Book One – Rescued by Love series
NEW YEAR’S EVE
Sophie McMannis spotted her aunt’s boss as soon as he walked into the ballroom. Rumor was he hated the holiday season, a real-life Ebenezer Scrooge so, she was a bit surprised to see him attending the New Year’s Eve party.
Tonight’s event was part charity fundraiser part a reason to party for the city’s elite. She’d never been as a guest, but after working her ass off to build her party and event planning business the last few years, she’d finally scored the contract to design the gala of the season.
She scanned the room full of men and women in holiday colors with a sparkly dress scattered here and there. Her gaze is drawn to the broad-shouldered former baseball star as he worked the room with ease, no sign of his staunch scroogie-ness on his handsome face. She’d managed to avoid meeting Grant Conrad for the six years her Aunt Kathleen had worked for him.
Tonight wouldn’t be the night to end that streak. She didn’t need his kind of negativity even though he may have starred in one or two of her fantasies during her college days. That was a time when you couldn’t open a magazine or turn on the TV without seeing his face or his half-naked form in an ad form sports cream or a men’s fragrance. He’d since retired and now owned a successful sports management company.
She’d heard first-hand accounts from her aunt about Grant’s dislike of Christmas. Aunt Kathleen had been so excited when he left for a two-week vacation every year to avoid, as he referred to it, the ‘hub-bub’ of the holidays.
But Sophie lived for the holiday’s; any holiday. And she couldn’t fathom anyone hating them. She’d built her business by planning and creating dynamic holiday-based events. And she was allergic to the haters, the avoiders, and the scrooges. And, Mr. Grant was the scroogiest of all scrooges she thankfully never had the displeasure of meeting.
She would not ruin her night by exchanging words with the dynamic man she’d maybe, once in a while drooled, okay lusted, over because tonight’s event at The Resort in her hometown of Pineville, Idaho was too important to her business and to her personally. It served as a charity benefit for the Children’s Cancer Center and Harmony Hospital. An organization that was part of her heart and her family’s past.
So what if it was also an excuse to work on New Year’s Eve. The perfect built-in excuse to not have a date to kiss at midnight. As much as her aunt, who was more mother than auntie, complained about her lack of interest in finding a man and her near-constant hints at wanting and some babies to spoil, she didn’t have time to invest in a relationship right now.
And she was fine with her single status. Just fine. Her company was growing, she’d recently hired an assistant to work with her full time, but even with Evie’s help, she had little personal time. She certainly didn’t have time to stand still as Grant Conrad, uber-rich and hunky ex-baseball superstar, turned heads and induced fantasies as he roamed the room with his bored-looking date.
Sure, he was built like a Greek god, but he probably bored his dates to death with endless sports talk. She often wondered how Aunt Kat continued to work for a man who, by his own account, lived and breathed sports. As far as she knew, her aunt never watched a baseball game in her life or any other sport. But her aunt was a master sergeant at heart, and Sophie imagined she kept Grant on track and organized. And he paid her well, which earned him some brownie points in her book.
“Sophie, who are you staring at? Anyone I know?” Evie bumped into her shoulder and looked toward the tall drink of water standing off to himself in a corner of the room. Tall drink of water? Jeez, her aunt’s vintage euphemisms were taking up space in her subconscious again. However, she had to agree with the statement. He was hard to miss and even harder to look away from.
Darn it. She was supposed to be checking the champagne supply, not getting caught gawking at Grant. She turned her attention to her assistant and raised her arm toward the cheese bar. “The brie is almost gone, and I think I’ll have the caterer put out more grapes and water crackers.”
Evie let out a snort, “You can fool some people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. You were checking out Mr. Hottie. Lord, I wish he was still playing. That man could fill out a uniform…and whoever invented baseball pants…oh, my, I think I need some ice water.”
Evie was an excellent assistant, but she tended toward the dramatic, especially when cute guys were involved. And Sophie didn’t need a visual of Grant in baseball pants or out of them for that matter.
As she finished her thought and turned back to Evie, her gaze collided with the subject of their discussion. A vision of Grant in nothing but a pair of baseball pants, top button undone, his heavily muscled shoulders, abs, and arms chiseled. Was he still as cut five years after his last game in the league?
He was staring at her with an intense, questioning gaze. Perhaps he was used to women fawning over him, and her unreadable stare was unexpected. She shook her head and broke the link. Now was not the time to get caught up in whatever that moment was. Besides, he had a date. She wasn’t here to find a guy but to do what she loved, creating an unforgettable experience for her client and their guests.
“Sophie, Hi. The room looks A-mazing. And the caterer you found is causing a stir with his scallion pancakes, and the fig with bacon and chile is almost gone.” Amber Wyatt, one of her closest friends, was helping her out with the champagne service. She managed the front office for a local psychologist, and Amber had been there for Sophie in the beginning when her payroll was tight to help out when she needed an extra set of hands. And although her business was doing now well, she could still count on Amber in a pinch when one of her part-time employees were sick.
Plus, she didn’t have to worry about Amber’s professionalism when she served guests. Amber wasn’t looking to snag a date, or a hook-up, like many of her college-aged employees did. Her gorgeous friend was expert level at deflecting unwanted attention from men who thought the staff was fair game. But Sophie worried that Amber had shut herself off from anything long-term; then again, so had she. But they each had their reasons.
Unfortunately, Amber’s reason was the friendship ending kind having had a crush on one of their mutual friend’s brother since they were teens. Losing a friendship over a guy was a line no one wanted to cross. Sophie just wished Amber would find someone else, someone to show her how great a person she really was, not just a pretty face.
Sophie shook herself out of the unwelcome melancholy and gave her friend a grin and quick side hug. “So, you don’t think it has anything to do with the woman offering up the savory treats?” She watched her friend blush and roll her eyes. “Soph, stop. I’m here to help you, not find a date. Besides, look around. No one is here solo. It’s New Year’s Eve, and the only available men are either too young or too old for us.”
Sighing, Sophie nodded and scanned the room and had a funny comeback on her lips when her gaze landed on Grant–again. Not that she was purposely looking for him. His gaze was locked on her, and when he noticed her attention, his gaze traveled down her body; warning bells sounded along with a full-bodied shiver.
She broke the eye contact, “Amber, could you do me a favor and go into the kitchen and ask for another bucket of ice for the shrimp? I need to address um…a situation.”
Her friend looked over to where Grant stood still staring at Sophie and let out a low whistle. “Situation, huh? Damn, Sophie. Are you keeping him a secret from me?”
“What? No. I don’t even know him. Well, I know of him; Aunt Kat works for him, but I’ve never met him. And I’m positive he doesn’t know who I am.” She adjusted her necklace and turned toward Amber.
“Really, because the way he’s looking at you says different. If a man looked at me like he wanted to pick me up and spread me out on the nearest–”
“Amber…Ssh!” Sophie felt her face flush. She glanced around to see if anyone was close enough to hear their conversation.
“I’m just saying that man wants you. And he looks like he knows what to do with you once he gets you.” Amber patted her on the shoulder. “Close your mouth before the drool drops out. C’mon, go see what’s what. He’s the hottest guy, no, not guy. I meant man—all man, in this room tonight. Hell, in the whole city. Yes, he has a revolving door to his bedroom, but you should definitely go for it. A night of hot sex never hurt a girl; in fact, it may just–”
“What has gotten into you?” Sophie whispered.
“–and oh, my lord, those shoulders. Makes you wonder how big the rest of him is.” Amber winked.
Sophie let out a frustrated groan and smoothed her hands over her hips. She briefly closed her eyes—wrong move. Amber’s description of Grant’s body created a naughty flash image of him in her bed. Whoa. All of her girl parts took notice and perked up as well. Between Evie and Amber going on and on about Grant and his hot body now, Sophie couldn’t stop wondering what was hidden under the tailored suit jacket.
In his playing days with the United States Baseball League and before his arm injury, he was the league’s heartthrob thanks in part to his bare-chested photos. And he had all her favorites: wide-shoulders, muscular arms, and…oh, Hell, get over yourself, Sophie.
For years, Grant’s image had been splashed across every sports magazine cover on the market. The only difference from then versus now was the sexy gray at his temples.
Amber let out a heavy sigh, “Maybe I’m just tired of being politically correct and pretending I don’t have a libido, or maybe it’s the glass and half of champagne I indulged in. Either way, my new year’s resolution is to get real about what I want.”
Sophie took in Amber’s confession or rather her declaration of intent. She held Grant’s gaze. She refused to squirm under his visual onslaught of seduction if that’s what it was. But there was no way she’d fall under his spell. Let him look; he wouldn’t be touching anytime soon, especially since he brought a date. He really was the womanizer everyone labeled him.
“You know what, Amber? Good for you. And after we’re done here, let’s go out and start the new year off right. Let’s meet up with Reese at her club later, and you can tell me all about how you decided to ‘get real.’ She said she would save a table for us.”
Grant chose that moment to acknowledge their staredown, or whatever it was, and dipped his chin. Her lips thinned, but so did her nipples. Damn, he wasn’t giving up. The ridiculousness of the moment shook her. She was working and getting paid well to make sure this night was a success for the hospital. Spending her time flirting was not on the night’s agenda.
Ready to concede, lady luck paid her a visit. Grant’s attention was hijacked by an overzealous party guest dressed in a dark red and black suede tux wearing a party hat. She glanced down at her smartwatch, the best investment she’d ever made and the only concession to glam she’d made in her outfit. The crystal-encrusted wristband gleamed in the semi-dark room. It read ten forty-five, and the screen also flashed a countdown reminder.
She scanned the buffet tables again. The guests were still nibbling. “Amber, I’ll go into the kitchen. Could you go over and double-check the serving dishes on the hot table and text me if there’s anything that needs replenishing?”
“It’s okay. I need to check on the champagne supply one last time before the countdown toast by the hospital’s CEO.” Sophie grabbed the lifeline she gave herself and made a beeline for the kitchen. However, Grant was in her peripheral vision, and she was weak. He seemed to be tolerating the man bent on relieving some past baseball moment and deftly avoided an arm simulating a pitch. But his gaze was once again locked on her. His date still nowhere to be seen, and now she was more confused than ever. Did she look like someone he knew? Did she look easy? The longer she thought about it, her anger increased.
Whatever was drawing his attention to her, shrimp and champagne were calling her name. Grant Conrad could take his lady-killer notoriety and lavish it on someone else, like his poor date. Besides, he was neither her type nor in her league.
She smiled, then softly chuckled at her own joke as she placed a hand on the swinging door into the kitchen. With a smile still upon her lips, she glanced back towards the main room and whether she intended it or not, and that would be something she’d think about later–much later, her gaze landed on the man she was spending way too much of her time on.
His eyes widened, and a flash of a smile lit up his face. She averted her gaze as quick as she could and hurried through the doorway. The clinking of glassware and the steady hum of voices in consultation greeted her. She found the sous chef and asked for more of the mini-shrimp cocktail to be taken out and chatted with two servers she knew from past events.
The champagne for the party was stored in a room off the back of the kitchen. The vintage had been chosen by the hospital’s volunteer committee. She’d been impressed at their choice. Maybe after she ensured everyone had a glass at midnight, she’d have some herself. Until then, she needed to make sure her mind was clear and focused on the agenda from this point forward and not the hazel-eyed male who kept invading her thoughts.
Back in the ballroom, she found Amber and Evie and went over the final items on the schedule, a short speech by the founder of the charity and, hopefully, an even shorter speech by the infamously long-winded CEO of the hospital.
The next hour sped by, and at eleven forty-five, there was no sign of the hospital’s CEO, but she located Mrs. Bette Lancaster, the founder of the charity. Unfortunately, she was in deep conversation with Grant.
She was beginning to wonder if she’d pissed off her guardian angel. She believed she had one. She also believed in Santa, leprechauns, and fairies and found herself but often found herself at odds with fate. Right now, she didn’t know what to believe in regards to Grant and his interest in her. She made her way across the room toward them, perfectly aware that his eyes were locked on her as he also spoke to Mrs. Lancaster. She took quick peeks around the room, looking for his date. When she located the socialite, she was thrown off her stride.
The woman was locked in a heated conversation with the CEO of the hospital. Their body language indicated familiarity, but when Grant’s date turned away from him, and the CEO grabbed her by the waist and swung her body into his and planted a passionate kiss on her lips, for a split second, she felt sorry for him. Grant, not the CEO. Damn it. She did not have time for drama. She looked at her watch, less than ten minutes till midnight.
Sophie made a last-minute change to the agenda. Screw the agenda. She’d make it work without the hospital’s top executive. Mrs. Lancaster and Grant were now both looking in her direction. No doubt, they noticed the scene behind her.
“Sophie, dear. It seems Henry is busy with his fickle ex-girlfriend. No worries, I can speak for both of us.”
The self-assured woman just became her hero. Sophie typed a quick text to Evie requesting the microphone. She held out her hand, “Thank you, Mrs. Lancaster. I know Henry couldn’t have asked for a better spokesperson. If you follow me, I have the perfect spot for you to speak to the guests.” Amber nodded toward the podium located at the north end of the room. Grant’s voice startled her. His low timbered tone sent a thrill through her. “I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Grant Conrad.”
Steps away from freedom, Amber looked over her shoulder, unsure for the first time in a long time how to handle herself. To be rude was pointless and would not go over well in front of the charity’s president. But time was not on her side. She really wanted to know why her? What was so special about her that he’d spent the night seeking her out, sending her heated glances?
“It seems your date is leaving with another man.” As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she wanted to reel them back in and swallow them down with a glass of champagne. Damn, now he knew she’d taken notice of with whom he’d arrived at the party.
“Larissa? No worries, I knew her goal was to make Henry jealous, and I played along. Thank you for your concern over my feelings. But I was hoping we could have a moment to meet before…”
She tuned him out. Wait. What? Mrs. Lancaster was waiting for her; it was now five minutes to midnight, and the wait staff was almost done delivering the champagne, and he wanted her attention–now. A loud murmur of anticipation filled the room. If she didn’t turn around now, the speech might not happen, and who would take the blame? Not happening.
“Perhaps another time. I need to make sure the rest of the night goes smoothly. Excuse me while I assist our speaker.” Her heart pounding, she went to turn toward the podium, which thankfully was less than ten feet away. But he stepped in closer and gently touch her arm.
“You can pretend all you want, but I’ve been on the receiving end of your beautiful brown-eyed gaze. And I have to admit; you’re the most interesting woman in the room tonight. You not only dazzle in that dress, but you also handle yourself well under pressure. I admire that. I’m a man who goes after what I–”
Confusion and temper warred, she looked around to see if they had an audience, but everyone was in their own world. In a loud whisper, she responded. “Really? Well, sorry, but I’m not a member of the groupies you seem to attract wherever you go. Now, I’ve got work to do.” She looked down at his hand on her arm and back up into his dumbfounded gaze.
His eyes narrowed, but he said nothing. She spun around on her spiked heel only to hear that Mrs. Lancaster had begun to address the room with just three minutes to midnight. Evie had come to the rescue and assisted the woman as she started her speech.
Sophie fumed. The man had an ego the size of Alaska, and he’d done what few people had ever managed to do–get her to miss an agenda item for one of her events. Statue still, she forced a smile and listened to the words of one of the community’s most beloved and generous benefactors. She was acutely aware that Grant continued to stand feet behind her. The goosebumps on her arms and the tingle on her nape refused to leave no matter how much she willed them away—damn man.
She glanced at her watch, a minute and a half to go. The crowd clapped in unison; Mrs. Lancaster serenely smiled. The woman was a pro. She knew Sophie’s attention had been snagged, and yet she ended her speech with time to spare.
She was so grabbing every last bottle of champagne leftover that she could manage to haul out later. Never had a man driven her to drink, but Grant was no ordinary man and one she needed to stay away from.
With a cleansing breath, she moved to the podium, stood behind her new hero, and listened as Mrs. Lancaster prepped everyone and started the countdown as she lifted her glass to toast in the New Year. The pop of balloons and squeaks of noisemakers filled the room. Still on sensory overload, Sophie stepped back and stumbled. She caught sight of a shiny black men’s dress shoe and ran her gaze up the attached leg and further up to a broad chest and into the hooded stare of Grant Conrad. When had he gotten so close?
With quick movements, he’d captured her elbow and guided her further back with him as he maneuvered them behind the arch of black, white, and gold balloons. Her breath caught in her throat. Grant steadied her with a firm yet gentle grip on her shoulders. The gazes he’d sent her earlier were no match for the dark, sensual look he focused on her now.
When his eyes zeroed in on her lips, she licked them.
He groaned. “So, do you want to be the only people in the room who don’t kiss at midnight?”
Speechless, she didn’t look away, couldn’t. The heat from his body enveloped her. The sharp words she gave him moments ago may as well have been in her head. She doubted he was turned down often, but now the need to feel his lips on hers overwhelmed. Sophie fought the twin urgings of leaning in and pulling away. As the seconds ticked by, her attraction to Grant made the decision easy. She lifted her face, and he swooped down, captured her mouth, and sucked then softly bit her lower lip.
A low moan filled her ears, but from whom she wasn’t sure. Lost in the pleasure-pain of his bite, her body swayed into his. Sophie ran her hands up his heavily muscled arms and circled his neck. He wrapped her up in steel and deepened the kiss. His tongue swept between her lips, dueling with hers before he
Notes of Old Ange Syne echoed in the distance. Again, someone moaned. It was her. The sound snapped her out of the desire-filled fog they’d created cocooned away from the others. What the what?
Grant pulled back from the kiss she shouldn’t have given while wanting to beg him for another. “Happy New Year.”
His husky voice penetrated all her nerve endings, and his smile inspired a half-dozen naughty things she imagined his mouth doing to her beyond kissing.
Happy. New. Year. Yes, it was. And parts of her were very happy at the moment, but she was supposed to be working, not losing herself in a kiss with a virtual stranger. And he couldn’t know who she was…her aunt could never know. Dammit. This wasn’t who she was. She didn’t kiss men she didn’t know, no matter how they made her knees wobble or her breasts ache and her nipples hard. And now, her lips were swollen.
She lifted her fingers to touch them, stepped out of his arms, and pushed down the panic. Not because she was afraid that Aunt Kathleen would find out or that her client, Mrs. Lancaster, would notice, but because she wanted another devastatingly wicked kiss. Lord, had she ever been kissed like that?
“Um, yeah. I ah, have to get back to work, and this was…not smart. I’ve got to go.” Sophie made a beeline for the kitchen, her go-to temporary haven. Cowardly? A hundred percent. But necessary.
He didn’t call her back or follow her. But she swore she felt the heat of his stare bore into her backside and follow her across the ballroom. With every ounce of self-preservation, she kept from looking over her shoulder to see if the tingling sensation she experienced had indeed been from his hot gaze.
What was she feeling besides attraction? She should be fuming that he stole a kiss; well, not stolen precisely. She’d reexamine the moment later. Much later. She pushed through the swinging door to the kitchen and stood off to the side, and narrowly escaped being run over by a couple of servers, trays full of champagne.
She pounded her head lightly onto the wall. There was no way she could face him again without him finding out who she really was. Her duties were done for the evening; there wasn’t much left to do other than clean up after the guests. Most of them would continue their celebration in the hotel’s lounge, where a band had been booked for those that wanted to dance the night away. She stayed in the kitchen and texted Evie asking her to let her know when he left.
Evie: FUNNY YOU ASK. AFTER YOU TWO KISSED HE WALKED PAST ME WITH A FROWN ON HIS FACE, PICKED UP HIS OVERCOAT AT HATCHECK AND LEFT. CAN’T WAIT TO HEAR ALLLL ABOUT IT.
Sophie didn’t respond. She felt her face flush. There went any hope of keeping Evie, and Amber for that matter, from grilling her later. Considering they were all single, her kissing one of the city’s most eligible bachelors on New Year’s Eve was going to be hard to live down.
But she didn’t feel too bad about running away because they were so not going to be a thing anyway. Besides, she didn’t have room or time in her life to redeem a scrooge–no matter how he made her toes curl.