Irina glanced sidelong at Grant. “So, how does this work? Is your PA joining us for dinner?”
Shit. I really should have left him at the gallery, shouldn’t I?
“He’d better not,” Grant said quickly. Irina’s tone had been light, but it was the brittle sort of light that suggested she wasn’t feeling entirely at ease.
Grant rubbed his forehead and then held his hand out to her. She took it, folding her fingers around his, and he gave her a crooked smile.
“To be honest, I’m not that used to having him around. He’s only been working for me for a few weeks, so we haven’t exactly arranged a protocol for what to do when I’m escaping boring social obligations in the company of beautiful women.”
“Oh.” Irina’s eyes went wide. “So… this isn’t something you do often?”
“On the contrary,” said Grant, trying to infuse his voice with enough humor that his dead seriousness didn’t come across too strongly. “In retrospect, it’s embarrassing. We went over plans for every aspect of my life, except—er—dating.”
Which was one hundred percent true, including the embarrassment. Grant had employed Lance because he was a leopard shifter, the closest thing to a panther shifter he could find. He might be on the books as a “personal assistant,” but the real reason Grant employed him was so he would have someone who could give him insight on his panther and the specific difficulties a wealthy shifter might encounter.
Once Lance was on the job, they had covered strategies for keeping Grant’s shifter nature secret in everyday life, plans for dealing with attempted kidnappings (Grant wasn’t a huge fan of Lance’s recommended first response, “turn into a massive big cat and bite the shit out of them”), and exercises to keep his panther under control. But Grant had delayed their discussions about what to do if he fell in love.
And now it was too late. He was hardly going to tell Lance to pull over and have an on-the-go meeting about strategies for handling a sudden crush on the most beautiful woman he’d even met.
So now, here he was. On a date, with a woman who made him feel as though his whole body was on fire with excitement. With a chaperone in the front seat.
A chaperone whose aunt was good friends with Grant’s mother.
Grant bit the inside of his cheek. How would a normal, human man act in this situation?
He tried to see the situation from Irina’s perspective. If she had heard of him, what would she know? Probably just that he was Grant Diaz, a rich boy grown into a rich man, who spent his twenties tagging along after the heir to the Delacourt fortune and had spent the first few years of his thirties fading out of the public eye.
So—what were his options? Reveal that he was rich; reveal how rich he was; reveal that most men as wealthy as he was employed at least one bodyguard to keep potential kidnappers off his back, and that he had a secret that let him swap out the bodyguard for a full-time personal assistant, whose main job it was to keep his other secrets safe?
He could already see that once he started talking, it would be all too easy to let it all spill out. Because he wanted to talk to her, more than anything. Wanted to open his heart to her.
He had to stop his panther’s instincts from ruining this for him.
Grant ran his thumb over Irina’s fingers, hoping it wasn’t obvious he was stalling for time. “I—”
Irina giggled. “Poor Lance! Talk about being a third wheel. It reminds me of the time I accidentally gatecrashed one of Clare’s dates…”
Her face fell. “Oh, damn. I did it. I ran away again.”
She spoke quietly, as though half to herself. Grant felt as though he was missing something and squeezed her hand.
“Anyone who would blame you for running away from Frankie should be left in a room alone with her for five minutes, and see how they feel.”
“It’s not that, it’s—oh!” Irina looked like she was about to say something else when her coat, which was lying on the seat between them, started to buzz. She jumped and let go of Grant’s hand to rifle through the pockets.
“Sorry. Sorry! It’s probably my friend complaining about me leaving the event early, but if it’s work I’ve got to take it—oh. No, it’s my friend.” She stared at the message, blushed, and clapped her hand over the screen.
“Is there a problem?”
“No, she’s just—well, she’s not upset about me leaving, which is good, but…” Irina met Grant’s eyes and squirmed. “She saw us leave together, so now she’s—oh, come on,” she cried out as the phone buzzed again. “We already have a third wheel without Clare buzzing around my phone like an interfering bee, so I am turning this thing off.” She jabbed the button until the noise stopped.
Grant grinned. “I’m not going to get anywhere asking what she said, am I?”
Irina glared at him. “Nope.” She narrowed her eyes as the car drew to a stop. “And I think that is your cue to forget all about this. Are we here?”
Grant peered out the window. Snow—ugh—but, yes, the street outside was familiar. “This is the place.”
Irina dragged her eyes away from Grant long enough to look out the window. She didn’t recognize the neighborhood, but all that meant was that it wasn’t one of the half-dozen blocks she raced up and down each week to get to her various waitressing jobs. Here, the building facades were all worn stonework, with iron scrollwork in front of the windows. The only sign that they were parked outside a restaurant was a small plaque on the otherwise unassuming wooden door.
Irina was reaching for the door handle when Grant sprang out of the car and raced around to her side. He pulled open the door with a flourish and held out his hand to her.
“I hope you’re hungry,” he said, eyes gleaming.
“You know I am,” Irina replied, thankful her stomach hadn’t actually rumbled while they were in the car. Grant helped her out of the car. As he shut the door behind her, she turned back.
“He has some spreadsheets to work on.” Grant grinned wickedly. “I hope you don’t think I’ll need a PA to help me wine and dine a beautiful woman?”