Zelda hiked up the train of her evening gown as the walk of shame took her through the station house. The sound of a ringing phone, the tap of computer keys, and a parade of bold stares from the small number of officers on night duty followed her every step of the way making her humiliation complete.
“I’ll leave you here.” Officer Kelly stopped as they arrived at the door leading to the front desk at the station entrance. “Just don’t do anything that reckless again, okay? Or at least not on my watch.”
“You have my word.” She crossed her heart with her little finger. “Pinkie swear.”
“Good girl.” He sent her a paternal smile, tipped his hat, and left.
Pushing open the door, she noticed the tall lean man standing by the admitting sergeant’s desk with his back to her.
The combo of worn T-shirt and jeans marked him out as a civilian, although the hipshot stance as he leant on the desk and chatted to the admitting sergeant made it clear he was more than comfortable in this environment. His unruly hair gleamed black under the fluorescent light, much darker than the chestnut curls of his sister Faith.
Tyrone ‘High and Mighty’ Sullivan, her knight in battered denim.
The unwanted pulse of awareness hit Zel in the solar plexus.
As her knight shifted to sign a sheet of paper handed over by the sergeant, she noted the magnificent width of his shoulders. Now in his early thirties, he’d gotten a lot more solid than the last time she’d seen him, scowling at her as she waited her turn to get eviscerated by the Mother Superior on her fateful, final day at St. J’s.
Sucking in a calming breath, she strode towards him. Her heels echoed on the concrete floor as she approached the desk and her knight whisked round. Bold, vividly green eyes alighted on her face. The spark of irritation was only marginally more annoying than the judgmental once over he gave her, his gaze snagging for a second on the jeweled bodice of her Versace gown.
“Hello Mr. Sullivan, thank you so much for coming,” she said, keeping her expression blank. There was no point wasting her enslavement smile on a man who was making such a concerted effort to fire daggers of disgust at her.
“I’ve paid the fine,” he said, neatly cutting off any more unnecessary pleasantries—the knife-edge in the tone sharp enough to slice through bone.
“You didn’t have to do that,” she said, trying her very best not to resent the high-handed attitude. “I just needed someone to…”
“You don’t need a lawyer. It was only a citation,” he said. “And anyway, I couldn’t act for you, even if I wanted to.”
“Why not?” she asked, hating the tiny quiver of vulnerability in response to his pissy attitude.
She prided herself on being strong in any given situation. But she’d just spent the last two hours sitting in a police station contemplating how much she’d relied on others in the last six years to organize her life.
Appearances to the contrary, she hadn’t actually planned to get picked up at midnight on Manhattan Beach for disorderly conduct. Okay, going for a swim by moonlight to celebrate her decision to finally jack in her modeling career hadn’t been her smartest decision of late. In fact, it had definitely been one of the dumbest. But the beach had been deserted, the hurricane-damaged residences that backed onto it apparently empty. And the feeling of freedom, of liberation, of excitement had overwhelmed her at the thought of how far she’d come. That she no longer needed to be at the beck and call of an army of publicists and stylists and agents and personal assistants to keep her life in order. She’d wanted to mark the moment—and the water had beckoned, cool and inviting in the muggy night, and edged by the magical twinkle of city lights on the opposite shore and the canopy of stars that shone through the smog.
And frankly, how could she possibly have known that one of those apparently dark, empty properties actually housed a couple of old biddies who spent their nights scanning the vicinity with telescopes on the lookout for runaway supermodels swimming in their underwear?
Sullivan’s disdainful look became pitying, spiking her temper.
“I work for the Legal Aid Society. I doubt your income would qualify.” He slung a hand in his pocket, still sending her those you-are-such-a-waste-of-my-time vibes. “Plus there’s a clear conflict of interest.”
“Which is?” she asked, drawing herself up to her full height. At five-foot-eight, she rarely had to look up to speak to guys, especially when she added on the three inches supplied by the heels of her Laboutins. Ty Sullivan, though, still had a good two inches on her. And he was using every millimeter of his height advantage to look down his nose at her.
“I know you.” He leant forward, invading her personal space enough to overlay the scent of cheap disinfectant, vomit and perspiration that permeated the precinct house with the whiff of laundry detergent. “Personally.”
“Yes, but it’s fairly clear you can’t stand me. So, where’s the conflict?”
“It still qualifies,” he said, not denying the accusation. But then what was the point, when those emerald bright eyes were firing rotary blades at her now, instead of just daggers.
He turned back to the desk sergeant. “I’ll take Ms. Madison off your hands, Officer Benton. Give my thanks to Kelly and Mendoza too, for bringing her in so she didn’t get mugged or worse.” He sent her a cautionary look, as if she were a disobedient three-year-old. And she hadn’t already thanked both officers personally. “Does she need to sign anything before we head out?” he added.
“Here you go, Ms. Madison.” The sympathy in the sergeant’s friendly, brown eyes made his hangdog face look comfortingly homely as he passed a form across the desk. “You be careful from now on, no more swimming at night. It’s not safe. Or smart.”
Zelda sent him her best ‘aren’t you a sweetheart smile’ but before she could open her mouth to promise she would behave herself from now on, Ty Sullivan got there ahead of her. “She won’t. I guarantee it.”
Without another word, he gripped her upper arm and proceeded to haul her off the premises like a harassed parent corralling a wayward child.
Struggling to keep up with his long strides in her heels, the lamé gown wrapping round her legs like an anaconda, they were all the way down the steps of the station house before she managed to get over the shock of being manhandled enough to yank her arm out of his grip.
“Will you let me go. I can walk out on my own, you bloody baboon.”
He shot her the self-righteous glare she recognized from ten years ago. The brittle contempt might have wounded a more fragile woman. Luckily Zelda Madison was not fragile.
“That’s rich, princess. I just shelled out two hundred of my hard-earned dollars to pay your fine and get you out of the hole you managed to dig yourself into tonight.”
She didn’t miss the insinuation that her cash wasn’t hard-earned. She took two deep breaths, crossing her arms over her chest, which heaved with exertion and indignation, in an attempt to quell the lava flooding her veins.
Eight hours ago she would have agreed with him—in a purely existential sense. Modeling might be physically demanding and emotionally grueling at times, but it was not going to change the world for the better. But after the night she’d had, and the amount of humble pie she’d had to swallow already, she was not in the mood to be patronized.
Still, she bit down on the urge to slap back. She’d woken him at two in the morning and he’d come. She would be contrite and magnanimous now if it killed her. “Which I greatly appreciate. And which I will pay you back as soon as I can get to a cash point.”
“A cash point?” The icy disdain in his tone hit critical mass. “You mean an ATM. What’s with the fake British accent? Real American not good enough for you?” he said, in the thick Brooklyn accent which seemed to have gotten even thicker for her benefit. “‘Cause I happen to know you were born in Manhattan.”
And had spent nearly all of her childhood in London while her father was a diplomat and then the American ambassador. Not to mention several years in a Swiss Finishing School and then the last eight living mostly in Paris, Barcelona, and Milan while not on assignment. And even though she had been born in New York, her mother had been British and Zelda held both British and American passports.
She also spoke five languages fluently. Two more well enough to get by in. But unfortunately none of them had the surly Brooklyn twang that would make her a ‘real American’ in Tyrone Sullivan’s judgmental eyes. Sullivan’s accusation reminded her of the year at St J’s when all the other girls except her friends had delighted in mocking her ‘snooty accent’. But she didn’t intend to bother explaining to Sullivan why she spoke the way she did. Because she’d learned at the age of sixteen, while sitting in the Mother Superior’s office, being accused of things she hadn’t done with her brother’s hollow indifference making her stomach hurt, that if people insisted on assuming the worst of her, it was useless trying to defend herself.
She tapped her Laboutin on the sidewalk. “Fine, I will pay you back when I get to an ATM.” She glanced around. “Now if you could direct me to the nearest taxi rank or subway station, I’ll get out of your hair.”
“The subway isn’t running after midnight all this week, they’re working on the line. And you’re not catching a cab in that get up.” His gaze seared down to her cleavage again with enough self-righteous superiority to seriously piss her off. “Where’s your car? I’ll take you to it, assuming you’re not too wasted to drive,” he added, sounding even more exasperated.
“I don’t have a car. I don’t drive,” she replied, ignoring the snipe about her sobriety. Let him believe what he wanted to believe, he wouldn’t be the first.
The sky was still defiantly dark behind the convenience store on the other side of the station parking lot, so she was probably several hours from dawn yet, and as her phone was dead and there was very little traffic, catching a cab was probably out. “When does the subway open?”
“If you’re not catching a cab in that costume, you’re not catching the subway either,” he said as if he were the boss of her. “How the hell come you don’t drive? What are you, the Queen of England?”
“No, I suspect the Queen probably drives,” she managed, clinging to magnanimous by her fingertips.
She’d stopped driving after hitting a tree in Fontainbleau forest five years ago, in her brand new Jaguar convertible, while over-celebrating her twenty-first birthday with ten too many Kir Royales at La Coupole. The subsequent shots of her in a bloodstained T-shirt with the words ‘Crazy Bitch’ sequined across her bust had scored a full-page spread in Paris Match and been syndicated round the globe. She hadn’t gotten behind the wheel of a car since. Obviously Mr. High and Mighty didn’t read the tabloids though, so she didn’t intend to enlighten him.
“Just out of curiosity, who put you in charge of my welfare?” The last thing she needed after taking five years to get free of her minders was another one. Especially one as pissy and rude as this one.
“You did.” He shot back. “When you decided to haul me out of bed to deal with your latest drunken stunt.”
“I wasn’t drunk.”
She hadn’t touched a drop for five years—not that she cared whether he believed her or not. He narrowed his eyes, not looking convinced. “Uh-huh? So what were you doing skinny dipping on Manhattan Beach at midnight?”
“I wasn’t skinny dipping, I had underwear on.”
“According to the desk sergeant your underwear consisted of three pinpoint triangles of red lace that became transparent when wet. In my book that counts as skinny dipping. You’re lucky you didn’t get raped.”
She flinched. “The beach was deserted. There wasn’t a soul about and I hadn’t planned to come out of the water to find two patrol cops standing guard over my clothing.”
“Doesn’t sound like you plan a whole hell of a lot now, does it? Just, FYI, next time you’re in a fix call one of your lackeys or, better yet, one of your brother’s pricey legal team. I bet they’ve got a ton more experience dealing with your bullshit.”
If she’d known she was going to get this much grief she would have. Despite the fact her brother would have given her that indifferent look that made her stomach hurt, and the presence of anyone from Goulding and Hatchard, the East Side lawyers Seb used for the Madison Foundation’s business, at the Sheepshead Bay precinct house at three in the morning would have put her in grave danger of having the press alerted. Then again, arguing at top volume with a pill like Ty Sullivan right outside the station house probably wasn’t helping to keep this debacle under wraps either.
“True, but you were closer and I thought you’d be a lot less conspicuous,” she replied, keeping her voice as non-confrontational as possible.
From everything Faith had ever told Zelda about her big brother Ty—and what she’d witnessed all those years ago in St. J’s foyer—he was the stick-up-your-butt, hopelessly self-righteous, I-know-best type. And his current snotty reaction wasn’t disabusing her of that fact. Plus she’d had more than enough run-ins with her own brother to know it was next to impossible to win an argument with a person who assumed they were always right simply because they sported a pair of testicles.
The only difference with Ty was that he seemed to be engaging his emotions in this debate, if the huffing and puffing was anything to go by. Unlike Seb, who never lost the controlled, detached, closed-off look that was his fallback position whenever they had a disagreement. Up until this particular moment, she would have believed she preferred the emotionally-engaged reaction… But at three a.m. while stranded in Brooklyn, with her hair looking like a bird had been nesting in it for days, and the two thousand dollar Versace gown she had been loaned for her red carpet appearance at the Foundation’s charity gala in Manhattan last night, sporting unidentifiable stains on the hem courtesy of whatever was on the floor of the station house? Not so much.
She’d never been vain about her appearance. She knew her modeling career was a result of good bone structure, lucky metabolism, and her above-average height, all things she’d had nothing whatsoever to do with acquiring. Plus when she spent two hours in styling and then three hours posing for the camera, just to get a couple of signature shots, she knew how much of her success as a supermodel was down to her and how much down to the expert eye of the photographer or the talents of the makeup artist and hair stylist. But even so, Ty Sullivan’s superior glare was starting to make her much more aware than usual that she did not look her best.
Figuring out how she was going to explain tonight’s disaster to her sponsor at AA and then her brother was taking up enough of her diminishing brain power, after being awake for the last twenty-four hours. How she was going to avoid the handful of paparazzi who would probably be staking out the Mausoleum by now after hearing of her nonappearance at the charity gala was taking up even more. So she simply did not have the headspace to worry about what Ty Sullivan did or did not think of her.
“Conspicuous?” He barked. “Conspicuous how?”
“Conspicuous as in I don’t want the tabloids getting ahold of this story if that’s okay with you. I get enough grief from them as it is.” And was liable to get a lot more when they discovered she’d decided not to sign her latest three million dollar contract with Fantasy, the hair care company who had employed her as the face of their signature shampoo brand for six years. The poor little rich bitch tag had been one she’d worked hard to play down in the last five years; this stunt would not help that.
Ty looked momentarily taken aback by her explanation before his glare intensified. “You know what your problem is, princess?” he said, the grinding disgust in the tone suggesting that whatever her problem was, it wasn’t one that was going to register on his ‘problems that deserve my sympathy’ list.
“No, but I’m sure you’re going to enlighten me,” she growled back. “Being as you’re such a prince.”
His eyes flashed with green fire and she remembered she was supposed to be doing contrite, not confrontational… A moment too late.
“You need to get the hell out of your ivory tower. If you lived with four kids under six in the Marlboro Projects and were fighting an eviction notice, like the client I’m representing in …” He pulled out his phone and checked the time. “Six hours. You’d have a real problem to deal with. Instead of whether you were gonna get splashed over the centerfold of the New York Post for some dumb stunt entirely of your own making.”
Contrite came surprisingly easily at the mention of his client. The last of her temper fizzling out as she noted the lines around his mouth. The firm sensual lips pursed in a flat line of displeasure. He was right. He had a real job, with real consequences. And she was the one who had screwed up. While Faith had been the one to suggest calling him at this ungodly hour when she’d been on her way to the station house before her mobile had died on her, it would have been fairer and more honest to simply ring Seb and take the heat.
“Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter where my ivory tower is located,” she said, resigned. “I’d still get stalked by the press.”
“Don’t kid yourself, if you were hanging out on my house barge, no way would you get caught by the press. But that’s never gonna happen, because we’re not big on ivory towers in Brooklyn.”
The comment was delivered with such contempt, Zel’s reflex action was instant and unstoppable. She might have been sober for five years, but her wild streak would never be completely tamed. Hence the decision to go for a midnight swim on Manhattan Beach to celebrate the sheer joy of finally escaping from the hollow, pointless world she had despised for so long. Or the impulse to call Ty Sullivan’s bluff now.
“That’s where you’re wrong. I’d love to hang out on your house barge. Invitation accepted.”
He looked so surprised, his dark brows shooting up to his hairline, that she couldn’t resist a wry smile.
Funny how everyone always assumed she’d led such a charmed life. When in reality, so much of it had been marred by the sudden loss of both her parents at the age of thirteen—and the subsequent disintegration of her once close relationship with her brother. Money was useful, and it would be disingenuous of her not to admit that having such a lucrative job had helped to paper over a lot of the cracks. But smiling for the cameras while she felt hollow inside, and never being able to stop long enough in one place to enjoy more than a few soulless shags in yet another anonymous hotel room, took its toll on a person’s psyche, too… Not in the way grinding poverty did. So maybe she didn’t deserve Ty Sullivan’s sympathy. But she wasn’t the shallow thoughtless egotist he had obviously pegged her as. Or at least she was trying hard not to be.
All she needed to do now was prove it. “Let’s get going before the press finds us here.”
“Hold up a minute…”
“It will be easier all ’round if I stay at your barge tonight. It will solve you having to worry about how I’m going to get back to Manhattan at this hour,” she added, deciding to do the decent thing and help him out… as well as herself. Knowing his overdeveloped sense of responsibility, he would insist on driving her home and that would only make her conscience kick up even more of a fuss. Plus staying the night at his barge—under that surly wave of self-righteousness and disapproval—would be her penance for being such a monumental ninny and getting herself into this fix in the first place. “And don’t forget you’ve got a wake-up call in five hours.”
She looped her arm through his, ignoring the pleasant flutter of reaction in her abdomen when his muscular forearm flexed under her fingertips—which was simply her normal biological response to a good-looking man.
“You need your sleep, and I’ve taken up more than enough of your time.” She directed him towards the car park, her conscience kicking up another notch when he relaxed and allowed himself to be led. “I don’t want you fluffing your lines tomorrow,” she continued. “Your client with four kids under six might get evicted from her Marlboro Project and then I’d have that as well as your sleep deprivation on my conscience.”
Lifting the car keys he had looped over his thumb, she flicked the unlock button, and the tail lights on a shiny black SUV flickered across the lot.
When they got to the car, he stopped dead, those deep emerald eyes glassy with fatigue but strangely intense as they roamed over her face. “You sure about this? The barge isn’t up to your usual standards.” For the first time he sounded unsure, and more confused than pissed off, so she ignored the implied dig—and the misconception.
He had no idea how low her standards had sunk, before she’d gotten into the program. Back when she was sofa-surfing the fleshpots of Continental Europe and doing her utmost to lose herself in a haze of booze and other controlled substances, a house barge in Brooklyn would have been the height of luxury. Plus she’d always been surprisingly frugal and low maintenance, despite her often luxurious surroundings. Because she’d been born with a serious case of wanderlust, and she’d learned at an early age that material comfort could often mask an emotional wasteland.
That wanderlust had led her astray in her teens, when it had stopped being about enjoying new experiences and instead become a plea for attention or a uniquely self-destructive way of dealing with all the things in her life she couldn’t control.
“Don’t worry about me,” she said, pulling open the heavy door of his SUV. “You won’t even know I’m there.”
“Yeah, right,” he grumbled, giving her another steely-eyed once-over, which set off unfortunate sizzles of reaction all over her skin.
Seriously, what a shame the man was such a monumental grump, because he could bottle sexy with that glare.
“But if you’d rather not, I really don’t have a problem waiting for the subway to open if you drop me there,” she added, giving them both a final get-out clause.
She’d certainly been in worse places than Sheepshead Bay at the crack of dawn.
“Forget that. Faith would murder me.” He climbed into the driver’s seat and waited for her to get in on the passenger side. A maneuver that was less easy than it looked given that Versace hadn’t factored SUV travel into the design of the gown.
Once she was finally settled, he turned on the ignition.
“But just so we’re clear,” he said. “You get the couch.”
“Not a problem,” she said graciously as he reversed out of the lot. “Take me to your house barge, Sir Galahad,” she added, unable to resist teasing him, when he glared back at her across the console.
“Why do I get the feeling I’m gonna live to regret this,” he grunted, before driving off into the night.