Read Strong and Sexy Page 1


  She rushed into Shayne Mahoney’s party as if there was a firecracker on her ass, wobbling on heels she clearly wasn’t comfortable in, wearing a little black dress that revealed pale, porcelain curves most people found unfashionable these days.

  Not Shayne. Nope, he loved curves.

  The woman’s dark hair was piled haphazardly on top of her head, held there by two yellow pencils. Interesting choice for a formal cocktail party. So was the way she moved into the large reception lobby, her gait a little awkward, her smile broadcasting her nerves.

  Very interesting.

  She wasn’t his type. Not because she wasn’t tall, stacked, and model-ready, but because she pretty much screamed fish out of water.

  All of the women he’d dated lately—hell, ever—had been confident. Bold. Overtly sexy.

  And, as Brody and Noah would tell him, none of the women he’d dated had managed to hold his interest.

  There was a message there, he knew, but he didn’t care. He shifted to move away, but then something had him turning back, just as the woman tripped over her own feet. As he started toward her, she managed to catch herself, then furtively glanced around the crowd to see if anyone had noticed, a self-conscious gesture that made him smile.

  Definitely not confident, bold, or overtly sexy.

  And yet something about her seemed incredibly appealing, and not just because in a sea of pedigreed roses she stood out as the lone wildflower, but because she seemed familiar.

  He hadn’t slept with her, he knew that much. He hadn’t flown her in one of his planes, or for Sky High Air, and he hadn’t worked with her.

  So who was she?

  A server passed her, and she took a flute of champagne, flashing the guy a quick smile that could break a heart at fifty paces because it was real. It made her more than just pretty, but someone he couldn’t take his eyes off.

  And yet the server didn’t smile back, which pissed Shayne off. Granted, she wasn’t fake tanned or gym toned like the other women here, and no, she wasn’t especially graceful and clearly felt out of her element, but she was a guest, and as such, deserved the same respect the others received.

  Shayne would talk to the server, that was for damn sure, though it would do little good. The people here tonight were shallow, all of them. Hell, Shayne himself had been hit on no less than three times before the party had even gotten started, including once by Michelle, a woman he’d stopped seeing when she’d gotten a little too possessive after two dates.

  But this woman wasn’t hitting on anyone, she was trying to be invisible. Interest definitely piqued for the first time in days, he kept his eye on her. She was attempting to tuck some of her wayward hair back into its constraints, not being successful in any way as the strands immediately slipped free again, brushing over her throat, her shoulders.

  Yeah, she was a complete wreck.

  An adorable, sexy, complete wreck.

  Who was she, and how did she fit in with the elegant, sophisticated crowd that was here tonight? Since he was the one throwing this party for one of Sky High’s wealthiest clients, he’d held the guest list in his hands, a list that was a virtual Who’s Who of Los Angeles because Sandra Peterson loved nothing more than a good party in her honor.

  And if anyone thought it odd that Sandra had Sky High host her engagement party and not her family, Shayne understood. Sky High Air’s flexibility, dedication, and ability to meet any client’s demand had put them on the map. He’d seen to it himself. Sky High provided service at the highest level, a fact a client like Sandra appreciated since her own family couldn’t have put together a party of this size and caliber. Or wouldn’t. Her stepkids were too spoiled, and her daughter? It was rumored that she was a little off her rocker.

  Not a surprise, given how rich Sandra was. Her trust fund made even Shayne’s seem like a tween’s weekly allowance. Such an embarrassment of riches often had some pretty serious effects on people.

  He should know. His own family was a pack of paranoid snobs, and the women he’d dated had had many a gold-digger in the bunch. Luckily he rarely dated anyone more than once or twice. Mostly that had been his choice, but lately, not so much. He’d gone out with three women after Michelle, all of whom had turned him down for a second date.

  It was entirely possible he was losing his touch, not a pleasant thought for a guy who’d relied on his touch all his life.

  Adorable Sexy Complete Wreck Woman moved farther into the elegant lobby, her dark eyes darting left and right, still looking as if she’d rather disappear than be seen.

  Given that people had been trying to get into this high-society event for days and days, willing to do just about anything to be seen here tonight, her attitude fascinated him.

  Craning her neck, she checked behind her, apparently not taking into account the speed with which she was moving, because just as she looked forward again she nearly plowed into a potted tree. She managed to catch herself before she hit, but one of her heels snapped right off, and she uttered a four-letter word that made Shayne grin.

  Nope, she didn’t belong here. But he was damn glad she’d come, whoever she was.

  Chapter 1

  She’d promised herself she’d do this. No running, no avoiding, just face it head-on and get it done. But as Dani Peterson bent for her broken-off heel, she felt her resolve slip.

  Running like hell would have been so much easier.

  Damn it.

  All she’d asked of herself was to get through this with a shred of dignity, but that would be a little tough now, wouldn’t it, while minus a heel.

  Ah, well. Her family already believed her a little off, why not just go ahead and prove it by looking the part.

  But then came the voice.

  The low, husky male voice asking, “Are you okay?”

  She sighed as she eyed her offending heel. “That depends.”


  On whether or not she could find room in her budget to replace the shoes. “Nothing. I’m fine. Thanks.” Blowing a strand of hair from her mouth, she glanced over just as he crouched at her side.

  And felt the most ridiculous schoolgirl urge to blush and stammer. Because wow.

  Seriously wow.

  He smiled at her. And although everything about him—his confidence, his clothes, his ease—all projected old money and class—not to mention a sophistication she couldn’t have faked on her best day—he wasn’t GQ perfect.

  No, nothing as easy to shrug off as GQ perfect.

  Instead, his hair had been finger combed at best, the sun-streaked wheat strands shoved back off his face, where it fell in unruly waves to his collar. His mouth was wide, quirked in a half smile that revealed a single heart-stopping dimple on the left side, the same side as the scar that slashed his eyebrow in half over a set of golden eyes with laugh lines at the corners.

  He apparently smiled, and often.

  His nose had been broken at least once, the bump only adding more character to a face that already had it in spades. He was bigger than her last boyfriend, but truthfully it had been so long she could hardly remember if she’d had to go up on tiptoe to kiss him. She’d definitely have to get up on tiptoe for this guy, and why she was even thinking such a thing was ridiculous.

  “I’m fine,” she repeated, hoping that by saying so multiple times she could make it true. “Really. Just fine.” Uh-huh, and now she sounded like an idiot as well as looked like one. “So fine . . .”

  God. She rambled when she was nervous, and she was very nervous now. “Super fine.” Shut up, shut up.

  With a smile, he put his hand on her arm. It was a big hand, warm and strong, much like the rest of him. He had to bend because he was well over six feet, and while she was noticing that
, she couldn’t fail to continue to notice the rest. He definitely had a build to go with the height, an athletic one, not a gym-made one, the kind that under normal circumstances would have made her swallow her own tongue.

  But since she’d embarrassed herself enough already, she told herself no tongue swallowing, and to make sure of it, avoided looking directly into his face. It should help the problem of finding his . . . maleness so utterly unsettling and intimidating.

  Movements easy and fluid, he pulled her to her feet, still touching her in a way that woke things within her, things that had been dormant for a long, long time. Yes, he was attractive, but also astonishingly, remarkably . . . male.

  And as if all that wasn’t potent enough, he looked right into her face, and whoa baby, those golden eyes were full, deep, and direct in a way that said he could read her all the way to the bone.

  If that was the case, she was in big trouble.

  Around them, the party was noisy, festive with holiday cheer and decorations, complete with sprigs of mistletoe. It was crowded with happy revelers—everything that she usually avoided. Mostly, she’d rather have a root canal without the benefit of good meds than dress up and make nice with rich, spoiled people, but she’d used that excuse last time.

  So here she was, being physically supported by one of them, no less. Since she barely came to his shoulder, she had to balance on her one heel for some desperately needed height.

  He smiled, and while maybe he wasn’t exactly GQ material, he’d certainly dressed for the cover, wearing gorgeously cut black pants and a soft-looking whiskey-colored shirt that matched his eyes, clothes that had clearly been made for his long, leanly muscled body.

  They were not in the same tax bracket. Not even close.

  “Let me find you a place to sit,” he said. “It’s too nice an evening to be rushing around.”

  She sensed he didn’t do a lot of rushing. There was something relaxed and laid-back about him.

  And gorgeous. Let’s not forget gorgeous. “I’m good, thanks.”

  “Would you like a drink?”

  After which he’d likely vanish as quickly as he could. It was nothing personal, she knew. She just wasn’t the sort of woman to keep a man like this interested for long, though she spared a second to wish that for once she could act like her mother’s daughter. That for once she could simply go after whatever she wanted.

  Because what she wanted was a chance beneath the mistletoe, if only for a moment... “So why aren’t you out there having fun? Drinking or dancing, or . . .” As was its habit, her tongue ran away from her brain. “Or making the most of that mistletoe?”

  His eyes lit with good humor, and that dimple flashed. “Maybe I don’t have someone to make the most of it with.” He glanced out at the party, and behind his back she smacked herself in the head. Making the most of that mistletoe? Had she really said that?

  When he looked at her again, she forced a smile.

  “So, about that drink.”

  “Yes, thanks. Anything,” she said, allowing his escape.

  But not hers. She was doing this. No matter what. She was going to forget about Perfect Stranger Guy and make nice here if it killed her, no matter how much she really hated these silly get-togethers her mother was always having thrown in her own honor. Tonight, it was to celebrate her latest catch, her fourth—or was it her fifth?—fiancé, and Sandra had insisted her daughter be present.

  Well, here Dani was, even though she actually could be having her own celebration because she’d finally gotten promoted today, from mammal keeper to head mammal keeper. Yay her. But her celebratory carton of ice cream would have to wait, and with Perfect Stranger Guy heading to the bar for her drink, she limped through the lobby to make her appearance.

  The building was new, all steel and glass, with a wall of windows looking out onto the tarmac, lined with million-dollar jets. Beyond that, an incredible view of the LA nighttime skyline. The place belonged to Sky High Air, a luxury jet service to the stinking rich, and these days her mother was indeed as stinking rich as they came, a far cry from the trailer park they’d started out in.

  As Dani hobbled along, trying to look like she fit in, she took in more than her fair share of curious glances. Yeah yeah, so she didn’t have a spare pair of Choos in her trunk and her hair was out of control, so what. She was here to support her mother, not to have a bad high-school flashback.

  But just like high school, the few guys who glanced her way looked right through her like . . . like she was a nobody.

  Nice to know that she was still registered so high on the desirable scale.

  Except not.

  Okay, maybe the shoes and hair mattered, at least to these people, who’d probably never had a bad hair day in their collective pampered life. Feeling more than a little off her axis, and a whole lot clumsy and unattractive, she forged ahead. She could do this. She could smile and make merry, and as a reward, later, she’d plow through that carton of Ben & Jerry’s.

  Determined. That’s what her epitaph would read. Ahead of her, her mother appeared out of a circle of people, moving with all the elegance and grace that she hadn’t passed on to Dani. As one of the most wealthy, powerful women in the area, Sandra Peterson had a reputation to uphold, and she knew it. After all, she’d married up the ladder, several times, trading husbands for upward rungs as she’d gone.

  Well, Dani had gotten that determination from somewhere.

  As usual, Sandra’s dark hair had been carefully coiffed, and unlike Dani’s, remained firmly in place, framing a gorgeous, well-preserved face. The smile seemed real enough, which surprised Dani, considering Sandra had been telling people her daughter was just a little crazy—her mother’s way of accepting their differences in lifestyle.

  Her mother was flanked by her stepsiblings from a previous marriage to some Italian count. Tony and Eliza were in their twenties, both dressed to the hilt, with noses tilted to nosebleed heights. Since they’d inherited God only knew how much from their father and rarely spoke to mere mortals including, maybe especially including, Dani, she looked at her mother first. “Hello, Mother.”

  “Darling.” And to her surprise, Dani received an air kiss in the region of each of her cheeks.

  Tony and Eliza smiled, though Dani could only call it such because they bared their teeth. Maybe their purse strings were too tight, choking them. Or maybe they really disliked her as much as she imagined they did. Most likely it was lingering concern over their trust funds, which were so huge they couldn’t have spent all their money in their lifetimes. Or in their children’s lifetimes.

  Or their children’s children’s lifetimes . . .

  Once, a year back or so, Dani had suggested the two unemployed socialites go into philanthropy. They’d stared at her blankly, mouths open so wide Dani had practically seen the hamsters running on their wheels inside their brains.

  Give away money? they’d asked in horror, having never once in their lives been strapped for cash. Why would they give money away . . . ?

  When their father had gotten cancer and had revealed he planned on leaving Dani a share of his estate, people had been shocked. But then he’d died without finalizing his new will. The probate court had given everyone eighteen months to make a claim against the estate, something Dani had never even considered doing. She made her own way in the world, always had. But until the eighteen months were up, people were waiting for her to make a move, whispering about her, thinking she was odd to say the least for not wanting the money.

  When she greeted her stepsiblings, their lips barely curved, not a single laugh line or wrinkle in evidence, making them a walking Don’t ad for Botox.

  Meanwhile, Sandra was giving Dani and her appearance the eagle eye. “Go ahead, Mother. Have your say.”

  “I wasn’t sure you’d come, seeing as you hate me these days.”

  “I don’t hate you.”

  “Soon as I got rich, you disowned me.”

  If that wasn’t a twisting
of the facts to suit the woman. But then again, her mother was the master of twisting things to suit herself. “I simply asked you to stop controlling me with your newfound money. And then you reacted by disowning me.”

  “Controlling you with my money?” Sandra shook her head and sipped her champagne. “Honestly.”

  “That was honesty.”

  “Okay, yes, fine. I’m guilty. I admit it. For you, my daughter, I wanted the right clothes, the right college, the right job—”

  “There’s nothing wrong with my clothes—”

  Her mother sniffed. “That dress is at least four years old. Not to mention off the rack.”

  Five years old, but who was counting. She was just grateful to still fit in it. “And Cal Poly was a great college.”

  “Please. With your grades, you should have gone to Harvard.”

  “They didn’t have a zoology program.”

  “Yes. And I know how important it is for you to play with your elephants.”

  Ah, there it was. Dani pinched the bridge of her nose and drew a deep breath. She was a mammal keeper. Head mammal keeper now,