Excerpt: Storm Ravaged
Book 2: Storm Damages Series
THREE MONTHS HAVE GONE BY without the taste of Gabriel Storm in my mouth, the scent of his skin in my nostrils, the rush of his powerful body pounding into mine. In a few minutes, he’ll arrive for the closing of the SouthWind deal. Given an option, I would have scheduled a vacation, preferably one on the dark side of the moon. But I’m responsible for the closing documents and my presence is required. So here I stand, breathless with anxiety, heart pounding with anticipation.
This is not good for the child I carry. His child. Gabriel Storm’s, the powerful COO of Storm Industries. He doesn’t know I’m pregnant. I never told him. There never seemed to be the right time to do so. And then at the end, I couldn’t let him know, because it would have meant the destruction of everything he cherished, everyone he cared for.
He’s made no attempt to communicate with me since that stormy summer night. No phone calls, no emails, not even a text. I don’t blame him, not really. What else could he do after I admitted to betraying him. It isn’t true, of course. I would never do such a thing. But I was forced to make a clean break, so he’d never want anything to do with me. Still, after everything we did, after everything we meant to each other, his silence hurts more than I care to admit. I shrug. Just as well. It will make him easier to ignore when I see him again. Yeah, I know, denial at its best.
“You look like you’re about to pass out. Are you okay?” CeCe. My rock. I don’t know what I would have done without her in the last three months. She covered for me while I puked in the bathroom, answered innumerable questions about pregnancy and childbirth, and most of all listened when I poured out my misery.
“Yes.” I’m not. But fake it ‘til you make it, right?
“Here.” She hands me a water bottle. “Drink. It’ll make you feel better.”
“Thanks.” I unscrew the top, guzzle half the container. The cold liquid feels good going down, and it gives my hands something to do besides shake.
A rustle of excitement outside the glass-enclosed conference room draws my attention. Many of the women from the law firm, and some of the men, have found an excuse to hang outside. They laugh, giggle. Oh, please. Don’t they have anything better to do? When Mr. Carrey frowns at them, some disperse but most remain right where they are.
And then Mr. Carrey’s new secretary is walking down the hallway toward the conference room, ahead of two people. One is Miranda Stone, Vice President of Acquisitions at Storm Industries, and the other . . .
I stop breathing.
He’s allowed his hair to grow. That fabulous kissed-by-the-sun golden mane reaches his shoulders now. He walks into the conference room, his glance bouncing around the room, landing on no one in particular. As ever, his gaze mesmerizes me. Was there a time when I wasn’t fascinated by those ocean-blue eyes of his? He’s wearing one of his killer two-piece suits, a dark blue one which caresses his broad shoulders and showcases his powerful legs to perfection. He’s the same.
And yet, he’s not.
He no longer walks with that smooth, sexy gait of his, but with a stutter step as he leans on a walking stick. Pain lines groove his face. His suffering guts me as much as it did when I heard he’d been injured. He never revealed the cause. And the tabloids never found out, even though they looked under every rock and hounded him for weeks. But clearly it caused major damage, to his right leg at the very least.
When somebody makes a comment about the cane, he jokes about his limp. Apparently, a tree ran into him during a skiing trip. But I spot something in the depths of his eyes that tells me he’s lying. Something else caused that injury.
Mr. Carrey steps up to him, shakes his hand and that of Gabriel’s VP before leading them around the room to reacquaint them with the members of the Smith Cannon team, Terry, Brian, Mark.
“And you remember Elizabeth Watson,” Mr. Carrey says.
Elizabeth, just like our queen. The words Gabriel spoke so long ago, accompanied by that panty-melting grin of his, echo in my head. Please say my name. The way you used to when you were so deep in me you stole my heart.
“Nice to see you again, Ms. Watson.”
I dig my nails into my palm to keep from crumbling, because the glance he directs at me displays neither love, nor hate, but indifference as if I mean less than nothing to him. “Mr. Storm,” I manage to say even though I’m dying inside.
Although he’s shaken hands with everyone else, he doesn’t bother to do so with me.
“Everything ready, Liz?” Mr. Carrey asks.
“Yes, Sir.” I point to the papers on the conference table, vetted and approved by both sides.
A flurry of click-click-clicks from the financial media invited to the signing swirl around Gabriel Storm and the SouthWind owner when they take their seats at the conference table.
The contrast between the two men is startling. While the portly SouthWind owner looks like he’s been stuffed into his no-doubt high end suit, Gabriel, in his Savile Row custom-made jacket and trousers, appears to have just stepped off the cover of GQ. The disparity between the two men is brought home even further when they make it official. While Mr. Southwind grabs a standard issue pen and signs on the dotted line with an ostentatious flourish, Gabriel Storm retrieves a classic gold-tipped Montblanc from the depths of his jacket and records his name with quiet dignity.
My fascination with his hands has yet to desert me. Big, masculine, tender. Barely three months ago, they worshiped my skin when he couldn’t get enough of me. And now . . .
My own hands tremble as I retrieve the signed papers and set them to the side to allow the ink to dry. More flashes go off when they and Mr. Carrey stand at the podium to make their statements. The good ole boy provides the press with a self-congratulatory speech which provides little in the way of substance, all the time grinning like a fool. But then why wouldn’t he? He just sold the rights to develop his Brazilian wind power farm to Storm Industries for a cool $600 million, most of it in cold, hard cash.
The cameras barely snapped when Mr. SouthWind blathered on, but they burst in blinding fury when Gabriel Storm steps up to the lectern to discuss the importance of renewable energy and the low cost of delivering wind-generated power. Surely, the environmentalists have no advocate more electrifying than him.
When reporters rifle off questions, he answers a couple before Miranda Stone steps in to handle the rest, giving him a chance to walk away from the limelight. The presentation concludes with a round of handshakes and more photos, before Mr. Carrey leads Mr. SouthWind and Gabriel Storm, along with members of the Smith Canon team, two doors down to the Potomac Conference Room where a celebratory cocktail party will take place.
While the press corps collect their equipment, I gather the signing documents and head to Support Services to copy them. Once the signatory pages are bound with the rest of the closing documents, Smith Cannon will file the purchase agreement with the appropriate agencies.
Done with that, I head to my office, rather than the celebration. I’m being a coward, I know, but I can’t be in the same room with Gabriel Storm without falling apart. Back at my desk, I take deep breaths to slow my racing heart, still my nerves. But it doesn’t do any good. I let out a mirthless laugh. One would think a four-month pregnancy would cure me of my lust for him. Wrong. Even after all these months, even after the insulting offer he hurled at me, I crave him as much as ever.
My pumps pinch, bringing me back to the present. Why, oh why, did I wear high heels today? With the baby bump, my center of gravity shifted, and I have yet to achieve the right balance in anything but flats. I’m reaching under the desk to ditch the shoes, when a knock sounds on my door.
“Come in,” I raise my head to find Mr. Carrey’s secretary and the last person I expect to see. Gabriel Storm.
“Hi, Liz. Hope we’re not disturbing you,” she says with a bright smile.
“No, of course not.” I stand, grateful the desk hides my bare feet.
“Mr. Storm wanted to take a look at the closing documents.”
“I’ll leave you to it then.”
“Thank you, Ms. Rodriguez. You’ve been so very kind.” He shoots her his dazzling smile which of course makes Jell-O out of Carrey’s AA.
“Yes, thank you, Carmen.” I bite out.
The door closes behind her, leaving Storm and me staring across my desk at each other, a desk not unlike the one I laid on while he pounded into me a mere day after we met. The day his condom tore and he more than likely got me pregnant. I swat away the unwelcome memory and glance up at him.
Without the high heels, we’re even at more disparate heights. I always loved how my five seven felt next to his six three. Not that we spent a lot of time vertical. Most of our time we spent in bed where height didn’t matter. But other things did. Like the taste of him in my mouth, the smell of his skin in my nostrils, the feel of him buried deep within me.
A spasm of pain rolls across his face, and he points to a chair. “May I?”
I may not want Storm in my office, but my heart goes to out to him. “Yes, of course. Here, let me.” Like any decent paralegal, my office is crammed with paper and the chair overflows with mounds of filings, research documents, library materials.
“Please don’t go to any trouble.”
His luscious Brit accent pours over me, scattering my senses. I cover up my unrest by shifting papers to my desk. “I’m used to this.”
Once I clear the seat, he takes his time sitting down.
“Does it hurt much?” I ache for him. If I could take away his suffering, I would.
“Most of the time, it’s manageable, but the travel . . .” He winces when he stretches out his right leg.
“Made it worse.”
A question about his accident trembles on my tongue, but I choke it back. Why would he tell the woman who betrayed his trust?
In the close confines of my tiny office, he seems larger than life, and, as usual, he smells of that maddening cologne and him. I indulge in a slight shiver before I turn to the purpose of his visit. “Let me get those documents for you.” I kept a couple of copies when I dropped the originals at Support Services.
“Please don’t bother. I don’t need to see them.”
I glance at him, confused. “But Carmen said . . .”
“It was just an excuse to see you. A small subterfuge if you will.” No smile accompanies his statement.
His gaze wanders around my office, my walls, my filing cabinets, so different from his I’m-going-to-f*ck-you-silly-first-chance-I-get’ he used to pin on me. He clears his throat, rests the cane across his thighs. Why, he’s uncomfortable. Strange. That’s one emotion which never surfaced between us. Lust, anger, transcendental joy, yes, but self-consciousness? Never.
“What do you want, Gabriel?” I’m not about to address him formally, not in my office.
He again clears his throat and finally, finally his gaze, filled with businesslike purpose, lands on me. “We need to talk.”
My shoulders cram with tension as one overwhelming question races through my brain. Does he suspect the baby is his? Well, there’s only one way to find out. “About?”
He brushes a hand across his brow. “Not here. In my hotel. Tomorrow—”
Alone with him in his hotel room? Hell, no. “I’m afraid that’s not possible.”
“Why not?” And here’s the Storm I know so well. The one that doesn’t take no for an answer.
“I don’t think it would be a good idea for me—”
He waves aside my objection. “Do you have a scheduling conflict?”
“If you’re worried about me doing anything . . . improper, don’t. I only want to talk.” He leans forward on the seat, and a twitch of pain skitters across his face. For a second, his eyes scrunch close.
“Do you need to take some medicine? I have water here if you do.” I open a desk drawer where I keep extra bottles.
“No, thank you.” In the past, he would have flashed that devastating smile of his, the crooked one I loved, but now all I see is a bloodless white line across his lips.
“What do you wish to talk about?” I ask again, but in a much softer tone. No sense adding to his grief.
“Brianna . . .” He drops his voice, even though the door is closed and no one would be able to hear even if they were standing right outside. “She told me about the child.”
Of course she did. She’s his sister after all. And she figured it out when she saw those prenatal vitamins in my room the weekend I spent at Winterleagh Castle, their family’s country seat. I should have called her, asked her to keep that detail to herself. But then I would have had to tell her about the deal I struck with her mother.
Lady Winterleagh demanded I keep quiet about the baby in exchange for her silence about something which, if revealed, would destroy Gabriel, his family, his company. Worse than that, she ordered me to break Gabriel’s heart. And God help me, I did.
The last time I saw him, he accused me of copying his confidential documents on the SouthWind deal and handing them to my boss to gain favor with him, I admitted it, even though I had done no such thing. But what choice did I have? If I hadn’t, his mother would have ruined Gabriel, and I couldn’t allow that to happen.
But now he’s here, wanting to talk about the child we created, which is going to be difficult, because I can’t let him know it’s his. “What about my baby?”
In that very proper British voice of his, he cuts me off. “Our baby, is it not?”
God give me strength to deny it. The facts haven’t changed. His mother can still destroy everything he cherishes. “Maybe, maybe not.” I shrug, looking down, unable to meet his gaze.
His left brow quirks up. “Beg your pardon? Didn’t you tell Bri the child was mine?”
I can’t lie about that. “I did, but I spoke prematurely. If I may be blunt, you were not the only man I had sex with during the time in question. As a matter of fact, there were several men.” Not true. I lived the life of a nun after he left.
His nostrils flare, his mouth curls in distaste. “Still, there’s a chance.”
I bite down on my lip to keep from blurting out the truth. What must he think of me? “If it’s your child, I need nothing from you. I want nothing from you.”
His phone rings, interrupting us, and he retrieves it from his jacket. “I’ll be right there.” He clicks off. “A reporter from The Wall Street Journal wants to interview me.” He offers by way of an explanation.
Eager for him to leave, I stand. “You should go then.”
“I will as soon as we’ve settled this. Sit down, Ms. Watson. Please. I can’t remain seated while you stand.”
I want to say no, but I can’t. He’s in enough pain as it is. I plop back on my chair.
He breathes hard for a couple of seconds, probably trying to get his pain under control. “We need to discuss this situation, but we can’t do it here. Meet me tomorrow for brunch, say eleven, at my hotel, the Four Seasons.”
Much as I want to avoid this discussion, I can’t. I’ll need to do as he asks. “Fine.”
“Samuel Taylor will pick you up at your home. He’s my—”
“I know who Samuel is.” My voice rises. “Did you think I’d forgotten him in the last two months?”
“No, of course not. My apologies.” Leaning heavily on his cane, he painfully comes to his feet while I slide my shoes back on. “Until tomorrow, Ms. Watson.”
It’s against firm policy to allow an outside guest to roam around the office alone. “I need to accompany you.”
“Fine.” He bows his head.
We wander down the hallway, in silence, not once exchanging a word, as if we’re nothing but business acquaintances. This from the man whose passion burned with such intensity I feared I’d be consumed by his flame. Clearly, whatever we had is gone, never to return. And I want nothing more than to crawl back to my office, lay my head on my desk and cry over everything I lost and can never be found.
MY LEG THROBS IN AGONY, but I get through the interview with The Wall Street Journal reporter and even manage a half hour of the cocktail party before I say goodbye to Carrey and his team. Leaning heavily on the cane, I head toward the elevator immensely grateful for my VP’s presence. If I start to keel over, Miranda will cover for me.
Somehow I make it out of the building without any mishap and into the limo where Samuel Taylor, my driver and security guard, waits to whisk us to the Four Seasons. Once we arrive at the hotel, we go our separate ways—Miranda to a dinner she’s arranged with friends, I to my room, where I can give my leg a rest.
Alone in my hotel suite, I pour a scotch from the mini bar and sink into the sofa to rest my injured leg. Clicking the remote, I twirl through the telly offerings, stop at a Washington Nationals game. Half an inning later, I’m gritting my teeth from the excruciating pain. The alcohol alone is not cutting it. I reach for my medicine, knowing damn well the danger of mixing pills and booze. But what choice do I have? I won’t last the night without both.
When I float pain free, my mind wanders back to the events of the afternoon. Somehow the closing took second fiddle to meeting Elizabeth Watson, the woman I didn’t know existed until a week ago when Brianna told me about our relationship and my alleged role in her pregnancy. Something I find difficult to believe since I always use a condom. Or used to anyway. That much I remember. So I can’t comprehend how she could have become pregnant by me.
According to Ms. Watson, I may not be the father of the child she carries. That statement tallies up with the care I usually took to prevent conception. And yet, I don’t believe her. Something about our conversation strikes me as odd. Months ago, she told Brianna I was the one responsible, but now she’s waffling on her statement. Why would she do that? Is she trying to throw me off the scent? Or did she speak the truth when she admitted to multiple sex partners? I don’t buy it. Her refusal to look at me when she mentioned other men seems to indicate a lie of some kind. Which baffles me. Why prevaricate about something that can be proved with a simple blood test?
A remnant of a memory fleets across my mind—gardenias and the lush body of a woman beneath me. But it’s gone before I can examine it for further clues. Is it her? No. It can’t be. I didn’t detect a floral scent in her office, and in that confined space, I would have noticed. Wish I could remember her. She’s lovely, truly lovely. Mounds of dark hair, green, green eyes. And curves plump enough to get a rise out of a dying man.
Ironic, I know.
I’d schooled my features to reveal nothing when I met her today, for I didn’t want my face to give away my thoughts. Still, I’d hoped for something, anything, to clue me in to the woman who, according to Bri, captivated me in a way she’d never witnessed before. But when I saw Ms. Watson, I felt . . . nothing. Not even a spark. I was disappointed, but not surprised.
Two months after the accident, and I still have major holes in my memory, with Elizabeth Watson being the biggest one of all. With careful coaching by Miranda Stone, whom I was forced to take into my confidence, I managed to recall and understand enough of the SouthWind deal to muddle through today’s closing and interview. When the article and photos make the business papers, everyone will think I have things under control when quite the opposite is true. I’m half the man I used to be. Mentally, emotionally, physically.
Even though I abhor the wreck I’ve become, the accident turned out to be a blessing in disguise, for the head injury prompted the doctors to take a serious look inside my head. They discovered tumors, non-cancerous, but still large enough to cause the migraines. If they hadn’t been removed, they could have proved fatal. Hell, they would have proved fatal the day of the crash, but for whatever guardian angel watched over me that fateful night.
While I convalesced in hospital, barely aware of my name, much less anything around me, Bri resisted the Countess’s efforts to wreck the SouthWind deal. Without my sister, everything I’ve fought for the last few years would have been dismantled. So I can’t very well yell at her over her decision to withhold information about Elizabeth Watson until a week ago. Not when she did it because I had enough to deal with at the time. A broken leg, amnesia, various bodily injuries. The night of the car wreck my blood alcohol content was way beyond the legal range. So I have no one to blame but myself for the state I’m in.
My mobile rings. Brianna.
“Darling, how are you?”
I’m not about to share my level of pain. “Fair to middling.”
“Leg still hurting?”
“Yes, but it’s manageable.” Only through the combination of liquor and drugs.
“How was the closing?”
“We’re now the proud owners of the rights to develop the Brazilian Storm Industries Wind Farm.” I knock back the rest of the scotch. “Is everything in order for your trip?” Along with Jake Cooper, my head of security and her personal bodyguard, Brianna will travel to Brazil to perform the necessary leg work before the construction project can begin. Even though SouthWind shared their reports, she needs to perform her own investigation and plan the best way to erect the wind turbines which even now are being built by one of our subsidiaries. The new machines will withstand wind forces of near hurricane strength making them superior to the current ones manufactured by other plants and making us the place to go for new wind power generators.
“Yes, but I can put off our departure date for a week if you need me.”
“I’m fine, Brianna.”
“Are you sure, Gabe?”
“Yes, darling girl. You’ve taken care of me long enough, now go do what you love to do.”
“All right.” A pause. “How did it go with Elizabeth Watson?”
“I didn’t recognize her, Bri.” I sound disappointed and, damn it, I am.
“That’s too bad.” She seems just as despondent as me.
“I invited her for brunch tomorrow so we can come to some sort of an arrangement about this child.” If in fact it’s mine.
“It’s your baby, Gabriel. She said so.”
I swirl the ice in the glass and another memory races across my consciousness. A cube of ice, luscious tits. I roll the glass across my brow. Why can’t I bloody hell remember? “I can’t blindly believe it just because she told you it was.” Especially after she placed my paternity in question. “I need proof.”
She sighs. “Very well. Keep me informed.”
“I will. Goodnight. And Bri?”
“Thank you for everything.”
“Oh, Gabe. You’ve done enough for me. It’s about time I returned the favor. Goodnight.”
Hours later I wake up still on the couch, telly blathering with an infomercial. By my watch it’s 3:18. I grab my cane and stumble my way to the bedroom, strip and fall exhausted into the king-sized bed. My dreams torture me with images of a gardenia-scented female body, mine pounding into hers. Something bound to live only in my imagination, for such an event will never come my way again.