I step from the car and adjust my tie, my eyes falling on the Southfall Hotel in front of me. My reason for being here is merely to be a scapegoat, to take the pressure off of my father’s retirement.
And the rest of the functions over the next few weeks, both here and abroad, are all for show. To let Naomi know that, unless she signs those divorce papers, she’ll be walking away with a little less. It’s a petty, childish game I’d rather pass over—much like our divorce. Petty.
I bat those thoughts from my mind for the evening and approach the reception desk. The young woman behind the counter smiles at me.
“Good evening, sir, and welcome to the Southfall Hotel. How can I help you?”
“I have a private booth booked in the bar. Mr. Stone.”
She smiles. “Ah, of course, Mr. Stone. And a…Ms. Lopez?”
“That’s correct. Can you send her through when she arrives?”
“Of course. If you follow Neil here, he’ll take you to your booth.”
“Thank you”—I glance at her name badge—“Rachel.”
She gives me another kind smile as I follow the young boy into the dimly lit bar. He stops in front of a curtained booth and slides it along the rail.
“Your booth, sir. Can I get you anything to drink?”
“Ah, no, thank you. I’ll wait until my date arrives.”
“Very well.” He nods and turns, leaving me to enter the booth alone.
Yes. My date.
The date I required but didn’t have. The date I’m being forced to pay for although the very thought is against everything I believe in. Paying for a woman’s time seems derogatory and demeaning, no matter how willingly it’s offered.
I lean back in the seat, exhaling deeply, and rest my hands on the table. Shit, I’d give anything to not have to do this charade. I’d do anything not to—
I recognize her voice before she opens the curtain. I’d know it anywhere—that seductive tone that falls straight to my cock the way it did the first time I heard her speak. Every hair on the back of my neck stands to attention in anticipation of the woman I know I’m about to stare at.
But I fight to keep my eyes down. Fuck, I want to look at her. I want to see how much she’s changed, see how different she is as a woman than the girl I fell in love with.
A sharp intake of breath follows the swish of the curtain shutting. Then I hear the sweetest fucking sound I’ve heard in a long time—my name from her lips.
I look up now, straight into the gorgeously dark eyes of the woman I never imagined I’d ever see again. My eyes comb over her. Her long, dark hair, curled slightly at the ends. Her wide, coffee-colored eyes shining with the shock I feel taking my own body hostage. Her glossy, pink lips that look as soft as they were.
She’s the same but so different. She’s older, curvier…and so much fucking sexier. A fact that makes my cock twitch inside my pants.
“Dayton?” I stand slowly, never taking my eyes from her.
“What…” She puts a hand to her chest, steadying herself. “You’re my client?”
I wave toward the seat, unable to believe she’s standing here. In front of me. Wondering why the fuck she is and where the hell Mia Lopez is. She sits slowly, her chest rising and falling quickly, and I gaze at her.
“You’re my date? I hired a Mia Lopez?”
“Mia is my working name,” she says quietly, glancing down. “Being an escort is a double life.”
Dayton is an escort? A call girl? My Dayton?
“I can’t believe this.” I push a button and a waiter appears. “A bottle of Pinot Gris. Two glasses,” I order without looking at him.
My eyes are locked on the woman in front of me. The woman whose body I know as well as my own yet whose mind is a complete enigma to me. I can’t imagine any reason she’d do this, what could possibly possess to put herself in a situation to be taken advantage. Why she’d offer a body as wonderful as hers to an unlimited amount of men.
Fuck. My jaw clamps shut. That thought…
Silence lingers until the waiter reappears with the bottle of wine. I take it from him with a slight nod of acknowledgement and drag my eyes from Dayton long enough to pour two glasses of wine.
I reach into my inner jacket pocket, pausing before my fingers close around the envelope. Fuck. This is wrong. This is so fucking wrong. I loved this woman once. I shouldn’t be paying her for her time.
Still, I pull it out and slide it across the table. Dayton drains her glass in one go, her actions belying her composed stature, and takes the envelope without blinking.
“This was unexpected.”
“Ya think?” She looks at me now, her eyebrows arching over her eyes. “I can’t say I’m in the habit of having a previous personal relationship with my clients.”
“I’d imagine not.” I say my thought out loud, but it’s not my most potent thought. That’s why. Why she would do this. “Can I ask why?”
“Why you do this?”
She bristles, clearly uncomfortable with my line of questioning. “That’s a bit personal.”
I lean forward on the table, my eyes steady on hers. “Dayton, I’ve seen every inch of your body. Don’t fuck around and tell me it’s too personal.”
“You’re my client.” She sits up straighter, her jaw clenching slightly. “Our past is irrelevant here. You’re paying me to do a job, and I’m going to do it. No personal details. Tell me what I need to know so I don’t look like a complete idiot when I’m out there tonight.”
My own jaw tightens at her indifference. I reach up and adjust my tie to stop myself from smacking my hand on the table and calling her on it. Instead, I take a deep, calming breath and take a sip from my glass.
“Dad has decided to step back from the company, and this is one of many events designed to introduce me to the people I’ll be working with when I take over in just under two months.”
“The modeling agency?”
“We branched into advertising and rebranded the summer after Paris. It went global three years ago, and now there are offices in Australia and Europe as well as here.”
“Impressive. And you needed a date because?” She tilts her head to one side.
I smirk. “Because if I turned up alone, the vultures would get me.”
“The daughters of my mother’s friends. They’re single.”
“And you’re the perfect target. Nice to know I’m hired to be a buffer.”
“I’m sure Mia Lopez is used to it.” Bitterness coats my statement, but she doesn’t seem to notice it. She simply raises her glass to her lips and lets some wine fall between them.
“Oh, she is,” she replies with an easy confidence. “But we both know there’s not a chance in hell I’ll get away with being Mia tonight.”
I consider this. She’s correct—my parents will surely recognize her. If I did so easily, they will, too. We spent more than enough time together in Paris. I run my tongue across my bottom lip, debating my next move.
Her eyes flick to my mouth and she draws in a breath. I smirk. She can play the indifference card, but that moment alone has told me that she’s still affected by me. Just as much as I am by her.
“Mr. Stone?” a voice asks from behind the curtain.
“Yes?” I reply without taking my eyes from hers. A slight flush rises in her cheeks when she realizes I’ve caught her staring.
“Your father is asking for you, sir.”
“Tell him we’ll be there momentarily.”
My father. Dayton… Her identity.
I reach across the table and take my hand in her. “Day, you don’t have to do this. You have a working name for a reason. I won’t ask you to jeopardize that for me.”
She snatches her hand as if my touch is burning her and stands. She smooths out her dress, taking a moment before her eyes meet mine again. “You hired me to do this job, and I’m going to do it. Besides, I can’t have you being eaten alive by the vultures, can I?”
She wants to play that card... I smirk again. “Very true.”
I stand and pull the curtain open, my eyes crawling over her body as she walks in front of me. Fuck. Now that the initial shock of seeing her again has passed, I can appreciate the sight before me. Appreciate the way her waist curves into shapely hips and long legs—legs I know are long enough to wrap around my waist.
I place my hand on her back, guiding her into the elevator. She jolts a little, like my touch is so unexpected, and I revel in the fact she feels as shaken as I do. I know her so well, and standing next to her right now is like we’ve never been apart.
But I won’t let her do this if she doesn’t want to. I won’t force her into it. I respect her too much…but obviously not enough to have sent her home the moment she walked to the booth. Obviously not enough to not pay her.
The elevator doors open, and I close them again.
She looks at me with a frown. “What are you doing?”
“Dayton.” I raise my hand to her face and brush some hair from her eyes.
She bats it away, her eyes flashing with memories of the past. “Standing in an elevator isn’t going to change the fact I have a job to do, Aaron. Can we get on with this?”
I watch her for a long moment, scrutinizing every inch of her face, making sure she’s not just putting on a show. Of course she is. I’m putting on a fucking show. I don’t want to take her into some bullshit function. I want to take her back down to that bar, buy her dinner, and find out what the hell she’s been doing for the last seven years. Aside from being paid to sleep with other guys, a fact that riles and awakens every protective instinct in my body.
An instinct that makes me want to do something about it.
I incline my head toward her, treating her with the same calm she is me. “Fine. But what do I tell my parents when they inevitably recognize the girl who stole me for the duration of our vacation seven years ago?”
She licks her lips and swallows. “You let me think of that.”
I push the button to open the doors and lead her in the direction of the ballroom. I rest my hand on the ornately decorated door and look down at her. “Last chance,” I murmur.
She sighs. “Shut up and open the damn door for me.”
I laugh quietly, grateful for the spark in her voice. The genuine spark that breaks through her façade and makes me ache for Paris. Makes me ache for her, her voice, her touch, her body.
We walk into the room together, my hand creeping to her hip, and the second my parents notice us, I know.
I know there isn’t a fucking chance I’m letting Dayton Black walk away from me a second time.