The thought lit a warm spark inside her, and against her better instincts, she slipped her hand into his. Grant turned toward her.
“Even Frankie isn’t usually that intense. If that’s the way she was behaving before I came over—well, I’m sorry I didn’t arrive sooner.” He squeezed her hand.
Irina felt her cheeks go red. “True, well, I don’t think I can forgive you for something that happened before you even knew I existed. On top of that… I’m still busy not forgiving you for stealing my drink.”
She held her breath. Her mind might have been scattershot earlier, but now, every particle of her body was sharply focused. On his tall, strong body, so close to hers that she could feel the heat of it radiating toward her. On his hand holding on to hers.
And on his eyes. His gleaming, forest-green eyes, and the way he looked at her like she was someone special.
It had been a long time since anyone looked at her like that.
She held her breath and waited.
“Forget the drink,” Grant said, and for a moment Irina’s heart sank.
But only for a moment, because the next thing he said was: “Let me take you to dinner.”
Say yes. Say yes, he begged silently, staring into her dark eyes. He was looking into them so intently, he almost missed the blush that spread across her cheeks.
Then she raised her chin. “All right, then. I think that would make up for your vast and numerous errors.”
Grant’s panther purred in his chest. The noise was so loud in his mind that he had to take a moment to check that he wasn’t making any sound out loud. His slip about “finding” Irina had been bad enough.
Irina. His panther had never reacted to anyone the way it did to her, and it was troubling him, though not enough to stop him from getting as close to her as possible.
Lance, have the car brought around, he projected silently. He felt Lance’s reaction as the other man received his telepathic message: the instinctual prick of the snow leopard’s ears and the man’s curiosity.
“So, I don’t want to sound desperate, but…” Irina’s hesitant tones instantly raised Grant’s protective instincts, and he slid his hand from her elbow to settle against her lower back. Her spine felt stiff against his palm—no surprise, after a confrontation with Frankie.
“You’re hungry?” he asked.
“I just think I’ll enjoy dinner more if we leave before Francine’s laser eyes leave me a pile of dust on the floor,” she admitted with a grimace. “Sorry—I know she’s your friend, but…”
Francine was still glaring at them both from the other side of the room, making no attempt to hide it. If Grant had been in panther form, his hackles would have gone up.
“I don’t know what her problem is.” He shrugged. “Knowing Frankie, it could be anything from her stock falling through the floor to someone looking at her the wrong way three days ago.”
He looked down at Irina. She was tall, for a human woman. The top of her head was level with Grant’s chin, and he imagined what it would be like to hold her closer, her head tucked under his jaw, the soft press of her curves against his body. He wanted to tell her that she had nothing to fear from Francine or from anyone else and that from now on he would do everything in his considerable power to keep her safe and happy.
And scare her off before you’ve even gone on a single date? Pull yourself together.
Instead, he lowered his voice. “She likes other people to be miserable when she is. Let’s get out of range.”
Irina’s eyes shone up at him. “Now you’re talking.”
We’re good to go, said Lance’s voice in Grant’s head.
“My car’s right outside,” Grant said out loud, “and I know this great little place downtown. Do you like Italian?”
“Sounds great,” Irina replied, and looked around. “I should probably say goodbye to—oh, forget it. She’s busy anyway.” She gave a half-hearted wave to a red-headed woman who looked deep in conversation with an older couple farther down the room.
It was still freezing cold outside, and this time Grant’s panther registered its displeasure not only for himself, but for Irina, as well.
Irina stopped dead on the sidewalk. “Oh, shoot. My coat—”
“—Is either right here, or we’re about to be fleeing a charge of theft as well as Frankie’s wrath,” Grant interrupted as Lance stepped forward, a grey winter coat slung over one arm.
Irina looked at him uncertainly. “Oh—thanks, um…?”
“Lance MacInnis. My, uh, personal assistant.”
“Uh-huh?” Irina’s eyes were wide. “I mean, nice to meet you, Mr. MacInnis. I’m Irina.” She glanced sideways at Grant, and he could almost hear her disbelief. He couldn’t blame her. It was a rare person who would look at the seven-foot, heavily muscled black man and think “Personal Assistant.” Even the spectacles did nothing to make him look like an office jockey.
Lance shook her hand, angling a crooked grin at Grant. “Someone’s got to stop this guy from tripping over his own feet. A pleasure to meet you.”
He held the door for Irina, then exchanged a look with Grant across the roof of the car.
You could have warned me this was a date night. Lance’s voice was serious. What’s the plan, here?
There’s no plan.
Well, there needs to be. We’ll discuss this later.
All right, Mom. Grant snorted and slipped into the back seat. In front, Lance lined up the rear-view mirror.
“Warm enough for you, ma’am?”
“It’s lovely, thanks.” The interior of the car was heated to tropical bliss, and Grant watched Irina relax back into her seat. “And—Irina is fine. Please.” She raised her eyebrows at Grant.
“The only time he calls me ‘sir’ is if I’m in trouble,” Grant said. “So knock it off, Lance.”
“Yes, sir.” Lance replied, deadpan, and Irina giggled. “Where are we headed?”
“Moss’s place,” Grant replied, leaning back in his seat with a grin. “Let him know I’ll have my usual table, will you?”
Lance activated the divider that shut off the front of the car from the passenger seats. Grant saw Irina relax as the partition went up.