This time her father had gone too far.
Chloe Bradford threw open the window, grabbed the open bottle of Cristal, and walked out onto her third-floor bedroom balcony. After a few minutes of pitiful acrobatics and a long string of curses, she managed to pull herself up onto the roof. For some reason, the climb had seemed much easier when she was sixteen.
"Damn, my glass." Chloe carefully placed the bottle down and climbed back into her bedroom.
"Where did it go?" She scanned the pink and white walls in disgust. Chloe had loved the color scheme back when her mother had picked it out. Then again, she'd been only eight at the time. Now, at thirty-two, it made her think of a bottle of Pepto-Bismol. When she'd gone off to college, she thought she'd never see this place again. She'd been wrong. Funny how some things come full circle.
Frowning, she crossed her arms in front of her chest. No glass. Maybe she left it downstairs. Too bad. She'd much rather drink from the bottle than go back down there and subject herself to that humiliation again. It was a "drink from the bottle" type of night, anyway.
She shimmied back out to her champagne on the roof. The Spanish-style mansion was like a lot of the other houses in the area. The roof was very flat and a nightmare during times of rain, but it was perfect for a teenager or two to get away from their parents for a few hours.
Or for a middle-aged woman to hide from a marriage proposal.
Chloe took a seat and placed her almost-full bottle next to her. It had been a long time since she'd come out here to wish on the stars and dream of her future.
Now she just wanted to escape it.
She sighed and held up the bottle of Cristal to the full moon hanging low in the sky. She wasn't much of a drinker and wasn't exactly a fan of champagne, but desperate times called for desperate measures. After the huge fight, she just wanted to get out of there. She had grabbed the closest bottle and left her parents and boyfriend gaping in the dining room below.
She brought the champagne to her lips. The bubbly liquid tickled her throat as she gulped it down. What happened to her life?
When she was a little girl, she had dreamed of becoming a concert pianist. Her senior year in high school, she'd gotten accepted into a program at Juilliard. A few months later, she'd become engaged to her high school sweetheart. For a while it seemed like everything was going great.
Then, a semester before she was due to graduate, her life changed forever.
Chloe blinked back tears and took another sip of champagne.
Marcus, her older brother, and her fiance, Zach, had gone backpacking in Montana. They never returned. A frenzied search turned up her brother's body but not Zach's. She shivered as she thought back to that day when they had heard the news. The autopsy revealed that Marcus was mauled by some large animal, a bear or a wolf or something. Zach's body was never found.
Marcus had been groomed to take over the family business and control the bulk of their inheritance. Chloe would receive a small stipend from the family coffers to live on, but she could otherwise do as she pleased. After that day, she was the sole heir to the Bradford family fortune. Now it was now up to her, not Marcus, to keep the business going when her father retired.
That meant no more school.
No more friends.
No more life.
She should've told her father to shove the inheritance, but Chloe loved her parents and knew they were grieving. She'd only intended to stay in Texas for a short time, but somehow she had ended up being her father's shadow for the past eleven years.
She took another sip of champagne and leaned back on her elbows. Clouds had moved in, hiding the stars and blanketing the moon. She remembered when she and Zach used to climb up here at night to have sex underneath the night sky. It had been so wonderful back then. Before her new responsibilities. Before Karl.
"Why did Karl have to propose tonight? On Christmas Eve?" she asked the moon.
It didn't answer.
Her father was behind the proposal; she knew it. They were all expecting her to say yes, but the words caught in her throat. She just couldn't.
She refused to spend the rest of her days as boring Mrs. Karl Radcliffe, heiress to the Bradford billions. Karl was nice enough, but there was no chemistry between them, at least not the type of chemistry she had shared with Zach. But Zach was gone, and it was her duty as daddy's girl to carry on the family name. At least with Karl, there was a warm body beside her at night. But she wanted more for her life. She wanted adventure, excitement.
Get over it, Chloe. It's time to move on.
Accepting Karl's proposal was like giving up on the idea that Zach would return and free her from this miserable life. After a marriage to Karl, there would be no more going back. No more hope. No more dreaming of what could have been. The young, innocent, fun-loving Chloe would finally be dead.
"I wish I could escape this place." She stood and swayed slightly. "Escape my family." Tilting her head back and raising her arms, she shouted at the moon. "I don't want this life anymore, do you hear me? Take it back."
"What's wrong with me?" Chloe dropped her arms and pushed her curly mop of hair from her face. "Why can't I just tell them to take the inheritance and shove it?"
She knew why. She was chicken. Her parents were the only family she had left. They'd been through so much with her brother's death, and she didn't want to add to their grief. "For once I wish I didn't have to do what was expected of me," she said to the moon. "I just want to be me."
Who was she, anyway? At one time she thought she knew. She was a dreamer, an artist, a lover. Now...
Now she was just going through the motions. Sighing, she took one last slug from the champagne bottle and tossed it over the side of the house.
As the bottle left her hand, guilt immediately took hold. Good girls didn't throw bottles of Cristal. Nor did they yell at the moon.
A giggle welled up in her throat, and she covered her mouth. She knew she would eventually have to marry boring Karl to appease her parents, but for tonight she'd pretend she was that hopeful teenager, and Zach was once again by her side.
Wait a minute.
Chloe frowned. No crash. If you throw a bottle of champagne over the edge of the house, you would expect it to crash when it hit the ground, right? She made her way over to the edge of the roof and peered down. It was so hard to see anything in the dark. Sinking to her hands and knees, she squinted into the darkness below.
There was movement, a shifting of shadow. Then...nothing.
"Who's there?" And where's my Cristal? She bent farther over the side of the house.
There it was again. Something was down there.
"Come out into the streetlight where I can see you."
She counted to ten, or maybe it was three. It was hard to tell in her present state. Still nothing happened.
"I know someone is down there. Show yourself."
The wind picked up, rustling the wind chimes on the front of the house. The unseasonably cool Texas night gave her a chill. She shivered and pulled the shawl her mother had made for her over her strapless blouse.
"Shouldn't you be with your family?"
Chloe jumped up and whirled around. A large, muscular figure stood on the rooftop behind her, just a few feet away. His hair hung loose around his shoulders, and the bottom of his open trench coat lifted slightly in the breeze. Shadows fell over his face, masking his identity. He tilted his head to the side, as if to study her.
How did he get up here?
Her eyes shifted to the large tree, looming behind him. Okay, one question answered. Now for another one...
"Who are you?"
"I think a more relevant question is: why are you out here on Christmas Eve when your family is having dinner inside?" His low voice sounded gravelly, as if he had a cold or sore throat, yet it seemed strangely familiar. The stranger took a step closer to the tree and deeper into the shadows.
"How did you know...?" She crossed her arms in front of her chest. "What I do up here is my business. You're intruding."
"You asked me to come up here."
Chloe snorted and put her hands on her hips. "I did not."
"You did. You said 'show yourself.'"
Oh yeah, she did say that, didn't she? "What are you doing out here? A late-night stroll?"
He chuckled. "You could say that."
Chloe shifted her gaze down to the long, winding driveway below them. It led from the front steps, down around a sculpture her father had commissioned long ago, between two thin rows of trees, and stopped at the gate leading into the property.
Late-night stroll, her ass. Nobody got on or off this property unless it was approved. How did he get past the guards? "You must have gotten lost, then. This is private property, you know."
He laughed again, a deep, rich laugh that sent tingles over her skin. "I see you haven't changed much."
So, he knew her. The voice sounded familiar, but with the man's face in shadow, Chloe couldn't tell his identity.
He didn't mean her harm; she knew it instinctively. There was something about the way he spoke, the way he moved, that didn't seem threatening. Then again, maybe it was just the Cristal that made her less wary. She closed her eyes in concentration. That voice... It was rough and sensual, like silk sheets against bare skin. So familiar...