Liz (Lose Your Shirt | Chapter One)
THERE’S NO BETTER COMPANY THAN A GLASS OF PINOT at a networking event. Especially when there isn’t a single familiar face in this entire five-star hotel. I make my way over to one of the only empty high-top tables and pull out my phone. Still nothing from Jacqueline, the venture capitalist who was supposed to meet me here twenty minutes ago. Does a ten-million-dollar deal mean nothing to a monster corporation like Bonnaire Capital?
I peer around the room again and a man to my right startles me with his Einstein-like white hair. He smiles, showing his smoker yellow coated teeth.
“Well, hello.” The man inches closer. Too close.
I shoot him a strange look. “Hello.” The words sound more like a question.
“Is that an American accent I hear?” He leans his ear near my mouth.
“It is.” I veer away. Why do some people think it’s okay to encroach on someone’s personal space? We don’t know each other like that.
“I saw you from across the room, and I just had to come over and tell you that you are stunning. You look like a young Rita Hayworth.” The man’s gaze moves down my body as if handing out a nice compliment gives him carte blanche to ogle my ass.
“Thanks.” If this is how my night’s going to be, then bottoms up.
With a curious look, he moves closer, filling the space between us. “So, what brings you to London?”
I inch back, not that I’m hopeful he’ll take a hint. “My venture capitalist.” I honestly wouldn’t mind talking with this man if he had any sense of boundaries. How do I get out of this? Take a fake call? Pretend I just got my period? In my experience, menstruation spooks men his age.
He squishes his furry gray brows together. “You mean you run a business?”
I can’t tell if you refers to being a woman or a young Rita Hayworth lookalike but either way, I stand tall with a proud smile. “Yes, I own it too.”
The man tilts his head, but before he can inquire further, another stranger approaches and places his hand on my arm as if he were my long-lost friend. “There you are, darling!”
I look up at the second no-sense-of-boundaries stranger who clearly has me mixed up with someone else. The dark-haired man flashes a gorgeous smile that practically sparkles, and two adorable dimples appear. His hazel eyes light up beneath his thick lashes. Our eyes meet and hold.
Hello, Mr. Hottie!
I take back what I said. He’s the kind of guy I want all up in my personal space.
The moment for recognition passes but he still hasn’t realized his mistake. Instead, he holds my gaze with a certainty that leaves my heart fluttering. “Come with me, there’s someone I’d like you to meet.” Mr. Hottie’s brow moves slightly as if to tell me to play along.
Relieved, I beam back at him. “Great! Let’s go.”
He gestures ahead and I begin to walk away, shooting the old guy at the table a quick too-da-loo wave. When we’re out of earshot, I lean in, inhaling the delicious scent of expensive cologne. “Thanks for getting me out of there.”
“That man’s been chatting up women all evening.” We keep moving as he leads me to safety, gently resting his hand on the small of my back.
“And you’ve been rescuing all of them?”
“No. Just you.” He lets out a charming chuckle as we come to a clearing, and I finally get a good look at the guy dressed in a black suit with a white, open-collared shirt. “You were the only one he got that close to. Not that I can blame him.”
Usually with men, I keep my defenses high and I never fall for one-liners. But this guy seems to be knocking down my walls with every striking smile. I purse my mouth with a hint of a smirk. “I’m a big girl, you know? I can take care of myself.”
He holds my gaze as if he’s reading me, and I feel another one of my walls crumble to the ground. “I have no doubt.” Hmm, maybe being five thousand miles away from home the week before Christmas won’t be so bad after all.
Tugging on my lower lip, I take a step closer like I’ve suddenly become Madam No-Boundaries. “So why did you intervene?”
“Let’s just say I have a weakness for redheads and American women. You happen to be both.”
I knit my brows, tilting my head to the side. “Wait, how did you know that I was American?”
“Eh.” He shrugs with a handsome smirk, locking his eyes with mine. “Call it a feeling.”
Now, I’m the one having feelings. Mostly below my waist. Perhaps I have a weakness for dark-haired British men. “I’m Liz, by the way,” I say, offering my hand.
He takes it, and even though we’re only shaking hands, the touch of his skin against mine shoots an ecstasy-like sensation down to the tips of my cold toes. “Kent.”
“Like Clark Kent?” No wonder the guy wanted to rescue me. He’s got the name of a superhero.
“More like Kent the county,” he says, seeming reluctant to correct my flattering comparison.
“Is that where you’re from? Kent?” I can’t help but say his name like I’m wearing a piece of sexy lingerie, trying to seduce him. Not trashy but classy, like Kate Golden Lingerie. Man, it feels good to flirt with someone. It’s been too long since I’ve been even remotely interested in someone tearing my clothes off.
Kent laughs and I wonder if he’s enjoying this little conversation as much as I am. “Afraid not. Born and raised in London.” He looks away, letting out a deep sigh. “Good old London.”
“What’s the matter? You don’t like it here?”
He returns his attention back to me. “No, I love it. It’s home. But I like the idea of moving to another city. Having a new experience.”
“Definitely. You should do it. Live a little. I’ve lived in three different cities in the last ten years.” I sip my wine thinking that I miss home.
“And where do you call home now?”
“Good old San Francisco,” I say with a satisfied smile.
“No way. That’s one of my favorite cities. But I never get to spend much time there. You’re a lucky woman, Liz.” Another wall tumbles as he uses my name. It’s the little things that get me excited sometimes. The last man I was with never used my name. Ever. And on the rare occasion he did, it sounded empty, almost like he wasn’t talking about me.
Kent smacks his slightly purple lips as if he’s tasting the burgundy for the first time, even though his glass is nearly empty. “Not bad for cheap pinot.”
“That’s what I thought. And I’m kind of a wine snob.” I hope my lips aren’t purple. It’s not unusual for me to look like I’ve had twelve glasses of wine after only two because I stain so easily.
“Oh really?” He squints his eyes like he’s just as skeptical as he is intrigued.
I nod. “That’s why I settled in San Francisco.”
“Makes sense.” Kent’s expression softens.
“It was totally wishful thinking though. With my workload, I never have time to get up to the vineyards. I do have a standing order with some of the wineries, though. I get a new case every month.” Between his brief silence and my potentially purple lips, I wonder if he thinks I’m some kind of wino.
“I collect wine myself. Actually, I think I’ll get another. Would you like one?”
I hand over my nearly empty glass, almost batting my lashes. “Sure.”
Kent walks away and I keep my eyes glued to his sexy strut until he makes it to the bar, then shift my glance to the hem of his pants. Nothing wrong with a confident man who knows the importance of a properly tailored suit. He looks at his phone while he waits for the drinks, so I pull mine out too. Not a damn thing from Jacqueline. Something must’ve happened. Oh, well. I’m sure I’ll see her for our appointment tomorrow, which is fine with me. Now that I’ve made a friend, this shindig doesn’t seem so bad. Not to mention, I’ve been working so hard this last year that I haven’t had any time for fun. And I think Kent and I could have a good time together.
Holding two freshly filled glasses of wine, Kent returns promptly and I take note of his bare ring finger. “Here you are,” he says, handing me a glass. “I requested a different pinot. They just opened the bottle.”
“Thanks. How did you manage that?”
“I have my ways. So, Liz,” there it is again, “are you here by yourself?”
I glance around the room one final time. “I was supposed to meet someone I’m working with but she hasn’t shown up yet.”
Kent raises his drink. “Her loss is my gain.” Clinking my glass to his, I imagine what it would be like to clink our bodies together. I blush at the thought. Would it be terrible to have this guy keep me warm under the covers in this cold city?
“So I guess since this is a networking event, we should talk about business,” he says.
I have no desire to talk business with Kent. I’d rather let our bodies do the talking. Geez, I must’ve just relaxed enough to wake my libido that’s been sleeping while I’ve been working all year. “Well, I own and run an online retail store.” Can’t wait to see how he reacts to this.
He lifts his brow like he’s impressed. “That’s great. How’s business?”
Considering I just signed that deal with Bonnaire Capital, I respond, “Business is good and it gets better every day. What about you? You must be pretty important for the bartender to serve you a special bottle of wine.”
He stifles his smirk as if he’s trying on modesty. “I’m in finance.”
I make a clicking noise with my tongue. “Now, see, I would have pegged you for a real estate guy.”
Kent laughs, then takes a sip of his wine and swallows hard with a slight grimace. “This is not very good at all.”
“No?” I tilt my head before sampling the drink. I’m not a fan either. “I see what you mean.”
“I don’t even know why I bother drinking at these things. I have a collection of pinot noir at home.”
My heart flips. This guy might love wine as much as I do.
He leans in and almost whispers in my ear. “I have a bottle of 2001 Winslett Pinot Noir from Napa Valley. I’ve been waiting to share it with someone who actually appreciates a good glass.”
I gasp. “You wouldn’t tease a girl, would you?” Winslett wine is one of my favorites.
“No.” His gaze falls from my eyes to my mouth. If he kisses me right now, I’ll be okay with that. More than okay. “Is it too soon to ask you to come back to my place?”
That works too. “To share that bottle of wine?” I squint my eyes, pretending to weigh the pros and cons. “No, it’s not too soon. I’ll get my coat.”
Before I even hand it over, Kent takes my wine glass. “I’ll meet you in the lobby.”
His eyes lock with mine for a moment and I tug at the side of my lower lip, praying that my cheeks are not as pink as they feel and that my lips are not as purple as they typically are after one glass. I turn away, swishing my hips side to side and tossing my hair back over my shoulder. No more lonely Liz. Not tonight, anyway.