Prince albert, p.33
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       Prince Albert, p.33

         Part #4 of A Step Brother Romance series by Sabrina Paige
 

  Her lips part for a second, and I think about sliding my hands around to the small of her back, pulling her against me, and bringing my mouth down hard on hers. But I don't. I want to know what she's about to say, and I find myself slightly disappointed when she doesn't respond.

  "So. Are you going to ask me inside, or are you just planning to keep standing there in your doorway in a towel?" I ask. I'm totally pushing my luck. I want to see if she'll actually invite me in her room. The Delaney I knew four years ago never would have said yes. That Delaney was far too concerned with playing by the rules.

  She hesitates, and for a second I think she might actually do it. Then she raises her eyebrows. "Do you really think I'm going to invite you into my room?"

  I shrug. "Can't fault me for trying."

  "Of course I can," she says. "You're my stepbrother. It's obscene."

  "That fact didn't seem to deter you before," I say. "Besides, we're not related. Not even a little bit. Doesn't count."

  "Why did you come up here, Gaige?" she asks, ignoring my attempt to discuss our familial relationship.

  "Can't I welcome you home?" I ask. "Do I have to have any other reason?"

  "You hiked all the way over to the house in that -- what is that thing on your foot, anyway?"

  "It's a boot. I shattered my tibia," I say.

  "Should I ask what you were doing?"

  "What do you think I was doing?"

  The edges of her mouth turn up in a half-smile. "I would say you were pulling some riding stunt, but it's far more likely that you broke yourself in some kind of scandalous sexcapade."

  I reach between my legs to grab my crotch. "Well, it's a damn good thing that what's important survived," I say, wiggling my eyebrows.

  Delaney shakes her head disapprovingly but her eyes twinkle. "Yes, it's definitely a good thing your brain wasn't injured."

  I can't help but laugh. "It's been boring here without you, you know."

  "Gaige, what happened that night --" she starts, but a shrill voice from the other end of the hallway cuts through the air.

  "Delaney!" My mother Anja strides down the hall, wearing wide-legged white pants and a matching white shirt made of flowy material that billows as she walks, the look effortlessly casual but something I know cost thousands of dollars, made by some pretentious designer. Her hair and makeup are styled as if she's just stepped off the set of a television show, and she's wearing sunglasses inside the house. My mother hasn't modeled in ten years, but she treats every step as if she's still walking the runway in Milan.

  "Anja," Delaney says. She reaches out with one arm to hug her, as if she's momentarily forgotten she's only wearing a towel, and then glances at me before grasping her towel tighter. "Sorry, I would -- Gaige knocked on the door and, uh, caught me by surprise."

  "Clearly," Anja says, peering over the edge of her glasses at me. "Nice to see you out of the guest house."

  "Nice to see you without your broom, mother," I say, as she air-kisses both sides of my face as if I'm one of her friends she luncheons with.

  She turns toward Delaney and stage whispers. "He's been even more insufferable since the injury, as I'm sure you can tell."

  "You're more bitter than usual," I retort. "The three martinis at lunch didn't take the edge off?"

  Anja ignores me. "Did we send a driver to pick you up at the airport, Delaney?" she asks. "It was on my list, but I had a luncheon with the --"

  "It was fine," Delaney says.

  "Actually," I start, but Delaney interrupts me.

  "It was totally fine," Delaney says, more emphatically this time. "And now, I'm going to get dressed, if that's okay?"

  "Should I tell your father you'll meet him at the office?" Anja asks.

  "Um. It's pretty late?" Delaney's voice is tentative.

  "Oh, yes," Anja says. "I got carried away at lunch."

  "Obviously," I say with a snort.

  "Gaige, let her get changed for dinner. Stop bothering her." Anja turns without waiting for a response, and flutters back down the hall, a sea of billowing fabric.

  Delaney starts to close the door, but pauses. "Yeah, Gaige," she whispers, sticking her tongue out like a child. "Stop bothering me."

  I'm about to make a lewd comment in response, but she's already shut the door.

  CHAPTER FOUR

  DELANEY

  "I thought I mentioned that Delaney was coming back." My father sips from a glass of scotch, talking to Gaige. It's him and Gaige and I for dinner. Anja had a headache, which is apparently a euphemism for drinking too much. I wonder how often she has headaches.

  "I think I would have remembered that, Beau," Gaige says, glancing at me. He winks, and I can feel a flush spread up my chest all the way to my cheeks. I swear, if my father saw it… But Beau is busy sawing at his steak, blood oozing from the meat and pooling on his plate. I give Gaige a cut-it-out look. Obviously Gaige hasn't matured over the years. I resolve to tell him later to stop the shameless flirtation, but I'm not entirely convinced it wouldn't encourage him even more. In fact, I know it would. Gaige has a rebellious streak a mile wide. Which is why I want to ask him why the hell he's back here, living under my father's roof. Or at least on my father's estate, anyway.

  "Well, good Lord," Beau drawls, gesturing with his steak knife still in his hand. "I guess I've been so wrapped up in the buyout lately that I didn't even think about it." My father talks about his acquisition of a small natural energy company like it's some kind of new thing, but it's hardly news. He has an expansionist mentality and wants Marlowe Oil to be the major player in terms of energy industries world-wide. "Of course, Delaney only just accepted my offer. Finally."

  "You taught me to play hard to get," I say, spooning a forkful of mashed potatoes into my mouth. I wasn't playing hard to get, not really; this is my first job out of college, and my degree is in Asian studies. Against my mother's wishes, I followed my heart, and it's certainly not the most practical degree choice in the world.

  No one was beating down my door to give me a job; and my mother, who's on her fourth marriage to a wealthy importer who spends most of his time overseas, couldn't even fathom why I would want to work instead of spend my days being a socialite in Manhattan. My father taught me to believe in working for a living; it helped that he convinced me to at least add another major to the mix and study business as well.

  "Oh, really? Did he teach you that?" Gaige asks. Then I feel the un-freaking-believable: Gaige's hand on my leg. He gives my thigh a little squeeze, and I almost jump out of my skin. And not just because I'm startled, either – but because his touch does what it did before. It sends warmth running through my body like an electric current. When I look up at him in shock, he's giving me that cocky grin of his. Then he fucking winks. "Playing hard to get is underrated."

  My father doesn't seem to notice what's happening. He cuts off another piece of steak, but pauses as he brings the fork to his mouth. "Which brings me to what I wanted to talk about at dinner. With both of you."

  Gaige squeezes my leg again, and I pick up my steak knife and point it in his direction, shooting him a warning look. He chuckles, but moves his hand away. If he thinks I'm still the girl he used to know, that I'm going to get involved in these kinds of juvenile games, he has another thing coming.

  "What did you want to talk about, dad?" I ask.

  "I'll get to it in a minute," Beau says. "The photo shoot went well? They got the product placement in there?"

  "Done deal," Gaige says.

  My father nods. "It's a good partnership, Marlow and your team. You're a hot brand. Even after that goddamned accident."

  Gaige rolls his eyes. "Well, it's good to know that at least I haven't ruined the brand," he says, his tone sarcastic.

  The tone is lost on my father. "I've been giving some thought to your work role, Delaney," he says. "And this affects Gaige."

  I swallow hard. When my father sold me on coming to work for him, there was no mention of Gaige being involved i
n any way. Sure, I'd heard that my father bought Gaige's racing team a year ago, but I didn't think that meant Gaige was living here. Or that he was actually working with my father. I mean, what the hell does the CEO of a company do with a racing team, anyway? I figured it was one of those things my father bought for fun and then handed off to someone else to deal with.

  "I'm all ears," Gaige says. I can feel him looking at me and I pointedly snub him. After he put his hand on my leg, the only appropriate response is to ignore his antics, possibly forever. I reach for my water glass to distract myself from Gaige's gaze.

  "I want you on Gaige," Beau says.

  I choke on my sip of water, coughing loudly. Beside me, I think I hear Gaige chuckle. Screw him if he thinks this is funny.

  "Are you okay?" Beau asks.

  "Water…wrong…pipe," I gasp.

  "I'm sure it's not that she doesn't want to work with me," Gaige says.

  "Don't be ridiculous," Beau says. "Why wouldn't she want to work with you? You're family. She hasn't even heard what I need her for yet."

  Family. I cough a few more times before I speak, hoping my tone conveys the level of irritation that I feel. "Why are you both talking about me like I'm not even here?"

  Gaige leans toward my father. "Well, she seems rather sensitive this evening."

  Beau chortles. "Don't wind her up," he says. "You know, I remember she used to get like this when she was younger, too. Mood swings, hormones, you know."

  Heat rises to my face, and I push my chair away from the table, standing and throwing my napkin on my plate. "Would you say something like that to a female employee?"

  My father stares at me and blinks. I'm fairly certain he'd never expect such a reaction from me. "Of course not," he says. "I was only joking."

  "This is exactly the reason I wasn't sure I wanted to come back here to work for you," I say, trying to maintain my composure. "Because I was afraid you wouldn't treat me professionally."

  My father gives me a long look, then clears his throat. "You're right."

  I am? Has Hell frozen over? I don't think I've ever heard my father admit I was right, not once in my whole life. "I am," I say, steadying my voice.

  "I wouldn't have made that comment to a female employee, and it was inappropriate to say to you. I was wrong, and I'm sorry. Now. Will you listen to what I have to say? I want you working with Gaige."

  "Me?" I ask, my tone suddenly an octave higher. "Why?"

  "Will you please sit?" Beau asks.

  I sink into my seat. I absolutely, positively, in no way, shape, or form, can spend time working with Gaige.

  I think of that last kiss, four years ago, the kiss I swear still lingers on my lips. I think of Gaige sweeping the hair away from my forehead earlier, the arousal that coursed through me at his touch.

  And then I think of Gaige's reputation, his revolving door of women. The fact that he seems to have the innate ability to push all of my buttons and irritate the shit out of me.

  And the fact that he's my damn stepbrother.

  But overriding everything, all I can think about when I look at him now is the unfinished business that hangs in the air between us.

  Working with Gaige would be way too damn dangerous. I can't think of anything that would be worse.

  "I have news that affects both of you." Beau's voice breaks through my thoughts. "Gaige knows most of this, but not all of it. Marlowe Oil needs a face of the company, someone the public associates with us. Someone sexy."

  Gaige laughs.

  "No offense, Gaige," Beau drawls. "I mean sexy in a business sense. Gaige is perfect. He draws in the male and female demographic. He's going to do for Marlowe what the racecar drivers do for other companies."

  My father refuses to actually name his competitors in private, instead referring to them as "that other organization" or "the one with the idiot CEO."

  "Okay," I say. I'm failing to anticipate how this is going to involve me. My father promised me an entry-level position, something a normal college graduate would have. Please, please, please, I silently beg the universe, do not let this be the kind of thing where I have to get coffee for Gaige or something equally humiliating.

  "This is a huge deal," Beau says. "And we're partnering with one of the biggest motorcycle manufacturers in the world for a Japanese tour during the off season, during which Gaige is going to promote Marlowe Oil at every opportunity. There's the potential for them to sign on to use Gaige in major promotion in the future. And Marlowe Oil."

  "Congratulations," I say, nodding at Gaige, who's smiling like the cat that ate the canary. I'm afraid to ask what he might be thinking. I look warily at my father.

  "I want you on Gaige in Japan," he says.

  "Me?" I squeak.

  No, no, no. Hell, no. The words echo in my head.

  "Wait. What?" Gaige asks. He sounds as surprised as I am.

  "Shouldn't someone more…I don't know, experienced…go with Gaige?"

  "And someone who's not my stepsister," Gaige says. Now he doesn't sound surprised; he sounds irritated. Why shouldn't he want to go with me? I'm the one who shouldn't want to go with him. "You didn't mention this before."

  "I didn't mention it because I hadn't realized yet how useful Delaney would be," Beau says. "Besides, there will be plenty of experienced people – the company rep and Gaige's staff."

  What the what? Gaige has staff?

  "But, I don't understand," I say. This entire situation refuses to compute in my brain. "Why would you need me?"

  Gaige makes a sound under his breath. "Don't you get it?" he asks. "So you can be my fucking babysitter."

  "You speak Japanese," Beau says.

  "But surely there are translators."

  "Not ones I'd trust the way I trust you," he says.

  "Exactly," Gaige says. He stands up. "Your father wants to negotiate me being the face of Marlowe Oil, but he doesn't actually think I'm capable of doing just that."

  I look up at Gaige, suddenly torn between feeling completely weird and awkward about this position, and defending my father. "I'm sure that's not what he's saying. Right, dad?"

  But my father hesitates a second too long, and Gaige pushes himself away from the table. "That's exactly what he's saying," he says. "Come on, Delaney. This is a great opportunity for you. When else in your life are you going to get a chance to babysit the famous train wreck, Gaige O'Neal?"

  Gaige doesn't say anything else, just storms out of the room, and I'm left sitting there at the table with my father, the air in the room tense.

  "Dad," I start. "Am I just going to be a glorified babysitter? Surely someone else would be better for that than his own stepsister. Like his manager or something."

  "I didn't want Gaige to take it that way," he says. "But…"

  "But it's true." I don't even bother to hide my groan. "Come on, dad…"

  "Gaige is going to do wonders as the face of Marlowe Oil. We're too uncool; we need someone exactly like him to make oil young and hot. Oil isn't sexy now."

  "But Gaige is unpredictable."

  "He's like a horse that needs broken," Beau says. "He needs to be kept from pulling stupid stunts like the one that got his leg messed up, and from picking up the wrong girls in Japan."

  "I shouldn't be the one to –"

  "I would very much like if you would do this. Give it some thought. You're not leaving immediately. It won't be until the end of next month. You both have a while to get used to the idea."

  I would very much like if you would do this. There's a reason my father has gotten where he has in life. He has a way of issuing demands without making them sound like demands. His requests are never actually requests. They're orders. It's actually rather
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