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Ashlyn: A lonely society princess living in New York City.
Daddy hired you to be my bodyguard.
Colin: Childhood enemy, now her protector.
Daddy thought I’d be safe. He thought I’d never fall in love. He thought he could keep me forever.
Charles: obsessed with keeping her safe, keeping her his, he hires the one person he knows she could never fall in love with: Colin.
Daddy was wrong.
I saw him and my heart started racing. His dark hair gleamed in the crowd at the intersection of Lexington and 89th Street. His head was bowed, looking at the street. I had to see his face. Look up. I blinked twice, sure I was seeing a crazy dream. Lots of guys had dark hair.
The light turned green. I wanted to turn and walk another way, but couldn’t. I’d be in deep trouble if I wasn’t home in ten minutes, and home was a good twelve minutes away—at a run. I’d never make it in time. Sweat sprung to my skin.
My phone vibrated in the depths of my Burberry coat. Stuart. I hoped he hadn’t discovered that I wasn’t at the townhouse. He’d kill me when I walked through the door. I didn’t pull my cell out. I might miss seeing the stranger’s face.
I started across the street. So did the crowd sweeping the stranger along. Look up. I want to see your face. His cocky stride and confident posture caused my heart to plunge. It had to be him. He’d always walked with a confidence that shouted he owned the moment and everyone in it. Closer. My pulse jumped. Twenty feet. Look up. Curiosity tangled with an old fear, an apparition floating like ice through my blood.
His head lifted. His dark eyes focused on something ahead, something to my left.
My heart leapt to my throat and lodged. Look away before he sees you. But I couldn’t. As if no time had passed, his magnetism seized my attention. His wolfish gaze scanned and locked on mine. Ten feet away. Six. The look in his eyes shifted to wonder. Intrigue. Do I know you? Have we met before? Questions crossed his brown eyes and angular face like the wind shifting the taut planes of a sail in search of direction.
I lifted my chin, refused to look away. My knees shook but I held his inquisitive gaze and kept walking. Three feet. Bats fluttered in my stomach. One. As we passed each other, our shoulders brushed. The corners of his lips turned up in a smile, like he couldn’t place me, even though he searched my face. His deep dimples flashed.
I looked away. Closed my eyes, swallowed. I opened my eyes, and stepped onto the curb, and continued up Park Avenue, curiosity gnawing at my bones. Had he recognized me? I was probably just another girl. Someone to smile at, to flirt with. He couldn’t possibly remember.
We hadn’t seen each other in over five years.
I glanced back over my shoulder. My heart froze. Colin stood on the corner of Lexington—crowds filing around him—watching.
His smile was gone.
I swallowed the lump in my throat, tore my gaze from his and started into a half-jog toward home. I’d lost two, maybe three minutes I didn’t have to spare. Fear shifted from the run-in with Colin to what awaited me when I got to the townhouse. In the depths of my wool coat, my cell phone vibrated over and over again.
I tapped the security code into the panel beside our double front door, breath racing with my heart. Three minutes late. The green light shone and the bolt slid open. I pushed the doors and entered the townhouse.
Soundlessly, I shut the door, peering up the curved marble stairs to my right, then through the arched hallway in front of me for any signs of life. Mother was out with friends. Daddy was at the firm. Gavin was either at the market or cooking in the kitchen at the back of the house. I sniffed. No scent perfumed the air.
That left Stuart.
When I’d gone, he’d been taking his usual “nap”—something he did every day between three and four o’clock—while I was supposed to be working on homework. From the moans and grunts I heard coming from behind his closed bedroom door, I doubted he was sleeping. The thought rammed a shudder down my spine.
I reached into my coat pocket for my cell phone. Twenty texts—from Stuart. I opened one message. Then another.
WHERE R U????
U KNOW WHAT THIS MEANS!!!
Sweat drenched my skin. He’d probably gone into my bedroom once he’d discovered I wasn’t there—my bedroom was off limits to him—who knows what he’d done once inside.
Hands shaking, I peeled off my scarf, gloves and coat, draping them over my arm. I tip-toed across the marble entry, heart banging against my ribs so violently, I was certain the thuds would bring Stuart from his hiding place. Invisible eyes pierced me from every direction. He was somewhere.
Maybe I could make it up to my room before he saw me, lock the door and—
“Are you out of your mind?” His hot breath hissed in my ear. I whirled around. The presence of his towering bulk pressed me into the entry wall. My pulse tripped. His green eyes glared into mine.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing running off like that without me? You know the rules.” His spit dotted my face and I blinked. Rage sizzled off his muscles, sinews bunched like bowling balls ready to roll and strike out beneath his blue sweater and jeans. “It’s not safe out there.”
It’s not safe in here. “I just went for a walk,” I sputtered, hating that my voice trembled.
He inched closer. “No walks, Ashlyn. No opening that door, taking a breath or blowing your friggin’ nose without me.”
“Get away from me.” I jerked to my left, toward the safety and freedom of the stairs. His meaty palm wrapped around my arm, holding me in place.
“Do you understand?” he growled.
I wrenched free, didn’t answer. I shot him a parting glare and fled upstairs, tears rushing up my throat.
I hated him. Hated my life.
After storming into my bedroom, I slammed the door. Tears sprung free. My shoulders buckled in a sob. I crossed the room, ignoring the temptation to dissolve into an emotional puddle on my bed and went instead to the window overlooking Park Avenue, giving me a view of the street below and the apartment buildings sheltering the townhouse.
My secret escape walk had turned into another humiliating slap meant to keep me on my knees behind brick and mortar and glass. Safely protected.
Below, people dressed in black, gray and plaid coats walked freely on their way like storm clouds passing through sky. No hound dog bodyguards followed them, breathing down their necks, watching their every move.
Even Colin Brennen enjoyed freedom.
Sighing, I swiped away tears. How unfair that a jerk like him walked the streets doing whatever he pleased while I lived under a magnifying glass.
The door flew open. I turned, heart pounding. In my distraction, I had forgotten to lock it. Stuart heaved in the jamb.
"You're not allowed in here."
“I haven’t crossed the line. But you did, sneaking out like some friggin’ dog off a leash. Don’t ever do that again or I’ll tell your father.”
“Go ahead.” My bones quaked at the very idea. But I knew what Stuart was after, and he’d never tell my father about my outing. Stuart wanted this job too much.