Katherine Hayes ducked behind a large sycamore tree, a blue-wrapped package in one hand, two black leather leashes in the other. She glanced over her shoulder to make sure she hadn’t been followed before turning her attention to the tree. Its trunk was wide and knotted, with gnarled branches jutting in all directions, reaching toward the blue sky above.
She found the perfect hiding spot right above her head—a little nook between branches just wider than her palm. Smiling, she nestled the blue-wrapped package into it. She took a step back and tripped, grabbing a branch to steady herself. Glancing down, she saw that Ben and Jerry had wound their leashes around her legs while she wasn’t paying attention.
“Seriously, you guys,” she grumbled as she bent down and lifted the two fluffy little dogs, disentangling herself. She set them down and tied their leashes to a branch, glancing around again for watching eyes. So far, so good. She stood with her back to the tree and lifted her phone to take a selfie with the prize visible over her shoulder.
Inside the package, she’d placed a signed copy of Fairytale, her latest album, two VIP passes for her performance on Today tomorrow morning, and a handwritten note for the lucky fan who found it. Sometimes, she liked to leave prizes around town—or in cities she was visiting—for them to find. She had an active following on social media and enjoyed interacting with her fans whenever and however she could.
Quickly, she tapped out a message offering a few well-placed clues to the prize, attached the photo she’d just taken, and scheduled it to post to her various social media accounts in an hour—once she was safely back inside her condo on Central Park West.
With that done, she untied Ben and Jerry and headed down the path behind her. She skirted around the ball field to Umpire Rock, one of many boulders dotting the park. Ahead, she spotted a familiar face—a face that stopped her in her tracks. Darla Kasich was one of the local paparazzi who often tailed her around New York City.
Darla herself wasn’t a problem. Kate had a friendly relationship with her and most of the local paparazzi, but today…today, she wasn’t ready to answer their questions. This morning, someone had posted fake nude photos of her online. She was horrified and angry and not saying a word to anyone—least of all the paparazzi—until she’d met with her manager and publicist later that afternoon.
In retrospect, it had probably been a mistake to come into Central Park alone today. The paparazzi were out in record numbers, no doubt wanting to be the first to get a statement from her about the nude photos. She’d already dodged three photographers over by the sycamore tree where she’d left her fan package. But she’d been teasing the prize all week on her social media, and she hated disappointing her fans. Plus, after a long week of meetings, interviews, and performances, she really just wanted to relax and unwind in her favorite spot for a little while.
Not ready to admit defeat, she gathered Ben and Jerry closer, ducked her head, and darted across Center Drive, heavy with horse-drawn carriages and pedicabs, headed for the spot that had become her own, an oasis in the heart of Central Park. Leaves crunched beneath her feet as she left the path behind. Nestled behind one of the boulders, hidden from view of the crowds—and the paparazzi—by the oak tree protruding from its side, was a hollow spot in the rock. The perfect seat to see and not be seen. She settled into it and leaned back. The boys sniffed around before curling against her left leg.
From the pocket of her blazer, she pulled a notebook just larger than her hand. Its lavender silk cover was worn, the edges frayed. She ran her fingers over the delicate roses stitched into the fabric, each line and curve as familiar as her own skin. She flipped it open and smiled at the first incarnation of “I Wish” scrawled there, riddled with doodles and mark outs. She’d had a feeling the afternoon she captured that phrase, although she couldn’t have predicted it would become her longest-running number-one hit.
She turned to the first empty page and released a long-held sigh. The words poured through her, and the tension drained from her shoulders. Words tumbled to paper, and the park around her melted away. Nothing existed but the song in her heart and the notebook in her hand.
I’m naked before you, stripped to the soul. Please, baby, please, help me feel whole.
Something jerked below her left leg.
Kate pulled herself from the trance. Ben and Jerry had tugged their leashes free and taken off at full throttle after a pair of squirrels. The squirrels broke ranks, heading for trees in opposite directions. Her dogs followed suit.
She jumped to her feet and ran headlong into a man who’d just stepped around the tree sheltering her seat. Air whooshed from her lungs at the impact. His hand closed over her left bicep, and terror washed, cold and slick, across her skin. She lurched to the side, twisting against his grasp.
He released her and took a step back, hands up in front of himself in a gesture of innocence. She gulped air as she gazed up into warm hazel eyes crinkled with concern. This man was too well-dressed to be a member of the paparazzi, tall and handsome in his button-down shirt and slacks. Heat crept into her cheeks as she realized he’d meant only to steady her.
“Sorry,” she murmured. Then she stepped around him and dashed after her dogs.
Josh Randall scraped a hand over his jaw and watched her sprint across the clearing. What the hell? Annoyance over finding his favorite spot occupied had given way to confusion as she bolted.
“Hello, are you even listening to me?” Lily said in his ear.
He frowned at the phone. “What?”
“I said I know why you’re avoiding me.”
“I’m not avoiding you.” His eyes followed the blonde. It was hard to be sure, with oversized sunglasses shielding her eyes, but he could have sworn he’d glimpsed fear on her face when she’d slammed into him. As he watched, she bent and scooped up a little white dog. Maybe she’d been chasing a runaway pooch rather than running from him. That made much more sense.
Lily laughed. “Of course you are. Don’t pretend you’ve forgotten. Before you left for the summer, I said I’d have a date lined up for you when you got home.”
He hadn’t forgotten. There was no escaping his sister once she got an idea in her head. He held in a sigh and shifted the briefcase strap on his shoulder. “Right. No thanks.”
Across the clearing, Blondie searched behind bushes and rocks, still holding the white dog. A second dog—identical to the first—streaked across the clearing ahead of her, in hot pursuit of a squirrel.
“We’ll talk about it this weekend,” Lily said. “You’re coming for breakfast on Saturday, right?”
“Wouldn’t miss it.” He dodged to the side as a couple on Rollerblades swooped by. He’d been home from his summer in Spain for a week and hadn’t managed to catch up with his family yet. Okay, maybe he was avoiding them, just a little. Lily, and his parents too. He’d noticed a change in them lately. They were all ready for him to move on. He felt the unspoken words hanging in the air every time he saw them.
He’d move on when he was damn well ready. Something heavy settled in his stomach at the thought of seeing them on Saturday. That bothered him almost as much as his worry over what they might say. And unfortunately, it had factored into his decision to accept the year-long sabbatical he’d been offered to teach in Valencia, Spain, beginning with the summer session next June. It was time for a change. New York held too many sour memories now.
As Lily chattered on in his ear, Blondie’s little white dog chased the squirrel up the side of one of the larger boulders. With a triumphant yap, the pooch reached the summit before disappearing from sight with a muffled yelp.
Josh grimaced. “Hey, Lil, I’ve got to go. I’ll see you Saturday, okay?”
“You bet. Bye, Josh.”
By the time he’d crossed the clearing, Blondie had tied the first dog’s leash to a tree and scrambled up the side of the boulder. Josh set his briefcase down at the base of the rock. This particular boulder was a good ten feet high and now emitting a frenzied stream of echoed barks. He braced his foot against the rock and boosted himself to the top, careful not to snag his work pants on the rough surface.
Blondie glanced over her shoulder at him, her expression wary.
“I saw what happened,” he said. “Need a hand?”
She regarded him for a moment in silence, then sighed. “I suppose I might.”
He moved closer and looked down. Two blue eyes gleamed up at him from a mop of white fur lodged several feet down a narrow opening in the stone.
The dog was stuck.
Blondie crouched beside him. Long blonde hair spilled over her shoulders in glossy waves. She wore a light blue blazer, buttoned snugly around her narrow waist, with a lavender blouse peeking out at the collar, and jeans tucked into brown leather boots.
And…hell. She was gorgeous. He didn’t know anything about designer labels, but her clothes sure looked expensive. Her hair was perfect, her makeup flawless. Those were probably real diamonds in her ears. It figured he’d wind up helping some socialite rescue her dog.
“Oh, Jerry,” she murmured, staring down at the dog.
The opening grew progressively narrow to the ledge where Jerry sat, whimpering. The leash trailed above him, caught on a jagged bit of rock. Josh lay flat on his stomach and reached as far down as he could, but the leash was beyond his grasp. He edged forward, but the opening wasn’t wide enough to accommodate his torso.
“I can’t reach,” he told her. “I’ll go look for a stick we could use to snag his leash.”
“Wait,” she said. “I’m smaller. Let me try.”
She lay on her belly as he’d done to test the size of the opening. The frightened dog whined and strained to reach her. She pressed her fingers against her lips and held them toward him. The dog quieted, his eyes riveted to her face. “I think I could reach the leash if I can get my shoulders down there.”
She sat up to face him. “I always am.”
He cleared his throat. “I’ll hold your legs, just in case.”
The corner of her mouth twitched. “Try not to stare at my ass.”
She set her sunglasses on the rock, mumbling something under her breath about photos of this ending up online as she bent forward. Her head and shoulders disappeared into the narrow opening.
Josh frowned, grabbing her knees.
“Shit, this is tight.” Her voice echoed.
“Can you reach the leash?” He was indeed finding it hard to stare at anything but her ass.
“Almost…” She wiggled, then dropped waist-deep into the crack in the rock.
“Christ,” Josh muttered, tightening his grip on her so that she didn’t wind up lodged headfirst down in the rock with her dog. He’d chalk it up to the fact that this was the closest he’d been to a woman in nearly two years, but damn, she was sexy. She was slender but curved everywhere a woman should be, and her ass was a thing of wonder, perfectly shaped and thrust irresistibly in his direction. He glimpsed a bit of lavender lace peeking out of the waistband of her jeans.
Warmth spread through his veins, quickening his pulse, and he scowled. For God’s sake, when had he become the type of guy that ogled a woman’s panties while she was in a compromising position?
She lunged beneath him, and he almost face-planted into her ass, steadying himself at the last moment.
“Got it!” she said triumphantly, her voice muffled.
“Um.” She squirmed. “I didn’t think through how I’d get out.”
“That’s where I come in.” He hooked his fingers through her belt loops and carefully lifted her to safety.
She slipped her sunglasses into place and glanced at her right hand. A thin trickle of blood beaded across her palm. She bent over the opening and gave the leash a tug. Jerry braced against the pressure on his collar to get his feet under him and, with her help, he scrambled up the rock to safety.
“Nicely done,” Josh said.
“Okay, can I panic now?” She let out a shaky breath and hugged the dog against her chest, where he bathed her face in grateful kisses. “Shit, that was claustrophobic.”
Josh sat back. “You’re claustrophobic?”
“Not severely or anything, but wedging myself into a crack in a rock? Not high on my to-do list.” She blew out another breath. “This has been the weirdest day.”
No kidding. “Is your hand okay?”
She glanced at it, then back at him. “Just a scratch.”
Their eyes met. Now that the dog was safe, they were just two strangers sitting on top of a big rock, feeling the aftereffects of an adrenaline rush. Dappled rays of sunlight reached through the branches above to set her hair ablaze in rich golden hues. Her sunglasses gave her an air of mystery, hiding the expression in her eyes. The aroma of perfume surrounded her, sweet and sultry like exotic flowers.
Josh found himself mesmerized by her presence. Something about her seemed vaguely familiar, although he couldn’t put his finger on what.
The moment lengthened, hanging between them.
“I’m Josh, by the way,” he said finally.
“Kate.” Her voice captivated him, a musical cadence that soothed his ears.
“Nice to meet you, Kate. I’ve got some tissues in my briefcase.” He gestured to her injured palm.
He sought a foothold and lowered himself to the ground, then reached up to take Jerry from her as she followed him down. At least she’d given the dog a proper name, not something silly like Muffin or Precious.
He handed Kate a tissue, and she pressed it against her palm as she gathered the other dog from the tree she’d tied him to earlier.
“Well, that was exciting.” She wiped her brow for dramatic effect. “At least Ben stayed out of trouble.”
Ben and Jerry. So much for them not having ridiculous names. Josh picked up his briefcase and nodded. “Glad everyone’s okay.”
“Thank you, really, for your help.”
“No problem.” He followed as she walked toward the hollowed rock where she’d been sitting when he first spotted her. A notebook lay there, left behind in her haste to retrieve her dogs. He gestured toward it. “We seem to share a favorite spot.”
She followed his gaze. “Really? I hardly ever see anyone else sitting there.”
“Well, I don’t know about you, but I think I’ve had enough rocks for today.” She walked over and picked up the notebook, tucking it into her pocket. The dogs followed at her heels. She glanced over her shoulder, then seemed to shrink inside her blazer. She tucked her hair under her collar while the dogs tugged at their leashes. “These troublemakers obviously need a walk. Care to join us?”
What was that about? Josh followed her gaze and saw nothing but a couple of men carrying professional cameras, which was hardly unusual in Central Park. Photographers came here daily to capture the sights. He hesitated. This was his chance to walk away. He could still salvage some time to himself. Because despite Lily’s meddling insistence that it was time to move on, he’d felt no inklings in that direction.
Or he hadn’t until now anyway. Kate had definitely stirred something inside him, something he hadn’t felt in a long damn time. She beckoned with a smile, already headed toward the path. “Come on. We don’t bite.”
There was an urgency behind her smile, drawing him toward her even when he knew he ought to be walking away.
“Did you know these rocks are over half a billion years old?”
Kate glanced at Josh as they walked. “I didn’t.”
A breeze ruffled his sandy brown hair. Josh was tall and solid, clean-cut like a man who worked behind a desk, yet his forearms—visible where he had rolled up his sleeves—were those of a man who worked out. His rugged features might not stand out in Hollywood, but he was undeniably handsome in his blue button-down shirt and khaki pants.
His eyes captivated her, a verdant green flecked with gold. When she looked into them, her restless nerves calmed. If she wasn’t careful, she could lose herself in those hazel depths. She didn’t even know Josh’s last name, and he sure as hell didn’t know hers. Best to keep it that way. As of this morning, she was walking a tightrope. Any distraction might cause her to fall.
“They originally formed about twenty miles underground and were pushed to the surface over time through erosion. On some of them, you can actually see glacial troughs, where the ice carved into them during the ice age.”
She tipped her head. “Are you a history teacher?”
“A Spanish teacher, actually, but I do love history. Sorry.” He made a face as if he’d just revealed himself as a huge nerd.
“Don’t be.” His nerdy side was unexpectedly sexy. Maybe it was the dimple in his right cheek when he smiled, or the way he’d made her forget all the stress in her life as they walked together through Central Park, something few men had even attempted. For Josh, it seemed to come naturally. “Spanish, huh?”
“I teach at Columbia.”
She arched an eyebrow. Cute and smart too. “Forgive me for saying so, but you don’t look like a Spanish teacher.” “As in I’m not Hispanic? Yeah, I get a lot of raised eyebrows when I mention my profession.” There was that charming smile again. “I fell in love with a foreign exchange student in high school, and she introduced me to her culture. I’ve been spending my summers in Spain ever since.”
“Did you marry her?” she asked, her gaze darting to his ring finger. Bare.
“Not quite.” His smile faded.
She didn’t push the subject. They’d been walking together for close to an hour. Josh seemed a bit uptight at first, but he had a sense of humor behind the solemn exterior. She didn’t often get the chance to stroll through Central Park like a regular New Yorker, making conversation that had nothing to do with press junkets, record sales, or live performances. Today of all days, she was really enjoying not being herself for a little while.
The problem was, there was no good way to introduce herself at this point. Josh was unlikely to appreciate being a pawn in her escape from reality. Her best option was to circle back toward her building, say a quick goodbye, and head for home before he was any the wiser about her identity. If she could avoid the paparazzi that long.
As her phone buzzed in her pocket, she realized her scheduled post about the mystery prize had just gone live. Soon, the park would be crawling with fans, on top of the paparazzi presence. Shit.
“Do you live here in the city?” she asked Josh, increasing her stride.
“I’ve got an apartment over on Ninety-Sixth. You?”
“I only live here part-time, but I think New York will always feel like home.”
They passed Belvedere Castle, and Kate guided them onto the path toward home. Another ten minutes, and she’d be in the clear.
Josh nodded. “I know the feeling. My family lived here until I was ten before we moved to Massachusetts. I loved it there. I even became a Red Sox fan, but I couldn’t wait to move back to New York after college.”
Kate threw her head back and laughed. “A Red Sox fan in New York City? That’s dangerous.”
“No kidding.” He unzipped the side pocket of his briefcase to show her the Red Sox cap tucked inside.
Her jaw dropped. “You wear that? Here, in Yankees territory?”
“Sure do. It just doesn’t go with my work clothes.”
“Wow, you must get tons of rude comments about it, don’t you?”
He shrugged. “I do, but who cares? I don’t know them, and they’re the ones being rude.”
If only she could shrug off every rude and unfair thing said about her that way. It was a heady thought. “Well, I’m from Connecticut originally. Yankees fan, sorry.”
Josh gestured to the sky as if she had cursed against his God.
She laughed. “I pulled the whole Madonna ‘drop me in the center of everything’ bit when I got here.”
He gave her a blank stare. Wow, he really knew nothing about celebrity, a trait she was beginning to find irrationally appealing.
She gestured around them. “I showed up here when I was seventeen with nothing but a backpack and a handful of change in my pocket. Big city, big dreams.”
“What did you dream of being?” His eyes were earnest.
She paused, as her afternoon escape collided with reality.
“Oh, I—” Her cell phone rang, saving her from immediate answer. “Sorry.” Josh nodded in understanding.
She pulled the phone from her pocket. It was Jennifer MacDonald, her personal assistant. “Hey, Jenn.”
“Hi. I need you back ASAP,” Jenn said.
“Really? Why?” Kate glanced at her watch. It was only a few minutes past two, and she wasn’t due back to prep for interviews until three.
“Vero got an earlier flight, so I moved the In Touch interview back to give you time to meet with her and Harry first.”
“Oh, okay.” Kate glanced around to get her bearings. “Can you send Anton to the corner of Seventy-Seventh for me?”
“He’ll be there in five.”
“Thanks.” She ended the call and turned to Josh.
He stood watching her with narrowed eyes. “You never did tell me what you do for a living.”
A shrill scream cut her off. She whirled, smacking into Josh. His fingers closed over her elbow to steady her. Instead of fear, this time, warmth gathered on her skin beneath his fingers.
“Oh my God. It is her!” someone yelled.
“I told you it was. Katherine Hayes!”
More screams ensued as a half-dozen teenage girls ran toward her. Ben and Jerry pinned their ears and flattened themselves against her legs.
“Oh my God, can I have your autograph?”
“Can I take a selfie with you?”
Their questions overlapped as the girls clustered around her, squealing and vying for her attention. Several of them were busily typing on their cell phones, no doubt sharing photos on social media, spreading the word that they’d met Katherine Hayes in Central Park. All around her, girls leaned in, phones held high, snapping selfies.
Kate signed scrap paper, cell phones, and even a hand. She gave hugs and cheerfully posed for photos while assuring them that yes, “Hold Me Close” was on the set list for her upcoming concert at Madison Square Garden, and no, the nude photos were not real.
Behind the group of teenagers, her gaze settled on a little girl with blonde pigtails and a purple jacket, bouncing in light-up sneakers, the blue-wrapped package Kate had hidden earlier clutched in her hands.
A wide grin covered Kate’s face as she pushed her way over to the girl. “You found it!”
The girl looked up with wide blue eyes and an even wider smile. “My mom and I were here in the park when we saw your post, and oh my gosh, this is way too cool!”
Kate took the girl’s hands in her own. “You’re too sweet. What’s your name?”
Her mother stood behind her, beaming with pride. “Ava listens to your music every day.”
Ava’s eyes welled with tears. “I want to be just like you when I grow up.”
“That’s an awfully nice thing to say,” Kate told her. “Will you be able to make it to the Today show tomorrow morning?”
Ava nodded vigorously.
Kate looked at the girl’s mother. “Those passes will let you bypass the crowds and stand right in front of the stage. I’ll be doing my sound check around six, then I’ll come back out at eight thirty for the live broadcast.”
“This is so cool,” Ava whispered, clutching her mother’s hand.
“Do you mind?” The girl’s mother held up her cell phone.
“Not at all.” Kate wrapped an arm around Ava’s shoulders and leaned in with a smile while her mother took several photos. “So you want to be a singer when you grow up?”
“Yeah, but my mom says I have to finish school first.”
“That’s good advice. Always listen to your mom, okay? It was great meeting you, and I’ll be looking for you tomorrow at the Today show.” Kate pulled her in for a quick hug.
Joyful tears streaked Ava’s cheeks as they parted.
Her mother stepped closer. “Thank you for giving girls like Ava someone they can look up to. It’s nice to know you’re as genuine in person as you seem on TV.”
Warmth welled in Kate’s heart, seeping into the place her own mother had left empty. “Thank you. That means a lot.”
She squeezed Ava’s hand, then turned away. The noise level intensified, and the clicking of cell phones was drowned out by the snap and pop of professional cameras. The paparazzi had finally caught up with her. Photographers pushed through the crowd, snapping photos and shouting questions.
Kate ignored them, continuing to sign autographs for the group of teenagers. She realized peripherally that Mick, her bodyguard, had joined the fray. If he was here, the car must have arrived, and thank God, because she was in way over her head at this point. Mick backed up the photographers and ushered the fans on their way, then planted a hand on her shoulder and hustled her down the path toward the exit.
She brushed a strand of hair from her face as she hurried to match his long stride. Thank goodness he’d shown up when he had. She ventured into the park without her bodyguard more often than she should and usually got away with it.
Josh was probably horrified. Speaking of Josh…oh, crap.
Her heels dug into the pavement. She shook free of Mick’s grasp and turned around.
Josh stood about twenty feet down the path, watching, stony-faced.
She took a few steps toward him. Mick charged past her to back the paparazzi around the bend and out of sight.
“Josh…” She pushed the sunglasses up on her head, abandoning the pretense of anonymity they’d afforded her earlier.
Josh’s eyes narrowed, accusation in their hazel depths.
She suppressed a sigh. So much for escaping reality for a little while. The last thing she needed right now was a humiliated Spanish teacher selling her bad manners to the gossip blogs. Not to mention, she felt genuinely terrible for deceiving him.
Time for damage control. She flashed Josh her most dazzling smile and stuck out her hand. “Let’s try this again. I’m Katherine Hayes, but my friends call me Kate.” BUY IT NOW: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iBooks | Kobo | Google Play