The Offer

PROLOGUE

Six Months Earlier

Nicola

 

 

“Live with no regrets.”

“What was that, sweetheart?”

I slowly raised my gaze from the blank spot on the grass I’d been staring at for the last five minutes and saw the tall silhouette of a man as he crossed in front of the floodlights, coming toward me. I blinked a few times then looked back to the ground. His face was in shadows but I knew who he was. His Scottish accent told me everything I needed to know.

I cleared my throat and finished off the glass of wine in my hand. The raucous sounds of the wedding were dying down and I was surprised that Bram McGregor was still here. He was the best man while I was the maid of honor, but I never pegged him to be the type to stick around for very long, even at his own brother’s wedding. Bram’s eyebrows had been wagging at every female that walked within a five-meter distance, myself included, and he’d seemed so bored during the ceremony that it looked like he was trying to stifle a permanent yawn.

“Sorry,” I said, clearing my throat. “Talking to myself.”

“I can see that,” he said, sitting down beside me on the stone bench and bringing with him a whiff of cigars and sandalwood.

We were around the side of the Tiburon Yacht Club’s lawn where the wedding had taken place. I had stumbled upon the bench and the garden, with the lights of the city across San Francisco Bay twinkling in the background. I was ready to call it a night and just wanted to be alone before I headed back to my apartment to relieve the babysitter. Even though my best friend Stephanie was getting married to a great guy, Bram’s brother Linden—and don’t get me wrong, I couldn’t be happier for her—it was a wedding, I was single and feeling worse about it every minute that passed.

“So, live with no regrets,” he repeated, casually leaning forward on his knees and lacing his fingers together. If I was sober I would have felt a bit embarrassed that he had caught me talking to myself, but as it was I couldn’t care less. What Bram thought of me was the least of my problems.

I shrugged. “It’s my motto.”

He snorted and I immediately glared at him.

“Hey,” I said, my face growing hot. “Most people have mottos.”

The corner of his lips twitched up into a smile. He was a handsome man, I had to give him that. But after my ex fucked me over so royally after I was pregnant, leaving me alone to raise our daughter, playboys were on my hit list and Bram McGregor was definitely a playboy. Which meant he was public enemy number one and nothing but a whole lot of trouble and hot air.

I’d made it my goal in life to avoid trouble. I wasn’t about to start now, just because of his Scottish brogue, grey eyes, dimpled smile and built physique. And, you know, other terrible attributes.

“I don’t,” he informed me, as his eyes slid to mine, mouth lifting up. “But does it count if other people have mottos about you?”

I didn’t want to ask him what he meant by that, yet somehow my mouth was opening and I was taking the bait.

“People have mottos about you?” I asked.

His smirk deepened. “Women do.”

“I see,” I said, trying to think of something clever that would take him down a peg. “Once you go Bram…”

“You won’t give a damn,” he filled. He looked up at the dark sky and tilted his head, considering. “Or I’ve heard one night in my bed and your legs are forever spread.”

My lip curled in mild disgust. “That’s terrible.”

He shrugged. “Don’t knock it till you try it, sweetheart.” He paused. “I guess that’s another motto for you.”

He eyed the empty glass in my hands, then me, and blinked as if seeing me for the first time tonight. For a hot second I was glad that Stephanie had picked out the most flattering cocktail-type bridesmaids dress from Anthropologie. Then I had to remind myself, once again, that I didn’t care what he thought of me.

“What?” I asked, my skin prickling at the fact that his gaze was skirting over my body for just a little too long.

“Why are you out here alone and sober?”

I twirled the stem of the wine glass between my fingers. “I’m not sober.”

“I suppose you’re not alone either,” he said. “Can I get you another drink?”

“You’re offering?” I don’t know why that surprised me but it did.

He stared at for me for a moment, his dark brows knit together. Then he relaxed, his grin widening lazily. It reminded me of a cat stretching after a nap.

“I never let a beautiful woman pay for a drink,” he said.

Though part of me (a small part) thrilled at the fact that he called me beautiful, especially after how rough my dating life had been lately and how the only person that called me beautiful lately was Ava (okay, and Steph before the wedding, once I was magically transformed through hair and makeup), I wasn’t about to let his slick words charm me.

I gave him a steady look. “Do you really think I’m going to fall for that pick-up line?”

He let out a laugh, eyes twinkling in the dark. “Pick-up line? The best man can’t get the best woman a drink? You know, I heard you were no fun, I just didn’t believe it. Not with that body.”

I was stunned. My face flushed hot and somehow I found my words. “Who told you I was no fun?”

His smile was softer now but it still looked like he was having the time of his life toying with me. “It doesn’t matter. I gave you the benefit of the doubt, but I guess they were right after all.”

“Was it Linden?” I asked, feeling nauseous. I liked Linden a lot, and though his own personal opinion of me didn’t really matter, I hated the idea that I was known for something negative, especially if it was something I feared. I used to be fun at some point, I swear to God, but when life gets hard, fun becomes something that gets swept under the rug along with manicures, one-night stands and eating at nice restaurants.

Bram didn’t say anything to that, so I knew it was his brother.

“It’s hard to tell, is your face going red?” he asked, peering at me closely. The mellow scent of cigars wafted to me again.

“I am fun,” I told him, inching myself away from him. It was pointless but I still had to defend myself.

“And that’s why you’re out here alone with an empty drink?”

“Just because I’m not getting shitfaced and spreading my legs in your bed, doesn’t make me a square.”

Oh geez, a square? Now I was talking like I was from the 50’s.

“No,” he said slowly and leaned in closer. “But that does sound like fun, doesn’t it?” His breath was hot on my cheek and I resisted the urge to turn and look at him. There was something about his eyes that felt vaguely X-Ray-ish, like he could see right through you. Already, I knew he was probably imagining what I looked like naked under this dress. I didn’t need him to look any deeper and see what kind of no-fun mess I really was.

“I like it when you look embarrassed,” he said, voice lower, that accent roughing up each syllable. “I bet you look the same when you’re about to come. Caught off-guard and exposed.”

And again, I was speechless. My eyes bugged out and I almost slapped him in the face and ran away, because that’s what I’ve been taught to do with men like him. Deflect them. Let them know what they’ll never have, what they’ll never deserve.

But I didn’t do that. Because against everything I hold dear, his words did this slinky thing in my brain, sliding down into my heart and between my legs. It made me want to clench my thighs together to keep the heat building even though it had nowhere to go.

It revved an engine inside that I tried my hardest not to think about.

I swallowed hard and kept my eyes focused on the shrubs in front of me. The wedding sounded even further away, as if it were leaving in order to get us alone.

Bram gently placed two fingers underneath my chin and slowly turned my head, so I had no choice but to look at him. “If I tell you you’re beautiful again,” he said, whispering, “will you blush? Or will you believe it?”

Damn. Damn, damn, damn. I’d be a fool for falling for this swarmy little act, but boy did I want to believe it.

At least I didn’t blush. There wasn’t any time to.

Before I knew what was happening, Bram leaned in a millimeter and kissed me. His lips were soft and wet, tasting like rich tobacco and mint. I sucked in a breath, my body frozen and caught-off guard, exactly what he wanted. The back of my brain screamed, “The best man and maid of honor, hooking up at a wedding, what a cliché!” and “He’s a player and he’s playing you” while my lips, spurred by alcohol and a deep-rooted ache for something, kissed him back.

It all went in slow motion. The voices in my head quieted down, turning to a hazy hush, and all that was left was this stoked fire burning deep inside. His hands went to the sides of my face and he held me there with strong, warm fingers. It steadied me as his tongue slipped against mine and our mouths danced with each other in perfect rhythm. If I could have formed any thoughts, I would have considered that this wasn’t at all what I thought kissing Bram McGregor would be like. This was soft, sensual and, dare I say it, meaningful.

Just as I found myself relaxing into his body, though, wanting more from his hands, wanting to slip my own underneath the tuxedo jacket and feel the hardness of his chest, he pulled back, eyes closed and breath ragged.

“You’re beautiful,” he said, clearing his throat. His eyes opened, gazing at me lazily through long, dark lashes, lashes I would kill for. “You’re still blushing, though. Actually, you seem a little more than flushed.” He raised a brow, his face still inches from mine. “Did I turn you on?”

My God, this guy was forward. I know that Linden had always been rather lewd and definitely very vocal with Steph, but Bram was taking it to another level.

My mouth parted while I tried to think of words and he ran his thumb over my bottom lip. “Such a beautiful mouth. What else can you do with it?”

Finally I blinked, clueing in that he was being rather crude. I flinched and brought my head away.

He frowned. “Ah, don’t get your knickers in a twist,” he said, his hand slipping down to my arm. “I’ve been watching you all night, you know.”

“Well, that’s not hard to do when we’re part of the wedding party,” I said, my voice suddenly parched, like kissing him had taken a lot out of me. I suppose it had at least taken my sanity.

“You have a hard time taking compliments,” he commented.

That, I knew was true. I wasn’t ugly or even plain by any means, but motherhood – and being ditched by my ex – had taken its toll on my self-esteem. There was a time when I used to walk into the room and own it, or at least believe in what I was offering, but I hadn’t felt that confidence in a long time.

Even the attention of Bram, a wealthy, eligible Scotsman, wasn’t helping. Probably because I knew his reputation as a lady-killer and, even though he wasn’t drinking at this exact moment, I could taste the Scotch on his lips.

Oh, those damn lips. I quickly tore my eyes off of them, trying to forget their feel, their sweet, captivating taste.

“Did that surfer dude say anything you believed?”

Surfer dude? I had to take a moment to realize what he was talking about.

“Aaron?” I asked. “That’s Stephanie’s ex-boyfriend.”

His shoulder raised in a lazy shrug. “She’s a married woman now, I’m sure he’s up for grabs. He was hitting on you all night.”

That I knew, though Aaron had such a casual, dopey way of doing it, it hadn’t bothered me. “You really were watching me.”

He smiled softly. “Most beautiful woman at the wedding.” He paused. “Aside from the bride, of course, but I have to say that.” He put his hand behind my head and I tried not to flinch at the thought of him messing up my updo. “How about you and I ditch this scene? I think Stephanie and Linden left a while ago and the night is still young.”

Things were happening way too fast. As much as his words seemed to unravel the tight binds inside me, the ones that kept me sane and respectable, as much as the rough gravel of his voice made my hairs stand on end, I had responsibilities and they didn’t involve having a one-night stand with Bram McGregor. Even though that little voice, the one that did like “fun” and was so often buried, was pinching my insides, demanding I live a little, I couldn’t. Besides, it’s not like this could ever be more than a fling, not with someone like him.

He leaned in close again and very gently brushed his lips against mine, shooting heat into my veins. “Come on,” he murmured. “I know there’s a wild child somewhere deep inside you. I can tell. Let her loose. Let me help.”

Oh God. If only he could.

“I can’t,” I said quietly. “I have to go home.”

He smiled against my mouth. It felt wonderful. “Bring me home with you. I promise to behave myself.” He kissed me softly, long and lingering before slowly, achingly, pulling away. “Actually, I promise to misbehave,” he said huskily. “But I know you’ll like it.”

I took the moment to put an inch of distance between our faces. “You don’t understand. I have to pay the babysitter. She’ll want to leave soon.”

I didn’t expect him to freeze like he did, only because I had assumed he knew I had a child. But from the way his brows came together, I could tell this was news to him.

“Babysitter?” he said, clearing his throat. “You have a kid?”

I nodded, feeling my defenses go up bit by bit like I was rebuilding a wall that had momentarily come down. “Ava. She’s five.”

“I didn’t know that about you,” he said, blinking a few times. Why did men always have to freak out when they found out I was a single mom? You’d think in this so-called progressive day and age men would at least be a little more open-minded about, if not exposed to the situation more often. Besides, I was thirty-one, not a teenager.

I couldn’t help but flash him an acidic smile. “There’s a lot you don’t know about me.” When I thought about it, I guess I had only met him a couple of times before and they were usually in social situations where the most I got was a handshake or a nod and that was it. I don’t think I had talked to him alone until tonight.

He looked at the watch on his wrist, something I had noticed for the first time. It gleamed silver in the outdoor lights. “Well, I guess you better be on your way then, Cinderella.”

“Is it almost midnight?” I asked, feeling awkward now about everything. I slowly got to my feet and they screamed in pain from the Ross Atwood sandals that Steph had gifted me for the wedding. Sexy they were, comfortable they weren’t.

He stood up beside me and even in my heels, which added four inches to my five-foot-seven body, he was still a lot taller than I was. I tried not to take in how devilishly handsome he looked in his tux, how close I was to feeling what I knew had to be the very hard lines of his body. All the things I tried to ignore about him earlier were now all I could see, flashing like a neon sign that screamed, “Hot fuck, one night only.”

“Aye,” he said in his brogue. “Can I call you a cab?”

I shook my head. “I’m going to Uber it.”

He stared at me for a moment as if thinking then he nodded. “Too bad I can’t convince you to let your hair down, if just for the night.”

I gave him a look, my fingers clenching the empty wine glass. “Letting your hair down isn’t always an option for a single mom.”

“Right,” he said. “Let me at least take you back to the party.” He held out his arm for me, and after a moment’s hesitation, I took it. I have to say it felt nice as he led me out of the garden and into the reception area as if he were my date for the night.

But as soon as we got close to people, he dropped his arm and gave me a quick smile. “Get home safe, sweetheart.”

So, that was it.

I watched as he slid into the crowd of lingering people and headed for the bar. The party was still going, though he was right that Stephanie and Linden must have left because I didn’t see them anywhere. I did see the fathers and mothers of both bride and groom, as well as Aaron, Kayla, Penny, James and a few other of our mutual friends. Most were dancing and having a fun time, drunk as hell, while in the background the boats in the marina swayed lightly with the waves.

Sometimes being Cinderella really sucked.

Sighing, I fished out my phone and ordered an Uber cab. It was a busy Saturday night, so the driver was fifteen minutes away. I headed toward the gates to the yacht club and sat on an iron bench beside a marble anchor, giving my feet another rest. I tried to keep watching the road to see if my Uber was pulling up, but when I heard a loud giggle, I had to turn my head back to the reception.

There, in the distance, was Bram with his arm around some skinny blonde chick I’d seen earlier. I think one of Steph’s distant cousins. She looked way young, way drunk and way into Bram.

Unfortunately, he looked to be the same way about her. While her heel caught in the grass and she nearly went stumbling, he caught her and brought her to him. She laughed and kissed him and he eagerly kissed her back, pressing her lithe body and slinky dress to him. Her hand slipped down to his crotch and pressed it against what must have been quite the erection.

He grinned at her, that stupid, wicked grin, and took her toward the garden area we had just come from, disappearing behind the rose bushes. Her giggles floated through the air and I couldn’t help but picture him stripping her naked, bending her over the bench, and unzipping his pants.

I watched the bushes for a moment, seeing them rustle, feeling both sick and strangely turned-on.

That could have been me.

But it wasn’t. And when I started hearing her breathy moans, I snapped out of it. Jesus, he was fast to move on after he figured out he wasn’t going to get lucky with me.

By the time the car pulled up for me, all my feelings had swirled into a cauldron of shame and anger. What a fucking pig! I was lucky as hell I didn’t end up throwing caution – or my panties – to the wind and sleeping with that slimy Scottish jackass. I had been right all along. He was trouble, danger, and I needed to stay away from men like him. Only now I wished I hadn’t even kissed him back, let alone exchanged words with him at all.

While I stewed in the back of the Uber car as we crossed over the Golden Gate Bridge, I thought back to my motto. Live with no regrets? I was definitely regretting that I let him even think he could have slept with me that night.

I also had another motto: Fool me once, shame on me. You won’t fool me twice. My pride will never, ever let me fall for something again.

If Bram McGregor wasn’t on my hit list before, he definitely was now.