There he was. Stephen Ashcroft. Seven years ago, his thick black hair had tumbled in wild disarray about his broad shoulders. Memories of burying her fingers in his inky curls as he drove his hard body into hers flitted through her mind. She would gather it at the nape of his neck to keep the sweat soaked strands out of his eyes and so that she could see his face as he made her his. Blinking away the heated vision, she focused once more on her target. His locks were shorn in a tapered cut that hugged his scalp and all but obliterated any hint of a curl. His dark brown eyes were trained on his companion, a slender brunette who smiled up at him, her adoration of him clear to anyone who looked upon the couple.
Ashley White froze and her steps faltered, her resolve deserting her. She accepted a glass of champagne from a passing waiter and changed course. Maybe confronting him here wasn’t the best idea. Ashcroft-Burke Shipping had made a large donation to the local hospital. Tonight was the official opening of the Denton Ashcroft Memorial Wing, named after Stephen’s late father. Good grief, she thought with a twist of her lips. They couldn’t have chosen a more undeserving bastard. But then, they weren’t naming the wing after him because of his worthiness as a human being. This was an accolade purchased by deep pockets. Denton hadn’t possessed a kind bone in his entire body, but he sure as hell had money, Ashley reflected as she meandered through the well-dressed crowd.
Soon the director of the hospital was calling for everyone’s attention. Ashley tuned him out, her eyes focused on Stephen. He lived in a beautiful home in Virginia Beach. She’d been by three times. Twice no one was at home. The last time she’d visited the door was answered by a butler that she didn’t recognize. She’d left without giving her name. Likewise, she had been unable to secure an appointment with him at his office. Stephen was a very busy man and his calendar was full for foreseeable future. When she’d swung by the Ashcroft-Burke Headquarters, he had been out of town for the day and his receptionist had let her know that he didn’t have any openings in his schedule for the next four months. Not that scheduling an appointment would have been possible for her.
Stephen stepped forward and began to speak briefly about his father’s illness and the fine treatment he received at this hospital. That he had loved and respected Denton was clear.
If only Stephen knew the part that his father had played in their break up, Ashley thought. Though there was no love lost between her and Denton, she realized that this was not the night to present Stephen with her proposal. She sipped her champagne and maneuvered her way closer to the exit.
Placing her glass on a server’s tray, she turned to leave and almost bumped into a hard male chest. “Excuse me.”
“Ashley White, I thought my eyes were deceiving me,” he said, the tone mocking and cool.
She swallowed a groan. Of all the people here, she would bump into Jeremy Weiss, Stephen’s best friend. The years had been good to him. His face was a bit fuller but he didn’t look like he’d aged much. As he pushed the thin frames of his glasses up the bridge of his nose, she thought he could have walked on any college campus and easily blended in with the student body. He had the boyish good looks that appealed to some. Ashley couldn’t recall if they’d ever been attractive to her. Since she’d known Jeremy, she’d grown to hate the look. He was a spoiled, lazy, snob. “Jeremy, it’s good to see you,” she blurted for lack of anything better to say.
“As I recall, you’ve always detested me.”
“Now that you mention it....” It was closer to the truth to say that he’d never liked her. Stephen had been the friend he’d gone out with to drink and to pick up chicks. When they began dating, Stephen had become hers exclusively. If they went to bars, she was tucked under his arm. If there was a party, she was his date. She made to move around Jeremy but he shifted to block her. There was polite applause as Stephen finished his speech.
“Why are you here, Ashley? Stephen doesn’t need you fucking around with his head tonight.”
“Who says I’m here for him?”
His lips twisted and he tilted his blond head to the side. “When hasn’t it been about him? Take my advice. There are too many memories of his father floating around at the moment. Seeing you will only remind him about how spot on his father was in his evaluation of you.”
She ground her teeth together. Denton hadn’t been the only one to think that a middle class African American girl wasn’t good enough for the Ashcroft heir. He’d always treated her like a temporary trick, never taking Stephen’s feelings for her seriously. With every word he spoke, Jeremy reminded her why she hated him. She’d tried to like him for Stephen’s sake, but it was a wasted effort when he wasn’t willing to extend her the same courtesy. “Thank you for stating the obvious. I was just leaving.”
“You haven’t aged or improved with time.”
He laughed. “Neither have you.”
Ashley gave him a parting glare and pivoted.
“I don’t rate even a hello? You wound me.”
She gasped as the rough, deep voice rolled over her. Stephen! Heart thumping, she turned around. Her head felt light, her stomach fluttered and her bones turned to jelly. My God, he’s sexier than I remember. Stephen couldn’t be called anything as boring as handsome. His was a man’s face. It was masculine and angular. His body was big and hard. The only soft thing about him was his lush mouth. Recalling the feel of them suckling her nipples, trailing over her belly, and feasting between her thighs had her pussy growing moist. His effect on her hormones was as devastating as ever. Eyes wide, lips trembling, she tried to smile. “Stephen, of course you do.”
“You remember Aster?”
Her gaze swung to the brunette. She nodded her head at the other woman. Of course she remembered her. In college, she’d always dyed her hair blond. Perhaps that was why she’d not recognized Aster Burke immediately. Aster was the other heir to the Ashcroft-Burke Shipping business and the woman Stephen’s parents had encouraged him to marry.
Aster stepped forward and tugged her into a warm hug. “It’s wonderful to see you again. You look magnificent. I like your hair that way.”
Ashley fingered her short pixie. “Thank you.”
Stephen’s dark eyes bored into her. His jaw was clenched. “I thought for sure I was mistaken when I saw you. How could you come to an event honoring my father?” His voice was hard and colder than she’d ever heard it. She hadn’t known how he would react to her sudden reappearance. Uncertainty had been eating away at her nerves. But now she had her answer. The man was furious with her.
“Stephen, don’t.” Aster put a restraining hand on his arm.
Stephen shook her off. He reached out and grabbed one of Ashley’s wrists. “Come with me.”
“Shit, Stephen,” Jeremy hissed. “Don’t do this.”
Ashley didn’t fight as he ignored his friends and pulled her out the exit. Even if she had, his grip was unbreakable. The night air was cool and her dress was sleeveless. She shivered but Stephen didn’t notice. He was too intent upon his goal. “Where’s your car?”
“There.” She pointed to the right where she’d parked beneath a light. “The black Prius.” She stumbled as her heel found a hole in the pavement. “Slow down. I can’t keep up.” They were of a comparable height but her pumps put her at a disadvantage. If he heard her, he pretended not to and they continued at the same pace until he drew to a halt in front of her car. Ashley bit her lip as she collided with his muscled back. Stephen wasted no time turning around. He manacled both her wrists in his large hands.
“How could you, Ashley?”
She was inches from his face. How often had she longed to be in his arms again? She’d ached for him every day since the moment she’d decided to leave him. He shook her when she didn’t answer and his eyes glittered with anger. “Stephen, I need to talk to you, but not tonight. I understand now isn’t the time.”
“The inappropriateness of your appearance here tonight only just occurred to you? How could you be so selfish?”
“I… needed to see you. I couldn’t get an appointment with you and you’re never home. Please, can we meet again?”
He made a sound of disgust and released her hands. “We have nothing to discuss. Everything you had to say to me, you said it in your letter.”
She could barely recall the excuses she’d given to break off their relationship in that final letter. It didn’t matter. It was all lies. She’d never stopped loving him. She wanted him back and she wasn’t leaving until he heard her out. “Please, Stephen, it’s important.”