Jared Redmond stumbled from the taxicab, his brown leather briefcase smacking his back as he struggled to stay on his feet. He swallowed a growl of frustration. This was the last time he let the senior partners of his firm keep him out late to celebrate. He’d only had one drink, since he was dead tired from the last few months of overtime at the office. Having to smile, laugh, and socialize all night with the partners left him edgy and desperate to get home and crawl into bed.
God forbid he just do his job and do it well enough to earn respect. No, he had to spend hours at one of the most expensive restaurants with them, watching them pat each other on the back when he’d done all the heavy lifting in their multi-million-dollar transaction.
Big fucking mistake.
Now he was completely drained, and his body was determined to go to sleep on him right there on the street. His vision was fine, but his motor skills seemed to have abandoned him. He reached the glass doors of his apartment building lobby, leaning a little too heavily against the glass. Fishing around in his pocket for his keycard, he muttered a string of curses when his hand came up empty. He glanced up and rapped his knuckles. Thank God, the guard recognized him and buzzed him inside.
“Mr. Redmond.” The security guard nodded, a knowing smile on the older man’s lips.
“Hey, Randy,” he greeted, wincing at the slur of his words.
A few more steps and he reached the elevator. After much effort focusing on the series of floor buttons on the panel, he pressed the button to the fifteenth floor and it lit up. He leaned his head back on the mirrored walls, resting. Jesus, it was like he was drunk, but he knew it was sheer exhaustion.
It had been a hell of a day. After two months of negotiations, sleepless nights, long hours, and no chance of reviving his obsolete social life, he’d closed the massive real estate deal, and closed it earlier than he’d anticipated. Everyone demanded they go out and celebrate. He just wanted to crash and sleep off all of the stress pent up inside him.
He was going to walk into his bedroom and face-plant on his bed and not move all weekend from that spot.
Tanner would be out with his girlfriend, Layla, celebrating. It was Halloween, wasn’t it? A little grin tugged at his lips. The apartment would be empty and quiet. The perfect benefit of arriving home early. He’d told Tanner he wouldn’t be back until Sunday, and it was only Friday now. He expected his little brother and girlfriend would be out partying the night away, giving him total silence and a soft bed to crash on without any disturbances.
The second the elevator doors slid open with a soft hiss, he heard the music and the erratic noises of a party. Laughter, voices, all coming from their apartment.
“Tanner,” he growled, fists clenched.
So the partying tonight was in, not out.
Jared contemplated turning around and finding a hotel, or worse, calling Shana. No, bad idea. They’d dated on and off during law school and after, but they’d never been exclusive. Currently he and Shana were off. Definitely off.
Lousy timing for Tanner to throw a damn party.
That was the main problem with letting his twenty-four-year-old brother live with him. He’d thought it would be nice to spend some time with his little brother, but with his work schedule he barely saw Tanner. The one night they might have hung out, he was too tired to care. He was not in the mood to dodge drunken graduate students all night and try to drown out all the racket they were making. Luck wasn’t with him tonight. Fuck, he was turning into a crotchety old man if he was going to let a party piss him off.
The door to their place was unlocked, and when he swung the door open, a wave of fresh sound engulfed him. His eardrums throbbed, and he winced at the explosion of the music that drilled into his skull like nails. Scantily-dressed girls bounced about to the pounding rhythm of the music along with guys who were watching with giddy-schoolboy expressions. Some of them cheered and smiled, drunkenly overjoyed that a new person had shown up to the party. Several familiar faces, Tanner’s friends, waved at him or nodded as he walked past them.
“Jared! I thought you weren’t coming home till tomorrow?” A zombie stripper stepped in front of him, hands on her hips. Through the gory makeup he thought he recognized her.
Tanner’s girlfriend was dressed as a zombie stripper. Only Layla could manage to pull off that look.
“Layla, what the hell is going on?” he demanded, gesturing to the insanity. A girl in a sexy Lara Croft costume was singing a bad karaoke cover of “Somebody’s Watching Me.” Holy fuck. He was going to need some noise-cancelling headphones to survive this shit. For a brief second he considered tossing everyone out on their damn asses, but this place was half Tanner’s and he’d told Tanner he wouldn’t be here tonight. Brother code demanded he suffer through this bullshit.
Layla didn’t look chagrined in the least. “It’s Halloween. Oh, and Felicity’s birthday, obviously.”
“Who is Felicity?” He’d never met anyone named Felicity. Not that it was surprising, because he was never around when his brother was hanging out with Layla and their friends. He didn’t really remember what it was like to be that carefree. Law school and work had a way of consuming a person’s good memories.
“Scratch that, I don’t care. Is this thing”—he waved a hand around—“ending anytime soon?” He shifted his briefcase strap over his shoulder. His suit was starting to suffocate him, and as much as he liked the particular steel-gray tie he wore at the moment, he was desperate enough to cut it right off his neck if he couldn’t get to his room fast enough.
“Uh…” She licked her lips. “Don’t know. But you said you weren’t coming back until Sunday.”
“Well, here I am and tired as fuck. So I’m going to bed. Try to keep it down,” he growled.
“Uh, Jared.” She dodged around him, trying to prevent him from getting past her.
“What did you do?” He arched a brow, sensing by the way her eyes widened and she shifted in her stilettos that something was wrong.
“I might have given your bed away.” Layla bit her lip, yet she was brave enough to still meet his eyes.
“What do you mean you gave my bed away?”
She attempted to smile. “You were supposed to be gone until Monday, and Felicity needed a place to stay tonight. It’s late, and I didn’t want her to go home alone. She lives in a sketchy part of town—so I told her she could crash in your bed since you weren’t going to be here.” She glared at him, accusing him of something he wasn’t entirely sure was his fault. “So she’s in your room tonight.” She ended with a finality that did not entirely make sense to his tired brain.
“Let me get this straight. Some girl is in my bed…right now?”
Layla swallowed, her eyes darting away before coming back to him. “Um…yeah?”
“No,” he stated and stalked toward his room, Layla at his heels. Whoever this Felicity person was, she was in his bed, and since it was his bed, whatever Layla and this girl had seemed to think otherwise, he’d have her out of it.
Reaching his bedroom door, he crashed it open and strode in, prepared for all the hell and fury that came with drunk, twenty-something females—and instead, as his eyes adjusted, he found a princess in his bed.
Layla clattered behind on her too-tall stilettos. “Jared, wait—”
He pushed the door open, and a yellow beam of light from the hallway cut across the dark room, revealing a figure lying across his bed.
A princess. There was a princess in his bed.
The burgundy-and-gold gown was draped over his comforter with pearls glowing like tiny moons on the bodice of her gown.
What the fuck?
“Please don’t wake her,” Layla begged.
Wake her? Jared shook his head. What nonsense. He wasn’t a romantic. Even though she was certainly a fantasy. All luscious curves and mystery. Her dark auburn hair cascading over the pillow looked soft. His hands ached to reach out and fist in the strands. She looked like the kind of woman a young man dreamed about and ruined his sheets over, the kind of woman he’d stopped dreaming about a long time ago because he was convinced they didn’t exist.
He didn’t turn to look at Layla as he spoke. “Who is that?”
“Felicity Hart. Birthday girl and, more importantly, my best friend.” The threat was heavily implied. Don’t screw with Layla or her friends. Her loyalty in that respect was one of the things he admired most about his brother’s girlfriend.
Layla’s fingers curled around his biceps and squeezed, getting his attention.
“I told her she could sleep in your room since you weren’t supposed to be here. It’s the only place available for her to sleep.”
“I’m not giving up my bed. I worked seventy hours this week. I’m going to sleep.” He got one step inside his room before Layla practically tackled him, climbing up his back like a spider monkey.
“You. Will. Not. Wake. Her. Up,” Layla growled, nails digging into his arms. “She has a really important research paper due tomorrow, and she needs to sleep.”
“She can stay, but I’m sharing my bed with her. End of discussion. Go back to your party.” With a little shove, he made sure Layla couldn’t get back in before he shut the door in her face.
When he turned back around, he studied the girl in his bed. Without the hallway light he could barely make out her features. Just a silhouette, really, of a princess. Arousal slammed into him. He felt like an idiot. He never dated anyone who was still in school. They were too young. A year ago he’d tried to date a girl who was twenty-four, but she’d gotten pissed every time he’d had to work late. She didn’t get the pressures of his job. None of the girls younger than him seemed to understand that. Layla was all right, but she was still a kid. He needed someone mature who was at the same point in her life as him, an adult.
The hot little princess was the last thing he needed to be thinking about.
Don’t think about her or how much fun it would be to wake her up and kiss her. Just be a gentleman and go to bed.
His inner voice was a goddamn control freak, but he was thankful someone was still responsible.
Turning away, he started to strip out of his work clothes. He kicked his shoes off and then slipped a pair of pajama bottoms on. He didn’t bother with a shirt. He always got a little hot at night anyway. As he moved deeper into the room, he caught his foot on a chair. It screeched as it slid across the wood, and he winced, catching himself against the back of it. He glanced at the bed, but the girl hadn’t woken. A few quick steps and then he hit the bed, landing on his stomach and bouncing a little. The princess next to him didn’t stir. He shifted a couple of inches and slid one arm beneath his pillow to puff it up as he laid his head down. The toll of the night’s celebrations dragged him to the edge of the abyss of sleep. He was so close…
A little gasp and a half-strangled whimper pulled him to the surface again. “Whah?” He groaned and rolled onto his side facing the girl.
She was thrashing and whimpering beside him. Her hands clawed at the bodice of her dress, as though trying to escape it.
“Damn it!” He sat up and flicked on the lamp by his side of the bed. The wash of color in the room showed how flushed the girl was. She still shifted and kicked, moaning as if in pain. Jared leaned over and gently jostled her shoulder.
“Hey, kid, wake up.”
She jolted awake. Bright gray eyes like liquid mercury flashed in shock and fear as her gaze fell on him.
“Hi,” he said.
The princess blinked, her eyes darting around the room, then back to him, focusing on his bare chest. Her pupils dilated.
“Did we…um…who—” She shook her head as though to clear it. “Who are you, and what are you doing here?”
Jared let out a raspy chuckle. “I’m the one who should be asking questions. But it’s been a long day and I’m beat. I’m Jared, and you are in my bed.”
He stood and walked back to his cherrywood dresser. His fingers curled around the brass handle, and he opened the top drawer.
“You’re Tanner’s brother?” Her voice was soft, husky. It rolled over him, soothing his irritation.
He selected a silk striped button-down nightshirt and a pair of boxers from his drawer and then returned to the bed. “Here.” He held the clothes out to her.
“What are those for?” she asked. One elegant brow rose.
“You. You woke up clawing at your dress. Looks like it’s too tight around your chest and it’s restricting your breathing. Unless you have clothes of your own, you’re changing into these so we can both get some sleep. Layla said you had some paper due tomorrow.”
When she opened her mouth, he could see the protest in her eyes and it amused him. Feisty little thing. And damned if he didn’t picture all the things he’d like to do to that little mouth.
“Take the clothes and change in the bathroom. Now.” He deepened his voice, and she hopped out of bed, snatching the clothes as she darted into the bathroom. She froze, then slowly looked over her shoulder at him.
“My dress…it’s the laces in the back. I can’t reach them.”
A sigh escaped him. “Come here.” He crooked a finger and sat farther back on his bed. She sidled up to him, bashfulness in her every movement.
There was something sinful and suggestive about the way she nibbled her bottom lip. He twirled a finger, indicating for her to spin around. She offered her back to him. The silk ribbons on the back of her gown came undone easily enough, but he was surprised to see the second set of laces beneath, which belonged to a corset. It was black with embroidered red roses that set off the color of the loose tangles of her hair. The strands teased the back of his hands as he unlaced the corset. The creamy skin of her lower back made his mouth go dry. The princess was trying to kill him with these temptations.
All too soon the view disappeared as she rushed into the adjoining bathroom to change.
He fell back onto the bed, staring up at the ceiling. His fingers tapped a rhythm on his stomach as he waited. This was not at all how he’d predicted his night would go. He wasn’t complaining—not exactly.