It wassupposed to be my night. Well, maybe my and my best friend’s night, but definitely I was in there somewhere. When the stars aligned and you got your dream, nothing was supposed to get messed up. But since there was no such thing as perfect, I shouldn’t have counted on it.
“Julian,” she said before her arms wrapped around my neck. “Honey, where’s Channing?”
Here was the crux of the matter. I turned on the barstool and looked at my best friend’s wife. Phoebe Vega was a stunning creature, and waiting expectantly, breathless from dancing, her pale jade eyes focused on me, she was as close to a goddess as I would ever see.
“God, you’re beautiful,” I sighed.
The scowl came fast. “What’s wrong?”
“I can’t just give you a compliment?”
I couldn’t contain my grin; it was just too stupid to even have to explain. “I need a drink.”
“Oh no, what happened?”
This is the problem with having good friends; they know you well enough to interpret your mood from the expression on your face with simply a look.
“Jules, where’s your date?” she demanded, her voice rising.
I emptied the shot of Patron in front of me, refocused my vision since it was the third one I’d had, and looked at her. “Having sex with Peyton Wilson in his office.”
She was silent, stood there just looking at me for several moments, blinking, absorbing what I had said. “I’m sorry, what?”
I cleared my throat. “My date, the guy I’ve been going out with for the last six weeks, well, the last time I saw him, he was taking care of Peyton Wilson in the production office.” And I could have been much more graphic, even more crass, but this was my girl, the wife of my best friend, and she was seven months pregnant. I didn’t want to upset her any more than I had to. So I just took in her sweet face.
There was a long pause. Maybe we were having a moment of silence to grieve.
“Ohmygod!” she shrieked, startling people around us, her voice high and shrill. “Are you kidding me?”
“Oh.” I nearly choked on my beer, trying not to laugh. “We’re doing loud.”
“This isn’t funny!”
I really had way too much alcohol in me for it not to be funny. My date giving another guy a blowjob when he was supposed to be with me when the CEO of the company came to offer me his congratulations on my promotion… oh hell yeah, it was funny! And yes, it was more funny sad than funny ha-ha, but still… funny.
“Julian Nash, what the hell are you talking about?”
“Twenty minutes ago, Channing was on his knees in the—”
She swatted me hard. “Not you. Ohmygod! Channing, ohmygod!”
“Oh,” I grunted before lifting my glasses, settling them on top of my head for a moment as I rubbed my eyes.
She was upset enough for both of us.
“Can you stop saying that?” I chuckled, rubbing the bridge of my nose before putting the rimless glasses back on, settling them comfortably on my face. They were my favorite pair and made me look much smarter than I was in real life.
“What’d you… how’d you…?” Her mouth opened, but nothing came out. “Julian, for fuck’s sake, what did you do?”
I shrugged. “It seemed rude to interrupt.”
The woman was pregnant and scary hormonal, and as a result, she was much more emotional than I was. I was pragmatic because it made sense. Channing Isner had obviously needed to have sex, and Peyton Wilson was the hottest guy, correction, hottest gay guy, in our office after himself. Cash—Carlos Vega, my best friend and Phoebe’s husband—was hotter than both of them, but the man was married and straight, so he really didn’t count when Channing was looking to get laid.
“It’s okay, Phoeb,” I soothed her.
“No, it’s not!” she snarled at me, picking up one of the empty shot glasses in front of me as I lifted my finger to order another. “How many of these have you had?”
“Ohmygod,” she said yet again, yanking on my arm until I slid off the barstool, tugging me after her through the crowd. I was dragged across the floor to where Cash stood in a group of people. When he saw me, his brows furrowed instantly.
I put up a hand to calm him. “I’m fine.”
He excused himself from those around him, grabbed hold of my bicep, and gave my arm a solid yank to get me moving. When we were out of earshot, he spun me around to face him. Normally, when I wasn’t buzzed, it would have been impossible for him to manhandle me, as we were close to the same height and build, but as I was a little out of it, he had the leverage.
“What’s wrong?” he demanded.
“Nothing. Everything’s fine,” I soothed him. “When are we eating? Your wife’s starving.”
“I’m not starving,” Phoebe chimed in, coming up beside him, rubbing her seven-months pregnant stomach. “I’m not always starving, you know.”
“Jules,” Cash snapped at me. “What the hell’s going on?”
“He’s got no date,” his wife answered for me.
Cash squinted at me. “What are you talking about? Isn’t Isner coming?”
So I explained to him how I had gone to Channing’s office early to pick him up and passed by the production office on the way.
“Wait now,” Cash said, staring at me, “you’re telling me that your boyfriend and one of my account reps were having sex in the production room?”
“He’s not my boyfriend,” I corrected him.
“They were dating,” Phoebe insisted, glaring at her husband, daring him to contradict her, “but he wasn’t Julian’s boyfriend. No boyfriend of Julian’s would ever cheat on him.”
I tipped my head to Phoebe. “Hopefully.”
She scolded my lack of faith. “Julian Nash!”
“Are you kidding?” Cash half-yelled.
What would be the purpose of that? “No, I’m not kidding. Why would I be kidding?”
“Did you kick his ass?”
I shot him a look.
“You want me to do it?”
“Who are you gonna beat up? Channing or Peyton?”
“Both of them,” he said, and I heard the irritation in his voice. “Goddamn it, Jules, this is why I told you to never shit where you eat. Now how in the hell are you supposed to be able to work with either of those fucks?”
“Easily,” I assured him. “I promise there won’t be any weirdness from me.”
“It’s fine. I promise you.”
“God, you’re so calm,” Phoebe growled. “I say we go bitch slap Channing ’til he cries.”
We both looked at her.
I grabbed her and hugged her tight. “It’s okay, love. Just lemme get another drink, and I’ll meet you guys back there in the big room.”
“Aww, Jules,” she sighed deeply. “What a way to celebrate your big night.”
And that was the part that stunk. It was the culmination of five years of work, and I had wanted to share that with someone special.
We had both just been promoted, my partner and I, Cash to marketing director, and me to creative director of our division. It was a huge step up the corporate ladder, especially since at twenty-eight and twenty-nine respectively, we were the youngest division heads in the company. In celebration of the promotion, our CEO had made a special trip out to congratulate us. Kelly Davis, who had made the decision to reward us based on the revenue our office generated and the quality of our ideas, had told Cash on a phone conference the week before that he was really looking forward to talking in person. Video conferences and phone conversations aside, he wanted to shake our hands and meet us face to face. It was very flattering, as the man seemed to be taking a special interest in both of our careers. He was also looking forward to meeting the people we shared our lives with. It was probably lucky that Channing had decided to show me what my true value was to him so early on. I would have hated to have my heart involved along with my pride. As it was, I would survive this blow to my ego. The timing was the only horror.
“He doesn’t know what he’s missing,” Phoebe said, interrupting my thoughts.
“Oh yeah?” I sighed, meeting her loving gaze. She was crazy about me, and it was there in her soft expression.
She took a quick breath. “Yeah. You have the best heart, you never take yourself too seriously, and you always, always keep your word.”
“Aww, sweetie,” I teased her.
Cash squeezed his wife playfully. “Quit, honey, you’ll make the boy blush.”
I grinned at her.
“Mmmm, gotta love that smile,” she sighed. “You’ve got that down pat.”
“Stop flirting with my partner,” Cash scolded her, and then he looked at me. “Go get a drink and meet us at the table. I’ll save you a seat.”
As I turned back toward the bar, I had to wonder about my judgment.
I had thought that Channing Isner and I were getting along great. After six weeks of talking and laughing, listening to jazz in the park, and driving to Napa, things seemed like they were going well. We’d had a few dinners during the week and long phone conversations where he shared the pitfalls of his day working as a junior media buyer at our firm. How had we gone from a progressing romance to him having sex in the production office with someone else? What had I missed?
I looked over my shoulder at Cash.
The man lived to order me around. I was still chuckling when I reached the bar. I was waiting for my drink when I felt a hand on my shoulder. Turning, I was stunned to find my date—my ex-date, the guy I had thought was going to be my date, the guy who had just been sweating and panting with somebody else—standing in front of me. It was surreal.
“Julian, where were you? You were supposed to pick me up at my office, and we were gonna take a cab over here together.”
I just stared at him. Seriously, the balls on the man… Christ.
“I looked everywhere for you.”
But I had not been down Peyton Wilson’s pants, so what was he doing looking for me there? The thought, because I have an overactive sense of the ridiculous, made me stifle a laugh.
He was standing there, lying to my face, and it was hard to wrap my brain around it.
“Are you alright?”
I leaned around him to grab yet another shot of Patron and the bottle of Corona the bartender had just put down for me.
“Jules?” he said, his voice rising.
I threw back the shot before taking a long swallow of beer. If he had not barred my path when I moved, I would have walked away. As it was, he cornered me.
“Julian? What’s going on?” he asked fast, worried suddenly, his hand flat on my chest.
“Move your hand,” I ordered, turning to face him, my voice hollow and cold.
“Why? Why can’t I touch you all of a sudden?” He sounded scared.
I took a deep breath. “I saw you in the office with Peyton.”
The bright blue eyes that I had found so lovely got huge and round. “What?”
I took another long swallow of my beer.
Looking at him, I realized that he was trembling. “Just go home, Chan, or go meet Peyton, or do whatever the hell you want… I don’t care.”
“Are you kidding?” he asked breathlessly.
Why did everyone keep asking me that?
“Who told you I was in the office with Peyton? Was it Cash?”
I squinted at him. “No one told me, Chan. I saw you myself.”
“Jules, I need to explain.”
“No, don’t, just… go. We don’t hafta have a whole big blowout. We weren’t together long enough. You can just walk away, so g’head.”
“I don’t wanna walk away.”
“Fine, then I will,” I said, slipping by him.
Before I could take more than a step, he was back in front of me, his angelic face suddenly a mess, like I had hurt him.
“It’s all your fault, you know. What kind of man doesn’t have sex?”
Of course it was my fault; why wouldn’t it be? The blame just came faster than I thought it would.
“Julian? Tell me, explain it to me.”
“I did,” I assured him.
“Do it again. Why didn’t you have sex with me?” His voice was sharp, attacking.
Heavy sigh. “Because I wanted to have more of a connection than just a physical one,” I told him. “And for the record, I thought you enjoyed the time we spent together.”
“I did,” he gasped out. “But being around you and not having sex is… because the way you kiss should be followed by fucking. You’re the biggest goddamn cocktease I’ve ever met.”
“Okay,” I said flatly, putting the half-empty beer on the bar before brushing by him to go join my friends for dinner.
“Julian!” he almost screamed. I would have kept walking, but I was afraid his volume would only increase. I had been humiliated once already. I was not ready for a second go-round. Pivoting, I was surprised that he was right there in front of me.
“I’m sorry, all right? Just forgive me already.”
Already? The whole mess was not even an hour old. And furthermore, I had no idea what was with the tortured look on his face. I wasn’t the one who had ended close to a two-month-long relationship on my knees in the production office.
“You’re not actually going to say no to me, are you?”
The reasoning was there in his voice. He was young and hot and was I crazy to even be thinking about calling it quits with him. Who the hell did I think I was?
“I’ll see you at work,” I said, stepping around him, making clear the new parameters of our relationship.
He stepped into my path, hands on my sweater, fisted there, holding on. “God, Jules, just… don’t do this.”
“Don’t do what?”
We both turned to look at the man standing beside us. It took me only a second to process who I was looking at.
“Ryan Dean,” Channing breathed the name out quicker than I could. “Holy shit.”
Everyone always reacted that way, and I understood why.
Ryan Dean was a household name in the bay area. His show, Ryan’s Rundown, was on Channel 5 and came on every night right after the local news. He had been approached to take it national, to have it make the next big splash on Bravo, but as far as I knew, he had not signed a contract to make that jump to cable. At least, he had made no announcement on his show. And I would have known because I never missed watching him if I was home. It was pure pleasure just looking at him. The man was drop-dead, stop-traffic, catch-your-breath gorgeous. I, with everyone else, understood how he had made a pile of money modeling.
He used to be huge. Magazine editorials, runways all over the world, high-profile advertising campaigns—he was the guy the big fashion houses called, the one who made booking agents lose their minds. He had worked for all the big names: Valentino, Hugo Boss, Dior, Hermès, Calvin Klein, Gucci, Prada, Versace, and so many more. Even though his name was elusive, his face, body, rippling abs, and golden skin were ingrained forever in your mind.
“Hey,” I said, my voice low, husky. “How’re you?”
I was given an appraising look. “I’m good, Mr. Nash,” he said softly, his voice low, seductive, the grin hinting at evil before he turned to look at Channing. “You’re standing in my spot.”
Channing moved fast, stepping away from me so that Ryan could take his place.
“Thanks,” he said before he took hold of the hem of my sweater. “You can go.”
When Ryan Dean dismissed you, you went, and Channing Isner was no exception. The man was far too beautiful to disobey.
“That was mean.” I chuckled, looking at him, unable to see anything or anyone else. Dressed as he was, the man could have walked off the cover of a magazine. In his black boot-cut jeans and a short-sleeved lime green shirt that pulled tight across his chiseled chest and biceps, he looked like he was ready to be the center of attention at a photo shoot.
“Like I care.” He shrugged. “And if you cared, you would have said something. It’s one of the many reasons I enjoy working with you. You’re never afraid to tell me anything, even if it’s to go to hell.”
“I’ve never told you to go to hell.”
“No.” The look on his face made me feel like prey. “But you could.”
We had worked together many times over the past two years as my company, Miller Freedman, did all of his publicity work. And just like everyone who had ever met the man, I had been mesmerized.
Whatever word you wanted to use wasn’t enough. He was more. Ryan Dean was a little over six feet, with blond hair that was always artfully messy. It was thick, streaked bronze and wheat, and fell down the nape of his neck to his shoulders. He had hazel eyes that changed color constantly, and his skin, which he showed off quite a bit of at any opportunity, was smooth golden perfection. He had a lean, sculpted, muscular physique and moved fluidly like a dancer, with a walk that was more strut than anything else. The man was, without a doubt, a walking, talking wet dream come to life. The blond stubble of his beard, tawny mane of hair, long golden lashes, and thick dark brows: you just thought sex when you saw him. I understood how he had made an incredible living as a model, but even more alluring than that, to me, was the man’s attitude.
During the times we had worked together on the publicity for his reality show, Ryan had made every day fun. One of my favorite times with him had been a charity event for the homeless. It had been a huge party, very exclusive and wildly successful, raised a ton of money, and he had shown his happiness with how everything turned out by inviting everyone who worked on the event to attend it as well. I had watched him hold court, seen all the gorgeous men who trailed after him, and felt thoroughly intimidated. I had left early; there was no way to compete with other models for his attention.
Ryan’s Rundown had been on the air for three years and was about all the things you could do in San Francisco with your partner to keep the zing in your relationship, from attending cooking classes together to having a picnic at the beach to getting dressed up and hitting the town for a night of dancing. It was fun to watch, and he never took himself too seriously. His audience was as addicted to his personality as they were to his face. People, especially men, threw themselves in his path wherever he went. His conquests were legendary, his sexual appetite consuming. I never stood a chance of capturing his interest, but it was always flattering that whenever he saw me, he remembered my name.
“How are you?” he asked, stepping closer to me, his head tilting back just a bit to look into my face. As I was six-three to his six feet, he had to look up at me just a little.
“I’ve been better,” I sighed, taking in the sensuous lips, how full and dark they were.
“Why? What’s wrong?”
I realized I was staring and stopped, looked away, but then had to look back or be rude. His eyes were so beautiful, the different colors in them, flecked with gold and copper, the brown, gray, and an ever-changing green, that sometimes caught the light and almost glowed. Funny that Ryan Dean never failed to bring out the poet in me.
“Nothing. How’ve you been? I saw you on a lot of stuff, lots of guest appearances, and you did one of your shows from New York during Fashion Week, very cool.”
“Yeah, that’s great,” he said dismissively, his gaze not moving from mine. “But I was doing too much and the show took me away from home. I don’t want that.”
“Why not? Don’t you want your show to get picked up by a network?”
He gave me a wicked arch of eyebrow. “You sound surprised.”
“’Cause I am. Why don’t you want a syndicated television show?”
“Why?” I pressed him.
“It’s not my dream.”
“But you could be a household name.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Not to you,” he said. “I need my show to be just big enough to keep me and my crew employed, help the station, still be current, and actually provide a public service. Any more than that is excessive.”
He could conquer the world if he wanted. Wasn’t that what he wanted?
“There are things I hope to get a chance to have.”
“Oh.” I didn’t want to pry. “Okay so—”
“But none of that matters tonight,” he said, and I watched him bite his bottom lip. I wondered if he even realized he’d done it. “Why didn’t you call me?”
It took me a second. “I’m sorry?”
“You were supposed to call me.”
“When? We finished all the work for your—”
“No,” he cut me off, placing a hand over my heart. “I told you to call me.”
I tried to think back to the last time I had seen him. We had wrapped the spring campaign for his show, and then there was the press release and the launch… what was I missing? “Wait. Why would you have needed to talk to me?”
“You really have no idea, do you?”
“No.” I racked my inebriated brain. “The only reason for me to call would have been if something went wrong, and as far as I know that event went off flaw—”
“Something getting messed up was not the only reason to call,” he assured me, and I saw him swallow hard, saw the muscles in his jaw clench.
“You didn’t even show up to my spring cotillion fundraiser, the one you planned.”
I raked my fingers through my hair. “Yeah, well, it turned out that my friend Melina had her baby that night, and I was her coach.”
He nodded. “Well then, I guess I’ll forgive you.”
“Thanks,” I said, my mouth dry, my voice failing me. I could feel the heat radiating off the man as he stepped even closer, his thigh brushing mine, his breath ghosting over my face.
“You’re a hard man to get ahold of. Every time I call your office, your assistant tells me you’re busy. You never answer your cell, and apparently, my e-mails are going to the wrong guy.”
Note to self: kill Conner. My assistant had turned away Ryan Dean? Was he high? “I had no idea you were trying to get ahold of me.”
“Well, now that we’ve got everything cleared up, how ’bout I drive you back to my place and make you some dinner?”
I squinted at him from behind my glasses. “I’m actually here for dinner.”
“Oh? With who? Not the guy I just got rid of?”
“He was supposed to be my date.”
“Supposed to be?”
“Yeah,” I sighed, “I found him at work giving another guy a blowjob.”
Unlike both of my friends who had been livid, his snort of laughter was instant.