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|Strings of the Heart(Runaway Train #3) by Katie Ashley|
Leaning in much closer to me than I would have preferred, the guy said, “Why waste your money on him when you could go home with me? I guarantee I’d show you a screaming good time. All. Night. Long.”
“Give it a rest, Donaldson,” Rhys’s voice came from behind me.
At the feel of his hand on my lower back, I instantly relaxed. Tilting my head, I took in his tight smile. “I apologize for not being able to meet you sooner.”
Rhys glanced from me to my lecherous admirer. “I see you’re making some acquaintances.”
Donaldson, as Rhys had called him, held out his hand. “Where are my manners? I didn’t introduce myself properly to you. I’m James Donaldson.”
“Allison Slater,” I replied, shaking his hand quickly. But before I could pull away, he was bringing the back of my hand to his lips.
“I’ll see you later then, Miss Slater. I certainly hope you’ll be betting on me tonight.”
“Don’t f**king count on it,” Rhys growled under his breath.
James winked at me before thumping Rhys on the shoulder. “Always a pleasure seeing you, too, McGowan. Have a lovely evening.”
Rhys scowled at James as he walked by us. Then he turned back to me. “I’m sorry you had to deal with that ass**le.”
“He wasn’t that bad.”
“Oh, trust me, I’ve known him since we were kids. Not only is he a bully, but he is a womanizing douchebag.”
“Then I should have kneed him in the balls rather than allowing him to kiss my hand.”
Rhys stared wide-eyed at me for a second before busting out laughing. “While I would have loved to see that, I’m not sure you would have made the best impression.”
I giggled. “Me either.”
“Enough about that ass**le. Thanks to him I didn’t even get to greet you properly.”
He shook his head and stepped out in front of me. Taking my hands in his, he surveyed my appearance. The heat of his stare caused my heart to break into a gallop. “You are absolutely breathtaking tonight.”
“Thank you,” I replied, breathlessly.
Rhys smiled. “Considering that you’re putting every woman in this room to shame, I’m not surprised that jerkwad was coming on to you.”
“Aren’t you the flatterer tonight?” I teased, while trying to keep my careening emotions in check.
“I just call it as I see it.” When his gaze dipped from my eyes down to my chest, his jovial expression momentarily faded.
In one fluid movement, Rhys closed the space between us, backing us into the corner of the drawing room. Immediately my head spun as I went into sensory overload at the nearness of him. His deep musky scent filled my nose while the heat radiating off his tux-clad body almost singed the skin exposed by my strapless couture. While I stared questioningly into his face, his dark eyes remained locked on my chest. To the average observer, one would have assumed Rhys was exhibiting typical male behavior by ogling my br**sts, but I knew better. Most of all, I knew him better than that. His attention was drawn to the pendant nestled in the valley between my average-sized cle**age.
When his fingers grazed against the bare skin of my breastbone, I couldn’t help the tremble that went through my body. I wanted nothing more than to feel his hands on me. If I was honest, I fantasized about them most nights, especially to get me through a dry spell without an orgasm.
Once he had grasped the pendant, Rhys weighed it in his hand, taking in every aspect of it before his gaze flicked up to mine. “I can’t believe you still have this, least of all wear it.”
His almost accusatory tone momentarily stung me, and I jerked back from him. His grasp remained firm on the pendant, causing the satin ribbon to slice into my neck almost like I was on a leash. “Why wouldn’t I still have it?”
He shrugged. “I guess because it was so long ago when I gave it to you.”
“It was at my Sweet Sixteen party,” I reminded him.
“I remember,” he murmured.
He held my gaze as he fingered the raised magnolia on the pendant. “Of course I do.” One side of his lip quirked up in a half smile. “That was only four years ago, Allie-Bean. I’m not so old that I’m having memory loss.”
A nervous laugh escaped my lips. “You’re not old.”
“Just older than you,” he mused.
“Only by a few years,” I countered, kicking my chin up determinedly.
In his brown eyes flecked with gold, I saw the question he would never dare to verbalize. Four and a half years had passed since that momentous night by the fountain at my party. There had been other loves and other life experiences for me. After all that time and distance, he wondered what it was about the simple necklace, hand painted by his sister, that made me continue to wear it, especially on the choker so close to my heart?
What I wanted so desperately to tell him was I wore the necklace because in spite of all the loves and other life experiences for me, I was still madly and completely in love with him. Swallowing hard, I replied, “I like to wear it because I love magnolias—I always have. Magnolias remind me of strong women—the kind I aspire to be like. But most of all, it reminds me of home.”
Rhys bobbed his head, accepting my half-truths as if they were the gospel. In the end, maybe avoidance was better for both of us. At least for now, I would keep telling myself that. Now that we were on the cusp of unchartered territory, I would play the game for as long as I had to in order to win his heart.