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Her Secret Thrill

By:Donna Kauffman

1

WHERE HAD LIZA DISAPPEARED TO?

Natalie Holcomb pasted a smile on her face and said good-night to another cluster of Liza’s glitzy guests as they left the penthouse suite. She closed the door behind them, wishing like hell she could slip out of these heels and go soak in that Olympic-size sunken tub she knew awaited her in her private bath.

She couldn’t deny Liza knew how to throw a party…and where to throw one. The Maxi was the newest hotel in New York City and Liza had reserved the entire penthouse level for her latest bash. Typical overindulgence— Natalie went for elegance over opulence—but Liza could definitely afford it. Or, more correctly, her newest client could.

At twenty-nine, Liza was the crème de la crème of the young Turks invading the public relations business. To night’s bash was a big coming-out party for the sexiest soap star to grace the set of the hottest soap, Steam. It was the party at which to see Conrad Jones, and to be seen by everyone else. Conrad’s surgically perfected face and buffed action-figure body didn’t do it for Natalie, but she’d quickly learned she was the only female under eighty who apparently felt that way. Then again, she didn’t recognize anyone here, so what did she know?

“Where’s Liza?”

Natalie spun around and automatically pasted on her hostess smile again. Now I know how a beauty pageant director feels. Inferior, with a good case of lockjaw.

“I’m not sure where she is at the moment,” Natalie said graciously to the chic couple. “But I’ll be certain to tell her you said goodbye. I know she was thrilled you could make it.” Whoever you are.

They gave her the “yeah, whatever” nod that clearly stated they realized she was a nobody and therefore not worthy of more of their time. Natalie didn’t stick her tongue out and slam the ten-foot-tall door behind them, but she thought about it. Which only went to show how late it really had gotten. She couldn’t care less what these people thought of her. Glitz and glam was Liza’s life. Corporate law was hers. She smiled, thinking it really wasn’t much different. Sharks and barracudas abounded in both arenas. Liza just swam with better-looking sharks.

They’d shared a dorm at law school for four semesters before Liza had dropped out to head for the Big Apple to realize her own dream. That was six years ago. Natalie looked around and had to smile in approval. They’d both done pretty well. It was probably their drive to succeed that had kept them close despite their crazy schedules. Natalie lived in New York City but traveled all over the country. Liza worked out of L.A., but also traveled extensively. The only reason Natalie had come at all tonight was that they’d both been in the same town at the same time, and that happened all too rarely. She’d agreed to stay with her in the penthouse so they could spend some time together. Not, she thought as she looked through the rapidly thinning crowd, that she’d actually gotten to do much of that. She sighed but shrugged it off. Liza was…well, Liza.



NINETY MINUTES and a couple of dozen more locked-jaw goodbyes later, Natalie sank thankfully back against the double doors. “Finally.” Liza had never surfaced. Knowing her, Natalie figured Liza had let Conrad talk her into hitting some hot club or another party. Liza was a slave to her career and loved every minute of it. Of course, Natalie thought with a private smile, Liza had probably let Conrad think he was her slave master. She shook her head and wandered to the oasis that was the kitchen, gathering up empty glasses as she went. She had let the bartending and wait staff go home at two. It was now almost three. She knew there would be a cleaning crew coming in the morning, so she’d just set these in the sink and head toward that sunken tub.

“Excuse me.”

Natalie squealed and spun around. The deep voice belonged to a tall guy with dark-blond hair and amused-looking blue eyes, who quickly stepped forward to catch the crystal stemware she almost bobbled to the floor.

He rescued two of them, and Natalie managed to get the other three onto the counter intact.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”

She shook her head, willing her pounding heart out of her throat. “I—I thought I was alone.” She meant to look away, regain her composure, but something about the direct, easy way he held her gaze prevented her from doing so. “Let me, uh, that is, I, um—” She broke off, suddenly feeling silly for being so tongue-tied. Like she hadn’t seen a hundred gorgeous blondes tonight. It was just that he looked, well…real. It was simply a shock after all those capped teeth and spa-pumped pecs.

Taking a discreet, calming breath, she trotted out the pageant director smile one last time. “I’ll show you to the door.” She stepped forward, obviously expecting him to move back out of the doorway and follow her. Only, he didn’t do as she expected.

She stopped, feeling the first tiny frisson of—well, not fear exactly, but definitely awareness that she was alone in this suite with a stranger. A stranger that had a good four inches and fifty or sixty pounds on her.

Projecting the calm, cool wherewithal that had got ten her farther inside the boardroom than most women her age—hell, twice her age—she gestured ahead of her. “This way, please.”

She knew the look she was giving him made it perfectly clear she had no intention of playing any games. It was a look she’d perfected back in boarding school. Boys, especially rich ones, thought all a girl needed was a sharp smile and a fat bank account to fall thankfully on her back and spread her legs. Boys, rich or otherwise, learned quickly that Natalie Holcomb, of the Connecticut Holcombs, was not impressed with vast wealth, much less a hot bod.

As it turned out, men hadn’t proven to be any different from boys.

By now the look was second nature to her. She didn’t mind the ice princess reputation it had earned her, either. In fact, she took pride in it. At the end of the day, she knew—as did they—that she’d gotten where she was by working hard. With her knees firmly in the closed position.

She held his gaze evenly and motioned to the door.

He smiled at her. Totally unaffected by “the look.” Before she could follow up with her patented verbal ice blast, he nodded to a point behind her.

“My jacket. It’s in the other room.”

Oh. Natalie simply refused to blush. Holcombs didn’t. She’d learned at her father’s knee to smooth over minor gaffes with unshakable calm. Therefore, the knowing twinkle in the man’s eye meant less than nothing. Not even a ripple. Really.

“I’ll meet you at the door, then,” she said, all good grace and polished manners.

“No need to bother. I can show myself out,” he said as he moved past her.

She swore she could feel the heat emanate from his body. Probably a flashback to the tightly pressed throng of bodies she’d been wedged into all night. Nothing more. She resisted the urge to fan her face. At least he wasn’t doused in some designer scent. Whatever he was wearing was very subtle. And quite effective.

She refrained from sniffing the air behind him, but barely. Obviously she was far more tired than she’d thought. Good breeding—nothing else, certainly—sent her to the front door. She’d see him out simply to as sure herself she was well and truly alone. No other reason.

“I have a problem.”

She started at the sound of his voice. Damn him for doing that to her. Twice. She turned. “What problem?” She’d sounded sharper than she’d meant to, almost snappish. Calm and controlled, Natalie. Never snappish. That he had her reminding herself of things that were normally automatic responses only proved how overtired she really was.

She smoothed her features into a composed mask, although truthfully, she felt anything but. Certainly it was the fatigue, after all, it was after three in the morning—but there was no denying he unsettled her with that direct, amused gaze of his. What was it about this guy, anyway?

He was nice enough to look at, if you went for the earthy, muscular type. Actually, she wasn’t sure what her type was. But it certainly wasn’t mountain man here. Not that he was all that huge when you stopped and really looked him over. Rugged. Yes, rugged was the right way to describe him, now that she thought about it. He definitely filled out his black jeans and that amber knit pullover pretty damn convincingly—

Dear God, she was ogling. She jerked her gaze up to his face. He spared her the knowing smile, but somewhere behind those eyes of his she knew he was feeling smug.

“What is the problem?” she asked again, just wanting him gone. The hell with being polite. He’d found his jacket, so that wasn’t it. The well-worn brown leather jacket made those shoulders look even wider, his arms bigger, his chest broader. Whoever created his look had definitely chosen well.

Liza had told her plenty of the stories about casting directors who discovered guys in the unlikeliest of places and, with a personal trainer, personal shopper and good dentist, turned them into daytime gods. Mechanic, she thought. Construction worker. UPS delivery guy.

“My wallet,” he said, breaking into her reverie.

Caught again. What was wrong with her, anyway?

Never mind the sunken bath, she was going right to bed.

“I gave it to Con to tip the limo guy.” He shrugged and smiled. “Guy just signed a seven-figure contract but never has money on him.” Those blue eyes twinkled quite charmingly. “Probably why he keeps me around.”

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