth it for the look on Miranda Van der Kind’s face. Miranda had nearly swallowed the olive in her martini when Annata glided in.
Skinny, tall, blonde Miranda had chosen a midnight blue gown with a high neck and a scooped back. The trophy wife of William Van der Kind looked very stately with her white girl ass. Meanwhile, Annata’s champagne colored dress was bordering on sexy, a little too low cut in the front. Her jeweled necklace distracted eyes from her ample bosom, she hoped. Adjusting her top, Annata wrestled with the double D’s that often gave her trouble. Tonight, Annata had to look like she belonged amongst the upper echelon of New York society. Looking the part was never more important.
William, the CEO of International and Annata’s boss, was retiring in the new year. He’d already told her, in confidence, of his plans to name a successor after the first quarter. Annata knew now was the time to make her ambitions known. As William’s Vice-President for the past three years, and a loyal company employee for the past fourteen years, she hoped to win the coveted position. She was turning 37 in a few short weeks. It was time to shit or get off the pot, as her wonderfully crass Granny would say. She’d turned down a job offer from Hong Kong the week before. All of her eggs were in one basket. She couldn’t afford to lose.
Stepping out of the bathroom, Annata felt HIS eyes immediately. He was at the bar in a gray suit. White blond hair, perfectly coiffed. Long legs. Broad shoulders. Shocking blue eyes. Extremely, painfully Nordic. He would look at home on a pair of skis, she thought. Too posh to be a Viking, though. She smiled to herself at the thought of him with long, windswept hair. No, definitely not. She felt her smile fade. But he was dangerous. She had to remember that.
A hand slid down her back. Tyson. The smiling letch from marketing. Unfortunately, he was also her date. “Annata St. James, I would like you to meet my manager, Jacob Forsythe.” She and Jacob, a tall black man in an impeccable suit, shared a smile. They had been introduced to each other before, at least once every Christmas party for the past three years. She just followed the script.
“Hello Jacob.” Annata held out her hand for a firm shake. Jacob replied with a bland greeting, and introduced her to his partner, Hugue. Jacob went through men faster than she went through pantyhose. Every Christmas party, he had a new partner. Annata couldn’t judge him for it though—their careers were high stress and required long hours. Trying to maintain relationships had proved impossible for her, at least Jacob was still trying. Annata smiled and nodded at Hugue, on auto-pilot.
She wished the annual Christmas parties weren’t so predictable. Everyone knew everyone, but not well enough to hold a conversation beyond small chit-chat. When Annata was CEO, she would make everything less formal. Maybe a jazz band and a dance floor? She would definitely ditch the black tie requirement. Annata’s eyes strayed to the bar. He was still there. And he was still watching her. Perhaps this Christmas party wasn’t going to be as predictable as she thought? She wondered what surprises were in store for later. Suddenly, Annata was dying for some fresh air. She murmured an excuse and stepped away, heading for the ballroom exit.
Christophe watched Annata as she made her way across the ballroom. The moment he’d made his entrance into the party, his eyes had swept the crowd looking for her. Shit, the moment his plane had touched down that morning he had been looking for her. Every tall, dark-haired, brown-skinned woman who passed him on the street, his dick jumped in his tailored pants. Annata St. James did that to him. For the last seven years, he had been looking for her.
Coming to the holiday party used to be all about making an appearance so The Old Man looked good in front of the partners. His social-climbing stepmother, Miranda, loved to play the hostess. Her nose couldn’t be further in the air if she’d had a surgeon place it there for her. The Old Man loved to make a spectacle. Christophe used to show up and get drunk and make a fool of himself with some sexy young thing. But thoughts of Annata haunted him now. He didn’t know when she had taken such a hold of him. Absence really did make the heart grow fonder, he mused.
After the mandatory introductions and mindless chatter, he’d made a bee-line for the bar. When it came to Annata, he needed liquid courage. She was the toughest woman he had ever had the pleasure to meet. Her appearance tonight cemented his memory of her—she looked fierce, like a society warrior. All painted up, perfectly coiffed, and sewn into a killer dress. He raised his whiskey on the rocks to his lips. Damn, did she know how to wear that dress.
His eyes followed her around the room. She was like a beacon amongst the drab black and blue costumes of the elite. He sucked on an ice cube, absentmindedly, as he studied her. She sashayed up the steps of the ballroom, pausing to greet and chat with new arrivals. She smiled and her face lit up, but he could tell she was bored. But she was nothing if not ambitious. She knew everyone at this party and would chat with each and every one of them before the night was over. As she turned for a hug, her golden-brown eyes caught his. A jolt shocked his system. His dick was suddenly, painfully, hard. Annata broke the gaze first, turning to laugh at someone else’s joke.
A slender elbow perched on the mahogany bar next to his. “Dirty martini, please.” The owner of the elbow purred. Christophe groaned inwardly and willed himself to look away from Annata. Sure as shit, Miranda stood next to him, staring him down. “Hello, Christy.”
Christophe groaned again at the hated childhood nickname. Only his family members could get away with calling him that. “Miranda.” His eyes shifted from Miranda back to Annata. She’d been caught in the doorway again by yet another party-goer.
“You aren’t planning on sitting at the bar all night, are you?” Miranda asked in a sickly sweet tone. “Your father would love you to take control of the room tonight.”
“The Old Man briefed me on the plan already.” Christophe caught Annata’s eye again. Annata was a shrewd observer. She would be wondering what Miranda and he would be talking about. Christophe smiled.
“So do it.” Miranda took a sip of her drink, careful not to smudge her lipstick.
“Where is he, by the way?”
“He’s coming a bit later.” Miranda blinked, something passing behind her eyes. She didn’t approve of his father not entering on her arm, he guessed. Trouble in paradise? “You know your father, he loves to make an entrance.” She turned to face the crowded ballroom. “Unlike some people who slink in and head right for the bar.”
Christophe ducked his head toward his drink. He was nothing like his father, that was for sure. His father could command a room with a glance. Like Annata could. He preferred to watch from the sidelines. But his father kept trying to push him to the forefront. His father always had a plan. Christophe clinked his drink against hers.
“You’re lucky I even showed,” he said.
“Yes, thank you for gracing us with your wonderful presence.” Miranda rolled her eyes and turned back to face the ballroom. “Now get to work.”
“Yes ma’am.” Christophe saluted. Miranda narrowed her eyes, her attention drifting off of him.
“That bitch Jana Shephard is here. Who the hell invited her?” Miranda trailed off, tottering toward the socialite on her six-inch heels. Christophe smiled to himself. He might have taken the time to ask Jana to come. But even seeing his stepmother’s reaction to his guest didn’t make the party worth the entry. If not for his interest in seeing Annata, he would head back to South America tonight, despite his father’s insistence on his attendance. His eyes shifted back to the door of the ballroom. A pang shot through his chest. The door to the ballroom was empty. Annata had finally made her exit. Wherever she was, she was alone. Now was his chance.
Annata wandered down a thickly carpeted hallway of the Plaza. She didn’t know where she was going. She just wanted to get away, to stroll for a bit. She relaxed her cheeks, stiff from the constant smile she’d had on for the last hour. She walked past the famous Oak Room, muffled music and laughter pouring out. A hangout for old white men. She had seen enough of those tonight, that was for sure.
She moved past the bar and tried a heavy mahogany door. Surprisingly, it was unlocked. She stepped inside the room, lit only by the ornate sconces on the walls. The room appeared to be a conference room, with wing-backed chairs and a glass U-shaped table. She sighed and chuckled to herself. She could never get away from the board room. The door closed softly behind her and for a moment, she reveled in the silence. She strolled around the large table, drink in hand. She imagined that it was her board room and she was CEO. They would all listen when she talked. They would all look to her and trust her with the company’s future. Annata closed her eyes. Her dream was so close she could taste it.
“Annata St. James.” A male voice came from the door. Annata froze.
“Who wants to know?” Annata turned in a fluid motion, sliding back on her smile. The smile drooped when she saw who was leaning against the open door. Him. Inwardly, she groaned. The boy wonder. The prodigal son. Home at last. “Christophe Van der Kind.”
“In the flesh.”
“How are you?”
“I’m well.” He stepped further into the room, letting the door swing closed behind him. She felt her stomach drop. She didn’t like what happened when she was in rooms alone with him. He seemed…bigger. Broader. Definitely taller. It struck her suddenly. He was all grown up. He was a man now. The thought was somehow terrifying. “And you?”
“Can’t complain.” Annata moved toward the windows of the room and glanced out onto Central Park. “I heard you were in—,” Annata paused, pretending to think. “South America somewhere?” Annata knew exactly where he’d been for the past two years. He’d been in Brazil. She’d personally requested his expense accounts every month.
Christophe smiled, flashing his perfect teeth. “Rio.”
Annata raised her eyebrows. “Working on your tan?”
“Exactly.” Christophe chuckled and ran a hand through his blond hair, mussing it.
“Are you back for good, or just descending for a mere visit?” Annata feigned nonchalance. His return could throw a wrench in her plans. Especially if William had called him home. She felt another pang in her stomach. Anger flared up her spine.
Christophe shrugged. “The Old Man beckons, I come.”
“Let me guess. He cut off your expense account?” Annata shot back.
Christophe chuckled again. “Damn. You always know how to cut me to the quick.”
“I’ve got your number, Christophe. I always have.” Annata took a sip of her drink. Maybe she was going too far, but the alcohol in her system was making her tongue loose. She caught his eyes over the edge of her glass. The laughter had left them. Something else was creeping in, turning them stormy blue. She had seen that hungry look before. She knew she was teetering dangerously close to the edge, but she couldn’t stop herself. “Some of us have to work for a living, and some just take.” Christophe clenched his jaw, but remained silent. Annata didn’t stop there. “Let’s cut the shit. We both know William is retiring next year. That must be the real reason you’re back.”
Christophe couldn’t resist the urge to follow her. He’d seen her sneak into the room, and he knew she would be there alone. The sight of her silhouette in the window was breathtaking. His hands craved her curves. Being in the room alone with her was heady. But she certainly knew how to rile him up. He was still reeling from the intoxication of her perfume when she decided to drop the bomb on him. His father was retiring.
Instantly, everything fell into place for Christophe. His father insisting he come home. His father insisting he make a name for himself. But the kicker was that The Old Man hadn’t even told him he was going to retire. Of course, his father would only tell Annata, his close confidante. Anger kicked Christophe in the gut.
“Motherfucker,” he cursed. God, he must be the biggest fool on the planet. He knew now, he should have stayed in Brazil. His fate was sealed if he stayed here. The Old Man wouldn’t give him any peace.
“Don’t pretend you didn’t know.” Annata swept around the table toward him. “It’s a little too convenient.” Suddenly, she was so close. So close he could smell the sweet wine on her breath. Annata, tigress that she was, then went in for the kill. “I can only hope that your father isn’t foolish enough to think his dilettante son capable of running International. That would be a mistake that could cost him his company,” she said with a cold smile. Before he could stop himself, his hand shot out and gripped the soft flesh of her arm.
“What makes you think I want it?” he said through clenched teeth.
“Please remove your hand,” she said in a dangerously low tone. He dropped his eyes. He couldn’t stop them from wandering to her glorious cleavage. She jerked her arm, trying to free herself. Her breasts moved with her, straining against her dress. Involuntarily, he moved into her, pushing her ass against the table. She flashed a deathly look at him. What was he doing? Christophe didn’t know, exactly. His body craved hers, that’s all he knew. But he also knew she didn’t feel the same. She didn’t want him.
Christophe finally dropped his grip on her arm. Frustrated, he slammed his hands on the table, on either side of her hips. “Don’t worry about your precious company, Annata. I don’t want it.”
She crossed her arms, attempting to put more space between them. “You must think I’m an idiot.”
“Why do you hate me?” he asked, his face inches from hers. “What did I ever do to you?”
“You show up here, out of nowhere. You think you can just waltz in and take what’s mine? What I worked for?” She jabbed a perfectly manicured finger into his expensive shirt.
“Actually, yes. I could.” He couldn’t resist a smirk to emphasize his point. He spoke the truth and she knew it. Raising his hand, he couldn’t stop himself. He ran a finger around the neckline of her dress, grazing the silky soft heat of her breast. His heart slowed in his chest. “I can take whatever I want.” He said. Her eyes widened. Her breasts swelled in her dress as she took a deep, stunned breath. God, he was such an asshole. He was going to hell. Silently, he asked for forgiveness.
“Fuck you, you smug son of a bitch!” The words rushed out of her mouth, her cool demeanor gone. Her eyes flashed, but he caught her wrist before she slapped him. Time stopped for a moment, as they stood inches from each other, panting. He could feel her pulse racing under his fingertips.
He pushed his hips into her, forcing her further against the table. She gasped. His anger dissipated as he felt her womanly curves against him. Lust roared up and took its place. His dick swelled and hardened. He could kiss her if he wanted to. And God, he wanted to. He felt himself leaning toward her. Her golden-brown eyes caught his. She could feel his arousal now.
“If you think I’m going let you win, you are sadly mistaken,” she said, quietly. He sighed and pulled away.
“Why do we always end up here?” he asked softly. “All I wanted was to say hello, catch up, shoot the shit. But with you, it always has to be an argument.”
“Because, like you said, I hate you.” Annata said, her voice unsteady. She ran her hand down her dress, as if trying to destroy any evidence of their being close. ”I hate everything you are, and everything you’re going to be.”
Christophe dropped his hands to his sides. She knew how to crush him, that was for damn sure. She was the only one who would ever speak to him like this. She was the only one he could count on to speak the truth. If Annata said he wasn’t capable of running International, she was right. “You hate everything I am.” Christophe sighed, bringing her hand to his lips. “But I like everything you are.” He pressed a kiss to her knuckles. “I want you to run International. I want that for you. I’m sure my father does, as well.”
Annata’s brow furrowed in confusion, and she swayed, steadying herself against the table. “So you’re not in the running to be CEO?”
“No.” Christophe shook his head, hoping to hell he wasn’t. His father wouldn’t be that foolish to name him CEO…would he? “You’re the one The Old Man’s been grooming to take over, Annata.” He prayed he spoke the truth. Annata would go ape-shit if The Old Man fucked her over. He didn’t want to be there to see that explosion. Annata took a shaky sip of her drink and avoided his eyes. Christophe drank in the sight of her. She was beautiful when she was angry.
“I’m sorry,” she bit out.
“I keep coming back for more, I suppose. So shame on me.” He gave a small smile.
“You bring out the bitch in me.” Annata took a deep breath and looked at him. Her gaze softened. “Come here.” She stepped closer to him and reached up to run her fingers through his hair. Feeling her fingernails rake against his scalp was heavenly. He remembered how her fingernails felt against the skin of his back. He suppressed a moan, but unfortunately, couldn’t suppress his rapidly growing erection. His cock was getting a hell of a workout that evening. “You’re a mess,” she murmured as she smoothed his hair. Her hand lingered there…or maybe he was just imagining things.
“Do you really hate me?” he whispered.
She sighed and dropped her hand. “You’re such a pain in my ass.” She stepped back and took him in. He must have passed inspection because, after a moment, she brushed past him. The scent of her perfume followed her, leaving a distinct void in the room. She swung the door open and turned back. “So, back to Brazil?”
“As soon as fucking possible,” Christophe said. She nodded and then was gone. The door slammed shut behind her. He sighed. It was time to get the hell out of the city. He didn’t know why he’d even bothered to come back.