The VIP Doubles Down
Page 31

 Nancy Herkness

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Chloe was arranging her guests around the oblong table in the dining room. “I have to do a little regrouping based on our newly discovered connections,” she said, putting Allie between Tim and Gavin.
“Let’s find time to talk later,” Claire said.
As Allie waited for everyone to settle, she glanced around the room. Two chandeliers that looked more like sculptures than light fixtures hung over the polished wooden table with its inlaid border. An enormous Oriental rug covered most of the floor. The walls appeared to be covered in a shimmering green fabric. Another wall of windows offered a view of the Hudson River.
The table itself was set with leather place mats and gleaming modern silver flatware, centered by a row of pillar candles alternating with bowls of orchids. It was simple but beautiful in a way that only lots and lots of money could create.
Yet she wasn’t the only person from Sanctuary, West Virginia, at this table. She sat up straighter.
“You’re not going to spend the entire dinner reminiscing about riding your ponies down to the old watering hole, are you?” Gavin’s tone bordered on obnoxious.
“We might even throw in a yeehaw or two,” Allie said, amused by his crankiness. He almost sounded jealous.
Luke Archer heard the exchange from across the table and nodded, his pale blue eyes picking up the flicker of the candle flames. “Don’t let him get under your skin, Allie. It’s best to ignore him when he’s in one of his moods.”
“I rescind my apology, Archer,” Gavin said.
“I knew it was too good to be true,” Luke responded.
Nathan laughed. “You should have gotten it in writing.”
“You forget that I haven’t written anything in months,” Gavin said. But this time it was a joke, not a bitter statement of fact.
Allie was fascinated by the three men. They appeared to be so different, yet the bond between them was strong and clear. She didn’t think it was based solely on their wealth, although that seemed like the only common denominator among a genius tech CEO, a newly retired sports legend, and a bestselling novelist.
A squadron of servers glided into the room and placed plates of trout pâté on crisply toasted bread rounds in front of each guest. She bit into one and nearly groaned at the subtle deliciousness.
“Is this Grandmillie’s secret family recipe, Chloe?” Miranda asked. “You have to persuade her to share!”
“Grandmillie won’t even share it with me,” Chloe said. “Only our chef, Bernard, knows the ingredients, and he is very closemouthed. Something about honor among cooks.”
The conversation went on to a wide array of subjects ranging from intense to humorous. Allie occasionally joined in, especially when the topic turned to Sanctuary. Mostly, though, she savored the fantastic food and tried not to shiver when Gavin’s arm brushed against hers. Or when he threw her a sideways look that invited her to share some private amusement.
She’d been close to him during their treatment sessions, but mostly he’d been facedown. Now she could see the way his hair waved over his temples and notice the tiny scruff of his dark whiskers. Like Luke’s, his eyes reflected the candle flames, making them seem to dance. When he smiled, she could see how the skin stretched over the sharp, masculine line of his jaw. At one point, he put his arm around her shoulders when he extolled her skill as a PT. The weight and warmth of it penetrated through the silk of her blouse and soaked into her skin.
By the time the dessert of chocolate soufflé with warm vanilla sauce was served, Allie’s nervousness had dissipated. No one bragged about their private jets or their chauffeurs or their trips all over the world. Those things were simply part of their normal conversation, as though there was nothing extraordinary about them. It made the gulf between her and these people seem as wide and deep as the Grand Canyon, but it didn’t bother her anymore. She could hold her own here.
Chloe rose from the table with her cheery smile. “Let’s have after-dinner drinks in front of the fire. This is the kind of weather that demands some extra warmth.”
Allie wondered if she could ask for hot chocolate as an after-dinner drink and smiled at herself.
“Share the joke?” Gavin murmured near her ear as they both stood.
“I’m just being a hillbilly,” Allie said, shaking her head.
“You know, there are three West Virginians at this party, and I wouldn’t call any of them hillbillies,” he said. “Tim’s medical research held Ben spellbound. Claire advises the most sophisticated collectors on what artwork to spend millions on. And you are a miracle worker.”
“Hillbilly is a badge we wear proudly.” But gratification sent a flush climbing her cheeks.
“I’m beginning to understand that.”
As they started toward the door, Gavin put his hand on the small of her back to steer her in front of him. She felt the imprint of his palm and the splay of his fingers like a brand on her skin. The heat spread over her back and scorched deep inside her. It was tempting to stay close to him so he would leave it there, but she forced herself to take a step away. When his hand dropped, she nearly groaned in deprivation.
Back in the den—or whatever they called the big, comfortable room—Allie made sure there was another person between her and Gavin at all times. Yet she could often feel his gaze on her. She made a tactical error and sat down on an empty couch to talk with Miranda, who had also grown up in a small town. Allie felt the cushions shift as a weight settled beside her. A delicious tingle wafted over her skin, so she knew it was Gavin without having to turn in her seat.
“Did you know that Miranda can milk a cow in under nine minutes?” Gavin’s deep voice seemed to stroke up and down her back. “Can a hillbilly do that?”
Allie sat back so the three of them could see one another. “One of my best friends from home can, but I’m not a farmer’s daughter.” He knew that, of course.
“Gavin’s pretty handy on a farm himself,” Miranda said, her brown eyes warming. “Last fall he came up to my family’s place in upstate New York with Luke and hauled hay and feed, not to mention loading the cheese van.”
“If you dare to tell her what I wore to load the van, I will share a photo of your husband in the same attire on social media,” Gavin said.
“I thought you’d already tweeted that,” Miranda said, a teasing note in her soft voice.