There are those moments in life that are provocative in their very existences, that embed in our minds forever, and sometimes our very souls. They change us, mold us, maybe even save us. But some are darker, dangerous. If we allow them to, they control us. Seduce us. Quite possibly even destroy us.
The moment I stepped into the mansion that is the centerpiece of the Reid Winter Vineyards and Winery wasn’t one of those moments. Nor were any of the moments I spent weaving through a crowd of suits and dresses cluttering the circle that is the grand foyer of the 1800’s mansion, fancy tiles etched with vines beneath my feet. Nor the ones spent declining three different waiters offering me glasses of various wines from one of the most established vineyards in Sonoma, meant to entice me to buy their bottles and donate money to the charity hosting the gathering. Not even the instant that I spotted the stunning blonde in a snug black dress that hugged her many lush curves proved to be one of those moments, but I would call it a damn interesting one. The moment I decided the blonde silk of her long hair belonged in my hands and on my stomach was also a damn interesting one. And not because she’s fuckable. There are plenty of fuckable women in my life, a number of whom understand that I enjoy demands for pleasure, which I will definitely provide, and nothing more. This woman is too prim and proper to ever agree to such an arrangement, and yet, knowing this, as she and her heart-shaped backside disappear into the congestion of bodies, I find myself pursuing her, looking for more than an interesting moment. I want that provocative one.
I follow her path formed by huddles of two, three, or more people, left and right, to clear a portion of the crowd, scanning to find my beauty standing several feet away, her back to me, with two men in blue suits in front of her. And while they might appear to blend with the rest of the suits in the room, they hold themselves like the parasites I meet too often in the courtroom, those who most often call themselves my opposing counsel. My blonde beauty folds her arms in front of her chest, her spine stiff, and if I read her right–and I read most people right–I am certain that she’s found trouble. But lucky for her, trouble doesn’t like me near as much as I like it.
Closing the space between me and them, I near their little triangle just in time to hear her say, “Are we really doing this here and now?”
“Yes, Ms. Winter,” one of the men replies. “We are.”
“Actually,” I say, stepping to Ms. Winter’s side, her floral scent almost as sweet as the challenge of conquering her opponents that are now mine, “we are not doing this here or now.”
All attention shifts to me, Ms. Winter giving me a sharp stare that I feel rather than see, my focus remaining on the men I want to leave, not the woman I want to make come. “And you would be who?” the suit directly in front of me demands.
I size him up as barely out of his twenty-something diapers, without experience, the glint in his eye telling me he doesn’t realize that flaw, which makes him about as smooth as a six-dollar glass of wine everyone in this place would spit the fuck out. A point driven home by the fact that he’s wearing a three hundred-dollar Italian silk tie, and a hundred-dollar suit, no doubt hoping the tie makes the suit look expensive, and him important. He’s wrong.
“I said, who are you?” he repeats when I apparently haven’t replied quickly enough, his impatience becoming my virtue as my role as cat in this game of cat and mouse is too easily established.
Unwilling to waste words on a predictable, expected question that I’d never ask, I simply reach into the pocket of my three-thousand-dollar light gray suit, which I earned by beating opponents with ten times his experience and negotiation skills, and finger the unimportant prick my card.
He snaps it from my hand, gives it a look that confirms my name and the firm I started a decade ago now, after daring to leave behind a certain partnership in a high-powered firm. “Nick Rogers?” he asks. “Is there another name on the card?” I ask, because, I’m also a fearless smartass every chance I get.
He stares at me for several beats, seeming to calculate his words, before asking, “How many Mr. Rogers sweater jokes do you get?”
I arch a brow at the misguided joke that only serves to poke the Tiger. Suit Number Two, who I age closer to my thirty-six years, pales visibly, then snatches the card from the other man’s hand, giving it a quick inspection before his gaze then jerks to mine. “The Nick Rogers?”
“I don’t remember my mother putting the word ‘the’ in front of my name,” I reply dryly, but then again, I think, she didn’t ask my father, to change my last name either. She just hated him that much.
“Tiger,” he says, and it’s not a question, but rather a statement of “oh shit” fact.
“That’s right,” I say, enjoying the fruits of my labor that created the nickname, not one given to me by my friends.
“Who, or what, the fuck is Tiger all about?” Suit Number One asks.
“Shut up,” Suit Number Two grunts, refocusing on me to ask, “You’re representing Ms. Winter?”
“What I am,” I say, “is standing right here by her side, telling you that it’s in your best interests to leave.”
“Since when do you handle small-time foreclosures?” he demands, exposing the crux of Ms. Winter’s situation.
“I handle whatever the fuck I want to handle,” I say, my tone even, my lips curving as I add, “Including the process of having you both escorted off the property by security.”
“That,” Suit Number One dares to retort, “would garner Ms. Winter unwanted attention in the middle of a busy event. Not that Ms. Winter even has security to call.”
“Fortunately, I have a phone that dials 911 and the ability to call it without asking her.”
“If she’s your client,” Suit Number One says, clearly inferring that she’s not, “you’re obligated to operate with her best interests in mind.”
“My decisions,” I reply, without missing a beat, and without claiming Ms. Winter as a client, “are always about winning. And I assure you that I can think of many ways to spin your story to the press that ensures I win, while also benefiting Ms. Winter.”
“This isn’t my story,” Suit Number One indicates.
“It will be when I’m finished with the press,” I assure him, amused at how easily I’ve led him down the path I want him to travel.
“This is a small community with little to talk about but her,” he says. “She doesn’t want her foreclosure to become the front page story.”
My lips quirk. “If you don’t know how easily I can get the wrong attention for you here, and the right attention for Ms. Winter, you’ll find out.”
“We’ll leave,” Suite Number Two interjects quickly, and just when I think that he’s smart enough to see the way trouble has turned from Ms. Winter to them, he looks at her and says, “We’ll be in touch,” with a not so subtle threat in his tone, before he elbows Suit Number One. “Let’s go.”
Suit Number One doesn’t move, visibly fuming, his face red, that white ring thickening around his lips. I arch a brow at Suit Number Two, who adds, “Now, Jordan.” Jordan, formerly known as Suit Number One, clenches his teeth and turns away, while Suit Two follows.
Ms. Winter faces me, and holy fuck, when her pale green eyes meet mine, any questions I have about this woman and the many I suspect she now has of me, are muted by an unexpected, potentially problematic, palpable electric charge between us. “Thank you,” she says, her voice soft, feminine, a rasp in its depths that hints at emotion not effortlessly contained. “Please enjoy anything you like tonight on the house,” she adds, the rasp gone now, her control returned. Until I take it, I think, but no sooner than I’ve had the thought, she is turning and walking away, the absence of further interaction coloring me both stunned and intrigued, two things that, for me, are ranked with about as much frequency as snow in Sonoma, which would be next to never.
Ms. Winter maneuvers into the crowd, out of my line of sight, and while I am not certain I’d label her a mouse at this point, or ever for that matter, considering what I know of her, I am most definitely on the prowl. I stride purposely forward, weaving through the crowd, seeking that next provocative moment, scanning for her left, right, in the clusters of mingling guests, until I clear the crowd.
Now standing in front of a wide, wooden stairwell, my gaze follows its path upward to a second level, but I still find no sign of Ms. Winter. A cool breeze whips through the air, and I turn to find the source is a high arched doorway, the recently opened glass doors to what I know to be the “Winter Gardens,” a focal point of the property, and a tourist draw for decades, settling back into place. Certain this represents her escape, I walk that direction, and press open the doors, stepping onto a patio that has a stone floor and concrete benches framed by rose bushes. No less than four winding paths greet me as destination choices, the hunt for this woman now a provocation of its own.
I’ve just decided to wait where I am for Ms. Winter’s return when the wind lifts, the floral scent of many varieties of flowers for which the garden is famous touching my nostrils, with one extra scent decidedly of the female variety.
Lips curving with the certainty that my prey will soon to be my prize, I follow the clue that guides my feet to the path on my right, a narrow, winding, lighted walkway, framed by neatly cut yellow flower bushes, which continues past a white wooden gazebo I have no intention of passing. Not when Ms. Winter stands inside it, her back to me, elbows resting on the wooden rail, her gaze casting across the silhouette of what would reveal itself to be a rolling mountainside in daybreak. The way I intend for her to reveal herself.
I close the distance between us, and the moment before I’m upon her, she faces me, hands on the railing behind her, her breasts thrust forward, every one of her lush curves tempting my eyes, my hands. My mouth. “Did those men know you?” she demands, clearly ready and waiting for this interaction. “Did you know them?”
“No and no.”
“And yet they knew the nickname Tiger.”
“My reputation precedes me.”
“I’ll take the bait,” she says. “What reputation?”
“They say I’ll rip my opponent’s throat out if given the chance.”
“Will you?” she asks, without so much as a blanch or blink.
“Yes,” I reply, a simple answer, for a simple question.
“Without any concern for who you hurt,” she states.
I arch a brow. “Is that a question?”
“Should it be?”
“It’s not,” she says. “You didn’t get that nickname by being nice.”
“Nice guys don’t win.”
“Then I’m warned,” she says. “You aren’t a nice guy.”
“Is nice a quality you’re looking for in a man? Because as your evening counsel, Ms. Winter, I’ll advise you that nice is overrated.”
She stares at me for several beats before turning away to face the mountains again, elbows on the railing, in what I could see as a silent invitation to leave. I choose to see it as an invitation to join her. I claim the spot next to her, close, but not nearly as close as I will be soon. “You didn’t answer the question,” I point out.
“You wrongly assume I am looking for a man, which I’m not,” she says, glancing over at me. “But if I was, then no. Nice would be on my list but it would not top my list, however, nowhere on that list would be the ability, and willingness, to rip out someone’s throat.”
“I can assure you, Ms. Winter, that a man with a bite is as underrated as a nice guy is overrated. And I not only know how, and when, to use mine, but if I so choose to biteyou, and I might, it’ll be all about pleasure, not pain.”
Her cheeks flush and she turns away. “My name is Faith.” She glances over at me again. “Should I call you Nick, Tiger, or just plain arrogant?”
“Anything but Mr. Rogers,” I say, enjoying our banter far more than I would have expected when I came here tonight looking for her.
She laughs now too, and it’s a delicate, sweet sound, but it’s awkward, as if it’s not only unexpected, but unwelcome, and an instant later she’s withdrawing, pushing off the railing, arms folding protectively in front of her body, before we’re rotating to face each other. “I need to go check on the visitors.” She attempts to move away.
I gently catch her arm, her gaze rocketing to mine, and in the process her hair flutters in a sudden breeze, a strand of blonde silk catching on the whiskers of my one-day stubble. She sucks in a breath, and when she would reach up to remedy the situation, I’m already there, catching the soft silk and stroking it behind her ear.
“Why are you touching me?” she asks, but she doesn’t pull away, that charge between us minutes ago now ten times more provocative with me touching her, thinking about all the places I might touch next.
“It’s considerably better than not touching you,” I say.
“My bad luck might bleed into you.”
“Bleed,” I repeat, that word reminding me once again of why I’m here, why I really want to fuck this woman. “That’s an extreme, and rather interesting choice of words.”
“Most bad luck is extreme, though not interesting to anyone but the Tigers of the world, creating it. You’re still touching me.”
“Everyone needs a Tiger in their corner. Maybe my good luck will bleed into you.”
“Does good luck bleed?” she asks.
“Many people will do anything for good luck, even bleed.”
“Yes,” she says, lowering her lashes, but not before I’ve seen the shadows in her eyes. “I suppose they would.”
“What would you do for good luck?”
Her lashes lift, her stare meeting mine again. “What have you done for good luck?”
“I came here tonight,” I say.
She narrows her eyes on me, as if some part of her senses, the far-reaching implications of my reply that she can’t possibly understand, and yet still, the inescapable heat between us radiates and burns. “You’re still touching me,” she points out, and this time there’s a hint of reprimand.
“Holding onto that luck,” I say.
“It feels like you’re holding onto mine.”
With that observation that hits too close to the truth, I have no interest in revealing just yet, I drag my hand slowly down hers, allowing my fingers to find hers before they fall away. Her lips, lush, tempting, impossibly perfect for someone I know to be imperfect, part with the loss of my touch, and yet there is a hint of relief in her eyes that tells me she both wants me and fears me.
A most provocative moment, indeed.
“Have a drink with me,” I say.
“No,” she replies, her tone absolute, and while I don’t like this decision, I appreciate a person who’s decisive.
“Good luck and bad luck don’t mix.”
“They might just create good luck.”
“Or bad,” she says. “I’m not in a place where I can take the risk for more bad luck.” She inclines her chin. “Enjoy the rest of your visit.” She pauses and adds, “Tiger.”
I don’t react, but for just a moment, I consider the way she used my nickname as an indicator that she knows who I am, and why I’m here. I quickly dismiss that idea. I’d have seen it in those pale green eyes, and I did not. But as she turns and walks away, and I watch her depart, tracking her steps as she disappears down the path, I wonder at her quick departure, and the fear I’d seen in her eyes. Was the root of that fear her guilt?
That idea should be enough to ice the fire in me that this woman has stirred, but it stokes it instead. Everything male in me wants to pursue her again, and not because I’m here for a reason that existed before I ever met her, when it should be that and nothing more. It is more. I’m aroused and I’m intrigued by this woman. She got to me when no one gets to me. Not a good place to be, considering I came here to prove she killed my father, and maybe even her own mother.