After the welcome-to-South-Africa party, Zac thought he’d rather shoot himself in the foot than go clubbing with Jada, Felipe, Michael, and their friends. All he wanted was a good whiskey, a hot shower and to sleep for ten hours. Number one and two were possible but, because he still had a multi-national business to run, number three wouldn’t be happening tonight.
Zac walked into the hotel bar, loosening his tie as he approached the bartender. After ordering a shot of whiskey, he turned around and saw Karo Griffiths sitting at a high table in the back corner of the room, her hair a beacon in the subdued lighting of the bar.
Tossing back a shot, he asked for two glasses with ice and picked up the whiskey bottle, the glasses, and walked over to where Karo sat.
He’d spent the evening watching her, tracking her movements. She’d moved among his guests, a part of the party but, also, not. She handled her camera like it were a child, and he knew, by her satisfied smile, exactly when she’d taken a decent shot.
Zac asked Karo whether she wanted a drink. She nodded, gestured for him to sit, and waited while he poured whiskey into their glasses. Zac watched her as she sipped, noticing that she had deep stripes under her eyes and wondering what kept her up at night.
He wanted to fix whatever was causing her distress. A strange feeling because he wasn’t the white knight type.
“Fun night,” Karo said as he pulled out a stool and took a seat. “I like Felipe’s family and their friends.”
Zac nodded, enjoying the expensive whiskey. “I do, too. Jada, Felipe, and the rest of their friends have gone clubbing. God, I wished I had a fraction of their energy.”
Karo’s low laughter tumbled over him. “You’re not that old! I mean, you’re looking good for a guy in his mid-fifties.”
It took Zac a moment to recover from that zinger and then another to realize she was teasing. “Ha-ha. I’m thirty-six if you must know.”
Karo wrapped her hands around her glass, her expression pensive. “There’s quite an age difference between you and your sister.”
“Fifteen years,” Zac quietly told her. “My parents died when she was three and she’s been with me ever since.”
Zac wondered why he’d opened that door. Raising Jada wasn’t a secret, but it was a subject he rarely discussed. Hell, he never discussed anything personal with anybody. Baring his soul wasn’t what he did.
“I don’t know what to say to that,” Karo stated, her tone all puzzled confusion. Was she about to compliment or criticize him? He couldn’t read her and wasn’t sure whether she thought him a hero or a fool.
“What was I supposed to do? Send her off to live with distant cousins I never met or give her up for adoption?”
Karo topped up his already empty glass. “The reason I sounded so surprised was that I know what it takes to raise a child.” She lifted her shoulders to her ears, held them there for a second or two and let them drop. “My son has just turned three and he’s a handful. I was worried about the terrible twos but the thunderous threes are far, far worse.”
She had a son. Did she also have a partner or husband too? Or was she single? Not that her relationship status mattered. He was finally free after eighteen years of constant responsibility and he was going to concentrate on himself, doing what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it. He deserved his freedom and wasn’t interested in anything or anybody with baggage or expectations.
Zac turned to look at the bartender, who was now standing on the wrong side of the bar. Zac lifted an eyebrow, silently asking what he wanted.
“I’m closing up for the night, but you are welcome to stay as long as you want to. Mr. Tempest-Vane informed us that you have free run of the hotel.”
“Thank you,” Zac told him.
Twenty seconds later, he was alone in an empty bar with a gorgeous woman. Things could be worse, he decided. He could be in a crowded club shouting to make himself heard. God, he was getting old.
“If Jada was anything like my son, I don’t know how you coped, especially since you were so damn young and coping with your loss,” Karo said.
Zac blinked. Oh, they were still talking about his past. Damn. He’d much rather explore the possibility of getting her into bed. But he still didn’t know whether she was in a relationship or not. Although he couldn’t commit to anybody, he did respect the concept of commitment and fidelity.
“I’m single and have been since before my son was born,’ Karo replied, answering the blunt question he hadn’t realised he’d voice out loud. “That’s why I know how hard it is to raise a child on your own. With a child, you are solely responsible, and the buck stops with you.”
Her voice held empathy, zero pity and Zac relaxed. She understood.
Zac rubbed his forehead with his fingertips before meeting Karo’s eyes. “One minute I was at university, partying like there was no tomorrow, the next minute I was raising a child. God, I was still a child myself. The first year was hell but we eventually got into a routine. Frankly, it hasn’t changed much in eighteen years.”
“Jada doing what she wants, when she wants,” Zac smiled. “I don’t know if you noticed, but she has me firmly wrapped around her over-developed baby finger.”
Karo’s eyes remained as intense as before and Zac sighed, he’d been hoping to lighten the mood. He didn’t have deep conversations, not with anyone, ever.
“What I see is a confident, lovely, unspoiled young woman who adores you. I hope I manage to do half a good a job raising my son as you did with Jada.”
It was a fantastic compliment; one he’d never heard and didn’t know he wanted. He was a guy’s guy, as tough as they came—mentally and physically—but a few words from this stunning woman had him melting into a puddle at her feet. He stared at his drink, the knot in his throat expanding. God, was that moisture he felt in his eyes? He hadn’t cried since he lost his folks… actually, he didn’t remember crying back then at all, he’d been too busy taking care of Jada.
Zac felt her hand on his forearm and lifted his eyes to fall into the beauty of her exquisite face. Strangely, instead of backing away, he felt the urge to deepen this unexpected connection, to feel her lips under his, to know if he affected her as much as she did him. Standing up, he nudged her legs apart, waiting for the “no” he suspected was coming. But instead of backing down, Karo placed her hands on his chest and lifted her chin, her eyes on his mouth.
“I wish you’d kiss me, Zac.”
Not hesitating, Zac dipped his head and covered her mouth with his. Her lips were perfection, her breath sweet and when her tongue darted between his lips, he tasted whiskey and the pure essence of femininity. He pulled her off the stool, banding his arms around hers as he took control of the kiss. Karo’s hands skated up his back, over his shoulders and down his chest, her feminine fingers tiptoeing across his stomach before returning to his back to hold him close.
He wanted her but more than that, he needed her. The thought terrified him enough to release her abruptly and take a step backward. And then another until she was out of arm’s reach.
He took a minute to calm his labored breath. Then he took a minute more. When he finally looked at Karo, he noticed her flushed face, her just-ravaged mouth and her trembling fingers. She was equally as shattered by their connection.
Zac gestured to the door. “We should retire, tomorrow will be a long day. I’ll see you to your room.”
Zac watched as she threw back the last of her whiskey and finally met his eyes. “I’m a big girl, Zacarias. And if you come anywhere near my door, I’ll ask you to come inside and that wouldn’t be wise.”
Zac closed his eyes at the image of her, naked and delightful, on the cotton sheets of his enormous bed. But it wasn’t the hotel bed upstairs but his California King back home. And the thought made his blood run cold.
Zac watched her walk away from him. He fought the urge to follow her up to her room, to make her his.
It would be a very bad move because he instinctively knew that the more he interacted with her, the more fascinated he’d become. He couldn’t afford that, not when he was so close to being free.
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