“Beautiful,” he said softly. But he wasn’t looking at the paintings. His warm green eyes, edged with those decadently thick lashes, were still focused on her.
Irina caught her breath. She couldn’t be imagining this. The lingering glances—and the lingering touches.
It was crazy. Men like this weren’t interested in girls like her. Talk about being out of her league—Grant Diaz was playing an entirely different sport. He looked like he’d just walked off the cover of World’s Sexiest Men. Not that there was such a magazine, but probably that was just because no one in the magazine business had seen Mr. Tall, Dark and Phwoar yet.
I’m babbling, Irina realized. I’m babbling inside my own mind. God, he’s so sexy.
And I’m just standing here, staring at him. Pull yourself together before he figures out what a complete weirdo you are.
“Um, and what brings you here?” she asked lamely.
A fleeting frown passed over Grant’s face, but cleared as fast as it appeared. “I was going to talk to—it’s not important. Not as important as finding you. I mean, meeting you. I mean—it’s very nice to meet you.”
He closed his eyes, tipped his head back, and groaned. Irina bit back a laugh, a feeling like relief flooding through her body. Maybe he’s as nervous about flirting with me as I am with him. I just can’t believe a guy like this is getting flustered over—well, over me.
Even embarrassed, Grant looked amazing, and Irina couldn’t help enjoying the view. Her fingers twitched to trace the line of his jaw and to feel the scratch of his stubble against her fingertips. Damn it, this was worse than holding onto his fingers earlier. She clasped her hands behind her back.
When Grant opened his eyes again, they flared as though he knew exactly what she had been thinking. Irina’s heart fluttered.
“Find me here? You were looking for me?” She said it without thinking.
“I think—I’ve always been looking for you.” A small crease formed between his eyebrows, and he looked suddenly very serious.
Irina giggled. “Oh, nice. I haven’t heard anything that cheesy since high school.”
Grant’s smile returned, slightly crooked. “Sorry. That was pretty terrible, wasn’t it?”
He winced. “And I owe you a drink. Now that I think about it, the grand gesture of rescuing you from being Frankie’s side-table doesn’t work when I take away your glass, as well.”
Irina paused with her mouth open. Francine.
Irina’s eyes widened as an awful thought struck her. Grant didn’t seem interested in the paintings, so he couldn’t have come here to appreciate the art. He must have been hoping to catch up with someone. And hadn’t Francine looked strangely shocked to see Grant? And even less pleased to see Irina eyeing him up...
Oh, shit. Is he her ex, or something?
She bit her lip. There was no way she could let this pass without knowing for sure.
“Um. Is she the person you actually came here to see?” Oh, God. Just say it. “Uh, you two aren’t…?”
“God, no.” Grant sounded so shocked by the idea that Irina knew he was telling the truth. “I’m good friends with her brother. Her twin, actually. I was hoping to see him here tonight.”
Irina looked around. There was no one in the room tall or blond or terrifying enough to be related to Francine Delacourt, let alone be her twin.
“I guess we’re both at a loose end, then.”
Grant’s answering smile sent a shiver down her spine. He opened his mouth, and she found herself leaning forward.
“Am I interrupting?” Francine Delacourt’s voice cut through the air.
Irina spun around. Francine was standing over her shoulder, glaring daggers at Grant.
“I—yes?” Irina said and instantly regretted it. She gulped. Honesty was probably not the best policy in the face of someone who looked like she was one bad mood away from stomping you underfoot.
Francine’s expression was icy, but it wasn’t Irina she was looking at. Irina didn’t envy Grant being on the other end of her laser-beam eyes.
Not that he seemed bothered by it.
Maybe he’s built up an immunity after knowing her brother for so long.
Grant nodded a greeting to the other woman. “How are you, Frankie? And how’s Mathis these days?”
Francine bared her teeth in something that wasn’t quite a smile. Irina shuffled sideways, uncomfortable to have Francine hovering at her shoulder, and—not entirely accidentally—found herself standing at Grant’s side.
“Mathis spent the summer traveling,” Francine said slowly. “And Lance tells me you’ve been… in the mountains?”
“You know me. Six months of trees and rocks, then holing up here over winter.” Grant cast a quick smile in Irina’s direction, and she found herself smiling back.
“Hiking and hibernation?” Irina found herself saying. “If that’s not the recipe for a perfect life, I don’t know what is.”
Francine’s eyes sparked. “What would you know about it?” she practically barked.
Irina blinked. Uh, what the hell?
She gestured at the paintings on the wall beside them. Francine followed her gesture, eyes narrowing.
“The disappointing Adirondacks—remember?” The words came out a bit sharper than Irina had intended. Standing next to Grant must be giving her more courage to stand up for herself.
“I see.” Francine’s voice was quiet, but there was steel in it.
Grant shifted his weight, closing the distance between himself and Irina. The warm wool of his jacket sleeve brushed against Irina’s bare arm.
“I was hoping to catch up with Mathis now that I’m back in the city, but I’m having trouble getting hold of him,” he said lightly.
Francine stared at him. “The last time I saw my brother, he was looking forward to seeing you,” she hissed as she swept away.
“Well… great. Thanks,” Grant said to her briskly retreating back. He rubbed his forehead with the back of his hand. “That woman gets more terrifying every time I see her.”
Irina met his eyes, and smiled. It was meant to be a chirpy smile, but it turned out a bit wobbly. “Terrifying is right.”
Grant’s eyes narrowed as he glanced in the direction Francine had disappeared, and his knuckles brushed against the back of Irina’s hand. The closeness of his body and the touch of his hand did more to make Irina feel better than anything he could have said. Somehow, just having him near her made her feel… safe. Protected.