Evening Storm

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Chapter One

“We have a situation in the Silver Room.”

Simone Demarchelier’s assistant, Lorrie, murmured the words as she paused at Simone’s side on her way across the showroom. A padded brown satin hanger draped with the Woodland Nymph bra dangled from Lorrie’s left hand, and similar hangers carefully arranged with matching silk charmeuse robes hung from her raised right hand. A customer waited patiently, for now, by the big front windows.

Simone looked over Lorrie’s shoulder to the fitting rooms at the back of the showroom space. The door to the Silver Room had been closed for nearly thirty minutes, which wasn’t unusual, or even a problem. At Irresistible a woman was free to take as many items into a dressing room as she liked, and was even encouraged to do so. She would be assisted by Simone, Lorrie, or one of the other lingerie fitting experts to ensure the perfect selection with the perfect fit. Buying lingerie was an intensely personal experience, seeking to showcase the truth and beauty of each woman’s skin. So the length of time wasn’t the issue. The problem was that the woman, who Simone recognized as “Just Jade” from the spring Fashion Week runways, had been in the room for thirty minutes with a man.

Simone was French, and far too experienced to be naive, but the situation called for a certain level of tact, and that authority came from the designer and owner, not a salesperson. “I’ll handle it,” she said just as quietly. “See to the woman by the windows.”

A smile firmly fixed to her face, Lorrie moved off, distributing the bras on a rack to one side of the elaborate four-post bed in the middle of the showroom, then the robes on a display on the other side. Hands suitably free, she made contact with the customer. Satisfied, Simone crossed to the fitting rooms and rapped smartly on the door.

“Madame? May I assist you?”

From behind the locked door came a rustle of fabric (the sound of silk and chiffon against wool, if her ears didn’t deceive her), a throat clearing (male), and then a woman’s haughty voice. “As a matter of fact, you may.”

The handle turned and the lock clicked open. Simone automatically registered the dark gray raw silk that draped the ceiling, anchored by a sparkling chandelier. Plush pewter carpet blanketed the floor, and mirrors covered three walls from floor to ceiling. Silver hooks hung at regular intervals on the remaining wall, painted a dusky blue that softened to robin’s egg near the ceiling. The beautiful room looked like a petulant toddler had torn through a toy box full of the highest quality fabric on the market and hundreds of hours of work, much of it by hand. The petulant toddler in question was a supermodel of international fame known by a single name, Jade, describing the unique color of her eyes. Bras, panties, corsets, slips, and nightdresses were strewn from hooks, on the chaise, and the floor.

Despite Simone’s worst fears, Jade was fully dressed, or as dressed as she could be in the Nightwing ensemble, a robe of dramatic thundercloud-gray satin shot through with red, the paler gray panels shifting like racing clouds to expose, then hide, the breasts and thighs. Her caramel and blond hair (definitely extensions) tumbled around her shoulders, framing her dramatic cheekbones and full mouth (either Botox or recently thoroughly kissed).

Simone’s gaze flicked past the woman to the man seated on the moss-green, silk-covered chaise lounge, knees spread, hands laced behind his head, staring fixedly at the ceiling. He wore a charcoal- gray suit her practiced eye immediately recognized as bespoke, and a purple silk tie so luscious her fingers itched to touch it. The tie was loosened, exposing a tab-front collar, and his hair was rumpled, but whether from her fingers or artful styling, Simone couldn’t tell. A telltale heat stained his cheekbones, matching the slightly swollen look of his mouth.

Recently kissed, then.

He turned to look at Simone. When their gazes met, Simone’s heart kicked hard against her breastbone. His hazel eyes widened ever so slightly. She’d never seen this man before in her life, but she knew this type. Her family’s house had been a mainstay in the fashion world for nearly two hundred years. Her father told stories of businessmen in the seventies bringing in their mistresses to be fitted for smart suits perfect for lunching at La Tour d’ Argent. Her grandfather told stories of aristocrats in the thirties bringing in their mistresses to be fitted for ball gowns and day dresses. They both told stories passed down from her grandfather’s grandfather, stories of royalty ordering a king’s ransom in silk corsets, pantaloons, fur-trimmed robes, and sheer nightdresses. Men with money used it to get houses and planes and cars and tables at exclusive restaurants. They also used it to get mistresses, and used it to dress their mistresses for their pleasure. They expected personalized service, immediate delivery, and privacy while the woman du jour modeled for them. They were smart and powerful, and felt at home in a world where politics, entertainment, business, and sex came together in a combustible mix. But because the last thing she needed was a reputation as someone who poached from her clientele, they were off-limits.

Off-limits never looked so irresistible.

For a moment everything and everyone in the room disappeared while the earth turned under them. As she watched him, he reached up and removed a Bluetooth earpiece from his ear, and tucked it in the breast pocket of his suit.

“Now you take that thing out?” Jade sniped. She threw the man a look Simone knew would mean trouble for him later, quite possibly until jewelry appeared in a box of suitable color (pale blue, red, pale green).

She cleared her throat, and reached for her most palliative voice. “How may I help, Madame?”

“Look at this,” Jade said. She gestured at her body, clearly visible through the shifting panels of fabric. “It’s too loose.”

The woman was six foot tall without her heels. She towered over Simone as she made a noncommittal little noise in her throat and gestured for the woman to turn. She did so, spinning on her heel and stalking across the room, then back. Simone used the movement to step into the room and close the door behind her, the better to muffle any forthcoming tantrums. The man on the chaise hadn’t moved an inch. Simone caught his expression in the mirror as they both watched Jade do her runway strut. A grin quirked the corner of his mouth, and his eyes took on an amused cast.

“May I?” she asked when Jade reached her.

“By all means.”

Her companion’s gaze transformed a simple act of dressing into something heated, sensual. To counter the languid currents in the room, Simone briskly loosened the heavy silk bow tied at the woman’s abdomen, situated the fabric’s folds again, and retied the bow. The woman watched her hands move but didn’t fidget or attempt to help Simone.

“The next size down better suits your figure but will simply be too short,” Simone said as she tucked in folds. “I can adjust the fit here, here, and here,” she said, lightly touching her shoulder, waist, and hip.

“Will it hang right?”

“Oui, Madame,” Simone said. She wasn’t above playing up her French accent and speech patterns, especially when it came to soothing the fractious supermodel in her natural environment. “If you’ll come through to the workroom, where the light is better, I’ll make the adjustments myself.”

“Great,” Jade said, and hauled open the door. “I also want the red pieces. I’m going to have another look through the racks,” she said, as if bestowing a favor.

“Of course,” Simone said.

The man on the chaise hadn’t moved a muscle, but now he turned his head again to watch Jade sail into the retail space. She was all but naked, wearing only the kimono, the matching pair of cheeky panties, and her heels, oblivious to the stares as she flicked through the only racks not containing something currently lying on the floor of the fitting room.

Simone moved swiftly, plucking Jade’s requested items from the floor, a hook, and the chaise beside the man. “Une telle princesse,” she murmured. He sat forward as she searched for the size tags to make sure she brought the right ones to the workroom, automatically straightening the items so they draped from her fingertips.

“Sorry,” he said under his breath. His voice was low, rumbling from a deep part of his chest. “She’s in a mood.”

Simone blinked. In her experience, this type never apologized. They didn’t have to. “It’s nothing, sir,” she said. The last thing she needed was for Jade to think she was siding with her meal ticket.

“Obviously I’ll buy the panties, regardless of what else she decides on.”

Simone couldn’t help but smile at that, but she didn’t comment.

“Ryan!” The call bordered on petulant, but didn’t quite make it. “What do you think of this?”

This was the dark gray silk corset meant to be paired with the robe, and Jade clearly expected an opinion, right now, while Ryan stood beside her.

“Ryan,” he said to Simone as he stood. “Not sir. Ryan.”

“Of course, sir,” she said. She knew her place. It was here, in her own shop, keeping her eye on the goal of making Agent Provocateur, Myla, and Tallulah surrender a significant portion of their market share.

He huffed out a laugh as he brushed past her into the showroom. Even now, almost a year into the lease, she felt a rush of pride. The space, in a prime location in the Fashion District, was mixed use, the top floor of what used to be a manufacturing space and was now a showroom, a workroom, and a tiny apartment at the back. The original hardwood floors, polished to a fresh gleam, ran the length of the space. She’d painted the showroom walls a metallic silver to play up the light, and the workroom walls white to keep the light pure. The interior of the shop was warm from the sunlight spilling through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Mannequins modeled ready-to-wear ensembles. Columns of wooden cubes rose behind tables displaying folded items; strategically placed trunks held lightweight throws. The four-post bed, elaborate enough for Marie Antoinette, displayed robes and nightdresses draped over pulled back bedding, hinting at the point of lingerie like this.

Ryan had heeded Jade’s call and was now standing by a rack of silk nightdresses. Their heads were bent together, and as Simone crossed the floor to the door leading to her workroom, she couldn’t help but notice that almost every other woman in the shop covertly glanced at the pair of them. Which one drew their eyes? Even without makeup, Jade was stunningly beautiful in a way that women had been conditioned to not only accept, but to try to emulate. She was tall, rail thin, and putting on a very good show of being comfortable in her body, even though Simone had spent enough time around runway models to know better.

But Ryan, while not classically handsome, was more compelling. He was shorter than Jade, even when she wasn’t wearing the four-inch heels, but when they were standing side-by-side Simone wouldn’t have guessed that. He radiated a Wall Street wolf’s power, a confidence that came from wild success. Not much could drag a man like that away from the markets, but sex usually did the trick. But as she watched Ryan with Jade, she got the sense that he was on edge, a certain tightness around his eyes and jaw.

Simone opened the door leading to her workroom, and waited while Jade selected several additional items to try on. Ryan trailed in her wake as she stalked, head held high, through the door. He gave Simone a little wink when he crossed the threshold. Simone waited until she caught Lorrie’s eye, then tipped her head in the direction of the wrecked silver dressing room. Lorrie blinked resignedly, but she nodded.

Jade, who’d undoubtedly been in dozens of designers’ work spaces, headed straight for the three-way mirror but Ryan looked around the workroom with interest. Rows of sewing machines designed to handle any fabric from the sheerest of lace to leather were lined up near the window, taking advantage of as much natural light as they could get in Manhattan’s canyons. The fabrics she’d chosen for her current collection were stacked in huge bolts along one wall with notions and trim collected in drawers and on rolls next to the fabrics. The close proximity to wholesale fabrics and other accoutrements was the primary reason why she had located in the fashion district. “You make everything on-site?”

“Yes,” Simone said. By doing so, she retained complete control over the production process, and over quality. If her growth predictions proved accurate and with a bit of luck—the right magazine spread, social media buzz—she would need additional space in a year or so.

Without any direction Jade took up position in front of the three-way mirror. Comfortable chairs gathered around it, with low tables and outlets in the floor for laptops and other peripherals. Simone slipped the pincushion her grand-mère had entrusted to her when she was five years old onto her wrist, and began securing the shoulders, waist, and hip of the robe. Then she tucked her tailored black skirt under her bottom and went to her heels to pin the hem.

“Would you like me to hem the robe with or without the shoes?” Surely the woman didn’t plan to wear them all the time, but if Simone hemmed the robe with the shoes, then when she was barefoot, the silk hem would trail along the ground. When an answer didn’t come quickly, she looked up the considerable length of Jade’s body, only to find her looking in the mirror at Ryan.

“What would you like, baby?” Jade asked in a low, intimate tone.

Simone was used to this, used to being invisible, talked over, and around, and even through as she fitted garments to bodies. But the look Jade gave Ryan made something simmer low in Simone’s belly. It was envy, she realized, rasping against arousal like satin against chiffon. Frequently women like Jade faked their enthusiasm for men’s attentions. Women always saw through that act, while men rarely seemed to, but Jade wasn’t faking it. Whatever had happened in that dressing room before Simone knocked on the door wasn’t something Jade tolerated in order to get a shopping trip or a bauble from Van Cleef and Arpels.

She liked the sex. She wanted more of it. She was deploying all of her rather considerable feminine wiles to get it.

Simone turned her head to look directly at Ryan. Rather than sitting in one of the chairs close to Jade, he was braced against one of the worktables, arms folded across his chest and legs crossed at the ankle. Outside the action. Watching it. Stripped of the clothes and shoes that emphasized the power he exuded, he might be rather unremarkable. Dishwater blond hair, a square face dominated by interesting eyes that started out green and turned to gray around the pupil, the body of a man who worked at a desk with a Bluetooth headset in one ear studying spreadsheets and predictions and charts, analyzing trends, searching for the best way to make billions. And yet, looking at them, she had no doubt that this man drew people to him, not just women but other men, too, because there was just something about him.

Charisma. The fashion and design worlds were full of charismatic people, individuals with brilliant ideas and the drive to see them become a reality on the runway, in fashion magazines, and worn by stars and socialites and political figures. Simone should be inured to it. But now, with Ryan in her workroom, studying the body of his current lover with a detachment Simone found both perplexing and hot as hell, she realized that she was far less inured to it than she thought.

“What I would like,” he said, still detached, still hot, “is to see how the whole ensemble looks with the corset.”

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