She didn’t need this dodgy man to tell her about her ring, and she pulled her hand away, resisting the urge to wipe it on her cinnamon-shaded cocktail dress. Ugh. Creep factor: ten thousand.
“Where did you get the ring?” he demanded, and she caught a flash of dirty, yellow teeth.
“It’s a family heirloom,” Jaci answered, society manners too deeply ingrained just to walk off and leave him standing there.
“Are you from England? I love your accent.”
“I have a mansion in the Cotswolds. In the village Arlingham. Do you know it?”
She did, but she wouldn’t tell him that. She’d never manage to get rid of him then. “Sorry, I don’t. Would you exc—”
“I have a particularly fine yellow diamond pendant that would look amazing in your cleavage. I can just imagine you wearing that and a pair of gold high heels.”
Jaci shuddered and ruthlessly held down a heave as he ran his tongue over his lips. Seriously? Did that pickup line ever work? She picked his hand off her hip and quickly dropped it.
She wished she could let rip and tell him to take a hike and not give a damn. But the Brookes-Lyon children had been raised on a diet of diplomacy and were masters of the art of telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they immediately started planning the best route to get there. Well, Neil and Meredith were. She normally just stood there with a mouth full of teeth.
Jaci wrinkled her nose; some things never changed.
If she wasn’t going to rip Mr. Rich-but-Creepy a new one—and she wasn’t because she had the confrontational skills of a wet noodle—then she should remove herself, she decided.
“If you leave, I’ll follow you.”
Dear God, now he was reading her mind? “Please don’t. I’m really not interested.”
“But I haven’t told you that I’m going to finance a film or that I own a castle in Germany, or that I own a former winner of the Kentucky Derby,” he whined, and Jaci quickly suppressed her eye roll.
And I will never tell you that my childhood home is a seventeenth-century manor that’s been in my family for over four hundred years. That my mother is a third cousin to the queen and that I am, distantly, related to most of the royal families in Europe. They don’t impress me, so you, with your pretentious attitude, haven’t a chance.
And, just a suggestion, use some of that money you say you have to buy a decent suit, some shampoo and to get your teeth cleaned.
“Excuse me,” Jaci murmured as she ducked around him and headed for the ballroom doors.
As she approached the elevators, congratulating herself on her getaway, she heard someone ordering an elderly couple to get out of the way and she winced as she recognized Toad’s nasally voice. Glancing upward at the numbers above the elevator, she realized that if she waited for it he’d catch up to her and then she’d be caught in that steel box with him, up close and personal. There was no way he’d keep his hands or even—gack!—his tongue to himself. Thanks, but she’d rather lick a lamppost. Tucking her clutch bag under her arm, she glanced left and saw an emergency exit sign on a door and quickly changed direction. She’d run down the stairs; he surely wouldn’t follow.
Stairs, lobby, taxi, home and a glass of wine in a bubble bath. Oh, yes, that sounded like heaven.
“My limousine is just outside the door.”
The voice to her right made her yelp and she whirled around, slapping her hand to her chest. Those sludgy eyes looked feral, as if he were enjoying the thrill of the chase, and his disgusting soul patch jiggled as his wet lips pulled up into a smarmy smile. Dear God, he’d been right behind her and she hadn’t even sensed him. Street smarts, she had none.
Jaci stepped to the side and looked past him to the empty reception area. Jeez, this was a nightmare... If she took the stairs she would be alone with him, ditto the elevators. Her only option was to go back to the ballroom where there were people. Across the room, the elevator doors opened on a discreet chime and Jaci watched as a tall man, hands in the pockets of his tuxedo pants, walked out toward the ballroom. Broad shoulders, trim waist, long legs. His dark hair was tapered, with the top styled into a tousled mess. He had bright, light eyes under dark brows and what she imagined was a three-day-old beard. She knew that profile, that face. Ryan?
Neil’s Ryan? Jaci craned her neck for a better look.
God, it was the grown-up version—and an even more gorgeous version—of that young man she’d known so long ago. Hard, tough, sexy, powerful; a man in every sense of the word. Jaci felt her stomach roll over and her throat tighten as tiny flickers of electricity danced across her skin.
Instant lust, immediate attraction. And he hadn’t even noticed her yet.
And she really needed him to notice her. She called out his name and he abruptly stopped and looked around.
“Limo, outside, waiting.”
Jaci blinked at Mr. Toad and was amazed at his persistence. He simply wasn’t going to give up until he got her into his car, into his apartment and naked. She’d rather have acid-coated twigs shoved up her nose. Seeing Ryan standing there, head cocked, she thought that there was maybe one more thing she could do to de-barnacle herself.
And, hopefully, Ryan wouldn’t object.
Jaci stepped to her right and walked as fast as she possibly could across the Italian marble floor, and as she approached Ryan, she lifted her arms and wound them around his neck. She saw his eyes widen in surprise and felt his hands come to rest on her hips, but before he could speak, she slapped her mouth on his and hoped to dear Lord that he wouldn’t push her away.
His lips were warm and firm beneath hers and she felt his fingers dig into her hips, their heat burning through the fabric of her dress to warm her skin. Her fingers touched the back of his neck, above the collar of his shirt, and she felt tension roll through his body.
Ryan yanked his head back and those penetrating eyes met hers, flashing with an emotion she couldn’t identify. She expected him to push her away, to ask her what the hell she thought she was doing, but instead he yanked her closer and his mouth covered hers again. His tongue licked the seam between her lips and, without hesitation, she opened up, allowing him to taste her, to know her. A strong arm around her waist pulled her flush against him and then her breasts were flat against his chest, her stomach resting against his—hello, Nelly!—erection.
Their kiss might have lasted seconds, minutes, months or years, Jaci had no idea. When Ryan finally pulled his mouth away, strong arms still holding her against him, all she was capable of doing was resting her forehead on his collarbone while she tried to get her bearings. She felt as if she’d stepped away from reality, from time, from the ornate lobby in one of the most renowned hotels in the world and into another dimension. That had never happened to her before. She’d never been so swept away by passion that she felt as if she’d had an out-of-body experience. That it had happened with someone who was little more than a stranger totally threw her.
“Leroy, it’s good to see you,” Ryan said, somewhere above her head. Judging by his even voice, he was very used to being kissed by virtual strangers in fancy hotels. Huh.
“I was hoping that you would be here. I was on my way to find you,” Ryan blithely continued.
“Ryan,” Leroy replied.
Knowing she couldn’t stay pressed against Ryan forever—sadly, because she felt as if she belonged there—Jaci lifted her head and tried to wiggle out of his grip. She was surprised when, instead of letting her go, he kept her plastered to his side.
“I see you’ve