“Shut up,” she grumbled.
Unperturbed, he draped his arm over her shoulder. “It’s going to be cool. You’ll have fun. And you’ll like Maddie.”
Alana didn’t shrug his arm off, telling herself it was because he did a great job at blocking the chill in the air, but she halted at the door. “Are they okay with this?”
“Yes.” He opened the door, motioning her in.
It didn’t take too long to find Maddie and Chase seated in red booths to the right. Not when Chase all but hollered the moment Chandler reached the hostess station. Nervous and unsure of what she was doing here, she took a deep breath and faced the table.
She discovered two things pretty damn quickly as she followed Chandler to the booth.
The pictures of Madison Daniels that she’d unearthed while working with Chad hadn’t done the petite blonde justice. The young woman was everything Alana wasn’t—tiny, extraordinarily beautiful with all the blond waves and big eyes. From what she could see of the light sweater she wore, she sat and dressed with an innate elegance.
And lastly? By the look on Chase’s face, they’d had no idea Chandler was bringing her along.
Man, she wanted to punch him in the stomach—or the balls—right about now.
The backs of her ears burned as Maddie’s wide eyes bounced from Chandler to her and then to Chase as Chandler slid into the booth. Her body felt stiff as she sat, clenching her hands together in her lap.
“You know my brother.” Chandler started the introductions. “This is Maddie. I don’t think you two have met.”
Calling on every ounce of professionalism in her, Alana extended a hand and smiled. “No. We haven’t. It’s nice to meet you.”
Maddie shook her hand. “It’s…um, really good to meet you, too.”
The heat started to creep down the back of her neck. “You’re feeling better?” When a look of confusion marred Maddie’s features, Alana squeezed her hands so tightly that her nails started to dig into her skin. “I was at Chandler’s house Friday night when ginger ale and crackers were mentioned.”
“Oh. Yes. That’s right. Chase mentioned running into you.” She smiled as she glanced at Chase. “Thank you. Just a quick stomach bug.”
Alana nodded, at a loss as to what to say from this point. It was like she’d never worked with the public or in awkward situations before.
“What are you guys eating?” Chandler asked, eyeing the menu like the four of them ate together all the time.
Alana wasn’t so hungry anymore.
“Steak,” answered Chase, alternating between staring at Alana and gaping at his brother. “Hon?”
Maddie blinked once. “Chicken.”
“What about you?” Chandler smiled at her, and her stupid Godforsaken heart spasmed.
She quickly glanced at the menu and went with a Cobb salad. Chandler scoffed at that, pushing for her to order something more, so she settled on a side order of fries.
The silence at the table was interrupted when the waitress appeared and took their orders, but that was only a slight reprieve.
Chase leaned back against the booth, folding his arms. His expression, the aloof coldness, reminded her of Chandler. “So you’re staying in D.C. now?”
Picking at the edge of a napkin, she nodded. “I’m working at Images downtown.”
“Oh,” Maddie said. “That’s not too far from the Smithsonian.”
Sliding a long look at Chandler, Chase arched one dark eyebrow. “Have you talked to Chad yet?”
“Nope.” Chandler picked up his glass, eyeing his brother over the rim.
Alana shifted uncomfortably, somehow forgetting until that moment that Bridget not only worked with Maddie but was also friends with her. How in the world that had slipped her mind was beyond her.
“I have,” replied Chase.
Maddie’s eyes widened as she fixed her gaze on the empty plate before her, and Alana wanted to crawl under the table.
“Yeah, I know.” A muscle began to tick along Chandler’s jaw.
Chase met his brother’s stare. “Did you really think I wasn’t going to tell him?”
“Do you think I care?”
Alana closed her eyes as she inhaled a soft breath. It took no leap of logic to know that Chase was talking about her and Chad was most likely not at all happy.
“Man, after all these years, you still can surprise me.” Chase shook his head. “Pretty amazing talent.”
“Chase,” Maddie whispered.
She got Chase’s dislike and discomfort with the current situation. If anything, the brothers were hugely protective of one another. The Gamble brothers circled their wagons around one another. When she was younger, she’d liked to imagine that she had an older brother who would be that defensive of her.
Stupid tears pricked the backs of her eyes.
Dinner was a huge mistake.
“Excuse me,” she murmured. “I need to use the restroom.”
When Chandler stood, her skin prickled as she slipped out of the booth. Forcing a smile that felt brittle, she quickly navigated the crowded tables and headed for the restroom, her chin tipped up and her spine straight. She knew that when gazes were cast her way, all anyone saw was a cool mask, but inside, everything was a maelstrom.
Alana didn’t belong here.
When Chandler had woken up Saturday night to find her gone from her bed and then asleep on the couch downstairs, huddled into a tiny ball, he’d been more than pissed. Not only had it been freaking offensive, as if a couch were better suited than sleeping beside him, he’d been confused. He knew for a fact that Alana had enjoyed every second of what had transpired between them, and he also knew that most women would give their ovaries to have a guy who wanted to actually sleep with them after any type of sexual activity.
But oh no, not Alana.
She was not a typical woman.
It wasn’t until late Sunday night that he realized why she had done that and why she’d spent the better part of the day avoiding him.
The woman was more skittish than a man when it came to commitment.
Not like sharing the same bed was professing undying love, but Alana had run, and like any predator, he was provoked to give chase, to win her over, which had given him the idea to accept Chase’s invitation for dinner.
Chandler watched Alana disappear around the corner and then turned his attention to the f**ker who sat across the table from him.
Maddie blinked several times, like she was coming out of a deep sleep. “That’s Miss Gore? She looks…so different with her hair down and dressed…” She grimaced. “Anyway, she looks like she’s my age. Never would’ve thought that.”
He ignored her nervous ramblings. “Earmuffs, Maddie.”
She scowled. “What? I’m not five.”
“Fine.” He leaned forward, dropping a heavy arm on the table. “You know, I expect this shit from Chad. He has a reason to be a little piss-head.”
“Chad is our brother,” retorted Chase. “Therefore we have a reason—”
“You don’t have jack shit, Chase. She has nothing to do with you, and if I knew you were going to sit there and act like a dick, I wouldn’t have came.”
Chase met his brother’s glare with his own. “You could’ve warned us.”
“Why?” Fucker. “It’s not like I’m bringing a murderer to dinner with me.”
“No. You’re just bringing the woman who made Chad’s life a living hell and blackmailed Bridget to dinner with you.” He laughed harshly. “My mistake.”
It took everything not to smack the f**ker upside his head, and the only reason he didn’t was because of Maddie. “She made Chad’s life a living hell by making him keep his dick in his pants for five seconds—sorry, Maddie.”
She mumbled something under her breath, raising her hands in a gesture that said she wanted no part in this.
“Plus she cleaned up his image, and you and I both know he was seconds from losing his contract.” His hand curled into a fist atop the table. “Oh, yeah and she is practically solely responsible for Bridget and Chad getting together, so let’s talk about how she ruined his life.”
Chase opened his mouth and then snapped it shut. Exactly. Chandler leaned back, breathing harshly through his nose. He tensed when his shit-for-brains brother opened his mouth again.
“What are you doing with her?” he asked.
“Is that any of your business?”
He stiffened. “Look, I’m just asking. She looked upset when she showed up at your house.”
Chandler glanced in the direction Alana had disappeared. There was no sign of her yet, and he hoped he didn’t have to go in there and drag her out.
Because he would.
“I’m helping her with some problems she’s having,” he said. “Her apartment was broken into, so she’s staying with me for a little while. Right now, it would be nice if she didn’t have to deal with your shit.”
Chase’s eyes widened a fraction of an inch. “Wait. She’s hired you, and she’s staying—”
He raised a hand. “That’s all I’m saying, because the only thing you need to know is that I like her. That should be the only thing you give two f**ks about, all right?”
His brother looked like the ghost of their mother just sat down at the table with them.
“Chase,” Maddie said softly. “This isn’t any of your business, but Chandler’s right. If he likes her, that’s all you need to know.”
He took a deep breath. “Fine. Sure. Yep.”
Chandler still wanted to punch his brother in the face and leave way before the check arrived. Maddie managed to draw Alana into conversation once she returned to the table, completely back in control, but he knew she hadn’t recovered from earlier. And he also knew he hadn’t mistaken the sheen of tears in her eyes, either, when she had gotten up to leave.
Chase at least had the decency to cast apologetic glances his way every couple of minutes.
The thing was, Chandler kind of surprised himself with what he’d said to Chase, but it was true. He did like Alana, and those feelings went beyond the physical. How deep, he wasn’t sure, but he’d be damned if his jackass family sent her running.
When dinner wrapped up, he was happy to see Maddie give Alana a quick hug. He shot his brother a dirty look, one that was ignored as they exited the restaurant. But Chase actually shook Alana’s hand when they all parted at the doors, which seemed like a big step.
Scanning the dark street, he dropped his arm over her shoulder and tucked her close to his side. Her shoulders were unnaturally stiff. “Sorry about that.”
“About what?” She lifted her head, face impressively blank.
“You know what I’m talking about.” They stopped at the passenger side of his truck. “For the way Chase acted at the beginning.”
Her shoulders rose in a slight shrug. “It’s not a big deal. Are we going back to your place—”
Chandler cut her off by clasping her cheeks and kissing her sweet and soft lips. He caught her gasp of surprise with his tongue, deepening the kiss, tasting her. When he lifted his mouth from hers, her gaze was unfocused.
He smiled. “You didn’t mess up his life. You made it better. Fuck. You gave him a life worth having. So for that, thank you.”
Those two words kept playing over and over.
Alana sat in her office, staring at the schedule on her computer screen but not really seeing anything beyond what her mind was focused on. Or the images her brain kept spewing out to her when she wasn’t thinking about how he’d thanked her for giving Chad a life worth living.
Every so many minutes, the image of Chandler formed in her thoughts, completely naked. The man’s body was made for daydreams. The way he stood before her, legs spread and arms to his sides, wholly aware of his effect on her. He was a masculine study in beauty. Even the rough-looking scar on his shoulder and the numerous nicks across his rippled stomach added to his appeal. And what hung between his thighs? Alana was no inexperienced virgin, but she could count on one hand how many men she’d been with. None of them lived up to the length and girth of Chandler. She doubted many men did.
And no man had ever tied her wrists together.
Her cheeks flushed as her pulse pounded between her thighs. There was no escaping the fact that she had been turned on by the act or that the dangerous thrill of being completely under someone else’s control had goaded her along. It hadn’t been the sole reason for wanting to return the pleasure, but… It didn’t matter.
It couldn’t matter.
After the situation with her psycho stalker was resolved, Chandler would slip out of her life like a ghost and if she fell any deeper into his seductive web, she would end up like her mother, fixated the rest of her life on unrequited love.
Unfortunately for her, there was more to Chandler than just his overwhelming sexual allure. He was incredibly charming when he wanted to be, always willing, if not eager, to engage in a verbal sparring match, and he seemed to get her in a way that most people never did. How important her job was to her and how even though her tactics were a bit hardcore, they worked and they improved people’s lives.
After the disastrous dinner, he’d stopped on the way back to his house to pick up ice cream. They’d eaten it once they’d gotten to the house, and he’d talked to her, about everything and anything.
It had been so long since she’d just talked with anyone.