One Night With a BillionaireBy: VickiLewis Thompson
“You’re more than welcome.” The tension eased from Drew’s shoulders. He couldn’t leave her here, but he couldn’t exactly kidnap her to keep her out of that fleabag hotel, either.
She had no idea how vulnerable she looked with her big gray eyes and freckle-faced innocence. In her red hoodie, with any makeup worn off during the flight, she seemed like a teenager, even though he guessed her age to be mid-twenties. No wonder the bastards had targeted her. He had the urge to wrap her in his arms, stroke her glossy brown hair, and protect her from every danger, both real and imagined.
But any woman who’d climbed on a plane by herself for her first trip to Paris wouldn’t appreciate an overprotective attitude. He’d keep that in mind. Somehow he had to watch out for her in a way that wouldn’t get her back up.
“I’ll fetch my suitcase.” She reached for the door handle.
“Might as well let Henri get it.” He deliberately made it sound like a casual suggestion.
“But I can do it. Oh, wait.” She looked over her shoulder at him. “My claim check was in my backpack.”
“Then why not let Henri handle it? He’s good at these things.”
She opened her mouth to argue, and then closed it again. “Okay.”
Drew leaned forward and spoke to his chauffeur in French. He hoped Melanie didn’t understand the language well enough to know that he’d told Henri to bribe the desk clerk if there was any question about the missing claim check. Because Melanie had yet to utter a word in French, Drew thought he was safe on that score.
The chauffeur exited the car and headed toward the hotel lobby with the brisk stride of a man who would not be denied. Drew smiled. Henri lived for this kind of drama.
“He probably will have better luck than I would.” Melanie watched Henri walk into the hotel. “He looks very official.”
“Don’t think he doesn’t realize that. He plays it to the hilt.” He pulled out his cell. “What’s your credit card company?” When she gave him the name, he looked up the international contact number and keyed it in before handing her the phone.
“Thank you.” She settled back in her seat and put the phone to her ear. Moments into the conversation, her body visibly relaxed and her tone was no longer anxious.
He enjoyed watching the transformation and was glad he could be part of putting her dream vacation back on track. From that first glimpse of her in front of Notre Dame, he’d instinctively known how much this trip meant to her. Unlike most of the women in his circle, she’d had to scrimp and save to get over here. He’d never had to scrimp in his life, and he was fascinated by how much that raised the stakes for her.
Her resilience in the face of potential disaster impressed him, too. She had character, and he responded to that almost as much as he responded to her curvy figure and full pink mouth. He wanted her, but he’d meant what he’d said. Inviting her to his townhouse wasn’t a proposition.
Still holding the phone, she glanced over at him. “I don’t know the address,” she said to the representative, “but I have someone here who can give it to you.” She gave Drew the phone. “They need an address for shipping the new credit card.”
“You bet.” He provided the necessary information and handed the phone back so she could complete the call, which didn’t take long.
After disconnecting, she returned the phone. “Thank you. They’re wiring money to a Western union office near your townhouse.” She sighed happily. “I feel so much better.”
“So where is your townhouse? I don’t recognize street names yet.”
“It’s on the ?le de la Cité, about three blocks from Notre Dame.”
Her eyes widened. “Wow. Prime real estate.”
“I like being in the heart of the city.” He’d paid a ridiculous amount of money for the place, but he was buying a piece of history, and that usually cost more.
“So you weren’t far from home when you saw me this morning.”
“No. I had tickets for the Louvre, so I’d decided to walk down there for the exercise and get my fine art fix.”
“The Louvre.” Her expression grew dreamy. “I can hardly wait to see it.”
“Maybe we could go later. I—” His phone chimed again. “Excuse me.” He checked the readout. Not critical. They could leave a voice mail.
“I’m sure you’re busy.”
“Everyone’s busy these days.” Especially him. As the only son of Stephen Eldridge, he’d felt obligated to succeed, and in a big way, too. He hadn’t wanted to ride on his father’s coattails. At thirty-two, he was a billionaire in his own right. He’d gotten there by taking risks, and, for the most part, they’d paid off handsomely. But wealth without social responsibility was, in his estimation, immoral. So he’d devoted himself to several causes.
The one currently in the works was especially dear to his heart—aid to orphans in war-torn areas of the world. Although he’d been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he well knew many children hadn’t been so lucky. So he was working on organizing a dinner featuring many A-list performers, which would bring in a hefty amount if all the stars arrived.
But Drew had learned that working with famous people meant dealing with a few flakes. His staff could put the event together, but only his personal attention would get the famous faces he needed to actually show up.
Yet he was glad to do it . . . most of the time. This morning, though, he longed to give his attention to a certain tourist from Dallas. He hadn’t been a superhero and successfully recovered her backpack, but he had the resources to make up for her crummy introduction to the city, and he intended to use them.
After listening to his voice mail, he texted a reply. By that time, Henri was back with Melanie’s plain black rolling bag. Her presence in his townhouse was closer to becoming a reality, and that stirred his blood.
He liked the fact that she’d resisted his invitation to stay there. Despite knowing that he was a member of the wealthy Eldridge family and that he’d met her friend Astrid, she hadn’t leaped at the opportunity to stay under his roof. He’d known several women who, given similar circumstances, would have moved heaven and earth for such an invitation.
A man in his position couldn’t afford to be naive. Gold diggers were real, and they circled him constantly. Melanie, however, didn’t seem to give a damn. She might even consider it a point of honor not to care whether he was King Midas or not.
With a loud thump that jiggled the car, Henri loaded the suitcase in the trunk.
Drew looked over at Melanie. “What do you have in there, rocks?”
She laughed. “Almost as bad. Books. I’ve been collecting books on Paris ever since my friends and I scheduled the trip. I brought them all. When I packed, I had to sacrifice clothes for books, so I don’t have a lot with me.” She stuck out her foot. “These are my only shoes.”
“Yes, but as you pointed out, they label me. I don’t look French.”
“Do you want to?” He thought she looked perfectly fine as she was.
She seemed to consider that. “I guess not.”
He liked that answer. In his mind, people should be who they were, instead of pretending to be someone they weren’t.
Henri climbed into the driver’s seat. “C’est bien?”
Belatedly, Drew remembered her scraped hands. “Do you want the Neosporin out of your suitcase before we take off?”
“That’s okay. My hands don’t sting anymore. I can get it later.”
“Then we’re off.” Drew nodded to his driver. As the car pulled away from the curb, he blew out a breath. Mission accomplished. He’d succeeded in scooping up his lady fair and carrying her out of harm’s way. Of course, part of him realized that Melanie would have probably spent her nights at that hotel without encountering a problem. But Drew wasn’t dealing in logic right now.
His need to get her away from that depressing hotel with its peeling paint and cracked cement steps had been a visceral thing not to be explained. She was alone in the city, and he’d appointed himself as her watchdog. He had the urge to surround her with a fence labeled KEEP OFF. An electrified fence would be even better.
“What’s your townhouse like?”
He turned toward her. “Old.”
Her forehead wrinkled. “How old?”
“Old enough that the first residents used chamber pots. I have a collection of them.”
“Oh! Is that what you use?”
How refreshing that she’d come right out and asked. “No. The place has all the modern conveniences now. The last owner even installed an elevator, but I like taking the stairs.”
“And walking to the Louvre. That’s why you almost caught those muggers.”
“I would have, too, except for a busload of kids. They piled out right in front of me and I had to put on the brakes or I’d have run them down. By the time I worked my way through them, the muggers had disappeared.”
“I wouldn’t have wanted you to run over any little children to get my backpack.” She’d leaned her head against the seat.
“I wouldn’t have.”
“No.” She covered a yawn with her hand. “You’re a nice guy.” Her eyelids drifted down.
“Mm.” Some of his business associates might not agree with her. If he’d caught the muggers, they wouldn’t have thought so, either.
The steady sound of her breathing told him she was asleep. He could hardly blame her. She’d been on a plane all night long, and then she’d been assaulted. The good news was that she must feel safe with him or she never would have dropped off so easily. Apparently she trusted him.
And she had every reason to. He had no intention of taking advantage of this situation. But he had to admit she was damned appealing. And sexy in a subtle way that really got to him. He’d felt a connection from the moment he’d seen her standing in front of Notre Dame. And it wasn’t just because she was Texan. What he really noticed was that her face had reflected the same awe that had struck him when he’d first seen the cathedral twenty-five years ago.
From a distance, he’d sensed a kindred spirit. When he’d drawn closer, he’d been captured by a primitive tug of sexuality. Her snug jeans and red hoodie outlined the body of a flesh-and-blood Venus de Milo. Just as he’d decided to strike up a conversation, she’d been attacked.
He hated that, but considering how much closer it had brought the two of them, he couldn’t hate it too much. He would have spared her the trauma if he could have, but now . . . well, he’d have to see how things turned out.
Henri drove more sedately than usual, as if he didn’t want to jostle his sleeping passenger. Consequently she was still sleeping when the Mercedes stopped in front of Drew’s townhouse.
Speaking in a low voice, Drew instructed Henri to open Melanie’s door before getting the suitcase out of the trunk. The click of the door opening didn’t rouse her. When Drew walked around the car and crouched down to shake her awake, she murmured something he couldn’t understand and sleepily wrapped her arms around his neck. Apparently he’d be carrying her inside.
If he hadn’t felt like the great protector before, this maneuver would have done the trick. As he lifted her into his arms, he breathed in peppermint and wondered if she had a roll of them in her sweatshirt pocket. But under that scent he detected a sweet, womanly aroma that sent an urgent signal to his groin.
Cradling her soft body with one arm under her shoulders and the other behind her knees, he started up the walkway. She sighed and snuggled closer. Dear God, he was getting an erection. Not cool. Fortunately her cute little fanny covered his crotch, but that was part of the problem. Every step caused more friction between her bottom and his cock.
Henri had beaten him to the door with the suitcase. He opened it and stood back so Drew could turn sideways and ease through the doorway without bumping either Melanie’s head or her feet. Once inside, he glanced at the staircase. Not happening. Not three flights.
Smiling, Henri walked over to the elevator and pushed the button. Drew stepped inside and vowed he wouldn’t make fun of the contraption ever again. Initially he’d scoffed at the idea of an elevator for a three-story building, but then he’d never imagined hauling a sleeping woman up those stairs, either.
Moving with the silent grace of a cat burglar, Henri entered the elevator behind him and brought the suitcase along, too. Drew decided that Henri needed a raise. The driver had the rare quality of anticipating correctly what his employer needed.
The gilded elevator was beautiful but slow. Considering the circumstances, Drew appreciated the easy ascent. Now that they’d made it this far, he’d like to deposit Melanie on a bed without waking her. She’d probably be embarrassed as hell to find herself in his arms. Besides that, if she insisted on getting down, his arousal wouldn’t be a secret anymore.
When they left the elevator, Henri turned to Drew. “Bleu?” he said softly.
“Oui.” Drew had decided on the way up to put Melanie in the Blue Room. Other than his own bedroom, he liked the Blue Room the best. The other two on this floor were nice—one in shades of gold and the other decorated in green—but the blue was prettier.
In the five years he’d owned this place, he’d mostly entertained business associates here. Whenever he’d given them a choice, they’d picked the Blue Room. He’d brought one girlfriend here, thinking she’d enjoy Paris. He’d been wrong and she’d been miserable.
He couldn’t understand why anybody wouldn’t love this ancient city, with its centuries-old buildings and the Seine winding past all that historic architecture. Sure, the native language wasn’t English, but he liked the sound of French in his ears. Of course, it helped that he’d learned to speak it so easily at school. Maybe he’d been Parisian in another life.
Henri opened the door to the Blue Room and stepped back.
Drew glanced down to check whether Melanie was still asleep. Yep, out like a light. He edged through the doorway with the same care he’d used getting into the house and the elevator. Bonking her head at this stage would be criminal.
The Blue Room was at the front of the house with a view to the street, whereas his was at the back with a view of a small formal garden and courtyard below. That put Melanie all the way down the hall from him. The bulge in his jeans told him that was a very good idea.
The canopy bed held center stage and was draped with blue brocade trimmed with gold fringe and tassels. Matching curtains hung at the window. The antique furniture—an armoire, a writing desk, and an upholstered chair—could have come straight from Versailles. It hadn’t, but it had been purchased from an estate nearby.
Drew leaned over and laid Melanie on the brocade bedspread. Her eyelids didn’t even flicker. She was down for the count.
He stayed by her bedside, his back to Henri, and willed his erection to subside. He didn’t dare look at her lush mouth or he’d be tempted to kiss her, like some prince in a fairy tale. Except the kiss he had in mind didn’t belong in a kid’s storybook.
When he imagined kissing Melanie, it wasn’t some chaste brush of lips. Tongues would be involved, and heavy breathing, and unfastening of clothing, and . . . this wasn’t helping his condition at all. Taking a deep breath, he glanced across the room at a painting of fruit and flowers.
Technically, a still life created by some artist he couldn’t remember should calm him. Instead he pictured Melanie opening her petals to him, and himself as the banana in the fruit bowl.
Behind him, Henri unzipped Melanie’s suitcase and began quietly putting her clothes in the armoire. The slide of drawers was the loudest sound in the room, but it wasn’t enough to wake the sleeping beauty. Drew couldn’t stand beside the bed too much longer without looking like an idiot. He decided to take off her shoes. Nobody should sleep in their shoes.
She’d double-knotted them, and he struggled with the laces. That was good, though, because concentrating on her shoelaces took his mind off sex, and he was in much better shape by the time he eased one shoe from her foot. As he fiddled with the second shoe, she woke up.
She wasn’t slow about it, either. She sat straight up and glared at him. “What are you doing?”
He almost laughed, because her angry question was in sharp contrast to the gentle cuddle she’d given him while she was asleep. He stepped away from the bed. “I was taking off your shoes so you could be more comfortable.”
She frowned and surveyed her surroundings. “Oh. Now I remember.” Her gaze softened. “I didn’t mean to be rude. I forgot where I was.”
“You fell asleep in the car, so I carried you up here.”
“You did?” Her cheeks turned pink. “That’s embarrassing.”
“You were exhausted.”
“Yeah. Guess so. Still. I feel bad for conking out on you. I must have been heavy.”
“Did you climb the stairs?”
He smiled. “Elevator.”
Henri cleared his throat. “C’est tout?”
Drew glanced over his shoulder. “Yes, that’s all for now, Henri. Merci.”
Henri nodded and left.
“This is nice.” Melanie glanced around the room. “Very nice. Thank you.”
“There’s a bathroom through that door.” Drew gestured toward it. “I’ll leave you alone so you can get some rest.” He hesitated. “Or are you hungry? I could have some food sent up.”
“No, I’m not hungry. They fed us constantly on the plane.”
“Then all you really need is sleep.” He backed toward the door.
Her gaze found his, and she looked uncertain. “Where will you be?”
His heart squeezed. In her dazed condition, he’d become her lifeline, and she didn’t want him to leave. “Just downstairs. I have an office on the first floor. It’s not hard to find.”
“If you need anything, come and find me.”
He forced himself to walk out of the room and close the door behind him. But he felt as if he should be in there, holding her while she fell asleep again. How crazy was that?