Let me be the one, p.17
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       Let Me Be the One, p.17

         Part #6 of The Sullivans series by Bella Andre
Page 17

  Author: Bella Andre

  He lifted her hand to his lips and pressed a kiss to the back of it. “See you tonight. ”

  Rather than heading straight for her work space, Vicki detoured to Anne’s sewing room and walked in without knocking.

  “Do you have anything I could wear to a swanky cocktail reception tonight?”

  “Hey!” Anne jumped up from her sewing machine. “You’re going to be Mrs. Gorgeous!” She threw her arms around Vicki. “How’s it feel to be famous?”

  “Weird,” Vicki said, smiling at her friend through the guilt that burned in her gut over lying straight to her face about the validity of the engagement.

  Plus, unlike her ex, fame had never been what she’d gone after. She just wanted to be able to make a living with her art and know that she’d create a sculpture that made people feel something they might not otherwise have felt.

  “I think it’s awesome that you snagged the best looking man this side of anywhere, of course, although a little heads-up on the engagement would have been nice. ”

  “Sorry. ” And Vicki really was sorry that she didn’t know Anne well enough yet to let her in on the real situation. Still, she felt it was safe to tell her, “Does it make it any better if I tell you it was as much of a surprise to me as it was to you?”

  Anne raised an eyebrow at that. “You didn’t see his proposal coming?”

  “No. Not at all. ” But since that was just about as honest as she could be at present, before her friend could ask for any more details, she said, “You wouldn’t have anything cut and sewn for a non-supermodel, would you?”

  The other woman grinned at her, a little wickedly. “Actually, I’m glad you asked. I’ve been wanting to see a couple of my dresses on someone with curves instead of prepubescent girls who look like they should be sucking on lollipops. ”

  Anne walked to one of her hanging racks and pulled out a dark red dress. From the back Vicki could see that it was sleeveless and knee-length. It looked simple and comfortable and she’d always felt good in that color. The cut of Anne’s dresses was spectacular, and the fabric looked stretchy enough that Vicki was hopeful that it would look all right on her. Better than anything she had in her closet, anyway.

  It wasn’t until Anne handed her the dress that Vicki saw the zippers criss-crossing the front.

  Before she could protest, Anne waved to the small curtained area in the corner. “Go try it on with these shoes. They look like they’re probably the right size. ”

  There was no way Vicki could keep her underwear on under the dress, so after folding her bra and panties into a pile with her hip-length sweater, long tank, and leggings, she walked out from behind the curtain to take a look in the full-length mirror.

  Anne started clapping. “I knew it. You look great in my awesome dress. ”

  Vicki flushed as she took in her reflection.

  Anne moved behind her and lifted her hair from her neck to pile it on top of her head. “Perfect. Absolutely perfect. Now all you have to do is tell everyone who asks tonight that the fabulous dress you’re wearing is courtesy of a hot new designer. ” She grinned into Vicki’s eyes in the mirror as she added, “Make sure they spell my name right when they take all those pictures of you and Mr. Gorgeous. ”

  * * *

  Ryan’s heart had been pounding hard all afternoon. . . ever since he’d put the ring box in his pocket. Sure, he knew it wasn’t a real engagement ring. But since he’d never given any woman a ring, it felt like a big deal.

  And, real or not, he wanted Vicki to like what he’d picked out for her.

  When he finally heard the front door open, he immediately left his bedroom, where he’d been doing up the final buttons on his dress shirt, to meet Vicki. It had only been a handful of hours since he’d dropped her off at the studio, but he still had to pause for a few seconds to drink her in. He wanted to pull her into his arms, but reined himself in with a kiss on the top of her head instead.

  “I’m all sticky and covered in clay,” she said as she stepped away from him and clutched a garment bag to her chest. “I need a shower. You look so great, I’d hate to get you dirty. ”

  He loved the smell of her skin when she’d been working all day. Especially when one of the things he wanted most of all in the world was to get dirty with her.

  She put down her bags and looked up at him. “I ignored all of the calls and emails and luckily no one came by the studio. Or if they did, Anne scared them away before they could get to me,” she added with a smile. “You never called, so I’m hoping that means everything was okay for you today?”

  Ryan had been hounded with interview requests for both him and Vicki, but he didn’t think she needed to know that. They’d get through tonight’s event first and then they’d figure out the next steps to take.

  “I spent some time watching game tapes with my pitching coach and getting in a workout. ”

  Mostly, though, he’d sweated it out over the ring. For all his legendary cool on the pitcher’s mound, he was going to lose it if he didn’t give it to her already.

  He reached into his pocket. “I got you a ring. ”

  “A ring?” She looked at him with no small measure of alarm. “You got me a ring?”

  He watched her work at pulling herself together before she said, “I guess that would help things between us look more real tonight, wouldn’t it?”

  He went to flip open the box and couldn’t believe his hand was shaking. Jesus, he needed to get a grip before he completely freaked her out.

  “I hope you like it. ” His voice was gruffer than usual.

  “Oh Ryan. ” Her eyes widened as she stared at the ring. “It’s beautiful. ”

  But instead of reaching for the platinum band set with a scattering of dark red rubies and brilliant diamonds across a large, flat base, she simply continued to stare at it.

  “Can I put it on you?” His voice was raw, his words rough.

  She licked her lips, never taking her eyes from the ring. “Okay. ”

  He took the ring from its velvet case and dropped the box onto the entry table before reaching for her hand. Vicki’s fingers were shaking slightly as he slowly slid it onto the ring finger of her left hand.

  “I—” She finally looked up at him and the emotion in her eyes had him wishing he could pull her into him and never let go. “I haven’t had a ring on my hand since I left—”

  Silently cursing himself for not realizing how conflicted she would feel about wearing a wedding band again, he said, “I know you won’t be able to wear it when you’re working, so I got you this necklace to put it on during the day. ”

  She took the necklace from him. “You thought of everything. Even the fact that a sculptor can’t wear a big ring to work. No one else would have thought of that. ” She paused, shook her head. “Even Anthony forgot about that when we got engaged. ”

  “You should probably wear it tonight to solidify our story, but if it brings up too many bad memories after that, you don’t have t—”

  “The ring is beautiful, Ryan,” she said, giving him a small smile. The metal cage that had closed in around his chest loosened as she looked down at it again. “It’s just perfect. How did you know?”

  Because I know you, sweetheart. Everything you are, inside and out. And I don’t ever want you to give the ring back to me.

  “Lucky guess. ”

  She went up onto her toes and pressed a kiss to his cheek. “Thank you for giving me the most beautiful ring in the world. Even if it’s just on loan for a little while, I still love it. I won’t be long. ”

  The next thirty minutes were hell for Ryan. He couldn’t stop thinking about Vicki in the shower with water sluicing over her curves, soap bubbles sliding over her beautiful skin.

  His hard-on throbbed beneath his dark slacks and he worked to will it down before Vicki came out of the guest bedroom. By the time he heard the click of
her heels coming down the hall toward him, he felt fairly confident that he wasn’t going to embarrass himself.

  Until he saw what she was wearing.

  Holy hell.

  Vicki was wearing a dark red dress that made the most of her lush curves and sweet softness. All those zippers made him want to yank them open with his hands and teeth. It didn’t matter how he did it, just as long as she ended up naked. . . and he was allowed to touch her.

  “You’re gorgeous, Vicki. ”

  A friend could say that to another friend, so he wasn’t worried that she’d take it the wrong way.

  It was his ripping the dress off her and taking her against the wall that would screw everything up.

  Her cheeks were beautifully flushed as she said, “Thank you. ”

  The limo had pulled up outside his house a few minutes earlier and he held out his hand to her. Her skin was extra soft from the shower and she smelled incredible, like soap and beautiful, perfect woman.

  “Thank God everyone thinks we’re engaged, or I’d be fighting the guys off you tonight. ”

  Her smile was wide and oh so pretty. “No wonder the girls always went crazy for you in school. You always know what to say. ”

  He hated that she was acting like he was only saying it to keep her nerves in check. Frustrated enough by the whole damn situation, he didn’t control the urge to run his knuckles down the side of her cheek.

  When she shivered beneath the stroke of his hand, Ryan knew if he didn’t pull away from her soon, they wouldn’t be going anywhere tonight. . . and then she’d hate him in the morning. But he couldn’t stop touching her entirely, so he picked up her hand and slipped his fingers through hers. Just like the close friend he was.

  “Ready for tonight?”

  “No. ” She followed up her totally honest answer with a crooked little smile. “But I’m bound and determined to pull this off, so I’ve decided it doesn’t matter if I’m ready or not. ”

  Chapter Fourteen

  God, she was such a fraud. Full of big claims she didn’t even come close to feeling.

  Vicki tried not to grip the stem of her glass of champagne too hard, even though she was tense enough to snap it in two. She and Ryan had just stepped inside the Bently Reserve building in the heart of downtown San Francisco and all eyes had immediately turned to them as glasses of bubbly were thrust into their hands. Ryan’s arm was warm and steady around her as they moved deeper into the large group of players and their wives and girlfriends. The toasts and congratulations came from one and all. She hadn’t been able to eat much all day, and now her head was spinning from the seemingly unending supply of sweet liquid.

  “So,” one of the women asked, “how did you two meet? Wasn’t it in high school?”

  Ryan gave her waist a little squeeze as he said, “Vicki moved into town when I was fifteen. I noticed her right away, even though she never seemed to look my way. ”

  The men all rumbled with laughter at the image of a hard-up fifteen-year-old Ryan, while Vicki worked to mask her surprise that Ryan had noticed her before she’d pushed him out of the way of the car.

  “Of course I noticed you,” she said softly. “How could I not?”

  This was all supposed to be for show, but in that moment as he turned to look at her, his own surprise evident in his eyes, everything became completely real.

  “As I remember it,” he replied, “I had to step in front of a car for you to pay any attention to me. ”

  “Whoa, hold up a sec,” one of his teammates said. “What’s this about getting hit by a car?”

  Despite the way her head was spinning over Ryan’s version of the story, Vicki quickly clarified, “There was an out-of-control driver in the school parking lot and he was headed straight toward Ryan. I helped get him out of the way. ”

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