One Night With a Billionaire

By: VickiLewis Thompson

\To William Moggridge (1943-2012), who designed the first clamshell laptop computer and saved writers (specifically me) from being forever chained to a desk.

One

I’m in Paris.

Melanie Shaw stared at the fa?ade of Notre Dame as the deep-throated bells counted down the hour. Ten o’clock in the morning. Instead of mucking out stalls or riding the fence line at her daddy’s ranch outside of Dallas, Texas, she was standing in front of frickin’ Notre Dame. Amazing.

Her plane had landed two hours ago, and she still couldn’t believe she had both feet planted in Paris, France. Only one thing could have made this moment better—if her friends Val and Astrid could be here with her.

They’d become friends and sorority sisters in college, and five years after graduating, they were tighter than ever. A few months ago all the planets had been aligned for this trip. They’d found a killer plane fare and had spontaneously booked it. Then Val had been unlucky enough to get caught in a mob scene when a fire had broken out during a concert. She’d suffered a broken arm and two broken ribs. Although those had healed, she avoided crowds and wouldn’t be traveling anytime soon.

Melanie had adjusted to the idea of having Val stay home. Astrid was a great traveling companion and they’d still have fun, even without Val. Then, a couple of weeks ago, one of Astrid’s clients developed a problem with a pregnant mare. With the mare’s life on the line, Astrid had reluctantly canceled her trip, too.

Melanie had almost given up once her friends had bailed. The hotel they’d booked was way too expensive for her to handle alone, so she’d cancelled that reservation. But she’d held on to her airline ticket because she couldn’t bear to think of not going. An online search had yielded a cheaper hotel, although it was also far from the main attractions.

Her boyfriend Jeff had said she was crazy to consider traveling alone, but he wasn’t about to go with her to someplace where he didn’t speak the language. His provincial attitude had pounded the nail in the coffin, and she’d ended their relationship. It had been on the skids, anyway.

Now that she was actually here, though, she’d better get busy and take some pictures with her phone. She’d left her suitcase with the hotel desk clerk because she couldn’t check in until noon, but she had her backpack with all her sightseeing essentials crammed inside. Shrugging it off, she unzipped a side pocket and reached for her phone.

Without warning, the backpack was ripped from her hands. At the same moment, someone else shoved her from behind, knocking her to the ground with such force that the breath left her lungs.

“Hey!” A deep male voice from behind her issued a challenge.

She raised her head in time to glimpse a dark-haired man in jeans and a brown leather jacket dash after the thieves. Then folks who were obviously worried about her hurried over and blocked her view. An older gentleman helped her to her feet while two women clucked over her in what sounded like German.

She wasn’t hurt except for a couple of scrapes on the heels of both hands, but if the guy in the leather jacket didn’t catch the thieves, she was in deep shit. Her backpack held almost everything of value—her phone, both credit cards, and two hundred dollars’ worth of euros. Her passport, thank God, was tucked in a pouch under her shirt, but thinking that she might have lost everything else made her sick to her stomach.

Members of the German tour group patted her shoulder as she stood up and dusted off her clothes. They offered words of comfort she couldn’t understand but appreciated anyway. She made the effort to smile her thanks as she scanned the crowd for signs of a tall, broad-shouldered man wearing a brown leather jacket. He’d looked athletic, so maybe he’d be able to tackle the guys who took her backpack.

On the other hand, she didn’t want some stranger risking his safety for her. At least two people had been involved in the mugging, which meant the guy was outnumbered even if he should catch them. She crossed the fingers of both hands and waited, heart pounding from a delayed adrenaline rush.

At last she saw him coming toward her. His eyes were hidden by sunglasses, but his angry strides and the tight set of his mouth told her all she needed to know. Her hopes crumbled. The backpack was gone.

Despair engulfed her, but she was determined to thank him properly for trying. She hoped he spoke English. All she’d heard was his shout of hey, which might be one of those universal expressions used by everyone. She hadn’t traveled enough to know if it was or not.

When he was about ten feet away, he shook his head. “I’m sorry, ma’am. They got clean away from me.”

She gasped at the familiar accent. “Oh my God! You’re from Texas.” Hearing a voice from home made her want to hug him. She restrained herself, but the world brightened considerably.

“Yes, ma’am.” He drew closer. “Are you all right?” He took off his sunglasses and gazed at her with eyes the color of bluebonnets.

“I’m fine.” She wondered if he’d taken off his sunglasses on purpose, knowing that would help. Seeing the concern in his gaze, she didn’t feel quite so alone. “Thank you for chasing them. That was brave of you.”

He shrugged. “Not really. Anyone could see they were yellow-bellied cowards if they’d attack a woman. Speaking of that, they knocked you down. Are you sure you didn’t get scraped up?”

“Just a little.” She showed him her hands.

“Let’s take a look.” Tucking his sunglasses inside his jacket, he grasped her wrists and examined the heels of her hands. “Damn it. You should put something on that.”

His touch felt nice. His big hands were gentle, and she found that sexy. Although it would be totally inappropriate, she wished he’d kiss her scrapes and make them all better. “I have Neosporin in my suitcase back at the hotel.” At least she’d have a place to stay. She’d given them her credit card number. That card was gone, but she hoped to get a replacement before she checked out.

“Are you traveling with someone? I can call them.” He reached inside his jacket and pulled out a phone.

She shook her head. “I came by myself.”

“Then let’s start with the police. Did you get a look at those old boys?”

“Not really.”

“Never mind. I did.” He punched in a number and spoke in French.

Melanie listened with great admiration. He no longer sounded like a Texan as he carried on a conversation in French without stumbling. Prior to this trip she’d enrolled in an online course and had learned enough to find a bathroom and order a meal. But this guy was fluent, which was her good luck.

If she was super lucky, he had an international plan and she’d be able to borrow his phone to call Val, who could help her straighten things out with the credit card companies. Maybe it was cheeky to ask, but she was in desperate circumstances.

Although he was dressed casually, his jacket looked expensive and his watch might even be a real Rolex. Judging from his ease with the language, he could be a businessman who traveled to Paris regularly. If so, he wouldn’t mind loaning her his phone for two minutes.

He disconnected the call and tucked the phone inside his jacket. “They’re sending someone over, so we need to stay put.” He gestured toward a stone bench a few feet away. “Let’s sit a spell.” He was once again her guy from Texas.

“Sounds good.” She wouldn’t mind sitting down. She felt a little shaky. “I’m afraid I’ve ruined your plans for this morning.”

“No, ma’am, you certainly haven’t.” He waited until she sat down before joining her on the bench. “You’re the one with ruined plans. When did you get here?”

“This morning.”

He swore softly under his breath. “I figured that might be the situation when I saw you eyeballing Notre Dame as if you’d never seen it before.”

“I hadn’t, except in pictures.” Then she realized the significance of his statement. He’d noticed her before the mugging. “Did I stick out that much?”

He smiled. “Let’s just say I pegged you as an American.”

“How?” She liked the way he’d managed to smile without appearing to patronize her. And he had a great smile, one that made the corners of his eyes crinkle just enough to add character. As the shock of being mugged wore off, she registered the fact that her rescuer was drop-dead gorgeous.

“White gym shoes, for one thing. French women don’t usually wear gym shoes unless they’re working up a sweat. But the whole getup—the jeans, the hoodie, the backpack—told me you were from the States, probably a new arrival.”

She grimaced. “I’ll bet the muggers figured that out, too.”

“They might have.” He held out his hand. “I’m Drew Eldridge, by the way.”

Eldridge. She’d heard that name, and she thought it might have been from Astrid, whose family was rich. Did that mean her Texan was wearing a real Rolex? His handshake was warm, firm, and giving her goose bumps. She was really sorry when the handshake was over. “I’m Melanie Shaw.”

“Pleased to meet you, Miss Melanie. I wish it had been under different circumstances.”

“Me, too.” If he was related to the Eldridge family Astrid knew, Melanie wouldn’t have been likely to meet him under any circumstances, unless she was with Astrid, who moved in those circles. “Are you from Dallas?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Then you might know a friend of mine, Astrid Lindberg.”

“Astrid Lindberg?” He chuckled. “I haven’t seen her in a coon’s age. We were at the same equestrian camp one summer, although she was with the younger kids. Some old horse tried to run off with her and I was handy. I was worried she’d swear off riding, but she didn’t.”

“She sure didn’t.” Melanie noticed that although Drew had come to Astrid’s rescue, he downplayed his role by saying he was handy. “She’s a large-animal vet now.”

“Is she? That’s great.”

“So are you here on business?” Melanie imagined multinational deals involving millions. From what she could recall, the Eldridge family was loaded.

“Some business. Some pleasure.”

“Ah.” So the multinational deal-making was followed by glittering parties and sophisticated French women who never wore gym shoes with their regular clothes. Yet he’d interrupted all that to help a stranger from home. “Listen, I really appreciate all you’ve done. I’m sure I’ve screwed up your morning and you’re too polite to say so.”

“Nope. It’s a sunny day and I’d decided to—” A soft chime interrupted whatever he’d been about to say. “Excuse me.” Taking out his phone, he glanced at the readout. “I should take this.” He stood and walked a few feet away.

Hanging out with such a good-looking guy was a heady experience that kept her adrenaline pumping, so she was relieved to have a few moments alone to gather her thoughts. If not for her friendship with Astrid, she might have been intimidated by someone like Drew Eldridge. As it was, she was simply grateful. And a little turned on, which served as a great antidote to worrying about losing her stuff.

Having Drew show up was a stroke of luck. Someone with his wealth would have an international calling plan. If she didn’t pay him back until she got home, he probably wouldn’t care. Once he was off the phone, she would ask to make a call. Val had a key to her apartment and could retrieve her credit card information.

The police arrived right after Drew ended his call, so she didn’t have a chance to borrow the phone. Thank God Drew was there to guide her through the process, though. After the officers left, she glanced up at him. “Do you think they’ll recover my backpack?”

“There’s always a chance.”

“But not a very good one, right?”

“I won’t lie to you, Melanie. They may find your backpack, although I figure it’s in a dumpster by now. But the contents . . .” He shrugged. “Not likely.”

“Speaking of those contents, could I please borrow your phone to call my friend Valerie back home? She can access my credit card info so I can cancel my cards.”

“Yes, ma’am, you sure can. Tell you what. I’ll give you a lift back to your hotel so you can doctor those hands. You can call your friend on the way there.”

“You have a car?”

“I do.”

Silly of her to think he’d be on foot, like she was. “You know, that’s a lovely offer, but my hotel isn’t very far away.” That wasn’t quite true. She’d walked at least ten blocks to get here. “I’ll just borrow your phone for a minute. I’ve taken up too much of your valuable time already.”

“Sorry, but my mama raised me better than that. You’ve suffered a shock, and I intend to see you safely back to your hotel.”

Oh, wow. He not only looked like a god, he knew the right things to say to make a girl melt into a puddle. She’d be a fool to resist a display of gentlemanly manners by a heroic figure like Drew, especially when she’d just been mugged by two guys from the shallow end of the gene pool. “Thank you. That would be wonderful. Where are you parked?”

“In a garage.” He pulled out his phone, punched a speed-dial number, and said something in French. Then he tucked the phone away again. “Henri’s on his way.”

“Henri?”

“My driver.”

“Oh.” Of course he’d have a driver on call. She’d have to remember all the details of this adventure to tell Astrid and Val over drinks next week. “Are you here for long?”

“Two weeks. How about you?”

“Five days.”

“That’s all? Five days will go by like lightning.”

“I know, but this was supposed to be a girls’ trip with my two friends, and that’s all the time we felt we could manage for now.”

“And they didn’t come after all.”

“No.”

He studied her. “I admire your gumption, Melanie Shaw.”

She basked in the warmth of that gaze. She even imagined that she saw interest there, but she didn’t know him well enough to tell for sure. He might give everyone that same warm glance.

In truth, she did feel proud of herself, even if she had managed to get her backpack stolen within two hours of landing. “Thank you.”

“And there’s Henri.” Drew gestured toward a black Mercedes sedan that had pulled up to the curb. Immediately a uniformed driver hopped out and opened the back door.

“Where was he, around the corner?”

“More or less. Hop in.”

She slid onto the soft leather and wondered if Henri had ever chauffeured a woman wearing white gym shoes. Probably not. She buckled her seat belt.

Drew climbed in beside her and Henri closed the door. Inside the car, Melanie became more aware of the scent of Drew’s aftershave. She didn’t recognize the spicy aroma, but then again, she didn’t hang out with rich guys. Plus he might have bought it here.

Drew glanced at her. “Where to?”

She gave him the name of the hotel.

“Never heard of it, but Henri probably knows.” He leaned forward and spoke to his driver in French. The chauffeur nodded, and Drew settled back against the seat. “He’ll get us there.” Reaching inside his jacket, he took out his phone and handed it to her before buckling his seat belt.

“Thank you.” She dialed Val’s cell and got her voice mail. Damn it. She didn’t want to leave a message that would worry Val. So she left a cheery greeting saying that she’d arrived and was having a great time. Then she disconnected and sighed.

“Not available?”

“Unfortunately not.”

“I’ll be happy to go online and look up the number for the credit card company if you want to go that route. They should be able to wire you some money to tide you over, too.”

“Oh.” She blinked. “Right. I’ll need money until the new card gets here. I must be jet-lagged, because I didn’t think of going online for the number. If you’ll look it up, that would be awesome.”

The Mercedes drew alongside the curb in front of her hotel and Drew peered out the window. “Is this the place?”

“Yes. If you wouldn’t mind getting that number for me, I’ll make the call and then you can be on your way.”

He glanced over at her. “Melanie, you can’t stay here.”

“It’ll be fine. I gave them my credit card number earlier, and although that card will be cancelled, I can probably get a new one by the time I check out.”

“I wasn’t thinking about that. I don’t like the looks of this place.” He studied the hotel again before turning his blue gaze on her. “You need to stay somewhere else.”

Her chin lifted. “This is what I can afford. Besides, I don’t have a new credit card yet, so I can’t book a different hotel. I have to stay here.”

“Have you inspected the room?”

“No, but it doesn’t matter. I can deal with whatever. It won’t be the first lumpy mattress I’ve slept on.”

“What about bedbugs?”

“You think they have bedbugs?” Those grossed her out. For some reason she hadn’t anticipated bedbugs in the City of Light.

“I wouldn’t be surprised.”

“If they do, I’ll demand a different room. As I said, this place fits my budget.”

“I understand that, but there’s a better solution.”

“Like what?”

“My townhouse.”

She stared at him, blindsided by the suggestion. “But . . . I thought you were in a hotel.”

“Nope. I have a house here with several bedrooms, and you’re welcome to one of them.”

Her pulse kicked up. “My goodness, that’s way too much of a favor.” And she wondered if he wanted something in return. Thinking of what that might be made her pulse race even faster.

“Not the way I see it. You need a room and I have one available.” He met her gaze. “And to clarify, this is not an indecent proposal.”

Dear God, could he read her mind? Heat rose in her cheeks. “I know it’s not.”

“Do you? Because you were looking sort of wary.”

“I didn’t mean to.” She had to get a grip. This was a guy who didn’t have to drag women in off the street. She was flattering herself if she thought he was interested in her. “I just don’t think it’s right for me to accept your generous hospitality.”

“It’s not all that generous. The rooms are sitting there empty. Maybe you’ll use a little water and electricity, but that’s it. No big deal.”

She glanced over at the hotel with its peeling paint and dirty windows. She shouldn’t accept his offer, but damn, she wanted to. He might be a stranger, but he didn’t feel like one. First chance she got, though, she’d call Astrid and confirm what Melanie felt in her gut, that Drew could be trusted.

Growing up on a ranch with salt-of-the-earth parents, Melanie had been taught not to take advantage of people, but she’d also been told never to look a gift horse in the mouth. This was a gift horse if she’d ever seen one.

She took a deep breath. “All right. And thank you.”

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