Four years ago…
‘Hey, Mr Landry, what is it about British bad girls that makes them so hot, do you reckon…?’
Cade Landry stood in the Las Vegas event space, with the lights of the city’s famous Strip glittering thirty-five storeys below them through the panoramic windows, nursing a glass of vintage bubbles which cost more than his first car, and scowled at the bad girl in question on the other side of the exclusive venue. She was dancing on a table, her slender figure moving in sensuous rhythm in a scrap of jewelled red satin which barely covered her butt.
‘I don’t know, Chad,’ he shouted above the music from a world-famous DJ he’d paid to finish the evening with some fun after the formal event. Fun which was descending into a free-for-all thanks to the wild child and her posse. ‘But whoever she is, she’s leaving,’ he added.
Exactly how old was she? Because she looked like an out-of-control kid who’d had one too many tequila slammers—and wasn’t even legal to drink. He’d told security to get rid of them when they’d arrived ten minutes ago, but the guard looked as dazzled by her antics as the other guys around her.
‘Don’t you know who she is, Mr Landry?’ Chad piped up again, his voice filling with awe. ‘That’s Charlotte Courtney.’
He’d heard of Charlotte Courtney. Part-time model, full-time wild child, who’d hit the headlines hard a year ago when she’d chopped all her hair off and flounced out of a lucrative contract.
He dumped his glass on a passing tray and headed through the crowd, letting his temper build.
Yeah, Cade knew all about kids like Charlotte Courtney.
A poor little rich girl—who had never had to toe the line.
As a poor-boy-made-good from Louisiana, whose mom had kicked him into the system, age five, because feeding him had been too much trouble in between feeding her habit, he was the perfect person to teach her a lesson about how to behave herself. And not cause a ruckus in his place at his expense.
Which made the surge of protectiveness more than a little aggravating when a hand reached out from the crowd to slap her butt.
The girl swung round, her face a picture of outraged contempt, and kicked out at Mr Handsy. Cade could hear her giving the guy hell—in a British accent which was sharp enough to slice through flesh. The surge of protectiveness was joined by fury and an equally aggravating spurt of admiration for her.
He blocked another guy from getting too close as he reached the table, which had started to wobble.
‘Take your hands off me, you creep,’ Charlotte shouted at the man.
‘How about I get you out of here, kid,’ he bellowed to her above the music.
‘Who are you?’ she demanded. The flash of outrage in her eyes, though—which were a stunning, sparkling and surprisingly lucid emerald—had his admiration disappearing fast.
Who the hell did she think she was? Gate-crashing his event with a crew of hangers-on and behaving as if she owned the place?
‘Cade Landry,’ he shouted back. ‘This is my place and my party. And as I didn’t give you an invitation, I figure it’s time you left.’
She scowled—obviously not liking his tone. So it caught him off guard when she shouted, ‘Okay, thanks, Sir Galahad,’ and took a flying leap off the table—and into his arms.
He staggered back, as no more than a hundred pounds of lithe female landed on top of him. He braced himself just in time to catch her, and stop them both from ending up on their butts. She looped her hands around his neck and wrapped her legs around his waist with impressive agility.
He inhaled a lungful of her scent—wild summer flowers and clean female sweat—for his pains. Her beautiful face—all high cheekbones and wide green eyes—broke into a grin.
‘Well, don’t just stand here, Galahad,’ she demanded. ‘Move. Before we end up as tomorrow’s internet sensation.’
He didn’t take orders from anyone any more, and especially not spoilt little rich girls. But Cade decided she had a point about the crowd as the cell phone lights blinked on around them.
Once he’d whisked her out of here, away from prying camera phones, he could give her a piece of his mind. He set off through the crowd, forced to do the chivalrous thing, when he wasn’t a chivalrous guy, his anger building with each stride.
Eventually, they made it into the elevator lobby, the music pounding behind them. Another security guard stood by the door.
‘Mr Landry, sir?’ he said, taking in the sight of the girl in Cade’s arms just as her fingernails brushed across his nape—sending a jolt of something he didn’t like one bit rippling through his system.
‘Get the rest of them out of here, too,’ he snarled. ‘And tell your colleague he’s been canned,’ he added.
The man nodded and rushed back into the venue as Cade dropped his cargo onto her feet.
‘Don’t you think you’re being a bit of a spoil-sport, Sir Galahad?’ she said breathlessly, the playful glint in her translucent green eyes—the emerald hue reminding him of the Hand Grenade cocktails he’d once served by the dozen on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras—telling him she didn’t have one single clue how close she was to getting a damn spanking.
He’d worked eighteen-hour days, seven days a week, for over a decade to stop people judging him for a past he couldn’t change, and she’d nearly trashed it all in a single night with her antics.
He stabbed the elevator call button. ‘Ya think?’ he growled.
‘Yes, I do think,’ she remarked in that crisp accent, which had a smoky purr which only added to his irritation. ‘You seem quite uptight.’
She brushed the short cap of honey-brown curls back from her face, and he noticed the smudge of glittery cosmetics that made her huge doe eyes look even bigger.
His gaze drifted down her figure. Her legs looked about a mile long thanks to the place mat–sized sparkly red dress and ankle-breaking heels. With the height boost from her footwear, her face was almost level with his, which, given that he was six-three, was a rarity. But despite her height, her body reminded him of a gazelle, slender and toned but also fragile. That she didn’t have a bra on was something his body noted. And then discarded. His gaze snapped back to her face.
‘Fair warning, kid,’ he snarled. ‘Next time you decide to shake your booty on a table, don’t do it in my place.’
The flushed excitement on her face disappeared as her lips flattened, and her breasts rose and fell in a huff of outrage. Her stunning eyes narrowed, as if the Hand Grenade was about to detonate.…
So little Miss Court Trouble wasn’t used to being told no.
Cade Landry had no problem calling out reckless behaviour.
Surface beauty was just that, shallow and unearned. What mattered was a person’s core. And from the things he’d seen so far, Charlotte Courtney was just like every other entitled rich kid who thought they were a grown-up but had no idea how to act like one.
Charley glared at the man sucking all the available oxygen out of the lobby area with his tall, dark, impossibly annoying handsomeness.
How typical… Charley Courtney’s hunk in shining armour turns out to have a judgemental streak as broad as his mile-wide shoulders.
‘I see, and how do you plan to stop me, exactly?’ she demanded, calling him on his self-righteousness.
She knew about Southern men and their manners. She’d met a few after she’d been headhunted by a modelling agency at age sixteen—and ended up in the US working the catwalk while being hit on by a load of much older guys. Of course, Cade Landry hadn’t actually hit on her. If anything, he had seemed surprisingly undazzled… But give him time.
‘How about we kick off with having you arrested for underage drinking,’ he replied, folding muscular forearms over his chest and making the seams of his tuxedo bulge…distractingly.
‘How do you know I’m underage?’ she demanded, determined to hold her own.
His gaze swept to her bottom with enough indifference to make all her nerve endings stand on edge. ‘Don’t make me laugh, kid.’
The way he said ‘kid’ in his Southern-fried accent couldn’t have sounded more condescending if he’d tried. The judgemental approach was new, she’d give him that, and somewhat unexpected. Men rarely tried to correct her behaviour these days… But even so…
‘I’m not a kid,’ she sputtered. ‘I’m eighteen.’ In fact, she’d turned eighteen that morning.
She’d only come out tonight with the guys from the photoshoot in Caesars Palace to escape the direct hit of her father’s latest passive-aggressive text—one line informing her he would have no time to see her when she returned to London after her latest assignment. He hadn’t mentioned her birthday. But then, it wouldn’t be the first time he’d forgotten.
Maybe her celebration had got a little out of hand, but no one else had tried to stop her. How typical that this man had appeared from the crowd like an avenging angel only to turn out to be a pompous ass…
Why Mr High and Mighty and his bulging biceps were having an unfortunate effect on her libido, though, she had no idea.
She hated to have her behaviour examined and found wanting by people who knew not one single thing about her life. Plus she didn’t even like sex, because she had discovered—when she’d lost her virginity to a photographer after her first catwalk show in New York—it was totally overrated.
‘That’s still a kid from where I’m standing…’ he said, but then she saw the flicker of something behind the cool expression.
‘You think I’m a child? Really?’ she challenged him, desperate to believe she’d seen something more than disdain.
His gaze darkened—and the frown on his brow became a crater.
He really was stupidly handsome. Tall and muscular with a shock of unruly black hair, his deep tan suggesting he either spent a lot of time sunbathing or he lived outdoors. She doubted he was an idle man, though, because his physique—and the way he had caught her and carried her out without breaking a sweat—appeared to have been forged in fire, rather than an expensive gym. The small scar which bisected his eyebrow and another visible through the stubble on his jaw made it obvious he hadn’t led a charmed life. But then, neither had she. The only difference was her scars weren’t visible.
Just when she thought she’d finally got the upper hand, the sexual tension snapping between them impossible for even Mr High and Mighty to deny, he huffed out a rough laugh. And the frown disappeared.
His firm lips kicked up in a wry smile so sensual it had her heartbeat sinking into her abdomen.
‘Don’t you think you’ve played with enough fire tonight, Charlotte?’ he said as he unfolded his arms and leaned past her to press the button on the lift panel.
He loomed over her, forcing her to look up. A novel experience, because at five-foot-eleven in her heels, she was rarely at this much of a height disadvantage.
How did he know her name?
But then, she knew how, and struggled not to wince. Didn’t everyone, after her meltdown at Paris Fashion Week a year ago?
‘My name’s Charley. No one calls me Charlotte,’ she declared, determined not to be overwhelmed by his woodsy cologne, or the mouth-watering close-up of his Adam’s apple, displayed against the open collar of his shirt alongside the flickering flames of an elaborate tattoo.
What would he do if she kissed him there, where the pulse in his throat throbbed in unison with the one in her panties?
His cool blue eyes turned to a searing sapphire, which made the pulsing awareness tense and melt at the same time. Surely he had to feel it too.
‘I built this place, Charlotte,’ he murmured. ‘And I hosted the party you just tried to turn into a dumbass free-for-all…’ He paused, clearly enjoying judging her—the hot, self-righteous jerk. ‘With your childish behaviour.’
‘Childish…?’ she hissed, knowing she’d never been a child. Not really.
She yanked back her outrage when she spotted the sparkle of amusement in his eyes. Was he deliberately trying to wind her up? Because it was totally working.
His cheeks tensed. He was waging a battle not to laugh, something he was struggling to hide.
Adrenaline surged up her torso. Why she found the spark of connection so thrilling, she had no idea. It had been a long time since she’d been attracted to any guy. Or had the desire to flirt with one. But something about Cade Landry—and his determination to see her as a girl instead of a woman—called to her inner demons.
She wanted to taste those lips so badly. Wanted to make him admit he saw her and she mattered. What would it be like to have those sensual lips taking hers in a ruthless kiss? Exciting? Exhilarating? Validating?
The throbbing in her sex matched the rush of blood in her ears. She breathed in a lungful of his delicious scent—man and musk and pine woods. A sob of surrender slipped from her lips, inviting him in.
She lifted her arm and curled her fingers around his nape. ‘Kiss me, Landry,’ she whispered, the feeling of empowerment making her feel euphoric. ‘You know you want to.’
But instead of covering her lips with his, he took her hand from around his neck and stepped back, the contempt in his eyes unmistakeable.
‘Kiss you?’ he murmured. The euphoria in her belly became sharp and jagged—the distaste in his tone something she’d heard before from her father. ‘Why the hell would I want to kiss an off-the-rails kid with an attitude problem?’
The lift doors swished open behind her, the sound masked by the brutal thunder of her heartbeat.
‘Now get out of my place, before I call the cops,’ he finished, the disgust in his eyes searing her soul.
She stared, speechless with humiliation, as he turned and walked back into the event without a backward glance.
She rushed into the lift, suddenly desperate to get away from him—and the rejection echoing in her ears. She stabbed at the button, the hot, angry tears burning her eyeballs. She bit into her lip to stop them falling as the lift doors closed at last.
She hadn’t cried since the day her mother had died, when she was eight years old. She certainly didn’t intend to let a few harsh words from a staid, boring, self-righteous jerk with a superiority complex make her cry now.
But as the luminous glitter of the neon cityscape was revealed in the glass wall on the far side of the lift, Cade Landry’s sharp words echoed over and over again in her head. Her stomach dropped like a stone, the stunning view of Las Vegas only making her feel smaller and more foolish and insignificant.
She wanted to hate Cade Landry for being as cruel and dismissive as her father. Why should she care if he didn’t see her? Didn’t want her? When other men did?
But as the scenic elevator tracked down the side of the building, and the miserable sinking sensation in her stomach bottomed out at her toes, instead of feeling righteous and fierce and independent, all she really felt was how she’d felt throughout her childhood. Vulnerable…and unlovable…and invisible…and hideously alone.