She’s petite yet curvy with a nice ass and beautiful tits. But that’s not the first thing I notice about her.
The first thing that strikes me is that her coat isn’t warm enough for a Chicago winter.
It’s dark out, and barely above freezing. She’s standing on a street corner discussing something with a man in hushed tones, waving her hands dramatically as she speaks. It’s nearly midnight, and the street is almost deserted.
She has long dark hair, a trim build, and a full pouty mouth. And she seems to be pissed off. Curious about her, I stalk closer and then slow my pace.
“Fine. Tell me what it’ll take, sweetheart,” the guy says to her.
She stiffens and puts one hand on her hip. “I’m not for sale, asshole. I did my job, but that’s it. When you step outside those doors, the fantasy ends.”
They’re standing outside a dingy club, the kind of place that smells of rancid smoke, cheap beer, and meaningless sex. I should know. I’ve been here once or twice for bachelor parties and those kinds of things. My friends would call it a titty bar. But my friends are mostly pro football players, and their manners leave a lot to be desired.
The place isn’t really a strip club, more like a topless bar where beautiful women serve drinks in their underwear. It all seemed innocent enough, until now . . . until a sinking feeling washes over me as I watch this woman get propositioned in the street as she’s trying to leave work.
The guy laughs, the sound abrasive, like he doesn’t believe her. “Three hundred bucks. Come on, baby. It’ll be fast.”
She chews on one of those pouty lips as she weighs his words, contemplating what looks to be a life-changing decision . . . and not life-changing in a positive way.
Don’t do it, lady . . . just say no to what this asshole is offering you.
Part of me knows I need to mind my own damn business, that this guy just wants a quick fuck. Who am I to judge how this woman chooses to support herself? The other part of me—the fierce protector in me—says this is a situation that I can’t ignore. I won’t allow this asshole to force a woman to do something she’s not comfortable with.
I walk over, my legs moving of their own volition.
“Excuse me,” I say, interrupting them.
Her gaze swings over to mine, and the guy she’s with does a double-take. I tower over him by at least half a foot. Now that I have a better look at him, I see the guy is middle-aged, round in the midsection, his hair graying at his temples. I also know I can take him if it comes to that.
He shoots me a look that’s half pissed off that I interrupted his bargaining session, and half panicked that I may kick his ass. The latter is definitely what he should be more concerned about if he tries any shit. I may just decide to do it anyway, despite the fact I just promised my agent I’ll behave myself and not end up on any more tabloid news sites.
“The lady said to leave her alone. I suggest you get the fuck out of here.” I glare down at the guy.
His eyes narrow, but he takes a step back and holds up his palms. “Fine. Going.”
He takes off down the street and disappears around the corner, leaving me standing across from the woman. She’s probably no more than five foot three, a hundred twenty pounds soaking wet. No way she could have defended herself against someone his size. More importantly, she shouldn’t have to defend herself from that prick.
“Were you really going to go home with that guy?”
She shakes her head. “No. He didn’t want to take me home. Just wanted me to show him my boobs and have me give him a hand job in the back seat of his car. He may or may not have mentioned something about finishing himself off on my breasts too.”
I wait to see if she’s joking, but sadly, I can tell what she’s saying is the truth.
Then she looks at me, with the prettiest shade of blue eyes I’ve ever seen, and my heart almost stops. “For the record—guys are gross.”
I chuckle at her surprising honesty. “Not denying that.”
Men can be real creeps. I’ve seen the evening news. Sadly, there’s just no arguing against her logic. Some of us are still good guys, but I don’t say this to her. I just let her believe what she wants.
“I’m Alexei,” I say, offering her my hand.
For a second, she just looks at my hand, and I don’t think she’s going to take it. But then finally, after deciding that she can trust me, at least for something as simple as a handshake, she places her small palm in mine and shakes my hand. She’s freezing.
“I’m Ryleigh. Thanks for, um . . . saving me.”
I haven’t done anything yet. I wanted to punch that guy in the fucking jaw when I heard him propositioning her. Instead, I let him walk away unscathed. Lucky prick.
“Do you work here?” I lift my gaze to the neon sign blazing above our heads in the darkness. I scrub a hand over my face as I picture the petite woman standing before me scantily clad and serving drinks to a group of horny men with grabby hands and fat wallets.
“You a stripper, then?” I ask.
Ryleigh makes an annoyed sound in her throat. “It’s a topless bar. I’m not a stripper.”
I knew as much, but part of me didn’t want to admit I’ve been a customer at the place. It’s not exactly a classy establishment. “But you serve drinks in your underwear.”
“As I said, men are gross. Sadly, they also pay my bills.”
I chuckle, again surprised by her. “I’m not denying it. And not that you asked for it, but in my point of view, men are visual creatures. And women are beautiful. We enjoy seeing them any chance we can get.”
She merely rolls her eyes, clearly not buying my bullshit. “Listen, as nice as it is to freeze my lady balls off and stand out here talking to you, I need to find a way to get home.”
“Where’s your ride? I can wait with you.” The words just stumbling out of my mouth before I can think about it.
“My car’s in the shop, and my friend bailed on giving me a ride.”
I nod, processing everything. Something also tells me she needs that three hundred bucks the guy was offering her. I take a deep breath, weighing my options. It’s either go home alone to my $6 million penthouse and lie awake wondering if she’s okay . . . or drive her home myself and convince her to just take the money I have in my wallet. It’s not like I need it.
As tired as I was walking out of my dinner meeting with Slate, now I’m way too keyed up for sleep. It’s then that I realize going home alone would be pointless.
“Is that what you needed the money for? Your car?”
Her inquisitive blue gaze meets mine, and for a second, I think she’s going to deny that she needs the money. She’ll probably try to save face by telling me I read the situation wrong, and she was never actually entertaining that scumbag’s offer.
Instead, she surprises me for the third time in five minutes.
“No. Well, yes. But not tonight. My immediate concern is getting home and taking care of my roommate’s baby.”
“Baby?” I ask, lifting one eyebrow.
She nods, tucking a long strand of silky brown hair behind her ear. “My ex-roommate, actually. She, um, dropped off her baby a few days ago and left. I have no idea when she’s coming back. I need to pick up diapers, more clothes, and baby formula. All of that stuff costs money.” Ryleigh straightens, her posture stiffening, like she’s revealed too much. “You know what, don’t worry about it. I’ll figure it out. I always do.”
“Where’s the baby now?” It’s after midnight, after all. But no matter how late it is, I’m not letting her walk away just yet.
“My neighbor is babysitting her so I could work.”
Something inside me believes Ryleigh’s telling the truth. Even though the last thing I want to do tonight is deal with a sad woman who has what sounds like more drama than an episode of Law & Order, with an even more unusual twist of playing nanny for someone’s baby, I find myself gesturing toward my car. My black Mercedes is parked right across the street.
“I’ll take you.”
She narrows her eyes. “I don’t even know who you are. Why would I trust you?”
I don’t point out that she was just considering getting into the car of a complete stranger. Or that she was considering doing unsavory activities with said stranger. I could tell her it’s because I grew up with three sisters, and I have a big heart. I could tell her that I have six nieces and nephews, that I’m good with babies. I could even hand her my business card and tell her she could ruin me with one call to the media about how I tried to pick her up outside a nightclub. But I don’t say any of those things. Instead, I find myself wanting her to trust me on instinct alone.
I finally settle on, “Because I’m offering to help you. No strings.”
“No strings, as in I don’t have to show you my boobs?”
I almost choke on the laugh that crawls up my chest. “Only if you want to, but remember . . . we men are visual creatures.” I offer her my best playboy smirk, the one that usually makes women swoon, only to find it has no effect on Ryleigh.
Maybe it’s because she doesn’t know who I am, but she treats me differently than the women I usually meet, as if I’m a regular guy and not a famous millionaire sports star who easily melts women with simply a smile.
Ryleigh has no idea that I’m Alex Ivan, pro football player for the Chicago Hawks. She doesn’t swoon and bat her eyelashes or try to impress me. In fact, she doesn’t follow any of the normal protocols. Clearly, she’s not a gold digger, because if she were, she could talk me out of way more than three hundred bucks. An even bigger part of me knows I could add several zeroes behind that figure, and she’d need every damn dime.
“Fine. I’ll take the ride. But it’s going to be a hard pass on the boobs.”
“Whatever you want.”
The truth is, she’s gorgeous, and if she wanted to share her body with me, I’d jump at the fucking chance. But something about her no-nonsense demeanor tells me that’s not going to happen, which is probably for the best. I don’t have time to get tangled up in something right now, anyway. I have to focus on myself and my career now more than ever.
After another moment’s hesitation, Ryleigh looks back at the club one last time, and then to my car. I can see the moment she makes up her mind, letting out a soft sigh.
“Don’t make me regret this,” she mutters under her breath before she follows me to my car.
I hit the button on the key fob to start the engine, then unlock the doors. When we slide inside, I turn up the heat and direct the vents toward her.
“Thank you,” she says, buckling her seat belt. “Nice car.” Her gaze lingers on the sleek wood paneling, supple leather, and chrome fixtures.
“Thanks,” I murmur, suddenly feeling a little sheepish about the opulence of my luxury sedan while she has to consider back-alley propositions just to feed her baby. No, not her baby, her ex-roommate’s baby, which makes this entire situation even crazier. I shift into drive and pull out onto the road. “So, where to?”
“Oh, right.” Ryleigh rattles off her address, and I wince.
I’ve only been to that area of the city once, and it was by accident because I was lost. It’s not a safe or very nice area, and I hate to think about her walking around after dark alone, petite beauty that she is.
“So, your name, Alexei, is that . . .”
“Russian. My parents moved here when I was six.” I also have no fucking clue why I told her my name is Alexei. Everyone calls me Alex. Everyone except for my mothers and sisters.
“Do you remember much of it? Living in Russia? I’ve never been out of the United States. I’ve barely been out of the Midwest.”
“A little. My parents tried to keep up the traditions for us. They were proud of their heritage. We spoke Russian at home, and every Friday, my mother would make a big traditional meal.”
“What kinds of foods are in traditional Russian meals? Like borscht?”
I chuckle. “Borscht is disgusting.” It’s a beet soup that looks like a bowl of blood. “My favorites were the cabbage rolls and herb-and-meat-filled pies she would make.”
“That sounds amazing. I haven’t eaten a real home-cooked meal in a long time.”
All this talk about food makes me wonder if she’s hungry, if I should offer to stop and get something for her to eat. Then I decide against it because I don’t want her to feel that I think she’s a charity case. Plus, dinner together seems too personal, and I can’t do personal right now. She’s a big girl. She can feed herself.
The conversation I just had with my agent at dinner rings through my head. I need to keep my head down and stay focused on winning. Prove that I’m worth the huge contract that was just plopped into my lap. Period.
“What about you?” I ask. “Family in the area?”
She shakes her head, folding her hands in her lap. “I was an only child. Both of my parents have passed on.”
“I’m sorry.” Shit. Now I wish I’d never asked, because her story has gotten even more pitiful.
She shakes her head, still looking out the windshield. “It’s okay.”
We drive in silence for a few minutes, and when we get closer to her neighborhood, I spot a superstore that’s all lit up on the corner, one of those twenty-four-hour places. I pull into the parking lot and park the car.
Ryleigh’s gaze swings to mine, and I can sense the question on her parted lips.
I recall a piece of advice a coach gave me once about how people would come out of the woodwork asking for money once I signed my first big contract. He recommended instead of giving out cash that I should give them what they need—you know, like paying an electric bill versus handing someone a hundred bucks.
“Why are you stopping here? My place is still a few blocks away.” She gives me a curious look.
“Let’s get the stuff you need.” Plus, if she’s lying about the baby, now would be the time to come clean.
She swallows and nods. “Thank you.”
I grab a cart and we wander the store aisles, finally locating the baby section. She grabs a package of diapers, the smallest she can find, and places it in the cart. I know how quickly babies go through diapers. Those will only last her a couple of days, and I open my mouth to object. Then I decide I’m being a controlling asshole, and should let her do this her way. Next, we find baby formula, and Ryleigh selects a yellow tub of the stuff, groaning when she sees how expensive it is. Babies go through formula faster than diapers, and I know she needs a few of those tubs, but I stay focused on what she wants.
“What else do you need?” I ask, turning to face her.
Under the bright lights, I can see how truly beautiful she is for the first time. Her hair is the color of deep honey. It looked brown outside, but here in the light, shades of gold run through the soft waves. Her skin is like porcelain, soft and creamy, and her eyes are the most striking shade of blue, fringed in thick black lashes. Stunning.
As if she can sense me watching her, she chews on her lower lip and shakes her head. “I’m really not sure. I don’t know the first thing about babies. She cries a lot, and I . . .”
“How old is she?”
I push the cart to the next aisle and find what I’m looking for. “Does she use one of these?” I ask, selecting a pacifier.
“I’m not sure. My ex-roommate left me with almost nothing. It’s worth a shot.”
I toss a couple of them into the cart and then grab a Boppy pillow. “What about one of these?”
Ryleigh’s delicately arched eyebrows lift. “What the hell is it?”
I laugh again, amused by her honesty. “It’s a special pillow. She can do tummy time. Sometimes the crying is due to gas bubbles. This could help.”
“How do you know so much about babies?” Her eyes widen and lock onto mine.
I shrug, pushing the cart toward the checkout. “I have six nieces and nephews. I babysit them sometimes.” Whether I want to or not. I smile, thinking about my sisters shoving one or more babies into my arms anytime we’re at a family gathering.
We work together unloading the contents of the cart onto the conveyor belt. When the cart is empty, I pull out my gold card and hand it to the cashier.
Ryleigh stiffens. “You don’t have to do that.”
“I’ve got this, no worries.”
She looks at me, and I can see the wheels spinning in her head. She wants to trust me, wants to think I’m being chivalrous and gallant, but she’s wary because she’s likely never had a white knight ride in and save her. I see her underlying distrust, and for some reason, I want to prove to her that tonight, her white knight is real.
Besides, I’m not letting her spend whatever tip money she made tonight on this. I’m sure she needs it for other things, like fixing her car or feeding herself, not for taking care of a baby unexpectedly dropped off on her doorstep. I still need to get to the bottom of that story, but I sense that now’s not the time.
The cashier is watching our exchange with narrowed eyes. I smile and whisper to Ryleigh that she can pay me back if she likes, but it’s really not necessary.
The cashier rings up the items we’ve purchased, and I accept the bags after sliding my credit card back into my wallet.
Once I have the bags loaded into the back seat of my car, we set off again. A few minutes later, we’ve arrived, and when I park on the street and step out of the car, I get angry.
Really. Fucking. Angry.
And my anger only intensifies with every step toward Ryleigh’s apartment.
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