The night air embraced him. Its cold fingers reached out and touched him with an honesty he found refreshing. The light from the glass doors cut through the blanket of darkness with its harsh glare and accompanying din, reminding him that he wasn’t alone. Behind him, the room was brimming with glossy people, celebrities, rich A-listers and corporate types. The event was being hosted by some Finance corporation who was using it to paint themselves charitable and wholesome by donating the proceeds to the latest must-have cause. The tickets cost an astronomical amount and the motives were contrived but, unfortunately, he was still here. Everyone was smiling, drinking and laughing. Everyone except him, he was hiding.
The room, from which he’d fled, occupied the entire floor and had high ceilings, chandeliers and polished wood floors. The music came from a string quartet who had set up shop in the corner. It looked more like an art gallery, with multiple leather sofas, chairs and a bar, than an accountancy firms’ function room. One whole wall was punctuated with floor to roof French doors with lace curtains blocking the million-dollar view. The doors led onto a long balcony that overlooked the park and the city lights.
He would have liked to take the time to admire the art that hung on the walls inside and the sculptures dotted around the open room, but that wasn’t possible. Not now that the space was overflowing with men in expensive suits and women draped in dresses that cost more than they should given the amount of fabric employed. These people didn’t stop to admire the art, they were too busy looking at their own reflections in the glass that framed the masterpieces. He knew this because he used to be one of them.
The night had called to him with its promise of solitude. He’d opened one of the French doors and was now pressed against the brickwork of the building taking in the view from the balcony. He wanted to leave but this view was spectacular, and Sam would give him ‘that-look’ if he went home this early. Sam seemed to think that he could do this. That being here was a good thing for him. Sam was wrong.
He glanced into the bright room. A man in an Armani suit laughed as a woman in a tiny black dress and wearing a necklace of precious gems, that would have been impressive if it was fake, touched his arm. His hair was styled, his skin was moisturised, and his fingernails would be manicured. Josh knew this man. He had no idea what his name was, but he was a cardboard cut-out of the man Josh used to be. He closed his eyes blocking his view of the couple, that wasn’t his life anymore.
When he opened them they were still there, the woman whispered something to the man who’s hand ventured lower down to the hem of the dress. They would be heading for the door soon. Heading for the a near vertical position and some heavy breathing. He knew the look in that woman’s eyes but that was ancient history for him.
He would stay another half-an-hour out here before heading home. That would make it sound like he was making-an-effort. He pushed himself further into the darkness and said one final thank-you that the event organisers didn’t expect anyone out here on such a wintery night. The external lighting, directly above him, wasn’t on. He was cold outside but if he went inside he would have to stand there in those bright lights, standing out like the six-foot-seven mountain he was, and someone would eventually place him. Then the whispering would buzz from person to person, the tittering would flitter around the room and eyes would turn to him. It was inevitable. No one admitted to it but somehow everyone seemed to know him. It was his cross to bear.
His fingers drummed on the brickwork as turned to lean his right shoulder against the wall. He relaxed one of his long legs while he counted the seconds. He could wait. It wouldn’t kill him. Twenty minutes more. He wished he’d worn something warmer.
The door moved sending the lace curtains fluttering outwards and introducing a wave of sound into his sanctuary. A face emerged through the curtains. The woman didn’t look around. She closed her eyes and breathed in the night air as if surfacing from the ocean water. Then her shoulders broke through the drapes showing her smooth pale skin. She arched her back slightly as she took another breath, thrusting her full breasts out. He held his breath. He was facing her. If he reached out he could have skimmed his fingers over her skin. Was it as silky smooth as it looked?
She didn’t turn to him even though his heartbeat seemed to be announcing his hiding place. Without opening her eyes, she burst forth, the window dressing billowing as she practically fell forward, grasping a hold of the wrought iron balustrade, and leaning over into the void and long drop to the street below. He pushed himself off the brickwork, arms moving towards her, propelling himself from his hiding spot to catch her fall. She was leaning outward putting all her weight on that light framework of dark metal. He stopped himself inches from her, as she straightened up and arched her back, hands gripping, and arms outstretched. Her eyes remained tightly closed.
He wondered if she was drunk or high. She wasn’t behaving rationally. Her hair was a light brown caramel colour and was long and loose, hanging where it wanted to without any restraints. Her face was relaxed and showed only light natural makeup, or possibly no makeup at all. She fell forward again and, as she did, she breathed out in one long breath. Her shoulders dropped as did her head. She looked downwards, still hanging onto the metal rail as her forearms lay along the cold length. Her tight little ass pointing towards him.
The dress she wore was a grape colour, it was wrapped around her in gentle folds and hung from little more than a string looping over each shoulder. The whole affair looked like it was made from soft tissue paper and would easily flutter away if either string was severed. The shoes didn’t match. The fragile dress should have been paired with sexy stilettoes not the sturdy black, thick low-heeled footwear she wore. She was tall. Maybe her partner didn’t want her towering over him.
He silently returned to the darkness. He should leave. He should take the opportunity to escape. But he found that his feet didn’t agree with him. His patent leather shoes seemed to be rooted in place. A waft of a floral scent had him breathing deeply.
He glanced at the door. Where was her partner? A man should be following, wrapping his arms around her waist and kissing her down that long neck of hers. As if she’d heard his thoughts, she shivered, and he had to fight the impulse to smoother her bare back in his warmth.
This wasn’t good. He looked at his feet. Why wasn’t he leaving. He needed to go before the talking started.
“Oh,” a soft musical voice had him looking up, “I’m sorry. I didn’t see you there.”
She was smiling into the space he occupied, as she did her face up lit up and it took his breath away. Her arms were now wrapped around her as she leaned against the decorative twisting wrought iron. Her skin glowed in the moonlight and the light filtering out the lace curtains. She looked angelic.
The smile lessened as the silence stretched out. She was now looking at his silhouette with wide innocent eyes and her lips were parted. She looked like she didn’t know what to do either. He was staring at her, knowing that he should be doing something, but nothing seemed to work. He wanted to charm her. He wanted to talk to her. If only he could say something.
When nothing happened, and the silence became increasingly uncomfortable, she edged away, away from the light and from him. She must have realised that she was standing out here with an idiot. He had to say try something, before she gave up on him entirely.
“You’re fine,” his voice was low and gravelly as the words were forced out. Then he cursed an expelled breath at the double meaning in the words before saying in a laboured growl, “You know.”
He grimaced. His voice today was as good as it gets, it was better today than it was yesterday. Even so, it was broken, rough and made him sound like he was stupid. If he’d thought of something clever to say with the few words available to him, it might have helped. Instead he’d said that. It was bad enough that he was practically mute, he didn’t need her adding mentally challenged to the list of his failings. He rubbed his throat and wished for the billionth time that his voice would magically return.
She tilted her head to the side as her eyes searched the darkness. Then she smiled and breathed out. Without a word she slowly moved to stand against the building on the other side of the French door. He was surprised how disappointed he felt now that he couldn’t see her.
“Thanks for sharing your hiding place,” she sounded relieved, “It’s a piranha pit in there. They might look like ornamental tropical fish but show any weakness, and they’re ruthless.”
She was still there. He couldn’t detect the pity in her voice and she wasn’t politely excusing herself from his company. Instead she’d smiled and said something amusing. She’d started a line of conversation that didn’t involve asking him what was wrong with his voice. He knew it was a short-term thing, she would soon realise that he couldn’t talk to her and that silence was the best she could hope for. Then she would find a good reason to re-join the party.
He could feel her there, so close but so far. She was leaning her head against the brickwork looking out at the city lights. She wasn’t asking any questions yet, but he guessed that they would be bubbling in her head. It wouldn’t be long now before she would explode, and then the interrogation would start. Women were all the same. They had to ask. They had to know.
The silence stretched on. He turned to see if she was still breathing. She hadn’t moved. She wasn’t talking. Why wasn’t she talking?
“Belinda?” a hand parted the curtains as the too loud male voice punctured through the air, “Are you out there?”
Josh was looking at her. He held his breath and edged back. He waited for her to acknowledge the man and pivot into his waiting arms, vanishing from his life. Instead silence followed, confused he focused on her and was surprised to see her cowering away. He felt the anger rise in him. Who was this man who had her so afraid? Had he hurt her? What had he done to scare her?
The hand disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. She slumped with relief. He couldn’t see her face, but he could see the way her body relaxed.
“What, he do?” his rough voice cut through the silence with its harsh uneven tone.
“Anthony?” she scoffed, leaned against the brickwork and looked across in his direction, “He invited me to this. He said it was a networking event.”
A small fire in his gut had him clench his fists against his thighs. Anthony, that must be her boyfriend.
“I should have known better,” she continued, “When he loaned me this dress from his wife’s collection, I should have known that I wouldn’t be taken seriously wearing this.”
Wife? Did that make her the mistress then? He turned his attention back to his shoes.
“He might be a friend of my Father,” she huffed, “But I swear if he introduces me to another eligible bachelor, I might just thwack him one.”
He glanced at her, the men in that room weren’t just eligible, they were every woman’s daydream. They had credentials, pedigree, huge bank accounts, and bright futures. Most women would be falling over backwards to get an introduction to just one of those men. And ‘thwack’? What was that? Who used a word like that?
“I’m Belinda, by the way,” she said, then laughed, “But you already know that.”
Her laugh was musical. He wanted to say something funny so that she would laugh again but that wasn’t going to happen. Who was this woman?
“Josh,” his voice croaked before he realised that he was going to answer her.
“So, Josh,” she said lightly, “You know my story, what brings you out here?”
“Avoiding,” he whispered.
“That makes us allies,” she smiled, “What’s stopping you from leaving?”
“Friend,” he glanced inside wondering where Sam was.
“We’re in the same boat then,” she thrust her hand across the lit space that separated them, “Nice to meet you Josh, do you have an escape plan yet?”
His hand met hers before he released what he was doing. She tightened her grip as she shook it just long enough for him to feel the promise in that firm small hand. She wasn’t like anyone he knew. She was different in a way that he couldn’t even comprehend. He was intrigued.
He watched her as she lapsed back into silence. Who was this woman who wasn’t impressed by anything and didn’t ask any questions?
Belinda was angry with herself. She should have known better. She was smart, or at least smart enough to avoid coming to parties like this one. She closed her eyes, Anthony. He was in trouble. He’d promised her that it was corporate networking opportunity not a meat market. She couldn’t believe she’d trusted him.
And now she was stuck out here, in the freezing night air wearing a dress that was ridiculous. It would have been pretty if it was a summer dress, but this was mid-winter in New York City. She should have worn a suit. At least she’d vetoed the shoes he’d offered. She might be half naked, but it was a blessing that her feet didn’t hurt.
She glanced at Josh. He was a mystery. He was like finding a piece of gravel in a jewellery store. The men inside sparkled and were worth a lot of money, but this guy was interesting. How did he get here and why wasn’t he inside?
She might be a good accountant but that wasn’t what got her to where she was. To be vying for a partnership in Mitchell, Sandford and Thainstone, you needed to be good a reading people and good at knowing how far you could push them and in which direction. The man on the balcony wasn’t an open book. But that was probably because he’d hardly spoken five words to her. He must have been out here for a while.
That was a good point, if she was out here for too much longer she’d lose her voice too. She had a presentation to the board next week, she couldn’t afford to catch a cold. It was time to form that plan.
She glanced through the doors just in time to see that moron with the quaffed hair and Harvard tie looking around the room. She knew that if she was cornered by another one of these morons she wouldn’t be able to control her contempt. This might not a corporate event, but it was attended by all the firms’ partners and many clients. She took a deep breath, it wouldn’t be acceptable behaviour for her to knee the son-of-some-Senator in the balls. That wasn’t the sort of etiquette that MS&T would find acceptable. Disappointing but true.
“I should be home,” she sighed, “I’ve got too much work to do to be here. I have a problem Josh, I’m going to need your help. Can I count on you?”
“Do what?” his voice sounded like rough sandpaper on course wood. It reminded her of her Grandfather and his obsession for restoring wooden sailing boats.
“I don’t know you,” Belinda frowned, this was probably a bad idea. “And I know I’m asking a lot, but I need you to pretend to be my date.”
He didn’t say anything for a long time. She waited. This guy was out here because he was either shy or looked like Quasimodo, either way he was hiding because he didn’t belong in there. If he agreed to this she might be jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. It was a gamble, but it was one she felt that she had to take.
“Alright,” he growled slowly like he wasn’t sure himself, “Just to door.”
“Agreed,” she smiled relieved that he didn’t expect more than that.
Pushing off the cold wall she crossed the gap between them and stood waiting for him to join her. He hesitated for long enough for her to wonder if he did look like a hunchback monster. When he straightened up from his slouched position in the dark pocket between the French doors, she was surprised to find that he was tall and broad. She found it hard to find a man who matched her height, but Josh was a head taller and his build was perfectly proportioned. The tall men she met looked like string beans with their thin limbs and lack of muscle tone. She had the impression that if she ran her fingers down Josh’s chest she would find more than just skin stretched over ribcage.
Before she could be distracted by that thought, she held out her hand to him. He seemed reluctant again and this had her wondering if it was her? Did she have something on her face, stuck in her teeth or something gooey in her hair? With her other hand, she tried to be subtle as she ran it over her cheek and smoothed it through her hair. Nothing obvious.
Slowly he put his large hand in hers and stepped out of the darkness. Quasimodo he was not. His hair was long, dark and wavy. He had it swept back into a low ponytail at the back of his head. His facial hair was trimmed close to the skin to give him more than a shadow but not quite a beard. She wondered if it would be scratchy on her skin? The thought shocked her, and she blinked bringing her eyes up to his. He was watching her wearily. It looked like he was expecting her to start screaming and running with her arms flapping wildly over her head.
“Ready?” she took a deep breath and steeled herself.
Just another man, same as all men. With this mantra running through her head, she linked her hand with his and tried to ignore her rapidly beating heart.
He nodded once and that was enough for her. She had to do this before she froze to death or, now that his hand was in hers, before she burst into a fireball of desire. She turned and pulled him through the door and into that room.
They walked together, hand in hand, around the edge of the party. She did her best not to look at him. She had caught a glimpse of his gorgeous face in one of the mirrors and noticed that his eyes were light blue, his face was perfectly proportioned, and his skin was the warm brown of someone who had just returned from a tropical island holiday. Why was this guy hiding? He was by far the hottest man in the room.
“Belinda?” The voice came from Mr Harvard.
She stopped in her tracks and closed her eyes. Damn, she tried to breathe away her annoyance.
“There you are,” he was now standing next to her, “I’ve been looking for you, where were you? I was telling you about my new Porsche and I turned around and you were gone. It was most inconsiderate.”
“Bugging you?” the rough voice came from the other man who had let go of her hand, wrapped his arm around her waist and was pulling her close to him so that her hips were flush with his.
She looked up at him and instantly regretted it. He was looking down at her with those intense eyes. She took a deep breath then forgot what to do next. He was staring at her searching her eyes while his body held her like she was someone worth holding. She lifted her face to his, her lips parted, and lost herself in his gaze. He was mesmerising and made her feel like she belonged there in his arms.
Then he dipped his head down to hers and brushed his lips across hers. It was the briefest of kisses, but it was enough to completely disarm her. Her brain went to mush, her breath hitched, and she was left standing there looking at him like there was no one else in the room. It was lucky that he’d wrapped his arms around her because her knees didn’t feel like they were connected to her legs. He steadied her without taking his eyes off her.
“Beat it, she’s mine,” his halted growl was possessive and made her toes curl.
Somewhere in the background Mr Harvard muttered something that might have been rude, she didn’t care. Josh’s arms enveloped her, and she pressed herself against him with the sole desire to stay like this forever. His brow furrowed slightly and then he slowly loosened his grip on her. He edged away taking his warmth with him. With his arms still around her, he dragged his eyes from her and swung his head around surveying the room as if he expected an attack. She couldn’t take her eyes off the man, he was magnetic. His eyes came back to her briefly, his expression became pained, then he took control. He left one arm around her waist as he steered her out of the room.
“Coat?” he asked and then took the token from her leaving her leaning against the wall.
Without using words, he collected their belongings from the Cloakroom. He handed her the black woollen coat and without delay he pulled on his own, he had his thick woolly cap on before she had even registered that she needed to move. She slowly slid her arms into the coat which cost a fraction of what his dark grey, thick, designer coat would have cost.
Who was this man? He had the money and the looks to be at home with the people inside. But instead he looked at them like they were the enemy. He might have hidden from them on the balcony, but he wasn’t hiding the disgust and apprehension he felt now he was out in the open. She wrapped her scarf around her as she watched his jaw flinch as he glanced towards the opening where people mingled.
He turned towards the elevator while he flipped the deep hood of his coat up to obscure his face. Watching him, she walked beside him. She lamented the loss of his hand. Her hand hung loose at her side wishing he would find it and intertwine his fingers with hers again. He hadn’t put on his gloves yet, was she bold enough to reclaim his touch?
The elevator pinged, signally it’s arrival and evaporating her plan to capture his touch. He didn’t say anything, but he did glance at her once before he held the door and signalled that she need to step into the empty space, she did as she was told. He joined her, and they stood in silence, his face and body obscured by that deep hood and long concealing coat.
“Thank you,” she muttered confused by his behaviour.
He dipped his head but said nothing. She took that as the conclusion of their relationship. That was the arrangement, but it didn’t stop her chest constricting with disappointment. It wasn’t surprising that he wasn’t interested in her, she wasn’t in his league. What was surprising, was how interested in him she’d become.