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In the Mood for Romance
The Living Collection of Introductions and Excerpts from Elizabeth Lennox
www.ElizabethLennox.com
www.facebook.com/Author.Elizabeth.Lennox
www.twitter.com/ElizabethLenno1
Copyright 2013
Last updated January 17, 2014
All rights reserved
The following short stories and excerpts of Elizabeth Lennox books are works of
fiction. Names, characters, business, places, events and incidents are either the
product of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any
resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely
coincidental.
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any
means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by
any information storage or retrieval system, currently known or future
inventions except as
ElizabethLennox.com.
may
be
expressly
permitted
in
writing
from
Preface
Hello, and thanks for downloading this book! Whether you are a new reader
of my stories or have read one or many, I hope you will enjoy this sampling of
my work. As of this collection’s first release, I have written six short stories as
introductions and forty-six full length romances (as well as many more in
various stages of completion!). The books are available in over fifty countries
and on many platforms. I feel very fortunate and thankful be able to share them
with you.
As my number of books grew, my husband suggested to me that I make all
of the introductions and excerpts available in one place, so that current and
future readers could see the different stories available. In addition, most of my
introductions were not available from the major retail platforms - they were only
sent to you if you had registered on my website, www.ElizabethLennox.com.
While I still send the introductions to registered readers first, I wanted to make
them available here also, for your enjoyment.
Also, please note that although there’s an excerpt of Falling For The Boss in
this collection, the full book is only available (and free!) to registered users on my
website.
Again, thanks for downloading this collection and I hope you enjoy it! As I
write new intros and publish new books, I’ll keep this up to date.
Connect with me on Facebook or Twitter - I love to hear from my readers!
www.Facebook.com/Author.Elizabeth.Lennox
www.Twitter.com/ElizabethLenno1
Elizabeth Lennox
May, 2013
List of Elizabeth Lennox Books
The Texas Tycoon’s Temptation
The Royal Cordova Trilogy
Escaping a Royal Wedding
The Man’s Outrageous Demands
Mistress To The Prince
The Attracelli Family Series
Never Dare A Tycoon
Falling For The Boss
Risky Negotiations
Proposal To Love
Love's Not Terrifying
Romantic Acquisition
The Billionaire's Terms: Prison Or Passion
The Sheik's Love Child
The Sheik's Unfinished Business
The Greek Tycoon's Lover
The Sheik's Sensuous Trap
The Greek's Baby Bargain
The Italian's Bedroom Deal
The Billionaire's Gamble
The Tycoon's Seduction Plan
The Sheik's Rebellious Mistress
The Sheik's Missing Bride
Blackmailed By The Billionaire
The Billionaire's Runaway Bride
The Billionaire's Elusive Lover
The Intimate, Intricate Rescue
The Sisterhood Trilogy
The Sheik's Virgin Lover
The Billionaire's Impulsive Lover
The Russian's Tender Lover
The Billionaire's Gentle Rescue
The Tycoon's Toddler Surprise
The Tycoon's Tender Triumph
The Sheik's Mysterious Mistress
The Duke's Willful Wife
The Sheik's Secret Twins
The Tycoon's Marriage Exchange
The Russian's Furious Fiancee
The Tycoon's Misunderstood Bride
Love By Accident Series
The Sheik's Pregnant Lover
The Sheik's Furious Bride
The Duke's Runaway Princess
The Russian's Pregnant Mistress
The Lovers Exchange Series
The Earl's Outrageous Lover
The Tycoon's Resistant Lover
The Berutelli Escape
Resisting The Tycoon's Seduction
The Billionaire’s Secretive Enchantress
The Billionaire’s Pregnant Lover
The Sheik’s Rediscovered Lover
The Tycoon’s Defiant Southern Belle
The Sheik’s Dangerous Lover (free novella)
The Thorpe Brothers
His Captive Lover
His Unexpected Lover
His Secretive Lover
His Challenging Lover
The Sheik’s Defiant Fiancée (Free Novella)
The Prince’s Resistant Lover (Free Novella)
The Tycoon’s Make-Believe Fiancée (Free Novella – coming January 31, 2014)
The Billionaire’s Masquerade (Coming February, 2014)
The Texas Tycoon’s Temptation
She heard their vile comments.
Elissa didn’t want to hear them. She tried to block them out as she poured
herself a cup of coffee as quickly as possible, almost burning herself as the hot,
black liquid sloshed over the edge of her cup in her haste. She wanted to leave
the office kitchen quickly in order to avoid their foul words but despite her best
efforts, she couldn’t ignore them. In fact, she suspected that they were talking
louder just to get a reaction from her.
The two men stood in front of the elaborate, stainless steel espresso maker,
leaning casually against the counter as they discussed their previous night’s
sexual conquests. The room was large with steel cabinets and accenting black
granite counters, smelling like gourmet coffee. The kitchen was reserved for the
top brokers in Tillman & Hirshman, a stock brokerage firm in the heart of the
financial district of New York City.
One of them snickered as she poured cream into her coffee, obviously
thrilled with his escapades. “Yeah, she was incredibly hot. Did you see her last
night?” Mark Callburn asked Jeff Walters, the man standing next to him in the
kitchen.
Jeff nodded his head enthusiastically. “Oh, yeah. She was definitely built,”
he said. Out of the corner of her eye, Elissa saw him make movements around
his chest area. She understood that the woman in discussion was well-endowed
but she turned her head away, not wanting to encourage the men.
Five minutes ago, Elissa had barely been able to register the world around
her due to extreme fatigue but with their awful remarks, her blue eyes lit up with
anger. She needed sugar for her coffee, but she considered dumping the black
liquid into the sink or doing without sweetener, desperate to get away from the
room so she didn’t have to hear more of the disgusting conversation. Elissa
knew Mark’s wife was a very petite woman in all aspects so it was obvious that
he was not discussing his life mate.
It was only seven o’clock in the morning and Elissa had worked late the
previous night in order to close a big deal. It had been after two o’clock in the
morning before she’d fallen into bed and after six nights with only four hours of
sleep or less, the caffeine was a necessity and not just a desire. Reaching behind
the two men, she quickly poured some sugar into her cup and rushed out of the
room, ignoring the spilled sugar crystals as well as their lewd comments about
the women they had been with the previous night while their wives were home
with their young children.
Back in her office, Elissa turned on her computer and pushed the two men’s
unfaithfulness out of her mind. She had several meetings today and she still
needed to prepare for them.
She took off her black, summer wool jacket revealing a white silk blouse
underneath that contrasted perfectly with her black slacks. It was early spring in
New York but for some reason the heat had come sooner than normal and the
humidity was never far behind. She had walked to work this morning, hoping
the morning air would wake her up a bit. But it had only created a mass of
brown curls around her head that fell softly to her shoulders.
Twisting the pearl necklace around her fingers, Elissa pulled the information
on her computer she needed for the meeting and started editing the report she
had to present in an hour to her client. She slowly sipped the overly sweet
coffee, letting the caffeine ease into her tired body and wake up the remaining
cells.
She was almost finished when a tall, perfectly manicured and suave looking
man walked into her office, not bothering to knock. He sauntered towards her
desk, then elegantly sat down in one of the visitor’s chairs in front of her desk.
Elissa ignored the spurt of irritation the man’s presence generated and
continued to work on finalizing her presentation. “Hello, Darrel. What can I do
for you today?” she asked emotionlessly, not bothering to look up from her
computer screen.
Darrel Isenberg III picked up a brass paperweight from her desk and tossed
it in his hands with a practiced manner, sneering slightly when all of Elissa’s
attention was not immediately focused upon him as he was used to. He
regrouped quickly, hiding his irritation in the hopes of making her laugh with his
next comment. “Ah, Elissa, if you would only follow through on my answer, I
would be a happy man,” he said, his smile showing off his perfectly capped,
falsely white teeth.
Only by sheer force of will was she able to resist rolling her eyes at him.
“Keep it to the professional and I’ll see what I can do,” she said, typing in some
additional numbers.
“You could go out with me again,” he said, his voice confident, as if women
rarely, if ever, turned him down for a date.
Elissa typed in a few more numbers before replying.
“No thank you.
Burned twice, not interested,” she answered, referring to the recently-ended
relationship they’d had. Elissa knew her heart had never been into the
relationship because she’d only felt a mild disappointment at the breakup earlier
in the week. What genuinely bothered her was the fact that Darrel had called her
frigid because of her resistance to making their relationship physical. He had
used their lack of physical intimacy as justification for seeing other women
behind her back.
If she had bothered to look up, she would have seen his stunned expression.
“But I’ve told you, the other women weren’t important. You mean a lot to me,”
he said, his voice becoming borderline whining.
She couldn’t help herself this time. Elissa’s blue eyes rolled, the statement
was just too ridiculous. He had mentioned that phrase several times over the
past week, trying to convince her to re-establish their relationship. “Darrel, I
really need to finish this up. If you’ll excuse me,” she didn’t finish the sentence
as she walked out of her office to retrieve a file from the file room, assuming he
would get the hint that the conversation was now over.
She assumed incorrectly.
He followed her to the small room filled with cabinets from wall to wall.
Elissa’s first sense of alarm came when she heard the file room door click shut.
“What are you doing?” she demanded angrily, holding the retrieved, bulky file in
front of her defensively.
Darrel’s smile was as charming as a snake and just as dangerous. “Just relax.
I want to talk to you,” he said, moving towards her.
Elissa looked around for an escape route but the files were packed high with
only a small aisle between each row. Darrel was blocking her only exit, feeling
powerful now that he had her full attention.
She refused to be nervous around such a pathetic creature. “Darrel, get out
of my way,” she said forcefully, moving towards the doorway, pushing his chest
with the file folder.
Darrel worked out religiously every day in an effort to maintain his muscular
arms and chest so he wasn’t a movable object if he didn’t want to be moved,
especially by a five-foot, six-inch, exhausted woman with panic forming in her
mind. Those muscular arms now wrapped around her, holding her still. “Elissa,
we never really became intimate. Let me show you how good it can be between
the two of us. Then if you want me to leave, I won’t say another word.”
She tried to wiggle out of his arms but he was too strong and the filing
cabinets didn’t give her much room to maneuver. “Darrel, stop it! Don’t touch
me,” She said firmly, hoping he couldn’t hear the rising panic in her voice.
He didn’t heed her request and his mouth descended towards hers. His
mouth was hard as he tried to coax a response from her. She fought him initially,
but his strength was no match for hers so eventually she just stood still and
waited.
Finally he realized she was not participating in the kiss and pulled back,
confused. “What’s wrong Elissa? You know you want me. We’d be so good
together.”
He had pulled back slightly to see her face but that was all the space she
needed. She twisted in his arms and was able to pull free and rush out of the
room. “Stay away from me, Darrel,” she called back, furious with him for
trapping her in the file room but also equally furious with herself for not seeing
what a slimy, irritating man he was months ago.
Elissa rushed out of the file room and back to the relative safety of her office.
She felt dirty now. She wanted to rush home and shower again, needing to get
the feel of his hands off her arms and back.
Thankfully, as soon as she returned to her office, there were messages and emails waiting for her so she was able to put Darrel’s tactics to the back of her
mind. The day turned out to be just as hectic as all the others. She was in and
out of meetings, working on the final details of a major sale throughout the day.
She skipped lunch and ate a sandwich at her desk in the middle of the afternoon.
By the time she had a chance to think again, it was dark outside her office
window. But the deal was done, she thought with a vague sense of
disappointment. Elissa said goodbye to her client and hung up the phone, taking
a deep breath. Then another.
She stared at the computer screen, trying to think about….anything. Even
going home and getting some rest, putting the day behind her….just…anything.
After the third deep breath, Elissa gave in and burst into the tears that had
been held at bay all day long. The sobs wracked her too-thin frame, leaving her
feeling worse than she did before she started crying.
After ten minutes, Elissa pulled herself together and repaired her makeup.
Pulling a mirror out of her desk, she looked at her reflection as she tried to get
her mind back together. Her brown, curly hair fell softly to her shoulders,
framing her face and curling inward at the ends. She pushed the hair behind her
ears distractedly, wishing she could have normal, straight hair that looked
smooth and sophisticated instead of this mass of brown hair that had a mind of
its own.
Her eyes were still the blue she remembered, but she didn’t know where the
dark circles underneath had come from. She needed to get a little sun, she
thought as she dabbed powder across her nose to hide the redness, the only color
left in her face besides her blue eyes.
At that moment, Jim Tillman the managing director of Tillman and
Hirshman Investments walked in preceded by a whiff of expensive cologne. Just
as Darrel had done earlier in the day, Jim didn’t bother to knock. “Good job
today. What kind of numbers did you close with?” he asked, walking around her
office, picking up pictures and looking at them, then setting them back down on
her shelf.
Elissa blinked and refocused on the computer screen, wishing she didn’t feel
so mentally and physically tired. She wanted to shout at the man to get out of
her office and leave her alone, but instead, she punched in a few numbers on her
computer, calculating the gross profits for the day. “The Hartman account pulled
in over a million dollars with my last phone call,” she said.
Where was the exhilaration she used to feel after a day like today? Where
was the sense of accomplishment? She’d made a lot of money for several clients
today but all she felt was a vague sense of restlessness and overwhelming
fatigue.
Jim didn’t sense her feelings, preferring to concentrate on the monetary side
of life. “That was only a few minutes ago, wasn’t it? You did some other good
deals earlier today,” he said and nodded with approval.
“It was a good day,” Elissa confirmed, but she wasn’t interested in the
numbers. The firm realized a ten percent return on all profits for each account
and she earned a percentage of that. But she didn’t care anymore.
Elissa waited with a passive face for Jim to get to the point of his visit. She
didn’t have to wait long.
He stopped fiddling with the knick-knacks placed around her office and
turned to look at her, a practiced smile on his tanned face. “I was wondering if
you would consider a merger,” he said, his bland, gray eyes alighting at the idea.
Elissa didn’t like the sound of that, grimacing inwardly. She suspected that
this was going to become an awkward conversation. Jim was a handsome man
who had just divorced his third wife. He was tall with dark hair elegantly styled
to show off his silver temples and wore perfectly tailored suits. Since he was
managing director of the firm, she knew he earned a very good salary. But so did
she. And Elissa wasn’t impressed with material wealth anymore. “Can you give
me more details?” she asked cautiously just in case she was misreading the signs
and this was an actual business proposition and not a personal one.
Jim turned around and came over to her desk. He sat down on the side,
swinging one leg as he faced her. Elissa imagined that he practiced the pose in
the mirror at home. “You’re a very beautiful woman, Elissa.”
Elissa was instantly on alert. This was not a good conversation. Jim had a
reputation as a womanizer and he didn’t take rejection very well. “Thank you,
Jim,” she said cautiously but making sure her face was completely blank. She
didn’t want to encourage him in any way but she also didn’t want to show him
her revulsion over his apparent lack of morals.
“You could return the compliment,” he half-joked.
Elissa flushed, not sure how to get out of this conversation. “Jim, you know
you’re a very handsome man. But I’m in a relationship.”
“I heard that was over,” he said, raising one brow as a challenge to dispute
his information.
Elissa was instantly furious. How could everyone know about her breakup
with Darrel only days after it had happened? She supposed Darrel had
complained to too many people. He wasn’t a very private person, unlike herself.
“That’s correct. But I’m not ready to jump into the next relationship just yet.”
Jim smiled his best smile. “Well, how about just a one night stand, sort of a
celebration on having such a good day? I think we could be very good together.”
He leaned towards her, his eyes taking on an intense look.
Elissa shook her head, carefully saying, “Jim, I’m flattered, but I don’t think
tonight is a very good idea.” She stood up and walked across her office, wanting
to put some distance between the two of them, not wanting to repeat the incident
earlier in the day with Darrel.
He followed her but, thankfully, didn’t trap her into a corner. “Why not?
You’re here, I’m here. We don’t have anyone waiting for us. It has been a long
day,” he said, and his hand slid down her arm in a caress that sent shivers of
revulsion down Elissa’s spine. “Why don’t we take care of each other?”
Elissa didn’t know how to get out of the situation and thankfully, her phone
rang just at that moment. “Excuse me,” she said and held up a finger indicating
that he should wait just a moment.
“Elissa Stone,” She said to the receiver.
“Lissy?” a familiar voice at the other end of the line said. As soon as Elissa
heard the nickname, a new kind of panic entered her system.
“Ronny?” Elissa said and walked back around her desk, moving to avoid Jim
who had moved to stand directly behind her. “Are you okay? How are the
babies? What’s wrong?”
The joyous laughter on the other end of the phone line instantly filled Elissa
with relief. “Lissy, nothing’s wrong except a huge amount of heartburn that’s
keeping me awake. I was afraid I would catch you still at the office. Do you
have any idea what time it is?” her friend asked.
Veronica Williams had been Elissa’s roommate in college and they had
remained best friends ever since. Veronica was expecting twins after years of
trying to conceive. Elissa glanced at her computer screen and sighed. “Yes. So
what are you doing up at midnight? Shouldn’t you be sleeping and taking care
of those babies? What aren’t you telling me?” Elissa demanded.
Jim shook his head and raised his hand to his ear with his thumb sticking up,
a sign for her to call him when she was done with her phone call. Elissa breathed
a sigh of relief when he walked out of her office and headed back to his own
office at the other end of the building.
Veronica continued, unaware of the tension she’d banished with her phone
call. “I promise Lissy, nothing is wrong. I just wanted to talk to you. You
haven’t been yourself lately and I wanted to see what is going on.”
Elissa fell back into her chair and put her forehead into the palm of her hand.
“Oh, Ronny. Things are just too complicated,” She said, trying to hold back the
tears that threatened to spill out over her tightly clenched eyes.
“Talk to me, Lissy,” Veronica pleaded through the phone, the worry coming
through the night. “What’s going on?”
“It’s a long story,” Elissa said and sniffed back her tears.
“Then tell me why you are still working at three o’clock in the morning.
How many nights have you worked until this time during the week?”
“I was working with a client,” she explained, not bothering to count how
many times that excuse was applicable over the past week or month.
Veronica sighed heavily. “Lissy, you need a break. I’m not going to put any
more demands on you. It sounds like you have enough already. But I just got
everything installed in the cabin Jake is lending me while you’re here for the
babies’ delivery. The cabin is right next to our house and I’ve been getting it
ready for you for the past several months so you can connect easily to the office
from here. It is ready whenever you can make it.”
Elissa squeezed her eyes shut and nodded. “Thanks,” she whispered, deeply
touched that her friend was trying to make a space cozy for her. They talked
about the babies’ in-utero development and some of the sillier names Veronica
and her husband Rick had tossed around. Veronica described the latest additions
to the nursery and the antics of her kids at school who were all eager to get out
for the summer break.
By the end of the conversation, Elissa was laughing and offering suggestions,
feeling like her old self again. Veronica always seemed to know when to call,
Elissa thought as she opened the door to her apartment that night. She didn’t
bother to turn on any lights. The small rooms were minimally filled with
furniture and there was no food in the refrigerator. Elissa barely spent any time
in her apartment, needing it only to sleep, shower and change clothes before
heading off to work six or seven days a week. Getting ready for bed that night,
she considered her life, or lack of it. Working eighteen to twenty hour days was
really getting to be an awful drag, she thought as she pulled the sheet up over
her and drifted off into a restless sleep.
The next day was just as chaotic. But it was compounded by several
messages from Jim asking her to see him as soon as she could.
And then Darrel came to her office. “Hey gorgeous,” he said and dropped
into one of the visitor’s chairs facing her desk. “How about if we kiss and make
up?”
Elissa didn’t even bother to glance away from her computer. “No thank
you,” she said and typed in a few more numbers.
“Ah, come on Elissa. Don’t be harsh. It was just a lover’s quarrel. Let’s get
over this and move on,” he said coaxingly.
There wasn’t even irritation anymore. She was just too tired and too busy for
that emotion now. “First of all, we aren’t lovers,” she said, writing something
down on her notepad.
“That’s just one of the things I wanted to discuss. I think sex is getting in the
way. We should just do it so we don’t fight over it anymore.”
Elissa’s hands stilled on her keys only momentarily, but she still didn’t look
at him. “We aren’t fighting over it anymore, Darrel. We aren’t fighting over
anything anymore.”
“Come on, Elissa. We look great together,” he said.
Elissa was disgusted. She stopped typing and gave him her full attention.
“Are you telling me that you want to get back together simply because we make
an attractive couple? Are you really that superficial?” she asked, stunned that
she hadn’t seen this side of him before.
“Well, you have to admit that it makes the dinner parties easier,” he laughed.
Elissa was done with the conversation. She turned back to her computer and
continued her research. “Goodbye Darrel.”
“Come on Elissa. Let’s at least talk about this,” he pleaded.
The phone rang and Elissa picked it up. It was Jim. “Elissa, get into my
office immediately.”
Elissa picked up her notebook and a pen and walked around her desk,
ignoring Darrel who was still sitting in the chair. “That’s it? No goodbye kiss or
anything?” he exclaimed, grabbing her arm and stopping her.
Elissa stopped only because she was so shocked. “Let go of me. Jim is
waiting,” she said, flinging the director’s name in his face.
Darrel instantly let go of her arm but called out to her retreating back, “Come
to dinner with me tonight and we’ll finish this discussion.”
Elissa ignored him and continued down the mauve colored carpeting to Jim’s
office. It was a long walk and she had plenty of time to worry about his
proposition from the night before.
About The Royal Cordova Trilogy
These three stories are about siblings - two sisters and a brother.
I'd
originally intended to just write the story about Anastasia (Ana).В But as the plot
evolved, Marabeth became an interesting character. In Ana's story, Marabeth is
engaged, but to a horrible man who treats her badly. So when I started my next
book, I found myself automatically coming up with a resolution to Marabeth's
romance. I loved the way she kept falling at Sam's feet. It was such a fun book
to write that I just had to continue the family's story by going into Max's
interactions with his assistant, Tara.
In Marabeth's and Ana's story, Max is stiff and almost unapproachable.В So
when Tara teases him about curtsying or having liver for lunch, it makes him
much more human.
It's always difficult to create an imaginary country - and one that is powerful
enough to have rulers that will matter. I hope that I did an adequate job in these
three love stories.
Escaping A Royal Wedding
Chapter 1
“I can’t believe you’re asking me to sell my body like this!” Princess Anastasia
Elisia Marquenda said, almost in a whisper. She was trying to maintain a sense
of dignity but was furious with her family all the same. The previously perfect
start to her day was ruined. Pushing a frustrated hand through her thick, titian
hair, she tried to remain calm, or at least present the image of serenity. It was
extremely difficult under the circumstances though.
Anastasia tried to keep the panic out of her voice but she knew she was
failing miserably. “Why, Mother?”
Queen Natasha smiled gently at her furious daughter. “First of all, I’d like to
mention how lovely you look in that color of green. It brings out your blue eyes
and gives your skin a bit of color. As for the current topic, Ana, you’ve known
about this betrothal,” she said, stressing the word, “practically all your life. I
don’t understand why your engagement party and wedding date being
announced is such a shock to you,” Anastasia’s mother said calmly, the epitome
of grace under fire. “You should have been expecting it after all these years.”
Her mother was right. She had known about her betrothal since she was five
years old. But she’d always expected to be married as soon as she turned twenty
one. So five years later, still being unmarried, she’d assumed her “fiancé” had
forgotten about the arrangement. Sadly, the announcement of her wedding date
only moments ago had taken her by surprise. She’d have to think quickly.
Somehow, she’d have to gain more time. The wedding date was proposed for
three weeks in the future.
“Why the sudden wedding? What happened to long engagements? Why
does the wedding have to be so soon?” Ana asked, forcing a calm, even tone to
her voice, knowing that her parents would respond better to reason than panic.
Her mother nodded in understanding. “I agree. It does seem to be a bit of a
rush. But that’s because King Alexander is in ailing health. Prince Erik will have
to take over the crown sooner than expected.”
Her mother’s explanation terrified her even more because it made sense.
Rumors of King Alexander’s health had been all over the news lately. Shaking
her head in an effort to circumvent the rationale she said, “That shouldn’t impact
me! I didn’t make the man sick. Why should I be punished?”
Ana wanted to scream and stomp her feet, but years of manners and training
at controlling her temper kept her from showing her emotions. The only
indications of her true feelings were her fists clenched at her sides, but the white
linen table cloth hid them from view, as well as the anger showing in her blue
eyes. “Mother, I’m twenty six years old. I was supposed to be married five years
ago. I thought he’d forgotten about that silly betrothal contract. So yes, it is
quite a shock to all of a sudden have my wedding date announced in the
papers.” After a long moment of silence, she turned to face her mother, the anger
now apparent on her gentle features. “I wasn’t even consulted!” she said,
fighting back angry tears as she pushed her long red hair off her shoulder
impatiently. “This is ridiculous. I can’t believe I’m the victim of an arranged
marriage. It is too archaic.”
The queen again smiled patiently, wishing her daughter wasn’t so upset
about something that had been arranged at her birth. “Darling, that’s the way it
is in most royal families. Even your younger sister was betrothed at birth.”
Anastasia kept from shuddering at the reminder of her sister’s fiancé, but
only barely. “Yes, and Marabeth isn’t very satisfied with her future either, I can
tell you that,” she said without thinking. Ana took a long, deep breath, trying to
gain control of her emotions again. “Mother, you can’t really think I’d be happy
with that man, can you?”
The queen hid a smile from her daughter, knowing it would only increase
her fury. “I’m guessing you’re referring to Prince Erik?”
Ana clenched her fists tighter. “Has the subject spontaneously changed and I
haven’t kept up? Of course I’m talking about him.”
Her mother nodded, unmoved by her daughter’s outburst. “I can’t imagine
what you find so offensive about the man,” she said diplomatically. “He’s
extremely handsome, tall, a wonderful dancer which I’ve experienced myself, a
strong military man, which I haven’t experienced, thank goodness, and he’ll be a
wonderful ruler over a beautiful country. Why can’t you say his name, dear?”
Ana drummed her manicured fingernails against the white linen tablecloth
impatiently. “Because the sound of it is too annoying. I’ve read about his
exploits in the gossip columns too often over the past several years. I don’t want
to have to think about him,” she sniffed and took a delicate sip of the still hot
coffee. “The situation is bad enough without saying his awful name out loud.”
The queen put a calming hand over Ana’s to stop the drumming. Looking
her in the eye, she asked, “What are you angrier about? The fact that the man
has had a few beautiful mistresses? Or that you’re going to be married to him
next month?’
Ana pulled herself up regally in the chair and rubbed her forehead. “I don’t
know. I resent the fact that he can go out and do just about anything he wants
whereas I have so many restrictions placed on everything I do it is like being in a
prison.”
Natasha’s face showed her shock. “But you went to college dear. That’s
more than what was expected of you. Finishing school would have been
perfectly acceptable.”
Ana’s crystal blue eyes looked into the green ones of her mother. “Thank
you for educating me and letting me know what I can’t have. I don’t know if it is
worse; knowing what’s out there and what I want to do, or not knowing what
the possibilities are.”
“What would you like to do that you can’t do as a princess here at home, or
as the Queen of Montbain?”
Ana bit her lip, wondering if she could tell her mother what she really
wanted to do. Her mother was understanding and seemed to have the ability to
influence her father the way no one else could. Did she dare? Looking into her
mother’s concerned face, she decided to express her desires. Perhaps it would
delay the wedding for a few more years. Maybe completely? “I’d like to go to
law school and become a lawyer. I know it isn’t the most glamorous job in the
world, but I like the intricacies of law.”
Natasha smiled and put her jeweled hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “Ana,
you have an incredible mind and I’m sure if you started using it, you’d
understand that your dreams don’t have to be forgotten.”
With that, her mother stood up gracefully and glided across the room.
“Don’t forget that we leave for Washington, D.C. tomorrow morning. Rose is
already packing your bags but you’ll need to supervise. There will be
engagements and obligations, not to mention a meeting with your future
husband tomorrow night. You have been avoiding that for years. Tomorrow
night you will be expected to join him at dinner regardless of whatever ailments
suddenly fall upon your shoulders, young lady,” her mother admonished before
stepping out of the room.
Ana watched her mother cross the room and wished she could be as graceful
and confident. Once she was alone, she stood up and walked to the window,
staring out into the bright morning sunshine. The gardens outside her suite of
rooms were just starting to blossom with the early spring flowers and she wished
she could just climb out of her window and lay down in the fragrant earth,
forgetting about her problems and the urgency of her upcoming nuptials. But
the windows were bullet proof and sealed against intruders.
She was so wrapped up in her own misery, she didn’t hear the door to her
suite open and close. “Annie, which do you think would be better? The orange
or the pink?” Marabeth, Ana’s younger sister by two years, asked as she walked
into Ana’s room.
Ana turned and almost grimaced at the two dresses her sister was holding
up.
Marabeth had red hair, just as Ana did and both colors would clash
violently with her hair. “I’m guessing George will be there tomorrow night?”
Ana asked, referring to Marabeth’s fiancé.
Marabeth smiled broadly. “You betcha. I have to look my best, mother said.
So which do you think would do the trick?” she asked, holding both dresses up
to her face in turn.
Ana laughed. The pink made Marabeth look like she was going to throw up
and the orange brought out every possible freckle on the young woman’s face. “I
think both will work out wonderfully for your purpose, Mara.” Marabeth tried
hard to look her worst whenever she was around her betrothed.
Marabeth chuckled. “What’s your plan?” she asked, laying the two dresses
over the back of a chair and then flopping down onto it herself, not caring that
the dresses would become wrinkled underneath her.
Ana shook her head. “I don’t have one. I’d thought he’d forgotten me.”
Marabeth moved over to stand directly behind her older sister,
understanding Ana’s anger and frustration but unable to help diffuse it. “That
wasn’t very forward thinking of you, Annie,” she said quietly.
“I know,” she said and walked across the room, touching the beautiful pink
silk of the dress. It really was a pretty dress, just not intended for a redhead.
“How did you even get this dress inside the palace? It wasn’t made by Lizzy,
was it?” Ana said, referring to the royal dress designer who made all the clothes
for Ana and Marabeth. Lizzy made sure the royal family was always dressed in
the finest clothes which were at the height of fashion.
“No. I bought it in London last week when I was there visiting George. He
was ogling the waitress during lunch. You know what a stickler the man is for
fashion. I thought the dress would be the perfect punishment.”
Ana laughed. “That’s a good idea.”
“You won’t mind me being in something this hideous for your engagement
pictures?”
Ana shook her head. “No. I don’t want the pictures, so why would I care
what they look like?”
“Good point,” she replied, smilingly brightly. “Okay, I have to finish
assembling my wardrobe for the next week,” she said and stood up, grabbing the
two dresses in one hand. She glanced through the windows at the pretty gardens
and sighed. “At least we’ll get out of the palace. I’m not looking forward to
another hotel room but maybe the walls will be a different color.”
Chapter 2
Prince Erik Marcus Phillips the Third walked quickly down the hallway,
nodding to his father’s cabinet members as he passed but not really paying much
attention to them. The guards opened the doors before he even had to slow
down and Erik walked into his father’s private office.
“The results of the study aren’t adequate, Father,” he said without preamble.
“We need more evidence before making a decision of this kind,” he continued
and placed the papers in the middle of the large, polished desk.
Erik observed his father as he picked up the papers. He looked older but
wasn’t sure he noticed the ailing health his father had been using as the excuse to
move up Erik’s wedding.
It was no matter, Erik thought. If his father wanted him to marry, he’d do it.
He loved and respected his father and he’d been given several extra years of
freedom, for which he’d always be grateful.
“What do you recommend?” King Alexander Phillips asked, leaning back in
his chair and crossing his hands over his still firm stomach.
“We should hold off. There’s definitely enough evidence to suggest
alternatives to that plan of action and we should explore the possibilities.
Forming an alliance with that branch will only cause several problems later on
and I think we can avoid those if we’re careful.”
King Alexander nodded his head and silently agreed with his son. He was
proud of the man sitting in front of his desk. He was strong and opinionated,
smart and had a genuine love of his country. He would make a good king but he
had to be married. The public would demand it. And more importantly,
Alexander wanted grandkids. If he didn’t push things along, Erik would
continue with his mistresses and be content with the arrangement. The man was
thirty-six and was driving himself at both ends. He worked hard and was
brilliant with the national representatives, knowing how to put both party’s
issues into the mix and come out with wonderful compromises. The man was a
born leader with a decisive personality and the intelligence to absorb a huge
amount of data and process it into a solution. But Alexander knew he didn’t
spare himself with the ladies.
“Good. Anything else?” King Alexander replied.
“Nothing urgent. The unions and farmers would like to talk. They’ve sent
representatives and apparently are up in arms about the issues I briefed you on
last week. But nothing new. There are several oil negotiations that need to be
worked out since the leases are up next year but I don’t foresee any problems
there either.”
“Fine, fine,” the king said, nodding his approval.
tomorrow?” he asked.
“Are you ready for
Erik raised one eyebrow. “What’s tomorrow?” Erik vaguely remembered
that they were flying to the United States and he mentally ticked off several
meetings he wanted to schedule while he was there.
King Alexander chuckled. “You’re meeting your future wife? There’s the big
engagement party tomorrow night? Any of this ringing a bell?”
Erik grimaced inwardly, hoping his father didn’t perceive that he’d forgotten
that detail. He nodded quickly to cover his lack of interest in the event. “Yes, I
think so. Princess Anastasia? Isn’t that her name?” he asked, not really
concerned with the situation.
“That’s correct. Very lovely woman, if I remember her correctly. Spirited
child,” he laughed again. “I believe you met her about ten years ago. She
probably hasn’t changed that much in your mind given that you haven’t seen her
since her coming out party. She was showing genuine signs of beauty then
although she was rather gangly at that point. I’ve seen her several times since
then and she has blossomed into a stunning woman.”
“I’m sure she’ll be adequate,” Erik replied uninterestedly, vaguely
remembering a shy red-head with white skin and freckles. She’d been painfully
skinny ten years ago so he didn’t have much anticipation of her looks now. “We
can probably schedule meetings with the oil companies while we are there. That
will free up more time next month when we start the lease negotiations again.”
King Alexander sighed. “You understand that this woman is going to
become your wife and the future Queen of Montbain, correct? I’ve never seen
anyone so nonchalant about getting married.”
Erik dismissed his wedding with a casual wave of his hand. “I have no
doubt that she has been raised properly. I’ve met and respect King Stephan a
great deal. He’s a very fair ruler.”
King Alexander frowned at his son. “You know I’m wanting grandkids very
soon!” he said sternly. “I’ll have none of this dilly dallying around, young man!
You’re of an age when you should already have several children but you’ve been
fooling around about this situation for too long.”
Erik smiled fondly at his father. “I don’t believe I’ve had a problem with the
act of making babies before. If she is as beautiful as you say, I will pursue the
subject with great diligence after the wedding,” he said.
King Alexander’s eyebrows drew together sharply. “What do you mean?
You haven’t fathered any children already, have you?”
“Calm down, Father. You’ll get your blood pressure stirred up.”
King Alexander stiffened at the non-answer from his son. “Don’t you worry
about my blood pressure, answer the bloody question, son!”
“No. You can rest easy about that subject. I have not fathered any children
to date. I was just explaining that I have been very diligent about practicing.”
King Alexander quickly calmed down. After a few moments, he chuckled.
“Well, I’ll agree with you on the practice part. But it is time to stop practicing
and get down to the task.”
“If the woman is as beautiful as it is rumored she is, I don’t think I’ll have
any problems applying myself to the task with a vengeance.”
“Good, good,” the king said, relaxing back into his chair. “What were you
saying about the leases again?” he moved on to the next subject.
Erik and his father discussed affairs of state for the next hour. After which,
he went back to his suite and informed his valet that they would be traveling.
“Already informed of that sir. And congratulations, I might add, on your
upcoming nuptials,” Jim said, bowing slightly.
“What’s that?” Erik said, glancing at a file. “Oh, right. Yes, thank you,” he
replied distractedly then glanced back down at the file he’d been reading.
Chapter 3
Ana walked into the hotel suite of the Mayflower Hotel the following
morning. Located across the street from the White House, it was used for most
out of state dignitaries that weren’t here on official state business. Although her
father would meet with the president, it would be only a social call. This visit
was more business oriented than political. The fact that Ana’s engagement party
was scheduled for tonight was only a matter of convenience, which made her grit
her teeth each time she thought about it.
It was still relatively early and Ana didn’t have any obligations today. She
was scheduled to visit the spa after lunch and get a manicure, pedicure, facial
and massage in preparation for her meeting with her fiancГ© tonight.
Marabeth walked into her room and flounced onto a settee. “Hi. Want to
watch a movie?” she asked, already bored.
“I thought you were meeting George for lunch. What happened to that
appointment?” Ana asked, sitting down on the upholstered chair opposite her
sister.
“Canceled,” she said with a wave of her hand, then pushed her heavy red
curls behind her shoulders. “He probably had a meeting with his mistress,” she
supposed out loud, rolling her blue eyes at the thought.
Ana smiled sympathetically but tried not to show it. Marabeth didn’t want
pity. She was too proud for that. “That’s not what he said, I’m guessing. What’s
his official excuse this time?”
“Business but he conveys his deepest regrets,” she said sarcastically, putting
her hand over her heart.
Ana tucked a red curl behind her ear and laughed at her younger sister’s
deprecating joke. “Okay, so what are we going to do for the rest of the
morning?”
Both girls jumped slightly as the door to Ana’s suite opened suddenly. “Oh,
good, I’m glad I found you, Marabeth,” their mother said as she walked into the
room, slightly breathless. “George called and your lunch date with him is back
on. You’ll have to hurry if you’re going to be on time,” she said.
Marabeth rolled her eyes. “Oh mother, why do I have to jump each time he
calls? This is ridiculous,” she said but stood up and walked quickly into her
room.
Natasha sighed as she followed her youngest daughter. “I’m sorry dear. I’ll
help you find something appropriate to wear. It seems that you’ve lost your
sense of style lately when it comes to your meetings with George,” she said,
following her daughter out of the room.
Ana stood up and walked to the window. Outside, the day was beautiful
and sunny. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the daffodils were already in full
bloom. Ana sighed and wondered what it would be like to walk along the streets
and be like a tourist. She watched some joggers as they passed by the hotel
window, wishing she could exercise out in the fresh air instead of on the tread
mill in the palace or hotel gym.
Someone walked by with a cup of coffee in one hand and a newspaper in the
other. The man strolled casually through the trees until he sat down underneath
one. The man simply sipped and read the newspaper. Ana watched him for
almost a half hour, wishing she could be like him.
She should just leave the hotel and get a cup of coffee.
Moving away from the window, she reached into her suitcase and pulled out
her book. Sitting down on the settee her sister had just vacated, Ana tried to dive
into the world of literature, hoping it would take her mind off tonight’s
anticipated but undesired meeting with her future husband.
The thought of leaving the hotel on her own kept niggling in her mind
though. She looked around at the perfectly decorated, but incredibly bland hotel
suite. Why couldn’t she just go have a cup of coffee by herself? What harm
would it cause? She was a grown woman, she had a book and she wanted to
read outside of the hotel and away from her guards. There was always the threat
of kidnapping which had been drilled into her from a young age. But really, how
dangerous could it be? She was a princess from a small, mountain country that
was strategic but not powerful. Because she’d led such a protected existence, her
face really wasn’t that recognizable.
She was going to do it, she decided. Ana walked to her purse and pulled out
her wallet. No money! Ugh, she thought. How could she get some money? She
wasn’t sure how much a cup of coffee costs, especially here in the U.S.
She walked out to the main rooms of the suite and found her older brother,
Prince Maximillian reading through some files. “Max, I need your help,” she
said.
Max instantly put his file down and turned toward his sister. Max was a
wonderful older brother if somewhat arrogant and only slightly domineering.
But Ana excused him for that since he had been trained from birth to be ruler of
his country. He was also the exact opposite of Ana and Marabeth in looks.
Whereas the girls were petite with striking red hair and green or crystal blue
eyes, Max had inherited their father’s dark black hair and dark blue eyes. He
was also very tall and muscular from years of military training.
“What do you need?” he asked, looking down fondly at his sister.
“I need some money,” she said. “Do you have any American currency?” she
asked.
Max barely blinked at her surprising question. “Yes. What do you need? I’ll
have room service send it up,” he said patronizingly and started reaching for the
phone.
“No, please. I don’t want room service. If you don’t want to give me a few
dollars, I’ll get it from mother.”
Max laughed. “I doubt mother has any either, Ana. What do you need? I
promise that Americans have all the conveniences of home and whatever you
need can be delivered to you.”
Ana sighed and her shoulders drooped slightly. “Yes. I’m sure you’re right.
Thank you,” she said and returned to the privacy of her rooms.
The Man’s Outrageous Demands
Marabeth Elizabeth Marquenda, Royal Princess of Cordova, stood in the red
salon, twirling the tassel of the velvet curtain between her fingers. She took a
deep breath and began again, wishing she could come up with the right words to
explain her proposal. “Here’s the situation, Lord Marcum,” she began, speaking
to the man sitting on the settee behind her. “I know you don’t really understand
the problems of being royalty. It can be extremely tedious sometimes and there
are restrictions on what one says and does and where we go and how we act.
But there are advantages as well. For instance, we….” Marabeth looked out the
window at the darkness, trying to come up with an example. “We….um…” she
couldn’t really think of anything right at the moment. She sighed, frustrated and
embarrassed but trying to put on a good front and determined to plow through
the situation. “Well, there are, you’ll just have to trust me.”
Since the man hadn’t interrupted her, she took a deep breath and continued.
“You see, I have to find a husband quickly. And you seem to be the one my
parents apparently like. So…I was wondering, if it isn’t too much trouble, if you
could possibly see your way, to, well…you know… perhaps it wouldn’t be
terribly awkward…." She stopped, flustered on how to proceed.
Marabeth was just too embarrassed. She was glad her back was still to the
man or he’d probably see the color in her cheeks.
She wanted to propose to Lord Marcum, but the words just wouldn’t come to
her. How does one tell a man that, because he’s not terribly loathsome, he would
do for a husband? Wasn’t there more to the world? Didn’t she have some other
opportunity besides being married to a man she could barely endure? Was this
what she would face for the rest of her life?
“Please continue. I’m desperate to hear what you’re about to ask your
devoted audience,” a strange, deep voice said from behind her.
Marabeth spun around to locate the voice, her flaming red hair swinging
over one shoulder and her crystal blue eyes turning angry at the invasion. She
had thought that she and Lord Marcum were alone in the salon. She’d been sure
to check the area before starting the conversation only a few minutes ago, which
meant someone had invaded the room while she’d been talking, a horribly
humiliating possibility.
But there, standing just inside the doorway, was an incredibly handsome
man leaning against the wall with a slight smile on his lips, his eyes dark and
sexy with his hands in his tuxedo pockets looking very “James Bondish”. He
was extremely tall, with dark hair and very broad shoulders. His tuxedo must be
well padded which made him look more muscular than he possibly could be.
“Who are you?” Marabeth demanded, shocked and embarrassed that she
had been caught in such an awkward situation.
The man walked over to her and bowed low. “Sam Montrose, at your
service, Your Highness.” He took her cold hand in his large, warm one and
kissed her fingers, sending delicious shivers through her system. He glanced at
the man sitting on the settee behind them. “Would you like me to rouse the man
so you can finish proposing to him?”
Marabeth ignored the tingles shooting up her arm from his touch and
quickly pulled her hand out from his, feeling her cheeks flame red with
embarrassment once more as he acknowledged that he had indeed heard her
entire, pathetic, awkward speech. She looked over at Lord Marcum and, sure
enough, he was sound asleep on the settee, leaning precariously against the side
as if he were about to topple off the furniture.
Good grief, she thought as she looked at the sleeping man and wishing him
to perdition for the humiliation he was currently causing her. What was wrong
with her? She couldn’t even propose to a man? Was she that boring and
pathetic? Couldn’t she hold a man’s interest for longer than the time it took to
dance and say all the correct trivialities?
The man named Sam chuckled at her indignation. “I’m guessing he’s not
very interested. But perhaps if you ask me, I’ll stay awake long enough to hear
your proposal.”
That only ignited her anger more. How could he be so ungentlemanly to
tease her in such an embarrassing moment such as this? The double insult, first
from Lord Marcum falling asleep during her proposal and now this…this man
teasing her, it was just too much for Marabeth to take with her present
frustration. “Oh! Who are you and what are you doing in here?” Marabeth
demanded, taking several steps away from the tall, overwhelming man who
smelled wonderful, she noted irritably.
“My apologies for the intrusion, Your Highness,” he said and bowed again
but his eyes were glinting with humor. “I’m here at the request of your brother,
Prince Maximillian. But I’m very glad to have made your acquaintance.”
Marabeth was not used to someone being so casual around her. Most people
bowed and curtsied in her presence, usually driving her nuts. But this man was
entirely too informal around her. Didn’t he have any respect for her title at all?
She was a royal princess but he was treating her as if she were a waitress at the
bar he was patronizing.
“Shall I rouse him so you can finish?” Sam offered again.
Marabeth looked over at the man sleeping on the settee with disgust. “No.
Thank you though,” she said as politely as her anger would allow and started to
step around the taller man. But Sam caught her by the arm to stop her. His grip
wasn’t hard. It was very light in fact. It was the heat coming through to her skin
that shocked her to her core.
Gone was the teasing glint and mercurial smile. His eyes were intense as
they bored into her own gaze. “Don’t sell yourself short, princess,” he said
earnestly. “You’re worth more than just someone you can endure. Shouldn’t you
be looking for someone you’re attracted to and could grow to love instead of
simply someone your parents will approve of?”
She jerked her arm out of his hand and stepped back, wishing she didn’t
already feel bereft now that his touch was no longer on her arm. “What do you
know of my situation?” she demanded, furious that the man had heard her
whole, pathetic almost-proposal and could read her so easily.
Sam dropped his hand from her arm and nodded slightly. ”Nothing.
Nothing at all, but my statement still stands. You’re worth a whole lot more.”
Marabeth was captured by the intensity of his gaze. His eyes looked down
deep into her soul as if he could sense the butterflies his touch and closeness
created.
“Well, thank you very much for your advice,” Marabeth whispered. “If
you’ll excuse me, I really should get back to the party. My parents will be
wondering where I am,” she said.
“What about your date?” Sam asked, nodding to the still sleeping man
slumped over on the settee.
Marabeth looked at the man and sighed. “He’s not my date,” she said and
shook her head as she rushed out of the room on shaking legs.
What a fiasco, Marabeth thought as she hurried back into the ballroom and
took a glass of cold champagne. She didn’t really want the liquor. She’d prefer a
glass of ice cold water. Or something that would cool off her embarrassment.
But Marabeth understood that life rarely gave one what was asked of it. She
watched in horror as her brother, Max, brought the tall man from the salon up to
meet her father, who instantly shook his hand and nodded enthusiastically. They
seemed to be talking intently, her father nodding at whatever Sam was saying.
She then watched as a beautiful blond walked up to the group of men.
Marabeth knew the woman, had known her since childhood. She was Lady
Cecile Phillips and she’d been hounding Max to marry her for years.
But tonight she didn’t flirt with Max. Marabeth’s dislike of Lady Cecile grew
to amazing proportions as she turned and seductively flirted with Sam, right in
front of Marabeth’s mother and father, both of whom just smiled benignly. Sam
then led the lovely lady off to the dance floor and smiled down into her vapid
blue eyes as they danced closely.
Marabeth wanted to scream to Sam that Cecile was just a vacuous social
climber who would sell herself off to the highest bidder. She placed her now
empty glass on a side table and took another while she continued to glare at the
striking couple over the rim, wishing both of them to perdition.
And just when Marabeth thought the evening could not get any worse, Sam
looked up over Cecile’s irritating blond head and caught Marabeth staring at
them. He had the audacity to wink at her! Marabeth wanted to throw her glass
of champagne at him but he was too far away, and it wouldn’t be very couth of
her. Manners came as a distant second reason for not throwing it.
Marabeth walked over to where her mother was standing and joined the
group, trying to listen to the conversation. Unfortunately, it was about Sam and
his qualifications for some sort of government position but she wasn’t sure which
since she’d come in at the tail end of the discussion. Obviously Max was
extolling the obnoxious man’s virtues to their parents.
She tried to walk away, not wanting to be involved in the conversation if it
had anything to do with that man who had caught her at possibly the most
humiliating moment of her life. She stepped away but her mother touched her
arm gently. “Are you okay, dear? You look a little flushed,” Queen Natasha
asked gently, always the epitome of grace and elegance.
“I’m fine, mother,” Marabeth said, but she raised one hand to her cheek,
testing its heat.
The queen smiled and turned to face the couples dancing. “Good. Then tell
me what you think of Sam Montrose. I saw you walk back into the ballroom
with him right behind you several minutes ago. What were the two of you
discussing together?”
Marabeth gritted her teeth, not wanting her name connected to the
obnoxious man’s for any reason. “Nothing. I believe he was talking to Max and
I was talking to Richard Marcum.”
That definitely caught her mother’s attention. “Oh, that’s nice. How is he
doing?” Queen Natasha asked.
“He’s fine, I suppose. Very tired, though,” she said with derision, mostly
aimed at herself though.
“Where is he?” the queen asked, looking around the ballroom. “I haven’t
seen him in a while but his mother is over there by the window.”
Marabeth looked at the short, overweight woman who smiled artificially at
everyone in her group. “I believe he’s still in the red salon, but I can’t be sure.”
“Well, I’ll see him later, I suppose. I was wondering, have you considered
him as a possible candidate?” her mother asked.
Marabeth stifled a groan of annoyance. Since she had been in the middle of
proposing to the man, she couldn’t very well lie and say that she hadn’t
considered him. “The thought crossed my mind, but I don’t think he’ll work
out.”
“Why not? He comes from a very nice family. I understand he’s taking over
his father’s business soon. And I’m sure if he didn’t want to do that, we could
find him a civil service job. Maybe that would allow you to live in the palace? I
know your father and I would like that.”
Marabeth sighed. She’d heard this conversation so many times it was
becoming a ritual at every party. Not specifically about Lord Marcum but there
was always some candidate her mother or father pointed out to her and listed
the man’s acceptability for marriage. “I know mother. And yes, I’m sure he’d
make a very nice husband for someone with very low blood pressure,” she said.
The chuckle behind her almost made her temper explode. How she
managed to control the detonation was beyond her powers of reasoning. All
Marabeth could do at that moment was excuse herself from her mother and Sam,
who had finished his dance with Lady Cecile and was now standing on the
perimeters of their group talking to Max and several others, many of whom were
women.
“If you’ll excuse me mother, I really need to talk to Beatrice,” she said,
referring to her school friend she’d just spotted across the room.
The rest of the evening was just as irritating. It seemed that every time she
turned around, she either caught Sam dancing with some other beautiful
woman, or he was looking directly at her. It was disconcerting and exhausting.
By the time the midnight hour struck, Marabeth made her excuses and exited the
ballroom.
She closed the doors to her suite of rooms and pulled her long, white gloves
off. Tossing them onto her dressing table, she stared at her reflection in the
mirror. She didn’t see the redheaded beauty that stared back at her with soft,
blue eyes. Nor did she see the flawless white skin that seemed to glow from
within. All she saw was the awkward, skinny redhead with freckles that boys
had ignored as a teenager. The only reason she’d had her first date at sixteen
was because she’d already been betrothed to George Malcolm, the Third. He had
been killed in a driving accident two years ago, right after her sister’s wedding.
Now Marabeth found herself in the bizarre situation of having to find herself a
new husband.
Several months after his death, she’d heard her parents discussing new,
possible fiancés. She’d begged them to not commit her to someone she wasn’t
remotely attracted to, like George. They’d agreed, but not very happily. They
considered it their responsibility to find her a husband who was safe, having
lived with the continuous threat of kidnapping all their lives.
Marabeth pulled the zipper down her back and, inexplicably, the smell of
Sam came to her mind. She had to admit that he smelled very nice. It wasn’t
cologne which she generally didn’t like on men. But it was earthy and masculine.
Very nice and strong, she thought.
Hanging the dress on a hanger in the closet, she pulled on a silk negligee and
slipped between the sheets. Pushing thoughts of the irritating man out of her
head, she considered the other men she’d seen tonight. Although her parents
were willing to consider her opinion on the subject of her husband, she knew
they were growing impatient to have the issue settled. Marabeth knew her father
wanted grandchildren and an heir to the throne just in case Max never settled
down and married, which was a definite possibility considering the way he
discreetly had a mistress tucked away at all times, but never the same one for
very long.
Marabeth slept fitfully that night, her dreams interrupted by a tall, handsome
man. She ran from him throughout her dreams but each time she turned the
corner, she ran into him, his arms closing around her gently, but firmly and his
head bending down to kiss her lips. Each time her dream came to that point, she
pulled herself out of the dream, waking and frantically trying to go back to sleep
and dream about something else.
By the time the sun was streaming across her bed, she was still exhausted
and none of her anger had dissipated since the man had not only intruded upon
her embarrassing proposal, he’d also plagued her dreams. The man had
absolutely no right to be that invasive she thought.
Walking down to the stables that morning, she tried to let the fresh, spring
air calm her temper and soothe her tired soul. The birds were chirping and the
sun was just coming up over the horizon as she entered the stables.
“Hello, my Beauty,” Marabeth said to her horse as she entered his stall. “I
hope you’re in a frisky mood today,” she said and patted the stallion’s flanks.
The horse whinnied and snickered, eager for Marabeth’s touch. “Oh, my. You
seem to be ready for a real ride today, aren’t you?” she said and led the great,
black stallion out of the stall and into the yard.
Marabeth started the soothing process of saddling her horse, getting ready
for her morning ride. Both horse and rider enjoyed these quiet times and
Marabeth was in no hurry this morning, enjoying the horse’s frisky teasing.
“I understand,” Marabeth said finally as she lifted the heavy saddle onto the
horse’s back, then strapped the buckle underneath. “I’m with you. I need to get
away from here. Too stuffy lately,” she said, thinking she was alone. “I’ll bet you
haven’t seen that irritating man, but if he ever comes around here, you just throw
him off, understand? And tell all your friends, too,” she said and patted the
horse’s flank again reassuringly.
“Who in the world are you talking to?” a deep voice said from behind her.
Marabeth spun around, facing the man with the voice, her body instantly
starting to tremble as his large frame came closer.
“And who would you like your horse, and the entire stable of horses to
throw off his back?” Sam asked, raising one eyebrow as he noted the high color
in her cheeks. “Me, perhaps?”
“What are you doing down here?” Marabeth demanded, ignoring his
question. She wasn’t going to answer him since he was exactly who she wanted
all the horses to toss.
“I’m going riding, of course,” he said. “Didn’t you invite me for a ride?” he
teased.
“No. This is my own private time. I ride alone.”
“Pity,” he said, standing too close for her peace of mind.
“Oh, Sam. I’m glad you’re down here early,” Max said as he came around
the corner. “Marabeth! I didn’t know you were going riding this morning.
Don’t you usually get out there earlier than this?” he asked. His glance went
between Sam and Marabeth, instantly understanding that there was some
unexplained tension between the two of them. “Am I interrupting something?”
he asked.
“Absolutely not,” Marabeth said and walked her horse over to the mounting
block. “I was just on my way,” she said and lifted her leg over the saddle. She
settled herself, then smiled behind her at the two men watching her. “Have a
good ride,” she said and clicked her heel’s into Beauty’s flanks. The horse
instantaneously sprang forward and they were out of the stable area and down
one of her favorite paths.
“Is she always allowed to go off on her own?” Sam asked, watching her ride
away and noting how gorgeous she looked on the stallion. It was as if the two
were made for each other. He inhaled sharply as she led the stallion over a tall
fence, then off into the woods, executing the jump flawlessly.
“Yes. She knows those woods pretty well though. She’ll be back in less than
an hour,” Max said. “Come on. I think our horses should be saddled by now. I
have a lot to talk about with you,” he said and patted Sam on the shoulder.
Sam watched for a few more moments, then followed Max into the stables to
check on their horses. Sam knew what Max wanted to talk to him about so it
wasn’t urgent that they get started. He knew Max was trying to make this both
private so Sam could turn him down if he needed to, but also a time to talk Sam
into taking the position.
Sam knew what his answer would be already. Max was wasting his time.
But if it meant getting on a horse and following the sexy redhead into the woods,
then Sam was all for it.
“Ready?” Max said, pulling himself gracefully onto a strong, brown and
white pinto.
“Absolutely,” Sam said and swung up onto a feisty brown stallion. As soon
as he touched his heels to the horse, he jumped forward, eager to gallop through
the forest. Sam was glad for the horse’s speed since he wanted to try and catch
up with the redhead who had disappeared several minutes ago.
Max led the way through the forest and they spent several minutes racing
down a pathway that wound its way through the trees and bushes, then broke
out into a field of high grass.
Sam could see where the other rider had ridden. Unfortunately, Max took a
different route that led them up a slight incline. The ride was worth it though,
since they topped a hill and were able to stop and watch the valley below with
the sun rising over the trees. They stood still for several long moments and just
enjoyed the stillness.
Max then turned and faced Sam. “So, is there any need for me to try and
convince you to take over as Minister of Defense? The current minister wants to
retire as soon as possible. Both me and my father think you would be the ideal
candidate to replace him.”
Sam looked out over the beautiful countryside. “I don’t understand why
you want me to take over. I already have my own security company.”
“That’s exactly why we want you to take over. Your company is arguably
the best in the world. Your services are requested by just about every important
family and company. You’ve built it up through hard work and common sense.
But you also have a strong military background. You’re the ideal candidate to
take over as Minister of Defense because you understand both the commercial
and military side of all the issues.”
Sam looked out at the horizon, silent for a moment as he took in everything
Prince Maximilian was saying. “Basically, I’ve done it all so you now want me to
give up the easy life of a CEO who can pretty much come and go as I please in
order to serve my country and become embroiled in the security of an entire
people as well as the royal family of Cordova.”
Max smiled cheekily. “That about sums it up.”
“So what’s in it for me?”
Max laughed. “Don’t be coy, Sam. I know you better than that. You’re
chomping at the bit for a new challenge. You’re company is successful and has a
great reputation but you’re bored out of your mind, aren’t you?”
He had a point, Sam thought. The day to day responsibilities of running a
large company were starting to bore him. He knew he’d been looking for a
challenge, but he was pretty sure it didn’t involve playing politics. “You’re still
not giving me any good reason to take the job,” he said.
“You’ll have lots of new toys to play with,” Max said, as if that would entice
him.
“I can buy all the new toys I need,” Sam countered. “Not good enough.”
Max watched his friend and considered his next words carefully. “There’s
trouble brewing in the military. The training is falling below standards, recruits
are starting to get slack, the Navy, although small, is being utilized poorly and
the commanders are getting rowdy. The only thing holding the military together
is my father’s authority. But he has too many diplomatic obligations right now.
We need a strong leader to take over and set things back to rights. That man is
you, Sam.”
Sam didn’t move in his saddle and his thighs held the horse still. He
considered all the things Max was saying and knew that those were the only
words that would have convinced him to take the job. Sam loved this country
and knew he would have to step in and fix things. He couldn’t let his beloved
country flounder. It was small, but strategic and the strong military and
diplomatic finesse of his king were the only two things that kept Cordova from
becoming a puppet in the world theatre. He knew he would do anything to keep
that from happening.
Sam sighed and, without looking at Max, said, “When do you need me to
take over?”
Max smothered a smile of satisfaction. “Tomorrow?” he joked.
Sam glanced over at the prince and raised one eyebrow. “That bad, huh?”
“It’s getting there. How about if you start to look into the situation
immediately? Let us know what needs to happen and what kind of support
you’ll need. I know Admiral Chennok is ready to step down immediately and
head for retirement but after your assessment of the situation, you can determine
your own start date. That will also give you the time needed to find a successor
to your company.”
Sam nodded and watched as the image he had been hoping to see finally
appeared. The woman on the black horse raced across the valley, her red hair
streaming out behind her. Although he couldn’t hear her, he knew the moment
she laughed in delight. The sun glittered and followed the gorgeous creature as
she rode her horse through the tall grass.
Mistress to the Prince
This meeting was ludicrous!
Prince Maximillian Gregorio Marquenda stifled a spurt of irritation when the
bald man banged his fist against the polished conference room table. He
pretended to listen politely to the group of elderly gentlemen as they tried to
convince him that the government of Cordova needed to fund their latest project.
As soon as the double doors to the conference room opened, Max’s attention
was diverted and he wasn’t disappointed. He saw her walking toward him and
could feel his body reacting to just the sight of her. Out of the corner of his eye,
he noted how long her legs looked in her perfect, business-like suit. Gritting his
teeth, he prepared himself for her closeness, for her subtle, flowery perfume that
had haunted him for so many nights.
The lead on his pencil snapped when she whispered the urgent message in
his ear.
The broken lead had nothing to do with her words and everything to do with
her lips so close to his ear. Max had been concentrating on the discussion,
quickly taking notes on the margins of the report but with her mouth so close to
his ear, all he wanted to do was kiss her sexy lips that were definitely not
business-like and smell her incredibly alluring perfume.
But he didn’t. Because Tara Jacobs had never shown any indication that she
was interested in Max in any way other than as an employer. In fact, the woman
went to great pains to make sure he didn’t get the wrong impression. He
gripped his broken pencil and tried to concentrate on her words as she repeated
her message. It was useless. Standing up, he put a hand to the small of her back
and guided her out of the conference room.
“I’m sorry, what was that?” his deep voice asked as soon as the doors closed
behind them.
Tara Jacobs, his sexy, seductive, amazingly efficient and professional
secretary repeated the message while standing in front of him this time and Max
was finally able to understand her words.
“King Alexander has requested your presence immediately,” Tara explained.
“I’m sorry, I wouldn’t have interrupted your meeting for anything less,” Tara
said, the apology in her eyes as well as being spoken by those lips that Max had
created some vivid fantasies around.
“That’s fine,” Max ground out, and tried to ignore the appeal of her soft, blue
eyes or wonder how long her hair was. Every day it was neatly twisted into a
tight, professional chignon, painstakingly pinned to the back of her neck without
a wisp escaping. It didn’t matter. There was nothing Tara Jacobs could do to
diminish her appeal. Even with her hair pulled back harshly, her eyes were too
soft and her lips too full for anyone to forget how incredibly beautiful she was.
Refocusing on the task at hand, Max handed her his notes. “Can you sit in
on the meeting for me and take notes?” he asked.
With a nod, Tara took his report and entered the room without a backwards
glance in his direction.
Max almost cursed under his breath, wishing he could maintain the same
detached professionalism that seemed to be effortless to her. Unfortunately, ever
since she’d started working for him, he’d grown more and more fascinated by
the woman. Did she even know that he existed as anything other than her
employer or the crown prince of her country? He doubted it. She was too
business oriented. Tara probably didn’t even know that he was a different
gender.
He glared at the closed doors. Other women threw themselves at him and
he’d heard recently that he’d been nominated the most desirable bachelor for
some women’s magazine. What did other women see in him that Tara didn’t?
Max turned on his heel, disgusted with himself for even thinking such
ridiculous thoughts and walked quickly down the hallway toward his father’s
office. The king rarely summoned him during business hours so it must be
something important to be called down to his father’s office in the middle of the
day. They generally spoke during dinner hours and discussed the business of the
country and projects that happened during the day.
“Yes father?” Max asked as soon as he stepped into his father’s private
offices.
“Max! Good, good. Very efficient secretary you have there. I only called her
five minutes ago.”
“Yes. She’s very good,” he said, thinking of her luscious figure and
wondering how good she would feel in his arms. He instinctively knew they
would be incredible together.
“Have a seat,” the king said, interrupting Max’s sexual fantasy that starred
his not-interested secretary. The king waved behind him indicating the sofa and
chairs that were situated in one corner of his office. “I wanted to talk to you
without the rest of the family around. Especially your mother.”
Max had a sneaking suspicion he knew what this was going to be about if his
father didn’t want his mother involved. Marriage. Or more specifically,
grandchildren.
As soon as they were both settled, Max was proven right. “I want to know
what you’re doing about producing an heir, son.”
Max settled back and smiled fondly at his father. “I think you have several
heirs and the trend will continue if Ana and Mara’s current pattern is any
indication,” he joked.
The king was not interested in joking. “Don’t be obtuse, Max. This is serious
stuff. You’re thirty six years old. You have an obligation to your title and to your
country to marry and produce an heir to the throne. You should already have
your nursery set up and well established by now. I want to know what is
keeping you from producing my grandson.”
Max wasn’t intimidated by the king’s demands. He smiled and nodded his
head. “Just find me the right woman and I’ll marry her, Father.” He ignored the
image of Tara’s impish smile that popped into his head. She wasn’t interested in
him in that way and he needed to accept that.
“Now, you know after the last two marriage experiences in this family, your
mother has refused to do anything about arranged marriages anymore.
Marabeth’s was a relief to get out of and, well, you know about Anastasia’s
shocking behavior,” the king shook his head at the memories. “Didn’t think
we’d make it to the alter on that one,” the king said gruffly, remembering the
chaos both his daughters had caused during their romances prior to the
wedding.
Max laughed at his father’s continued annoyance more than three years after
Ana’s wedding. Getting back to the topic, he reminded his father, “I take out
every woman mother sees fit to match me up with.”
“And then some,” King Stephan grumbled, eyeing his son with a stern
expression. “And if I know your mother, she’s picking eminently eligible ladies
to introduce you to. She’s just as interested in having grandchildren but for a
whole different reason entirely,” he said stiffly.
Max smiled, knowing his father wanted exactly the same thing his mother
wanted. “Are you saying you wouldn’t like a few grandkids to spoil? Don’t
even try to convince me that you’re only interested in ensuring succession of the
crown,” Max laughed. “I’ve seen you around Mindy, Lucas and Angelica. You
love those kids,” he said, referring to his nieces and nephew.
The king smiled fondly at the thought of his three grandchildren. “Yes, but
they don’t live here. And none will take over the throne. That’s up to you. So
what are you going to do about it?”
An image of a sultry, efficient brunette popped into his head. He quickly
banished the idea. Tara didn’t even know he was male, he reminded himself. If
it didn’t have a computer or budget attached to it, she wouldn’t notice it. “I’ll get
right on it,” Max said. “Was there anything else?”
King Stephan sighed heavily. “No. That’s all. We’ll catch up on the rest
later.”
Max stood up and walked over to his father’s chair. “Sorry I can’t speed
things up, Father,” he said and patted his father’s shoulder.
“Well, see what you can do about trying,” Stephan said gruffly as his son
walked to his office door.
“Will do,” Max said before closing the door behind him. He walked back to
his offices and found the meeting he’d left just letting out. Tara was still writing
down notes on a notebook.
She looked up and noticed him, then quickly straightened, “I’ll get these
notes typed up for you immediately,” she said and efficiently walked over to her
computer.
“That’s fine,” Max said, stopping a short distance away so he could admire
her legs in the shorter than normal skirt. “What’s next on the agenda?” he asked,
sitting down on the corner of her desk.
He watched as Tara pressed a few keys on her keyboard and his daily
agenda popped up. “You have lunch with security, then afternoon meetings with
the machinists union. That runs until five o’clock, and a charity ball tonight with
Lady Margaret.”
“Hmm..not very interesting, huh?”
Tara turned and smiled, her dimples appearing as if by magic.
Margaret isn’t interesting?”
“Lacy
Max shook his head, enjoying the smile on her face. “Never met her. She’s
another one of my mother’s setups.”
“Well, be nice to this one,” she laughed. “From what you told me about
yesterday’s fiasco, you were bordering on rude.”
Max wasn’t immune to her dimples.
His body always reacted to her
laughter because of those alluring dimples so he had to cough slightly to come
up with a response. “If you’re referring to the Countess Sophia, I was being
incredibly nice. I warned her in advance of her annoying habits and I couldn’t
help it when she ignored my warnings.”
“Yes, well, signing her up for nose surgery was really not gentlemanly.”
Tara shook her head, remembering Max telling her the next day about the
conversation he’d had to have with his date who snorted when she laughed.
“I’ll bet she does it though,” Max teased.
Tara tried to maintain her frown, but he was just too charming. “I’ll bet she
does too,” she said grinning, knowing that just about any woman would do
anything to stay in the good graces of Prince Maximillian. It could be nauseating
at times, the lengths some women would go through to get his attention.
Tara watched him flip through the notes she’d made on the report, admiring
his long, slender fingers, his muscular forearms. She knew that the immaculately
tailored suit hid the body of an Adonis. Max worked out in the gym either with
trainers, his military leaders, usually Sam Montrose who was the Minister of
Defense and an expert at martial arts, or by himself each morning for two hours
and his body was packed with muscles. The shoulders of his suit were not
padded by his tailor. In fact, his tailor probably had trouble finding enough cloth
to cover those broad shoulders.
Tara’s eyes continued to travel up his face, admiring his square jaw and firm
lips that could quote the most beautiful poetry or slice a man to shreds in a
meeting if Max didn’t think the project or information had been up to his
exacting standards. Tara never wanted to be on the receiving side of one of those
tongue lashings. She liked her skin on her body, not shredded.
Her eyes moved higher, noting the long lashes she had always been jealous
of. No man had the right to keep those lashes, she thought. They belonged on a
girl.
She realized too late that he was staring at her and quickly looked down at
her computer, her cheeks warming under his gaze.
“What did your father want to discuss with you?” she asked quickly, busily
straightening her already perfectly neat desk.
“My sex life,” Max teased, wanting to see her cheeks turn red again. He was
curious about her long perusal and her reaction to him. Interesting!
It worked. Her eyes widened and her face turned even redder. “I’m sorry?”
she choked.
He grinned at her flustered response. “Well, more specifically, my lack of an
heir but they all go together, in my mind at least.”
“Ah,” she whispered, trying to banish the images his words produced in her
head. Tara knew he would have the most beautiful children. How could he not?
He was definitely the most handsome man she’d ever met in her life. “And did
you explain how actively you’re working on that project?”
“No. I can’t lie to my father.”
Tara didn’t understand. “I thought you had a good time with Ms. Michaels
last week. She seemed very nice.”
Max shrugged his extremely large shoulders in indifference. “She was nice
enough. But not really my type.”
Tara raised her eyebrows at his response. “I thought your type was female,”
she laughed. “What was Ms. Michaels lacking?”
“Personality.”
“She wasn’t nice?”
“Oh, she was very nice. Pathetically nice.”
“Pathetically nice? Is that possible?”
“Yes. I’d like my wife to have a spine and opinions of her own. I have my
own, she won’t need to adopt them to make me happy.”
Tara sat down in her chair and pulled it closer to her computer, still
chuckling at his answer. “Hmm…publish that in the paper and you’re likely to
get a riot outside the palace,” she laughed.
“I’m sure my mother would pick several women out of the crowd and bring
them in for a date with me,” he grimaced.
“I’m sure she would.” They were interrupted by the phone ringing. Tara
picked it up and answered it professionally. After only a moment, she nodded
and then hung up the phone. “You’re lunch meeting is waiting for you in the
dining room.”
Max sighed and pushed away from the wall he’d been leaning against. Just
once, he wished she’d slam down the phone after telling the caller that he was
unavailable. But then, he also wanted to kiss her until she couldn’t answer the
phone coherently. Since he didn’t dare do that for fear of offending her and risk
losing her, he simply nodded. “I’ll be there shortly,” he said.
“Have fun,” she called out to his retreating back.
“Who is it with?” he asked.
She glanced down at her computer screen, still showing his calendar. “The
Director of Security, Mike Daniels. You’re discussing security and environmental
concerns over the proposed coastal highway.”
Max eyed her sharply. “You set this up, didn’t you?” he asked, knowing she
had a soft spot for endangered species and pristine beaches.
Tara shook her head, but couldn’t hide her grin. “No, but I didn’t turn him
down when he called to request the appointment,” she said cheekily. “At least it
is over lunch and I made sure it was your favorite today,” she called.
Max raised his eyebrows hopefully. “Steak and a beer?”
“Liver and onions,” she called out as he stepped out of the office.
Max poked his head back in at her words, “You’re kidding, right?” he asked,
genuinely worried.
“Would I tease you?” she asked, her face serious. “I thought you loved liver
and onions.”
Max watched her for another long moment, not sure if she was kidding. He
hated liver and onions but he’d have to eat it if that was being served. He
couldn’t offend his guests by not eating whatever was placed in front of him.
He left, considering the idea of stopping in the kitchen to make sure it wasn’t
liver and onions but several people caught him along the way and he was
running late. Max didn’t want to keep the director waiting.
Max let out a breath of anticipation when the lunch was served. Seafood
salad and rice pilaf allowed him to concentrate on the minister’s words. But only
to a point. He was slowly concocting ways to get back at his saucy secretary as
soon as he got back to the office. He’d make her sit through the union meetings,
he decided. That would be punishment enough for anyone, he smiled.
The security minister must have thought Max was agreeing with him
because he launched into a more detailed discussion on other issues and Max
groaned inwardly. Oh, yes. Tara was definitely going to pay for this one.
The meal finally ended and Max excused himself and headed back to his
office. Upon entering, he saw Tara’s hands hesitate on the keys before she
continued to type.
He walked up to her desk and leaned down so he was looking into her eyes.
“You’re going to pay for that one. You understand that, don’t you?”
Tara’s eyes widened in feigned innocence but when his stern expression
didn’t alter, she burst into laughter.
Max shook his head, trying to keep from laughing himself. “I don’t think
you have the proper respect for my title, Ms. Jacobs,” he said, continuing with his
stern expression. “I have the perfect remedy for that though.”
Tara finally gained control of her laughter, but just barely. “Oh, I’m sorry,
Your Highness. And you’re wrong. I have just enough respect for you and your
title. And I’m willing to prove it,” she said, standing up and bowing carefully.
Max stood up, crossing his arms over his chest and watched her mock him.
He also received a delightful glimpse of the upper curves of her breasts when she
bowed low and her silk shirt fluttered open slightly.
“A female curtsies,” he explained and rolled his eyes. “A man bows. So
again, how are you going to prove your respect?”
Tara sat back down in her chair and shook her head. “Sorry, no curtsies. I’m
not that coordinated. What would satisfy you?” she asked and looked up at him,
her eyes twinkling with merriment.
Several ideas came to mind on how she could satisfy him but none were
appropriate at the moment. He cleared his throat and focused on his previous
idea for punishment. “You’re going to sit through these afternoon meetings with
me. And you’ll take notes and keep these men in line. They’d never get rowdy
when a lady is present.”
Tara was shaking her head at his first mention of the interminably long
meetings with the union representatives. “Oh, Your Highness, please. Not those
meetings. They are scheduled for the rest of the afternoon!”
Max just shook his head, showing he wasn’t going to relent this time. “Sorry,
you’re punishment,” he said and walked away. He didn’t mention that he would
enjoy staring at her legs for the afternoon, which would help him get through the
boring and probably hostile meetings. The thought perked him up instantly.
The phone rang and their small period of levity was over for the rest of the
day. It was usually extremely busy in his office but Max trusted that all the
important information was filtering up to him. Tara had a wonderful way of
controlling the chaos and managing the problems so only the most important
issues reached his desk. She was usually able to resolve most issues before they
became a problem and he loved that about her. Her predecessor would bring
everything to him and Max sometimes became frustrated trying to delegate
issues to others.
Max left the meeting with the union representatives and headed straight into
the negotiations with the mechanics. He realized a little too late that it might
have been an error to have Tara sit in on the meetings all afternoon. His gaze
kept straying to her long legs that were crossed demurely as she sat in the chair
next to him. Each time she moved, his focus was distracted from the discussions
to her legs and he had to force himself to concentrate on the conversation again.
He was sure he missed several pertinent topics during those periods.
Tara stepped out at one point and came back with a tray of cookies and tea
for everyone. It was right at the moment when the tension was rising between
the mechanics and the owners. The break helped enormously and Max again
appreciated how she had an innate knack for knowing when things were
becoming unproductive and reading people correctly. The rest of the meeting
went off without a hitch and Max attributed that to the tea break where people
got up, stretched and had informal discussions with each other. They were all
able to settle back down and figure out a solution to several complaints between
the two groups.
It was seven o’clock when Max finally sat back in his office chair. He noticed
that Tara was no longer at her desk but her computer and light were still on.
Max knew he should get moving to his rooms. He had some event he had to
attend but he wasn’t sure what it was.
He got up and moved out to her office, looking around. He clicked a few
keys and pulled up his schedule. He wasn’t thrilled. It was a charity ball for
some organization he’d never heard of. And he definitely wasn’t looking
forward to meeting Lady Cecile, whoever she was.
The click of Tara’s shoes behind him let him know that she was approaching
and he moved out of her way. As soon as he took in her appearance, his mouth
almost dropped open. Tara, his Tara who never dated, who always dressed in
the most business-like suits possible, was dressed in a simple but elegant black,
crepe cocktail dress that hugged her slender figure, making his mind whirl. Her
hair was no longer neatly pinned to her neck but was flowing down her back,
ending at her waist in soft, lustrous curls.
“What’s going on?” he asked, instantly furious about her dress. He had
known she was slender and built, but he’d had no idea she had such a traffic
stoppingly incredible figure. She was voluptuous on top but with slender hips
and long legs peeking out of a demure side slit on her dress.
“I have a date,” Tara said, not meeting his eyes as she squeezed around him
to turn off her computer. “And you have a ball to get ready for,” she reminded
him.
“You have a date? Since when?” Max asked, extremely bothered by this fact.
“Since last week.”
“Who is he?” Max demanded, not liking the idea of any other man touching
her. He knew he couldn’t but he’d never even considered the possibility of
another man doing what he constantly thought of doing.
“A friend of a friend,” she explained casually.
His lips formed a thin line at her lack of an answer. “You’re going on a blind
date? Isn’t that rather dangerous?”
Tara laughed nervously. “You’re questioning me about danger? The man
who pushes the limits on danger almost daily?”
“I’m serious, Tara. Why are you going on a blind date?” he asked, stepping
quickly out of her way as she reached down for her purse, but he got a whiff of
her perfume and it just made him angrier. He didn’t like the idea of another man
seeing her like this. He wanted to spend the evening with her, smell her perfume
and run his fingers through her silky hair. Max clenched his jaw shut before he
said something along those lines out loud.
Tara became annoyed with his double standard. The whole point of her date
was to get over her infatuation with him and now he was getting angry with her?
“Why don’t you enjoy your date tonight, and I’ll enjoy mine,” she snapped, not
the slightest bit intimidated by his angry posturing. “Then we can exchange
notes tomorrow? I really need to hurry now. I’m running a little late.” She
pressed a few keys on her computer to finish shutting it down for the night, then
slung her purse over her shoulder.
He watched her walk away on her sexy heels and wanted to pull her back.
“Wait a minute, Tara,” he called out to her retreating back. “Who is this guy? Do
you even know him? Have you spoken to him? Do you know anything about
him? What does he do for a living?”
Tara didn’t answer his questions as she walked to the doorway. “Your
Highness, you’re not my father. I’ll see you tomorrow bright and early. I believe
Lady Margaret, your date tonight, is a lovely blond. You like blonds,” she said
and turned the corner in the office leaving Max still staring at the empty space.
About The Attracelli Family Series
This was probably my most challenging series, simply because there are so
many siblings.В And to start out Never Dare A Tycoon with the oldest sister's death
was a bit scary.В I wasn't sure if readers would connect when I started off with a
tragedy. But I went ahead and rolled with the idea. These were also the first stories I submitted to the “traditional” publishing
houses. В Needless to say, they were rejected. В And also needless to say, I'm
eternally grateful that they were.В I now retain rights to all of these stories and I
love reading them myself every once in a while.В Never Dare A Tycoon:В Antonia Attracelli.В She's the youngest and only living
female of the clan (Sylvia dies at the beginning of this book and she's the oldest
of all of them).В Being the baby in a family of strong, arrogant Italian men was
difficult but Antonia rebels against their rules and finds her own life.В Falling For The Boss:В Thomas Attracelli.В Thomas is serious and generally
more quiet than the other siblings, but still waters run deep. В He is also the
financial person - analytical, moral, strong and fighting against Victoria's allure.В Risky Negotiations:В Salvatore Attracelli.В Sal is the oldest and the bossiest.В He's always serious because he has so much responsibility but he wears the
burden easily.В Laci causes him to change his focus from the corporate world to a
whole different kind of acquisition.
Proposal to Love:В MichaelВ Attracelli.В Michael is the dare devil of the group.В He's fun-loving and won't let Darcy hide behind her career any longer and he
won't let her hide from him either.В Love's Not Terrifying:В Gus Attracelli.В Gus is the opposite of brooding.В He's
gregarious and laughs a lot - and wants to find the woman with the scent.В He
wants to propose to Alana - a woman he hasn't even seen - simply because of her
rose scented perfume.В Romantic Acquisition: В Carlo Attracelli. В Carlo is ultra serious, ultra
conservative and doesn't speak very much.В As the youngest male in a household
of dominant, overbearing men, he had to learn to protect himself by observing.В He does that a lot of the time in his story. Because I wanted him to be the quiet
type, I knew I had to give him a slightly outrageous woman.В As in many cases, I
chose the name Kate because it's such an ordinary name - but there is nothing
ordinary about Kate.В She shocks and surprises Carlo, constantly throwing him
off balance.В (Well, she throws herself off balance.)В As quiet as Carlo tends to be,
Kate keeps saying her thoughts out loud, shocking even herself.
Never Dare A Tycoon
Prologue
The storm raged outside, rain pelting the long windows of the large family
room making the usually cozy atmosphere cold and ominous. Occasionally, the
wind whipped around the corner of the house and the eerie howl could be heard
inside.
The crackling fire, bright lights and most of her family working at various
tasks around the room didn’t seem to diminish the feeling of doom Antonia was
experiencing. Glancing around the large room, she tried to pinpoint the
problem. But nothing seemed unusual. Everyone was in his or her customary
place. Her mother was sitting at the end of the sofa cross-stitching; her four
older brothers were either at the dining room table doing their own homework or
were lounging in a chair reading. Antonia’s father saw her taking in the scene
and winked at her from behind his newspaper, his cigar smoke curling around
the room, adding a slight cinnamon smell to the surroundings. The only two
missing siblings were the oldest children of the Attracelli family. Salvatore, the
oldest of the six children was in his second year at Harvard and Sophia, the next
oldest, was in her first year at MIT. Both were in Boston, too far away for her
mother and father’s comfort, but they were proud of all their children’s
accomplishments.
Refocusing on her homework, Antonia bit her lower lip in concentration as
she tried to figure out the algebra problem for her assignment. It was her first
week of fifth grade and Antonia was trying to make a good impression with her
new teachers. She was the only student in her grade that was allowed to take
algebra and she was determined to prove she could excel at the task. She
dismissed her uneasiness, attributing it to her imagination.
The shrill ring of the telephone seemed to make everyone jump. The sound
echoed throughout the room and rising above the thunder booming outside the
room.
For some reason, Antonia wanted to tell her mother not to answer the
phone…to ignore the summons. It couldn’t be good, although she had no
evidence to back up her premonition.
She heard her mother’s cheerful greeting as she spoke to the person at the
other end of the line. Antonia immediately sensed her mother’s change in mood
before she noticed the tensing of her shoulders. Her brothers were still doing
their own homework, oblivious to the altered atmosphere. Antonia instinctively
knew that her mother was in pain but she didn’t understand why because silence
prevailed. She kept searching the faces of the rest of the family, trying to decide
if her instincts about her mother were ridiculous.
Antonia stood as the phone fell out of her mother’s hand, landing with a
foreboding thud onto the floor. She watched as her mother’s shoulders began
shaking. Her mother’s hands went to cover her ears as if she could stop the
agonizing information from coming. As Antonia watched, her mother bent over
the table and an anguished wail tore out of her soul. It was as if her life were
being pulled from her body.
The sound was the most horrific in Antonia’s young life.
Instantly, Antonia’s father threw down his paper and came over to his wife,
holding her up as she melted into the security of his arms, sobbing out her pain
and anguish but unable to tell him what was wrong. Carlos came over and
picked up the phone, attempting to ascertain the situation while their father tried
to comfort their mother.
“Hello?” Carlos said, his voice just recently changing to the deeper tones of
adulthood.
Apparently the person assumed it was the father and repeated the
information. Antonia’s fear intensified as she watched Carlos’ face turn white.
But he nodded his head, then calmly put the phone back on its receiver.
When he turned around again, the tears were already rolling down his
cheeks. He cleared his throat and put one hand on the back of his still sobbing
mother, communicating his understanding of her pain. “Sophia…” he started,
only to stop and push back the emotion, “Sophia died,” he explained. “She and a
friend walked by a convenience store as a burglar was trying to get away. It was
late last night. Sophia died on the way to the hospital.”
Chapter 1
Fifteen Years Later
Out in the street, traffic was heavy with the afternoon lunch crowd moving
either to their favorite meal spot or from it. Either way, Brett Hancock was
impatient with the lunch hour traffic. Being only a few minutes late for his lunch
appointment meant that he’d missed the window of lighter traffic. Punctuality
was an asset, he thought to himself as he negotiated his BMW into traffic.
He was about to turn off the main street and head down a side one in order
to cut a few minutes off his time when a speeding motorcycle zoomed by him,
nearly hitting his black BMW in the process.
“What the…?” Brett slammed on his brakes and cursed under his breath.
All he saw was a stream of black curly hair flying out behind a woman on a
red motorcycle. It wasn’t following the traffic patterns but was driving beside all
the cars waiting for the light to turn so they could move forward. It was illegal to
drive beside cars like that, outside of a lane and practically on the sidewalk. But
someone hadn’t mentioned that fact to the driver, Brett thought irritably. All he
caught was the hair that escaped from the helmet as it lifted in the breeze. The
rest of her was a blur and she turned the corner at the next intersection so he
couldn’t get a license plate number.
Brett made it to the restaurant with a few minutes to spare. He handed his
keys to the valet and walked inside, nodding slightly to the doorman.
Inside, he was led directly to his table. He didn’t even glance around the
elegant room decorated with white linen tablecloths, pink rose centerpieces or
the crystal chandeliers which reflected the sunlight streaming into the room from
the Palladian windows. The starkness of the room was offset only by thick,
subtle floral carpeting and the extremely large bouquet of pink and white flowers
in the center of the room that matched the pattern in the carpeting.
Salvatore Attracelli and one of the vice presidents Brett had met the night
before were already seated at the table discussing some papers when Brett sat
down.
Sal immediately stood up when he saw Brett. “How are you today?” Brett
said, shaking both men’s hands. “Recovered from Cesar’s?” he inquired, cursing
himself as soon as the words were out of his mouth. Their gorgeous waitress
from the exclusive bar where they’d initially discussed a business deal the night
before was on his mind almost constantly this morning. It occurred to him that
the waitress from the previous evening and the woman on the motorcycle both
had similar hair and comparable …well…posteriors.
Sal and Scott laughed. “Not really. I think I had too much to drink, but I
guess that’s the whole point of the place, isn’t it?” Scott said.
Sal looked at his watch when they were all seated again. “I’m sorry, but I
invited my sister to join us. I haven’t seen her in a while and was hoping she and
I could spend some time together after lunch. But she’s late, as usual,” he said,
trying to hide his annoyance.
Scott immediately perked up. “Antonia’s joining us?” he asked.
Sal noticed Scott’s eagerness and frowned slightly. He didn’t know what
happened on their date years ago, but Antonia had refused to meet three other
men Sal had tried to introduce her to afterwards. That couldn’t be a good sign.
No matter how Antonia felt about a person, she always gave them a chance. But
after one dinner with Scott, all of Sal’s subsequent matchmaking attempts had
been immediately shot down.
Brett looked at his watch. He had several meetings this afternoon that
couldn’t be rescheduled. He didn’t know Sal’s sister, but surely she’d arrive
when she got here. Delaying their lunch meeting until she appeared was a waste
of everyone’s time.
“Well, until she gets here, why don’t you tell me what you thought of the
numbers floating around last night? Now that we’ve had some time to think
about it, I’d like to get your ideas,” he said, starting the meeting without Sal’s
sister.
Sal took the hint and they launched into a discussion about revising the
numbers, tossed around the idea of different loan types as well as other financing
options.
Chapter 2
Oblivious to the three men’s dismissal of her, Antonia drove by the
restaurant, not stopping to let the valet park her motorcycle. Instead, she turned
the corner at the next block and parked it along the street. Glancing up and
down the street, she checked to make sure no one would see her, then she
unsnapped the helmet and pulled it off, shaking her hair loose as she went.
Hopping off the bike, she took off her backpack and exchanged some of its
contents. She took out the pink wool skirt and matching jacket and replaced
them with her leather jacket – rolled up so that it fit back inside her backpack.
She pulled the skirt up over her jeans, pulled the jeans down, and smoothed her
cream colored stockings, making sure she wasn’t revealing anything in the
process. That done, she rolled the jeans up and stuffed them into the backpack as
well, taking out a slim black purse with a gold chain and pretty, pink pumps to
replace her more practical cowboy boots. The pink pumps were not her normal
style. But then, neither was the whole outfit, so she endured the prissy suit and
classic shoes, knowing her eldest brother would approve of the ensemble.
The transformation done, she stood up and smoothed everything into place,
checking the street again. This was one of Sal’s favorite restaurants in the city, so
she’d been here several times, changing in the same manner each time. So far,
luck had been on her side and she hadn’t been caught by anyone, including her
oldest, very conservative and straight-laced brother who would never approve of
the way she lived her life.
But it was her life and she would not be dictated to by any of her five older
brothers who would only be satisfied when she was safely married. Coming
from an extremely traditional, Italian-American family had some good and some
bad. Her older brothers’ protectiveness was part of the bad she’d learned to deal
with over the years.
Taking a deep breath, Antonia walked gracefully to the front of the
restaurant, winking at Jim, the doorman, and handing him a small box of white
chocolates. Jim shook his head, smiling, but accepted the chocolates, his mouth
watering as he anticipated sneaking one into his mouth at the first opportunity.
“You’d best hurry, Miss Attracelli. They’re already in there.”
“Uh, oh,” she said, and grimaced, knowing how much Sal valued
punctuality. Cringing, she glanced at her watch. She didn’t mention that she
was late because she’d stopped at the tiny bakery that specialized in his favorite
chocolates. “I guess I’m pretty late, aren’t I?” she said. “Don’t eat all those
chocolates before I leave here, understand?” she said, knowing they’d be almost
gone by the time she walked out.
“Don’t worry,” Jim said, grinning like a schoolboy. “I made the mistake of
telling my wife about them last time and she just about knocked my head off
because I hadn’t saved her any. I learned my lesson. At least one is coming
home with me tonight,” he laughed.
Antonia laughed as well. His wife was a tiny woman that barely reached
Jim’s shoulder. But she had him right where she wanted him. And Jim was
exactly where he wanted to be, so it wasn’t a problem.
At the maitre d’s station, Antonia smiled to Jeffrey. “Is Sal here already
Jeffrey?” she asked, hoping against hope that Jim might be wrong. Just once,
she’d like to be the first to arrive so she wouldn’t have to see her brother’s look of
disapproval when she walked up to the table. Sal was the only one who could
make her feel self-conscious. Her other brothers were too fun loving to worry
about little things like time and punctuality. Most of the time, anyway.
Jeffrey nodded his head.
“Your brother’s been here for twenty minutes
although Mr. Hancock only arrived at one o’clock.”
Antonia’s face showed the shock and anger she felt at discovering that her
brother had arranged a lunch meeting with her, but it was in the guise of a setup. “He promised me just this morning that it wasn’t a set-up. He lied to me,”
she said, furious.
Jeffrey sympathized with her. He’d seen her lunches with several of the men
her brothers had arranged for her. He also knew that none had reached her in
any way other than as nice companions for a meal occasionally.
Exasperated, she looked at her appearance in her small compact mirror.
“Well, since I’m already late, I guess I should go tidy up a bit. You know how Sal
is about appearances.”
Jeffrey nodded his head and put the menu back in its holder. “I’ll see you
when you’re finished.”
Antonia smiled gratefully before turning and heading into the ladies room.
She pulled a comb through her black, curly hair that refused to be tamed, then
added more lipstick and a touch of powder to her nose. Satisfied that she’d done
all she could, she marched out of the bathroom, then followed Jeffrey as he led
her to the best table in the restaurant.
Sure enough, Sal’s face was full of disapproval when she walked up to the
table at ten minutes after one o’clock. Antonia accepted the menu from Jeffrey,
winking at him when Sal looked away.
She knew her suit was perfect for Sal’s taste. It was a pink Channel suit
given to her by Carlo last year, her older brother by two years. The skirt was the
right length, not too high above her knees, yet not snobbishly demure either. The
triple strand of pearls at her neck was a nice accent, as were the small pearls at
her ears.
Antonia could tell that from Sal’s expression that, although she was tardy,
her appearance was acceptable.
She hated this outfit. It was the perfect dress, the perfect accessories, and the
perfect shoes. It wasn’t her at all. But since they were gifts from her brothers,
and because they all thought she looked nice in them, she wore them whenever
she was around them. Nice meant that she looked like a good, Italian girl was
supposed to look. She wore the clothes they gave her in order to keep peace in
the family and because she knew that her brothers cared for her. If making them
happy meant showing up for a meal in clothes they approved of, she didn’t have
a problem with that.
“I’m sorry to interrupt all of you,” she said to the three men taking their seats
again. “Please continue,” she said, picking up her menu as she looked at each of
the three men.
Her eyes immediately snapped back to the man opposite her. He was
absolutely gorgeous! An electric jolt shot through her system when she felt his
eyes on her. She tried looking at the menu, out the window, or anywhere else as
the men discussed some business deal they were currently working on. But her
eyes were captured by the darkest, most devilishly brown eyes she’d ever seen in
her life. And they were owned by a man with broad shoulders, dark blond hair,
and a simply spectacular physique.
Well, what she could see of it anyway. She could tell that the suit he wore
didn’t have padding in the shoulders. And the white cotton shirt couldn’t hide
the muscles that rippled on his stomach as he resumed his seat.
It was a shock but this man more than rivaled Sal in looks! Normally, when
Sal was in a room, women fought to get his attention, but not this time, Antonia
thought distractedly. This man could definitely compete with her oldest brother!
Whoever this new guy was, he was currently staring at her as if she’d said or
done something extremely funny.
Did she have something on her face? A smudge perhaps? No, Jeffrey would
have said something to her before bringing her over. What then?
After a moment, she looked down at the menu and tried to concentrate.
Who was this man sitting across from her? She tried to relax, but she knew he
was still staring at her even though the other two men were deciding on what to
have for lunch.
When the waiter arrived to take their order, she requested a chef’s salad,
despite the fact that she really craved a big, juicy burger.
The menus were taken away and Antonia was forced to sit through the lunch
while the three men discussed business. Sitting quietly, she bit her tongue when
Sal mentioned a financing option for a project in Florida. She’d just read in the
paper this morning about proposed changes to Florida’s finance laws that would
add points to the proposal and make it more costly than other options.
Antonia refused to look at the man sitting across from her. She knew every
time his eyes settled on her because her body temperature rose several degrees.
She couldn’t meet his gaze though. She prayed that her face wasn’t betraying
her emotions. For some reason, this man scared her more than Sal ever had. It
was as if he had some sort of control over her soul and the tingling she felt made
her want to wiggle in her damask covered chair.
Antonia continued to keep her mouth shut during the interminably long
lunch. It was almost three thirty when the man across from her, she forgot his
name because she was too busy looking at him during the introductions, and
Scott stood up. Sal also stood, but explained that he was staying to talk with his
sister for a while.
The stranger turned to Antonia and picked up her hand, taking it to his lips
in an old-fashioned kiss. “I’m thrilled we were able to meet this afternoon. It
was a pleasure,” he said, his deep voice gliding along her skin, making her
nerves tingle and her heartbeat accelerate.
Scott, clearing his throat, only shook Antonia’s hand and said a simple
goodbye. As he left, the look on his face clearly showed his irritation.
Antonia sat back down once the two men left. Her skin was still burning
from the man’s touch. It was ridiculous, but she couldn’t deny it. She avoided
her brother’s eyes when he resumed his seat, knowing he wasn’t happy with her
but why that was the case, she couldn’t figure out.
“You look beautiful, Antonia,” Sal said to start the conversation.
“Thank you,” she replied softly, smiling brightly. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so
bad after all. Maybe he just wanted to catch up. Although she was at his house
each Sunday after church, there were usually so many people there, it was hard
to sit down and talk with one person.
“How have you been lately? I haven’t really talked to you in a while,” he
said, leaning forward on the white linen tablecloth, pyramiding his hands.
“I’ve been fine. How about you?” she asked, starting to relax slightly. Could
she dare suspect that Sal might be treating her like an adult instead of a
recalcitrant child? Might she even be so brave as to voice her opinion on some of
the topics discussed over lunch?
“I’ve been worried about you. Are you eating well?”
Antonia’s smile faltered slightly. So much for being treated as an adult. “No,
I eat only candy. It sometimes sticks in my braces,” she teased, “but that doesn’t
matter. With modern technology, they can pull it out when I go to the
orthodontist,” she began, then sensed Sal’s frustration. Shaking her head, she
said, “Yes, I’ve been eating well, I guess. I don’t really know because I generally
buy the same groceries each week. But they’re mostly fruit and vegetables,” she
said, giving in and easing his concern. He was only showing his love for her,
even if it was overbearing and patronizing sometimes.
She decided to have a heart to heart talk with her older brother. “Sal, will
there ever be a time when you might treat me as a responsible adult? I can take
care of myself. You don’t need to worry about me,” she explained, hoping he
might listen this time.
“How is your apartment?” he asked, ignoring her comment about his
treatment of her. “Are you still comfortable in the two bedroom unit?”
Antonia bit her lip. This was dangerous territory. She quickly glanced at his
eyes, trying to gauge his question. Did he know something?
But his face was relaxed. Antonia suspected he was trapping her, but that
could just be her paranoia. When one lived a lie, it seemed that even the most
innocent questions were an interrogation.
“It’s fine,” she said. “No floods, no robberies,” she joked.
“Why won’t you invite anyone there?” he asked.
Antonia looked anywhere but at Sal, not sure she could hold her tongue with
her frustration over his inability to treat her as anything other than his little
sister.
“My apartment burned down so I’m living in a homeless shelter. This was
the only outfit I was able to salvage. And you know why I don’t invite anyone
there.”
“Tell me again,” he said, clenching his jaw in frustration.
Crossing her arms over her chest, she looked over at the window, not even
noticing the beautiful sky and the fluffy clouds. “Because if I invite one,
everyone will show up. And it isn’t big enough. So why bother?” she said,
resigning herself to the conversation.
She couldn’t begrudge him his worries. He was head of the family now and
he only had one role model to work off of. And her father had been much worse.
Instead of inviting her to a nice restaurant, her father would order her to dinner
in their house, then yell and scream until they were both furious with each other.
Eventually, Antonia would give in, concerned about his health and loving him
too much to cause him worry.
It was the same with Sal although without the yelling and screaming. Sal
was controlled and direct, which could actually be more terrifying. He had so
much responsibility. He didn’t need an irritating little sister. So she relented.
Putting a hand on his arm, she said, “I’m eating well. Thank you for your
concern. Thanks to grandmother and grandfather, I don’t have to worry about
anything like starving,” she reassured him softly. It wasn’t a completely
inaccurate statement. She had an extremely large trust fund at her disposal from
her grandparents. Antonia just preferred to live on her own terms instead of
theirs and didn’t use their money to fund her lifestyle.
Sal sighed and shook his head. “I want you to move back into the house. It’s
only me now so you won’t have mom and dad looking over your shoulder,
which is what I suspect you didn’t like, not all the reasons you gave us at the
time.”
Antonia panicked.
“Why? I don’t want to move back into the house. My
reasons back then were relevant then as well as now.” Trying to calm down
because she knew she could argue more effectively when she wasn’t emotional,
she said, “I’m not moving back into the house with you, Sal,” she said, taking a
deep breath. Coming right to the real issue, she said, “I’m not Sophia. It won’t
happen to me.”
A flash of pain streaked across his face, but he didn’t respond to her reference
to their oldest sister. “I think you should consider it,” he said softly, then pulled
out a piece of paper from his inside, suit pocket. “You aren’t using the money
grandmother and grandfather left to you. So please explain how you are paying
the rent and buying food. Where are you working?” he demanded, his anger
and disappointment evident in his face.
Antonia took the piece of paper with shaky fingers. But she already knew
what it would show.
Slowly unfolding it, she read the first line. Sure enough, it was a letter from
the bank asking what Sal wanted them to do with all the interest the account was
earning. The bank manager had tried to contact Antonia, but she hadn’t
responded. So, as the executor of their parents’ will and their grandparents’
trust, Sal was being asked to make a decision.
Antonia looked up at Sal, licking her suddenly dry lips. “I can explain,” she
said, hiding her shaking hands in her lap. But they wouldn’t stay still.
Falling For The Boss
Note: This book is only available (free!) to those who register on
www.ElizabethLennox.com!
The air conditioner whirred quietly but it didn’t ease the tension in the room
or cool off Victoria Anderson’s tense nerves. She was terrified and hoped the
dragon woman sitting in front of her didn’t see her anxiety.
The dragon lady continued, “You understand that this is a one year
commitment, correct?” She was actually the head of human relations, Margie
Peterman, but she seemed extremely protective of her boss’s schedule and
requirements. “Mr. Attracelli is very firm about the commitment, to the point of
requiring a contract stating that you will remain on the team for one full year.
Despite the numerous tests and interviews, we’ve had a run of bad luck with
recent personnel leaving before the year is over. It puts his team in a difficult
position and they aren’t able to meet their tight deadlines.”
Victoria’s hands clenched together in nervousness. “I understand,” she said
in a voice she hoped sounded confident. A wisp of honey blond hair floated
down the side of her face, having escaped the tight chignon she’d put it in this
morning. She casually pushed it back off her face, not even aware of the action
as Margie looked down through Victoria’s resume and test scores again, looking
for something else to question Victoria about.
The chair Victoria was sitting on should have been comfortable, but because
she was so nervous, the Chippendale chair and highly polished conference table
seemed too forbidding to allow any possible comfort. She perched herself on the
edge of the chair with her back ramrod straight and her hands neatly folded on
her lap, not able to relax even slightly.
Victoria surreptitiously wiped her hands on her black, wool suit skirt, hoping
the interviewer didn’t notice her slight hesitation. She wasn’t afraid of the long
hours, the travel or the demanding boss. She already had that without the
excitement of visiting different cities and foreign countries which this job offered.
There was nothing holding her in Washington, D.C. any longer now that Laci,
her younger sister, would graduate from law school in a few months. This
would be Victoria’s last fling before settling down and marrying Barry Lawson,
the man she had been dating for over a year now. Once she’d “sowed her wild
oats” as she was now thinking of this job opportunity, she’d feel comfortable
settling down and raising children with her husband and knowing that she
wasn’t missing out on anything.
“And you understand the demands of the job? The travel needs, the long
hours?” Margie asked, her sharp, grey eyes watching Victoria’s expression over
the edge of her bifocal glasses.
“Yes, I understand,” Victoria repeated, nodding her head for emphasis. “I’m
eager to see different parts of the country,” Victoria explained, leaning forward
slightly. The traveling part of the job was what had caught her interest
immediately. “I’ve lived in the Washington, D.C. area almost my entire life. But
as much as I like this area, I love traveling even more.”
Margie looked over the serene young woman sitting primly in front of her.
The strikingly lovely woman was petite with beautiful blond hair pulled back at
the nape of her neck and soft, green eyes. The black suit and crisp, white silk
shirt she wore was professional looking but in no way enhanced her feminine
shape. Margie considered that a good sign since the days would be long and
hard. There was no time for primping and high maintenance females.
It was a good thing that this candidate had a long term boyfriend. Margie
had seen enough females throwing themselves at her boss, Thomas Attracelli.
He didn’t need someone on his personal staff getting romantic ideas. That
would throw the whole team into a mass of inefficiency and chaos.
The only doubt Margie had about Victoria Anderson was the woman’s
timidity. She definitely had the skills and the experience for the job.
Margie sat up a little straighter. She had considered all the applicants and
the woman sitting in front of her had the best resume and interviewed extremely
well. What’s more, from several tests, phone conversations and interviews over
the past two weeks, Margie suspected her personality would fit in with the team
easily, although her nervousness right now belied that impression.
Chalking that up to interview jitters, Margie decided to go with her gut
instincts and recommend hiring Victoria over the other five candidates
interviewed so far. Mentally nodding her head, she moved on. “I know this is
your fourth interview but this really is the final one. You’ll be meeting Thomas
Attracelli, the lead on the team, who will make the final decision.” Margie
looked at her watch and frowned.
explained.
“He should be here any minute,” she
Victoria desperately wanted this position more than any of the others she
had interviewed for over the past two months. But more desperately, she wanted
out of her current situation. Victoria already had three job offers but was waiting
to find out if she would be hired for this one, the most interesting and
challenging from what she had learned so far.
Victoria tried to hide her sense of excitement but the idea of traveling to so
many cities and countries, working on so many different projects had drawn her
out of her job inertia initially. Over the past year, Victoria routinely reviewed the
classified section of the newspaper, searching for job opportunities that seemed
interesting. She’d seen the job offer for this position in the paper and had
thought it was too good to be true.
“Who else is on his staff?” Victoria asked, eager to learn more about the job,
praying that she would be selected over the other candidates.
Margie smiled, glad to have something to talk about while they waited for
her delinquent boss to arrive. He had been scheduled to meet with this applicant
fifteen minutes ago but he had yet to show up or call to let Margie know when,
or even if, he would arrive.
Leaning back in her chair, Margie set her pen down on her yellow notepad
and relaxed for the next few moments. “Mr. Atracelli travels with two other staff
members. Mike is the operations manager and there’s also Bob, who is a human
relations developer.”
“What is a human relations developer?” Victoria asked, not wanting to
appear ignorant, but curious about the title.
Margie laughed slightly, appreciating the woman’s twinkling eyes showing
her sense of humor. “It sounds like a made up, politically correct title, doesn’t it?
I can assure you that �human relations developer’ is a perfect description of what
this man can do. Bob goes into the ATI offices and assesses the morale of the
place. He has a knack for building up the spirits of a group and creating a sense
of unity. He works with the supervisors and mentors them on ways to increase
or improve morale. He believes, and has shown, that an energetic and team
oriented office staff produces much higher results statistically than a segregated
and, what some offices consider, normal environment. I’ve seen him work and
it’s a pretty great talent. But then, Mr. Attracelli only hires extremely talented
people, like you,” Margie smiled conspiratorially.
Victoria returned the smile and was grateful for the vote of confidence. She
looked at her watch again. “I think I might need to reschedule the interview
with Mr. Attracelli. I really need to get back to work,” she said, about to rise.
“I’m sorry, I only have one hour for lunch and my current boss is very
particular.”
She and Margie had been waiting for almost fifteen minutes for the
illustrious Thomas Attracelli to arrive for the interview and Victoria would be
late getting back to her job if things didn’t start moving soon. Victoria was only
able to take an hour for lunch, and that hour was almost over. She didn’t want to
be fired if she wasn’t going to get this job so she was extremely nervous about the
time.
Margie leaned forward in her seat again.
She didn’t want to lose this
candidate just because Thomas was being inconsiderate of her time. “If you’ll
give Thomas just a few more minutes, I’m sure he’ll be along soon,” Margie said.
Victoria understood Margie was trying to finalize the interviews. She looked
at her watch again and decided to wait five more minutes before leaving.
Depending on how long the interview with this mysterious Mr. Attracelli took,
she hoped that would still give her time to grab a sandwich at the deli in her
building on the way back to her office.
Suddenly, the hairs on the back of Victoria’s neck stood up, and she was
instantly alert for some reason. The air seemed to crackle an instant before the
door to the lobby swung open. She could only see his tall frame, broad shoulders
and his black hair but Victoria knew this was the sexiest and most dynamic man
she had ever laid eyes on. It was as if a hurricane had just come through the
room, then disappeared behind a set of double doors.
Once the storm was over, Victoria looked around her and was a little shocked
that the room was still as orderly as it had been a moment before the man had
entered, then just as quickly left.
Victoria suspected that Margie felt the same way in so far as the hurricane
was concerned because her eyes just stared at the partially opened doors as if a
bull had just gone through them. Turning back to Victoria, Margie raised her
eyebrows, obviously astounded by what had just happened. Shaking her head,
Margie picked up Victoria’s file and stood up. “I’ll be right back,” Margie said
and crossed the room to disappear behind the doors. She didn’t close them all
the way so Victoria was able to hear their conversation.
“Thomas, you’re late. You were supposed to be here for an interview over a
half hour ago.”
A deep voice replied a moment later. “I’m sorry, something came up.”
“Well, I really think you should meet this…” Margie started, only to be cut
off mid sentence.
“I know,” the deep voice came back, followed by a long sigh. “Listen, I’m
late for another meeting. Is this person any good? Can he or she step in and take
over the gaping hole in my staff? I’m not really in the mood to talk to a �maybe’
candidate.”
“Take a look at these credentials,” Margie said and Victoria pictured in her
head Margie handing the tall man her resume.
There was a long period of silence, then the voice came back. “This looks
fine. Send her in.”
Margie appeared a moment later and motioned her through the double
doors. Victoria stood on shaking legs and followed Margie into the adjoining
office. Margie put the rest of Victoria’s file in the middle of a glass topped,
mahogany desk, smiled reassuringly at Victoria, then left the room, leaving
Victoria staring at the back of the tall man while he read through the rest of her
resume.
Victoria took the time to look around the room, trying to find something to
help her relax, something that might create a common bond with this
intimidating man. The office was extremely large and filled with antique
furniture. Victoria sat down on the edge of a Louis IV chair and tried to think of
something to say that would start off the conversation and let him know that she
was interested. But her mind drew a blank each time she looked at his broad
shoulders.
Staring out the side window, she was impressed with the view of the
National Cathedral peeking through the tops of the lushly green trees. A plane
passed overhead, but the room was so well insulated, she couldn’t even hear the
engines or any of the traffic from the street below, although they were fifteen
stories up.
Victoria could feel the man’s eyes on her so she looked up and was surprised
at how handsome he was. Weren’t men of his caliber old and fat? Or at least
bald? There was definitely no fat on this tall man’s frame. She slowly raised her
eyes to his and immediately felt as if she had been shocked by an electric current.
He had thick, dark brown hair that was almost black and dark blue eyes, firm
lips and a straight jaw that seemed to be clenching for some reason.
Victoria tried to smile, but she wasn’t sure if she actually made it. She placed
her hands in her lap and swallowed, wishing she could stand up and run instead
of having to sit here and endure his stare. Why in the world was he angry? she
thought. He was the one that had allowed his schedule to get out of whack and
put everyone else in a bind, including himself.
Finally he spoke. “Where were you born?” he asked abruptly. The question
seemed to echo through the previously silent room.
Of all the questions he could have asked her that was not one she expected.
“I’m sorry?” she asked, raising her eyebrows in polite inquiry, sure she had
misunderstood or misheard the question.
“Your birthplace. Where was it?” he snapped out.
“I was born in Massachusetts,” she replied, surprised at how angry his tone
was.
“Where in Massachusetts?”
“Um…Springfield?”
“You’re not sure?” he barked.
“I’m sure,” she snapped right back, sitting up straighter in her chair, her chin
going up incrementally. He might be gorgeous, but he was a complete jerk so far.
No one had the right to be this rude upon a first meeting. Interviews were
already filled with stress. Adding to it by rudeness was just obnoxious. Victoria
considered standing up and leaving.
than an interview.
This seemed more like an interrogation
“Then why the hesitation?”
Victoria started to get mad. Here eyebrows drew together and her eyes
flashed. “I’m wondering how this has any relevance on the position under
discussion.”
Thomas watched the delicate beauty sitting in front of him and cursed to
himself. She was right. Her birthplace had no relevance to the issue but he just
couldn’t think of anything else to ask. He couldn’t think much of anything. As
soon as she’d walked through the door, it felt like someone had punched him in
the stomach and he could hardly breathe. She was so damn beautiful!
And it was only getting worse now that she was angry. The eyes that had
been a mossy green a moment ago were now sparkling emeralds and there was a
little bit of color in her cheeks, making the porcelain-like skin glow. He’d always
thought the line about a woman becoming more beautiful when she was angry
was just a line. Now he knew that it was more, so much more. This woman
definitely stirred him with her anger.
She was like a china doll, perfectly sitting on the edge of the seat, her skin
flawless, her thick, blond hair primly knotted behind her head looked like it
would fall through his fingers like a caress. His mind told him to end the
interview immediately because there was no way she could join the team. He
knew he’d let her interfere with the team’s work. In fact, he wanted to ask her if
she’d go out to dinner with him, among other things, instead of finishing the
interview but he’d have to find some excuse to not hire her first so he’d better
start interviewing her properly.
He smiled. “You’re right,” he thought quickly. “I’m sorry. It is March
Madness and Duke is down at the halftime in the playoffs so I’m a little
frustrated,” Thomas said, referring to the Men’s NCAA championship
tournament currently being played out all over the country.
“Duke?” She was so amazed at how his smile transformed his face, she
couldn’t grasp the message in his words. His smile changed his face from
incredibly handsome to devastatingly attractive.
“Yes, the basketball team,” he said patronizingly, explaining his favorite
team’s sport. He looked back down at her resume, dismissing the topic and
trying to come up with another question to put to her so he could end this farce
of an interview.
“You didn’t bet on them, did you?” she asked, a small smile on her lips.
He glanced up from reading and watched her eyes change back again to a
soft, green glow. He wasn’t sure if her eyes or her words were more intriguing.
Did this delicate beauty follow basketball? It was not possible so he tried to
dismiss the idea immediately. But a niggling sensation remained and he had to
find out if she knew anything about his favorite sport. Leaning over his desk, he
shook his head and explained, “I put twenty dollars into the office pool, with
them taking it all home.”
Victoria smiled gently. “But why?”
Thomas blinked in astonishment. “Why? Because they have a great team.”
The pity he recognized in her eyes fascinated him. He chided himself for liking
the fact that she was pitying him. What an idea!
He saw her shoulders visibly relax. “They used to be a good team until their
center broke his finger in the playoffs. Now, they haven’t had the psychological
edge the tip off allows them. Besides, they aren’t versatile enough to go all the
way this year.”
Thomas could only stare and shake his head.
How could this graceful
beauty disagree with him on basketball? “But I went to Duke,” he replied, as if
that made all the difference in their playoff chances.
Victoria shook her head in commiseration, her eyes showing her misfortune
for his plight. “I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry?” he asked, pushing away from his desk and coming around to
the front, hardly noticing the polished surface.
Victoria nodded, crossing her hands over her knee, “They need a better
center and left guard. I think they have some great players in the queue but
you’ll have to wait a few more years for a championship contention.”
He smiled, fascinated. “Who are you betting on?”
Victoria blushed. “Oh, I never bet. It makes me a little ill. But if I were, I’d
go for Gonzaga or Oklahoma State. They have shown definite resiliency over the
past few games.”
Thomas was getting a whole different impression of the woman now.
“So how does my birthplace fit into the position?” she asked.
Thomas laughed. “I’m not sure it does anymore,” he said and glanced down
at her resume. “You’ve worked for your current company for over four years.
Why do you want to change?”
Victoria smiled wistfully, looking down at the luxurious carpeting in order to
shield her eyes from his too perceptive gaze. “Well, this might be a little silly but
being an accountant, I don’t get many opportunities to travel the world. I want
to travel and things get a little too hectic to take time off where I am currently.”
“Where would you like to go?” Thomas asked softly, putting her resume on
the desk behind him and sitting down on the corner, one leg draped over the side
to swing below while the other balanced him. He knew he was getting off track
again but was fascinated by the woman and found himself wanting to know
more about her personally rather than professionally.
“Oh, anywhere,” she said, shrugging her shoulders and looking off into the
distance as if she could see her dream vacation. “I was born in Massachusetts
but I’ve lived here in Washington, D.C. ever since my parents moved us here
about twenty five years ago.”
“Why not just take a vacation? Why take a job that will have you traveling
nine months out of the year.”
She nodded her agreement with his point but shrugged her shoulders
slightly before answering, “Well, I don’t think anyone really gets to know a place
until they live there. And I guess working there would be the next best thing,
right? If I only go someplace for a few days, I’ll only see the tourists traps.”
Thomas agreed with her. It was one of the reasons he liked his job so much.
He didn’t delve into the lifestyle philosophy of her answer though. “You
understand we work most of the time. The schedule usually doesn’t allow much
time to see the places we’re staying.”
Victoria nodded but there wasn’t any sadness or disappointment in the
acknowledgement. In fact, she seemed to become more enthusiastic in the topic.
Her shoulders leaned forward almost imperceptibly and her hands curled into
tiny fists on her lap, revealing her excitement. “I understand. But even an hour
off in each place will allow me to see more than I would otherwise. I could just
walk outside in Italy and eat a sandwich, watching the sunset. But at least I’d be
in Italy. That’s something to tell my grandchildren. Right now, I don’t have
many stories,” she said, her eyes turning sad at the idea.
After a moment, he realized that she was finished and he was just staring at
her lovely face. He scrambled quickly to come up with his next question. “What
do you like about accounting?”
Victoria shrugged her slim shoulders. “Numbers make sense to me. I like
the challenge of finding the story they are telling.”
Good answer, Thomas thought. He wasn’t doing a very good job of
disqualifying her. “Have you ever found a story you didn’t like?”
She laughed and Thomas held his breath at her beautiful smile and warm
laughter. When she smiled, her whole face lit up and the sound seemed to
soothe something inside his soul he hadn’t known was wrong.
“Sure! I’ve had to go into meetings to report losses. But I consider that
someone else’s story so I just present the data.”
“What’s your story?” he asked suddenly.
Victoria was taken aback at the question. She didn’t know how to answer his
question. She didn’t want to admit to this dynamic, overwhelmingly gorgeous
man that she didn’t really have a story. She’d lived her life quietly without
incident and that was part of the problem, part of the allure of this job. She
wanted more out of life than what she currently had.
“I’m not sure,” she faltered, wondering what the best answer to his question
should be. But he interrupted her before she could come up with an intelligent,
witty answer.
“Never mind,” he said and rubbed the back of his neck. Not an appropriate
interviewing question, he reminded himself. Get on the ball and find something
to disqualify her. And stop looking at her long, sexy legs! Thomas turned and
faced the window. Unfortunately, he could still see her lovely reflection in the
glass so that didn’t help. “What would be your top places to visit?”
“Paris,” Victoria said immediately and nodded her head for emphasis. “Or
Italy – but no specific city. I took French and Italian in college and loved the
languages. During history class, I always loved the Roman Empire period. I’d
be depressed for weeks after the fall in school.”
Thomas threw back his head and laughed at the unexpected answer. “I
loved history as well but probably not that much.”
“But you didn’t major in it,” she said as if it were a matter of fact.
“No.”
“Why not?”
“Because it didn’t make sense,” he replied, a charming grin on his face as he
threw back her previous answer and was rewarded by her melodic laughter in
response. For some reason, he felt privileged to have made her laugh. Her
laughter seemed almost like a gift that she gave out to only the most worthy of
people.
Get a grip, Thomas told himself. He wasn’t making sense. The woman
didn’t strike him as the type to hoard her laughter. She was just a normal female
with what appeared to be a superior knowledge of auditing procedures.
Thomas cleared his throat and looked back down at her resume. “Can you
wait outside? I need to talk to Margie another moment, then she’ll need to speak
to you again,” he said and stood up, reaching out to shake her hand.
Thomas took her shaking hand in his and a protective feeling washed over
him. He wanted to reassure her that everything would be okay. But since he
wanted to date the woman, rather than hire her, he couldn’t give her any reason
to relax.
Risky Negotiations
Prologue
The deep voice of the minister resonated throughout the beautifully
decorated church, his eyes glancing over the congregation. “If there is anyone
who thinks this union should not take place, speak now or forever hold your
peace,” the minister said and waited a moment, looking out to the pews filled
with people. Only the candles flickered in response and the petals on the
hundreds of flowers waited anxiously.
Laci held her breath but not in anticipation of an objection. There was a
gorgeous man directly in front of her. His direct gaze with intense, dark blue
eyes flustered her and warmed her skin. He was the most attractive man she had
ever seen in her life. He was tall, at least six feet three inches with jet black hair,
dark eyes that almost appeared black, his skin was dark and he had the broadest
shoulders – she doubted there was any padding in the tuxedo adorning his
gorgeous body.
And she had no idea what his name was.
He looked vaguely like the president of ATI but that couldn’t be possible.
Salvatore Attracelli had to be older than this man standing on the other side of
the groom. He ran a multi-billion dollar a year conglomerate that employed
thousands of people all over the world. This man was too young to be Salvatore.
And too sexy. Heads of international companies were old and stuffy, out of
shape, boring even. This man was virile and muscular in all the right places
under that tuxedo. The man standing in front of her was probably one of the
younger brothers that all worked in ATI as well.
The minister’s voice interrupted her thoughts. Laci was brought back to the
present and the solemnity of the moment by his next words. “By the power
vested in me by the Commonwealth of Virginia, I now pronounce you husband
and wife.” The minister smiled widely as he continued, “You may now kiss the
bride.”
Laci sighed deeply as she watched her older sister Victoria, radiant and one
of the happiest brides she’d ever seen, kiss her new husband, Thomas Attracelli,
while the rest of the audience cheered. She was very happy for her sister, had
even suggested that Victoria think of Thomas as a significant other months before
when Victoria had first joined his team as an internal auditor for ATI.
Victoria, Laci’s older sister by five years, and her new husband Thomas were
walking down the aisle, now newly married and obviously deliriously happy.
Laci was the Maid of Honor in this huge parade and the moment when she
would have to face the gorgeous man was coming soon. She hid behind feigned
confidence as she took the offered hand of the sexy Best Man so he could escort
her down the aisle behind the bride and groom. She hoped he didn’t see through
her bravado, but the enigmatic smile on his face made her doubt her ability to
hide her interest and her timidity. She laid her hand carefully on his arm,
praying he couldn’t detect the small tremor his closeness generated.
She jumped slightly when he spoke, both because of his words and her
tension at his closeness. “Aren’t you happy for them?” his deep voice asked as
he bent down to whisper in her ear.
“Of course!” she gasped, glancing shyly up at the man and forcing a wider
smile on her face. “Why do you ask?” She couldn’t hold his gaze though. There
was something about this man that made her feel like she was looking onto her
first grade school crush. Her stomach felt like it was filled with butterflies and
she suspected that her palms were sweaty but she hoped not. That would be the
ultimate embarrassment.
Laci impatiently brushed a strand of hair back over her shoulder wishing she
had stood her ground against her sister and pinned her waist length, curly hair
up in a bun as she normally wore it. Having it hang down her back, with the
curls going every which way wasn’t very sophisticated. And this man seemed
very sophisticated.
“You seemed distracted during the ceremony,” his deep voice said, in
explanation for his question.
Laci blushed and glanced down at the floor, hoping he didn’t notice the color
in her cheeks. “No, I’m very happy for both of them. I wish they’d gotten
together months ago.”
He guided her to their place in the receiving line and she didn’t have a
chance to answer since the guests were now filing out of the church and each
wanted to say hello to either Laci or the man next to her.
Laci hadn’t been at the rehearsal dinner last night because her flight had
been delayed from Michigan due to snow. They were standing in the receiving
line for only five minutes before someone greeted him and she was able to learn
his name. Salvatore Attracelli? The man who ran ATI, one of the largest
conglomerates in the United States? She had known that Thomas worked for
ATI which was run by his older brother. For some reason, she’d always pictured
Salvatore as an older man, stilled in tradition and responsibility. From the way
Victoria talked about him, she thought of him as nice, but kind of a stick in the
mud. She’d even seen his picture on the internet. This urbane, sexy man
standing next to her and introducing her to several of his friends and
acquaintances as they passed hardly seemed like the man on the internet site.
Laci could not imagine this man as a stick in the mud.
screamed sexuality in a classy but blatant sort of way.
He practically
Shaking herself out of her reverie, Laci shook the next person’s hand as they
stepped in front of her. She was probably just overly tired, she thought as she
pushed her hair back over her shoulder again and her elbow accidentally
brushed up against his arm. She smiled up her apology, ignored the tingling in
her arm, and turned to the next guest.
Her reaction to his smile and the reassuring arm that moved behind her to
rest on the small of her back was out of proportion to the gesture, she told
herself. “Pull yourself together, Laci” she mentally chided herself. “You’ve been
studying for finals and then the Bar exam for weeks, and have been going on
four hours of sleep a night for the past three weeks. Of course a gentle hand is
going to affect you but there is no need to embarrass yourself and your older
sister.”
Laci plastered a smile on her face and nodded at whatever the woman in
front of her was saying. She glanced down the line and was grateful to see the
end finally in sight.
“Almost done,” Sal’s deep voice said in her ear. “Can you make it?”
“I think so,” she whispered back, smothering a laugh since she’d been caught
hoping for an escape, “as long as no one else asked me if I’m excited for my
sister. I’ve only answered that about two hundred and fifty times. Two hundred
and fifty one…I’m not responsible for my actions,” she whispered, wrinkling her
nose slightly. “Was I that obvious?”
“You look about ready to wilt,” he said but his eyes were laughing, telling
her that he was silently agreeing with her comment on the repetitive questions.
The next few hours were a blur. The only two things she remembered were
his name, Salvatore Attracelli, and standing in his strong, secure embrace,
enjoying the muscular arms holding her gently as they danced for a few brief
moments during the dance for the Maid of Honor and Best Man. He was the first
true gentleman she’d ever met and she savored the feeling of dancing in his
arms. He held her as if she were a priceless piece of china.
Most of the men she dated pushed and pressured her as much as possible,
trying to control her in some way. She must present a challenge to them because
she was usually fighting against their restrictions, both physical and emotional.
But this man held her gently and confidently within his strong embrace. It was a
feeling she wasn’t used to but could easily learn to appreciate.
She danced with several other men during the reception, laughed at the
toasts and went through the motions of celebrating her sister’s wedding. And
the whole time, she kept peering through the crowd, hoping for another look at
him, wishing she could dance in his arms again, feel his strong fingers holding
her hand in his.
Laci shook her head as she ducked around a column when he caught her eye
at one point in the evening. It wasn’t like her to be so shy. Her normal modus
operandi was to walk up to a man she was interested in and talk to him, joke
with him, possibly ask him out. Why was she now hiding behind furniture and
wall obstacles in an effort to peek at him without his knowledge? What was it
about this man that made her tremble? He was definitely gorgeous and sexier
than any man had a right to be.
Laci laughed to herself at that description.
It was too mild a term for his appearance. It would be better to say he was
toe-curling, mind-bending, breathtakingly handsome. But was that any reason to
act like a fifth grader on her first date?
No way, she told herself and straightened her shoulders in an effort to gain
some gumption. She was no one’s wall flower!
Laci loved life and threw herself into it with all the energy her body
contained. She was always up for an adventure or a new experience. And
perhaps some men considered that a threat but she didn’t really care. She knew
some of her previous boyfriends had broken up with her because she loved
living and experiencing new things more than she liked spending time with
them.
Unfortunately, this man who stimulated every sense in her system didn’t
seem affected by her in any way other than as the younger sister to his newest
sister in law. An unfortunate situation, Laci thought at several points throughout
the evening. Why were only the wrong sorts attracted to her? If a man was
controlling, manipulative or just plain irritating, they seemed to be magnetized
to her in some sort of way.
She’d had that discussion with her sister several times but neither could
come up with an adequate explanation. They both just accepted that Laci’s free
spirit was a challenge to some kinds of men who needed to tame and control her.
She accepted a dance from yet another man, this one heavy set and balding
who had clammy, soft hands. She smiled and conversed with him but was
happy to leave his arms at the end of the dance. Her toes didn’t appreciate his
lack of precision on the dance floor no matter how many times he apologized.
She sat down at one of the beautifully decorated tables and took a sip of
champagne, sighing as she watched Sal dance in the arms of a lovely blonde
with a low-cut, black cocktail dress on. He didn’t even glance in her direction
this time which she was grateful for. Laci smoothed the lovely lilac bridesmaid
dress over her shoulder. It was very nice but it wasn’t very sophisticated. In fact,
it made her feel like she was ready for a prom instead of a wedding.
She watched as the attractive couple swayed to the beat of the music and
sighed. Why couldn’t this man, this incredibly sexy, virile and reputedly
intelligent man see her as something more than a child?
During their short dance together as the Maid of Honor and Best man, the
only words spoken between them were generalities, mostly about the weather
and how her exams went. She was flattered that he had taken the time to find
out about her, even if he looked at her as if he were fifty years older than her
instead of only ten.
Later that night, Laci sighed with fatigue as she climbed between the cold
sheets of her bed and reminded herself that she was twenty-two, not fifty-five.
Unfortunately, her body felt the latter. She was tired, too tired to do anything
more than sleep and survive until her grades came in. Then she’d start the
search for a job. She had a few offers from some prestigious law firms. But none
of them made jump her up and down with excitement. Having finished her
undergraduate degree early and earning her law degree in record time, she
wasn’t in a hurry to jump into something quickly. She had time, she kept telling
herself.
Despite her exhausted state, she couldn’t sleep that night. Her mind
replayed the few short moments when she was held in Salvatore’s arms, feeling
cherished and special.
Chapter 1
Three Years Later
Matt McGinlly, the head of ATI’s legal department came into Sal’s office and
held out a file folder. “Sal, the workers in the Michigan and Richmond plants are
up for re-negotiation of their contracts. I have a list of their requests,” he said.
Sal looked up from the report he’d been reviewing and smiled at Matt. “This
is for Templar Pharmaceuticals? What are their requests?” he asked, putting
aside the papers and taking the new documents Matt offered him. He leaned
back in his leather chair and scanned the list. “What’s the output and profit for
each of these plants?” he asked not bothering to look up as he absorbed all the
information Matt had compiled for his review.
Knowing that Sal would ask that question, Matt already had the statistics.
He settled into the chair in front of Sal’s desk and leaned back, propping one
ankle on top of the opposite knee. “They are great. For the fifth year in a row,
output has increased by three percent and profit has gone from four percent
when we bought it to over thirteen percent this past year. The workers are
happy with the benefits they received from us when we took over the plant and
it shows in the increased productivity and decreased accidents and mistakes.”
Sal nodded, reading the information more carefully. He put down the papers
and stood up, thinking about a possibility, wondering if his plan would work.
He looked out the window at the panoramic view of Washington, D.C. but didn’t
really see the sun setting on the horizon. The neon colors of red, orange, purple
and pink didn’t impact his consciousness as he considered all the ramifications of
his plan.
Could he really do what he had been considering for the past year? Would it
work? Was it fair? It wasn’t really. But in this instance, would the ends justify
the means? He thought so. He hoped so.
He’d been working on the plan for a while and it was finally time to put
action to his thoughts. As he reviewed his memory, he realized that there really
wasn’t any question. He hadn’t been able to come up with an alternative over
the past few years to get in touch with her. This was it, now or never. Why was
he even hesitating?
Matt sat in one of the chairs facing Sal’s desk, wondering what was going
through his boss’s mind. The past few negotiations with this particular group of
workers had gone through with barely a hitch. When ATI, Inc. took over a
company, they usually came in and increased the benefits, got rid of a lot of dead
wood or bad management and genuinely listened to the concerns of the workers.
It was one of the reasons ATI had grown to be such a huge conglomerate. The
Attracelli family ran all the various companies with Salvatore Attracelli at the
helm and Matt had always been in awe of the business acumen from the man
facing the windows.
Not only was it odd that Sal was actually thinking about something. It was
unusual for him to not be amazingly decisive. No matter what the issue, Sal
usually had a quick answer for everything. There was no hesitation. The man
had an incredible head for business, increasing the revenue of ATI about ten
percent each year for the past six years – ever since he took over after his parents’
death.
“The lawyers for the workers are Massey & Mehan, correct?” Sal asked
suddenly, turning to look at Matt.
Matt nodded. “Why?” he questioned, a little concerned. Sal tried very hard
to keep things out of mediation. Matt didn’t understand this latest question. It
seemed like a no brainer to give the workers what they were asking for. Why
were negotiations even a consideration?
“Let me get back to you on this,” Sal said and picked up the next file on his
desk.
Matt understood that he had been dismissed and he walked back to his
office, wondering what was happening. ATI tried hard to be fair and none of the
current requests from the workers were out of line.
As soon as Sal was alone in his office, he picked up the phone on his desk
and dialed a number. A man immediately picked up the phone, “Phil Massey,”
he said in a no nonsense voice.
“Phil, how have you been?” Sal started out.
“Great Sal!” he said cheerfully, immediately recognizing Sal’s voice, “And I’d
be even better if you’d give me another chance to beat you at squash.”
“You got it. Call Norma to schedule a time.”
“I will. What can I do for you?” Phil Massey asked, understanding that this
was more than a friendly call.
“Who is the lead on the Templar union contract?” he asked.
Sal heard Phil typing on his computer a moment. “That would be Jim
McPherson and Laci Anderson. Why? Are there some issues that need to be
worked out?”
“There might be,” Sal responded. “If ATI starts negotiations, can McPherson
and Anderson maintain confidentiality?”
“Absolutely. But you’re in for a tough fight. Those two are great negotiators.
Jim is tough and Laci is one of the best lawyers I’ve had. She’s coming up the
ranks.”
“That’s what I’m hoping for,” Sal said. “Thanks for the information. I’ll let
you know if any issues need smoothing out.”
Sal turned and stared out the window. He thought of the woman who had
trembled in his arms during one short dance three years ago. She was the
complete opposite of what he was usually attracted to in women. He typically
dated tall, sophisticated, blonds who knew the game and how to play it. He
liked women who were passionate and could tell him what they wanted with
that passion.
Somehow, Laci seemed small and fragile despite her luscious figure. The top
of her head barely reached his chin and, instead of a sultry blond, she was a blue
eyed brunette with long, softly curling hair and beautiful, soft-looking skin that
he wanted to touch to feel if it was as silky as it looked. She also had the
brightest smile he had ever seen. When she looked up at him, her smile seemed
to warm him all the way to his heart. And in some un-definable way, she
challenged him as well. He knew there were depths to her personality and he
wanted to find out everything about her, explore each layer and discover what
made her tick. He refused to call it an obsession even though his curiosity hadn’t
waned in the three years since he’d last seen her. It was more of a mystery he
wanted to solve, he told himself.
Since he was admitting his interest, he didn’t discount the way she filled out
that purple dress. His memory of her in that satin gown had haunted his dreams
for several nights after his brother’s wedding. He vividly remembered her tiny
waist, slender hips and long legs, all topped off by voluptuous breasts Sal still
thought about.
Did she still look as gorgeous? She’d been a college student back then, he
remembered. Would she have gained weight? Filled out differently? Did it
matter, he wondered? He had thought about her so many times over the past
three years he knew she had gotten under his skin.
During their one dance, he hadn’t dared to hold her close, feeling it wasn’t
appropriate because of their ages. But she’d had three years to grow up since
he’d last seen her.
Would she be different? Would she be cynical? He certainly hoped not. Her
vitality and freshness had been such an alluring trait. She had been refreshing,
he thought.
Although he hadn’t seen her in three years, he’d kept tabs on her through her
sister Victoria. The whole Attracelli family got together every Sunday to attend
church, and then headed over to Sal’s house for a family dinner. It was during
those meals that Sal was able to casually ask about Laci, where she was and how
she was doing. He’d heard about her employment with a top Washington, D.C.
law firm after college and how she had worked up the ranks to reach a lauded
negotiator’s position within the firm. He’d also heard rumors about her skills
from other companies, all of whom were impressed with her legal abilities.
Proposal To Love
Chapter 1
Jim McNabb poked his head in Darcy’s door. “You ready to defend your
ideas?” he asked, smiling as if he’d just swallowed the canary.
“What do you mean?” Darcy asked cautiously, not willing to sign up for
anything when it came to her boss. Jim was great, but he tended to ride
roughshod over people if they weren’t careful. Darcy pushed a flyaway strand of
chocolate brown hair out of her face, wondering why it never stayed in the bun
she put it in each morning.
Jim sauntered into her office and leaned against the doorway, extending the
suspense a few moments longer. “I mean, I talked to Michael Attracelli and he’s
willing to listen to your ideas on the bid he turned down last week.”
Darcy stared blankly at Jim for a long moment until his words sunk in. “You
don’t mean the Senior Vice President for Growth and Technology, do you?” she
whispered, awed by even mentioning his name out loud. The man was a legend,
not just within the ATI community but in the information technology industry.
He was a giant. He was brilliant when it came to programming and bidding on
key jobs within the industry that put ATI in a strategic position for future work.
And he wanted to hear her pitch? Darcy was suddenly nervous. Terrified
actually. She tried to hide her anxiety in front of Jim but she suspected that her
green eyes mirrored her inner terror. Arguing with her boss about ATI’s decision
not to bid on a huge job was one thing. Arguing in front of Michael Attracelli
was a completely different game! The man had to have been around since the
concept of computers was introduced, he knew so much about them.
Jim watched the emotions run across the beautiful young woman’s face.
Darci was not very skilled at hiding her emotions. He saw the excitement build
then the anxiety enter her stunningly green eyes. Finally, her porcelain skin
turned pale white as she realized the magnitude of what he was asking her to do.
But it didn’t matter. Darcy was the kind of woman that thrived on challenges so
he knew she wouldn’t turn down this opportunity no matter how nervous she
became.
Sure enough, a moment later, her pert little chin went up and she
straightened her slim shoulders, a sign that she was mentally getting herself
ready for the problem of changing the mind of a senior vice president, no matter
how terrifying the prospect. Jim had never met or worked with a more
competent person. Nor had he ever seen the kind of blind determination this
woman possessed. She worked long hours, dedicating her life to ATI.
Not only was she intelligent and driven, she was beautiful as well. He
suspected she didn’t even know how incredibly lovely she was. She was too
dedicated to getting the work done to take the time to notice her personal
appearance. He never heard of her dating anyone. When they talked, she only
spoke of work issues and challenges. But he suspected she wasn’t dating anyone
currently. When would she find the time? She worked fourteen hour days plus
weekends.
Once the fear was gone from her face, he smiled at her, trying to give her
confidence. “Well, what are you waiting for?” Jim asked, satisfied with her
determined expression. He was delighted that he was able to drop this bomb on
her. It wasn’t often that anyone surprised Darcy Madison.
He was actually hoping for a smile, but was disappointed this time. Darcy
was stunning with a passive face. Her classically shaped features and the
glowing green eyes that shone out from her lively face were enough to make men
stop and stare. He knew because he had been affected that way when he’d first
met her. In addition, he’d walked with her down the street and noticed the same
affect on the other men she passed. What was more amazing was that Darcy
didn’t realize that it was happening. She was so intent on what she was doing,
even if she was just walking down the street talking with another person, her
whole self was absorbed in her task, eliminating all other details.
Add a figure that should be modeling sexy underwear and her smile, and the
combination was devastating at times. Whenever Darcy smiled, gravity seemed
to weigh more heavily in the room. Jaws dropped, pens fell to the floor, coffee
cups spilled and water splashed in every direction. She turned from looking like
a supermodel, albeit a petite one, to a mischievous elf, with just a smile. She had
dimples on both sides of her luscious mouth and her cat-like eyes twinkled as if
she knew all the funny secrets in the world. It was quite a sight and caused
shock each time a new person experienced her smile.
Jim sighed, wishing he could remember some joke to tell her so he could see
her smile. Boy, was she a sight to behold. Darcy interrupted his thoughts and
got him back to the business at hand.
“Not a problem.
I can do this,” she said, grabbing her notebook and
standing up. She grabbed a pen, and then rushed behind her boss out the door.
A few seconds later, Darcy raced back to her desk and grabbed her glasses, then
right back out to the hallway again.
“Are you sure Michael Attracelli is going to listen to me?” she asked, trailing
behind him as she went through her papers to find the notes on the bid the
senior vice president had originally rejected.
“Yep, the one and only.”
“Why is he going to listen now? What changed his mind?”
Jim pressed the call button for the elevator. “I did. I was talking to him and
mentioned your idea. He seemed interested so I told him I’d get the two of you
together to discuss the idea.”
Darci grimaced. “Remind me to keep my mouth shut in the future.”
“Bah!” he said and waved her concern aside. “You’re ready for this,” he said.
“And if not, you’re no worse off than you were five minutes ago except that
you’ve finally met Michael.”
“How do I greet him?” she asked. “Is there any formal policy?”
Jim glanced back to the nervous beauty, his eyes rolling. “He’s not royalty.
He’s just a vice president.”
Darcy had a great sense of the absurd and was willing to make fun of herself
when she was acting silly, like right now. “Yeah, but he’s sort of a god in the
industry. It seems like he should have some sort of title befitting that reputation,
don’t you think?” the imp in her joked. “Vice President just doesn’t do him
justice, I’m guessing.”
“How about God of IT?” he quipped, pressing the button on the elevator that
would take them to the executive floors.
They stepped into the elevator together. “No,” she said, shaking her head
while she stared up at the lights indicating the floors they were passing. “It has
to be more glorious. How about…God of Information?” she asked.
Jim didn’t respond but chuckled at her.
“Why not?” she asked, a few moments before they came to the top floor, “I
mean, it’s reputed that he knows everything. Therefore, he must be at least a
century old. I’m hoping that if I make it to that age, I’ll get a god-like title as
well.”
She missed Jim’s astonished expression because the doors opened and they
walked out into the subdued atmosphere of the executive floor. It was
dramatically different on this floor, Darcy thought as she made her way down
the hallway behind Jim who obviously knew where Michael Attracelli’s office
was. Her office was on the sixth floor and was filled with mostly technical
people. They called to each other with their ideas or barged into offices
unannounced to bounce ideas off of each other. Some people didn’t even bother
with going to an office. They would just shoot ideas as a co-worker passed by in
the hallways. There was a great deal of joking and letting off of steam when the
tensions rose or deadlines drew near.
On this floor, it was very quiet. The doors were mostly closed and people
scurried about busily, looking very important and harried. She suspected that no
one really joked on this floor and meetings were scheduled to discuss ideas, not
tossed about while walking to get a cup of coffee. It was very serious business
up here on the fifteenth floor.
They stopped in an impressive lobby-like area with a secretary quickly
typing on a computer. She looked up when Jim entered and smiled her greeting.
“He’s waiting for the two of you. Just go on in,” she said, waving towards a
double door that was open on one side.
“Thanks, Donna,” Jim said and nodded for Darcy to follow him through a set
of closed double doors.
Jim knocked, but didn’t wait for a response before entering. They walked
into a large office filled with modern, steel and glass furniture. Off to one side, a
small grouping of brown leather chairs and a sofa surrounded a low coffee table.
Jim stopped in the middle of the room, politely waiting for the man behind the
desk to get off the phone.
Darcy was behind him, taking in the impressive office space. She was lucky
to have a small round table in her office that she used for conferences with her
technical leads but it was nothing like this, she thought, looking around the room
and noting the panoramic view of the Washington, D.C. skyline. It was twilight
so the sun was just touching the horizon, setting down between the tall buildings
and monuments of the historic city.
“Jim, how are you?” a deep voice said.
Darcy looked up and felt her mouth drop open.
The most incredibly
gorgeous man she’d ever met in her life was walking towards Jim, his hand
outstretched to shake Jim’s.
“Doing well, thanks. How about you?” Jim asked.
“Not bad,” he replied.
Darcy felt the man’s dark blue eyes move her way and snapped her mouth
shut. But not in time. One dark eyebrow went up when he caught her shocked
expression. Thankfully, the handsome man didn’t comment on her open
mouthed expression.
Jim cleared his throat. “This is Darcy Madison. She has the great ideas I was
telling you about earlier. Thanks for taking the time to hear her out,” Jim was
saying.
“Great. I’m eager to hear them,” the gorgeous man said. “How about if we
sit down?” he asked, waving his arms to indicate that they should sit down the
sofa and chairs versus the desk with chairs in front of it.
Darcy shook herself mentally. So he was stunning. What did she care? She
was here to do a job and a handsome face can be seen on any magazine cover,
she told herself.
They all sat down, then the two men turned to Darcy expectantly. Darcy
blinked, realizing that they wanted her to start her arguments.
“Shouldn’t we wait for Mr. Attracelli?” she asked, trying to be diplomatic but
not wanting to go through this twice.
After a pregnant pause, Jim laughed self consciously. “Um…Darcy, this is
Michael Attracelli,” he said simply.
Darcy’s eyes snapped back to the man who was now trying to hide a smile.
“Oh,” was all she could say while her face turned pink in her embarrassment.
Her mind just wasn’t working. Well, who could think with that man staring at
her so expectantly? A woman should be allowed to make a fool of herself around
a man like that!
“I think Darcy was expecting an older man,” he explained to Michael.
“Ah,” was all he said and turned back to face Darcy, waiting expectantly.
Shaking her head, she pushed the man’s physical attributes aside, reminding
herself that this man had turned down her idea for bidding on a very strategic
project. It was something she felt confident the company could win and would
place them in a good position for future work in an area she thought was not
very well tapped yet. “Well, then. Here’s my idea for the project. I know this
work is a little different than what we normally do, but if we go a little bit to the
left in our processes, you’ll see that my ideas really will work,” she stressed,
warming to her topic.
“If you’ll turn to page three,” she said, handing them a copy of a briefing
she’d done for Jim and some others last week, “you’ll see what I have in mind. If
we don’t use the normal operating system, then we can sidestep many of your
concerns about….” Darcy explained, addressing each of the issues she’d heard
about and how she would circumvent any problems.
She talked and answered questions for over an hour from both Jim and
Michael, showing them that she had done her homework and knew the subject.
What she was proposing was dramatically different from what she suspected the
competitors would be offering but by going with a different operating system,
she knew that ATI could do the job for much less money and create a much more
stable system with double the flexibility. The down side would be that ATI
would have to do most of the development work ahead of time in order to prove
to the client that it would work. That created a huge risk. Not many companies,
ATI included since they rejected going for this work initially, would put up
thousands, potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars to work without a
contract from a client with the hopes that they would be so impressed with the
solution they would buy it after the fact.
The up side would be, if they won the work, they would be perfectly
positioned for millions of dollars in contracts that would feed off the work.
She finally finished her briefing and sat there, waiting in the silence as
Michael considered various aspects of her idea.
The silence was broken a moment later as Jim’s cell phone went off. He
looked at the number on the screen and sighed. “I’m sorry, I need to take this.
It’s a client,” he said and walked out of the office. She could hear him talking in
the lobby, and then his voice trailed off as he moved down the hallway.
Chapter 2
The silence lasted so long, she started to fidget. He was going through the
pages of her briefing again, making notes in the margins.
Darcy was a lot of things, but patient wasn’t one of them. She liked
computers because she understood them. In fact, she worked long hours because
human relations were just too irritating in general. She had several friends that
she did things with occasionally, but not on a regular basis. Her time was mostly
spent at work, tweaking lines of code and reviewing data. Those people she
socialized with were also in the industry and they talked shop most of the time.
Darcy crossed and uncrossed her legs, wishing she could get some sort of
feedback from this man. She still couldn’t get over the fact that this virile, sexy
man was the one and only Michael Attracelli. She remembered reading about
him in the technology magazines when she was in college. Granted, only six
years had passed since she graduated but she’d always thought of him as being
somewhere in his sixties or seventies, considering the amount of work he’d done
and the influence he had in ATI.
“Hiccup”
Darcy looked around, shocked that the sound had come from her. Had she
really done that?
“Hiccup”
“Excuse me,” she said, her face turning red when Michael looked up from
reading the briefing, eyebrows raised.
“I’m sorry,” Darcy said, desperately trying to smother her hiccups. But they
were coming fast and furious. “I guess I’m just hungry,” she said as an
explanation for her hiccups.
Michael was instantly contrite, looking at his watch. “I’m sorry; I’ve kept
you too late. We can go over this another time,” he said.
“No, no! Please, I have plenty of time.” This might be her only chance to
convince him of her idea and she didn’t want to lose the opportunity because
she’d skipped lunch again.
Michael sat back and watched her. “You don’t have a husband and kids
waiting for you at home?”
Darcy shook her head. “No, but I guess you do,” she said, gathering up her
papers.
“Nope,” he said and stood up, reading the briefing as he walked over to his
desk. He pressed a button which was obviously a speed dial to a Chinese
restaurant. “Hello Chiang! How are you?” Michael asked when the phone call
was answered.
“Fine, fine,” the voice said over the speaker phone. “Working late again
tonight?” the voice asked.
“Yes. Can you send over my usual?” Michael asked.
“Of course,”
“And what would you like?” Michael asked, looking over towards Darcy.
Darcy blushed but spoke up. “Hello Chiang. This is Darcy. And you know
what I like,” she said.
She watched as Michael smiled.
The voice over the phone chuckled. “You want two broccoli and chicken
meals or you both want to share?”
Michael laughed. “I guess we can share if you toss in some extra egg rolls,”
he said.
“You got it,” Chiang said. “I charge you, Mr. Attracelli. You pay for the
lady,” he said.
Michael chuckled. “Deal. Charge it to my account. Thanks for the tip on the
gentlemanly behavior, Chiang.”
“I could give you lots of tips. Number one, take her out instead of working
so late,” he said. “But you won’t listen to me, will you? That’s why I have six
kids and you have none.”
Darcy smothered a laugh, watching Michael shake his head. “You have a
good point. I’ll talk to you soon,” he said.
Love’s Not Terrifying
Chapter 1
“Wow!” Gus Attracelli caught a movement out of the corner of his eye and
walked across the club house deck to get a better view. He craned his neck to get
a better look, straining to see the tennis court through the trees. Gus was just as
impressed with the volley as he was with the incredibly long, sexy legs displayed
by the mystery woman’s saucy tennis outfit. He liked the way it swung around
her upper thighs, teasing and showing hopeful possibilities but never revealing
anything.
He ignored the heat of the late afternoon sun beating down onto the deck
where he was standing in order to get another view of the woman.
Unfortunately, just as suddenly as the vision with sexy legs came into his line of
sight, she disappeared behind the perfectly manicured bushes that lined the
tennis courts of the exclusive country club.
He leaned over the railing to catch another glimpse of her but she had run
out of his line of site. The sun glared into his eyes but he ignored the
inconvenience, putting up a hand to block out the rays. All his concentration
was on getting another look at the fantastic pair of legs.
When she didn’t immediately jog back into sight, he became impatient.
“Where the hell did she go?” he muttered to himself. In the distance, someone
was mowing the grass and the engine created a soft hum against the sultry
summer afternoon. In the back of his mind, he noted the smell of the chlorine
from the pool but since the kids were still in school for a few more weeks, there
wasn’t any sound coming from that direction. All was basically quiet except for
the repetitive sound of a ball machine lobbing tennis balls across the tennis court
and then, moments later, the woman’s tennis racket hitting the ball.
Abruptly, she was back in his line of sight. She popped back and swung her
tennis racket hard at the incoming ball, thwacking it with a mighty hit. Gus
imagined the perspiration forming on her forehead as she raced across the tennis
court to catch the next ball being lobbed over the net.
Gus wiped his brow and looked behind him, feeling like a voyeur but unable
to turn away and allow the lovely lady her privacy. He was spellbound. Again,
she chased after a ball that went to the left side of the tennis court. “Where did
she go?” he murmured again, leaning over the railing and craning his neck to
catch another glimpse.
He almost jumped back when she burst back into his view, then looked
around to see if anyone had noticed, slightly embarrassed at his reaction. The
woman with the long legs and long, blond hair, was at least five hundred feet
away from him. He probably looked ridiculous jumping back from someone so
far away.
His concern over being observed was ignored when she bent over to catch a
low ball and he was treated to her pert derriere. “Lady, you’re a gentleman’s
nightmare,” he muttered, but didn’t take his eyes off her sexy figure.
The woman raced to the edge of the tennis court to return the ball and Gus
leaned against the rail to the decking in order to get a better view. He was
impressed when she returned the volley and grateful when she moved back to
the center of the court so he had a better view. His eyes followed her progress as
she hit ball after ball. But he wasn’t concentrating on her tennis skill. It was her
legs that had him mesmerized. They were long and lean and he had a clear view
right up to the edge of her sassy tennis skirt. And every once in a while, he got
another view of her spectacular derriere when she dove to return a particularly
difficult ground shot.
He had no idea who the blond woman was. She was playing against a ball
machine in the middle of the afternoon. Gus had arrived at his friend’s club
early to play golf and, since he wasn’t a member of this particular country club,
he was asked to wait in the lobby. Thankfully, his wait was rewarded by the
view of the woman playing tennis and he was content to remain, grateful even.
Gus considered himself a connoisseur of women but he’d never been
particularly fascinated by legs. He was more of a breast man. She bent to get a
ball and he was hypnotized by the athletic grace with which she ran and
volleyed. He wished he was down there playing with her, wondered whether
she was really as skilled as she appeared or if she had set the ball machine to
issue easy lobs.
It was a quiet afternoon at the club for some reason and this mystery woman
was the only one playing on all six courts. The ball machine shot the balls to her
at what seemed to be a merciless rate but from the number of balls on her side of
the court versus those that were scattered on the machine’s side indicated she
was able to keep up with the pace.
Gus heard his friend, Jim Siler, in the lobby and quickly moved from the deck
to meet him. For some reason, Gus didn’t want anyone else to enjoy his view
from the deck. He didn’t look into that emotion too closely since it was a
ridiculous desire.
“How are you doing, Gus?” Jim called out, shaking Gus’s hand and slapping
him on the shoulder.
“Great, Jim. How about you?” Gus asked, returning the handshake.
“Fine, fine!” Jim retorted. “Hey, some others were heading out to play a
round and I thought it might be fun to put together a foursome. Do you mind?”
he asked.
“Not at all,” Gus replied, shaking his head. He didn’t care how many people
played golf, just so long as he could get out and whack some balls as hard as
possible. He had been working eighteen hour days for the past three weeks to
finish up some projects and he was ready to relieve some stress.
“Great, they were already heading down to the locker rooms. We’ll meet
them there.”
They headed downstairs and Gus changed into his golf cleats, then walked
off to check in. It seemed as if all four of them had the same intention of
relieving stress he noted as they joked while heading out to the first tee.
A flip of a coin later and the first one teed off. Gus took the last position, not
in a hurry this afternoon. When it was his turn, he placed his ball on the small
tee, squared off his club, pulled back and let the club swing with all his might
into a powerful “thwack” that send the ball straight down the fairway. As soon
as he let go of his follow through, he felt his nerves release some of the pressure
and a small portion of the stress instantly left his body. He didn’t even care that
his ball went the furthest and straightest. He just needed the release.
The four of them drove off down the fairway, Gus driving since the other
four had at least one more hit before they reached his ball.
Alana Mason used her towel to wipe the sweat from her face then headed to
the other side of the fence to start collecting tennis balls. She wished she could
go another round against the machine but she needed to meet with a caterer this
afternoon and a shower was definitely in order before that meeting. She sighed
as she picked up the last of the balls then dumped the whole lot into the ball
machine, setting the basket next to the machine for a staff member to collect later.
She wished she could relax like this more often. It seemed that she ran from
one appointment to another constantly. And she didn’t even have a job in the
normal sense. She supposed she could be considered a consultant for her
father’s property management firm since she acted as his hostess, organizing all
his social events. When she wasn’t organizing parties for her father, she was
organizing fund raisers for the Washington, D.C. orphanages she’d “adopted”
three years ago.
She walked the short distance from the tennis courts to the clubhouse,
entering through the bottom door that would take her directly to the locker
rooms. The air conditioning sent a chill through her perspiration soaked body,
but it served the purpose of rushing her through to the locker room so she could
shower and change. There was a lot to be done and not much time to do it, she
reminded herself. The kids were counting on her and she refused to let them
down.
Seven year old David’s comment to her the first time she met him always
rung in her ears whenever she felt like slowing down. He’d been eating ice
cream with her, his big brown eyes staring up at her as she asked about his home.
He’d been almost belligerent when he’d explained that he didn’t have a home,
nor did he need one. “Too many people just brush us off. We don’t need them
anymore than they need us,” he’d said , then the tough little boy had looked
down at his bowl of ice cream, refusing to let the tears fall down his cheeks
despite the fact that they were brimming on the edge of his eye lashes.
Alana smiled softly at the memory of David running into her on his
skateboard one afternoon three years ago. She had been coming out of her
lawyer’s office after signing her formal divorce decree. That afternoon, she’d
been feeling like a failure for only being married four months, all of which had
been awful and humiliating.
There had been five kids skateboarding recklessly down the street that day,
but David was the only one the doorman had caught. The older boys had all
escaped. The doorman was about to call the police as he held David by the collar
of his shirt. Alana had convinced him that it wasn’t necessary. No one had
gotten hurt and the boys hadn’t been malicious in their intent. But she required
David to come with her for lunch. David, she found out over the next hour, was
seven years old, skipped school on a regular basis just as he was doing that day,
and lived in a rundown orphanage five blocks away. He was an easy companion
and talked almost non-stop once Alana offered him an ice cream sundae. They
ate ice cream and he told her about his difficult life and Alana realized that she
had been wallowing in self pity for so long, she hadn’t been able to see how
pathetic and self-centered her life had become.
Alana had gone to visit the orphanage that afternoon and realized what a
horrific place it was. The building was falling apart, there was almost no
supervision, the playground was a set of swings, one of which was broken and
the chains on all were rusting away. The basket ball court was filled with boys
shooting hoops but there were no nets anywhere. And a line of girls sat on the
sidelines, primping and calling out to the boys in obvious attempts to get
attention from them.
Over the past three years, Alana had found donors for several projects
benefiting the orphanage. It now boasted a bright, cheerful playground, newly
asphalted basketball courts with nets on each of the hoops, a computer room, a
small library, a van to take the kids on field trips and a support staff that helped
the kids with all types of problems. She’d also organized a volunteer campaign
from various companies that mentored the kids, helped them with their
homework, coached girls and boys sports activities and several other projects.
As she showered, she went over her afternoon appointments. She needed to
meet with the caterer for her father’s cocktail party this Friday night. She knew
she needed something different to serve the guests but was at a loss as to what
that could be. Alana was hoping the caterer would have some ideas.
Quickly dressing in light blue, silk slacks and a white, silk shirt, she rushed
out of the locker room intending to head to her car. At the last moment, she
changed directions. She headed upstairs to the bar to get a bottle of water,
needing something to quickly quench her thirst. She’d just gotten a bottle of
water and had wandered out onto the patio to drink it when a movement to her
right caught her eye. The bottle froze halfway to her mouth and her eyes simply
stared at the most amazing specimen of masculinity she had ever laid eyes upon.
All thoughts left her mind. Forgotten was her busy afternoon agenda, her
thirst and her exhaustion. The whole world seemed to disappear when the man
stood up again. He had the broadest shoulders she’d ever seen, was at least half
a head taller than the other three men waiting for him and was muscular in all
the right places, and all the places in between, she thought as he turned to laugh
at someone’s joke.
Her breath froze in her throat as she watched the muscles in his shoulders
and back bunch up as he prepared his shot. She observed in fascination as he
pulled back, hesitated for only a moment, then let the club rip through the air to
hit the ball with a mighty whack. His follow through was perfect and she got to
see the play of muscles again as the club swung over the opposite shoulder.
She knew she should be watching where the ball was heading, but her eyes
were glued to the man and his incredible body. No other man had ever affected
her in such a way and she was helpless in her fascination.
The three other men shook their heads and patted him on his back, obviously
congratulating him on his shot. The four of them headed over to the two golf
carts, then sped off down the fairway.
Alana finally took a breath when she couldn’t see him anymore, then glanced
around her to see if anyone had noticed her staring at the man. Thankfully the
patio was empty at this time of the day. She pulled her bottle of water to her
mouth and drank thirstily, replenishing the liquids she’d lost during her tennis
practice, and because her mouth had been hanging open for that small period of
time.
Alana grimaced and turned her back on the now empty golf course.
Heading to her car, she mentally reviewed her schedule and pushed all thoughts
of the muscular Adonis out of her mind. Glancing at her watch, she realized
she’d spent at least ten minutes watching the mystery man so she picked up her
step.
Chapter 2
Walking into the beautifully decorated executive offices of ATI Incorporated
several days later was a daunting experience for Alana. As much as she believed
in her cause, she really hated the fundraising part of the job. She wished she
didn’t have to go begging for money to fund the orphanages and the programs
they needed in order to help the kids. She didn’t understand why everyone
didn’t understand what a worthy cause these children were and donate their
money without her having to ask for it.
Getting off the elevator and making her way down a subtly lit hallway lined
with dark green carpeting that muffled her steps, Alana gave herself a pep talk.
She reminded herself that the kids were a great group but no one knew their
needs. It was up to her to raise the funding for the projects the kids desperately
needed.
“Alana Mason to see Salvatore Attracelli,” she said calmly to the first
receptionist she came to.
The receptionist behind a large, curving desk ran a tapered fingernail slowly
down a sheet filled with names, then finally nodded. “Mr. Attracelli is expecting
you, Ms. Mason. His office is the last one on the right. It is just past the
conference room,” she explained, pointing in the general direction of another
long hallway.
“Thank you,” Alana said and smiled her thanks. Alana continued down the
hallway, taking deep breaths in an effort to calm down. She really hated these
kinds of appointments. She felt like a beggar.
But it was the only way to keep the funds flowing.
“Good afternoon, Ms. Mason,” a courteous female voice greeted Alana from
the doorway. “Mr. Attracelli is running slightly behind. Would you mind
waiting just a moment?” she asked. Alana located the body that was attached to
the voice and smiled at the woman who appeared to be in her mid forties with
horn rimmed glasses, a perfectly tailored, black wool suit and one inch heels.
She seemed to be a very efficient, no-nonsense kind of woman. Alana made a
mental note of the kind of woman Salvatorre Attracelli preferred for a secretary.
She used that kind of information to set the tone for her presentation.
“No problem,” Alana replied and took a seat in one of the chairs outside a
large office and conference room. The walls of the conference room were glass so
she had an unfettered view of the occupants. She was trying not to eaves drop,
but the man inside instantly captured her attention with his deep voice and she
was unable to tear her gaze away.
It was the golfer, she thought. She had a clear view of his back and, because
he wasn’t wearing a suit jacket, she recognized the broad shoulders and was
again mesmerized by the muscles rippling along their breadth underneath the
tailored dress shirt. She could also see that his hair was a little too long, it curled
along the edge of his collar. His tie was loose and his sleeves were rolled up. She
watched with fascination at his hands as he motioned to another occupant to
talk. He had long, slender fingers and well muscled forearms.
She didn’t hear what the other man was saying, too preoccupied with the
golfer’s physique. This was definitely odd, she thought to herself. She had
never been attracted to a man because of his superficial qualities. It generally
took a lot for her to even become interested in a man. And to have this strong of
a reaction was just silly since she had only heard his voice and seen his back.
Was she completely losing her sense of decorum? She was sensible and
reasonable. She did not lose her concentration and purpose simply because of
muscles and a sexy, deep voice.
She turned her knees so her body faced another direction, but her mind
refused to relinquish its fascination with the man.
“Okay, what’s the end item responsibility, Pete?” the man said.
Alana felt his deep, resonant voice slide along her skin, wrapping around her
and warming her soul like a velvet blanket. She leaned forward, wanting to hear
more, but “Pete” apparently had the floor and had started speaking while her
mystery man was simply listening and nodding his head.
“Where would that put us in the industry?” he asked and another occupant
answered.
“What are the alternatives?” he asked.
Of their own accord, Alana’s knees slowly turned back so she was facing the
conference room and her eyes were again able to feast on the man’s physique, or
what she could see of it, anyway. Alana stared at his back and enjoyed the sound
of his voice, liking his confidence and the respect he paid to the others as they
spoke. He was obviously in charge of the meeting and extremely knowledgeable
on the subject, whatever it was.
“Ms. Mason?”
Alana snapped around at the sound her name being called and noticed the
secretary standing in front of a doorway, waiting impatiently for Alana to
respond. Alana guessed that the woman had called to her more than once if her
raised eyebrows were any indication.
Alana fought the blush creeping up her neck as she picked up her small
purse and followed behind the woman into a large, airy office with a tall,
handsome man coming around a desk to greet her.
“Ms. Mason?” he was asking.
“Yes. Please call me Alana,” she said, taking the man’s offered hand.
“I’m Sal,” he said.
Alana smiled. “It is nice to finally meet you, Sal. Thank you so much for
taking the time to meet with me. I know you have a very busy schedule so I’ll
get right to the point,” she said and took out a glossy brochure that detailed the
events and programs of the girls’ and boys’ orphanages for the next six months.
Sal waved to a sofa and two chairs and the two of them sat down to discuss
Alana’s cause.
She talked for almost twenty minutes about the children and how important
their future was, for the city and for the industries around the city. But Alana
couldn’t tell if she was getting through to this man. He nodded at all the
appropriate points but no other expression crossed his face.
At the end of her pitch, she waited anxiously as Sal flipped through the
pages of the brochure. She had put high hopes into getting ATI to support the
kids but she had a feeling she had failed miserably. She didn’t even know if ATI
supported these kinds of efforts. There was no record of their charitable
contributions but it was a large conglomerate. Surely they had some sort of
community payback that set aside funds for charitable efforts.
“Well, this sounds like a nice proposition. I’ll give it some thought and will
get back to you,” he said.
Alana understood her cue to leave and she quickly stood up. “I appreciate
your time,” she said and shook Sal’s hand again.
Sal shook her hand and started walking her to the elevators down the
hallway. “I’ve seen you at the various functions around town. You throw some
very interesting parties,” he said.
Alana laughed self-consciously. “Actually, it is my father who is the social
whirlwind. I only act as his hostess.”
“You’re more than that,” he said, chuckling. “You sold me to my wife about
two years ago,” he said, walking with her to the door.
Alana’s eyes widened. “You’re married to Laci?” she asked, remembering
the Children’s Charity ball several years ago. It had been one of the largest
fundraisers.
“One and the same,” he said. He walked with her out the door and down
the hallway as they talked.
“I had no idea. I’m sorry I didn’t make the connection. If I had, I would
have been knocking on your door a long time ago,” she replied, laughing.
Sal laughed as well. “I’m sure you would have.”
“How is Laci? She was my Resident Advisor during my freshman year at
college.” Alana said, shaking her head at what a small world it really was. “I just
spoke to her about a week ago and she wasn’t having a good time in the last few
weeks of her pregnancy.”
Sal smiled and Alana could see the love in his eyes despite his obvious
weariness over the impending pregnancy. “No, she definitely hasn’t been very
happy these past few weeks. But she’s due in about three more weeks so there’s
a light at the end of the tunnel,” he explained.
From his words, Alana guessed he had been a very harried husband lately.
“Wow! I’m a little embarrassed now. I never made the connection with you
and Laci. She talks about you all the time though.”
“Well, she didn’t take my last name so it gets a little confusing sometimes,”
Sal said.
“I’ll bet she just loves that,” Alana laughed, knowing her friend well.
“She loves it even more when a sales person calls the house and asks for Mr.
Anderson.”
Alana laughed softly. “I bet she does,” she said, pressing the elevator call
button.
“It was good talking to you,” Sal said, holding the doors to the elevator as
they slid silently open. “And I’ll give you a call regarding your projects.”
“Thank you for considering it,” Alana said and smiled genuinely at the tall,
elegant man who had married her college mentor. “Tell Laci to hang in there and
I’ll give her a call soon.”
“Will do,” Sal said as the doors closed.
Romantic Acquisition
Chapter 1
“You must be the enemy everyone is talking about,” Katherine Avril smiled
warmly as she approached the three men in business suits standing in the lobby
area. She extended her hand in greeting to the tall, handsome man in the center.
There were two other stern looking men behind the serious man but she
assumed that the intimidating one was in charge. There was just an aura of
authority surrounding him.
The center man took her hand in his warm one but stood there for a long
time just staring down at her, an enigmatic look in his dark, intense eyes. As
soon as their hands touched, Kate was transfixed. The heat transferring from this
man’s hand warmed her cold, nervous one. She had been trying to hide her
anxiety ever since the stunning announcement this morning but holding this
man’s hand, looking into his eyes, the rest of the world disappeared. She
couldn’t feel the silver bracelets clanging against each other whenever she
moved, or the painful pinching of her toes in her high heeled shoes. Everything
faded away.
“I’m Carlo Attracelli,” he finally said. “I represent ATI, Incorporated, if that’s
what you mean.”
Katherine liked his deep voice. It seemed to ring with authority and
confidence and sent a secret thrill through her whole body. “Pleased to me you,”
she said with as much confidence as she could muster. She shook his hand,
pretending she wasn’t intimidated or overwhelmed by his large presence. She
hoped he didn’t notice that her hand was shaking or that her knees were
trembling. “You’ll have to excuse our lack of planning. We just heard that ATI
was going to acquire Jamison’s Department Stores this morning. We’re all in
shock.”
He raised an eyebrow at her explanation, but didn’t respond. Instead, the
man turned to his team members who were standing behind him. “This is Jeff
McKenzie and Peter Ashton. They’re going to be helping with the due diligence
process.”
“Pleased to meet both of you as well,” she said and smiled at the two shorter,
but still impressive men to Carlo’s left and right.
The gorgeous, intimidating man continued to stare at her and she had the
impression that he could see through her clothes and know what color and style
of underwear she was wearing. It was very disconcerting, especially since she
was interested in what he had underneath his perfectly tailored suit. She
pictured him in silk boxers with muscular legs and stomach, not a lot of hair on
his chest….Clearing her mind of those treasonous thoughts, she quickly thought
of something to say. “As I said, I’m Katherine Avril, Director of Purchasing,” she
explained. “You can call me Kate. If you’ll follow me, I’ll show you around the
offices. Mr. Jamison asked me to help you in any way while you’re working
here. I’ve reserved the conference room for the next two months for your
exclusive use.” With that, she turned to usher them down the hallway.
Carlo Attracelli had been watching her face, and liked the twinkle in her eye
which took the sting away from her words. He kept his face impassive as he
took in the stunning, if slightly outrageous, female now walking away from
them. He heard one of his team members chuckle behind him but he didn’t take
his eyes off the petite brunette with hair that curled softly all the way down to
her tiny waist.
Carlo was amazed as much by her outfit as he was by the woman. She was
dressed in a short, flounced, black skirt with a tight red shirt tucked into the
waist. Her neck was draped in about ten different sets of necklaces and, Carlo
wasn’t positive, but he suspected that he’d seen a white petticoat peak out from
underneath her short skirt.
Even though he had kept his eyes on her face while she was introducing
herself, he knew her long, sexy legs were encased in black stockings, ending in
black, patent-leather pumps with three inch heels. The phrase, “legs that never
ended” applied to this tiny woman. Even so, her head was only about an inch
above his shoulders with those shoes which meant she was about a foot shorter
than he was without shoes.
Carlo watched her turn, giving her a few feet lead so he could see her legs
again. Sure enough, as she turned, her skirt bounced up slightly and a white,
lace petticoat peaked out from underneath her black skirt.
“You’re awfully handsome,” she said as she walked down the hallway.
Again, Jeff chuckled behind them. Carlo wanted to glare at him, but he too was
shocked at the comment. Had she really just said he was handsome? Not just
handsome, but “awfully handsome”?
A moment later, the tiny woman stopped in the middle of the hallway, her
whole body frozen. Carlo, Jeff and Peter stood there, wondering what was
happening. Slowly, she turned back to face the three of them, a tentative smile
and a curious expression on her face, “I didn’t really say that out loud, did I?”
she asked. As soon as she finished her statement, her face flamed into
embarrassed color.
Carlo raised one eyebrow and tried to keep from laughing.
definitely a curious woman.
She was
With a deep sigh, she nodded her head slightly. “By the amused expressions
on your face, I guess I did say it out loud.” The tiny woman grimaced and
continued to make her way down the hallway toward the conference room, but
her face was still flushed with color. Opening the double doors with a flourish,
she ushered the three men inside, giving a wide berth to Carlo who had
extremely broad shoulders and towered above the two other men.
Jeff settled his briefcase onto the polished wooden surface. “Ms. Avril,
excuse me for asking, but why did Jamison’s Department Stores assign the
director of purchasing to help us out during this process?”
She smiled brightly, her eyes twinkling with some sort of inner energy.
“Please, call me Kate. No one ever calls me Ms. Avril unless they’re trying to sell
me something on the phone. And even then, I can tell that it’s a salesperson
because they mispronounce it,” she chattered nervously. Her attention was on
Jeff and Peter, avoiding Carlo’s eyes altogether. She took a deep breath before
continuing. She told herself to pull it together before these men thought of her as
a complete idiot. “As for why I’m assigned to help you out, well, that might not
make sense on the surface, but I’m probably the best qualified. I’d wager that I
know more about these stores than anyone, including the present owner, soon to
be not-present-owner if you three have any say in it, David Jamison.”
“How is that?” Peter asked, smiling despite himself.
Clasping her hands in front of her so they would stop fluttering around
nervously, she glanced at the tall man, then back to Peter and Jeff. “My mother
was the previous owner and president’s secretary. I used to do my homework
beside her desk each afternoon so, even as a kid, I heard a lot about the goings on
within the headquarters. Years later, when I turned sixteen, I started working for
the store in the retail areas. I’ve worked in almost every department, except
finance, over the past twelve years. There’s basically nothing I haven’t done, or
don’t know someone who has done it or is currently doing it,” she explained.
“So I’m really your best point of contact. I’m the lucky one that gets to help you
three out for as long as I’m needed.” Kate once again peeked over at the tall one
who called himself Carlo, then quickly away when she realized that he was
staring at her still with that same strange look on his face. He was a very serious
fellow, she thought.
“Why isn’t David helping us with this process?” Jeff asked as he settled
himself into a chair, pulling out pencils and a notepad.
“You must be the accountant,” she said, smiling brightly at Jeff who
immediately blushed and nodded his head. “David doesn’t like to dirty his
hands with the day to day stuff of Jamison’s. He has more important things to
do,” she explained and looked down at the floor. She didn’t want to be disloyal
so she just left her explanation hanging at that terse statement and hoped that
would be enough for the three men.
Carlo sensed there was something more that she didn’t want them to know
and his curiosity cranked up another notch. He suspected that there was much
more to this tiny daredevil of a woman than met the eye. She came across as a
little scatterbrained but he deduced that her chattering was due more to
nervousness than a lack of intelligence.
“How are we to get reports and information we need to complete the
investigation?” Peter asked, knowing what needed to get done and eager to start.
Kate smiled brightly, feeling like she was on safe ground now. “Anything
you need, just ask me. I’ve assigned my deputy to take over for me for as long as
you need information. I’ll only be interrupted for emergencies, so just let me
know, and I’ll get you the data.”
Peter and Jeff nodded and Peter explained the areas they would like to
review and how the due diligence process works at a high level. He then gave
her a list of things he would need to get started and Kate swept up a notepad and
started writing. She nodded at all of Peter’s requests, indicating she knew she
could get him the information.
“What do you need?” she turned to Jeff.
Jeff also gave her a list, but it was much smaller.
Carlo watched her as she made notes. He recognized the moment when she
knew she’d have to face him and was interested in understanding her reaction to
him. He was definitely having a reaction to her although he wasn’t sure why.
She was not his usual type but his body was instantly aware of everything about
her, every movement she made. It was as if she were a bundle of energy just
trying to escape as quickly as possible. He also liked watching her facial
expressions. He wondered if she knew how much she revealed about her
thoughts by her features. Carlo couldn’t tear his eyes away from her.
“What kinds of reports or data do you need?” she asked more quietly, her
eyes not meeting his but focusing somewhere on his chin.
Carlo didn’t smile. “I’ll be fine with what you’re getting for Jeff and Peter,”
he explained, wishing she’d look up at him so he could see her fascinating, green
eyes again.
Kate let out a deep breath she’d been holding, the relief evident. “Okay. If
you’d like coffee, it has been set up on the table behind you. There’s cream and
sugar as well as several types of tea. I’ll get to work on these reports. If you
need anything else, my extension is…”
“You’ll need to work in here with us,” Carlo said before she could give out
her extension. “Do you have a laptop you can set up to work with us?” he asked.
Kate looked at Peter and Jeff to see if they also wanted her in there, and
received duplicate blank expressions. She had been afraid of that. “Yes, I have a
laptop I can set up. I’ll get these reports and will be back in about ten minutes.”
Kate left the conference room, closing the door quietly behind her.
“Why do you want her to work in here? Isn’t that a departure from our
normal routine?” Jeff asked as soon as they were alone.
Carlo didn’t look at Jeff. He stared at the closed doors instead. “I think
everything about this process is going to be different,” he speculated.
Five minutes later, Kate burst back into the room, her arms loaded down
with reports and charts. “Here you go. This is the first batch,” she said and blew
a hair out of her face as she carried everything to the table.
Jeff and Peter instantly jumped up to help her, taking the top folders that
were stuffed with information and carrying them over to the table themselves.
“Oh, thank you!” she said and dumped the remaining reports onto the
conference room table. She straightened up and saluted them, “Okay, off on my
second trip for more,” she explained and disappeared in another flash of white
petticoat.
Carlo noticed that both Jeff and Peter were staring at the closed door. He
cleared his throat to get their attention and they snapped out of their stare,
jumping to find their respective reports and get to work.
It was another ten minutes, not that Carlo was watching the time, he told
himself, before she reappeared. Again, she was loaded down with bulging file
folders, thick reports and stacks of papers. At the very top, she had a laptop
computer perched precariously. He watched as she carried everything to the
table. Somehow, she was able to balance everything without the stack toppling
over. He was impressed. He thought only men wanted to make one trip for
everything. Apparently this slender fireball was the same way.
Peter and Jeff again jumped up and took some of the burden off her while
Carlo watched in astonishment as his previously well trained acquisition team,
who were trained to not get involved with the personnel of a target, teased this
small, fascinating woman about carrying so many items in one trip. It didn’t
matter if it was a friendly acquisition, such as this one, or a hostile takeover.
Peter and Jeff knew that they were supposed to remain separate in order to
maintain the data integrity and not become influenced by employee issues.
Even Carlo knew that this was going to be a difficult test for his team. Hell,
Carlo wanted to jump up and help her if only to get himself closer so he could
capture her scent again. Her perfume was very subtle, barely there even, but she
smelled of lilac and vanilla. He liked it. Too much, he thought. He admitted
that he was drawn to her. But he kept himself apart, determined to maintain the
discipline that demanded isolation from a target during due diligence. Once
they had made the final decision to acquire a company, he would then give
himself permission to get closer and get to know the personnel. He had to, in
fact. It would be his job to find out who would be kept on after the acquisition
and who would be laid off.
Carlo watched in fascination as Kate plugged in her computer. She was
definitely a ball of energy, he thought. Just plugging in her computer took a
great deal of movement. And each time she moved, her hair bounced, her skirt
fluttered and her hands were everywhere. It would be exhausting to watch her if
it wasn’t so fascinating.
Kate bit her lower lip and tried to concentrate on putting the appropriate
plugs into her computer. She hated to admit it, but she was a computer knownothing. She figured out that the power cable needed to connect into the round
hole in the back. She made that assumption with minimal difficulty. There were
only two round holes and one didn’t fit. She was extremely relieved when the
other connection worked. But then there was the blue plug that looked like a
phone cable. She had no idea what that did. She’d seen the computer support
people plug it in and she suspected that it helped her e-mail function, but other
than that, she was lost. There were two areas that this plug fit into. Since she
didn’t want to blow up her computer by putting it into the wrong one, she just
left it unplugged assuming that was the safest plan of action.
She decided it wasn’t too important since there was no obvious plug in the
back of her computer so she laid it aside and started with the mouse connection.
This one turned out to be another cable that she couldn’t figure out. Deciding to
save face, knowing that the tall, incredibly sexy man at the end of the conference
table was watching her, she dropped the mouse into the chair next to her and
used the touch pad on her computer, hoping she looked nonchalant enough to
hide her computer ignorance.
Taking a deep breath, she looked at her screen and was relieved to see that
she had power. That was something, wasn’t it? She felt as if she’d accomplished
a small miracle. Clicking on her e-mail button produced no results. She knew
that blue thingy connected her somehow. Should she try again to connect?
Kate sighed longingly. She wished she could work in her office. There, she
just snapped her laptop onto what the computer guys called a docking station
and everything worked. She had another docking station at home and it was
easy enough to plop her computer in and, again, everything worked. She didn’t
have to worry about connecting plugs or power cables or anything.
Suddenly, there was a large form leaning over her and Kate’s whole body
went into overload. It was him! Carlo! And he was leaning over her computer.
His shoulders were so broad, they blocked out the sunshine as he leaned
over her computer. Kate’s skin warmed with his closeness. He accidentally
brushed her arm and her whole body shivered in reaction.
“Need some help?” he asked softly, his voice deep and husky.
With a few snaps, her e-mail came to life. He picked up her mouse from the
seat next to her and snapped that into place as well. Then he casually walked
back to the other end of the conference table, leaving Kate trembling with
curiosity and awareness of this incredibly attractive man.
Kate watched him as he took off his suit coat and draped it on the back of a
chair. Good grief! The man’s shoulders filled out that suit! There was supposed
to be padding there to make his shoulders look broad but there wouldn’t be any
room with those shoulders. The man looked like a body builder!
Kate snapped her mouth closed and forced herself to stop staring at the man.
He was talking on a cell phone but she didn’t understand anything he was
saying. He wasn’t talking in a foreign language, but the numbers and references
were so foreign to her she couldn’t decipher his words.
Who was she kidding? She couldn’t understand him because her blood was
humming in her ears after he’d gotten so close to her. And she’d seen those
magnificent shoulders. “Wow”, she thought.
Looking up, she noticed all three men were staring at her again. She’d done
it again! “E-mail message,” she said quickly as an explanation for her outburst.
Obviously she had spoken her thoughts out loud once more. She really needed
to stop doing that. The man wasn’t that gorgeous, she told herself but she didn’t
look up at him again to confirm that opinion, knowing he was still looking at her
after her previous outburst.
Kate forced him out of her mind. Peter was asking her a question about how
to read some receiving reports and she concentrated on explaining the
procedures and how the items were checked into the various stores. She pulled
up a posting application on her computer and compared the various lines on the
report she’d handed him moments before to the numbers on the screen and
explained the checks and balances the store had instituted years ago to guard
against employee theft.
The day went by quickly and Kate spent almost all her time answering
questions. She knew a great deal but when she didn’t, she knew who to call to
get the information. By seven o’clock that evening, Jeff and Peter were pulling
on their jackets and thanking her for her help that day.
As soon as they left, Kate looked down at the other end of the conference
table. “Are you going to continue working?” she asked Carlo. She had been
exhausted but after Peter and Jeff left, her body had become suddenly energized,
knowing that she was alone with Carlo and his gorgeous, extra broad shoulders.
“Yes, but you don’t need to stay. You’re kids probably needed you home a
long time ago,” he said, not even looking up from his reports.
“Oh, don’t worry. I don’t have any kids.”
Carlo looked up and stared at her intently. “What about your husband?”
“Nope,” she said and shrugged her shoulders. She prayed he wouldn’t ask if
she had a significant other. She didn’t want to admit that she wasn’t dating
anyone. He probably had several women waiting at his beck and call.
“Well, thanks for your help. Will you still be available tomorrow?” he asked.
“Sure,” she said and smiled as she stood up, stretching her arms and
yawning. “How much longer are you going to work?” she asked, unplugging
her computer but noting where the various plugs went in so she could replicate
the process tomorrow.
“I’m wrapping things up,” he said but kept his eyes on the papers.
“Okay, well, I’ll see you in the morning,” she said and closed down her
computer.
Kate walked out, feeling his eyes on her back the entire time. She was selfconscious for some reason.
Carlo watched her leave, liking the way her hips swayed gently, giving him
teasing glimpses of her petticoat with each step. She was a fascinating
combination of sassy and outrageous, brilliant and intuitive. The knowledge that
she was not married was going to make the next two months difficult. As soon
as the due diligence was over, he knew he was going to ask her out for dinner.
It was going to be a long two months, he thought as she disappeared into an
office a few doors down the hallway.
The Billionaire’s Terms: Prison or Passion
Chapter 1
Alicia stared at her reflection in her bedroom mirror, her eyes widening in
shock. “No way, Maggie. I can’t wear this,” she said to her younger sister,
starting to pull the beautiful, but sexy red slip dress off her slim shoulders. She
had an odd feeling something momentous was going to happen tonight and she
was wondering if she wanted that to happen in such a daring dress.
Maggie put her hands on her older sister’s shoulders, laughing at the
horrified expression. “Yes you can. You look fabulous and I can guarantee that
other people will be wearing much more revealing dresses than this. You’ll stand
out if you wear something as conservative that,” she explained, her hand waving
to the boring, black crepe dress Alicia had originally been planning to wear.
“Besides, you don’t have an alternative. It is the only fancy dress I have and you
don’t have any. Your black dress isn’t appropriate for this kind of a function.
Trust me.”
Alicia sighed. Her sister was right. She didn’t have any other option but it
didn’t stop her hands from moving to the spaghetti straps to pull the bodice
slightly higher. She was biting her lower lip in indecision, worrying about so
many things that might or might not happen. The possibilities were daunting
and terrifying.
Sighing heavily, Alicia shook her head. “I think I’ll just skip the event,” she
started to say.
“Absolutely not!” Maggie said emphatically and moved around to face her
sister, blocking her view of the dress in the mirror. Looking right into Alicia’s
dark blue eyes, she smiled. “Alicia, this is your big night. Go out, have a good
time and just relax with your friends. It is a company party, not a death sentence,
so all of your co-workers will be there. It will be seen as a slight by your peers if
you don’t attend.”
Alicia’s shoulders drooped, knowing her sister was right. She wished she
had some sort of emergency would suddenly pop up and get her out of this
professional obligation. She hated going to these kinds of functions on her own.
“Yes, but they all have husbands or significant others. I’ll be all alone,” she said,
worried about going as well as the consequences of not going.
Maggie smiled encouragingly. “You’ll be fine. Just pretend you’re royalty
and they’ll all assume you know something they don’t. You’ll fascinate them.”
Maggie chuckled at her sister. “Just consider this the beginning of your freedom
from the past ten years. Good grief, you’ve been working at least three jobs for
so long to help mom and me, no wonder you’re nervous about going out and just
relaxing.”
Alicia ignored her sister’s comments and peered around to inspect her image
again. “Are you sure this dress isn’t too risqué?” she asked nervously.
Maggie shook her head firmly. “You know it isn’t. I wore it to that dinner
two weeks ago and no one even blinked. So stop worrying about it and just go
out to enjoy yourself. You definitely deserve it,” she said.
Accepting that Maggie wasn’t going to take no for an answer and her
younger sister really did have a knack for style, Alicia laughed and hugged her
sister. “Okay, you’ve taken away every one of my arguments. So I’ll go but I’m
only going to make an appearance, then get right back out of there. I’m not the
social butterfly like you are. You can talk to just about anyone and get their life
history out of them. It’s why you’re so good at your job,” she said, referring to
Maggie’s month-old job as an aide to a senator down in Washington, D.C.
Maggie shook her head, denying her sister’s assertion that the social aspect
of work life was too hard. “You’ll be fine. Just smile occasionally and I
guarantee that the men will do the rest,” she said, eyeing her sister’s beautiful,
delicate features dominated by her blue, almond shaped eyes that shone like cat
eyes out of a creamy complexion that a model would die for. Throw in her
lustrous brown locks that hung down to her waist, and Alicia was a stunning
woman. And what’s more, she didn’t know it, nor did she care. A more selfless
woman, Maggie had never known.
Snapping out of her inspection, she picked up a brush. “Let’s do something
with that hair, shall we?” she said and pushed Alicia into a chair so she could
tackle her thick, long, brown hair that curled just slightly at the ends.
“Good luck,” Alicia said grimly, but gave in to the tender ministrations of
Maggie.
After a half hour, Maggie had achieved a miracle. “How’s that?” she asked,
stepping out of the way so Alicia could see her hair in the mirror.
Instead of the thick hair that just fell in waves down her back, Maggie had
pulled it all into a pony tail then curled the ends so they twirled in corkscrews
down her back leaving small tendrils floating around her face.
Alicia’s mouth almost fell open at the image staring back at her from the
mirror. “Maggie, I can’t believe you! This is amazing,” she said, turning her face
to the right and left to see the effect. “I feel like a supermodel,” she said,
laughing easily. “Where did you learn to do this?”
Maggie smiled and tossed the brush down onto the beaten dressing table.
“In college, our study group would do each other’s hair while quizzing each
other. We got into some serious competitions on both hair and grades.”
Maggie was being humble. She’d received straight A’s throughout college in
every single class. “Well, it worked. You’re brilliance is evident with your skills
at hair styles as well as academically.”
“And to top it off, here’s cab fare,” Maggie said.
Alicia stared at the cash, instantly uncomfortable. “Maggie….”
Her younger sister took Alicia’s hand and stuffed the bills into it, closing her
fingers over it immediately. “Don’t even try it,” she admonished. “You’re not
going to mess up this hairstyle by walking and I’m not letting you take the New
York City subway at night, not dressed like that,” she admonished. “Besides,
you put me through college and now I have a great job. Allow me to pay back
some of what you sacrificed all those years for me.”
Alicia opened her fingers and stared at the money, swallowing the lump in
her throat as her emotions threatened to overwhelm her. “You don’t have to do
this,” she said.
Maggie smiled gently. “Neither did you, but you did it anyway. For ten
years you supported me and mom after dad’s…..” she stopped, leaving an
uncomfortable pause as the two sisters pushed painful memories aside. “Well,
you know,” she finished weakly. “Please, let me do this small thing for you.
Take the money and have a great time tonight.”
Alicia relented, grateful to her sister, hugging Maggie to show her how much
she loved her. “I’ll be back early,” she said. “We’ll go out for breakfast tomorrow
morning to splurge before you have to head back to Washington, D.C.”
“Deal,” Maggie said, smiling broadly.
Chapter 2
Adam Meyers laughed at the poor joke that had just been told while at the
same time surveying the crowd, assessing the party-goers with a critical eye. The
party was apparently a huge success and he should congratulate the
coordinators. This year’s company spring ball had turned out nicely.
Moving away from the group he’d been in to circulate further, he was
scanning the crowd in search of Nancy Yost, head of Human Relations and this
year’s coordinator when his eyes flew by a knockout figure encased in a stunning
red dress. For a long time, Adam’s eyes just took in the luscious figure, amazed
that he hadn’t seen her before now. She was surrounded by several other men so
perhaps that’s the reason. He wondered which one was her date for the night.
Whoever it was, the man was certainly lucky, he thought to himself.
“What’s the news on the latest proposal, Adam?” Jim Lewis asked, Vice
President of Business Development.
Adam ignored the man talking to him, knowing that the other man was just
schmoozing. Having built up his company from nothing into a multi-billion
dollar conglomerate, he had no patience for people trying to flatter their way into
his good graces. Actions and accomplishments were what he recognized in
people. A few moments ago, Adam had been only mildly amused at the man’s
ambitions but he had no problem cutting him off by turning his back on the man
without any further pleasantries when the man started schmoozing. Adam
rarely had time for petty chit chat. There was always something more important
to discuss. He had no remorse for the man or his fawning. The woman in the
red dress was all that held his interest now.
Adam watched as the woman thanked her latest partner and walked off the
dance floor. He was so transfixed by the woman’s movements, it took him a long
time to realize that she was actually trying to leave.
“Oh, no,” Adam said under his breath. “You put yourself out there, looking
incredibly lovely and way too tempting. There’s no way you’re going to leave
now.”
Adam quickly picked up two glasses of champagne from a passing waiter
and moved toward the woman with single minded purpose. His employees
knew better than to stop him in this mode so he was able to move towards the
door unencumbered.
Alicia glanced around, feeling less awkward than she had anticipated, but
still wanting to leave quickly. She had arrived two hours ago and found her coworkers. They were a fun group, constantly pushing a glass of wine or
champagne in her hands and filling up her plate. Unfortunately, Alicia was too
nervous to eat but the wine was wonderful and she sipped it just to have
something to do with her hands. Now, her head was feeling a little fuzzy and
she knew it was time to leave.
“Leaving so soon?” a deep voice said from behind her.
Alicia turned around, smiling gently and ready to excuse herself but her
mind stopped functioning when she looked up into the stranger’s face. He was,
without doubt, the most gorgeous man she’d ever met in her life. He smiled
down at her with dark, almost black eyes from a height of well over six feet. His
shoulders were so broad, he blocked out her view of the rest of the ballroom but
his smile was what caught her attention the most. It was devastating.
He placed one hand under her elbow, maneuvering her so they were blocked
by the wall on one side and his broad shoulders on the other. “Please say you’re
not leaving. It isn’t even midnight,” he joked. “Even Cinderella stayed until
then.”
Alicia flushed, wishing she could come up with a witty reply. But all she
could manage was a breathless, “Cinderella wasn’t up at five-thirty this
morning.”
He raised one eyebrow in question at her response. “What on earth were
you doing up that early in the morning?” he asked, putting a hand on her arm as
a couple moved by them.
Each time he touched her, an electric jolt shot right through her, straight to
her stomach. Alicia’s arm was on fire with his simple touch. Her skin tingled
and she could only stare at his hands, wondering how she could feel so much
from just a gentle, protective gesture.
She looked up into his face and noticed that his eyes were waiting on a
response. “Oh, just cleaning my apartment,” she said quickly, filling in the
silence.
One dark eyebrow went up at her reply in astonishment. “At five-thirty in
the morning?” he asked. “Surely someone as beautiful as you had something
much better to do that early in the morning,” he said, flashing another charming,
sexy smile that instantly increased Alicia’s heart rate tenfold.
Alicia told herself to snap out of her trance. She flushed, wondering what he
was thinking she should be doing so early in the morning. “Well, um….not
really,” she said awkwardly and took a long swallow of the ice cold champagne
he’d handed her a moment ago, hoping the cold liquid would quench her
suddenly dry throat.
“Come dance with me,” he said, and put their glasses on a passing waiter’s
tray. He didn’t wait for a response, but simply put his hand to the small of her
back and guided her onto the dance floor.
Alicia didn’t have the will to say no. Nor did she want to, she realized when
he enfolded her gently in his strong, muscular arms. He danced wonderfully, she
thought as he guided her to the music, the wine she’d drunk over the past couple
of hours was relaxing her enough so she wasn’t making a complete cake of
herself as this overwhelmingly gorgeous man smiled down at her.
“You’re a good dancer,” she said, trying to come up with something to say.
He smiled down at her, his chuckle indicating his surprise at her tone. “Why
do you sound surprised?”
She laughed softly. “You wouldn’t ask me that if you were my feet.”
Leaning forward conspiratorially, she whispered, “The other men here tonight
aren’t as talented,” she explained.
“I noticed you had a large sample of them,” he said.
Alicia was surprised that he’d noticed her dancing with the other men.
“Yes, well, everyone has been very nice,” she said, looking over his shoulder
awkwardly.
Adam chuckled. “I don’t think any man holding you in his arms would like
to be considered �nice’,” he said, his dark eyes looking into her blue ones,
seeming to be able to see into her soul and know how he was affecting her blood
pressure and her racing heart.
Alicia blushed. “Well, you know what I mean,” she said, almost stuttering
now that he was looking at her so intensely. She started to pull out of his arms.
But his arms stopped her.
“Oh, no, lovely one. I finally have you in my arms, I’m going to keep you
here for at least one song.”
Alicia smiled shyly and stopped trying to pull away. What harm could one
dance have? And it was so nice to be held in his strong arms. Her fingers were
lightly touching the soft material of his tuxedo but she could feel the muscles
regardless. Not only was he tall and handsome, but he was built too!
The song finally ended and Alicia was about to thank him for the dance and
walk away, not wanting to be one of those mooning females that didn’t get the
hint. But he stopped her yet again. “Come have some champagne with me,” he
said, taking her hand and guiding her outside onto the deserted balcony.
Alicia knew she shouldn’t be out here alone with this man. He made her
think thoughts that were better left un-thought. His chiseled face and charming
smile told her that he was definitely out of her league.
But he wouldn’t let her go and, to be honest with herself, she didn’t want to
go. She took the glass of champagne he handed her and took a long sip.
“Thank you,” she said and walked to the edge of the balcony with him,
looking out into the inky black sky.
“What are you doing here alone?”
The darkness and the champagne were making her brave. “Who says I’m
alone?” she asked, looking up at him from beneath her lashes.
The amusement was there in his dark, mysterious eyes. “Because if you were
here with another man, then he’s a fool and I’d be asking you why you were with
him. But since you’re not with someone else, answer my original question.”
She disagreed, but was flattered that he thought a man would be silly to
leave her alone. “Perhaps I enjoy being alone.”
“Nonsense. Why would you be trying to flee the party so early?”
“Because I’m tired?” she asked, hoping he would just leave it at that and
move on.
“You’re wide awake now,” he pointed out.
Alicia took another long swallow of her drink and looked up at him. He
really was incredibly handsome and made her stomach flutter with his dark look
that promised secrets that only he could give her. “I think that has more to do
with the company than with my physical state.”
“I’m flattered,” he said and clinked her glass. “The next question is, why
don’t you have a boyfriend?”
Alicia drank the rest of her glass nervously. How could she admit to this
handsome and incredibly sophisticated man that she had been too busy
waitressing and working retail to pay for her sister’s college and her mother’s
mortgage to have any life up until a few weeks ago? And then it occurred to her.
She was twenty-six years old and was now free of some overwhelming burdens.
Why couldn’t she just relax and have a little fun? Especially with this man?
What harm could a little flirtation have? She knew it was the alcohol talking but
she didn’t care.
Her eyes sparkled with mischief and she faced him fully, not wanting to
appear skittish anymore. “Why don’t you have a girlfriend?” she countered
back, coming out of her normally shy state to challenge the man. “You’re
handsome and probably smart, although I don’t have any evidence of that at this
point. Surely you could charm some lady to keep you company.”
His eyebrows went up at her change in demeanor but he liked the change.
“Who says I’m here alone?”
Alicia smiled and threw his answer right back at him. “Because if you were
here with another woman, then she’s a fool and I’d be asking you why you were
with her.”
Adam threw back his head and laughed. “Touché,” he replied. “But men
don’t want clingy women.”
“And women like clingy men? That’s very sexist of you, sir.” She looked
startled. “I’m sorry, I’ve been standing here talking to you and dancing with you
but I have no idea what your name is. I’m Alicia,” she said, her smile widening
at the realization that she’d been with this man for almost forty-five minutes and
didn’t even know his name.
“The name’s Adam, and in men, it is called being protective, not clingy. And
I never denied being a sexist,” he replied with an unrepentant grin.
She smothered a laugh. “Well, Adam, that’s very disappointing. I would
have thought you were a modern man with more current views.”
“Sorry to disappoint you,” he said and took another glass of champagne
from a passing waiter, handing it to her.
Alicia smiled her thanks and looked up at him, definitely relaxed now. In
fact, she felt almost as if she were floating on a cloud. She wasn’t sure if it was
the champagne or the gorgeous man in front of her, blatantly flirting with her but
she didn’t really care. She felt better than she had in a long time and she didn’t
want that feeling to end.
“I doubt you’d ever be able to disappoint a woman,” she said, then realized
what she’d said. Straightening awkwardly, she was grateful that the darkness
hid the fierce blush staining her cheeks. “I mean….um…well,” she stuttered,
completely flustered.
Adam just smiled wickedly and leaned forward so he was whispering in her
ear. “I’ve had no complaints so far,” he said quietly, his lips brushing her
earlobe, causing a shiver to race down her body and her breath to stop in her
throat.
“Yes, well,” she said breathily, all thoughts leaving her head completely at
his touch. She cleared her throat and took another long sip of the bubbly liquid,
staring at the button in the middle of his shirt front, hoping he didn’t feel the
tremor that shook her whole body. “I’ll take your word for it,” she whispered
and took another long swallow of wine.
“What? No challenge back?” Adam said, moving closer, so close she had to
move her glass to her side or her hand would be touching his shirt.
He took her glass and put it behind her on the cement banister.
“Adam,” she whispered, “this probably isn’t the best place to do this,” she
said, but her eyes looked up to his, hoping he would kiss her so she would know
what it felt like. His lips seemed firm and commanding, as if he could will her to
kiss him back.
“Adam!” a shrill voice said from the balcony doorway interrupting whatever
was about to happen. Alicia jumped back, uncomprehending of what sort of
freakish animal had interrupted their darkness and aborted their kiss.
Adam’s mouth twisted into a grim smile and she felt his hands tighten
slightly on her waist. “Caught,” he whispered before he released her and turned
to greet whoever had found their private spot. “Good evening, Martha. How
are you tonight?” he asked, putting an arm around Alicia and greeting the
woman with a smile.
They chatted with the woman and a few others who wandered out to the
balcony for several minutes. Finally, Adam excused them and pulled Alicia back
into the ballroom, bringing her closer into his arms and looking down at her as
he started dancing again.
“I’m guessing you didn’t want to talk to them?” Alicia said, her body
melting into his strong, powerful one.
“No,” Adam replied, his eyes heavy lidded as he took in her features one by
one. “I don’t want to talk.” His voice was deep and husky, leaving no
miscommunication as to what he wanted.
“Ah,” was all she could say, licking her lips as a dangerous thrill shot
through her with his look. She simply smiled up into his sexy eyes, elated that
he wanted to be with her instead of some other more glamorous or sophisticated
woman. The look he gave her made her feel powerful and sexy, but very
feminine, and his hand moving along her spine sent shivers throughout her body
she couldn’t hide from his knowing touch.
“Come with me tonight,” he said.
Alicia’s smile widened, feeling very feminine with the knowledge that he
wanted her. It was such a novel experience, she wanted to savor it. She also
knew she couldn’t do anything about it. “No, I don’t believe I’m the one-nightstand kind of woman,” she said, but again, she was overjoyed that he would
offer.
“Who says it has to be a one night stand?” he asked, twirling her and
keeping her slightly off balance so she had to lean into him to stay on her feet.
Alicia laughed throatily, wondering how she could feel so secure in his arms
while at the same time feel so nervous about what he was proposing. “Adam,
don’t kid yourself. Although I’m flattered, I’m definitely not your type.”
He smiled charmingly as he pulled her closer into a spin on the dance floor.
“What’s my type?”
“Hmmm….models, actresses, social women who know how to play the
game. I don’t fit into any of those categories, unfortunately.”
“Why unfortunately?”
“Because I’m thinking you would be a wonderful lover,” she sighed, smiling
up at him, unsure where she gathered the courage to flirt like this. She’d always
been incredibly reserved around men. Tonight was different, her mind accepting
the crazy feelings racing through her. Whatever the reason, she shook her head
when he smiled.
“But you’re determined to not find out, aren’t you?” he said.
“That’s correct,” she said and slid her hand up around his shoulders, her
fingers delicately touching his soft, black hair. “But I thank you for making me
feel beautiful tonight. You definitely are just the boost my confidence needed.”
Alicia didn’t realize it, but he had casually danced them over to another
balcony, this one on the side that was shrouded in darkness. As soon as they
were close, Adam took her gently by the hand and led her out into the cool night.
The Sheik’s Love Child
Chapter 1
The lightning flashed outside as an electric storm huddled over Danibe, the
capitol city of Basir. Every once in a while, the thunder would boom, sometimes
causing the glasses on the table to shake precipitously. The mood inside the
elaborately decorated room within the palace of Basir matched the ferociousness
of the outside storm. Kalil Asidua Benoit the Third, Sheik of Basir sat at the end
of the highly polished wooden table and listened as the angry voices argued
across the table, some men standing up in their efforts to be heard, angry fists
and pointing fingers.
“Enough,” Kalil said, his black, intense gaze taking in every man in the room
to see if any would challenge him. None dared. The moment he spoke, silence
descended on the group and twenty pairs of eyes turned to look at him
expectantly.
“I’ve heard both sides of this argument and I believe we should move
forward with the purchase,” he said firmly. Turning to Jasir, his personal
secretary who shadowed him almost always, he said, “Make the arrangements to
travel to London. We’ll leave tomorrow afternoon.” Without another word, he
stood up to leave and twenty men also rose hurriedly to their feet as well,
protocol dictating that no one sat when the Crown Prince was not sitting.
Without a backwards glance, Kalil left the room, his thoughts immediately
moving on to the next meeting and the issues it would present.
“What’s next, Jasir?” Kalil asked, walking quickly down the hallway.
Jasir had to rush to keep up with the prince. Jasir was a small man, only five
feet six inches which made it difficult to keep up with the man he served who
was nine inches taller and was much more muscular which meant Kalil’s strong
body ate up the distance wherever he went.
Slightly out of breath already, Jasir consulted his schedule. “You have a one
o’clock meeting with the Minister of the Interior, then a two o’clock meeting with
your father. Also, your mother has requested your presence at dinner tonight,”
he said but this last was delivered with more hesitancy.
“Will my fiancée be there?” he asked.
Jasir nodded but because Kalil was already three feet ahead of him, Kalil
couldn’t see the affirmation. “Yes, Your Highness.”
“And will my brother?” Kalil asked, stopping with one hand on the door to
the conference room.
“I don’t believe he will be,” Jasir said.
Kalil thought for only a moment. “Be sure Jasim is in attendance.” Kalil
disappeared into the room, leaving Jasir to follow or take care of the order for
dinner.
Five hours later, Kalil walked into the family dining room. He immediately
noted the tension between the two other occupants and smiled slightly.
“Fighting again, Jasim? And with such a lovely lady?” he asked, walking over to
where Jalla was standing by a sofa looking flushed and aggravated.
“I’d never argue with such loveliness,” Jasim said but there was an edge to
his voice as he replied, betraying the truth behind his words.
Jalla ignored Jasim’s dig and turned to smile gently up at Kalil. “How are
you tonight?” she asked, accepting the kiss Kalil bestowed on her hand.
“Very well, and you?” Kalil returned with equal civility.
“Fine, thank you,” she said evenly but Kalil didn’t miss the glare she shot
over to Jasim as if to challenge her assertion that she was fine.
“Am I missing something?” Kalil asked in a steady voice and walked over to
the bar to pour himself a drink.
“Nothing at all,” Jasim said. “How is that new stallion that arrived
yesterday?” he asked, changing the subject. Kalil and Jasim talked about horses
until their parents arrived. The dinner was uneventful and afterwards, Kalil
walked Jalla down the hallway to the suite of rooms she used whenever she
stayed within the palace. Jalla had grown up in the palace and had been named
Kalil’s betrothed at birth. Kalil knew that they would work out well together
once they were married, although he suspected she would be happier with his
younger brother.
“Why don’t you want to set a date for the wedding?” she asked when they’d
reached the doors to her suite.
Kalil smiled benignly down into her soft brown eyes. “Because I don’t think
it is the right time,” Kalil said, standing in front of her and taking her hands in
his. “Is there anything you’d like to tell me?” he asked.
Jalla’s eyes clouded over and she started to speak, only to stop and shake her
head. “No. I was just hoping to start our marriage and give you the children
you need for the future.”
Kalil smiled gently down at her. “That is very generous of you but the time
will be right for your wedding soon enough. I promise.” With those words, he
lifted her hand and kissed her gently on the fingers. Then stepped away to wait
until she was safely inside her suite.
Chapter 2
Quickly unlocking the door, Dani dropped her small bag of groceries onto
the counter and grabbed the ringing phone. Groaning loudly in frustration, she
forced herself to ignore the broken egg that oozed out of the carton and stepped
back so the mess wouldn’t get onto her shoes. It had been a long day and all she
wanted to do was curl up in the corner of her sofa and read a good book.
Some instinct told her not to answer the phone. But the insistent sound
forced her to answer it only so it would stop. “Hello?” she asked, out of breath
from rushing up the narrow staircase and pushing the brown curls off her face
and out of the way.
“Danielle? It’s Mike down at the restaurant. I hope you don’t have plans
tonight because I need you to fill in for Chuck.”
Dani looked at the clock on the mantle and her groceries on the floor. She
wished she could say no but she really needed the extra money for the wedding.
Biting her lip in indecision, she stared around at her empty apartment. The
mystery she’d been reading the previous night lay open on the chipped coffee
table and she knew that the only thing she had in her refrigerator to eat was
bread, ketchup and now some broken eggs. “Okay, what time do you need me?”
she asked, pushing her fatigue and hunger to the back of her mind. She told
herself that whatever she could scrounge up to eat at the restaurant would be
much better than what she would eat here at home.
Mike let out a whoosh of relief. “Thanks, Dani! I promise you won’t regret
this. I’ll put in an extra few pounds for you. Can you be here in an hour?” he
asked.
Dani nodded, then remembered he couldn’t see her. “Sure. I’ll be there.
What’s the occasion?” Closing her blue eyes against the sight of the beaten up
but comfortable couch, she resigned herself to a night of being on her feet and
smiling at people she didn’t particularly like.
“I don’t know. I just know that Chuck, the guy normally scheduled to work
tonight, didn’t pass the background check and so I submitted your name and
you passed, of course,” he chuckled.
“Background check?” Dani didn’t like the sound of that. It sounded a little
invasive. It was just waitressing work. Why in the world would a background
check be required, she wondered.
“Yeah, there’s some big shin dig with a lot of dignitaries here tonight. I don’t
know anything else since they wouldn’t tell me more but everyone working
tonight had to have a quick background check.”
“Interesting,” she said, but she didn’t really think so. In fact, she wasn’t even
mildly curious.
“I’ll give you the bar so it will be easier tonight,” he said, letting her know
she’d be bar tending instead of serving food which was more difficult.
“Thanks, Mike. I’ll be there in an hour,” she replied unenthusiastically.
“You’re a doll!” he exclaimed and rung off.
Dani picked up the groceries that had fallen from the counter to the floor and
sighed heavily. The last thing she wanted to do after a full week of teaching first
graders was to mind the bar, pouring drinks for spoiled, wealthy clientele but if
it would mean a little extra money, she was all for it. Every pound she saved
brought her that much closer to her wedding date.
She and Mark had dated for a year and almost engaged for another six
months but he didn’t want to commit to a wedding date until they had enough
to pay for the wedding themselves. She loved him but didn’t understand his
desire to pay for an elaborate wedding they could ill afford. She was a school
teacher and he an accountant so it wasn’t as if either of them could afford the
extravagance.
In her mind, it made more sense to work towards buying a small house. She
was fine with this small apartment but it only had one bedroom. Dani wanted to
have children as soon as possible and it would be difficult if they were still living
in a small, one bedroom apartment. Mark had his own place which was even
smaller than hers so neither was a good option for having children.
Dani wished Mark felt the same way about kids. She didn’t understand his
need to have things financially secure before venturing out into something. They
both had steady jobs and a bright future so what exactly did he consider
�financial security’? Didn’t he know that kids needed love and security much
more than they needed fancy clothes and designer shoes?
Dani quickly put her groceries away and changed for her evening. Since her
hair was already pulled back from her day of teaching, she just pulled on a pair
of black slacks, white, starched shirt and carried the requisite tie in her purse as
she rode the subway to the posh restaurant.
“Thank goodness you’re here,” Mike said as soon as she walked into his
office. “The guests are already arriving so you’ll have to hurry. I’ve checked the
bar and put in extra supplies,” he said, his face red with worry and exertion.
Then he stopped a moment to look at her. “You look fantastic, by the way. No
one would think you were a school teacher,” he joked, looking over her black
and white uniform that barely hid her voluptuous figure and slim hips. But it
wasn’t really her petite, curvy frame that made men stop and stare. It was her
eyes. She had the most incredible blue eyes that captured and held onto an
observer. They were surrounded by long, black lashes and high cheekbones with
the most incredible translucent skin.
Mike reminded himself that he was a married man and cleared his throat.
“Sorry. I was distracted,” he said shortly and turned away. “Follow me and I’ll
help you set up the bar for the night.
“What’s going on?” she asked again as he hurried her into the private dining
room. As soon as she walked through the kitchen, the smell of roasting beef and
chicken mixed in with garlic and butter struck her with the powerful aroma. Her
stomach started protesting her lack of dinner and she grabbed a dinner roll to
tide her over until she could grab something more substantial.
Mike picked up a roll himself and took a bite, shaking his head in response to
her question. “I don’t know and I don’t care. If I survive tonight, I’ll count
myself lucky,” he whispered.
She was about to ask why he was so nervous but then she saw the tall,
serious men standing on the outside of the private dining room, their backs
against the mahogany doors. “Who are they?” she asked, feeling like she was
being watched as she walked through the dining room doors.
They looked to Mike before they moved out of the way, holding the door for
her politely.
“Guards,” he said and left her standing in the middle of the dining room
alone as he hurried off to ensure that the kitchen staff was organized.
Dani didn’t understand the worry. The restaurant regularly hosted many
dignitaries, even heads of state on occasion.
Dani had never worked those
dinners since they were during the week usually but she’d heard about them.
She only worked on Friday and Saturday nights, reserving the other evenings for
preparing or reviewing her lesson plans. She was able to sleep in on Saturday
and Sunday mornings so she didn’t mind the fatigue. It meant she didn’t get to
see Mark as often as she’d like though. That concerned her a little, she thought
as she slipped behind the beautifully carved and polished bar, organizing the
bottles for quick service.
Within five minutes, she had several men lined up demanding drinks. She
quickly and efficiently served them their cocktails and so it went for over an
hour. Dani had no idea what was being discussed since they were speaking in
Arabic or some other Middle Eastern language she couldn’t even guess at.
She kept her head bent most of the time searching for bottles anyway. She
wasn’t sure, but she sensed that several of them were talking about her. A small
part of her wished they would move on and conduct their conversations
somewhere else but the night became too busy to be worried about a couple of
rude men who leered at her.
She was busily searching for the tonic water when a sudden silence fell over
the room. A loud voice seemed to announce something. But since it was still in
another language, she just continued to search for the extra bottles of tonic.
Everyone around bowed just as Dani stood up victoriously, a large grin
spreading across her rosebud lips. Her blue eyes looked around, trying to figure
out what was going on and why it became quiet so suddenly when her eyes
slashed across the room, right into the eyes of the most gorgeous man she’d ever
seen. Dani’s smile of victory quickly dissolved as the man’s eyebrow went up
and he looked over at her. She felt as if she were being stripped naked. His eyes
took in her starched shirt that was now pulled tightly across her voluptuous
breasts and her slacks that fit her slim hips, tapering down to her ankles.
She didn’t know it, but her eyes were doing the same inventory and he
definitely didn’t come up lacking. Every line of his body and face showed his
arrogance, his absolute command and Dani was struck with the most bizarre
feeling in her stomach. He was extremely tall, well over a head taller than every
other man in the room. His shoulders were broad, tapering to hips that didn’t
hold a bit of flab anywhere. Glancing back to his face, she noted the stern mouth,
square jaw line and eyes that sharpened with interest as she continued her
perusal. When she realized what she was doing, her face flushed and she
glanced down at the floor, too embarrassed at being caught in such an awkward
position.
Slowly, the rest of the room stood up and her view of the man was blocked.
She felt a small sense of relief, as if she’d been held captive by the intensity of his
dark eyes. A shudder went through her and she shook her head at her fanciful
notions.
Looking down, she realized that she was gripping the bottle of tonic water as
if her life depended on it. The men who had been waiting on their drinks before
the man’s entry turned to face the bar again and continued their conversation as
if nothing of great importance had just occurred.
A few minutes later, the men all migrated towards the large table with the
gorgeous man at the head. The wait staff hurried in, quickly serving the men
and thankfully, the wine staff came in directly behind them and served the wine,
giving Dani a chance to breathe.
It was almost two o’clock in the morning when the men finally started
leaving. Dani was feeling as if she could pass out from fatigue any moment since
she’d been up since five o’clock that morning and had taught a group of thirty
children all day. Her feet ached and her eyes felt as if there was sandpaper in
them.
“You’ve done well,” a deep voice said.
Dani glanced up and all her fatigue seemed to disappear. Here was the man
and he was actually speaking to her. It was the first time all evening someone
had spoken directly to her that wasn’t a drink order.
“Th…thank you,” she said nervously and dropped her eyes to the polished
wooden bar. “Can I get you something to drink?” she asked politely.
“Only if you’ll join me,” he replied.
Dani’s eyes shot right back to his. “Oh, well…no, I’m sorry but I can’t,” she
explained.
“Of course you can,” he countered. “Just pour yourself a glass and come
around to the other side,” he said and added a devastating smile to his words.
Dani’s stomach started that flipping-fluttering thing again, making her feel
slightly queasy. “No…I mean, thank you very much for the offer but it is against
the rules,” she said. “But I would be more than happy to serve you anything
you’d like.”
After a long moment, the man replied, “And if it is you I would like? Would
you serve me?”
Dani actually took a step backwards and gasped.
demanded.
“Excuse me?” she
The man smiled. “I’m guessing that you are not being offered as dessert,” he
replied. “I apologize if I’ve offended you. But please, come have a glass of wine.
You look like you are exhausted. I guarantee you will not be fired.”
Dani shook her head. “No, thank you,” she replied stiffly.
The man didn’t take offense at her cool tone but stood up and actually came
around to the back of the bar.
“Sit,” he ordered and Dani was shocked to find herself obeying his order.
She plunked herself down on the bar stool and glared at him. The effort only
caused him to chuckle and the sound soothed her ruffled feathers more than his
apology. “Again, I apologize for offending you.” He poured a glass of white
wine and placed it in front of her before turning to pour some bourbon into a
glass for himself. When he was done, he came around to the other side and sat
down in the bar stool next to her. They were the only ones left except for the
guards who she noticed were standing sentry right outside the double doors that
stood slightly ajar.
“What is your name?” he asked.
“Danielle,” she said. “And yours?”
The man looked surprised but only smiled slightly. “You may call me Kalil,”
he said and his dark eyes looked directly into her blue ones. “I’m surprised your
husband would allow you to work this late.”
Dani laughed. “After I’m married, I don’t think I’d allow my husband to
allow me to do anything,” she said, taking a sip of the excellent white wine,
allowing the cold liquid to slide easily down her throat.
“So you are not married?” he said, looking surprised by that announcement.
“That seems hard to believe.”
“Well, I’m almost engaged,” she said and looked down at her glass, unable to
hold his gaze.
There was a long pause. “You’re boyfriend is not worthy of you,” he replied.
Dani flushed. “Mark is a very nice man,” she countered.
Kalil just laughed softly. “Any woman who describes her almost fiancé as
�nice’ is not in love with him.”
Dani’s eyes shot up to him. “What do you know of love?” she challenged.
“I’m sure you imagine your wife sitting at home, counting the minutes until you
arrive to enliven her life with your presence but some of us have our own lives
and live it just fine,”
Kalil smiled at her description. “As yet, I am not married either. But I hope
the woman I choose to marry will indeed love me to the point of counting the
minutes until I arrive at her side.”
“Are you going to do the same?”
“No.”
“Why not?”
“Because it is different for a man,” he replied, amused by her challenge.
“It is different for you, perhaps. But the man I marry will be so in love with
me that he will be counting the minutes when I’m away,” she said.
“And does your Mark?” he asked, “count the minutes, that is, until he sees
you?”
Dani just glared at him. She couldn’t lie because she knew that Mark was
out with his friends tonight playing cards. He was probably still up doing just
that and not thinking of her.
Kalil laughed again. “You see? It is different for a man. But perhaps he is
not the love of your life?”
“How dare you say that?” she said, but the heat was gone from her voice.
“I dare,” he said and his hand moved to touch her forearm.
Dani’s indrawn breath was audible and her shocked eyes shot back to his,
her arm moving quickly away from his touch but her face flamed to color. It was
as if an electric current was shooting through her system, melting her insides and
burning her skin.
The moment was broken by one of the guards leaning into the room and
saying something quickly in Arabic. Kalil responded and sighed. “I’m sorry my
dear but I must take this phone call. We’ll continue this discussion when I
return,” he said and stood up, walking out of the room with the determined
stride of someone who had been in charge for a long time.
Dani was so shaken by his touch, she was almost shivering. Wait for him to
come back? She thought not! Dani jumped off of the bar stool and ran out of the
room as if she was being chased by demons. She made her way through the
kitchens, grabbed her purse from her locker and left by the back way.
The Sheik’s Unfinished Business
Chapter 1
The sun was hot and the humidity within the city was oppressive. The
moist, irritating air caused the heavy traffic pollution to diabolically mix with the
various scents coming from the diverse restaurants along the street adding to the
other odors that were distinctly city oriented to hover in the air. All of this was
now pressing down on the people walking along the sidewalk as if it were a
heavy blanket with no hope of relenting any time soon.
Just like that first day, Victoria Phillips thought to herself. The horrifying
thought startled her and she suddenly stopped in her tracks, terrified of those
memories. “No!” she said out loud and shivered, not wanting any of those
feelings to come back into her mind now. “This is ridiculous!” She pushed
herself harder, walking as if a demon were on her back in an effort to reach the
school where she was a guidance counselor for an elementary school. She
maneuvered in between the others that were also hurrying to their own
destinations, unaware of her surroundings as she fought to keep those dreadful
memories at bay.
Why was she even thinking about that day again? Five years ago, she’d
worked hard to eliminate all that pain from her system. Why was it coming back
now?
Probably because she was late, she told herself, just like that morning so long
ago and she was rushing. Victoria looked around, searching for a long, dark car
that would indicate that the past was going to repeat itself.
When she saw the car parked in front of the school, her steps faltered and her
breath caught in her throat. It couldn’t be! Blinking hard, she opened her eyes
once again and stared in front of her, sure that her eyes were playing tricks on
her. But the elegant limousine didn’t disappear. It sat there, ominously mocking
her as if it were a giant snake about to reach out and attack her with a venomous
bite.
She almost dropped her heavy bag and ran the other way. The severe pain
ripping through her heart was almost as intense as it had been on that
embarrassing day five years ago.
When a tall, dark man with a muscular frame got out of the car, she gasped
as the painful memories came flooding back to her. Sure enough, there he was.
And, impossibly, he was bigger and more handsome than she remembered him.
Five Years earlier
A taxi sped by, his horn blaring at some perceived offense, then drove past,
leaving the smell of exhaust permeating the earth in its wake. Victoria pulled her
thick brown hair off her neck, wishing she’d taken a few more minutes that
morning to pin up the heavy curtain of soft, brown curls. But after spending
most of the previous night in the library studying, she hadn’t wanted to wake up
early enough to take the time to do anything more than shower and change
before heading off to her morning classes.
Her green, almond shaped eyes looked up at the sky, noting the red disk of
the fiery sun. That was never a good sign, she thought. She remembered her
father’s saying, “Red sun at night, sailor’s delight. Red sun in morning, sailor’s
take warning.” What warning they would take, she wasn’t sure. He never went
further than just quoting the phrase. She suspected that it meant they would
have a hot, humid, unpleasant day. Just like today was starting out to be.
She pulled her hair over her shoulder, trying to give her back some relief
from the heat. Since she’d been so rushed earlier, she was paying the price since
her hair was sticking to her neck and her sundress, which had seemed such a
pretty, lively and more importantly, cool choice earlier in the day. The dress was
unfortunately covering her legs which could be the grateful recipient of what
little breeze was available if she’d chosen her normal choice of shorts and a teeshirt.
Hefting her heavy bag of books more securely onto her shoulder, she hurried
on to her class, wishing she didn’t have to travel so far through London.
Unfortunately, her tiny dorm room was on the opposite side of the campus from
her class and there was nothing to do for it but walk faster or be late.
She was hurrying through the others on the concrete sidewalk with her head
bowed low in an effort to keep the sun off her face and out of her eyes so she
didn’t see the limousine pull up beside the tall building. Out of the corner of her
eye, she saw a door open and a tall man get out, surrounded by other men who
were shorter, but scarier looking. Unfortunately, even those nebulous thoughts
didn’t enter into her mind quickly enough. She was walking too fast with a book
bag that was too heavy, leaving her off balance so when the men started walking
into the building, she wasn’t able to stop herself fast enough.
As if in slow motion, Victoria saw her bag slip from her shoulder, then the
arm swing wide, knocking her chin and tossing her to her knees.
The sudden burst of pain came from several directions all at once. She could
feel the cement dig into the soft skin of her knees as she slid across the rough
surface, then the pain entered the palms of her hands while she tried to keep her
face from a similar fate as her knees. Both palms were subjected to the same
rough surface but even that wasn’t her primary pain. Her jaw was suddenly
aching as if it had been lit on fire, then the throbbing told her that she’d been hit
for some bizarre reason. Her confused eyes looked around, trying to identify the
source and reason for the strike but nothing in the world made sense to her painfogged brain.
As all of these sensations were tallied in her brain, a distant crying sound
penetrated and that was the only issue she was able to deal with at the moment.
Looking around, her eyes searched for and found the little girl who was now
clinging to her mother’s leg. Victoria stood up, ignoring the pain that shot
through her hands, knees and face with the effort. Going over to the little girl,
she smiled, battling the sharp stab of pain from her jaw and bent down to the
child’s level.
“Don’t worry, sweetheart,” Victoria said calmly. “I’m okay. Are you hurt?”
she asked.
The mother also bent down to reassure her daughter and after several
moments, the two of them were able to calm the child enough so that she was
smiling again. “What’s your name?” Victoria asked, when the child had
overcome her crying.
“Lucy,” the girl said, wiping her chubby cheek with the back of her hand.
Victoria smiled gently, enchanted by the little tyke. “Lucy, I hope you have a
very nice rest of the day and I think you are extremely sweet to be concerned for
me.”
The little girl, who had to be no more than five or six years old, reached out a
chubby hand and gently touched Victoria’s face. “Does it hurt?” she asked. She
noticed the little girl looking over Victoria’s shoulder shyly but she kept her
attention solely on Lucy and the child’s anxiety.
Victoria wasn’t sure who was behind her and hid her curiosity well from
Lucy, preferring to deal with one problem at a time. “Not really. I’m made of
pretty tough stuff,” she said, grinning broadly for Lucy’s benefit.
The mother smiled at Victoria, then at her daughter. “See? Everything is
okay. Are you ready to go home to see daddy? He should be back by now.”
Lucy smiled, eager to see her father and obviously relieved that no one was
hurt. The child took her mother’s hand and continued with their walk home,
obviously eager to tell her father about their incident of the day. Victoria heard
the small child chattering away but the only words that she was able to
understand were “scary men” before she was out of hearing distance.
Victoria stood up and all the pain she’d been pushing to the back of her brain
came rushing forward. Her knees, palms and especially her face were suddenly
aching intensely and she wanted to melt down into the cement and lean her sore
body against the building. But she knew that the little girl wasn’t the only one
that needed reassurance and she forced herself to find the inner strength to face
her other audience.
Turning slowly, she tried to bring up another smile for the strangers she
knew where standing behind her, hoping to reassure them so she could stop
being a spectacle. But the sight that greeted her when she turned around was too
much. The tall, dark man standing directly behind her, holding her book bag in
one hand and reaching for her right hand with the other, was possibly the most
handsome man she’d ever seen, even from the movies. “Are you sure you are
okay?” the tall, incredibly gorgeous man asked. He was at least six feet three
inches tall, towering over the other men around him. And although they were
bulkier, he was extremely muscular himself. His eyes were dark, almost black as
was his hair which was cut short, barely brushing the collar of his shirt.
Victoria’s only thought was that he had a lovely accent and spoke perfect,
precise English. The next thing she knew, she was watching the building swing
around her and the sky was blinding her as her mind started spinning, twirling
around and her eyes stopped focusing. Then nothing but darkness.
Dharr Hokum Qudama the third, Sheik of Ashir, the most powerful middle
eastern country with oil reserves beyond the imagination, found himself at a loss
for the first time in his life as the stunningly beautiful woman in front of him
slowly started falling to the earth. With reflexes honed from long hours in
military training and an innate sense that women should be protected at all costs,
he caught the fainting woman in his arms, easily lifting her up and cradling her
as his body guards opened the door to the building he had been about to enter
only minutes earlier for business meetings.
As he stared down into her lovely face, he was startled by the perfection of
her features. He knew her now closed eyes were a sharp, crystal green. Now
that he could no longer see her eyes, he noticed the flawlessness of her skin that
was pale white now but a moment before had been tinted with peach color on
her high cheekbones. Her eye lashes were long and black as they lay against her
skin and he wondered if they were covered in mascara. He didn’t think so. They
looked natural but too long to be real. Her hair was incredible, the soft, brown
curls falling like a cascade of water almost to the ground as he held her close to
his chest. He wanted to run his fingers in the curls just to see if they were really
as soft to the touch as they looked but he didn’t have a free hand at the moment.
Shifting her slight weight in his arms, he tried to be the gentleman and not
notice her petite figure but he was a man and any male with blood running
through his veins would notice her. Her breasts were large for her small frame
but she had a tiny waist and slender hips topping off long, shapely legs. It was
the kind of figure a woman would spend hours in the gym trying to achieve, he
knew.
Pushing thoughts of her physical assets to the side, he lifted her more closely
to him, enjoying the way she felt, as if she were meant to be just for him. “To the
hospital,” Dharr commanded and all five of his body guards retreated back to
either the limousine or the waiting black SUV that was parked in front of the
building. Within moments, the limousine pulled up in front of the emergency
room where a doctor was standing by, obviously alerted to the situation by one
of the guards phoning ahead and prepared to help in any way he could.
Stepping out of the limousine, he refused to transfer her figure to the waiting
gurney. Instead, he walked into one of the empty examining rooms before gently
laying her onto one of the hospital beds. “What is wrong with her?” Dharr
demanded of the doctor who was checking the prone woman’s pulse and eyes.
“Don’t hurt her!” Dharr said when she started to moan softly.
Dharr liked the way she moved, even when coming out of a dead faint. She
was graceful as her body slowly came back to consciousness and he watched in
fascination as those lovely green eyes blinked and focused.
It was odd that a man with his reputation with women, someone who could,
and did, have any woman he desired with the flick of his wrist, was so entranced
by this one, young, lovely woman who wasn’t even wearing makeup or designer
clothes. Even so, his body was instantly reacting to hers, appreciating the
innocent sensuality that she conveyed with her movements.
The doctor was monitoring her resumption of consciousness and nodded
approvingly. “I think she is okay although she has some nasty scrapes on her
knees.” The doctor stepped back and watched for a moment, carefully checking
for any signs of problems as she looked around the sterile emergency room that
was cut off from the rest of the area only by a white sheet. “Her pulse is normal.
She probably just stood up too quickly or hasn’t eaten in too long,” he suggested.
Victoria listened to the deep voices around her but tried not to move, afraid
that the pain she was feeling in her jaw and legs would intensify. All she could
understand is that she was in a white room with two men looking down at her.
She had no idea how she’d gotten here or why they were looking so concerned.
Actually, the man who was obviously a doctor if his white coat and stethoscope
were any indication, was not looking concerned any longer. But the handsome
man beside him was definitely worried. “What’s wrong?” she croaked, then
wondered why her voice was so strange. The pain that shot through her jaw
when she spoke also was bizarre.
“You fainted,” the handsome man replied, moving the doctor out of the way.
“Are you okay?” he asked, bending down to look at her face, taking her hand in
his and checking her pulse himself.
Victoria was confused by the concern that was showing in the man’s eyes but
his lips were compressed as if he were angry with her for some reason. “Yes,”
she replied, then tried to sit up. “I’m fine,” she said, but then the dizziness came
back and she grimaced, trying to keep her head from spinning by placing her
hand on her forehead.
As soon as she tried to sit up, his hand touched her shoulder, keeping her
laying flat on the bed. “You must relax for another moment. No sudden moves
until the doctor has said you are okay,” the man replied.
The heat that went through Victoria’s body when he touched her frightened
her enough that she actually shrank back against the bed, unsure of herself and
the man. “Where am I?” she asked, naturally turning to the taller man who had
a commanding presence, giving off an aura of authority that just ignited the air
around her. She tried to smile to give the man the impression she was okay but
she wasn’t sure if it worked.
“You’re in a hospital,” he explained gently.
Victoria didn’t like that word at all. Hospitals meant money. Lots of it. That
was one thing she didn’t have, being at school on a scholarship. “The hospital?”
she yelped, sitting up quickly and evading the man’s hand while swinging off
the bed on one graceful movement. Unfortunately, the sudden movement had
her swaying again and the man’s hands reached out to steady her.
“Whoa!” she said, holding onto the bed, praying she wouldn’t make a fool of
herself again and pass out. After several minutes, the room stopped spinning
and she was able to make sense of the words being spoken. “….sit back down,”
the tall man was saying firmly.
Victoria turned her attention back to him, a frown on her face. “Excuse me?”
she asked, looking him up and down as if he were beneath her. Unfortunately,
the idea of what a hospital visit would do to her budget was making her a little
snappish. She didn’t have the money to toss at a series of doctors and needed to
leave as soon as possible. In her current state of mind, this tall, attractive man
was the main hindrance from her leaving as quickly as she could.
Besides the expense of the hospital, he was actually ordering her around.
She didn’t like that one bit. She wasn’t even used to her gentle father giving her
orders, she surely wasn’t going to take them from a stranger who thought he was
in charge of the world. “Who do you think you are? I don’t take orders from
you, sir. Not even if you were the Prince of Wales,” she sniffed. Handsome or
not, she hated arrogant men! And this one could give lessons.
Dharr was shocked enough to almost smile. Almost. How could a tiny slip
of a woman speak to him like this? Didn’t she know who he was? The doctor
obviously did if the horrified look on his face was any indication. Surely it was
the novelty of the whole situation that amused him. He would never permit
such conduct otherwise, he told himself.
Dharr waved the doctor’s protests aside before they could be spoken. “How
about something to clean those scrapes,” he said, turning to the doctor and
interrupting what was probably an explanation as to why the woman shouldn’t
speak to Dharr this way.
For some reason, Dharr didn’t want his anonymity broken. And what Dharr
wanted, he got. The doctor immediately disappeared, leaving the two of them
alone.
Victoria stared at the man, wondering what to do next. She realized that her
manners were severely lacking and knew that her mother would be horrified if
she didn’t make amends. Smiling brightly to the man, she stuck out her hand,
then grimaced as she saw the ugly scrapes on the palms. “I guess I should
introduce myself,” she started off, hiding her hands from his concerned view.
“I’m Victoria Phillips. How do you do?” she said. She extended the least abused
hand, which, thankfully, was her right one.
Dharr stared at the hand for a split second before accepting it. The normal
introduction would be for her to bow slightly before him but, continuing with
the novelty of the situation, he took her hand in his, enfolding her cold, slim,
scraped hand in his large one, covering it with the other and taking a step
towards her. “It is indeed a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Ms. Phillips. I
am Dharr Qudama, at your service. I regret the incident which caused you to be
in this position. I will endeavor to make it up to you,” he said.
“What do you mean?” she asked, her eyes wide as she looked up into his
dark, intense gaze.
“It was my man who caused your fall. He was acting with an overzealous
sense of duty and will be eliminated immediately from my guard.”
Victoria was horrified. “You mean you’re going to fire him?”
“Of course,” he said, not an ounce of regret or emotion showing on his
tanned face.
She didn’t like being responsible for anyone losing their job. It was a tough
economy and anyone fired would have a hard time finding a new position. “But
why?”
Dharr reached up and gently touched a finger to the already darkening spot
on her jaw. “Such beauty should not be marred, Ms. Phillips.”
Victoria stuttered, flustered by this man’s touch and confused as to why his
touch could cause so much tumult within her system when other men’s touch
just caused irritation. She was also unsure of what this man represented but sure
he was powerful and could genuinely hurt the guard’s chances of continued
employment. “But if he is on your staff, shouldn’t you train him more
thoroughly? I mean, really, if he acted inappropriately, isn’t it your fault?
Shouldn’t you give him a second chance?”
Dharr actually smiled this time. It was too much. He was constantly
surrounded by people vying for power and positions close to him, thereby
making themselves more powerful in their associations with him. But here was
an innocent woman begging for a stranger’s continued employment. A stranger
who could have broken her jaw if his swing had been any harder. What she
didn’t know was that Dharr’s personal guard was the elite of the Ashiri military,
specially trained for years before they are even considered to be close to Dharr.
These men were trained in arms, munitions and personal combat but here was a
woman weighing maybe a little more than one hundred pounds and might reach
five and a half feet tall protecting a man she’d never met.
"
The doctor returned to the closed off area with cleaning supplies
and Dharr took them, dismissing the man with a nod. As he prepared a sterile
gauze to start the cleaning, he asked, “You protect a man who wounded you. Yet
you know nothing about him. Why would you do that?”
“Well,” Victoria thought hard, knowing she had to come up with a reason
why the man shouldn’t be fired or feel awful about it, “he didn’t mean to, did he?
It was only an accident.” The cool liquid felt wonderful against her suddenly
aching knees. She hadn’t really noticed that they were still on fire while she was
talking to the man called Dharr but as she looked down, she noticed the mean
looking scrapes on her knees. Raising the hem of her dress slightly, she saw that
the scrapes were long and relatively deep. “Oh, goodness,” she said, inhaling
sharply when he put the gauze on a particularly deep area.
“Does that hurt?” he asked, instantly moving off the area, looking down at
her face.
The compassion in his eyes created butterflies in her stomach. She felt funny,
knowing that this obviously powerful man was taking the time to clean her
scrapes. She also felt bad for speaking to him so harshly a few moments before.
“Don’t worry,” she said, reaching out to take the gauze so she could clean the
area herself. For some reason, this man’s closeness was overwhelming her. “I
can do that,” she said softly. She wished her hands didn’t shake as she reached
out to take the cleaning supplies from him.
Dharr put a hand on her wrist to lower it, and continued his tender
ministrations. “Explain to me why you would defend someone you don’t
know,” he demanded.
Victoria smiled at his autocratic tone. “You aren’t very good at asking, are
you?” she teased.
“Asking?” Dharr questioned. “Asking what?”
Victoria only laughed, her suspicions confirmed. “Well, that answers my
question, doesn’t it?”
“Explain,” he said, enjoying the dimples that suddenly appeared in her
cheeks. They brought his attention to her soft, full lips. Lips that would look
lovely begging him to kiss her, he thought.
His command to explain only caused another chuckle to burst from Victoria.
“I mean, you want to know why I would defend someone but instead of putting
it to me as a query, you simply demand an answer. I think you’re mother would
be ashamed of your manners, Mr. Qudama.”
Dharr stared in shock as the tiny woman actually tssked him. He couldn’t
help but smile in response. “I don’t think my mother would be offended,” he
replied.
Her head tilted to the side and her sharp, green eyes turned curious. “Why
not? I think all mothers would want their children to be raised with manners.”
Dharr liked the way her soft, brown hair fell over her shoulder as she tilted
her head. It was lovely, he thought and again he had the impulse to bury his
hands in the long tresses, pushing back the small, wispy curls that framed her
face. . “My mother is dead,” he said without emotion.
Victoria instantly felt awful. Putting a hand out, she touched his shoulder,
sure that the stiffness in his manner was because of his recent loss. “I’m so sorry,
Mr. Qudama. I apologize for bringing it up. It must have been hard for you,”
she said. Tears welled in her eyes as she looked up into his hard, unyielding
ones. “I can see that you miss her,” she said.
Dharr’s hand stopped, not because he was finished but because he could no
longer move. The emotion clogging her voice and the tears in her eyes melted a
small part of his heart that had been frozen for so long he hadn’t even known it
existed. Why was this woman, this beautiful stranger, crying for his mother that
had passed away when he was in his teens? He was thirty years old and long
past needing his mother’s comforting arms, which she’d never offered to begin
with.
“Thank you,” was all he could say.
Victoria took the gauze from his hand and finished the task, wincing several
times when she hit a particularly painful spot but persevering despite the pain.
When she was done, she looked up at him, smiling brightly. “Well, that wasn’t
so bad, I suppose,” she replied and slid down off the gurney. “Promise me
something?” she asked, picking up the mess and tossing it into the appropriate
bins.
“Anything,” Dharr promised.
“Anything?” she asked, turning back to him with another bright smile on her
face and mischief twinkling in her eyes. “What if I ask for a new car or a castle?
Shouldn’t you hear what I’m asking before you promise the moon?”
Dharr felt like chuckling since he could indeed deliver on anything she
asked. Possibly not the moon, but even that might be within the realm of
possibility in a few years. “Okay, anything within reason?” he said.
Victoria nodded but then turned serious. “Please don’t do anything about
the man who accidentally knocked me down,” she said. “It really won’t be too
bad.”
Dharr walked closer to her and touched her skin where a bruise was already
forming. “How old are you?” he asked.
Victoria had to concentrate since his touch had driven all thoughts out of her
mind. “Uh…twenty,” she said.
“Only twenty?” he asked, thinking he felt much older than his thirty years of
age.
Victoria blinked at his response, wondering if he thought her a child. He was
obviously much older than she was but felt it was important to point out that she
wasn’t too young. Too young for what, she didn’t let her mind define. “I don’t
feel �only’ anything. Besides, twenty isn’t too young,” she asserted strongly.
“It isn’t too young for what?” he asked, and was delighted when she blushed
again.
She glanced away but only for a moment, looking back up at him through
her long lashes. “You’re teasing me, but really, I’m not that young. I’m only two
years away from graduation which at times feels like eternity but will come
eventually.”
He decided it wouldn’t be gentlemanly to tease her more about her
innocence. “What are you studying?” he asked, changing the subject.
“Psychology.”
“And what do you want to do with a degree in psychology?”
“Help people,” she said without hesitation.
“Help who?”
“Children probably,’ she said, smiling despite her nervousness. “They are
wonderful little
misunderstood.”
people
but
sometimes
they
are
so
vulnerable
and
Dharr stared at her lips, the need to bend down and taste them almost
overwhelming. But he resisted the urge and took a step back. He needed to just
forget about this woman and her refreshing honesty and spirit. He had work to
do and very little time to finish it before heading back to Ashir. “Now that you
are cleaned up, may I give you a lift somewhere?” he asked.
Victoria snapped out of her dream were she was being kissed by this man.
He was probably married or seeing someone seriously. No man this gorgeous
and sexy could remain unattached.
She sat up straighter, testing her head tentatively by turning it from right to
left. When nothing happened, she shook her head in response to his offer. “No,
thank you. I’m only a block away from my class,” she said and gasped. “Oh no!
My class. I’m going to be late,” she said and hurried out of the room. At the split
in the curtains, she suddenly stopped and turned back to Dharr. “Thank you so
much for your kindness, Mr. Qudama. I’m sorry to have been so silly by fainting
on you.”
Dharr watched her rush over to a nurse, taking out her wallet. The nurse
quickly shook her head, obviously explaining that the hospital bill had already
been paid. He slipped out of the curtained area, following the signs to the exit
where he knew his limousine was waiting. It had been a refreshing interlude,
but now it was over and he needed to get back to work.
Once the nurse explained that one of the burly men with Dharr had paid her
bill already, Victoria glanced back to the curtained area, intending to wave her
thanks. But the man was already gone. Her heart dropped and she felt like the
sun had just left for the day, leaving only the heat and oppressive humidity.
Walking out of the hospital, she looked up at the sunshine still beating down
on the busy city sidewalks and sighed. So much for life’s little fantasies, she
thought.
Stepping out onto the sidewalk, she made a determined stride towards her
class. It was a once a week class so it would last three hours today. She’d
already missed the first hour but she could make it for the last two.
The Greek Tycoon’s Lover
Chapter 1
Their words hurt.
Helen Miller tried to block their words and ignore the pain slashing at her
self-esteem but the women were relentless with their cutting remarks. The
vicious women standing by the filing cabinets didn’t know someone was hidden
behind a large stack of boxes, so they felt free to speak openly. And the worst
part; their words were true. Oh, so painfully true.
Helen swiped angrily at a tear that slipped down her cheek. With a grimace,
she acknowledged that now she had at least one good reason why she didn’t
wear makeup anymore. She almost laughed out loud at the idea of finding a
silver lining in this horrible situation. She didn’t though. Overwhelming the
humor was the absolute humiliation she was feeling as the women continued to
slash her appearance and personality to shreds, unknowing that their victim was
shrinking back into the cold, steel, filing cabinets. Thankfully, the harsh,
overhead, fluorescent lighting didn’t reach this corner of the filing area so she
was a bit less conspicuous.
Unfortunately, she couldn’t tune out their words. The first woman huffed in
a haughty manner and Helen could picture the woman’s image in her mind,
having heard her voice and witnessed her smug expression in so many meetings.
Brown hair that had a perfect sheen to the immaculate cut, sophisticated slacks
and a slightly trendy shirt. Her name was Jessica and she worked in the
accounting department. The woman was a flirt, but also had the fashion sense of
a French designer. “Good grief,” Jessica said with a snotty voice, “she’s been
here for six months and in all that time, she’s just let herself slide. At least when
she first started, she would at least try to look pretty and professional. Now she
just looks dull and lifeless.”
“I agree. Did you see the suit she is wearing today? Ugh! It’s horrible,”
another woman said. “How frumpy! The woman looks so pale in that terrible
color of brown. She should never wear that color.”
Helen knew that woman’s voice as well, had taken notes in several meetings
when the evil woman preened in front of the group as if she was in her element
to be in front of so many men. Her name was Barbara from marketing and had a
reputation for being a horrible gossip as well as a flirt. At least in this case, the
woman wasn’t the best dresser. Barbara wasn’t boring in her fashion attempts
but many times, her efforts at coming across with a trendy style completely
missed the mark.
Helen looked down at her brown, tweed suit that had seemed so
professional looking earlier in the morning when she’d pulled it out of her closet.
But now, looking down at it in the harsh light of the filing room with the
unflattering lights defining the nubby texture too closely, she accepted that it
quite possibly was frumpy, just as Barbara had described.
Unfortunately, they weren’t finished. A third woman laughed shrilly before
saying, “And her shoes! Why can’t she find something more feminine? The ones
she’s wearing are no better than flats and do nothing for her legs. I mean,” the
woman laughed bitterly, “if you’re going to be around Dimitri Theopolis, at least
have a little pride in what you look like. The man is a super stud. He must roll
his eyes each morning when she comes in looking like woodwork.”
Barbara snorted her agreement. “A grandma wouldn’t be seen wearing
those awful things,” her malicious voice said. “You’re right, the woman has
relatively nice legs, why won’t she show them off? I know I’d be raising my
hemlines if I were around that man!”
The three women chatted away, tearing up Helen a little longer, then finally
moved on to the next person who didn’t meet their standards. Eventually, their
voices faded away as they walked out of the filing room but their malicious
comments rang heavily in the air long after they were gone. Helen stayed where
she was, letting the tears fall down her cheeks. She couldn’t keep the pain from
clenching at her stomach as her shoulders sagged in humiliated misery.
Their words were true. She’d slowly become frumpy in an effort to increase
her efficiency for her boss in the hopes of becoming more valuable to him. In the
process, she’d lost herself, her femininity and all her pride in her appearance.
Helen grimaced as she pulled a tissue out of her pocket to sop up the
wetness on her cheeks. In reality, she’d never really thought of herself as very
attractive. She’d never really thought about her appearance one way or another
since she’d been a teenager and heard….Helen pushed that thought aside, not
wanting to go back to that painful period in her life. She’d overcome that aspect
of her life, she told herself. She might not be any man’s dream woman, but she
was smart and efficient and she loved her job, finding fulfillment in doing it well.
Taking a deep breath, she stood up and wiped her tears away, forcing the
silly, ineffectual wetness to stop. She was angry with herself for letting those
catty women get to her. So what if they were right about her appearance. There
was nothing wrong with her life and she had dreams just like any other woman.
Helen considered her life objectively. She might not be drop dead beautiful,
but in the opposite way, she’d never considered herself dowdy either. Until now,
she grimaced inwardly. She loved this job, loved working for Dimitri Theopolis.
He was incredibly intelligent and ran the Theopolis shipping empire with a
genius financial mind. Helen worked out of the London office but the
headquarters was in Athens. Dimitri was spending more time here in London
lately and Helen felt as if she were on cloud nine each time he called or walked
through the executive suite.
It wasn’t that she had any personal feelings for the man. No, Helen wasn’t
stupid enough to fall into that category. Dimitri Theopolis had enough women
throwing themselves at him, he didn’t need his personal assistant to do the same.
She wasn’t even in a class to attract him. The man generally dated sophisticated
women who spent their days primping and making themselves beautiful for
their evenings with Dimitri.
Helen knew that she’d never be acceptable in any kind of personal capacity
so why even try? She’d only come up short in the end and feel the crushing pain
of disappointment as a reward for her efforts. Because if she ever thought she
had a chance with Dimitri, she only had to remind herself of her deficiencies or
open up the newspaper to see the kind of woman that piqued his attention. And
it definitely wasn’t a short, mousy female with ordinary brown hair and blue
eyes.
Oh, she could look nice, she knew. She had a decent enough figure with
slender hips and more than enough up top. Probably too much up top, she
thought as she pulled the brown tweed down to cover her slim hips more
smoothly. When she let her hair loose, it was long, and a deep chocolate brown
that curled softly at the ends and small little wisps that curled about her temples
unless she smoothed them down with hairspray, as she usually did for work. It
would probably curl more if she took the time to get it trimmed, but it was so
much easier to just pull it into a bun each morning. Helen thought it looked
more professional as well.
Her eyes were a pretty blue, but since she had stopped wearing makeup,
there was nothing to enhance their color. She used to at least wear mascara and
powder, but now, she probably needed a good bit of concealer just to cover the
dark circles under her eyes from working late each night.
Oh, who was she kidding? Her shoulders slumped in defeat. No matter
how much makeup she wore or how perfectly coifed her hair, she could never be
in the same league as the women Dimitri dated.
All the women Dimitri spent time with were tall, sultry blonds or stunning
red-headed women. Actresses, models, society women who could shine as
brightly as he did. He definitely didn’t date personal assistants who had
scrimped and saved just to put herself through university.
Helen wiped her eyes one more time and pinched her cheeks, hoping to get
more color back into them. Thankfully, Dimitri was not in the office today. He
wasn’t expected back in London for several more days and she had many reports
to finish up before he returned.
“Just one step at a time,” she said to herself. That old phrase had gotten her
through many painful years. Although they were spoken by a physical therapist
at the time, they applied to every aspect of Helen’s life.
With those words ringing through her mind, she made her way slowly back
to her desk. Her computer was still humming along but she had several more
contracts and reports piled on her desk. With a sigh, she pulled the first one
down only moments before the air started to crackle with electricity.
Helen felt the hairs on her neck stand up in excitement and she looked up
from the document she’d been reviewing only moments before Dimitri himself
walked through the doors. She inhaled sharply, wondering if she’d ever get used
to the man’s electrifying, overwhelming presence.
“Good morning, Helen,” he said as he walked through the doors.
Helen stood up immediately, her eyes looking frantically for her notebook
and pencil, ready to take notes on whatever he shouted out to her as he passed.
“Good morning, Mr. Theopolis. I wasn’t expecting you until Wednesday. How
was your flight? Did James make it smooth again?”
Dimitri stopped in front of her desk, the list of things he needed to get done
today vanishing as he noted her strained expression. His eyes traveled over her
face, the intense, green gaze seeing everything, including the sadness and what
he thought might be the remnants of tears. Her skin, which usually had a
translucent glow that he constantly wanted to touch and feel to see if she was
made of porcelain, was pale, almost chalky. “What’s wrong Helen?” he asked
sharply.
Helen smiled more brightly, her heartbeat picking up its already frantic beat
as she worried that he’d be able to see the signs of her pity party a little while
ago. “Nothing. Why do you ask?”
His lips thinned and he dropped his briefcase to the floor. His eyes traveled
over her tweed suit and Helen nervously smoothed the wool down, ensuring
that it was covering all the essentials. Assuming he was ready to start business,
she looked down at her notes. “I have the Stevens file for you and I’ve made
some notes on the contract negotiations. There’s a summary of the two meetings
you asked me to conference into this morning. I also have the budget for the
new ships that are under construction and their possible itineraries. They
already have cargo booked on them even though they aren’t due to be finished
for another six months,” she said, keeping her eyes hidden from him as she listed
the activities she’d accomplished this morning.
“Come into my office,” he said and turned on his heel to precede her into the
spacious corner room.
Helen quickly picked up her notebook and pen and followed him into his
office. She perched on the edge of one of the chairs facing his desk, her pen
poised over the paper.
As Dimitri settled behind his desk, he watched Helen’s face, green, intense
eyes boring into hers in an effort to understand what was bothering her. “Is your
mother okay?”
Helen’s startled blue gaze was captured by his stern, unblinking green one.
“Yes. Thank you for asking. She loves the apartment you found for her. I can’t
believe how affordable it is. I’m eternally grateful to you for finding that deal.
She’s loving the place.”
“Good. Is the house okay? If you’re having any maintenance problems, I
want to know about it.”
Helen smiled brightly again. “No. No problems on that front. The house is
wonderful and right in my price range. And there are no problems thanks to the
home inspector you recommended. He caught any potential problems so they
were all fixed prior to the closing date.”
“Then what is wrong?” he demanded. His arms were crossed over his chest
and he was leaning against the front of his desk, his eyes watching hers as she
tried to evade his too knowing eyes.
“Nothing,” she lied and smoothed the nubby fabric of her skirt further down
over her knees. How could he see that something was bothering her? She’d
looked in the mirror only moments before he’d entered and nothing had seemed
amiss with her appearance.
Dimitri softened his tone and leaned forward slightly. “Helen, if nothing is
wrong with your mother and the house is good, then tell me why you were
crying. I can fix it for you,” he promised.
Helen’s heart twisted painfully. She looked back at him, then let her gaze
wander away. He was so incredibly gorgeous with his thick, black hair and
square jaw. His Roman nose was slightly crooked but that only added to the
overall impact of strength and intelligence. Add to it the green eyes that could
slice a person to bits and the intelligence of a financial genius and there was no
way Helen couldn’t have fallen in love with this man.
She sighed and shook her head. “Nothing is wrong.”
“Did someone say something to hurt your feelings?” he asked.
How could that man zoom in on the truth so unerringly she wondered?
“No. No one said anything that wasn’t true,” she said, then cringed at how
much she’d revealed with those words.
His eyes narrowed and she watched in fascination as his lips thinned into a
line of extreme annoyance. “What did they say and who were they?” he asked
with a dangerously soft voice and Helen blushed at the anger emanating from
him. Dimitri Theopolis was not a man to mess with. He was a dangerous man
personally, but no one dared to cross him in the board room. When challenged,
he was absolutely lethal. She’d seen it too many times and would hate to be on
the receiving end of some of his tongue lashings or merciless business tactics.
They were all legal, but when someone crossed him, they were destroyed.
Helen shook her head, determined to solve her own problems for once. “No.
I’m not telling you anything,” she said firmly but couldn’t hold his gaze.
Knowing him, she wouldn’t put it past him to fire the women who had spoken
so callously this morning in the file room. It wasn’t that they were excellent
employees. All of them were awful gossips who spent half their time slicing
their co-workers to shreds. But if they were going to be fired, Helen didn’t want
it to be because of something they said about her. Especially since it was true.
Dimitri wasn’t having any of that nonsense. “Why not? If someone hurt
you, I want to know about it.”
Taking a deep breath, she laid her pencil down on the pad, her shoulders
drooping sadly. “Because what they said was true.”
“It doesn’t matter if it was true or not, I’ll not tolerate people being
inconsiderate to you, Helen,” he said, his lips thin and his eyes sparking green
flames.
She smiled weakly at his show of support but shook her head. “It’s my
problem. And I’ll deal with it in my own way,” she said softly, looking down at
the floor. She wished he would move on to business. She could deal with
anything he threw at her in that area. But when he was nice to her, it only made
her love him more. She wanted to throw her arms around his neck and cry out
her embarrassment on his chest, feel his muscular arms wrap around her and
know that he would make everything okay. But that wasn’t her reality. She
didn’t have the right to lean on him in that way. That was reserved for whoever
he chose as his wife. And it definitely wouldn’t be her. “If you don’t have
anything for me, I need to get back to that report. You have the meeting in two
days and if I don’t pull the numbers together for you, it won’t be good.”
She stood up and rushed out of the office, almost falling into her chair as her
legs stopped working. She hid herself under the pile of work at her desk,
praying that he wouldn’t see how distressed she was.
Chapter 2
Dimitri let her go, his teeth gritting as he watched her walk out of his office,
his body already aching with need from the moment he’d walked out of the
elevator and seen her gorgeous smile with her bright, blue eyes that could
swallow a man up with their depths. Her sweet, gentle, sexy walk only made
him harder and he wished he could look away, but he didn’t, needing her
presence too much to stop.
Shoving his hands into his hair, he cursed under his breath and looked out
the window. He shouldn’t be here. He should be in Athens resolving the latest
labor disputes and overseeing production of the next fleet for the Theopolis
ships. But there was just something about Helen that drew him back to London
over and over again. Even his mother was starting to ask about it, questioning
the time he spent away from home.
He wanted Helen. With an aching, driving passion that he couldn’t ignore
any longer. He’d interviewed her six months ago and hired her immediately,
thinking at the time that the attraction was only an intellectual connection that
would make them work better together. How could he have known at that point
what a luscious, incredible body she had hidden under those severe suits and
staid shoes? Of course, he’d loved the way her eyes had sparkled while she
answered his questions. And more than once, he’d stopped listening as his mind
formed fantasies in which her soft, full mouth with her sweet pink lips was a
main feature.
At the time, he’d attributed his distractions down to the long working hours
he’d been putting in. But as his tiny, adorable, sexy Helen started working that
first week, his mind discovered what his body had already known. He wanted
Helen in his bed, not in his office. Getting her there would take some work. She
was one of the shyest females he’d ever encountered and no more aware of her
beauty and femininity than a lobster was aware of the sand on a beach. He’d
slowly been working towards getting her to think of him in terms of a man, but it
had been a painfully slow battle. Hell, she still called him Mr. Theopolis despite
the hundred or so times he’d ordered her to call him by his first name. He, on
the other hand, had no problem calling her by her first name. Each time he
thought about Helen, it was in personal terms.
Grimacing, he knew that, six months ago, he’d never realized getting her into
his bed would take quite so much of his energy. He’d never had this much
trouble with a woman before.
He walked around to the other side of his desk and had to smile at the
surface. Everything was laid out on his desk in very precise order with yellow
sticky notes summarizing each document. In the center was a list. Helen loved
lists. He had to chuckle as he read through the list. She had given him a list of
people he should talk to and in the order of priority.
Dimitri sighed heavily and picked up the phone, dialing the first number.
Helen might be a little dictator, but she was also usually right when it came to
organizing business priorities. It was only when she didn’t know what was
going on that she was wrong so Dimitri made sure she was included on anything
she wanted. He trusted her more than he trusted his executives and she worked
harder that most of them. That’s one reason he paid her about the same amount
as some of his vice presidents.
By lunch time, he walked out and found her staring at her computer
listlessly which only alarmed him further. He could count on one hand the
number of times he’d seen Helen not moving about the office efficiently and they
had been times when she was deeply worried about something. “What’s
wrong?” he asked softly, bending over her desk, hands propped flat on the
surface so he could look into her pretty, blue eyes that revealed so much about
her inner feelings. Seeing the clouds pass over their crystal blue depths, he knew
something was troubling her.
Helen jumped when his face came into view and her cheeks immediately
turned a soft shade of red. “Oh, Mr. Theopolis, I’m sorry. I’m afraid I was day
dreaming.” She quickly pushed back from the desk and stood up, placing
several feet between the two of them. She had trouble breathing when he was so
close. Good grief, she forgot to breathe most of the time when he was close.
“What were you day dreaming about?” he asked, standing up as she did.
“Nothing,” she said and started stacking the files on her desk that were
already perfectly stacked in some sort of order.
“Of course it was something,” he countered grimly, frustrated that she
wouldn’t open up to him this time. The last time she’d been this upset, her
landlord had been pressuring her on the rent, wanting to increase it by several
hundred dollars. It hadn’t been that Helen couldn’t afford the additional rent. It
was only that his little Helen, the penny pinching, coupon cutting darling didn’t
think the rent increase had been ethical. His initial reaction had been to buy the
damn apartment complex and let her live there for free. But he knew she’d balk
at that idea. So he’d done the next best thing. He’d bought a small house he
knew she’d like, then sold it back to her anonymously at a price he knew she
couldn’t resist. When her mother had been in an accident and couldn’t live
alone anymore, he’d made a quick phone call to a private retirement home and
ensured a place for Helen’s mother at a price that wouldn’t burden Helen’s cash
flow situation. He knew some might call it subsidizing but he thought it was
more like ensuring that she wasn’t worried.
So why was she not letting him help her in this instance? What had
happened this time that was so personal she couldn’t tell him about it? Did she
not trust him for some reason? He immediately dismissed that idea. Helen
trusted him more than she trusted herself. “Why don’t you come out to lunch
with me and fill me in on what’s going on? I don’t have any plans, do I?”
“Except me,” a sultry, female voice said from the left.
Helen gritted her teeth when the painfully lovely blond sauntered toward
Dimitri, draping herself against him as she reached up and kissed him. She
resisted the urge to slap the woman’s sexy smile or to scratch her eyes out. She
didn’t think Dimitri would appreciate his girlfriend being mauled by his mousy
secretary.
Dimitri immediately pulled away but Helen noted that he maintained his
hand on her back. “Barbara, what are you doing here?” he asked.
The beautiful, blond Barbara laughed her sexy laugh and winked at him.
“You’ve been a naughty boy lately! I told you to let me know when you came
back to town but you snuck in. Fortunately, I found out and am here to kidnap
you for lunch.”
“I already have plans to take Helen out today,” Dimitri said.
Barbara smiled victoriously. “Don’t be silly dear. She already has her lunch
and I’m starving. Besides,” she started off, only to finish with a whisper in
Dimitri’s ear.
Dimitri smiled broadly and laughed. “Good enough,” he said to Barbara.
Turning to Helen, he said, “Do you mind if I give you a rain check on that
lunch?”
The Sheik’s Sensuous Trap
Chapter 1
“Come on, Alea!” Leslie Morgan said to her best friend and college
roommate. “We’re going to be late.”
Alea Al-Basiri looked at her reflection in the mirror and sighed. “I really
should be studying. Finals are next week and…”
“Stop right there,” Leslie interrupted. “You and I both know that you’ve
been studying so hard for your finals that you’ve probably memorized the entire
book so you can’t use that as an excuse to avoid tonight. Besides, you almost
never come out dancing with us and grad school is almost over. You’re heading
home after finals to a country none of us will ever understand, so you must come
out with us tonight and have a little fun.”
Alea laughed and shook her head. “My country isn’t that far from here and
everyone can come and visit me whenever they want. You know you’re always
welcome.”
Leslie fluffed her blond hair and touched up her makeup, shaking her head
at Alea’s invitation. “Sorry, girlfriend but that’s still not getting you out of
tonight. We’re taking you out and showing you a good time before you head
home and have all those horrible royal duties.”
“They aren’t horrible,” she said weakly, but even she wasn’t looking forward
to the end of school. That meant home and her family, which she missed
desperately, but it also probably meant a wedding, which she wouldn’t put it
past her father to have already arranged and not told her about it. Her father
knew how much she wanted to contribute, and not simply as the wife of some
sheik for a political alliance. She wanted to make a difference! She wanted to do
something with her life that was more than being a baby making machine for
another man’s dynasty.
Leslie poked her gently in the ribs. “You’re getting that melancholy look
about you once again. What are you thinking about?” she asked.
Alea shook off her depressing thoughts and smiled. “I’m thinking about
finals but you’re right. Tonight is going to be fun. We’ll go dancing, have some
laughs and….”
“And maybe get enough alcohol in you to relax and find a wonderful man to
fall in love with…” Leslie teased, a mischievous look on her pixie-like face.
Alea chuckled, thinking of the reaction of her father if she came home asking
to marry someone he hadn’t hand picked out for her and for his own political
benefit. “That’s definitely not going to happen,” shuddering at the fury she’d
face if her father even knew she was going out dancing tonight.
“We’ll see,” Leslie said hopefully. “Come on, the others are already waiting
for us. We’re going to be late.”
Chapter 2
Rashid Bin Faisar glanced up impatiently from the document he’d been
reading and looked out the window of the limousine in an attempt to determine
how much longer until they reached his penthouse. He had a dinner meeting in
thirty minutes but wanted to shower and change. Unfortunately, at the rate
traffic was moving, he was going to be pressed for time.
His eyes skimmed the late evening car traffic and pedestrians milling about
the sidewalk, glancing at the masses of people going about their business. The
woman with long, black hair caught his eye and his interest instantly responded
to the long, sexy legs and slim figure. Besides her stunning black hair which
came down almost to her waist, her legs and tiny waist were all he could see
from behind but his eyes were captured. When the limousine inched forward, he
was able to see her face and his stomach muscles tightened. She was absolutely
spectacular, he thought to himself. The woman’s high cheekbones were
highlighted by beautiful, almond shaped eyes. Her lips were full and sensuous
and, at the moment, smiling at something one of her friends said.
Briefly, he considered pulling over and offering to take the woman out to
dinner. Perhaps a little conversation would be needed, but not many women
turned him down. In fact, it rarely happened, he thought.
Pulling his eyes away, he forced his attention back down to the report he’d
been reading. There was no time for pleasure on this trip. It was all business.
Perhaps another time, he considered. His mind was reading the report but a part
of his brain kept moving back to the woman on the street. Something about her
kept intruding on his concentration. That in itself was notable since Rashid
never allowed anything to intrude on his work. As ruler of Ibel, a country noted
for its massive oil reserves as well as being an influential force within the Middle
East, it was his duty to guide his people. And he did so with a relentless pursuit
of his country’s interests, something his predecessor had not had as his main
concern.
Rashid’s uncle had put his own interest at the top of his list of priorities and
Ibel had suffered to the point where, even today, there were almost constant
border battles with loss of life a part of many villagers’ daily routines. It was an
ongoing tragedy Rashid was determined to fix as soon as possible. No one
should die such senseless deaths when there was no cause behind the violence
besides greed, misunderstanding and lies propagated by his late uncle.
Some people, both inside and outside of Ibel, considered Rashid ruthless.
And worse, in some cases. Regardless, they never doubted his loyalty to Ibel.
His people followed his lead without question now, trusting him on all matters.
He glanced up again and noted that the limousine was stopped at a stop
light so he could only see the back of his mystery woman now. She had a very
nice derriere, he thought.
As the car moved forward slightly in the thick traffic, the street lights caught
the woman’s profile and Rashid tensed. He was startled by something in her
face, her eyes. There was a resemblance that nagged at him. He searched
through his mind’s memory, trying to figure out where he knew the woman.
Initially, he rejected political possibilities. No woman of consequence or political
significance would be out on the street alone without body guards. His eyes
lifted back to the woman and something about the way she lifted her hand
jogged his memory. He suddenly remembered a similar action in several news
reports. Could it be? His eyes sharpened on the stunning beauty walking with
her friends. She was the right age, he supposed.
He didn’t hesitate. If there was a possibility that the woman was who he
thought she was, he would have to act without delay. He quickly picked up his
cell phone and dialed a number. “Get me a picture of Al-Basiri’s daughter
immediately,” he snapped into the receiver. “I want it on my computer in five
seconds,” he said, then snapped the cell phone closed.
“Pull over,” he said in Arabic to his driver. The two body guards that were
sitting in the front seat turned around, looking at their employer inquiringly.
Rashid didn’t respond, but simply counted to five while he watched the
woman stop and get in line for a dance club. When he looked down at his
computer, which was already open on the seat in front of him, an e-mail popped
up with an attachment. He pressed several buttons and looked at the image
staring back at him from the screen. Looking out the window again, a smile
formed on his face.
It wasn’t a smile filled with amusement though. It was one of triumph.
“Change of plans,” he said to his guards and flipped open the phone again.
When the person at the other end answered, he said, “Tell the prime minister that
an urgent matter has come up and I’ll have to reschedule.”
To his guard, “Follow the woman with the long black hair. Don’t let her out
of your sight and let me know if she moves to another club.” One guard
instantly nodded and then stepped from the car to walk discreetly across the
street, immediately blending in with the crowd walking about the sidewalk as
they waited to gain entrance to the dance club.
“Get me back to the penthouse immediately,” he said to his driver. His mind
was already working through the details of his plan as his eyes took in the
slender beauty laughing with her friends. His smile was almost feral as the car
drove away.
An hour later, Rashid stepped out of the car, ignoring the two other black
SUVs that pulled up behind and in front of the limousine. Several other body
guards stepped out as well and instantly formed a perimeter around him
although to an onlooker, it would seem like they were just a crowd of men with
no knowledge of each other.
Rashid walked into the dance club, now dressed in a casual pair of slacks
and white, open necked shirt. He didn’t wait in line like the others since the
owner had already been called and warned of his arrival. As he walked through
the club, he found the guard who had been left behind earlier. He was off to the
side and nodded inconspicuously toward a corner area where the four women
had settled.
Rashid nodded and moved toward the bar area, ready to get a drink on his
own. Once he had his drink, he moved away, finding a strategic place to watch
and wait until the moment was right.
It wasn’t such a hardship, he told himself. The woman was more than
stunning, having an aura or something about her that drew more than his own
gaze toward her laughing persona. Rashid noticed that several other men
glanced her way more than once. Her long, black hair fell softly around her
shoulders, ending just under her breasts. The tresses framed a lovely face
dominated by her smiling brown eyes which had the exotic, almond shaped eyes
prized by models and actresses alike. Her hands were even pretty he noticed as
she lifted her drink to her mouth. Her long, slim fingers ended with short,
tapered nails without any nail polish on them.
Ah, and that mouth! Those lips were every man’s fantasy, he smiled. They
were full and red, pouting until she smiled revealing straight, white teeth. Her
movements were soft and feminine, and definitely considerate of her friends’
feelings. He was too far away to hear the conversation but he could see that she
was only slightly amused while her friends were overcome with laughter. She
faked it well.
The thought forced a grim smile to his face. He’d make sure she never had
to fake it with him, he told himself. His body reacted to just the idea of holding
her in his arms, watching that luscious mouth as her body came to fulfillment.
The image in his mind had his body reacting quickly and he had to take a sip of
his watered down whiskey, subduing the grimace of disgust at the poor alcohol.
Rashid waited on the sidelines, watching his prey as she talked and laughed.
Patience was all that was needed, he knew. With patience, an opportunity would
present itself. It always did.
His opening came sooner than he’d hoped. A man walked up to their group
and introduced himself, then turned to face Alea, obviously asking her to dance.
She shook her head to decline, but her friends all overcame her objections,
literally pushing her out onto the dance floor with the strange man.
The music was loud and the bass thumping so powerfully it could be felt in
the weathered wooden floor under his feet. He watched them for a moment, his
eyes cold with fury as he noticed the man move closer than what she was
comfortable with. The stranger didn’t take the signals she sent off too well either.
It was odd that he was so possessive of a woman. Especially one he’d never
met before. No female had ever engendered those feelings in him prior to now.
Women were soft and lovely, but had a very specific place in his life. That place
definitely didn’t include emotional commitment. But then, no other woman
would factor in his life as this tiny one would be doing, very soon.
Regardless of the reasons for his anger, he was determined to resolve the
cause in the most expedient way possible. He put his drink down on the low
table and moved in, his eyes glowing with fury when the strange man began
touching what Rashid already considered to be his. He had no doubt in his mind
that Alea would be his by the end of the night. He was a man used to strategy
and had never lost when his goal was determined.
Alea wiggled and turned, trying to make a little space between herself and
the obnoxious man she was dancing with. Eric, he’d said his name was. But this
mighty Eric was just a boor and she was about to step painfully on his foot in an
effort to get his hands off her. She was raising her foot to do exactly that when a
deep voice interrupted her, mid stomp.
“Perhaps I might be of assistance,” the man beside her said. “I’m probably
more effective than that foot which will only irritate the man.”
Both Alea and the obnoxious Eric turned to face the deep voice. “Who the
hell are you?” Eric said belligerently, his chest already puffing up in the “fight”
stance.
Rashid turned to look down at the man who was several inches shorter than
he was. “I’m the man who is going to save you from a lot of pain. If you’ll
excuse me,” he said and took Alea’s hand gently in his own and swirled her
efficiently out of the man’s reach.
He continued to hold her hand as he danced her farther away, putting her
back toward the body guards who immediately moved in to intercept and
subdue Eric and his need to throw a punch. She smiled up at him and he forced
himself to smile back. “I hope you don’t mind,” he said softly, pulling her along
in his wake but keeping his hands to himself after that.
Alea was relieved to be away from Eric’s annoying hands but trying not to
show how awestruck she was by this amazing specimen of masculinity. “Not at
all,” she said a little breathlessly. Smiling in an effort to hide her nervousness,
she asked, “How did you know I was about to inflict my heel on his toe?”
Rashid laughed softly, enjoying the way her pretty brown eyes kept drifting
lower, obviously trying to look at his body without him realizing it. “I saw your
intention in your eye a moment before your leg moved. Putting two and two
together, I figured he didn’t deserve to be standing next to such a lovely lady if
he was going to abuse her trust, so I stepped in and rescued both of you.”
She laughed herself. “Very perceptive of you, sir. I’ll consider you my
knight in shining armor,” she said and gave him a mock curtsy.
“My name is John,” he lied, putting out his hand to shake hers.
“Alea,” she replied, placing her smaller one in his.
Rashid smiled as he felt the shiver travel up her arm. Good. The chemistry
was not one sided, he said to himself. It would be so much easier that way.
“You don’t seem like a �John’ to me,” she said, tipping her head back and
looking directly at him. “In fact, you seem vaguely familiar.”
Rashid instantly shook his head, dispelling the possibility that she might
remember him from a news broadcast or any other point during their two
countries’ violent, past relationship. He didn’t want her remembering past
pictures, which she probably had seen of him. He was in the news often, not to
mention official photographs which had been taken over the years and
published. “I don’t think we’ve ever met before.
remembered you.”
I definitely would have
Alea agreed with him. He was too large and definitely too gorgeous for
someone to be banished to the back of one’s memory. No, if she’d met him
previously, she definitely would have remembered him. She shook the odd
feeling aside, assuming it was just her imagination.
They didn’t talk any more, the music too loud to even shout over. But they
moved to the beat, swaying and dancing, each of them seeming to synchronize
without talking. When he moved to the right, Alea was already moving to the
left, their bodies barely touching but the slightest feel of his hard, muscular body
sent a shiver through her each time. The feelings were more enticing probably
because they were so slight. As if they were teasing each other with the wisps of
touch.
Alea looked up into his gorgeous features. He was tall, well over six feet.
Probably several inches, she thought, noting how he was at least half a head
taller than all the other men around them. His face looked hard, unyielding as
did his dark, black eyes. His hair was just as black with soft waves that were cut
short, barely even touching the collar of his shirt. His jaw was square and firm,
“unrelenting” popped into her mind as she surveyed his features.
Her fingers itched to touch him more thoroughly but she didn’t dare. She
was wondering if his chest was as muscular as it seemed underneath his shirt.
His forearms, which were visible to her hungry eyes, revealed muscles on top of
muscles, which fascinated her. Most of the men of her current acquaintance
were soft, too busy studying or partying to worry about their physical fitness.
This man obviously worked out a great deal.
She’d never been someone to date men who were much taller than her and
definitely not someone who was overly packed with muscle. She’d always
thought of muscular men as ignorant. But this man, John, looked like he could
read her thoughts and intelligence was definitely one of this man’s strengths.
She smiled, and knew that his eyes were watching her. If he was able to read
her thoughts, he’d probably run for the hills. This man, with all of his bulk and
height was incredibly graceful on the dance floor. Sexy, she thought. And she
wanted to touch him more than anyone she’d ever come across. This man was
the first one who had ever tempted her to go beyond the good night kisses she’d
experienced with her previous dates. Her mind wandered as the music played.
Would he be a sensitive lover? Or would he be aggressive, demanding? Would
he be slow or fast?
Each time she looked at him, peering through her hair as she swirled or
twisted to the music, another sexual thought occurred to her and her mouth was
actually dry, her body tightening in anticipation.
Could she do it? Could she ignore all the teachings of her upbringing and
see what this man was like in bed? No, she told herself, blushing and grateful for
the dim lights of the dance floor. She’d never do something like that. Goodness!
What would he think? They had barely exchanged names and she was already
wondering what he would be like as a lover.
Rashid noted the soft color entering her creamy cheeks and wanted to know
what she was thinking. He could guess, based on the fact that he could see the
aroused tips of her breasts through her shirt. His body was already semi-aroused
thinking about how perfectly they would fit together. He wanted to take her out
of here now, but knew he’d have to take it slow so he wouldn’t scare her off.
“You look thirsty. Can I buy you a drink?” he asked, leaning forward so he could
be heard above the music.
“I’d love it,” she smiled, grateful that he had offered. She was painfully
thirsty but that was more because of him than the music or the atmosphere.
The Greek’s Baby Bargain
As the intense heat beat down on her blond hair, Emma clutched her small
black purse nervously in front of her, unknowingly allowing her nails to dig into
the soft leather. Standing in front of the enormous, intimidating steel and glass
structure that housed the headquarters to Christoph Enterprises, she bit her lip in
uncertainly. Was this really her only option? Had her life become so completely
out of control that she was back in Greece with the hot October sun shining
down without mercy, almost making her dizzy? She stared up through the trees
at the sun, feeling the sting of the burn on the uncovered portion of her
shoulders, fighting the nausea that almost overwhelmed her.
Maybe it wasn’t the heat, she told herself. It might also be that she hadn’t
eaten in about twenty-four hours now. Glancing at her watch, she noted that it
was already after lunch time.
Sighing, she acknowledged that it could also be the fear, no the terror, of
facing her husband after four years apart.
She jumped when someone bumped into her from behind. “Excuse me,” she
replied, stepping out of the way as the person tried to go through the heavy glass
doors. She’d been standing in front of them for several minutes now. It was time
to face the music. Or the yelling, she told herself.
There was a large courtyard made up of fountains and olive trees with
several other native varieties of Greek vegetation. If Emma weren’t so terrified,
she would have stopped and admired the landscaping. But the truth was, she
fully expected to be kicked out of this building as soon as she stated her name
and purpose.
Why had she come then? Wasn’t there any other option? Had she really
dried up all other resources?
Sighing, Emma knew that this was a last resort. There was no other place to
go. And it was now or never so she’d better get it over with. Taking a deep
breath to steady her nerves, she walked forward and pulled the glass door which
swung open more easily than she’d anticipated.
“Good morning,” she smiled to the security guards standing sentry behind a
marble counter. “I’d like to see Dimitri Christoph.”
The guards were startled by her request.
“Excuse me?” they asked,
obviously never hearing the words before. They frantically worked to overcome
their shock and regain their intimidating stance.
“Do you have an
appointment?” one of them asked, glaring at her as if he were about to arrest her.
Emma shook her head and smiled with what she hoped was a sincere
expression. “No. I don’t have an appointment but,” she started and swallowed,
knowing this was the first test, “I think he’ll see me. I’m his wife.”
Even the words sounded strained and felt odd rolling off her tongue. Was
she still his wife? She’d left Greece four years ago. Wouldn’t he have done
something to dissolve their marriage after this long?
The guards looked even more startled before settling down into distrust.
“I’m sorry, but what is your name?” they asked.
“Emma Christoph,” she replied, wishing it wasn’t the case. But if it wasn’t,
then she’d have no way of getting to Dimitri, would she? And she desperately
needed him. Well, she didn’t need him so much. She needed his money. She’d
been turned down by so many banks and her current employer wouldn’t
provide an advance on her meager salary. She needed money. Lots of it. There
was no other way to get it. He was her last chance.
She watched as the guards picked up the phone and spoke rapidly in Greek
to someone at the other end of the line. It took only moments before the phone
was put down and she was handed a security badge and solicitously shown to a
private elevator.
The ride up to the thirtieth floor was terrifying, the bitter taste of fear
stinging her throat. In contrast to the heat of the outdoors, the air conditioning
made her shiver. Or was that more of the fear?
This had to work, she reminded herself. She had rehearsed her speech so
many times, but would it work? Would he listen to her? Was there a scrap of
compassion left within the man? If not, she was wasting her time and she was in
more trouble than she could imagine. Because she’d spent the last of her savings
on the ticket out here. She’d bet everything on the hope that she could somehow
get through to Dimitri. If she didn’t, all would be lost and she’d be devastated.
Besides, he had billions! Surely he could spare some for her. She’d never
asked for anything. Not during their two year marriage, nor afterwards. When
she realized her circumstance, she’d just slipped off, knowing she’d never be the
wife he needed her to be.
The doors opened and she shivered again in fear. This was it. Her last
chance. She had to convince him or all would be lost. And there was so much to
lose! Darrin lay in a hospital bed, waiting for a miracle and she had to get it for
him. There was just no other option.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Christoph,” an efficient woman greeted her in English
immediately after the elevator doors opened. “Mr. Christoph is waiting. If you’ll
follow me,” she said and turned to walk down the hallway.
The carpeting was thick and green, the walls were in expensive paneling
with muted lighting spaced perfectly to provide continuous light, but not be
harsh. Despite the luxurious ambiance, Emma couldn’t help but feel as if she
might be walking toward an execution.
The massive double wooden doors were open and Emma walked in,
astounded by the panoramic view of Athens below her. She didn’t hear the
doors close behind her as she gazed out at the beautiful city, the heat glistening
off the white buildings and the Acropolis in the distance.
“So the prodigal wife returns,” a deep voice said. “To what do I owe this
dubious honor?”
Emma visibly cringed at his words, her eyes snapping away from the
peaceful scene outside the windows to search the massive office for the owner of
that deep, velvety voice. She remembered that voice so well, but it had never
spoken to her in anger or contempt. Only with words of love and compassion, or
just passion. Soft words in the night that had heated her blood and stirred her
desire to such a fever pitch, she would have done just about anything for the
relief only he could provide.
It was shocking, but Emma thought he was perhaps more devastatingly
handsome now than he had been four years ago. His jet black hair was cut short,
but was still thick and waved on each side and his dark eyes almost matched the
black in his hair. His jaw was chiseled and powerful, but when he smiled, his
face was transformed from terrifyingly intimidating, to charm personified.
He was more powerfully built than she remembered him too. His shoulders
were amazingly broad but she thought there were more muscles underneath his
perfectly tailored suit. She remembered running her fingers over those shoulders
and loving the feel of his strength, knowing that he was always gentle with her
whenever he touched her in any way.
The harshness of his tone today didn’t bode well for her request. She
couldn’t give up though, no matter what the odds, she had to take them.
Somehow she had to convince him.
Emma walked farther into the office and she didn’t miss the fact that he
didn’t stand when she entered. That was definitely a bad thing. If Dimitri was
anything, he had meticulous manners when he respected someone. The fact that
he remained seated while she entered spoke volumes about his feelings toward
her.
Squaring her shoulders, she smiled warmly, hoping she exuded a little bit of
confidence. At least more than she was feeling, she told herself as she walked
forward on shaking legs.
“Good afternoon, Dimitri.
Thank you for seeing me without an
appointment.”
“Did I have a choice?” he asked, raising one eyebrow and twirling a gold pen
in his long, elegant fingers. “You show up at the security desk and tell them
you’re my wife. What was I supposed to say? �You must be mistaken, my wife
left me four years ago with a curt note’ or something equally revealing?”
Emma looked at the carpet, standing awkwardly in front of his large,
handsome desk. “It was necessary. Things….happened.” She wasn’t sure what
to say but this was not how she had planned this interview. She tried to focus on
her plan but her curiosity got the better of her.
divorce?”
“Why didn’t you file for
Dimitri raised his eyebrows expressively. “Was I supposed to?”
Her words could barely form the words but she forced them out, as much for
her own benefit as for his own. “Yes. I assumed you would.”
“Is that why you didn’t?”
Emma shrugged. She couldn’t tell him that there was no way she could
sever the tie that bound her to him. It was too precious to her. The questions
such a statement would raise were too painful and she couldn’t handle giving
him the answers. The divorce would have to come from him. “Why didn’t
you?”
He shrugged slightly, as if the whole matter were of little consequence to
him. “Because it wasn’t convenient for me. Besides, having a wife, albeit an
absent one, kept all the ambitious momma’s at bay.”
Dimitri surveyed the woman standing in front of him, wondering why she
still had the power to intoxicate him. Her yellow dress was drab, of poor quality
and about two sizes too large for her too thin frame. He could tell that her
breasts were the same, still voluptuous and sumptuous and his hands ached to
test their weight, see if they were as he remembered; firm and perfect for his
hands. Her green eyes stared back at him as if he had somehow let her down.
Which was preposterous since she’d left him and not the other way around.
She used to dress perfectly, showing off legs that were long, slender and a
perfect match for him, especially when they were wrapped around his waist.
Damn! He wished he could get her out of his mind. He’d thought she’d been
obliterated from his thoughts. He’d certainly spent enough time purging her
from his life and his mind after she’d left. What the hell was she doing coming
back into his world looking just as delicious as she’d been before? Even more so,
damn her!
Emma tried to hide the hurt his words caused her. He acted as if their entire
relationship had meant nothing to him but what was she supposed to expect?
Was he supposed to walk in here and declare his undying love for her? To beg
her to explain why she’d left and tell her that nothing mattered except the fact
that they were back together?
Her face blanched as she realized that was exactly what she’d been hoping
for. She loved this man more than life itself and she had been hoping he felt the
same way. But that wasn’t the case. She knew that and should never have
disillusioned herself that he would need anything other than the perfect wife.
One that didn’t run away for no apparent reason as well. He’d never told her
that he’d loved her during their marriage so why was she hoping he would do so
now? It was a ridiculous fantasy.
Dimitri cursed under his breath and tossed his pen down onto the desk. “I
suppose that’s all in the past. What do you want Emma? Be quick about it. I
have meetings this afternoon.”
Emma felt as if she’d been slapped, but she couldn’t let it stop her. She’d
been to too many banks so this was really her last resort. Taking a deep breath,
she pulled the papers out of the folder and placed them in front of him on his
desk. “I know you don’t think I deserve this, but I don’t have any other place to
turn to now. I was hoping you could help me out by co-signing on a loan for
me.”
Dimitri’s hard black eyes sliced from the papers she’d handed him to her
face. “What the hell do you mean? You went to a bank? For a loan?”
She tamped down the anger his response engendered within her. She had to
maintain her calm. Everything rested on this meeting. It was too important.
“Several, actually,” she explained, smiling slightly in an effort to pacify his
obvious anger. “But none would even consider loaning me the money until this
last one.”
He leaned back in his chair, shaking his head. “What was so special about
the last one? Did you sell your delectable body to the bank teller as a bribe?”
Emma’s face paled and she looked down, unable to hold his gaze any longer.
“He made the connection to my last name and your company,” she said softly.
“He explained that he couldn’t loan me the money without any collateral, but if
you were willing to sign for it, guaranteeing the loan, it wouldn’t be a problem.”
A nerve started twitching in his forehead and Emma knew that this
interview wasn’t going the way she’d planned it. She’d deviated from her
speech and was not as articulate as she could be. How was she supposed to
anyway when all the old feelings came rushing back to her as soon as she’d seen
him? He was too gorgeous, too dark and dangerous while at the same time, she
knew he was passionate and one of the most intelligent men she’d ever met in
her life. Instantly upon entering the office, all of the old feelings she’d felt for
him came rushing back to her and all she wanted to do was to cry on his
shoulder and beg him for his forgiveness.
She could tell he was beyond furious with her. “Let me get this straight.
You’ve gone to several banks and dragged the Christoph name through the mud,
begging for money?”
Just as it had in the past, his anger seemed to spark her own. Emma’s eyes
flashed fire at his arrogant words. “I wasn’t begging. I was asking for a loan!
I’m willing to pay back every cent with interest. There was nothing illegal or
unsavory in the request, despite your attempts to paint it black.”
Dimitri glanced down at the loan documents and swore again. “How are
you going to pay back this much money? And why in the world would you
need such a large sum?”
Emma crossed her hands over her stomach defensively. “I can’t tell you.”
Remembering her father’s reaction to Brian’s condition, she knew that many men
considered any frailty a weakness that was unacceptable. Her father had hated
Brian, projecting a fear of catching the genetic deformity and rejecting his only
son. Brian had shriveled up during the years he had lived at the house. When
their mother had died, Brian had been moved out of the house, in the guise of
helping him but it was really because Emma’s father had hated any sign of
weakness. Emma swore she would protect Brian from that kind of humiliation
again.
Dimitri was just as tough and unmerciful as her father had been and Emma
would never allow another person to hurt Brian. He’d been through too much
already and after the way he’d taken her in four years ago, helping her to heal
and become a human being again, she owed him more than she could ever repay.
Getting the money for this surgery that could heal him was only a small way she
could help.
His mouth twisted in a mocking version of a smile. “And yet you expect me
to loan you the money?”
Her spine stiffened at his harsh words but she suppressed the anger,
knowing it wouldn’t help her argument. Keeping her tone as calm as possible
she said, “No. I just want you to sign the papers. The bank will loan me the
money and I’ll pay it back.”
His face showed his impatience. “You’re being ridiculous, Emma. There’s
no way you can pay back this amount. You don’t make that much money.”
Her startled eyes looked up again, searching his face for answers to how he
had that kind of information. “How do you know how much I make?”
Dimitri smiled but there was no amusement in the effort. “I know
everything about you Emma. I know that you left me one afternoon four years
ago and flew home to London. You left the security of your home and your
husband, and ran straight into the arms of another man! You betrayed
everything that was between us and didn’t even have the dignity to offer an
explanation. I know you now work in a dump of a book store and barely eek out
a living. So cut the pretty little plea for money because you can’t afford this kind
of a monthly loan payment.”
Emma was shaking violently by the end of his tirade. Dimitri rarely got
angry. Why should he? The man was more powerful than anyone she’d ever
known and had more money than just about anyone else in Europe. And he
never raised his voice. He never had to. The people that worked for Christoph
Shipping wouldn’t dare to contradict him. At home, his servants bent over
backwards trying to anticipate his every need, eager to please the man. And at
work, only the best and brightest were employed and each of them were more
than eager, terrified even, of crossing the man. He could be devastatingly
charming when he wanted to. But he could also cut into a person with words
that would leave them metaphorically and financially bleeding for years, decades
even. No one crossed Dimitri Christoph. He was too powerful.
But beyond his charm and the power that came with his incomprehensible
wealth, Dimitri projected sense of danger, it was an overwhelming aura that
surrounded him. People literally moved out of the way when he walked down
the street, and it had little to do with his security detail that surrounded him
wherever he went. There was just something about Dimitri, an air of absolute
confidence and power that people in general recognized. She should know.
She’d fallen victim to his devastating personality from the first moment she’d
met him.
Blinking, Emma sat down in the chair despite the fact that he hadn’t offered
her a seat. “You had me followed?” she asked, horrified by what he might have
seen or what might have been reported back to him.
His anger was controlled but his frustration with her naivetГ© rose up to make
him roll his eyes. “You are my wife! Of course you were followed. You were
followed every moment from the time I proposed. You were just unaware of it.”
Emma had known that Dimitri’s immense wealth meant he and everyone in
his family lived with the constant risk of kidnapping. But she hadn’t known that
he’d put a security detail on her. It felt invasive, as if he were spying on her. She
shivered and looked down at the carpeting so he couldn’t see the anger in her
eyes. “Well, that’s all in the past. There’s no reason for you to continue to have
me followed. Call off your dogs and leave me alone.”
Dimitri tssked. “Not very good powers of persuasion, Emma. If you want
something from me, it isn’t a good idea to issue orders. Besides, I never accepted
them very well, did I?”
Emma’s face flushed, knowing he was referring to their sex life. Too many
nights, Dimitri would pull her into his arms and make love to her until she was
begging for release, demanding it from him. But he would only take the feelings
higher each time she demanded, waiting until she was writhing under him
before he would give her what she needed, the wait only intensifying the climax.
“That was a long time ago,” she said.
conversation.”
“It has nothing to do with this
His face was hard and unrelenting as he said, “I’m not signing the papers,
Emma. And I forbid you to go to another bank.”
At the look of finality in his eyes, Emma’s face almost broke down into tears.
It was only with supreme effort that she held them at bay. She would let them
fall when she was alone, not in front of this man who was staring at her as if she
were a bug on his carpet, unworthy of even being crushed by his efforts.
She was defeated. This was her last recourse. He didn’t have to worry about
her going to another bank. There weren’t any more that would even consider her
loan. She’d been to the big ones and most of the medium sized ones. The
smaller they got, the more strict they were on their lending requirements. It
would be useless to try someone else. Dimitri had been her last resort and now
even that was eliminated. She’d failed, and that failure hurt more than she
realized it would. Brian would not be healed and it was all her fault.
She stood up and took a deep breath. She couldn’t face him but she tried at
least for the social niceties. “Thank you very much for seeing me. I’m sorry for
bothering you.” She turned to walk out, praying that she would make it to the
door and to some sort of privacy before she broke down. The last thing she
wanted was for this dynamic, powerful man to see her despair. After everything
she’d gone through since leaving him, that would be the final humiliation.
She was almost to the door when his words stopped her. “But I have an
alternative,” he said smoothly. “Sit back down,” he ordered.
Emma wanted to walk out, find a small, dark, private place to lick her
wounds and heal. But she couldn’t. Was he offering her a concession? If it was
possible, she had to swallow her pride and accept it. This was all for Brian, she
reminded herself. He’d given her so much, she had to find a way to give him
something back. She carefully made her way back to the seat she’d just vacated,
then waited tensely for him to continue, unable to meet his gaze.
The Italian’s Bedroom Deal
“He has to be here tonight,” she whispered to her image in the mirror,
shivering slightly when the cold air from the open window touched her bare
skin. “He just has to be here.” Clarissa Montgomery smoothed her soft, brown
curls and checked her pink lipstick one more time.
Clarissa stared at the cleavage revealed by the low cut dress and push up bra
as goose bumps formed on her arms and chest. It was more revealing than
anything she’d ever worn before and she couldn’t help being painfully selfconscious in the dress.
She fidgeted and tried to adjust the dress so it was more comfortable, but to
no avail. How did women wear these things? She pulled the neckline up a bit,
then sighed and pulled it back down, reminding herself of her mission. A
conservative dress hadn’t gotten her any results so far. She needed to be daring.
In order to catch a fish, she thought to herself, she needed the right bait. Since
she was trying to catch a whale, she needed to be confident! Powerful!
Turning away from the mirror, she almost tripped over the chair to her desk
since she wasn’t used to the new shoes she’d purchased for the dress. As she
held onto the back of the chair, her blue eyes once again saw the screen and she
cringed. The computer at her desk mocked her. She re-read the e-mail from her
best friend, sighing as Jennifer talked about the latest pregnancy details. Her
friends from college, the ones that she’d done everything with, gone everywhere,
were all married although not all happily, with her best friend more than twenty
weeks along in her pregnancy. Yet, here she was, the last remaining virgin on the
planet. She felt like she was a freak from another era.
Tonight, she was going to change that though. Her status as a pathetic,
twenty-five year old virgin was definitely going to change. And she had just the
man in mind to help her with that goal. That meant it was imperative that the
man actually show up so she could work whatever wiles she could dream up
and get him to change her status, and she was back to her original dilemma.
“It’s now or never,” she told her reflection. “I can just stand here and worry
about what might happen, or I can get out there and make it happen.” Her lips
firmed in determination and she took a deep breath. “Time to face the music.”
Grabbing her small beaded purse from the dresser, she left the cozy, one
bedroom cottage, slamming the door behind her to make sure it closed properly
since it refused at times. She negotiated the stepping stones carefully with her
higher than normal heels and then made her way to the main house. It was a
short walk since she lived on her father’s massive estate in what used to be the
old gate keeper’s residence. She’d convinced her father to let her rent it and had
happily restored the old style house to its former glory. It had been painstaking
since she refused all of her father’s monetary help, wanting to do it on her own
like any other normal, career woman starting out in the world.
She’d wanted “normal” all her life but being the only daughter to a
billionaire limited that fantasy to a large degree. That was one of the reasons she
was still a virgin and one of the reasons tonight was so important. She had to
break out of this phase in her life.
Because of her father’s wealth, she couldn’t live outside the gates of the
estate for safety reasons, she knew but at least she could pride herself that she
was independent, in an off center kind of way. Being the daughter to such a
wealthy man meant there was always the threat of kidnapping to worry about.
She’d argued with her father to let her have her own career and apartment but he
was unrelenting. Instead of giving in to a wave of self-pity because she had no
control over her life, with her vivid imagination, she’d turned his refusal to allow
her to live on her own into a show of love from him. In her own mind, where she
could create whatever ideas she wanted and suited her needs, she credited him
with not wanting to risk her life or make him worry about her security. The
unfortunate reality was, he simply didn’t want to lose millions by having to pay
to a kidnapper if anything had actually happened to her.
That’s okay, she reminded herself as she ducked beneath the willow tree and
surveyed the large, elegantly dressed crowd that had already formed in her
father’s backyard. There were perks to her current situation and tonight, she was
going to take advantage of one. The party wasn’t difficult to view since the
whole area was lit up with twinkle lights woven into the trees, candles on every
table, torches lining the multi-layered patios while flood lights strategically lit up
the fabulous looking pool and meticulously manicured gardens. There was a
well known singer on stage already belting out her latest number one hit and
guests in a rainbow of elegant, designer clothes mingled, laughed and celebrated
her father’s sixtieth birthday together while drinking champagne that cost more
per bottle than some people’s entire monthly salary.
Clarissa might have been born into this world, but she didn’t have to agree
with it. She worked hard to buy her own clothes and her own food and she even
paid her father a monthly rent equivalent to what another apartment would cost
her in town, even though he never bothered to cash the checks. She made her
own money, even if her father disagreed that translating manuscripts and
documents was not really a career.
And that part hurt. She argued against her father’s opinion of her career
choice, albeit to herself. Everyone had a career ladder to climb. Hers was just a
little more ambiguous. For instance, she had translated several difficult technical
documents over the past several years which had grown her reputation and her
hard work had built up a very good clientele. But she could do better, she knew.
She wanted to start her own company and expand into other areas of translation.
And why shouldn’t she build something more? She had a great standing in
many companies and the know-how to start a business after years of listening to
her father and his cronies discuss the strengths and weaknesses of various
companies they were taking over or creating. She’d absorbed every detail over
the years and soon she would put all that inside information to good use.
Tonight, however, was only about her personal goals she told herself as she
pushed her father’s dislike of her chosen career out of her mind. Who cared if he
scoffed at her work? She found it satisfying and intellectually stimulating so she
refused to care what he thought.
This night, this party and her wearing this particular dress had nothing to do
with her career or making new connections professionally. She had a private
goal in mind and only one man who could fulfill that ambition. Tonight, she was
going to go through with her proposition to him no matter how terrified she was.
Her father had been thrilled when she’d asked if one particular name had
been on the guest list. He would bend over backwards if Clarissa desired a
marriage to this particular man. But Clarissa was having nothing to do with
marriage. Oh, she loved romance novels and happy ever after movies. They
were wonderful and she gorged on them in her spare time. Marriage, however,
was not in her future.
“Clarissa!” a female voice said from the side of the patio.
Clarissa looked to her right and smothered a cringe. Vanessa Brightridge
was bearing down on her with a determined look, pulling her husband along in
her wake. “Good evening, Vanessa. How are you?” she asked, accepting the air
kisses the pretentious woman doled out as a way to mimic a closer friendship
than was real.
“I’m doing great!” she exclaimed with a soft, husky laugh. “Your father
definitely knows how to throw a party, doesn’t he?” Her eyes were bright with
excitement and anticipation as she considered all the possibilities presented at
tonight’s festivities. In the form of men probably. Vanessa was a professional
husband-hunter. And she did amazingly well at her chosen career.
Clarissa looked around. “Yes, he definitely has a way with entertainment,”
she replied, knowing that her father simply called up a party organizing firm and
they did most of the work. All her father did was ask his secretary to provide the
firm a list of guests. He probably hadn’t even reviewed the list, delegating even
that task to the woman who ran his office with an iron hand. Clarissa pretended
to listen to the woman’s inane chatter while considering the ironic fact that
Vanessa probably knew exactly who had organized this event, most likely had
used the same firm in previous entertaining efforts, but insisted that her father
receive all the credit for the event. Clarissa hated the hypocrisy of it all.
She looked around the patio, apparently giving Vanessa the appropriate
responses since she continued to talk, almost without taking a breath. Clarissa
saw one of her father’s friends flirting daringly with another woman, one who
was not his wife. Or at least, it wasn’t his current wife. Clarissa wasn’t exactly
sure what his previous wives looked like but she assumed they were all similar;
blond, painfully thin and perfectly made up.
Sighing, she wondered why life wasn’t more like some of her favorite
romance novels. Man meets woman, both fall in love and live happily ever after,
both dedicating their lives to each other.
That wasn’t reality, she knew, accepting more accolades on behalf of her
father as other guests came over to talk with Vanessa, including Clarissa in their
group simply out of proximity.
Clarissa didn’t argue the double standards of her marriage beliefs though
she’d never tell anyone about her horror of the married state. She wanted
nothing to do with a wedding and the types of marriages her peers were
experiencing. Marriage for wealthy people was not a real relationship but
simply a means to an end, either commercial or political, and she would not
subject herself to that kind of degradation. She wanted more than a business
transaction for her personal relationship.
She kept her opinions of marriage to herself though. Her dislike of the
married state had sent her father into an apoplectic fury. The one time she’d
expressed that thought to her father, she’d regretted it. He’d blown up at the
idea of his only daughter not marrying and producing the requisite heir. To him,
life was all about continuing on the legacy and the only way to do that was to
marry well and stay inside one’s circle of acquaintances.
Although she kept her ideas to herself and smiled at all the lovely weddings
of each of her friends, deep down, Clarissa knew she’d never marry. She’d seen
the kinds of marriages that existed in high society and she wanted nothing to do
with it. Oh, she hoped and believed in love. Completely. She desperately hoped
she’d one day fall in love, but not to marry. No, her relationship would have to
remain outside the bounds of matrimony.
Why ruin a perfectly good
relationship by marrying? Her father had done it four times. What a waste of
good energy.
Scanning the crowds, she was slightly taken aback when she realized that the
man she’d been hoping desperately to see hadn’t arrived yet. This was horrible,
she thought to herself. She touched the slender strap of her dress nervously,
feeling awkward as more of the other guests started to notice her off to the side.
She’d been counting on finding him immediately. In her dream world, she
arrived, saw him immediately, he’d take one look at her in the dress and walk
over to where she was standing. His eyes would fire with desire and he would
gently take her into his arms and whisper in her ear how much he wanted to
make love to her.
Okay, so some of the details seem a little cheesy and unrealistic. She knew
that it wouldn’t be that easy and she’d rehearsed a speech just in case she had to
lay out to him in a more obvious way what she was hoping to happen between
the two of them. But all of her speeches ended in the same way, with him
picking her up in his arms, overcome with passion and he would carry her off to
his bed and….she cleared her mind and re-focused on the party, hating the way
some of the men looked her up and down, smilingly lasciviously in her direction.
He just had to come to the party, she told herself for the millionth time.
She stood under the willow tree, separated by the shadows from the party,
for at least another fifteen minutes, hoping to get a glance at the man she was
searching for but he didn’t appear. She felt a deep sense of disappointment as
she acknowledged that he probably wasn’t going to show if he wasn’t here
already. Her disappointment intensified as she accepted that it was time for her
to make her own appearance, greet her father and a few others. Once that was
done, she could head back to her cottage and take off this silly dress and relax,
regroup and figure out her next move, she thought.
Stepping out of the shadows and onto the patio, Clarissa pasted a bright
smile on her face and searched out her father. She’d seen him a few minutes ago
so she knew exactly where to find him. Heading for one of the bars, she found
James Montgomery in a small group of people who were all laughing
uproariously at some joke. Clarissa stood on the outskirts for a moment, waiting
for the laughter to die down slightly before she worked her way through the
crowd to greet her father.
Taking a deep breath, she stepped forward, only to be knocked back slightly
when a woman pushed carelessly in an attempt to steady herself. Clarissa
studied the crowd for all of five seconds before turning around, getting ready to
leave. She’d tried in good faith, she told herself. If her father wanted to be
surrounded by all these sycophants then let him but she wanted no part of it.
She turned on her heel, prepared to slowly walk through the crowd back to the
oasis of her cottage when she was suddenly faced with a very large, very
masculine chest. She looked up, then up again. And up some more since
Maximillian Diantes was only inches from her.
“You’re not leaving so soon, are you, cara?” his deep voice said, his amused
eyes traveling over her delicate features.
Clarissa saw his eyes move from her face down her figure and was only a
little disappointed when his eyes changed from amused to shocked when he took
in her low cut dress. She ignored his expression, too excited to see him after
accepting that he was going to be a no-show tonight. As her joy washed over her
at the sight of him, her whole body started quivering with excitement. “Signor
Diantes!” she gasped, unable to hide her pleasure. Oh how she loved the soft lilt
of his words, his Italian accent softly floating through the air, making all of his
words sound as if they were a caress.
“I thought we agreed you would call me Max,” he said, tucking her hand
into the bend of his elbow and turning her around. “Were you trying to greet
your father?” he asked gallantly, weaving his way through the crowd that
seemed to melt away for him.
Clarissa glanced down, wanting to tug her dress higher, suddenly selfconscious with his sexy, dark eyes looking down at her. She felt small and silly
dressed like this. Kind of like a school girl trying to impress her older brother’s
friends, which was painfully gauche, she knew.
Her hand lightly held onto his arm, her fingers discovering muscles
underneath the perfectly tailored tuxedo jacket. “I was trying but gave up,
unable to squeeze through the crowd surrounding him,” she said softly, wishing
she could put more force behind her words.
By that time, Max had maneuvered them to the center of the group and her
father spotted her. “Clarissa!” she heard her father’s booming voice greet her.
“And Max! Good to see you!”
Clarissa stepped back slightly, knowing that her father was more interested
in Max than in her. But Max was having none of it and while James Montgomery
tried to pump Max’s hand in greeting, Max pulled her forward, blocking out the
crowds and creating a small group of just the three of them. “You’re lovely
daughter,” he said, indicating Clarissa, “was about to be swallowed up by the
crowds,” he explained. “I saved her from escape,” he joked.
James looked over at her as if he’d just realized she was there. Perking up
and doing exactly as he knew he should, he smiled. “Clarissa, dear! Are you
having a good time?” he asked. “What do you think of the music?” he
suggested, talking to her as if she were three years old and the musicians were
playing “Old McDonald”. Clarissa cringed, wishing he could see her as an adult
instead of his child. But what could she expect? He probably didn’t know she
was twenty-five, so how could she expect him to treat her that way? The man
had attended possibly four of her birthdays over the years. And that attendance
lasted for a cumulative total of perhaps thirty minutes, assuming that the staff
would ensure that her birthday parties progressed properly.
Sighing, Clarissa leaned forward, giving her father the regulatory kiss on the
cheek. “Happy birthday, father,” she said automatically. “It’s a lovely party.”
James looked around proudly. “I think so. I’m flattered everyone’s here to
celebrate an old man getting one year older.” The crowd around them heard and
did the obvious and expected. They cheered, raising their glasses in salute, some
even wishing him a happy twenty-first birthday. Such was the life of a
billionaire, she thought sadly. How could her father ever know if someone was
sincere? The people milling about certainly didn’t appear to be overly concerned
with their host’s health. They were more likely to cause a stink if the champagne
or excellent appetizers ran out.
“Well, go ahead and have some fun,” her father dismissed her. “And don’t
leave too early,” he admonished. “I know Kelly scheduled a couple more rock
singers.”
Clarissa smiled stiffly and stepped away, glad that she’d done her duty and
her father considered her mission accomplished. The other guests had seen her
greet him, he’d been enthusiastic and fatherly, and now they could go their
separate ways.
Sighing, she stepped away and walked over to one of the bars. “Club soda,
please,” she ordered, unaware that Max had followed her.
“Bourbon,” he said right beside her, leaning against the bar to watch her
carefully.
They picked up their drinks and walked away, Clarissa moving to a more
secluded, quieter spot than the center of the party where her father continued to
reign as king.
“I take it you’re not a big fan of rock music?” he asked softly, his deep voice
soothing over her frazzled nerves.
Clarissa shook her head and looked down at the tiles of the patio. “No. I’m
not really a rock fan,” she said softly. Then looked up at him shyly. “But please
don’t let me hold you back if you’re interested in the music. I know there’s
dancing over by the pool,” she suggested.
Max smiled enigmatically. “I don’t think I’d feel comfortable leaving you in
that dress, cara. What did your father say when he saw you?”
Clarissa had forgotten about the sexy dress but his admonishment, when the
dress was purchased solely to lure him, wasn’t what she was hoping for. She
shook her head in frustration. A femme fatale, she wasn’t. “I doubt my father
even realized what color my dress is,” she said as she looked back at the party
and took a seat on the bench behind her.
“Ah, well, I’ll have to inform him that it is a very pretty pink with small roses
across the back and a very….feminine cut.”
Clarissa perked up. He’d noticed? She turned her soft blue eyes to his,
searching his features hopefully as he looked down at her. The man was too
gorgeous for words, she thought. And if only she could figure out how to entice
him, her evening would be perfect. He was so tall, she thought. And muscular!
Her heart skipped a beat as his sexy, bedroom eyes smiled down at her. Her eyes
moved lower, looking at the lips she longed to kiss, wondering if he would be a
demanding lover or a soft, affectionate one. She shivered at the idea, knowing
that anyone as overwhelmingly male as Max would be demanding. The man
positively oozed sex appeal, she thought.
Unfortunately, instead of some witty, seductive remark that would encourage
him in some not-so-subtle way, all she could manage was a pathetic, “Thank
you,” in response.
“You’re welcome. Would you dance with me?” he asked with supreme
confidence that she would accept. The music had changed from a hard
thumping rock beat to a softer, jazzier tempo.
And of course, she did. She slid her hand through his arm, allowing him to
guide her through the throngs of people and onto the hardwood dance floor that
had been specially built for tonight’s party.
Sliding into his arms, feeling his large, warm hand close over hers, she
became even more determined than ever to finish this evening out as she’d
planned. It had taken her a month to find the perfect dress and even then, she
hadn’t known if he would be attending. So now that he was here and she was
wearing what was undeniably a sexy dress, she had to figure out how to make
this night end with the hoped for result.
Seeing all the space he maintained between their bodies, she became slightly
discouraged but no less determined. Unfortunately, she wasn’t exactly sure how
to close the gap between their bodies. Sighing, she wondered why men treated
her as if she were made of glass. Max was no different, she thought with
frustration and a large dose of irritation that he would treat her just as other men
did. Why was he being so nice? She read the papers, for goodness sake! She
knew that other women threw themselves at him and, according to the gossip
columns, he was finicky but generally always had some woman warming his
bed. Why not her? Tonight!
Knowing that her wayward thoughts wouldn’t get her goal accomplished,
she focused on the man, figuring she should get to know him better so she could
find a way to get him to move closer to her. “Why were you delayed?” she
asked, trying desperately for a topic of conversation.
“I had meetings that lasted until about a half hour ago. But my intention
was always to come here tonight,” he replied, swinging her out of the way of a
couple that had imbibed too liberally of the flowing champagne. “And what
have you been up to since I last saw you? I think you mentioned something
about a French manuscript you were translating.”
She smiled, delighted that he remembered their conversation. “I finished
that. It was fascinating. Unfortunately, I’m translating a very dry, very tedious
users’ manual for a software product now,” she explained. “Definitely not as
interesting as the French mystery.”
“How many languages do you speak?” he asked, twirling her under his arm
gracefully.
Clarissa’s heartbeat increased. How could such a large man be so wonderful
of a dancer? He should be clumsy and awkward but he managed to lead her
through all the steps as if he were born on the dance floor.
“I speak three, not including English but my forte is French.”
“Italian?” he suggested, speaking of his mother tongue.
She smiled brightly. “Not yet but I’m going to learn it.”
“Belissimo,” he replied, his voice coming over her skin like a piece of rich
satin. His eyes were looking at her as if she’d accomplished something
magnificent instead of only language translations. She didn’t understand this
man, but that only made her more determined. He was the one, she thought to
herself.
The Billionaire’s Gamble
Chapter 1
It was time, Sid Matthews thought.
The woman crossed the elegantly decorated lobby and his eyes watched, his
body instantly reacting to her lovely, innocent looking face and lush body. His
eyes continued to follow her as he watched the computer screen which was
connected to the security cameras all over the Solara Resort and Casino. His
dark, intense eyes never left the image of the petite, red haired woman who was
currently crossing the lavish lobby of the resort, the sophisticated cameras
catching even the flash of fire that sparked through her hair as the light glinted
off the fiery strands. It had been six months since she’d started working here.
Six months since he’d sat in this very office, interviewing the woman and being
distracted by her long, sexy legs the whole time. He’d known as soon as she’d
walked into his office what his plans were for her. And it wasn’t as the Special
Events Coordinator for which he’d hired her.
She was going to be his. Sabrina Charmichael was everything he knew he
wanted in a wife.
As she continued her elegant, purposeful walk across the lobby, she fell out
of site in one camera. He pressed a few more buttons on the computer keyboard
and the next camera picked her up. Crossing his arms over his chest, he
considered the way she moved, with grace and style. She was unlike any other
woman he’d ever known and Sid had known many. Too many, he thought
dismissively. With Sabrina, Sid had discovered she was more than just looks.
Behind that beautiful façade, the woman was smart, compassionate and friendly
with everyone and her staff raved about her ideas.
Sid couldn’t argue with them on the smart and creative side of the equation.
Her ideas had increased room bookings at the resort by twenty five percent in the
short period of time she’d been working here. Before her arrival, the Solara
Resort and Casino had already been one of the most successful establishments on
the Las Vegas strip. Sid had seen to that through unrelenting ambition and
nursing his plan, overcoming the harsh opposition and beating the impossible
odds. At the age of thirty five, he sometimes looked back at his beginnings on
the dirty streets of Las Vegas and …but he rarely had time to look back. The
future was much more interesting.
Sabrina Charmichael, the petite and vivacious woman with a figure that
made him forget to think at times, had energized his staff behind her ideas and
had created a buzz around the strip unlike anything Vegas had seen in a long
time.
Sabrina Charmichael had been working for him for six months. The moment
he’d interviewed her, he’d known that he was going to make her his wife. He
took a deep breath and gazed through the one way mirrors that looked out onto
the main casino floor. The lavish casino and resort was all his doing and he was
proud. It was now time to make a queen to help him with his empire. And that
queen was going to be none other than Sabrina.
He smiled as he saw her wave to someone in the lobby. His smile was
almost harsh as he considered the battle ahead of him. She’d fight it. He knew
that. She was afraid of him for some reason. But he also knew that she was
attracted to him, just as much as he was to her. He was glad for that. He
suspected that he and Sabrina would probably set fire to each other once she got
over her initial inhibitions and he would be more than happy to teach her how to
light that spark. He didn’t want a cold wife to grace his table and raise his
children. He wanted Sabrina with all of her energy and fire.
He pressed another button on his desk and his secretary immediately
answered. “Yes, Mr. Matthews?” Liz Walters asked efficiently.
Sid’s normal decisiveness came through in his voice. “Call Sabrina and ask
her to meet me here in fifteen minutes,” he said then released the button to
disconnect the call. He hadn’t waited for Liz to agree. Sid knew that all his
requests were immediately taken care of with the maximum amount of
professionalism. He’d expect nothing less from anyone on his staff.
He turned back to the security cameras and watched as Sabrina answered
her cell phone. She listened intently and Sid imagined that she was listening to
Liz convey his instructions. He saw Sabrina nod her head and hang up her
phone. then waited another fraction of a second before he saw what he was
waiting for. He wasn’t disappointed; there was the sign, he chuckled. Sabrina
hung up her phone and immediately ran a hand along her hair and smoothed
her jacket. He’d seen it every time he’d had Liz call Sabrina to his office for
various conferences. He suspected it was only when she was about to meet him
that she primped slightly. He’d seen her answer her phone for others and rush
off but she never cared about her appearance. In fact, once she entered the hotel
each day, he never noticed her caring about her appearance in any way. Except
when she was about to see him.
He liked that about her. He didn’t like the fact that other men turned to stare
at her lovely face or spectacular figure as she made her way through the casino
toward the management offices. Sid sighed deeply. He supposed he would have
to get used to that feeling. If he was going to marry someone as stunning as
Sabrina, he would have to allow that others felt the same way he did each time
she came into view.
As long as they didn’t do anything about it, he could deal with it. But she
was his, he thought to himself with deadly determination. And he protected
what was his.
Moments later, Liz buzzed through to inform him that Sabrina was waiting
for him. Sid pressed several buttons which turned off the monitors of the
security cameras in his office. “Send her in,” he said and turned to watch his
future wife walk through the double doors.
Sid could feel his body harden in anticipation and he enjoyed the gentle
sway of her slim hips. Would he ever get used to her bright, trusting smile and
sexy, graceful walk? He hoped not.
“Good morning, Mr. Matthews. I was going to brief you about the details for
the car show later today,” she said and walked efficiently toward him.
“I thought I told you to call me Sid. Have a seat,” Sid said and waited until
she was seated in one of the chairs in front of his desk before he sat down. “Tell
me what’s going on,” he said. He already knew everything he needed to know
about the car show. He’d gone over everything with her on several occasions
and knew that she was in control of the situation. The car show would showcase
one hundred and fifty cars from different periods in history. The cars would be
parked in various places within the resort or casino, encouraging people to
wander through the numerous areas of the resort and see the cars. There would
be car races and various competitions, and of course betting on the races. The
show would start in two days, the day after Christmas and he had every
confidence that it would be yet another huge success.
This was usually a slow week for bookings until New Year’s Eve but because
of her plan, they were completely booked and he expected guests from other
hotels to flock to the car show as well.
Sabrina went through all the details of the show and rattled off the issues
that might come up and how she was planning on taking care of each.
“It sounds great. I think you have everything under control,” he said and
was rewarded by her flush of pleasure and another shy yet bright smile.
“Thank you, Mr. Matthews. I think it will be well worth all the trouble we’ve
been having with the car owners,” she said.
“I think so as well,” Sid nodded, then moved on to the next subject. “What
are your plans for tomorrow?” he asked. Tomorrow was Christmas Day and he
knew she’d moved out here from the East Coast in order to take this job so he
wondered if she had family she was spending the day with. Personally, he
considered it just another day but he suspected that Sabrina might have more
sentimentality attached to the date.
He watched as her eyes took on a glow of excitement, his suspicions
confirmed. “Oh, I love Christmas,” Sabrina said enthusiastically. “My sister and
I will spend the day together, opening presents and laughing about previous
years. Then later, I’m having my neighbors over for dinner and it will be
wonderful. Everyone brings something different, something to contribute so no
one has the whole responsibility for the meal just to make it a little easier. My
neighbors are a lot of fun, very silly and irreverent at times but good people.
What about you?” she asked.
“I have some work to do,” he said tersely, hiding his frustration. His plans to
initiate their personal relationship would have to wait one more day, he thought
with a flash of irritation.
A light in her eyes that had been sparkling a moment before dimmed slightly
with his news. She nodded and stood up. Sabrina turned and started to walk
uncertainly toward the door, but she stopped and turned back to him, facing him
hesitatingly, as if she wanted to say something more but wasn’t sure if she
should. Her eyes darted to her file and then to his face, before settling on the file
again.
Sabrina hated the idea of this incredibly handsome and fascinating man
sitting in this sterile office on one of the happiest and holiest days of the year. No
one should spend Christmas alone. It just wasn’t right. Christmas was a joyful
time of the year but how could one celebrate while doing work? And what work
could he be doing on Christmas that couldn’t wait one more day?
Should she invite him over? She felt silly just thinking about it. What if he
was only being polite about his plans for tomorrow and he actually had
something wonderful to go to and just didn’t want to make her jealous? No, that
wasn’t his way. Sid was brilliant and creative and handsome and all those other
extreme adjectives used to describe successful and gorgeous business men. But
she knew she could also add in the term “harsh” to that list. He never beat
around the bush so if he was doing something interesting, he would have made a
vague reference to it and he certainly wouldn’t care if she was jealous or not. The
idea was almost laughable. Why would he care what she thought of him? She
was just projecting her own sensibilities onto someone else.
Would he want to join her and her neighbors? Sabrina’s heart raced at the
idea and her skin tingled with excitement. Sid Matthews, in her house, sitting
across the table from her where she could look at him until her heart’s content.
That would be the ultimate Christmas present, she thought.
The idea was ridiculous and she tossed it aside. He was probably spending
the day with some glamorous, talented actress or model. Someone charming and
intelligent who could make witty remarks about all the movers and shakers. Sid
wasn’t really the type to spend an evening with down to earth people with
normal jobs who laughed about the difficulties of getting their children to eat
broccoli or picking them up after school for soccer practice.
Dismissing the idea as silly and wishful thinking, she smiled and turned
slightly back to the door to his office. “Well, if there isn’t any other information
you need, I’ll get back to work,” she said, again turning slowly and moving
toward the door. She walked across the vast expanse of Sid’s overwhelmingly
masculine office, nervously aware of him watching her. Her hand was on the
door knob when she stopped once again, tense and biting her lower lip in
indecision.
But what if he wasn’t with someone else? She turned and looked back at the
forceful man sitting behind his large, polished desk. He looked so elegant and
powerful. The man radiated sexuality in a way she’d only read about in books.
He was the epitome of tall, dark and handsome but those words just seemed
completely inadequate to describe Sid Matthews, owner of Solara. Incredibly tall
at well over six feet, enigmatic, dizzyingly handsome, charming and extremely
dangerous were all words she had applied to the man either in her descriptions
to her sister or in her mind as she wondered what he was like personally.
Machine was another applicable word that would adequately describe the
man so she didn’t understand why she was about to act on the thought that
popped into her head. She twisted the corner of the file folder, worried that what
she was thinking would make her look silly or foolish. Should she? Could she?
Sabrina looked into the man’s eyes and saw the flash of something she didn’t
understand. With that one look, her heart melted as it always did whenever she
was around him. She knew he would turn her down flat, but she wanted to offer
the suggestion just in case.
Stilling her fidgeting hands, she squared her shoulders and faced him with
the small amount of confidence she had built up inside her over the past six
months. “Excuse me, Mr. Mathews, I know you’re incredibly busy running the
Solara but if you could spare a few hours and don’t have anything better to do,
why don’t you stop by my house for dinner tomorrow night?” she suggested. “It
will be simple, probably not anything you’re used to,” she said, shrugging her
shoulders and almost brushing off the suggestion as soon as she uttered the
invitation. She felt silly. He probably had some beautiful woman waiting in the
wings ready to while the hours away in bed.
Sid watched her for a long moment, a feeling of deep satisfaction entering his
body and mind. He liked the way she glanced up at him shyly, as if she were
hoping for acceptance, but bracing herself for rejection. “What time?” he asked,
leaning back in his big leather chair.
Sabrina’s eyes widened in shock and pleasure. A bright smile spread across
her face as she replied, “How about six o’clock? I know it isn’t sophisticated to
dine that early but most of my friends need to get up early for work the next
day.”
He nodded, tapping his pen against his chin as he considered her across the
room. “I’ll be there,” he said.
Sabrina released the breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding.
“Wonderful,” she said, excited but terribly nervous at the same time. She pulled
the door open quickly, deciding a fast exit was better than falling on the floor in
excitement over the prospect of spending time with this dynamic man. “I’ll give
directions to Liz,” Sabrina said and smiled brightly again.
Sabrina let herself out and gave directions Sid’s secretary, hoping the older
woman didn’t detect the butterflies whirling around inside her stomach. She left
the executive area and walked slowly down the hallway towards the casino area,
careful to hide her excitement. “Cool it, Sabrina,” she warned herself as she
walked sedately to her office. “He didn’t have any other plans. It means nothing
except that he’s probably bored and wanted some company on Christmas.”
Regardless, Sabrina left work early that day and rushed to the store to buy
several bottles of wine. She had no idea what he might like and knew that he
probably was used to wine that cost more than her weekly salary, but she got the
best she could afford as well as some gourmet cheese and a few other items that
were nicer than what she’d originally planned to serve.
She and her neighbors had agreed on a pot luck dinner and Sabrina had
volunteered to make a salad and dessert as well as act as hostess for the event.
She’s said it would be simple, but there wasn’t anything wrong with spicing
things up a bit, was there?
Chapter 2
“Good morning, sunshine,” Nina Matthews called out loudly, opening the
door to Sabrina’s small cottage home with her own key. The sisters had
exchanged keys the moment they’d both settled into Las Vegas, far away from
parents who lived on the East Coast. “Aren’t you awake yet?” Sabrina’s younger
sister called up the stair case.
Sabrina groaned with the fatigue that kept her magnetized to the soft
mattress. Opening one blurry eye wearily, she rolled over to look out her
window. When she saw the glorious, bright sunshine, she grimaced. “No,” she
called back down and pulled the rose and chintz patterned comforter over her
head. Sabrina had been up until two in the morning making a special dessert
she’d remembered from her mother’s Christmas dinners. She’d had to try it
twice before it looked right. The first one she dumped into the trash since it
looked, and tasted, awful. There was no way she’d bring out something like that
when Sid Matthews arrived.
Nina laughed at the grumpy sounding voice but was unrelenting. “Wake up,
sleepy head,” she called back and walked farther into the foyer. “If you don’t get
down here, I’ll come up and you know you won’t like that,” her younger sister
called up over the banister.
Sabrina rolled over and peered out the window just to be sure her sleepy
eyes hadn’t deceived her. It was no use. Sunny again. She sighed and pushed
the covers back. She knew she’d have to get out of bed. Staying under the
covers while her sister was around was always a bad idea. Nina would be
merciless, pulling off sheets and blankets, pillows and generally just being a
nuisance until Sabrina got out of bed. Better to do it on her own, she knew from
past experience.
Frowning at the window, she hurried as fast as her muddled mind would
allow. “Doesn’t it ever get cloudy here? I want snow, woman!” she said and
padded down the stairs in her red Christmas socks and red sleep shirt with a
reindeer on the front.
Sabrina enfolded her sister in her arms.
“Merry Christmas,” she said
grumpily, still not recovered from her sleep, or more specifically, her lack of it.
Eyeing her sister’s rumpled mass of bright red curls, she chuckled under her
breath. “Uh oh. Did you miss your run this morning?” Nina said cheerfully and
dropped her presents under Sabrina’s tree then headed for the kitchen to start
coffee.
Sabrina followed and sat down on one of the stools pulled up to the counter.
She pushed her fiery red hair out of her face and propped her head onto her
hands. “Yes,” she sighed, grateful to her sister for initiating the caffeine jump
start since she’d slept through her physical one.
Nina stopped dumping coffee grounds into the coffee maker, her face
showing her astonishment over Sabrina’s announcement. “Wow! This is a first.
You never miss your morning run. What’s your jogging group going to say?”
she joked and dumped an extra scoop of coffee into the machine for good
measure.
Sabrina’s eyes were already closing and she ignored her sister’s cheerfulness.
“Who cares, just speed up the process,” Sabrina yawned. “And could you shave
some ice and sprinkle it around outside please? I don’t understand why you like
this area so much. There’s no snow. There’s no change in the weather. It is
sunny every day!” she said, her tone expressing her frustration.
Nina laughed and poured the water into the coffee machine. “Sabrina, it’s
the desert. You’re not living on the east coast anymore. You’re living in the
world’s largest adult playground. The weather is beautiful. Get used to it.”
“Hmmph,” was Sabrina’s only muffled response as she laid her head in her
arms on top of the kitchen counter.
Nina drove home her point with more statistics, not giving Sabrina a chance
to fall back to sleep while the coffee brewed. “The average monthly rainfall here
is less than a quarter of an inch. You’re not going to get a whole lot of snow,”
Nina went on. She laughed at her sister’s shudder at that tid bit of information.
“Sorry, most people learn to like it. Eventually.”
Her sister didn’t sound very sorry, Sabrina thought as her eyes faded a little
more. “Why are you so cheerful?” she groused.
Nina smiled as she leaned against the sink, watching her older sister fall back
to sleep on the counter. “Perhaps because it’s a wonderful day and I get to spend
some time with you?” she suggested.
That opened Sabrina’s eyes wide. “Oh,” she started to say, instantly feeling
guilty for being so grumpy when her sister had only sweet things to say about
their planned day together. “I’m sor…” she began, but then stopped when she
saw her sister’s teasing look. “You’re evil, Nina,” she grumped, her chin falling
back onto her palm, not having the energy to hold it up on her own. “What’s
going on?” she demanded.
Nina laughed delightedly. “I just got a good grade on an exam. Sorry for
being in such a good mood, but you’re the perfect target right now.
Defenseless.”
Sabrina ignored that and changed the subject, lifting her head up to look
across the tiny kitchen at her sister. She suddenly remembered why she was so
tired and her nervousness instantly reappeared. “Are you sure you can’t come to
dinner tonight?” Sabrina asked, the butterflies immediately starting up in her
stomach again in anticipation of seeing Sid later in the day.
Nina shook her head and took the stool next to her sister. “Sorry. I have to
study this afternoon and I have a show tonight.”
Sabrina sighed and propped her head onto her hands, elbows resting on the
counter as she pushed her disappointment aside. “I know. How’s that going?”
Sabrina asked.
Nina grimaced, imitating her sister’s propped up chin. “Rough. But that’s
okay. I’ll get through it.”"
Nina had moved to Las Vegas three years ago, right after graduating from
Georgetown University with an undergraduate degree in history. Nina had gone
off to Las Vegas, determined to be a glamorous show girl. After only a few
months, she’d known that it wasn’t her dream job. The hours were long and
hard and the pay was only decent at best. She liked dancing and loved the
people she worked with, but was now determined to get a degree in law and was
pursuing that with hard driving determination through the University of
Nevada, Las Vegas in every spare minute. Her hard work was paying off as she
was about to graduate with honors this coming summer.
Sabrina nodded, accepting her sister’s schedule. “That’s too bad,” she said.
Sabrina looked down at her hands, becoming overly concerned with her
perfectly manicured nails.
Nina looked at her older sister and knew that something had happened.
“Okay, spill it,” she said, leaning over the counter to look into her sister’s eyes.
“What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” Sabrina replied quickly, avoiding her sister’s too-knowing eyes.
“How’s that coffee coming?” she asked and jumped from her stool to pull down
the coffee cups.
Nina wasn’t fooled. “Sabrina, I know that look and it’s telling me that you’re
trying to hide something from me. You might as well tell me before I have to
drag it out of you. What is it?” she demanded, hands on her hips as she looked
intently at her sister.
Sabrina grimaced but her back was to her sister so it went unnoticed.
“You’re imagining things. Don’t worry, everything is just hunky dorey,” she
countered. She pretended to search for cream while she prayed the blush in her
cheeks would fade before she had to turn around and face her sister.
Nina’s silence made Sabrina turn around more quickly than she’d wanted.
Her younger sister was having none of it and her disbelieving expression
showed that. “The last time you used the term �hunky dorey’ Lucy Munroe had
just glued the ends of your braids together and you were pretending that nothing
was wrong as you battled tears of anger, humiliation and frustration. I
remember having to go to Lucy’s house and beat her up for being so mean. So
something is definitely wrong and you’re not going to get out of telling me. I’ll
just find out later and who knows what I’ll run into. Lucy was easy to defeat.
I’m guessing by the look on your face that this enemy isn’t as short.”
Sabrina hesitated for only a moment. She knew her sister wouldn’t be happy
about her announcement but she also knew that Nina wouldn’t give up her
nagging until she had the full reason for Sabrina’s nervousness. “I invited Sid
Matthews to dinner tonight,” saying the words quickly, both to get the telling
over with and in the vain hope that her sister might misunderstand her
announcement and move on to another subject.
Nina stared at Sabrina for a full minute while her words sunk in. The speed
of delivery didn’t obfuscate the message. Her sister understood every word.
Immediately, Sabrina could tell that her sister wasn’t happy about the idea by the
gathering storm in the younger woman’s expression. “He said, no, right?” she
said, and it was more of a statement than a question.
Sabrina shook her head, her eyes lighting up with her excitement. “Actually,
he’s coming.” Sabrina was so excited, she was almost dancing in reaction. It was
too good to be true and despite her fear that she was making a fool of herself,
there was also the amazing anticipation that was chasing away all her
drowsiness and bad mood over the weather.
The Tycoon’s Seduction Plan
Chapter 1
Lana stared at her editor in horror. “You want me to change what?” she
asked, her body tense and almost shivering with the revulsion she was feeling.
The bland cream walls receded and all she could see was the red glare of
humiliation, that sickening feeling of dread and horror as the painful memories
came back to haunt her.
“Sex,” Nancy Kirkpatrick, Lana’s editor replied succinctly, a grin forming on
her face as she watched her favorite writer’s shocked reaction. “We need sultry,
exciting, passionate sex scenes,” she went on to clarify.
Lana blinked and stared. Had her friend and mentor just said the one word
in the English language which could horrify her more than any other? Spiders,
sharks, snakes….ick. Public speaking…terrifying. But sex? Oh no! That one
word sent her mind into a tailspin of painful memories.
Lana suspected that her mouth had fallen open but she couldn’t do anything
to change her stunned reaction. That word hadn’t really just been uttered, she
told herself. It was impossible. Lana tried to convince herself that Nancy had
said something else, something that probably rhymed with the word “sex”…all
the while wondering if it was possible to spontaneously explode from anger and
frustration.
Snapping her mouth closed, Lana shook her head, as if she were trying to
clear it. “Could you repeat what you just said?” Lana asked as politely as
possible, ignoring the trembling that had started in her stomach and was quickly
spreading outward.
Nancy chuckled, misunderstanding Lana’s expression but she was genuinely
amused at her stunned features. “It isn’t like I just said you need to murder the
hero, Lana. The stories just need more sex, more �oomph’,” Nancy replied
encouragingly. “Just add a few sex scenes and everything will be perfect!”
It hadn’t been a bad dream, Lana realized. Nancy really had said The Word.
Multiple times, actually. It was a word, a concept that Lana had done her best to
banish from her mind for the past couple of years. Just hearing it made Lana feel
queasy. She shook her head, trying to dispel the nausea that was threatening to
overwhelm her.
Closing her eyes, she counted to three before opening them again. Nancy
was still watching her curiously and Lana dropped her gaze to her hands which
were folded demurely in her lap. Taking a deep breath, she accepted that her
next statement was potentially life altering, but she just couldn’t change that. “I
can’t do it. It’s just not possible.”
Nancy laughed, not understanding the depth of Lana’s fears. “Of course it’s
possible. I’m sure you have a boyfriend,” she replied, eying Lana’s long blond
hair, almond shaped blue eyes and full pouty lips. If Nancy had to name one
person who was genuinely beautiful inside and out, it would be this gorgeous
woman sitting in her office. She lifted one shoulder casually and said, “Just ask
him to help you come up with some new ideas. I doubt he’ll mind reading about
his sexual prowess described in a romance novel a couple of months later.”
Lana licked her dry lips and shifted uncomfortably.
She didn’t have a
boyfriend and what’s more, her ex-husband had considered her impossibly frigid
in bed. So even if Lana were to go out right now and find a man, the experience
would be doomed to failure. She just wasn’t a sexual creature. She’d never been
interested in sex in any way and would be completely okay if she never had to
deal with the issue again in her life. Unless it meant being homeless, she
thought, looking at her editor with rising panic.
Lana’s huge blue eyes pleaded with her editor.
“But why?” she asked,
needing to understand this new change in policy. “Why, all of a sudden, do I
need to add sex to my novels?” She stood up and walked to the window of the
office, wishing it were big enough to pace in. Unfortunately, the stacks of
manuals, plus desk and chairs took up most of the available space so nervous
pacing wasn’t an option. Getting a window office in New York was a prime deal.
Only the extremely well paid executives rated large offices. “I thought my
stories were good just the way they are, without the sex scenes.” She frantically
looked around but salvation didn’t magically appear in the office while her
hands waved in the air helplessly, “I mean, isn’t just the implication of sex good
enough? It always has been in the past.” She crossed her arms over her chest in
a defensive move as she looked back at Nancy. “Don’t women want to imagine
things instead of being told outright what is going on?”
Nancy’s eyes slid away and she sighed.
“Apparently, sales have been
dropping for the past year so we’ve all been ordered to pull in more sex scenes.”
Nancy grimaced as she sat back in her chair, obviously resigned. “You know the
old line; sex, money and murder sell.”
Economics? Finally, this was something she could understand; something
she could sink her teeth into. Having been broke before, desperate for her next
meal and a way to pay her rent, she could easily understand money. “Yes, but
the economy will pick up. I don’t see why an entire company needs to alter its
established practices just on an economic whim which will be over soon anyway.
Where’s the integrity? Will the readers who like subtlety want to follow us back
when we switch to the non-sexual, but wonderfully romantic plots again?” She
sank into the chair she’d just vacated since pacing was pointless.
Nancy shook her head, sighing with sadness and frustration. “It isn’t just the
economy, Lana. We’ve been bought out because of our contracting sales,” Nancy
explained painfully. “I’ve seen how the sales figures have been slipping over the
past several months but I hadn’t thought much about it. Just like you, I thought
it was only because of the economy and things would pick up soon. But the rest
of the industry isn’t feeling the same trend. In fact, the publishing world is
flourishing. It’s just us and we’ve now been bought out by one of the big
corporations with huge resources that could really help us out with advertising
and other expenses. Our line is going away and only those authors who can
produce romances with hot, steamy sex will be published in the future.”
Lana felt as if a steel band were wrapping around her chest. It was difficult
to breathe and she wanted to scream out or cry. She wasn’t sure which. Looking
at her editor, she knew that this wasn’t a battle she was going to win. She had to
deal with this latest obstacle, no matter how overwhelming it appeared right at
the moment. How she was going to deal with it, well, she wasn’t exactly sure.
Her mind wanted screaming and arguing but logic told her that she’d get
nowhere. Nancy had mentioned that a big corporation had bought out the
publishing company and that meant one thing to Lana; profit won out over
loyalty.
Instead of screaming about the unfairness of the situation, she pasted a smile
on her face and stood up. Forcing a bright, optimistic expression even though it
felt as if her cheeks were going to fall off with the pain of the exercise, she
maintained the pretense, not wanting Nancy to see inside too easily. “Okay, then
I think I have some more work to do, don’t I?” She took Nancy’s hand and
shook it. “Thanks for your advice,” she said and turned to leave the office.
Lana could feel Nancy’s worried eyes on her back but she lifted her chin and
walked out of the office with as much dignity as possible. The hallways were
teeming with traffic as people moved busily from one task to another. Everyone
looked so harried that she didn’t want to break down in front of them. With a
stiff upper lip, she moved along the carpet, praying in her mind to just reach the
elevators and she could relax. It became a mantra in her head, echoing with each
step she took.
She made it all the way to the outer hallway which was empty, thankfully,
before the tears started. She hurried her footsteps to the lobby, then out to the
bank of elevators, hiding her face with her head bowed low, praying that no one
would stop and question her.
She bumped into something big and solid, then quickly shifted her path to
go around the mountain.
hurried onto the elevator.
“Excuse me,” she mumbled as an apology, then
It was blissfully empty for a moment and Lana hoped that she’d have the
elevator to herself for the descent. She wasn’t sure how long she could keep the
tears at bay and she desperately didn’t want to cry in front of someone who
might know her, even as an acquaintance or another writer.
Unfortunately, as days go, this one continued to roll out poorly and her wish
for a solitary elevator was not granted. A large shadow entered and Lana bowed
her head once again, closing her eyes in an effort to stifle the tears that were
threatening. The elevator dinged as the doors closed and she took deep,
cleansing breaths in the hope that she would be able to hold off on the tears that
were threatening.
She tried. She really tried hard but it was no use. All the old insecurities, the
hateful feelings of inadequacy, all the anger and resentment exploded inside her
and she couldn’t hold back the tears any longer. The sobs broke through and she
turned her body toward the wall of the elevator cab, desperate to maintain some
sort of dignity but the effort was failing. Her shoulders shook as the sobs
overwhelmed her and she couldn’t stop the flow anymore.
Digging in her purse, she searched fruitlessly for a tissue. Nothing but an
old receipt, she thought angrily and wiped her wet cheeks with the back of her
hand. Unfortunately, the tears continued to fall and the back of her hand was
completely inadequate.
“Here you go,” a deep voice said and a moment later, a white handkerchief
dangled in front of her face.
She took it with shaking fingers.
“Thank you,” she said as politely as
possible under the circumstances. She pretended to glance at the kind stranger
but she only saw a large chest where someone’s head should have been. She
turned back toward the wall and used the handkerchief to wipe away the tears.
Thankfully, she wasn’t wearing much makeup so at least she wasn’t getting
powder and foundation all over the man’s immaculate, linen square. The tears
continued to flow no matter how hard she tried to stop them. It was just too
much, she thought to herself. It wasn’t fair. She’d picked herself up once and
come out ahead.
impossible!
Now she was being asked to do something completely
She even hated her pity party, wishing she was stronger and could roll more
with the punches. For a while there, she’d imagined herself to be a strong,
confident woman and now, here she was, sobbing her frustration out in an
elevator. How humiliating!
She’d fought so hard for so long and now, to be dumped with this….well, it
was all too much to take in so suddenly. Those thoughts only made her cry
harder and she lost a sense of where she was. She tried to look around and get
her bearings, but her eyes were so clouded with tears, she couldn’t focus on the
world around her.
“Come along,” the deep voice said and a large, warm, insistent hand was
placed at the small of her back, guiding her out of the elevator when the doors
opened.
“Please,” she tried to say and pull back but the man’s hand was relentless
and she was carried out of the elevator and onto the busy streets with his
momentum. “Please, I’m okay, really,” she finally said, twisting around and
getting away from the hand that seemed to burn through her red cardigan
sweater and white turtleneck shirt. She looked up, then up again. And up some
more still so she could see the face of the man who was now directing her out of
the stream of impatient body traffic on the busy sidewalk. Her eyes widened at
the man’s enormous size but she still couldn’t focus on anything and she didn’t
want to talk to anyone. All she wanted to do was to rush home and bury her face
in a pillow and have a genuine pity party until she’d worked this latest wrinkle
out.
Taking a deep breath in an effort to stem the tide of tears, she blinked her
eyes and sniffled slightly. “Thank you very much for the use of your
handkerchief but I’m okay now,” she lied. If she only could have made it a few
more minutes without more crying, she might have gotten away. But instead,
her eyes did that irritating weepy thing and the man shook his dark head.
“You need more than a handkerchief,” he said. “Come along.” He put his
hand back to the small of her back and Lana was just too upset to stop him.
Besides, she couldn’t see since the tears were blurring her vision once again.
She had no idea where he was leading her but this section of New York City
was busy so she wasn’t concerned about crime. And he seemed gentle enough.
The hand on her back was lightly insistent, but he wasn’t causing her any pain,
except for a sensation of awareness, something she didn’t really understand since
she’d never felt it before.
If she weren’t feeling so miserable, she might have laughed at the idea of a
man so large being this gentle. She couldn’t see underneath his suit but anyone
this tall probably couldn’t be considered gentle. Even with her low-heeled shoes,
her head only came up to his shoulder so he quite literally towered over her.
And he certainly wasn’t taking no for an answer, she thought with a slight frown.
Suddenly, the noise from the cabs and the masses of people walking along
the streets of the early afternoon were gone. He’d pulled her into a restaurant,
one of those expensive places that let a patron watch the chaos outside while
enjoying absolute peace and tranquility inside. Her mind barely registered the
crisp, white linen table cloths and dark, expensive wood as he guided her
through the main dining room to a table tucked away in the back. He pulled out
a chair for her and ordered her to sit and Lana was just too grateful for the
relative privacy and the ability to simply release the emotions she couldn’t
contain any longer.
She heard him mumble something behind her but couldn’t hear the words.
Then he sat down next to her and waited while she continued to cry. She sobbed
out all of her frustrations, her fears, the insecurity of what and how she was
going to accomplish the next step in her life, unsure of exactly what that next
step would even be. It was two years ago all over again. The day Drew had
walked out on her had been particularly awful but this day easily made it into
second place.
She had no idea how long she sat there and cried, but finally the sobs seemed
to wear down. With one more swipe, she used the napkin, the handkerchief
completely drenched by now and discarded onto the table next to her. Taking a
deep breath, she lifted her head, closed her eyes. Then another deep breath. She
started to feel a little more in control and she lifted her shoulders, attempting to
release some of the tension that was tightening her muscles. One more deep
breath, inhale, exhale, she commanded of her body.
The ritual still worked, she thought to herself and opened her eyes.
Wow! Her first thought as she looked across the table at the handsome man
watching her was one of stunned, incredible awe.
The man sitting across from her bewildered her. He was huge! She had no
idea how tall he was, but his shoulders were massive. Since he was leaning back
in his chair and his suit jacket had fallen open, one arm braced against the empty
chair to his left, she could see that the wide shoulders and obviously muscular
chest tapered to a narrow waist and his long legs were stretched out in front of
him, his ankles crossed over one another.
And he was gorgeous! Goodness, she had been crying for the past…who
knows how long…while this handsome man sat there and waited? Good grief!
How embarrassing.
Realizing that her mouth had been hanging open as she examined this
stranger, she closed it abruptly and glanced away, embarrassed beyond anything
to find herself in this awkward position. “Um….thank you,” she said finally,
getting her mind to function. “I apologize for being so silly,” she got out and
looked down at her hands, folding them in her lap and taking another deep
breath.
“Don’t worry about the apology,” he said, his voice deep and velvety. He
leaned forward and looked into her pretty, soft, blue eyes. “Tell me why you
were crying. I’m sure it’s a fascinating story and I’m eager to hear it.”
Victor Davenport watched in fascination as the tiny, prim woman with
beautiful eyes that showed her every thought and lips that were full and
luscious, tried to pull herself together. The tears were still in her eyes and on her
long, dark lashes, but she was valiantly fighting them now. He wasn’t sure
which had caught his attention first, her cute, sexy little bottom in the prim, plaid
skirt, or the curtain of long, brown hair that fell down her back, dancing around
her as if she were some sort of mermaid out of the water.
It was odd, he thought to himself as he watched the emotions flit across her
features, he usually hated it when women cried. It was irritating and he’d never
allowed it in his presence, knowing that it was more than likely a ploy to
manipulate him into buying the woman a piece of jewelry or some other
expensive trinket. But this woman’s tears were sincere and since she’d been
walking out of his building, he considered her his personal responsibility at the
moment.
Not to mention she was beautiful. He liked women, thought they were
lovely little butterflies and interesting as long as they suited his needs. He
respected women in the work place but liked them even more in his bed. At
least, the lovely ones. And this one was definitely a looker.
He wasn’t sure about her figure since it was covered in the primmest outfit
he’d seen in years. The red and black plaid wool skirt ended at her knees and
had a coordinating red cardigan sweater covering a neat, white turtleneck shirt.
The pearl necklace at her throat and pearl stud earrings were the perfect
complement to the outfit. She wore black opaque tights and black shoes with
prim, one inch heels.
Was she trying to counter the face that practically screamed sensuality? Her
cheekbones were high and highlighted her stunning blue eyes but it was really
her mouth that captured his attention. They were full and pink and his mind
wondered what it would be like to kiss her. As well as many other things. How
could a woman with lips like that dress like a school librarian?
He watched in fascination as her mouth opened and closed, trying to figure
out what she could tell him. He knew the exact moment when she made the
decision to lie to him. “I know I made a fool of myself,” she started off. “But I
just stubbed my toe.”
Lana held her breath, waiting for him to call her on the fib. She was a
horrible liar but there was no way she could explain to this man what had really
happened. Maybe if he’d been old, ugly or even fat and short or bald, she could
have come up with some half truths that would be more believable than the silly
stubbed toe line. No one in their right mind would cry that long and hard over a
small ache. Yes, she could have passed off some form of the truth to someone
less attractive and overwhelming. But not this handsome, dynamic man who
had probably never cried in his life. He was too strong and looked like
“confidence” was his middle name. She wiggled uncomfortably under his
intense, dark gaze and was relieved when he looked away.
He ignored her lie and lifted his hand to signal the waiter. Within moments,
a martini with two olives appeared at her elbow.
Lana looked at the drink, then up at him in confusion. “What’s this?” she
asked, not daring to touch it. She rarely drank anything at all and on the few
occasions she did, she preferred a glass of wine which she could slowly sip.
Generally she could only take half a glass before she put it aside, feeling the
impact from only a few ounces. It had been one of the irritants Drew had
laughed at her about during their marriage.
“It’s a martini,” he explained patiently. “You look like you could use a
drink.”
Her fingers gently touched the bottom of the glass and shifted it away from
her slightly. “I don’t drink,” she explained, but smiled gently to soften the
words.
“Ever?” he asked.
She looked down at the linen tablecloth self-consciously. “Of course I drink
occasionally. But not liquor.” Immediately, her body braced to hear the sarcasm
about how weak she was and what a lightweight to not be able to drink. Drew
had done it so often she could practically write the script.
She waited a long moment, tense and frustrated. When he said nothing, she
glanced up at him but he wasn’t looking at her. He was looking for the waiter or
bar tender.
He started to raise his hand again but she placed her fingers on his sleeve
gently, then pulled them quickly away when she felt the muscles tense
underneath the fabric. “No,” she said hurriedly, knowing that drinks in this kind
of establishment were probably very expensive. “This is fine,” she said and to
counter the question in his eyes she picked up the drink and took a daring sip,
showing him that she wasn’t going to waste her present cocktail.
She smiled tentatively, showing him that everything was fine. And then the
fire started. As the gin slid down her throat, she felt as if she were going to die!
Gasping, she glanced around to figure out how to put out the flames but there
was no instant relief in sight.
Knowing that she could either make a fool of herself again, or drink the
horrible liquid, she decided against appearing foolish once again. Daring to
tough it out, she swallowed all the liquid and smiled, wishing she were
anywhere but here, in front of this sophisticated, elegant man who, quite literally,
took her breath away. Her eyes were burning and she was sure she’d scorched
off most of the taste buds on her tongue but she blinked rapidly in an effort to
show him that she was fine with the current drink. “No need for anything else,”
she gasped out.
Victor watched in amusement as she fought the fire of the martini. He
wasn’t sure why she didn’t want him to order her something more to her liking
but wanted to find out why she’d been so upset instead. He couldn’t believe
what a fascinating creature she was. He was entranced despite years of cynicism
that had made him lose faith in women and humanity. She was an intriguing
breath of fresh air.
The Sheik’s Rebellious Mistress
Prologue
Your Majesty:
I am sorry to ask you for advice but I have no one to turn to at
this point. I have used up all of my resources trying to resolve
the situation but nothing has fixed the problem. I am imposing
upon your letter of years ago where you offered help raising
Electra after her father’s untimely death.
Simply put, the child is out of control. She is running with the
wrong crowd and, as she reaches her teen years, I fear for her
safety and her future. If her father were around, I would trust
that he would know how to stop her dangerous behavior. But
since his death five years ago, Electra has just become more and
more unmanageable.
I understand that she is hurting from the loss of her last parent,
but I can’t seem to get through to her and teach her to stop. In
my old age, I fear I am unable to provide more than love and
kisses, which isn’t up to the task any longer.
Any advice would be wonderful.
Sincerely,
Edna Knight
Electra’s Grandmother
“You called, father?” Dharr Rashid Abbas, Sheik of Sandura asked as he
walked into his father’s private study.
“Yes,” the king said weakly. “Sit down,” he waved to a chair beside his bed.
Dharr immediately sat down, pulling the blanket higher over his father’s
chest, the worry eating into him while he maintained a calm exterior for his
father’s benefit.
“Read this,” the king said, handing the letter to Dharr. Dharr read through
the words quickly, then glanced at his father. “This is your ward? The girl you
have been caring for since the incident?”
“Yes. The bullet was meant for me but her father selflessly dove in front of
me, protecting me at the cost of his own life.”
No expression came over Dharr’s face, but the assassination attempt had
dramatically changed his way of looking at security issues. “The mother died
years earlier, correct?”
“That’s correct. It will be up to you to ensure for this girl’s safety now.”
Dharr suppressed the horror that his father’s words provoked inside him.
He shook his head confidently. “No father, you will survive this bout just as you
have all the others. You need to have hope and be strong.”
The king smiled weakly but then became serious again. “You owe her your
life as well. Without the sacrifice of her father, you would have been king years
ago. Now that you have had time, you are ready to carry on the throne. You are
strong and powerful which would not have been the case if I had died that time.
Her father’s sacrifice allowed me more time to guide you and teach you about
the world and ruling our kingdom.”
“You are still strong,” Dharr commanded sternly as if the force of his voice
could make it so.
The king took his son’s hand earnestly, wanting to make sure the
responsibility was understood. “Listen, my son. You must protect this girl as I
have done. She is now your ward. She has only her grandmother. There is
money being sent for her care every month but if she ever needs anything else,
you must ensure that she is cared for and protected.”
“I will see to it, father,” Dharr said immediately.
“The grandparents are very nice, but are also older than I am. They can’t be
expected to turn this wild child into a presentable adult. It will be up to you.
They will give her the love she needs. You will give her the protection.”
“Yes, father,” Dharr agreed. “I will set someone upon the task immediately.”
“Good.” The king’s eyes shut and Dharr froze in his seat until he noticed the
slight rise and fall of his father’s chest. Breathing more easily, Dharr stood up
and walked quietly out of the bedroom and down the palace hallways to his own
office.
Handing the letter to his aide he said, “Put some body guards on this
woman. Her name is Electra Knight. I believe she is about sixteen years old.
The guards should protect her around the clock and pull her out of any trouble
she gets into. She should be guarded as if she were my sister.”
The aide quickly took the letter while efficiently writing down the
instructions at the same time, nodding his head as well. “I will make it happen.”
“Tonight,” Dharr commanded.
“Yes, Your Highness.”
Chapter 1
Eight Years Later
Electra Knight stood in the small but elegant restaurant feeling nervous but
determined. “This has to work,” she whispered to herself before taking a sip of
hot coffee. The caffeine immediately went to her system, giving her an alertness
she’d been lacking earlier. The stress of preparing for this meeting, and all it
could do for her future, had kept her up last night worrying.
Looking straight ahead, she went through her speech one more time
although she’d rehearsed it over and over again. She didn’t look to her right or
left, knowing the sight of the bulky men seated at nearby tables would only
make her furious and resentful. She needed all her wits about her in order to
make this work and negative emotions would only fog her brain.
She had only five minutes with King Dharr Abbas. Five minutes to convince
the man to get rid of the guards. They were destroying her life and driving her
crazy in the meantime.
Pulling the newspaper forward, she idly skimmed through the front page
articles. She was a half hour early for her appointment and she really should
check the job openings. Unfortunately, her focus was not on the words
describing possible jobs but on her upcoming interview with the man whose
orders had destroyed what little was left of her normal childhood. He’d stolen
her father’s life and then, in an attempt to ease a guilty conscience, had placed
guards on her around the clock. As if the guards could take the place of the man
she’d lost! It was ridiculous and she had to make it stop before more of her life
was turned upside down by the ridiculous guards.
Eight years ago, the men had showed up unexpectedly at a party she’d been
attending. It had been horribly embarrassing since she was playing spin the
bottle and was thrilled when the bottle had stopped spinning on Danny Miller,
the cutest boy in school. She was just about to lean over and kiss him when one
of the men came down into the basement where they were playing the relatively
innocent game.
The man standing at the bottom of the stairs didn’t do anything at all. He
simply stood there, his arms crossed over his chest watching Electra. All the
others in the room were completely intimidated, as she was but Electra was the
only one willing to stand up and question the man.
“Excuse me, what can we do for you?” she asked, planting her hands on her
slender, sixteen year old hips.
“I’m here at the request of your grandmother and Prince Abbas.”
Electra’s jaw immediately dropped. “Are you serious?” At the time, the
prince’s name only reminded her of the man her father had worked for and lost
his life for, taking a bullet meant for the king. Resentment welled up inside her
at the representative of the man who, in her teenage mind, had killed her father.
“Absolutely, miss,” the man said, his face impassive as he looked down at
her.
“For what purpose?” she demanded, irritated immediately at her
grandmother’s interference. King What’s-His-Name was only a face in a far
away country. Her grandmother was here, close by and therefore, Electra
determined that she was a much better target than a faceless ruler.
The guard at the bottom of the stairs looked at her impassively, not
impressed with her teenage hostility. “I am here to protect you. From yourself if
necessary,” he clarified, his eyes moving to the teens behind her.
Electra didn’t like the sound of that. “My grandmother requested a goon to
stand watch over me? That’s ridiculous. I can take care of myself.” Her tone
was purposefully insulting but the man didn’t even blink.
“I believe your grandmother thought differently,” was all he said, his dark
eyes looking across to her with no emotion.
Her fists balled up under her arms and she considered punching the man,
but his bulging muscles would probably protect him. “And do I have any say in
this matter? I mean,” she harrumphed, looking back at her friends and Danny in
particular to gain support, “no one here is going to do anything wrong,” she lied.
The man didn’t respond.
His silence only infuriated her more. Electra was known throughout school
as someone who spoke her mind, was daring and challenged authority. This was
obviously not going as it normally would. “Well, what’s your name?” she asked,
mimicking his crossed arms, her anger increasing several notches with his
uncommunicative demeanor and inability to be intimidated or even irritated by
her attitude. Usually, she was quite adept at producing some sort of emotion in
all the people she met, either frustration, irritation or outright anger. She liked
that one the best. People’s guard came down when they got angry and she could
get away with more things.
“You may call me Micha.”
Electra eyed the man carefully for a long moment. “You work for me?”
“In a sense,” he responded.
“Good,” she brightened, her face breaking out into a bright smile. “Then
head on upstairs and wait for me there. I’ll be up in a while.”
The man didn’t return her smile. He simply stood his ground, unblinking as
he watched her.
Her hands dropped and she waved them forward as if he were a heard of
sheep she was trying to get out of the road. “Go on! Get out! I don’t want you
down here,” she said, becoming embarrassed that the man was intimidating her
friends, and more importantly, Danny. When he didn’t move, she got angry.
“What? Are you some sort of baboon? Get out of here! This isn’t your house.
You can’t be here like this.”
Her best friend cleared her throat. “Ellie, maybe we should all head home,”
she suggested from behind Electra.
That only roused her temper more. She’d probably missed her opportunity
to experience her first kiss, but there were always other opportunities and she
meant to make one here, tonight, with Danny! “No. This is ridiculous. This man
shouldn’t be here. I have no need of his protection so he should go. Not us.”
The other boys and two other girls laughed self-consciously. One of them
said, “Electra, I’m not sure how you’re going to get that man to move, but I’d
better head home. I have homework to do.”
The others chimed in with similar excuses and Micha moved slightly to the
right, allowing them to ascend the bare, wooden stairs to the main level of the
house.
“Fine,” Electra spat out. “I’d better get home as well.” She walked around
the man, unsure of what he would do to follow her. She pulled her keys out of
her purse and offered a wan smile to her friend. “I’m sorry about this. I’ll get it
straightened out with Gran.”
Electra walked up the stairs sadly, knowing that her chance with Danny was
gone. There might be others, but this one was lost and it was painfully
embarrassing.
Out in the cool, autumn evening, she looked back at Micha and smiled
secretly. With her keys in her hands, she unlocked her dilapidated car and dove
inside. Slamming the keys into the ignition, she turned it over and sped away as
quickly as possible.
Racing through the drowsy streets, she sped along, eager to lose the man
who had ruined her kiss with Danny, the man of her dreams.
Unfortunately, luck was not on her side. As soon as she turned the corner,
the sirens and lights started flashing in her rear view mirror. “Oh, no!” she said
to the darkness. Pulling over, she knew it wouldn’t be a good idea to try and
out-race the police.
Adding insult to injury, the black Land Rover pulled up behind the police
officer. Without letting her into the conversation, Micha and the police officer
spoke softly. Electra tried to hear the conversation with her window rolled down
but nothing came along. She was hoping Micha was convincing the officer that
she shouldn’t get a ticket. Could he? Would he?
No luck.
“May I see your license and registration, Miss?” the officer said sternly.
Fifteen minutes later, the officer came forward again, handing her the ticket
for reckless driving. A moment later, Micha was opening the door to her car and
pushing her into the passenger seat. “I’ll drive,” he said and started the engine,
waving to the officer who immediately laughed before getting back into his
cruiser.
“What are you doing?” Electra demanded.
“Put your seatbelt on,” was Micha’s only reply.
First the lost kiss, the not-lost ticket, the shoving aside and now an order?
“No!” she said adamantly.
He didn’t even shrug as he said calmly, “Then we sit here until you do.”
Electra’s mouth dropped open. “You can’t do that!”
Micha did not respond. He simply waited, staring out the front window
with teeth grinding patience.
The battle of wills was soon won that night, but Electra was unwilling to
accept defeat in the war. Unfortunately, she didn’t know that twenty-four hour
surveillance had been posted on her. She discovered that night that sneaking out
of her window was a pointless endeavor. As she climbed out the window and
shimmied down the tree, strong arms reached up and simply plucked her from
the lowest branch, then tossed her over his shoulder and carried her right back to
her room.
There were five different body guards that protected her, drove her to and
from school since the reckless driving incident had her license revoked for two
years, and worst of all, rode with her on her very few dates that happened after
that night.
In college, they slept in a dorm room across the hallway from her and
followed her to all her classes. They waited outside the rooms for her to reemerge, sat at other tables in the library, close but not too close. They tailed her
on her dates and made her life safe, but utterly miserable.
She went through college and graduate school, all with perfect grades since
none of her friends could convince her to defy her guards and none dared to
contradict the men who forced her to study when they thought she was misbehaving. They tested her on all her classes, pushing her harder than the
professors to succeed.
Now, it was all down to this meeting with a man she’d never met and had
grown to hate over the years. She had learned to accept her guards, had even
grown to understand their position and respect their abilities. But she’d never
liked the fact that they were there, always with her, always protecting and
pushing her. They were all wonderful men, but she hated the imposition they
were putting on her lifestyle. She’d just wanted a normal life and that had been
impossible with personal body guards two feet away.
And now that she was ready to enter the workforce, she couldn’t very well
go to a job interview with one of them tailing behind her. She’d never get a job.
Every employer would be completely intimidated by the fact that she was
protected around the clock.
“Electra! I’m over here,” Susan Reyes called out from the small coffee shop,
waving her hand.
Electra spied her friend and walked through the tables, a bright smile
lighting up her face. “Look at you!” she exclaimed, eyeing her friend’s business
suit and name plate that announced she was a lead clerk for the hotel. “I’m so
impressed!” she cried out, swallowing the jealousy that surged up. She was
genuinely happy for her friend, but also wished for the same kind of
opportunities.
Susan laughed. “Don’t worry. You’ll get your chance. You’re going to be
wonderfully convincing for your meeting in a little while.” She smiled as she
looked across the small, linen covered table at her friend. “And let me just say
that your choice of outfits is smashing! The pink color looks wonderful with
your skin tone and brings out the green in your eyes.”
Electra glanced down at her suit and smoothed the pink wool covering her
lap. “Are you sure it’s okay? I changed about four times, the outfits ranging
from defiant jeans to a severe black pant suit.”
Susan nodded her head emphatically and poured Electra some coffee from
the decanter already on the table. “It’s perfect. The pink will show him you’re
not afraid of your feminine side but the cut of the suit demonstrates that you’re
smart and mean business.”
Electra sighed and grimaced slightly. “I’m not sure I wanted to show him
my feminine side. That might be a mistake.”
“Nonsense. You look great.”
Electra smiled at the encouragement and changed the subject. No matter
what she was wearing, it was too late to change now. She was meeting King
Abbas in an hour and it had taken her forty five minutes to get here as it was.
Knowing that worrying about her outfit was a futile exercise, she quickly
changed the subject. “So tell me about this new boyfriend of yours,” she said,
adding cream and sugar to her coffee.
Susan’s eyes closed as if she’d just taken a bite of rich, dark chocolate. “Oh,
he’s just wonderful. His name is Barry and he’s an accountant for one of the big
firms. We met at last week’s happy hour and I have found over the past seven
days that he’s a wonderfully charming man, full of intelligence and humor and
makes me feel all giddy inside.”
Electra sighed with longing. “Was that the one at O’Hooligan’s? I didn’t
notice you with anyone last week,” she said.
Her friend’s eyes shuttered.
knowing this was a touchy subject.
“You left early,” Susan replied carefully,
Electra grimaced again. “I had to. Micha was scaring everyone away.” Her
comment only made her more resolute to make sure the meeting today worked
out the way she planned.
Susan nodded and tried to hide her expression. “He’s a little intimidating.”
Clearing away the irritation over her guards’ imposing disposition, she
changed the subject back to something more interesting. “How many dates have
you been on with this new Mr. Wonderful?”
Susan smiled and her eyes glowed with excitement. “We’ve been out with
each other every day and night for the past week,” she enthused. “He meets me
for lunch and we talk and laugh about our days,” she explained, closing her eyes
as she thought back to her dates with Mr. Wonderful, “then he picks me up after
work and we either go out to dinner or we cook at each other’s flats. He’s
incredibly romantic.”
Electra’s eyes widened in fascination. “Nights?” she confirmed.
Susan nodded emphatically. “Yes! He’s a great lover. Very generous and
sweet.”
The Sheik’s Missing Bride
Chapter 1
The twig breaking softly to her left instantly alerted Sarila Tedrum. Her ears
were on alert and she sat very still on the almost deserted beach, trying to hear
other sounds. She had been calmly watching the sun set on the horizon for the
past half hour. Now it was almost completely dark with the smells of the night
starting to creep up onto the beach.
With her ears on alert, she tried to listen for any other suspicious sounds.
The only thing she heard for several minutes was the waves crashing against the
sand and the wind blowing her long, black hair off her shoulders and back.
Sarila hurriedly let the sand the sand sift through her fingers then dusted
them off as she stood up, intending to head back to her apartment as quickly as
possible. She didn’t think she was in danger, but she didn’t want to push her
luck. It was dusk and the beach was basically deserted by now.
Another noise caught her attention, this time from the right. She bent down,
trying to appear casual as she pretended to examine a shell. This second sound
changed her feeling of unease to one of severe alarm. She could barely hear
anything now because her heartbeat was pounding in her ears and the taste of
fear rose in her mouth.
She told herself to calm down and concentrate. She couldn’t let the fear take
over or she was already through.
Sarila took a deep, calming breath and straightened, trying to figure out
where the threat was now. As she rose, she saw a shadow off to the right and she
took steps in the opposite direction. Her shoes were on the steps behind her and
her motorcycle was only a few more feet after that. If she could get to her shoes,
she could then sprint to her motor cycle and get away.
Unfortunately the suspicious shadow was too close for her to make it to
safety. Whoever it was, they were very large and they were moving with her,
starting to close into a circle around her.
“Calm down,” she told herself softly. “You know what to do.”
Sarila moved cautiously and made sure to keep the shadow in her line of
sight at all times. Her muscles tensed in preparation, she looked around and
calculated the distance. Every nerve in her body was tingling with fear and
anticipation of the fight. She worked her way closer to the shadow, hoping she
appeared unconcerned and, even better, unaware, of the threat. Then, without
warning, she reached out quickly, kicking hard with her heel then spinning
around at her waist and grabbing the man’s hand, twisting it quickly behind his
back. The man landed with a quiet thud onto the sand and oat grass. “What do
you want?” she whispered, careful to not alert the others she’d heard a little
farther off.
The man didn’t move, nor did he speak to answer her question.
She
tightened her hold. “What are you doing here?” she demanded more forcefully.
A deep voice laughed softly behind her. “He will not answer you, nor will
he defend himself, Princess,” the voice said.
Sarila gasped as the voice moved closer. From the current distance, he was
only a very large, very intimidating shadow but she knew that voice. It was from
her past. A voice she swore she’d never have to listen to again. And it terrified
her now more than the threat she’d been defending herself against only moments
earlier.
“Who are you?” she called to the approaching shadow, not releasing her hold
on the man who was still face down in the sand and weeds.
“Ah!” the voice said, feigning offense at her words. “You wound me, Sarila.
I can’t believe you don’t remember me. I definitely remember you,” the voice
said, unquestionably closer now.
The words were teasing and that only confirmed her worst fears. “Kasar?”
she gasped, not wanting him to validate that the voice belonged the man she’d
been running from for the past six years. “What are you doing here?” she asked,
wishing her voice didn’t sound so scared and pathetic.
Sarila’s world started spinning out of control, her fear making her chest ache
painfully. She immediately stood up and stepped back from the man prone in
the sand, her feet tripping over his legs but she didn’t glance down to find out
where safe ground was. Kasar was here. That meant nothing was safe anymore.
She watched more closely as the large form became larger still as he
approached. His size was overwhelming and she was grateful when he stopped
several feet away. Any closer and she would be craning her neck to look at his
face, and that was a feeling she didn’t really like to experience.
She could see his white teeth even in the dim lights from the parking lot as
he smiled and moved even closer. “I’ve come for you, of course.”
She shook her head, too many awful scenarios screaming through her mind.
She tried desperately to hide the fear in her voice but knew it was coming across
despite her best efforts. “Why though? And how did you find me?”
The man laughed again and stepped closer. His eyes glanced down to the
man slowly getting up off the ground.
Kasar didn’t bother to answer her question as he arrogantly looked at her
face, noting the long, black hair blowing in the soft breeze, lifting it and causing
it to dance around her face and shoulders. Sarila’s almond shaped eyes were a
light, crystal blue and he could still see their color against her tanned face. They
stood out against her high cheekbones that had developed in the six years since
she’d been gone.
Sarila noted his examination and wondered if he was seeing the gawky,
skinny teenager she’d been before leaving home, or if he was seeing the woman
she was today. Why did she care? She admonished herself for even having the
thought and pushed her hair back off of her shoulders, defiantly facing the man
she’d been running away from for the past several years.
When he was done with his arrogant perusal of her features, he looked back
at the man flexing his arm and dusting himself off. “You’ve done a number on
my body guard. I’m impressed with your skills at self-defense.
remember martial arts being part of your curriculum.”
I don’t
Sarila glanced away, but only for a moment to see for herself that the man
was okay. “No, there wouldn’t have been a need for me to know how to defend
myself back home, would there? I’d be surrounded by body guards, just as you
are now,” she said, almost to herself. She watched the body guard for another
moment, knowing he was embarrassed that he had been taken down by a
female. He stood up stiffly and walked quickly away, taking a new sentry post
farther from her and Kasar. As soon as he stopped, Sarila noticed the other body
guards. They were effectively forming a protective perimeter around Kasar, and
probably herself.
Suddenly she was self-conscious of her attire. She was only wearing a white
bikini, with a gauzy cover up tied loosely around her hips. Despite the fact that
the bikini was relatively conservative compared to some of the others that might
be seen on the beach during the day, there was still more skin showing than there
was covered. Kasar took that moment to notice her attire as well.
His eyebrows shot up as he took in her bikini and voluptuous curves.
“You’ve grown up in the past six years, Sarila. There is more to be impressed
with than your fighting skills.”
“Why are you here?” she asked again, crossing her arms over her stomach.
She’d prefer to cover her breasts, but he’d know how much he affected her if she
did that. Sarila didn’t want to give him any more power than he already had.
She could feel the intense magnetic pull toward him. Kasar was the ultimate
female fantasy.
He was incredibly tall with broad shoulders padded with
obvious muscles. Add to his physical attributes were the ability to charm
anyone, male or female and an intelligence that could create humor or shred a
person to the core with a few well spoken words. It made him a very powerful
leader for his country, but also a dangerous man for her peace of mind.
He raised one eyebrow as if the question were ridiculous. “For you, of
course.”
Those calmly spoken words terrified her but she wasn’t going to give in to
the fear. She lifted her chin defiantly and ignored the shivers that coursed down
her spine. Giving in to the fear and anger would only debilitate her and she
needed all her wits about her in order to get out of this situation. Taking a deep
breath, she tried to appear calm and unconcerned. “How did you find me?”
His white teeth again flashed in the darkness and he laughed gently at her
question. Reaching out, he took a lock of hair that was being carried with the
wind and wrapped the silky strands around his finger gently. “Do you honestly
believe there has been a single moment in the past six years that your location
and protection has not been assured, Sarila?”
“I go by Sara now,” she said defiantly, pulling her hair free of his clasp. Then
his words hit her. Her blue eyes looked at his in the dusk, “Are you telling me
that my parents, and you, have known where I have been all this time?”
She could barely make out his nod in the darkness. “Why does that shock
you?”
Sarila sighed, feeling defeated. “Yes. I guess, in retrospect, it shouldn’t
surprise me but I had hoped that I was actually making my way by myself.”
Kasar didn’t like the slender shoulders that drooped on this proud beauty.
He looked down at her dejected face and took pity on her pride. “I don’t believe
your parents have helped you in any way,” he said kindly despite himself. “But
you are the daughter to a Sultan. No man in your father’s position, or a mother I
suppose, would allow his daughter to roam the world without protection. Your
father is the head diplomat for Abasar and a very powerful man in our kingdom.
You could too easily be used as a weapon against your father.”
Sarila noted that he didn’t say against him as well. After all, she was only
betrothed to him. Nothing really important, she reminded herself.
Straightening her shoulders so he couldn’t see how his words affected her,
she brushed her long hair over her shoulder. “Interesting, but irrelevant,” she
said and looked up at him. She couldn’t see him clearly in the dim light on the
beach, but she could see enough to know that he was still one of the most
handsome men she’d ever encountered in her life. She imagined that his dark,
black eyes were just as piercing as they were the last time she saw him when she
was eighteen.
“I can see you’ve grown up physically, but haven’t matured much over the
past six years,” he said softly. Suddenly, all the softness was gone and he turned
business-like. “Regardless, we have to talk. Please come with me and we’ll
discuss an important issue in private.” He turned and immediately started
walking up the beach, fully expecting her to follow his order.
Sarila braced herself before saying, “No, thank you.”
Kasar stopped dead in his tracks and looked back at her. He was more
surprised than angered by her defiance. No one, not even rulers of countries,
had ever said no to him before. And yet, this tiny, beautiful woman with a figure
made for a man’s touch and soft, scared eyes, was telling him no. He almost
smiled at her defiance. He didn’t of course. Instead, he pierced her with his
gaze, daring her to defy him again. “Sarila, please follow me back to the car,” he
repeated in a much softer, but much more menacing tone. “We have a great
many issues to discuss. One of very obvious importance,” he pointed out and
immediately started walking toward the waiting black cars again.
Sarila ignored him as she reached down and pulled on her sneakers, trying
to hide her shaking hands. “No, thank you, Kasar.”
He was no longer amused but irritated that he’d had to come halfway
around the world to find her and now she was challenging him as if he weren’t
her future ruler as well as her betrothed. The idea of her disobedience was
outrageous in his mind. He turned around and faced her, suddenly losing
patience. “So you are eager to be wed, are you?” he snapped. “That is fine with
me. I’ll have one of my guards put you in the car and we can be finished with
this business,” he said and signaled to the nearest body guard.
Sarila watched as the body guard immediately moved forward, ready to do
the slightest bidding of Kasar.
She quickly backed up, looking for an escape route as the man with bulging
biceps closed in on her. “No! What are you doing?”
Kasar turned impatiently back to her. “I told you. We must talk. If you
don’t wish to talk, then we must finish this business and be done with it.”
“Fine!” she yelled when the man was less than five feet away from her. “If
you want to talk, we can go back to my apartment. Its close; only about five
blocks away. But we’re not getting married,” she said with more confidence than
she felt as the man stopped in his tracks, waiting for a signal from Kasar before
proceeding.
“My intentions exactly,” he snapped and motioned for her to precede him.
Sarila finished pulling her shoes on, ignoring the resentment that almost
choked her. This was one of the reasons she’d run away six years ago. She’d
been determined that she would not be controlled by a man, especially this one.
It was infuriating that he could so easily bend her to his will with simple brute
strength and she thought quickly of a way to outmaneuver him.
An idea formed in her mind as she saw her motorcycle about a hundred feet
away. Could she make it? Would he stop her?
She didn’t care about the consequences if she didn’t make it. She had to try.
There was no way she would allow herself to be bound to him. It was a matter
of personal pride and emotional survival.
Having made the decision, she calculated the distance. Two more steps, then
she’d run.
One, two….taking a deep breath, Sarila palmed the key to her motorcycle
and ran full out, her feet digging into the soft sand as she pushed herself harder
and faster to get out of Kasar’s reach. Her breathing was hard but she didn’t
look back, afraid that it might slow her down or scare her too much.
Ignoring the helmet strapped to the back and the yells behind her, she threw
her leg over the machine, slid the key into the ignition and gunned the engine.
As soon as the motor roared to life, she floored the accelerator, speeding off
down the street and kicking up tiny pebbles in her wake. She heard someone
yell behind her but she ignored it and sped off, her cover up skirt and her waist
length black hair flaring out behind her.
She looked back as she turned the corner that would lead to her apartment.
Kasar was standing on the beach, hands on his hips as he watched her ride away.
His body guards weren’t as calm though. As she turned the corner, she saw
them all running toward the black, menacing SUV parked behind the limousine,
hurrying to follow in her wake. She figured she had less than five minutes before
they caught up with her. She increased the speed and drove the two miles back
to her apartment.
Chapter 2
Once in the relative safety of her apartment complex, she sprinted up the
stairs, her breathing coming hard and the panic slowly rising as the seconds
ticked by. Grabbing a duffel bag, she crammed some clothes inside, not even
caring what they were. Glancing at the clock, she ignored the rest of her clothes,
passed on the toiletries and makeup in her desperate need to escape. She only
took another second to grab her purse which contained her wallet, then dashed
back out the door.
Right into a solid brick wall in the form of Kasar.
“Oomph,” she said inadvertently as she tried to regain her balance in the
hallway.
Kasar ignored her gasp of fear and stared down at her. After a long moment,
he walked forward, forcing her to back up through her door. His eyes looking
down at her were furious and a muscle twitched on his jaw as he took a deep
breath, obviously striving for patience. “That was very naughty of you, Sarila.
Why the rush?”
Sarila backed up quickly, worried about being in his arms for two reasons.
She was nervous because she’d run away and he was probably angry about that.
She was more terrified of her reaction to his closeness. Despite her fear of him,
her body reacted to his male scent. It was earthy with just a little spice. It
invaded her nose and tempted her, as did the firm muscles underneath her
hands.
Backing farther into the room so she wouldn’t be touching him anymore, she
searched for some way to calm him down while at the same time, searching her
brain for another escape route. There was no other alternative in her mind. This
was the man she’d thought herself in love with as a teenager. He was half the
reason she’d run away from her home and family after seeing him kissing
another woman in the garden one night.
Her jealousy had been so
uncontrollable, she’d run from the garden crying.
Wringing her hands together and stumbling over furniture as she walked
backwards into her apartment, she tried to reason with him or at least appeal to
his mercy. “I can’t marry you, Kasar. Please don’t do this. I’d make you an
awful wife,” she said, walking carefully backwards with him matching her step
for step. They were finally inside her apartment and he closed the door quietly.
He didn’t stop until she backed up against a chair. She tried to slide to the
left which would allow her to put more space between their bodies, but he
trapped her by placing an arm on either side of her hips. Sarila glanced
frantically around, desperate to get away from his heat, his intense gaze and,
most of all, her overwhelming attraction to the man that even six years of
separation had failed to diminish.
His eyes searched her face, noting the slight flush on her cheekbones. “What
does a man do to control a woman, Sarila?” he asked softly.
Pushing her chin up, she refused to show him how scared she was. “You
don’t! Women are not pawns that are on this earth to do what you want them to
whenever you snap your fingers!” Sarila could feel her whole body shaking and
leaned farther back. But that position only drew his eyes downward as her
breasts thrust forward. “They are human beings with minds of their own.
Definitely not yours to control.” The end was barely a whisper as he moved
infinitesimally closer to her.
“You really are lovely,” he said, his voice husky.
“Kasar, this is silly,” she whispered, trying to ignore the magnetic pull of his
body. “Let me go. You don’t want me but I’m sure there are many women who
would love your….attentions,” she said breathlessly.
His response was a slow, sensuous smile and he looked down at her breasts.
“A challenge, Sarila?” he asked, one eyebrow rising as he glanced at her
hardened nipples through the thin, white material of her bikini top. “Are you
trying to tell me that you are not one of those women who would love my…
attentions? Have you ever known me to back away from a challenge?”
Blackmailed by the Billionaire
Chapter 1
Information. It was arguably more powerful than money, Nikolai thought as
he put the report down on the desk, his fingers forming a pyramid as he
considered the data he had just received.
A sense of triumph filled Nikolai. His midnight blue eyes looked away from
the words on the report he’d just been given and out to the stunning view of the
sun rising over the buildings of London, enjoying the feeling of triumph as it
washed over him like a satin touch.
Patience had always been his best asset, he thought. And now, revenge
would be sweet.
Tabitha MacComber would beg for mercy. The only question was whether
Nik would allow it. His mind remembered her smiling green eyes, her flawless,
porcelain skin and a body any man would happily die to possess. Of course,
hidden behind that stunningly beautiful façade was a cunning and mercenary
nature that had blindsided him four years ago.
Nikolai Andretti smiled coldly as he looked back down at the stock prices on
his computer. It was not a smile of amusement although it was filled with deep
satisfaction. His eyes quickly scanned down the list of stock prices. When he
found the line he was looking for, he raised one eyebrow and mentally did some
calculations. He had waited patiently for this situation to come about and now
that victory was almost his, he wanted to savor the feeling, let it slide down like a
woman’s tender caress. It had actually taken less time than he’d anticipated but
the keenness of victory was no less satisfying for the speed with which her
downfall had come.
Setting the delicate china cup filled with fragrant coffee down on the white
linen table cloth, he reflected on how the world seemed to right itself, provide
opportunities. With a deep sense of amusement and irony, he leaned back in the
leather chair and considered his options. Because of the mess she was currently
in, there were several possibilities open to him, and all would end in the same
way. He just had to choose the most effective. He would have to conduct the
transactions discreetly, he knew. No one could know about the stock purchases
until he was ready to reveal his hand.
Quickly analyzing the options and calculating the costs as well as the risks
associated with each scenario, he made a decision. Raising the phone, he gave
curt instructions to his personal assistant, then ended the call abruptly, knowing
his assistant would be able to fill in the blanks accurately. Standing up, he looked
out one of the floor to ceiling windows that made up three walls of his office.
Being on the top floor of this particular skyscraper, he had an extraordinary view
of London. Today though, he saw nothing of the striking horizon as the sun rose
over the vast city. His mind’s eye was remembering the perfect beauty of Tabitha
MacComber, her startling blue eyes, her tiny waist that flared gently out to
slender hips, ending in long legs that a man could fantasize about forever.
The lying, deceitful bitch that still occasionally haunted his dreams would
finally be exorcised from his mind. He wanted her. After seeing her smiling face
in the report, he had to accept that reality. Tabitha MacComber was incredibly
lovely but also the only woman who had tricked him so completely, gotten under
his skin and then made a fool of him. Nikolai considered himself extremely
experienced when it came to women specifically and people in general. He knew
most of their tricks and thought they were amusing at times. But Tabitha had
duped him. Her air of sweetness and fragility, innocence, had definitely deceived
him.
But now it was his turn to hold the reins. He would have her, on his terms,
on his turf, for as long as he wanted her. And there would be nothing she could
do to stop him this time.
Chapter 2
“Good morning, Nancy,” Tabitha MacComber said, smiling brightly at the
woman sitting just outside the executive board room. Tabitha instantly noted the
worried look in the other woman’s soft, brown eyes. “Are you feeling okay?” she
asked with curiosity. Nancy had been the receptionist at MacComber Industries
for longer than Tabitha was alive and she was always cheerful and ready with a
smile.
Nancy nodded, but the anxiety stayed in her eyes. “I’m fine, Ms.
MacComber.”
Tabitha could see that the woman was nervous but had no idea why. She
made a mental note to stop by and talk with her, find out if there was something
genuinely wrong. Maybe there were problems with her daughter’s first
pregnancy.
At the moment, Tabitha was running a few minutes late so she pushed
through the double oak doors that had stood guard outside the board room of
MacComber Industries for the last hundred years.
The silence that greeted her as she breezed through the door almost made
her steps falter, but she continued down the long room to the opposite end of the
table, pasting a bright smile onto her face. “Gentlemen,” she said to the fourteen
grim-looking men who were already seated at the polished oak conference table.
The fact that they were all seated at the appointed meeting time was
unprecedented. “What an extraordinary event to be starting on time!” she joked.
When she received no response, she quickly placed her pink purse under the
table and opened the leather notebook expectantly.
“Is something wrong?” she asked, looking at all the faces. “I can’t imagine
why everyone is so tense,” she started to say and tucked a blond curl back
behind her ear. “After all, the stock price is finally creeping back up. That’s good
news as far as I can tell,” she said, smiling cheerfully at the rest of the table.
Again, no response. Only forbidding faces looking down at their notebooks.
“Charlie,” she said, turning to grin gaily at a man mid way down the table.
“Why are you looking so glum? You should be celebrating. Didn’t your son just
marry Melody Miller down in Australia? You should be thrilled. What a match!”
she said, hiding her abhorrence for society marriages. She knew these men lived
and died for them. She shivered in revulsion but pushed the memory of her own
failed marriage aside.
When she only received a tense smile from Charlie, she turned to another
man who was sitting closer. “Mark, didn’t you just receive news of grandchild
number five? That’s wonderful to hear!” she enthused.
Mark nodded and she received a brief glimpse of a smile, but it quickly
faded.
The tension was odd and she wished she could figure out what had
happened to cause such behavior in men who generally joked and laughed about
numerous issues before finally getting down to business.
“Okay, I give up,” she laughed. “Does someone want to enlighten me as to
why it seems that the sky is falling?”
Nelson Miller cleared his throat and sat forward. Nelson was the current
chief operating officer of MacComber Industries and a sweet, if somewhat
hesitant, man in his early forties. She noticed him glance behind her momentarily
and hesitate but she focused all of her attention on the man, knowing that there
was only a landscape painting on the wall behind her.
“It’s like this, Tabitha,” he started, his fingers nervously swiping at the lock
of hair that had fallen free of its usually perfect setting. “You remember how we
invested in that factory in Dorset?” he started off.
“Of course,” she smiled. “Are you telling me that I was wrong? That the
factory has actually started to show a profit? Because if that’s true, I think I owe
you a very large apology,” she said, smiling encouragingly at him. “I didn’t think
that plan would work and it was a large amount of money to throw at a risky
scheme.”
Nelson leaned forward, his face turning red all of a sudden. “Now see here,”
he started off, huffing slightly in his anger, “it would have worked. There were
just some complications.” He glanced behind her again, then down at his paper.
“The distribution venues just weren’t adequate for our needs,” he explained.
“And there was poor management that we weren’t aware of.”
Tabitha smothered a spark of anger. “I thought you said that you’d met with
the management of the factory and they were quite adequate,” she countered,
maintaining her smile despite her frustrations with the man’s continued
incompetence.
“Well, the deal was about to close and I didn’t….” he trailed off, leaving the
sentence unfinished.
Tabitha’s eyes sharpened and she had to struggle to not show her irritation at
the man. “You mean you didn’t even speak to the management of the factory?
Nelson, do you think that was wise? I even offered to go out there and talk with
them before the purchase deadline.”
Nelson stood up and banged his fist on the table. “You are a woman,” he
yelled angrily. “You couldn’t possibly have the skills necessary to judge a man’s
character and tell if he is an adequate manager.”
Tabitha bowed her head, realizing that their sexist attitudes were welling up.
Some of the other men were actually nodding, their frowns deepening and she
had to grit her teeth. “Well, then. From what I’m gathering as I read between the
lines, the purchase of that particular factory was a mistake. Am I correct?” she
asked, looking around the table at the gentlemen. Many of them looked away.
Some pushed their pens or papers around. But none of them acknowledged her
question.
“I think I was the one that was cautioning against this purchase,” she said
evenly, shuddering at the cost of the factory and wondering what kind of
financial impact this setback would have on the company. “Okay. We made a
mistake,” she said, including herself in that decision. She hadn’t argued loudly
enough against the issue so she was part of the problem. “What do we have to do
to clean it up?” she asked to the group of men.
When none of them answered, she glanced to the other side of the table.
“George, what do you think? How soon can we sell off the factory and recoup
our losses?” she asked.
Nelson shook his head. “You’re out of your league, Tabitha. Why don’t you
run off and go shopping and let us handle this situation?” he said, his tone
patronizing. “I’ll even take you out for dinner once the dust has settled.”
Tabitha gripped her pen until her knuckles were white, struggling to hold
her temper.
She ignored his offer of dinner and continued, “Well, it looks like we’re all in
a bit of a pickle, wouldn’t you say? And I doubt sending me on a shopping trip
is going to solve that problem. Do any of you?” she asked, looking at each of the
elderly men, disheartened to know now what they actually thought about her.
The chuckle behind her was terrifying in its familiarity and an electric shock
immediately went through her body at the sound.
Was that…..no. Impossible, she told herself, frozen in the big, leather chair.
He wouldn’t be here….there’s no way….!
It just couldn’t be, she told herself. Her breath caught in her throat and her
blood seemed to freeze in her veins as her mind recognized the voice behind that
laughter. Even her body understood who was behind her although her mind still
refused to believe what every cell was telling her. It simply couldn’t be him. She
turned bit by bit, the world moving in slow motion as she swiveled in her leather
chair to face the owner of the deep voice. Praying that it wasn’t so, her eyes
widening as she took in the man leaning casually against the wall.
“You!” she spat out, her whole mind instantly forgetting about the fourteen
men seated around the table as her world focused on the one man that had been
behind her for the past fifteen minutes.
Nikolai Andretti!
“What are you doing here!” she demanded, standing up in an effort to gain
some height and lose some of the fear that was quickly spreading throughout her
body, freezing her mind. How could this man make her instantly feel something
so strong? It had been four years! Couldn’t the impact of his presence dim
somewhat?
He didn’t rise to her angry challenge, one eyebrow rising slightly the only
indication that he had heard her question. He didn’t even bother to stand up, but
continued to lean casually against the wall, appearing as if this whole mess was
highly amusing to him. “Good morning, Tabitha. I see the heart grows fonder
with time, does it not?” he asked sardonically.
Tabitha’s whole body started shaking as she took in the presence of the man
that could evoke so many memories, so many painful, dreadful and yet also
beautiful memories for her. She pushed those thoughts and feelings aside and
squared her shoulders. “I’m not sure who invited you here but it is completely
inappropriate. This is a board meeting and only board members and large stock
holders are permitted,” she stated slowly, afraid that her voice might fail if she
didn’t concentrate on each syllable.
Her stomach muscles tightened as his sensuous mouth eased into a
triumphant smile. His midnight blue eyes darkened to black. “Ah, pethia meu,”
he said, pushing away from the wall and walking toward her. He was so tall,
Tabitha had to push her head back in order to continue to hold his gaze. “As you
so aptly put it a few moments ago, the stock price has gone up considerably.
Have you not stopped to consider how that occurred?”
Tabitha opened her mouth, her mind frantically working to come up with a
plausible explanation. “I assumed it was the factory coming on line.”
His smile was lethal, giving her ample clues that her assumption was
incorrect. “And now that you know that the factory has not come on line as
expected, is in fact pulling your company into bankruptcy, what would be your
next guess?”
Tabitha thought hard, wishing she could come up with some other reason.
Frantically working through all the scenarios, she came to the final, and worst,
possibility. Her eyes snapping to his in disbelief and horror. “No!” she
whispered.
Nikolai smiled again, his sexy mouth curving in triumphant pleasure. “I see
you’ve finally come to the correct conclusion,” he said with a great deal of
gratification.
“That’s impossible!” she countered. “All of these men own stock and,
combined, they have a controlling interest. There’s no way you could be a stock
holder with any kind of power in this company.”
Nik looked around at the men, none of whom were willing to hold his gaze.
“I’m afraid you have put your trust into the wrong source,” he said softly.
“Again.” He let those words float in the air for a long moment before continuing.
“Each of these men were more than willing to sell their stock in your precious
company. I now own fifty-five percent of the stock. It is mine to do with as I
please,” he said, his eyes hard and brilliant with the success of his acquisition.
Tabitha pulled back, her hatred for this man and all he knew about her was
too painful to endure. “Why on earth would you bother with a company so
small?” she demanded. “You’re reputation is that you take over billion dollar
companies. What is the appeal of MacComber Industries? Don’t you have bigger
fish to mercilessly gobble up?” she demanded. “Our revenue is only in the
millions. We employ less than five hundred people. I would have thought we
were beneath your notice,” she said, knowing that he could buy and sell
MacComber Industries a hundred times over and never even blink at the impact
to his personal bank balance.
He shrugged his shoulders slightly. “When an opportunity arrives, I jump at
it,” he said coolly.
It was hard for her to believe anyone could be so casual about an amount of
money that, to her, was enormous. But she knew that, to him, it was almost
insignificant. “An opportunity for what?” she asked breathlessly. “This is nothing
but petty vindictiveness and I’m not going to let you get away with it.”
Nikolai surveyed her flushed, angry expression without any outward
reaction. “Perhaps this is a conversation we should have in private,” he said
softly.
“Don’t bother with niceties,” she replied. “I have nothing to say to you.” She
crossed her arms over her chest, her chin going up a notch in challenge.
Without another word, he looked down the board room table at the men
behind her. Instantly, fourteen elderly men stood up and hurried out of the room.
Within thirty seconds, all of them had disappeared, closing the door softly and
leaving Tabitha alone with the one man in the world she hated.
“What were you saying?” he asked once they were alone.
Her arms dropped in defeat and she couldn’t look up at him. “You have a
photographic memory,” she snapped, turning her back on him in a defensive
gesture. “You remember exactly what the accusation was,” she said and took
several steps away, afraid to let him see her expression.
Nikolai smiled and nodded. “Yes. In fact, you are right,” he said, his Greek
accent coming through as his amusement surfaced. “Revenge,” he said simply.
She spun back around to face him, her eyes searching his dark, mysterious
eyes in the hopes that he was joking. The blood actually chilled in her veins
when she realized that he wasn’t. Her worst fears had come true. Nikolai being
here was bad enough. But that he wanted revenge that was awful. Terrifying!
“And what if I told you that revenge has already been had?” she asked, the
fear coming through to her voice in the form of a slight break despite her efforts
to appear calm and in control of this horrifying situation.
Nikolai shook his head. “Ah, my dear Tabitha. I don’t think you know the
meaning of the word,” he said, one hand coming up to run a finger down the
soft, creamy texture of her skin. “But I intend to remedy that,” he explained.
She pulled her face away, desperate to end the touch that, even after so many
years, could still heat her body. She was ashamed of her reaction and couldn’t
hide the anger from him. “No!”
He pulled back abruptly and dropped his hand. “In fact, yes.” He moved
away and poured her a glass of icy water from a side table, handing her the glass.
Tabitha took it with shaking fingers, unaware of how he could have read her
mind so accurately. Drinking the water quickly, she placed the empty glass
behind her on the oak table. “What are you telling me?”
His smile broadened. “I’m telling you that we have some unfinished
business. I intend to close out that brief period in our lives. But this time, we will
have a more satisfying end. And we will do it on my terms,” he said.
She shivered, the memories of how they had parted coming back to her
conscious mind.
He chuckled. “I can see that you are thinking about the same memory as I
am.”
“No,” she said, rubbing her forehead in frustration and an overwhelming
need to find a place to hide, perhaps start the day over again with a less
horrifying beginning. “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
His eyes sharpened, reminding her of painful shards of glass. “Then let me
enlighten you,” he started and moved closer so there was barely an inch of space
between their bodies. “That last night we shared together, you were all hot and
heavy for me, willing to do anything, just as into the moment as I was. Then you
stopped, claiming modesty and virtue, something we both know you have
neither of!” he said calmly, but with venom in his eyes. “Since you decided to go
off and marry someone else, I was left hanging.”
“I won’t believe you were alone for long!” she spat at him, the pain of her
last phone call to him hitting her with painful clarity. “If in fact, you were ever
waiting on me to come to your bed?” she asked, stepping back so she could
breathe. “I’m guessing there were many women already clamoring for your
pathetic brand of romance.” She walked away from the table, needing space
away from his body so she could focus.
Nikolai followed her, not giving her any room to think, cornering her against
the wall. His dark eyes revealed nothing as he said, “Ah, no, my sweet Tabitha.
There is no retreat for you. Let me explain exactly what is going to happen. We’re
going to make love, you and I. Over and over again. Until I have had my fill of
you. And this time, there will be no teasing,” he said harshly. “I will have you
whenever and however I want.”
Her body reacted strongly but not in the way she wished. Her mind was
remembering the exquisitely beautiful kisses they had shared four years ago and
her body ached to experience that kind of magic again.
Shaking her head to rid herself of those ridiculous fantasies, she turned away
from him, not wanting to look at the man who had destroyed her dreams all
those years ago. “That’s not possible,” she said, her voice low and pained.
His smile was a combination of triumph and male arrogance as he said, “It
will still be your choice.”
“Then my choice is no. Adamantly no!” she shot back at him.
He chuckled at her vehemence. “Perhaps you should hear the terms before
making your decision.”
“There’s nothing you can say that will convince me to sleep with you,” she
said angrily.
He reached up and touched her shoulder length, brown, curly hair, capturing
a lock between his fingers and rubbing the silken strands, testing their softness.
“Since sleeping will be the last thing on my mind when we get to my bed, I will
agree with you on that point,” he said evenly.
“You’re disgusting!” she said and pulled her hair out of his fingers. “Leave
me alone!”
He pulled back and walked away, straightening the cuffs on his snowy white
shirt. “Very well. I’ll start the sales proceedings immediately.”
Those words chilled her to the bone. “Wh…What are you talking about?” she
asked, straightening now that he wasn’t standing over her, trying to intimidate
her.
His eyes were cold and hard as he looked across the expanse of the
conference room at her. “I’ll sell off every piece of this company, starting with the
headquarters. All of these people will be out of a job by the end of this month.”
He flicked a glance across the room and started walking toward the doors.
Tabitha didn’t think that things could get worse, but his words proved her
wrong. “Are you kidding?” she asked, moving quickly to stand in front of him,
blocking the double door exit.
His smile was merciless. “Have I ever joked about anything? Especially
something this serious?”
Tabitha shook her head slowly. “No,” she finally said through a painfully
tight throat.
“I can assure you that I have not started at this juncture in my life. Business is
business,” he said simply, shrugging his shoulders.
“You’re reducing sex down to a business arrangement? And you’ll put over
five hundred people out of work simply because I won’t sleep with you?” Her
shock was making her mind work slowly. She just couldn’t fathom anyone acting
in such a heartless manner.
“Absolutely,” he said without remorse. “I’ve found that most liaisons are
basically a business arrangement. Women always want something; a trinket, a
vacation, or their picture in the paper connecting their name to mine.” His voice
softened slightly when he added, “But I can also guarantee that none of them
leave my bed unsatisfied. I take great pleasure in ensuring each of my
companions leave with a smile.”
“Stop it,” she said, covering her ears with her hands. “I don’t want to hear
these things! Leave all those other women out of this conversation. If you hate
me so much, why in the world would you do this to me? Why would you spend
millions of dollars buying controlling stock in this company?”
His eyes traveled down her body and she was ashamed when her nipples
peaked under his knowing look. She hated that her body reacted, willing her
trembling anticipation to go away. “There are some things the mind ignores
when it comes to pleasures of the flesh. I saw your picture in the paper last
month and realized that I still wanted you. Therefore, I have found a way to have
you. It’s all in your hands.”
His dark blue eyes glittered moments before he said, “Example in point,”
and without any further warning, his strong, muscular arms pulled her against
his body, one arm wrapping around her waist while his other hand came up to
tangle in her curls, bringing her head up only a moment before his mouth
covered hers. He took advantage of her gasp, his tongue moving into her mouth
and mating with hers.
Tabitha was stunned and her mind stopped working as her body took over.
She reacted without thought to his kiss, her body glorying in the amazing feel of
his hands, his lips and his tongue as he showed her again how wonderful and
skilled he was as a lover. She was unaware of the soft moans that escaped her as
his mouth caressed hers, his hard body molding against her softer one.
He pulled free suddenly and looked down at her for a long moment, noting
with satisfaction the stunned expression in her soft, blue eyes. “You have twentyfour hours to contact me. If I don’t hear from you, the auction begins tomorrow
at noon,” he said and flipped a business card from a pocket, handing it to her. A
moment later, he was gone, leaving Tabitha staring at the expensive velum
business card, her whole body trembling in reaction to both his kiss and his
ultimatum.
The Billionaire’s Runaway Bride
Chapter 1
Each day was getting easier, Sophie Randal thought to herself. This living
thing was becoming less agonizing. A few months ago, taking a breath had been
difficult. Blinking had hurt because her eyes were too swollen from crying and
her heart ached beyond what she’d thought a heart’s capacity for pain could
endure.
Sophie wiped the sweat absently from her brow before pulling the
hydrangea bush more to the left, centered the leaves so they were rounded in the
front and then filled in the hole with soil and mulch. “There, that should leave
you happy over the winter,” she said to the plant, patting the mulch and gently
touching the leaves. She sighed contentedly, knowing she had accomplished
something today.
She was productive now, not just someone’s burden. Looking at the plant,
she tucked a stray lock of curly red hair behind her ear absently and, with dark
blue eyes that finally sparkled with life again after months of appearing blank,
looked around with satisfaction at the newly created landscape she’d been
working on all day.
“This is good,” she said out loud. “You’re all going to be happy and healthy,
aren’t you?” she said, talking to herself as much as to the plants.
Unfortunately, that feeling of peace and satisfaction was to disappear with
the next sound, making her heart freeze in her chest. She felt the shadow only
moments before he spoke, sending a shiver down her spine in both fear and
anticipation.
“Talking to plants again, Sophie?” a deep voice behind her asked.
Sophie froze as fear and incredulity intruded. It couldn’t be! There was no
way Jason Randal could have found her. She was even at a client’s site instead of
her tiny little cottage or the landscaping company’s headquarters! How on earth
could he have tracked her down to this upper class house in the middle of
nowhere?
But then Jason had more resources than any one person had the right to
have. He was wealthier than anyone else she knew with an obscene amount of
money at his disposal, all personally made. He wasn’t the kind of man who had
inherited anything. Jason Randal had built up his massive empire by
intelligence, amazing determination and, if the news reports were true, merciless
strategizing.
So why wouldn’t he now use those resources to find her? Unfortunately,
Sophie had assumed that he wouldn’t. She had, in fact, prayed that he wouldn’t.
Over the past few months, she had convinced herself that she was too trivial for
him to waste the effort and expense. She had been hoping that Jason Randal
would just forget that she even existed.
But as she considered that fantasy, she realized that she had obviously been
wrong. Incredibly wrong. She’d forgotten one important detail about Jason’s
personality. Jason Randal didn’t like sharing. And as his wife, he would want to
make sure she was under his wing and acting appropriately.
Sophie stood up and turned around slowly, hoping and praying that she was
wrong and that Jason Randal was not standing two feet behind her. Please let it
be some other man who had the same kind of deep, velvet voice that made her
insides quiver and her heart speed up with anticipation.
As she turned around, her fears were confirmed. The tall, muscular man that
had invaded her dreams every night for the past six months, leaving her
breathless and wanting each morning upon waking, was behind her, casually
leaning against a wooden fence that was bordered by the pretty purple and
yellow pansies she’d planted just an hour ago and looking more handsome than
anyone should.
Her throat clenched and her eyes surveyed his broad shoulders, flat stomach
and long, muscular legs all encased in a masterfully tailored suit. She knew the
suit didn’t have any padding in the shoulders. She knew every inch of the man’s
body intimately. Unfortunately, her traitorous body was reacting to merely the
sight of him.
Jason’s eyebrow went up, just as she’d remembered him doing whenever
she’d amused him in some way. “No words, Sophie? Not even a greeting? How
ungracious of you,” he said and pushed off the fence to walk towards her.
“What are we going to do about your manners?” he considered, taking a stray
lock of her fiery red hair and wrapping it around his finger. “Ready to go home,
Sophie?”
The last words broke her out of her trance and she reared back, only to be
stopped painfully as the hair that was still tangled in his large hand, yanked
against her scalp. “What are you doing here, Jason?” she demanded again,
unwrapping her hair from his fingers, careful not to touch him in any way. From
past experience, she knew that would lead to her wanting him. Humiliatingly,
since he could have just about any woman he wanted with a crook of his sexy
finger whereas she was a nobody, someone he’d married out of pity.
She raised her face up, determined to not cower around him anymore. She
was a new person and she was finished with cowering. She’d done it for twentyfive years but when she’d walked out on her marriage, she decided it was time to
stop.
“I am home,” she asserted and turned away, determined to walk back to her
truck and drive away.
Her retreat was stopped by a steel band that wrapped around her arm,
pulling the rest of her body up against his hard frame and Sophie couldn’t help
but cringe. Seeing the anger in his eyes, the clenched jaw and the nerve that was
ticking in his cheek, all her old fears came back to her. “You are my wife!” Jason
said. “No wife of mine will be digging around in the dirt.”
The spicy scent of his aftershave reached her and she fought hard against her
longing for his incredible masculinity. She hated the insecurity that crept into her
voice, but she couldn’t help it. “I sent the divorce papers already. You should
have received them by now,” she choked out, wishing she could put just a small
amount of space between her body and this angry man holding her. Jason never
showed emotion! They had been married for only a short time and never during
that entire time had he ever shown her any emotion other than mild amusement.
But he was definitely angry now.
Her words only seemed to infuriate him more but he fought for control and
won. “Ah, yes. I received them. �Irreconcilable Differences’,” he quoted,
referencing the reason she’d stated for the divorce. “But I disagree my love,” he
replied, one finger sliding sensuously across her cheek to brush against her
extremely sensitive earlobe before dropping to her waist again. “I think we can
work through whatever differences you perceive as irreconcilable.”
“No!” she cried, trying yet again to pull away from him. “Why? Why in the
world would you want to stay married to me?” Sophie had heard too many
times from her father that her hair was too wild for any respectable man to pay
attention to her. The titian curls swirled around her shoulders no matter how
hard she tried to subdue them with pins.
Her eyes were pretty, she knew but her skin was too white and her lips too
full to be classically pretty, which were the kinds of women Jason used to date
before he’d married her. She knew because she’d seen the pictures of those
women, smiling in the newspapers as they walked on his arm - elegant,
classically beautiful women who were confident and daring, everything she was
not.
She was too thin. The only part of her anatomy that showed any sign of
femininity was her large bosom which she’d learned over the years to conceal
out of shame, a shame that her father had impressed upon her at the first sign of
their impending bloom.
“Why wouldn’t I?” he said, loosening his hold but not letting her go.
“You’re my wife.”
Sophie’s chin went up a notch as she desperately searched for the small bit of
confidence she’d gained in the past few months. “You’ve said that but I won’t do
it anymore. You married me out of pity and I won’t be pitied by anyone!”
Jason’s hands dropped down to his sides and his hard, dark eyes looked
down at her in surprise. “Pity? Why in the world do you think I married you
out of pity?”
Sophie put several feet between them, rubbing her arms together although
the early spring afternoon was unusually warm. Nor was it because he’d hurt
her arms. Jason would never hurt her. It was more that any touch from Jason
burned her skin, melting her insides and making her mind turn from whatever it
had been thinking and focus only on him and the heat of his hands or body. It
was a dangerous road and one she was determined not to go down. She had
pride now. She wasn’t going to lose it simply because her traitorous body
wanted to melt into his.
“Don’t worry about how I know. I just do. You don’t have to hide it
anymore, Jason. It was very noble of you to marry me after my father’s death
and show me kindness but I’m okay now. I can survive on my own.”
Jason looked around her, down at the ground where the rusty tools were
laying and her filthy work gloves were tossed. “Is this what you call surviving?”
he demanded. “You gave up on our marriage and the position as my wife in
order to live here, in this tiny village and drive that?” He waved to the ancient
truck with the other gardening tools in the back.
“Yes!” Sophie claimed, not ashamed of her job or what she chose to drive.
She didn’t expect him to understand. Jason lived in an enormous mansion with
rooms decorated by the best designers, his personal chef cooked extravagant
meals for which Jason may or may not be home for, and the rest of his staff
waited on him hand and foot, pushing themselves to be noticed by the man who
saw everything but handed out praise sparingly because his standards were
exacting.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Sophie,” he scoffed. “I’ve seen where you live. You
have no food and there is barely room for a person to live. That is not
surviving!” he claimed.
Her eyes flashed with the news that he had been inside her tiny cottage,
investigating the contents enough to know that she didn’t even have a carton of
milk in the refrigerator at the moment. “It is my choice and you have no right to
judge me!”
Jason took several steps towards her, intimidating her despite her intentions
not to let him. “You made your choice when you took the vows to be my
obedient and faithful wife,” he enunciated.
“That makes me sound like I’m a dog,” she countered.
He actually smiled and the humor reached his dark, enigmatic eyes. “I can
assure you, I definitely don’t consider you a dog in any sense.”
Sophie hated the feelings his smile created within her. All those silly
butterflies kicked into overdrive simply because of his charming smile. “What
do you want from me?” she asked, crossing her hands over her chest as if she
could shield herself from his charm.
“I want you to get into the car and come back with me, for starters.” He
didn’t pause to see if she would obey; he turned on his heel and moved in the
direction of the waiting limousine.
Sophie watched him for about two steps before she gritted out, “No.”
That stopped him. Probably because he’d never heard it before. Definitely
not from any of his employees and never had Sophie had the courage to say it
during their marriage. Jason turned around and raised one dark eyebrow in
mild shock as he took in her stubborn stance. “No?” he asked with deadly and
terrifying calm.
Sophie didn’t like the amusement still in his eyes. She thought a different
tactic might be more effective since her current one was only making him angry
or amused, she wasn’t positive which. Softening her stance, she turned her eyes
to pleading, her palms up in the hope that she could make him understand her
position. “Jason, our marriage was a farce and you know it. Let’s just let it die as
it should.”
Instantly his lips firmed in anger. “Because I disagree that it is over. And
until I agree, I will not grant you a divorce.”
Her eyes widened and her whole body recoiled at his statement. “You can’t
do that!” But she knew he could. He had enough wealth and influence to do just
about anything he wanted.
“Don’t challenge me on this, Sophie,” he said calmly.
“I will,” she said although her body was now shivering in fear, both of what
he could do to her physically with one touch of his hands, melting her into a ball
of sexual desire; and also because Jason never backed down. When he wanted
something, he got it. She’d seen it too many times during their short marriage
and she’d always prayed she’d never be on the opposite side of Jason Randal.
He didn’t respond until he was standing less than an inch from her, his
angry, dark blue eyes looking down into her stubborn green ones. “Then you
will lose. Get in the car.” He didn’t ask, he simply commanded and assumed
that all his orders would be followed immediately. And why shouldn’t he make
those kinds of assumptions? All his employees followed his instructions to the
letter without any sort of resistance or argument.
She was shivering with impotent anger and fear but still resisted, determined
to not lose the small amount of independence she’d gained while being away.
“You can’t make me.” Sophie knew she was playing with fire but couldn’t help
herself. Getting near him was lethal to her control and possibly her newfound
self esteem.
Jason sighed and shook his head. “You think not? Never doubt me, Sophie.”
Before he even explained his actions, the calm, victorious look in his eyes told her
that he’d won. “I’ve already spoken to your employer and explained that you
must resign without notice. I’ve also…”
“You can’t do that!” Her income was gone? That easily? Was it possible?
Looking into his steely expression, she knew that it was not only possible, but an
incontrovertible fact.
“I can and I did,” he stated. “As I said a few moments ago, my wife will not
be supporting herself by digging in the dirt! Furthermore, I have spoken to your
landlord and bought out the remainder of your lease. If you persist in living
there, I will make a very generous offer to your landlord to buy the building,
then I will evict you. If you find another place to live, I will do the same,” he
stated. With each word, he moved closer to her, not letting her retreat or move
away from him. “Don’t doubt my determination to have you exactly where you
belong, Sophie. You are coming home. Now!”
“No!” she cried, feeling trapped because she knew he’d do exactly as he’d
stated. Jason never made idle threats.
“Yes,” he countered.
“Since you are no longer employed, you have no
license to drive this vehicle. Your current employer, Henry Wilson, I believe was
his name, has agreed to have someone come out and pick up the vehicle later.
Now,” he said, obviously his patience was at an end, “get into the car.”
Sophie fought back the tears. “I hate you,” she said with feeling.
“That has yet to be determined,” Jason replied mercilessly but he followed
her into the back of the waiting limousine.
Chapter 2
Sophie sat in the corner of the soft, comfortable seat and fumed. Crossing
her arms over her chest, she glared at Jason as he followed her in. As soon as he
was seated, the car moved, heading off in the direction of London.
The silence lasted for about five minutes before Jason spoke into the tense
atmosphere. “I’m surprised to find you here. The investigators were looking for
you in Europe, Sophie. Very smart of you to hide right under my nose,” Jason
said but before she could respond, his cell phone rang and he answered it,
immediately dismissing her from his mind as he dealt with yet another of the
multitude of business details he responded to each day.
She wished she could tell him that she wasn’t hiding from him. But she was.
She’d run away from him all those months ago when she determined that Jason
had only married her out of pity. It hadn’t been a guess. Her stepsister Jocelyn
had told her that, in no uncertain terms, Jason had found her silly, heartbreaking
existence too much to bear and had taken it upon himself to keep her from being
a laughing stock after Sophie’s father had died.
That afternoon had been devastating for Sophie. From the first moment
she’d met Jason, she’d woven fantasies around him. She’d been twenty three
when her father had taken her to a ball and had been wearing one of her father’s
favorite dresses which meant it looked like a funeral dress in Sophie’s mind. The
long, black dress which covered her from her neck to her ankles, even the long
sleeves not showing any skin, was the kind of dress her father thought was
appropriate for his daughter.
Sophie remembered seeing Jason across the room and her heart had instantly
accelerated. When he’d turned and caught her eye, it was as if a spark of
electricity had traveled the length of the room and connected the two of them.
He hadn’t let her look away as he made his way across the room. But he didn’t
need to worry that night. As her father made the introductions, Sophie was
transfixed by his hard, chiseled face and determined eyes. He was so tall, he
practically towered over her by at least seven inches. Her head barely came to
his shoulder even in her heels.
But when he took her hand and led her onto the dance floor, she fit into his
arms perfectly. The entire dance, she continued to look up at him, thrilled with
his handsome looks and feeling other women’s eyes on her. When the dance
ended, Jason was gentlemanly as he tucked her hand into his arm and led her
back to her father’s side. He bowed away, smiling and winking at her. That was
the last time she saw him until her father’s funeral.
The Billionaire’s Elusive Lover
Chapter 1
“Thank you so much Edna,” Helen Miller enthused, shaking the older
woman’s hand. “I promise I’ll be out of here quickly.”
Edna chuckled. “Don’t worry. My boss isn’t scheduled to be back for hours.
He won’t know a thing.”
Edna looked at the beautiful woman with the black hair that curled down
her back in what could only be described as riotous. “What are you trying to
capture?” she asked, fascinated at the way the young woman was examining the
sky and the windows, as if they held the secret to the world and she was
determined to unlock the key. Edna had never seen such passion, she thought
silently. The idea of maintaining that much energy all the time seemed
exhausting to Edna.
Helen smiled back at Edna. “The sunset today is going to be perfect,” she
enthused. “The afternoon heat has created a heavy haze that will filter the
sunshine. I guarantee the colors will be spectacular. Just wait and you’ll see.”
Edna smiled at the young woman. She couldn’t believe she’d let this woman
into Alec Dionysius’ office but there was just something about her that had Edna
violating sacred rules. Maybe it was her energy or enthusiasm, or something
even more subtle that had her convinced that everything will be okay. No one
got through to this office without an appointment and usually those
appointments were booked months in advance. Mr. Dionysius was a very busy
and extremely powerful man and everyone wanted to have “just five minutes” of
his time. His security team always surrounded him when he was out and about
in public or even at private parties. But up here, in this office, it was Edna that
was the obstacle. No one got through her unless Mr. Dionysius allowed it.
Which made this aberration all the more strange. She watched as the lovely
woman clicked her camera over and over again, fascinated by her facial
expressions. When she pulled out another camera, Edna considered asking her
questions, but then stopped herself, seeing the intense concentration on the
younger woman’s face.
Ten minutes later, Helen snapped the last shot and dropped her camera.
“See what I mean?” she said almost breathlessly, staring out at the horizon.
Edna stopped her curious inspection of the brunette beauty and looked out
the floor to ceiling windows in her boss’ office. At her first glimpse, she gasped
in surprise. “Oh, my!” she said, her hand covering her throat as she looked at the
spectacular array of colors minutely shifting over the horizon. In a reverent
whisper, Edna agreed, “You were right, Helen. Amazing!”
The two women stood there for a long time, their eyes glued to the horizon
as they continued to watch the changing colors of the sunset. Neither were
aware of the executive floor security guard or the clerical support woman who
worked for Edna as they both walked into the sacred domain of the man in
charge. All four of them stood still, awestruck by the light show. The silence was
complete, broken only by the flashes of color slowly forming a silent melody as
they shifted across the evening sky. The shifting light from the setting sun had
an almost symphonic beauty to it that even a heavy breath would be a violation
against.
“What the hell is going on in here?” a deep voice asked from the doorway.
Four people jumped at the same moment. Edna spun around, her shoulders
instantly tense and wary. “Oh, Mr. Dionysius! You’re back early! I’m so sorry!”
she gasped.
“That’s not very informative,” he replied with dry sarcasm.
Helen tried to look away. She really did. She didn’t want to be fascinated by
a man who would interrupt such an incredible moment in time and not
appreciate its beauty. Unfortunately, her eyes were glued to the most amazing
male she’d ever seen. He was tall with a chiseled jaw, hawk-like nose and black,
dangerous eyes. His perfectly tailored suit framed his body with an elegant
façade but she was still able to see the broad shoulders and flat stomach which
distinguished the latent menace underneath the tailored fabric. His hands were
aggressively resting on his hips, pushing back the suit jacket to reveal power
more suited to a furious male lion than a mere human male.
The fact that he was glaring at her didn’t register with her mind for a long
moment until her gaze finally came to rest back on his face after surveying the
rest of him with a slow, compulsive perusal. The heat that flared within her
stomach almost made her knees give out. His eyes captured hers, held her
captive and she felt powerless, completely at his mercy. No man had ever made
her feel this helpless. Nor had any man ever made her feel anything like this.
Her stomach felt like it was filled with bubbles that were floating, popping and
moving into her bloodstream to zing around her body. Her mind told her to
leave but her feet were immobile as she continued to take in the man with all of
his incredible strength.
Helen heard her new friend’s attempt at conciliating the angry man and
Helen wished she could step in and offer her apology, protect Edna from the
man’s wrath, but she was held captive by his eyes. “I..um…I was just letting Ms.
Miller…she wanted to…” Edna fumbled through the explanation but she was
too nervous to finish it.
The stumbling explanation finally did the trick. Helen was at last able to
break through her stupor and focus, turning to Edna and Mick, the security
guard who had called Edna with her request.
“Mr….” she fumbled because she wasn’t sure who he was but wouldn’t let
her new friends down in this situation. They’d gone out of their way to help her
and she didn’t want to repay their kindness by dumping them to the wolves. Or
wolf, she corrected. This man was definitely baring his teeth. “I’m sorry but I
don’t know your name but this is all my fault. I asked Mick to introduce me to
Edna who allowed me into your office. I just wanted a picture,” she explained,
lifting her camera bag, “and she’s stood with me the whole time to make sure I
didn’t do anything besides take pictures so if there’s anything confidential in this
office, I promise I didn’t see it.”
Obviously, her explanation didn’t do the trick because the anger in his eyes
didn’t ease. “And you think that’s okay?” he commented with an affectation of
calm, moving slowly across the room, his eyes never leaving her face. “What,
exactly, were you photographing?” he asked.
Good! An easy question. She needed those right now since her knees were
trembling at his closer proximity. “The sunset,” Helen brightened. “Because of
the storm and the intense heat we had earlier today, the refracting light was
particularly extraordinary tonight. I really didn’t mean to invade your space in
this way. I promise I’ll get out of your way now.” Helen grabbed her camera bag
with shaking fingers, pulling it onto her shoulder and quickly walked toward the
double doors that would give her freedom from the strange power he seemed to
have over her.
“Stop,” he said in a deep, commanding voice when she started to move past
him. Turning to the others, he dismissed them with a glare. They immediately
got the message and left the office silently.
Helen watched her friends leave, knowing they still felt as if they were in
trouble. She hated thinking that her actions had caused them harm and turned
to face the person who had made them feel uncomfortable, allowing all her
confused emotions toward this man to coalesce into anger, which was much
easier to define and handle than the ambiguous feelings that were spiraling
through her system. She didn’t understand those feelings. She understood, and
could react to, this burgeoning anger that filled her with a righteous fury, all
directed towards this tall, formidable man who thought he could speak to people
in such a demoralizing manner. “That was very rude of you,” Helen snapped,
her eyes coming back to him, unafraid of showing her irritation.
Alec’s eyes snapped back to hers but he didn't say a word. He waited until
he heard the door close behind them before speaking. “Excuse me?” he replied
with lethal calm. Anyone else would know that he’d just been pushed beyond
what he considered acceptable but this tiny woman seemed oblivious to the
possible consequences.
Despite the queasiness that filled her stomach, she straightened her
shoulders and faced him head on. “I said, you were very rude to your staff. You
should apologize. It’s my fault that they let me in here so you should only be
mad at me. There was no need for you to show your impatience at them.”
Alec couldn’t believe his ears. Was he actually being taken to task by a
woman who barely reached his shoulders? His eyes traveled up and down her
figure once again and he couldn’t deny that he was intrigued. No, he corrected.
He’d been intrigued when he’d walked in and caught sight of her gorgeous hair
that fell down her back and witnessed her cute little bottom wiggling against her
gauzy skirt. Now that she was standing here, challenging him and telling him
off, so to speak, he was more than intrigued. He was fascinated. He
acknowledged that a large part of his fascination came also from her voluptuous
curves that were barely encased in the tight, green tee-shirt and the stunning
dark green eyes that were glaring back at him. Her mouth was spouting
commands and issuing statements he wouldn’t allow from any of his staff under
any circumstances. In a split second decision, he also knew in that moment that
he would soon have those lips whispering softer words into his ear in the very
near future.
He kept his face impassive as he moved closer to her, explaining in the most
reasonable tones that she was currently in a great deal of danger. “It is their
responsibility to make sure no one enters this office without my approval. You
standing here is evidence that they were not doing their job very well. What
makes you think that I should apologize for mediocre performance?”
Her mouth dropped open at his statement that her friends had been slack in
their vigilance simply because she’d used his office for a few short minutes.
“That’s ridiculous,” she snapped at him, taking a step back. He was so tall, she
had to tilt her head back to look up at him. And she didn’t discount the impact
he was having on her senses as well. Being this close to the man was definitely
not good for her concentration. She was thinking about what he had underneath
that perfect white shirt, wondering if he had muscles or if he was just well made,
instead of defending Edna and Mick.
Concentrate, she told herself sternly.
What happened in the next few
minutes could me the difference between two people having a job tomorrow or
being sacked immediately. “They were just being nice,” she stated in as
cooperative a tone as she could muster under the direct glare of this handsome
man.
His lips thinned slightly at her response. “I don’t pay them to be nice,” he
replied with a voice that suggested she shouldn't argue any longer.
Helen couldn’t believe anyone could be so handsome and yet at the same
time, so lethal. She wouldn’t admit that she was scared and squared her
shoulders, wishing she could find the right words to help out Edna and Mick.
Deciding that caution was the better part of valor, she decided to take this
argument down a notch. “Well, they were very nice and helped me out a lot
tonight. I got some wonderful pictures of the sunset so…” she started to move
around him warily. “I’ll just get out of your hair if you’ll promise me that you
won’t be mean to them about this situation.”
His arm reached out and imprisoned her, pinning her between his long,
muscular arm and the hard wall behind her, effectively halting her retreat. He
stared at her for a long moment, searching her face to see if she genuinely
thought he would take her orders. When he saw the sincerity and confidence on
her face, Alec laughed outright. He couldn’t believe it but this woman who had
invaded his office and charmed his staff to violate sacrosanct rules, was actually
issuing an ultimatum. “You’re joking, right?” he asked.
Since she was trapped on the right by his arm blocking her exit, she slipped
deftly to the left in order to put just a little space between them. His close
proximity wasn't good for her. Unfortunately, he must have anticipated her
move, because his body shifted so suddenly, and so subtly, she didn't know how
but she was suddenly trapped once again by his body and the sofa. Helen shook
her head, her long gold hoops brushing against her cheek. “Absolutely not. If
you’re going to be mad at someone, then be mad at me. Call the police and have
me arrested for trespassing if you’d like but leave them out of this.”
He leaned forward, his broad chest pressing her legs back against the back of
the sofa, all anger vanishing at her astonishing demand. “So you used my office
to take pictures. I’m guessing you’re a professional photographer, correct?”
Helen was stunned by the sudden change in him. His eyes were no longer
glaring at her angrily. In fact, she thought she saw a small smile curl his lips. But
that was ridiculous, she told herself quickly. No one could change emotions that
fast.
“Yes,” she replied, pulling her heavy camera bag closer defensively. His
anger she could deal with. This new challenge was different, and oh so much
more intimidating. She didn’t understand why her heart was beating frantically
and her breath seemed to be caught in her throat. She leaned back, wishing she
could stand up tall and face the challenge he was silently issuing but, for some
reason, she was terrified of the new threat.
swallowed hard and licked her dry lips.
“I do freelance photography.” She
He watched the movement of her tongue, noted the increased pulse at the
base of her long, sexy neck and smiled lethally. “So you owe me, as far as I can
see.”
Helen blinked in confusion. “I owe you?” she gasped. “How so?”
He moved in closer, his eyes noting the small shiver that ran down her
slender form and the slight rosy flush that was coloring her lovely, high
cheekbones. “You are here in my building, using my office to take pictures
which you’re then going to turn around and sell to someone else, probably a
magazine or some sort of collection, correct?” he stated.
His questions suddenly made sense and for a moment, she was suddenly
extremely disappointed that this conversation had turned to profit. She
shrugged as if she did this kind of negotiation all the time. “You want a portion
of the sale, is that it?” she asked, her heart falling to her stomach because she
wouldn’t get much for the pictures and every penny counted when one was a
photographer.
His eyes didn’t reveal any hint of his next words so they took Helen by
surprise. “No. You owe me dinner,” he stated firmly. He took her bag from her
shoulder and started walking away.
Helen gasped, completely off kilter with his demand, and thrown utterly for
a loop by his action. “What are you doing with my cameras?” she almost yelled,
chasing after him as he started to leave his office. “Give them back!”
“I’m not taking them from you,” he said, turning so suddenly that she
plowed into him. His arm immediately went around her waist to hold her
steady, her small frame trapped against his taller one and he instantly liked the
feeling. He saw her mouth open and his mind had to work hard to control his
body. He wanted this woman. And if his body had anything to say about it, it
would have to be soon. “I’m simply carrying them for you until we reach my
car. This bag is heavy.”
Helen tried to form a thought but she couldn’t. Her mind was spinning and
her fingers itched to touch him, to further investigate the hard muscles that her
body was currently feeling. Her hands touched his arms to steady herself and
her eyes followed, fascinated by the muscles underneath the smooth Egyptian
cotton of his shirt. He was amazingly strong, she thought absently.
Her mind clicked back, refocusing on the issue at hand and dismissing her
fascination with his body. “I can’t go to dinner with you.” She quickly dropped
her hands down to her side and prayed she wouldn’t fall down.
“Why not?” he asked, enjoying her breasts that were pressed against his
chest. They felt full and soft and extraordinarily good.
“Um….because….” she couldn’t think when he was this close. She needed to
put space between them but her arms and legs weren’t following the direction
from her brain. “Because,” she said once again but this time, it came out only as
a whisper.
“Not a good enough excuse,” he said softly, his voice husky as he watched
her attraction for him on her face and in her beautiful, expressive soft green eyes.
He stood up quickly and released her, knowing that remaining in that position
would only scare her. He’d only met the woman fifteen minutes ago and all he
could think about was getting her into his bed. From the wariness he was seeing,
he would have to take things a bit slower than he’d like.
He turned and walked out of his office. “Edna, call The Westin and get a
table for two in…,” he glanced at his watch, “twenty minutes,” he said to the still
nervous Edna as he passed by her desk.
Helen raced along behind him, her mouth dropping open at the mention of
the very exclusive restaurant located in the heart of the financial district of
London. Now that she had some breathing room, her anger was able to diffuse
the more mystifying feelings she’d been experiencing. She liked anger much
more. It was cleansing and helped her regain her focus. “She can’t get a table on
this short a notice at The Westin,” she snapped, instantly defending the woman
who had helped her earlier. “That’s impossible.”
In response, Alec turned back to look down at the lovely and enticing
brunette, his dark eyes holding her green ones hostage. He didn’t say a word but
simply waited, listening for Edna’s voice. He smiled wolfishly as his secretary
calmly informed the maitre’d of the restaurant that Alec and a guest would be
arriving shortly. “Thank you very much, Jeffrey,” she said. Placing the receiver
down, she smiled at Helen. “The table will be waiting for you when you arrive,”
she stated efficiently.
Helen shook her head in amazement. “How is that possible? You need
reservations so far in advance it isn’t even worth trying. And yet you call up
only a few minutes before you want to eat and you get a table?”
“Of course,” Alec replied. “This way.”
He walked to a private elevator which opened immediately for him. He
waited for Helen to enter but held back his chuckle at her obvious irritation as
she followed at a slower pace, every movement of her slender figure showing
him her irritation.
They rode down the elevator in silence and stepped out into a parking
garage where his chauffer was already waiting with the back door open. Two
other men stepped into an SUV parked behind the limousine while a third
stepped into the passenger seat next to the chauffer.
“Who are they?” she asked, slightly nervous of the angry looking men with
black suits and suspicious bulges at their sides.
“My security detail,” he replied curtly before putting a hand to her back and
urging her into the car.
Helen watched nervously until they were all in the vehicle. As soon as the
door closed, the car sped away.
She sat in the back of the limousine, her arms crossed over her chest and
wondered when she had agreed to have dinner with him. This was crazy! She
should demand that he pull the vehicle to the curb and let her out.
Just as her head turned towards him and her mouth opened up, he stopped
her with a simple denial. “No,” he said, obviously reading her mind.
Helen decided to play dumb, give herself time to formulate a response. “No,
what?” she asked, knowing he couldn’t really be reading her mind.
“No, I’m not letting you out of the car. So sit back and enjoy the ride. We’ll
be at the restaurant in a moment.”
Helen tried not to show her increased irritation at the accuracy of his mind
reading but she couldn’t help the small breath that he heard. “How did you…?”
she started to say.
He laughed, enjoying the expressions flitting across her face.
She was
beautiful yes, but still young and everything she was thinking was transparent
on her face. “Your eyes darted to the door handle and then scanned the
sidewalk, Helen. I didn’t have to read your mind. Reading your body language
and facial expressions is easy enough.”
He chuckled at her disgruntled expression, then let his eyes go lower. Did
she realize that her arms were pushing her breasts higher? That he could see her
nipples through the thin layer of her shirt? Did she have any idea how desirable
she looked right at the moment?
“What do you do, Mr. Dionysius?” she asked, desperately wanting some
way to get him to stop looking at her. She was embarrassed that he could read
her so easily and wanted to figure him out as well. Any clue she could garner
from conversations that might give her the upper hand, if only for a moment,
would make her feel much better, more in control.
“Call me Alec, Helen. And what do you think I do?”
Helen shrugged her shoulders. “I can’t imagine. I’m guessing you’re pretty
awful.”
His eyebrows went up at her reply, both in amusement and surprise at her
audacity. “Why would you say that?”
She smiled impishly, loving the fact that she was about to give him a good
set-down. “Obviously a lot of people hate you. Otherwise, you wouldn’t need
the extra body guards. I’m guessing they’re here to keep the angry hordes at
bay?”
Alec laughed softly. “Yes, at times, they keep the paparazzi out of the way.
But they have other purposes.”
“What would those other purposes be?” she asked, wishing she knew who
he was. She felt at a disadvantage. He looked like he knew so much, whereas,
she barely knew his name.
“I don’t think you want to know,” he said simply and enjoyed the frustration
in her beautiful green eyes. He wasn’t just being annoying. He didn’t want to
worry her about the potential threats that he received occasionally or the fact
that, due to his wealth, there was a constant danger of kidnapping. They might
live in the civilized world where these things were more rare. But they weren’t
unheard of and unscrupulous people would do a lot for even a fraction of the
money in only one of his bank accounts.
Helen eyed him carefully before shrugging and looking down. “I probably
don’t although leaving it that way leaves much to the imagination.” She laughed
and peeked back at him before saying, “I can imagine a lot of things people
might want to do with you.”
The Intimate, Intricate Rescue
Chapter 1
“Something smells rotten, Mitch,” Jim Anderson said in a low voice as the
two of them hurriedly walked toward the conference room.
The hushed
atmosphere of the secure area only intensified the stinging tension that seemed to
be radiating from the assembled staff.
Mitch Hamilton didn’t say a word in response, just continued to walk down
the hallway that was quiet, pulsating, and still buzzing with tension. Mitch
didn’t look to the left or right, impatient with the situation that seemed to have
exploded unnecessarily. As he approached the conference room doors, two
bulky men who were obviously guarding the area straightened to heightened
attention and quickly opened the double doors that led to a large operations
room, allowing both Mitch and Jim to walk in without breaking stride.
Entering the room which initially seemed to be a high tech conference room,
Mitch looked around the assembly of his top advisors, strategists and field
agents, all of whom wore grim expressions on their faces. “Talk to me,
gentlemen,” Mitch said quietly but with forbidding emphasis and absolute
authority, walking towards the bank of top of the line computer screens that
showed the progress of the current mission as well as other data and intelligence
that had been gathered recently about the operation.
With one fast, comprehensive sweep of his blue eyes, Mitch had taken in all
the details and was waiting to be briefed verbally, knowing there were issues that
could not be explained by data but might be just as relevant, if not more so in
some cases. He’d learned from personal experience that no computer or machine
could eliminate the power of the human brain.
On the largest screen, there were three green outlines indicating his men out
in the field. All were heavily armed and slowly approaching the operation’s
target. The green figures were the field agents his company had sent in for this
mission and they were all very good, extremely competent men. All the
personnel on his staff were excellent at field work as well as analyzing the
situation and reacting appropriately.
While one of his technical analysts explained the data to him, Mitch watched
silently as the green figures gained entrance to the building through a window
and made their way stealthily through the initial hallway, searching each of the
rooms which were highlighted on the screen by thin, blue lines. A satellite was
the screen’s source for the images and Mitch crossed his massive arms over his
muscular chest as he watched the monitors, his midnight blue eyes never leaving
the figures on the screen as they made their way toward their objective.
Behind him, Mitch heard a commotion, but he intently continued to monitor
the unfolding situation on the screen, deciphering what was happening both
through intuition as well as intelligence and satellite images. “Where’s my
daughter?” an obnoxious, angry voice broke through the tense silence.
Mitch ignored the man, his focus remaining on the screen and the situation
which, his gut instincts were telling him was rapidly deteriorating, although
there wasn’t any evidence to suggest this was the case. One of his many
strengths was his ability to eliminate any superfluous sounds or distractions
when an operation was underway. It was that ability that had kept him alive on
many occasions and had made his security company an international success.
The brusque, white haired man behind him with an enormous stomach
covered by an immaculately tailored suit obviously didn’t like being ignored. He
puffed up like a peacock, thinking that if he got louder and more forceful,
someone was bound to acknowledge him in some way and give him what he
wanted. “Dammit! I asked a question and I demand an explanation to what is
happening here! I hired this company to find and save my daughter and it
doesn’t appear that any saving is underway. I want to know where my daughter
is right now!” the man demanded once again. His huffing and puffing made his
skin look pink as his blood pressure increased. The outrage he was suffering was
obviously beyond anything of his experience, probably because he’d been raised
in the upper echelon of society and been pampered and petted by everyone his
whole life, including his parents as well as the army of servants he employed.
There was no question of his wealth, for only someone with a large bankroll
could have afforded this kind of operation. Hamilton Securities had many levels
of services but only a few could pay for this kind of jungle rescue operation. This
rescue mission, because of the danger and complexity not to mention the location
deep in the jungles of Central America and in hostile, drug cartel territory, had
been especially costly.
Besides, only someone with a vast amount of resources would have been put
into this kind of a kidnapping situation in the first place. There were the
numerous kidnappings that happened along the Columbia and other South
American country borders, but this one was different, special. And much more
dangerous. These were professionals and their professional tactics indicated that
they had gone after a very specific mark instead of a random group.
Mitch continued to ignore the rotund man but, with his peripheral vision, he
noticed that one of the technical agents in the room walked over and spoke
quietly to the man, giving him instructions on the mission protocol and
explaining what was happening, pointing to the screen and the data while the
puffed up man nodded, obviously feeling that he was finally being given
adequate attention.
Whatever the agent said had obviously mollified the pompous man. “Fine.
But I want her out safely and quickly,” Mitch heard the man grumble.
Mitch continued to watch, the tension building when he saw additional men
entering the building from the opposite side. This was the visual evidence that
his intuition had anticipated. These figures lined in red which indicated that
they were not friendly to the rescue team and the others in the conference room
grasped the increased danger to both the victim as well as to their agents in the
field. The screen showed that all of the red images were armed and prepared to
shoot, and from the way they were holding their weapons, they had obviously
been tipped off to the presence of the rescue team. The three green figures froze,
obviously hearing the sounds of the kidnappers in the next room. Mitch could
see the red figures crouch, motion silent communications to each other. What’s
worse, he could see the exact moment when things started to go wrong from his
vantage point. His agents were walking into a trap.
With a low growl, he ordered, “Tell them to get out fast.” Mitch could tell
that his men were signaling the wrong direction. It would take them directly into
the paths of the waiting kidnappers. It was his policy to avoid confrontations in
these kinds of situations. Get the kidnappers later and regroup to eliminate the
danger to the victim. The primary goal was to secure the release the hostages as
safely as possible. His agents could probably handle the kidnappers even
though they were walking into a trap, especially since the agents here at the
home office could pinpoint the hostile sources through radio to the agents, but
the hostage might become harmed in the process.
At Mitch’s command, the operator immediately gave the order to the men to
abort the mission.
Mitch watched with growing anger as the men on the screen hesitated, then
continued on. The kidnappers were suddenly still and Mitch knew without a
doubt that they were poised and ready. “Give the order again!” Mitch said
emphatically, his tone lower, allowing no argument. “Tell them they are
disobeying orders and must retreat immediately.”
The pressure in the room escalated and Mitch could even sense the
atmosphere in the building thousands of miles away as if he were there himself.
His men knew something wasn’t right.
Again, the command was relayed and the three figures ignored the
command. The hostages were in a huddle in the room right next to them.
Obviously, the agents could sense their presence, probably could hear them.
Knowing the goal was so close was a difficult thing to reject.
Instead of obeying, the three men moved forward.
“Dammit,” Mitch growled under his breath. Moving forward, he took the
microphone from the operator. “This is Mitch Hamilton,” he said, his voice low
since it was possible for the kidnappers to hear his voice even if the receiver was
an ear piece. “There are three men standing right outside your door. They have
obviously been tipped off to your presence and you’re walking into a trap.
Retreat immediately. That is an order.”
He watched as the agents stopped with his words. It took several hand
signals but Mitch waited tensely for the silent argument to conclude. He took a
deep breath of relief as he watched the three agents retreat back through the
window they had come through.
Thankfully, all three agents were back into the jungle area before the
kidnappers stormed the room. But that didn’t make the fact that someone had
tipped them off to the rescue any more palatable.
Mitch turned around, his hard, dark eyes catching the softer ones of the
father. “If you’ll excuse us, we need to discuss strategy, Mr. Peterson.”
The man puffed up and looked back at Mitch, obviously not in an
accommodating mood. “If you’re going to discuss getting my daughter out of
that hell hole, and you damn well better be,” he growled with his hands on his
hips, showing off his rotund belly as if it were a medal of honor, “then I want to
know what you’re going to do to accomplish that feat. I’ve paid this company an
enormous amount of money to extricate her from this ridiculous mess and from
the looks of it, your men just failed. Now do your damn job or I’ll find another
company that can!” The man was yelling by the time he was finished and his
bushy white eyebrows pinched together as if he were trying to stare down Mitch
who was easily a foot taller and with the addition of packed muscles hidden
behind his own tailored suit.
Mitch didn’t have the patience to deal with the older man right at the
moment. He signaled to one of the other agents who quickly moved to escort the
furious father from the room. The man didn’t go willingly but within moments,
his agent had the man quieted and following behind him in a more docile
manner. Mitch was relieved because, at this point, he wasn’t above throwing the
father out physically – no matter how much money his company had been paid.
Something about the father’s actions struck him as false and Mitch had some
suspicions that needed to be worked out.
As soon as they were alone, Mitch looked at each of his agents around the
table, his eyes assessing and surveying. “Okay, what happened?” he demanded,
looking into the eyes of each man as they found a seat in one of the leather chairs
around the highly polished wooden conference room table. There were high-
tech gadgets built into every space available but Mitch tuned all of it out,
preferring human logic and intuition to figure things out. He used the gadgets to
get the job done, but his instincts to build a plan.
There was a moment of silence as each man considered his thoughts. But
then, “Someone tipped off the kidnappers,” John Miller said from one corner of
the table. “They were too well informed of the operation for me to come up with
any other possibility.”
Mitch nodded his head, glad to have his gut instincts confirmed.
“I thought so too. Who are the men out there?” He was asking about the
agents that worked for Hamilton Security and everyone knew that. There was
no misunderstanding from the others around the table. All had worked with
Mitch Hamilton either during his black operations days in the military or for him
at Hamilton Security for years and all trusted each other implicitly. They also
knew the rules, some of which were never to be broken. One of those rules was
to obey orders from the satellite command room and the men out there in the
field had violated that rule. There was a point when field agents had to think for
themselves, and other times when orders had to be followed. Good agents knew
the difference between those two scenarios.
“Larry, Bill and Joe. They’re not new and have been around for a while and
know better than to ignore an outright command. They aren’t our best, but they
are very good and their skills matched the requirements for this job. Although I
think that Bill and Joe might have been a bit too arrogant for their own good in
this case.”
“They’re out as of this moment,” Mitch said calmly, hiding any kind of anger
or frustration he might be showing at this turn of events. “No one disobeys a
direct order under those circumstances and they should have known better.
They’re lucky to be alive but I’m not giving them any chances to kill themselves
again.”
One of the men started to argue, but stopped himself. There was no use. In
this organization, people stayed alive by following orders. The three men had
disobeyed a sacred rule and there was no one who could save them after their
performance especially since Mitch Hamilton himself had given the order.
Mitch didn’t wait for the rest of the men to agree with his orders. This was
not the time for discussion, it was the time for action and discipline. “Now
someone tell me what’s going on out in that war zone.”
A file folder was placed in front of him and Mitch tensed yet again before
opening the red folder. It was red because the case was high priority and high
risk. He didn’t tense because of the risk though. He stiffened because he was
about to view the woman once again, the one he hadn’t been able to get out of
his head ever since the first time he’d seen her picture. He’d reviewed the
operation before approving of the mission, especially in situations like this one
where the risk was so high. He reviewed and approved of all missions that had
any sense of danger to them, preferring to keep his men alive and make sure that
all precautions were in place rather than make a profit. Of course people died in
this business, but with careful planning and experience, the risks could at least be
minimized.
He didn’t open the file immediately. He didn’t want the distraction of her
image right now. There was work to be done and he had to get a grip on the
situation in order to salvage the mess that had evolved over the past half hour.
“Was it a trap?” he asked.
Again, a moment of silence as each man around the table considered the
possibility before slowly shaking their heads. “I don’t think so,” one of them
finally said. “All the intelligence says that the kidnapping was genuine.”
Mitch nodded again, agreeing with that assessment. “So what happened?”
He opened the file folder and stared at her stunning blue eyes and open,
lovely smile. His stomach tightened and he wondered how only a picture could
have such an impact on his system. She was beautiful, but he dated beautiful
women all the time. Some were amusing for a time but he always grew bored
with them eventually. Women were nice to have around but he had no intention
of hanging onto any of them. He was brutally honest with them before any kind
of relationship began. So if any of them had illusions of long term, they were
sadly mistaken.
This one though, with her shining eyes and gut wrenching smile…it just did
something to him that no other woman, even a woman standing right in front of
him, had ever done to him. A part of his mind knew he should never have any
physical contact with her. She was definitely trouble. Every instinct within him
was telling him to avoid her at all costs.
Her hair was thick with golden waves coming down to her slender shoulders
and curling softly around her heart shaped, angelic face. Her full, pink lips were
smiling almost shyly into the camera and she was obviously at some sort of
society function. He hated society women, he reminded himself. They were
shallow, mercenary and so full of their own worth that no one had a chance to
get past their vanity. They were good for one thing, and one thing only. Sex.
Slapping the file folder closed, he re-focused his attention on the discussion
going on around him. The men were formulating a backup plan to go in and
extract the young woman. He heard their words, listened for only half a minute
before he knew what he had to do. It wasn’t that he wanted to save her, he told
himself firmly. It was that he wanted to save this situation. Something had gone
wrong and he wasn’t going to let it happen again.
Even as plans were tossed out for brainstorming, Mitch shook his head,
immediately silencing the current mission plan. “I’m going in,” he said firmly.
Ten stunned faces turned to look his way. Mitch was the owner of this
company and was built like a mountain with muscles that everyone at Hamilton
Securities tried to emulate but none could even come close to matching. He was
a legend in the field and all of them knew that he could do anything he set his
mind to, some of the things even they wouldn’t dare to attempt in their craziest
moments while Mitch could do them with one hand tied behind his back. But he
never took missions any longer, needing to be at the helm of the company to
make sure things ran smoothly. He was the brilliant mastermind of operations
although no one doubted he could do the job as well, or even better, than his
field agents. Mitch was the kind of man that his teams both respected and feared
because of what they knew about him, but also because Mitch would never send
any of his men into a situation that wasn’t doable.
In this situation, he could probably do this operation in his sleep compared
to some of the other missions he’d reputedly accomplished. But the idea of
Mitch taking on this kind of task now was just…unheard of.
If the truth were told, he was stunned himself. He’d taken enough bullets
and stabbings in his lifetime that he didn’t need to prove himself anymore. And
he definitely didn’t need the adrenaline rush like some of the younger agents
who thrived on the thrill and excitement of danger. So what was it about this
woman’s picture that got under his skin? He couldn’t honestly answer their
unspoken questions reflected in their astonished expressions, nor was he willing
to delve into the issue too closely himself.
He’d made his decision and, having said it out loud, he knew that it was
right even though he couldn’t rationalize it intellectually. Something just told
him…gut instinct, a premonition, however one defined that thought in one’s
head that guided actions that didn’t make any sense, but Mitch knew it was the
right answer.
Without hesitating in any way, he stood up and spoke to the rest of the table.
“Get George and Luke on the line,” he commanded, referring to the two other
men he’d done missions with in a previous life. “The three of us will go in
together tonight. Tell the others to get back to the airport and tell Bill he’s flying
me, George and Luke out tonight. We’ll land in the morning. With any luck,
those guards will be drinking themselves silly tonight to celebrate their victory
and won’t be expecting or prepared for a new assault in the morning, especially
during daylight. No one will be anticipating a second rescue attempt this
quickly so we’ll have the advantage of surprise and hopefully some pretty
powerful hangovers.”
He took a few steps and turned back to the group of stunned agents. “And
gentlemen,” he said to all the people in the room, “not a word of this goes out to
anyone. Not even Jim Peterson. There’s something wrong with this situation
and I’m going to get to the bottom of it.” Turning to his second in command, he
said, “Jason, put two guards on the father and make sure he doesn’t do anything
stupid. Put a wire tap on his home and cell phones and someone needs to
monitor them at all times. Keep him here as much as possible but if he leaves,
make sure someone is with him. I even want someone in his bedroom when he’s
sleeping. Tell him that we’ve received a threat on his life or make up another
story, whatever it takes but don’t let him out of your sight.”
Jason nodded quickly. Having worked for Mitch for years, he knew when to
argue and this definitely wasn’t the time. He couldn’t help asking the question
they were all thinking though. “You don’t suspect him of hurting his own
daughter, do you?”
Mitch looked across the table, his blue eyes turning into ice with the anger
churning within him. “Something about his reaction was wrong. I can’t put my
finger on it right now but I just don’t like it. At this point, I’m not saying he’s
involved, but I think he might do something to put her in further danger.
Something stupid.”
Jason nodded curtly, his boss’ explanation good enough for him. “Consider
it done.” Mitch Hamilton’s instincts were legendary so if he had a feeling about
the father, there would be extra caution taken in all matters dealing with the
man.
Mitch didn’t even nod to his agent, since carrying out orders was part of
their job. He expected and received expeditious actions to all commands. At
times, life or death were at stake and everyone had to react quickly. “I’ll be at the
airport in thirty minutes,” he said. “Make sure Luke and George are there as
well,” he said, walking out the door. To the agent who followed him out the door
he said, “And get me the schematics to the building the agents were approaching
earlier. We should have something more solid from the satellite images. I also
want a more complete file on the woman. Get me all the data you can find on
her finances, interview the people she works with, I want to know every man
she’s dated and anything else you can find out about her. I know there won’t be
much from the usual sources because of her father’s position, but get everyone
working on digging deeper. There’s something here that we’re missing and I
want to find out what it is.”
Twenty five minutes later, Mitch was on board one of the private company
planes that were maintained for just this sort of situation. Hamilton Securities
was one of the most successful security agencies in the world partly because of
the ability to get anywhere in the world quickly but also because Mitch hired
only the best in the business.
His two top agents were already at the airport when he arrived, neither of
whom had hesitated in backing him up on this mission. Five minutes after they
boarded, the plane was airborne, heading south, the pilots understanding the
urgency of the situation and had taken steps to have air clearance within
moments of passengers boarding. Luke and George took their seats and, after
several jokes to break the tension present at the start of every mission, were
instantly asleep, both of them knowing they would be without sleep for
potentially a significant amount of time and were trained to take it when they
had an opportunity.
Mitch knew he should do the same. The plane would land in four hours,
maybe less depending on the tail wind, and he’d have a two hour hike to the
holding point where the hostage was being held. Unable to sleep for some
reason during this mission, he pulled out the building schematics and several
drawings of the nearby buildings, going over his plan once again and looking for
areas in which there could be a problem.
After looking at the layout of the hostage site, Mitch had already decided he
wouldn’t go through the window as the others had before. The guards would be
expecting that and might have traps set up to capture, wound or kill any team
trying a rescue for a second time. Assessing the vegetation around the building,
he quickly calculated the weight of the branches on the surrounding trees to
determine if they could take the required weight. Once he was sure it would
work, he checked his backup plan. The walls were thin and with the right tools,
it would work. He’d just have to distract the guards enough to make sure they
didn’t hear the noise. A few grenades in the right direction at the right time
would provide enough distraction. Especially if the objects in the corner of one
building were what he expected them to be.
Satisfied that he had everything planned out, he sat back on a pile of black
nylon rope and re-read the case history and some of the new information his
agents had dug up since the debacle earlier today, trying to figure out what was
bothering him about the mission. There was something about the story that
didn’t ring true. Eve Peterson was twenty four years old, blond, blue eyed,
slender and with a great smile. There were several photographs in the file and he
looked at each one. There were three pictures of her with different men, each one
of them described as her latest fiancé. She’d apparently been engaged three
times, never making it all the way to the altar, but so far, none of his analysts had
found any other men she’d dated. In fact, the dating period would have to be
very short for each of the men due to the dates on the engagement
announcements for each man.
Studying the pictures, he noticed that the men were smiling but Eve Peterson
was not. Her expression wasn’t angry, but just…expressionless, he thought after
several moments of looking into those soft, blue eyes in each of the pictures.
Cynically, he assumed she was probably already trying to figure out how to
get herself out of the latest engagement and move on to the next sucker who
would fall for her lines. Flighty little thing, he told himself, pretending it didn’t
bother him. He wondered if she just didn’t like commitment or if she was one of
those women who liked to lure men into her web, then cut them dead when she
had what she wanted.
Either way, she was beautiful on the outside but probably a cold-hearted
bitch on the inside. He questioned why he was flying down to a hostile country
in the middle of the night, going through what might be a great deal of trouble to
help a woman who was probably not worth his efforts. The thought didn’t have
an answer so he stopped asking questions to which he probably wouldn’t like
the answers.
Mitch tossed the pictures back into the file and went to the rear of the plane
to check his equipment. He went through each bag, ensuring that the equipment
was not only sturdy and in good repair but that he had backups of everything.
Electronic equipment failed, ropes tore, metal broke with enough strain. Nothing
could be depended upon so a back up plan and equipment was not only
preferred, but essential.
Once that was done, he came back to the front of the plane and sat down in
one of the soft leather chairs and forced his mind to go blank. He might not be
able to sleep but he definitely needed to relax. Tension caused accidents which
created failed missions. Hamilton Securities had a reputation for no failed
missions and he wasn’t going to let this one be the first.
When the pilot rang three and a half hours later to let the passengers know
they were within a few miles of the drop zone, all three men woke, were
instantly alert and moving into action. Mitch nodded with satisfaction as both of
his agents immediately went to work, no one needing direction. They were all
pros and knew exactly what needed to be done and in what order.
About The Sisterhood Trilogy
When writing this trilogy, I knew that I wanted to create an impulsive, blond
bombshell.В The other characters hadn't fleshed out yet in my mind.В As I started
writing about Claire, the other two ladies slowly came to life in my mind.В Usually, coming up with the names for my characters is pretty difficult.В But with
The Billionaire's Impulsive Lover, I knew that Claire's name had to be the opposite
of her personality. В She's a computer hacker and loves breaking into Mitch's
home. She is very secretive and loves the espionage side of Mitch's work.В I started The Sheik's Virgin Lover on a sweltering hot day.В The only thing that
could make the day hotter was to do some sort of sports activity.В My son was (is)
really into basketball at the time so my thinking was to make the opening scene
hot and sweaty.В That - and the fact that I absolutely love writing sheik stories!
The Russian's Tender Lover is another one of those stories that I started many
years ago, wrote probably eight or ten thousand words on the idea and then
couldn't make it work.В I knew I wanted a story about a woman that the world
didn't understand - sort of a Paris Hilton type of figure - but one with a
personality that was the complete opposite of that perception.В One of the things I love about writing is that I wrap myself up in the world
I'm creating.В So I can become anyone for a few hours at a time.В The double life is
a recurring theme in many of my stories.В It probably stems from the fact that I
was a number cruncher (and manager of number crunchers) for a Government
consulting companies for years, presenting and analyzing numbers, profit
margins, gross contribution and variances.В But at night, I changed out of that
role into my "secret identity" of romance writer.В It was a heady change!В I started out intending to write just a trilogy, but when I completed The
Russian's Tender Lover, I knew that I wasn't finished.В Darcy's brother simply had
to become part of the series.В He'd lost his sister because of his father's criminal
activities but he fought to find her once again.В So, I knew that I had to write
Marco's story - The Billionaire’s Gentle Rescue - as well. That's the reason that this
"trilogy" actually has four stories instead of the normal three.
The Sheik’s Virgin Lover
Chapter 1
The sounds were ominous for this time of the day. Only the skidding of
shoes along the pavement, an occasional grunt and, of course, the thump of the
ball. This was a serious issue and every move was quickly calculated before
execution, each person accounted for if only out of the corner of one’s eye.
Failure was not to be tolerated in this game.
With July’s smoldering sun beating down on the blacktop, Emma Knightly
swung to the right, then faked to the left, spinning on her back heel before racing
down the court, dodging in between taller players. Ignoring the heat from the
blazing summer sun and the sweat as it chased its way irritably down her back,
soaking her cotton tee-shirt and plastering it against her skin, she almost smiled
as she angled between two teens, easily a foot taller than she. Emma was hot,
but she was also on fire. She’d get this basket, she just knew it!
Two more steps, dribble, swing to the right, one more step….
And the basket ball disappeared. She blinked once. Twice. Her hands
seeming to be still dribbling even when the basketball wasn’t with them. Emma
looked around, stunned that she wasn’t still in possession of the ball.
And then she spotted the evil ball stealer as he raced down the asphalt court
in the opposite direction. Furiously, she spun on her heel and raced after him,
tossing her long brown pony tail off of her neck impatiently. “Jerome! You stole
that ball,” she cried out and called out after him, running towards the back court,
after what she now considered her ball, her topaz eyes glaring with
determination as she sprinted down the court, her shorter legs unable to compete
with the teen’s longer stride.
The wily teenager didn’t even pause as he shifted quickly on the heel of his
shoe, making headway against the opposing team. “Hey, short stuff, come on
over and get it if you think you can,” Jerome called back and Emma didn’t bother
to glare at the others who laughed. She was on a mission.
“Over here, J!” she heard Manny call out.
Mike, T-Jay and Gregg all shot out of nowhere and blocked her so she spun
on her heel and faked them to the left this time, easily getting around their
human, testosterone laden barricade. “Out of my way, boys. Padre, get to the
left,” she called out to her one and only teammate.
She almost smiled with delight as the five guys shifted to the left, ready to
block Father Michael’s progress down the court but they’d worked out a plan in
advance and Father Michael shifted to the right and sped down the court,
already in position when Emma ducked under the arm of a six foot three inch
Jerome who was blocking, whipped her arm out and stole the ball. In a perfect
pass, she tossed it high, down the court to Father Michael who shot from the
center, sinking the ball through the hoop.
She high fived Father Michael on the two point gain among the groans and
complaints from the opposing team. “Don’t let it get to you boys,” she laughed.
“But you can guarantee I’m going to be spreading it around that you got the ball
stolen from someone you referred to as �short stuff’. Jerome, you bring it in,” she
said.
Jerome walked to the edge, no lines in place here, everyone just assumed the
boundaries of this basketball court where precious paint was reserved for
covering up gang graffiti and wouldn’t be wasted on applying regulation lines to
the beaten up asphalt court.
Jerome, in an over abundance of confidence, decided to mimic the pass
Emma had just done down court to Father Michael. Unfortunately, he didn’t
have the advantage of experience, or practice. Emma, along with all six other
players, watched in slow motion as the basketball soared through the air, over
the basketball hoop at the other end of the court, over the tall fence designed to
keep the ball in the area, and just kept on going, arcing beautifully, gracefully
and mercilessly, down onto the windshield of the most beautiful limousine any
of them had ever seen.
All of them stood there, unable to stop the ball, unable to believe that
something so horrific had happened on top of the painfully hot afternoon.
Maybe one or two of them, in that millisecond space of time, had the forethought
to wonder why a vehicle like that was traveling in this section of Washington,
D.C. when most people didn’t even leave their houses after the sun started
setting over the capitol building for fear of being mugged. But none had the time
to voice that thought aloud as the horror of the moment struck each and every
one of them.
Within seconds, the limousine had stopped, as had three other black SUVs
that had been traveling in front of and behind the limousine. Black suited men
with large machine guns and pistols at the ready lined up, all of them scouring
the area to determine the threat, calling out to each other in a foreign language.
Emma cringed, wishing more than anything a rusty old pickup truck or tow
truck had been passing through this neighborhood. It was the inner city, and
there hadn’t been a vehicle worth more than ten thousand dollars pass through
here in more than a decade. What kind of luck was there when the one time an
expensive car comes through, it gets hit with a basketball as it passes? What kind
of crazy game was fate playing?
With the sun beating down hard, the smell of hot, sweaty bodies
surrounding her and panic welling up in her chest, Emma moved slowly
forward, holding out her hands as the focus of all those weapons, not to mention
the scary eyes hidden behind even scarier dark glasses, trained on her.
“I’m really sorry, gentlemen, but I promise you there is no threat here. Please
stand down,” she said. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw curtains flicker as
neighbors poked their heads out of windows. Someone jumped from the street
into an open door, disappearing as the tension became palpable.
“Really, it was simply an accident and we’ll pay for the damage,” she said,
her mind frantically searching for some way to diffuse this situation. “Please, let
me explain.”
The back door to the limousine opened and two of the men in black suits
raced forward, speaking quickly but whoever was behind the door ignored the
arguments and stepped out.
Emma almost gasped as her eyes took in the man who was slowly standing
up from the back of the beautiful car. He was incredibly tall with heavenly
shoulders. If all those men had been standing together, she would have said that
this man was the lead guard instead of some important person who had yet to be
defined. He was also wearing sunglasses, but as he stepped out, he pulled them
off and looked around, his eyes moving over the group of teenage boys until they
spotted her, and then stayed.
As he moved forward, the tension seemed to change. It had been violent
scary before, but now, as the man moved forward and Emma’s eyes took in this
man from head to toe, noting his dark eyes, his almost handsome face centered
by a hawk like nose and black eyes, firm but somehow incredibly sexy lips, she
knew that the tension was different. Scarier in some way. More personal.
She didn’t understand it, and she definitely didn’t like it any better than
before, but at least now she didn’t feel like deathly bullets would be flying
around imminently, wounding and killing.
The men with guns moved forward with the man and Emma glared at their
guns. Now that she didn’t think they were going to use them, she wanted them
hidden away but she didn’t say anything, waiting for someone else to speak.
The man walked up to within one foot of where she was standing. Looking
down at her, with that horrible heat of the sun still pulsing down on her head,
Emma wanted to do something but she wasn’t sure what to say or do.
Squirming, she simply stared back at the man who was looking at her as if she
were some sort of bug he was about to dissect, wishing she didn’t look so hot
and sweaty…so unfeminine at the moment.
Clearing her throat, she started to say something but instead, she heard a
growled, “Bow,” off to the side.
Her eyes moved from the scary huge man in front of her to where she’d
heard the word. “Excuse me?” she asked.
“Bow!” the man in a black suit and black glasses repeated.
Emma blinked. “Why would I do that?” she asked, completely confused.
She glanced back up at the man in front of her, her hands moving to her hips.
“Does he really expect me to bow?” she asked him.
The sexy and oh-so-dangerous mouth quirked up into a smile. “I believe my
body guard is explaining the appropriate action at the moment.”
Emma almost laughed but restrained herself.
“Interesting, but still
uninformative. Why would I bow? I’m not really grasping why that would be
appropriate at this time.” she asked.
The man smiled now, his white teeth showing through his tanned skin. “It is
expected when someone is formally introduced to me. But allow me to do the
honors,” he said as he held out his hand.
Emma automatically took his hand, but was even more surprised when,
instead of a firm handshake which would immediately convey reciprocal respect,
he lifted her hand to his lips. She allowed the touch for almost three seconds,
before the burning sensation caused by his touched terrified her. Jerking her
hand free, she stared up at him, her heart racing and her knees suddenly wobbly.
One of the guards started forward the moment her hand was jerked away
but the man was instantly halted when the man in front of her simply raised his
hand slightly, his eyes never leaving her face. “I am Prince Dharran Mihail Bin
Wassan, Sheik of Sundab.”
“No way!” Jerome said from the side of her.
Emma turned to look in Jerome’s direction, her eyes widening as the name
sunk in.
Jerome took a step forward but the guard stopped him. “Ms. Emma, this is
the guy here for meetings with the President. He’s doing some sort of
cooperative energy conference that’s going to experiment with solar power that
will be used in conjunction with hot fusion.”
“Hot fusion?” another voice came in and Emma thought it was Father
Michael’s voice, but she wasn’t positive. At this moment in time, she couldn’t
say anything with certainty, possibly even her own name as confusion ruled her
mind from his touch.
Someone else stepped forward, eagerly explaining for Emma. “Sure! It’s the
latest technology and so many people are racing to get it right. It could replace
fossil fuels as the energy of the future.”
Emma turned back to the strange, tall man, grateful for the reprieve but
knowing she had to do the right thing in front of these teens, who had only been
exposed to the wrong thing and were finally learning to make good decisions
with their lives. “Your Highness, I apologize for the basketball mishap. I
promise there was no threat to your person, and the Rec Center will pay to have
the windshield replaced.” She hoped that would suffice to get things cleared up.
The man didn’t speak and she started to wonder if he spoke English.
Turning to the body guard who had ordered her to bow, she asked, “Does he
speak English?”
The man surprised her by chuckling softly. “Indeed I do speak English, my
lady. And several other languages.”
She looked up at him, her heart racing even faster with the amusement
lurking in his eyes, along with something else that absolutely terrified her. “I’m
sorry. That was insulting. I guess Americans just assume that everyone speaks
English and at the slightest hesitation, we assume the worst. When in reality,
we’re the country that is the least educated in the various languages.”
That little speech pacified the body guard, but the prince didn’t seem to
change his expression.
Emma took a deep breath, desperately trying to figure out how to ease this
situation for both sides. “If you’ll follow me inside, I’ll give you my contact
information so you can let me know how much the repairs will cost.”
She turned and started walking inside, then turned back when she realized
that she was the only one walking towards the building.
Turning to the boys, she called out, “Jerome, bring it inside to the showers.
Game’s over.”
Jerome was no longer looking at the man with awe and respect. But instead,
he had a belligerent stance, one that Emma knew all too well.
“Ms. Emma, this man was staring at your butt!” he said, his chest puffing out
and his shoulders rearing back. “He was disrespecting you!”
The other teenagers had noticed as well and were filing in behind Jerome
with Father Michael looking around and shaking his head.
Emma also started shaking her head. “Guys, he wasn’t staring at me at all.
He was being polite and considerate, just as all of you should striving to be.”
Her words didn’t have the effect she’d hoped to achieve since all five teenage
boys continued to stand firm, lined up and ready to defend her honor. “Ms.
Emma, you turned around and he stared at your butt,” Macky replied, backing
up Jerome’s claim.
Father Michael started forward but Emma knew this wasn’t going to end
easily unless she cleared it up.
“So what? Are you saying you’ve never stared at a girl’s butt?”
The boy’s face flushed slightly under his dark skin as she challenged his
double standard. “You’re different, Ms. Emma.”
“To you, maybe. Because I’m older but there’s really no difference. This is
exactly what Father Mike’s discussion last week was about, objectifying women
and you guys do it all the time. So don’t be a hypocrite when someone else does
it.” She turned to face the man who was too scary for words. “Apparently it’s a
universal trait among all who have testosterone racing through their blood
stream.” Turning back to the teens, she shook her head. “If I’m going to ignore it,
then so are you.”
She didn’t wait for a response but turned back to the center’s building,
intending to go inside and pray that they all followed. “Hit the showers,” she
called back, not bothering to check. If they didn’t follow her instructions, there
would be hell to pay.
As soon as she got to the door, she looked in the glass, checking the
reflection. Thankfully, the boys were dispersing, but not happy about it. All
were mumbling and shaking their heads. “Give it a rest, T-Jay. After the way
Janey broke up with you last week, you have no room to give this man any
grief.”
Instantly, she noticed the changed body language of T-Jay. His shoulders
drooped and he looked at her instead of Prince Whatchamacallit. The rest of the
boys followed suit, distracted by the mention of T-Jay’s breakup and they moved
to the side, discussing the issue amongst themselves.
“Your Highness?” she prompted when the man continued to watch the scene
play out, his attention moving from the teens to her and back again.
Father Mike moved over to the boys and Emma, disgusted with the whole
situation, simply walked inside to her office, preferring to leave the kids to deal
with it now that the threat of violence was gone.
In her office, she shuffled through her papers to find something to write on.
Finding an old grocery list, she wrote the phone number across the center of the
back as well as the address of the Recreation Center, along with her name
underneath. By the time she had finished writing, she felt the heat in the already
hot office go up by about fifty degrees as the man himself walked in.
Looking around, Dharran noted with fascinated interest the rusted desk
covered with papers, the plastic covered chair and the book shelves being
precariously balanced with chipped cinder block squares. His eyes noted with
disgust that the other rooms in the building were in better shape than this tiny
office and yet the woman with the fascinating cat eyes and scintillating body was
actually proud of her surroundings. How could a slender, stunning young
woman with a figure men would pay a ransom to hold in his arms, and yet she
seemed extremely content, happy even, to be shooting hoops with a group of
troubled teens and a Catholic minister.
“This is where you work?” he asked, his eyes taking in the striking beauty
smiling at him. Her eyes were an odd color, almost the color of a dark topaz,
with all of the facets of a well cut stone shimmering out her nervousness of his
presence through their depths. Her long, dark hair curled around her face
despite the band that was trying to control it at the base of her neck. She might
possibly be described as an all American beauty, but there was something more
to her than normal. Her smile was extraordinary, while still being warm and
welcoming. And her figure beneath her sweaty clothes that were about two sizes
too large for her petite frame, was something any man would dream about.
Emma barely had time to register his perusal before the veiled interest was
securely locked behind those sharp, ice-blue eyes. She looked around at her
office as if nothing were out of the ordinary and shrugged at his question. “Well,
it’s where all the paperwork is kept. I’m not in it much.”
His hands slid into the immaculately tailored slacks, bringing Emma’s eyes
to his trim waist, distracting her for a moment before she re-focused on his face
once again. “Why is that?” he asked.
She blinked, trying to focus on the conversation and refusing to look at his
broad, enticing shoulders. “Because of the heat. It’s a bit stifling, if you didn’t
notice.” She wasn’t sure he did though. Even though it was the peak of summer
with all the stifling, oppressive humidity that comes along with any summer in
Washington, D.C., this man was the picture of cool and comfort. There was not a
hair out of place on his perfectly cut head of hair and she didn’t detect even a
hint of sweat anywhere on him. Meanwhile, she was becoming uncomfortably
aware of her own odiferous presence after playing two hours of basketball in
ninety degree heat with an equal dose of humidity. “Can I get you something to
drink?”
Dharran looked down at the woman who was going to be his next mistress
and smiled. “I would like that very much. But perhaps you would like to
freshen up so you are more comfortable?” he asked, reaching out and tapping a
curl at her temple. “You look very fetching when you are like this, although I
would prefer that the perspiration be due to my ministrations versus an energetic
game of ball.”
Emma’s eyes flickered in confusion, sure she’d misunderstood him. “Excuse
me?” she asked.
Dharran shrugged. “Shower? And then perhaps you could also show me
around the center? I was impressed with the way you handled those boys
outside and I’d like to learn more about the things this center does.”
Emma was sure he was only humoring her, but considering that she
probably owed him several thousands of dollars to fix the windshield of his car,
perhaps a tour of the facility could ease that amount downward a bit. Any sort
of outflow of cash that didn’t help the kids was to be avoided whenever possible.
“Of course,” she responded with an enthusiastic smile.
She stepped around him, careful not to touch him in any way. Grabbing her
gym bag, she turned back to him. “I’ll just be a few moments,” she said, then
slipped gratefully out of her office, noting with frustration that the other men
who apparently were his personal body guards had followed him and were
currently stationed outside her office.
Of course, they hadn’t followed her, but had followed him since he was the
one who needed protecting, but even still, it was weird having body guards in
her center.
Rushing through her shower, she changed quickly into a cotton dress and,
not bothering to dry it due to the heat, simply pulled her hair up off her
shoulders, pinning it on top of her head and ignoring the curls that escaped out
the sides. She had always wished she had smooth, straight hair that was more
disciplined, or hair that curled softly at the ends and looked more elegant like
her friend Darcy, but she couldn’t help what she had. Besides, she only had to
impress the man with the center’s accomplishments, she reminded herself, not
with her appearance.
She stopped and applied a bit of lipstick and powder though. Not because
she wanted to make an impact on him, she told herself as she added a touch of
mascara, but only because she needed to look professional as she led him around
the facility.
Stepping out of the shower area, she felt the cool air hit her and she was
grateful. She needed more of this air conditioning to cool herself down. Her
knees were already shaking in anticipation of seeing him once again and she felt
a bit nauseous. Needing to get this over with, she dumped her bag in her office,
then went in search of her missing prince.
She found him in the study hall area, looking around at the books on the
shelves. She was proud of this area, with the relatively new computers and the
multiple shelves books of all types lining the walls and tables. She’d been able to
build up this library bigger than the city’s school library and many of the kids
flocked to this area.
“We spend a great deal of our budget on books,” she said as she approached
him.
Dharran swung around, eager to see what she looked like without the
perspiration and grungy clothes. And he definitely wasn’t disappointed. As
lovely and intriguing as she was after an energetic game, this woman was
stunning in a simple dress and sandals, fresh and vibrantly alive with her hair
curling around her forehead and delicate earlobes. His fingers itched to feel
those curls, and slide down her smooth, white skin to see if she was as soft as she
looked. Right now, she looked like a kitten. A soft, sexy kitten with topaz eyes
that promised so much. He wanted to find out more about this woman, see what
made her purr.
Patience, he told himself. He sensed a resistance about her that was unusual,
but not insurmountable. He pictured her laying back against the silk sheets of
his bed in the Paris apartment and his body hardened even more. He wanted
her, no doubt about it.
“You have an impressive library here.
How do you account for all the
books?”
Emma smiled, proud of what she’d accomplished here along with the
students and parents. “We have an honor system. The kids take the books and
promise to bring them back.”
One eyebrow went up cynically. “And if they don’t?”
“They do.”
“But if they don’t?”
Emma shrugged. “So far, it hasn’t been an issue. These kids are so starved
for knowledge and attention that taking a book and not returning it would be a
huge violation of their code here on the streets of this neighborhood.” She
touched the spine on a science book talking about chemistry. “I suppose if one
became lost, we would work something out.”
“That’s an impressive statement”
She looked into his eyes, seeing the hardness, the skepticism. “The kids who
come here have either been in a gang or experienced some other sort of violence
their whole life. If they are here, it’s a given that they want to learn or they’d still
be out on the street with their old friends. They have to earn the trust. It isn’t
given freely. But once they earn it, it’s pretty precious to them and they aren’t
willing to give it up easily.” She watched his eyes and a sadness filled her heart.
“You don’t trust very easily, do you?”
Dharran watched her features soften, an almost melting quality appeared in
their startling depths, and didn’t like it. The question was ridiculous anyway.
Trust wasn’t something he ever gave out to anyone, man or woman. He’d
learned growing up in the palace and through many political and military battles
that trust was given only by a fool. “What else does this center provide for the
neighborhood?” he asked instead of answering her question.
She hesitated before answering, looking deeply into his eyes as if she could
see into his soul. She couldn’t, he knew. His soul was black and guarded and
he’d never let anyone in, especially not a woman as beautiful as she was.
Women were playthings but, just as a kitten is cute and sweet initially, the claws
of even a small creature could draw blood.
Emma wondered what it must be like to be so hardened and distrustful.
This man had been hurt by someone in the past and she wished she had the
courage to reach out and try to heal his soul. But the man was hard, dangerous
even, she suspected and so she kept her hands by her sides. Healing this man
was for someone more courageous than she was.
Refocusing on his question, she looked away from those eyes that reminded
her of a blue tinted iceberg. “We partner with several businesses in the city to
provide a work study program for the kids who qualify. All the kids have to
achieve a certain grade point average in school to participate in the center.”
“And if they don’t achieve that?”
“We don’t turn anyone away. If their grades don’t qualify initially, all they
have to do is get help to raise their grade point average. It’s as simple as asking
one of the members to tutor them until their grades have improved enough. And
we try to entice the kids as early as possible so that they succumb to the allure of
whatever activities we have going on.”
“How do they pay for the tutors?”
She looked back at him strangely, as if the question were completely bizarre.
“They simply ask for help.”
“And the help is given freely?” he asked, one eyebrow raised as if the
possibility was completely ridiculous.
“Of course.” She stopped and looked up at him. “This is a neighborhood
center and each person who participates here is dedicated to the success of the
center. So if someone needs help, they ask for it. If they’re given help in some
way, then they try to give that back at some point. It’s a chain reaction that
supports the ongoing efforts.”
“And all agree to this benevolence?”
“Of course. Any activity needs volunteers. Each of the major events is
hosted by the participants.”
“And the food?”
“We have some funding from government and private agencies as well as
some commercial businesses, but for the most part, everyone contributes what
they can. There are some amazing cooks in this neighborhood. When we have
our next bake sale, I’ll let you know so you can sample the offerings,” she replied
with a bright smile.
He watched her lovely features light up with genuine excitement as she
spoke and he was impressed that she had accomplished so much at such a young
age. “How old are you?”
That question surprised her but it shouldn’t have. “I’m twenty-five years
old. Is that relevant?”
“To me it is,” he said and one finger ran down her cheek. “Now that you
have given me the tour of your wonderful facility, I will take you to dinner to
repay you.”
Emma stepped back, burned by his touch and terrified of his offer. It wasn’t
really an offer though, it was more of a command. She couldn’t hold his gaze
and looked away, frazzled and her heart racing. “The tour was my pleasure but
dinner is unnecessary.”
“Of course it is necessary. I would like to know more.”
“About the center.”
“About you.”
She shook her head, not wanting to get any closer to this tall, dangerous man
who terrified her on so many levels. “Thank you but I’m afraid that’s not
possible.”
“Anything is possible.”
The Billionaire’s Impulsive Lover
Chapter 1
“I’m in,” Claire Johnson whispered to herself, her fingers flying skillfully
over the keyboard as she typed in the various coding she would need. The low
murmur of voices from the other patrons faded away, her complete concentration
focused on the screen in front of her. The only pause was when she sipped her
raspberry flavored cappuccino and the delicious scent of the coffee momentarily
broke through her focus. She had to move fast, get the information and get out,
hopefully without being detected, but more importantly, without getting caught.
This project, this mission, was too important to fail. This particular coffee shop
had an extremely good connection so it was easy for her to work expeditiously.
The well-used computers weren’t the best, although they would hide her
presence adequately.
“Ha!” she laughed as the files filled up the screen and she absently tucked a
platinum curl behind her ear. With a click and a tap, she downloaded the files
onto her flash drive, unknowing and uncaring that several men stopped to
admire her Marylyn Monroe-like appearance. While the data was downloading,
she scanned the gourmet coffee bistro, blinking chocolate brown eyes made
larger with the mascara and dramatic eye liner she’d worn this morning in an
effort to create a bit of excitement to her day. She glanced to the right and left of
her temporarily rented computer, wondering if anyone else might know what
she was doing.
She’d chosen a computer closer to the window where no one else was
working so she had a bit of privacy, but she of all people knew that privacy was
illusory.
Hopefully, she was still flying under the radar but nothing was absolute.
That’s one of the reasons she was doing this at a public facility with multiple
terminals instead of at her house on her own computer. Hacking into company
databases to search for information wasn’t a good idea if one wanted to stay out
of jail. Normally, she wouldn’t have dared to do anything so drastic, but Gary
had been missing for three weeks now and she was the only person who had the
capability to figure out where he might have disappeared to, besides the police,
who hadn’t taken her seriously during her last visit.
It was also why she only accessed one database at a time, making sure no
one was able to tag her and find out where she was.
After another forty-five seconds, she had the information downloaded and
she carefully logged off of the computer. As casually as possible, she slid the
chair back and pocketed her flash drive, now filled with the information she
hoped would lead her to finding her friend. Picking up her coffee and opening a
magazine to the latest fashion article, she strolled through the coffee shop
looking as if she were trying to understand the national debt. If anyone were to
look closely, they’d notice that she wasn’t actually reading the article on the
various shoes coming onto the fashion world this fall but Claire hoped no one
was looking that carefully. Normally people in these sorts of establishments
were absorbed in their own worlds, wanting privacy themselves.
Twenty minutes later, she badged herself through the gate at her work office,
smiled to George, the security guard, and stepped into the elevator along with
about twenty other workers returning from their lunch breaks.
With a sigh, she set her cafГ© coffee on the side of her desk and pulled up the
latest computer code she’d been assigned to work on. Within another twenty
minutes, she’d fixed the code and sent it off to the programmer who was having
problems, then pulled up the next code. Claire did this for four hours, one set of
code after another, she worked on fixing other people’s errors. Some were simple
fixes that the programmers should have figured out on their own, others were
slightly more complicated, but nothing took her more than a few minutes to fix.
She’d been promoted to this position six months ago after being a programmer
for a couple of years. Her current company thought her position was a huge
advancement, had lauded her as one of the best and brightest, an up and coming
star in the corporate information technology world. Unfortunately, Claire hated
the job, even though the promotion came with a window office, which was nice,
but the space was still cramped, beige and boring.
She didn’t really think of her work as a career, since she knew she didn’t
want to do this for the rest of her life. It was just a job, one that paid the bills.
Unfortunately, her heart wasn’t really into it. She wasn’t sure what she wanted
to do, but fixing other people’s problems definitely wasn’t it and so far, she
hadn’t been able to work on any programming that was challenging and
exciting. She knew how to write code quickly and efficiently, better than the
average programmer by far. That didn’t mean she had to like it though. She
wanted something daring and exciting, something that was cutting edge and
over the top. Something that would make a difference in the world.
As soon as she walked into her apartment that night, the phone started
ringing. Dumping her laptop and purse onto a red plush chair, she picked up the
phone while checking caller ID at the same time. “Hi Darcy. No, I haven’t found
him yet, but I downloaded a bunch of data during lunch.” While her friend
spoke, she walked to her personal computer, unplugged the internet connection
and moved the mouse to take the system out of hibernation mode. She didn’t
want to analyze any data while connected. She wanted total privacy while
reviewing this information, since she wasn’t supposed to have it in the first place.
“Give me thirty minutes and I’ll call you back. Call Emma and let her know
what’s going on, okay?” Claire hung up and plugged in her flash drive. Her
fingers manipulated the information and she sifted through the data.
Darcy and Emma were her best friends, had been friends since college and
had stayed in touch ever since. They got together about once a week now,
catching up on each other’s lives.
Well, she and Darcy got together. Emma was in some foreign country,
married now to a gorgeous sheik and helping him run his empire. She’d just had
a little girl a couple of months ago but Emma still took time away from her royal
obligations to call or chat online with both her and Darcy. Their conversations
were wonderful and it didn’t matter that they weren’t physically together
anymore. Besides, Emma was madly in love with her new husband, which made
her not being a physical part of their trio much easier to endure.
Claire was starting to worry a bit about Darcy though. Her friend was
absolutely gorgeous with soft brown hair and the sexiest hazel eyes known to
womanhood. Darcy was also estranged from her mob boss father and brother,
her mother having passed away when she was younger. Darcy’s father was
constantly trying to get his daughter into settle down to a good mafia marriage.
Darcy on the other hand, wanted nothing to do with that world, abhorring the
criminal element and what they did to society. Instead, she used her celebrity
status to raise money for her one and only passion; animals.
About once a month, Darcy would hit the nightclubs, getting paid to show
up simply because the paparazzi would photograph her coming and going,
report on anything she did, who she danced with, what she wore and anyone she
spoke with. It was the perfect advertising for the nightclubs, who got their
names in the tabloids and glossy magazines, and with Darcy’s stamp of
approval, their success was practically guaranteed. Any club Darcy showed up
at became an instant success, and the current talk of the town, with other
celebrities following wherever she appeared.
The fact that Darcy only showed up occasionally in public only increased her
mystique, the papers frantically trying to anticipate where she might be and
what she did while she was out of circulation. The rumors were rampant that
she’d slept with many, many men. The truth was the complete opposite, but
Darcy didn’t care what the tabloids said, as long as the night clubs continued to
pay her to show up and she could fund her animal rescue hospital.
Claire’s concern came with Darcy’s increasing celebrity status and the way
the paparazzi were following her so obsessively. Men were also considering her
a challenge, which was increasing her costs because she now had to hire
additional body guards when she went out. It was all a game, but Claire worried
that something bad would happen to Darcy, perhaps that one of her fans would
take things too far, or that her attitude towards men would continue to
deteriorate. It was a difficult tightrope Darcy walked, one that could cause
serious harm if she were to fail in some way.
Vowing to discuss her concerns with Darcy the next time they met for lunch,
Claire’s fingers whipped through the data, sorting and filing much of it for later,
but trying to zero in on anything that could give her a clue that Gary might be
doing something for someone at this particular company. She knew he was a
private investigator who had worked for Titus Securities, but mostly under
cover.
After a half hour, she realized that the information she’d recovered today
was useless. There wasn’t a single indication that Gary had ever worked for
Titus Securities, but that might be simply because she hadn’t gone deep enough
or that this round of data didn’t include the clues necessary to determine his
assignments and where he might be now. Hopefully, he was still working and
not lying in a ditch somewhere, hurt and unable to get help.
Sighing with frustration, she plopped her head in her hand, closing her
brown eyes before the tears of frustration started. Claire knew in her heart that
something was wrong. Gary had been so sweet and attentive, always bringing
her coffee at work, meeting her for lunch and bringing her flowers before almost
every date, leaving her each evening with a gentle kiss and no pressure. He was
the ultimate boyfriend, she remembered as she dialed up Darcy’s number. She
couldn’t leave a man like that to some horrible fate. No, any man who wanted to
just be with her on a date, who didn’t make a move for something she wasn’t
willing to give, was definitely worth the effort to help when he was in trouble.
Except for that one little thing, she thought. The one fly in the ointment of
their perfect relationship. He just didn’t turn her on like she wanted. There was
no fire when they touched, no sparks after, or during, any kiss. It was nice and
pleasant, but Claire wanted passion. She wanted excitement and danger.
Sighing, she thought that perhaps she just couldn’t have that kind of
experience with a man. She was starting to suspect that she’d simply have to
find that through her work life. She’d dated so many men over the years and not
a single one tempted her even a little bit. Gary was kind and considerate though,
which covered a lot more ground than the other men of her past. Most of them
were obnoxious and few had lasted more than a couple of weeks because she
simply wasn’t willing to put up with their pressure to take their relationship to
the next level. None of them tempted her to go down that path.
Maybe that’s why she was so interested in Gary. He represented all the
things she wanted to do with her life. He was kind, considerate, fun, had a very
exciting career based on the cases he’d told her about on their dinner dates, and
he had to disappear every once in a while for what she thought had been
exciting, secret agent types of missions. Meanwhile, she was stuck in a computer
job that had her tied to a desk reviewing other peoples’ code.
Claire waited while Darcy’s phone rang, wondering if maybe an aerobics
class or perhaps a pottery class could fill the void she was feeling now.
“Nothing,” she said as soon as Darcy answered the phone. “Not even a social
security number that would indicate he had worked for Titus in the past.”
Darcy sighed with relief. “Are you going to accept that Gary lied to you
now?”
Claire sat up straighter at her desk, surprised that Darcy had jumped to that
conclusion after such a short investigation. “He didn’t lie to me. I just haven’t
found the information that can help him.”
“You’re being sweet and loyal, Claire. But perhaps a bit obtuse as well
because you’re lonely and bored, a dangerous combination with someone as
brilliant as you are, I’m realizing. If there’s no indication that the man worked
for Titus Securities, then maybe he didn’t work for that company and lied about
the fact that he was even employed.”
Claire instantly rejected that idea. “No. In my gut, I know something is
wrong. He wasn’t the kind of person who would simply leave like this. He’s in
trouble. I can feel it.”
Darcy groaned softly but the sound came through the phone lines. “Claire,
you’re about as stubborn as they come, aren’t you?”
“Absolutely not. I prefer to think of myself as tenacious,” she said with a
mischievous smile.
“Potato, patahto,” Darcy chimed. “You’re out of your mind and one of these
days you’re going to get yourself into a heap of trouble. The police should be
looking into this guy’s disappearance. Not you. You’re not equipped to deal
with all the intricacies of this kind of situation, despite your unquestioned
brilliance at software programming.”
Claire pushed her fingers through her platinum hair with frustration. “I
went to the police. They shrugged it off like Gary had just found another
girlfriend. They wouldn’t believe me when I explained that I knew something
was wrong.”
Darcy heard the tone in Claire’s voice and knew there was more to the story
than what Claire was saying. “And? What happened next?”
Claire sighed and slumped back in her chair. “He hit on me. Asked me out
to dinner and said he’d be happy to take Gary’s place.”
Darcy laughed but Claire didn’t think it was very funny. “You’re laughing,
but you don’t like it either when men think you’re easy. And I can’t even
describe the irritating leer the police officer gave me as he leaned over the
counter to get a closer look down my sweater. He actually thought I was too
stupid to realize what he was doing!”
“I’m always amazed at how men underestimate you. And I’m with ya on the
irritating men hitting on women side of things too,” she agreed and sobered
quickly. “But it’s just comical the way men are around you. It’s like you’re some
sort of honey and all the bees are flocking to you.”
“That’s silly. Especially coming from you. You always have a man on your
arm when you hit the clubs.”
“That’s all advertising and contracts. The men I’m with have paid to be on
my arm.”
That stunned her. “Really?”
“Sure,” Darcy confirmed. “My agent suggested it about a year ago. She
explained that some men just wanted their names attached to mine, exactly like
the night clubs. So she said we should get paid for that as well.”
“Isn’t that dangerous?”
“It’s all choreographed, just like the night club visits. They sign a contract
that is pretty tight. Some of the men reject the contract thinking a date with me
might get them a chance at more, but that’s their choice. The terms are nonnegotiable and I’d rather know up front if a guy is going to be a problem. The
contract terms easily weeds out the freaks.”
Claire considered that for a moment. “Interesting,” she thought, wondering
if perhaps Titus contracted out help to private contractors.
“Claire, I don’t like the sound of that tone. What are you thinking?” Darcy
asked.
Claire was already distracted, her fingers typing in new code for her next
visit to a coffee shop. “I’ll get back to you when I have more details,” she said
and hung up before Darcy could argue with her. She loved her friend but at
times, Darcy was too much of a mother hen, wanting to protect her chicks from
non-existent wolves.
Chapter 2
“Another breach, sir,” Jeff Fulton said as he walked into Mitch Sargent’s
office. Tossing a report on the man’s desk, he stood in front of it, prepared to
answer questions.
Mitch picked up the report, instantly irritated but not showing anything on
his hard, experienced face. “Where was it this time and how the hell did
someone get through our firewalls again? It’s like this person doesn’t even
realize there’s a security wall to breach, they get in to our systems much too
easily.”
“Anther coffee shop with pay by the hour internet access. The code is good,”
Gary said, letting the information sink in. “Whoever this hacker is, they’re
looking for something specific. The same types of files are downloaded each
time.”
“What type of files is the hacker getting into?” he demanded, his ice grey
eyes quickly skimming through the details of the hacker’s code. Mitch was
impressed despite himself. This code was good and fast, going for exactly one
type of file with efficiency. “Human resources data?” he guessed.
“Exactly,” Gary confirmed.
“None of the stolen data is confidential
information but it could be pretty important.”
“We do it ourselves when we need information about certain issues. We do it
legally though.” Mitch tossed the report onto his large, polished desk and
looked out at the magnificent view from his office window. From here he could
see the Shenandoah Mountains which never ceased to amaze him. Their majestic
peaks and valleys, old, weathered and beaten but still standing tall in the
distance, served as inspiration as well as a challenge and he loved the sight as
much as he loved this company he’d built up on his own from sweat, hard work
and intelligence. Titus Securities was known internationally for ensuring
corporate data and superior building security, among other things. And this
hacker, although only a nuisance, he was getting into information that was none
of his business. But until Mitch could figure out what they were going after, he
wanted them to keep on digging.
Dismissing Jeff with a curt nod, he rubbed his chin, considering all the
options. “I’ll get back to you shortly,” he said and turned to his computer. This
wasn’t a normal computer though. This puppy was state of the art with eight
screens and connections to some of the world’s most protected information.
His concentration was unswerving as he worked through the details of a
program. Mitch didn’t even notice that the daylight had faded and velvety night
time was moving deep into the morning hours. When he finally looked up and
stretched, he’d been working for twelve hours straight but the program he’d
created was perfect. There was a Trojan horse that would be installed whenever
someone hacked into one of his computer systems again. If they downloaded
information from his company one more time, they’d also be downloading a
virus that would give him the information he needed to catch the bastards.
With another few clicks on his keyboard, he sent it off to his security team
with instructions on how to load it up.
First thing in the morning, all the
databases would be loaded and, when this hacker tried again, he’d have the
location of where they were downloading the data within seconds.
Catching the person was another issue, he thought. Going down to the
communications control room, he went directly to the map of Washington, DC,
ignoring the shocked reactions of the late night analysts who were working on
their monitors. It was extremely rare that the CEO of their company showed up
in the control room.
Titus Securities was headquartered in Washington, D.C. but he had branches
in fifteen other cities of the United States and twelve countries worldwide. All
the coffee shops that had sponsored the hacker were located in the Alexandria,
Virginia area, a suburb of Washington, D.C. which was a data point in itself.
With a red erasable marker, he worked on locating each of the coffee shops.
Realizing when he was done that the marks were scattered within a five mile
radius of each other. Another interesting point.
As he worked on the details, the night shift shut down and the morning crew
came back in, all of them staying quiet as they noticed their big boss working in
the control room.
By eight the next morning, Mitch was on his second pot of coffee and Jeff
strolled up next to him. Noting his boss’s unshaved appearance and slightly
unkempt clothing, which was normally immaculate, he deduced that Mitch
hadn’t left the building yet. “Find anything interesting?” he asked as Mitch
grimaced on a large swallow of cold coffee. “I got more information last night,”
he said and showed Mitch the cross checking he’d done overnight.
Mitch was impressed and, with another few keystrokes, he loaded Jeff’s
information into his. As the other analysts noticed what was on the main screen,
a few of them came over and started brainstorming. Mitch took their ideas,
working them into what information they had and by lunch time, he had a plan
and a program that would start to close in on the culprit.
“Good work, everyone,” he said to the group of men and women who were
the brains of his analytical operation. All of them had higher than average IQs
but were a little less socially adept. As long as they could whiz through
computer systems, he didn’t care if they dated. They produced results and that
was enough for him.
An hour later, he drove home, his sleek grey Jaguar eating up the miles into
the mountain side until he came to the tree line that hid the entrance to his house.
The large, white modern building was an oasis from the chaos that sometimes
erupted in his business. As he walked into the house, he greeted Duke, his
German shepherd guard dog and best friend who was already wagging his tale
in anticipation of their nightly adventures, stripped off his clothes and walked
straight out to the swimming pool. With one clean stroke, he dove into the pool,
instantly feeling refreshed. He swam lap after lap for over an hour, tossing the
ball to Duke who jumped into the pool after retrieving the ball, happily bringing
the ball back to his master. The punishing swim and the enthusiastic antics of his
fierce friend quickly cleared his mind of the cobwebs from the previous eighteen
hours but he mentally continued to go through the details of his programming
and trap to see if there was something else he could do to catch this person. He
didn’t like someone trying to hack into his company files and he was damn well
going to throw the person into prison for as long as possible. The trick was
catching the culprits.
The Russian’s Tender Lover
Chapter 1
Darcy watched it all as if it were a movie. The only way to get through the
evening was to pretend like she wasn’t here. It was the only way to get through
the night so the flashing lights didn’t make her dizzy, the painfully loud music,
which could be felt by the thumping vibrations as well as heard, didn’t give her a
splitting headache and the four inch heels she was wearing didn’t make her feet
ache as if the bones themselves were rebelling against the abuse. Instead of being
in the middle of the dance floor as she was now, she pretended that she was
sitting in a comfortable theatre seat watching the scene. In her movie, the people
moving to the heavy beat of the music, laughing and flirting, were all actors, all
playing their parts.
As was she. She was only an actress playing a part, Darcy reminded herself.
She’d developed this part, this character, coming up with the props,
choreographing not just the movements but also the entrance and exits of the
main players in each scene, the accessories, the clothing. She’d even written the
script. It had taken her years to perfect this scene, years of sweat and aching feet,
cheeks sore from smiling and laughing, sleep deprived nights, exhausting,
draining flights zipping across the globe to wherever the next scene needed to be
played. She had worked to ensure that the correct “audience” was watching too.
It wasn’t all about the place, props and the costumes. Any director will admit
that the audience is key. Play to the audience and everything works out exactly
as planned.
Smothering a yawn because there as always someone watching, Darcy
continued moving, swinging, laughing. All in an effort to play to the audience.
Every time she wanted to just toss everything to the wind, she reminded herself
of Fred and Ginger. They needed her. She was all they had and she couldn’t let
them or any of the others down.
“I need a drink,” she yelled out above the music. Without waiting for a
response, she turned on her already indignant toes and glided off the dance floor
heading straight to the bar. Uncaring if her dance partner was with her or had
even heard her, she slipped between the tightly packed bodies until she reached
the bar, her eyes rapidly surveying the group of bartenders working diligently to
mix all the drinks for the other patrons, slipping their tips into pockets, ringing
up credit cards and flashing smiles to whoever was the highest bidder. It was all
so cumbersome, she thought, smiling as seductively as possible to Jim, another
actor who was playing his part perfectly.
Stepping up onto the stool’s wooden foot rest next to her, she was able to get
her whole upper body above the bar. Leaning over at the exact angle so that her
dress titillated those behind her, hoping to get a flash of more than simply skin,
she also purposely looked like she was flashing the bartender, who ogled on cue,
and then smiled his gratitude as he leaned in as Darcy whispered something in
his ear. Right on time, she felt rather than saw, the flash out of the corner of her
eye.
Perfect, she thought with relish. The cameras had been smuggled in
somehow, as they always were. Those paparazzi were ingenious at stalking their
prey.
Nodding, the bartender moved back, winked and proceeded to mix her
“special”. A few moments later, two large martini glasses were placed in front of
her, just as her dance partner managed to make his way to her side. Her partner
apparently wasn’t as agile at sneaking through hot, sweaty bodies as she was,
but since this was her profession, she’d refined her skill so she was especially
adept at maneuvering through the throngs.
Leaning against him slightly, she smiled up at him, winked and downed the
contents of the first glass in one smooth movement. With a walk that started to
falter, she reached out to hand the martini glass back to the bartender with a nod
to fill it up again. “More of the same!” she called out, being heard by several
other patrons nearby. Her dance partner wasn’t as smooth and was only able to
sip his martini. She felt a bit sorry for him since his was straight gin with only a
breath of vermouth but there was no time for sympathy in this drama. The play
had to go on!
When the next martini arrived with great fanfare, she drank half of that one
as well, then pressed against her date, smiling seductively up at him, winked,
then moved back through the crowd, all of whom recognized her by now and
moved out of the way, eager to see what antics she’d be up to tonight.
Chapter 2
Just a few more minutes, Darcy told herself, trying to encourage her feet to
keep moving despite the painful throb each time she stepped onto the hard
concrete surface of the sidewalk. She and her “date” had just left the night club
and the limousine was within reach so she only had a few more steps and she’d
be okay. George, her driver, stood beside the back door, holding it open as she
and her date made their way from the last nightclub of the evening to the car.
Just a few more steps and she’d be done for the night, she told herself. Smile,
look up at the guy adoringly, three steps, avoid looking at the flashes of cameras,
she told herself, stumble a bit more to make the ten “martinis” more believable.
It was all choreographed perfectly and she had to maintain her character for only
a few more moments.
At the open doorway of the limousine, she stopped and looked up at her
date as if she were in love, making sure the name of the nightclub was in the
background.
Not that she’d know what being in love felt like, she thought disdainfully as
her date helped her into the waiting back seat. As a bonus, because this guy was
so nice and considerate, she leaned up and touched his cheek with her hand,
looking into his eyes, seduction evident in every movement. And Jeremy, sweet,
considerate, kind Jeremy, moments before he too dove into the back of the
limousine, howled like a wolf in heat. She heard the chuckles of the papparazi a
moment before Jeremy slammed the door closed as the engine pulled the long,
sleek car away from the curb. Away from the flashes of cameras that made the
wee hours of the morning light up like it was mid-day on a hot beach.
Darcy laughed as Jeremy chuckled and messed up his hair.
“Good job, Jeremy,” she said without even a trace of an inebriated slur.
He ruffled his already messed up hair and sighed, sinking into the soft
leather of the luxurious seats. “That was fun,” he replied. “You’re very good at
this.”
She waved her hand as she slipped off her strappy shoes, cringing painfully
as the leather straps pulled way from her tender skin. Straightening her feet was
the next best thing to heaven, she thought. Or at least right now. She’d soak her
feet as soon as she could, easing the pain a bit more.
“It’s all in a night’s work,” she said once her shoes were off and she could
straighten out again. A moment later, she pulled a bag off the opposite seat and
unzipped the top. “You’re going to have to turn away for a moment.” She
pulled out a pair of well worn jeans and a sweat shirt.
Jeremy did as she asked, even closing his eyes so he couldn’t see her
reflection in the darkly tinted window. Not that he’d see anything. Her night
clubbing costume came complete with a body stocking that was comfortable
enough to wear underneath her sweatshirt while she could just slide her jeans up
underneath her itsy bitsy dress. The body stocking covered everything
underneath her dress and ensured that she could move around during these
plays without any embarrassing photos showing up on the internet the following
morning.
It took her less than sixty seconds to get out of her costume, at which time
she tossed the dress onto the other seat. She didn’t care how it landed, she’d
never be able to wear it again after tonight. It would go to a consignment shop
for re-sale, but not quite yet. She had to wait until the photos of her in the dress
showed up in the tabloids and sometimes that took a few weeks. Even her dress
sales were carefully choreographed.
“Thanks, you can turn around now.”
Jeremy immediately turned, his
eyes
widening
at
her
complete
transformation. “Wow, you really hated that dress, huh?”
“Oh yeah,” Darcy replied with fervor. “They’re all pretty annoying but serve
a higher purpose. Are they still following us, George?” she called to the driver.
“I think I lost them a few blocks back but give me a bit more time just to
make sure,” he replied.
Darcy nodded her head and started pulling out pins from her hair. “Don’t
you want to take off that tie? Relax a bit?”
Jeremy shook his head. “This is a bit too fascinating to ignore.” He watched
as her long, brown tresses fell down around her shoulders, which were then
quickly gathered back up and clamped together with an old scrunchy, complete
with locks hanging down behind her and loosely hanging down about her neck
and shoulders. At this point in the evening, she didn’t care if her hair looked
neat and tidy or like a rat’s nest as long as nothing was poking her scalp.
Next came the makeup cloths. Darcy loved this process the most. As she
wiped the already damp cloths against her skin, she could feel her pores start
breathing once again. This process took significantly longer than the clothes and
hair transformation, but when she was finished, Jeremy’s whistle of
astonishment proved that she was completely transformed.
“You could pass for the girl next door,” he said, amazed at the before and
after difference in the woman with whom he’d just spent the last several hours
dancing.
“Bite your tongue!” she said, looking at him aghast.
He laughed and glanced back through the rear window. “Looks like we’re
free.”
Darcy looked as well, her eyes scanning the buildings and corners, ensuring
that they weren’t being followed. “I think you’re correct.” Calling out to George,
“What do you think? Are we safe?”
“Think so!” he replied and immediately swung to the left, heading towards
the rendezvous point. Thankfully it was only minutes away but Darcy was
already packed up by the time the limousine pulled up next to the darkened
Lincoln. Sticking out her hand, she smiled, “Jeremy, you were wonderful
tonight. Let’s hope we both have good outcomes tomorrow.”
“You’re a real trip,” he commented back, taking her hand and shaking it
firmly.
As soon as the limousine stopped, Darcy jumped out and dove into the
passenger seat of the waiting Lincoln. As soon as both doors were closed, the
black vehicles separated, splitting off and going in opposite directions.
“You’re right on time, Matt,” she sighed as the driver and her friend winked
at her and turned up the heat, knowing how she felt the cold more than others.
He always told her it was because she didn’t have enough body fat but she
would just roll her eyes and shake her head.
Darcy looked out at the night, sighing wearily. The city lights flashed by but
she didn’t see them anymore. She was tired of the lights, tired of the game.
Tired of everything right at the moment.
As they traveled away from the city, slowly the city lights faded and became
fewer but the Lincoln continued to travel west, heading into the rural areas
beyond the city. Darcy wouldn’t know this since she was fast asleep, her legs
tucked underneath her and her head resting on her bag as a pillow.
The sun was almost over the horizon when the Lincoln came to a gentle stop.
Matt put the car into park then got out and came around to the side. “Darcy.
You’re home,” he whispered.
From experience, he knew to wake her slowly. She was generally disoriented
when she was out this completely and would need a bit of help.
Darcy sat up and looked around, not saying a word. There was only one
light on outside the car but her mind slowly started to function. “We’re home,”
she croaked out, her voice gone from all the shouting in the clubs, not to mention
the smoke of the night clubs.
“Yep. Do you need help walking?” Matt asked.
Darcy shook her head and slid off the seat. Taking a tentative step, she
pulled herself out of the car, grabbing the sides to steady herself. The walk from
the car to her tiny cottage seemed like a mile but in reality it was only about
twenty feet. “I’m fine,” she claimed, trying to reassure both herself as well as
Matt who was hovering, looking concerned. “Don’t worry about me. Go ahead
and let Dave know that you’re back. He always worries on these nights.”
“Dave knows the drill just as well as I do and I’m not leaving until you’re
sitting on the side of your bed, darling.”
Dave and Matt were significant others who helped her on so many levels, not
to mention just being very good friends. Matt was always there for her, knew the
routine and no matter what Darcy said, he wouldn’t leave her until she was in
her snug little cottage. There was a great deal of comfort knowing that someone
was there to pick you up when you fall, she thought, smiling at his stubborn
expression.
Sure enough, as soon as she stepped out of the car, her legs gave out on her,
too tired from hours of dancing in painfully high heeled sandals. That’s what
happens when one doesn’t train for these things correctly.
Matt didn’t laugh, didn’t joke or say “I told you so”. He simply put a long,
muscular arm around her waist and took most of her weight onto his side,
practically carrying her inside.
The lights were dim and she sighed with pleasure as she spotted her bed,
quilt turned back and pillows even fluffed. “Dave’s a good guy,” she sighed as
Matt lowered her to the bed. He even bent down and pulled her sneakers off.
“He sure is, love. Go to sleep,” he said but he didn’t need to tell her. Darcy
had already slid down onto the mattress, jeans and all, her arms curled up under
her pillow as she sighed with happiness.
Chapter 3
Sergei Anchova’s cup stopped mid way to his mouth, his concentration
broken by the doors to his office bursting open, his baby sister in tears as she
stomped up to his desk. He was busy reviewing the latest financial reports on
one of his companies and wasn’t amused by the interruption.
“You have to do something, Sergei! This has to stop!”
Sergei considered family most important, until they gave him orders. His
little sister was generally a beautiful woman with her blond hair curling softly
around her shoulders. That image was distorted at the moment since her brown
eyes were tearfully shooting daggers at him. Besides her lovely exterior beauty
that could so easily be destroyed by her anger issues, she also possessed a
lamentable addiction to being spoiled and a sense of entitlement that he couldn’t
seem to break her free of. On more than one occasion, he’d considered cutting off
her allowance and forcing her to work for a living, but his mother had always
talked him out of it somehow.
Carefully setting the china cup back onto the saucer, he looked calmly at the
crazed looking termagant standing in front of him. “Good afternoon, Anya. To
what do I owe this…not so unprecedented outburst?”
Anya was a decent sort, tending to be a bit impetuous but he attributed this
latest outburst to her upcoming nuptials, assuming something else with one of
her vendors had gone wrong and she wanted him to fix it. Again.
“I told you. Get rid of her!”
Sergei leaned back in his chair, noting the color in his sister’s cheeks and the
tears artfully dropping from her long, black lashes. She really was a lovely girl, if
she would just grow up and gain some perspective. Obtaining employment
would be advantageous to her temperament, although he doubted she would
follow through on anything.
It was probably his fault though. Being thirteen years older, he tended to see
her as more of a child. It didn’t help that she acted like one more often than he
cared to admit. But she was getting married, albeit to a man he didn’t fully
approve of yet. If Sergei had his way, he’d marry his sister off to someone with a
bit more back bone. Anya tended to walk over her fiancГ©e, Nicolai, who did
everything she demanded of him.
She claimed to love him though, so he’d allowed the wedding to proceed.
Although he was currently tempted to send her to her room rather than indulge
in yet another fit of outrage over something probably as trivial as the napkins
being rose instead of blush, a detail he couldn’t give a damn about but was
apparently of utmost importance to a bride.
“Could you be a bit more specific?” he inquired, nodding to one of the chairs
in front of his desk, silently ordering his sister to take a seat and calm down.
Anya didn’t heed the warning, but continued to rant and rave, becoming
more agitated when she realized that her big brother, the man who always came
to her rescue, was not as outraged at this latest atrocity as she thought he should
be. “That woman! She’s stealing Nico from me!”
A napkin was one thing. An insult to his family name and honor was
entirely a different matter. With deadly calm, Sergei stared his sister into silence.
“Please explain in more detail, Anya,” he commanded.
Now that she had her brother’s full attention, she took a deep breath and sat
down in one of the chairs. “That witch! That stupid, vile, fiancé stealer has put
some sort of spell on Nico and now he wants to call off the wedding. A month
before the date! I’ve already had my final fitting!”
Sergei didn’t give a whit about her dress. A cheating fiancé, on the other
hand, was a completely different subject. That implied weakness on his part,
something he would not allow to persist. In business, any sign of weakness was
considered an invitation to raid.
He wouldn’t allow anyone to consider him, or his family, weak.
“Tell me more,” he said with soft, deadly patience.
Anya hesitated, not sure that coming to her merciless older brother was such
a good idea now. “You won’t hurt him, Sergei!” she sniffed.
“I will do what needs to be done. Tell me why you think he’s cheating on
you.”
She hesitated once more, but wasn’t willing to let her Nicolai go to this tramp
of a woman. She loved him too much and she needed desperately to marry him.
Although she couldn’t tell her brother that, or he’d…she shuddered, not wanting
to contemplate what he might do if he knew the truth. Sergei was not just
merciless, he was terrifying when he put actions into play. She’d seen him crush
his competition over the years and even as a small girl, she’d known not to get in
his way.
Anya was eternally glad that he was on her side, she thought as she took a
deep breath. “Over the past week, I’d noticed that he kept calling one phone
number repeatedly, so last night, I stole his cell phone and found the number.
After finding out who it was, I was livid. I told him to delete the number from
both his cell phone as well as his memory and never see her again, but he
refused. He said he was in love with her and had to find out if there was
anything between them.”
Sergei raised a thin eyebrow at her words. “Your fiancé is in love with
another woman? And you still want him?”
She scoffed. “Nico isn’t in love with that tramp! He’s just having prewedding jitters. But it’s humiliating and I want it stopped. You’re the only one I
could turn to who wouldn’t blab the news all over the tabloids.”
Sergei acknowledged her assumptions with a nod of his head. “It was wise
of you to bring this to me. Although I would recommend that you eliminate him
from your life, despite the wedding. He isn’t worthy of your love if he’s going
off calling another woman.”
“But don’t you see? He really does love me. And he’s perfect for me. I just
know we’ll be happy once he forgets her and comes back to me. It’s all just a
silly little crush that he’s using as a way to weasel out of the wedding. He’ll be
fine once he understands that.”
“Why don’t you talk to him?”
She didn’t answer for a moment, trying to control the tears that threatened
her makeup once again. “Because he’s gone off in search of this….”
Cutting her off before she started voicing more foul language which would
only delay understanding of the issue, he smoothly interrupted, “Why did he
have to leave?”
Anya waved her hand in the air as if his question was silly. “Because no one
knows where she goes. The rumor mill has her in a million different places so
even I can’t find her. I’ve even called all my favors with the press and they’re
stumped. You wouldn’t believe what I had to promise to make sure this didn’t
get into the tabloids.”
Sergei sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Perhaps you should fill in
the details. A name would be helpful.”
“Darcy DiAngelo,” she said with exasperation. “Haven’t you been listening
to anything I’ve said?”
“Yes. Of course, but I can assure you that at no point in our conversation did
you ever provide a name for this mysterious vixen.”
Anya was having none of that. “Don’t call her anything so complimentary.
She’s horrible and she’s ruining my life!”
“I would argue that perhaps Nicolai is the responsible party. Or more
specifically, you are giving someone the power to do that to you.”
She waved that aside. “Don’t give me that philosophical mumbo-jumbo,
Sergei. Will you help me or not?”
“Of course. I cannot have your fiancé embarrassing the Anchova name. I
will have him back at your side for the Brenizi party.”
Anya jumped up, all smiles once again now that her latest problem had been
resolved and she didn’t have to lift a finger.
The Billionaire’s Gentle Rescue
Chapter 1
Zoe Parker stared at the piece of paper detailing her company’s financials,
closed her eyes for a moment while she took a deep, calming breath, and then
opened her eyes so she could look one more time. Unfortunately, the numbers
didn’t change! She took another deep breath and tried to calm down. Something
had to be incorrect because this balance simply couldn’t be accurate.
That negative sign before the ending total surely couldn’t be right! There
had to be a mistake, someone had calculated the amounts wrong or a number
entered incorrectly.
With shaking fingers, she dialed her bank, not even patient enough to deal
with an e-mail which she normally would have preferred to use. That negative
balance at the bottom of the page was too terrifying to wait for an e-mail
response.
When she finally reached a human being, Zoe gave the teller her account
information and all the pertinent information. “Can you confirm my company’s
bank balance?” she asked, almost whispering through the phone.
When the woman read off the amount, it was the exact same amount that
was on her statement. “But how can that be?” she asked, trying to think and not
let the panic overwhelm her. “The balance on last month’s statement was…” she
rifled through the papers on her desk and came up with the prior month’s
statement, “It was over one hundred thousand dollars,” she said, swallowing
painfully.
“That’s correct ma’am, but there was a large payment made one week ago, a
check submitted to a bank in the Cayman Islands.”
Zoe was already shaking her head. “No. That can’t be correct. There’s a
mistake. I don’t do business with anyone in the Cayman Islands.”
There was a moment of silence on the other end of the phone, then some
tapping on a keyboard. “I’m sending a scan of the check to you now.”
Zoe gripped the phone with one hand while she pulled her keyboard closer
with the other, typing in the password to get to her e-mail account. “I see it,” she
said and pressed the key that would open up the check. As she stared at it, she
started shaking. “No, this isn’t possible. We don’t have any business with this
vendor. I don’t understand.”
“There have been over a dozen other checks made to that account in the past
ten months, ma’am,” the teller explained kindly. “Could this possibly be a
matter that we need to bring the police in on?” she asked politely.
Zoe nodded her head, then realized that the teller couldn’t see her. “Yes. I
believe this is definitely a matter for the police. I think there’s been a mistake.
Let me call my accountant and I’ll get back to you.”
She hung up the phone and quickly dialed Andrew Miller’s private office,
her fingers almost missing the numbers they were shaking so violently. The
phone line didn’t pick up although she let it ring more than twenty times. She
hung up the phone and jumped about a foot when someone knocked on her
door.
“Look at this fabric!” her assistant Debbie said, bubbling over with
excitement as she showed Zoe a bolt of butter yellow silk satin that seemed to
change colors as Debbie moved it in the light. One moment it was buttercup
yellow, the next it was a shimmering peacock green. “Isn’t it amazing?”
Any other time, Zoe would have instantly moved from her desk to her
drawing board, coming up with several dress designs that would suit fabric so
stunning. But right at the moment, there was no creative inspiration, no designs
zinging through her mind and no price point on which to sell the final design.
There was nothing but a paralyzing fear of what the future of her clothing design
company might be if she didn’t find her accountant and get this mess
straightened out with the bank.
“It’s lovely,” Zoe replied with as much enthusiasm as she could muster
under the circumstances.
Unfortunately, Debbie wasn’t fooled. “What’s wrong?” she asked, placing
the bolt of fabric onto the table.
expecting?”
“Did Justin break it off like you were
Zoe had completely forgotten about her wayward boyfriend who had missed
the last few dates they had set up. This morning, Zoe had been pretty blasГ©
about the whole thing, not hurt at all by Justin’s defection. In fact, she’d actually
been relieved because she knew she wasn’t interested in Justin although she’d
tried very hard this time around to show more interest. Her friends had been
teasing her about her lack of romance, and all because she refused to settle for
lukewarm ardor from a man. She’d experienced intense passion once, although
it was a long, long time ago. They all told her that mind blowing, finger zinging
passion didn’t truly exist, except in her imagination and she needed to be more
realistic and give men more of a chance.
Zoe had tried, but she just couldn’t settle. She’d never been one to settle in
her life, which was why she’d been able to create her own company,
manufacturing her own designs every quarter with seven percent annual growth
over the past four years. She’d never settled romantically either, although she’d
dated some genuine losers over the years trying to recreate that passion she’d
experience once.
“Justin wasn’t one of those liars or cheats you’ve dated in the past,” Debbie
was saying. “He was the genuine article. He was one of those nice, sweet,
dependable guys a woman can count on and settle down with. You even ran a
background check on him, nothing came up. So what was the problem?”
Zoe shook her head, her long, brown hair falling about her shoulders over
the long sleeved red sheath dress she’d worn today, reminding her that she was
supposed to meet Justin for lunch. “Justin and I didn’t break up,” she said. “But
I have something urgent to do.” Her mind worked frantically to come up with
an excuse that wouldn’t throw her friend and assistant into the same panic Zoe
was currently fighting. “The fabrics for the spring line are held up so I need to
find another supplier,” she lied, coming up with the first thing she could think of.
She hated lying to Debbie who had been with her since the beginning, hanging
on during the troubled times with late nights, no sleep, pricked fingers, crazy
vendors, clients and employees as well as lots of tears and laughter. Zoe couldn’t
tell her friend that the business might be bankrupt. Not right now anyway.
“Ugh!” Debbie replied, rolling her eyes. “If that supplier didn’t have the best
fabric designs, I’d tell you to find someone else. But they really are spectacular,”
she said and backed out of the office. “I’ll leave that with you anyway,”
indicating the iridescent yellow fabric. “I can’t wait to see what you come up
with for that color,” she said and closed the door once again.
As soon as she was alone again, Zoe’s office was once again thrown into
stunned, horrified silence. The work room beyond her office filled with more
than fifty staff members were all laughing and chatting as they worked hard to
finish the orders for the current fall line which was due to be mailed by Friday.
Since it was Wednesday already, they had only two days left. Thankfully, this
crew was loyal and dedicated and the previous pattern of crazy time crunch and
late nights in order to meet the supply order deadlines wasn’t going to happen
this quarter.
Zoe picked up the phone once again and called her accountant’s home phone
number. She almost started crying when the mechanical voice told her that the
phone had been disconnected.
Grabbing her purse, she raced out of the office, waving to anyone who called
out to her. Normally, she would stop and answer questions but today, the crisis
was just too ghastly.
In her car, she sped out of the parking lot behind her building, slipping
sunglasses on as she exited from the alley into the bright sunshine. This couldn’t
be happening, she thought, trying to remain as calm as possible. There was too
much money involved, too many lives that would be impacted if her suspicions
were correct.
Three hours later, her whole body ached. She let herself into her loft
apartment, slipped her feet out of her shoes, and then curled up on the multi
colored sofa. The loft was basically the only thing she had left. She had no
money to make payroll, which was due in five days. Apparently, she hadn’t been
paying her suppliers for the past three months and there was no trace of her
accountant. His office was even cleared out, not even a desk was left and the
trash had been taken out. Not a scrap of paper or furniture anywhere in the suite
where he’d previously had several assistants working diligently. His house out
in the suburbs was empty with a “Sold” sign in the front yard. There wasn’t
even a newspaper in the driveway, so thoroughly had the place been cleaned out
and shut down.
Apparently her accountant had been planning this for months, stocking up
the money she’d entrusted to him to pay her bills and make her payroll. He’d
wiped her out. She had some money in her private account, but that was only
enough to cover her personal bills each month. She didn’t take a salary, putting
everything back into her business so even that amount would run dry very soon.
She’d been trying desperately hard to come up with explanations for the lack
of funding, but when she’d found Andrew’s home empty, she couldn’t deny the
truth any longer. She’d been robbed. Her accountant had embezzled all her
money and she had nothing left. Nothing but her clothes.
She’d gone to the police and filed a report, but their initial search had shown
that Andrew had already left the country, his passport number showing him
leaving the Unites States through the Miami Airport yesterday afternoon,
heading to Grand Cayman. There wasn’t anything she could do from that end,
but they would pursue some leads and check with his other clients to see if they
had also been robbed.
It didn’t matter that she was the victim of a crime and that the police were
now involved to try and help, she’d still lose her company, the people who were
relying on her for their livelihoods would be distraught as well because they
wouldn’t be able to meet their mortgage payments or put food on their tables for
their families. The man had stolen millions of dollars from her over the past few
years. And what was worse, she’d given him the ability to do it. The
responsibility was all on her shoulders.
She’d failed. She’d failed her entire staff and she had no idea how to tell
them.
The tears were falling freely now that she was alone. Her loft was silent
except for the light sounds of traffic outside her windows. A part of her mind
told her she should make herself something for dinner, but she simply couldn’t
get up off the sofa, despite the fact that she hadn’t eaten anything since her cup
of coffee this morning.
The knock on the door made her jump, but she didn’t get up. She simply
stared at the wall, praying that whoever was knocking would simply assume she
was not here and go away.
“Zoe! I know you’re in there and I know something is horribly wrong,”
Debbie called out through the metal door. “I’m not leaving until we talk.”
Zoe smiled through the tears rushing down her cheeks, blinking to try and
get control over her emotions. She sat up and looked in the mirror over her
fireplace. Her cheeks were pink and eyes red, but she would have to come up
with something to tell Debbie, but not the truth. Not yet. Zoe wasn’t ready for
everyone to know how horribly she’d failed.
As she padded barefoot over to the door, she took several deep breaths,
hoping the extra oxygen would even out her skin tone and hide the effects of the
second worse day in her life. Possibly the worst, she thought sarcastically
because the day wasn’t over yet.
Pasting a bright smile on her face, she pulled the metal door open. “What’s
up Debbie?” she asked.
Debbie stood in the hallway, her eyes taking in all the details of her friend’s
face. After several moments, she shook her head and pushed her way into the
apartment. “What’s happened? What’s wrong?”
Zoe sighed and closed the door, following Debbie in her purple and black
dress that would be overwhelming on someone with less of a personality. But
Debbie could pull it off somehow. On Debbie, drama seemed…right. Ignoring
Debbie’s fashion choices, Zoe sighed and crossed her arms over her stomach,
hoping to hide the worst of the trauma. “Oh, just a tough day.”
“Was it man problems like I guessed earlier this morning?”
Zoe pounced on that excuse, not wanting to panic her friend just yet. “Yes.
Justin didn’t show up for lunch again today. I’m going to dump him. It wasn’t
working out anyway.”
Debbie moved over to the kitchen, tossing her purple ruffled shawl over one
of the painted wooden bar stools, this one orange which clashed even more with
her deep purple shawl. With a thunk, she placed the canvas bag onto the counter
which was actually a recycled old barn door, the rough wood sanded down and
coated with a polyurethane coating to prevent splinters. “Justin called from the
restaurant wondering where you were. He was worried about you.”
With that little bombshell dropped, Debbie pulled out two bottles of red
wine and watched Zoe’s expression. When the tears started, she pulled out two
pints of ice cream, one cherry vanilla, the other chunky monkey. “Is there
something wrong with your mom?” she asked.
Zoe sighed, her shoulders slumping in as the totality of her failure
overwhelmed her. “I wasn’t lying about the men problems.”
“I’m guessing that some guy did something horrible to you. Since you’re
still dressed, it wasn’t a rape. Since you’re in bare feet and not your slippers, it
has to be monumental. And since you’re not downstairs working with the others
to make the fall delivery deadline, it has to have something to do with the
company. So spill the beans. What is it?”
Zoe laughed through her tears and shook her head, somehow comforted that
her friend and co-worker knew her so well. “Are you going to keep pulling
things out of that bag?”
Debbie nodded. “Depending on how bad it is, I have something for each
problem. So spill it, darling. Did someone die?”
Zoe gasped and shook her head. “No! Nothing like that.”
“Then you won’t need the chocolates,” Debbie replied, taking her hand out
of her canvas bag.
Zoe laughed and ran over to her friend, throwing her arms around her
shoulders and giving her a bear hug. “Oh, Debbie, what would I have done all
these years without you by my side to help me through all this insanity?”
“You probably would be one dress size smaller than you are now, because
I’m the one who thinks all problems can be solved, or at least ignored for a little
while, by eating. Since you’re already a skinny little creative genius, I don’t care
that I’ve fattened you up a bit. So what’s going on?” she asked, pulling open a
cabinet and getting two wine glasses, then sliding open a drawer for the spoons,
pushing the cherry vanilla to Zoe and taking the chunky monkey for herself
while she slid onto the hunter green bar stool beside Zoe. “Tell me. Whatever it
is, we’ll get through this just like we have all the other crises in the past four
years.”
Zoe laughed, but that only made her crying worse. “You’d better hand me
the chocolates,” she said, using the napkin Debbie handed her to wipe her tears
away. “Or maybe you shouldn’t. When you hear what has happened, you’ll
hate me and I’ll deserve all your animosity because I’ve messed up supremely
bad.”
“That bad, huh?” she asked, then slid the box of expensive chocolates across
the counter. Pouring the wine, she said, “You’d better spill it because my mind
might not be as imaginative as yours, but it’s coming up with some pretty awful
things right now.”
Zoe took a long sip of the wine, unable to appreciate the heady taste of the
excellent brand Debbie had brought. She then set her glass down, took a deep
breath and looked away from her friend as she said, “Andrew stole all the money
from the company. I have nothing to pay the teams, no way to pay the current
set of suppliers, and he hasn’t paid them for the past three months. The police
have a report filed on him, but apparently he’s already off on some extravagant,
and I’m guessing long term vacation in the Caribbean and as soon as the
creditors find out about all this, they’re going to demand payment, of which I
have no way to make. That means that our clients will also back out because we
won’t be able to function on credit, nor will we be able to set up for the spring
collection.”
After she finished saying all that, she took another long sip of wine, set the
glass down and waited in silence as Debbie absorbed everything Zoe had just
told her.
When the silence continued, Zoe couldn’t take it any longer. With
trepidation, she looked over at her friend, her heart breaking as she saw the
stunned look of horror on her face. “My sentiments exactly,” she said, and the
tears started once more.
Zoe turned away and took another long sip of wine, draining her wine glass,
then lifted the bottle and poured more. Zoe couldn’t look at her friend, but the
empty wine glass that appeared next to her newly filled one told her how much
her news had impacted Debbie. Without a word, Zoe filled Debbie’s wine glass
as well.
“This calls for Sinatra,” Debbie said and took her glass of wine over to Zoe’s
book shelves. They were the cheap kind, made of pine with only the supports
and the shelves, but they worked in Zoe’s loft, fitting in with all the other eclectic
pieces and colors. Debbie turned on the old fashioned stereo and put on a
Sinatra record, swaying to the static filled music as she walked back to Zoe.
Putting her arms around her friend, Debbie took a deep breath. “We’ve been
through some tough times before. This won’t bring down the company. You’ve
worked too hard to let it die now.”
Debbie’s absolute show of confidence and support broke all of Zoe’s control.
Her shoulders slumped and her head fell down, resting on her arms as she let the
sobs break through. Debbie just stood there, holding Zoe as they both cried out
the pain and disappointment over the day’s revelations.
When Zoe was able to take a deep breath, Debbie pulled her over to the sofa.
“Come on, let’s talk this through. We have to figure out what to do about this.
There’s a solution somewhere.”
Zoe took a deep breath and followed her friend, holding the ice cream and
spoon close with one hand and the glass of wine and wine bottle in the other.
Debbie sat down and both of them propped their feet up on the coffee table,
took a large scoop of ice cream, drank a long sip of wine and each ate a piece of
decadent chocolate.
With all the essentials covered for the moment, Zoe asked, “How big is
Grand Cayman?”
“I don’t know,” Debbie replied, her mouth full of ice cream. “Is that where
this bastard is hiding out?”
“According to his passport papers, he is.”
“I don’t know how large it is, but it can’t be larger than one of the states and
we drive across that just for a weekend getaway. We could just fly down there
and find the little weasel and demand our money back.”
“There’s a problem with that idea,” Zoe said, downing half her glass of wine.
Debbie took another bite of ice cream. “What’s that? Sounds simple enough
to me.”
“I don’t have any money to get there.”
“I’ll pay for it.”
Zoe laughed. “You don’t have any money either. Remember? I can’t pay
you.”
“Bob still has his job. He’ll pay,” she said, referring to her husband of ten
years.
“He can’t pay for anything because you can’t reach him most of the time.
He’s working for that guy you call �The Evil One’, the guy that makes him work
twenty hour days, remember?”
“Hmm…I remember,” Debbie replied, filling her mouth with ice cream.
“Okay, what’s your idea?”
Zoe thought for a long moment. “Maybe we could build a boat to get down
there. We could cut up all the cutting tables downstairs.”
“And use the fabrics for a sail since we can’t afford gasoline.” �
“There you go!” Zoe laughed, her toes tapping to the sounds of Sinatra as he
belted out �New York, New York’.
“See? There’s a solution to every problem!” Debbie announced, re-filling
both of their glasses.
The two of them finished off the ice cream, the second bottle of wine and
most of the chocolates by midnight, laughing hysterically at some of the ideas
they were coming up with. Zoe was still miserable, but after two bottles of wine,
she wasn’t really acknowledging the pain any longer.
“Whose phone is that?” Zoe asked, squinting at her watch as she tried to
figure out what time it was. “And why would anyone be calling at this time of
the night?” She hiccupped as she worked at deciphering the time, “Or
morning,” she said when she finally realized it was close to one in the morning.
“Ah, that must be my phone, indicating that my darling husband has finally
come home and realized that his loving and ever sweet wife is not there pining
away for him.”
Zoe groaned. “I can’t believe how many hours that man works.”
Debbie struggled to sit up and find her purse, which had been nudged under
the sofa during one of their forays into the kitchen for another bottle of wine. “I
get to see him some weekends,” she joked as she pulled the phone out from her
purse, still lying on the floor as she answered sweetly, “Helloooo!”
Zoe thought about laughing, but was too afraid it would come out as a sob
so she just took another sip of wine.
“Of course you are! Why would anything be different?” she said with a
groan. “So what time are you going to pick me up at Zoe’s place?” she asked.
Zoe raised one eyebrow, frowning at the fact that her friend’s husband was
obviously still at work.
“An hour?” Debbie glanced at the bottle of wine, seeing that it was still half
full. “That should work,” she replied happily. “Don’t you dare be late!” And she
hung up the phone.
“Okay, we have about two more hours to down this one, finish the next and
come up with some sort of solution to this pickle.”
Zoe giggled at the idea of her business going bankrupt, her employees being
furious and possibly losing their houses or not being able to feed their families as
a “pickle”. This was so much more, but she couldn’t think about that right now.
More wine would fix that, she told herself and filled up both their glasses one
more time.
They continued to laugh and talk, coming up with even more outrageous
ideas as they finished off the rest of the wine. When the doorbell rang, Debbie
was the only one able to get up and make her way to the doorway. Zoe thought
about it, but her legs just wouldn’t hold her up, so she sank to the floor by the
sofa and tipped up her wineglass, frustrated when she came up empty.
“Ah, my loving husband, come to take me home,” Debbie said from the
doorway. Zoe closed her eyes and chuckled.
“No making fun of him,” Zoe called out. “He’s not sitting on the floor
after….” She squinted at the coffee table trying to count the empty bottles of
wine, “several” she compromised, “bottles of wine.”
“Very true,” a deep voice said from her left.
squinted up.
Zoe turned her head and
“You!” She struggled to sit up so she didn’t look so foolish, but only fell more
to the side, almost flat on the floor as her mind saw the man who had ruined her
for so many other men over the years. Sighing, she closed her eyes. “You’re just
a figment of my overactive imagination,” she said and pulled an orange pillow
off her sofa to cushion her head from the wooden floor. “Go away, I don’t believe
that it’s really you.” Then her eyes popped open as a terrible thought occurred to
her. “You’re not Debbie’s husband, are you?” she gasped.
The tall, extremely rugged man bent down to look into her eyes. “You know
exactly who I am, Zoe,” he replied, his amused expression surveying her red
dress and bare legs. “Even drunk and flat on your back, you look just as
beautiful now as you did all those years ago.”
The Tycoon’s Toddler Surprise
Prologue
She wasn’t aware of the salty tears streaming down her face as she listened to
the soft beeping beside her. Kristin watched the monitor carefully, her eyes
never leaving the jumping line that coincided with each beep, willing the line to
jump. Praying with all of her heart that the line would jump.
“You need to sleep,” the nurse said gently as she walked quietly into
Kristen’s hospital room. “You’re body needs to recover.”
Kristen knew that the nurse was right. She even nodded and closed her eyes
for a moment, wanting to follow the nurse’s advice, willing her body to relax.
But as soon as she heard the door swoosh shut indicating that the nurse had left
the room, her eyes popped open and she continued to watch, both her hands
gently covering her stomach as if to keep the tiny human fighting for life under
her fingers warm and safe.
“Please don’t give up on me little one,” she said to the empty room, although
she was talking to the tiny girl in her womb, the tenacious heartbeat that was
fighting for her life at the moment. “I promise I’ll do better if you’ll just hang
on.”
The antiseptic smells almost comforted her and the muffled murmurs of the
medical personnel outside the room told her that help would be close if she
needed it. Unfortunately it was all up to the little girl, barely sixteen weeks along
in this life, who would have to decide if she wanted to stick around and meet her
momma, or if she was too tired and frail from all the stress of the past few weeks
to keep up her effort to survive.
The doctors and nurses had done all they could at this point. It was now up
to God and this child’s will to live.
At some point during the night she must have fallen asleep because she
woke to a darkened room but knew that Mikhail was there. She couldn’t see
him, but there had always been something about him that had stirred her senses.
From the first moment she’d met him it had been that way and even the terror of
losing her baby couldn’t diminish the impact he had on her senses.
“You’re awake,” she heard his deep, sexy voice say from somewhere at the
end of her bed.
She considered ignoring him, but knew from experience that one simply
didn’t ignore Mikhail. “What are you doing here?”
His sigh indicated his frustration, but he had better control of his emotions
than she did. He always had more control she thought, and the tears started
once again because he hadn’t been there to help her when she’d needed some of
that strength and control. “You didn’t tell me you were pregnant,” he replied.
His words, spoken so calmly, as if this were simply a meeting that she hadn’t
included him in, broke through her control, releasing the stream of tears that had
stopped while she slept. “You don’t have to worry about the baby any longer,”
she said, knowing that he wouldn’t anyway. He was too busy setting up his next
business deal, buying up whatever company he considered would be a profitable
investment or a strategic move for a future business tactic. The man was a
genius at making money and was worth more than one human being could
spend in several lifetimes, but it was never enough for him.
To be fair, Mikhail didn’t care as much about the money as he did about the
challenge of beating the competition. He was brilliant at strategy and moved
through the business world as if he owned it all. In fact, he owned such a large
portion of the world it was ridiculous, but that didn’t help her right now and she
wanted to hurt him as much as she’d been hurting for the past twelve hours as
she watched her unborn child fight for life inside her body.
“Just leave me alone, Mikhail.”
Mikhail Benovich stared at the defeated woman lying on the hospital bed,
her slender form taking up only a fraction of the space, and for the first time
since becoming an adult, he didn’t know what to do. As he looked at her long,
brown hair curling against the clinical white sheets, there was a sharp, stabbing
pain emanating from the general area of his chest but he wasn’t sure if the
cramping in his stomach was worse.
As a man used to being in complete control, of knowing exactly what to do
to win, usually several steps ahead of any competition he might run into,
watching his wife of only six months cry silently in front of him made him ache
in areas of his body that he didn’t recognize or know how to deal with and he
hated the feeling.
He wanted to fix this, but he didn’t know how. He wanted to pull her into
his arms and tell her that the loss of their baby was okay, but even thinking the
thought in his mind made him hurt even more. He had to be strong though. She
needed him now even if she didn’t know it and wouldn’t admit to wanting his
strength.
He sighed and thought about all the moments in the past two months that
she’d been trying to tell him something and now he knew what that message
was. He hadn’t listened though. He worked at least twelve hours a day and
when he wasn’t working, he was socializing in ways that would gain him
knowledge or valuable connections for a future acquisition.
Kristen was the only person in his life that hadn’t wanted anything from him
but his time. Sadly, time was something he had given her very little of since their
honeymoon and even that had been cut short because he’d needed to get back to
his business interests. He couldn’t even remember what crisis had occurred that
pulled him away that week.
Over the past two months, he’d noticed that she’d tried to talk to him, but
he’d been so busy with this latest acquisition and the debacles of inefficiency
he’d run into, that he’d either been coming or going from a meeting, or on a
conference call with someone trying to work out the crisis du jour. He’d brushed
her off so many times and, looking at her now, lying in the bed, defeated and
more sad than he’d ever seen anyone in his life, he wished to have those
moments back, to hold her in his arms and feel her softness, her sweet breath
against his neck. She’d been trying to tell him that she was pregnant, that they’d
created a life together and he’d pushed her away.
Now it was too late. He understood from her response and the constant
tears, the dark circles under her eyes and the way her hands were covering her
stomach, that she’d lost the baby.
How does one comfort when he was still reeling from the fact that he’d just
lost his own child? It didn’t matter that he hadn’t know the child existed until a
few hours ago, he still was furious with the God that had done this to him. He
didn’t want comfort from anyone at the moment, much less a cruel deity that
would cause such unbearable pain. He wanted to smash something. He wanted
to grab one of the doctors outside this horrific room and demand that they fix
this and make her whole again, to give him his child back.
As his hands clenched the bars of the hospital bed, he wanted to fold Kristen
into his arms and hold her gently, to feel her soft arms wrap around him like they
had each time he’d pulled her to him at night when he’d finally joined her in bed.
And she’d always turned to him no matter what time it was, her giving was
unending.
But instead of holding her, he watched helplessly as she cried herself to
sleep, the damned beeping noise from the machines beside her driving him
insane as it matched the rapid beating of his heart while he ruthlessly berated
himself for not being there to protect his family, or even his wife.
Sitting down in the plastic covered seat, he covered her hands on her
stomach, praying to a God that he’d dismissed angrily as a child, asking for help
and forgiveness, since he didn’t know where else to go. Throughout the whole
night he prayed, yelling at God in his mind, and then transitioning into begging
him to save this woman who was such an essential part of his life. He didn’t love
her, he told God. He didn’t love anyone. That emotion had been destroyed
when his own mother had died in the shack they’d called a home and he’d been
left an orphan on the vicious, heartless streets of St. Petersburg, fighting for food
from other homeless kids, finding shelter from the brutal winters in basements of
abandoned buildings or warehouses. The warehouses had been worse because
there was no protection from the cold but if that was all there was, he’d hidden
out, hiding from the authorities in order to survive away from their cruel
“protection”.
Mikhail felt like that now. There was no defense from the pain shooting
through him as he railed against an unjust and unloving God who would do this
to his wife who had never hurt anyone in her life. The pain was unstoppable and
he didn’t understand how to push it away. He wanted to help Kristen, but didn’t
think she would allow his touch at this point.
He took her hand anyway, stroking her cold fingers with one hand and
covering her other hand, the one over her stomach, with his other. He knew it
wouldn’t help but it made him feel better to be touching her, to be warming her if
only through her fingers.
He watched her as he prayed, noting the dark circles under her eyes and the
cheekbones that were too prominent. She hadn’t been eating or sleeping well he
realized and yelled at God for not taking better care of one of his own. And then
he became angry with himself because, of all the things he had learned in life, it
was that he took care of his own. And he hadn’t done that with Kristen.
Sighing, he closed his eyes and rested his head against the high back of the
nightmarish chair. He would rest for just a moment, he told himself, just a quick
rest before he would wake and keep his vigil beside her.
Chapter 1
Missy rolled her eyes when she spotted the envelope as Kristen slid the
pictures in. “I can’t believe you’re still sending him updates, even after all this
time.”
Kristen forced her facial features to not tighten as she sealed the envelope.
“It’s his daughter too.”
“But has he ever acknowledged her?”
Kristen didn’t answer since they both knew the answer. “He’s a very busy
man. And whether he acknowledges Victoria or not, he still has a right to know
what’s happening in her life.”
“I would agree if there was any response at all. Even acknowledgement that
he’d received any of the letters but you have sent them every month, religiously
on the last day of the month for two years. There hasn’t been any response,
Kristen. It’s time you gave up and moved on with your life.”
Kristen turned away, looking at Victoria and her heart swelled with pride
and love. “Would you ever give up on Tony?” she asked.
Missy snorted. “As if that man would let me. But we’re talking about two
different creatures here,” she said, glancing at her own three kids as well, two of
them racing around the playground playing �tag’ and the youngest right behind
Victoria on the toddler slide waiting his turn, although not very patiently she
recognized. “Tony whooped and hollered the day I told him I was pregnant with
Ethan,” she recalled, thinking of her oldest. “Whereas Mikhail had to wait until
his business dinner was over before meeting you in the hospital the night you
almost lost Victoria.”
Kristen knew that there was a significant difference, and she’d give anything
to have Mikhail home with them like Tony was every night, storming into their
kitchen as Missy cooked and getting their three kids all riled up after Missy had
finally settled them down to do their homework or playing quietly while she
finished getting dinner ready. Missy pretended to be annoyed, but Kristen knew
better. Missy wouldn’t trade Tony’s craziness for the world. She had a perfect
family, even though it might be a bit more rambunctious and not as tidy as she’d
like.
“I know. You’re lucky, Missy,” she said softly, then shook herself out of the
beginnings of melancholy. “But who knows, maybe I’ll say something in one of
these letters that will get through to him and he’ll realize that he has a little girl
who would love to meet him one day. They’ll meet, he’ll fall in love and our
world will be as perfectly chaotic as yours.”
Missy rolled her eyes once again. “You’re dreaming. Mikhail will never
leave his billion dollar empire and you know it.” She paused for a pregnant
moment and then ventured into the topic she’d been trying to open up for a
while. “Kristen, I think it’s time for you to consider a divorce,” she said, holding
her breath as she waited for Kristen’s reaction. “We’ve all discussed it and we all
agree,” she said, implying that her other sister, Debbie, and two brothers,
Harmon and Greg, agreed with Missy’s comment.
It wasn’t long in coming. Kristen heard the words and stilled, not a muscle
moving in her body as she absorbed the implications of what her sister had said.
Her lips wouldn’t move, couldn’t form the words as her heart ached at the idea
of severing ties with Mikhail.
“I’m not ready for that yet,” she finally was able to say, although her lips
were numb and her stomach clenched painfully.
Missy watched her younger sister carefully. “Well, at least that wasn’t an
absolute �no’ so I think you’re making progress. But I’d like you to think about it.
I know you still think about him a lot,” she said and put her hand on Kristen’s as
her baby sister looked back, blinking the tears away, “but there are other men out
there, men who could be a real father to Victoria and a husband to you.”
“Victoria has a father.”
“No, she doesn’t, Kristen. She has a distant male persona who she knows
only through stories you tell her and news articles you cut out for her about his
business interests. A real father is someone who is there for her when she falls off
her bike, who will dry her eyes when she comes home after her first bad date,
and who will be cheering for her in the audience when she’s up on a stage
performing for the first time. Right now, Mikhail doesn’t appear to want any of
that. Meanwhile, you’re here and the men around you are panting after you,
waiting for any small sign of encouragement before they might dredge up a bit of
courage to ask you out.”
Kristen’s eyes snapped over to her sister’s. “What men?”
Missy laughed. “Are you kidding? Tom over at the hardware store has been
lusting after you for the past year. George from the grocery store purposely
stocks the produce aisle at the same time you shop each week just so he can say
hello and there are at least five other guys who have joined the church so they
can see you on Sundays. Are you blind?”
Kristen looked away and shrugged. “I’m not ready to date yet.”
“I can see that. But you’re going to be some day. And that day is going to
come when you realize that Mikhail has cut you out of his life. If he’d wanted
any kind of relationship, even a long distance one with his daughter, he would
have shown it now after three years. Her third birthday is next week. Do you
really think he’s going to show up?”
“Of course not. He’s got that big thing in Tokyo next week.”
“I bet you sent him an invitation anyway, didn’t you?”
Kristen sighed. “Yes. Okay, you’ve made your point.” She was quiet for a
long moment. “I’ll think about it. Okay?”
Missy put her arm around Kristen and gave her a quick hug. “I’m not trying
to be the mean one here. I’m just the messenger.” She paused for a long moment
before saying, “We all think you should move on.”
She thought about that and her hurt eyes looked back at her friend and sister.
“Then you’ve all been talking about me?”
Missy nodded. “Of course we have. That’s what families do. We talk and
harp and horrify until we get our way, then we admonish you for following our
advice and messing up your life by not following your own instincts. We’re
good at that,” she said and grinned, unashamed.
Kristen burst out laughing and shook her head. “You’re incorrigible. “
“You betcha!” she said and put her arm around sister’s shoulders, hugging
her gently. “So how about if we get this brood back to the house for lunch before
they start to lose their minds from too much fresh air?”
Kristen sighed and stood up. “I’m with you. Just let me run this over to the
mail box. Can you watch Tory for just a moment?”
Missy rolled her eyes, but walked over to the slide where Victoria had just
slid down, landing on the soft mulch and rolling onto her tummy so she could
race back around for another trip down the slide. Missy almost caught her niece
but the little girl was much too fast and didn’t want to waste time brushing off
the mulch that now coated her tummy, afraid she wouldn’t have another turn at
the slide.
Thirty minutes later, seven kids were settled around Missy’s kitchen table.
Her three were leading the way while their older brother’s two were settling the
younger ones into their chairs and their sister’s only child to date was sitting in a
high chair next to Victoria. Victoria watched with a giggle as they all dug into
the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches Missy placed in front of them.
The other adults were off grocery shopping or doing errands while Missy
and Kristen took care of the kids. They rotated each week having a Saturday
morning off unless there were sports activities and even then, most of the clan
showed up for those to cheer on their cousin, nieces or nephews.
As Kristen poured milk for all seven kids, she grabbed a peanut butter and
jelly triangle herself, hungry after having skipped breakfast this morning in order
to get all the invitations finalized for Victoria’s birthday party. It was tough work
being a single mom but she wouldn’t trade a single moment with Victoria, loving
her daughter so much it almost hurt at times. And if the nights were cold and
lonely, she just threw on another blanket and grabbed the extra pillow from the
opposite side of the bed to snuggle up to at night.
She laughed as Missy placed a tray of sliced apples on the table and the older
kids begged for potato chips instead, saying they were too old to be eating baby
food like apples. Missy shrugged her shoulders at that argument and simply put
extra apples on Ethan’s plate, her oldest that was turning ten this winter. Ethan
didn’t blink an eye at the extra fruit but when Jennifer, his younger sister by
three years turned to whisper in her cousin’s ear, Ethan slyly placed the fruit on
her plate. When Jennifer turned back, she noticed the fruit and looked confused,
but almost immediately knew who the culprit was.
Missy and Kristen watched as the fruit was snuck around to the various
plates, all the kids snickering about how slick they were to get rid of it.
Meanwhile, Victoria happily ate her own apple chunks that had been cut up so
she wouldn’t choke on them, oblivious to the older kids’ machinations.
All seven kids were settled into Missy’s play room a few hours later when
Harmon and Laura showed up. There was a great deal of chaos as they rounded
up their kids, plans were made for a pizza get together for the following night
and then they were off. It was easier for Kristen to round up Victoria since her
daughter was more than ready for her afternoon nap, happily clinging to her
mother’s arms as she snuggled down, already asleep as she was strapped into
her car seat.
Kristen didn’t pick up the phone that night when it rang, preferring to spend
a quiet night reading with Victoria, playing games on the floor and having a tea
party with her stuffed animals. But once Victoria was settled in for the night,
Kristen pulled her laptop closer and did what she did every night, surfing the
internet for anything relating to Mikhail that would give her the smallest
connection to the man who had turned her world upside down from the moment
she’d met him.
She sighed as she pushed the computer away and turned on the television to
watch the news, feeling foolish for wanting such a vicarious connection to a man
who obviously didn’t want anything to do with her or the beautiful daughter
they’d created together.
She thought about that first night and wondered, if she knew now what
would happen, would she do it all over again?
She smiled into the unseeing television for thinking such a ridiculous
thought. Mikhail had seen her across the room at a corporate party and from
that moment on, there had been no stopping him.
That night had been magical, she thought.
The Tycoon’s Tender Triumph
Chapter 1
Chloe slipped out of the comfortable sedan nervously, forcing a smile to her
face as David came around to help her out.
“Dinner was very nice,” she said anxiously and glanced up at her apartment,
feeling the cold air on her cheeks and ignoring the scent of garlic and onions on
David’s breath. Was there any way at all to escape the next few awkward hours?
She cared for David but she just wasn’t in the mood to be with him.
The thought struck her that, recently, she rarely wanted to be alone with him
because of the increasing pressure she felt to take their relationship to the next
level. As she pulled the heavy apartment gate open so they could both walk
through, she realized that she didn’t particularly like kissing David. What was
wrong with her? He was an attractive guy. All her friends in the office envied
her whenever he came to take her out to lunch. His blond, blue eyed good looks
combined with a great smile made the other women sigh whenever he tossed
one of his winks their way.
So why didn’t his gentle touch make her heart race? Why couldn’t she be
even slightly attracted to him? Why, why why? She hated this! It wasn’t fair
that one man from her past could affect her so dramatically, leaving all other men
mere shadows of his memory. Would it be like this forever? Would she always
be comparing her current boyfriend to that one man who had loomed so large
throughout her childhood? Or was it just lately? It was probably just those
irritating letters, she thought, pressing the button on the elevator more firmly
than she needed to.
“Ouch!” she gasped, looking down at her finger and groaning when she’d hit
the button so hard she’d broken her fingernail.
David took her hand in his and kissed the end of her finger. It was a sweet
gesture, but because it was David, the touch left her unmoved and feeling guilty
because of it.
In an effort to get more in the spirit of the night, she smiled engagingly up at
David. She cringed only slightly when she saw his eyes flare with excitement but
she managed not to step backward.
He put an arm around her waist and pulled her closer as the elevator rose
through the various floors. “You look beautiful tonight,” he said softly and took
her hand to lead her into the hallway once the doors opened up.
Chloe sighed heavily. Maybe tonight would be different, she thought sadly.
He certainly seemed to be different tonight.
“Are you warm enough?” he asked when they reached her floor and she
shivered slightly. He wrapped his arm around her but Chloe couldn’t help but
feel awkward with his affection.
“I’m fine,” she replied, but couldn’t look in his eyes. He was going to kiss
her, she thought sadly. And it would be yet another disappointment.
Chloe walked beside him down the hallway to her apartment, wishing
things were different. She desperately wished she’d never met that other one,
hadn’t seen him struggling to make his way in the world and grown to respect
him so much, to admire his determination and intelligence. No man could match
him and she should just leave him in the past and get on with her life.
Sam Marchant was not the man for her and she needed to get over her silly
infatuation with him.
Who was she kidding? All other men looked anemic compared to Sam.
Unlocking her door with more force than was necessary, she pushed that man’s
physique out of her mind and forced herself to focus on David. Sam was nothing
to her. And never had been. Just because they’d shared a few dinners while she
was in college, one every few months when he flew into town, that didn’t mean
that she was ruined for other men. So the evenings had been wonderful, leaving
her knees weak and her heart pounding with her infatuation. It had also hurt
horribly when she’d seen the society papers showing him with another woman
the following night.
Every time, no matter where she was in the world, from the time she turned
eighteen he’d called her up and invited her to dinner. At first, those nights had
been magical. He was so witty, so fun to be with and amazingly handsome with
his dark hair, tall, powerful stature and a five o’clock shadow no matter what
time of the day it was. She’d always been proud to be on his arm.
But when she’d realized the pattern, that the second night he was in town
he’d always go somewhere more glamorous with a stunningly gorgeous woman
on his arm, clinging to him and usually smiling up at his handsome face just as
the camera captured their entrance or exit, she started refusing his invitations.
She’d gotten smart enough not to put herself in a position to be hurt by his
betrayal.
It wasn’t even a true betrayal, which almost hurt more, because he would
always preface every invitation with the comment that he wanted to check up on
her for her dad. In the beginning, she’d assumed the excuse was just that, an
excuse to see her. But when she’d consistently read about his exploits the next
night, she had to accept that it wasn’t an excuse. Sam really thought of her as a
kid no matter how many activities she joined or classes she took, and Sam really
was just checking up on her. He would never see her as an adult woman,
someone he might consider in a more romantic way. Chloe was destined to
remain in the “kid sister” category to Sam.
A few years ago, she stopped accepting his invitations, ignoring the stunned
silence when she explained that she was too busy, or too tired or whatever
popped into her mind. And when that became too hard, she simply stopped
answering his calls, stopped returning them and ignored her father’s comments
that she should check in with him “because Sam cared” about her.
It was better all around when she cut off communication. A heart could only
take so much, she told herself.
And now he was on her mind more, popping into her dreams, making her
inefficient at work because she found herself thinking about him, wondering
how he was and if he was still as successful as he’d been before she’d gone off to
college.
It was only because of the phone calls and letters that she’d been thinking of
him lately. As she opened her door, she quickly glanced down at the mail
littering her doorway and cringed when she saw yet another letter with that
bold, powerful scrawl.
Glancing at her voice mail, sure enough, she noticed the red light was
blinking. Chloe ignored it for the moment, turning back to David and smiling.
“I’ll make some coffee,” she suggested and slipped into the kitchen, depositing
her meager stack of mail onto the small kitchen table that took up half the space
in the tiny area. “Do you want decaf or are you working again tonight and need
the full force kind?” she asked, hiding her face in the fridge, afraid that he might
see the anger in her eyes.
Those letters did it to her every time, she thought furiously. Why couldn’t he
just leave her alone? She didn’t understand why he was calling her. Their only
connection, her father, was firmly ensconced in his cottage style house on the
edge of Sam’s property. She knew they were friends but that didn’t make Sam
her friend. As a kid, she had idolized Sam, had followed him around like a
puppy every summer while she tried to learn anything there was to know about
horses and was always impressed when she came back each summer to see more
progress on his ranch. He’d done well over the years and she’d considered him a
very good friend when she visited her father each summer.
Until the dinners he’d taken her out to while she was away at college. The
pictures of his lady loves in the newspapers the following nights also helped her
get a grip on her rampaging infatuation she thought miserably, pulling cream out
of the refrigerator since she knew David liked his coffee more brown than black.
Turning around, she almost dropped the cream when she saw what he was
holding. “What are you doing?” she gasped, seeing him with the letters in his
soft hands. All six of them.
“Why would you be getting letters from Sam Marchant?” he asked, a
confused look on his face as he counted the unopened envelopes.
“Sam is my father’s neighbor,” she explained and turned away to dump
coffee grounds in the coffee maker. “I have no idea what he wants.”
David hesitated a moment as he looked down at the address on the
envelopes. “There’s a Sam Marchant that owns half of Texas as well as probably
five other states. He’s into just about every different kind of business around.
Surely these letters aren’t from the same guy,” he stated, then his eyes glanced at
the Texas return address and his expression became perplexed. And wary. “Are
we talking about the same Sam Marchant?” he asked, almost whispering the
name as if Sam might hear him from thousands of miles away.
Chloe gritted her teeth, her brown eyes sparkling with frustration. “Why
does everyone refer to him in that manner? It isn’t like he’s royalty or anything
like that.”
David chuckled. “He might as well be. He’s one of the richest men in the
world.” David was shaking his head. “And why would he be sending you a
letter he wrote personally? A man like that probably has dozens of secretaries to
do all of his administrative work.”
Chloe shrugged, pretending like talking about Sam didn’t make her stomach
clench with fear and frustration. “I don’t know. Why don’t you ask him?”
He raised his eyebrows at her defensive response but she didn’t see that,
since she was concentrating on watching the coffee drip out of the coffee maker.
“Why haven’t you opened the letters?”
She tossed the spoon into the sink, cringing when it made a loud noise in the
small apartment. “Because I don’t like him. Whatever he has to say, he can…”
she struggled to find words that wouldn’t be too revealing. “Well, I just don’t
like him.”
David laughed but she could see the surprise in his face. “What’s not to like?
From what the papers say, he’s wealthy beyond description, charming, the press
are always quoting him with his humorous little quips and,” he took on a teasing
voice as he said, “some women might think he’s handsome.”
“I don’t,” she said adamantly, then cringed slightly when she realized she
might have been too loud in her refusal. “His hair is too dark, he’s irritatingly
tall and he throws his weight around like he’s some sort of…” she struggled to
find the right word, “jerk,” she finished lamely.
Chloe really didn’t want to talk about him. “As for his wealth, I think it’s a
little bit crass to wonder about someone’s net worth, don’t you think? Does he
own half of Texas? Who knows? Probably half of the country but I’m not
interested in keeping track of him or his material assets.”
David wasn’t relenting on the subject. “How can he be your father’s next
door neighbor? Doesn’t he run businesses all over the world?”
She couldn’t get him off the subject of the one person she hated talking about
more than anyone else in the world. “David, I have no idea what he does or why
he does it. Remember, I only lived in Texas during my summer breaks. All the
rest of the time, I lived with my mom in Boston. My mom and dad never spoke
after I was three years old, only communicating through lawyers. So what is in
those letters, I have no idea. Nor will I ever know because I don’t need to read
them. I’m not interested.”
David was obviously not convinced about the pointlessness of those letters.
“Yeah, but Chloe, he sent them personally. I would think that one of the richest
men in the world sending you something like that would arouse mild curiosity.”
She turned back from him to pull two cups out of the cabinet. “Nope. I
don’t care about him. I don’t trust him.”
David choked on his response. “Don’t trust him?” he parroted. “How can
you not trust him? What on earth could be untrustworthy about the man? He’s
a financial genius. He made billionaire status about ten years ago from nothing,”
he explained, obviously in awe of the man. “Newspapers describe him as some
kind of king of the financial jungle. He consults with governments before he
moves his money because of the impact those kinds of changes could potentially
make on their economies.”
“Again,” she said, becoming irritated with the subject, “what does this have
to do with me?” she asked.
David just looked at her as if she’d grown a second and third head. He was
so obviously horrified that she almost laughed. Almost. If it had been any other
subject, she would have but Sam Marchant was not an amusing subject. “David,
can we get back to our evening?” she coaxed, pouring him a cup of coffee with
cream, just the way he liked it. “I don’t think anything in those letters is
important enough to ruin our night together.”
She led him over to the love seat, a sofa being too large to fit in her tiny
apartment.
He allowed her to seat him, then turned to face her. “You’re right,” he said, a
touch nervously. He took her coffee cup and placed it on the small table. Taking
her hands in his, he put them on his shoulders.
Chloe watched with detached interest as David positioned her exactly as he
wanted her. His head then slowly bent towards hers, his lips touching hers
tentatively. When she didn’t pull back, he increased the pressure, caressing her
lips with a practiced touch.
Nothing, she thought to herself. She felt no excitement, no joy. Nothing at
all.
Chloe opened her mouth, thinking that perhaps she just needed a more
intensified version of his kiss. Her tongue touched his gently and his reaction
was instantaneous. He groaned and pushed her backwards, his mouth pressing
against hers, his tongue searching and exploring.
She tried to get into the kiss. She closed her eyes and desperately tried to get
into the spirit of the moment. But all she felt was a mild irritation that his tongue
was inside her mouth. In desperation, she increased the pressure, pushing her
body against his and almost jerked back when she felt his erection against her
body. She wasn’t scared of it, she just didn’t want to encourage him in that way.
But he noticed her reaction and pulled away slightly, moving his mouth to
her neck. “Don’t be afraid, Chloe,” he groaned against her skin while she
opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling. “It’s just natural. We’ve been seeing
each other for three months now and all you’ve allowed is a gentle kiss,” he said,
laughing almost to himself. “The fact that you’re letting me touch you now
makes me feel as if you’re ready for the next step,” he said, his hand moving
from her back to her stomach, then slightly higher.
Reaching up, she pulled his hand away from its obvious path towards her
breast, but didn’t stop his mouth. Instead, she pressed harder, willing herself to
feel something, to stop thinking and just let go.
When the knock sounded on her door, she almost sighed with relief. David
sat up and looked around, dazed. “Who would be coming for a visit at this time
of night?” he asked, frustration obvious in his glare as he pulled himself up to a
sitting position.
Something about the impatient knock made Chloe wary. It couldn’t possibly
be….could it? Scoffing at her own silliness, she stood up and started walking to
the door to answer it. It was just that they had been talking about Sam that he
was on her mind. He wasn’t standing beyond the door waiting for her, she
mentally chided herself. He wouldn’t fly all this way. The man was known for
living on his ranch and rarely leaving it, forcing the rest of the world to come to
him.
“It’s probably just Suzanne. She had a hot date tonight and probably wants
to share,” Chloe forced herself to laugh. She was relieved to be out of his
embrace but didn’t want him to know that. Wishing it were so wouldn’t make it,
she told herself. If the past fifteen minutes had convinced her of anything, she
accepted that she’d have to break up with David. He was too nice to waste his
time on her when she didn’t feel anything other than mild friendship toward
him. She had to be fair and let him go out and find someone that could make
him happy and return his feelings.
“Well, get rid of her so we can get back to our hot date,” he teased as her
hand settled on her door handle. Chloe glanced back at him, wondering if he
could really be completely unaware of her lack of response to his kisses. When
he wiggled his eyebrows at her, she knew that he was oblivious. Astonishingly,
he had no idea that she felt nothing when he kissed her.
Her distraction over his comments made her forget to check through the
peep hole before opening the door. If she had, she would never have opened it.
As it was, she stood there, staring at the tall man blocking out the hallway lights
with his enormous size.
Sam Marchant was here? In New York? What on earth? She closed her eyes
and opened them again, hoping he would simply disappear. But he didn’t. In
fact, one dark eyebrow went up in amusement at her attempt and that’s when
Chloe knew he was real.
“Are you going to invite me in?” his deep voice asked. Instead of waiting, he
simply pushed his way through the door, making Chloe plaster herself against
the wall as he passed by since there wasn’t enough space in the tiny hallway.
“What are you doing here?” she breathed, following behind him, her mind
unable to figure out a way to circumvent his invasion into her precious sanctuary.
Her only thought was to karate chop him somehow that would knock him out,
then she could drag him to the door and kick it shut, with him on the other side.
The only problem with that little scenario was that, number one, she didn’t
know karate. And number two, if he fell onto the floor, he’d still be there when
he woke up because the man was just too huge for her to drag. The top of her
head barely reached his shoulder and he had muscles everywhere, adding bulk
to his height. Not an ounce of fat, she noted silently. The man definitely kept in
shape.
She arrived just in time for David to be rising from the love seat, shock on his
face as he registered who was now in front of him. “Sam Marchant?” David said,
his voice filled with awe and reverence.
“Evenin’,” Sam said, his Texas drawl making the word come out more lyrical
than normal. He stuck out his hand. “And you are?” Sam asked.
Chloe was confused. Was that hostility in Sam’s voice? Impossible, she told
herself as she snuck around to stand beside David, wanting to show Sam that
she’d moved on and he had no business coming here.
“Good grief,” David was saying, shaking Sam’s hand with embarrassing
enthusiasm. “Chloe and I were just talking about you earlier.”
Sam looked down at Chloe, his expression unreadable. “Is that right?” he
asked when she started squirming under his intense gaze. “What was the
conversation about?” he asked.
“The letters,” David said, pointing lamely towards the counter where they
were now neatly stacked.
“Nothing,” Chloe said at the same time, hoping to find out what Sam wanted
and get him out of her apartment. She’d always thought it was tiny but with
Sam in it, his broad shoulders and enormous height seemed to take up all the
remaining space. He overwhelmed her with his presence and made her feel
uncomfortable, irritated. “Sam, what can I do for you? I know you’re extremely
busy and probably have to get back to Texas quickly, don’t you?”
“We have business to discuss.” He glanced at David and continued,
“Privately.”
Chloe hated the way his voice felt on her skin. It was like liquid chocolate,
melting and taking her breath away. Shaking her head, she said, “Sam, I don’t
know what it is, but David and I have no secrets from each other.”
Sam’s gaze slid away from hers and focused on David who quickly got the
message. “Um…Chloe,” he said, obviously nervous of Sam’s intimidating gaze,
not to mention the seemingly threatening body language, “I’ll just call you
tomorrow.” He quickly picked up his coat from the chair where he’d thrown in
earlier. “You obviously have things to discuss and I’ll just be in the way.” He
bent down to peck her cheek, then hurried out the door.
As soon as the door closed, Sam pulled off his coat, then turned to face her,
his arms crossed over his massive chest. “You’ve been ignoring me, Chloe,” he
said. His voice was calm, soft even, but she heard the note of steel in his tone.
He was reprimanding her and she bristled at the implication.
“Yes. I have,” she said, and because she needed something to do with her
hands, she picked up the two cups of barely touched coffee and carried them to
the kitchen, dumping the contents down the sink.
“Why?” he asked.
She shrugged, not willing to turn back to face him so she dumped the coffee
from the pot down the drain as well, hoping he’d get the message that he wasn’t
welcome here.
“You didn’t read any of my letters,” he said and it was a statement, not a
question. Chloe then realized that David had probably left the letters on the
counter instead of tucked into her stack of papers she kept on the corner.
Glancing behind her, sure enough, Sam had all of his unopened letters in his
large, dark hand.
Trying to feign indifference, she shrugged her shoulders. “I haven’t gotten
around to them yet. Are they important?”
“And my phone calls?” he asked, pressing the button on her answering
machine. Instantly, his voice came through the speakers and Chloe almost
groaned as she heard his voice explain that he’d be coming into town to talk with
her. If she’d only listened to his message, she could have been gone tonight.
And all the other times he tried to contact her.
Accepting defeat, she leaned back against the kitchen sink and crossed her
arms over her chest. She couldn’t quite force herself to look at his face, so she let
her eyes rest on his chin. “Okay, so I haven’t opened the mail and I haven’t
listened to your messages. I know it was rude but I didn’t think there was
anything important enough to bother. I spoke to my father two weeks ago and
he’s fine,” she said, irritated at the lump that formed in her throat at how much
she missed him, “so there’s really nothing more for us to discuss.”
“Except that he’s not fine as of ten days ago. He fell off the roof of his stable
and broke his leg,” he said casually. “Go pack a bag, Chloe. My plane is
standing by and you’re coming with me.”
“What?” she squeaked, her body instantly tense, her mind terrified of the
words he’d just spoken. “Why didn’t he call me and say something? I should
have been there. Is he okay now? What was he doing on the roof?” she
demanded.
His face was completely devoid of humor as she squirmed under his direct,
intense gaze. “He’s fine now but he couldn’t get to a phone for a long time so he
was out in the elements. I went over to talk with him about something the
afternoon it happened but he’d already been on the ground for several hours out
in the rain.”
That stunned her. “No!” she denied, already feeling horribly guilty for not
answering his calls now. Why hadn’t her father called her himself? He should
have let her know!
Chloe couldn’t believe her ears. She felt as if she were in some sort of dream
world with a wicked, teasing twist. “Of course I’ll come back to take care of him.
Why didn’t he call and tell me himself?”
“Because he didn’t want you to worry. You’re father has a great deal of pride
and he doesn’t want to rely on me to get him through this. I owe him though so
I’m not going to let anything happen to him.”
“Does he have any horses housed in the stable right now?”
“Yes. And you’d know that if you’d just opened my letters.”
She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Horses. She loved riding.
Besides being with her father and seeing Sam each summer, riding the horses
he’d raised had been the best part of her summers with him in Texas. She’d go
out early each morning and ride through the plains, watching the sun rise as she
cantered along the tall, early summer grasses that quickly faded to crackling
straw by the end of the summer.
“He really has some horses to ride at his ranch?” she asked, a smile breaking
out on her face as the news broke through her disbelief.
Sam’s arms crossed over his chest once again and, instead of answering her,
he simply raised his dark eyebrow as if to say that she shouldn’t ever question
his word.
Sam watched as Chloe came to terms with the fact that she now had a great
deal of responsibility. Now he just had to get her back to Texas and get her
settled. Getting her there wouldn’t be a problem, he thought. Keeping her
there…well, that’s going to be the trick.
The Sheik’s Mysterious Mistress
Chapter 1
Dana stared at the elderly chief of staff with growing horror. “But….I really
don’t want to be promoted,” she said through stiff lips that could barely move
from the fear caving in on her, the metallic taste of terror overwhelming the
sandalwood and strong coffee scents that normally permeated this man’s office.
“I’m perfectly happy in my current role.” Even the normal low hum off office
noises from the surrounding employees faded as the blood pounded through her
brain, blocking out everything but the panic.
This was really bad. Her current position as an office assistant was perfect,
keeping her in the background and giving her the anonymity she craved, a state
of being she hadn’t had in a long time and something she desperately needed.
Forget the extra pay, Dana thought anxiously. She wanted to be invisible.
She needed to be just a face in the crowd that no one noticed, no one looked at
twice. Her assistant’s position was challenging, interesting and, what was more
important, it didn’t give her any visibility.
Being promoted to a senior assistant’s role was a much more obvious
position. Because of the previous year, being noticed meant danger, something
she’d traveled halfway around the world to avoid. She wasn’t going to give it up
without a fight. Unfortunately, the chief of staff wasn’t a man one could argue
with. He laid down the rules and the rest of the staff followed without question.
That had been fine before but she had to really think hard to come up with a
good reason to not accept that promotion.
“I’m really not qualified for this role, sir. There are so many people more
deserving of this promotion that…”
Omar Suleiman, the Sheik of Odar’s Chief of Staff, interrupted her
impatiently, waving his hand in front of him as if the conversation were over.
He’d made his decision and he rarely allowed arguments, much less discussion
from office personnel. “You’ve earned it. Your work is excellent, you’re attention
to detail has been noticed not to mention your fluency in Arabic, English and
French, an important asset to His Highness. The role comes with a significant
increase in salary, of course, not to mention prestige and a great deal of travel.”
Her head was spinning, and not from excitement but from the overwhelming
urge to run and hide. “What happened to Mr. Kingsley? He’s been doing this
job for the past twenty years. I thought he was happy in the role.”
“He has done an excellent job for the kingdom.
But he has requested
retirement and since he is now over seventy years old, we have granted this
request.” This was said as if to inform Dana that she too would be expected to
remain in the role until well after her expected retirement.
Her mind swam with the various possibilities or arguments against this
promotion, anything that would get her out of this role. “I really don’t think….”
Omar’s eyebrows went down in irritation at her continued resistance to his
plan. “Enough,” he said emphatically. “I know this is a bit much for you, but
you will take the role if His Highness agrees that you fit the requirements. And
you will continue to do an excellent job because I believe it is in your nature to be
meticulous in your responsibilities. If you have any questions about anything
that comes up, you may come directly to me for assistance.” He stood up from
behind his desk, his long, white robes flowing behind him. “Come with me,” he
ordered and walked out of the well appointed office, expecting Dana to simply
follow because he’d ordered it.
And of course, she followed. One simply didn’t ignore the sheik’s chief of
staff.
That was, until he started to lead her into the sheik’s office. “Why would we
be going in there?” she asked, her voice choked and she hesitated before entering
the room where decisions were made that could change the economy of massive
countries. She peered inside, half expecting to see….well, she wasn’t sure what
she was expecting. Maybe a throne or perhaps even a group of people bowing
down in front of an all powerful being. But it certainly wasn’t an innocuous
office setup.
Since the office was empty except for Omar, she entered and looked around,
amazed at how gorgeous the office was. There were tall windows that let in
sunshine and bookcases along one wall that went from the floor to the ceiling
with a ladder that swung along a rail so a person could select books on any shelf.
The furniture was dark and heavy, very masculine but it fit the man who ruled
this oil rich, powerful country.
She’d seen the sheik many times of course. Who hadn’t? He was one of
those men that women did internet searches on just to gaze at his rugged,
handsome looks. She’d never seen him close up though. He was much too
powerful for anyone at her level to get close to but she knew him to be tall, was
rumored to be charming and he worked out regularly with his guards, although
she had no idea what that meant. Perhaps they all just competed to see who
could lift the most weights or maybe they battled each other until someone was
bloody. She didn’t care, and didn’t want to know. All she wanted was her tiny
office in the back hallway where she could do her work and remain safe and
unnoticed.
“His Highness will be with you shortly,” the chief of staff said, before
walking out of the office.
Dana stared after him for a long, terrified moment before she started pacing.
Her mind worked frantically, trying to come up with reasons why she wasn’t the
best candidate for the position. She just couldn’t risk having that kind of
spotlight but she also didn’t want to leave her current role. She loved her job,
but more importantly, she loved the security of the palace. No one was getting to
her while she worked within the palace walls, especially not to see a lowly
secretary. The role of assistant to the sheik would require her to work outside the
palace much more often, to be at his side during travel, official visits and various
other events. Possibly even social events that would be publicized although
maybe she could remain hidden in the shadows during those functions. Dana
had no idea what the protocol might be and the lack of knowledge made her
even more frantic.
No, she’d just have to be brilliant and come up with a fabulous, valid,
irrefutable reason for why she was completely inappropriate for the job.
She spotted a pad of paper on the corner of the desk and picked it up,
selecting a pen as well. She paced back and forth in the office as she thought
about different reasons why she wasn’t right, writing them down in a list. Some
of the ideas were ridiculous and she crossed them out, but others were very
valid.
Of course, she didn’t write the main reason. No, that one would have to
remain a secret since it might get her fired from her current role and probably
tossed out of the country.
Sheik Hassan Bin Faisir-Al-Takar watched in fascination as the lovely woman
walked back and forth across his office, mumbling something under her breath
before scribbling on his note pad. She also had his favorite pen but since she
looked so earnest in whatever she was trying to think of, he didn’t want to
disturb her. Besides, she was definitely a sight to behold. She was wearing a
wrap around dress that hugged her in all the right places and he enjoyed it both
when she was heading towards him so he could see her lush breasts that tapered
to a tiny waist, or when she was walking away from him and he was presented
with her cute derriere that moved underneath the fabric with each step she took,
drawing his eyes to the enticing flesh underneath. He wondered how long her
brown hair was since it was contained in a neat chignon at the base of her neck
but her eyes were a warm, sexy brown that seemed to dance with whatever was
on her mind.
This woman was so intent, she didn’t even realize that he was there, leaning
in the doorway watching her. But after several moments, his curiosity got the
better of him and he wanted to know what could possibly be troubling a woman
as lovely as this little one.
He knew this was the woman he was supposed to be interviewing for the
role of his executive assistant but she was completely inappropriate for the role.
Her porcelain skin and her rosebud lips, not to mention that knockout figure,
meant she would be too much of a distraction. Beautiful women were lovely to
have around, but not during business hours. The work of the kingdom had to be
accomplished and with this one flitting in and out of his office and meetings, he
would be hard pressed to concentrate. Omar must be getting old if he thought
this little beauty was the perfect candidate.
Dana turned around, trying to come up with at least three more reasons why
she wouldn’t work out when she spotted the man standing in the doorway.
Goodness he was tall!
And getting taller as he came closer! The top of her head barely reached his
shoulder and she shrank back slightly as he approached.
At his dark, intent look, she cringed slightly, intimidated despite herself.
When he was a few feet away, she remembered palace protocol and dropped her
pen and note pad while she dipped into a deep curtsy. “Your Highness!” she
gasped and looked down at the ground, wondering how one was supposed to
gracefully curtsy and then pick up a stolen pen and pad of paper without
looking like a fool.
Probably too late for that, she thought with an inward grimace.
He smiled slightly at her genuflection, done with enthusiasm, but very little
practice. “You’re here to interview for the role of my executive assistant?” he
stated, moving to a seating area away from his desk that contained two large,
brown, leather chairs and an enormous brown, leather sofa. “Please, have a seat
and let’s discuss the possibilities.”
Dana smiled gratefully, glad that he wasn’t going to sit behind that massive
desk and look even more daunting. She thought it would be less intimidating if
they were sitting away from a symbol of his absolute power in this country. But
as they sat down, his long, muscular legs coming much too close to her own, she
realized that she’d been wrong. This man wasn’t intimidating because of some
external symbol of power. He was just terrifying as a man!
As his intelligent, grey eyes looked at her, she had to glance away or get lost
in their sensuous depths. She’d always thought of those lines as a crock when
she’d read them in books but now she understood what it meant when a man
had “bedroom eyes”. She literally couldn’t focus when he looked at her like that
and once again, the idea of running and hiding someplace was very tempting but
for completely different reasons now.
First things first, she reminded herself. Get her old job back and then she
could worry about all these silly little feelings she had for a man she’d met thirty
seconds ago.
“About the job,” she started to say, “I think that your chief of staff might
have been a bit too hasty about submitting my name for the position.”
“Why do you say that?” he asked, already confused by her approach. He’d
been expecting her to immediately begin listing all of her experience and how
she would be perfect for the role. After which, he would have to gently tell her
that she wouldn’t work out, but that he would see what other options might suit
her better within the palace. The opposite approach to this interview certainly
had his attention.
“Well, for one, I’m definitely too young and inexperienced. I certainly don’t
have all the skills necessary to be your executive assistant.”
He tried not to show the surprise on his face as she stated the first thing that
had come to his mind. But with her comment, he was somehow forced to
challenge her assertion. “It’s my understanding that you’ve already met all the
skills requirements for this role and they’ve been amply demonstrated.
Otherwise, Omar wouldn’t have suggested you for the position.”
That stumped her. “I can’t imagine that my experience could surpass the
skills of your last assistant. He’d been with you for years.”
“You’ve been helping my previous assistant for the past six months, is that
correct?”
“Yes, but…”
“So you have the requirements.” He stated that with emphasis and a slight
shrug that told her he wasn’t going to argue her skill set any longer.
“But….” She scrambled and looked down, focusing her mind to regroup and
quickly go over the notes she’d scribbled minutes ago. “I don’t know palace
protocol well enough. I could make some pretty horrible errors and offend
someone. Even my curtsy is pretty pathetic and that’s just the beginning of my
lack of knowledge.”
He nodded his head, about to say something, but she stopped him again
with what she considered another mark against her. “I don’t know all of the
personnel who would be useful so if something needed to be done quickly, I
might go to the wrong person to ask for help, thereby slowing down the
efficiency of everyone in the office. The things you do for this country are much
too important to be delayed simply because you have an assistant who asked the
wrong person or question. Not to mention the security risks associated with
asking someone a question that might be outside of their clearance area. The
work you do is completely confidential and revealing something to the wrong
person, even accidentally, could be a serious breach in security.” She was really
getting into the swing of this, she thought. That last comment was on the fly, not
from her notes, but it sounded really good.
Hassan sat back, amused but trying to hide it. He’d never interviewed
someone who was trying to dissuade him from hiring them. “Please continue.”
She glanced down at her notes, looking very earnest and confident that she
shouldn’t do the job. “I don’t know the first thing about diplomacy. You work
with so many people and my honesty might slip out and ruin a plan you’ve been
working hard to develop.” She realized that he was listening to her and not
getting angry. Was she convincing him? “I really don’t get out much, I’m a
horrible introvert and you need someone who is good around people, someone
who prefers to be surrounded by others and gets energized by being around
people. I actually avoid crowds, preferring a good book. Or even a not so good
book,” she said with complete honesty and a grimace because most of the books
she read were what she called “brain candy” and Dana was unapologetic about
her reading preferences. “So all the parties and functions you need to attend,
well, I’d be trying to get out of them as much as possible not to mention being
unable to converse intelligently on the latest best seller or cerebral tome of which
the media thinks is the next best mind game to success.”
“Is there anything else?”
“My language skills are only passable,” she explained lamely, worried about
the amusement she was starting to detect in his voice and those damnable grey
eyes that kept luring her out of her focus. “I’m pretty good in French and
English and of course I can speak Arabic,” she admitted. “But other languages I
struggle with.”
Hassan nodded, paying more attention to her dancing brown eyes than her
words, although he was still amused by her approach. “Anything else?”
“Well…” she couldn’t think of anything else.
Glancing down, she read
through all of her notes and nothing else made sense. She glanced up at him,
wishing this were true but it was all she could think of. “I don’t really like you.”
Hassan was stunned at first.
Then threw his head back and laughed,
delighted with her refreshing attitude.
Dana grimaced and thought quickly. “Okay, so it isn’t that I don’t really like
you so much as I disagree with several of your policies. Number one is the fact
that your country’s wealth is resting on the oil underneath your ground and
that’s a fossil fuel that is changing the whole weather pattern of the earth and I’d
much rather drive an electric vehicle than damage the environment any
longer…” she knew she wasn’t getting through to him and her voice slowly
faltered to an awkward halt.
“You start immediately,” he said and stood up. “There are several meetings
this afternoon. You will sit in on them and take notes. Talk to Omar about the
other issues with the meetings and he’ll fill you in,” he replied.
With that, he walked over to his desk, picking up several documents and
handing them to her with instructions on what to do with each. Dana listened,
stunned and horrified for several minutes before she realized that she should be
writing down everything he was telling her. She’d already missed the first few
instructions but scrambled quickly to turn things around, writing as fast as her
fingers could move.
Ten minutes later, she walked out of his office with her arms filled with files,
contracts and instructions that she dumped onto her already crowded desk in her
miniscule office. As she stood back and looked at everything, she was stunned
that the man had so much to do. Okay, so he ran a country. Literally ran a
country. But doesn’t he delegate anything?
And why in the world had he hired her? Hadn’t he listened to anything
she’d said? She was completely inappropriate for the job. Good grief, she’d
more than convinced herself that she was an idiot so why hadn’t he even blinked
at the problems she’d presented to him about her taking on the role.
With a sigh, she started with what she thought were the highest priority
items and worked her way through each, referencing his instructions over and
over again, unsure what to do in several situations but since she couldn’t find
anyone to ask, apparently everyone was in some important, private meeting, she
was on her own. She’d have to catch him when he’s thinking more clearly and
then maybe he would let her step back into her previous position.
Dana did the best she could but knew that she was probably missing the
mark on several issues. Lunch time came and went and she didn’t even realize
that it was almost dinner time until Hassan came out of the meeting. With barely
a nod in her direction, he disappeared once again into his office with his advisors
and she clenched her teeth in an effort to not scream out that she hadn’t asked
for, nor wanted, this job that was now making her stay late to get through all the
worked he’d piled on top of her narrow shoulders.
By nine o’clock that night she finished the last of his instructions. As she
turned off her computer, she poked her head out of her office and looked at the
other desks, wondering when everyone else had left the office.
“You’re here very late,” Hassan said from the doorway to his office. He
slowly walked down the hall until he was standing in front of her. “I hope you
had dinner.”
Dana glanced down at her watch and sighed, all her hunger suddenly
appearing now that she wasn’t frantically trying to get the work accomplished.
“I’ll grab something when I get home.”
He pushed away from the doorway and shook his head. “One of the perks
of this position is having the kitchen on speed dial.” He looked down at her
phone and lifted the receiver, pressing a button. A moment later, he instructed
that a sandwich be delivered immediately to her desk.
She tried to protest, not wanting to hang out here any longer, especially if he
was going to be here as well. All she wanted was to go home, curl up on her soft
bed and fall asleep. She didn’t even care if she had dinner, because fatigue was
her overwhelming issue right at the moment.
“Tell me what you’ve accomplished today. Where are you on all the items
we discussed this morning?”
Dana picked up her notebook and glanced down at her notes, with all the
additional scribbles she’d notated throughout the day and accepting that she
wasn’t getting out of here very soon. She went through the issues, describing
what she’d done for each. When she was finished, she took a deep breath and set
her notepad back down on her desk, then glared back up at him, daring him to
tell her she’d done something wrong after all that.
She saw the surprise on his face but wasn’t sure what it indicated. “You
finished everything from this morning?”
She blinked, confused. “Of course.”
He smiled slightly and shook his head. “The deadline for most of those items
was the end of the week.”
Her mouth dropped open, shocked at the news that she’d worked this hard
for nothing. “Are you kidding me?”
He laughed softly. “I never joke about work.”
A knock on the door revealed a man with a tray and Dana’s mouth
immediately started watering at the sight of food. “That looks delicious,” she
sighed happily.
The man set the tray on the desk and Dana ignored the gorgeous man
standing there watching her eat. She was too hungry to care at this point. “Why
didn’t you tell me that stuff didn’t need to be done by the end of today?”
“You’ll start to understand the deadlines a bit more as you gain experience.”
“In the meantime, I’m just going to have to guess?”
“Or ask.”
“Who was I supposed to ask? No one was here.”
“You are my personal assistant now, Dana. Feel free to interrupt me for
further guidance.”
She watched him carefully, wondering where that interruption line would be
drawn.
Her cell phone rang and she glanced down at the number but didn’t
recognize it. She tucked it back into her purse, then wrapped up the rest of the
sandwich after eating only a few bites. “Thank you for dinner. That was
delicious.” It really had been a crazy day and although the sandwich hadn’t
filled her up yet, it at least pushed the hunger pains away until she could create
some space between herself and this man who made her body tremble slightly.
As she stood up, she was struck again by how tall the man was. She’d wear
her highest heels tomorrow just so she could reach the top of his shoulder. She
really hated feeling short. It made her feel somehow inadequate and powerless.
“I’ll try very hard to do a good job.”
“Even though you don’t like me.”
She blushed and glanced down. “Okay, so maybe I don’t really know you
and I admitted that it isn’t you that I disagree with but some of your policies.”
She grimaced and shook her head again. “And maybe I’m just too tired to realize
that this is one of those moments when I really shouldn’t speak out loud because
I’m too tired and worn out and I’ll probably say something I shouldn’t. I
apologize Your Highness. I was out of line.”
He smiled, watching the soft pink blush stain her porcelain cheeks. “I’d like
to hear what you disagree with besides burning fossil fuels. We’ll discuss those
and other topics another time. You look exhausted from today’s efforts but I’m
impressed that you finished an entire week’s worth of work in one day. Just goes
to show that Omar was right in selecting you for the role,” he said and chuckled
at her grimace as he started walking out the door.
When her phone rang again, she glanced at the number and frowned,
pressing the “ignore” button. It was the same number as before.
She looked up nervously and stuffed her phone into her purse.
“Boyfriend wondering why you are so late in coming home?” Hassan asked.
Dana shook her head. “I don’t have a boyfriend,” she said and started
walking down the hallway, hoping her new boss would drop the subject.
Hassan had probably twenty things he needed to do, but instead of doing
them, he followed her down the hallway, drawn to her on many levels and not
simply because she was a beautiful woman with something mysterious hiding in
her soft, brown eyes. “Why not?”
She stepped around someone’s desk, pretending to be busy looking for
something in her purse. “I was just promoted and my boss is a slave driver,” she
joked.
He didn’t laugh. “You’re a beautiful woman. I can’t believe that a man
hasn’t captured your attention.”
Another blush, she really wished she could stop doing that. If it were
anyone else other than this man with his dark, dangerous eyes, she might be able
to brush off the questions. But this man made her nervous, which made her
mind clumsy. “Oh, I’ve dated in the past.”
“Just not anyone special right now?” Hassan was both intellectually and
personally intrigued that some man hadn’t already snatched up a woman with
Dana’s spirit and beauty, not to mention her intelligence and integrity.
“No. Definitely not,” she replied, thinking of all the men who were chasing
her, unfortunately not for the reason she wanted. “I’d better get home. You start
work pretty early each morning.”
Hassan watched her leave, his eyes appreciating her slender waist and
enticing bottom once again. There was just something about her that bothered
him. He could tell she was hiding something, although what that was, he had no
idea. He wasn’t concerned that she was doing something illegal or unethical. In
order to work in the palace, all employees had to go through a rigorous
background check so if there was a criminal or even questionable past, she never
would have been considered for employment, much less allowed to enter the
palace grounds.
Shrugging away the mystery for now, he called the front gate. “Make sure
Dana Miller is escorted home safely,” he said. Then as an afterthought, “She
might not like the interference so make sure she’s unaware of the escort.”
He had no idea why he’d done that. Employees and guests left the palace
late all the time and he never ordered an escort for any of them. Why he’d
chosen to do that for his new assistant was yet another mystery he was too tired
to figure out at the moment.
The Duke’s Willful Wife
Chapter 1
Sasha picked up the paintbrush, her fingers shaking and her stomach
churning with fear and anticipation. “I’m over him,” she whispered out loud,
ignoring the cold mist that showed her breath as she took the step closer to the
canvas. Dipping her brush into the first color, she braced herself and started the
process, the first colors hitting the white canvas no longer a shock to her mind
but still something she didn’t particularly enjoy. But since this whole process of
painting this particular subject was physically painful for her, she ignored the
starting sensation and concentrated on working through to get to the answer.
There was no other way to do it, she told herself, but to dive right in and face
the results. Being afraid of the answer wasn’t going to solve the problem and she
wouldn’t know the truth until she started. Procrastinating wouldn’t give her the
information she desperately needed.
Impatiently, she pushed her long, brown hair out of her way, tucking it up on
top of her head with the end of her paint brush, uncaring that a bit of paint
smeared across her lovely cheekbone. She wore no makeup, but her soft, brown
eyes and peaches and cream complexion were rarely viewed by anyone anymore.
She went out each day for a long walk and she occasionally saw the others in the
village, but the only daily care she took in her appearance was to remove her
paint smock that covered her from neck to knee while she worked. She was
unaware, and unconcerned if people questioned her appearance.
At least that was the case over the past year.
Classical music flowed around her as she worked on the painting. She didn’t
stop for food, didn’t notice the light changing as the morning turned to
afternoon, nor when the evening faded into night, and neither did she
acknowledge the ache in her legs from standing all day. It was almost midnight
before she put her paintbrush down and sighed in frustration.
As she looked at the painting, her heart lurched, the truth staring at her from
the eyes she’d just painted. The truth was irrevocable and no matter how many
times she told herself that she didn’t, when she painted his face, she knew she
was still in love with her husband.
She sighed with the acceptance that she wasn’t yet over the man who had
hurt her so deeply that even a year later, she still felt as if a hole had been torn
out of her chest. Maintaining a stoic face while she worked, Sasha carefully
cleaned her brushes and set them in the appropriate place in their holders to dry
out, meticulously ensuring that they were immaculate and ready for her next
project.
When she was finished with her supplies, she wearily carried the canvas to
the barn behind her tiny cottage and stored it with the others that she’d worked
on recently. The paintings here were items she’d either started and hadn’t
finished because she’d lost the inspiration, or that she didn’t want the world to
see because they were too personal or not good enough. This one fell into all of
those categories so she stacked it towards the back, pulling the heavy tarp over
the stack to ensure dust and water didn’t get to it, and made sure that the moth
balls were in place to deter some of the more curious animals from damaging any
of the works. She might not be ready to sell or get rid of these efforts, but that
didn’t mean she wanted anything to happen to them.
Back in her cottage, she turned off the music, poured herself a glass of milk
for dinner, then climbed into bed without bothering to change. Worn out jeans,
flannel, tattered shirt and all, she just needed the warmth of the relative softness
of her bed. And the pillows. She pulled them close, hugging one to her chest
and the other tucked under her head. Not the same because the pillows didn’t
emanate the same heat as his arms and chest and they were much too soft
compared to his muscles that were more analogous to rocks than anything else,
but close enough and they were all she had at the moment, she thought as the
tears spilled down her cheeks.
Tomorrow would be better, she promised herself. And she wouldn’t try
again for another month. Long walks, maybe some different music and a new
painting. Her mind went through all the rituals she’d discovered that would
help her get through the day. One breath at a time, she sighed into the night.
Just one breath, one moment, one step at a time.
The following morning, she forced herself to fix some breakfast and eat it. It
was only a soft boiled egg and whole wheat toast, but it was more than she’d
eaten the whole previous day. A cup of tea warmed her up and she pulled her
sneakers on for her morning walk. She pushed herself harder this time, walking
around the pond, through the village, smiling and waving to the people she saw.
She’d grown up in this small town so she knew just about everyone, but she
didn’t socialize a great deal anymore. Ever since Dante and his accusations, his
rejection of her, she hadn’t felt strong enough to be around other people.
Soon though, she’d start accepting some of the invitations. She needed to get
out more, to be with other people and stop acting like a miserable, old recluse.
Her activities lately weren’t healthy and she needed to rejoin the world, to feel
life again even if it might be painful at times. She knew she wasn’t ready to start
dating again, but she needed to reconnect with her friends, especially her college
friends. She missed Kallista and Dana terribly and she knew they worried about
her. She e-mailed with them when she remembered to log into her account, but
the communication was sporadic. Dana was married with a baby on the way
and Kallista was doing well as a journalist. They both had stopped by over the
past year to check in on her and she’d done a relatively good job of convincing
them that she was okay.
The banging on the door as she stepped through her back access startled her.
Since the house was so small, she could see straight through from the back to her
front entrance but the solid oak wouldn’t allow her to see through and discover
who had invaded her space so unexpectedly.
“Sasha! I’m here for the paintings. I know you’re here so don’t try and
pretend otherwise,” the male voice said.
Sasha’s body relaxed as she released a relieved laugh, then hurried to the
front door. “Robert, you know I’d never pretend with you,” she said and hugged
him enthusiastically. “What are you doing way out here in the country? I told
you I’d bring the paintings to you Monday and I know you abhor leaving your
precious city life and risk running into a leaf or, heaven forbid, a bug.”
Sasha’s agent and friend stepped through the front door and took his
favorite client into his arms, as much to greet her as so determine if she was
taking care of herself. As his arms closed around her slender frame, he became
worried that she wasn’t eating well. “I didn’t trust you to be on time and you
know that’s a completely justified terror when it comes to you lately. Your sense
of timeliness seems to have disappeared completely. Besides, Monday is too far
in the future. I need the paintings this weekend.” He surveyed her face, noting
the more pronounced cheekbones and prominent, brown eyes still filled with so
much loneliness. Damn that man who had done this to her gentle soul! Sasha
was one of those sweet, caring people who pushed spiders out of her house
instead of stomping on them. How Dante Fuitello could do this to such a
beautiful woman was beyond anything Robert could understand.
Sasha pulled away, knowing that Robert would comment on her weight if he
felt how much she’d lost in the past few weeks. And since there wasn’t a whole
lot to lose in the first place, he wouldn’t be shy about mentioning her health, a
subject that he brought up constantly it seemed.
“I thought you had a full gallery.” She pulled him into her house, excited to
see him but not sure why he’d come all this way instead of waiting for her to
deliver the paintings she’d promised. His comment about being too slow was
worrisome, only compounded by the fact that Robert was a city man, completely
in tune with the rhythm of London and all the excitement available. He hated
coming out to the country where she lived, considering it too “earthy”.
“I did until I sold your last two yesterday.” He looked around the dark,
dingy little cottage that had only four rooms, a number that was abhorrently tiny
in his estimation. “You’re a wealthy woman and a famous artist now. Why are
you still living in this hovel?”
Sasha rolled her eyes at the comment he made about her humble dwelling
each time he visited, horrified that anyone would live in a place that doesn’t have
hardwood floors and twelve foot ceilings with strategically designed lighting to
enhance one’s living space. “I love this hovel. Thank you very much for not
disrespecting the hovel.” She moved into the galley style kitchen that was about
the size of some people’s closet and put her battered tea kettle on one of the two
burners of her ancient stove. With a flick of the lighter, a flame popped up under
the kettle.
Robert leaned against the rough, wooden door frame that looked like a
termite had rejected it about a hundred years ago. “The condo next to mine is
about to go on the market. I can tell my neighbor that you’re interested. Lots of
light, plenty of room and it doesn’t smell like turpentine or burnt toast all the
time.” He looked around disdainfully. “How in the world do you create such
amazing masterpieces in this kind of light?”
Sasha looked away, the memory of the most amazing place she’d ever
painted coming to mind. This little cottage was the antithesis of that room with
all the windows and natural light, the skylights that let in the sunshine no matter
what time of the day.
Unfortunately, with that wonderful room came a not-so-perfect existence.
One she had tried, and failed, to endure. “This place is perfect for me. At least
for now.” She still held out the hope that she’d get over that time in her life and
be able to move on.
“I only have three pictures ready for you unfortunately.”
Robert rolled his eyes. “Do you have any life outside of painting?” he asked
without sarcasm. For an artist of her caliber to produce three paintings in the last
month, he suspected that she barely slept and did nothing other than paint. He
also knew it was her way of working through her emotions, which had been
severely tattered, but maybe if she got out a bit, she might recover more quickly.
And for him to want an artist to slow down, which would mean less
commissions for his bank account, that was genuine concern as Robert never
really considered himself very selfless. But if she didn’t slow down, she was
going to burn out and that also wouldn’t be good, for his bank account or his
friendship with a woman who was truly special to him.
Sasha looked up at him, distressed by his comment. “Am I too slow? I’m
sorry….” She started to say but Robert interrupted her with a laugh.
“Dear, three paintings from you is like money in the bank. I don’t know any
other artist who can produce like you can so please, ignore my silly comments
and understand that I’m absolutely thrilled with three paintings from you. I
have some artists that work on one painting a year, and they don’t have half as
much talent as you do. With all the emotion you put into your paintings, I don’t
know how you get through the day. Your productivity concerns me, is all.”
Sasha was relieved, not sure what the art world expected of her. It wouldn’t
have mattered anyway. She could only paint what she felt at the speed at which
she was feeling things. The past year had been a pretty emotional disaster for
her so she’d been extremely prolific lately. But she hoped to be able to focus on
only one painting per year at some point. Maybe when she wasn’t so centered
on the past, she could….
Some day, she reassured herself. There will come a point in her life when she
wouldn’t feel this kind of pain or betrayal. There had been joy at one point. That
period in her work had been a completely different style, but it had lasted for
only a short period of time. She knew others who viewed her work might see the
emotions in her paintings, but she hoped that they didn’t understand them. Not
completely at least.
An hour later, she helped Robert carefully pack the paintings into his trunk,
ensuring that they were cautiously stored so they wouldn’t be damaged, then
waved goodbye to him as he drove back down the dusty, gravel road that was
her driveway. He’d made her laugh this afternoon, which was a good thing. He
was a delightful friend, even though she knew his motivation was more than a
little mercenary. Robert gathered friends only to further his art business.
Everyone had a purpose, either on the supply or demand side of the chain and
he treated each person accordingly.
Sasha knew this about him and still accepted his friendship, but was also
relieved when he drove away after each visit, needing his interruptions but
appreciating the stillness and peace of her hideaway even more after he’d left.
Back inside, she put the kettle on to heat more water, her mind considering
options for what she might paint next. Thoughts flitted through her mind and
she considered and rejected some of them, storing others away. She was just
about to pick up her sketch pad to work through some ideas when a strange
noise in the distance distracted her. Glancing at the clock, she realized it was
later than she thought. She hadn’t had lunch yet and it was already three o’clock
in the afternoon.
Placing her sketch pad back on the table, she told herself she’d take just a
peek outside to find out what the odd sound was breaking the stillness of the
early springtime afternoon. Then she’d make a sandwich and maybe even
venture into the village to grab a cup of coffee, talk to some of her old friends a
bit and make sure she stretched her social skills slightly.
The noise was becoming louder and she tucked her sketch pad down
between her overstuffed chair and her easel, glancing out the window.
What she saw made her heart stop for a split second. Then her stomach
dropped, followed immediately by the painful racing of her heart.
A helicopter?
There was only one reason a helicopter would be heading this way. The
town was too quiet, too isolated for any other reason.
Sure enough, a moment later, the helicopter hovered over the small field in
front of her cottage, then slowly descended. Glancing around the tree line of her
property, she noted there were already several men standing around the edge of
her field, the bulges under their dark suits barely concealing the large weapons
Sasha knew to be hidden underneath the deceptive material.
As soon as the helicopter touched down, she watched in horror as the one
man she’d prayed never to see again outside of a white fabric canvas stepped
out, his long legs eating up the space between the powerful machine and her
tiny, dilapidated cottage.
He wore expensive sunglasses and a perfectly tailored, summer weight tan
suit with a white shirt opened at the collar, but nothing could hide the power of
this man. It was physically apparent both in the way he walked and the
commanding way he approached the world and her house, not to mention the
muscles that were ripped over his body from grueling daily workouts that a
lesser man would collapse under.
No suit could hide the power of that
physique, she thought while her mind whirled frantically.
As he approached her door with that intimidating stride, she wasn’t sure
what to do. To let him into her house would mean that his whole demeanor
would invade the private space she’d created, a space that was devoid of any
memories of this man. To not let him in would be dangerous. Not that he would
allow that though. When Dante Fuitello wanted in, everyone else needed to just
step back. She’d never known him let anyone stand in his way. She had no idea
what the consequences would be if someone dared to challenge him, because it
simply was never done. At least she’d never seen or heard of it happening.
And then he was there, standing in front of her house. The option of not
letting him inside was gone and her whole body trembled with memories of their
time together, of how passionate and wonderful he could be. And how brutally
cold, impersonal and dispassionate he could turn. She’d experienced both sides
and never wanted either extreme again. Her life was calm and, if not peaceful,
at least it wasn’t disrupted by the angry words and horrible accusations that had
been almost daily life with him. And the passion, she thought. Yes, there had
been more passion than she thought was possible. Dante could bring her to the
heights of heaven, but life with him could also be a living hell. Loving him
was….difficult.
The knock on the door was fast and reflected the confidence this man had
that the world would react exactly as he demanded it would, and it didn’t matter
if it was the stock market or a company, somehow the world complied and
bowed to this man’s wishes.
She couldn’t open the door. So many feelings were clogging her senses right
now that her feet were rooted on the floor. There were no messages from her
brain to her feet telling her to move. She simply stood in the middle of her small
den, staring at the door.
Sasha should have known that he’d just enter. Dante wasn’t the kind of man
who waited for permission so when the initial knock didn’t provide the desired
reaction, he simply opened the door and walked in.
Why hadn’t she locked the door? Why hadn’t she hidden in her bedroom?
Why hadn’t she run into the woods at the very first realization of a helicopter
approaching?
As he stepped into her house, he had to duck underneath the door frame
because he was so tall. The house had been made over two hundred years ago
at a time when people were shorter, but even by today’s standards Dante was
huge. At six feet, three inches tall, he was at least half a head taller than most
men. If that didn’t separate him out from the rest of the world, his black hair and
black eyes, chiseled facial features that were normally devoid of any emotion
except for the rare moments when he was mildly amused, would capture
anyone’s attention.
“What are you doing here?” she finally asked after they’d stood there
watching each other for a long, awkward moment.
Dante looked at the one woman who had gotten beneath his guard. The one
person who had never bowed to his bidding, never reacted the way he expected.
He was surprised at how angry he had become just by entering her world. He’d
thought this would be a simple mission but seeing her standing in front of him,
looking like the goddess he’d first glimpsed so long ago, his reaction was
probably understandable.
She’d lost a good deal of weight over the past year. She’d always been thin
but now her jeans hung on her hips and the large shirt that was tied at her waist
couldn’t cinch in enough. It was a man’s shirt anyway and on her delicate frame,
it was about ten sizes too large.
Eyes that had once danced with laughter and excitement over everything,
were now large, brown saucers in a face that looked….haunted. She was pale,
the only color in her face were those still beautiful, soulful, brown eyes. And he
had no idea what she’d done with her hair. He suspected nothing at all which
was a crime since this woman’s hair had been the softest, most luxurious thing
he’d ever….
Dante forced his mind back to the problem. “I’ve tried calling you,” he said
to break the silence.
Sasha wasn’t sure how to respond. When she worked, she shut off her cell
phone so if he’d tried to reach her, he would have gotten her voice mail and she
hadn’t checked it yet. She tried to speak, but the words were stuck in her throat.
She coughed and tore her hungry eyes away from him. “Would you like some
tea?” she asked, manners coming to save her in this instance. She wasn’t sure
what was the polite comment to make when one’s estranged husband walked
through the door unexpectedly.
There was no answer but she didn’t care. She moved into her tiny kitchen,
needing to do something with her hands. She filled up the kettle and lit the
burner, becoming more nervous as he prowled her cottage, looking at all the
details. There wasn’t much to see. The furniture was sparse with only one large
chair and an ottoman for reading, a side table and lamp, all of which were
positioned for a body to obtain maximum heat from the now cold and blackened
fireplace. There was an old, wooden bookshelf filled with various genres, but
that was about it. Her dining room had been converted to her studio and that
contained several lights to help her work, stacks of varying sized canvases, her
easel and paints. There wasn’t a table and no chairs. The two windows and
another fireplace were on the opposite wall, but the room wasn’t meant for
guests, although he prowled through that space as well but didn’t look very
interested, only mildly curious.
Sasha pulled down two cups and fiddled with the bags of tea, busying
herself until she got up the nerve to ask him why he had decided to break away
from his business empire to visit her quaint little town. While they’d been
married, the man had worked fourteen to eighteen hour days, sometimes seven
days a week. He’d rarely taken the time to spend quiet days with her. At least
that was the case when they’d returned to his home in Rome.
The whole time he prowled her domain, she tried to work through in her
mind why he was here. There had been no communication between the two of
them, and even though she’d been expecting notice, she hadn’t received anything
from him or his lawyers asking for a divorce. Taking a deep breath, she stepped
out from her hiding place and faced him, her chin going up defiantly. “Why did
you come here?” she asked, angry that her voice quivered slightly, revealing how
emotionally distraught she was with his presence.
“Aren’t you happy to see me?” he asked, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
“After the accusations you tossed at me the last time we were together, I’d
rather hoped never to see you again.”
“After the perfidy I discovered about you, I had resolved that very same
thing.”
“What you think you discovered. You’re too distrusting to know what you
saw.” She snapped her mouth shut quickly. The last time they’d had this
argument she’d sworn she would never defend herself against his callous words
again. There was just something about this man that made her furious and
defensive.
He shrugged slightly. “I’m not going to rehash the same, tedious argument
with you, Sasha.”
She was relieved, because this wasn’t a dispute she could win and maintain
her word to a friend. “Good. Then tell me why you’re here and get out of my
house.” In her fantasy world, she lifted him up and tossed him out, just like she
felt he’d done to her. He’d never touched her in anger, but his words had hurt
just as badly.
“Nonna is ill.”
There wasn’t much he could have said that would have broken through her
pain and anger at their last parting, but those words got her attention. During
the nightmarish year that she’d been with this amazing man, his Grandmother
Rennata had been the one steady, friendly and loving force in her life. She’d been
a true friend and confidant. “She’s not!”
He didn’t even blink at her vehement rejection, but continued to stare at her
steadily. “She’s in the intensive care unit. She fell sick last week, but refused to
see a doctor. It became steadily worse until two days ago when she didn’t come
down for dinner. When my mother went upstairs to check on her, Nonna
Rennata couldn’t be revived. We called an ambulance and by the time the
doctors examined her, they explained that she’d had a series of heart attacks.”
Those two last words spoken about the small, wonderful woman who had
taken Sasha under her wing and treated her like a granddaughter struck her as
painful. “No!”
Dante realized that his wife was genuinely upset by this, which confused
him. She’d always kept apart from the family. He had no idea that Sasha cared
one whit about his grandmother even though the elderly lady had asked for
Sasha repeatedly during her illness. “She’s stable,” he said quickly, but the
pained expression in his wife’s eyes didn’t diminish.
When she thought she could speak without her voice breaking, she asked,
“How long has she been in the hospital?
“Three days.”
With a slight nod, Sasha accepted this, berating herself for not already
knowing and keeping in touch with Rennata more closely. They communicated
via e-mail and text, but the communication was sporadic and Sasha only logged
into her e-mail about once a week. “Is she still…?”
Dante’s mouth compressed in frustration and confusion. “As I said, she’s
stable. But she’s been asking for you.”
That snapped Sasha out of her panic and gave her something to do,
something to help. “Of course. If Nonna needs me, I’ll be there as fast as I can.”
She was already walking towards the stairs to pack a bag.
“We can be airborne as soon as you grab your purse.”
That startled her. She glanced out the window and cringed inwardly at the
thought of flying in a helicopter. Her fear of flying had been a source of
embarrassment and she’d kept that from Dante, who didn’t seem to have any
fears. But to date, she’d only flown in planes which were much more reliable in
her mind. A helicopter ride brought up new and more terrifying issues she’d
never faced while flying in Dante’s private fleet of jets.
She hated the idea of getting into that contraption but she needed time to
figure out how to avoid it. And she needed to get away from this tall,
devastatingly handsome man who hated her from the depths of his being.
Bowing her head slightly, she started to move towards the stairs. “Let me
just pack some clothes,” she said, refusing to let the panic take over. She could
deal with the fear of flying, even in a helicopter, if it meant getting to Nonna
Rennata more quickly. She’d flown often enough in order to be close to Dante
during their marriage and she hadn’t broken down, she could get through this.
Deep breathing, imaging exercises, remember the “up” bumps in turbulence
and not just the “down” bumps…most important, positive thinking. The plane,
or now the helicopter, is not going to crash and millions of people fly safely in
planes every day.
Sasha wasn’t sure about the number that traveled safely in helicopters, but
she pushed herself to focus on packing. Getting to Rennata. That was the most
important issue.
Dante tried to halt her momentum but Sasha was already heading towards
the stairs. “You don’t need clothes. All the clothes you had during our short
marriage are still at the house are still available for your use.”
She stopped and looked at him with confusion. And thankfully it also
distracted her from the upcoming flight in what she was trying desperately hard
not to think of as a death trap. “Those clothes I had I lived with you in Italy?”
She couldn’t claim that she’d bought them, but she’d definitely worn them to try
and please him and placate his mother. “You didn’t get rid of them?”
His eye brows snapped together, revealing his irritation with the question.
“Of course not. They are worth a small fortune.”
She squared her shoulders, wishing she didn’t feel the need to defend the
cost of clothes she didn’t like and weren’t her style. But something about the
expression on his handsome face made her step back and shake her head. “Not
my choice. Your mother bought most of those for me. I never asked for nor
wanted most of them.”
He sighed and shrugged slightly, his expression changing from the subtly
accusatory to the unconcerned. “She probably bought whatever she thought was
appropriate for you. Can you get your purse? We need to be in the air as soon as
possible. I don’t want Nonna to be wondering where you are. Any stress could
cause a problem so we should hurry.”
That shook her to the core, all the fight knocked out of her at the possibility
of hurting that gentle lady. “Of course,” she said and stood up straighter, forcing
her mind to work faster. “I need to get some clothes. I know there are designer
clothes at your house, but I won’t wear those ever again.” She raced up the stairs
before he could argue with her or try and convince her that the clothes from their
marriage were more appropriate than the items she felt comfortable wearing.
Tossing a couple pairs of jeans and a pair of shorts into a suitcase defiantly, she
added tee shirts, sandals, a few dressier clothes that she preferred, and a casual
sundress just to irritate Dante’s mother and she was ready to leave.
It took her less than five minutes and she was pulling the small case back
down the stairs. “I’m ready,” she said and glanced around, wondering if there
was anything she needed to do. But since she’d only be gone for a day or two,
she thought that anything she’d left hanging here could wait. She grabbed her
purse, her passport and made sure her cell phone was inside, then turned to
follow Dante. “Lead the way,” she quipped.
Dante had always been fascinated by this woman although why he had no
idea. She had never fit his lifestyle, was too gregarious, too trusting and too
undisciplined. He lived his life with great deliberation, requiring order and
schedule to each part of his day. This woman lived her life on the edge of one
emotion or another, feeling too much and reacting on those emotions.
Regardless, from the moment he’d met her, he had been drawn to her. She was
beautiful, no doubt about that. Her figure had tormented him from the first time
he’d run into her, and he’d resisted her allure for all of five minutes before finally
giving in and accepting that there was just something about her that he needed.
He certainly accepted the sexual need, that had been present from first sight.
But seeing her now with her ragged duffle bag and her eyes once again
alight with purpose and determination, he remembered how much he’d wanted
to posses her, to control her and place his stamp of ownership on her. She was
like a beautiful, delicate and rare hummingbird flitting wherever she needed to
be. If she liked a place, she would return. If she didn’t, she was strong enough to
fly away leaving just a taunting glimpse of heaven.
He cursed under his breath as he followed her across the field of weeds and
overgrown grass towards the helicopter, his eyes drawn to her long legs,
picturing those legs wrapped around his waist as they had so many times in the
past. No woman had ever gotten to him like this one had. And he resented that
she still had power over him, even knowing what he knew about her morals, his
body still wanted to melt into her and his mind wanted to possess her.
Unfortunately, he’d found out that her morals were non-existent, a character trait
that should have eliminated his desire for her.
It just went to prove that a man’s body was controlled by what he saw, and
not what was underneath. He could ignore this attraction though. He had more
evidence than he had the first time he’d tried to fight it and he would win this
round no matter how lush and sultry her body appeared to him.
He resisted the urge to help her by putting a hand to her round derriere as
she climbed into the luxurious helicopter. His hands burned when she slipped
slightly and they automatically reached out to steady her. Fortunately, he pulled
back quickly enough and she was able to right herself without his assistance.
She stepped into the helicopter and took one of the plush, leather seats, sitting
back and closing her eyes.
The Sheik’s Secret Twins
Chapter 1
“No, Jacob, you can’t eat Sam’s fruit. It doesn’t count even if you are twins.”
Glancing at her watch, Siri Michaels realized they were again running behind on
their morning schedule. As she put the milk back in the refrigerator, she caught a
suspicious movement out of the corner of her eye. “Sam, you can’t hide your
fruit in your pockets. You did that last week and forgot about them. I found
them when I was doing the laundry and it was disgusting.”
She almost rolled her eyes when her twin three year old boys laughed
delightedly at rotting fruit in their jeans pockets. Were all boys fascinated by
anything disgusting? Or were hers just abnormally enthralled?
“Come on guys. We need to hurry up. Just finish your milk and gobble up
those apples.” She shoved the files she’d been working on the previous night
into her computer bag and looked around, stepping over Legos and narrowly
missing a toy fire truck. Thankfully, she was still in her slippers because if she’d
changed into her heels for the work day, she’d have been a gonner. In the midst
of making a path, she remembered one very important question. “Sam, did you
put on underwear today?” Why she even had to ask was beyond her but the tike
liked going as free as a bird.
She wasn’t looking at him but since there was no response, she glanced back
and found two dark, curly heads bent close. As much as she loved these little
guys, that pose was never good. And she’d learned the hard way that silence
was bad. Generally, very bad.
“Sam,” she called out from three feet away and waited until she had his full
attention. When he looked up, the guilt in his eyes told her she’d caught them
doing something wrong, but the trick was figuring out what that “something”
might be. Had it already occurred? Or was their mischief imminent? She had to
maintain a straight face under these circumstances, otherwise, they would
consider her humor as encouragement in whatever they had planned. “Sam, do
you have underwear on?” she asked again.
She couldn’t help it when the chuckle escaped as he looked down and pulled
his pants away to check. How could he not know? It seemed to her like
underwear was an essential piece of clothing and the absence of that piece would
be bothersome and uncomfortable.
Siri knew the answer to her question when he looked up with that devilish
grin. “Go put some on,” she commanded.
The little guy scrambled off his chair before racing full speed to the bedroom
and Siri was grateful that he was still at an age when he would obey her.
She couldn’t take a break to ponder the future at this point in the morning.
With Sam out of the picture, that left Jacob alone. Together, the twins were as
thick as thieves. Separate them though, and she could usually get one to confess.
“What are you guys planning?” she asked, bending down so she was at eye level
with Jacob. They were fraternal twins, but they looked so similar it was
extremely difficult for strangers to tell them apart. Siri could because she knew
them and loved every tiny freckle on their faces.
“We’re not planning anything,” Jacob whispered, and he placed a chubby
hand on both sides of her face. “I promise, momma. We’re innocent.”
Siri knew she was in trouble then. “Jacob, if you let me in on the secret,
maybe we can have ice cream for dessert tonight.”
Jacob’s eyes widened and he smiled excitedly, showing his tiny white toddler
teeth with gaps in between because not all of his teeth were in. “Momma, Sam
has a surprise for you.”
Siri’s stomach churned with those words. The last time Sam brought her a
surprise, he was covered in mud and had two little kittens under each arm. He’d
“rescued” the kittens from someone else’s backyard. How he’d done that, she
had no idea since her back yard was fenced in with a gate that only an adult
could handle and there weren’t any kittens, much less mud, in her backyard. It
had taken a week and several lost kitten posters posted around the neighborhood
before the original owners had been found and kittens returned. “Jacob, you
know I love surprises,” she lied and felt no remorse, “but I also know that
sometimes Sam’s surprises can be a bit scary. Can you give me a hint?”
Jacob was torn because he didn’t want his mother to be scared, but he
couldn’t reveal the amazing surprise. “This won’t scare you. I promise. It’s a
good surprise.”
Sam was coming back down the hallway by that point so there wasn’t
anything else Siri could say to convince him at the moment. But she’d have to
work on him a bit later, her stomach churning at the idea of whatever these two
extremely intelligent children had devised. “Okay, don’t tell him I know there’s
going to be a surprise, okay?” It would make it easier to work on Jacob if Sam
didn’t reinforce the “surprise” aspect of the treat they were creating for her. At
least she hoped it was for her. The idea of her boys devising something for
someone else, where she wasn’t able to run interference, wasn’t a scenario she
relished.
Jacob nodded happily, then jumped down off his chair himself and caught
up with his brother. She cringed when she saw their heads immediately bend
towards each other.
“Get your shoes and coats on,” she called out and looked at the news on her
computer screen, surveying the headlines on the Chicago Tribune website.
Elections coming, check. Jobs report getting better, check. Weather, rainy. Not
check, not good.” Put on your rain coats,” she called out again. Oil prices down,
for how long?
She started to put her computer to sleep, but something caught her eye. Oil
prices down because….No! That simply wasn’t possible!
In her panic, she couldn’t even ensure that the boys were following her
instructions. Her eyes skimmed the text, then re-read the first paragraph over
again since her panic was diminishing her ability to absorb what the words were
explaining. He’s divorcing?
She sat down heavily in the kitchen chair and clicked on the screen to get the
full article. As she read through the words, only the message that Sheik Malik
bin Saqqaf was in the midst of a divorce and pressure was mounting for him to
re-marry quickly in order to produce an heir, something that hadn’t happened in
his first marriage and his advisors were becoming worried about an end to the
dynasty. A dynasty that had been extremely good for Duban.
Why was a divorce necessary?
Why wasn’t he just marrying another
woman, she wondered? Couldn’t he have several wives? The idea actually
made her stomach ache so she slapped the computer shut and turned around,
only to find several sets of eyes staring at her.
Sam and Jacob were in their rain coats and shoes, although Sam had his
shoes on the wrong feet. To the left of Sam were their two dogs, “Rover” and
“Boy”, neither canine having a very celebrated parentage and to the right of
Jacob was “Kitty”, a white, short haired feline that loved shedding on Siri’s black
slacks. All three animals had not been her choice but had shown up at various
stages in her sons’ short lives and become part of the family. Sam was the animal
lover and any creature that crossed his path needed to be adopted and “loved”
by her adorable little son. He brought home animals even when they had
owners, and she had to return them, sometimes with a very sad boy on her
hands because, in his mind, no one could take care of animals and give them
enough love like he could.
“What’s wrong, momma?” Sam asked, his hand holding Rover’s scraggly fur
nervously. Jacob, sensing the same tension, leaned into Sam and both boys
somehow figured out how to have as much of their bodies touching each other
without lying on top of the other.
They didn’t need to be concerned with her trauma, she told herself. All they
needed in their lives right now was a secure home with lots of hugs, kisses,
understanding and parameters. “Nothing is wrong, little guys,” she said and
pasted a bright smile on her face. “I just remembered that I needed to stop and
get gas but I can do that after I drop you two off at school. I know you have your
big day today, don’t you?”
The boys relaxed slightly, but they kept close, not sure if they believed their
mother or not. “Let’s go,” she said and herded the boys out to the car, kept the
animals in the house with one foot while she closed and locked the door, all the
while balancing their school bags on one shoulder, her computer bag in the other,
her keys in her right hand and her coffee in the left. She refused to let her mind
think about that man and his divorce as well as all the painful memories that
were long gone and should never to be thought of again.
As she drove them the short distance to their preschool, she did her best to
appear upbeat and unconcerned until she kissed each of them on their chubby
cheeks moments before they each ran off to play with their friends. She watched
them carefully for a few moments, noting that each other was their real best
friend. The others in the play group were interesting, but Sam and Jacob were
two halves of a whole.
When they were in elementary school, she’d have to separate them,
encourage them to open up to others and diversify their lives, but for now, they
were doing well. They were so smart it scared her sometimes. Would she be able
to give them everything they needed as they grew up? Was she a good mother?
Was she doing everything right?
She sighed as she exited the school, her mid whirling with questions and
insecurities. How nice it would be if she could talk to someone, bounce her ideas
off of them and have someone take a bit of the worry away. But she didn’t have
that. She was a single mother of twin boys who were always running around,
always chasing something, curious about anything that moved, and if it didn’t
move, they wanted to know why. If she wasn’t working to support them, she
was searching the internet to keep up with their questions. But no matter how
exhausting it was, she loved them and knew she’d never give them up for
anything or anyone.
Even a man who needed an heir, she thought angrily.
He’d walked out, he’d rejected her letter, he’d never called or checked in on
her. He could just go on about his merry old way and raise oil prices or let them
fall, whatever made his day. He’d never find out about her sons! She’d tried to
let him know about their existence but he’d rejected that letter, hadn’t even
opened the letter since it was “returned to sender”.
At the warehouse, she went to her office, smiling at the employees who were
already on duty, chatting with several of them about deliveries and inventories,
before moving on to her office. Once there, she closed her door, something she
rarely did, and sat down in her chair to try and figure out what to do. She had to
think through this latest news carefully, put it into perspective and then move on
with her life. Malik’s marriage or dissolution of his marriage had no bearing on
her life. She was independent, she’d worked hard to build up her toy business
and she had two wonderful boys that depended on her.
The days were always chaotic and she worked hard, proud of the company
she’d built up four years ago. She’d built up this toy company from nothing, just
an idea to distribute educational toys for kids, working hard over the years to
ensure its success. There were several people who hadn’t liked working for
someone younger, but she’d quickly changed their minds as she’d grown the
company, expanding and giving all of them more opportunities.
The idea for her company had come to her almost immediately after she’d
discovered she was pregnant. She and her mother had been searching for toys
that would be appropriate for what she’d thought would be her only child.
What they’d been able to find had been some great toys, some bad ones and
some mediocre, but nothing all in one spot. After a great deal of trial and error,
she’d created a web site that consolidated all of the toys she thought were
educational and beneficial to kids at various stages of their lives. The web site
had taken off and she’d quickly expanded from her parents’ dining room to a
small store, and then to this warehouse that could hold a larger inventory so she
could get the toys out to her customers more quickly as well as several other
retail stores.
At lunch, her assistant placed a sandwich beside her elbow and Siri smiled
her thanks. “Would you close the door again, Jane?” she asked as the woman
was walking out. Jane was startled at the unprecedented request but complied
and, as soon as she was alone, Siri put her head in her hands, closing her eyes
and trying to push the memories at bay.
She didn’t want to think about him but that article this morning had really
gotten to her. She looked out her window at the drizzle that continued to fall, her
mind traveling back to those halcyon days when everything was rosy and
beautiful. And she hadn’t known the pain of a man’s betrayal.
Chapter 2
Four Years Ago
Siri glanced once more at her date for the night, wondering what in the
world she possibly could have seen in him. She was in her second year of
university and he was in his last so when he’d asked if she could accompany him
on a dinner with his new boss, she’d eagerly accepted, thinking it would be nice
to spend some time with people who might be intellectually stimulating.
Not to mention Gary was a very handsome man. She wouldn’t mind getting
to know him better, and maybe something could grow. They’d spent some time
together at coffee shops and study groups although she’d been too intimidated
by everyone else to speak up much.
As she listened to him now, she couldn’t believe how stupid he was. If he
mis-quoted one more philosopher, she might have to say something. Looking at
their dinner companions, Gary’s new boss and his extremely patient wife, she
wasn’t sure if they were just bored out of their minds by Gary’s monologue on
why he’d adopted various aspects of some philosophers’ doctrines, discarding
other parts as “superfluous” or “redundant”.
Or if they were thinking of
something else just to keep their minds off of what Gary was saying.
When he once again ascribed Aristotle to the introduction of Forms to
philosophy instead of Plato, Siri looked away, unwilling to see if their dinner
companions, and Gary’s future employer, agreed or were showing contempt at
the man’s blatant abuse of the great philosophers.
As she glanced to her right, her eyes collided with a pair of dark, amused
ones. The man was exceptionally handsome with dark, wavy hair and a strong
jaw, and a half smiling mouth that showed he too had overheard Gary’s
comments. This man, whoever he was, understood the differences between Plato
and Aristotle and wasn’t impressed with Siri’s dinner companion.
Siri glanced away, feeling somewhat odd with that man’s gaze. She placed a
hand over her fluttery stomach and picked up her ice water, taking a long draw
to cool herself down.
Trying hard to focus on the conversation, hoping she might be able to liven it
up a bit, she waited for a break in Gary’s diatribe about Durkheim. How had
they gone from philosophy to sociology? She really must have missed a great
deal of the conversation.
Their food arrived and she picked up her fork, hoping Gary would also take
the hint and start eating. His boss appeared to be moving out of the bored range
and into the irritated.
“Gary, that looks delicious. What did you order?” she asked, only to be
polite.
It didn’t work and Gary shifted back to philosophy after declaring
emphatically that agnostics, like he claimed to be, shouldn’t limit their world
after rejecting the existence of a divine being.
Siri actually choked on her water with that one and her eyes went once more
to the man at the next table. Sure enough, he was looking right back at her with
an eyebrow raised in question. She tried very hard to smother the amusement at
Gary’s confusion with agnostics versus atheists, but she kept quiet and just
prayed to the divine being that she sincerely believed in, that this dinner would
end quickly and their dinner companions were unaware of Gary’s gaffes.
When the meal was finally over, Gary’s exuberance over his performance
was astounding. The four of them were walking out of the restaurant and Siri
pulled her wrap closer around her. It wasn’t that it was chilly so much as she
didn’t want Gary to touch her bare skin. She was so repulsed by his ignorance
that she couldn’t deal with any kind of affection from him.
She turned to the side and once again, she found herself caught up in the
stranger’s gaze. He was surrounded by his dinner companions, but he wasn’t
paying any attention to them, just as she was in an island that seemed to contain
only herself and the man standing ten feet away. He was much taller than she’d
originally have guessed and in the brighter light of the valet area, she could see
that his eyes were genuinely a light grey and weren’t a factor from the dim
lighting of the restaurant. He was handsome, in an off-hand kind of way. It
wasn’t so much his looks though, but something that was alluring about his
appearance, something that drew one’s eyes towards him.
He wouldn’t release her eyes and she felt captured, unable to look away,
unable to hear anything that was going on around her and she wasn’t sure if she
was standing or sitting, just too transfixed to do anything other than stand there
until he released her.
Fortunately, she didn’t really mind the hold he had over her. This stranger’s
gaze was much more enjoyable than anything that was going on around her.
Until Gary realized that she wasn’t paying attention to him. He grabbed her
arm and nudged her. “Are you okay?” he asked in an almost angry tone.
Siri blinked and that seemed to break the magic. She looked away, noticed
where she was, that three pairs of eyes were waiting on her expectantly. “I’m
sorry, I dazed out for a moment. Did someone ask me a question?”
Gary puffed up like some angry cave man. “I asked if you knew that man
over there.”
Siri glanced back, but the tall man was getting into a large, black sport utility
vehicle, disappearing from her sight.
“No. I’ve never met him before,” she replied honestly. “He was sitting at the
table next to ours during dinner.”
“Then why were you staring at him like that?” he demanded.
Siri glanced away, feeling slightly guilty. “I apologize. He was just….” She
shook her head, unable to explain what had gone on between herself and the
stranger. She couldn’t explain it in her mind, so putting words to her feelings
and reactions wasn’t really possible.
Gary cursed under his breath and turned back to his future boss. “I’m sorry,
Mr. Meyers. Siri isn’t usually this rude. I suppose I simply made the wrong
choice in companions for the evening.”
Siri looked at the man who had been boring her all evening, her mouth
falling open in astonishment. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me,” Gary replied, shaking his head in disdain. “You’re rude
and inconsiderate and I don’t think we’re going to work out well together.”
Siri laughed and took a step back. Turning to the other couple, she smiled
brightly. “Mr. Meyers, Ms. Meyers, I appreciate the dinner tonight. The food
was exceptionally good. Unfortunately, the man you are considering hiring
doesn’t know the difference between Plato, who’s primary doctrine was about
Forms and their abstract meaning, to put a great mind in a nutshell,” she said
turning to glare at Gary, “and Aristotle, who was a student of Plato. And how on
earth you thought Durkheim was a companion of Socrates is beyond me, since
the man was born in France several centuries after Socrates died, over thirteen
hundred miles from Athens, Greece. Not only that, Durkheim studied
sociology.” She was just about to turn away when she thought of one other
subject. “Oh, and one other stupid comment? Atheists don’t believe in a divine
being. Agnostics accept the existence of a divine being is unknown. A subtle
difference, but one your mind is too small to understand.”
She turned to the other couple, surprised to see their amusement at her
comments. “Well said,” Mr. Meyers replied, the first time he revealed that he
was fully aware of all the unintelligent comments Gary had mouthed during the
dinner. “Please give me a call when you’re ready for a job. I’d like to talk to you
about possibilities,” he said, handing her his business card. Looking back at
Gary, “I don’t think that position we discussed is going to work out after all.
And please don’t blame this young lady. I was going to tell you this in the
morning, but since you pushed the envelope by speaking to her so poorly a few
moments ago, I decided it was pointless to pull my punches since you set the
tone.”
Ms. Meyers was already nodding and tucking her hand into her husband’s
elbow. “Would you like a ride back to your apartment, Siri? I’m not sure I’m
comfortable with you going back with this young man.”
Siri glanced up at Gary and stepped back. “Thank you. That’s very
considerate of you.” She thought about catching a cab back to her place, but
Gary was red enough in the face to be a problem so it was probably better to get
out of the area. Besides, she didn’t really have the funds for a cab ride. The dress
had cost her a great deal, not to mention the shoes that were biting into the
tender flesh of her feet.
The valet arrived at that moment, handing keys to both Gary and Mr.
Meyers. Siri followed the couple, slipping into their back seat and refusing to
glance at Gary the whole time. She was relieved when the older couple pulled
away from the curb, both of them chatting away at some of Gary’s more idiotic
comments during the meal.
The next day, Siri was in her tiny apartment that she shared with another
student. Both of them were studying, relaxed on the battered sofa and chair that
made up their den area. Both pieces of furniture had seen better days but were
covered with blankets or sheets that hid the worst of their wear. Siri had gone to
her two classes for the day already and was propped up on the chair with her
legs hanging over the side, her brown, slightly curly hair piled on top of her
head, held there with a couple of pencils and a pen. She had a highlighter in one
hand and was flipping the pages of her Art History book, making notes in the
margins with the pen and highlighting anything that might be pertinent in the
text.
When the doorbell rang, her roommate, Linda, jumped up and answered the
door, dumping her calculus book onto the floor eagerly. “Expecting someone?
Maybe an agitated, unemployed idiot perhaps?” she joked, referring to Gary. Siri
had told her all about the meal as soon as she’d gotten home last night, both of
them laughing at some of Gary’s comments.
“Not for me,” Siri said, focusing on the history of Renaissance paintings.
In the back of her mind, Siri heard Linda answer the door, but the mumbled
greetings didn’t break her concentration.
“Uh, Siri?” Linda called out.
“Tell them I’m not here,” she called back, knowing that whoever it was could
hear her comments but still hoping they would be discouraged.
“Um…I’m not sure this guy is going to take no for an answer.”
That got through to Siri and she glanced up from her book. When she saw
the tall man in the dark suit standing in her kitchen, the only other area besides
the den and the two bedrooms which were on opposite sides of the den, Siri
jumped up, dumping her books and notes all over the orange, shag carpet.
“Oh!” she cried out and looked down at the papers, then back up at the
gorgeous man who was looking at her with a blank expression on his face. He
looked scarier, more intimidating, in the bright afternoon sunshine. And much,
much taller!
She pulled the pen out of her hair, wishing she’d pulled on something better
than leggings and an old tee shirt which had definitely seen better days and only
came down to her waist. “Sorry,” she said and grabbed Linda’s boyfriend’s shirt
which was draped over the back of the only other chair in the apartment. “I
wasn’t expecting anyone today. We were just studying.”
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” the man replied with a slight accent which Siri
couldn’t place immediately.
“I thought perhaps we might be formally
introduced since we had such an amusing evening last night.”
Siri had to laugh despite her nervousness at this extremely large man in her
apartment. “It wasn’t so funny towards the end, but he did serve as a good
amusement factor, didn’t he?”
Malik took a step forward, his eyes looking over her beautiful skin for signs
of abuse. “He didn’t hurt you, did he? I know that you confronted him at the
end, and I apologize for not being there to stop him if things became physical.”
She looked up at him curiously. “It wasn’t your responsibility to ensure my
safety, but I appreciate the thought. I can take care of myself,” she claimed.
Malik stopped his laughter, but only just in time. This woman who barely
reached his shoulder thought she could handle an angry man with his pride
wounded in front of his future employer? “I’m glad to hear it.” He stepped back
and smiled. “I would like to take you out to dinner myself, if you have the
time.”
Siri was startled and not sure how to respond. She looked to Linda who was
just as awestruck. Regrouping quickly so she didn’t appear so ridiculous, she
replied, “I’m flattered, but I really don’t think that I’m I your league,” she stated
softly, wishing that she could be in his league. This man was hunk material, but
also terrifying for some reason.
Linda really didn’t like Siri’s response and stepped forward. “She’d be
delighted,” she contradicted. “What time and where should she meet you?” she
asked, already picking up a pen and notebook and writing something down on
it.
Malik glanced at the cute redhead who interceded on his behalf, appreciating
her efforts. “Eight o’clock, tomorrow night? I’ll pick you up here.”
Linda nodded, ignoring Siri’s attempt to contradict her. “That sounds
perfect, “ she said, nodding her head for emphasis. “Here’s Siri’s cell phone
number in case anything comes up. And she’ll be ready tomorrow at eight.”
The tall, gorgeous man took the paper and bowed slightly, handing the paper
to one of the large, bulky men behind him without even glancing at it. “I look
forward to our evening. And I will work hard to ensure that I don’t mistake my
philosophers since you apparently are so well versed in their doctrines.”
With that, he stepped out of the apartment and closed the door, leaving
behind two stunned women who looked at each other as if they’d just been
invited to a royal ball.
“Who was that man?” Linda asked, when she remembered to close her
mouth, her whole body showing her excitement for Siri’s new man.
Siri shrugged, still staring at the now closed door. “I have no idea. He was
at the table next to ours last night and we looked at each other every time Gary
said something stupid but I don’t know his name. And I couldn’t even guess
where he’s from since I couldn’t place his accent.”
Linda wasn’t excited any longer. She was actually looking a bit worried now.
“And you’re going out with him? Is that safe?”
Siri turned to glare at her roommate, astonished that she was asking that
question now after Linda had just accepted the date despite Siri’s rejection. “Not
really,” she said with emphasis, raising an eyebrow. “But did I have a choice?
Not really!”
Linda laughed and flopped back down on the sofa, her worry dissipating
just as easily as it had appeared. “Well, it’s about time you got out and explored
a little. Have a bit of adventure tomorrow night with your mystery guy. He
looks yummy, so enjoy it!”
“I might enjoy it more if I knew his name.”
At that moment, her cell phone rang and she looked down at the tiny screen.
It was an unknown number, but something told her to answer the call anyway.
“Hello?” she answered warily.
“I think I forgot to tell you my name,” a deep voice said over the phone.
“Yes, we were just mentioning that,” she replied, glancing at Linda who was
watching her eagerly.
“I’m Malik,” he explained. “And I’m very glad to meet you, Siri.”
She hesitated to ask, actually afraid of the answer but knowing she had to
find out anyway. “How did you find out who I am?”
“I have a few resources.”
“And how do you know where I live?”
“Same resources. I promise I’m not a stalker. Just consider me a man
interested in getting to know a beautiful woman. I’ll see you tomorrow night.”
Siri glanced at her phone, then at Linda. “His name is Malik and he has
�resources’,” she explained to her curious roommate.
“He has a lot more than resources,” Linda replied with a grin before once
more diving back into her books.
The Tycoon’s Marriage Exchange
Chapter 1
Kallista Papadelias shook her head, her eyes wary as she faced this large,
intimidating man who was waiting patiently for her answer. “Surely there’s an
alternative. I really don’t want to marry you.” She braced herself, her muscles
tense and guarded as the powerful man sitting across from her absorbed her
rejection. Goose bumps rose up on her arms and she knew that the shivers
running through her were due more to the man’s darkening eyes than the cold
air blowing down from the ceiling’s ventilation system. She wrapped her cold,
shaking fingers around the coffee cup in front of her, trying to gain some warmth
but she was too nervous.
“Have you heard a thing I’ve said?” Hector Christophe asked digging deeper
to find more patience. This woman sitting in front of him was lovely, but he
wasn’t sure how much was going on inside her pretty head. He’d thought she
was exceptionally intelligent but she wasn’t displaying any right at the moment.
“Your father’s business is in jeopardy. He is going to lose everything if I don’t
help him. And he won’t accept my help because of his pride.”
Kallista tried to focus, truly she did, but the way this man was watching her
unnerved her, made her stomach quake and her muscles tense. Unfortunately, if
his irritated look was any indication, she’d obviously missed something
significant during this discussion. “What does me marrying you have to do with
that?”
Hector was proud that he didn’t grind his teeth in frustration, knowing that
would only make her more nervous. “Don’t be obtuse, Kallista. You know how
our culture works,” he replied heartlessly. “If we are married, I would be family.
Your father would accept help from a family member. As it stands now, he won’t
even acknowledge to me that there’s a problem. But I can see in his eyes when I
try and talk to him about some of the issues I’ve discovered, and I know that he’s
fully aware of the dangers to his company and all he’s built over the years. He’s
trying to fix this himself but he doesn’t have the resources so he’s making a
bigger mess of the situation. I’m already working behind the scenes to help, but I
need to become more out in the open to deter the takeover.”
He watched carefully as the woman with soft blue eyes and pale, porcelain
skin listened carefully. She was tall for a woman at five feet, seven inches but he
still towered over her and he couldn’t help his size. It was scaring her and he
shifted to give her more space, but there was only so much he could do. He was
six feet, three inches tall which made him loom larger than most of the men she
was probably used to.
She smelled good, he thought, then banished that from his mind. Her scent,
no matter how lovely, had nothing to do with this conversation. There was a
crisis and he could see her occasional shivers so he had to ignore her allure and
focus on saving her family’s reputation, and her father’s company.
Kallista’s hands squeezed tightly together under the table. She loved her
parents and they’d done so much for her. How could she not do this if it would
help them? Hector was right, her father wouldn’t accept help from a friend but
in her culture, family was not only allowed to help when needed, they were
expected to help however possible. Families stuck together, they worked
together, lived, laughed, fought and loved together. And when things got tough,
they all came together to find a solution to whatever problem was facing them.
Her father, bless his soul, had more pride than sense sometimes, Kallista
thought angrily. She pulled the complicated reports and colorful charts closer,
trying to understand the immense data this man was attempting to impart to her.
“Okay, so please explain all this to me one more time and let me try and absorb
the situation. Surly there’s a less drastic way to deal with this horrible situation
other than the two of us marrying.”
Hector sighed and pulled the files together. He’d gone through all the
information himself and tried to come up with an alternative but every time he’d
approached Demetrius Papadelias with a solution, Kallista’s father, the man had
simply shut down and changed the subject. Unfortunately, whenever Hector
visited his old friend, he saw that the valuable paintings that were slowly leaving
the walls of Demetrius’ once regal home, he recognized the slow deterioration
and the dust intermingled with the missing valuables. Kallista’s mother no
longer wore even her beautiful engagement ring, which led Hector to suspect
that she had sold the ring to try and raise needed money to counter this latest
threat to their company.
It wasn’t that Kallista’s parents were in a bad situation. Hector’s information
told him that Demetrius Papadelias, and more than five thousand employees,
were about to be swindled horribly, the entire company and all of its employees
and their families will lose their life savings and their pensions if someone didn’t
come in and stop this takeover threat. So it wasn’t just Demetrius and Kallista’s
family who needed to be saved. It was the life savings of thousands of innocent
families who could be completely destroyed if someone didn’t step in and stop
the insidious problem this takeover presented.
With a patience Hector didn’t realize he had, he straightened and once again
went through the data, trying to explain to Kallista Papadelias what had
happened and what impact the crisis could mean for everyone involved. “Six
months ago, stock in your father’s company started getting bought up. The price
has remained relatively stable...” he explained, showing Kallista the charts and
graphs his staff had generated to explain the takeover attempt. Unfortunately, it
wasn’t just a takeover. The man who was slowly, secretly buying up stock in her
family’s business was known for purchasing troubled companies and liquidating
everything, sometimes even draining the pension funds if there was a weak
pension manager. There were stories that he even denied final paychecks to
employees after some sales when he took over a company. The man in charge
operated both above and below the law, uncaring if anything he did was legal.
Since he’d done this so many times, the man was a relatively wealthy and had a
team of unethical lawyers who sometimes provided bogus cover or slammed the
opposition with inane but expensive litigation to protect him from any
repercussions.
Kallista rubbed her forehead, a headache forming as she tried to understand
all this data. “Who is this man that is doing all of this and how can he operate in
this nasty manner?” she asked, going cross eyed from all of the financial
information. She didn’t understand most of it but didn’t want to admit that to
Hector Christophe who was reportedly a financial genius. She might have joked
that he thought he controlled the world to her parents one evening, but the
reality was that his holdings internationally were so broad, so far flung, that the
man really might control the world. Or at least a very large part of it. He was so
powerful, she still didn’t understand why Hector and her family were friends.
Although he’d always come by her parents’ house when he was in town, she’d
never really understood the friendship Hector had with her father.
Kallista had avoided these intimidating meetings whenever possible, but
was polite when her parents insisted that she be present for the occasional
dinners when Hector was in town and had time for a meal at her parents’ house.
It wasn’t that her parents were poor. They were definitely what most people
considered wealthy. Even the elite, some might say. But they weren’t even close
to the stratosphere where Hector reigned. He was the top dog in a pack of some
of the most powerful men in the world. And he’d done it all from nothing
according to the vague news reports that had come out over the years.
As a reporter, she was fascinated by his incredible rise to power. Her mind
might not be able to absorb the technical financial issues he was explaining, but
she had a great mind for digging into an issue and finding the story. Her fingers
were itching to write up her impressions of the man, ask him questions and
interview him for an article. Maybe, after this latest investigation she was
working on, she might tackle the great and famous Hector Christophe and see if
she could discover how he’d really made his first million. Or all the subsequent
billions, she thought with irritation. The man had never granted an interview
with any reporter, so he was a mystery she would enjoy tackling.
One challenge at a time, she admonished herself and re-focused on the
spreadsheets in front of her, not daring to look up at the man in front of her
because, each time she did, she lost her train of thought. Those intense, grey eyes
didn’t relent as he tried to make her understand. There was so much more
behind those eyes, something she didn’t understand, something shocking in a
way she didn’t comprehend and yet, the feeling was still somehow alluring and
tempting.
“Everything ties back to this man,” Hector was saying and he pushed the
grainy picture of a thin man with a Roman looking nose and receding hairline
closer to her. “Somehow, your father and he met and they started investing
together. It’s from that moment that your father’s business started to decline.”
Kallista smothered the gasp of horror as she stared down at the man in the
picture. He was the man she was currently investigating! She had a whole story
surrounding this man who she suspected was controlling drug distribution at
many of the ports along the Greek coastline.
And what was worse, Kallista had introduced her father to this man! It had
been an accidental meeting about seven months ago. She and the man in the
picture named Rolf Peterson were having coffee one afternoon. Kallista had
pretended to run into him one day and she’d “accidentally” dropped the
contents of her bag on the sidewalk in an effort to gain his attention. Acting like
a flighty klutz with her short skirt and high heels, she’d gotten Rolf to suggest
coffee, which was exactly the opening for which she’d been aiming. It was a
horrible coincidence that her father had run into her that day. There had been
nothing she could do but invite her father to join them for coffee and introduce
him to Rolf.
Her father hadn’t stayed long, but it must have been long enough for Rolf to
get an idea on how to infiltrate her father’s company. Her father hadn’t told her
that he’d contacted, or been contacted by, the man she’d introduced to him that
day.
So this whole business was her fault? She’d done this to her family?
She stared at Hector’s face as he continued to explain but she didn’t hear the
words any longer. She was trying to figure out an alternative, not wanting to
sacrifice her life by marrying a man as cold, frightening and unfeeling as Hector
Christophe. She reacted to this man in an elemental way that, in her mind, was
shockingly unsuitable. Her stomach muscles tightened as his male scent drifted
to her nostrils, making her head swim in an inappropriate way.
He wasn’t handsome, but she had to admit that there was a certain bold,
earthy appeal to the man. He was extremely tall and he definitely had a good
tailor because his shoulders looked very broad and muscular. Good padding,
she thought.
His eyes were grey and sharp, intelligent was the best she could describe if
she were being generous. But she didn’t want to marry a man like that. She
wanted a man who was warm and comforting, someone she could cry to when
she needed help or who would listen when she was stuck on a problem. She was
fairly certain that Hector Christophe wouldn’t listen. He’d just fix everything
and tell her in a patronizing tone that she was a good girl for coming to him with
the problem, then carry on with his own business issues.
Kallista put her hand over the pile of papers, stopping him from continuing.
She had no idea what he was saying, nor would she even if he tried to patiently
explain it all over again. Her mind was too consumed with the fact that, at the
bottom of all of this, she’d started the ball rolling. If she could stop it simply by
marrying Hector and saving her father’s pride, she had to do it.
“I’ll marry you,” she said softly, looking away and trying to hide her tears
and confusion. Wasn’t she a good daughter? Hadn’t she been raised to think of
marriage as a union between two people who loved and respected one another?
So why was she entering into this marriage with cold deliberation? And, if she
were completely honest with herself, secret admiration for a man she didn’t
understand.
Hector looked at the lovely woman with the soft hair and blue, alluring eyes.
He wanted to pull her into his arms and tell her that everything would be okay,
that he would fix this problem and maybe they could be happy. But he wasn’t
sure he could do that. He could definitely fix the problem with her father, but
there was so much more to happiness and he couldn’t promise her that. Not
with his history.
As an orphaned child, left on the streets to rob and steal, to scrounge in the
garbage and gutters for food, he knew that happiness was elusive. If it weren’t
for Kallista’s father, he might still be in the gutters. The day Hector had tried to
steal from Demetrius, and been caught, had been the day his life had become
worth something. Demetrius hadn’t allowed the police to take Hector. Instead,
the gentle, elderly man had brought him to a restaurant and fed him. He’d been
kind, patient, ignoring the shifting eyes of a young boy who was looking for his
next victim and told that young boy that he was better than this. That he could
be so much more if he wanted.
Demetrius had saved Hector’s life and now the tables were turned. There
was no way he would allow Demetrius, nor the other employees of his company,
to fall victim to Rolf Peterson’s activities. Having lived the life of a gutter rat,
Hector knew how to play with the worst of them. He’d never break the law
again. That would be letting down the man who had given him so much. But
Hector had quickly learned how to use the laws to his advantage.
As he watched Kallista’s gentle features, he knew instinctively that he
wanted to protect her again. So many evenings he’d sat across the table from her
at her parents’ house, watching her, knowing that she was out of his league, that
she was too good for him. He’d honestly tried to come up with an alternative to
this predicament with her father, but when it came down to it, marriage to her
was the best he could do and would allow him to move in quickly and fight
Peterson with everything in his arsenal.
With a stern nod, he stood up. “I’ll stop by your house tonight and we’ll tell
your parents the news.”
Kallista also stood and followed him, trying to get her mind to focus but she
wasn’t sure that was possible anymore. This had been a crazy morning and she
was off kilter, needing some way to ground herself. The thought occurred to her
that his shoulders were definitely wide enough and strong enough to give her a
place to cry out her fears. But she squashed that thought, knowing that Hector
Christophe was not the kind of man who would endure tears with fortitude. “I’ll
meet you there then.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, his hand resting on the door to his office but
not opening it.
Kallista smiled slightly, realizing that Hector probably thought that she still
lived with her parents. She was a single woman in his eyes and therefore, he
probably assumed she would be living at her parents’ house until she was
married. “I have my own place,” she said, staring at the center of his red silk tie,
unable to look him in the eye.
“Why aren’t you living with your parents?”
She laughed softly, even though his comment wasn’t the least bit amusing.
“Why don’t you live with your parents?” she asked softly. When she received no
response, she took that to mean that she’d explained her point. “Everyone needs
their own space. I grew up, graduated from university and thought it was time
to stand on my own two feet. I’ve had my own apartment ever since I finished
college.”
Since there were double doors, she reached out for the knob of the other door
and pulled it open, walking out without bothering to say goodbye, leaving him
with a small smile which she hoped conveyed her thanks, but she suspected that
it might just give him a hint as to how frightened she was of being in his
presence.
At the elevator, she pressed the button and thought about all she’d just
committed herself to. Would her parents even approve of the marriage? She
wasn’t sure she could hide her fear of Hector from them. He was so different
from the other men she’d dated, surely they would see through the lie and call
her on it. He was a large, domineering man who frightened her in some
elemental way that she didn’t understand.
On the other hand, he also made her feel things, emotions or shivering
experiences that none of her other dates had even come close to doing to her.
That both frightened her, and in an odd, bizarre way, it thrilled her right down to
her belly. It made her feel feminine and….wanted?
No, she was just imagining those crazy feelings. She’d wanted so badly to
fall into a crazy-in-love relationship and just because Hector scared her more
than the other men she’d met to date, that didn’t mean that he was the man for
her.
Maybe if her parents objected to the marriage, she could then sit down with
them, explain Hector’s offer of help and they would finally accept it. That would
get her out of a marriage that terrified her, wouldn’t it?
Yes, her parents would see through the lie. They would sense her fears and
she could convince them to accept Hector’s help. Wasn’t her whole world all
about convincing people through words? As a journalist, she knew that finding
the right story to tell was only part of the question. Telling the story so everyone
could understand and absorb the information, that was the other half of the
challenge.
Right now, she was working on a huge story, one that could catapult her into
another realm of journalism and she wasn’t about to let it go just to marry a man
who was the equivalent of a terrifying, unfeeling cold fish. Albeit a tall fish, she
thought with a chuckle. And an extremely handsome one. No chuckle this time
as her body shivered with the memory of his strong, elegant hands.
Out in the street and back in the sunshine, she felt enormously better. With
Hector’s generous help, she could get her parents through this crisis and they
would be stronger for it. She wouldn’t have to sacrifice her life or her career for
the problem and she might even get additional information about the subject of
her investigation from Hector once they’d resolved the corporate crisis.
Chapter 2
“You’re getting married?” Aella Papadelias, Kallista’s mother, asked with an
incredulous expression. Her shaking hands covered her mouth and she turned
to her father. “They’re getting married!” she whispered reverently. “Oh, dear,
they’re getting married.”
Kallista watched with a sinking heart as her mother and father looked at
each other, the relief in both their expressions and their shoulders, in fact, their
whole bodies, was evident.
Aella stood up and rushed to her daughter. “Oh, Kallista! You have no idea
how happy this has made me and your papa.”
Kallista hugged her mother, looking over her shoulder at Hector who was
standing stoically beside the sofa. It was as if he were aloof, not willing to be a
part of their small family and the excitement the announcement had caused.
Or maybe he didn’t think he belonged. She blinked and looked back at her
parents, not wanting to see the almost brutally blank expression on Hector’s
features. Where that thought came from she didn’t know. Hector had a way of
belonging anywhere he went, she thought as she accepted her father’s ecstatic
hug as well. She was being ridiculous, she told herself firmly. Hector had
enough power to crush anyone who made him feel like an outsider, even if their
exclusion was accidental, so people went out of their way to make him feel
welcome.
So why did she get the strong sense that he was feeling like an outcast?
Kallista didn’t like thinking of Hector as vulnerable. It made him human,
gave him feelings and she preferred thinking of him as a robot, unfeeling and
invulnerable to the lesser human emotions others had to deal with. But
something about his face, the way he refused to allow any emotions to cross his
rough features, told her that there was something more to him than she realized.
Her mother sensed Hector behind her as well and she rushed over, taking his
face between her hands and bringing his face down for a motherly kiss. “I’m
very honored to have you as a son in law,” she said with a great deal of emotion,
tears forming on her eyes as she looked up at him with pride.
Hector was uncomfortable with her praise. He wanted to step out, to let the
three of them celebrate this event on their own without his interference, but Aella
wouldn’t let him even step back. She looped her arm through his, giving him
another hug and making him brace himself to resist the warmth she was
showing him.
Kallista’s father also came over, shaking Hector’s hand and bringing him
over to the sofa so they were all once again sitting down. Hector wanted to pull
the man aside and apologize for even considering marrying his daughter, to
explain that he knew that he was unworthy of such an honor and he would treat
her with the care and respect she deserved. But Demetrius was too vociferous in
his congratulations and there wasn’t a point in the conversation where Hector
could pull him aside. He was being dragged into this, even though his inclusion
was wrong on so many levels.
Demetrius looked over at the two of them, his eyes alight with relief and
excitement. “How did all this happen? I didn’t even know you two were
dating?”
Kallista cringed inside and looked to Hector for help. “We haven’t really
been dating so much as just seeing each other,” he explained carefully. “And the
idea of marriage came up pretty suddenly.”
Kallista wanted to laugh at how accurate that statement truly was, to
applaud his use of half truths so that they weren’t lying to her parents but still
protecting them from the cold reality of their relationship. Since she and Hector
had just discussed marriage this afternoon, and they honestly only saw each
other at some social functions even though they rarely spoke, there was no
untruth to that statement at all. It was a wonderful twist on reality that made a
very sweet fairy tale, something for her parents to hang onto.
Dinner that night was festive for her parents and Kallista tried to at least
pretend to be in the mood, but she was tense and worried, barely tasting the food
that was served even though everyone else exclaimed that it was delicious. Her
plan to try and talk with her parents was slowly disintegrating as the night
progressed and they became happier, more relieved. She knew she couldn’t back
out of this now. She’d have to help them out and if that meant marrying a man
she didn’t know or love, she’d do it.
Looking at Hector across the table, she considered his profile as he talked
with her mother. He definitely wasn’t bad looking. He wasn’t traditionally
handsome but there was a definite ruggedness that was definitely appealing. He
certainly had strong features, dark, intelligent eyes and broad shoulders. And he
was so intelligent that it was downright scary.
Besides, the marriage didn’t have to be real. Hector probably didn’t think of
it as a real proposal, but something he was doing out of respect for her parents,
right? They could end the marriage once he’d done whatever it was he needed
to do to help her father’s ailing company.
Or was he the kind of man who thought of marriage as a forever kind of
contract? He was reputed in the business world to be brutal, but also respected
and honorable. One didn’t gain that reputation without a great deal of
experience behind it.
No way, she thought. Although she didn’t know much about the man, she
knew that he regularly escorted fabulously glamorous women to functions all
over the world. He’d reputedly had an affair with one of the biggest Hollywood
actresses, and several models, even a ballerina. She doubted he was the kind of
man who would want to be stuck with one female for the rest of his life.
Especially a female like herself who had no glamour, no fabulous career and
minimal connections that could assist him in his business dealings.
“So when were you planning to have the wedding? Any ideas on what time
of the year? Perhaps a spring or fall wedding?” Aella was asking, looking to
Kallista hopefully.
“Soon,” Hector announced before Kallista could reply. Which was probably
a good thing because she might have said something like “A year or so,” instead
of the ambiguous “Soon”.
Her mother beamed and sat up a bit straighter in her chair. “I’ll have to
organize an engagement party. Between the two of us, we can get that done in
the next month or so, can’t we Kallista?”
“We’ll be married in two weeks,” Hector announced with his deep, strong
voice, surprising the whole group. “And Kallista has asked if we can have the
engagement party at my house because she likes my backyard so much. I know
that’s an imposition to ask, but I hope that’s okay.”
Aella was startled at first, but Kallista again saw that flash of relief in her
mother’s eyes and her heart sank even lower, both at how oblivious she had
become to her parents’ troubles as well as the trap that that was slowly closing
around her future.
“Oh, goodness, how could I mind? Your backyard is exceptionally beautiful
with all of that magnificent landscaping and stunning views of both the city and
the sea.” She turned to Kallista and smiled, “It was very nice of you to think of
something like that. It shows that you have a good eye for entertaining which
will be important for your new role as Hector’s wife.”
And that was something Kallista hadn’t realized would be on her plate of
responsibilities. A new issue to worry about, she thought as her mother started
listing all the things they would have to arrange for an engagement party.
Her mother was eager, excited and deliriously happy while her father simply
looked on with pride and acceptance for whatever his wife decreed.
Hector saw where things were going and stepped in to circumvent any
delays. In a tone that wouldn’t accept any arguments, he said, “We’ll have the
engagement party next week, and the wedding the following week. I know
that’s not very conventional, but we’ll just have to insult some people’s sense of
protocol since I want the wedding to take place sooner rather than later.”
Aella’s hand quickly went to her throat. She looked quickly between her
daughter and the man she was going to marry, her suspicions clashing around in
her mind. “Is there a reason the wedding needs to happen so soon?” she asked,
looking worriedly from Kallista to Hector.
Kallista was quick to understand her meaning and pretended like her face
wasn’t flaming with color. “Of course not!” she replied emphatically. She was
blushing painfully and couldn’t look across the table, not wanting to see the
derision on Hector’s features. “Goodness, I would tell you if that were the case.”
Her shoulders visibly relaxed with that news, but she still looked confused.
“So what’s the rush?”
Once again, Hector stepped in with an easy answer. “I have business in New
York and London in the next few weeks so I wanted to announce the engagement
officially as soon as possible so Kallista can accompany me. I wouldn’t want her
reputation to be hurt by attending these functions without my ring on her finger.
And I wanted to give you time to make the announcement instead of the press
seeing us together and making suppositions on their own.” He was speaking to
her parents, but Kallista knew that the words were soothing to her parents as
well, and would allow them to save face with their friends and neighbors. And
when she didn’t show up pregnant so soon after the wedding, their suspicions
would be dismissed.
The relief and acceptance on her mother’s face was instant and Kallista
relaxed. At least until her next words. “Goodness! If we have a party to
organize in a week, Kallista, you and I have a lot we need to get done. No more
running around with all your friends for a while, eh?”
Her mother and father knew she worked, even to the point of accepting her
choice of professions, but they thought she only did entertainment pieces or
reported on social issues. Kallista hadn’t told her parents about her desire to
become an investigative journalist, nor had she mentioned the story she was
currently working on about the drugs moving through the harbors. That would
worry them too much. “I suppose you’re right,” she said, looking at her water
glass, her heart sinking as she tried to figure out how she was going to
investigate her story when she had to help her mother plan what was probably
going to be a huge bash. Something her parents couldn’t afford.
Hector immediately stepped in, once again to the rescue. “I have a caterer I
use for business functions that is able to get food ready quickly. They do an
excellent job too. I’ll have my secretary send over the name and contact
information.”
Kallista suddenly realized what he was doing. By having the party in his
backyard, and using his company’s caterer, he was arranging it so that he paid
for most of the party. With gratitude, she looked across at him, smiling her
thanks. He nodded slightly, acknowledging her thanks without letting her
parents see their silent interchange.
After dinner, Hector apologized and said he had some business calls to
make. “Would you walk me out?” he asked, turning to Kallista.
She stood up immediately and ignored her parents knowing smile. Walking
Hector to the door was a very odd sensation. He was so tall that her head barely
topped his shoulder even in her heels. And he seemed larger, broader for some
reason tonight.
Maybe she was just tired but she wanted the evening to be over so she could
collapse and let her mind sift through the events of the day, try to make sense of
everything.
“You did well tonight,” he said and looked down at her in the dim light of
the foyer. He slid his hands into the pockets of his slacks so he wouldn’t touch
her, wouldn’t be tempted to find out what the skin on her cheeks felt like or test
the softness of her silky brown tresses. “You’re parents are happy and relieved.”
Kallista forced a smile on her face and hid her hands behind her back. She
wished she could get over this silly feeling she had every time he was close but
her knees were wobbly and her mouth felt dry, her hands were shaky and she
had the embarrassing suspicion that he knew she wanted to touch him, to find
out what was underneath that immaculate suit he wore. “Yes. Thank you for
coming to the rescue. I had no idea that things were as bad as they were, even
with all those numbers you were discussing with me earlier today.”
“Numbers you completely ignored,” he said with a half smile as he looked
down at the top of her head.
She laughed and glanced up at him, her blue eyes dancing with acceptance
that she’d been caught. “Was it that obvious?”
He chuckled and shifted slightly. “A little.”
She grimaced and stole another peek at his dark features. “I never claimed to
be a numbers person. I always hated math.”
“Don’t worry,” he said and bowed slightly in a formal, almost old fashioned
way. “I can now start the ball rolling to resolve this issue although I doubt your
father will allow me to do much until after the wedding. Which is one of the
reasons why we need to be married so soon. I’ll need to move quickly to
reinforce your father’s company.”
Gone was the fleeting tenderness she thought she saw, and back was the
tough, unrelenting businessman. “I understand. I’ll do what I can to help.”
“You’re already doing it,” he said and opened the door, nodding to her
slightly before he left.
Kallista walked up the stairs to her old room, glad that she still had some
clothes here since she didn’t have an easy way to get back to her place. She
smiled slightly as she wondered if Hector thought it was better for her to be with
her parents than at her own place, or if he’d just forgotten that she didn’t live
here any longer. Good grief, she was twenty-four years old, of course she
wouldn’t be living with her parents.
She wondered about the odd expression she’d seen on his face when she’d
asked about living with his parents earlier today. Had she seen a flash of pain?
Or was that just male dominance? Or perhaps he thought there was a difference
between men and women. Maybe he thought that women should either live
with their parents or their husbands, never alone or without male supervision
because they were inferior, stupid, and needed male guidance.
She didn’t think that was the case. He didn’t strike her as misogynistic.
Arrogant, opinionated, exceptionally intelligent and perhaps more than a bit
domineering. Not a woman hater, though.
As she got ready for bed that night, she smiled at how thoughtful it was that
Hector had realized her parents wouldn’t be able to pay for an engagement party,
much less the lavish one they’d like to give for their only child. He really was a
nice man, she thought.
If only she could understand him!
The Russian’s Furious Fiancée
Chapter 1
“We have the most eligible candidates ready for your review, sir,” Joan
Bezzel said to the tall, handsome man striding into the luxurious office. She sat
up straighter, letting the hem of her skirt ride up just a little bit higher as the
gorgeous man glanced in her direction. If she were twenty years younger, she
might have put herself into the list of candidates, she thought. Of all the clients
who had sought out her services, this one was definitely the dishiest.
Well, maybe not, she corrected as the man sat down across from her. She
might want a man who had a few more emotions. Damon Kelopatros was tall,
handsome and sinfully wealthy, but he was one of the coldest men she’d ever
met. His Russian heritage was definitely apparent in his directness and cold,
emotionless determination. He was going about this whole business with a bit
too much logic, in her opinion. And she’d seen a lot! Most of her clients wanted
to at least meet the eligible women before making a decision on which candidate
would be their wife. Mr. Kelopatros was coolly logical, coldly calculating and
hadn’t met a single candidate. And this was their final meeting.
“What do you have for me?” Damon Kelopatros barely glanced at the team
sitting at the polished conference room table. This was a business meeting and
he didn’t have time for niceties. As far as he was concerned, he was paying Ms.
Bezzel a large fee in order to find him the perfect wife and he wanted the
business concluded as soon as possible so he could move on to his next
acquisition.
Joan efficiently pushed the files forward, head shots of each candidate
pinned on top of each folder since appearance was always what people noticed
first. And most candidates were eliminated on that aspect as well so she had
learned over the years to just get that out of the way first. “We have five
candidates for your inspection. All of them have been researched by my team
and all are single, with no significant prior relationships or children from other
relationships, all have impeccable backgrounds and have been raised in families
that understand your business needs.”
Damon nodded, laying out the five files so that he could view the pictures
together. Joan had done an excellent job of sticking to his personal preferences he
noted. All were physically acceptable candidates with well styled hair and good
skin. He quickly read through their education and current employment
positions. “Not this one,” he said, dismissing one woman with a medical degree,
“and not this one,” he replied, pushing away another who was a certified public
accountant. “I want a woman who is going to help me with my career, Joan.
These two will be more focused on their careers than mine.”
Joan quickly tucked the two files away into her briefcase, then calmly settled
her hands back in her lap, waiting for other comments. While he surveyed the
files, she took a moment to examine the great, forbidding man himself. He
certainly was handsome with his black hair cut very short and that dark shadow
already forming on his strong jaw. She wondered how much of his terrifying
reputation was due to his height which she guessed was around six feet, four
inches, maybe even closer to six-five. The man looked down at everyone! Not to
mention his yummy physique. She’d seen him still in his exercise clothes one
day when she’d come to his house for an early morning meeting and this man
was drool worthy with thick muscles everywhere on his tall frame.
His eyes were probably his most interesting characteristic. Well, besides his
obscenely large bank balance, she thought with secret relish. Those eyes were
almost golden but deeper. Not quite brown, but she couldn’t really come up
with an accurate description. Amber perhaps? Not really. They seemed to
change depending on his mood. When he’d first walked in, she would have
sworn that his eyes were golden but as he looked at the picture of Ms. Fontini,
those remarkable eyes seemed to darken to that odd, indefinable color.
Fascinating!
Damon took the next three files and read through the biographies but his
eyes kept straying to one picture. It wasn’t that this one was more beautiful, he
thought, although she was definitely lovely. There was just something that
repeatedly drew his eye. She was exquisite with long, brown hair that was cut
into layers that framed her face then her shoulders. In the picture, her grey eyes
were laughing at something outside of the picture frame, but her smile struck
something inside of him. Her smile made him want to grin, something he rarely
did. It was good that she was Greek, living right here in Athens where a great
deal of his current business was headquartered. That would make things more
convenient he thought.
“This one,” he said and tossed the file of the grey eyed woman into the
middle of the table. “You’ll arrange it?” he asked as he stood up, but it wasn’t
really a question since he was sure the woman he had hired to find him an
acceptable wife would follow his instructions regardless if they were presented
as a question. She understood the implied command.
By the time he reached his next meeting, the thought of his upcoming
nuptials was already out of his mind. Although he was perfectly agreeable to
pay for the wedding, he expected his soon to be fiancГ©e to plan the event without
his involvement. He would introduce her to his extremely efficient secretary
with instructions to work the date of ceremony in between his already scheduled
business meetings.
As he sat down and opened the report on his next discussion, it occurred to
him that he probably should have gotten the name of the woman he was going to
marry.
Regardless, he had confidence that Joan would deliver a copy of the entire
file to his secretary so that he could review the details at a more convenient time.
Chapter 2
Eva Fontini slipped into the satin dress, zipping up the side, then efficiently
pulled her hair into an elegant twist at the back of her head, smoothing out the
stray curls that defied her fingers. The sapphire blue dress skimmed along her
figure, not being too obvious but giving a hint of what might be beneath.
She put on a bit of lipstick, a touch of mascara and then, just because she’d
had a busy week, she dabbed some concealer under her eyes to hide the dark
circles.
She glanced at her watch and sighed. “Only three hours,” she told herself.
In three hours, she’d be free to escape her parents’ party and she could be alone
once again. Alone to work on her novel in peace and solitude. And secrecy. She
also had some lesson plans to develop, her apartment to clean and several loads
of laundry to wash. A party tonight was really the last place she wanted to be,
but her parents had requested her presence here tonight so she’d come.
Hopefully the evening wouldn’t be too terrible.
As she heard the doorbell ring, indicating the first guests were starting to
arrive, she quickly went down the stairs, stepping into place beside her parents
just as the servant opened the heavy front door. In another twenty minutes, the
dinner party was in full swing with only one person missing. Eva looked
around, wondering why she needed to be here tonight. This wasn’t normally her
type of party, and her parents had long since stopped requesting her presence at
these functions.
Her father had been firm about her attending though, so she’d acquiesced
and donned her party shoes. Shoes that were already hurting her feet and she
was wishing she could slip on her sneakers before heading to her own apartment
tonight.
“Thank you so much for coming,” she replied after her mother’s greeting,
feeling like her face was going to crack from the pressure of her false smile.
“Why am I here, Mother?” she asked during a relatively calm moment
between arriving guests.
Her mother looked at her, blinking in confusion. “Why wouldn’t you be
here, dear?” she asked as if that were the silliest question ever asked.
As the arriving guests dwindled, Eva was free to move about the room. She
smiled and greeted each of the guests as she passed, but she wasn’t really
interested in talking with any of them. They were friends of her parents and she
didn’t feel as if she had anything in common with them.
“You look lovely,” her mother said as she walked through the living room,
patting Eva’s shoulder. “Why don’t you have a drink?”
Eva glanced down at her glass filled with seltzer water and lime. “I already
have a drink,” she said, biting her tongue with impatience. Her mother lived in a
different world. One that alternated between valium and alcohol with
intermittent cups of coffee to remain awake. That was not a state in which Eva
wanted to exist. As she glanced at her mother’s eyes, she noted the slightly
glazed look and knew that her mother had already taken something to ease the
tension of the evening. Something in addition to the glass of wine in her hands
that was now half empty.
“Nonsense dear. A glass of seltzer water isn’t a drink, it’s a waste of a glass,”
she argued, waving her hand in the air as if to dismiss seltzer water as
superfluous. “Go get a glass of wine at least,” she said, but didn’t wait for a
response before moving off to greet another group of guests with a gregarious,
alcohol or valium induced smile.
Eva shook her head at her mother’s chemical dependence and turned away,
heading in the opposite direction of the bartender who was mixing drinks in one
corner of the formal living room. She’d tried to pull her mother away from that
method of coping, even going so far as to ask her father for help, but to no avail.
Until her mother wanted out of that kind of cycle, there was nothing Eva could
do. Except avoid that same fate herself, she thought with determination. Being
the wife of a wealthy man wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. It came with a great
deal of stress and problems. The competition was fierce among her mother’s
peers to be the best hostess, have the most acclaimed house and the highest
earning husband. It was a superficial existence. Eva wanted more substance to
her life.
She took a seat on one of the ivory brocade sofas and smiled politely to the
group around her. She was grateful when they accepted her into their
conversation, but discussing the latest art craze wasn’t the most exciting topic.
Trying to look as if she were enjoying the conversation, she smiled politely
towards the speaker, but inside, she was completely unaware of what the person
was saying. In her mind, she was working out the details of her latest scene in
the book she was writing, trying to figure out where she was going to put the
next clue or if the murderer was going to escape.
Damon entered the living room and glanced around, his eyes taking it all in
with a swift look. The house was acceptable, indicating that Joan’s firm had
done their research accurately. This family was wealthy without being
ostentatious. Old money, he thought. Good. His own investigation was
accurate as well and he found himself congratulating himself on another step
towards his ultimate goal. He hadn’t relied simply on Joan’s firm. Never accept
only one point of reference, he’d learned over the years.
He didn’t engage with the other guests immediately, wanting to hold back
and understand the party’s dynamics. He also wanted to observe the one
woman he was interested in, the only reason he was attending this dinner party
tonight.
He spotted his quarry across the room and stood back, observing her
carefully. She was very attentive, sitting up straight with a lovely profile. She
was slender without being too thin which was also good. He didn’t want a wife
with an eating disorder, but nor did he want one who took no pride in her
appearance.
His noticed with admiration that his future wife smiled in what seemed like
the correct places of the conversation and encouraged others to talk instead of
dominating the discussion. He liked that and respected her social skills. His
needed a woman who would be a social asset and she would have to understand
how to make other people feel important and welcome.
With a nod of approval, he moved off to find the woman’s father, ready to be
introduced to his future wife.
“Good evening, George,” Damon said to the tall, refined looking gentleman
standing in a group of other men sipping scotch.
George turned and looked pleased to see Damon standing beside him.
“Good evening,” the older man replied with deference. “It’s certainly a pleasure
that you could join us for dinner tonight,” he said and turned to make
introductions to the others in the group. Damon knew most of them, having
done business with them at one time or another. Several of them gave him veiled
angry looks which he ignored. They hadn’t been as vigilant about their business
assets and he’d taken advantage of that weakness. He couldn’t fault them for
being upset about it but he wasn’t going to lose any sleep over the issue either.
Besides, none would dare become blatant about their animosity, at least in his
presence. The repercussions of disrespecting Damon Kelopatros meant complete
financial and social destruction to anyone who openly defied or disrespected him
and they all knew it.
George looked at the taller man by his side and immediately waved to a
passing waiter. “Let me get you a drink, and then I’ll introduce you to my
daughter. I believe she’s around here somewhere.”
Eva smiled politely, wondering how many times a person could discuss the
weather at a party without doing something odd, like breaking out in a crazy
singing stunt or jumping from sofa to chair and seeing how many heads she
could turn. Eva almost laughed out loud at that last thought, knowing she’d
never do anything so insane, but it kept the smile on her face.
She was on her fourth weather conversation and yes, the weather was
abnormally warm for this time of the year and no, rain wasn’t expected this
week, and so on and so on. She reached for her glass of seltzer water and took a
long sip, relishing the cold as it slid down her throat. The bubbles at least gave
her mind something to focus on, something that was more stimulating than the
conversation.
She was circumspectly glancing around when she saw her father out of the
corner of her eye. He had broken away from the group of men he’d been talking
with a moment ago and was now slowly approaching their group and pulling
along a tall, intimidating man beside him. As circumspectly as possible, she
watched the other man carefully, wondering who he was. He was extremely tall
with broad, muscular shoulders but not like a bull dog. He was more lithe than
bulky. Sensuous. Dangerous!
As he moved, his tuxedo jacket slid open slightly and she could see that he
had a flat stomach and very long legs. He was at least a head taller than most of
the people in the room so he was easy to watch. His eyes were dark, formidable
almost and his strong, square jaw had a slight five o’clock shadow, even though
she suspected he’d just shaved prior to arriving at the party.
His tuxedo fit him perfectly, she thought, but what did she care about
something like that? She knew how easily a well designed dress could hide
many flaws, she thought as she unconsciously ran a hand down her left hip.
She’d always wanted to lose those last ten pounds but they stubbornly kept to
her like glue on a school kid’s fingers.
When her father continued to approach, Eva became nervous. The almost
possessive look in the man’s eyes made her very wary and her heart started
pounding. She looked away, trying to concentrate on the conversation around
her but her eyes strayed once again to the taller man, surprised to find that
they’d made so much progress crossing the room.
For some reason she couldn’t understand, she didn’t want to meet this man.
He was still halfway across the room and already her heart was pounding and
her palms felt damp. How juvenile, she thought with exasperation at her own
body’s reaction to a man who was still too far away to be a threat in any kind of
way.
Regardless, she didn’t like the look about him, and she could tell that her
father was bringing him over to introduce to her. She had to escape, considering
that action an urgent mission she suddenly had to make happen.
Someone in another cluster of guests put a hand on her father’s arm, slowing
him down slightly. When her father looked away, she smiled to the rest of the
group around her and patted the elderly woman’s arm next to her. “Excuse me.
I think my mother needs me.” She gracefully stood up and quickly moved in the
opposite direction, not bothering to glance back towards her father just in case
that man was still watching her.
She efficiently worked her way around the perimeter of the room, smiling
and waving to her parents’ friends and guests, weaving in and out of groups but
making sure to look like she was on a mission, which deterred people from
stopping her. She made it all the way into the kitchen and was grateful for the
reprieve, feeling trapped and frightened simply because her father wanted to
introduce her to another man. He did this all the time so what was different
about this one man? Okay, so he was much more handsome than the others, and
definitely taller, more muscular. But that only indicated that he was probably
gay, which should have relieved her mind.
But she knew he wasn’t. The man with the intent gaze and amusement
lurking on his firm lips was definitely heterosexual. There was too much male
interest in his gaze for her to dismiss the man as innocuous. He was dangerous
and she was determined to avoid him for the rest of the evening.
Standing by the kitchen door and out of the way of the catering staff, she
fanned herself for a few moments and let the sounds from the waiters and
waitresses create a bubble around her while she calmed her shaking hands. This
was ridiculous, she told herself. The guy was probably married, and her father
just was being polite by trying to provide an introduction.
But her father wouldn’t have gone to so much effort to introduce her to a
married man. Her father was quite determined to get her married off as soon as
he could, frustrated that his single daughter had thwarted all his efforts to rectify
this situation prior to now. He wanted her married and stated the intention often
enough that Eva knew when the diatribe was coming. Preferably to a nice,
reliable Greek man who would help him in business. Eva’s father was old
fashioned, believing in arranged marriages and mutually beneficial relationships.
Ugh! Why couldn’t she get that man’s heated gaze out of her mind? The
look he gave her that last time had really shaken her. It was what those silly
romance novels would describe as “bedroom” eyes. Or knowing, powerful eyes.
Eyes that took possession of anything they wanted.
“There you are!” her mother said as she passed through from the opposite
door. “Why are you hiding here in the kitchen? We’re about to sit down to
dinner and your father has been looking for you for the past ten minutes. He
wants to introduce you to someone. Come along, dear,” her mother said and
looped her arm through Eva’s, pretending to be the ultimate, loving mother who
had a fabulous, close relationship with her daughter. In reality, her mother only
needed Eva’s arm to hold her up and walk straight. Her mother wasn’t just
tipsy, she was flat out drunk, she realized.
Thankfully, only Eva noticed. And probably her father who tossed out his
obligatory disapproving look and then completely ignored his wife for the
remainder of the evening. At least her mother knew how to hide her inebriation
well enough.
Maybe the start of dinner was a good thing, Eva thought. It would get some
food into her mother and dilute some of the alcohol, slow down the inebriation
process.
Eva walked her mother to the dining room where the guests were already
taking their seats. She escorted her mother to the end of the table, then noted she
was seated midway down among the guests.
Thankfully, that arrogant man she’d been trying to avoid was on the end
nearest her father, so Eva was saved from needing to be polite to him during the
meal. As the other guests moved into the dining room, she was careful to glance
only at those who would be near her during the meal, meticulously keeping her
gaze away from “him”.
When everyone was finally settled, the wait staff came through with the first
course and Eva relaxed, sipping her wine and smiling through the conversations.
She’d learned early on in life that one really only needed to ask a few pointed
questions to dinner guests and they would fill in the silence. The best question to
ask was, “How are your children doing?” and that would fill in the next thirty
minutes while the person regaled the people closest about their children’s foibles
or accomplishments.
Damon surreptitiously watched Eva from his end of the table, impressed
once again with her social skills while his target worked the people around her.
She encouraged them to talk and had most of them laughing although he
couldn’t hear what they were saying since he was farther away.
He turned to the people next to him and asked the elderly woman to his
right how her grandchildren were doing in school. While the white haired
woman talked about her youngest grandchild’s attempts to learn to walk,
Damon glanced down the table, considering how long it would take before the
lovely woman could organize the wedding. Just watching her, even from a
distance, had his body stirring and he knew that he was going to enjoy their
wedding night. He acknowledged that he’d made a good choice with this one
and made a mental note to thank Joan for a job well done. There were many
things about Eva that he already appreciated, including her delightful profile and
her lush figure encased in that sapphire gown.
Eva wasn’t stick skinny but was curvaceous in all the right places, a
preference he hadn’t realized he wanted until now. He’d watched Eva sneak
away earlier and had appreciated the glimpse of her sumptuous hips and long
legs, emphasized by the blue dress she was wearing which was both elegant and
conservative, a style which he heartily approved. If anyone was going to see his
wife, he wanted it to be himself. He definitely didn’t want a wife who displayed
her charms for strangers to ogle.
It was good that he was attracted to his fiancée although he knew it wasn’t a
prerequisite. He wanted several children so he was relieved that he wouldn’t
abhor climbing into bed to procreate with his wife. He hadn’t anticipated giving
up his mistresses, but with Eva, he would at least be interested in his wife for a
while before finding his next mistress.
The Tycoon’s Misunderstood Bride
Chapter 1
Emma watched as the coffin was lowered into the ground, the feeling of
freedom seeping into her bones with every turn of the crank. And she felt guilty.
But she couldn’t feel anything else for the man who had died. He’d killed any
soft feelings she might have had for him over the last twenty five years.
The air was cold and the freezing mist that drizzled on the funeral attendees
only made the whole burial ritual more uncomfortable. There weren’t very
many, Emma noted. Only a handful in fact. As she stole glances at the grave
side mourners, she counted only about fifteen people. Almost all of them were
employees of her father, the man who was now being lowered into the frozen,
unforgiving ground. Appropriate, she thought since her father had been hard,
cold and completely unforgiving of any transgression, no matter how small.
Emma knew that she should be feeling sorrow and grief for the man who
had raised her but those emotions just wouldn’t come. Hatred, anger,
desperation and humiliation were the only feelings her father had engendered
within her while he was alive. And now that he had passed away, the main
emotion she was feeling was relief. And freedom. A small portion of her heart
was even having that painful emotion; hope. It was small, tiny. But as she
passed by the deep, heartless grave and tossed dirt onto the coffin, and as each
person passed by and did the same, that small light of hope grew.
Was it possible that the life she’d lived with her father was finally over?
Could she genuinely be free of his ridicule and harsh words?
Emma breathed in a lung full of the cold, wintery air, letting her body absorb
the fact that her father was finally dead.
The possibilities for her future loomed up in her mind, crowding her
imagination and jumbling that ray of hope into a larger light that was starting to
fill her up. She tried to tamp it down, knowing that each time she’d started to
feel hope in the past, it had been mercilessly killed by some sort of diabolical
scheme of her father’s.
It didn’t matter that he was dead. The fear that somehow, some way, he
would figure out how to destroy that tiny bit of hope was there in the back of her
mind, pressuring her to release the kernel and give in to the depression and
frustration that had been her life prior to his demise. The words he’d taunted her
with over and over while he’d been alive came back to haunt her and if it weren’t
for her early childhood, she might start to believe them. She had to hang on
though! She had to survive and thrive, just to spite that mean, vindictive man!
Her father had tormented her from the moment her mother had left them
twenty years ago, leaving a grief-stricken Emma to deal with the harsh father
that had driven her mother away with his cruel tirades and accusations. Emma
remembered the screaming and the allegations but as a small child, she hadn’t
understood them. She’d only understood the fear that had her hiding under her
blankets at night, covering her ears as the fights raged on after she’d been put to
bed.
As an adult, she understood that her father had been insanely jealous of her
beautiful mother, the red haired and intensely gorgeous Elizabeth, and his
constant accusations of unfaithfulness had driven her away. But why had her
mother left Emma? Of all the things that had hurt over the years, Emma knew
that her mother’s abandonment had been the most painful.
Her memories of her mother were bitter-sweet. She had soft hands, a ready
laugh, twinkling eyes and continually smelled of flowers. In Emma’s mind, her
mother had always been incredibly gorgeous, with lots of hugs and kisses at the
ready for any hurt feelings or bruised knees. Emma had been carefree during
those days, knowing that her mother would always be there for her.
Not only did the five year old Emma lose her mother on that horrible day,
but she’d also gained the continuous censure of her father. Once her mother had
fled, Edward Mason the Third, Earl of Denton, had turned his anger and
humiliating accusations onto his daughter who had turned out to be the spitting
image of her mother, according to Edward Mason.
Oh, Emma knew that she wasn’t the raving beauty her mother had been
although she only had one, stolen picture to remember her by. After Emma’s
mother had left, Edward destroyed all the other pictures of her that had been in
the house, including a portrait that had been specially commissioned after their
wedding by a world famous painter.
Besides demoralizing and humiliating Emma on a continuous basis, Edward
Mason had been a bitter, evil man who had made millions of pounds by cheating
and stealing in his business dealings. Emma had overheard him on numerous
occasions laughing in his study with one person or another about how he had
cheated someone or lied to another in order to scrape another million pounds
together. The first time she’d overhead his laughter she’d been horrified that he
was so amoral. She’d been hiding from him that morning to avoid his wrath,
which could be invoked for anything including a wisp of hair being out of place
or her eyes looking happy.
When she’d started to understand how unethical he was with his business
dealings, she’d shunned away from that information. Unfortunately, living in
the same house with the man and hearing him brag about his felonious activities,
it was hard to avoid seeing his truly black soul. It always amazed her that he’d
never been caught. He’d been so blatant about his business dealings, she would
have thought that eventually someone would have figured out what an awful
person he’d been and not done business with him. She also didn’t understand
why the authorities had turned a blind eye to all of his tricks.
But in all the times she’d hidden away in a closet as a child or teenager, she
never heard of anyone who had bested her father.
bragging about his deeds.
He’d taken delight in
These thoughts and many others floated through her mind as the funeral
progressed. She didn’t hear the words, didn’t mourn the passing of the man so
much as the passing of her life under his dictatorial and cruel parentage. So
when the final words broke through her contemplation, she was surprised that
the ceremony was finally over.
The minister came over and took Emma’s hands, offering his condolences.
Then each of the other guests who had attended the funeral, one by one, they
came over and did the same before moving off to their vehicles and driving
away.
Emma accepted their words and hoped that her face was appropriately
somber. But that strange feeling was growing inside of her. Hope. Was it
possible? Could she actually have a life? Was it possible that she could move on
to something new? Something fresh? Something untainted by her father’s
despicable mind? Could she actually be a reflection of her mother instead of
carrying on her father’s legacy? She’d had her mother for only five years and her
father for twenty, minus the periods when she’d been away at boarding school.
She’d just have to recall her mother’s goodness and kindness, countering all of
her father’s heartlessness.
One after another, the people stood in front of her, offering words of
sympathy that Emma neither needed nor wanted but she nodded and smiled,
eager to be off and consider the possibilities of what she could now do with her
life.
“Ms. Mason,” a strong, tanned hand reached down and gently clasped her
cold white one. The touch sent an electric shock through her fingers and Emma
was so startled, she actually looked up, directly into the handsome man’s eyes.
He was tall! Definitely over six feet. His face was tanned with lines in the
corners of his eyes as if he laughed a lot. But his dark, black eyes weren’t smiling
now. They were looking at her as if he were trying to see into her soul. Emma’s
mouth opened and she almost gasped, a tingle of fear shooting through her and
she was afraid he might be able to read her small light of happiness.
“My name is Jason Montenegro. I worked with your father several years
ago. I’m very sorry for your loss,” he said.
The words were spoken but Emma didn’t want them. She wasn’t sorry,
except for all the horrible things her father had done. Not just to her, but to
anyone around him. “Thank you. You have kind words,” she recited the same
thing she’d been saying over and over again to the others as they’d passed by
her.
Emma looked around but they were now alone except for the bulldozer
operator who was waiting to push the remaining dirt onto the coffin and finalize
the end of an evil man’s life.
“Mr. Montenegro,” she replied, her fingers shaking and a shiver of awareness
sped down her spine. “I think I do remember you. I believe you came to the
house several times for meetings with my father. What are you doing here?” she
asked. “It has been a long time,” she replied.
“Yes, it has.” Jason Montenegro looked down at the defeated beauty of
Emma Mason, trying to determine if she mourned the passing of her father. She
probably didn’t know what a bastard he was, Jason thought. And he wasn’t
going to tell her. He’d been called three days ago to be told about the death of
Edward Mason from the old man’s solicitor. Something about Mason’s will and
how Jason needed to be there for the reading. At the moment of the call, Jason
considered simply disconnecting the line and ignoring the command
performance for the reading of the will. But something had stopped him. It was
the gentle innocence of Edward Mason’s daughter he remembered from twelve
years ago.
Edward Mason had given Jason his first job out of college and Jason had
been thrilled, eager to learn the ropes of corporate takeovers and management.
Edward Mason had built an empire that had impressed Jason at twenty two. In
those years, he ate, breathed and slept Mason Enterprises for two, long years
before Jason understood exactly how Edward had made so many millions. And
with that understanding, Jason found that he had wanted nothing to do with it.
Jason still remembered that rainy afternoon when Edward had ordered him
to lie about a target company to the board of directors in order to gain final
approval for the acquisition. The rage that filled the office that afternoon when
Jason had refused had been intense. And when Jason tendered his resignation
the following day, Edward had promised that Jason would never work in the
industry again.
Now, twelve years later, Jason could have bought and sold Edward Mason
several times over if he had the inclination. Montenegro Industries was
worldwide and Jason’s business acumen was reported on almost daily in one
newspaper or another, depending on what country he was working in at that
moment. His accomplishments had far outweighed Edward’s conglomerate, a
fact which Edward had hated, Jason knew.
Jason was just as ruthless as Edward Mason but the difference was that Jason
never broke the law or lied. He used intelligence and cutthroat business tactics
but they were all ethical and always passed audits. He had, in fact, become the
darling of the business world whereas Edward Mason had burned too many
people with his business practices and, recently, had become known in business
circles as a pariah to be avoided.
As the drizzle increased to rain, Jason looked down at the shy woman who
was shivering from the cold and remembered how he’d felt the first time he’d
seen Emma Mason. Twelve years ago, he’d seen the small, red haired teenager in
a dress three sized too big for her as she scurried down the hallway. She hadn’t
seen him outside her father’s office but he’d seen her. And he’d watched in
horror as her huge green eyes monitored her father’s door. She was almost out
of sight when Edward Mason’s door opened but Jason hadn’t been watching the
office door. He’d been watching Emma Mason and had to swallow the lump in
his throat when the small, terrified girl dashed into a closet, closing the door only
seconds before her father appeared in the same hallway.
The idea that a man’s daughter would be so terrified of him that she would
hide! And in a closet dammit! It had sickened Jason that day. If it hadn’t been
for that scene, Jason never would have started looking into Edward’s business
practices more closely and he wouldn’t be where he was today.
He remembered the way Edward had looked at him that afternoon. Jason
hadn’t had time to look away from the closet fast enough and Edward’s eyes had
gone from Jason’s, to the then-closed door. Nothing had happened, but Jason
saw the narrowing of the older man’s eyes, as if he knew that Jason had seen
something he shouldn’t have.
Emma pasted a false smile on her face, wondering if it were possible for
cheeks to freeze from the cold. “Well, it is good to see you again. Thank you for
stopping by,” she said and walked to her waiting car.
Jason watched the tiny woman disappear into the back seat of the black
sedan. As she stepped in, her long dress pulled up slightly and he was given a
glimpse of one shapely leg, the calf encased in black stockings, was slender with
a dainty ankle and small feet. Jason’s eyes narrowed, curiosity firing in him.
What was going on? Why would a woman with legs that lovely hide them
under long, woolen skirts like that? Why was she wearing those awful looking
clothes? He wasn’t sure, but years of experience with the opposite sex told him
that she probably had an incredible figure hiding underneath that dress.
And why the hell didn’t she wear some makeup? Let her hair down? Of
course, with skin like that, she didn’t really need makeup. A redhead should
have freckles, but Emma Mason’s cheeks were pure, soft and blemish-free,
making her long, dark lashes seem almost black as they surrounded those
fascinating green eyes.
Jason pushed thoughts of the mysterious woman out of his mind. This
whole issue was none of his concern. He was furious with the curiosity which
had driven him here today after the phone call. Edward Mason’s will was none
of his concern, and the man’s daughter was better off without the father in her
life to mess things up.
He walked over to his own waiting car and ducked into the back.
Immediately picking up his phone, he pressed the speed dial, instantly
connecting with his secretary.
“Betty, what’s the story on the figures for the DiMarco acquisition?” He
listened for a long moment, then nodded. “Fine, have the papers on my desk by
the time I get back. I should be back at the office in less than thirty minutes.”
“The flowers were delivered this morning,” Betty said.
“Flowers?” Jason snapped, his mind already moving on to the details of the
next business meeting. He flipped open the file folder Betty had given him that
morning that outlined the details.
“The flowers you asked to be delivered to Ms. Stephanie Michaels this
morning,” Betty reminded him.
“Ah,” Jason said, ignoring the issue of his now-past mistress and moving on
to more current issues. He’d asked Betty to send some flowers but had
immediately dismissed it from his mind moments after he’d given the command.
“Fine, thank you. What about Tom Daniels? Has he called back?”
“Of course. He’s confirmed that the package was delivered and all the terms
were accepted.”
“Good.” Jason eased back in his seat, a feeling of success washing over him
as yet another company joined the Montenegro conglomerate. But that moment
passed and he went through the details of five other deals that were currently in
the works. Montenegro Industries bought companies and incorporated them
under the larger umbrella, cutting the fat, trimming down the superfluous
employees and making all of the systems more efficient and profitable. Each
additional company was bought in order to somehow benefit the others, making
the Montenegro machine more and more powerful.
“How was the funeral?” Betty asked when Jason stopped giving her
directions fifteen minutes later.
“The funeral?” Jason asked absently.
He heard a small sigh, before, “The funeral of Edward Mason?” she
reminded him. “You mentioned you were going to stop by earlier today.”
“Oh. Yes, fine,” he replied. The memory of a slender, sexy leg and shy green
eyes popped into his head. But he pushed it aside and rattled off a new list of
things for Betty to finalize.
He hung up and sat back, reading through the file, his sharp mind
memorizing every detail as soon as he read it. By the time Tim, his driver, pulled
up in the underground garage of Montenegro Industries headquarters, Jason had
already moved on to the meeting.
Chapter 2
Coming home after the funeral, Emma walked into her father’s study,
looking around in curiosity. She had never been permitted in this office while
her father had been alive. She’d only had glimpses when the door cracked open.
But if she’d been near, Emma had been too terrified of her father finding her to
stop and peer inside. Her life’s goal had been to become invisible. Whenever he
caught sight of her, a lecture or some sort of perceived misdeed was brought
down upon her. And punishments always followed.
Edward Mason never hit his daughter.
No, that could be too easily
discovered by the bruises or the marks. He’d always been more evil than that.
There were times Emma had wished he’d hit her. For then, perhaps the
punishment would be over or maybe she would black out.
But God was never that compassionate. Emma had endured seemingly
endless hours of lectures about how she had been born from a slut but he would
not allow her to become one herself. He would order her to accompany him on
a function but if she dared to look at a man, even if he spoke directly at her,
Emma would be banished to her room, sometimes without food for days. Later,
when he arranged dates for her, he would accompany her on the activity himself
and would always find fault with her demeanor or conduct.
During her teen years, one of the punishments she’d “endured” had been
banishment to an all girls’ boarding school. She had thrived during those four
years of high school, making friends for the first time, learning new things, being
out in the open more often when she’d dared to join a sports team. She had
spent almost every second of her spare time studying, fearful that even one low
grade would have her brought back to her father’s merciless supervision but
she’d absolutely loved the four years during which she’d been sent away from
her father’s heavy presence.
University was almost as good but she was required to attend closer to
home. According to her father, she was becoming too independent and needed a
man to guide her as she moved into adulthood. And since he was the only
trustworthy man capable of defending her virtue, she lived at home and was
chauffeured to all her classes.
The solicitor cleared his throat and Emma snapped out of her memories. She
smiled an apology, then quickly glanced down, afraid the solicitor would think
she was coming on to him as well. The thought occurred to her that her father
was no longer around to punish her, but years of training couldn’t be pushed
away only three days after his death.
The solicitor, Mr. Bernstein, was obviously uncomfortable. “I apologize for
the odd requirements of your father’s will, Ms. Mason,” he was saying.
Emma’s eyes snapped up quickly. It was the first sense that she had that
something was wrong. Something terribly, terribly wrong. The small ray of
hope that had been building for the past hour was flickering.
“Please, let’s just move along,” Emma said softly. She dropped her eyes,
afraid the anger and despair she was feeling would show in her eyes. Emma
didn’t know what her father could do to her from the grave, but she braced
herself for the pain he was about to inflict.
“Ahem,” Mr. Bernstein said again, “According to your father’s last will and
testament, all of his money will be held in trust for his grandson.” Mr. Bernstein
straightened his glasses, the movement indicating his discomfiture with the
terms. “Ms. Emma Mason will have access to the funds for six month, allowing
her time to plan her wedding. After that point, she will have access only after
she has become pregnant with a son, a sonogram being needed to verify the
gender of the child. This son must come from the union of Mr. Jason Montenegro
and Ms. Emma Mason and a DNA test will need to be confirmed once the child is
born.”
Emma’s body froze in fear and dread. The horror was too much and she
bowed her head in shame for her father’s terms. Without hesitation, she shook
her head. “I’ll forego the money. You can give it to charity or whatever he
stipulates if I don’t comply with the terms.”
Mr. Bernstein’s face turned red and Emma knew that the nightmare was only
beginning. “He left a letter for you in case you insist on ignoring his dying
orders.” An envelope was pulled out from under some papers and handed to
Emma.
She took the white envelope wish shaking fingers, determined to not fall
victim to her father any longer. Unfortunately, her father was more diabolical
than she could ever have imagined.
With a stiff chin, Emma read the words, her heart breaking as once again her
father won the battle. The words were horrible and just as vicious as she
remembered him being.
Emma – if you are reading this then that means you have
scorned my wealth once again. You are an ungrateful, evil child
who will definitely rot in hell for all the anguish you have caused
me over the years with your promiscuous ways.
Knowing that there is more than one currency for everyone, I
have endeavored to find a way that will ensure your compliance
with my will. In anticipation of your behavior, I have set aside
certain clues that will allow you to find your slut of a mother.
Each clue will be given to you once you reach certain milestones.
Marrying Mr. Jason Montenegro will give you the key to a
storeroom where all of your mother’s belongings were taken after
her departure. Conception of a child will allow you to have her
diary. It is from this that I have been able to identify her current
location. At that point, you should come to your senses and
realize that my money will ensure the security of your child. But
if it does not, and you have not located your mother by that point,
there is one final clue which will be given to you once you deliver
my grandson.
Just so you know, your mother has been fighting for custody of
you ever since her ill-thought out departure. I have been
ultimately successful in keeping her filthy, cheating hands off of
you
One more thing. You can try and search her out yourself. I
warn you though that, given all my resources, it took me seven
years to find her on my own, even while she was fighting for
custody. The bitch has herself well hidden.
Mind me well, daughter. The fastest way to find your mother
is to obey my will.
Sincerely yours
Edward Mason
Emma crumpled the paper in her hands, her whole body working to
maintain control and not release the tears of anger and frustration which welled
up inside her with her father’s words.
Love By Accident Series - An Introduction
The Beginning...
Nine year old Rashid looked at the pink and pudgy thing in his mother’s
arms, disgusted and irritated. He didn’t want to be here. He wanted to get back
to his studies. His instructor was just telling him how to calculate an angle which
was much more fascinating than whatever this...thing...was. “It’s a girl,” he said
with nine year old disdain and stepped back from the bed where his mother was
laying with the �thing’ in her arms. He didn’t know why she wanted anyone else
in the family. The three of them were just fine!
Lila, Rashid’s mother laughed softly and nodded her head. “You’re very
smart,” he teased. “She’s a girl and she’s very interested in meeting you.” Lila
looked down at her already handsome son with pride, understanding that he felt
as if this new baby might usurp his place in her heart. She had to be gentle so
that he knew that she loved him just as much as before the birth of their new
baby.
Rashid glanced down once again, noting that the eyes in the round, pink
face were closed. He discarded the notion that the baby was even remotely
interested in meeting him. “I believe it’s more concerned with sleep mother,” he
said carefully, not wanting to hurt her feelings, but still not interested in his new
baby sister. “Besides, I wanted a brother. Not a sister.”
Lila glanced up at the man standing at the end of the hospital bed with
amusement. Majid El Hasham Busain, current Sheik of Tasain and one of the
most handsome men she’d ever met in her life, looked down at his first born son
with pride and amusement as well. When Lila looked back at her son, still
standing stiffly beside the bed and pretending to not be interested in the baby
girl, she chuckled. “Why would I want another boy? I have a perfect son with
you,” she replied and leaned over to kiss his dark hair.
Rashid sighed, leaning in to the kiss and stepping closer to his mother.
“What are you going to call it?” he asked, trying to get into the spirit of the
occasion. Since they were alone in the room, he accepted her affection but he
didn’t like it when others might see him. They might think he was weak if they
knew how much he liked his mother’s hugs and kisses and that couldn’t be
allowed. His father had told him over and over again how a ruler must never
show weakness. And the people of Tasain loved his father, almost as much as he
did, so the invincible man must be doing something right.
His father smiled down at his slightly larger family, beaming with delight.
“Her name is Isla and she’s going to love you just as much as we do, son.”
Rashid felt better when his tall, strong father walked to the side of the bed
next to him. “Will it cry?” Rashid asked carefully, slipping his hand into his
father’s larger one, feeling better when his dad’s warm, strong hand wrapped
around his smaller one.
His mother laughed softly. “Your sister isn’t an �it’, dear. And yes, Isla
doesn’t know how to talk yet so the only way she can tell us she’s hungry or
uncomfortable is by crying.”
Rashid leaned against his father’s strong leg. “I still don’t understand why
you wanted a baby,” he grumbled.
He didn’t see the look cross between his mother and father because he was
watching as the pink bundle moved, her lips pouting together and one hand
reaching out as if to touch him. Her eyes were still closed so he wasn’t sure what
she was doing, but he reluctantly agreed that pink wasn’t such a bad color, as
long as it was on a girl.
Eight years later....
“Come on!” Rashid called out, pulling eight year old Isla along behind him.
“You’ve got to see this!” he said.
Isla ran as fast as her little legs could carry her, but her older brother was
much taller. She hoped she could be as tall as he was when she got to be
seventeen but she knew she had a long way to go before she could match her
beloved brother.
Well, she loved him today. That wasn’t always the case. Sometimes she just
wanted to punch him but knew she shouldn’t. She did on occasion though. And
only when he wasn’t expecting it because Rashid was fast and strong. The last
time she’d done something to him, he’d caught her and tickled her until she was
crying, which she didn’t like. But most of the time, he was pretty nice. Especially
when he helped her with her homework. He had a lot of patience with her then.
“Just trust me,” he said, his deep voice and broad shoulders already more
than matching his father’s. In fact, they were the spitting image, except that
Rashid was now slightly taller. Isla’s brother was extremely protective of his
baby sister, especially since she’d transformed from a pink pudgy ball into a little
girl he could play tricks on and he could talk to, when he wasn’t talking with his
father about everything from politics to economics.
“Is it mother?” Isla asked, concerned because she’d gotten so big lately.
“Has the baby come yet?”
“You’ll have to wait and see,” he said, only slightly disappointed that she’d
guessed so accurately. Most of the time, he enjoyed his sister’s intelligence. He
was glad she wasn’t one of those irritating girls who only thought about shoes
and clothes. Isla was smart and picked up on her lessons quickly. Otherwise, he
would stay away from her as much as possible. He really disliked women who
were brainless and there were enough of them in the world! Well, there were
stupid men too, but he was thinking about the soft, sexy women and the way he
liked to kiss them.
A horrible thought occurred to him and he stopped in the middle of the
hallway. Isla stopped as well and looked up at him and he was startled to realize
that his little sister was going to be a great beauty. Would some other man do to
her the things he thought about doing to other women?
The idea of his sweet little sister in the arms of another man suddenly
enraged him.
“What’s wrong, Rashid?” Isla asked, suddenly worried about the furious
expression on his face. He’d been so excited a moment ago, what had changed?
Rashid started to say something, his hand tightening on his arm as he
looked down at her innocent expression. “Don’t ever...” he started off, but
stopped himself. He knew that his sister would eventually marry, but he gritted
his teeth with determination. She wouldn’t marry some jerk! Or someone like
him, who....well, just not someone who would think of doing things to her that
he thought of doing to other women. Things like kissing and touching their
breasts, of moving inside....
No! She would be protected from that! She was sweet and innocent. She
shouldn’t even think about having sex, much less doing it. His mind always
seemed to be thinking about sex and women and how lovely they were and how
soft and pretty.
Dammit! He had a responsibility towards his little sister, and now there
were two of them! What was a man to do?
Father would know, he thought to himself. Rashid knew he’d have a talk
with his father as soon as possible. He had to protect his sisters now!
“Rashid?” Isla prompted when she saw his jaw clench. She put her hand on
his shoulder, trying to comfort him as best she could. “Are you ill? Should I call a
doctor?” Her mind frantically went through the possibilities but he didn’t have
any of the symptoms she’d read about in the medical books she’d snuck out of
the palace library. She read them in secret, thinking they were the most
fascinating things to read. But none of them helped her right at the moment. She
couldn’t discern any problems with Rashid and that scared her.
Just as suddenly as his ager came, Isla saw his face clear up and he smiled
down at her. “It’s nothing. I just thought of something I need to discuss with
dad.” He squeezed her hand to reassure her. “I promise, it’s nothing I can’t take
care of.”
Isla smiled and breathed a sigh of relief. He was right. Rashid could do
anything and if he had trouble, father was always there to advise him. She
sometimes became irritated with their discussions because they were always
filled with boring talk of politics and money or buildings. That was so boring!
But they liked it, so she tried very hard to keep quiet when they were intently
arguing their side during a conversation.
Rashid pulled her along again and they were walking as quickly as possible
towards the area where the palace hospital was located. The closer they got, the
more concerned she became.
At the hospital room door, he looked down at her with an eager expression,
then shoved open the door to allow her entrance.
Isla looked inside the room and saw her mother and father. “Mother, why
are you in here?” she asked, more than a little worried because everything
looked strange here. The bed wasn’t comfortable like the one at the palace, and
the people all were wearing strange clothes, very plain and dull.
She peered over the high bed, ignoring her mother and father’s huge grins.
Something was wiggling and she wanted to see. “What’s that?” she asked as she
noticed the baby. “It looks like a baby. Is that what was in your tummy?” she
asked curiously.
Lila laughed and nodded her head. Patting the side of the bed, she
encouraged her daughter to get a better look. Rashid came over and lifted his
little sister up high. “Isn’t she pretty?” her mother asked, her long, tapered finger
running down the chubby cheek of the newborn.
Isla looked down, wondering what it was her mother and father saw in the
baby. “She looks squished,” she replied.
Lila looked at her husband and they both laughed.
“She’ll get pretty, just like you,” Majid said and took his daughter out of his
son’s arms. “Go ahead and hold her, Rashid. You never held Isla when she was a
baby so this is your chance.”
Majid came over and lifted Isla into Rashid’s arms, not giving him an excuse
to avoid holding his newest baby sister. He then reached down and picked up
Isla, wanting her to see the new baby as well.
Isla giggled as her father nuzzled her neck, but she watched with rapt
attention as her fabulous brother gently held the tiny bundle that had been their
mother’s arms. His face slowly changed from wariness to fascination as the tiny
bundle opened her eyes and looked up at him.
Rashid looked down at the tiny infant, amazed that such a small human
could actually survive. “She’s so small!” he gasped.
Majid tickled his daughter. “Your brother was that size once,” he said and
laughed again at her disbelieving expression. “I have pictures,” he said.
Isla looked from her giant father, to her huge brother and shook her head,
crinkling up her nose. “Na ah,” she argued. “Rashid was never a baby.”
Rashid just rolled his eyes and handed the infant back to his mother. “I’ve
received word back,” he said, his tone ominous and he looked carefully at his
little sister. “I’ve decided to accept Harvard’s offer. I think they’re the best school
for business, which is what I think I should study for Tasain’s future.”
Isla didn’t understand what he was talking about. “What’s Harvard? And
what did they offer you?”
Rashid’s father pumped up with pride. “I know you’ll do very well there,
son.”
Isla didn’t like where this was going. Something was happening and she
was instantly nervous. Her little arm went around her father’s neck, holding him
tighter because her father always protected her from bad things, even scaring
away the monsters in her closet when she suspected they’d snuck back into the
palace. “What’s he going to do?”
Lila shifted her newborn daughter in her arms. “He’s going to school, dear.”
“But he goes to school here. We’re in the same class.”
Majid shook his head. “Next year, your big brother will be going away to
school.”
She didn’t like that at all. “Will I be going too?”
Rashid shook his head. “You’ll have to stay here and take care of our baby
sister. Just like I took care of you, Isla. Zarah is going to need you to show her
how to do things.”
Isla felt very important all of a sudden and looked at the baby in her
mother’s arms. “Will she listen better than I do?”
Rashid laughed, as did her mother and father. “I certainly hope so.”
Eight Years Later....
“Rashid!” Isla yelled out, immediately dropping her pencil to race across
the school room, throwing herself into her brother’s arms. “You’re home!” she
cried out, excited to see her older brother once again. “I can’t believe you’re
finally home!”
Rashid grabbed his sister in a giant bear hug. “I’ve missed you too, brat,” he
said with deep emotion. He’d missed home and his sisters, his parents and all the
wonderful scents that were co-mingled with his life and memories here in Tasain.
He loved this country and his family had always been the center of his life. He
was sincerely glad to be back for good this time.
“My turn!” Zarah called out, stomping her foot impatiently when her older
sister wouldn’t let go of their brother. “Just because you turned sixteen doesn’t
mean you get to hog him all to yourself,” she said, glaring at her sister’s back.
Isla pulled back from her brother and grimaced up at him. “She’s been a
beast these past few weeks waiting for you.”
Rashid looked down over his sister’s head and spied the little grouch
behind her. “So you’ve been misbehaving, have you?”
Zarah’s face went from angry to horrified in seconds. “I have not!” she
gasped. The tears formed in her pretty eyes and Rashid couldn’t take the
possibility of hurting her feelings. “I was just teasing, little one. Come here,” he
said and bent down with his arms wide open. When her little body hurtled into
his arms, he pretended to fall backwards with the impact as she giggled her
delight. He wrapped an arm around her back, protecting her as they tumbled to
the marble floor and he laughed along with her.
As he looked up, he saw a tall figure glaring down at him and his grin
widened. “Hello dad,” he said, not bothering to get up off the floor since the
eight year old Zarah seemed to be in no mood to release him. “I can’t move with
Zarah on top of me, sir,” he explained.
Majid looked at his oldest, sprawled on the floor with his daughter’s legs
straddling his chest. “She does look like quite the victor,” he replied.
Zarah jumped up, grinning from ear to ear and reached her hand out to
assist her huge, older brother to his feet. “So I won this round?” she asked
excitedly. She’d sparred with her sister on several occasions but never with her
brother, although she’d watched him on many occasions during his breaks while
sparring with his trainers. Rashid was magnificent as he fought all of them,
sometimes more than one at a time. He was slowly learning to best all of them
and she cheered him on whenever she was allowed to watch. She’d never beat
her sister yet, but there was still time. She had high hopes that she could
eventually be skilled enough to best both of them. She might be small, but she
knew she was faster than both of them. And she was meaner, she thought to
herself.
Isla rolled her eyes and shook her head. “He let you win, silly.”
Rashid winked down at the deflated little girl. “Not true. She won fair and
square.”
“Your mother is waiting impatiently for your return,” his father explained
with a look that told Rashid that he needed to make haste to his mother’s office
or face dire consequences.
Rashid laughed as he bowed to his father. “I’m positive that she’ll have
some sort of horrible punishment if I don’t greet her immediately.” He turned to
his sisters. “Will you both come with me?”
The four of them walked down the hallway towards the greenhouse. Sure
enough, as soon as Rashid walked through the door, his mother rushed into his
arms to hug him, but with a great deal more decorum than her daughters.
“You’re home! Oh, goodness, it’s wonderful to see you again!”
“Hello, mother,” Rashid said formally, bowing once she’d stepped back.
Lila looked at her oldest child, surveying his appearance to check for any
signs of stress or problems. “How have you been? Have you been eating well?
Not staying out too late with your rowdy friends from school, I hope?”
Rashid laughed softly and kissed her beautiful, still wrinkle free cheek.
“I’ve been well. Have these two rug rats been driving you crazy?” he asked,
referring to Isla and Zarah who were standing just behind him.
Lila laughed and shook her head. She opened her arms and both girls came
to her side. “Just for the past few weeks waiting for you to finish your final
exams and turn in all your papers.” She hesitated for a moment. “I’m sorry we
couldn’t be there for your graduation this time,” she said softly, her eyes filling
with tears.
Rashid shook his head. “I understand, mom. I knew you were there in
spirit,” he assured her. He looked down at his sisters. “Besides, these two sent me
enough letters and e-mails so that I got homesick!” he ruffled Zarah’s hair and
chucked Isla underneath her chin. Knowing how to get even with them, he
teased, “Have you chosen their husbands yet, dad?”
Majid sighed and slumped into a chair. “As if I could!” he stated,
exasperation in every syllable.
“Don’t you dare!” Lila admonished, shaking her finger at her husband.
“They’re way too young. Let them live a little before they have to deal with the
insanity of a husband, or even the prospect of one!”
Majid opened his mouth to argue, but then shut it just as quickly when he
saw his wife’s stern gaze. He knew better than to bring up this subject with her.
He’d tried on several occasions, explaining that they could form alliances early
by simply betrothing the girls to their future husbands while letting them have
their freedom now. It was done in every ruling family but she would have
nothing to do with it. She’d been his betrothed since birth and it was just a stroke
of incredible luck that they fell in love at first site. After meeting her when he was
twenty-five, he’d never wanted another woman. She’d been only eighteen at the
time, so he’d had to wait another two years before making her his bride, but he’d
never regretted a moment of their time together. Now, twenty-six years later, he
still loved her just as much as that first day.
“I’m never getting married,” Zarah proclaimed and plopped herself down
in one of the brocade covered chairs in her mother’s office, crossing her arms
over her chest with an emphatic nod. “Boys are gross.”
“Hey!” her brother called out as he poured himself and his father a glass of
bourbon.
“You’re not a boy,” Zarah giggled. “You’re my brother!”
“Has Rashid’s bride been chosen?” Isla asked, sitting more primly on the
edge of another chair, looking curiously at her parents. She saw Rashid stiffen
slightly, but then he relaxed and looked at his parents curiously.
Lila looked to Majid, trying to hide her concern. “Your father has been
offered several potential brides but to date, he’s resisted pinning anyone down.”
She said that with scorn because her handsome, wonderful husband’s biggest
fault was his sexist attitudes. He wanted to quickly select husbands for his
daughters but wanted to let Rashid have a few more years of freedom.
Majid rolled his eyes. “Woman, you know the issue there! He’s a man! He
needs to...” he started to say but then stopped as he looked at his two daughters.
“Well, never mind. We’ll discuss this later.”
Lila accepted the chilled glass of white wine Rashid brought to her, all the
while, shaking her head. “We will not discuss this further, my love.”
Majid looked at his son who was holding back his amusement over the
bickering of his parents. “Don’t laugh, son. Wait until you marry! I’ll bet that
you’ll be manipulated just as easily by your bride as I am by mine.”
Rashid bowed slightly, pretending to accept his father’s guidance. But in his
mind, he knew he’d never allow a female, especially his wife, to disobey his
commands. He would have a biddable wife who was beautiful and intelligent,
but who would trust him and his decisions.
Lila stood up and raised her hand. “Enough about your future spouses. I’m
sure they will all be absolutely wonderful and I look forward to each and every
one of you getting exactly the man or woman you deserve,” she said and looked
darkly at her son who was arrogantly leaning against the door frame. Her look
was blatantly saying that she expected his wife to be just as biddable as he was,
which was not at all. “It is time for dinner and I’m truly grateful to have all of
you here again at last.”
Continue the story in the Love By Accident series!
Rashid’s Story: The Sheik’s Pregnant Lover
Isla’s Story: The Sheik’s Furious Bride
Zarah’s Story: The Duke’s Runaway Princess
The Sheik’s Pregnant Lover
The storm approaching was extraordinary with one half of the morning sky
lit up with the rising sun and the other half blazing with fierce lightening as an
early morning storm quickly approached. It was a rare, meteorological event
that should have captured Rashid’s attention, but his eyes were captured on
something much more fascinating.
The woman standing on the side of the road, bent over the hood of her car
had possibly the cutest derriere he’d ever seen in his entire life. A sweet bottom
like that should be on a woman much more rotund, but instead, that amazing,
adorable bottom was paired with a slender waist and long, lean legs that were
slightly tanned and looked to be well toned underneath the well worn denim
shorts. Her lustrous, dark brown hair cascaded over one shoulder and, although
he couldn’t see the face at the moment, he was hoping that her facial features
would match the figure he’d been surveying for possibly the last five minutes.
While Rashid Samara Bousaid, Sheik of Tasain continued his fascinated
perusal, his eyes glanced up at the storm once again, then at the black smoke
rising out of the obviously broken engine of the ancient car. Thinking to do the
heroic act and save his damsel in distress, he nudged his stallion forward with
his heels. As ruler of Tasain, he rarely had time to ride anymore so when he’d
woken with a precious free hour this morning, he’d immediately thrown on a
pair of old riding pants and a well worn pair of riding boots and left the house
before anyone could use up this unanticipated free time. Seeing this lovely wood
nymph that needed his assistance had only improved his mood.
“Need some help?” Rashid asked as he stopped his horse, Zafir, at the edge
of the gravel road.
Sidra pulled her hand off of the filthy radiator where she’d just located the
mechanical problem when she heard the deep voice. She pulled her head out
from under the metal hood of the useless vehicle and looked around to identify
the voice. What she saw was definitely not human, and didn’t appear to be
friendly at all! She stumbled backwards once before regaining her footing and
realizing that the giant, brown muzzle was part of a horse. An extremely large
horse!
The enormous horse was staring at her with what looked to be furious black
eyes and bared teeth. When she took a step back, she realized that the horse was
just standing there on the side of the road waiting and she took a deep breath,
putting a hand over her rapidly beating heart. “Goodness, you startled me,” she
said and peered around the horse’s head to see the man sitting in the saddle.
And then her heart truly did increase in pace, feeling as though it might just fly
out of her chest.
As she stared at the tall, black haired man with crystal blue eyes, she just
about stumbled over her feet all over again. His skin was tanned and his
shoulders were almost as wide as the horse’s. Or maybe they just looked that
way in the white polo shirt he was wearing.
As he climbed down from the horse, her eyes were magnetized by the strong
muscles flexing in his legs that she could see even through the material of his
riding pants. As her eyes traveled upwards, she was even more impressed. Her
mind told her to look away, but her eyes had a different opinion and she couldn’t
seem to stop herself from surveying the rest of the man. Broad, muscular
shoulders, very tall, and those eyes! She’d never seen that color blue before and
she’d seen lots of blue eyed people in her life. Maybe it was just the tanned skin
and almost black hair that made those eyes appear so incredible, but whatever
the reason, the man was really quite magnificent.
“I apologize for startling you,” he replied softly as he approached. “I saw
you from the tree line and noticed the smoke coming from your vehicle. Do you
need some help?”
Sidra finally pulled her eyes away from the man, embarrassed that she’d
been staring like that. Could she be more obvious, she berated herself.
She looked back at the tiny vehicle she’d rented at the airport this morning
upon her arrival and wanted to kick the obnoxious machine. “The alternator belt
has snapped and I suspect there’s a hole in the radiator. So unless you have an
extra motor belt and some soldering materials in that saddle bag, I don’t think
there’s much you can do, but I appreciate your offer.” She tried to be brave and
hold the man’s gaze, but he was just too tall, too intimidating and just too darn
handsome. She glanced down at her clothes, wishing she was wearing
something more sophisticated than jeans shorts and this plain tee-shirt. Even her
hair was probably flat after having traveled most of the night on a cramped
plane. Her only excuse was that it was going to be a hot day and she’d been
traveling all night.
Rashid had no idea what an alternator belt was and he suspected that the
soldering materials would do something to fix the radiator, but wasn’t sure how.
“I’m afraid I don’t have either of those, but if you tell me where you’re going, I
can help you find that location.”
She smiled at his formal words which were softened by the melodic accent
but, coming from the United States, she suspected that perhaps most of the
people in this country were pretty formal. His accent didn’t sound British,
though. It was foreign, but she couldn’t place it easily and her mind wasn’t
functioning in top form right at the moment. Her heart sped up crazily when he
smiled that incredible smile at her and she had to glance away again, although
she peeked back up at him when she found a spare bit of courage.
When his eyebrows went up, she realized that he’d asked her a question and
she jumped slightly. “Oh, um…yes…location.” She slammed the hood of the car
closed and pulled the map off of the roof of the car. She’d spread it out earlier in
an effort to try and find out where she was and how she could reach her
destination. She looked back down at the map she’d been trying to figure out
and pointed to her desired location. “I’m visiting a friend and I know she’s
here,” Sidra said, pointing to a place on the map she’d identified at the airport,
“and I think I’m here. But nothing seems to be making any sense.”
Rashid looked at the map spread out on the car’s hood and, without cracking
a smile, turned the map so that it was oriented properly, which meant that it was
no longer upside down. With a long finger, he pointed to where she was. “If you
follow this road back around,” he explained, smothering his amusement at her
groan of frustration, “then you’ll be to your destination in about five minutes.”
Sidra smacked her forehead and shook her head in embarrassment. “I’ve
been driving around in this ridiculous rental car for the past hour! And now
you’re telling me I’m only five minutes away?”
“It would appear so,” he said and one side of his mouth turned up with the
amusement he couldn’t hide any longer. “It’s a common mistake,” he lied, trying
to make her feel better. She looked annoyed with herself but her pretty hazel
eyes were looking back up at him so he tried to hide his laughter, but it was
difficult.
Sidra glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, feeling ridiculous in front
of this incredible stranger who probably never had trouble reading a map. “Go
ahead, you can laugh. I’m a directional idiot but my only excuse is that I’m not
used to reading a map. I generally just plug in the location of wherever I want to
go and my car’s GPS tells me to turn right or left.” She grimaced and looked
away, “Or make a U turn and try again when I miss a particular turn.”
Rashid laughed softly and folded her map. “Since the storm is approaching
quickly and your vehicle doesn’t appear able to participate in the endeavor,
perhaps you would allow me to help you reach your destination?”
Sidra looked around him, staring at the giant horse, then back up at the
handsome man. “I think I’ll just phone my friend and tell her where I am. She
can pick me up in a few minutes. Surely she can out-drive that storm,” she said
as she glanced back over her shoulder at the approaching dark clouds.
Rashid chuckled at her obvious fear of his horse. She was cute in a sexy,
kittenish kind of way as she looked warily at the large animal. “Nonsense,” he
replied. “I promise no harm will come to you.” He turned on his heel and
grabbed Zafir’s reigns. The slender woman was already backing away and
shaking her head but he ignored her and threw himself into the saddle.
Maneuvering Zafir alongside the woman, he simply reached down and pulled
her onto his lap, then squeezed his knees to tell Zafir to move. “I’ll have you to
your friend’s house in no time,” he said.
Sidra clenched the man’s arms as if they were a life jacket and she could
barely breathe for several moments as the horse cantered in the direction she
hoped was her friend’s apartment. She wasn’t sure if her breathlessness was
because she was on top of the scary horse or because her whole back was pressed
against this man’s muscular chest and abdomen, his thighs pressing against the
backs of her legs.
“Relax,” he said a moment later, his mouth sensuously close to her ear and
she shivered involuntarily.
“I can’t.”
“What’s your name?” Rashid asked, and pulled her higher up on his thigh to
help her get more comfortable, his arm holding her around her stomach and
waist. She was more slender than he’d thought, but round in all the right places.
From his vantage point, he had an excellent view of her lovely breasts, the nude
colored lace on the upper swell enticing him as no other lingerie had ever done
before.
Sidra heard his voice but honestly wished he would stop talking. His deep,
husky voice was creating ripples of pleasure to shoot throughout her body and
she was having a great deal of trouble concentrating on staying on top of the
horse.
“Sidra,” she finally whispered and tried to look off into the distance. She
didn’t see the storm clouds, nor did she see the sunrise coming up over the
horizon in the other direction. All she saw were his strong hands holding her
even though her eyes were no longer looking downward. His arms were
extremely strong and on the one hand, she felt very secure and comforted by that
strength. But on the other hand, she was more aware of him as a man than she
should be. It was embarrassing to feel so strongly about a man she’d just met
only moments ago.
“That’s a very nice name,” he replied. “Latin meaning �of the stars’. Very
appropriate.”
She turned slightly and looked up at him. “How do you know that?” she
asked, then quickly pulled her eyes away. Those blue eyes were looking at her as
if he could tell that she was quivering inside, as if he knew how much she
wanted him to touch her!
“Latin is a very basic language.”
She was horrible with languages so couldn’t add anything to that comment.
She supposed Latin was basic but since she could barely pass her required
French courses in high school, she had to accept his word for it. “What’s your
name?”
“Rashid.” He didn’t bother to tell her that very few people outside of his
family were allowed to call him by his first name. He could have told her his
title, which was what most people used, but he didn’t want that between them.
There was something about this woman that was different. He had no basis for
that assumption but there was something about her that pulled at him.
Something deep and invisible, but powerful. He should probably walk away
from her, ignore her allure and ride in the other direction. This feeling, or
perhaps instinct, was probably dangerous since he’d just met her. She could be
an assassin for all he knew. But he was going with his gut on this one, which told
him that she was feeling exactly as he was right at the moment. He couldn’t
define it, but it felt wonderful. And she felt perfect in his arms.
Sidra wanted to ask him so many questions, or perhaps just listen to his
deep, sexy voice. But her mind was blank as his warm hands held her steady on
the massive animal. She wasn’t even concerned about how uncomfortable she
was in the saddle because she felt so wonderful wherever he was touching her.
“Where are you from?”
“I own a house over there,” he explained, pointing towards the east. Sidra
glanced in that direction, but all she saw was a line of trees. There was a fence
along parts of the tree line but she had no idea if that delineated the perimeter of
his property or if it was just a random fence for one of his neighbors.
“You’re not from Great Britain, are you?” she asked, her curiosity increasing
the more she heard him speak.
“No.”
She smiled and turned slightly, looking up at him. “Are you going to tell me
where you are from?”
Rashid considered the possible answers. He could tell her he was from
Tasain and only here on business, or he could name one of several other
countries where he owned property. But for some reason, he didn’t want to lie to
this beautiful woman, or even prevaricate. Evan a half truth seemed like a
betrayal. Odd, he thought silently, he’d never had any qualms about stating his
heritage before but with Sidra, he wanted to be just a man who was in the same
area as she was.
“I’m actually from Tasain.”
Sidra laughed and looked forward. “I heard it’s a pretty harsh country.
What do you do there?”
“It’s actually a very beautiful country, if you know how to live in the
dessert.”
She hesitated, her fingers still holding his arms, but she no longer needed
that reassurance. The man held her with confidence and strength. She simply
didn’t want to stop touching him, even though he probably didn’t even realize
her hands were pressing against his warm skin.
“Where are you from?” he asked after a pregnant pause.
Sidra was relieved. At least this was something she could talk about. “I’m
from the United States.”
“Which state?”
She smiled. Most people either didn’t know to ask which state, or they
thought everyone was from New York or California. “I live right outside of
Washington, D.C.”
“Maryland or Virginia?” he persisted.
Sidra had to laugh and turn around. “Virginia of course.”
“Why of course?”
She shook her head and stared forward. “There’s just a running battle
between Maryland and Virginia about which state is more beautiful. In reality,
they’re equally lovely but the underlying argument rages within the confines of
the metro area.”
“Is it true about Virginia?” he asked softly.
Sidra knew exactly what he was talking about and blushed, not sure exactly
how to answer that. “I suppose there are many lovers in Virginia.”
“Anyone waiting for you to come back from your European jaunt?”
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “No. No one.”
He didn’t say anything for a long time. Finally she heard him say quietly,
“Stupid men in Virginia.” The comment gave her a soft, warm glow and she
secretly hugged the knowledge that he thought she was attractive. At least,
that’s what she thought he might be saying to her.
“And what about you? Is there someone in Tasain or back at your house that
might be missing you while you’re here on business?”
“How do you know I’m here on business and not for pleasure?”
She turned around slightly, looking at his strong, handsome features. “For
some reason, I don’t think you have a great deal of pleasure in your life.” She
blushed when he raised an eyebrow at her statement and Sidra stammered out,
“Well, I mean….you don’t seem like the kind of man who takes vacations.”
Rashid chuckled softly, enjoying her embarrassment. She was an extremely
lovely young woman, but when she blushed, her soft cheeks were even more
alluring. “I suppose you’re right. And I’m here on business for the week.”
She nodded her head and looked around. They were coming into the village
now and she wanted to turn the horse around and have more time with him. If
her directions were correct, Laura’s house was only about three blocks away. She
didn’t want to leave him, even though he hadn’t assured her that he wasn’t taken
by some fabulously gorgeous woman.
“I don’t want to drop you off,” he said, his deep voice in her ear and his arms
tightened around her waist.
She smiled and bowed her head. “I don’t want to go either. You’ve been a
wonderful interlude, but I’d better get to my friend’s house.”
“And if I asked you to stay with me at my house?”
Sidra laughed. “We just met a few moments ago,” she said, but that glow
increased in intensity.
Rashid sighed and steered the horse towards the area she’d said her friend
resided. He didn’t mention that many women wouldn’t need to know much
more about him other than his title and position before throwing themselves at
him. This woman, as he’d suspected all along, was different though. He
respected that much more about her but that didn’t ease the ache in his chest at
the idea of giving her up to her friend.
“She’s just around the corner,” Sidra said, pointing to the red building at the
edge of the village that was just starting to stir for the morning. There were a few
people milling about, some with coffee cups in their hand, the paperboy on his
bike and a police officer walking out of the diner on the opposite corner.
“Maybe I should just turn around and ride off with you in my arms. I could
convince you to ride away with me in the sunset, Sidra from Virginia.”
She laughed. “That doesn’t even happen in the movies.”
“What do you do in Virginia?”
“I’m an interior designer.”
“Hmmm…”
She shifted around, trying to figure out what he meant by that mumble.
“What’s that for?”
He shrugged his broad shoulders and pulled on the reigns to stop his horse.
“I was just thinking that I might need your services soon. Some of my rooms are
looking a bit dated.”
Sidra smiled brightly. “I’d love to help with any projects.”
He swung down over the horse but when she started to follow, he put his
hand on her thigh to stop her. “This isn’t over Sidra. I want to see you again.”
She looked down at him and felt happiness wash over her. “I don’t know
how that’s going to be possible. Laura has been trying to get me to visit for
months but things are pretty busy right now.”
He put his hands on her waist and lifted her down, holding her in place
while he looked into her pretty hazel eyes. “Things have a way of happening.”
“You’re here!” Laura burst out of her building, her blond hair billowing out
behind her as she rushed up to Sidra, throwing her arms around her in a huge
hug. “I’d been expecting you an hour ago. What happened?” she asked, then
turned to see the tall man standing next to her friend. “Goodness! And what
have you brought for us today?” Laura asked, linking her arm with Sidra’s.
Rashid kept his face neutral, but the blue eyes of the blond woman were
sizing him up and he knew it was time for an escape. “I must be on my way.”
Turning to Laura, he said, “Sidra’s car is over on the Willow Bend Road. I’ll
arrange to have it towed and a replacement delivered immediately.”
Sidra shook her head. “You don’t have to do that. I’ll call the rental agency
and have them exchange cars.”
“I insist,” Rashid countered and before his little woman could argue further,
he climbed back into Zafir’s saddle and turned the horse around. “Until next
time,” he said to Sidra, then nudged his horse and they were off down the street
at a fast pace.
Sidra watched him ride off, her eyes sad because she suspected she’d never
see that man again.
Laura watched Sidra carefully, seeing the look in her eyes and her smile grew
wider. “I think you have some explaining to do,” she said and pulled Sidra into
the building, understanding her friend’s reluctance but since they couldn’t see
the horse and rider any longer, there was no reason to stand out in the open like
this.
Sidra walked up the stairs of Laura’s building, wishing she’d had just a few
more moments with Rashid. Or maybe a few more hours. Days perhaps?
Anything but the short time they’d spent together. She glanced down at her
watch and realized that they’d known each other less than twenty minutes and
she felt sad that she’d never see the man again.
All that day, Sidra fought the jet lag that was pushing against her. She and
Laura took the train into London, all the while, dodging questions about how
she’d met the man on the horse. They dined that night with some of Laura’s
colleagues, but by eight o’clock that night, Sidra couldn’t stay awake any longer.
When Laura finally brought her back to her flat, Sidra washed her face, brushed
her teeth and fell into bed exhausted.
The Sheik’s Furious Bride
Chapter 1
Isla stormed out of the dining room, furious with her brother for threatening
her in that way! How dare he!
Her younger sister Zarah tried to keep up but Isla had righteous anger
propelling her forward. “Are you okay?” Zarah asked, her pretty face suffused
with concern for her older sister. “He didn’t mean it, Isla. You know he’s all torn
up about Sidra and finding out he’s going to be a father so soon.” Rashid, their
older brother, had been frantically searching for the woman he’d met in England
three weeks ago. She’d disappeared and they’d only this morning found out that
she was also pregnant from their brief weekend. Needless to say, Rashid wasn’t
thinking too carefully right at the moment.
Isla stopped, covering her face with both of her hands right there in the
middle of the hallway. “I know. I just….” She sniffed and tried to pull herself
together. “Of all the things he could threaten, that was pretty mean.”
Zarah put her arms around her older sister. At seventeen, Zarah didn’t need
to worry too much about her future husband but she knew that Isla was anxious
about the issue. Isla was eight years older and should have been wed several
years ago. Both of them knew the time was coming when she would need to
marry, and it might not be to someone she cared for. They both knew that their
marriages would be political.
“Give him time, Isla. He’s just now found Sidra. He’s not thinking clearly.”
Isla took a deep breath and tried to regain her perspective on the whole
marriage issue. Zarah was right. Their brother would never marry her off to a
monster. He cared for both of his sisters and would put their welfare above a
political alliance. The idea of Rashid marrying her off to someone like Sheik
Hussan El-Hamin was ridiculous. Pulling herself together, she looked around
and was embarrassed to have lost control right here in the middle of the main
palace hallway where servants and guards were witnessing her outburst.
She shook her hair out, then smoothed it down to make sure that she looked
presentable. Her long, black hair fell naturally back into place around her heart
shaped face and shoulders. “You’re right. He’d never do anything so vile or
cruel,” she said to Zarah. “Come on, let’s go start getting things ready for the
wedding. Sidra won’t know what hit her when all of this wedding and political
stuff starts to fly around her so we need to help her as best we can.”
Isla only appeared calm on the outside. Inside, she was still reeling from the
threat her brother had issued. Marry her off to that bastard El-Hamin! That’s the
most disgusting, most horrifying, awful thing Rashid could have said. El-Hamin
was a monster! He might have subdued the civil war in his country, but that
didn’t mean he was worthy of any civilized female company. He was a gross,
disgusting man with a dark beard that covered more than half his face and angry,
evil eyes. At least that’s the way the recent pictures depicted him.
Hussan El-Hamin was an enormous man who ruled the neighboring country
of Silaria. It had once been a beautiful, lush country, very prosperous with oil
revenues that equaled and sometimes surpassed those of Tasain. But the
previous ruler, El-Hamin’s uncle, had oppressed the people, destroyed a great
deal of the infrastructure and sucked most of the money out of the country with
his profligate ways. El-Hamin had left for school and hadn’t been allowed back
in after his graduation from Stanford University. It had taken more than a
decade, but El-Hamin had wrested control from his uncle, then several more
years to get rid of the remaining men loyal to him. El-Hamin ruled Silaria with
an iron fist and Isla suspected that the nephew wasn’t much better than the
uncle. No one knew what was happening though, because visitors were no
longer allowed inside the borders of the country. Not even reporters so the
information was sketchy on the plight of the people.
Isla knew though. She knew firsthand what was happening and she hated
the man who ruled so cruelly. At least in the border areas. The people in those
villages were struggling, living in abject poverty, their roads still not fixed and
many didn’t even have running water so they were using whatever streams they
could find, some of which were contaminated by now which meant disease
could rage through a village, killing off many before medicine could reach them.
Zarah patted Isla’s shoulder gently, trying to offer support. “Don’t worry
about it,” she said comfortingly. “He didn’t mean it. He’ll be better once he’s
married and all this political and wedding craziness is over with.”
Isla wasn’t to be reassured. She was still angry, even though she knew that
Rashid wouldn’t marry her off to a man who was basically no better than a thug.
“Just because he found out he’s going to be a father and has finally found a
woman he’s in love with, that doesn’t mean he needs to say something so vile,
Zarah.” Her younger sister was smart and beautiful, but still too young to know
the terrifying prospect of being married off to someone. In Isla’s world, the
threat of marriage was always close, always present. At seventeen, Zarah had
several more years before she had to worry about who her brother would choose
for her husband. Isla had been terrified of that imminent threat for the past three
years. She’d been comforted by the fact that Rashid hadn’t chosen a wife yet but
even that cushion was now gone. Or would be in a couple of days.
“I know,” her sister said soothingly. “He’s just mixed up right now. It isn’t
like him to make threats like that. He was just trying to get us out of the room
quickly. You know he wanted to talk with his new fiancée alone.”
Isla perked up at that reminder. “Do you think he’s really in love with her?”
she asked, almost forgetting the thought of her older brother’s threat with the
reminder that her brother had finally found the woman he’d been searching for.
It was an amazingly romantic story, she thought with a tinge of jealousy.
Zarah laughed as she nodded her head. “I think he’s crazy in love with her.”
The two sisters walked silently down the hallway towards their rooms,
oblivious to the guards who were following after them at a respectful distance.
They were both used to guards within the palace, but the increased security was
necessary as massive preparations for Rashid’s wedding were progressing at a
fast pace because of the urgency. Sidra, his fiancГ©e, was pregnant but even if she
weren’t, the sisters knew that their brother would have pushed for a fast
wedding, wanting Sidra all to himself as quickly as possible.
She could understand that. Isla wanted a sweet love story for herself but
knew she probably wouldn’t find it. As the sister to a very powerful sheik, her
husband would be chosen for her, she just hoped Rashid would take her feelings
into consideration since she was beyond the age when she must be married off.
Surely she could find someone that wouldn’t be so overbearing and would give
her the space she desired. She refused to give up her secret work simply because
she married.
Maybe if Rashid chose someone who wasn’t a ruler of a country to marry her
to, she could be more open about her work. She loved helping people and she
was good at it.
Being the sister to a sheik meant she had to be
more….surreptitious about her activities.
“I’m off to discuss the menu with the chef for tomorrow’s festivities,” Zarah
mentioned.
Isla sighed and turned in the opposite direction. “Rashid has asked me to
personally phone several people to request their presence for tomorrow’s
ceremony.”
Zarah laughed. “I think I have the better task.”
“You do,” Isla grumbled and headed off to Rashid’s office to pick up the list
of names he wanted her to call. She was jealous of her sister’s task but knew that
Zarah was too young to be making these phone calls. And some of them really
did need to be made by a family member to soothe the ruffled diplomatic
feathers caused by the last minute invitation. It was all about perception, she
knew. Many of the world rulers wanted to be perceived as important and being
called by a member of Rashid’s family would give them that impression.
Isla spent the rest of the day making the phone calls, pretending to care if one
or another of the rulers of various countries showed up at her brother’s wedding.
As far as she was concerned, the only two people who needed to attend were the
bride and groom. A large wedding wasn’t really her style. She actually would
choose to have only her family and her groom’s family in attendance for her
wedding. She liked it simple with little fanfare, something romantic and
intimate. But she knew she’d have to have a large, extravagant affair. Rashid
would demand it.
Zarah was still too young to be worrying about her wedding, but she was
thinking about it and dreaming about the day she’d become engaged to some
man who would carry her off into the sunset where they would live happily ever
after. Isla knew that wasn’t going to happen in her life. She would find
contentment somehow in her marriage, but happiness was not in the cards. Not
with an arranged marriage for political reasons.
She worked hard all day, helping the staff prepare the palace for the
numerous visitors. Security was painfully tight since so many people would be
staying within the palace walls. She couldn’t go anywhere without her assigned
body guard following her. The wedding wasn’t even going to be very large, but
the risk was there regardless of the number of people.
That night, she was restless for some reason. She wanted desperately to
sleep, but she stared up at the ceiling, wondering what it would be like to be in
love, to be excited about one’s wedding. She was actually jealous of Sidra, she
realized in the early hours of the morning. The woman had fallen in love with
her future husband and she was ecstatically happy about tomorrow’s events.
Isla rolled over and pulled her pillow closer. Tomorrow was going to be a
tough day, watching her older brother get married, seeing the love both of them
couldn’t hide for each other. They’d known each other for such a short time, but
they knew how they felt.
She finally fell asleep just as the sun was rising over the horizon.
Unfortunately, that meant that she overslept and by the time her maid was
finally able to rouse her, she had to rush through the final preparations for the
wedding. Her maid did her hair, then she quickly pulled on her dress and slid
her feet into shoes. She was out the door less than an hour after she’d woken up.
Forgetting breakfast and only taking a moment to grab a cup of coffee in the now
deserted dining room, she got her jolt of caffeine and hurried down the hallway
to the elaborately decorated receiving room filled with flowers for the wedding.
She glanced at her watch, trying to orient herself for the day’s events. Less
than two hours until the ceremony, she thought with resignation. She would
have loved to see Sidra before the ceremony, wishing her luck, but that was not
going to happen because she’d woken up so late. Dratted hopes and dreams!
Why couldn’t she just accept her fate? She’d had a wonderful childhood and
shouldn’t complain. So many people had it much worse.
The palace was already filling up with guests and she would need to hurry
to the receiving line to greet the incoming dignitaries, there were flowers
everywhere and so many jewels on various hands and necks she couldn’t
imagine the sum total of wealth being worn right now.
Isla slipped into the receiving line, pretending as if it had been planned to
happen like this. “Where have you been?” Zarah whispered furiously, but
keeping the gracious smile on her face since too many important people were
milling about. “Half the people are already here.”
Isla smoothed her dress down and took a deep breath, trying to calm herself
so that she could appear dignified. “I overslept.”
She felt her sister stiffen beside her a moment before she whispered, “You
didn’t go out last night, did you?”
Ambassador and his wife.
They both smiled and greeted the British
“No!” she came back, then smiled as the French Prime Minister and his wife
presented themselves to her. When that couple moved off towards the
ceremonial room, she whispered back, “I wouldn’t go out the night before
Rashid’s wedding. Don’t be ridiculous.”
Zarah instantly relaxed with the reassurance. “Good. You should stop doing
that. One day you’re either going to get caught or your you’re going to get hurt
and you know it’s just a matter of time before one of those things happens,” she
replied, then they both smiled as the United States Secretary of State approached.
Her sister was right, but she couldn’t stop. She wouldn’t stop. Her work
was just too important. Besides, it made her feel as if she were contributing to
the world as more than just another pretty face in a sea of millions of beautiful
women. She wanted to make a difference in this world.
One after another, the heads of various countries, or their representatives,
filed into the palace. For a small wedding, this seemed ridiculously large, Isla
thought as the five hundredth guest finally came through security.
Everyone had been milling about with late morning cocktails and appetizers
being passed about by the additional catering staff. Every security guard was on
duty, watching for any suspicious activity. All food had been prepared offsite
since Rashid wouldn’t allow un-vetted vendors into the palace walls and his
personal stores of liquor were used so that there was no risk of poisoning.
All too soon, the wedding music sounded and the guests were invited to find
a seat. Isla took her place in front of Sidra, giving her future sister-in-law a wink
for encouragement. The bride was radiant in a glowing white gown that had
been brought in from Paris and fitted overnight. She looked a bit nervous and
kept glancing towards the front of the wall of people and Isla instantly knew
what was going through her head.
She turned around and smiled brightly. “Don’t worry, Sidra. He wouldn’t
miss this for the world. He’s completely smitten with you.” Isla was glad she’d
said something when Sidra’s shoulders relaxed slightly and the worried look
diminished. She was probably still terrified of going in front of all of these
people, but she looked dazzling. Even Sidra’s brother Ryan who had flown in
late last night looked magnificent in his formal clothes.
As the music sounded, Isla walked carefully down the aisle, then stood at the
front of the room while Zarah came next. When Sidra finally walked down the
aisle on her handsome brother’s arm, Isla was embarrassed to find tears coming
to her eyes. She quickly blinked them away and concentrated only on getting
through the ceremony. Cameras were not allowed inside the room, but she knew
that the ceremony was being recorded for the press. She didn’t want her makeup
spoiled by tears, she thought to herself.
She looked away from Sidra and scanned the other guests. There was one
large man sitting in the front row who immediately caught her eye. He was
deliciously handsome in a scary, dark and dangerous way. His hawk-like nose
and dark eyes captured her attention and she wondered who he was. She
thought he looked vaguely familiar, but she knew she’d remember that chiseled
jaw and broad shoulders if she’d seen him before. The man was exquisitely
made up physically with broad shoulders and long legs that he had extended
slightly so that he didn’t look ridiculous on the dainty chair. He wore his dark
suit and snowy tailored shirt perfectly and she even liked the simplicity of his
light blue, silk tie. It somehow gave her the impression that he was at least
trying not to be scary looking at a wedding, even if it didn’t work because of
those eyes and his sharp nose.
If he was in the front row, he had to be a very important person so it was
increasingly embarrassing that she didn’t remember who he was. Rashid’s
assistant had done the seating chart and placed everyone by importance, but Isla
hadn’t had a chance to look at the chart.
She glanced at his eyes and was startled to find him looking straight back at
her. He glanced down at something but she ignored him, wondering what he
could be noticing. When he glanced up again, then down, she knew he was
giving her some sort of signal.
Isla looked up, looked around and knew that everyone’s eyes were focused
on Sidra as she and her brother walked down the aisle. So Isla took a moment
and looked down, praying that nothing had spilled on her light blue dress. That
would be horrible if she’d been greeting all of these people with a stain. But the
only thing she’d eaten so far today was the coffee she’d grabbed for breakfast.
As she looked down, there wasn’t anything on her dress. She looked back
up and the man was still looking directly at her, then back down.
What had she missed? Had she dropped something? Goodness, had she
forgotten to put on stockings or a slip? She moved her legs slightly and she felt
the silk, thigh high stocking she’d put on, so that wasn’t it. She couldn’t
remember putting on a slip, but her dress wasn’t see-through so the man
couldn’t possible know if she’d forgotten something so intimate.
She clutched the flowers to her waist, trying desperately hard to figure out
what the attractive man was trying to signal to her.
Isla looked lower and gasped in horror. As she looked back up, suddenly
realizing what he had been trying to tell her, she blushed painfully, but still
couldn’t keep the amusement off of her face. She pressed her lips together and
looked away, willing herself to not laugh, not to chuckle, don’t do anything at all.
She was wearing two different shoes! Both were beautiful and both matched
her dress. One had glass beads decorating the toe while the other was covered in
soft, blue flowers. She’d been shown both the previous day but because of all the
issues she’d been trying to deal with, she had told her maid to simply leave both
and she’d wear the one that was the most comfortable for the ceremony.
If they’d felt different enough on her feet, she would have noticed, but they
actually were both very comfortable shoes. So here she stood, in front of world
leaders and honored guests at her only brother’s wedding in two completely
different shoes.
She wondered if anyone else had noticed or if it was just this one man. She
glanced back at him and, sure enough, he was still watching her, that slight
amusement still on those sexy lips and in his dangerous eyes. She pressed her
own lips together again, trying very hard not to look back at the man. She was
able to do that for the whole service, but after the first kiss, the announcement of
bride and groom, all the fanfare of the crowning ceremony that took place
immediately after the wedding to crown Sidra queen….she just happened to
glance back at the man who was now standing and applauding as the two
newlyweds walked back down the aisle. He wasn’t looking at Isla’s brother and
new sister-in-law though. He was looking right back at her and she couldn’t
help the laughter that broke free when he winked at her.
Incorrigible man! She made her way down the aisle after the newlyweds
and out the door. The guests would be directed to the reception area while
official photos of the wedding party were taken in another room. Everything
had to happen quickly and on a tight schedule, she knew, so she waved her body
guard over to her. Whispering in his ear, she explained the situation. Judar
quickly looked down at her feet, then nodded his head. He bustled over to one
of the servants who immediately acknowledged the instructions and raced off.
Five minutes later, the servant returned with both shoes in her hands and Isla
smiled her thanks that the official wedding pictures would not include her in two
different shoes. She pulled on the jeweled shoe and handed the flowered one
back to the servant, then quickly took her place in the picture.
Only Zarah noticed the exchange since Sidra and Rashid were busy with the
photographer, and very preoccupied with each other.
Isla smiled at the way they looked together. Wouldn’t it be nice to be that in
love? She wondered if she would ever have that feeling. She’d been to boarding
school, but she’d been guarded the whole time and had never been allowed to
really date any of the boys at the opposite school. She might have grown to
resent her sheltered life, but her parents had instilled in her a strong sense of
responsibility. She shared her love of her country with her family, wished that
her parents were still alive to see their only son married, but knew that life went
on and things happened.
The rest of the day was predictable as the reception, dinner and endless
toasts to the bride and groom were offered, but Isla couldn’t believe how
disappointed she was that she didn’t see the man from the ceremony during any
of the events. She was looking for him, but knew she couldn’t ask anyone who
he was or what his position might be, not even from which country he hailed.
She couldn’t let anyone know about her interest in any man, much less someone
she’d met in the palace. She knew her place. She knew that her husband would
be chosen by Rashid. It went along with the rest of her life and she had long ago
accepted this role. She might not like it, but she would do her duty and follow
Rashid’s orders as to her spouse. She knew that her brother wouldn’t marry her
to anyone she distinctly disliked. He would take her opinion into consideration.
But ultimately, it would be his decision.
With a sigh, she looked down at her meal, not really hungry but knowing she
had to eat something. It was late, she’d been on her feet for more than twelve
hours and all she wanted to do was crawl back into her bed and sleep for hours.
She knew she couldn’t do that yet, still had the departure of the more important
guests to get through, but it was almost finished. Rashid and Sidra had already
left for their honeymoon, Zarah had been sent to bed because she was younger,
and so it was up to her and her cousin Jamal to stand in their stead and thank
them all for coming on such short notice.
Despite her fatigue, the thought of the departure line protocol actually
perked her right up. If the man had been in the front row during the wedding,
surely he would be one of those directed towards her and Jamal. The two of
them were required to say goodbye to all of the important guests and she could
find out more about him. Or at a minimum, shake his hand and find out his
name.
Or maybe she shouldn’t be hoping for that. She bit her lip as she made her
way through the palace towards the exit where people were already starting to
depart. She really shouldn’t get any additional information on the man since
there could be no future at all with him. Just thinking about it could be
dangerous and might lead to a major letdown when Rashid decided on a
husband for her.
No, it was best to leave silly romantic ideas alone and concentrate on reality.
She had her work which made a difference. She’d have a successful marriage
and maybe she could grow to love the man she married. This was her life and
she accepted it. She smiled until her face hurt and thanked the guests as they
departed, repeatedly telling each one that she’d convey their thanks and
admiration to both Sidra and Rashid. Her hands were chapped from the many
times she shook someone else’s and the shoes she’d thought so comfortable
earlier in the day were actually biting into her feet now. But she’d been on her
feet, literally on her feet walking or standing, for sixteen hours now.
When the last few guests finally departed, she was so relieved that she took
her shoes off and padded barefoot through the hallways to her bedroom. She
heard Jamal next to her talking about one thing or another, but she wasn’t really
listening, too tired by this point. She’d have no problems sleeping tonight, she
thought with relish.
“Good night, Isla,” Jamal said softly as she walked into his bedroom. “You
looked exceptionally lovely today in the blue. I’m glad you chose that color.”
Isla looked down at her blue dress, then back up at her cousin who was in a
dark suit for the occasion. “You looked pretty good yourself,” she replied and
waved goodnight. She smiled her thanks at the security guard who went into
her room first and did a sweep before she entered, then stood outside while she
washed her face, changed her clothes and crawled into bed. The soft sheets felt
wonderful on her aching body and she closed her eyes. The last thing she
thought of before sleep carried her away was that her dress and the stranger’s tie
matched perfectly.
Chapter 2
Isla pressed her persistent alarm, desperately wanting just a few more
precious minutes of sleep. She’d slept so poorly the night before and all the
wedding festivities yesterday had taken a toll on her. She just wanted a few
more minutes to sleep. Was that really so much to ask?
Her feet still ached from standing so long and her new shoes had been
merciless. As her mind continued to resist sleep, she wondered what her
mysterious stranger would think if he caught her walking through the palace in
fluffy slippers. She smiled and pulled her pillow close, her mind drifting to the
thought that maybe this is what it would be like to pull his body close so she
could curl up in her sleep next to him.
She reached over and pressed the snooze button, not wanting to lose the
delicious feeling of curling up next to her stranger’s muscular body. But the
alarm didn’t stop when she pressed the snooze button. Darn thing! She sat up
and looked at the numbers. It was only four thirty in the morning! She didn’t
need to be up until seven o’clock and she hadn’t gotten into bed until just after
midnight.
She looked around at her darkened bedroom, pushing the soft sheets out of
the way. What was that infuriating sound?
And then she woke up enough to figure it out, springing out of bed to grab
her beeping cell phone. She rubbed her eyes, trying to eliminate the haze of
sleep so she could focus on the small screen that was trying to give her some
information.
universe.”
The text message was clear.
“Zone five is up.
Center of the
Isla didn’t wait any longer. She ran into her closet and changed, pulling on
her black leggings and black jacket with a hood. Her backpack was already set to
go, she just needed to get out of the palace. That would be an extremely tricky
endeavor if she hadn’t found a secret way out several years ago. She’d originally
left the palace in disguise during the day, just to have a few hours of freedom
from the restrictions of palace life and being the daughter of the sheik. Initially,
she’d just visited the marketplace, or walked through the museums, doing
anything that normal people might do. But one day, she’d come up with the idea
of actually helping people. She’d read so many medical books, pouring through
the information and was always fascinated by how the body worked and healed.
So instead of just wandering about the capital city aimlessly, she started
looking for a group of people, men or women with specific skills who could go
out and find people who needed help. They would then combine their areas of
expertise to make a difference, to help the people who couldn’t get help
anywhere else.
Sometimes, it was just smuggling medicine across the border, paid for with
her own money and never stolen, but medicine needed to go through so many
official channels and so much of it was siphoned off by those who claimed to be
officials. Those �officials’ would sell off the medicine on the black market
whereas her way brought the medicine directly to the people who needed it the
most.
She never dispersed medicine, only giving it to qualified doctors who were
trustworthy and dedicated. She only performed minor medical attention. She
was sort of like a paramedic who could help people just until she and her team
could get the person trained medical treatment.
She wished she’d been allowed to attend medical school. But she didn’t dare
ask for something so outrageous. Rashid would never allow it anyway, so she
hadn’t wasted her breath.
She carefully moved the cover of shoes that hid the secret passageway. Not
even the servants who cleaned her room knew of this opening and she was
careful to maintain its secrecy. Opening the trap door, she slithered into the
tunnel and down the ladder, careful to close the door as soon as she was through
and make sure it was sealed shut with the lock bolted on her side.
Within five minutes of her leaving her bedroom, she was outside the palace
walls and gave the signal – a small pen light flashed three times in the direction
of the palace kitchens. A black van immediately pulled up and she quickly
jumped in the side door. The van was already speeding up by the time she had
both feet on the floorboards while someone else slammed the door shut.
There was a team of five people in the van but no time for greetings. As soon
as she was seated, a map was pulled out and the information on the situation
relayed to the team. They went through the details they knew about so far,
questions asked, answers given. Meanwhile, they drove through the night
towards the border to Silaria.
The Duke’s Runaway Princess
The lightning slashed across the black sky and Zarah grabbed hold of the wet
railing, bracing herself for the next ocean wave. It came just as the thunder
erupted with vibrations that she could actually feel and she bowed her head,
praying that the wave wasn’t too large this time. The freezing cold rain was
driving down onto the deck of the ship hard, feeling like needles against her skin
and she couldn’t understand why her long sleeved shirt wasn’t protecting her
more effectively. How had she gotten into this mess? How was she going to get
out of it?
The wave of water crashed but it knocked her against the wooden railing of
the ship. She had to ignore the pain tearing through her side, forcing her mind to
focus on just surviving the storm. There was a door off to the side and she
rushed towards it but it was locked! She tried to grab hold of the wheel of the
ship, tried to steer out of this insane storm, but the waves and current were too
strong and the downpour from the heavens made it difficult to see more than a
couple of feet in front of her. The moment she tried to steer, the current ripped
the wheel out of her hands, hurting her fingers. Looking around, she peered
through the darkness, desperate to find something to protect her from this storm.
It was her own fault, she thought as she tripped her way towards the bow of
the ship, wishing her legs would move faster. She had known that this storm
was coming and she hadn’t done anything to avoid it. There were so many
things she could have done to steer around this storm but she’d just sailed along,
pretending it wasn’t coming.
Suddenly, she tripped and looked down, surprised by the coarse ropes that
were wrapped around her ankles and the scrapes along her legs where the rough
wood of the deck had torn her wet skin. How had she missed those huge rolls of
ropes? Why hadn’t she walked around them?
Another wave was coming. More lightning slashed and the thunder boomed
but she ignored those problems. The thing she feared the most was almost upon
her and she told herself that the wave was the worst. She could deal with the
thunder because it wouldn’t hurt her while the lightening was too far away at
this point. The wave! She had to get out of the way! She had to find shelter or
the wave would take her out to sea! Run faster! She tried to dash to safety but
the rope was still tangled up around her legs, holding her back. Her numb
fingers couldn’t unravel the rope from around her ankles and she kept glancing
at the wave then to the rope that was now knotted to her legs. Panic filled her
chest as she watched the wall of water build higher, the fear that she would be
washed off the deck and drowned at sea terrified her. The wave was coming
closer, closer….her fingers ripped at the knots but nothing would unravel them
and the wave was almost upon her now!
Someone was coming! More lightning but it didn’t illuminate the man’s face.
He was terrifying. Large and dark, coming directly towards her. Why wasn’t he
affected by the storm? He seemed dry and he stepped over the ropes, not getting
tangled up even though they were everywhere.
The wave! She could see the swell in the distance. It was coming faster! She
had to find something to hold onto!
But it was too late. The swell rushed over the top of the ship and she hadn’t
made it to the railing yet. She had nothing to hang onto and she felt the water
wash over her, taking her with it out to sea.
And then it was all gone. Zarah sat up in bed, gasping for breath as her
mind shifted away from the nightmare, trying to orient herself to the present and
wakefulness. She looked around, confused because the storm…it had been so
real! She squinted her eyes trying to figure out where she was and what had just
happened. Her breathing was heavy as reality slowly returned. “It was just a
dream,” she told herself, trying to calm her racing heartbeat and orient herself to
her bedroom. Just a dream.
The doorbell rang.
She looked around, seeing the blanket wrapped around her ankles and she
sighed, taking in deep, cleansing breaths to try and release the nightmare from
her sluggish mind. She’d taken a nap after her last exam and now it was early
evening.
The doorbell rang again, sounding more insistent.
Zarah looked at her watch and gasped. “Rashid!” she whispered and
hurried out of her bedroom and over to the apartment door. Looking out
through the peep hole, she saw her older brother, Rashid, and his wife, Sidra,
standing outside. Rashid looked impatient as he reached for the doorbell again
while Sidra simply looked concerned. Zarah wondered how long the two of
them had been there but didn’t take the time to figure it out. The dream had
muddled her mind and gave her an odd sense of time so she just pulled open the
door and threw herself into her brother’s arms.
“Rashid! It’s so good to see you!”
She felt safe and secure in her brother’s strong arms. As sheik of her country,
she knew he was extremely busy but he always made time for her, evidenced by
the fact that he flew all the way to New York just to take her out to dinner. After
hugging her brother, she spied her sister-in-law and grinned broadly. “Sidra, you
look stunning, as usual,” she said as she put her hands on her sister-in-law’s
growing stomach. “How far along is he?”
Sidra smiled and touched her stomach as well. “She,” Sidra replied,
emphasizing the feminine pronoun, “is about five months along. We’re in the
twenty-fourth week and she’s really starting to prance around.”
“Come in!” Zarah laughed. “I’m sorry, but I sincerely hope that this one is
another boy. Believe me, you do not want to have a baby girl. Can you imagine
Rashid with a girl? He’d never let her out of the palace!” She glanced at her
older brother who was looking down at her with exasperation. “Trust me, I
know. It took me years of arguing just to get him to let me go to school.”
“But you’re finished,” Rashid announced emphatically. “And you’re ready
to come home. I’m very proud of you,” he said and kissed her on the top of
Zarah’s head.
Zarah bit her lower lip, wondering when it would be a good time to bring up
her suggestion regarding her future to her older brother. She knew what Rashid
expected of her. She was to be married, become the wife of an important ally of
Tasain, her home. Rashid was a very powerful man and she could help him by
marrying someone who could give him support in either the region or on the
international scene.
But she didn’t want to go home. She didn’t want to become some man’s
trophy wife or his political asset. Her older sister Isla had accepted her role as a
female in their country but Zarah had always rebelled against their place. She
wanted something more.
Although she had to admit that Isla was extremely happy with her current
place. She was expecting their second child any day now and was still madly in
love with her husband after several years of marriage.
Sidra noticed Zarah’s forlorn expression and glanced at her husband but he
seemed to be more interested in his baby sister’s apartment. He was currently
surveying the small space filled with well worn furniture, chipped plates on the
shelves above the counter and a bookshelf that was propped up by broken pieces
of wood to ensure that it didn’t topple over from the weight of all the books
lining its shelves.
“Is this where you’ve been living all this time, Zarah?” he asked, his voice
coming out as harsh and disapproving.
Zarah looked around and beamed with pride. “Yes. It’s been a great place to
stay while I’ve been at school. My friends and I have had some great times
here.”
Sidra laughed softly and put her hand in Rashid’s, squeezing to give him
warning. “It looks like a fabulous apartment for a college student. Very
comfortable and conducive to great study time. Doesn’t it?” she asked her
glowering husband who obviously didn’t approve of his baby sister living in
anything lower than the fabulously decorated condominium he’d bought for her
several years ago.
Zarah seemed to glow with Sidra’s approval and Rashid quickly caught on.
“Yes. I’m sure it’s favorable to a great deal of concentration.” He sighed and put
his arm around his wife. “Do you still have time for dinner tonight?” he asked,
refusing to look at the tiny apartment and the contents that might be better off in
a trash heap that in his baby sister’s apartment.
She was a princess!
She
shouldn’t be living in a closet and wearing a tee shirt and jeans, regardless of her
student status. Besides, her exams were now over, her thesis paper had been
approved with high praise from her professors and she should be packing up to
move back home.
Zarah nodded eagerly. “For you? I’m always available for dinner. Let me
go change.”
Rashid watched carefully as his sister walked through one of two other doors
in the apartment. Sidra watched him watching her and her concern grew. As
soon as Zarah had disappeared behind her bedroom door, she turned to face
him, her eyes looking up into his concerned features. “What’s wrong?” she
asked, placing a gentle hand on his chest to get his attention.
Rashid looked down into his beautiful wife’s face and sighed. “She’s going
to fight it.”
Sidra nodded, sadness growing in her eyes because she didn’t want her
husband to go through the confrontation she knew was brewing with his baby
sister. “I know.” She put a hand to his cheek to comfort him and he covered her
hand with his larger one.
“She can’t.”
“She will.” She smiled gently, praying that it wouldn’t tear him up too
harshly. He was strong and knew how to handle his family. And she’d be there
for him the whole way.
He pulled her closer and gently hugged her, mindful of her protruding
stomach. “Any ideas on how to change her mind?”
Sidra laughed and hugged him back. “Personally, I wouldn’t even try. But I
didn’t grow up in Tasain so I’m not as close to the culture as she is.”
“She knows what her role is. We can’t fight it.”
She stood up on tip toe and kissed his jaw. “Do you have a groom in mind?”
Rashid shook his head. “Several men have asked for her. But I haven’t
responded. I wanted to put the names to her and let her decide.”
Sidra glanced over at the closed door. “And what if she rejects all of them?”
His face hardened. “Then I’ll choose the one that can protect her the best.”
She knew that was coming, but it still made her heart ache that he would
have to make that kind of a decision. Sidra didn’t fully understand his position,
but she trusted him to do the right thing.
Inside her bedroom, Zarah leaned against the door, her stomach churning
with the conversation her brother and sister-in-law were having on the other side
of the paper thin door. Several men had already asked for her? Who were they?
And how long did she have to decide? Would Rashid take her preferences into
consideration? Or would he choose the one he wanted even after she’d met all of
them?
She had so many friends from classes and various activities, all of them were
dating and having a grand old time. She’d been on a few dates, but no man had
piqued her interest so far. She supposed that she couldn’t imagine being with a
man who wasn’t as strong and powerful as her father was, or her brother
currently is. They were both physically imposing men with a brilliant
intelligence and a great sense of humor. The men she’d met here in New York
were smaller and shorter than her father and brother by several inches and none
had the muscles she was used to in a man. Having been raised in the palace,
surrounded by body guards and her brother or father, she had high standards for
men and so far, none that she’d met had lived up to those expectations.
And now her brother was going to sell her off to any man who could protect
her adequately? What exactly did that mean? She could protect herself! She
didn’t need a man to do that. She was strong, capable, intelligent! She could
damn well make it through this world on her own.
Opening her closet, she surveyed the clothes hanging to one side. There
were two sides to her wardrobe. The majority of the clothes were jeans and teeshirts, things she could wear to class and blend in with the rest of the student
population. The other side had less outfits, but they were still just as useful.
Hanging to the back and covered with plastic covers were her “princess” clothes.
They were designed and tailored especially for her, with matching accessories
and shoes. She pulled out a soft, purple dress from this side of her closet,
grabbing the shoe box which contained the appropriate shoes. She had to keep
them in boxes because of the dust that accumulated due to the lack of use. It
wasn’t very often that her brother would come to New York to visit with her.
More often, she flew home for significant events and she had other clothes there
which she could wear for those occasions.
It took her less than ten minutes to change into the sophisticated dress, slip
on her purple, Prada shoes and wind her long, black hair into a twist at the base
of her neck. Adding a pair of diamond earrings, a bit of lipstick and she was set.
At the last minute, she added mascara and powder, but only because Rashid
would expect her to look nothing less than her best when they were out in
public. There was always the risk of the press when they were outside of Tasain
and she didn’t want to embarrass her brother by looking even slightly dowdy.
She also knew that the cameras tended to make her look pale and sickly if she
didn’t have just a small touch of makeup on and she’d rather not have the
paparazzi assuming she was falling ill with a deathly disease and all the silly
speculations that came with that conjecture.
As they sat down to an elegant dinner at the exclusive, beautifully decorated
restaurant, Rashid glanced at his baby sister carefully. She really was a
stunningly beautiful woman. He hadn’t realized that she’d grown up so well,
but looking at her across the table, he was impressed with how she held herself,
the dignified way she moved, the inherent grace of her stature.
Where was the immature girl who had argued passionately to be allowed to
attend university? Who had thrown a temper tantrum when he’d refused? He
remembered Zarah storming out of his office several years ago, slamming the
door in her wake when he’d refused to allow her to leave the security of the
palace to attend a school thousands of miles away. Gone was that girl and in her
place was a sophisticated, elegant woman and, despite his previous objections to
her wishes, he was very proud of all that she’d accomplished and how she
presented herself.
He wasn’t even sure how she’d finally convinced him in the end, but here
she was. Not only had she completed her undergraduate work, but she had a
Masters of Business Administration from Columbia University. Not a small
accomplishment since Columbia was an extremely good school.
“So what are you planning to do now that you’re finished with school?”
Sidra asked as soon as the wine was served.
Rashid glared at his wife, wondering what she was up to. They had just
been discussing the offers he’d received for her hand in marriage. That was the
only option for Zarah and Sidra knew it. Putting ideas into her head that there
were alternatives was not helpful.
Unfortunately, Sidra didn’t look back at him so she didn’t see his irritation.
Zarah glanced from Sidra to her brother, then back again. Could it be this
easy? Had Sidra knowingly provided the needed opening? Zarah wasn’t going
to look a gift horse in the mouth. She took the presented opportunity and ran
with it before the window closed with Rashid rejecting any other possibilities. “I
was actually considering various options,” she started to say and looked over at
her brother, trying to gauge his reaction. “Now that I have my degree,” she said
carefully, “I think the best way to be an asset to my future husband is to get some
experience in the business world.” She saw Rashid open his mouth and knew he
was going to reject the idea for the more traditional marriage route so she spoke
quickly. “I know that, whoever I marry, will have many business interests. It
would be much better if I could speak intelligently with my husband and help
him through the multi-faceted issues he will probably be facing.”
She couldn’t believe she was speaking such ridiculous tripe! Helping her
husband? Good grief, let the man figure out his own problems. She intended to
have several of her own to work through so the old coot would be on his own.
Nor could she imagine even wanting to hear about some old man’s problems,
much less caring and hoping to advise him.
But she had to play to the audience and Rashid wanted her safely married off
to someone who could �protect her’. She didn’t even want to contemplate what
that might mean in terms of men. Old and fat with a protective detail
surrounding him, and her, came to mind. She hated the idea. All of her freedom
to come and go and explore the world would be eliminated simply because some
disgusting old man wanted to protect his property, namely his wife and children.
“I don’t think…” Rashid started to say but Zarah interrupted him again.
“I’d like to be able to converse intelligently at meals with his guests. Right
now, I have business theories in my mind but no practical knowledge. Could
you imagine me spouting off about some random economic theory to a world
leader when they’ve already dismissed that idea for their country?” She added a
forced shiver of �revulsion’ for affect and kept her eyes on Rashid. She’d glanced
at Sidra during her little speech and saw the amusement. Sidra knew exactly
what was going on. But did she approve? Being an American, maybe Sidra
could add her influence to her brother’s decision.
“Enough!” Rashid commanded. His voice wasn’t loud, but it was adamant.
“Zarah, you know…”
Sidra laid a hand on his arm and he stopped instantly. Looking at her, he
shook his head and sighed heavily. “Let’s have a relaxing dinner and discuss
your future another time.”
Zarah glanced at Sidra to thank her, but her heart was sinking in her chest
because she knew it was only a matter of time before Rashid laid down the law
and denied her the opportunity to find a job. All she could do was take the time
to come up with another argument for delaying what was probably the
inevitable. But the longer she delayed, the stronger the possibility that she’d find
someone that would suit her better. And she’d be stronger as well. The more she
learned, the better off she would be in her marriage. She didn’t want to be a
doormat. She wanted to be respected and needed.
Just as any other woman wanted.
The meal was uneventful but delicious. Zarah hadn’t forgotten that one of
the perks of being Rashid’s sister was the delicious food. He had a fabulous chef
in the palace and, since she’d never needed to learn to cook, she relied on salads
a great deal of the time while at school. It was hard to mess up raw vegetables,
she knew. At least they were healthy if not creative or interesting. Besides, there
were so many other things she wanted to do and cooking was way down on the
list so bland food was acceptable most of the time.
As Rashid dropped her off, walking her up to her apartment, he looked
down at her with concern in his eyes. “We still need to talk about your marriage,
Zarah.”
Zarah looked away, her heart sinking even further and she had to fight back
the tears that formed in her eyes. “I know.”
“I’ll meet you for breakfast tomorrow at my hotel. Sidra won’t be able to
stop the conversation then. Do you understand?” he asked carefully.
Zarah took a deep breath and nodded, her head bowed with frustration.
Rashid wished that he could help her feel better about her future but he
didn’t know what to say, what words would help her. They’d discuss it in the
morning, he told himself and kissed her head before walking out the door. He
shook his head in amazement that she enjoyed living in such a hovel. As he
stepped into the limousine beside an exhausted Sidra, he pulled out his phone
and issued a curt order, ensuring that two men watched her apartment at all
times going forward.
“Why does she need a body guard now?” Sidra asked as she leaned her head
against his shoulder and closed her eyes, her pregnancy making her sleepy a lot
of the time.
Rashid took her hand and pulled her closer to him, wrapping his arms
around her. “I didn’t know she wasn’t living in a gated community with
adequate security around her. That was the type of apartment I’d selected for
her when she’d started this whole college debacle so how she ended up here is a
mystery. What was wrong with the condominium I bought for her years ago?”
Sidra laughed softly and kissed his shoulder. “I’ve never heard anyone refer
to a person getting an education as a debacle before.” It didn’t matter how many
years they’d been married, she was still amazed by some of his sexist attitudes.
“You know what I mean,” he grumbled and pulled her closer. “She
shouldn’t be living like that. She doesn’t understand the danger she’s in by
living so unguarded.”
“But you do and you’re here to fix it, eh?”
“Don’t joke, Sidra. She’s a princess and the world isn’t as kind as you would
like to think it is.”
“I’m sorry,” she sighed and snuggled against him. “But she’s also a woman
and an independent one at that.”
“The men I’ve considered for her to marry will take that into consideration.”
At least he hoped so, but he didn’t say that to his wife. He knew there were
certain things that riled her up, with that crazy American independent attitude of
hers. Sometimes he really didn’t understand her, but he always appreciated her
gentleness of spirit and kindness towards the world.
Sidra didn’t respond, but she couldn’t help but worry about her sister-in-law
who wasn’t much younger than she was. She could definitely imagine how she
would feel if someone told her that she couldn’t work anymore because it had
happened when she’d married Rashid. As an interior designer by education and
profession, it had been hard to let that go but there hadn’t been any hesitation.
She loved Rashid too much and if it were a choice between her career and him,
she’d choose him any day. Oh, he let her redecorate the palace when the mood
struck her but she couldn’t offer her services to other clients. She didn’t mind
though because she had Rashid and her sons, and hopefully a daughter on the
way.
Sidra strongly prayed that one of the men Rashid had lined up as possible
grooms might tempt Zarah and be an interesting possibility for a husband.
Unfortunately, she didn’t hold out much hope of that after living in the palace for
so many years and meeting some of the men who came through to speak with
Rashid. They were just as stubborn and opinionated as he was which didn’t
bode well for her young sister-in-law’s independent mindset.
The Russian’s Pregnant Mistress - An Introduction
Five year old Devlin curled his legs up on the hard, wooden chair, his
terrified eyes watching as each of the nurses or doctors came out of the room
where his mother had disappeared.
“It’s going to be okay, son,” his father said, but the white knuckles and the
anxious look in his father’s eyes told another story and devlin was paying
attention to the body language instead of the words. He was only five, but he
already knew that people rarely told the truth. And instinctively, Devlin knew
that his father was lying.
Philosophically, just so he didn’t have to think so much about his mother, he
wondered if it was better when someone lied to make the other person feel
better, or if a lie was still a lie. At this point, he wasn’t sure, but his mind
weighed the pros and cons, taking his mind out of the sterile hospital waiting
area, into the minds of others.
He went back and forth on the subject and, over the next ten hours, he came
to the conclusion that a lie was still not good even if it was to protect someone,
but someone who lied just to be evil was worse than someone who was trying to
protect. In other words, intent counted. He wasn’t sure about many things in
this world. But as the sun dipped down over the horizon and the nurses stopped
looking in their direction as they moved hurriedly thorugh those double doors,
he came to two conculsions. First, his mother was not going to be fine. How unfine she was, he wasn’t exactly sure, but she definitely wasn’t okay.
And secondly, his father was doing his best, even though the truth would
have been less confusing. It was hard to reconcile the worried expressions with
the calming words and that confusion only increased his fears.
He watched it all though. Every movement, all the additional doctors that
pushed their way into the unknown room, they all looked too serious for his
mother to come out the way she’d gone in. When one doctor came out with
blood, Devlin closed his mind off to the horror. That wasn’t his mother’s blood,
he told himself, curling up into a ball in the corner of the waiting room. It simply
couldn’t be his mother’s blood because she hadn’t skinned her knee, she hadn’t
scratched herself in any way. As his father had explained to him, his mother was
having a baby and it was a perfectly normal occurrence. Devlin had watched,
completely unconcerned, as his mother’s tummy grew over time. She smiled a
bit less and her hand covered her fat belly more often, but she’d still rubbed her
fingers through his hair when she passed by him, she still sat down and read to
him every night before she leaned over and kissed him goodnight. He loved her
smiles, but her gentle touch was more important. And those kisses. Yes, he liked
her kisses. And the way she smelled. She was sweet, he thought.
No one else was in the waiting room by the time the doctor finally came out
and approached Devlin’s father. They whispered to each other, glancing over
their shoulders to Devlin who watched it all with eyes that had aged that night.
And when his father broke down in tears, the doctor helping his father to sit
down in the uncomfortable chairs, Devlin swallowed hard, trying to be strong
for his father. He wouldn’t cry, he told himself. Walking over to his dad, Devlin
put his arms around his dad’s shoulders and patted him, just like his mom had
done so many times when Devlin had been scared, had been hurt or just needed
a hug.
Ten Years Later…
Devlin stopped at the grocery store on the way home from work, feeling
tired but trying to smother the resentful feelings that threatened to overwhelm
him. His father had missed work again today. The foreman had told Devlin that,
if his dad didn’t show up tomorrow, he’d be fired. Devlin knew that they needed
his dad’s income to pay the rent and buy groceries. But Devlin also knew that
there were days when his father just didn’t hear anything. Last night had been
one of those nights. He’d just sat in the corner, drinking the whiskey and staring
out the window. Devlin had made eggs and toast for dinner, but his father
hadn’t eaten them, just kept putting the whiskey to his lips and drawing the
amber liquid down until he’d eventually passed out.
Devlin had gone through his dad’s pockets afterwards, taking all of his
money and dumping the rest of the whiskey down the drain. It would still take
at least a day for his dad to sober up enough to be fit to work, but Devlin didn’t
have time to help with that tonight. He had classes and he’d have to hurry if he
was going to make it.
There wasn’t time for school during the day, but Devlin had arranged to
work the early shift at the factory. That meant he could get out early enough to
make it to the night classes. He loved those classes, taking as many as the night
school would allow. Everything was fascinating to him, especially the business
classes. He couldn’t believe how many ways there were to work around a
problem and he was so eager to learn, the teacher gave him extra books to study.
When he entered the one bedroom apartment that night, his father was still
sleeping. Devlin made a sandwich for himself, grabbed a glass of milk, then
headed out for his classes. He wanted to get to class early tonight since they
were discussing real estate laws. He had an idea that he wanted to run by the
teacher, see what he thought about the idea.
With a glance at his father, he rushed out, heading down the street and
pulling the collar of his thin, wool coat up around his neck. The temperatures in
Moscow were below zero again today and that didn’t include the wind that
seemed to slice through his coat. Only a few more months until springtime, he
thought grimly, pulling the frigid door open a moment before he barreled
through the opening to the night school.
Scarlett’s story….
Scarlett lugged her books up the stairs, sighing as she released the weight
onto her best friend’s bed. “Ms. Johnson gave us a ton of homework, didn’t
she?” she asked as her friend followed behind.
Audrey dropped her book bag on the floor only moments before flopping
her long, slender body onto Scarlett’s bed. “She always does. That woman
doesn’t seem to know the meaning of spring break, does she?”
Scarlette didn’t respond, nor was any response necessary since Audrey had
already opened up a fashion magazine and was drooling over the latest glossy
advertisements. “Isn’t Fawna Tinsdale the most gorgeous creature?” Audrey
gushed.
“Not really,” Scarlett replied, although she hadn’t seen the sultry Ms.
Tinsdale in several issues so perhaps Scarlett wasn’t the best judge of a woman’s
beauty. “Shouldn’t we get this project started? I want to hurry and get to the art
project. Mr. Kimmer says we can start that early if we want.”
Audrey just rolled her eyes at her friend. “Mr. Kimmer says that you can
start the project early. I’m pretty sure he won’t care if anyone else in the class
start the project early.”
Scarlett opened her books, but she snuck her journal underneath her math
book. During math class, she’d thought of several ideas for her latest book and
was eager to try and put them all down on paper.
After an hour and a half of homework, Scarlett looked up at Audrey’s latest
question. “Why don’t we go over to your house for a while?” she suggested,
listening to her mother’s classical music come on downstairs. Scarlett loved her
mother, but when the classical music started, Scarlett thought she was going to
fall asleep. She hated the music and kept trying to convince her mother to enjoy
the more modern sounds, but so far hadn’t gotten very far with that effort.
The Russian’s Pregnant Mistress
Gabriella Smith cringed inwardly as the repetitive, techno-rap music started
up again. The loud, thumping, pulse pounding techno sound vibrated around
her, pulsing rhythmically with the same throbbing beat as the pain in her head.
Her headache was growing stronger as she listened, or tried to listen, to the other
women in her group. The music was so loud, she had no idea what half of them
were saying but she smiled as if she were thrilled by the environment.
The only reason Gabby was still here was because her best friend, Margaret
Baker, was getting married. This was her bridal shower, although why it was
being held in a dark dance club with headache inducing, pulsing lights instead of
in Gabby’s small home with lots of wine and a pretty, flower covered cake was
specifically due to none other than Sylvia Henslow, debutante extraordinaire and
obnoxious cousin of the groom. Maggie had found the love of her life about a
year ago with Mark Henslow. Unfortunately, as with most marriages, he came
with a lot of family.
Sylvia’s idea of bridal shower games was significantly different than Gabby’s
preference. Instead of the trivia games about the bride and groom or even the
more daring lingerie theme, Sylvia had commanded that they all play a �fishing’
game. It was Sylvia’s job to challenge each of the members of the bridal shower
entourage to a new sport where the men attending the dance club were the
unknowing victims…or targets as Sylvia preferred to call them. The others in the
group chose the quarry and the selected bridal shower member had thirty
minutes to get the guy to buy her a drink. If she failed in the allotted time, she
had to buy everyone else a round of drinks.
For Sylvia and several other members of the bridal shower, this was not an
issue except for their pride. Their trust funds had plenty of cash flow to cover
several rounds of drinks every night of the week if needed. But Maggie’s other
friends, Gabby included, thought that paying fifteen to twenty dollars per drink
was a bit exorbitant. With fifteen members of the party, that many drinks would
put a serious dent in the members of the group who had to work for a living.
The alcohol was flowing though and everyone else was on their fourth or
fifth drink. Gabby was still sipping her first one and had barely finished a
quarter of the potent mixture, not liking the feeling of being inebriated and the
out of control issues associated with overindulgence. She had no idea what was
in the cocktail, but even the small amount she’d ingested in the last hour was
starting to impact her thinking capacity.
Gabby loved Maggie, was extremely happy that she’d found Mark and was
excited for her friend’s future. But this �party’ was a bit too obnoxious for her
taste. Gabby also knew that Maggie wasn’t having a good time either. She’d
known her best friend since grade school and recognized the irritated facial
expressions easily, although Sylvia was oblivious and on her way to becoming
completely smashed.
Gabby forced a smile for Debra, one of the other guests who had just
returned victorious with her drink held high in the air as if it were some sort of
trophy. Gabby considered the whole concept was disgusting and in poor taste,
not to mention abusive to the men who thought they were getting a dance
companion in exchange for the drink.
She glanced to the side, not wanting to participate in the victory celebration.
Looking away, her eyes were riveted by a broad shouldered, dark haired man
who was sitting off to the side. He looked dangerous, with a hawk-like nose and
dark, sinister eyes. She could tell that he was very tall simply by the way his
long legs were positioned in front of him. With the low couches, his legs barely
fit between the edge of the sofa and the table in front of him. He didn’t look
uncomfortable though. In fact, he looked like he owned the whole dance club.
He exuded a confidence that suggested wealth and power. And some undefinable attribute that was eye-catching…alluring. Dangerously enticing.
When he turned his head, she gasped as he caught her glance. Gabby
quickly looked way, focusing on the other women who were laughing at Debra’s
recounting of her triumph, ridiculing the man who had been suckered out of his
money for a drink only to find himself alone as Debra took her prize and walked
away, leaving the poor guy standing by the bar wondering why he was suddenly
alone and out forty bucks. Maggie smiled up at her, then turned her head as she
rolled her eyes in Gabby’s direction. Gabby smothered a laugh and turned away
as well so the others wouldn’t be offended by their amusement. But as soon as
Maggie politely turned her attention back to Debra, Gabby looked back at the
man, wanting just another quick look.
She gasped when she found him staring right back at her! Why hadn’t he
turned away? He wasn’t playing the game right. Here in this dance club, men
and women looked towards one another, then pulled their gaze away, pretending
to not be interested in each other until one of them made the first move. It was a
power struggle that was played out over and over again amongst these wealthy
patrons but this man was simply staring back at her without worrying that
Gabby might think he was weak for showing his interest.
Okay, to be fair, there was really no way anyone could think that this man
was weak. His black turtleneck hugged his broad shoulders and bulging biceps,
showing off muscles that the other men in the room could only wish they had.
Gabby pulled her eyes away and refocused on the group. They were putting
in their drink orders, Sylvia offering to buy the next round and nominating
Maggie for the following set of drinks if their subsequent candidate failed.
Gabby wasn’t so sure that was fair, seeing as how Maggie was the guest of honor.
Jenny was up next for the man versus drink challenge and all of the ladies
were glancing about the bar and dance floor, trying to find Jenny’s male victim.
“Oh my goodness!” Sylvia gasped. All eyes turned towards her, waiting
until Sylvia closed her overly glossed mouth and explained her shock. “Don’t
look now, but you’re never going to guess who is sitting about thirty feet to our
left.”
Gabby’s stomach clenched with fear of what Sylvia was about to say. Was it
her man? The guy she’d spotted a moment ago? She couldn’t look, didn’t want
to know. And yet her eyes looked up just at that moment.
Debra obviously didn’t follow Sylvia’s command to �not look’ since she too
gasped when her eyes took in the delectable, tall male sitting on the nearest sofa
by himself. “It’s Damon Petrov! Isn’t he the yummiest?” Debra was