She wanted access to the Kore records on her mother but hadn’t told Stu when he demanded to know why this was so important to her.
He’d finally gotten the invitation, with a helpful suggestion from Abbie, then laid down his rules, telling her, “I don’t know why you’re hell-bent on attending the Wentworth event, but know this-I won’t stick my neck out to save you if you do anything that draws negative attention to the station, and God forbid you do something that reflects badly on WCXB. I told Brittany an aunt of mine wanted to go. And if Brittany finds out I’m taking her to New York for dinner and a play just so you can attend this party in her place, she’ll be looking for blood. I’m not donating alone.”
Stuey had reason to worry about Brittany questioning the motive for his surprise trip to New York. He lacked the imagination to come up with a better solution to yesterday’s standoff with Abbie and deserved the hit his wallet was taking, but he was right about one thing.
Abbie’s head would be the first one to roll if her plan to pull out the PR hammer Dr. Tatum had given her backfired.
All the wrangling and manipulating she’d done to get inside this place would be for naught if she didn’t get close enough to talk to Gwen.
What if Gwen called security on her?
Don’t borrow worry, as Abbie’s father would say.
She meandered around, taking pretend sips of her champagne. No drinking. Ignoring her low tolerance for alcohol six years ago had led to the most embarrassing night of her life with a guy named Samson, a hot guy even if he had looked wild with long hair and a shaggy beard.
Wild, but endearing in the way he’d only had eyes for her and… kissed. The embarrassing part had come the next morning.
Who could blame her for acting like a fool after the man she’d been engaged to had played her for one?
Not the time to think about that. She headed for the arched opening to a solarium where people sat and stood in clusters.
Maybe Gwen had come down quietly and was in there.
Just as Abbie neared the marble column supporting the left side of the archway she was stepping through, a woman on the other side laughed and took a step back… directly into Abbie’s path.
Abbie’s still-full glass of champagne sloshed over her hand and dripped on the gigantic rug she had a sick feeling would bring a record amount at a Sotheby’s auction.
Long silky black hair fanned along bony shoulders of the woman she’d collided with. The scrawny twenty-something female spun to face Abbie. Her gasp of surprise exhaled on a huff of outrage as though she’d been assaulted. “Are you drunk?”
Was it Abbie’s imagination or had everyone within thirty feet heard that comment and gone silent? She felt a thick wall of eyes locked on her.
“No, I’m not drunk.” Abbie went for indignant, but the catch of worry in her voice might have ruined the affect. Clusters of curious faces popped into her peripheral vision. She tried to act as though her stomach wasn’t having a disco party at warp speed. “You backed into me.”
“I don’t think so.” The black-haired woman spit her words from perfectly shaped lips in plum-colored lipstick, adding plenty of how-dare-you-insult-me innuendo. The low V of her silky purple top split in a long cut to her waist, meeting the top of black bolero pants cinched with a braided gold and silver belt. She flexed her shoulders back and one of her surgically enhanced puppies came close to nosing its way out.
Abbie struggled between offering a polite apology and snapping at this witch for being so rude.
The woman sent a withering glance at the closest security guard… who took that as his cue to act.
Ah, crap. Abbie could stand her ground and risk a scene or walk away with her tail between her legs.
She’d never backed down from anyone.
The security guard quietly asked Abbie, “Can I be of assistance?”
That sounded like a cultured “We got a problem here, lady?”
Abbie opened her mouth to plead her case and felt someone’s large fingers close around her forearm.
Was someone trying to escort her out?
Of course they’d assume she was at fault.
One-tenth of a second before Abbie verbally scorched the muscle daring to touch her, a deep voice connected to that hand said, “Here you are, darling. Sorry I was detained.”
She turned to the man holding her arm and recognized him. The jaw-dropping blond male she’d stared at like a fool outside. He had bottomless green eyes, deep in color, as though stolen from the center of a mystical forest.
A forest that hid something dark and foreboding at the moment as his attention fixed on the woman in purple.
Abbie glanced back at Miss Uncongeniality.
Shock rode the woman’s face before her cornflower-blue eyes morphed into a bored look of amusement. Her plump lips curled with a malicious smile. When she spoke, intimate undertones smoked through her voice. “Surprised to see you here, Hunter, with-” She flicked a condescending glance at Abbie. “-her. I had no idea your taste ran so… pedestrian.”
Abbie’s face flamed hot enough for her skin to turn tomato red. What she wouldn’t give for a decent retort, anything that would extricate her from this situation with just a piece of her dignity.
Nothing popped into her mind.
She’d anticipated a potential disaster, just not this soon.
My taste-” Hunter chuckled, allowing a vicious undercurrent to play beneath his words “-has always run to natural rather than manmade, Lydia.”
Lydia Bertelli narrowed her unnaturally bright blue eyes to the point they turned into slits between thick eyelashes fanning her cheek. “Natural? Or dull and boring?”
The arm of the female he still held flexed at the insult.
If not for offering him an opening to meet the woman next to him, Hunter would curse his luck that Lydia was in attendance tonight. She’d normally be off on her father’s yacht cruising the Greek isles or working on a deeper tan to set off the sheet of black hair she wore like a queen’s mantle.
He did curse his stupidity for allowing his dick to convince him to let Lydia into his hotel room-once-a couple years ago.
In fairness to his libido, that had been before Lydia turned into a cosmetic surgeon’s wet dream, and she’d seemed like a perfect choice for one night. He hadn’t been with a woman in months and she showed up at his door wearing a fuck-me-where-I-stand dress.
He’d been on the receiving end of Lydia’s viper attitude since making it clear he wanted no repeat of their one night together.
Especially after he’d found out the next day that she leaked to the damned media that she’d spent the night with a Thornton-Payne. Lydia had used him to stir up jealousy in a rock star she hadn’t been able to close the deal with.
Women and their agendas.
“Is everything all right?” the security guard, Carlos Delgado, inquired in a firm voice.
Hunter had forgotten the BAD agent was present.
“Everything’s fine.” He shot a hard glance at Carlos.
“No harm, no foul,” the woman next to Hunter muttered, surprising him when she spoke. She drew her shoulders back and smiled with withering politeness. “Nice meeting you, Lydia. Gotta go.”
She had spirit, something Lydia and most of the women he encountered at these places lacked.
He met Lydia’s eyes and sharpened his with a warning that if she didn’t retract her claws she’d leave licking her wounds. When Curly Locks turned to walk away, he moved his hand to her back. “More champagne?”
“No, thanks.” She stepped up her pace, pulling away from his touch.
He lengthened his stride and caught up, placing his hand at the small of her back again.
She cocked her head, sending him a look that questioned his motives. “An old girlfriend?”
“Old nuisance.” He saw a pocket of space with a semblance of privacy. “Let’s step over there for a minute.”
She slowed. “Look, thanks for your help, but you can go now.”
Her apologetic tone harbored an insinuation that she was inconveniencing him. He was stunned. Didn’t she realize half this room would notice if he walked away from her now?
And the other half would hear about it by the end of the night.
“Humor me for a few minutes.” Hunter continued guiding her through breaks in the crowd, lifting his chin at familiar faces and inclining his head at others.
A scent teased his nose. Something fresh and different that didn’t belong here among custom-blended perfumes.
He realized he was leaning closer to inhale a deeper breath and stopped himself before he gave anyone reason to think something really was going on between them.
Her curls bobbed with each step. Not professional hairstyling, but he liked the natural way she’d piled up the ringlets and used a sequined clasp to tame the rowdy mass.
She’d shown backbone, manners… and not a clue she’d been in danger of getting clawed. This one might have held her own under Lydia’s attack for a few more minutes, but she wouldn’t have for long.
Not a normal, everyday woman. A nice girl.
When he reached a giant bronze planter abutting a short wall that provided some privacy, Curly Locks took an extra step, then turned on him.
“Why did you do that? Act like you knew me?” she asked in a voice so loaded with suspicion he should be ducking for cover.
Of course, he’d be asking the same question in her shoes.
Hunter lifted a hand in dismissal. “Lydia lives for confrontation, regardless of collateral damage. She clearly stepped into your path. Once her head makes a full rotation she’s hard to bring back down to earth. Just figured I could defuse the situation before it got out of hand.”
“Why? You probably downgraded your social standing in the process.”
He’d have laughed if she had, but she’d thrown that out in honesty. He was used to getting the “you’re a snob” routine from BAD agents, but getting that attitude from a stranger-one he’d helped-pricked his temper. The point of this meeting was to get her to talk, which wouldn’t happen if he let her bait him.
“I’m not concerned about what anyone here thinks.” He lowered his voice to an intimate level. “Besides, it gave me a chance to get you alone.”
He hadn’t expected this much resistance. Most women would have cooed over the attention and flirtatious line he’d given her.
This one didn’t coo and her gaze kept straying the whole time she talked, as if searching for someone else.
Damned if that didn’t dig at his ego.
Didn’t she realize he was flirting? Or had he lost his touch?
She stopped visually canvassing the room and gave him her full attention. One soft brown eyebrow winged up in a silent reminder that she still wanted to know why he’d asked to speak to her alone.
Stick with the truth whenever possible. “Wanted to talk to you.”
Was that the extent of her vocabulary? He couldn’t remember another word that had poked a hole in his patience the way that one was doing.
Any other woman would be smiling by now.
Her lips hadn’t twitched, much less curved up. She still eyed him suspiciously.
Maybe asking “why” was her way of making him lose interest first.
Didn’t she feel the least appreciation for his help?
Hunter released a sigh. “To be honest, I think we’ve met somewhere before, but I can’t remember where. Thought you might know.”
“Nope. Don’t remember meeting you.” She looked away and fidgeted with her purse, both actions saying she’d just lied as much as the too-quick answer did.
Did she know him?
Maybe she was just nervous and saying anything to get out of this situation.
Not that he thought all women should fall at his feet, but he’d never seen one in such a hurry to brush him off. Ego aside, her attitude generated suspicion. What could be so pressing that it kept her glancing around and trying to end the conversation?
He pulled out a safe question she couldn’t answer with “Why?” “What brings you here tonight?”
Her eyes snapped up at him and narrowed with a flash of wariness then she seemed to catch herself and shrugged. “Same thing brings you here, I would assume. An invitation.”
Still not giving an inch.
Talking to Lydia would have been easier.
“Actually, I came as a favor.” Even if his teammates didn’t see it that way. “What’s your name?”
She hesitated, considered something, then said, “Abbie.”
He’d let the last name go, for now. Hunter tapped his chin and concentrated as if her name meant something when he still had no clue where they’d met or who she was. “Abbie. Abbie. Sounds familiar. What do you do?”
Panic streaked through her gaze before she checked it. “I’m a writer. Nothing you’d be impressed with.”
“How do you know I wouldn’t be impressed?”
She let her eyes travel up and down him in assessment. “I know. What do you do?”
The Thornton-Payne dynasty had a hand in everything from communications to finance to arms manufacturing. He could choose one and no one would question him, but claiming any credit for the family businesses would be unfair to his brother, who actually oversaw many of the operations.
Also, she had some burr under her skin about the wealthy, so the less said with regard to his family the better.
Hunter gave her what he considered a fair answer. “I solve problems for other people.”
“Like… helping with Lydia?”
Did she make a joke?
Abbie smiled. Her eyes twinkled blue, a natural color that reminded him of the Caribbean waters under a blazing sun. “What are you, like a rent-a-white-knight?”
Hell no. But he’d finally earned a smile and kept his sarcastic retort safely behind his lips.
Now he’d make some headway.
That smile of hers and those eyes. He had seen them somewhere before, dammit.
“What the hell are you doing here?” A familiar male voice boomed from Hunter’s left, shattering the moment.
He turned his head to see a man whose height mirrored Hunter’s, with a lighter build and the same shade of blond hair. His brother.
An icon in the Chicago corporate landscape, the high-profile Thornton-Payne heir whom Hunter would like to see any time other than right now.
Long story, Todd.” Hunter shook hands with his brother, surprised to see him at the Wentworth event. Hugging amounted to a public display of affection. His family would be appalled.
“Haven’t seen you in what? Eight months?” Todd finished shaking, then turned to Abbie. “And you are?”
“Abbie.” Hunter jumped in before Todd could blow his anonymity with this woman by giving his last name. “This is Todd. Todd, this is Abbie.”
“Nice to meet you.” Her smile had vanished along with the relaxed air in the few seconds since Todd arrived. She gave Hunter’s brother the same assessing sweep, made some internal judgment she didn’t share, and took a step away. “Sounds like you two have some catching up to do and I have to find someone.” She finished the sentence, then turned and scurried into the crowd.
Dammit to hell. Hunter wasn’t through with her.