Sneak Peek at next two chapters of Penthouse Persuasion – Cathryn Fox
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Sneak Peek at next two chapters of Penthouse Persuasion

Chapter Two

Parker Braxton.

Brax—the name his friend’s like to call him.

Stuck-Up-Suit—what he really should be called.

Layla couldn’t believe the bossy owner of SKYWEB hit her with his fancy sports car. Then again, maybe she could. He did, after all, spend more time shouting demands into his phone then paying attention to his surroundings when ordering his coffee.

Argumentative ass.

But what really surprised her was the fact that he knew her name. Any time she served him his Grande Americano extra shot, he seemed to look everywhere and anywhere but at her. Not that it surprised her. She was invisible to most men, especially the techies who worked at SKYWEB. They all came in to Uncommon Grounds with their heads buried in their devices, too lost in their string of code, or whatever else they were looking at, to notice they were being served by a real person.

Hello, I function on sugar and caffeine, not binary code, or whatever it’s called.

What ever happened to the art of conversation, an appreciation for ones environment? As an art history major at Washington State—who loved to paint and wanted to open her own gallery someday—she took great interest in nature and the beauty of her setting.

Speaking of beauty…

She stole a quick glance at Parker’s dark suit and broad shoulders as he circled the front of the vehicle. Her gaze moved to his midnight hair, cut short around his ears, then dipped lower to take in a firm, square jaw that he clenched whenever he was angry—and he always seemed angry about something or other. Did he even know he did that?  She examined his clean-shaven face—the only soft thing about him—and linked her fingers together as they itched to touch.

Seattle’s most eligible bachelor.

Not that she cared. Stuckup, arrogant men weren’t her type. Not that she had a type. She didn’t. She was too busy trying to keep afloat, to make it on her own, and the last thing she wanted was to get mixed up with some overbearing man who thought he could run the show, only to dump her and leave her with nothing.

Parker continued to circle the car. Maybe she should slide into the driver’s seat and run him over. As that evil idea danced in her head, she glanced at the ignition. Where the hell were the keys?

Stuck-Up-Suit stopped when he reached her door. Shit. She’d been so caught up that she hadn’t realized what he was doing. Dammit, she was more than capable of opening her own door and would have done just that had she known where the handle was located.

Stupid car.

Stupid Parker.

A cool gust rushed over her body as her door swung open, and he held his hand out for her. At least he wasn’t scooping her up into those big, strong arms of his.

Big, strong arms? 

What the hell? She hated this guy—long before he ran her over. She shifted in her seat, and once again the world titled on its axis. Okay, so maybe she did have a concussion. Not that she wanted Parker to know. If he so much as got a hint of her dizziness, she’d no doubt find herself back in his arms.

Would that be such a bad thing?

Hell, yes!

She didn’t want any contact with him.

He held his hand out, and she ignored it.

“I don’t need your help. You’ve done enough.”

He glared at her. “Humor me.”

“Parker—”

“Take my hand, or I’m going to carry you.”

She huffed, and even though she wanted to ignore his outstretched arm and climb out on her own volition, she reluctantly took it. Better to swallow her pride than to do a face plant on the sidewalk—or find herself wrapped up in him again.

That would be the worst.

Or not.

What the hell?

Callused hands closed over hers, and the flash of heat was instantaneous. Cripes. Her nipples swelled beneath the ugly cotton shirt management forced the employees to wear, and she prayed to God he hadn’t noticed. Although she’d just bet a guy like him never missed a thing—especially a woman’s arousal.

“Thanks,” she mumbled. As soon as her feet hit the sidewalk, she pulled her hand away and crossed her arms over her chest to hide her body’s reaction.

“You okay?” Parker asked. “Still dizzy?”

“Fine,” she lied, the pounding in her head making it harder and harder to put one foot in front of the other. Despite the fib, he slipped his arm around her waist to guide her inside the electronic double door, and it was clear he was on to her. Once inside, he led her to the busy waiting room. She glanced around to take in all the people who needed attention far more than she did. This was going to take hours she didn’t have.

Parker stepped up to the counter and exchanged words with the nurse on duty. Curious glances were cast her way, raking over the ugly brown server uniform that let everyone know she was a barista, when he came back and crouched in front of her. No doubt they were wondering what right a waitress had to be associating with a hot billionaire like him.

He handed her a clipboard. “I put in all my insurance information. I need you to fill out the rest.” She took it from him and looked it over. “I’m going to run and check on my mother. You’ll be all right?”

Tenacious, she lifted her chin. “I’ll be fine.”

“Of course you will be,” he said, lips pinched as he shook his head.

She smirked at him as he stood, and his hand slowed as he scrubbed his jaw, his gaze locked on hers. She knew what he was thinking. The second he left she was going to bolt. Smart man. She would have been gone as soon as he turned his back—if the room wasn’t upside down. She pinched her eyes shut, and tried to focus on the paper.

“Maybe I should fill this out for you.”

“I’ve got it, Parker.” She waved him away and zeroed in on the words. “Go check on your mom.”

He hesitated for a moment. “Okay. And I’m really sorry. If there’s any way I can make it up to you…”

Her gaze shot to his at the sincerity in his voice, and when she caught the tenderness in his eyes as he stared back, she softened. Maybe he wasn’t such a complete ass.

“It’s okay. Go see your mom.”

She watched him as he left. So did every other single woman in the room, and some not so single ones. Whispers reached her ears, but she ignored them and tried to focus. With blurry eyes, she filled in the blanks as best she could, then let her lids flutter shut, preparing herself for the long wait.

“Layla,” the triage nurse called.

She blinked and stood on wobbly legs. The nurse rushed up to her and hooked her arm around her waist. “Mr. Braxton says you might have a concussion.”

“Yeah,” she said. “I fell.”

“Okay, let’s get you looked at.”

She led her to a small room and took her vitals, then told her to stay put. Layla hadn’t been to the emergency room in years, but she was pretty certain that she was supposed to go back to the waiting room. When the doctor showed up, and she was bumped to the top of the waiting list, understanding dawned. Parker had pull. Big time. Still, it wasn’t in her nature to push ahead of everyone else.

“How are we today?” the elderly man with kind eyes and graying hair asked. He gestured toward the examination table. “Please have a seat up here for me.”

“A little bumped up,” she said, instantly liking him. Layla never knew her father, but as a child she’d dreamed of one day having a dad again. When she envisioned him, he wasn’t all that different from the soft-spoken man examining her.

“I can see that.” He checked her knees, inspected her knuckles, then turned her hands over. “Scraped, but no stitches needed.”

“Good.” She averted her eyes, not wanting to see the blood.

He set her hands on her thighs, his gaze going to hers. “You don’t like needles?” he asked.

“Only sewing needles, and even then from a distance.”

He laughed at that, pulled a slender penlight from his coat pocket, and shone it in each eye, flicking it back and forth. “Headache?”

She was about to nod but remembered what happened last time. “Yes, and dizzy.”

“Double vision?”

“That, too.”

“Feeling nauseous?”

Her hand closed over her stomach. “Tumbling like an acrobat on speed.” But that could be attributed to the donut that doubled as her breakfast and lunch. A big, custard-filled pasty on an empty stomach washed down with a dark brew would make anyone sick. But beggars couldn’t be choosers, right? Every cent she made went in to paying for her upcoming winter semester and rent, which she was late on once again. Food was secondary at this point.

He spent a few more seconds checking her eyes, then tucked the pen back into his white coat pocket. “Looks like you have a concussion.”

Shit, that was the last thing she wanted to hear. “And that means…”

“You have to rest.”

“For how long?”

“Recovery could be as quick as a few hours, or as long as a few weeks.”

“I don’t have weeks. Exams are coming up. I can’t miss classes.” Plus, she needed to work extra hours to get caught up on her rent. She kept that to herself, because he didn’t need to know.

He nodded and focused on her chart. “You need to spend the next few hours resting, Layla. Can you at least do that?”

“Okay,” she said to appease him. But as soon as she was discharged, she was headed straight to campus.

He studied her, those astute blue eyes moving over her face, before his focus returned to her chart. His pen flew across the paper as he wrote something, but she couldn’t see what it was. “I see Mr. Braxton brought you in. Will he be taking you home?”

“No,” she said, a little too quickly. She produced her phone from her back pocket. “I mean, I’m going to call my friend.” She really didn’t have anyone to call—her best friend Andi, who also worked at the coffee shop—didn’t have a car. That, and she was in Bellevue visiting with her mother today. Normally she wasn’t prone to lying, but today it was necessary, otherwise she’d find herself in Parker’s car again. Or his arms. Not going to happen.

“Will she be able to spend the night with you? I think it would be in your best interest.”

“For sure.” Liar, liar. She glanced down, expecting her pants, or rather skirt, to go up in flames.

“Okay, I’ll send the nurse back in to get you cleaned and bandaged.”

“Thank you.”

He touched her shoulder, a gentle, caring squeeze. “Be sure to rest, Layla.”

“I will.”  Not.

A few minutes later, the nurse arrived. Long ponytail bobbing, she bounced into the room, tray in hand. Layla glanced at her nametag. Brittany. They appeared to be about the same age.

“Do you want to lie down while I do this?” Brittany asked, dropping the tray on the desk and reaching for the antiseptic.

“No, I’m fine.” She just wanted this done and over with.

Brittany soaked a cotton ball and tended to her wounds, cleaning them and covering the cuts with gauze and bandages. She tried to engage Layla in conversation, but the more she talked, the worse Layla’s head felt. She briefly closed her eyes, but the room started spinning. Feeling off balance, she gripped the sides of the bed and swayed.

The nurse put her hands on her Layla’s shoulders. “Whoa, you okay?”

“I will be,” she said.

Stupid concussion.

Stupid Parker.

“You do have someone picking you up, right?”

“Yeah.” A bus.

“I’m going to use the wheelchair to take you out of here.” Layla was about to protest when Nurse Brittany said, “You don’t want to risk a fall.”

It was true. She didn’t. That would only slow her down, and truthfully she wanted to be gone before Parker finished visiting his mother.

She sat quietly while Brittany fetched a wheelchair, and when she came back, she helped ease Layla into it. With her head down, hair covering her face—she so did not like drawing attention to herself—Brittany wheeled her to the exit.

“I’ll wait here until your friend comes.”

“No, that’s fine.” A bit panicked—and slightly embarrassed that she really didn’t have anyone other than her best friend Andi to call—she scanned the vehicles lining the street. “I see her.” Layla raised her hand and waved to some strange woman putting money into her meter.  The woman stilled, gazing back at Layla, like they just released her from the crazy ward. She pushed from the chair and stood, trying her hardest to keep her balance. “I feel much better. Thanks so much.”

Brittany hesitated for a moment, but Layla walked away. The sound of the wheelchair being rolled back into the hospital gave her a measure of relief. Once Brittany was gone, she turned and made her way to the bus stop. She pulled her bus pass from her purse and squeezed onto the already full bench. She had no idea what time it was, or how long it was going to take for the bus to come. She reached for her phone to check, but the sound of tires squealing a few feet away stilled her. What the hell?

Slowly lifting her head to keep herself from getting dizzy, she spotted Parker’s Tesla doing a U-turn in the street. Oh, crap. Now what? He pulled up in front of her, stopped his car in the bus lane, and climbed out.

“You can’t park there,” she said, as all eyes turned to her and Parker, all eyes except hers. Maybe if she ignored him, he’d go away.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

She lifted her chin, but the second her gaze met his, desire bombarded her and evoked a myriad of sinful thoughts. Honest to God, how could he do that to her with just a simple look. She was a virgin for crying out loud and didn’t go around fantasizing about hotheaded guys who thought they could tell her what to do. Well, at least she didn’t before today. Had to be the concussion.

“I could ask you the same,” she shot back, nudging his temper on purpose. Perhaps if he was really mad, he wouldn’t notice the effect he had on her.

“I thought you said you had ride home.”

“I do.” Starching her spine, she glanced past his body and down the street. “Should be here any minute.”

He clenched his jaw like he always did when pissed off and mumbled curses under his breath. “You said you had a friend picking you up.”

“The bus driver and I go way back. I like him a lot. He never once ran over me.”

Way to poke the bear, Layla.

He took a step toward her. “You’re coming with me.”

Chatter erupted around her as everyone watched Parker cause a scene. What the hell was wrong with this guy? All she wanted was to be left alone. “I am not coming with you.”

“Yeah, you are,” he said.

Clearly no one ever said ‘no’ to this man. “No, I’m….”

Her protest died on her lips when he scooped her up and carried her to his car. Why does he keep touching me?

“I could use some help here,” she said to the crowd. “I’m being kidnapped.”

Not one person came to her aid as he carried her off. Were they all afraid of Parker Braxton? Well, she sure as hell wasn’t.

“Put me down.” Even though she was fuming, her hands snaked around his neck to hold on when what she really should be doing was giving him a good throat punch. She’d watched numerous self-defense videos. She could do it if she wanted to.

So why wasn’t she doing it?

He opened the door, set her on the seat, and shut it tight. She immediately went in search of the elusive door handle. Jesus, she hated this car. Parker slid into the driver’s side, and she sucked in a breath, hating how his presence overwhelmed her, how freaking good he smelled.

“Your books are in the back seat,” was all he said as she struggled to get out.

Her hand stilled. Right. She’d forgotten all about them. She clearly wasn’t thinking straight. She turned to reach for them, and he put his hand on hers to stop her. A warm palm closed over one wrist, and her entire body lit up like a Christmas tree. She sucked in a breath. All righty then.

“Leave them for now.”

She snatched her hand back. “Fine.”

“The doctor said you have a concussion and that you needed someone to spend the night with you.”

“You were checking on me?”

“Yes,” he said, unapologetically. “I told you; you’re my responsibility.”

“I’m not—”

“Do you have a friend to stay with you?” The muscles along his jaw rippled as he put the car into drive. He pulled into traffic and retraced the route he’d taken to get to the hospital. At least he was taking her back to her campus.

“Yes,” she lied.

“Would this be the same friend who was picking you up? Your bus driver?”

She glared at him. “I have more than one friend, you know.”

He cast a quick glance her way, and when his eyes locked on hers, she was almost certain her ovaries were about to explode. Good Lord. She needed to get sex off her mind, a difficult task considering she was sitting next to the hottest guy on the planet, the same guy who had a different socialite on his arm every week.

As they neared her campus, he took a left instead of a right. “What are you doing?”

“Taking you home.”

Unease cramped her stomach. “How do you know where I live?” He arched a brow, and she rolled her eyes. “Of course, you looked at my chart. Is nothing off limits to you?”

“No.”

As they approached the run-down basement apartment she lived in, she darted a quick glance around. “Pull over.”

“Why?”

“I just want to get out here.”

“I’m not letting you out here. I’m taking you to your apartment.” He slowed and crept into the cracked and pitted driveway, and stared at the run-down house before him. “This is where you live?”

“That’s what it said on the chart you snooped in wasn’t it?” she said, hating that she felt embarrassed. The man was a billionaire who was used to luxury, and she could only imagine what was going through his head, what he’d think about the ugly building she lived in. She waited for some nasty comment about her living conditions.

“Fine,” was all he said, no mention of it at all, and for that she was grateful. “I’m going to see you in, and I’m staying until your friend arrives.”

Panic clutched her throat. “You don’t have to do that.” He was already out of the car collecting the textbooks from the back before she could finish protesting. He came around the car, opened the passenger side door, and helped her out.

He slid his arm around her waist when she stood, and honest to God it felt nice to be held by him. Still, she should protest. “I’m fine you know,” she said. Too bad the objection was a ridiculously feeble one.

Well done, Layla.

“So you’re a doctor now?”

“Yeah, I am. Didn’t you look at those textbooks? I’m in medical school,” she said, shooting the lie back quickly.

He shook his head, and she smirked at him, but the smile fell from her face when he tightened his grip around her waist, pulling her close, too close. His nearness and hardness nearly took the fight right out of her.

Breathe, Layla, breathe.

She fished the key from her bag and opened her door. He stepped in, and stood for a second, like he was trying to get his bearings.

“I need to go to the bathroom,” she said, pushing away from him. She didn’t. Not really. But she needed a reprieve from the overbearing man who, without even trying, had her nipples tightening, and the spot between her legs stirring to life. She’d been so busy working and going to school, men were not on her radar. But Parker, well he wasn’t an ordinary man. No, he infuriated the living hell out of her, yet at the same time had all her erogenous zones tingling.

She darted to the bathroom and splashed some cold water on her face. As she blotted it dry, a bang came from the kitchen. Was he going through her cupboard—her very empty cupboards? Goddamn him. Tossing the towel aside, she hurried back down the narrow hall and found Parker sitting at her wobbly kitchen chair, a troubled look on his face.

His head lifted slowly, those intelligent blue eyes trained on her face. “I need you to tell me the truth, Layla.”

“About what?”

“Do you or do you not have a friend coming to stay with you?”

“Parker—”

“Family?”

“Look—” she began, but before she could say anything else he was on his feet and storming down the hall.

“What are you doing?”

“Getting your clothes.”

“My clothes?” she said. What the hell was he talking about? “Why are you getting my clothes?”

“Because you’re coming home with me.”

She stood there for one shocked moment, then rushed down the hall after him, nearly falling as lightheadedness overcame her. “Like hell I am.” She gripped the doorframe and focused on the bossy man dominating her small bedroom. When she found him digging through her dresser drawers and filling one of her tote bags with her clothes—correction, her panties—a rush of anger burned though her body.

The nerve of him!

“I am not going anywhere with you.”

He slammed a drawer shut. “Fine, I’ll stay here with you.”

Panic raced through her. Hell, she couldn’t have that. She was hiding out from her landlord until she got paid, and if he spotted Parker’s very expensive car in the driveway, he’d be at her door. He’d already given her an extension, but she still didn’t have the money to pay him, and she didn’t want Parker witnessing that embarrassing exchange. Dammit. She needed him to leave. Now.

“You are not staying here.”

“Then get what you need from the bathroom,” he said.

Was he freaking serious?

“No.”

“Fine, don’t. I’ll just buy what you need.”

Oh my God, this was so not happening.

 

Chapter Three

Parker had no idea what he was doing. What the hell was he thinking inviting her to his home? He had work to do, meetings to attend, but the second he’d seen her sitting there at the bus stop, those big brown eyes searching for something on her phone, he was done for. Totally fucking done for. Before he even realized what he was doing, he’d spun his car around, and now here he stood, in her sparse, neglected apartment, sparring with this little mite of a woman who had her hands planted on her hips. She was infuriating as hell, but Jesus, she was sexy when she was mad. The fire in her eyes, combined with the way she puckered those lush pink lips was just about the hottest thing he’d ever seen.

“What are you smirking about?” she yelled at him.

He wiped his expression clean, as well as the lust from his brain. “Nothing, now get your stuff together.”

“You know you’re an ass, right?”

“An ass? Really? That’s all you got?” He laughed. “Hurry up. I have things to do.”

“If this is some weird gesture so I don’t sue you, you can relax.” Guys like him cared about money, not people, of that she was sure. “I have no intention of bringing charges against you. I’m sure you didn’t hit me on purpose, right?”

“Of course I didn’t,” he said. “Now move.”

She poked his chest. “I am not leaving, and there is nothing you can do or say to make me. Got it?”

He briefly pinched the bridge of his nose. He so did not have time for this today. “You need someone to stay with you tonight. You’re lying about your friend, and that leaves me with no choice but to take you to my place. You clearly don’t want me staying here, judging by the panic that spread across your face when I suggested it.” He gave her a minute to refute that, but she just stood there glaring up at him. Jesus, at least they were in her bedroom and not her kitchen where she had access to sharp objects. He exhaled sharply. “Fine, then. If you can produce this friend in the next five minutes, I’ll back off.”

She frowned and averted her eyes, counting the pit marks on her scuffed wood floor. “I…she.”

He stuffed all he could fit into her bag and zipped it. “That’s what I thought.”

She rooted her feet. “You’re a bully.”

“Yeah, and if you don’t turn around, walk down that hall, and get in my car, I’m going to put you over my shoulder and carry you.”

Her eyes widened, heat flashing inside them. Heat? What the fuck? He scrubbed his chin. Dammit, did the idea of being in his arms again excite her? Shit, he sure as hell hoped not. He wouldn’t be able to handle it if she wanted him like he did her. Control was something he prided himself on having, but with Layla, he felt like he was climbing a gym class rope that had just been rubbed down with Vaseline. He could put every ounce of effort into it, but it wouldn’t get him anywhere.

She folded her arms. “You wouldn’t.”

“Try me.”

Cursing under her breath, she spun around and stomped down the hall. He followed her, keeping his eyes on the door, and off the soft, sensuous sway to her hips. He was about to ask about her winter coat when her knees faltered. Her hands flew to the wall in a feeble effort to balance herself.

“Shit, Layla.” Moving swiftly, he grabbed her around the waist and pulled her back to his chest, a rush of tenderness overcoming him as he held her securely. “You’re really not okay,” he whispered in her ear, and her body shook against his. And that scared him. A whole hell of a lot.

She went perfectly still and took deep breaths, letting him hold her for a long moment, then in a quiet, barely audible voice said, “Just one night, Parker, then you take me home.”

“One night,” he agreed, pretty sure that’s all he could handle. Otherwise he just might act on his urges, and with a sweet and innocent girl like her, that would be so fucking wrong.

“I’ll need my books.”

“You won’t be able—”

“I need to study.”

“All right.” He helped her to the kitchen and found a light coat by her door, hardly enough to keep her warm as winter approached. He snatched it from the hook and draped it over her tiny shoulders. .

“Why don’t you have a winter coat?”

She pulled her hair from her shoulders and slipped into the coat. The jasmine scent of her shampoo reached his nostrils. “I gave it away.”

“Why the hell would you give it away? Seattle is cold and damp in the winter.”

“I just did, okay?”

Clearly, she wasn’t going to tell him, and he shut his mouth rather than pushing. Arguing with her was like installing a peephole in a glass door—pointless. “Come on.” He held her to him and led her back to his car. Before he shut the door, he pointed to the handle.

“That’s a stupid place to put a door handle,” she said, and he couldn’t help but shake his head at her.

“Just don’t jump from the car before it’s stopped, and let me help you in and out.” She was about to protest, but he arched a brow, and said, “You agreed to let me take care of you for the next twenty-four hours, and that includes me helping you in and out of the car.”

“Fine.” She folded her hands on her lap and stared out the front window as he tossed her bag and books into the back seat, crossed the back of the car, and slid in beside her.

She sat there fuming as he drove, and unable to handle it anymore, he decided to engage her in conversation.

‘What are you studying?”

“Art history,” she mumbled, but there was a hint of pride and excitement in her voice.

“Wow, that must be hard to balance with medical school,” he teased. She snarled at him, and he couldn’t help but grin. “Tell me more about your degree. It sounds fascinating.”

She stared for a second, like she was trying to figure out if he was mocking her or not, then broke into conversation.  She smiled as she talked, the first one he’d ever seen on her face, and wow. It lit up the entire car, as well as other parts of his body. She really was breathtaking, and he listened carefully as she talked about her classes. He pulled onto the highway and remembered the paintings on her wall.

“Those paintings at your place, are they yours?”

A sheepish look came over her face. “Yeah, I don’t really show them or anything.”

“They’re beautiful,” he stated. “They should be in an art gallery.”

She rolled one shoulder. “You’re just saying that.”

“Like hell I am. Don’t worry, when you get to know me, you’ll see I tell it like it is.” Wait, what was he saying? They had no plans to get to know each other. He was taking care of her until she recovered. That was it.

“So you’re candid?”

“Yeah.”

“Interesting.”

“What’s so interesting about that?”

“It’s not the word I’d use to describe you, is all.”

He shot a glance her way, and when he caught her small grin, he laughed. “Apparently, the junior software developers in my division keep a list of names at the office.”

“Really? Where can I get a hold of it? I’d like to add a few of my own.”

He turned the radio down and pulled off the highway. “Art major, doctor, and comedian. Impressive. Tell me more about your paintings.”

“Someday I’d like to own my own gallery.” She gave a noncommittal shrug. “Maybe I’ll hang them then.”

Thanks to light traffic, he made it to his place in less than half an hour. He pulled the car into the garage of the steel and glass high-rise building and killed the engine.

“So this is where you live.”

“This is where I park my car.” He pointed upward. “I live upstairs.”

She crinkled her nose at him and opened her door. “Now who’s the funny one?”

He touched her arm. “Wait.”

She folded her arms like a damn petulant child and huffed. “You run me over, then kidnap me, and now you won’t let me out of this stupid car with the stupid door handle.”

“My car is not stupid.”

She blinked long lashes over innocent eyes. “You’re right. My mistake.”

The slow smirk playing with the corners of her mouth alluded to the fact that the car wasn’t stupid, he was.

“Jesus, that mouth of yours,” Parker mumbled as he slid from his seat and hurried to her side. He closed the door and leaned her against it as he retrieved her books and bag. He pressed his fob to lock the door, slid his arms around her waist, and led her to the elevator a few steps away. Surprise lit her eyes when the doors widened and the elevator operator stepped out.

“Gregory, this is Layla. She’ll be staying with me for a bit.”

She held her finger up. “One day,” she said quickly, correcting Parker.

Parker ground his teeth together. “Please give her full access to the building. Anything she needs.”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Braxton, anything you need.”

“Thanks.”

Gregory put his key into the penthouse slot, and Layla sank against the back wall as the elevator took them to the top floor. The doors opened to his wide expanse of living room overlooking the water.

He gestured for her to step off, afraid she just might ride back down again once he exited. She carefully pushed off the wall.

“Thanks, Gregory,” she said and gave him big smile. Parker scoffed. Christ, she never smiled at him like that. Then again, Gregory hadn’t run her over.

Her footsteps slowed, became more tentative as she entered his suite. She glanced around, taking it all in, and he momentarily put himself in her shoes, seeing his place from her eyes. Massive. Professionally decorated and painted in a pallet of subtle grays. Sterile. Extravagant. Far too much space for one person.

“Wow,” she finally said. “What a place.” She walked up to the floor-to-ceiling window and looked out over the water. “Gorgeous, and so quiet.”

She turned to him, her skin a little paler than before. Either she was afraid of heights, or her condition was worsening. “Do you have any pets?”

“No.” He didn’t do pets, not since he found a stray kitten and took him home. The vet nursed the poor guy back to health, only for him to die at the foot of Parker’s bed a month later. Losing Chester like that fucking broke his heart.

“I’m not allowed pets, either.”

“I’m allowed pets. I just don’t want them.”

That statement seemed to disgust her. “How long have you lived here?”

“Not long. Why don’t I show you to your room.”

“I can find it myself.”

“Layla—”

“Fine.”

She grinned, and he shook his head. She was pushing back on purpose, of that much he was sure. He tossed her stack of books onto his dining room table, one he never used, hiked her duffle bag over his shoulder, and guided her down the long hall. They passed his room, and she slowed to peek in. The house cleaner had been by already, and the place, was immaculate.

They entered her bedroom, and she just stood there for a moment taking in the view of the water. “Nice.”

“You’ll be okay in here?”

“Okay? I could live in this space.” She widened her arms. “It’s bigger than my entire apartment.”

“So that’s a yes.” He stepped up to the queen-size bed and dropped her bag on it. “I…” His words fell off as she settled herself on the bedding and spread her arms and legs like she was about to make snow angels, but the position and mussed sheets didn’t really bring angelic thoughts to mind. Just the opposite, in fact. Why again had he thought it was a good idea to bring her here?

Fuck me.

“It’s so soft,” she said, rolling onto her side, her long hair spilling over his pillow.

Soft? Nope, not really.

“If I had a bed like this, I’d never get out of it.”

He could relate. If he had a girl like her in that bed, he’d never get out of it, either.

Jesus, get it together, asshole. She’s here for one night—because you ran her over—and not only is she’s totally off limits, she doesn’t appear to like you much.

“I’ll leave you here to get comfortable.” He tugged on his tie, resisting the urge to tighten the bedspread over the corners as she messed it up, and was about to leave when her voice stopped him.

“Um, you wouldn’t mind if I had a bath, would you?”

“What about your cuts?”

“I can re-bandage.” She frowned. “You do you have bandages, don’t you?”

“Yeah,” he said, even though he didn’t. But by the time she finished her bath, he’d have everything she needed and then some.

He was about to leave again when his stomach grumbled, a reminder that he’d been so worried about his mother and Layla, he hadn’t eaten lunch. “Are you hungry?”

“I’m okay,” she said, the lie easily spilling from her mouth. He’d seen her cupboards. A few stale crackers and freeze-dried soup in a box.

“I’m starving. How about some Chinese takeout? Anything in particular you like?”

Her eyes went wide—clearly Chinese takeout was a luxury that wasn’t hers—then she schooled her feathers. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to eat. I’m still feeling a bit queasy from the concussion.” She pulled her phone from her pocket, put it on the nightstand, then opened her bag. Dumping it upside down, she poured the contents on her bed, her clothes scattering as she rooted through them. His fingers curled. Parker liked everything organized, and Layla was already throwing his serene space into chaos.

“I’ll just order a bunch of things, and maybe something will appeal to you.”

She examined her mess of clothes and frowned. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I don’t have any pajamas.” She waved her hands. “That’s okay. I’ll figure out something.”

“Hang on.” He went to his room and pulled open his closet door. Thirty or more white shirts all spaced close to an inch apart hung from white hangers. He tugged one off, grabbed a pair of brand new warm wool socks from his dresser, an unused gift from his mother, and snatched a pair of his cotton workout sweats that tied at the waist. They’d be huge on her, but they’d be warm and comfortable. Plus, she could slip out of them when she crawled into bed.

The image of her in his shirt and nothing else, all snuggled up in the room beside his raced through his mind. Shit.

Pushing that from his thoughts, he retraced his steps and found her sitting on her bed waiting for him. “Here, tomorrow we’ll get you new clothes.”

“I’m leaving tomorrow,” she reminded him.

“Right, okay.” Why did he keep forgetting that? He paused for a moment and looked her over. “Are you sure you should have a bath? What if you get dizzy?”

“I really need one.” She ran her fingers over the sweatpants he gave her. “I guess I could always leave the door cracked. If I need you, I’ll call.”

“Okay,” he said, and nearly bit off his tongue. He’d be fucking done for if he had to scoop her out of the tub wet and naked and tuck her into her bed.

“I’ll stay close,” he said, trying not to sound like he’d just taken sandpaper to his throat. He crooked two fingers. “At least let me show you where the bathroom is, and help you run the bath.” She stood and followed him back down the hall. He flicked the light on and stepped in. Towels were folded nearby on the shelving unit, and he reached for a big one.

She took the cotton and brushed it over her face. A small smile touched her mouth. “Mmmm,” she murmured. Would she make those same sexy sounds in bed when he was between her legs? Fuck. “How do you get them so fluffy?”

“Cleaning service,” he bit out a little too harshly. He started the tub and held his hand under until he got the temperature just right.

She looked around, her gaze cataloging the big bathroom, then she met his glance as he sat on the edge of the big whirlpool tub. “You wouldn’t happen to have any bath salts would you?”

“Do I look like the kind of guy who uses bath salts, Layla?”

“No, not really, but I thought maybe one of your girlfriends—”

“No bath salts,” he said again, making a mental note to add it to the list of things he needed. And as far as girlfriends went, he never brought a woman to his place. That somehow made it personal, and he avoided those intimacies at all costs. It wasn’t just the bachelor pact he kept in his back pocket to remind him that everyone wanted something from him. He was anti-marriage long before that. He had his parents to thank for his jaded views on love, relationships, and…manipulation. Christ, his own mother trapped his father by getting pregnant with him. They were separated now but still making each other miserable.

So yeah, sex at a hotel was much less personal, and no woman had complained yet, especially when they went to Seattle’s finest and champagne and caviar was involved.

“Layla?”

“Yeah?”

“Do you like caviar?” he asked.

Why the hell am I asking her that?

“Uh, not really,” she said. “Wait. Why? Have you changed your mind on the Chinese takeout?”

“No.” He raked his hand through is hair. “What kind of soda do you like?”

“Anything at all.” She shrugged. “I’m easy.”

I’m easy.

Oh Jesus.