Undone, Volume 2, page 2part #2 of Undone Series
In the empty, plain corridor connecting to the kitchens, I exhaled. There, I could relax, just for a minute. I could really use a cigarette, but I knew I had to resist. There was the image thing, of course. These days smoking a cigarette landed you in the doghouse worse than kicking a puppy. Not that I’d ever done anything like that, though Mandy Monroe would probably pay good money to doctor up footage of exactly that. Point was, I didn’t need any grainy photos leaking of me scowling like a villain with a cig in my mouth.
What really had me worried, though, was that bout of bronchitis that had laid me out in Italy last month. I hadn’t been able to shake it. Doctors and vocal coaches and lots of other people who liked to wag tongues and point fingers had been telling me to lay off the cigarettes since the second I picked one up. I’d ignored their cautionary tales and common sense nonsense. That was my specialty as Ash Black. But apparently at 26 I had the lungs of a middle-aged coal miner. I could lay off or look forward to my famous rock star vocals fading to a raspy wisp in the next five to ten years.
So, no cigarettes. I’d just have to rely on my many fond memories of past years’ annual Waldorf Astoria holiday party to keep me company. Smoking weed with the kitchen staff, making out with one of the caterers. And let’s not forget flipping my father the bird in front of the president of his board of directors. Priceless.
Tonight, I’d have Ana for entertainment. It seemed a promising addition to the list, bringing a girl I’d just met and introducing her to everyone as if she were The One, as if I’d propose to her in a mere two weeks. That part was true. It was also true that I had a hard time remembering her last name, and I knew absolutely nothing about her other than that she smelled like warm honey and vanilla, responded hot and fast when I stroked her and made the most incredible sounds when she came. Did I really need to know more than that? Lola had given me a cheat sheet, a long list of Ana’s likes and dislikes. I’d stopped somewhere after chocolate chip ice cream. I wasn’t much for reading and memorizing long lists. And who would even believe that Ash Black knew all these mundane little details about some girl? Not me.
Only I had found myself thinking about her a lot today. Not wondering what her favorite ice cream was, though. The only time ice cream might have entered into my train of thoughts was imagining her licking a cone, that sweet innocent mouth and tongue sucking and licking, her flirty eyes watching me as she did it. Or dripping cold ice cream on her stripped-naked skin, just a drip here, a drop here, and I’d lick it up, taking my time. I’d like to make her squirm. She’d have to be blindfolded, of course, so she wouldn’t know where the ice cream would drip next. I’d like to make her drip.
Damn it. I adjusted myself. This tux fit me like a glove, in all the right and now wrong ways. Slim cut, like a tux out of GQ. It probably was. I had stylists to take care of all that, thank God. I liked looking good, but I sure as hell didn’t want to spend any time getting that way.
I knew my PR team had kidnapped Ana and spent the whole day running her through the whole Cinderella thing. Lola had assured me that it had to be done, and they wouldn’t change too much. I’d told her Ana didn’t need a hair messed with on her head. First of all, the whole point of this was to hook me up with an average girl, the type my fan base could identify with. If they sent me some tweezed, plucked, dyed-blonde thing caked in makeup, she’d look way too Tinsel Town.
And then there was the fact that I found Ana immensely appealing exactly as she was. She didn’t need any improvements. I didn’t mention that to Lola. She didn’t need to know my inner thoughts. And it wouldn’t register with her since it didn’t have anything to do with the bottom line. My preferences mattered only so much as they related to my marketability.
My phone buzzed. The chariot approached. Prince Charming needed to straighten out his tux, run a hand through his famously thick and sexy black hair and go make an appearance.
It was cold outside but not too bad, about 30 degrees. I clapped my hands together and blew on them for warmth. I didn’t want to freeze out Cinderella before the ball even began. A limo pulled up. First Lola got out, my cue. I rushed to the door, hand outstretched, hoping please don’t let a plastic blonde Barbie doll step out next.
A toe emerged, in suitably shimmering shoes for a ball. Then a slender calf followed by some glittering silvery fabric and then I forgot just about everything. I didn’t look to see if the cameras were catching the moment. I didn’t have to prompt myself to act gallant or awestruck by her beauty. I simply was.
Ana looked up, saw me and smiled. It was a whole-body smile, lighting her from the inside out, radiant. No makeup could achieve that glow on her fresh face, her soft skin. She tossed her hair, her gloriously chestnut hair, still the same color as before only glossier, moving and catching the light of…oh yes, there were flash bulbs going off. An armada of paparazzi capturing the moment.
I wanted to growl at them all, shield her from view, keep her to myself. But that wouldn’t do. That wasn’t the point of this, now was it?
I clasped her hand in mine and helped her out of the limo.
“You look amazing.” It felt fake coming out of my mouth with that audience surrounding us, even though I absolutely meant it.
“Thanks. Wow, this is…wow!” She looked around, taking in the ornate entrance to the grand old hotel, the legions of press there to photograph her, calling out to us.
“Ash, is she your new girl?”
“Over here, gorgeous. What’s your name?”
“Ana,” she offered with a demure smile. She was a natural. I placed my arm around her waist and damn but it felt good there.
“Are you going to break her heart, Ash?” a voice called out, hoping for an angry reaction he could capture. So I smiled. Ana leaned into me, and the smile grew genuine.
“Ana! Ash!” We made our way up the gauntlet, Ana moving slowly, turning and smiling like a pro. She’d either been lying about her background, or we’d hit the jackpot in someone who took direction so well. The natural reaction in this kind of onslaught was to run and hide. Only an arrogant ass like myself or someone who’d been highly coached would do otherwise.
Inside, she let the façade drop.
“Wow.” She brought her face to her hands, clearly a newbie running the risk of smudging her look. With more practice, she’d remember Makeup First, Emotions Second. I hoped she’d never get more practice. I liked Ana exactly as she was.
“Are you OK?” I rubbed my hand along her back, reassuring. It shouldn’t have made me think about reaching it lower. But it did.
“Is that, like, normal to you?” She looked up at me, wide-eyed.
I shrugged. “I’m used to it. But it still sucks.”
“Do you like it? All that attention?”
Huh. Of course I liked it, didn’t I? I was Ash Black. And at first, it had all been such a rush, so crazy and intense and I thrived on that, always something new, always reaching another high. Lately, though? I kept thinking about the type of cabin my younger brother Health reportedly lived in, not even a decked-out one, but something basic and quiet and snowy. Someplace far away from prying eyes. Somewhere I could drag Ana and have her all to myself.
“There you are!” Gram swept toward me in cream satin gloves and a burgundy floor-length gown with a train. She looked positively regal.
“Does the Queen Mother know you’ve raided her closet?” I kissed her on the cheek.
“Of course she does. We’re besties.” I loved my 83-year-old grandmother. “And who is this charming creature?” She turned to Ana who truly shimmered, and it wasn’t just the dress, though that was breathtaking in and of itself. One shoulder draped in fabric, the other laid bare, it wound around her curves, ending in a dramatic asymmetrical hemline. I liked the short side better, the one that grazed her mid-thigh. What kind of panties had they put her in? Last night I hadn’t even gotten a good look, and I was a visual kind of a guy. But what guy wasn’t? The sight of a beautiful woman in sexy lingerie, that was the ty
“Hello.” Ana snapped me out of my reverie, gracefully extending out a hand to my grandmother.
“Gram, I’d like you to meet Anika Ivanov. She’s a new friend.”
“Anika, so very pleased to meet you. Welcome to our little holiday party.”
“Thank you for having me.”
“You must meet me for tea next week.” If I’d been sipping on something I would have done a spit-take. Gram had met a hell of a lot of my arm candy over the years and not one of them had received an invitation to anything, never mind high tea. For an Englishwoman of a certain generation and class, that was tantamount to writing Anika’s name in the family bible. In calligraphied ink.
“That would be lovely.” Ana glowed.
“Now tell me, dear, what is it that you do? I have a feeling it’s fascinating.” Gram offered Ana her arm and together they began walking toward the ballroom. Wait, wasn’t I supposed to make the entrance with her?
“I’m a children’s librarian. And a piano teacher.”
“Just think of all those lives you enrich each and every day.”
Oh, Anika was in the club. Big Time. I almost felt a little jealous. With a quick step, I caught up and took her other arm in mine.
“Excellent, Ash. Please do escort Anika properly tonight.” Gram softened her warning with a quick wink. “And I’ll send round an invitation to tea.” She left us to meet and greet.
“That she is,” I agreed. “And she loved you.”
She chuckled, pleased. “Well, welcome to our little holiday party.” I walked her into the grand ballroom and even jaded old me, the bored rich kid turned mega rock star, I had to admit it was a sight. Thirty-foot ceilings, chandeliers dripping with crystals, holly boughs and mistletoe and little white lights making everything glow.
Ana gasped and I could practically feel her intake of breath. “I’ve never seen anything so gorgeous!”
It was fun to show it to her. I couldn’t remember who I’d taken last year…no one, I realized. The year before that I’d made the mistake of taking a young screen queen who’d hated every second of the party because she wasn’t the center of attention. She’d wanted to leave after fifteen minutes and I’d agreed after about thirty. Fun stuff.
“Who are all of these people?” Ana looked out, amazed, at the glittering array of guests, all done up top-to-toe in black tie reverie.
“Some are family. The ones with bad teeth are from England.”
“I love your grandmother’s accent.”
“And I don’t mean her,” I quickly clarified. “About the teeth.”
“I know.” Ana laughed softly. As a musician who appreciated sounds, I wanted to hear it again, and again.
“Then there’s a lot of friends and business associates, some of both.”
“Is your lawyer Nelson here?”
“He usually makes an appearance.”
“I’ll have to meet him. We’ve already spoken about fifty times over the last 24 hours.”
“He looks exactly like you’d expect.”
“Trim, tidy, organized.”
“OK, kiddos.” From behind, Lola swooped down on us, literally extending her arms around both of our shoulders like the wings of a giant hawk. I knew Gram wasn’t happy about her appearance here tonight. Gram was a warm and welcoming woman, if she liked you. Lola and she had met a couple of times. Lola hadn’t gotten the invite to tea. I’d promised that her stay tonight would be brief.
“Great job out there exiting the car. You gave them some great shots.”
I nodded, already annoyed. I was used to Lola’s constant, intrusive management, but not right now. Right now I wanted to get my girl a glass of champagne and see where the night might lead. I could be convinced to take her out for a turn on the dance floor. I bet Gigi would like to meet her. And then I knew of a couple of choice dark corners and hallways. I could give her a private tour.
“Two o’clock, mistletoe,” Lola told us in the hushed whisper of an army sergeant. “A guy’s in place. Go give him something to shoot.”
“OK, then.” I caught hold of Ana’s hand and gave it a squeeze.
“Do you know what she’s talking about?” Ana whispered to me. I liked the feel of her leaning in to me, her light fragrance.
“She wants us to kiss under the mistletoe while someone videos it.”
“Oh.” She nodded. “Half the time I have no idea what she’s saying.”
“She has her own language. You’ll get used to it.”
Ana shuddered. She was right, it wasn’t something she should get used to. I had a moment, brief, of wondering what I was doing here, dragging this innocent, sweet woman into my world of using and getting used. Then I dragged her over underneath the mistletoe and used her to get some good pics to rehab my image.
Under an archway, a strategically-placed dangling piece of mistletoe was a must at any holiday party. The Waldorf Astoria certainly wasn’t going to stint on traditional details. It dangled above us, a bright red ribbon offering it down, giving us not just the excuse, but a mandate to kiss. In the corner of my eye I could see Lola giving me subtle stage directions, nodding her head to the man in place, wanting me to shift my angle so he could be sure to perfectly capture the candid moment.
I shifted. I angled. I wrapped my hand around Anika’s waist. She looked up at me, her hand resting lightly on my chest.
“Thank you for coming tonight,” I said.
She smiled, as if I were the one giving her a gift. “This party is amazing.”
“You look gorgeous.”
“I don’t think the stylists enjoyed working with me today.” She bit her lip, actually looking like she felt bad. “They tried to do a whole bunch more to me, but I wouldn’t let them.”
“I’m so glad.” Admiring, I stroked her silky hair feathering down her back. “You didn’t need a makeover.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“I do.” Caressing her cheek, I tilted her head up a bit. “You know what we’re standing underneath?”
“Yes.” Damn if she didn’t flush, a tantalizing light pink stealing into her cheeks. She made this all look so real, so natural. I bet Lola was having a cow in joy over her performance.
“May I kiss you?”
She looked up at me, sparkling, almost as if she were enjoying the display, as if we were having a laugh together, just the two of us. “Yes.”
It was just a kiss, chaste and quick, staged and recorded in the middle of a party with all of my relatives. But the warmth of her lips, her yielding softness, the slight, suggestive curve of her lower back, Anika mesmerized me. I was the practiced one, the one used to rehearsing and executing staged moves. But she was the one who kept her head about her and broke off our kiss, leaning briefly against my shoulder, almost as if she needed a second to recover herself.
“You’re here!” my sister, Gigi, declared with glee as she approached us. She looked like a vision with small white flowers wound into her hair and a long, pale blue sheath dress. Thank God she always dressed like a virginal bride, at least when I saw her. I didn’t think I could handle the sight of my baby sister slutting it up.
“Gigi.” I gave her a hug, wishing for a moment I saw her more often. I always enjoyed it when I did. But I was off in my world and she was in hers, pursuing her college degree, being the good daughter. It would be nothing short of contamination to mix her up with the kinds of people I spent every day all day with. Only Ana wasn’t one of them.
“I’d like to introduce you to Anika.” The two of them began chatting, each lighting up with an instant liking of the other.
“Asher.” An older British cousin, second twice removed or something like that, came over to me, all jowls and disapproval. I forgot his name, but I certainly remembered his annual habit of taking me aside at the family party to warn me about living up to the family name. He’d d
“I’m stealing her for a minute,” Gigi announced, thrilled with her new friend. Just as I was about to use Ana as an excuse to break away. “She has to come meet Kara. She’s adorable.”
Who was Kara? Oh, right, the new rancher guy’s wife. My sister-in-law. I let the jowls do the talking for a few more minutes while I made my way through a fresh drink, then excused myself to go find Lola. Her visitor’s visa had expired. I didn’t want her hovering around all night.
But I found Ana first. That smile. She tossed her head back in genuine laughter, Gigi actually holding onto her arm with affection as they stood with a blonde woman I guessed was Kara. My new sister-in-law.
“Where did you find her?” Colton Kavanaugh, resident killjoy, asked dryly. At. The. Helm.
“Hey, Colt.” Instantly, my voice sounded sulky. How did he do that to me so quickly? It didn’t matter how many stages I’d been on in front of how many tens of thousands of screaming fans, my older brother still made me feel like an idiot.
“She’s not your usual type.”
“What’s my usual type?”
Colton gave an infuriating arch of his eyebrow, superior and righteous, as if he didn’t need to explain anything further. And he didn’t. I knew exactly what he meant and he was right. I hated Colt.
“Who did you bring tonight?” I asked. Colton preferred the well-bred daughters of CEOs, the types who rode horses and ate their inferiors for breakfast.
Yeah, he did that a lot, too. The man was an island.
“Asher, about all this bad press with that girl. It’s a bad time for you to be—”
“Hey, Colt, I’d love to stay and talk about what a fuck up I am, but…” At exactly the right moment, Ana turned and met my eye. She looked so damn happy to see me, so thrilled. She had to be faking it, I knew that. She’d basically tried to run right out of my hotel room last night. I’d only shoe-horned her into agreeing to spending a month with me by pulling out my checkbook, and not even for her, for her freaking library branch. But it had worked, and she was mine now, for the whole month. No time like the present to kick things off.