Christie Ridgway

Excerpt: Touch Me

When a man reclined poolside at his bachelor home surrounded by voluptuous, twenty-something triplets, only to discover he couldn’t think of anything beyond how quickly he could send them on their way—well, said man must be sicker than he’d thought.

But Payne Colson wasn’t sick in the cold-and-flu sense of sick. He was recovering from an accident that involved tires, speed, and an oil-slickened raceway. For a second he was back on the practice track, the other Formula E car sliding into his, knocking the right front wheel free and causing the long skid and showy triple flip that had taken him high in the air and over the barricade where his vehicle finally crashed upside down.

Then, adrenaline had flooded his system and he hadn’t immediately felt the subsequent scrapes, bruises, broken bones, and torn internal organs.

Now, what he was left with was a combination of grating frustration and unshakeable boredom. It was more than three months post-collision and he wanted his life back.

The one filled with work, women, and risk.

They passed the time. Filled the void. Gave him a reason to get up in the morning.

The ladies by his side only served to remind him of what he wasn’t yet ready to take on.

“You’re not even listening, Payne,” one of the triplets complained, her luscious mouth pouting.

“Sorry, uh…” He quirked a brow.

“Deandra,” she supplied.

It didn’t bother him that he couldn’t distinguish which of the Berry triplets he was addressing. It was their choice to dress in identical outfits, their hair bleached the same shade of blonde and fashioned in identical styles.

“I’m not into reality TV,” he said. “At least not as much as you and Danette and DeLayne.” Their parents had done that to them. Deandra, Danette, and DeLayne. Triple-D. It had become a self-fulfilling prophecy, he decided, eyeing the tight T-shirts they wore with low-cut jeans and high-heeled pumps. They worked for a production company, arranging transportation for the stars. Or maybe it was transportation for the stars’ pets. Something.

They wanted to break into the movies themselves, naturally.

“How’d your latest audition go?” he asked, recalling they’d chattered about one scheduled a couple of days before.

They beamed triple smiles at him for remembering.

“We’re waiting to hear,” they said together, holding up six identical sets of crossed fingers.

Smiling in return, he held up his own two hands, pointer digits twined with middles, glad to note there wasn’t even a twinge from the collarbone that had been broken in four places. A cloud passed over the February sun and he glanced up, noting the single puff of condensation in the bright blue sky. He’d assumed winter had already passed through this Southern California canyon setting. Was that a foul-weather omen?

It didn’t seem possible, with the temperature near eighty in his backyard, shielded as it was from any wind by mature trees and foliage. The warmth set off a yawn, which he covered with his hand.

Deandra sent him a sympathetic look. “You’re tired. We should go.”

He wished they would. This was his first day back at his own house after weeks and weeks of being cooped up with his mother. Maybe a little alone-time would make him heal faster.

“Unless there’s something we can do for you,” either DeLayne or Danette said.

Payne rubbed his knuckles against the edge of his jaw until they encountered the line of his close-cropped goatee. The triplets, bless their hearts, had a gift for grooming they’d used on him during his convalescence. “I’m good, thanks. Reed took me out for a shave yesterday.”

And wasn’t that pitiful? He still wasn’t cleared to drive.

“Perhaps there’s another kind of…relief we could offer you,” one of the triplets suggested with a quick wink.

Oh, God. In the past, he’d enjoyed their sexual confidence and their sense of adventure. His yard was so secluded that there was privacy for any kind of game they had in mind.

But it was Payne who wasn’t ready for his part in it—neither his spirit nor his body—and it would be humiliating to admit. Sorry girls, the libido seems to have crashed along with my electrically powered racing car. Before, the hovering presence of his mother had been excuse enough.

Now, the truth would have to do.

Though the real truth was, the libido hadn’t been operating normally since before he’d been clipped by Dario Senna’s car during a practice session.

No, not really a libido problem, Payne amended. His sexual appetite wasn’t out of order. It was that his interest in assuaging it in his usual casual manner had evaporated with the surprise reappearance of a certain dark-haired, gray-eyed woman into his life.

He cleared his throat. “Ladies…I appreciate your kindness, but this isn’t a good time. I’m, uh, not at my best.”

The three exchanged glances and small smiles. “Oh, you big dear,” Deandra said. Her hands toyed with the hem of her tight top, and her sisters mirrored the movement. “Don’t worry. We’ll do all the work.”

Then, as if they’d choreographed it, they rose from their seats, gave luxurious stretches of their long torsos which brought into prominence their magnificent bosoms and tiny waists. Next they began to slide the cotton-knit up their bellies inch-by-inch.

Payne stifled his groan just as he detected the clearing of a feminine throat. The triplets froze. His head whipped toward the sound.

He gawked as Rose Dailey continued through his side gate. Hadn’t he just been thinking of her?

With a quick look at the ladies who’d yanked their tees back into place, she strode forward in casual, knee-length boots and a denim dress that fastened up the front. As she neared him, she slanted a second glance at his three visitors and then did up another button at her cleavage.

He yanked his gaze away from it and pasted a scowl on his face. “What are you doing here?”

“Sorry to interrupt,” she said, with a vague smile that didn’t land on either him or the triplets but somewhere near the sculpted wall over which water cascaded into the pool. “But I tried the front door. When no one answered, I followed the voices.”

Shifting, he straightened on the lounge chair, trying to suppress his wince at the mild pain it caused. “Rose,” he said, gesturing toward the other women. “Meet Deandra, Danette, and DeLayne.”

Mutual waves were sketched. Three curious gazes took in Rose. He knew what they saw. Medium height, a lithe body with sweet curves. A face that could stop buses, trains, fleets of ships. It was heart-shaped and framed by her dark, layered hair. Bangs swept to the side just above eyes as gray as the coastal fog. Her pink mouth was curved in its trademark crooked smile.

Like she saw right through you—past your polished facade and your facile lies and straight to your false heart.

“We knew each other as kids,” he added for the triplets. “I dated her big sister.”

“And now his big brother gave me a call and asked me to, uh, make contact,” Rose said.

Payne’s brows shot up. “Ren?”

“Mmm.” She ventured one step closer. “Reed gave him my number.”

What? “Reed Hopkins?”

The triplets perked up. “We love Reed,” they said together.

Payne shot them a glance. “He’s engaged now.”

They frowned. “We hate Reed.” But the words held only disappointment, not heat.

Rose’s gaze cut to them, then cut back. Her expression didn’t change. “As a get well gift, your brother has hired me to be your personal assistant.”

His jaw dropped.

“Until you get clearance from your doctor,” she added. “I understand you were at your mother’s since the accident, but she had a trip planned. So I’ll…do whatever she did.”

“She’ll be your temp mommy!” a triplet crowed. “How helpful.”

“Helpful?” Payne might have thundered it, because the three sisters looked alarmed.

“Maybe we should get going,” one of them said.

And leave him here alone with Rose, without a buffer? “I thought we had plans,” he said, trying to bury the note of desperation.

They looked between themselves, then at Rose. “Um…” The nearest triplet licked her lips.

Rose’s face went…well, rosy. “I wouldn’t dream of breaking anything up.”

“Great,” Payne said, his voice surly. “Go away.”

“As soon as we get our schedule worked out,” she responded.

“I don’t need you!”

“Of course you do,” one of the sisters piped up. “You’re supposed to be resting. Now that you’re back at home, who is going to help you out with the cooking and the cleaning and the laundry?”

He was aware of Rose’s eyes on him. What did she see? His six-feet, two-inch frame had gone a little leaner since he’d crashed. But the shave was good and the barber had cut his dark blond hair yesterday too, so he—what the hell did it matter? Rose’s assessment didn’t matter a whit to him.

She didn’t matter a whit to him.

“I can drive you to work as well. Ren said you’re allowed to drop by for a few hours each week.”

Ren, that crafty bastard. Not only had he confiscated the keys to all Payne’s vehicles, but the man also knew how much his younger brother wanted to check in with his auto salvage yards, particularly the one he’d bought right before the accident. The place was a mess and Payne had been worrying over it.

“And he already paid me a deposit for my services,” Rose continued. “Which I spent.”

Spent…on what? He tried to recall what she’d been doing in recent years and drew a blank. That was because when she’d showed up at an extended family event—invited by that other SOB, Reed—a few months ago, Payne had intentionally kept his distance.

“I need the money,” Rose said in cheerful tones. “So you’re stuck with me.”

“How about this? You can keep the money and I won’t say anything about you not showing up.”

Those gray eyes of hers rounded. He looked away in case he’d lose himself in them. “I couldn’t do that! I’m not deceitful.”

No, that would be him. Payne Colson had been born with the genetic markers for dishonesty and dissoluteness, which were then stewed in a childhood surrounded by licentiousness, infidelity, and everything else that was wrong with the world. He’d largely accepted it until Rose Dailey, in her first pair of high heels, had showed up at one of the raging parties his father’s band had thrown.

Then Payne had come face-to-face with his future for the first time and he hadn’t liked what he’d seen. Who he knew he was destined to be.

He’d spent the last decade or so trying to save every woman he met from the man he’d glimpsed that night. And now here came Rose, who was his Achilles’ heel and his bête noire and also still the same sweet, innocent temptation she’d been all those years ago.

She’d been the only noble thing he’d ever done…as well as the one who had shown him the very worst that he could be.

Now she slammed her hands onto her hips. She wore a thick leather belt around her waist that matched her boots and he wondered what she’d think if he told her he was envisioning wrapping that leather around her wrists at the small of her back, holding her in place while he fucked her from behind.

Because it was true. And for the first time since speeding one hundred fifty miles per hour and losing control, his blood was rushing just that fast. Making him harder than he’d ever been.

“I’m going to return tomorrow,” she said, pinning him with her eyes.

“Oh yeah?” Great comeback, but with all his blood rushing southward, his brain synapses were firing too slow for anything better.

“Yeah.”

“Only if you’re in uniform.”

Her eyes narrowed. “What kind of uniform is that?”

“Short. Black. With one of those frilly white aprons.” He gave her a wolfish leer that he hoped would scare her away.

The triplets tittered.

He ignored them and ran his gaze from the top of Rose’s head to the toes of her boots. “I’ve always wanted a French maid.”

 

I’ve always wanted a French maid.

Stomping toward her second-hand, sensible sedan, Rose Dailey snorted. Ridiculous man. Ridiculous idea!

Not for a single second would she imagine herself in a tiny, clinging black number, with a corset-styled top and a short skirt spread by layers of white petticoats that lifted the hem to a level that would reveal ruffled, cheek-revealing panties every time she bent at the waist.

Thigh-high white stockings would cover her legs and feet strapped into patent leather—

Gah!

Settling into the driver’s seat, she cast a dark look in the direction of Payne’s house. Was it the source of that fleeting, filthy fantasy? All glass and angles, its two stories were surrounded by lush landscaping and a privacy fence to create a stylish, secluded bachelor pad.

The perfect location for whatever dirty thing she’d interrupted between him and the triple bombshells.

Just thinking of it, her face burned. Did he really…?

But of course he really did. As Rolling Stone magazine had once termed him and the other children of the Velvet Lemons, the most infamous rock band in the world, he was Rock Royalty. There were no rules for royals, everybody knew that.

Rose pointed her car down the winding road that led through Nichols Canyon. The tangles of sycamore, sumac, eucalyptus trees, and volunteer bougainvillea on either side of the narrow route was familiar. The same vegetation populated Laurel Canyon, just a crow’s flight away, where she’d lived a few years with her parents and her older sister Lily. The Velvet Lemons still had a compound there, an expansive piece of property that included the three houses where the nine members of the Rock Royalty had spent their childhoods.

Though it was hard to imagine Payne Colson as a child. She’d come to know him later, when he was a teen god, all blond beauty, lanky body, and devastating grin.

Now a man…

Muscle and bone were heavier. Hair a touch darker now, the short stuff around his firm mouth was golden. She’d never kissed a man with a beard or mustache. Would it be soft? Rough?

Her skin prickled at the thought, imagining the sensation of his smooth lips against hers then cruising over her jaw and down her neck.

A bicyclist swooped from a side street, pulling in front of her, and Rose shrieked a little as she abruptly applied her brakes. The rider looked over his shoulder, lifting one hand in an apologetic gesture. Instead of glaring, she felt grateful to him.

The crisis had taken her out of her head and put her squarely back in the moment.

There were no costumes or kisses in her future.

In short moments, she was back in the traffic and urban bustle of Hollywood Boulevard. She’d been away long enough to be surprised by how the bucolic Hollywood Hills were situated so close to bars, eateries, souvenir shops, and the iconic Walk of Fame. On every corner people loaded onto tour buses or bought maps to celebrity homes.

Her cell rang, but rule-follower that she was, she wouldn’t dream of answering it while driving. Though she was intent on making changes, she didn’t have a wish to get into any real danger.

Then why did you agree to work as Payne’s personal assistant?

Ignoring that little voice, at her first opportunity she turned off the Boulevard and pulled over to check her call log. Biting her lip, she contemplated the latest entry. Then, telling herself he’d just keep calling unless she responded, she touched her fingertip to the phone icon.

“Rose, finally,” a disgruntled voice said after one ring. “I’m looking for the Nielsen file.”

“Hi!” she responded brightly. “How are you? I’m fine here in sunny Southern California.”

Her father’s tone deepened. “Rose.” A sigh gusted out. “This is a business call. Don’t disappoint me.”

She gritted her teeth to prevent a knee-jerk apology and reminded herself that the one who’d been let down was her. “Given that I don’t work for you anymore, I can’t imagine why you’d phone me about a missing file.”

“Because…it’s missing,” her father said, clearly puzzled.

“But I didn’t misplace it.”

A long silence followed. She pictured her silver-haired, chiseled-jawed father frowning, the fact that his younger daughter wasn’t just down the hall to meet his every command and carry out his every wish still failing to register. “You always track down missing files.”

“Not anymore, Dad. Remember? I moved back to L.A. four months ago.”

“I still don’t understand it. You’ve lived in Seattle since high school.”

Since her parents had divorced and she, not wanting to lose the father whom she’d adored, had relocated with him to the Pacific Northwest.

“You should come back.” He hesitated. “We could talk about increasing your salary.”

“This isn’t about money.”

“Blake misses you.”

Rose rolled her eyes. “Blake’s moved on.” Bright color caught her eye and she glanced in the direction of an extremely tall woman—man?—dressed in a red miniskirt, white ostrich feathers, and yellow platform stilettos. The multi-hues worn by the person who also wore a long black wig with purple highlights reminded her of why she’d returned here—to live life her own way, instead of in the manner sanctioned by her father.

Her eye caught on the clock on the dash. “Gotta go, Dad. Meeting Lily and Marcus for coffee.”

“Marcus.”

Could he truly have forgotten? Why had it taken her so long to wake up to his selfishness, his ego? “Your grandson.” Then she signed off, even as she heard him sputter.

At the agreed-upon coffee place, Rose wasn’t surprised when the agreed-upon hour passed without a sign of Lily and her two-month-old. Getting out of the house with an infant required the planning and supplies of a major ground battle, she’d discovered.

Settling back with her drink, Rose glanced around at her fellow patrons. A young woman sat at a nearby table, dressed in a prim business suit, her hair caught in a plain silver barrette at her nape. She had a large coffee in front of her as well as a tablet computer and a notepad opened to a page that had bullet points listed in a precise hand.

As if sensing her regard, the woman glanced over and they exchanged smiles. The stranger hesitated, then spoke. “Would you mind watching my things for just a moment? I’m nervous, and the coffee…”

“Sure,” Rose answered. “I’ll keep my eye on them.”

The woman wasn’t gone long at all, but she thanked Rose profusely as she re-took her seat. “I just want this morning to be over,” she said.

“Job interview?” Rose guessed. The tablet had displayed an employment listing and the bullet points addressed prior work experience. Sure, call her nosy, but it had been right there for her to see.

“Yes. I just finished my accounting degree.”

Rose opened her mouth, closed it. She had an accounting undergrad degree as well as a master’s. But she’d left that field behind when she’d left her father’s firm in Seattle.

“Now I’m second-guessing everything,” the stranger continued. “Including my decision to go into number-crunching.”

“You can always change your mind,” Rose said. That’s what she had done. Walked away from her position in a prestigious accounting firm because she’d joined it for all the wrong reasons.

“The truth is,” the woman said, color rising on her face. “I actually like the number-crunching.”

“That’s good.” Rose had never considered whether she’d liked the work or not. Her father had suggested she follow in his footsteps and she couldn’t agree fast enough, wanting so much to earn his approval.

Wanting so much for him to never leave her like he’d left her mother.

The young woman checked the watch on her wrist and blew out a breath. “Time to go.” She gathered her things, sent another smile to Rose. “Thanks again.”

“Best of luck!” she told the woman and watched her make her way to the exit. As she opened the door, she stepped back to allow in a mother bearing a snoozing baby in car seat.

Rose waved at the newcomer. “Over here, Lily!”

Her sister bustled over, settled the carrier on the table, and then dropped into a chair with a sigh. “Marcus doesn’t make it easy to get out the door.”

Rising to peek at the two-month-old, Rose adjusted the blanket beneath his tiny chin. “I told you I’d bring coffees back with me.”

Her sister grabbed up Rose’s cup and took a swallow. “I have to get the process down. I don’t want to be chained to the house.”

Rose caressed her nephew’s cheek and then went to order her sister’s drink. Back at the table, she delivered her sister’s decaf cappuccino and returned to admiring baby Marcus. “He looks more like Gavin every day,” she said, Gavin being Lily’s firefighter husband. “Do you think his hair is turning curly like his?”

“Don’t think to distract me by appealing to my mother-side, the one that can moon about her baby all day long.” Lily pinned her with a big-sister stare. “How did things go with Payne?”

“Well…” She thought of the young woman on her way to an interview. “Maybe I should rethink my employment possibilities. Dig my businesswear out of my suitcases.”

She yet to empty a single one of them. Instead, she’d stowed them in the guest closet at her sister’s place and raided Lily’s pre-pregnancy wardrobe. The clothes of a freelance graphic artist seemed more suited to the Rose who’d returned to L.A. looking for a new kind of life. “It wouldn’t take half an hour for me to whip up a resume that would get me an interview with an accounting firm or two in town.”

“Things went that badly with Payne,” Lily said, making it a declaration. “I told you he wouldn’t want a keeper.”

He didn’t even want a fifth for the orgy he seemed about to engage in, she thought, frowning. “There were women there.”

“Of course there were women there,” Lily said.

“Triplets,” Rose added darkly.

Her sister laughed. “I’ve heard mutterings about them.”

“Bombshells.”

Lily lifted a shoulder. “You want a boss, not a boyfriend. What do you care?”

Yeah, what did she care? But her sister didn’t know everything that had gone on between Payne and Rose. As far as Lily knew, he was the old high school flame who had been nothing but kind to her innocent little sister during the year they’d gone together.

Rose might feel guilty about what she’d done, except she’d been a foolish fifteen when she’d flouted a rule for the first and only time. Not to mention Lily was a happily married woman now as well as a blissful mother to her little boy. It wasn’t as if Rose had caused her sister’s heart to break over the blondest, baddest Rock Royalty prince.

“I think technically Ren would be my boss,” she said, avoiding her sister’s last question. “He wrote the check.”

“Which you didn’t need to take,” Lily said. “I’ve told you over and over you can stay with Gavin, Marcus, and me as long as you want, rent-free.”

“Thanks, I appreciate that. But I need to start doing something, even while I figure out the next steps in my life.” And she did need cash. Walking away from the condo she shared with Blake hadn’t been her smartest move. They’d eventually have to come to some terms about that, but for the moment she was cash-poor, unless she wanted to raid her 401(k). She was still enough of an accountant that even the thought of the tax penalties made her shiver.

“What am I doing, Lil?” she asked, resting her forehead in her hand. “Dad called. He offered me a raise if I go back.”

Her sister reached out and grabbed her free hand. “Don’t do it. You showed up here four months ago, stressed and upset. You were sure then you wanted to take charge of your own life.”

“Explore possibilities,” Rose said, straightening. “Find my passion.”

Lily squeezed her fingers. “And how about having a little fun along the way?”

“Okay.” Rose nodded. “You’re right.” When was the last time she’d had fun? Maybe not orgy-level fun, but she could use a few more good times under her belt. She was twenty-seven, not seventy-two!

And something told her that being around Payne Colson might cause a little carpe diem to rub off on her. A bit of his hedonism would infuse her soul. Once that was accomplished, perhaps he’d even introduce her to a hot friend who wasn’t so supernova-sexy as Payne but who would be Rose’s willing partner in…fun.

I’ve always wanted a French maid.

“It means I’ll have to stand up for myself,” Rose said. “Not get scared off.”

“You can never go wrong with that,” Lily replied, then frowned. “Where are you going now?”

Rose was on her feet and slinging her purse over her shoulder. “I have to make a stop at one of those costume shops on Hollywood Boulevard.”