Eight years later
WHILE everyone else at Layla’s New Year’s day wedding was either dancing, drinking, or mingling, Eva stood in a barely lit corner in an alcove near the Sinclair Mansion’s first-floor bathroom, texting with Aaron, the love of her life.
When are you coming home?
Soon, sweetness. I’ll be back tomorrow.
He didn’t say, “I miss you.” He had never been one for big shows of affection, but the fact that he was text messaging her as opposed to playing a video game or watching some mindless television show, like he usually did when they were both home at night, meant he missed her very much. Still Eva liked to hear the words, so she texted, “I love you.”
“Love you too.”
Eva sighed and lowered the phone, once again feeling guilty about having left him in Texas during the holidays to attend Layla’s wedding. She would have brought him, but weddings really weren’t Aaron’s scene. He detested wearing a suit, and having to stand around while she made small talk with people he didn’t have much in common with.
But she couldn’t just skip the wedding. Layla and she had met in a CPR class, a requirement for both her Masters in Social Work and Layla’s degree in physical therapy. And though they hadn’t known each other all that well, Layla had proven to be a godsend when she’d decided to leave Alexei. She put Eva up for the few weeks it had taken to get the rest of her summer field-work hours done, so she could transfer her credits to the University of Texas-Arlington and do the last semester of her social work degree there.
And Layla had really come through during the time when Eva’s father was still refusing to talk to her because of what had gone down with Alexei. She’d helped Eva figure out the student loan process and get set up in an apartment. Most importantly, Layla had constantly assured her everything would be all right, even when Eva called her in the middle of the night crying for reasons she could never fully explain to her compassionate friend.
In exchange, Eva had taken Layla under her wing, making sure she didn’t get taken advantage of during her years at UTD. This was a constant danger with Layla as the kind of instinct that made her go all out for some random woman she had met once in a CPR class, made her a target for deadbeat guys and toxic friends. Theirs had turned into a beautiful friendship, but Layla was kind to a fault and would have had every lazy classmate, clueless sorority girl, and lost-cause politco sponging off of her goodness, if Eva hadn’t protected her from them. So when Layla had called and said she’d be marrying the Pittsburgh steel magnate, Nathan Sinclair, she’d come partly to support her best friend and partly to make sure this Nathan was on the up and up.
So far, she’d overheard a lot of her fellow attendees gossiping about what a strange match the sugary-sweet Layla and the hard-as-nails Nathan were. But finally meeting the no-nonsense businessman had given Eva peace of mind where her friend was concerned. She could tell he would never let her friend get taken advantage of again. Anyone with eyes could see how much he adored her, and she was happy Layla had found a safe harbor in him.
She glanced at the clock on her phone. The wedding reception had started two hours ago, so she was probably safe to go home and curl up with a Kimani romance novel in her hotel room. Her heart filled with a deep longing to see Aaron again. She wasn’t used to being away from him for so long, and found herself missing their domestic routine. She didn’t know what she was going to do when he went to Italy this summer. Probably die of loneliness.
But enough of this pity party for one, she decided, pushing herself off the wall she’d been leaning against and throwing her phone into her clutch. She’d find Layla and Nathan, congratulate them, and head on out…
Suddenly, she stopped short. A chill came over her, and the hairs on the back of her neck stood up straight. Which was strange, because that’s the reaction her body used to have when Alexei was nearby. But he wasn’t at Layla’s wedding. Was he? Her heart now pounding in her ears, she looked around just to make sure.
And that’s when she locked eyes with her ex-boyfriend and current billionaire, Alexei Rustanov.
* * * *
Alexei’s date, Caroline, a sleek New York stage actress in her early twenties wasn’t the type to complain of boredom, but she didn’t look thrilled to be at the wedding of his business associate, Nathan Sinclair. She wasn’t pouting, but her folded arms and the blank expression on her beautifully sculpted face, made it plain there were other places she’d rather be.
Or maybe she was having a perfectly nice time. Caroline wasn’t exactly what one would call animated, which was perhaps why she’d had more success as a mistress to high-powered men than a stage actress. In any case, he knew she’d never suggest they leave or put her needs before his in any way. When attending events with him, she always remained as unobtrusive as possible while looking as beautiful as she could. That’s why powerful men liked her. She was arm candy that didn’t talk back and seemingly had no needs of her own.
And like just about every woman he had dated for the past seven years, she was the exact opposite of Eva St. James.
Still, Alexei was ready to leave. He had accepted the invitation as a courtesy to Nathan Sinclair, who had helped him make the right contacts when he had decided to expand his own steel business into the United States market. That had proven to be a very lucrative list of contacts, and eventually Alexei had won enough contracts for steel and a few other divisions of Rustanov Enterprises that he’d been able to open his current headquarters in New York. The least Alexei could do was attend the man’s wedding.
But he hadn’t been prepared for how in love Nathan seemed to be with his pretty African-American bride. It reminded him of the silly hopes and dreams he’d harbored for Eva and himself before she left him for not being rich enough. Though he’d tried to forget her with a string of women and business successes throughout the years, the old bitterness returned on Nathan’s wedding day, threatening to consume Alexei as he watched the happy couple slow dancing to a fast song, as if they were the only people in the Sinclair mansion’s ballroom.
“Are you ready to go?” he asked Caroline.
She nodded and stood up, smoothing out invisible wrinkles in her tight, black designer evening gown before asking. “Do you mind if I powder my nose before we leave?”
For a moment Alexei marveled at the fact that he had gone from the thuggish offspring of a Russian crime family to a legitimate businessman, so powerful and rich that beautiful women asked him if it was okay to go to the toilet.
“It’s on our way out,” he said.
He’d already extended his congratulations to Nathan, so he guided Caroline toward one of the main floor’s guest bathrooms. After she disappeared inside, he looked around for a place to sit while he waited for her. He knew from experience that a bathroom break for most of the women he dated included resetting make-up so they’d look just as flawless on the way out as they did on the way in. This meant Caroline would be in there for a while.
But there were no benches in the hallway. He spotted a darkened alcove at the other end of the hall, and though it didn’t look like it was meant to be used by the party guests, he could make out a figure in its dark shadows, her face illuminated by the glow of her phone. She was typing something into it with a fond smile on her face.
For a moment, it looked like…
No, it couldn’t be. Eva’s hair had been thick and natural, but this woman had straight hair that fell past her shoulders. And why would Eva St. James, of all people, be in Pittsburgh?
But she was also wearing a yellow evening gown and bright red cowboy boots to a formal winter wedding. And who else but Eva would do that?
He took a step toward her, pulled forward by an invisible string that compelled him to make sure it wasn’t her, even though he technically never wanted to see her again.
All of a sudden, she seemed to sense his presence, because she looked to the left, then to the right, then straight at him. And that’s when he knew for sure. Yes, this was Eva. Eva St. James, the gold-digging witch who had torn his heart out eight years ago.
* * * *
For a couple of long moments they just stared at each other, and during this time, Eva took in every detail of Alexei. He had apparently been keeping up with his workout regimen, because he was still massive, with no indication that there was anything but muscles and skin underneath the tux he wore. His wavy dark brown hair was cut much shorter than it had been when they had been together, and his beard was gone. But his jaw was just as square, and his distinctive green eyes were just as flinty as she’d remembered. Those, paired with the semi-permanent scowl he’d always worn on his face, told her exactly who she was staring at in person for the first time in eight years.
Back when she’d first spotted him in the School of Social Work’s lobby, bent over a textbook at the security desk, she’d found his scowl endearing. It had felt at that moment like she had been put on this Earth to wipe it off and make him smile. But now in the Sinclair Mansion’s hallway, the scowl felt dangerous, like she was a small rabbit trapped in the angry gaze of a very large predator.