“Come on, beautiful, let’s go. It’s showtime.”
Nina Bronson didn’t so much as blink at Ewan Donahue’s murmured compliment, even though she had every right to consider it presumptuous. She merely offered him her hand so he could help her get out of the transpo. She didn’t need his assistance, really, not even wearing these extravagantly high heels and the tight crimson dress that showed off curves in places she’d forgotten existed until she’d shimmied into the sleek fabric. She allowed him to take her hand not because she needed him, and not because she wanted him to touch her.
It was all for show.
An elaborate charade, with her participation guaranteed by a sum of credits so bountiful it meant she’d never need to work again for the rest of her life. As one of the world’s thirteen remaining “super soldiers,” Nina was forbidden from using her enhancements for any work but private hire. So here she was, once again in the employ of one of the world’s most eligible bachelor billionaires—and for this particular rich and handsome one, the second time around. It was as far from something genuine as you could get, but she’d done worse things for less money. At least this time, the uniform was prettier.
Ewan had bought her this dress, along with the shoes. He’d paid someone extravagant fees to come to his house and do her hair and makeup, a process which had taken hours because she’d refused any cos-tech upgrades. She’d had enough done to her already. Hundreds of hours of enhancement surgeries had made her faster and stronger, with more stamina than an average person, but she’d never been able to master liquid eyeliner without looking like someone had given her a shiner.
“Careful,” Ewan warned in a low voice as he assisted her around a patch of uneven brick in the path leading to the hotel’s front steps. “I got you.”
She wasn’t unsteady on her stilettos. Her enhanced balance was too good for that. Even so, Nina tucked her fingers into the curve of Ewan’s elbow and allowed him to look as though he were leading her into the ballroom. All for show, she thought, playing at being his arm candy all the while knowing that in a millisecond, if needed, she could be ready and at his defense if anyone so much as took a threatening step toward him.
As soon as they got into the carpeted lobby, she slipped her hand from his arm. He glanced at her, but said nothing. Nina waited patiently while Ewan greeted the couple in front of them. She smiled at them, but didn’t introduce herself. Not that they asked who she was. Apparently, Ewan Donahue’s date didn’t need to have an identity, since he didn’t bother to give them her name. She’d have been angry, if she’d been his companion and not his bodyguard posing as his date.
Actually, Nina was angry, a little too much for the circumstances. Only a few weeks ago, Nina had been incapable of feeling intense emotions, either highs or lows. She’d have shrugged all this off as no consequence, but now she seethed until the rush of heat in her cheeks reminded her to calm down. She concentrated on slowing her rushing pulse, cooling her elevated temperature. She uncurled her fingers from the fists she’d made, glancing at Ewan and noticing that he’d seen her do it. Her chin lifted in a silent challenge while she waited for him to say something.
“Looks like we’re seated toward the back.” Ewan had taken the small place card from the table outside the ballroom doors. He showed her the card. His name glittered on the paper in a fancy, holographic font.
“Ewan Donahue and guest.” Nina’s voice was thick with sarcasm. “Nice.”
The touch of his hand on her lower back, her skin bared by the cut of the dress, would have sent shivers tickling up and down her spine if she hadn’t been so closely controlling her body’s reactions. She pressed her lips into a vapid smile she knew he’d hate. His was broad and genuine and knowing, and she hated it for making her remember how that same grin had used to make her feel.
The past three weeks since she’d come back to work for him had been a game, both of them playing to win and neither of them quite clear on the rules. Maybe the problem was that the game had no rules. No way to determine the champion. Neither of them would ever be the winner, Nina thought, her gaze moving over his face like a caress before she forced herself to look away. They’d both already lost.
She wasn’t going to let Ewan see any expression on her face but one of professional neutrality, no matter how much—against her own will—her body wanted to revel at his touch. She blinked, and her eyes stayed closed a second or so too long to be natural. She couldn’t stop herself from thinking about his touch. His taste. His heat and his breath gusting over her face and the way he moved against and inside her . . . With a shudder, Nina straightened her shoulders.
Her eyes stung, her throat closing, and a wave of grief and loss swelled so fiercely inside her it threatened to send her to her knees. She would not weep. Not here, in front of everyone, but especially not in front of him. Not ever again, she vowed, sadness replaced by fury in no more time than it took for her to take another breath.
“Nina,” Ewan murmured. “Are you all right? Should we go sit? You look a little—”
“I’m fine.” Her clipped tone gave away the lie. She looked to where Ewan had gestured with the card tucked between his fingers. “All the way over there. Is that supposed to be a place of honor? You’d think there’d be a throne or something.”
Oops, that hadn’t been exactly professional. Definitely more snarky than neutral. Too bad she couldn’t control her tongue as easily as her pulse or body temperature.
“Aw, shucks, I forgot my crown at home, and you seem to have left your tiara behind.” Ewan’s fingertips traced a small circle on her skin before he stepped away. She shivered at the breaking of the contact, self-loathing tickling along her nerves at how weak she was in his presence. “We’ll have to settle for regular chairs at that table in the back. Like the common folk.”
Giddiness. Now instead of struggling not to punch something, she was trying not to burst into hysterical laughter. No doubt, she preferred this rush of joy over the other sweep of intense emotions, but she forced it back the way she’d done with those. It was easier, somehow, either because she was getting better at it, or because it always seemed easier to tamp down happiness than sorrow.
“So long as there’s some bread and butter on the table when I get there, I don’t really care where we sit. Ooh, an appetizer buffet.” Nina gave the long, food-laden table at the side of the room a nod and watched from the corner of her eye as Ewan chuckled and shook his head.