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  A mysterious stranger rescues Charlotte Stone from her sleazy ex-boyfriend at a museum auction. The same stranger that stared at her earlier with an intensity that rippled through her like a summer storm. Charlotte is definitely interested, until she learns more. Fact: Alex Andros is a brilliant attorney with one client--the alleged head of Boston 's rackets. Gossip: He's the racketeer's lover. Curious, Charlotte accepts his offer of a drink and is captivated by his raw sex appeal. How could this seductively masculine man be gay?

Alex knows the rumors and couldn't care less. His sexual persuasion is no one's business. He's sworn off relationships, but Charlotte's allure is too strong; it mirrors the chemistry Alex experienced with the man who changed the way he loved. Charlotte 's old boyfriend is determined to "out" Alex to win her back. But when Alex's old lover shows up after seventeen years, he must confess his secret to prove he's worthy of Charlotte 's trust, or risk losing her forever.
 
 

 

 

Chapter One

  The Good, Bad, and Ugly Evening

 

The flurry of tuxedos hustling up the museum walkway for the fund-raising auction resembled a scene from March of the Penguins. Alongside, well-coiffed women in designer gowns and glittering diamonds hurried to keep pace. When the taxi pulled into the circular drive, Charlotte paid the cabbie, then she and Darcy joined the throng.

“I’m glad we didn’t drive,” Darcy said. “God knows how far we’d have to walk from the parking lot, and me in four-inch heels.”

Charlotte nodded to a few customers she knew from her home furnishings store, decked out in their evening finest. Entering through the massive double doors, she noticed a tall, olive-skinned man staring at her with an intensity that caused her skin to tingle. His date hung on to him as if Velcroed to his arm, doing her best to capture his attention. But his focus remained on Charlotte’s face and not on every man’s usual target: her voluptuous chest. A point in his favor.

Wearing a tux that looked as if it was custom-made to highlight his trim build, he was as handsome a man as she’d ever seen. And Charlotte Stone was a sucker for a handsome man. He reminded her of a panther―sleek and dark and dangerous, with hair almost too long, but he got away with it. If Charlotte’s blush didn’t call attention to every inner thought, her nipples were a dead giveaway, puckering and tightening under the soft fabric of her dress. She wrapped her beaded shawl around her hoping he hadn’t seen. She turned away but felt drawn back by the stranger’s overpowering electricity.

“Do you know who that is?” Charlotte whispered to Darcy, nodding in mystery man’s direction. “He’s staring at me as if I were naked.”

Darcy checked and scoffed. “Forget him. He’s an attorney.”

“Darcy, you’re an attorney, and you’ve always said you can’t meet anyone because all the attorneys were boring and looked like they’ve died in a law book. That guy’s gorgeous.”

“Let me clarify. His name is Alex Andros, and he’s the attorney for Max Carpathian. If you’ve never heard of him, Max is rumored to control all the rackets in town. In other words, Max is a crook, who also happens to be a switch-hitter. Every beautiful socialite in town has batted on one side of Max’s home plate, and Mr. Gorgeous, who’s undressing you with his eyes, bats cleanup on the other.”

“Are you saying that hunk is gay? Impossible, Darce. He’s oozing sexuality.”

“Honey, I’m only saying what I’ve heard. At best, he’s bisexual. He and Max have been together for years, and Max is Andros’s only client. There has to be something to the rumors. Andros keeps a low profile, but he’s very smart and clever, and when he goes into court on Max’s behalf, he always wins. The man is poison to the DA’s office.”

Charlotte darted a peek over her shoulder, noting Andros’s nod of amusement when he caught her checking him out. No gay man could look at a woman like that masculine, sexy man looked at her. Even if he was bi, he was still a crooked lawyer. “Well, I’ll be. Goes to prove you can’t be sure of anything these days.”

“Come on. Let’s find our table.” Darcy pulled out a ticket from her purse and waved it. “Lucky number seven.”

Charlotte forced herself to ignore her admirer, but the heat of his stare still burned on her back. “Darn, I wish I had more time to look at the art up for auction. That’s what I get for being late.” Charlotte undraped her shawl and noticed a few ardent enthusiasts ogling her. Darcy, tall and angular with small breasts, always said if she had Charlotte’s endowments, she’d flaunt them. Though Charlotte never wore sexy clothes during business hours, she wore a low-cut dress tonight that displayed her assets in obvious fashion, and she didn’t mind the appreciative stares she was receiving. It had taken a few months to get over Jack, and now, for the first time in thirty-four years, she didn’t give a damn what anyone thought. She was a new woman.

Remember that, Charlotte.

“Find the table, Darce. I’m going to dash around the exhibit to see if there’s anything I must have.”

“Okay, but hurry.”

Charlotte plowed through the crowd, some already heading to their tables, while she toured the display. Paintings, signed and numbered prints, and one-of-a-kind pottery and glass art donated by artists from all over the country sat on tables and easels. She recognized some of the names and jotted down a few numbers with certain clients in mind, then turned back to the dining area to find Darcy’s hand waving in the air, beckoning her.

“See anything you liked?” Darcy asked.

“Quite a few pieces. I’ll have to see how high they go before making a bid.”

The tickets for the evening cost a fortune, but the fundraiser included a gourmet dinner prepared by Mr. Louis, one of Boston’s finest chefs. A few people had already taken seats at their table. Charlotte didn’t recognize any of them but nodded anyway.

The gentleman next to her held out his hand. “Michael Branigan, and this is my fiancée, Emily Fallon.” Charlotte took his proffered hand, noticing the old goat’s gaze settled on her cleavage. He had to be in his late sixties. She smiled at his date. Ms. Emily looked to be in her midtwenties, with siliconed breasts and a rock on her finger the size of Rhode Island. Branigan was definitely a boob man.

Emily leaned forward to talk to Charlotte. “Don’t you work at that wonderful home furnishings store on Newbury Street with all the trendy furniture and accessories? I’m sure I’ve seen you in there.”

“I own it, and what a nice thing to say. Thank you.”

“Oh, Mickey,” Emily whined in Marilyn Monroe breathless fashion, “I’ve told you about Trends, remember? It’s where I want to buy all the furniture to renovate your stuffy old house.”

“Yes, darling. I remember.” He turned to Charlotte. “What a magnificent reason to see you again, my dear.”

His gaze lasered on Charlotte’s chest. When the evening was over, she’d bet Mr. Bulge-eyed Branigan wouldn’t remember her face because he hadn’t made eye contact since he introduced himself. She hated it whenever anyone looked at her as if she were a hooker. Well, let the old pervert drool. Let Mr. Gorgeous pop his eyeballs. She’d chosen her daring designer creation to prove that Charlotte Stone had begun a new phase of her life, and she didn’t need a man to give her confidence.

Darcy sipped her water while listening to the overdressed dowager next to her. One by one, other members of their table entered. Michael Branigan seemed to know everyone and made the introductions. While Charlotte acknowledged her tablemates, she froze when she heard the name of the next arrival. He wasn’t sitting at their table, but his name echoed in her head like a bad dream that lingered the whole day. And the next. In her case, three months.

“Charlotte Stone and Darcy Haven, I’d like to present Jack Davidson and his guest, um…”

“Candy Gayheart,” Jack said, eyeing Charlotte. “Ms. Stone and I are old friends. How are you, Charlotte? Long time no see.”

“Fine, Jack. Never better.” You’re over him, Charlotte. Forget the churning in the pit of your stomach, or you’ll lose what’s left of your lunch before you enjoy Mr. Louis’s dinner. He’s a scuzz, and you’re too good for him.

As always, Jack ogled her body, a destination he knew quite well. His lips twitched into a wicked smile that would send any red-blooded woman panting after him. She ought to know. She’d been one of them. Then Jack Davidson―hotel heir, playboy extraordinaire, and first-class woman magnet―dumped her like a bucket of dirty water when she balked after he’d taken their BDSM games to an unacceptable level. She didn’t mind a little kink, but when she said uncle, she meant it. She’d never given a thought that Jack might be at the auction. Damn him!

Darcy must have noticed her discomfort, because she grabbed Charlotte’s arm. “Let’s go to the little girl’s room before they start serving. Your nose is shiny.”

“It is? Um, okay.” She shrugged to Branigan. “Can’t have a shiny nose. Excuse us.”

“Your nose looks fine to me,” Branigan said, now checking out her ass.

Darcy put her arm through Charlotte’s and tugged her along. “Hold on. Almost everyone’s at their tables. There won’t be a crowd in the restroom. You look like you’re going to faint.”

“I’m not,” Charlotte said. “I’m mad. How dare he ruin my evening?”

They got to the ladies’ lounge. Fortunately, the two women in there were leaving. Darcy wet a paper towel with cold water, lifted Charlotte’s hair, and placed it on the back of her neck. “Don’t forget what he did. You need to go out there and act like he doesn’t exist. Screw him.”

Screwing him is what I did to get to this place. “Right. I don’t need Jack Davidson in my life. In fact, I don’t need any man in my life to make me feel worthy.”

“Let’s not carry it too far, girlfriend. Now pull yourself together.”

“I’m allowed one time, aren’t I? One time to lose it?”

“One and that’s all,” Darcy said.

Charlotte heard her friend’s reproachful tone. Her thoughts wandered helplessly back to the good times she’d enjoyed with Jack. To the weekends on his yacht. To the many nights of great sex. She’d fallen hard, but when she woke naked in his third-floor sex hideaway, wrists and ankles handcuffed to the bed, and he wouldn’t release her, he’d gone too far. She lost it. Sex games involved trust―both parties agreeing on what to do and how far to go. Jack didn’t understand that. He gave in, but that was their last night together. She’d heard he’d taken up with a stripper. Why put up with her when that floozy on his arm tonight would probably do whatever he wanted?

Charlotte glanced in the mirror. “Look at me. How can the new Charlotte Stone be as pale as a fish belly?”

“Here, put on some lipstick. Do you have any blush?”

“No. Darn. I didn’t have room.” She held up a jeweled clutch the size of an avocado.

“I have some.” Darcy extracted a gold compact from her evening bag. “Here.”

Charlotte took it and brushed some color onto her cheeks. “Jack looked amazing. Why does he have to look so good?”

“Stop thinking about him,” Darcy said. “You can do a hundred times better. The new Charlotte needs to get her groove back. Come on, let’s go.”

Charlotte straightened, shoulders back. “I’m the new Charlotte Stone.” Under her breath, she chanted mantra-like, “I can do this. I can do this.”

As they made their way back to the main salon, Jack waited off to the side. He stepped in front of them and blocked their way. “Let me speak to her alone, Darcy.”

Darcy snarled, “You son of a―”

Charlotte felt a surge of confidence. “It’s okay, Darcy. I’ll be right there.” She took a deep breath and met Jack’s gaze. She didn’t want this slug in her life, and she’d make damn sure he knew it.

Darcy sneered at Jack, sniffed as if the air reeked, and sauntered off.

Jack pulled Charlotte to a quiet corner. “You look more delectable than ever. Good enough to eat. I’d forgotten how beautiful these were.” His fingers tiptoed over the exposed flesh of her chest, pinching a nipple through her dress. “Not many women can carry those off without looking like a tart. But you…you’re class all the way.”

Charlotte slapped his hand away. Jack knew from experience her nipples were her prime erogenous zone. One tweak got her hot and wet, and she couldn’t do a thing about it. “You have no right to those anymore, Jack. We’re finished. Over. You made sure of that when you dumped me.”

“Big mistake on my part, honey. I’ve been sorry ever since. We had some good times, didn’t we?” He tightened his grip on her arm, digging his fingers into her flesh. “Don’t be hasty. We can work this out.”

“You’re hurting me. Let go. Go back to your Candy Cane, or whatever her name is.”

“I screwed up that night. I should have been more considerate of you. But we both had too much to drink. It’ll never happen again. Promise.”

“Don’t give me that. I wasn’t drunk.”

Jack hesitated. “You were, babe. You passed out. Like a light.”

“That’s your story. Now get out of my way.”

“Give me another chance.” Undaunted by her pleas, Jack tucked his middle finger into her cleavage and wiggled it. “What do you say if after the auction you dump Darcy, I get rid of Candy, and we have a couple of drinks at my place? Just the two of us.”

“No way. Now let me go.” She tried to push him away, but Jack lifted the hem of her skirt and found the cleft of her pussy, holding her in place. His fingers massaged her through the silky fabric of her thong.

“I can tell you’re excited.”

“I am not.” She tried to free herself, but he’d pinned her to the wall.

His hot breath filled her ear when he spoke. “You never used to push me away when I did this to you. In fact, you always liked hand sex. Not as much as when I licked. Have you forgotten how good sex was between us, Charlotte? Wouldn’t you like that again?”

The old Charlotte Stone might have given in, but she wasn’t that person any more. “What is it about the word over you don’t understand? Over, Jack. That means get your hands off me. Can’t you understand that?”

“Not when it comes to your pussy.” He pushed against her harder. “And those delicious, magnificent―”

“Is this man bothering you, Charlotte?”

The unexpected intrusion stopped Jack cold. Charlotte didn’t recognize the voice. Strong, commanding attention. She almost lost her train of thought. Craning her neck over Jack’s shoulder, she saw the dark stranger who’d stared at her when she entered the museum. The crooked lawyer Darcy insisted was gay. He appeared out of nowhere. What did Darcy say his name was? Think, Charlotte. Alex. Alex something. Andrews. No, Andros. That was it.

“Oh, Alex,” she said, displaying calmness she didn’t feel. Her gaze met Jack’s, and she pushed him aside. He relented but still kept a firm grip on her arm. “Um, yes, he is, as a matter of fact. Would you mind walking me back to my table, please?”

“My pleasure.” Andros moved toward Jack and removed his hand from Charlotte’s arm. “I believe your conversation with the lady is over.”

Jack nudged Andros out of the way. “Get lost, buddy. The lady and I aren’t finished talking, and you’re not invited to join in.”

Andros looked around, obviously checking to see if anyone stood nearby. He shoved Jack away from Charlotte and up against the wall, then got right in his face. His low, steady voice frosted the air. “You wouldn’t want to bet on that, would you?”

Jack’s face turned red. “Take your hands off me, or you’ll answer to my lawyer.”

Andros’s lips twisted into an almost smile, but Charlotte saw a hint of menace. This man did not suffer threats.

“Be my guest.” He slipped his hand into the inner pocket of his tux and drew out a slim gold card holder. He opened it and handed a business card to Jack. “Have him contact me. I look forward to talking with him.”

Jack studied the card. His face paled, and he stepped away. “You’re―”

“That’s right. I am.”

Andros’s matter-of-fact tone conveyed the confidence of a man who knew exactly who he was. And by the look on Jack’s face, so did he. The attorney wrapped a proprietary hand around Charlotte’s arm and, in a gentle manner, guided her toward the main salon. She hoped he couldn’t feel the tremors rattling through her body.

He smiled at her. The ominous squint he’d directed at Jack turned into concern when he searched her face. “Are you okay?”

Charlotte fumed that her new persona allowed Jack to go where he did and that she required a rescue operation. But gratitude won out, along with relief that this man came along. She nodded. “How did you know my name?”

“How did you know mine?”

“I asked first.”

“I saw you at Mike Branigan’s table and asked who you were. I hope you don’t mind. Of course, if you liked where Davidson’s hands were, maybe I shouldn’t have interfered.”

Heat filled her face. “I didn’t, and I appreciate what you did. Do you know Jack?”

“I know of him, and he knows of me. Not by sight, by name.”

“That was obvious. Why? Or shouldn’t I ask?”

“He does business with my boss. Now, I answered your question. You haven’t answered mine.”

She wondered what business Jack had with a mob boss but then thought about Jack’s love of gambling and realized the plausibility of his connection to a racketeer. She met Andros’s gaze and nearly lost it. She expected black eyes to match his coal black hair, glistening almost blue under the lights of the chandeliers. But up close, they were an unusual color, hazel with strong strains of gold, like cat’s eyes. She’d never seen any quite like them, especially on someone with his coloring. She breathed in his scent, something citrusy and woodsy and deliciously intoxicating. Concentrating on anything other than his presence challenged her.

“My friend’s an attorney. You were staring at me when we came in, so I asked if she knew you. She did. She said you’re the lawyer for the man who controls all the rackets in town.”

He huffed out a chuckle. “Looks like we’re even in the curiosity department. Your friend is half right. I am an attorney, but my boss controlling all the rackets is a myth. He’s a businessman.”

“If my friend was right, would you confirm it?”

The intensity of his gaze caused the blood to rush to Charlotte’s face. She forgot the more than two hundred people attending.

“I always tell the truth,” he said, now sporting a full smile that cut deep laugh lines on the sides of his mouth, dimple-like. “It’s a character flaw. I’m curious. What else did your friend say about me?”

“Just rumors about your―” Charlotte debated whether to come out and say it. Whatever his sexual persuasion, Alex Andros had saved her from a potentially embarrassing situation. She wouldn’t call him on something so personal.

“About my what?”

Now she sensed he was playing with her.

“Don’t worry about repeating a rumor,” he said. “I’ve heard them all.”

But what the hell! She was the new Charlotte. “Your sexuality.” They stood there, gazes locked.

“You mean that I’m gay?”

Charlotte’s knees felt like they were going to buckle from under her. What possessed her to bring that up? “That’s the rumor, and you know what they say. If it walks like a duck―”

“And quacks like a duck, it must be a duck. So you think I’m a duck?”

Charlotte couldn’t help laughing. “I have to say you’re a cool one.”

“All that aside, let’s say I’m a duck in disguise who wants to ask you out to dinner. Nothing fancy, just dinner. Unless you’re prejudiced against ducks.”

A laugh that turned heads escaped from Charlotte’s mouth. She didn’t care. The man had a sense of humor. Still… “I’d rather not, but I appreciate the offer. I’d also appreciate if you wouldn’t pursue me.”

“Is that what I’m doing?”

“Pursue might have been presumptuous. Because you’re not. Are you?”

“Maybe.” He moved closer to her. “Do I appear gay to you?”

The heat he gave off sent electrical impulses to her sex. “No, but I’m a notoriously bad judge of character when it comes to men, as you already know.”

They got to her table. Alex nodded to Branigan, then turned Charlotte away from the rest of the group so they couldn’t hear their conversation. “You could find out for yourself. How about reconsidering dinner? Tomorrow?”

In spite of his unbelievable sex appeal, the guy was a lawyer for a crook. Even if he was straight, she didn’t need the complication. “Thanks for what you did, but I don’t think you’re my type.”

“What makes you say that? I’m a man. You’re a woman. That’s usually the right combination for dinner. And I keep my hands to myself until I know a woman wants my touch.”

“Do you really?” She heard the flirting tone in her voice. Damn, she didn’t want him to think she was interested, because she wasn’t. And if he was gay, why would he be interested in her anyway?

“Well, not always,” he said, stroking her bare arm. “Sometimes a woman doesn’t know she wants to be touched until she is. Besides, there’s a difference between being caressed and being groped, though it can be a slippery slope, I admit.”

“Charlotte, they’re starting to serve dinner,” Darcy said, reminding her that the people at their table were watching.

She saw a CAUTION, DANGER sign reflected in her friend’s eyes. Charlotte ignored her, riveted to the tall stranger whose thumb’s persistent and sexual massage of her arm scorched her skin.

She noticed the waiters bringing in silver-covered plates on large skirted carts. “They’re starting to serve. We’d better get to our seats.” She gently extricated herself from Alex’s magnetic hold. “Thanks again. By the way, what did you do with your lady friend? Or is she your girlfriend?”

“You mean Selene? She’s not my girlfriend. Gay men don’t have girlfriends.”

Damn, he was teasing her. Or was he?

“My boss planned to come with me tonight, but he begged off at the last minute. He suggested I take Selene in his place. She’s a nice gal, but she’s not my type.”

“What is your type?” Charlotte asked, aware of pushing the envelope.

He settled a sizzling gaze on her face, taking in every feature. “You.”

The heat started at the back of her neck and moved up until she knew her already flushed face glowed beet red. Alex Andros was unbelievably attractive, and his one-word answer sparked through her system like wildfire, igniting every nerve ending into tiny firecrackers. She drew a deep breath and swallowed hard. “Well, your non-girlfriend friend is staring at you like she’s been abandoned, and if her eyes were daggers, I’d be dead.”

“Then I’d better do the gentlemanly thing, hadn’t I?” He leaned in and flicked the tip of her nose with the side of his index finger. “We’ll meet again, Charlotte Stone. Soon.” He left with a nod to Darcy and a smile that almost knocked Charlotte’s Manolos out from under her. She took her seat to keep her shaky legs from buckling and landing her on her ass.

“Jeez, Charlotte, you sure know how to pick them. What happened with Jack that you came back with Andros?”

Charlotte’s heart raced. Darcy’s words didn’t sink in until she said, “Earth to Charlotte to Earth. Hel-lo!”

“Oh. Sorry. What did you say?”

Darcy repeated her question.

“Um, Jack got territorial. He started pawing me, pinching my boobs, and nearly succeeded in giving me a hand job right there in the hall. Alex broke it up in the most confrontational way.” She explained how Jack paled at the sight of Alex’s business card. “I thought he’d stroke out.”

“Alex Andros is strictly behind the scenes. He keeps things legal, which is why Carpathian gets away with so much. But I question his methods. You can’t play in mud without getting dirty, and they’re in a rough business.”

“He seemed nice. Gentlemanly.”

“His type usually is.”

“I can’t believe he’s gay.”

“Well, I’ve never known a man to allow a rumor like that to exist if there wasn’t some truth to it.”

“Pity.” She caught Darcy’s expression. “I mean, pity if someone were interested in a guy like him only to find out he’s gay. Me? I’m off men. And don’t tell me it’s time to get back on the horse.”

“Don’t worry. I sure as hell wouldn’t suggest you saddle up Andros. So he’s good-looking. So what? Even if he’s bi, he’s not the kind of guy you need.”

Charlotte turned around and saw Alex sitting at his table. His date hung on his every word. He turned as if he knew Charlotte was looking at him, an amused expression on his face. Caught, she spun around, flustered that she’d been so obvious.

No way, Charlotte. Surely, after Jack Davidson and all the others, she’d learned her lesson. She needed someone she could trust. Someone who wouldn’t dump her for a stripper. Or another man. Besides, he was a duck, and she knew it in her bones.

Quack, quack.

“You got that right, Darce.”