Billie and Heath are the main couple featured in Collateral Attraction, a romantic suspense novel that pits Billie Delphine, a small-town shopkeeper, against aloof all-work-and-no-play CEO Heath Kheiron. The events in this short story occur right before the epilogue of the book.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that I work too much. I do, and it’s something I need to correct, even if it means cutting short an important business trip so I can make it halfway around the world on Valentine’s Day. But as much I would have wanted to this time, I couldn’t – not when the pensions of seven hundred employees hung in the balance and I needed a few more hours of work to make sure that they didn’t lose most of their benefits.
Edgar Kheiron would have reasoned that they wouldn’t lose too much, so why worry about it? But I did worry about it, only because I knew these people, and they’ve worked for the man I’d called my father for decades, and now their sons and daughters work for me. It’s not the ideal way to do business, but I promised my mother I’d do my best – if only to convince those 700 employees to take that early retirement and thus, keep whatever they had in their pensions, or lose everything when Kheiron Industries would finally get chopped up and have its parts sold to the highest bidder.
Whether they take the offer or not is beyond my control but at least it gives them time to think about it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t change the fact that I’m now 24 hours late for a date halfway around the world. And as my plane taxis down the runway, it hits me: it’s my first Valentine’s Day with this woman and as mushy as it sounds, right now, her love is the only thing that keeps me grounded and reminds me of just how human and vulnerable I am.
For even a bastard billionaire like me has a heart beating underneath the cold exterior everyone chooses to see – and ever since our worlds collided six months ago, Billie Delphine has held that heart in her hands.
* * *
An hour after my plane lands at Auburn Municipal Airport, I find Billie’s shop closed up, and the top floor where she lives empty, though her neighbor, Kathryn Logan, beckons for me to come over. I learn that Billie’s gone to the Mardi Gras ball at the Miners’ Foundry, a real foundry that’s since been converted into an events hall. After learning that I hadn’t been able to make it into town the day before, her friends forced her to go with them and have a good time.
Kathryn tells me that if only she weren’t a hundred years old and still able to dance without running people over with her walker, that’s where I would have found her, too. She makes me laugh, this feisty woman, and I can’t blame Billie for wanting to fly back home even if were only to sit with Kathryn and listen to her stories every chance she gets. This is one of those times for Billie has chosen to stay longer than usual and selfishly, I want her back home where she belongs–with me.
“Promise me you’ll dance with her tonight, Heath,” Kathryn tells me just as I’m about to turn away from her door. “Treat her like a princess.”
“She is a princess, Kathryn. Always was, and always will be,” I say. “And glass slipper or not, I promise to dance with her tonight.”
“Ah, if only I were sixty years younger, I’d be giving Billie a run for her money over you.”
I laugh, nodding. “I don’t doubt it.”
“I don’t know if this is a good thing or not, Heath, but you remind me of how men used to be when I was younger,” she says. “They never forgot a holiday, and they were polite, so much like you. And they certainly dressed well, not like they do these days, with their pants hanging down their asses. They don’t make them like you anymore.”
“They still do,” I say, slipping my hands into my jeans pockets. “You just have to look much harder sometimes.”
“You’re blushing!” She’s almost cackling with glee.
I chuckle. “I better head to the Foundry before someone snags her away from me. I hope you enjoy the chocolates.”
“Thank you, Heath. You know, she needs to move on with her life – with you. She doesn’t need to keep an eye on me. I’ve got the whole town already doing that.”
“You’re worth it, Kathryn,” I tell her as the corner of her eyes wrinkle even more as she bids me good night from behind her screen door. Behind her, a young woman who’s keeping her company for the evening wishes me a happy Valentine’s Day before I head to the SUV idling at the curb.
But as I make my way to the door of the Miners’ Foundry, trepidation suddenly fills me. I feel like I’m back in high school again, walking up to my prom date who, it turned out, had been hoping that my older brother, Ethan, had asked her to the prom instead. But it’s not that I’m suddenly lacking in self-confidence, memories of my older brother making me feel inferior. No, it’s knowing that while it’s not such a bad thing to be a few minutes late to one’s Valentine’s Day date, it’s not exactly a good thing when you’re 24 hours late.
I’m not even dressed for the ball. There are no colorful plastic beads hanging from around my neck, no top hat or purple suit or even a masquerade mask to hide my face. Instead, I’ve got on a pair of jeans and a black dress shirt underneath a leather jacket. There’s a slight chill in the air but I don’t mind it. While winter blankets New York in snow tonight, summer has decided to visit Northern California and I couldn’t be happier.
The sight of a woman in a dark purple dress standing next to a table occupied by her friends stops me in my tracks. She’s let her dark hair down, and it looks like she’s just come back from the bar where she’s brought back two colorful cocktail drinks, one she hands to Norah, one of her employees. Rows of colorful necklaces hang from around her neck, and her dress hugs her curves, falling loosely over her hips and stopping just above her ankles. She’s hitched a part of her skirt into a loose belt, revealing laced up, black leather boots. And though she’s wearing a black mask that covers half her face, I know it’s Billie for her smile is unmistakable. It’s dazzling, even if it only dazzles one man – me.
The force of her smile hits me hard, a blow that threatens to knock me off my feet as it claims my heart first before snaking lower, to the pit of my belly. Although we’ve kept in touch through text messages, voice calls and video chats, it’s been five long weeks since I’ve held her in my arms and it shows in the primal way my body reacts.
Onstage, the band begins to play and the crowd goes wild around me. For a moment, I lose sight of Billie and when the space in front of me clears, she’s gone. I curse under my breath just as someone bumps into me. A lanky blond man with dreadlocks wearing a wild purple and yellow suit complete with a top hat and a feathered mask stares at me before he rips the mask off his face.
“Well, blow me down, Mister Ettinger! You made it!” Mick Crow exclaims as he shakes my hand. His last name’s really Clarkson, but ever since he fell in love with Nevada City while hitchhiking cross country from his native Virginia, he’s gotten involved in yoga and decided to officially add “Crow” to his name. He also works as Billie’s store manager, along with his girlfriend, Norah.
“Hello, Mick. How are things?”
“Couldn’t be better. I thought you weren’t going to make it until tomorrow. Billie said that you were still in Brazil, doing business. Just in time for the Mardi Gras down there, I’m sure!”
“If there was a celebration, then I’m afraid I didn’t notice.” I’d honestly forgotten about any Mardi Gras celebrations, not when I was mostly buried in meetings and negotiations. “I wish I’d gotten here much sooner, Mick. As it is, I hope I’m not too late.”
“Bah! It’s officially still Valentine’s Day and you’re here! And that’s what matters, Mister Ettinger. Here,” Mick hands me his mask, “why don’t you have this? It’ll be a rad surprise for Billie to see you here, that’s for sure! I don’t t think she’s expecting you until tomorrow.”
When I look at the spot where I last saw Billie, I’m relieved to see that she’s back, and this time she’s sitting down. As Mick heads to the dance floor to join some friends, I see a man approach the table and offer Billie a necklace which she accepts and adds to the collection around her neck. Jealousy tugs at my chest, but I push the feeling away. Just like Mick said, I’m here now, and that’s all that matters.
I slip the mask over the top half of my face as I make my way through the crowd toward Billie’s table. She spots me even though the man is still speaking to her, though I doubt that she’s hearing a word he’s saying. But I don’t care, because the only one I see right now is her. She has a way of looking at me that makes the world stand still and sets my pulse racing.
“How do you expect to go incognito around me with the company you keep, Heath?” Billie says as she gets from her chair and looks over my shoulder. While four of my bodyguards are trailing a few feet behind me, she doesn’t need to know of the other two who are standing back, mingling with the crowd. She’s trying her best to be serious, hiding her surprise at seeing me, but she’s not doing such a good job at it.
“I’m afraid it’s an occupational hazard. Maybe that’s why I’m not some international spy,” I say, shrugging as I fight the urge to kiss her, even ravage her right on top of the table that’s currently covered with all sorts of cocktails and bowls of peanuts.
Though on second thought, maybe not.
“Well, international spymaster, are they going to pull me off you if I kiss you,” she asks as she eyes my bodyguards suspiciously, “you know, in case they’re worried I may hurt you?”
I lean forward so only she can hear what I’m about to say. “The only thing that’s hurting me right now is the fact that I can’t fuck you right this minute, and I won’t even care who’s watching—”
Billie grabs the collar of my leather jacket, and pulling me toward her, she shuts me up with a deep kiss. As the kiss deepens, her hands move up to my face, stroking my stubbled jaw and her friends whoop and holler behind her. Seconds later, both of us breathless, she pulls away, blushing as one of her friends tell us to get a room.
“Oh, we will get a room, no doubt about that,” I say, which makes Billie blush even more, before she flings her arms around my neck and holds me in a long embrace that thankfully, hides my body’s reaction to the nearness of her. She’s like a drug I can’t get enough of and after five long weeks away from her, I really am dying to fuck her.
But first, I need to fulfill a promise I’d made to another woman earlier.
“Can I have this dance, love?”
* * *
Just like the last time Billie and I hid away in the creekside cottage to celebrate the new year, we know that my bodyguards – and hers – are nearby. Whether I’m working on a multimillion dollar deal somewhere in the world, or she’s ringing up a sale from her shop, Thyme and Lavender, it’s our bodyguards’ job to keep us safe while at the same time, seeming scarce. After the attempts on our lives six months earlier, I’ve been told the threat is still there – that there’s still a price on my head even though the alleged man behind the plan is currently in jail. And so I have no choice but to increase security measures for myself and those I love, even if one of them is now a suspect, too.
That development is something I can’t tell Billie just yet, not unless I want to give her something else to panic about. She’s the woman who holds my heart, and now, even my sanity, too, my sense of calm when everything seems to be falling apart. Billie’s the one who keeps me grounded after the only foundation I’ve ever known crumbled under the lies that used to hold it fast.
“Look at me,” she whispers the moment we find ourselves alone in the creekside cabin. “I don’t know what you did to move heaven and earth to be here with me tonight, but thank you. This is all I ever need – you and me, right here.”
I kiss her, not wanting to say anything else. She’s all I need to remind myself that underneath how the world chooses to see me – the bastard billionaire whose own brother may or may not have been involved in the plan to have him killed – I’m just a man, so imperfect, and so madly in love with her.
She smells of ylang-ylang and patchouli, a heady concoction that sets my body on fire. I peel off my jacket and toss it on the floor, helping her with the zipper of her dress even as her own hands are busy unbuttoning my shirt and unzipping my fly. We’re stumbling through a trail of clothes, socks and shoes, but we know this tiny cabin so well. I gasp when her hand wraps around my throbbing cock, her other hand pushing my jeans and my boxer briefs down my hips.
“I’m not going to be slow or gentle—”
“I don’t want you to,” she murmurs, her voice warm in my ear as I push her against the wall and pin her there. Her dress slides off her body, leaving her only in her lace bra and panties and those knee-high lace-up boots that I know I won’t have the patience to undo. Not that I want to, for she looks fucking amazing in them. When she tries to pull the necklaces over her head, a few of them snap, sending beads flying everywhere.
“Leave them.” I dip my hand between her legs, my fingers slipping inside her panties and between her slick folds. Billie groans, her arms circling my neck as she leans her head back against the wall, biting her lower lip as my fingers slip inside her. I suck her breasts, taking her nipple in my mouth and feeling it harden between my lips. She’s panting hard as I rub my fingers against her clit, her fingers digging into the skin of my shoulders.
“Heath, I want you right now,” she hisses and I pull my hand away. She wriggles out of her panties and kisses me, catching my tongue between her teeth and sucking it. I’m out of breath, and my cock is on fire. I can’t stand one second longer of all this foreplay, or whatever it is now that all the blood has just about gone south and I can’t think clearly. This is what she strips me down to – a man with no more pretenses left, no more defenses.
I lift Billie up against the wall, feeling her legs wrap around my hips, and in one move, I slip my cock inside her. Gravity does the rest, her body sinking lower, the perfect sheath for my sword and the sensations that hit me leave me weak. I inhale the scent of her hair as I still myself for a few seconds, loving the feel of her surrounding me, so tight and so warm.
Billie bites the skin of my neck, sucking softly as I begin to move, varying my rhythm to match her own movements. There’s always the bed, but this position brings back the first time we found ourselves against a wall, and she knows it. We’d been on our way to Saint Lucia to go after her sister and my brother, and I’d pushed her to her limit. Hell, we both pushed each other to our limits then. It wasn’t the first time I knew I was attracted to her, but it was the moment I knew I had to have her.
I love the way she clings to me, the way the leather of her boots feel cool against my heated skin, her fingers surely leaving marks on my skin as I move in and out of her, feeling my orgasm slowly building at the base of my cock though I hold it back. I need Billie to come first. I want to hear my name on her lips when she comes. I don’t even care who hears us.
As Billie grinds her hips in lazy circles, I know I can’t hold my own release any longer. I suck her earlobe and she shatters, chanting my name as her body shudders in my arms. When I finally welcome my release, one of us somehow gets caught in her necklaces and in one tug, they all break loose and the plastic beads clatter to the floor though I barely hear them. I only hear her voice, her gasps of pleasure, my name on her lips. I only feel my heart pounding against my rib cage, the rush of blood through my temples as my orgasm rips right through me, and I know one thing for sure. It’s been too long, being without her—and I don’t know if I can do it again.
I carry Billie to the bed and lie next to her. I pull her to me and hold her, and for the next few minutes we don’t speak. We don’t need the covers over us, not yet, for the cabin is warm. One of my men lit the fireplace minutes before we arrived and there are fresh logs stacked just outside the door. I know the refrigerator’s stocked, and so is the pantry because I stocked it myself right after the plane landed, needing to do the job myself. I even bought the roses that are sitting in the vase on the kitchen table. We have everything we need for the five days we’re spending together before I have to return to New York, though this time, I want her to come home with me.
I need her. I love her.
“I can’t do this anymore, Billie,” I whisper, kissing her forehead. “I need you with me.”
“But even if I stayed with you, Heath, you travel too much,” she says. “This trip was five weeks – three countries. That’s a hectic schedule and all of it, it’s you putting out fires—”
“Fires I can easily put out from my office in New York,” I say, shrugging. “I chose to travel only because there was nothing for me to come home to, Billie, at least not in New York. Otherwise, I’m really a homebody.”
There’s a heavy pause and Billie raises her head to look at me, frowning. But even when she’s frowning, she’s beautiful. She sits up and unlaces her boots, her brow furrowed in concentration. It takes just a minute and she kicks them off the bed before turning back to face me.
“I would never ask you to stay here, Heath, or even set up some office here—not when your mother is back there and she needs you now more than ever. Her Alzheimer’s isn’t getting any better, is it?”
I shake my head. She lays back down next to me, resting her head on my shoulder. “Those things never get better, Billie, not even with experimental drugs. But she’s comfortable and that’s what matters.”
“The only thing that matters to me, Heath, is you, and honestly, I can’t stand another day without you,” she says, lifting her head so she’s facing me, “and neither can my employees, to be honest – and the bodyguards you assigned to watch me.”
“What do you mean?” I ask, trying to remember if I’d heard any complaints from my men. But I haven’t.
“Ever since you’ve been gone, everyone’s been telling me that I’ve been cranky as hell, and that I’m obsessed with my phone,” she says, frowning, though this time, I can see that she’s not as upset as she makes it seem. “I need to always check it to make sure I don’t miss anything from you, no matter what time zone you were at. I even go to bed with the damn thing.”
“Be careful or I just might get jealous.”
She watches me for a few moments, her expression turning serious. “Ask me, Heath.”
“Ask you what?”
“Whatever it was you’ve wanted to ask me ever since I left New York,” she says as I prop myself up on one elbow and peer at her. “Ask me again.”
I don’t wait. There are only two questions I’ve always wanted to ask Billie, though the second one will need to come at a much better time and place. For that, I need flowers, music, a ring. And Venice.
“Will you come back to New York with me, Billie?” I murmur as I push her back down on the bed. “After the five days here, will you fly back with me? And stay with me?”
Billie pulls my face down and kisses me, and for the next few minutes that’s all we do, just slow tender kisses, gentle nips of lips and tongues. Sometimes it’s all we do, exploring each other with our mouths and our hands, though after five weeks apart, the last thing I want to do is limit my rediscovery of her.
“Yes,” she whispers, her mouth against my lips. “My answer is yes.”
“I’m going back home with you, Heath Ettinger. I love you, and I never want to be away from you again. Definitely not for five weeks.”
And as I gather Billie in my arms and kiss her again, deeper this time, something inside me lifts and I’m feeling lighter.
And why shouldn’t I?
She’s finally coming home with me, the calm to my every storm—even the ones that rage deep inside me that with her love now remain silent and still.
* * *
Excerpt from Date Night: A Short Story Collection. Copyright © 2013 – 2017