Stripped Excerpt! Chapter 1
I fucking love New York.
The city streets might have been freezing, but inside it was hot.
The club was three stories. The top two had wraparound balconies overlooking a crowded dance floor. An enormous chandelier hung from the center, pulsing with light to the music.
“This place is unreal!” I shouted at my best friend, Lex.
We were dressed to the nines, two twenty-one-year-olds high on the city. We’d flown to the Big Apple over winter break to pitch our clothing designs to the magazine editor Lex interned with. But we were also there to celebrate the end of the fall semester at our San Diego college.
Right now, I needed to flirt.
I was wearing my favorite dress, low-cut and fitted. It clearly supported my “no curve left behind” policy.
“Let’s dance!” I dragged Lex onto the floor, an orgy of lights and skin and sparkles, and looked around at the sea of people fueled by ambition and Red Bull. Despite the four-inch heels, I was still hopelessly short in this crowd of adults-only. It didn’t matter. Everyone was high on being young and alive.
A group of guys in suits standing at the nearest bar pulled my attention.
My type’s always been surfer, not banker. Blame it on my Cali roots, but I’m a sucker for messy hair, washboard abs, and an easy-breezy “I’ve got all the time in the world” attitude. But when one of the guys by the bar turned his head toward me, I had to force myself to keep dancing.
He would send easy breezy running for cover.
The vibe went past his tailored suit. It was in all of him—how he held his shoulders. The tilt of his head.
I knew what lust looked like. Heat, sex, flirtation—they were easy. Guys had looked at me like that, and I knew what to do with it. If I was feeling it and if I wasn’t.
But this guy wasn’t flirting. His gaze was pure intensity, ocean deep. And maybe just as soulless.
Where the hell did that thought come from?
“Hello? New York calling Ava?” My best friend yanked my mind back to the dance floor, wiggling her eyebrows. I loved her in all her forms, but tipsy Lex was especially fun. She bottled up everything she was feeling, working her butt off during the school year, but once in a while a little crazy would leak out. “Need a wing woman? I know you’ve been dying to check out the New York manscape.”
I smothered a laugh. “Thanks, hon. I do like a good … manscape.”
“I’m going to pee,” she said solemnly. “You want to come?”
“If you want me to.” I glanced back toward the guy who was staring holes in me. My breath caught. “Or I can get us another drink.”
“Deal.” Lex cut a determined path through the crowd. When my eyes found the bar again, the guy was gone.
Disappointment crept in. Which was crazy. Sure, he was hot, but hot guys were a dime a dozen, especially here.
I approached the bar. My hips swayed absently to the music while l leaned over the counter to grab the bartender’s attention. A short man with dark hair appeared at my elbow and grinned drunkenly, eyes moving from my face to my chest.
“Hey baby,” he slurred. “I coulda bought you that,” he added as the bartender passed me two cocktails.
“It’s OK, I’m with a friend,” I said automatically. I didn’t need to lay into him. We all get a little drunk sometimes, and he’d probably be embarrassed in the morning.
“You could be my friend.” He moved closer and leaned into me, like the secrets of the universe were hidden in my cleavage.
Nice Ava has left the building. I was about to tell him in explicit detail how he could befriend his hand instead when something brushed my arm.
The Suit was next to me. Like I’d conjured him by snapping my fingers or wishing on the Hot Guy Fairy.
Perceptive eyes moved between me and the drunk, assessing. Finally he stepped closer, laying a hand lightly on my waist and dropping his head toward my ear in a familiar way. “There you are,” he said over the music.
“Dammit! Where the hell have you been?” I asked as if I knew him.
“A little problem with the Porsche.” His whiskey-smooth voice caressed my ear. My spine tingled, like violin strings responding to a bow.
“That’s what you get for buying an import,” I tossed back.
Is it my imagination or did his eyes just light up?
I’d nearly forgotten drunk guy until he took a step toward us. “You’re not with her.”
Instead of backing down, the Suit tugged me to his side before responding. “You should leave.”
“Really? I think she wants me here.” He cut a lecherous look toward me. Even though I knew nothing would happen, it gave me chills.
“Friend, you’re almost too drunk to stand,” my protector said easily, like they were talking about the weather or sports scores. “You won’t be able to get it up. Even if some girl does take pity on you.”
“No, you listen.” His tone hardened to steel under the surface. “You and her aren’t going to happen. So take a picture and move the hell along. Because this is not the day to fuck with me. Friend.”
Drunk guy blinked like he realized pushing this further would be a mistake. We watched him as he finally disappeared into the crowd with a few muttered curses in our direction.
Male aggression had never really got me going. Guys fighting over a girl normally remind me of wild animals fighting over a carcass. Somehow, though, the way the Suit had sent the other guy packing without even creasing his jacket sent a little thrill through me.
We both realized at the same time that he was still holding me. He dropped his hand and I stepped back to put a few inches between us. “Thanks for the save,” I said.
“Any decent person would do the same.” His voice was cool instead of warm like I’d expected.
“No they wouldn’t.”
Blue eyes searched mine. “I need to say something. What’s your name?”
He just nodded. “I’m Nate,” he said in a voice that was starting to make my skin hum. “Here’s the thing, Ava. A Hyundai is an import. A Porsche is an unparalleled feat of European engineering wrapped in sex.”
I snorted. “You’re just trying to impress girls at a bar. I bet you don’t even have a Porsche.”
Nate straightened, and the corner of his mouth crooked. “Care to find out?”
I’d been imagining this cool, untouchable guy, but the bad line brought me back to earth like a bucket of ice dumped over my head. He was another ass, like the one he’d saved me from. Just better looking and, for now, less drunk.
“Yeah. I’m not going to fuck you tonight. But it’s been fun.” I glanced down at my phone, figuring he’d get the message. No texts from Lex. I should go check on her …
When I looked up, he was still there. Apparently getting shot down was new for him.
“I wasn’t asking you to have sex with me,” he said, frowning. “I was asking if you care what I drive. Most girls do.”
“Sounds like the girls you know have the depth of a kiddie pool. I don’t care if you drive a Porsche, a Hyundai, or a golf cart.”
Nate tilted his head as if he’d just seen a kind of animal he hadn’t known existed. That assessing look was back, like his gaze went deeper than my skin.
“Cheers to that,” he said finally.
“You can’t cheers,” I reminded him. “You don’t have a drink.”
“And yet you have two.” He gestured to the martini glasses in my hands, eyes never leaving mine.
Well played, Suit.
“Aren’t you supposed to offer to buy girls drinks?” I challenged. This conversation wasn’t like any flirting I’d ever done, but it still had my brain lighting up and my heart pumping hard.
“Aren’t girls supposed to wait for guys to buy them drinks?” he countered.
“I’m not very good at doing what I’m supposed to.”
“Finally, something we have in common. So how about that drink.” The corner of his mouth twitched. “And for the record,” he added, “I would’ve bought you one. If you hadn’t beaten me to it. Twice.”
I let my eyes run down his body and then back up, slowly. He was long and lean, with broad shoulders, dark hair, piercing eyes. I was suddenly imagining the muscles under that suit. Firm chest. Ripped abs.
I was not ready for the way his smile transformed him. Suddenly relaxed, like my teasing had defused the tension, he looked younger. He maybe had a few years on me. It made me wonder what his deal was, why he looked so composed and conservative but seemed slightly quirky underneath.
“The drink’s for a friend,” I told him reluctantly. The hint of disappointment in his eyes might’ve matched the one in mine.
I didn’t want to walk away and neither did he.
He had done me a solid with drunk guy. I could get Lex another drink later…
“All right, Suit. Let’s see what you’ve got.” I handed over one of the cosmos and toasted him with mine, then downed it. He followed, grimacing after knocking back the sugary pink liquid. I set our glasses on a railing and started to tow him toward the pulsing lights and writhing bodies.
“So you’re from New York,” Nate called over the music.
I stopped and turned around. Making conversation meant too much thinking. I just wanted to bask for a few minutes in the glory of his stunning jaw line and slow smile.
“Are you really here—” I gestured to the club around us “—to make small talk?”
“Shockingly, no. I came as a favor for a friend.”
“Well, it’s not every day I get to dance with an underwear model, so why don’t you do us both a favor and dance with me.”
I managed to tug him a couple more steps toward the floor before he hit the brakes again. “You think I’m a model,” he stated, incredulous.
“Just go with it,” I begged.
“All right. But this whole no-talking thing’s strange. I feel compelled to inform you,” he added, “that most girls like to talk.”
“Are you a girl?” I looked pointedly at him.
“Not last time I checked,” he responded wryly.
“Then we’re good! Come on!” I tilted my head toward the dance floor. Any day now, Suit …
His eyes narrowed. “You really just want me for my body.”
“Totally.” Though it wasn’t just that. It was the confidence he was projecting, the aura. I wanted to wrap it around me, roll around in it a while.
“Fine,” he said. “But tell me something about you so I don’t feel like such a creep groping you.”
One of his hands was threaded in mine and the other was at his side. “You aren’t groping me.”
But when I looked up, his expression had shifted. I was suddenly aware of every inch of my body, despite the fact that his eyes didn’t move from mine.
“Maybe I’m being polite until I get to know you.” His mouth curved at the corner in a way that was more than a little wicked.
A flare of anticipation lit the bottom of my spine and I paused at the edge of the dance floor. Once we were on it, it’d be too loud to talk at all.
“All right, you want to know something about me? I’m afraid of seals. Like, truly fucking terrified.”
Confusion crossed his refined features. “That’s fair. They’re big.”
I shook my head emphatically. “No, you’re thinking of sea lions. I mean seals. Those cute playful things that swim around and do tricks.” I shuddered. “They’re so sneaky looking. Like they’re going to swim up and bite your ankle.”
The grin slowly spread across Nate’s face.
“Now you get to say one thing about yourself,” I prompted him, making up the rules as I went.
He looked out across the club, as if thinking for a minute before he responded. “I jumped off the roof of a shed when I was seven. Thought I could fly. Went to the hospital for five stitches.” He pointed to his eyebrow.
“Where?” I couldn’t see anything.
Nate leaned closer and my breath caught. I forced myself to pay attention to where his finger rested on his temple instead of to his mouth, just inches from mine. Then I could see it. The pale scar interrupting his eyebrow, barely visible in the low light.
“There. We’re practically best friends. Let’s go, Spiderman.”
“What?” I leaned closer.
“If you’re going to give me an alter ego. I’d prefer Superman.”
I laughed. It was hard to imagine this together guy being a reckless kid, no matter what he’d said to the drunk earlier.
I finally succeeded in towing him into the throng of bodies losing themselves to the insistent beat. I pressed my back to his front, his face fitting just above my shoulder.
Yes. This was what I’d wanted. A guy like this, on a night like this. Fun. Easy. Without any complications.
Nate was long planes and hard angles joined by muscle I felt when he brushed against my shoulders and my back. My ass. I imagined what he’d feel like without all the fabric between us.
A kick of lust ran through me. It’d been a while since I’d felt it, and I missed it. Needed it.
I was caught off guard when Lex materialized at my side a song later. “There you are!” I exclaimed, feeling guilty I’d nearly forgotten her for a few moments. I pulled away from Nate to lean close enough so she’d hear me. “Where were you?”
“Bathroom. Can I get a drink?”
“Sure. Then get your ass back out here and dance!”
She did, spinning off with another guy soon after coming back. I kept an eye on her but had to admit I was getting distracted. Nate and I’d started out dancing more friendly and flirty than hot and heavy, but every time his body brushed against mine it dialed up the tension. His hands were on my hips, but light and easy, not gripping and desperate.
I should’ve been relieved after the pushy guy at the bar. I wasn’t. The more casual he acted, the more worked up I got.
What the fuck, Suit?
When I glanced back over my shoulder, I saw his face, his mouth just parted. Those dark blue eyes on me.
Nate had me on a slow burn.
It wasn’t enough. The beat of the music was repetitive, and the minor chords giving in to majors wreaked havoc with my feelings.
“You still with me, Ava?” he murmured.
“Yeah.” My mind chased down any possible explanation for his cool behavior. Was he totally unaffected? I mean, maybe he had just come to save me from the drunk guy. Was dancing with me to be nice instead of blowing me off.
But he’d made such an effort to get that drink …
Screw this. I needed to know.
I reached back and wrapped a hand around his neck, inviting him closer. After a moment’s hesitation he circled my waist with one arm, tugging me to him and bringing his mouth near my ear. I pressed my hips back into his.
Oh my God.
And now it was better and worse. I could feel Nate, hard against my back, and hear his breaths get shallow. I knew he wanted what I did—or at least his body wanted it. His hand tightened on my waist, only to relax again when I tilted my head so my ear was closer to his mouth.
“What’re you thinking, pretty girl?” Nate asked, his voice catching.
“That it’s hot in here.” I swallowed, suddenly overwhelmed by the music and him. “You?”
His lips grazed my ear, and I shivered despite the heat. “I’m thinking ‘I take it back.’”
I turned to face him, and his gaze hit me squarely in the gut. He was looking at me like I was the most fascinating thing he’d ever seen.
“I said before I didn’t want you to have sex with me. I take it back,” he said earnestly. “You should absolutely have sex with me.”
Nate’s face was so serious I was torn between laughing and calling for a glass of ice to pour down my dress.
“That’s pretty cocky,” I managed.
“I said I was thinking it. What matters is what you think.”
Images swamped my brain. Me, the Suit, a jumble of clothes at the bottom of a bed. Just skin and sweat and hours between us.
“What did you have in mind?”
He cocked his head, a half-smile on his face. “You want me to write it down?”
I swallowed and looked at him. He wasn’t touching me, trying to seduce me with his hands or his body. He was waiting. Watching. Giving me space. This was definitely not how college guys operated.
The thought of going home with him thrilled and terrified me. I wanted … something. I hadn’t played this flirtation out to its conclusion, but he had.
What do I think?
“I haven’t even kissed you yet.” The words stuck in my throat. “You could be a bad kisser.”
My gaze fell to his sculpted mouth, which was just parted and inches from mine. I was sure he’d hear the thumping of my heart over the bassline.
“OK, probably not,” I breathed.
“Though now that you bring it up, you might be a bad kisser.” Nate’s voice was low, teasing. He shifted, his hand around my waist tugging me closer. We were pressed against each other, me looking up at him. The feel of his body and the heat in his eyes were slowly destroying me.
I gave up the mental battle and ran my hands up his chest. Sparks went off in my brain at the realization that everything I’d imagined so far, the muscles, the heat, was right there, under my hands.
Nate lowered his mouth to mine, as deliberately as he seemed to do everything. When our lips met, the feel of him sent sparks along my nerve endings like a fuse lit on a stick of dynamite.
His hand threaded into my hair, tugging the roots to angle me so he could part my lips with his tongue. Once I granted him access he groaned low in his throat, barely audible over the music.
He kissed me like he was meant to. The mouth that was calm and cool in conversation wasn’t calm or cool anymore. His lips were devious, setting fires that spread along my skin, my nerve endings. I could feel the heat of his body through his clothes. When his hand lifted from my waist, his thumb stroking my skin just above the edge of my dress, I thought I might pass out. I grabbed the back of his neck to hold him against me. My other hand was under his jacket, feeling the muscles of his back. He hissed out a breath, a reminder he was every bit as affected by me as I was by him.
It wasn’t enough. Not even close.
“What are you doing for the next ten hours?” he muttered between kisses. I pulled back, my mouth still tingling. “And a really great answer would be me.”
“It won’t be if you keep saying shit like that,” I replied tartly, even though his brand of confidence and weirdness was making my head spin.
“Yeah, well, I’ll—” His voice was cut off as I rose onto my toes to bite his full bottom lip. “Dammit.” He growled the words and I felt them all the way to my toes. “Ava. Please come home with me. I’m dying here. And I really don’t want to die on a dance floor with a bunch of sweaty socialites.”
The doubts in my mind faded into the background, consumed by the beat of the music. I knew what I wanted. And it was right in front of me.
“I’m busy in ten hours. But I’ll give you seven.” I ran my mouth along his jaw. His eyes fell shut and he groaned. “And you’re making me eggs for breakfast.”