* * *
This can’t be happening. Victoria Westin shut her eyes and counted to ten, opened them again . . . and he was still there. She’d actually believed that her day couldn’t suck any worse, but now Tyrell Brown was sitting beside her, wrestling with his seatbelt and cursing under his breath.
Up close like this, he seemed a lot bigger than he had in court. Maybe it was the jeans and cowboy boots, or the UT shirt stretched across his chest, showing off his arms. She’d only seen him in a suit, and while he’d been a lean and imposing six foot two, he hadn’t looked like this, like he could snap her in half without breaking a sweat. Now he looked more than capable of it.
And if she was reading his body language right, that’s exactly what he wanted to do.
Not that she blamed him. The person she blamed was her mother. Adrianna Marchand, of Marchand, Riley & White, the premier civil defense law firm in New York City. Adrianna, who was a senior partner, had stuck her, a lowly associate, with an unwinnable train wreck of a case and then refused to let her settle it.
“The plaintiff has nothing but his own word to prove that the deceased ever regained consciousness before she died,” her mother had said in her most pedantic tone. “Surely, Victoria, you can convince six jurors of questionable intelligence that he’s highly motivated to lie. Nine million’s a lot of motivation for a jerkwater rancher. Shake him up. Trip him up. If you can’t think of anything else, then bloody well smile at him.” She smirked at her daughter. “Your smile flusters any idiot with a penis. And frankly, after five thousand in orthodontics, it ought to.”
But Adrianna had been wrong about all of it. The jurors were two doctors, a college professor, a newspaper reporter, a retired judge, and a grad student, all of whom were unquestionably intelligent. The “deceased,” as Adrianna euphemistically termed Lissa Brown, had been a bright, young, universally loved, kind-hearted rescuer of abused animals.
And the “plaintiff,” who was sitting beside her right now, had a 50,000-acre cattle ranch, a Ph.D. in philosophy, and the saddest eyes she’d ever seen. The sympathetic jury had hung on his every word. As a result, when Jason Taylor’s five-year sentence for drunk driving and vehicular manslaughter was up next week, he’d have to sell most of what he owned to satisfy the verdict.
Her mother was going to kill her.
If Tyrell Brown didn’t do it first.
* * *
Somehow, while she was brooding, they’d reached cruising altitude. Now the flight attendant, who was apparently friendly with Tyrell, asked for her drink order.
“Club soda with lime,” she managed to get out.
Ty made a sound of disgust, then snarled at Loretta, “I’m still waiting for my Jack Daniels.”
“And you’ll wait a little longer,” she shot back. But her pat on his shoulder as she walked by belied the bite in her tone. Vicky shivered. Maybe Loretta would help him hide her body. They could probably fit her in a trash bag if they folded her up tight.
When Loretta returned with their drinks, she handed Ty his whiskey without a word. Passing Victoria her club soda, she smiled. “What brings you to Texas, honey?”
Victoria’s hand shook. She covered it by taking a sip, then said, curtly, “Work,” hoping Loretta would take the hint and quit trying to converse. She couldn’t understand these Texans, they’d talk to anyone, poke their noses in anywhere.
“What’s your line?” Loretta went on, undeterred.
Ty threw back his drink, waved the empty glass in front of Loretta’s nose. “Stewardess,” he sneered, “how about a refill here? You’re not getting paid to flap your jaw.”
Loretta arched a deadly brow. For a long moment, they eyed each other. Then, deliberately, she took the glass. “Be right back, honey,” she said to Victoria, without once breaking glares with Ty. Then she turned, slowly, and walked away.
For an instant, just an instant, Victoria and Ty were united in their relief.
Then she opened her book and pretended to lose herself in it. He flipped through the Skymall catalogue with the same intense concentration.
Of course, she wasn’t really reading. How could she, bombarded by the waves of resentment rolling off Ty? He’d relived his worst nightmare on the witness stand, and it was clear to everyone in that courtroom, including her, that he’d never recovered from his wife’s death. Even though he’d won his case, his heart had been raked over the coals in the process. And she’d been holding the rake.
From the corner of her eye, she watched him nervously. He was really putting away the whiskey. What if he got drunk and went postal? She’d be the first to go.
To her horror, his head whipped around as if he’d felt her watching him. She flinched.
Had she really thought his eyes were sad? Beautiful, yes, root beer brown shot through with gold. But they were murderous. She snapped her gaze back to her book, praying she hadn’t set him off.
* * *
Of course, Ty wasn’t really reading either. How could he, when Victoria Westin was sitting there in his seat, so cold and controlled. There was no heart in the woman, no heat, no compassion. Was she even alive? Maybe she was a vampire.
Still, he wasn’t altogether proud that he’d made her flinch. As if he’d ever hit a woman. In his thirty years he’d been in more fights than he could count – fists, knives, even guns a time or two – and he liked to think he’d struck fear into a few hearts.
But never a woman’s.
If he didn’t hate her guts so much, maybe he’d apologize. But he did, and he wouldn’t. He crossed his arms. Better yet, she should apologize to him for thinking he’d ever lift a hand to her. Sure, he wanted to twist her head off like a bottle cap, but he wouldn’t really do it.
She had a lot of nerve making him feel like a bully.
Loretta finally showed up with a second Jack Daniels, waited while he knocked it back on top of the first, then stalked off with the empty glass. He scowled at her receding back. For sure, she’d make him wait for the next one.
* * *
“Beef for you,” Loretta slapped it down on Ty’s tray table, “and Ms. Westin, here’s your vegetarian entree.”
Ty gave her a grin. “Why, thank you, Loretta, honey.” She ignored him, but he didn’t mind. They were two hours into the flight and his jagged edges had smoothed out considerably. He’d gotten the wedding gift out of the way – matching massage chairs from the Skymall catalogue – and while he was at it, polished off his third and fourth Jack Daniels. Now, deep into his fifth, he was feeling more philosophical about life in general, and his situation in particular.
Glancing over at Victoria’s steamed veggies, he wondered idly why anyone would pass up filet mignon for broccoli and rice.
Without meaning to, he asked the question out loud.
Victoria fumbled her cutlery. Cautiously, she turned her head to look at him. “I-I’m sorry, I didn’t hear what you said.”
Her wariness made him feel like a dick. And now that he’d gone and opened his big mouth, clamming up again would only make things worse. So he took a stab at his usual laid-back delivery.
“I said, why chew on leaves and twigs when this filet here melts like butter?”
“Beef’s bad for you,” she said, then flushed bright red.
Ty bit back a smile. She’d obviously just recalled that he owned a cattle ranch. Cocking one brow, he said lightly, “In Texas them’s fighting words, but seeing as we’re considerably east of Texarkana, I’ll let it slide.”
He forked another bite into his mouth, washed it down with a slug of whiskey. Then, because she was looking at him like she expected more, he aimed his fork at her club soda. “Liquor bad for you too?”
“I don’t drink when I fly. It diminishes oxygen intake.”
Ty’s eyes widened. He broke out in a smile. “Well hell. I should be flopping around like a fish on land by now.” He sucked down the last drops in his glass, caught Loretta’s eye and pointed to it.
* * *
Victoria pinched off a smile before it could form. She didn’t trust this new, affable Tyrell Brown. True, the whiskey seemed to have mellowed him. But he was unpredictable. He could strike out in an instant.
Still, she couldn’t look away from him. His smile – which she’d never seen in court – was an appealing flash of full lips and white teeth that crinkled his eyes and transformed his handsome face into a heartstopper. With his tawny hair, streaked like a surfer’s, a little too long and usually mussed, it was no wonder his attorney had such an obvious crush on him.
Loretta appeared with his drink. “Loretta, honey,” he said, “tell this young lady here that you’ve got plenty of oxygen on this plane.”
Loretta tilted her head to one side. “Tyrell, am I gonna have to cut you off?”
“I’m serious. She thinks,” he waved his glass at Victoria, “that if she has some wine with her leaves and twigs, she’s gonna run out of air or something.”
Loretta turned to Victoria. Deadpan, she said, “We’ve got plenty of oxygen on this plane.”
Victoria’s smile slipped its leash. “What a relief.”
“So,” Ty grinned at her, “what’ll you have?”
She started to say that she didn’t want anything, then decided it would be simpler just to give in. “I’ll have a cabernet,” she told Loretta. After all, she could pretend to sip it. At least she wouldn’t seem like such a dork. Beef’s bad for you . . . liquor diminishes oxygen intake. Good grief.
“I knew it,” said Ty, “I knew you’d pick red wine. Antioxidants, right?”
She lifted one shoulder, a silent admission. God, she really was a dork.
He nodded, smugly. “Yeah, I got this.” He ticked it off on his fingers. “Yoga twice a week for flexibility. Pilates on the weekends for your core. Daily meditation, fifteen minutes morning and night, to keep you centered. Monthly massage to release toxins and stimulate your immune system.” He dropped his voice confidentially. “Or that’s what you tell yourself. Truth is, it just feels good.”
She laughed. He was funny. Handsome and funny, a killer combination.
And he’d nailed her routine. It sounded so . . . so regimented when he reeled it off in that laid-back drawl.
Loretta brought the cabernet. Deliberately, Victoria took a big swallow, then another. So what if the airlines reduced the percentage of oxygen in the air to save money. Look at Tyrell. He was three sheets to the wind and he was breathing just fine.
Another glug, and she got up the nerve to say, “Core muscles, daily meditation. You’ve been reading your Oprah magazine.”
He held up a hand. “Only for the articles. I swear I never look at the pictures.”
She giggled, something she never did. She hadn’t eaten a thing all day, and the wine had already gone to her head. She ate a quick bite of stirfry, too little too late.
Ty sipped his whiskey. “Met her once. Oprah, I mean. She had a sit-down with some cattle ranchers back when she stepped in a pile of shit, taking that dig at beef on her show. My Daddy ran the ranch back then. He brought me and my brother along to hear what she had to say.”
He shrugged. “Seemed like a nice lady. Well-spoken. Sincere. I liked her. Even if my Daddy didn’t.”
She took another long swallow of cabernet. It was delicious. She really should drink wine more often. After all, it was loaded with antioxidants.
Another swallow, and she said, “I met Dr. Phil. On a plane, just like this.” She flicked her hand back and forth between them.
“Dr. Phil? No shit. He give you any free advice?”
“He told me I should break up with my fiancé.”
He held up two fingers to Loretta. Angled his body toward Vicky, just a fraction, and she noticed that she’d done the same, just a little bit, just enough to wrap the first delicate threads of intimacy around them. She took another sip.
“And did you? Break up with him?”
“Not right away. But I should have. He ended up cheating on me, which Dr. Phil predicted.” Another swallow. “Of course, my mother blamed me for it.”
Ty’s eyes widened. “She blamed you for his cheating? Why?”
“Why does she blame me for anything?” She snorted a laugh. “That’s what I should’ve asked Dr. Phil. Why does my mother hate me? And why do I keep trying to make her love me?”
And this, she thought, is why I shouldn’t drink.
She went back for another sip anyway, realized her glass was empty just as another round arrived. Ty plucked the empty from her fingers and handed her a fresh one. She smiled at him. He had such expressive eyes. She couldn’t imagine why she’d ever thought them murderous. They were maple syrup and butter, liquid and warm, and focused on her like she was the only woman in the world.
She angled a little more in his direction.
* * *
Ty forgot his filet, let himself be pulled in. “What makes you think she hates you?”
“Where should I start?” She held up a hand. “Okay, I’ll skip the formative years and go straight to college. I wanted to go to Williams – small, rural, with a great theater program. But no. According to my mother, as an actress the only line I’d ever have to learn is, ‘Can I take your order?’”
She took a pull on her wine. “Just because her own mother took off for Hollywood and never came back, I can’t be trusted anywhere near a stage. Apparently I’m too impractical, too . . .” she fluttered her fingers, “flighty to know what’s good for me. So Mother decided my future for me. It had to be Yale, and it had to be pre-law.” She sipped, shrugged. “I gave in, of course. I always do.”
Ty swirled his drink, tried to imagine his folks pushing him in a direction he didn’t want to go. They wouldn’t. And if they’d tried, he’d have dug in his heels. An hour ago, he’d have bet his ranch that confident, in-control Victoria Westin would do the same.
“You’re an adult now,” he said. “Tell her to whistle up a rope. Take yourself back to school and study what you want to.”
She looked baffled. “What I want to? I don’t even know what I want anymore.” She shrugged again. “It’s too late now. I’m stuck with the law, like it or not.”
“Well, do you like it?” In the courtroom she’d seemed so cold and aloof, nothing like the warm-blooded woman beside him now. Even her blue eyes had heated up, from arctic ice to warm October sky. With her brow knit over them as she considered his question, she looked approachable and vulnerable and, well, pretty too.
“It has its moments,” she said at last. “Probably like being a cop or a firefighter. You know, hours of tedium punctuated by moments of stark terror.” When he chuckled, she said, “Okay, it’s not life or death, but it’s still months of boring paperwork and preparation, and then the trial – which is the terrifying part – is over in a couple of days.”
She paused to hit the wine again, and it must have dawned on her that trials were bound to be a sore subject, because her eyes widened, her swallow turned into a gulp.
Ty could have told her not to worry, because after working hard to get there for the last few hours, he’d finally reached the zone he’d been striving for. He was, quite literally, mind-numbingly drunk. In this state, which he’d frequented many times in the past seven years, he could still carry on a conversation and even remember it in the morning. He could make jokes, wax philosophical, and fuck like a seventeen-year-old after the big game.
But he couldn’t think of Lissa.
It was a programmed response that had probably saved his life, and he’d gotten the ritual down to a science. When his memories overwhelmed him, he’d drink whiskey steadily until his fingers started to tingle. Then, and only then, he’d let himself shut off the part of his mind where she lived and forget her for a while.
He’d reached that place half an hour ago, and while most men would be sliding under their tray table, Ty was in the bubble. For another half hour, he’d be good company. The best. Then he’d go down hard and sleep for eight straight.
He’d dream about Lissa, that was the downside. But when he woke in the daylight, he’d be able to deal with it again.
“So.” Victoria changed the subject in a hurry. “What’s in Paris?”
“An old girlfriend’s getting married.”
“You’re going to an ex’s wedding?”
“Weird, huh? Thing is, about three months in, we both figured out that we like each other a lot, but it wasn’t going past that.” He shrugged. “We did the friends with benefits thing for a while. Now we’re just friends.”
* * *
Victoria couldn’t imagine being friends with her ex. Aside from the fact that he’d crushed her heart like roadkill, Winston wasn’t exactly fun to hang out with. They’d have to do whatever he wanted to do, just like always.
“How about you?” Ty asked. “What’s in Paris?”
“Actually, I’m headed to a wedding too, in Amboise, a couple of hours outside the city. My brother. Well, technically my half-brother, from my mother’s second marriage.”
“Second out of how many? Wait, let me guess.” He closed one eye, calculating. “Assuming she’s about fifty. . . .”
“Okay, fifty-four, and a looker, I’ll bet.” His smile said he meant it as a compliment, and her cheeks warmed in response. “A lawyer,” he went on, “so she’s financially independent, used to being her own boss. And based on her attitude about college, a control freak too, right?”
“Oh yeah, she’s into control.” She swallowed more wine.
He looked thoughtful. “Yeah, I’m gonna say she’s on number four.”
“Close.” She bobbed her glass in salute, drank again. “Number four just got kicked to the curb. She’s keeping his name, though, so she won’t have to change the firm’s letterhead again.”
“Add practical to her list of virtues.”
Victoria snorted, very unladylike. Her mother would disapprove. Then she shrugged one shoulder. “To be fair, she probably wouldn’t be so hard to live with if my father hadn’t died. He was her first husband. She really loved him.” She looked down into her glass, swirled the last inch of wine. “The rest of her husbands, her boyfriends too . . . well, Dr. Phil would say she’s trying to fill the hole Dad left.”
“How did he die?”
“Cancer. I was only three, but I remember him. Helping me blow out the candles on my birthday cake, stuff like that. And the funeral, I remember that. Mother crying and crying like she’d never get over it.”
The minute the words were out of her mouth she wished them back. Damn it, she kept stepping on land mines. First trials, now tragic death and heartbreak. What next, drunk drivers?
“So, what do you do with your Ph.D.?” she blurted, hoping he was too anesthetized to notice another abrupt topic change.
* * *
Ty noticed, but he rolled with it, untroubled by where the conversation had been and unconcerned with where it was going.
The truth was, in the slightly detached manner of the comfortably intoxicated, he was enjoying himself. Now that Victoria had come out of her cold hard shell, he kind of liked her. She had layers. He liked layers. He liked it when things weren’t what they appeared to be on the surface. Must be the philosopher in him.
And honestly, with her hair around her shoulders and that curve-hugging outfit in place of her lawyer suit, she looked good. He didn’t usually go for the pale, porcelain-skin type. Too fragile looking. And he liked more meat on his women. Still, he was a sucker for blue eyes, and he had to admit that what meat she had was in all the right places.
Effortlessly, he shifted into flirting mode.
“Mostly I dazzle the ladies with Descartes.” He wiggled his brows. “Empiricism’s always a turn-on. And rationalism? Another aphrodisiac.”
* * *
Victoria widened her eyes, playing along. “Philosophy’s sexy? Who knew?”
His smile was smug. “Make fun if you want to. But I did my dissertation on the perception of sexual experience under those two competing doctrines, and trust me, a lot of women thought that was sexy.”
Sure enough, she felt a frisson herself. She doused it with the last of her wine.
Propping her elbow on the armrest, she set her chin on her fist, scrunched her forehead into a pitying moue. “Please don’t tell me that’s your pick-up line. It’s pathetic.”
“But effective. Check it out.” He closed his eyes, made a show of slipping into character.
When he opened them again, Victoria nearly gasped. Ty the joker had vanished.
In his place was this loose-limbed, sloe-eyed cowboy straight off the range. Lanky and sexy and in no hurry at all, everything about him said baby-I’ve-got-all-night-and-I’m-gonna-spend-it-fucking-you-right.
Taking his time, he dragged his gaze down her body, languid, smoldering, raising her temperature by ten degrees, then slowly dragged it up again, lingering on her breasts, her throat, her mouth, until he locked eyes with her. Then he smiled, a slow, bone-melter of a smile.
Her heart thumped so loudly he should be able to hear it.
“Honey,” he spread his drawl like butter, “I got a favor to ask you.” Reaching across the space between them, he drew one finger down her arm, tucked it into the crook of her elbow. The slight pressure on her pulse set it racing.
“I’m doing some research for my dissertation.” He nodded slowly, encouragingly. “Yeah, that’s right, sweetheart, it’s college stuff.”
She would have chuckled but her throat had closed tight. Flecks of orange glimmered in his tiger eyes. How had she missed those before?
His teeth caught his bottom lip, tugged lightly until it popped free. “I’m studying the perception of sexual experience under the competing doctrines of rationalism and empiricism.” Drawing his finger up her arm again, he cuffed her wrist gently. “That’s all right, sugar, you don’t need to know what all those big words mean.” His voice dropped to a husky whisper. “It’s the sex I need your help with. Hours and hours. Hot and sweaty–”
She burst out in a shaky laugh. “Okay, I get it. Philosophy’s sexy.”
He sat back with an I-told-you-so smirk. “So, you want to know the upshot of all my research?”
Did she? “Uh huh.”
His lips curved in a wicked smile, and his eyes twinkled, she’d swear they did.
“I concluded that I’m definitely an empiricist – I absolutely believe that to truly understand what sex’ll be like with another person, I can’t just think about it like a rationalist would.”
He paused a beat.
“I have to experience it.”