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Authors: Parker, M. S., Wild, Cassie

Pure lust: the complete series box set

Table of Contents

Title Page

Pure Lust Vol. 1

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Pure Lust Vol. 2

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Pure Lust Vol. 3

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Pure Lust Vol. 4

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Epilogue

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Pure Lust Box Set

 

Cassie Wild and M.S. Parker

 

 

This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales or organizations is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2015 Belmonte Publishing LLC

Published by Belmonte Publishing LLC.

 

 

 

 

Pure LustVol. 1

 

Chapter 1

Three steps into the white marble and glass lobby of the Bouvier building and I knew I was so out of my league. The skyscraper housed the largest fashion house in Manhattan and there I was, a tiny little country mouse, dressed in last year’s fashions.

Appointment or not, I didn’t belong here. The suited man behind the counter must have thought so too. I only had a few seconds inside the bright elegance of the lobby before he addressed me coolly, “All visitors must sign in. Name?”

“Gabriella Baine.”

The few people milling about a large square of white leather couches in the cavernous lobby looked up at the sound of my voice. Had I really spoken that loud?

Two bored models sipped sparkling water while a man in a close-fitting, tailored suit strode over to the windows, looking outside, then glared at his watch. The fourth person, a young man with a bright purple shirt glowing from underneath his conservative suit studied me from under his lashes, the look on his face caught between boredom and hostility.

He was wearing the same silver visitor’s pin the security guard handed to me. Was he here interviewing for the same job? Bouvier, the internationally known high-end fashion house, was looking for a new talent acquisitions assistant. I guess they could have been interviewing for several positions. I tried a polite smile as I moved to sit down in the sitting area.

The man in the bright purple shirt all but growled at me.

I’m in way over my head…

“Thanks, Kendra.” I muttered.

My roommate, native New Yorker and six feet of jaw-dropping natural beauty, was a model and while she hadn’t quite hit the big times—yet—she had a few connections. She’d set up this interview as if I was a shoe-in.

As if.

Speaking of shoes, I looked down at my patent leather heels. The sexy peekaboos had plenty of shine, but they weren’t designer shoes, and I was sure the people in the lobby had already noticed. Even the guy who’d opened the door for me had worn hand-cobbled loafers.

I took a deep breath and put on a fake pair of tortoise shell glasses. The stage fright trick I’d picked up studying improvisational theater in college was now a habit, though I liked to think of it more as a quirk.

It reminded me that what I really wanted out of life was to sit in a small room surrounded by other writers, arguing out the beats, hooks, and jokes of a new television show. Not trying to sell myself as being some sort of expert in acquiring new talent.

Wearing the glasses, I could make myself look at everything as possible fodder for my writing. This would be a typical fish-out-of-water scene. Maybe I could make it different—the heroine would bolt before it was too late. Take off running down the sidewalk in a fit of hysterical panic. Crash into Prince Charming.

I could use a Prince Charming, as well as a job.

Resisting the urge to huff out a dramatic sigh, I swept the room with another nervous glance. I should bolt, though, Prince Charming or not. But I needed the job. My current job was all about connections and experience, but the pay sucked and Ineededthe money.

“Ms. Baine?”

Too late to run now.I made myself smile as I stood.

It was time to teeter across a slick white marble minefield of possible embarrassments to interview for a job I knew nothing about.You’re paying your dues, I told myself. We all had to pay them. Kendra had paid hers and she was almost there. I had to pay mine.

“Gabriella?”

“That’s, ah, me.” I stumbled and tried to play it off as a quick dance shuffle in the doorway of what looked like a break room. The fake glasses slid down my nose and I hurriedly took them off. They might work to calm me, but I didn’t want to explain to people why I didn’t wear them all the time. That wouldreallyconvince people I had a few screws loose.

He stepped aside, allowing me to enter. I edged in through the doorway, looking around nervously.

It was indeed a break room.

“I’m Simon Hughes.” He spoke in a brisk, borderline rude voice as he came around the table and sat down. He held a file in his hand and he flipped it open, gesturing for me to sit.

I did, watching as he skimmed the information in the file.

“It says here you’re from Tennessee.”

“Yes.” I smiled.

“I don’t hear much of an accent.”

I was used to this by now. It had seemed obnoxious when I’d first moved here, but one thing I’d learned early on was that the slow twang of the south wasn’t going to open any doors in New York—and it might in fact slam them in my face.

“I’ve been gone from home a while. The accent only comes out when I’m riled.” I winked, trying to lighten the tension.

The young man with the thinning blond hair just studied me with the same cool expression for a long moment. Absently, he smoothed down a skinny tie, brushed invisible lint off his tan suit and adjusted his cufflinks. Something about those gestures seemed familiar, like the way I wore my glasses. A ritual.Possible personality quirk,I told myself. I had an entire mental file of them.

“I’m sorry for the location,” he said, glancing back down at the file. “Bouvier is having a big launch meeting upstairs and the other conference room is covered in catalog work, but at least there’s coffee.”

He gestured toward the counter along the wall in what I assumed was an offer. “No, thank you.”

I was jittery enough.

He flipped through my application, the silence straining on my nerves until I found myself measuring the steps between me and the door, thenthatdoor and the main doors. Could I make a break for it in these heels?

“So, Ms. Baine.” He reshuffled the papers in front of them, neatly stacked them, aligning the edges in a way that struck me as borderline obsessive. Then he did the tie, lint, cufflink check again.

The dude had enough quirks going on for a whole cast of characters all by himself.

Abruptly, he jerked his head up and pinned me with a hard look.

“Exactly what do you bring to the world of talent acquisition?”

“A need for talent?” I flashed him a smile.

“I’ll rephrase.” He tapped a finger on the thin file. “What is your experience in the talent industry, Ms. Baine?”

Aw, hell…

The horrible interview continued to go downhill from there. When the door flew open nearly fifteen minutes in—had itonlybeen fifteen minutes—I could have cried in relief.

Then I caught a look of the intruder.

Oh. Wow.

A jaw-dropping gorgeous intruder. He swept aside a pile of files so neatly organized, I knew they had to have been Simon Hughes’ handy work and I watched as the man across from me went red in the face.

Then I slid the sexy storm another covert look. He was flinging open cabinets and grumbling. Then finally, he grunted, grabbing something from one of them, slamming the door with a resoundingbang. He had a fistful of sugar packets.

He turned, studying us as he ripped them all open at once. Sugar spilled across the counter, only half of it going into the cup.

Simon Hughes clenched his jaw and focused on me. “I’m sorry. Please continue.”

I guess we were going to pretend we were still alone.

“Aren’t you Lee’s assistant?” The man who wasn’t supposed to be there grabbed a stirring stick as he spoke. “What are you doing on the main floor? Isn’t there some kind of attic all you assistants hang in like bats?”

I laughed out loud and then had to pretend it was my ring tone. I made a good show of turning the phone off and apologizing to Simon. If he hadn’t been glaring at the coffee-swilling, sugar-slinging intruder, I don’t think it would have worked. As it was, neither one even glanced at me.

“I’m conducting an interview, Mr. McCreary,” Simon said stiffly.

“And you haven’t even introduced us. I’m Flynn.” The man turned cadet blue eyes on me. All the nerves jittering inside me seemed to coalesce and then explode, turning into something else entirely. Lust.

Plain and simple.

Those blue eyes drifted down, lingered on my mouth, then back up.

Heat suffused me and I managed, barely, not to lick my lips.

He was bossy and overconfident. I knew his type. He’d be flippant and arrogant through and through. He loomed over that snotty Simon Hughes just because he could and I almost felt bad for the poor guy conducting my lousy interview. But I still had a feeling if he decided to turn his ire my way, I’d be a molten mess.

Simon shifted nervously in his chair, clearing his throat as he started his tie, lint, cufflink check. “Mr. McCreary—”

“I’m here for a job interview,” I said, hoping to salvage the situation. “We’ve only got a set amount of time, Mr. McCreary.”

He cocked an eyebrow at me before he leaned over Simon to read the top file. “Gabriella Baine, from Tennessee.” He cocked an eyebrow. “Too bad you lost the accent. Accents are sexy.”

I pressed my palms down on the table and spread my fingers to stop from balling my hands into fists. I didn’t find that eyebrow thing sexy. Nope. And I hated that he was flirting during an interview. Definitely.

Flynn’s blue eyes lingered on me, a faint smile curling his mouth. It was a beautiful mouth, just full enough without being too much. One hundred percent kissable lips.

Simon looked like he wanted to disappear into the chair, or maybe turn into the invisible lint he was now fussing with.

This was getting out of control. Aggravated, I looked back at Simon. “I’m sorry, what was your question?”

Simon went to respond, but Flynn cut him off. “Lee’s assistant, a word please. In private.”


Page 2

Flynn yanked Simon from his chair and hauled him out the glass door. I watched as Flynn gave clear instructions with a lot of cutting hand gestures and some head shaking. Somehow I’d lost the job in a matter of syllables and I didn’t know why.

As he marched away, I could see one other thing. Flynn McCreary had a great ass. Which I supposed was fitting since hewasan ass.

The interviewer’s face was flushed as he came back into the room. “Ms. Baine? Our time is up. I’ll call if we have any further questions.”

Why am I not surprised?“Thank you.”

This entire thing had been a disaster from moment one. Without bothering to say anything else, I pushed through the door. Standing in the lobby with its sparkling glass and elegant marble, I tipped my head back and stared up.

I didn’t belong here and I wasn’t going to pretend like I did.

Kicking off the borrowed heels, I picked them up and walked barefoot across the lobby. Just before I reached the door, the skin on the back of my neck prickled. Swinging my head around, I caught sight of the bastard who’d cut my interview short.

Flynn McCreary stood at the visitor’s desk and he had a camera aimed my way. That infuriating smirk was still on his face.

What the hell?

I lifted my right hand and flipped him off. It wasn’t like I’d ever be back here anyway.

“Perfect!” he called as he snapped my picture.

 

 

 

Chapter 2

“Why couldn’t you be one of those models who doesn’t eat? Then I wouldn’t feel bad about having a job that pays peanuts.”

“Great, now I’m hungry for peanuts,” Kendra said. “Did you really give Flynn McCreary the finger?”

“I flipped the bird to a rude guy who interrupted the interview my beautiful, talented, understanding roommate set up for me,” I countered.

We stood in our small apartment’s kitchen with the empty cupboard doors hanging open around us. There was one box of pasta left and I was about to get creative with the remaining cans in our pantry.

It wasn’t the first time we’d been in this situation and it wouldn’t be the last.

Despite the lack of food, our apartment was my favorite place. The hardwood floors glowed in the sunshine and the old-fashioned wall sconce lighting added a soft glow in the evening. Kendra walked around turning the lamps on as I added water to our one pot. There was a built-in window seat that overlooked our busy street and a typical New York City fire escape we had turned into a small, straggled garden.

Kendra watered two of the plants and then stretched out on the window seat. Her legs were so long she had to prop them up on the opposite wall and she smiled as she gazed outside.

We both loved it here.

Kendra had just been signed on to model for a swimwear line at Bouvier, but the money wouldn’t come in for a while.

I wrote for a small creative firm, but I might as well write for peanuts for all the money I brought in. I kept hoping I’d luck out and land a serious job somehow, but for now, we were barely hanging on.

We’d been doing okay, but then our landlord had gotten sick.

He’d recovered, but it had hit home pretty hard, I guess. He was retiring to Florida and his son—the sleazoid from hell—was taking over.

“I’m telling you, we need to figure out who to call about this rent thing,” I told Kendra. My gut was in a twist over what was happening. “I really don’t think he can jack the rent up like that.And we both know he’s doing it because he’s pissed off you won’t sleep with him.”

The smile faded from Kendra’s face and she turned her head. “What are you going to do? I keep calling the agency that’s supposed to handle it and nobody is calling me back.” Her shoulders sagged as she looked around the apartment. “We’ve only got two weeks before the money is due and if we don’t pay, he’ll throw us out. My grandma lived here since she was my age. I don’t want to lose this place.”

“I know.” Feeling terrible that I’d ruined her good mood, I turned back to the food. “Look…” Then I shook my head. “Never mind.”

Kendra would be fine once she started getting paid for her new modeling gig, but we needed money in the meantime. I’d still keep making phone calls to the agency though.

I stirred the water as she went back to the subject she wanted to discuss.

“I can’t believe you flipped Flynn McCreary the bird.”

Tossing her a grin, I shrugged. “I don’t see why not. He was a jerk.”

“Thatjerkis one of the most talented photographers at Bouvier.”

“I know.” I grinned at her. “It was all part of my grand scheme to become the world’s next top hand model!”

“Oh, stop, Gabs.” Kendra laughed and shook her head. “Was it really that bad?”

“On a scale of one to ten, it was a two thousand.” I shuddered in mock terror as I reached for the pasta.

She beat me to it and put it back on the counter. “In that case, I owe you for your misery. How about a night out?”

“Did you miss the part where I didn’t get the job?” I rolled my eyes. “I can’t afford a night out.”

“What about an exclusive party with free food and drinks? Remember that swimwear gig I landed? They’re having a launch party and I just happen to have two passes.”

“Please tell me I don’t have to wear a swimsuit,” I said, switching off the stove immediately. For the chance to eat for free and not have to attempt to make do with what we had, I would’ve worn a tutu.

***

The blue dress Kendra loaned me wasn’t hers.

I was above average height, but she had nearly six inches on me and while there were a few pieces of clothing we could swap out, anything that involved legs was pretty much a no-go. But the blue dress had been left over from a photo shoot and Kendra had a covetous love of clothes. If there was something left lying around and nobody took it, she did.

I’d come to love the habit, because it meant I could raid her closet and sometimes come out with pieces that wouldfit me. She wasn’t quite as curvy as me—I was little over average in the bust and hip department—but she at least had something of a figure.

The blue dress came just a few inches short of my ass, and showed off more cleavage than it would have on a skinny model, but I didn’t mind. The dance floor at the club was jammed and every time I looked around a new knot of men were orbiting us. After the rejection of the interview and how Flynn had behaved, the attention felt good and I soaked it up like a sponge. I’d also had more than a few drinks, but after that lousy day, I told myself I was entitled.

A new song came on and a thickly muscled blond danced over to me.

“Hey, beautiful,” he yelled over the music.

I shook my head at him and he took it as a sign to pull me close.

“You’ve got curves in all the right places. You two must be models, am I right?”

“She’s the model,” I said, still trying to be polite about it.

“Nuh, huh, baby, don’t lie to me. I bet you’re an underwear model. Much better than those skinny runway ones.”

I gave him a bit of a push, but he didn’t take the hint. He put about an inch between us, but kept dancing.

“Why do I have to be a model at all? Am I less attractive as a postal worker or a chef or a writer?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“Models are hot,” he said simply.

I know I should have taken it as the compliment he’d intended. Most women would be happy to be mistaken for an underwear model, or any kind of model. It wasn’t easy hanging out with Kendra and keeping normal insecurities at bay. Maybe I didn’t have my picture plastered on billboards, but I was a good looking woman. I was five-seven with good curves and I could eat what I liked—in moderation, of course—without worrying about hitting the treadmill the second I was done.

I pushed the blond guy away from me more forcefully this time and easily found another dance partner to bump against. This one just smiled down at my cleavage and didn’t say anything.

Oh, well. Not like I expect to find Prince Charming here…

“You’re a devil in that blue dress, honey.”

A shiver raced up my spine and I turned. My brain kicked in a few seconds after my mouth, but what popped out hadn’t exactly been thought through. “Nope…not the prince. It’s the toad.”

He cocked his head, familiar cadet blue eyes studying me. The free drinks I’d been imbibing had the room swirling under me and I started to regret them.

“The toad?” he asked, dark brown hair tumbling into his eyes. Stubble grazed his jaw. I tamped down the urge to rub my cheek against that sexy five o’clock shadow. Damn, he was hot.

“Yeah. The toad.” I swallowed, suddenly feeling more tongue-tied than I liked. “You know. As inNot Prince Charming.”

He chuckled and moved closer. “Were you really looking for him here?”

We stood still in the writhing sea of dancers and just faced each other.

Before I could say anything else—reject Flynn’s compliment, berate him for not giving me a chance at Bouvier—the blond guy returned and gave me a flirty hip check that knocked me off balance. Without looking like he’d even had to think about it, Flynn caught me around the waist and for one brief moment, my body was pressed to his as he steadied me. Breasts to chest, my belly to the flat concave of his, our thighs aligned down to the knee.

Oh, shit…

He held me there; that cocky smirk curving his lips.

A moment later, he was gone.

“Flynn McCreary, the toad.” I muttered breathlessly. I told myself it was from the near-fall and not from the feel of Flynn’s body so close to mine.

Kendra nodded in rhythm with the music before she twirled me around and waved at the bar. Flynn waved back and lifted a shot glass to me.

I scowled. “That’s it. I’m going to find out why he axed me. I needed that job.”

You weren’t going to get it anyway,a small voice chided. I told the voice to shut up.

A new throng of suitors swept Kendra out of the way before she could stop me. I dodged dancers as I made my way across the crowded dance floor, disgusted as I saw Flynn smiling at my thwarted efforts. I narrowed my eyes at him and let a black-haired dancer with his shirt unbuttoned to his navel sweep me into a grinding turn. Flynn’s smile slipped a little, but he gave me an appreciative nod as my oblivious dance partner presented my backside to him.

When I spun back around abruptly, it was to see his eyes still lingering where my ass had been.

Heat raced through me.

Breaking free of my dance partner, I marched up to Flynn and took the shot glass out of his hand, ignoring the surprised look on his face. I knocked back the stiff drink before bringing my still-wet lips to his ear.

“What’s your problem with me?”

He turned slightly so that my mouth was at the corner of his. “You’re not right for talent acquisition.”

“You cost me that job!” I put as much venom in my voice as I could manage. It wasn’t much. His aftershave flooded my head and I think it was potentially lethal. My knees were feeling weak already. Though that could’ve been the shot I’d just taken.

“Because I need you for a better one,” he said.

Flynn took me by the waist and swung me onto his bar stool before ordering another round. I could still feel the heat from his hands and shifted, uncomfortable with my growing attraction. He took the opening and pushed to stand between my legs under the pretense of tipping the bartender. Despite the smell of him making me want to taste his neck, I put my hands on his shoulders and pushed him back, determined not to be distracted.

“What job?”

“Hand model,” he said.

I almost snorted a laugh. “You’re kidding. Did Kendra put you up to this?”

He shook his head and an irresistible strand of dark brown hair fell over his eyes. Before I could stop myself, I reached out and smoothed it back. He smiled down at me and I swiveled to grab the second whiskey shot he had ordered. He had to move back as I slammed back the shot and slid off the barstool.

He grabbed my hand before I could dive back into the crowd. As he raised it, for a moment, I thought he was going to kiss it, but he studied it instead, a serious expression on his face.

“You talk with your hands. I couldn’t help but notice.”

“Yeah, I’m not going to apologize about that,” I said, unable to completely stop my smile at the memory of flipping him off.

He laughed and kissed the back of my hand, sending a jolt of electricity through me. Fuck. How did he do that?

“I wouldn’t want you to. It’s a great picture. Too bad the exec I showed it to won’t let me use it in the new jewelry campaign.” His eyes were sparkling.

“Why are you messing with me?” I asked, rolling my eyes. He was charming, all right, but still a dick.

“Stop by tomorrow. No joke.”

Flynn gave me one more look and I felt every inch of it. He handed me an embossed card, clinked his whiskey shot against mine, drained it and then disappeared into the crowd.


Page 3

I stared after him for a moment, not sure what had just happened. Then Kendra was there, dragging me back onto the dance floor.

He was odd. Egocentric. Pushy. Arrogant.

And hot.

But odd.

***

“You have to go!” Kendra insisted. I’d just finished telling her about my insane encounter with Mr. Photographer.

“He really is a talented photographer and he offered you a job. Best case scenario, you get paid for a few hours of standing around holding your hands still.”

“You know that’s really hard for me,” I started to argue despite the weakness of my point, then stopped. My eyes narrowed. “Wait, what’s the worst case scenario?”

“That he hits on you and you like it.” She gave me a devious grin and winked. “He’s a notorious womanizer, Gabs. But hey, if you’re curious… what’s the harm?”

“Curious?” I stared at her. “Are you…saying I…?”

She grinned for a moment and then went back to the ritual of her weekly manicure, ignoring the fact that I was still gaping at her.

Curious…that made me think about things I didn’t need to think about.

That made me think about Flynn.

Made me think aboutmeandFlynn.

The two of us. Together. Naked. Those long-fingered, elegant hands of his running over me. My mouth went dry just picturing it.

“No.” I lied through my teeth. “I’m not curious. Not about Flynn McCreary.”

***

Kendra’s words echoed in my head Monday morning as I walked into the address printed on Flynn’s business card. The warehouse space was divided into a chic boutique of pale fashionable clothes and an art gallery featuring sketches of designer handbags.

The bored receptionist pointed up the stairs when I told her who I was here to see. The photography studio stretched out the entire second floor with windows the entire length of the street view.

“Mr. McCreary?”

“I detect a little accent, Tennessee. Does that mean you’re nervous?”

I gave him the finger and he laughed. “I’ve already got that pose. Come on. I’ve got other things in mind.”

Fighting the urge to fidget, I lowered my hand and stood there, feeling lost in the vast space. He crossed over to me and cupped the offending hand in both of his, using it to draw me towards the far corner where the windows were covered, creating a darkened—or darker—area.

There, a white pedestal waited in front of what looked like a giant white screen. A backdrop, I remembered. Dozens of lights aimed at the spot from what I guessed were strategic places.

“Please, let me make you more comfortable.”

“I’d be more comfortable knowing what the hell I’m doing here,” I said bluntly.

Without answering my question, he gently pulled both my hands onto the pedestal and began massaging them. The deep rub of his thumbs in the center of my palms released a pressure I hadn’t realized was trapped there. The heat of the friction and the slow, deliberate circles soon uncoiled something else. Heat flared in my stomach, quickly traveling south until it pooled between my legs.

I swallowed. Tensing, I tried to pull away as heat rushed to my face.

He didn’t release my hands, keeping a light hold on them. “No, no. You can relax. You have to be relaxed for this job.”

“What job?” I asked, as much to keep my attention from how good his hands felt around mine as anything else.

He answered without looking at me even as he released my hands. “A new jewelry line called Delicate. I can’t have you cupping an eggshell if you’re so tense.”

He went over to the long table and picked up an egg, two egg shells, and a diamond tennis bracelet. Flynn then walked up behind me and reached around either side of me. He clasped the dazzling bracelet around my left wrist and carefully placed two broken halves of an eggshell in my fingertips. It seemed a bit strange, but he was the artist.

“Alright, put your other hand flat here. It’ll help you stay steady and it’ll add to the background. Your skin is perfect, almost translucent.”

I tried to ignore the tickle of his breath on my neck as he leaned in closer and posed my right hand. He then smoothed the large diamonds along my wrist and the slight caress sent shivers up my arm. I steeled myself not to move and prayed goosebumps wouldn’t give me away.

Don’t screw this job up too, Gabs.Just because you haven’t gotten any in a while...

He stepped back and picked up his camera. A few rapid-fire shots and he put it down. This time he ran his fingers down my arm in order to gently rearrange the angle of my wrist. His dark brown hair brushed my cheek and I decided to look out the window and pretend I was writing a scene, something that had nothing to do with attractive men and how good they smelled.

“You’ve got a soft touch, Ms. Baine. I think I may be jealous of an eggshell.”

“The bracelet is part of my payment, right?” I asked. I’d just blurted it out, not really expecting an answer. I was finding it increasingly difficult to think around him.

He chuckled and added finely shredded pale blue tissue paper to one of the empty eggshell halves. He leaned over to delicately place a pair of diamond earrings on top of the paper and his fashionably unbuttoned shirt fell open. I couldn’t help seeing his chiseled chest and that made me wonder what a fashion photographer did to work out. My mind betrayed me and immediately imagined him doing push-ups over me. Dammit. I really needed to get laid.

“Relax a little. You’re doing beautifully, Gabriella.”

I liked the way my name sounded in that deep voice of his.

A few more rapid-fire shots and he removed all the props from my hands.

“Tedious work but, trust me, I’ll make your hands look good.”

“Good, otherwise I won’t be able to show my face around town,” I quipped as I began to stretch my fingers. My breath caught when Flynn took my hand between his and began to help. I kept talking to prevent me from thinking about the way his fingers were manipulating mine. “Does this mean I can’t do high-fives anymore? I mean, now that you’re going to make me a famous hand model?”

Flynn caught my eyes, his warm hands still caressing mine. “How about I get us something to drink?”

I shrugged, trying to be noncommittal, and he smiled at me as he walked away. I ignored the stab of disappointment and began to pace around, desperate to cool down the molten feeling in my muscles before he came back. He moved with a lean, powerful grace that had me itching to touch him.

He’s a notorious womanizer…

Kendra’s voice echoed in my ear and I had to swallow back a groan.

All I could think about was his hard body leaning into mine at the club the other night. Today, his dark brown hair was slicked back and his face was smooth. He smelled faintly of that amazing aftershave and it made the urge to rub my cheek along his jaw line even harder to resist.

I shook my head and distracted myself with a long white table of portfolio folders. Reaching for the nearest one, I flipped it open.

“Oh, you might not want to do that,” Flynn said from behind me.

“Do what?” I asked as I flipped open the first portfolio.

He smirked as he gestured to the table. “That.”

Confused, I looked down. As my brain registered what my eyes were seeing, my mouth fell open.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 3

My cheeks turned red once I realized his warning had been more of a tease than anything else.

The portfolio was filled with black and white photographs of nude models. I flipped through a few, trying to cool my embarrassment. I wasn’t some prude or naïve little girl to be freaked out over a couple of nude photographs, although…wow. This wasn’t some nude portrait hanging in an art gallery. These werehot.

Flynn edged closer, so close I could feel his body heat.

“You like what you see?” Flynn’s tone was half-mocking, half-seducing. “Want to take a few in the dark room for further study?”

“Don’t be a child,” I snapped.

“Oooh, there’s that Southern drawl,” he said.

He was teasing me, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the photographs. They were not gratuitous, models posed for exploitation or just to please the lustful eye. They were beautiful studies of the female form, beautiful and sensual. One photograph conveyed such a sense of vulnerability I ached for her. Another such ferociousness that I wished it could be imprinted in my mind to banish any lingering insecurities. The angle said as much about the photographer as the nude pose revealed about the model. Despite myself, I was fascinated.

“Here, let me help.” He dabbed my chin with a paper napkin. “You got a little drool there.”

I slapped his hand away, but without any real malice. My cheeks were burning, but not from the pictures anymore. “You must be the photographer’s twelve year-old son.”

“Ouch.” Flynn smiled as he put his hand over his heart.

I collected myself, determined to show him that I could be more mature about this than he was. “So you take nude photos on the side. Just for fun or are you getting ready for a gallery show?”

He snorted in derision as he tugged the portfolio from me and flipped it open, bending over to study it closely. I could only see his face in profile, but it was clear that he was looking at his work with a far more critical eye than I thought they deserved. Even the more erotic ones that left me blushing were incredibly lovely.

“Why do you take them?” I asked again.

He looked over at me, a grin tugging up the corner of his lips. “Why the hell not?”

He flipped the portfolio closed and shrugged before cutting to go around me.

There was an abruptness to his movements that made me realize that somehow, I’d put a wall between us. Or he had. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.

“How do you find models to pose nude?” I asked suddenly. Then I grimaced, realizing how naïve that sounded.

He gave a short mirthless laugh, but his expression changed when he realized I was serious. He jerked a shoulder in a shrug. “It pays better.”

I knew I’d hate myself for asking, but now I was curious. “How much is better?”

“How much is on the books for your hand modeling gig today, three hundred?” He cocked up a brow as he waited for me to nod. Then he angled his head toward the portfolio full of nudes. “Model for a nude? It can bring in three thousand or more.”

Shit. “That’s…” I cleared my throat. “That’s a lot of money.”

I turned to look out the windows so he couldn’t read on my face what was going on in my head. With Kendra not getting paid for a couple weeks and my current job not paying me much of anything, it was hard not to think about it. I told myself that I was already doing the hand model gig because I needed the cash, but the idea of ten times that amount kept running through my head.

Apparently, he didn’t need to see my face to know what I was thinking.

“Tempting, huh?” The sly arrogance came back into his voice. “Or maybe now that you have the taste for modeling, you can’t get enough?”

He came around, putting himself between me and the window, grinning at me. The attitude was confusing. Insulting. How could the sensitivity I’d seen in those images come from somebody so deliberately crass, someone almost cruel?

It had to be an act, but I couldn’t see why. He was talented and didn’t need to act like an ass. The biggest problem, however, was his words sounded like a challenge and I had never been able to turn down a dare. I wanted to strip off all my clothes and make him blush.

“What are you thinking?” he asked, his voice a low murmur.

“Go away.” I turned back to stare out the window. He chuckled and I could hear him moving around behind me.

“You didn’t answer. You know, it can be a bit of a rush—”

Spinning on my heel, I glared at him.

Flash—

Lights went off. He snapped another one as I folded my arms over my chest and leveled a glare on him.

He let out a low whistle. “Damn. You could burn someone with those nutmeg brown eyes, babe.” He straightened and gave me a once over. “I’ll pay you the three thousand if you show me what you’ve got.”

Three thousand…

For a second, all I could do was stare at him.

Then, as the shock faded and the urge to tell him to kiss my ass faded, reason kicked in. Three thousand. That would keep us level until Kendra started seeing payments from her modeling contract. It would tide us over between my meager checks.

I thought of the beautiful images I’d seen in the portfolio and swallowed. My face heated and my heart started to pound.

It wasn’t like he was asking me to sleep with him.

They are just pictures.

“Well?” His mouth curled up in a smile. Then he shrugged. “Didn’t think so.”

Jerk.

I curled my lip at him and leaned against the nearby table, steadying myself as I took off my boot. If he thought I was too shy and backward to do this, then I’d show him a thing or two.


Page 4

Once I had my boot in hand, I threw it at him.

He dodged the boot, flashed me a blue-eyed dare and took more pictures. I could tell by the look on his face that he was enjoying himself. I didn’t know if I wanted him to or not. I tossed the other boot over my shoulder, refusing to cringe as I heard it clatter across the table. I never claimed to have good aim.

He smirked from behind the lens. “That all you got, Tennessee?”

“Maybe that’s all you deserve,” I retorted. “Maybe I should have put one of those boots where the sun don’t shine.” I let my drawl come out on the last bit.

“What about all these buttons?” he asked. “Bet you could be cruel with those.”

I stilled as he came towards me, unsure of what to expect. My entire body tensed as he fingered each of the small pearl buttons on my blouse before pushing back my hair and then standing back to snap another picture. I felt my face burning and couldn’t deny that a not-so-small part of it was arousal.

He didn’t think I could pull it off. How many women could do a slow strip tease in broad daylight, much less a sunlight-filled studio? I was willing to bet his skinny models simpered and giggled, more worried about flirting with him than anything else. Hell with that.

I walked towards him, seeing the scene unfold as though I were writing it. As I moved, I undid two buttons at the bottom of my shirt. He crouched down, angling the lens up and I stopped, slowly and deliberately popping the button on my jeans, exposing the pale skin of my stomach.

“So good,” he muttered. “I love close-ups.”

He reached out and photographed his own hand sliding up my inner thigh. It suddenly became hard to breathe as his touch burned through my jeans. He set the camera aside and, without coming out of his crouch, gripped my waistband and gave it a bit of a tug.

“Any chance you’ll take these off?”

I realized the up-close of me trying to wriggle free of my skinny jeans wasn’t going to do anything for his pictures or my ego so I backed away and regrouped.

I wasn’t rail thin like a traditional model. I had curves, hips, boobs…I could play to my strengths, but those strengths didn’t involve wiggling and shimmying out of my jeans right in front of that camera.

I turned back and pulled open the top buttons of my shirt. With the middle two buttons still holding, I slipped one arm out of my shirt and then the other, clutching the remaining fabric to my almost fully exposed chest. The clutching only amplified my cleavage and I watched as his gaze zoomed in, right on target.

“Yes, great.” Flynn took a half dozen rapid-fire shots, then lowered the camera, silent for a moment as if he was trying to figure something out. “Lay down,” he finally said. When I didn’t immediately move, he added, “Trust me.”

My heart was racing, but I knew it would be foolish to stop at this point. After all, he was a professional photographer and I had seen his work. None of those women had looked coerced or bothered by what they were doing. And, if I was going to be completely honest with myself, I knew if I backed down now, he’d have won. I was competitive enough to hate that idea.

I lifted my chin and walked over to the pile of cushions and blankets he’d motioned to. They were the same ones that the other models had been on, but as I stretched out, I began to feel self-conscious.

That feeling only grew as he joined me and without a word, stood on the cushions, one foot on either side of my knees. Picture after picture, he changed the angle of the camera, bending down low, then straightening.

After a couple minutes, he put the camera down and dropped to his knees over me. His face was flushed. His eyes burned. He probably just got really into his work.

I tried to pretend it was because of me, though.

Why should I be the only one affected?

I caught my breath as he reached down and unzipped my jeans, then took hold of the waistband. His gaze lingered on my face a moment, giving me the chance to protest.

When I didn’t, he drew the jeans down, leaving me in a pair of simple lace panties.

Why hadn’t I put on something sexier?

I looked up to find his eyes lingering on the dip of my waist, the flare of my hip, roaming over me with a heat that left me feeling lightheaded. As he sat back on his heels, I levered myself up and let my shirt fall completely away.

Sitting there in a bra that matched my panties, I stared at him. My pulse raced so hard, it was a wonder he didn’t hear it.

He snapped a picture, then reached up and pushed my hair back over my shoulders, snapped several more, pausing here and there to adjust the angle of my chin or to mutter a command. “Look toward the wall…now at me. Smile…no, not like that. Think about the first time you were kissed…that bad, huh? Okay, think aboutmekissing you…perfect…”

He lowered the camera while I was still breathing heavy from the thought of kissing him and he came closer, reached up and hooked his finger under my bra strap. After a moment, he slowly pulled it down.

My nipples were already tight, but at the feel of his skin against mine, I gasped. With the strap of my bra hanging down my shoulder, he eased back and lifted the camera.

“Take the bra off now. Slowly…”

Goosebumps broke out across my skin as I did it.

I wasn’t even thinking now.

Thought had left the building so long ago, it was insane.

I slid the straps over my shoulders, keeping one arm over my breasts as I tossed the bra off to the side.

“Good…perfect…look down…now, up at me.”

I did.

He lifted his eyes from behind his camera and stared.

Waited.

Without him saying a word, I knew what he wanted. He began snapping pictures as I slowly lowered my arm, revealing myself to him and his camera. I thought I saw his fingers tighten on the camera, but he didn’t say anything. My nipples drew tighter still, throbbing and aching and I couldn’t understand it, but I was more turned on than I’d ever been in my life.

“Will you lay back?” he asked.

There wasn’t even a hint of professionalism in his tone now—his voice was ragged, rough and for some reason, that made it easier to lie back, bracing my weight on my elbows.

“Bring up your knee.”

I did and when he next had me roll onto my side, I did that as well, following him with my eyes as he came around to crouch next to the bed. “Pull your hair forward. Have it curling around your nipples. I want the contrast of auburn against your skin.”

My breath came out in a low, shaky sound as I did just that and I had to bite my inner cheek to keep from gasping as I smoothed my hair down.

“No. Here…”

He came closer.

I froze as he reached out.

His eyes held mine for the longest moment and then he started to stroke, smoothing my hair so my left nipple played peekaboo. He remained there a minute, adjusting the sheets, then me, his fingers lingering on my skin.

He snapped two or three shots and then lowered the camera. “Panties.”

Slowly, I rolled to my back and slid them off, trying not to think of the ways I was exposing myself. I tossed them aside and put my legs back down.

The camera stopped and lowered. He chewed the inside of his cheek for a moment, his eyes roving over my body. Heat burned there, the kind of heat that somehow managed to banish any insecurities I should have had.

A thrill began to surge inside me and I wanted to stretch out before him, exhilarate in the headiness this was giving me. He moved closer. Firm hands took mine, guiding me. I stayed calm, or at least appeared calm as he posed me, arranging me how he wanted.

I twisted this way and that at his command as the camera fired away. I lost all sense of time and any inhibitions I’d had melted away under his careful instruction.

The sunlight moved across the warm studio and I lost all track of time. He took a few last photographs and took a step back as he set down his camera.

His eyes were sparkling as he spoke, “Now how about some fun?”

 

Chapter 4

He left me standing in the middle of the studio naked.

Okay…that’s not exactly what I’d seen coming.

I’d assumedfunwould entail sex. After all, he was supposed to be this big time flirt. A lady killer, right?

I was so worked up, if he’d decided to seduce me, I wouldn’t have minded. Actually, I was on board with the idea. I was no virgin and I wasn’t afraid of my own sexuality. After all, I had taken his dare and had actually enjoyed it.

Should I feel embarrassed now? Exploited or something?

I’d just posed naked for money.

Abruptly, I realized Ididfeel a little embarrassed, and out of place. Grabbing one of the blankets on the bed, I wrapped it around myself and started to pace. Drifting up and down the studio, I let my eyes wander to the framed prints on the wall. They were advertisements, some of them for small local places, but others were for national brands that I’d heard of even back in Tennessee.

It made me feel better. Flynn wasn’t doing any of this to sell to some cheap skin magazine.

Bouvier was top-of-the-line fashion and the name itself was synonymous with elegance. If my naked body ended up in one of their advertisements, it would be tasteful.

Maybe I could get some shots worth putting into a portfolio.Kendra had been telling me I could be a catalog model. I’d always assumed that she was just being polite. Typically, women who looked like me ended up getting hired as plus-sized models. In this society, anything over a size eight was considered plus-sized, but that’s the fashion world for you. I refused to perpetuate that way of thinking.

I’d never thought much about it when she told me I should consider trying to find any agent, but maybe she was serious. I definitely wasn’t cut out forherworld, but there were other options.

Maybe modeling was a possibility. Apparently Flynn saw something in me.

As I was considering the drastic career change, Flynn returned with a crate and pulled out half a dozen small jars.

I gave him a curious look and he grinned.

“Body paint!”

The devilish look was back in his cadet blue eyes though now I could see he forced it. Something had happened during our intimate photo shoot and he wanted to put it out of his mind. He wanted to put me back in one of the regular places woman usually held in his life: easy fun or pure art.

I shook my head. “Nice try, sleazeball, but you’re not turning me into cheap performance art.”

He grinned. The blanket I’d wrapped around my torso and tucked in near my breasts chose that moment to loosen and gape, drooping down to my waist.

I caught it, but before I could cover back up, Flynn came over and tugged it away.

I wasn’t about to get into a wrestling match after all the work I’d done to convince him of my nonchalant attitude so I gave it up with a bored sigh. “I’m not letting you put a bunch of paint all over me,” I said again.

“Oh, come on, it won’t hurt a bit.” He lifted a brow as he added, “You want the three thousand, right?”

I swallowed down the urge to growl at him. “What exactly did you have in mind?”

He smiled.

A few moments later, I wish I had stuck by myno.

I held still as he lifted gloved hands, covered in brilliant red, toward my torso. “Don’t move,” he said. His eyes lingered on my face. “You don’t want it to run.”

I swallowed and held still.

He’d had me pull my hair up and now I stood in front of him, naked, without even the illusion of modesty my long hair could provide. When he cupped my breasts in his paint-slicked hands, I gasped.

“There’s one.”

I didn’t breathe as he backed away and changed the gloves, pressing them into a vivid purple this time.

He pressed one palm to my neck. The other to my abdomen. But instead of stripping off the gloves, he dipped them back into the small pool of paint he’d poured out and, a moment later, I had a purple palm print on my right ass cheek and another one on my left hip.

The pattern continued. A blue palm above my pubis, along my right thigh. Orange on my right hip and left knee.

It didn’t take that long, but I was practically panting for a release that wouldn’t come when he backed away and started to take pictures. He stopped after only a couple and came back, releasing my hair from the ponytail. He stood so close his chest touched my nipples.

A weak whimper left my lips.

His eyes came to mine.

My heart stopped for a moment and we were both still.

The hand that had been smoothing my hair down tightened in it. “Gabriella,” he muttered, just before he caught my mouth in a searing kiss. I couldn’t stop the moan as his tongue turned delicious circles around my own.

Without breaking the kiss, he pulled off his shirt and I wondered if he purposefully wore ones that buttoned so he could take off his clothes while still managing a knee-weakening kiss. Flinging his shirt aside, he raised his head. We were both breathing heavily and his eyes darkened as he glanced down at my breasts, marked by the mostly-dried red paint he’d placed on me.


Page 5

His mouth came back to mine, but he didn’t linger. Instead, he began to move in a line down my chin, my neck, along the midline of my chest.

When he went to his knees in front of me, I started to tremble. One hand gripped my left hip, almost exactly where he’d placed the palm print earlier. The other curved around my waist, again mirroring a painted palm print.

“I’ve been dying to touch you like this,” he said, his voice guttural. “I’ve wanted it from the first time I saw you.”

The fading light outside made our faint reflection appear in the nearby windows and I watched us, watched as his hands made my body burn. I knew I should put a stop to it. I was letting myself become a cliché, seduced by a known womanizer.

“They’re mirrored,” he said, misreading the expression on my face. “We can see out, but no one can see in.”

He stood back up, bringing my mouth to his with a forceful tug on my hair. As his tongue tangled around mine, my brain kept telling me to stop, to hold onto my self-respect.

His cock was hard, throbbing against me, but it didn’t matter if he wanted me and it didn’t matter how good it felt to have his hands stroking my back, my hips, my ass.

Stop,I told myself.You need to stop…

But even as I finally pulled up the strength to do it, he looked down at me, a puzzled look on his face. It was as though he didn’t know what was going on, as if he’d never touched a woman, kissed a woman. As if he didn’t know what to make of me.

And when he came back to kiss me again, I couldn’t bear to pull away.

When he lowered me onto the hardwood floor, I didn’t resist. I lay there, looking up at him as he finished what I’d attempted to start before. He stripped out of his pants with smooth expedience and in moments, he was coming down on top of me, naked and hard.

It was my turn to look, I thought as I greedily devoured the sight of him. Damn, he was beautiful. The v-grooves of his hips and the thin trail of dark curls that started at his bellybutton all pointed towards a thick, swollen shaft. It was perfectly shaped, curving up towards his belly. Long, but not too long. The right size to make me feel every inch, but not so big that he’d have to be careful. And thick...sinfully thick. The sight of him made me swallow and I squirmed a little, thinking of having him inside me.

He caught my knees and slowly pushed my thighs apart, his eyes on my face the entire time. My breath hitched as he cupped me, bold and blatant, using his middle finger to stroke the pulsing point of my clitoris.

I shivered. He smiled at my response. He came down over me and started to massage my clit even as he began to circle my entrance with another finger.

“You’re already wet,” he whispered. He watched me as he pushed inside and I sucked in a breath, pressing my palms flat to the floor.

He hissed in a breath as he began to stroke me with his finger, soft and shallow at first, then faster and deeper.

Arousal sparked sharply when he added a second finger and curled them, withdrawing completely so that I felt every single inch.

I started to rock up to meet his hand, panting, whimpering…and he stopped.

I heard the unmistakable sound of a condom wrapper ripping and opened my eyes, locking with his. Without looking away, he pushed his hands underneath my buttocks and opened me further. The tip of his erection teased me, slid back and forth along my clitoris and then, slowly, he pushed inside.

I stared into his eyes and tried not to beg. I needed more.

With one smooth stroke, he moved forward, filling me even as I cried out. He held himself still inside my body and I could feel him throbbing as he waited, either for his own control or my adjustment.

His mouth found mine again as he rocked slowly against me. I clutched his shoulders as I slid my tongue between his lips. He began to thrust, long, deep strokes that made me whimper and moan.

He took each sound into his mouth, swallowing them down.

His teeth caught my bottom lip, worrying at it until I dug my nails into his shoulders. He kissed his way down my throat and the air was filled with the sounds of pleasure I couldn’t control.

My climax came with a suddenness that took my breath away, my legs shaking, my entire body convulsing in one coil and release of ecstasy. It hit hard and fast, stealing my breath away and Flynn slowed, his movements easing for a moment.

I sucked in oxygen, my head spinning.

Once I was no longer seeing stars, he caught my thigh in his hand, lifting my leg as he started to surge against me, hard and fast. I cried up in surprise. He buried his face against my neck, his cock an iron brand throbbing inside me.

He muttered something that sounded like my name and then drove himself into me faster and harder than before. The wild rhythm brought me to another peak and we came together in a tight tangle of limbs and sweat and fire.

He slid down and dropped his head to rest between my breasts.

I tried to steady my breathing, dazed delight spinning through my head.

Whoa…

That was the only thought in my head.

Whoa…

I’d had sex before and I’d enjoyed it before. Or so I’d thought. But this…whoa…this had beenpure lust.

I didn’t dare to wonder how I stacked up against what must have been a considerable list of his previous partners, but I could say that the few other lovers in my past had been fumbling, awkward teenagers compared to him. I was about to say something when he pulled away and sat up, his face set in grim lines.

He flicked a glance at me and I caught sight of the anger there. My blood froze. I had the oddest feeling the anger was directed at himself, not me, but still, the sight of it made my belly churn.

He pushed himself to his feet, not looking at me. “I’ll call down to the front desk and they’ll have the cash for you.”

He turned his back on me as he walked to a stack of towels sitting on a nearby table and tossed one my way.

“Shower’s in there,” he said coolly, jerking his head over his shoulder. “Make it fast.”

“I…”

He lifted his head, staring at me with ice in his gaze.

I grabbed my clothes and ducked into the room I hadn’t noticed until now. Shaking, I pressed my back to the wall and looked around. The bathroom was elegant and upscale and the toiletries would have probably blown my mind if I had been capable of thought. Instead, though, I was in a state of numbness as I washed up, the paint washing off easily under the spray of water.

When I came out, Flynn had already dragged on a pair of jeans and was on the phone.

He caught sight of me and turned his back.

Fury lit inside me—finally.

Thatass.

As I continued to stand there, he looked back at me and I heard his sigh, listening to him say, “Hold on.”

“I told you, money’s down at the desk.”

“I ought to just tell you to shove that money up your ass,” I snapped. I had my pride.

Jerking up my chin, I strode past him. I should do it.

He was already talking to whoever when I slammed the door shut behind me.

The rent was due—soon.

I was flat broke. And Flynn probably wouldn’t notice anyway, which would make the whole statement a moot point.

I walked down the steps at war with myself.

I hesitated at the bottom of the steps and just as I started to head toward the door, a woman looked up, a smile on her face. “Ms. Baine?”

I froze.

She came out from behind the desk, an envelope in hand. “Your fee.”

Slowly, I took it.

Rent. Electricity. Groceries, I told myself. He’d offered me the money before we’d had sex. I was being paid for modeling. Not for what had happened after. They were two different things.

I pasted a fake smile on my face and left as quickly as I could. I didn’t plan onevergoing back there.

 

 

 

Chapter 5

My memory of the Flynn incident swung back and forth like a heavy pendulum of guilt and pride.

On one side, I was devastated that I had let myself be drawn in by such a cheap ploy. I thought I was smarterthan that.

But on the other I could still feel the aftershocks from my climax.

Was I reallyjust a naïve girl who let a manipulating bastard take advantage of her?

I was a free, adult woman who took her pleasure when the opportunity arose.

It was enough to give me a headache.

The one thing I couldn’t do was let myself think about the look I’d seen in Flynn’s eyes—that one brief flicker of something I’d thought was real. I didn’t know if there had been any real emotion there or not, but whatever it had been, he’d buried it deep and I wasn’t going to try to dig it out, no matter how good the sex had been.

The worst part was that I lied to Kendra that evening when I handed her the money.

“You sold a treatment for a new show? That is so great! I’m so proud of you.” She threw her arms around me.

“It’s not really a big deal. I managed to do my job,” I said, grateful she couldn’t see my face.

“It’s going to be a hit, I know it. What’s it about?” She released me, still beaming from ear to ear.

“A romantic comedy?” It came out like a question.

“You’re not sure?” Kendra asked, confused.

I sighed. “Because it’s not the truth. I lied.”

I collapsed against our kitchen counter. Kendra leaned against the opposite side and crossed her arms, the expression on her face saying she was waiting for an explanation.

I still couldn’t tell her the truth. “It was just the script for a commercial. Not even a good commercial. One of those awful acne cream ads where all the people talk about ugly ducklings and other fairytale bullshit.”

“Oh, who cares, Gabs.” She rolled her eyes. “You’re doing what you love and you’re making it work. We can pay rent!”

“And buy groceries,” I added.

More than the lie, I felt what Kendra said get under my skin.

She was proud of me for doing what I loved. Except I hadn’t done any of it.

“Yay to groceries,” I said, forcing myself to smile. “I’m going to splurge...I’m getting ice cream.”

***

I didn’t sleep worth crap. It wasn’t until the cool, quiet hours of early morning that I understood why I was so uneasy.

Kendra had been so excited for me because she thought I was making money doing something I loved.

Instead, I’d taken off my clothes, had some pictures taken, then had sex with a man who’d set my body on fire. That wasn’t what had me crashing though.

It was the look on his face after.

I should have stayed.

I should have pushed him, fought with him. Something.

Instead, I’d let the hurt inside me win.

I’d given up. Even though I felt something between us, I’d given up.

I thought about the look I’d seen in his eyes. The entire reason I’d let him pull me down to the floor when the voice of reason had told me to pull away. That intense, strange expression on his face as though he had no idea who I was or what he was doing there. It was as though he had been seeingmefor the first time.

But when he’d freaked out, what had I done?

“I ran,” I muttered.

Here I was, still stuck in my dead-end job, not doing much of anything that I’d dreamed about. Then I end up having the kind of sex girls only can dream of and when it went to shit, did I do anything to find out why? No.I fucking ran.

It was like I was just giving up on everything I’d always expected to find in my life.

I was wallowing on the couch when Kendra burst through the door with a bag of colorful ribbons and tissue paper. My eyebrows shot up. It was a rare day when she was up before me, and an even rarer one when her chestnut brown curls weren’t perfectly styled, but rather pulled back into a sloppy ponytail.

“My cousin’s son turns two next week. Look! I got him finger paint.”

I stared at the bright colors. The red, the blue, the orange…

“I lied!”

For a moment, Kendra just looked at me. Then she put the gift and trimmings down and went into the kitchen. I stayed where I was. After all, in the studio apartment we shared, the kitchen was just on the other side of the big, open room. Hugging my knees to my chest, I watched her.

Dramatic confessions were nothing new here.

We both had a penchant for drama. It was just my turn this time.

“So. Details,” she said calmly.

“I did the whole hand modeling gig. That much was real,” I said. “And I knew he probably flirted with everyone. It just felt good.”

“It’s okay to flirt and it’s even okay to have sex. You’re both consenting adults. Don’t be so hard on yourself, Gabriella.” Kendra smiled at me as she pulled two cups down out of the cabinet.


Page 6

“Yeah, but I let him pay me to take naked photographs!” My face flamed at the admission.

She didn’t even blink. “For Bouvier. If anything, you could make a career out of it. I told you, you’re beautiful. It’s possible you could hit it in modeling and if anybody can make it happen, it’s Flynn McCreary.”

“He didn’t believe I would do it,” I said sheepishly. “You know how I like a dare. And then he brought out body paint and, I don’t know, it just escalated from there.”

“And there’s nothing wrong with that,” Kendra said and then shook her head. “You’re not going to forgive yourself, are you?”

“For doing exactly what I judged other women for doing? Nope.”

“I’m so sorry, Gabs. I keep putting you in these awful situations,” Kendra said, pouring two cups of hot water and adding in tea bags.

I continued with my confession. “And then when I lied, you were so proud of me for my writing and I realized I was ignoring what I really want out of life. I mean…there’s the writing, which is going to shit. And there’s my love life…which doesn’t exist.”

Sighing, I braced my elbow on the back of the couch and stared outside. “I don’t want sexy little flings, no matter how blue the man’s eyes are. I want love, the whole romance and flowers and everything kind of love. Ugh. I’m so naïve!”

“It’s not naïve.” Kendra came down and sat beside me. Shoulder-bumping me, she said, “Love’s kind of the thing. We all want it. I’d even be willing to bet asshats like Flynn want love. They just don’t know how to get it. And that’s the difference. You do and you can.”

“Yeah?” I glowered into my tea cup. “Then where’s my Prince Charming?”

“Still waiting for you to find him, Cinderella.” She grinned at me. “Come on. You need to cheer up. There’s this party—”

I stopped her. “This sounds familiar. A lot like the last time where I came out with a hand modeling job at the studio of sin.”

“Yeah, it is an industry party.” She laughed. “They’re celebrating all the up-and-comers.”

“You mean you?” I asked.

“Well, yes.” She glowed. “Apparently, I’m finally an up-and-comer. Open bar, free food.”

“More like all I can eat because other models only peck at it.”

She grinned. “That’s my Gabs! Come on, it’ll be fun.”

My stomach twisted as something occurred to me. “What if he’s there?”

“No chance,” Kendra said. “Word has it he’s off to Europe. I heard the project director for the swimwear line complaining about how much he can get away with just because he’s Flynn McCreary.”

“Then count me in,” I said.

***

I was glad I’d agreed.

I’d never been to this sort of party before.

It was the kind people could see from miles away, thanks to laser light shows and the spotlights bursting from neighboring buildings.

Then there was a red carpet. An actual red carpet. Kendra’s agent had sent over a gigantic SUV with silver spinning rims and when it pulled up to the velvet ropes, Kendra grabbed my hand and pulled me out. I had no choice but to follow her down that red carpet, trying not to look too dazzled…and trying not to fall or stumble too much in the extra-high heels she’d loaned me.

Inside, still blinking from all the flashbulbs, I was left alone as Kendra was swept away by a flock of reed-thin models. I managed to snag a glass of champagne from a passing waiter and tell myself that I loved to play the part of the mysterious outsider. I was just working up a back-story for my fashion correspondent turned film producer when I was interrupted.

“I saw you on the red carpet with Kendra Facet, didn’t I?”

I started to turn with a snarky comment since I was sure I was about to be asked to be a go-between. Ice blue eyes looked down on me from a handsome, chiseled face and I swallowed the snark.

“Yes, she’s my roommate. She invited me. I’m not just making that up.” I had the feeling I was starting to babble.

He laughed, the sound warm and inviting. He was tall, easily six-three, six-four, and dressed in a conservative, yet expensive suit. As good-looking as he was, he didn’t look like a model or have the searching look of an agent finding an angle. That meant he was probably one of the countless executives that kept the fashion industry in the billions of dollars.

“My name’s Edward.” He held out his hand.

“Nice to meet you. I’m Gabriella.” I took it, smiling at the little tingle of warmth that went through me.

“Kendra’s roommate.”

“That’s me,” I said.

He smiled again and sipped his drink though I could see his eyes traveling down the outfit Kendra had carefully chosen. It was one of the few things of hers that could actually fit me, though I filled it out quite a bit more than she did.

I waited, assuming he was trying to find a way to bring up Kendra again. I would’ve done it myself just to get it over with, but here he was, speaking to me and I wasn’t certain I wanted to end that just yet—then I’d go back to playing the mysterious outsider.

“You come here often?” I asked.

He laughed, that deep sensual sound, and I felt it tangle in my stomach. Wow. That was some laugh.

“Yes, actually. It’s kind of a family obligation.” He looked down at me and I saw something in those blue eyes shift, as if making some sort of internal decision. “Would you like to dance, Gabriella?”

We passed our glasses off onto a passing server and moved onto the dance floor. Each step, each moment erased the Flynn incident a little more. Edward made comments about people I pointed out, never anything rude but always interesting. As people came up and tried to interrupt us, he introduced me and then waved them away, keeping his arms loosely around me the entire time.

He was something straight out of a fairytale. It was like I’d kissed the toad and here I was with Prince Charming. It was easier to believe in things like love…or at least romance again.

After a couple songs, he leaned over my hand and kissed the back of it. The feel of his lips on the back of my hand had warmth racing through me and I fought a dopey sigh.

“I apologize, Gabriella, but if I don’t mingle, people will start to talk.”

He winked at me and waited for me to let him go. I did so with a smile then watched as model after model deliberately threw herself in his path. When he walked up to Kendra, my smile faded and I told myself that was it. He had finally found the one he’d been looking for, and I’d be forgotten, just another dance. Then Kendra’s eyes caught mine and she smiled. They leaned towards each other and looked at me as they spoke. My stomach flipped. They were talking about me.

As the night waned on, I heard his name brought up over and over.

“He was just featured on the Forbes list again,” an agent said—I knew her vaguely. She’d tried to approach Kendra and when she saw me, she turned her back.

“Too bad he’s never listed as a most-eligible bachelor,” her friend added.

I covertly studied him and because I was doing so, it wasn’t hard to notice that I wasn’t the only one. A couple of Kendra’s friends, somebody I suspected was another agent, a few more models.

I tried not to listen to the idle gossip and add to it my own ideas. I heard nothingbutgossip and when I finally caught up with Kendra, she didn’t know who he was, either. Then again, she was drunk enough I was surprised she remembered who I was.

The one thing Ididknow was that everywhere I went, his eyes always seemed to find me. Once or twice we’d raised our glasses and smiled, but he kept his distance.

At the end of the night, or more accurately, early morning, I was following Kendra into the town car when she mentioned him.

“He likes you.”

“What?” I half fell attempting to get her into the car without falling. Once she collapsed inside, I paused outside the door to take off my—her—shoes.

“The gorgeous tall guy. The one you danced with. He couldn’t take his eyes off you.”

“Did too many glasses of wine turn you into a ten year old? Is this elementary school?” I asked, rolling my eyes. Kendra was always silly when she got drunk.

“No, I’m serious. He came right up and knew we were roommates and he wanted to know if you were single.”

“Did you tell him I’m out with a new man every night?” I kept up the false humor. I didn’t know how much of what she was saying was true or how much she’d remember. “I have a very busy, very elite and exclusive waiting list, you know. Maybe I can fit him into my calendar in a decade or so from now. I’ll have my people call his people.”

She laugh-giggle-snorted and spoke with the cheer of the very drunk. “Told him you were single, but picky. Lived like a nun… mostly.” She snickered. “You weren’t a nun last week.”

Her head fell back, eyes drooping. For a second, I thought she’d fallen asleep, but then she cracked one eye open. “Oh. He’s…I remember now. I’ve seen him before. He’s…”

I caught movement out of the corner of my eye and my heart gave a funny little skip. “…Right behind me.”

Edward grinned apologetically. “I didn’t mean to sneak up on you like that, I just wanted to make sure I caught you before you left.”

“Um, thanks. Have a good night.” I realized I sounded rude, but I had no idea what to say. It was his fault for catching me off guard. I was a writer, not into improv. I needed time to edit or I said stupid shit. Case in point.

“See, I told you!” Kendra called from the interior of the SUV. “She’s picky!”

I shot her a glare even though she couldn’t see me. “Ignore her, please.”

He held out his hand. A small crowd of party guests went by and called out goodbyes to him, but he just waved without taking his eyes off me. Nervously, feeling silly as I stood there holding my borrowed shoes, I went to step off the curb and then stopped, stepping back into them. I wobbled a bit and he was there to steady me.

“It always amazes me how women can make it look so easy to walk in those things.”

I shot him a look. “You clearly haven’t seen me walking then.”

“Oh, I have.” He smiled slowly. “I’m still amazed.”

Still holding onto my hand, he led me to the other side of the car and opened the door, helping me inside. He didn’t let go. Kendra’s eyes drifted closed and I sat there, not knowing what to do, sure I would screw everything up at any moment.

“I can’t let you leave without you giving me your number.” He finally released my hand, but he didn’t close the door.

“Really?” I asked.

“Please.” He gave me another charming smile. “I’ll call tomorrow.”

 

 

 

Chapter 6

In the blinding morning light, I realized the end of the night was probably a champagne-fueled dream. It was entirely possible that my over-active imagination made up the pleasant story in place of reality. In real life, Kendra had gotten sick halfway home and there had been nothing of the entire ride that had smacked of a fairytale. She was going to be pissed when she got the bill from the car company. And when she saw her purse.

The driver had helped me get Kendra upstairs and dump her on the couch. I’d made sure she was on her side, put a wastebasket next to the couch, and draped a blanket over her. All I remembered after that was turning the volume all the way up on my phone and falling asleep with my make-up still on. I was pretty sure I’d managed to get my dress off.

Now, as I pried my sticky eyes open, squinting against the bright sunlight streaming in through the window, I was certain I had imagined Edward. There was a good possibility that, when she regained consciousness, Kendra would tell me I’d spent the night talking to a palm tree or other inanimate object. I hadn’t thought I’d been that drunk, but I must have been. How else could I make up something like the scenario that was running through my head?

Why would Prince Charming want my number?

I made it up. Okay. I know that so I can cut the disappointment short here and now.

Since I’d made it up, it wasn’t like I was really expecting him to call, right? Of course, even if hewasreal, guys never really followed through on that kind of thing.

“No wonder I’m losing faith in love.”

Of course, speaking out loud made me lose faith in life—it just about made my head fall off.

Oh, yeah. I’d had too much to drink last night.

Then my phone rang, proving that point yet again as the sound cut through my head like an icepick, an icepick driven through by a sledgehammer.

“Make it stop!” Kendra cried from the couch.

I rolled out of bed, ignored my churning stomach, and crawled across the floor, digging under the rejected outfits from last’s night party preparations. Push-up bras, sequin dresses, costume jewelry, and a feather boa, but no phone.

“Make it stop!”

“I can’t find it. It’s like a drag show dressing room in here.” I winced as the phone rang again. Why had I turned up the ringer volume?

Kendra knocked over a stack of bangle bracelets and grabbed my phone off the coffee table. She flung it towards my door and rolled over, groaning as she did so.


Page 7

“Hello?” I said breathlessly, not bothering to look at the caller ID before answering.

“Good morning, Gabriella, this is Edward.”

“You’re kidding.” I closed my eyes. I was such an idiot.

“Kind of an odd joke, don’t you think?” He sounded amused.

“I thought I dreamt you. Not all of you, just the last part when you asked for my number.”Oh, man…Gabs, just shut up!I shot Kendra a look. Was she awake? Coherent? She needed to be so she could stop me from saying stupid things.

“It was pretty late.”

“Or early, depending on how you look at it,” I said. “It’s still early.”

“Depending on how you look at it, I suppose.”

Now I was sure he was trying not to laugh at me.

“It’s one in the afternoon.”

He let me take that in for a few seconds. I squinted at the clock, unable to read the time.Oh, hell…I’m going blind!I swatted a hand at the face of it and then fought a hysterical giggle when I realized there was a silk stocking covering it.

“One o’clock,” I mumbled.

“One o’clock.”

Head pounding, I crawled back to my bed and leaned against it.

“How about dinner tonight? Nothing fancy, just a local place I love. I’d like to spend more time with you.”

I thought about the hours of recovery time dinner afforded me, plus the time I would need to shower and pull myself back together. I didn’t let myself think about anything else. If I tried to figure out why he’d asked me out or what tonight meant, my head was going to explode. It felt like it might do that anyway.

“Dinner sounds great. Can we say eight o’clock?”

“Perfect,” he said cheerfully. “I’ll pick you up at eight.”

Carefully, I lowered the phone back down and then my head. I needed a few more minutes. Just a few.

I ended up taking thirty and then had to all but crawl into the bathroom in a desperate search for something to help the headache. That done, I started chugging water and braced myself.

Next, I had to get Kendra up, because if I was going to be presentable by eight, I needed her help.

***

According to Kendra, a ‘nothing fancy’ date was actually harder than finding something to wear to a clearly defined event. Kendra and I faced my closet for a good five minutes before either of us spoke.

“How many sport coats do you own?” she asked, a pained expression on her face.

“That was my Tina Fey phase.” I sighed. “It’s a good look though. Maybe I should go with that tonight?”

“Gabriella, it’s a date, not a business lunch. You have to show a little leg.”

I sat down on the edge of my bed as Kendra started searching through the closet. I knew better than to get in her way when she was like this. Her expression was a varying range of disgust as she examined and tossed things aside. Some of the colors made her wince, a few textures made her shake her hand as if a snake had bitten her, and one blouse had her snickering for a good minute before she tossed it down and went back to mocking my wardrobe.

Scowling, I asked, “Are my clothes really that funny?”

“Yes.” She smiled at me cheerfully as she pulled something out and studied it.

“That’s it.” I reached behind me and grabbed my phone. “I’m calling the date off.”

“No!” She came striding to me, all leg and smiles and dumped an armful of possibilities on my bed. “You’re going on your date and you’re going to look beautiful.”

“A date.” I sighed, still clutching my phone. “I’m still kind of trying to wrap my head around that this is a date. Doesn’t seem believable.”

“What I can’t believe is that I didn’t get to meet this guy. He sounds delicious. Are you sure he works in the industry?”

“You met him twice, party girl,” I said with a grin. “Man, were you really that drunk?”

She grimaced. “I didn’t eat much yesterday. Nervous, excited. That and the champagne…”

“Well, he seemed pretty popular at the party. A lot of people seemed to know who he was, but I’m not sure what he does.”

“Well,” said Kendra, “that’s the perfect topic for a first date.”

“You know I have been on dates before, right?”

She laughed and pulled me up to see the selection she’d laid out next to me on the bed. Somehow she’d found a black pencil skirt I’d forgotten I owned and she’d paired it with a bright green silk blouse and black sequined cardigan. My other choices included a blue sheath dress that made me look like someone’s secretary or a cream-colored strapless dress with a lace overlay that she’d layered with a cropped denim jacket.

“Oooh, wait!” She practically squealed. “I have the perfect boots!”

I was already in the cream-colored dress when she brought in a pair of calf-high leather boots. The satin and lace of the dress dressed up the denim coat and the snug boots gave me just the right amount of country style to feel exactly like myself.

“Oh, Gabs, you look fantastic.” She smiled at me in delight. Then she pointed a finger toward the bathroom. “Okay. Into the bathroom. Shower, hair, shave. You know the drill.”

I rolled my eyes even as I eyed the clock. It was almost four. Picking out an outfit had taken nearly an hour. “Again…I’vebeenon dates before.”

But I followed the drill sergeant’s orders and marched on.

***

Three hours later, I was giving myself a manicure. My toes were done. I’d even taken a forty minute nap on Kendra’s advice.You need more water, some juice and get some more ibuprofen in your system—it will help with the hangover.

She’d done the same and it seemed to have helped both of us.

She was painting her toenails lime green.

Mine were a more sedate shade of coral, the same color as the glossy sheen I was applying to my nails.

“So how did you run into this guy?” she asked.

“He found me.” I grinned up at her as I went to get more polish. “I thought he was looking to get the goods on you, but he asked me to dance and when he was done, he went over and talked to you. Apparently, he was pumpingyoufor information about me instead of the other way around.”

Kendra frowned. “You act like you never have guys showing interest, Gabs. I’ve had plenty of guys approach me about you before, and you know it. You’re just…picky?”

Remembering Flynn, I decided I really needed to focus on my nails. “Not picky enough,” I muttered.

“Hey.”

I just shook my head.

She came over to me and sat down, absently fanning a hand back and forth. Sighing, I looked up at her. “Everybody runs into a bastard now and then,” she said quietly.

“I know.” I forced a smile. “I’m done thinking about him. Not like I’m going to see him anymore, right?”

I was going to focus on Edward now.

***

It was seven-fifty and I was in the bathroom, looping a couple strands of freshwater pearls around my neck. They’d been Kendra’s grandmother’s. A critical study in the mirror didn’t set my nerves at ease any.

“You ready?”

“I’mdressed,” I told Kendra. “Am I ready? Not sure.”

The buzzer sounded and I jumped.

“Too bad.” She grinned at me and went off to hit the intercom. “She’ll be right down.”

Then she grinned at me. “Go get ‘em, girl. If he’s hot and you plan on spending the night, just call me.”

“No.” I shook my head. “I did the whole get laid without strings thing, and I didn’t like it.” I didn’t add that it was just the afterwards part I didn’t like. The sex itself had been amazing. “From here on out, it’s about the romance.”

She rolled her eyes, but didn’t say anything as I left the apartment.

I’d already decided if Edward wasn’t up to the task of wooing me, then I would be home and in bed with a steamy romance novel by ten o’clock.

Better a fictional man I could count on than a real one I couldn’t. I wasn’t in the mood to play around.

A grin spread across my face when I found him waiting at the door, holding it open for me.

“Thank you,” I said.

Outside, his driver opened the town car door for us and I couldn’t resist the impulse to ask, “So your last name is Charming, right? Like the prince?”

“Exactly.” He said, grinning. “If my Cinderella likes Indian food. If not, then you’re in the wrong carriage.”

I smiled. “I love it.” A weird sense of giddiness welled up inside me and I had to fight not to let any of it show on my face. I made do with a smile that hopefully didn’t look too insanely happy.

The Lotus Chaat House was a narrow slot of a restaurant jammed in between an all-night bakery and a bodega that advertised the best churros in New York City. The town car slid up to the curve right in front of the jutting awning and the driver hopped out to open the door. I stepped out and looked up at the paint-peeling Taj Mahal sign with some trepidation. Not exactly what I’d expected, though it certainly wasn’t fancy.

“Don’t worry, just wait until you see inside,” he promised.

The windows were steamed up, so I had to take Edward at his word and let him escort me inside. As soon as I stepped through the door, I knew he was right. The restaurant was magic. Beyond the heavenly scent of warm naan, the small alley-like restaurant was criss-crossed with so many strings of twinkle lights it glowed. The tiny starry bulbs were so thick across the ceiling that no other lights were used except small red glass jars with flickering candles on each of the tables. The golden-yellow walls were covered in shelves chock full of shining statuettes and lotus flowers.

“And the food’s good too,” Edward said, leaning close so he could speak in a low voice.

A smiling woman in a pink sari greeted Edward like an old friend before shooing us over to a table and clapping her hands at two waiters. If she hadn’t been old enough to be his mother, I might’ve been jealous.

“It is so nice to see you, Mr. Edward, and you brought someone!” She beamed at me. “He used to eat alone. I told him I have three nieces that would be happy to join him, but he always declined. Now I know why—you are so beautiful!”

I was pleased to see Edward blush slightly at the sweet teasing. It made me feel better about my own red cheeks. Even though the space between the tables was minuscule, he still managed to pull my chair out for me. I sat down and wondered how exactly he had made a perfect cozy and romantic restaurant appear out of thin air. I could practically hear the romantic comedy love theme starting to play in the background.

A plate of naan and three small dishes of different chutneys were on the table when I managed to break out of my inner movie. Another smiling waiter uncorked a bottle of chardonnay and poured us each a glass.

“I took the liberty of pre-ordering some of my favorites,” Edward said. He didn’t seem to have noticed my little space-out. “But please pick anything off the menu you want.”

I smiled. “Did you happen to order coconut curry? Maybe some lamb vindaloo?”

“I did.”

“Then I’m a happy girl.”

We clinked our wine glasses together and each took a drink. The alcohol warmed me, helping me to relax.

“Try the mango chutney,” he said. “It’s the perfect mix of sweet and spice.”

He tore off a piece of the still warm bread and dipped it in the first small dish before leaning over and holding it out to me. I savored the sting of spices mellowed by the bright sugary taste of mango, the flavors bursting across my taste buds as I took a bite of the bread he’d offered.

His eyes warmed as I licked the crumbs from my lips and my heart kicked up.

“Tell me what you do during the day, Prince Charming,” I asked.

“I wear a suit and a tie and stand in an office wishing I was here with you.”

I felt my cheeks turn pink and made a mental note to write that line down when I got home. It should’ve made me roll my eyes, but there was no doubting his sincerity.

“So, do you love your work?” As much as I liked what he’d said, I wanted to know more about him.

“I do,” he admitted. “It’s the family business so it sort of runs itself. I’m actually more of a referee between the shareholders, but I’m happy. How about you?”

“Well, I’m leagues away from anything to do with shareholders,” I said. “I’m an assistant to a screenwriter. Or, as I like to call it, a personal slave to a psycho.” I laughed, but I was only half-joking. My boss was a nightmare.

“Exciting then?”

“Oh, yes,” I agreed. “I never know if it’s going to be a quiet day fetching coffee or I’ll be spending an hour on the phone searching for double-chocolate strawberry expresso beans.”

He laughed. “That does sound exciting. Are those even a real thing?”

I shrugged and took a drink. “I don’t know. I’m still searching for them.”

We both laughed and I realized I was seriously considering transitioning into a heavily censored version of my foray into hand modeling when a plate of samosas arrived and we both eyed them hungrily. I watched him crunch into the flaky crust and close his eyes as he chewed the mouth-watering mix of spiced ground beef and peas. With his eyes closed, I was able to get a good look at him without him knowing.


Page 8

He was wearing a navy blue suit, but this time without a tie and, in the twinkling glow of the restaurant, he looked relaxed and happy. I noticed his light brown hair was sun-streaked and the open collar of his shirt showed a muscular and tan chest. His eyes opened and I turned my attention to my own plate.

“You seem like the sporty type. What do you do for fun?” I asked, trying to get my mind off of those broad shoulders.

“Promise not to judge?”

I grinned. “Only if you give me the last samosa.”

“Deal.” He pushed the small plate across the table. “Polo.”

“You mean with the game thingy with the horses?”

“That’s the one.”

He sipped his wine and watched me, as if my reaction to his revelation was important. I liked that he cared what I thought, although I wasn’t sure why he was concerned about what I’d think of a game.

“Sounds like fun,” I said and he relaxed.

The main dishes arrived, steaming up the small window above our table, and Edward ordered another bottle of wine. We skipped separate plates and shared bites from each savory dish, rolling our eyes and moaning at each tantalizing taste. Our conversation veered off into favorite books we read in childhood and we laughed over our shared secret love of science fiction.

“I thought I was the only one that carried a towel around my backyard and waited to hitchhike on passing spaceships,” I said.

“Are you kidding? I got a telescope just to look for rides out into the galaxy.”

When we finished, we both tipped back in our chairs. I looked down at the table, startled by the sheer volume of food we’d consumed. It was probably a good thing I’d skipped the narrow pencil skirt.

“Do you want to take a walk?” Edward asked.

“I’d better or you’ll have to roll me home.” I smiled.

He paid the bill without letting me argue about splitting it and we strolled down the block where he signaled to his driver to move on. The car slowly drifted away and we turned the corner. I saw Washington Square a few blocks away and Edward slipped an arm around my waist as we walked towards it. His hand rested on my hip, a warm brand.We’re together,that touch said. I liked it.

We passed several wide gallery windows where New York’s socialites were fawning over new artists. I stopped in front of one white-walled gallery displaying black and white photographs. They reminded me of Flynn. I tried to swallow the ache that rose in my chest as I remembered the look in his eyes as he’d aimed the camera held such passion, so focused, so intent.

Stop it.

I wanted to be there, leaning against Edward with his arm around my waist, but my mind suddenly fixed on Flynn, wondering where in the world he was at that moment.

Probably French-kissing some silly waitress in Paris or seducing a young senorita in Spain, I thought and tried to shake him from my head.

“Everything alright?” Edward asked, his tone concerned.

“I’m fine,” I said, dragging my thoughts away from the images. I put my head on his shoulder.

The farther we got from the gallery, the easier it was to put Flynn out of my head, the easier it was to focus on the man next to me. It was so easy being with him. Just walking in the warmth of the night—everything felt easy. “Maybe you should pinch me. Is it just me or is this date going really well?”

Edward stopped me at the edge of the park and turned me so we were facing each other. When I didn’t look up, too focused on trying to remember how to breathe, he reached out and tipped my chin up. His pale eyes studied me for a moment before he leaned close and softly grazed his lips across mine. The caress left me sighing and I raised myself up on tiptoe to return the light kiss. He slid his hands down to the small of my back and pulled me close. This time, when his mouth came down on mine, the pressure made my lips part so he could deepen the kiss. He cradled my head with one hand and used the other to arch my back, lifting me up deeper into the kiss.

It was intense, sweet and poignantly romantic. My heart began to race as his mouth took mine. I felt like someone from a movie and a shiver of pleasure ran down my spine.

When he slowly broke away, my head was spinning and his hands gripped my waist almost convulsively, as if he was fighting the urge to kiss me—and more.

His eyes locked on mine, brighter blue from the heat of the moment. Still holding me around the waist, he signaled for the nearby town car with one hand. I held my breath, not sure how to respond to the invitation I assumed was coming next. I’d wanted romance and not just sex, but I couldn’t deny how much I wanted him right now.

“I’d say it went very well, Gabriella.” He lifted a hand and caressed my cheek. “Paul will take you home. I’m a little warm so I think I’ll walk.”

“Goodnight?” I whispered and stared at him. Was he serious?

He pulled me tightly to him again and we both melted into another kiss. Then I felt his arms tense and press me back, as if he didn’t trust himself to kiss me any longer.

“Can I see you tomorrow night?” he asked, his voice a bit breathless. “I have tickets to the theater. Please?”

“Sure thing, Mr. Charming,” I said as I climbed into the car. This date was going to keep me for a while.

***

When Kendra came home late Sunday morning, she stumbled over a wide box in our narrow hallway. “Oh, hey now…justwhatdo we have here, Gabs? You picked up a secret admirer or what?”

“You’re one to talk.” I scowled at her. “Where have you been, Ms. Thing?”

“Obviously out with a lower class of guy. Where’smygiant post first date present?” she asked with a grin.

Before I could reach for it, she tore open the card and read it out loud.

“Darling Gabriella. Last night was a dream. My fairy godmother saw this and thought of you. I can’t wait to see you in it tonight. In anticipation, Prince Charming.”

She handed over the card as she gushed, “Damn, Gabs, seems you’ve cast a spell with all your talk of love and romance.”

I pushed Kendra out of the way and shimmied open the box lid. Inside was a long dress in the deepest lapis lazuli blue. The plunging neckline touched a satin empire waist before the dress undulated in soft waves to the floor.

“Wow,” Kendra breathed. “Wait! I have the perfect shoes to match!”

***

With my own fairy godmother providing me with pale gold, sparkling shoes, I felt like Cinderella that night as I carefully swept down our front steps in my elegant gown. Edward was waiting, a broad smile stretching across his face as he escorted me to the town car where Paul was waiting with the door open. I smiled at the driver and he tipped his hat in return.

“So where are we off to?” I asked as we settled into the back seat.

“I have two tickets to see the most popular show on Broadway,” he said.

I studied him for a moment. “You have no idea what the show is called, do you?”

“No.” He laughed. “Do you know what show everyone’s been talking about?”

“Sorry. Unless it’s reality TV, my friends have nothing to say, and I tend to stick with what’s on the small screen for work.”

“Well, luckily the marquee should be big enough for us to figure it out before we walk in,” he said. “And if we don’t, it’ll be a pleasant surprise.”

When Paul, our driver, pulled up in front of the theater, I looked up at the marquee and couldn’t help myself. “Oooh, I always wanted to see that!”

His gaze followed mine and he smiled. We were in for a spectacular rendition of Cleopatra’s love story.

It was everything I could’ve dreamed it would be. Completely enchanted by the spellbinding production, we held hands through the entire show. Despite the electricity flowing between us, neither of us looked away from the stage.

During intermission, Edward kept seeing people he knew. I half expected him to deposit me in the corner with a drink while he greeted his friends. After all, I wasn’t one of them.

Instead, he kept my arm tucked in the crook of his elbow and introduced me to everyone we saw. I felt like I was walking in a dream.

“Edward, I didn’t know you were seeing anyone.” A white-haired woman in an oversized ruby necklace looked down her nose at me. “I thought perhaps you were seeing Talia’s daughter.”

“Allison, this is Gabriella.”

Kendra often added phrases like “she’s a really talented writer” in a way that made me feel uncomfortable. She’d never really read anything I’d written so the white lie made me feel like I was not enough on my own.

Edward, on the other hand, simply introduced me as me and left it at that, like I was enough to be a singular name. He then steered me away with a confidence that said any other information was none of the obvious gossip’s business.

“People seem very interested in your dating life,” I said once we were out of earshot of his admirers.

“My mother is a patron here. These are actually tickets she gave me.”

I considered the question. “And were you supposed to bring Talia’s daughter?”

“Perhaps,” he said with a smile. “But then again I got lucky and you said yes.”

The house lights blinked and we returned to our seat. The rest of the show was romantic and tragic, just as I’d known it would be. We held hands again despite the obvious disapproval of Mrs. Allison Whitehair who was watching from her private box.

“Do you think she’s going to tattle on you?” I whispered, barely suppressing a laugh.

“Probably.” His breath tickled my ear.

“Will your mother be angry?” I asked, honestly curious.

“She could be.”

He turned to me with a mischievous smile. “If that’s the case, I should give her a reason to really be upset.” Then, without waiting another moment, he pulled me into a dramatic kiss. It started off theatrically and ended with a surprising amount of heat. When he set me back in my seat, an entire song had gone by and my heart felt like it was going to burst from my chest. I was breathless, my heart was racing and I had to consciously uncurl my hands from his arms.

The white-haired gossip might not have enjoyed the extra performance, but I didn’t care. The moment his lips had parted mine, I hadn’t been aware of anything but him. Not the people, the play, the music. Only the feel of his mouth moving against mine, the heat of his hands...

When the show was over, Paul was waiting outside with the door already open, as if he’d known we’d want to leave quickly. Once inside the car, Edward gathered me in close and three blocks went by before we surfaced from an even more thorough and intense kiss. My entire body was throbbing, my nipples hard and tight, aching against the strapless bra.

The pulsing between my legs was profound and it took all of my self-control to keep from grinding against him.

“We have reservations,” he said.

“Delicious.” I ran my fingers through his hair, wanting to see what it looked like mussed rather than professionally styled.

“Or we could send Paul for take-out.”

Hell, yes. I nodded and with a quick rap on the partition, Edward took us away from the glitz and glamour of downtown. When I looked out the window a few minutes later, my jaw dropped.

Living in New York City, it was easy to forget that some neighborhoods had trees. Not just the skinny little trees that sat in open circles in the concrete, but big trees with wide spreading branches. Trees that arched up and over the street. Streets that were lined with private homes bigger than my entire apartment building.

When we drove through tall wrought-iron gates to a palatial limestone mansion, I started to feel like a fairytale character again. I actually lost a golden heel on his expansive front steps. Running back to grab it, I realized I had not hallucinated. His house had not one but two turrets. I felt myself quickly going from feeling like I was in a fairytale to feeling completely out of place.

“You live in a castle?” I asked as he came back down to my side.

“It’s only temporary,” he said, his tone almost dismissive. “It’s a family home. I stay here while my own place is being remodeled.”

Edward must have sensed my sudden hesitation as he gave my hand a slight squeeze. “Don’t worry. We are all alone. My family only uses this place as a vacation home in the summer.”

With that said, Edward pulled me through the echoing foyer and into the snug warmth of a side room. I didn’t see much of the house as we went, too caught up in the feel of his hands on me, but I didn’t care. If it was between the house and the man, I knew which one I was choosing.

“This is my favorite room in the house.” He wrapped his arms around me from behind and nuzzled the spot under my ear. “We can relax here unless you want a tour?”

I shook my head, reluctantly stepping away from him. I needed a brief moment to gather myself and I took it by settling down on the buttery tan leather couch. A small fire flickered on the stone hearth and I wondered if he’d had someone start it for him. While I was wondering, Edward poured two crystal cut glasses of whiskey and handed me one before stretching out on the Persian rug in front of me. I tousled his light brown hair and we watched the fire as we sipped.


Page 9

Somewhere in the cavernous foyer, a grandfather clock chimed and I wondered when I was going to turn into a pumpkin. Surely this was too much of a dream to last long. But even as minutes ticked by, Edward was still the same easy conversationalist with a sweet smile and a bright sense of humor. The whiskey and fire started to warm me inside and out and I relaxed.

As we talked aboutCleopatraand laughed about our kiss in the theater, the heat between us began to build again. With his eyes on my face, he wrapped his fingers around my ankle. I stretched out my leg and waited to see what he was going to do. My breathing quickened as he slid his hand up my calf. He sat up, shifting his weight so that he could move his hand under my skirt, leaving fire burning across my knee and thigh. The hem dragged up along with his exploring hand, and he leaned down, kissing the skin he exposed. His eyes met mine as he paused above my knee, wordlessly asking for permission. I answered by lying back on the couch.

He trailed his mouth up my inner thigh and grazed the heat between my legs. I moaned as I ran both my hands through his hair. My back arched when he wet the thin fabric of my lace underwear with a long heavy lick of his tongue and he chuckled, a deep, manly sound that made my insides twist. He leaned back, one long finger pulling aside the crotch of my panties to gain better access.

“Ah!” I cried out as his tongue delved between my folds.

He worked over my clit before dancing down to my entrance, each pass making my legs tremble. When he took my clit between his teeth and lightly tugged, I keened, the sound coming from a place deep inside me. He slowly pushed one finger inside me, twisting his wrist as he did so and I tensed, feeling an orgasm building inside me.

He didn’t push me immediately over, instead taking his time to bring up slowly and when I came, it was with a harsh, desperate cry. My fingers tightened in his hair and I gasped out his name as he gave my clit another gentle tug with his teeth.

I came down slowly, my body shuddering as he continued to tease me. Unable to take it, I pulled on his head, drawing him up onto the couch to kiss me. The deep, exploring thrusts of his tongue were mirrored by the rubbing press of his growing hardness, and I could taste myself on his lips and tongue.

“I need you,” he said roughly. “Can I…?”

“Do you even have to ask?” I arched myself closer, so desperate now that I might have cried if he’d tried to pull away.

Edward broke away and got to his feet. He made short work of his shirt and then held out his hand.

I took it and let him help me to my feet. His hands slid over my shoulders, taking the straps of my dress with them.

“You know,” he said quietly. “The first time I saw this dress, I knew I wanted to see you in it.” He reached around and slowly pulled down the zipper. “And then I wanted to take you out of it.”

The words left me trembling even more and I stared at him, blushing even as I smiled while the dress dropped to the floor. It pooled around my bare feet and for a moment, Edward just stared at me. I went to take my bra off, but he caught my hands, guiding them to my sides and then he took over the task, opening the front catch.

I moaned when he cupped my breasts in his hands, his thumbs circling around my nipples. They were aching and tight and each touch felt so good. Arching into his touch, I reached out and gripped his shoulders.

Skilled hands slid down my ribcage to my hips and he hooked his fingers in the waistband of my panties. With his eyes blazing, he went to his knees and took my panties with him. I stepped out of them, balancing myself with my hands on his shoulders. He looked up at me and kissed the inside of my thigh before standing.

“My turn.” He took off his pants, the movements quick, but not rushed. I had a moment to admire the way his black boxer briefs hugged his body and then they were joining the pants.

His cock was rigid and my pussy throbbed, a clenching need settling deep inside at the sight of him. He drew me to him with both hands, running them down my bare back as we kissed and let our naked bodies touch. The slow tickling circles he traced on my ass made me moan. He answered with a deep guttural sigh before lowering me to the rug.

He took a brief moment to roll on a condom and then our bodies joined in one silky push and I curled my knees up on either side of his hips in pure pleasure. He moved slowly, circling before drawing out and then pressing back deep into the center of me. His lips and tongue made trails across my collarbone and breasts, little licks of fire before he fastened his mouth around my nipple. He sucked on it hard, sending an almost painful jolt straight through to my core. He waited as my climax came closer, my hands opening and closing on his back, urging him forward. I was right at the edge and I felt his body tighten.

“Are you ready?” he asked through gritted teeth. I could see the strain on his face.

I nodded. “Please.”

He shifted his hips as he thrust into me, hitting that spot inside me even as the base of his cock pressed against my clit. I called out his name, wrapping my legs around him to hold him as close as possible as his orgasm joined mine. Our bodies rocked together, drawing out every possible moment of exquisite pleasure.

Even after we came apart, we lay there in front of the fire until it was nothing but winking embers. I was curled up against him, both of us partially covered by a blanket he’d pulled from the couch.

The heat left me drowsy and languid, but I wouldn’t let myself sleep. I didn’t want to miss a moment of this. Every so often, he tipped the whiskey glass to my lips and we drank together in long, lingering kisses.

When the ivory-plated clock chimed two, I finally stood up. I needed to leave or I wouldn’t make myself leave at all.

He sent a quick message with his phone before pulling on his pants.

“You could stay if you wanted to,” he told me as I dressed.

I just shook my head as I picked up my shoes. We paused at the door and he kissed me again.

“Stay,” he murmured.

“Never before the third date.” I had to harden my reserve though.

He groaned, although it was a playful sound. He opened the door and escorted me down the steps. The town car was waiting with the door open. He must have sent Paul a message.

He caught my hand before I got into the car. “What are you doing Tuesday?”

 

 

Chapter 7

“You’re going out with him again?”

I rolled my eyes at the disapproval in her voice. “I know it seems a little crazy, Kendra, but he’s wonderful. You’d like him.”

She slapped butter on the toast and left it on the counter untouched. Her light green eyes were flashing. “You don’t even know his last name and you’re seeing an awful lot of him.”

“You know,” I said mildly. “For someone who came home at three in the morning on a Monday night, wait, Tuesday morning, you sound awfully judgmental.”

Kendra gnashed into her slice of toast and tossed the other one down the counter at me. We ate in silence as the coffee finished brewing. I poured her a cup and turned to get the milk. I didn’t like arguing with her, but I was a little tired of her double standards. I’d never said anything about her dating habits.

“He’s totally distracted you from getting a job,” she said.

“That’s not true. He’s distracting me from the hell that is my job. I’m happy, K. Can I just be happy for a week?”

She took the coffee and kissed my cheek. “Fine. You can be happy until rent is due again.”

I was still a little annoyed, but I didn’t want to fight anymore. “You don’t know. Maybe Edward is just dating me because he can sense I’m the world’s next top hand model.” I said, trying to lighten the mood.

I knew she was stressing over the rent. I was, too. We’d put in another call about the landlord issue, but nobody had returned our call and if we didn’t hear from somebody soon, we were either going to have to pay the insane amount that was being asked or leave. It pissed me off because we knew we were being jerked around, but unless we could get somebody to talk to us, what were we supposed to do?

She grumbled under her breath and left to go shower and pack up. She had a photo shoot that was supposed to last most of the day and I needed to get to work too.

Just a couple of hours and I’d see Edward again. After a crazy week, I needed it.

***

Psycho-boss was even more psycho than normal. Even the people who normally fawned over her and kissed her psycho-boss ass were steering clear of her and when she left for lunch, I took my shot at escape, more than happy to head to my lunch date with Edward.

Instead of a restaurant, however, he’d asked me to meet him at Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. I smiled as I saw him coming towards me. He’d left his tie and suit coat in the car, but it was obvious he was coming straight from work. He lifted me up into a joyous kiss before he rolled up his sleeves and threaded my arm through his. We weaved through the tourists taking pictures and wandered further into the park.

“How’s work?” I asked.

“Same old. I have a big meeting this afternoon so I can’t stay too long.”

I tried not to feel too disappointed. “Then you better kiss me again.” I dragged him off the path and leaned up against an oak tree, pulling him towards me. He leaned into me and I wrapped my arms around his neck before our lips met again. The kiss was far too brief for my taste.

“Mmm,” he murmured against my neck. “I’m hungry.”

Teasingly, I said, “But you said you don’t have much time…and we can’t dothathere.”

He chuckled and pulled away. “I meant food. Come on.”

“Since we don’t have much time, what do you suggest? Hot dog vendor?” I asked, looking around. The carts were everywhere.

“I have a better idea.” He led me around the tree to a clearing I hadn’t seen until that moment.

Paul waved to us from a blanket on an open spot on the grass. He’d spread out a perfect picnic lunch in view of the lake.

“Wow.” I breathed out a happy sigh. “That’s much better than a vendor.”

Once we settled onto the wool blanket, he opened the wine, handed it to Edward, and left us alone.

“You don’t want to talk about work and you have a driver who also delivers picnics.” I sipped my wine for a moment and then looked up at Edward, lowering my voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Are you Batman?”

Edward chuckled. “More like Batman’s dutiful son who does all the boring work of keeping a family business afloat.”

“Ah, you’re right. The more you say ‘family business’ the more I know you must be in the mob.” I grinned at him.

“Again, far more exciting than what I do.”

He clinked his wine glass against mine and spread a bite of soft cheese on a chunk of baguette.

“Besides, I’d rather hear about your world.”

“You mean the glamorous world of writing pages for peanuts? The one where I once contemplated using toilet paper for a coffee filter because, after my rent was paid, I couldn’t afford to buy even the cheap ones?”

“Yes, that one,” Edward said with a smile. “The one where you love the actual work despite everything else. Including toilet paper coffee.”

He popped a bite of salami in my mouth and I sucked his fingers before savoring the salty bite. He licked his lips and moved in closer. Feeling something like Cleopatra, I took a taste of briny olive from his fingers. He rubbed the other half along my lower lip and then bent to kiss its taste from my mouth. I could get used to eating this way.

The next few minutes passed in a lazy, sensual silence and I felt the stress of the morning passing away.

“I have to go soon, but please say we can meet for dinner.” Edward brushed his fingers across my cheek as he spoke.

“Yes, please,” I said.

“This doesn’t bother you?”

“What?” I gave him a puzzled look.

“I know I’m moving us a little fast, but I can’t help it. If I didn’t have this meeting I would want to spend the whole day with you.” There wasn’t a trace of insincerity in his voice.

“I don’t understand why people think all relationships follow the same timeline,” I said. “Some start fast and some take years to develop.”

Without meaning to, my mind jumped to the firework blast of Flynn. I had to remind myself it was a fling, not a relationship. No matter how much I tried to stop it, he kept coming to mind and the flash of him always made my heart thump.Stop it, I told myself, adding in a mental kick in the ass.

Those two were on total opposite ends of the spectrum.

On the good side was Edward, sitting next to me on the blanket. He whispered questions in my ear about the people we saw in the park and we sipped our wine and laughed as I made up back-stories. The good was us feeding each other creamy bites of Brie cheese and sweet red grapes in between shared smiles, and it would’ve been just as good if the food had been cheap cheddar and crackers.

The bad was the burst of heat I felt when a man walked by with a camera. My cheeks flared as I remembered the teasing pressure of Flynn’s fingers inside me, the flood of pleasure as he’d slowly pulled them out and rubbed me until I’d panted. How he’d felt filling me. The bad was the way he’d jerked his head to the bathroom, telling me I could clean up, collect my cash and get out, thanks, bye. The embarrassment of itstillstung.


Page 10

“Don’t let the wine go to your head,” Edward said, mistaking the pink in my cheeks for something else.

I wasn’t about to correct him. “I’m not the one that has a meeting to go to.” I reminded him.

“Speaking of that.” He sighed. “I have to go. Dinner? Tonight?”

“Yes and yes.”

“Meet me at The Lotus?” he asked. “I’ll send Paul to pick you up.”

I agreed and we went our separate ways. I picked up my pace, trying to outrun the remembered passion with Flynn.

I’d just had a lovely picnic with Edward and we’d spent the other night together, perfect, romantic and sexy. He’d walked me to the door, asked me, wistfully, if I could spend the night. Then he had kissed me until my toes curled.

Yet my body warmed at the thought of Flynn putting down his camera with lust bright in his dark blue eyes.

I shook my head and walked faster. For once, I hoped work could keep me too busy to think.

***

Later that night, Edward stepped out of a taxi and joined me under the Taj Mahal crowned awning. He looked rumpled and tired, still in the same suit from earlier. Still, he gave me a smile and a kiss.

“How about take out?” I asked.

He gave me a grateful look. “You are a dream come true.”

He had Paul take our order and we lounged in the town car while we waited.

“Work was that bad, huh?” I asked.

“Not work, family. Sometimes it’s like trapping wild dogs in a room. You’re trying to feed them, be nice to them, and all they do is snarl and nip.”

“Your meeting was with your family?” I asked.

“They’re board members so I have to include them. We even had to wait for one to conference call from Amsterdam. Impossible. Just one of the reasons no one else will take the job.” He craned his head on the back of the seat and gave me a tired smile. “Tell me about your day, Gabriella.”

I shrugged and said, “What do you want to hear? About psycho-boss’s latest rampage?”

His eyes lit with humor. “Yes.”

So I told him, happy to see some of the strain leaving his eyes.

We made small talk until we got to Edward’s house. Once there, I spread the Indian food out on the sideboard in his study while he started a fire. The air wasn’t cold, but we both enjoyed the cozy fireplace. I piled up two plates and he poured two glasses of wine. We sat side by side on the floor and dug in. I wanted to ask him more about work, but he sidestepped it and we ended up arguing about the best movies of the eighties.

“I love this,” he said suddenly.

“What?” I asked, surprised. “Debating bad movies?”

“No,” he said with a smile. “I love the fact that we can sit here for an entire meal without music, television, or other people and there’s never an awkward silence.”

I paused for as long as I could before I asked, “You mean like that one?”

He rolled his eyes. “I’m serious, Gabriella, I don’t think I’ve ever dated someone who was such a perfect match.”

He leaned over and kissed me, a soft kiss at first. A soft kiss that quickly became something filled with fire and passion. It wasn’t hurried though. This time, he slowly undressed me, leaving a trail of searing kisses after each removed article of clothing. When I was completely naked, he lifted me onto the couch to straddle his lap. With his arms around my waist, he rocked me up and down against his dress pants until we were both wet from my arousal and his cock was straining against his zipper. Teasing my nipples with his tongue, he fumbled with his pants.

“Darling,” he gasped. “Wait, I need...”

“I’m on the pill.” I reached down to cup his hardness through his pants. “And I’m clean.” I locked eyes with him. “Are we good?”

He nodded wordlessly, then groaned as I freed his cock from its confines. I slipped down on him, turned on by the texture of his clothes against my bare body. It heightened the slick skin on skin where our bodies joined and his hands guided me. “That’s it,” he murmured, bringing one hand up to cup my breast. “Harder…faster…”

He threw his head back, the hand at my breasts almost painful.

His cock swelled and I shuddered, feeling myself locking down around him, tightening as my orgasm moved closer.

I whimpered and fell forward, the angle changing and now each movement had me rubbing my clitoris against him and it was so,sogood. “Come for me, Gabriella,” he said against my neck, scraping his teeth against my skin.

His thumb circled my nipple and I tensed.

Inside me, the head of his cock passed over my G-spot and I broke, coming around him hard and fast. As though he’d been waiting for just that, he started to drive up into me, each movement quicker and rougher than before.

Three strokes later and he was right there with me, groaning out my name as he climaxed.

Long, breathless moments passed, his hands smoothing up and down my back. I smiled dreamily against his chest when I heard the ragged sound of his heartbeat, slamming in a rhythm that echoed mine.

“Please tell me you can stay tonight.”

“Hmmm…” I turned my face into his neck. “Itisthe third date.”

“That’s a yes?” His arm tightened around my waist.

“Yes.”

***

The next morning, I woke up in Edward’s upstairs master suite.

I was alone in the king-sized bed and for one panicked moment, I froze. Then I heard the shower running and the tension drained away.

Smiling that giddy smile that tried so often to overtake me, I stretched and turned my head, following the sound of splashing water until I saw the closed door. We definitely weren’t taking things slow, but everything felt so comfortable, so right.

We liked the same foods, laughed at the same television shows, loved the same bad science fiction, and had the same ideas of what constituted a perfect day. Though, as the sunlight streamed into his inner sanctum, I realized there was one giant divide between us. I shifted uneasily.

He was rich. Not just hard-working, the right kind of career rich, but family legacy money rich. I may not have known who his family was, but there was no doubt about it. The master suite not only had a fireplace, it had a family crest engraved above it.

The sound of water cut off and I sat up, looking around nervously for something to put on. I didn’t quite manage to come up with anything before the bathroom door opened and Edward appeared in the opening, smiling at me.

“You’re awake. Good morning, gorgeous.”

“Hmmm. I was lazing about for a few more minutes.” I glanced down and watched as a bead of water slid down his chest.

“Laze away.” He smiled at me. “In fact, Paul’s going to run me in to the office. I’ll have breakfast sent up and by the time you’ve eaten, he’ll be back. When you’re ready, he’ll drive you to work.”

Ah yes, work. Slaving away for a menial wage while desperately hoping that my talent would one day be recognized. The perfect thing to remind me of how different our lives were.

He leaned down to kiss me as someone knocked on the door. His lips brushed against mine and then he called for whoever it was to enter. A moment later, a maid brought in a silver breakfast tray. She gave him a polite nod, but didn’t even look at me as she left the tray on the dresser. He thanked her and followed her out, pausing to blow me a kiss at the door.

Poached eggs with salmon, fresh bread lightly toasted, and a French press of heavenly strong coffee all tempted me from the foot of the bed, but first I reached for my phone.

“Okay. This is killing me…I still can’t get him to tell me his last name.” I eyed the crest, something elegant and Old World looking and shook my head. “He says he’s not Batman, but that’s all I can get out of him.”

“Are you calling me from his bed?”

Of course that would be her first question. “Yes. He’s left me here with a luxury breakfast that was delivered by a maid. When I’m done, a car will take me to work.”

“Think you can get some coffee filters while you have access to a chauffeur? We’re out. Have you ever tried the bodega’s coffee? I think it may actually be muddy water they warm up and throw sugar in.”

“You bought their coffee?”

“It was cheaper than the filters. So do you have a plan to figure out what he’s hiding?”

“I do,” I said, pouring fragrant coffee into a delicate China cup. “I’m going to call in late with some excuse and then tell the driver I’m supposed to meet Edward at his office. Boom, I find out what this family business is and why he’s hiding his last name.”

“Just the fact that he won’t tell you his last name should be a red flag,” Kendra said.

I sighed. “Yes, and then I think of the romantic dates, the great conversations, and the oh-so-sweet sex. Really, what’s in a name?”

“Seriously, Juliet? You do remember how that whole ‘what’s in a name’ thing worked for her and her boy?”

I scowled at the phone.

She continued, “Well, text me if your office surprise doesn’t work. Then bring him to Tony’s so I can meet him. Someone better assess if he’s a knight in shining armor or a thinly veiled psycho-killer.”

“Ah, Tony’s Pizza,” I said. “Always the perfect Plan B.”

Paul was dozing in the front seat of the town car when the maid opened the front door for me twenty minutes later. She coughed loudly and he jolted awake and jumped out to open the car door. I smiled, wondering how much sleep the poor guy had gotten in the past few days. Edward and I had to have been running him ragged.

“Where to, Ms. Gabriella?”

“Edward told me to meet him at his office.” I tried to sound breezy and casual. Whether or not he believed me, Paul nodded and started the car.

We headed straight into Manhattan. Paul had fierce driving skills. He could give any New York cabbie a run for his money. He navigated snarled lanes of traffic, using his Bluetooth to send messages on his cellphone.

By the time we made it to the curb outside a giant building, I was both terrified and impressed. Then I saw where we were and all of the blood drained from my face. It had to be a mistake.

“The Bouvier Building?” I asked faintly.

Before Paul could answer, the door opened and Edward leaned in.

“Going my way?” His smile said he wasn’t mad that I’d just showed up at his job unannounced. Paul must have sent him a message.

I swallowed and fought to keep from looking at the building behind him. “No fair…” I managed a weak smile. “I was just on my way to surprise you.”

“Well, it’s a little early for lunch, but I know a great place up the Hudson River that serves life-saving Bloody Marys. What do you say?”

Before I could answer, he got in the car and I had to swallow my frown. Paul screeched away from the curb before I even got to ask which gargantuan office building housed Edward’s mysterious family business. I hoped it wasn’t the same one where I’d met Flynn.

It was time for Plan B. Thinking quickly, I grinned up at him. “I’d say a Bloody Mary sounds delicious, but I already have a date.”

“I thought you said you were surprising me.” He sounded puzzled but not suspicious.

“Surprise!” I said weakly. “We’re having lunch with my roommate, Kendra. Tony’s Pizza, Paul.”

Before Edward could respond, I gave Paul the address and he swerved across two lanes to make the turn. I smiled brightly at Edward as I discreetly texted Kendra the words ‘Plan B’.

We rode in silence for a few minutes before Edward started asking about my childhood in Tennessee. His honest inquiries softened me up and by the time we reached Tony’s Pizza, I had almost forgotten what had me so concerned.

Kendra, however, hadn’t. She was waiting outside and strode up to Edward as soon as he got out of the car, a familiar expression on her face. She was in full-on mama bear mode, ready to protect me from anyone who might hurt me.

“Hello. I’m Gabriella’s roommate, Kendra. Kendra Facet.” She stuck out her hand.

He took it with a smile. “Nice to meet you, I’m Edward.”

“Sorry, Edward,” she said. “I didn’t catch your last name.”

“Don’t worry.” He smiled. “Just Edward is fine.”

Kendra gave me a dire glance over his shoulder before speaking to him again. “You know, you look very familiar to me.”

“That’s not surprising. We met at the big Bouvier party. The night I met Gabriella.”

He slipped an arm around my waist and kissed my temple.

“Come on, my darlings,” I said. Time to move from straight interrogation to polite lunch conversation. “Pizza’s on me.”

 

 

Chapter 8

I never thought eating a slice of pizza at Tony’s could be awkward. It was home base for after-debauchery food and I had seen everything from a drunken cello performance to a bout of mistaken identity happen in that small sliver of a restaurant.

Nothing had left a bad taste in my mouth until lunch with Kendra and Edward.

He was secretive, deftly fielding questions to avoid having to answer, and she was understandably suspicious. Kendra was sure they had met before the party and she kept squinting at him as if recognition was just a hard stare away. Edward looked terribly out of place in the pizza-by-the-slice place and spent an almost rude amount of time dabbing the grease off his plain cheese, yet another glaring example of how far apart our worlds were.


Page 11

Together, they made me so nervous I tried to pitch them some script material and chattered away about the foibles of subway-riders non-stop.

Needless to say, halfway through that, Edward told me he had to get back to work, which meant I had to pretend that I needed to go too. He kissed me awkwardly in front of Kendra and told me the next few days were full of meetings. I told him I had a sit-down with a producer interested in a pilot script and then had to make up a television show on the spot. I titled itSlice of Lifeand was pretty sure he realized I’d lied.

When he walked out the door, I was certain I’d never see him again, and the thought hurt me more than I’d thought possible.

***

“He still hasn’t called?” Kendra asked me three days later.

“Shh, I have two more pages to finish for a deadline.”

“Gabs, I can see that you’re writing a complaint about cereal.” She pulled my laptop away from me. “I didn’t mean to kill your whole relationship, I just wanted to make sure he was being honest with you.”

I wanted to snap at her that it was all her fault for making me doubt him, but had to bite my tongue because I knew she’d just been looking out for me. I knew there was something he wasn’t telling me about his family and, while I was hoping it was just that he seriously disliked them, his omissions were a little bothersome.

Sighing, I looked up at her. “He wasn’t being honest with me. But…” I shrugged. “We haven’t been dating long enough for me to know his address much less his life story.”

Although I didsleepwith him…athis home. I slept with the guy. But I didn’t know his last name.

It was enough to leave me with a funny feeling in my gut and I knew Kendra hadn’t been entirely off-base. I had to set aside my frustration with her. I knew that.

I gave her a wan smile.

“Maybe it’s for the best, it was moving way too fast.” If I said it enough, I’d believe it, right? Besides, she was my friend and friendship came first.

“No, you were right,” she said, her face bleak. “It wasn’t moving too fast, it was moving exactly how you wanted it to. And I screwed it up.”

“I think all three of us did.” I went back to staring at my laptop. “If he’d just told me who he is…if I hadn’t stressed so much…”

“IfIhadn’t stressedyouso much,” Kendra added sourly.

I grinned at her. “Yeah, that. If he’s just going to let it go because he can’t understand why I wanted to know more about him...” I shrugged. “What can I do?”

“Still.” She bent down behind me and hugged me. “I’m sorry, Gabs.”

I was hoping her apology would turn into another invite out for free drinks and catered snacks since I could really use some alcohol, but my phone rang.

My heart flipped when I saw the name on the caller ID.

I sucked in a breath and showed it to Kendra.

Her eyes widened and a big smile lit up her face.

I took one more breath as it rang again and then, calmly, I answered. “Well, if it’s not the elusive Mr. E. Hello.”

“Hello, gorgeous.”

Edward’s voice sent a shiver down my spine. Damn. I had it bad.

“I know this is last minute, but do you have plans this weekend? I got a lot done at work the past few days in the hopes I could take you out of the city.”

I locked myself in the bathroom so I could have some privacy and used the time to pretend to check the calendar on my phone. Not that I needed to check it—what would I put on it? Work? Period due? Work?

I quickly calculated all of the assignments my boss had given me before I answered, “I have a couple of deadlines to finish before Friday, but I think I can work it out. What did you have in mind?”

“I know a quaint little lodge in the Catskills. How do you feel about hiking?”

“Sore,” I said. “My legs already feel sore. I’m more a city sidewalks girl and I don’t remember the last time I climbed a hill.”

He laughed. “Well, luckily our room has a hot tub on the deck.”

I didn’t even hesitate. “Count me in.”

We hung up shortly after that and I sighed, clutching the phone to my chest and not even bothering to pretend I wasn’t relieved.

***

Late Friday afternoon, Edward picked me up in a silver BMW and I tried not to let my jaw drop. I don’t know why it surprised me. It would’ve been crazy to make Paul drive all that way, drop us off and drive back to the city.

And having him there would be awkward, I thought, still eying his gorgeous car.

“You’re driving? What will Paul say? Is he heartbroken?” I teased.

Edward winked at me. “I wanted you all to myself this weekend. Paul will get over it.”

He stowed my bag and we climbed in, the nerves already chattering inside me. We had a long drive and my head was already churning. I had the worst habit of blurting things out at the worst possible time. Things like…so, why won’t you tell me who you are?I wasn’t sure I could avoid it for the hours we’d be trapped in the car.

It came as a relief when he broached the subject first.

“I want to apologize for my reluctance to talk about my family.” He glanced at me. “And for not giving you my last name. My family name is, ah, recognizable and I just want to know that you’re with me, not my name.”

Relief washed over me. That made sense. He was rich, which would already make him wary of the reasons why someone would want to be with him.

A well-known family name had to make it worse.

“Bad experiences?” I asked, hearing something in his voice.

He hesitated and then nodded. “One or two. I’m…” He blew out a slow, careful breath. “I try not to let it color my life, but I told myself I was going to make sure somebody cared about me the next time. I hope you understand.”

My heart ached and I found myself smiling. “I do. And thank you.”

“Why are you thanking me?”

I leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. “Because you trusted me enough to tell me. I love that you felt comfortable enough to tell me that.”

He caught my hand and lifted it to his lips, pressing a kiss to the back of it. When he pressed it to his thigh before putting his hand back on the wheel, I let myself breathe out a sigh of satisfaction.

“I do understand,” I said again. “But, just so you know…” When he flicked a look at me, I winked. “I want you to know that I’m with you, not your name, no matter what it is.” I squeezed his thigh and felt his muscles tighten. “And now we can relax.”

“No,” he said, pulling the car into a wooded turn out. “Not yet.”

The car was still shuddering from the speed with which he’d thrown it into park when he pulled me over the center console and sideways onto his lap. I bumped my head against his window, but didn’t care as he caught me in a searing kiss. His lips were hard and insistent against mine. Almost immediately, I was glad I’d dismissed Kendra’s advice and worn a dress because Edward’s hand quickly found the hem and slid underneath.

His mouth ate at mine, his tongue thrusting deep into my mouth as his palm slid up my thigh, pushing my skirt up. He cupped my hip and I felt the heat of his arousal burning against my skin. My own desire started to rise inside me and I whimpered hungrily, catching his tongue and sucking on it.

He shuddered and shifted me until I was straddling him, his fingers tracing me through my panties. “You’re already wet for me. Did you miss me?”

“Yes.” My eyelids fluttered as he rubbed slow teasing circles around my clitoris, working with the material to create a delicious friction that had me moaning and writhing against his hand. He chuckled as he moved his hand up to my stomach and then slipped it down into my panties. Two fingers spread my folds apart as his middle finger slid inside.

“Fuck,” I whimpered. Wanting more, I put my knee up on the console, trying to open myself more completely.

A second finger thrust deep and I cried out. His mouth sucked on the place where my shoulder and neck met, teeth scraping over the soft skin as he worked his fingers in and out with a relentless rhythm, not stopping until I shuddered and came against his hand.

I was still trembling when he turned me so that I was leaning forward over the steering wheel, one leg on either side of his lap. I lifted up on shakykneesas he reached beneath me and unzipped his pants. I was glad we’d covered the condom thing before because there was no pause as he grasped my hips and pulled me down onto him.

He swore as he filled me, his arms wrapping around my waist to hold me in place.

“So tight,” he said, his voice muffled as he pressed his face against my back. “I’ve been wanting you so badly. I don’t know how long I can last.”

“Don’t then,” I said. My body was still tingling from my orgasm and the feel of him throbbing inside me was enough to start the pressure building again. I moved one hand under my dress. It wasn’t going to take much to get me off again.

“Are you sure?”

I nodded.

He gripped my hips and lifted me enough so he could move. My head brushed the ceiling and I leaned forward more as my fingers made their way to the place where our bodies joined.

There was so little room to move. He didn’tthrustwithin me—it was more like a hard, deep grinding that had me shuddering, shaking deep inside, pleasure jolting through me hard and fast as I manipulated my clit.

His cock pulsed and throbbed and I heard him mutter my name. I stroked myself harder, faster. His cock jerked and I arched, my climax slamming into me just as he started to come.

I slumped forward, my body quaking with its release.

His arms tightened around my waist as he pulled me back against him. I rested my head on his shoulder, enjoying the feel of him holding me, of our bodies still intimately joined.

He kissed my cheek. “Now we can relax.”

***

My breath was taken away as soon as I opened my eyes the next morning. We’d arrived rumpled sometime after sunset and I’d been so tired, I’d collapsed not long after a light dinner.

Now, with Edward kneeling next to the bed with a mimosa and a devilish smile, it was hard to take everything in.Through thewindow behind him, I could seethe river valley and tumbling green hillsstretched out endlessly. The view alone was staggering, but I was here with him.

I couldn’t imagine anything more perfect.

“Good morning, gorgeous,” he said. “Sorry if I woke you.Are you hungry?”

“Hmmm.” I looked back out the window and then at him. “Are we really hiking?” I’d do it for him, but I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it.

“Well.” He gave me a sly smile that said he already knew what my answer would be. “There’s also a couples spa package, if you would prefer.”

***

After breakfast in bed, we surrendered our day to the capable hands of the spa staff. Or, at least, I did.Edward had no interest inpedicures by the pool, so he swam laps while I enjoyedone, anda massage. I wanted to close my eyes at the heavenly pressure of the foot rub, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away from him.

Even wet, there were streaks of gold coming out in his light brown hair.His hands and neck were slightly darker due to his days out on the polo fields, but he looked golden.

I watched him, strong and lithe in the pool, not only because he was gorgeous, but because it was easier than taking in our surroundings. I’d never been in a hotel so luxurious and Ifeltout of place. I was sure the woman scrubbing at my neglected feet was shaking her head at the thought of another rich mandragging somepretty girl up from the gutter.

Could we ever really fit?

He was from a family with pedigree, a public image, and a clearly healthy empire. I was a country girltrying to makeit in the big city, just barely scraping by day to day.

What exactly did he see in me?

When the spa attendant finished packing us into our mud baths and left us alone in the steamy Turkish tiled room,Ihad to blink back tears. Even here, the luxury followed us, reminding meof who he was versus who I was.

“Is yours too hot? Want me to ring for the attendant?” His voice wassoft, tender withconcern.

I shook my head. “No, no, that’s not it.” My throat tightened up. “I just don’t think I can handle all of this.”

“The pampering?” he asked, clearly confused.

“No,” I said. I couldn’t keep it inside anymore. “Edward, I’m out of place here. If it wasn’t for you, I’d never be able to afford so much as a glass of mineral water for the bar here.Doesn’t it bother you?”


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Mud squelched as he sat up, but he ignored it. Face somber, he gazed at me.“Listen to me. I’m paying because I want you here with me. I don’t expect you to pay for any of this. I probably wouldn’t be able to either if it wasn’t for my family.”

“But you run their big company doing whatever it is you do,” Isaid.

“And you write and get coffee.” He laughed softly and reached out, trailing a hand down my mud-slicked arm. “I’m surprised you haven’t been pulled into modeling. Kendra’s one of the big up and comers and you’re so beautiful. I’m sure somebody has seen you, noticed you…”

My stomach dropped.

“I did,” I said slowly.

“Oh?” His brows shot up.

“I did a shoot. Once. I was never called back.”

“Sounds like it didn’t go well.” Concern darkened his eyes.

The sight of it had my belly twisted. “It’s not that. I just…”

“Tell me you didn’t end up with one of those slimy photographers who seduces every woman he gets in front of the camera,” he said, disgust thick in his voice.

And that clinched it. Shame a hot, heavy weight in me, I lied. “No. It just wasn’t my thing. When he didn’t call me back in, I was relieved.”

“It’s not for everybody.” Edward caught my hand and squeezed, swinging back onto the table. “I’m glad you’re here with me, Gabriella. Iwantyou here with me.”

Face burning, I closed my eyes.

Between the guilt from the lie and the annoying sense that I wasn’t doing anything to earn what I had going on, it was almost impossible to relax, but slowly, bit by bit, I did. Succumbing to the heat of the bath, the tension gave way and the guilt that sat like a stone in my belly began to dissolve.

I hadn’t intended to sleep with Flynn.

I’d thought I’d sensed something with him, something real. But I hadn’t. Maybe he was one of those sleazy photographers. I’d put it behind me. There was no reason for it to cloud things between Edward and me and it wasn’t like it was going to ever haunt me again. I hadn’t even signed a release for the pictures, so he couldn’t use them. Photographers had to have a release—that was one thing I knew from working with Kendra. I had taken the money though.

As to the opulence of the lodge, and everything else that came from being with Edward…that was just as complicated.

Mentally groaning over the frustration, I told myself to let it go.

You’re not trying to get anything out of him, Gabs. It’s not like you’ve ever asked for anything from him.

Finally, the logic pierced me and the misery began to sink away. I hadn’tasked for him to treat me to these extravagances. I didn’t expect them. I was still working and struggling and paying my own way in life.

I just needed to relax and enjoy what he was giving me…right?

But still, the uneasiness lingered.

So did the weight of the lie. Even if I tried to pretend otherwise.

***

Bythe time we were done, both Edward and I were happy rag-dolls and I’d all but forgotten about the awkward exchange. As we headed back to our room, Flynn and the photo shoot were the furthest things from my mind. Edward was the most caring, considerate, and generous lover I had ever been with and I wanted to spend my time making him feel how much I appreciated him, not thinking about past mistakes.

As he lay on the bed, loose in a plush hotel robe, I dropped mine to the floor and slowly crawled up next to him. When I saw his sleepy grin, I gave him a long, thorough kiss before trailing my lips down his jaw to nuzzle underneath his ear.

The faint scent of lavender and bergamot was still on his skin from the massage oil and I tasted him with my tongue before trailing kisses down his chest. I could feel his heart thumping wildly as I pressed my mouth over it. His robe parted easily and my breasts brushed against his erection as I slid down his body, a singular destination in mind.

He was already starting to harden, but still soft enough that I could take all of him. He smothered a cry when I took him between my lips and a thrill went through me. I loved knowing I could make him feel this way, make his cock stiffen and grow.

I held him as long as I could before he was too big and I had to settle for wrapping my hand around the base of him whileI began to move my head up and down. The thick vein pulsed against my tongueand he started to move against my mouth, until I pressed down on his hipbones with my hands.

“Be still,” I said, lifting my head to smile at him.

“Witch.”He groaned, dropping his head back onto the pillow.

I slid my lips up, then down his length, loving the way the caress made him shudder. His hands fisted in the elegant brocade of the comforter below him. A raw noise left his throat as I sucked on him, taking him all the way to the back of my throat before changing to softer, slow licks up and down his cock.

His handsleft the comforter to grip my shoulders, tugging on me and I lifted my head to smile at him.

“Dammit, Gabriella.”

Coming to my knees, I crawled up his body and hovered over him. I was so wet, so ready for him. The inside of my thighs were slick with my need as I straddled him. Edward gripped my waist, staring at me with hooded, hungry eyes. I caught his cock, still wet from my mouth and held him as I began to lower myself down.

He slid his hands up, cupping my breasts, plumping them together as his cock stretched me wide. The sensation was almost too much, too fast, and my legstrembled.Then he was fully sheathed inside me and I sighed at the way our bodies came together. I didn’t stay still long though. His head arched off the pillow as I began to ride him.

His hands left my breasts to gripmy hips, fingers digging into my flesh, his mouth open in soundless ecstasy. I felt him swell inside me and I cried out because it was too much. The head of his cock rubbed against my g-spot, sending waves of heat arcing through me. Edward started to arch up off the bed, rising to meet me until we were driving into his each other.

The intensity of it overwhelmed me. I went flying into orgasm and I thought I was spinning, flying—then I realized Edward had flipped me over, planting me under him. He slammed into me and I cried out again. Harder, harder...he sent me into another climax just as he began to come.

Mybody ached in the most delicious way and I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.

***

When I came out of my shower more than an hour later, Edward wasn’t there, but I did find a luscious blue satin dress laid out on the bed. A thin black velvet box sat next to it and on the floor were a delicate pair of designer shoes. A note on the hotel’s stationary was propped up like a sign:

 

The gifts I give you are nothing compared

to your beauty, your time, and your love.

All of which I want always. –Edward

 

My heart soared. All of my doubts and suspicions were erased with those words and I dressed in a whirl of fairytale thoughts.

 

 

Chapter 9

The Catskills lodge was old-fashioned, with a two-story curving staircase leading down to a chandelier-lit foyer. As per instructions I received via text, I went down on my own. I was practically floating as I came down the stairs and found Edward waiting at the bottom with a single white rose.

He held it out to me. “You look like a dream come true.”

I touched the delicate sapphire and diamond necklace, tears stinging my eyes. I’d never had anyone treat me this way before. “Thank you.”

He leaned down and kissed me softly, a bare brush of lips but the contact was enough to send a rush of heat through me. He straightened, looked down at me for a moment, then tucked my hand in the crook of his elbow and led me down a candlelit corridor to the back porch.

The wide porch ran the entire back of the hotel and offered a seemingly endless choice of white sofas, softly cushioned rattan armchairs, and swings. The whole expanse was lit by hurricane lamps and lanterns casting a soft glow on the other guests enjoying a drink before dinner.

Edward and I each took a glass of champagne from a passing waiter beforehetook me down the stairs and ontoa path winding throughthe great lawn. It swept gracefully away from the lodge and out to a breathtaking view of the Hudson River Valley. The sun was just past setting, the skybleeding to a deep velvet glow. It would gradually give way to the inky darkness of night.Away from thesoft lightsof the porch, stars alreadytwinkled in the cloudless sky.

“I don’t think this night could be any more perfect.” I sighed.

He clinked his champagne flute against mine and we paused to sip and stare up at thediamond glitter overhead. The silence between us was thick with tension, but it was a pleasant kind, the kind that promised something more to follow.

“I meant what I said in my note.” Edward broke the silence.

I kissed his cheek, not trusting myself to try anything chaste enough for public. “Always,” I said.

“I was hoping you’d say that.” He walked me along a narrow stone path down to the rose garden where a stone fountain splashed gently. The underwater lights made the water shimmer. In the undulating glow,he caught my eyes and held my gaze.

He brushed back a few strands of hair as he spoke, “I’ve never felt this way about any other woman. The time I spend with you is truly the best part of my life.”

Suddenly, he went down on one knee and caught my hands before I could smother my cry of surprise. This couldn’t be happening. It couldn’t be real.

“Gabriella, would you do the great honor of marrying me?”

The night sky spun above me and I hung on to Edward’s hands to keep myself grounded. I knew if I let go, I wouldn’t even be able to stand.

“Are you—are you serious?” My eyes were wide, heart racing.

He looked up at me with a pained smile. Clearly, that was not the reaction he’d been expecting.

“Yes!” He rolled his eyes. “How can I convince you?”

I let go of his hands and cupped his face before leaning down to kiss him. It was short but fierce. “Like this.” His eyes were shining as he looked up at me. “Yes, Edward. Yes, I’ll marry you!”

***

It was a little past three in the morning when I sat bolt upright in a cold sweat. The heavy diamond engagement ring winked at me in the dim room and I stared at it as my heart pounded. It was unreal, the flawless emerald cut diamond flashing at me like a star in the night. What had seemed like a fairytale dream now felt like the start of a nightmare.

“What’s the matter?” Edward asked sleepily as my sudden movement woke him.

“Whatif we’re rushing this?” My doubts came pouring out.There were a hundred of them and I couldn’t even begin to list them all. As he sat there staring at me, befuddled, I raked a hand through my hair.

I still didn’t know his last name.

I didn’t know what he did for a living.

His family...oh, shit.

Clambering out of bed, I grabbed the robe that had been draped over a nearby chair. Shoving my arms into it, I started to pace. The doubts grew larger and larger and I could feel Edward watching me, feel his concern and his care. Turning, I stared at him.

“I haven’t even met your family, Edward. What if they meet me and hate me?They’ll convince you this was a huge mistake.You’llthink I’m a huge mistake.”

He pushed himself up on his elbows. His hair was mussed, making him look younger than usual. His expression was serious. “I’ll never think that.”

I shook my head. “You’re already under enough pressure from them, running the family empire. I’m just going to make things worse for you.”

“Only if you don’t let me sleep.” His voice held a teasing note as he sat up.He held out his hand and I went to him. He pulled me into his lap and I sat down. He tucked his chin into my shoulder and held me close, my body pressed to his.

When we were like this, any and all doubt faded. I felt certain. I felt safe and loved and right. But...

“They’ll think I’m a gold-digger,” I continued. “How could they not? I don’t bring anything to the table. I don’t even know what table I’m bringing it to.”

“Gabriella, we’re adults.” He brushed my hair away from my neck. “I’m an adult and I’m not going to let my family tell me who I can love.I love you.” His voice softened. “Don’t you believe me?”

“I do,” I said. “I want to believe you.”

“I understand.” His hands fell away from my shoulders.

Shit. I’d hurt his feelings. I turned towards him, needing him to understand. “I believe you. I love you. I do. I’m just scared. This feels like a dream.”


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His voice was soft as he reached for my hands. “What can I do to make you understand this is real, that we are really getting married and that I’m thrilled you said yes?”

I knew what I was going to say would hurt him, but I couldn’t lie about it, not if we were going to have a life together. “It won’t feel real, won’t feel possible, until I meet your family. I’m sorry, Edward, but I don’t think I can marry you until I know the family I will be marrying into.” The one thing I didn’t add was that I also needed to see for myself how he’d behave when his parents discovered where I came from.

He flopped back on the pillows and heaved a big sigh. I’d known he wasn’t going to like what I had to say. But could he blame me?

I picked up his arm and wrapped it around my shoulder, pulling it tight as I stretched out next to him, putting my head on his chest. For several minutes, neither of us spoke. I listened to his heartbeat and tried to ignore the sound of his teeth grinding.

I needed him to understand. “This is going to be for the rest of our lives, Edward. Always. I can’t go into that thinking your family wishes it wasn’t me.”

He didn’t say anything, but he kissed my head as his fingers made slow circles on my upper arm. It was comforting, but not enough. Minutes ticked by and I tried not to cry. Whatever happened now was going to decide if I got my happily ever after or not. The pure reflection of the perfect emerald cut diamond caught the slim moonlight from the window and I tipped it back and forth, wondering how long I’d be wearing it.

“This is ridiculous,” Edward finally said.

He slipped out from under me and sat up. Before I could stop him, he tossed the covers aside and slapped his bare feet onto the floor. I watched his lean muscles ripple as he strode across the room naked. As hot as he was, I couldn’t focus on that.

“What are you doing?” I asked, hating the way my voice shook.

“Calling my mother.”

I stared at him. “But it’s past three in the morning!”

“This is exciting news and it can’t wait,” he said as he dialed.

I held my breath as I listened to his half of the phone conversation.

“Mother, it’s Edward. No, everything’s fine.” He paused for a moment and then continued, “Yes, I got your notes on the spring line. Mother, I have exciting news. I asked Gabriella to marry me and she said yes.”

There was a long pause and I could feel my chest tightening as I waited.

“That’s exactly what she said,” he sounded amused. “Yes, perfect. Gabriella and I will meet you and Father tomorrow at the club.Thank you. Goodnight. Yes, right, good morning.”

He padded back across the room and dove into the bed, wrapping his arms around me. He pulled me close, pressing his mouth against my ear. “Now come here and tell me your answer again.”

“Yes,” I said with a smile. “Yes, I will marry you.”

***

Back to reality...or maybe not.

Instead of sleeping in and waking with slow, leisurely sex, followed by a slow, leisurely breakfast, we were up by seven, on the road by eight and back into the city about the same time I would have preferred to have been rolling out of bed.

We went by the apartment I shared with Kendra, my nerves singing as I opened the door. But she wasn’t there and I was spared the tension of telling her what should have been happy news.

I was dreading her reaction. I thought she’d be happy for me, but still, Edward and I had only been dating a few weeks. It felt right, but even I knew this was fast and until I met his family, I’d have misgivings.

Kendra would sense those and I didn’t want that.

I wanted to be certain when I faced her.

She’d understand it better if I was certain.

She’d know if I wasn’t.

I hurriedly grabbed some clothes. Edward had convinced me to get ready at his place, so I just traded out the outfit I’d planned to wear for the clothes I’d packed for the lodge. I still had my toiletries. It took less than ten minutes and we were back on the road.

The drive to his place was silent.

It wasn’t uncomfortable, but it was unsettling. Once we reached the staggering stone mansion, my nerves returned in triplicate. The home was impressive and now I was seeing it in a whole new light.

Soon, I would be part of this legacy.

The house was grand, but I had only ever felt comfortable in Edward’s master suite or the study. The other rooms, the glimpses I’d gotten of them anyway, seemed hollow.

I buried myself in his bathroom. He’d offered to use one of the others and I was too grateful to argue. Now, as I blow-dried my hair, studied my reflection, applied my make-up only to wash it off and start again, I couldn’t fight the rising tide of nerves.

Edward appeared in the mirror behind me, already dressed in a suit that cost more than I made in a month, naked pictures included. I gulped.

“You look terrified.” Resting his hands on my shoulders, he pressed a kiss to my shoulder, bare save for the strap of my camisole. “Relax.”

“I can’t!” Panicked, I stared at my reflection. Simple, ordinary me, lost in the elegance of his white and gold bathroom. “We’re getting ready to meet your family. I feel so out of place.”

“First, we’ve got time. Second, you’renotout of place. You’re with me, right where I want you to be.” He slid a hand up and cupped my cheek, guiding my head back against his shoulder. “And I’m with you. Where you want me to be, right?”

The calm assurance of his voice did something to level me.

Taking a deep, slow breath, I forced myself to nod. “Yes.”

“Good.” He turned me around and his mouth closed over mine in a deep, slow kiss.

“Hmmm…”

He pressed his brow to mine and for a moment, we stood there like that. Then he lifted his head. “I’ve a few more calls to make. Why don’t you spend some time walking around, seeing more of the house? You hardly ever go outside my…” Then he grinned, the smile bright and open. “Soon it will beourroom. At least until we find a place to makeours. But walk around the house. Get to know it better. Alright?”

***

I found Paul in what looked like the kitchen of a first class restaurant. He was chatting with a cute redhead, but when they saw me, it was like they both jerked to attention.

“Miss Gabriella.” Paul smiled warmly. “Do you need something? Are you lost?”

I winced. “Maybe.” Then, because kitchens, at least, were something I understood, I eased farther inside. “Edward said he had to get some work done before we left and I…” I shrugged. “I wanted to look around.”

They stood by while I wandered the kitchen and then Paul came to my side. “Why don’t I show you around, Miss Gabriella?”

Feeling more and more like an intruder, I nodded. The redhead looked nervous and I tried to give her a friendly smile, but she wouldn’t look at me.

As we left the kitchen, she busied herself at the counter. Once the door swung shut behind us, I blew out a breath. “Did I mess up?”

“Of course not.” Paul gave me a polite smile.

He’d say that even if I’d broken every dish in the place.

“You’ve worked for Edward a long time, haven’t you?”

“I have.” He glanced down a hall and then at me. “Do you enjoy gardens? There’s a greenhouse with lovely flowers. They bloom all year.”

“Sure.” Anything was fine as long as I wasn’t thinking—or lost. “Do you like your job?”

“Very much.” There was no doubting his sincerity.

“So how long have you worked for Edward?” I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought to ask him before.

“I’ve been with his family for twelve years now.”

“What are they like?” I asked.

Paul smiled, but it was tight-lipped and he said nothing. Apparently that was a line I couldn’t cross.

“Please.” I spread out of my hands to encompass everybody in the house—the servants who were mostly invisible, the redheadIhad somehow made nervous, Edward, Paul. “None of ya’ll have any idea how nervous I’m getting over the idea of meeting his parents.” I groaned. “And look there. My Tennessee is showing.”

The crack made Paul chuckle and he sighed. After a moment, he relented. “They can be very stiff, very snobbish. They can be very set in their ways, but you must understand, they do love him. Edward’s mother would do anything for him. She wants what’s best for him.”

“And his father?”

Paul shook his head, like he’d said too much, but I didn’t give up.

“What about his siblings? Edward said everyone would be there today.” I stopped in the middle of the path and looked around, realizing we were in the middle of the greenhouse. I hadn’t even noticed. The heat started to sink into my bones and I felt lightheaded, although it wasn’t from the temperature. “I think I’m going to faint.”

Taking pity on me, he guided me over to a curved, wide bench. “His brothers are different; a little, ah, freer. They don’t have the same responsibilities as Edward. He’s the eldest son and he has a specific role to play in his family. He’s a good man, Miss. Gabriella.”

I agreed with that. “He’s the best man I’ve ever met.”

As if that was his cue, the doors to the greenhouse swung open and Edward came striding in. “I was hoping you would think to show her the greenhouse. I swung by the kitchen looking for you, Gabriella. Hayley said Paul was giving you a tour.”

I smiled at him, determined not to let him see my nerves.

Cut straight from a high-priced catalog in perfectly pressed khakis, a white polo shirt, and a blue sports coat, he came toward me, so elegant and perfect…and mine. Paul quietly excused himself and I rose to meet Edward. I smoothed a hand down my linen dress.

“You look lovely,” Edward said, catching my hand and lifting it to his lips.

“Do I?” I glanced down at my dress. “The color…does it clash with my hair?”

He bent his head and kissed me. “You’re lovely,” he reiterated. He slid his hands up and down my arms. “You’re tense. What’s wrong?”

“I’m terrified.” Slowly, I lifted my eyes to his and shrugged. “Your family…I mean, you’ve said you’ve had a couple of rough relationships. What if they think I’m just some gold digger and they try to scare me away?”

“What if they do?” he countered. “Will you let them?”

I looked up at him and his eyes searched my face. He was honestly concerned and that chased away some of my own fear. I kissed his cheek and then scrubbed off the lipstick smudge.

“No,” I said firmly. “But what if my accent slips or I get mad and call them snobs?”

“Then we’ll laugh and they’ll get over it.”

***

As Paul drove, Edward kept me distracted with clever comments about people he’d met at various events at the club. I mentioned some of the plaids I’d seen men wearing on golf tournaments on TV which brought up a whole new conversation.

I ended up laughing away some of the tension, but as we pulled up to the security gate, an offhand comment he made brought up a whole new set of concerns.

“I’ll have you added to my membership,” he said, catching my hand and squeezing it. “I rarely come here, but you might enjoy it. Once you’re my wife, you might find yourself with more free time on your hands.”

Free time…?

I went to ask him what that meant, but the gates opened up and he nodded ahead. “It’s time, love.”

Free time.

Time.

Shit. We hadn’t talked about what things would be like when we were married. We hadn’t discussed my writing, my job. Did he want me to quit the job I hated? Yeah, he could support me, but I didn’t want to become one of those women who lived off of her husband. And what about kids? Did he want them?

DidI?

All of those questions and more were on the tip of my tongue.

But the car stopped.

A moment later, Paul was opening the door for us.

Time was up.

 

 

Chapter 10

Mouth dry, pulse racing, I took Edward’s arm and he steered me through the formal dining room and out onto a sun-drenched patio that overlooked a carefully pruned garden.

“A mimosa and a screwdriver, light on the orange juice,” he told a passing waiter. He looked down at me, “Is that all right?”

I shrugged, not trusting myself to speak. What I really wanted though was whiskey. A double.

I felt like I had a million eyes staring at me and if an alarm had started blaringINTRUDER ALERT, INTRUDER ALERT,I wouldn’t have been surprised.

Were people staring?

Was it thatobvious I didn’t belong?

“Are you okay?” Edward’s voice low, so low I barely heard him.

I nodded. Off to the corner, a group of women, probably in their fifties or so, glanced our way. One of them eyed me, from the top of my head down to my shoes. Her nostrils flared as she sniffed and I felt the red rush to my cheeks.


Page 14

Men were gathered in a group close by.

I didn’t see any couples together. Everybody was grouped together by gender. And Edward thought I’d hang out here? Who would I talk to? The people bringing out the drinks? I’d certainly feel a lot more comfortable with them.

“Is that what we’ll be like?” I asked suddenly. I gestured towards the groups. “Doing our own thing, you discussing business with the men while I’m off with the women talking about parties and raising the kids?”

His mouth twitched in amusement. “I hope not. I don’t want separate but connected lives. I want ourlife, Gabriella.” He leaned in, brushed a kiss over my cheek. “You can have a career or do as my mother did, get involved in charities...or raise the kids.” He gave me a mischievous smile. “You decide. One thing though. I’m not changing my name to Baine. But if you don’t want to change yours, that’s fine too.”

While I was still nervous, I did feel a measure of relief at his words. Now I just had to keep myself distracted until it was time to meet the future in-laws.

“That reminds me, I’m about to find out your family name. Does that mean you’re going to turn into a pumpkin? Or is it more of a Rumpelstiltskin thing where you’ll have to grant me a wish?”

Edward laughed and I felt myself relax even more. I could do this as long as he was with me.

“I’ll grant you a wish for every day that you’re mine,” he said.

“Well, my first wish is for one of those heavenly croissants. I’m starving.”

I watched a basket of the buttery pastries bob by on a waiter’s tray, but before I could snag one, the hostess came by.

“Mr. Edward? Your party is here.”

We walked arm in arm into the formal dining room. In the doorway, we paused a moment and I had that split second to try and guess who Edward’s parents were.

A half dozen couples could have been contenders. Several tall, distinguished men, several attractive women with brown hair. But nobody stuck out and then time was up, because Edward was already guiding me to a table occupied by a handsome man who appeared to be in his fifties, still robust and powerful looking. The woman was blonde and statuesque. The moment she looked up, I could see where Edward had gotten his ice blue eyes.

She stood, eyes only for her son. “Edward, darling, it’s been too long.”

Edward kissed her cheek and then nodded at the man I assumed was his father even though they didn’t look anything alike. “Mother, this is Gabriella. Gabriella, this is my mother, Claire.”

Claire shook my hand lightly and I could tell she thought about reaching for a napkin when I let go.

“And now I see what’s been keeping you away.” Her expression was tight.

Edward pulled out her chair and waited until she sat down to kiss her on the cheek again. She patted his cheek and then waved me to the chair next to her. I sat down without assistance and was glad to catch Edward’s wink as he circled the table to sit next to me.

“What a lovely necklace, Claire. May I call you Claire?” I asked.

Claire gave a faint smile and flagged down a waiter without answering my question. “We’ll need one more place setting, please. The three of you are always busy, but at least one of your brothers is able to join us, I hear.”

“I know. He texted me earlier. The more the merrier.” Edward smiled. “It’ll be nice for her to meet more of the family.”

“So, Gabriella, what do you do for a living?” Mr. Rumpelstiltskin or whatever their last name was gave me a pleasant smile.

“I’m an assistant for a writer for a television show, but I’m hoping to write my own someday.” I braced myself for the usual onslaught of comments that followed a pronouncement of a career in the arts.

“So you’re hoping to use Edward’s name to further your own career...?”

I interrupted before Edward was forced to say something to his mother that would make her hate me even more. “Actually, Claire, Edward hasn’t told me much about your family, only that he’s involved in the family business. My interest in him is purely him.”

“She makes it sound like we run a mom and pop shop.” Claire sipped a glass of champagne then dabbed her lips with a white linen napkin.

“Did he take over for you?” I asked the much more friendly face across from me.

“Me?” He looked surprised. “No. I’m actually Edward’s stepfather. You can call me Albert.”

“I’m so sorry! How rude of me,” Edward said. “Albert and my mother have been married for eons. I can’t believe I didn’t introduce you two.”

Albert smiled and waved a hand, like he was used to being forgotten. “Why don’t you tell us about the marriage proposal before you tire of telling the story?”

Edward pulled our joined hands up above the white tablecloth and held up my engagement ring. He squeezed my fingers. “Starlight, champagne, a fountain in the rose garden. I must have done it right because this beauty said ‘yes’.”

Claire shot my emerald cut diamond solitaire a begrudgingly impressed look.

“How did you and Albert meet?” I asked, determined to win her over.

“Albert was the headmaster at the boarding school I wished for my boys to attend. They were still young, of course, but one must be diligent if one wants only the best for their children.” She looked over at her husband. “Of course, once we decided to get married, he had to resign so as to avoid the appearance of favoritism.”

I decided to go with a question that had nothing to do with how odd I thought it was that her husband had to give up his job rather than just sending the kids to another school. “You went to an all-boys boarding school?” I asked Edward.

“One of the finest in the country,” Claire said it like there was no other option. “Where were you educated?”

Her attitude sucked. Arching a brow, I smiled coolly. “Tennessee public schools.”

Her gaze slid to Edward’s. He stared back, his face impassive. After a moment, she smiled a little and began to discuss work.

It took less than a minute to figure out that they were involved in the fashion industry. It took less than five to realize that they just might have a fair hand in controllingit. My heart started to race and under the table, I twisted my hands over and over around the heavy material of the napkin I’d put in my lap.

Kendra had told me about the executives who could make or break entire collections and countless careers with one phone call. That probably explained why she thought she recognized him, but couldn’t put a name to a face.

The sommelier brought champagne to the table. “Here you are, Mrs. Bouvier.”

My jaw dropped. “I’m sorry, did you just say Bouvier?”

Bouvier…shit. Edward…Bouvier…my heart was about to jump out of my chest. Lifting my gaze, I stared at him. “I…you…” Shaking my head, I looked around and then said, “Are y’all seriously theBouviers?”

I heard the accent thickening my voice, but I couldn’t even think about that now.

From the corner of my eye, I could see his mother watching me, could see the sommelier fighting not to do the same.

Edward laughed, a sheepish smile on his face. “I told you my last name was quite recognizable.”

“You didn’t tell her your last name?” Claire raised an eyebrow.

Edward’s expression stiffened. “I thought you’d be pleased, Mother. We dated, fell in love, and she agreed to marry me all without knowing I’m a Bouvier.”

“I don’t believe this,” I said, pressing my hand to my forehead.

“Gabriella, are you well?”

The soft question came from the man across from me.

Weakly, I looked at him. “I’m fine, Mr. Bouvier—”

“Albert isnotMr. Bouvier. His name is Albert McCreary,” Claire said, her voice pure ice. She stared at me, clearly offended. “When I remarried, I kept my first married name because of the company and my sons.”

I barely heard the final words she said, though…

Coincidence?

Had to be.

McCreary…

No way.

“Hey there, big brother. I hear I’m getting a sister-in-law...”

The familiar voice trailed off as I lifted my head.

He moved around the table, all sexy grace and cadet blue eyes. My future brother-in-law. Flynn McCreary.

Shit.

 

 

Pure LustVol. 2

 

Chapter 1

The sound of that voice froze something deep inside me and I didn't want to look up. I didn't even want to move.

It’s not him,I told myself.It’s not him. You’re just hearing things. It’s nerves. It won’t be him…

The silence began to take on that strained, tense feel and I knew I couldn’t avoid looking up any longer, no matter how much I wanted to. I knew who I would find standing in front of me and my empty stomach clenched. I was suddenly very glad I hadn't eaten yet.

I could feel the intensity of that cadet blue gaze and I knew I had to raise my head. I did so slowly, praying that I'd be wrong even though every cell in my body knew I was right.

Flynn McCreary stood in front of me and those wicked eyes all but scorched a path along my skin. For a moment, it was just me and him all over again in his studio and I could all but feel his hands sliding over my flesh, his mouth against mine.

He looked about as stunned as I felt.

DidIlook that shocked? As though one light brush might knock me back on my senseless ass, even if I was sitting in a chair? I sincerely hoped not since I'd have no reasonable explanation as to why the sight of this man rendered me speechless.

Panic slammed into me. I forced myself to smile as I clamped my hand around Edward's. “This must be one of the brothers,” I said, smiling broadly. It was so fake, felt so unnatural, and it hurt my face just to keep the smile in place, but I didn’t stop.

At least I sounded normal. Although I didn’t understand how it was possible to sound normal when I felt like the roof was caving in and the earth was falling away beneath my feet. This couldn't be happening. My Prince Charming couldn't be related to the villain of the story. Even as I thought it, my writer's mind said that's usually how stories went.

Edward chuckled. “It is. Flynn, I think the only time I’ve ever seen you that silent is when you’ve been focused on getting a woman in front of your camera. Be warned though. Gabriella has already told me she’s tried her hand at modeling and didn’t care for it.”

My cheeks flamed as Edward leaned over and kissed my temple. He slid his arm around my shoulders and I didn't miss the possessive nature of the gesture. He was clearly telling his womanizing brother to stay away.

Flynn’s brows dropped low over his eyes and I saw a storm brewing there. His handsome face was twisted into that scowl I'd seen the first time we'd met.

I swallowed nervously, pulling my hands into my lap and twisting my expensive engagement ring around and around on my finger.

Here it comes…Flynn will tell him and it will all be over.

Odd, wasn’t it? That I felt some small bit of relief? That the thought of everything being out it in the open didn't terrify me?

“Tried your hand at modeling, huh?”

I tensed as Flynn flung himself into the seat across mine, his voice acerbic, eyes now cold and flat. He stared at me as though I was a fly in his soup, a woman he found unappealing. Or a lover he'd thought lacking.

That thought made my cheeks flame even more, and I continued to twist my ring around and around while Edward, unaware of my internal misery, flagged down a passing server.

“Well.” Flynn gave me a thorough, intense looking over and then nodded slowly, as if he’d come to a decision. “Your fiancé is pretty, Edward. I’ll give her that, but the camera doesn’t love just a pretty face. A good model needs...more.”

I flinched as if I’d been slapped.

Edward slid his hand from my shoulders up to my neck, his fingers gently massaging the tense muscles beneath my hair. “Flynn, behave,” Edward said, his voice low. Then he leaned over and brushed his lips across my cheek. “Ignore him. Flynn matured to the age of thirteen and then stopped, mentally, at least. We’ve never been able to figure out what the problem was.”

“Not all of us can be the perfect son, Eddie,” Flynn said. He looked up as a server appeared at his side. “Whisky, a double. Neat.”

While the server asked his preference, Claire Bouvier—my future mother-in-law—made a noise of disapproval.

I went from twisting my ring to twisting my napkin, thankful it was cloth and wouldn't come apart in my hands.

This was turning out to be an even bigger disaster than I could have ever imagined.

Decision made, Flynn nodded at the server and then straightened in his chair, staring his mother down with the same cool stare he’d leveled at me. “Yes, Mother?”

“It’s barely four o’clock.” She glanced around the room with her ice blue eyes, a discreet look, but I imagined she could have told us the names of every important person present. With her perfectly coifed blonde hair and elegant clothing, it was clear that she belonged here. “Must you be drinking this early?”


Page 15

“I would have already started, but I had to drive.” Flynn shrugged.

“I’m sure Flynn is only going to have the one,” Edward interrupted and I caught the look he shot his brother. In that moment, it wasn't just the color of his eyes that matched his mother's.

Flynn gave his older brother—half-brother?—a faint smile. “Of course. I have to be able to make a toast to my darling sister-in-law-to-be, after all.” He angled his head toward me and I felt the impact of his gaze straight down to my core.

My heart started to race. I felt a drop of sweat form on my forehead.

Bracing his elbows on the table, Flynn gave me a look of mock curiosity. “Edward didn’t really formally introduce us. What did you say your name was again?”

Oh, shut up. I narrowed my eyes at him.

He blinked at me, the picture of innocence, but the rakish grin that I knew so well began to tug on the corners of his lips.

“How rude of me,” Edward said, completely missing the looks between his brother and me. “You’re quite right, Flynn.”

“Gabriella Baine.” I lifted my chin, staring into Flynn’s arrogant gaze. I’d always hated having people answer for me. From the corner of my eye, I saw Edward closing his mouth, looking almost surprised that I'd given a response rather than letting him do it.

“Lovely name,” Flynn murmured, his eyes glinting with a wicked light. “I'm charmed.”

You’re a toad.I barely bit back the urge to hurl the words across the table at him.

Instead, I beamed at him like he had said the sweetest thing ever. “It’s lovely to meet one of Edward’s brothers.” Then, because just sitting this close made me remember how terrible he’d acted, how he’d made me feel, I leaned against Edward. I’d never needed to feel as loved and cherished as I did in that that moment. Edward was talking softly with his mother, but his arm came around me automatically and I relaxed into the embrace. Well, as relaxed as I could possibly be in my current situation.

Flynn stared at me, the kind of look that made me feel like he was remembering me naked. Naked…and covered in paint, his palms cupping, molding my breasts, his fingers trailing down…down…down…

I shivered and tore my gaze away.

Edward misinterpreted and wrapped his arm around my shoulders. “Are you cold, darling?”

“A little,” I lied.

He hugged me in closer to his side.

From under my lashes, I could see Flynn’s gaze still resting on me. He knew. He knew my shiver had nothing to do with the temperature and everything to do with him.

Damn him.

***

The next forty-five minutes crawled by at a pace that had me ready to scream. Edward's mother was icily polite, making it clear she was only holding her tongue because we were in public and courtesy dictated she remain cordial.

Of course, heridea of courtesy and mine are two different things, but I had learned a long time ago that what some people considered manners was a far cry from what I considered manners. It wasn’t even the difference between New York City versus the south. Most of the people I knew here were perfectly wonderful people, like Kendra, most of our mutual friends and, of course, Edward.

But then there were the assholes, the creeps, the snobbish elite and toads. Flynn fell into that last category, as well as the first and second, but I was determined not to classify my future mother-in-law just yet. I was going to marry Edward, and I needed to do everything in my power not to make things awkward between him and his family.

Still, it was a relief when everybody got up from the table and moved off into the club itself, giving me a chance to flee outside, claiming I needed some air.

“Five minutes,” I told Edward with a tight smile.

That was all I needed. Five minutes to level out and steady myself and I could deal with this for another hour or two. At least. Mentally groaning, I started to pace the lovely, elegant cobbled pathway, my arms crossed over my middle. I was just on my second lap when I felt eyes on me. My skin prickled and I knew immediately that I was no longer alone. And who it was.

Shit. Why did I have to be so fucking aware of him?

“Go away,” I told Flynn without even looking his way.

His response was to move up behind me as I came to the wall, just when I would have turned around. Sensing him behind me, I froze there and refused to turn. I couldn't look at him. I didn't want him there.

His heat seemed to warm my skin from head to feet, every inch of me warming without a single touch.

When he reached out and brushed his fingers across the side of my throat, I flinched and hunched in on myself. “Didn’t you hear me? Go away.” I tried to make myself sound as firm and mean as I could.

He leaned in and kissed my neck, his lips soft against the curve where it met my shoulder. Electricity danced across my skin.

Hissing, I spun around, intending to shove him, but he caught my wrists and jerked me against his hard, lean body.

As his mouth came down on mine, a strangled moan escaped me.

This…I lied to myself and insisted I hadn’t missed it.

I hadn’t missed the way his tongue stroked across my lips and then boldly pushed inside.

I hadn’t missed the way his hand cupped the back of my neck and tipped my head up into his kiss.

I hadn’t missed the way my nipples went hard at the first brush of his chest or the way everything else in me went soft and lax.

I hadn’t missed it…

It wasn’t until he started to run his hand down my thigh to the hem of my dress that my head woke up. So caught up in his kiss, I’d half-forgotten where we were, but the feel of his palm, hot and certain against my skin, sent sparks of anticipation and terror swimming through me. With a cry, I tore back.

Flynn's eyes narrowed as he tried to pull me close again. I acted without thinking,slapping himhard enough to make my hand hurt.

Instantly, his cheek bloomed red.

Undeterred, he pulled me back against him.

“Don't,” I whispered against his lips. My arms were pinned between us, making it impossible for me to push him away.

He stilled, and I felt his words drift over my lips. “You can't pretend you don't want me.”

“I want lots of things,” I told him. “Chocolate every day, ice cream at every meal. I want lots of things that are bad for me. That doesn't mean I let myself have them.”

He slowly let me go, an unreadable look in his eyes.

“We're not doing this again.” Shaking my head, I backed away. I could still feel his lips on mine and I wanted to lick them, taste him on me, but I wouldn’t let myself. I reminded myself that this was some sort of game to him. He was just fucking with me, exactly like he had before.

I started to turn away, but Flynn’s voice stopped me.

“He won't like it, you know.”

“What?” I didn’t look back at him. I didn’t trust myself.

He came closer, not stopping until I could feel his body heat warming me through the thin fabric of my dress.

“The pictures. And ifEdward finds out you slept with me? You might want to tell him now, before things go any further. Get it over with.”

“Are you going to tell him?” My voice hitched as I asked the question I'd had on the tip of my tongue from the moment I'd seen Flynn.

“Nah.” I could see my reflection in the window in front of me. The shades were drawn, turning the surface into an unsteady mirror and even I could see the fear on my face.

Flynn was watching me in that surface. Studying me. He traced a finger down my arm and said, “It won’t matter to him that you hadn’t even met him yet. He’s got peculiar ideas on propriety,darling. But you go ahead, try to hide it.” He leaned in, pressing his lips against my ear. “I kind of like knowing about your wicked side, Gabriella. Just know, Edward wouldn’t appreciate it.”

 

 

 

Chapter 2

Edward lay sleeping beside me, his back to me, his body a solid presence in the night. Guilt ate at me like tiny little ants and although I’d been half-lying earlier when I told him I didn’t feel well, it was entirely true now.

I’d ended up half-lost inside the country club and one of the people who worked there had taken pity on me and helped me find Edward, who had seen something was wrong right away. Since I couldn’t exactly tell him the truth—your brother just kissed me and oh, by the way, we had sex right before I met you—I’d lied and said I wasn’t feeling well.

He’d immediately made our excuses to his mother and stepfather. Flynn, strangely enough, had been nowhere to be found, so Edward and I had left and he’d brought me back to his mansion rather than returning me to my apartment. He'd put me to bed, not once trying to pressure me into anything physical. He'd been gentle and sweet...everything I'd ever imagined my prince to be.

Now, hours later, I lay in bed, unable to sleep, unable to stop thinking about Flynn, about what Edward would say if he found out what had happened.

I’m just not going to let him find out, then.

It was easier to tell myself that than it was to believe I could keep this a secret for the rest of my life.

Guilt twisted and tugged inside me, fighting its own little war.I did nothing wrong. It wasn’t like I slept with FlynnafterI met Edward. And the pictures…I mentally groaned. It was my body. I was still struggling to make a living. Edward had no idea what that was like, so he really didn’t have any room to judge me just because I let somebody take some pictures.

Okay. Not just somebody.

His brother.

And then his brother had put his hands on me…

My heart skipped a beat and I had to close my eyes.Not thinking about that.

Yes, go to sleep. You go to sleep and don’t think about all the secrets you’re hiding from your fiancé,a sly voice whispered.Don’t let that ugly little secret keep you awake.

I almost shouted at myself to shut up. The inner voices of my conscience were going to drive me insane. Rolling onto my side, I stared into the darkness and tried not to think about the warm, strong body of the man next to me, or the hot, sexy intensity of his brother.

Every time either of them came to mind, I tried to push them away.

Edward…he wouldn’t understand.

Flynn, that sexy, smoldering smile.

Edward, we were made for each other.

Flynn...nobody had ever lit me up quite the way he did.

After an endless war, I finally managed to drift off into a restless sleep, so restless.

But at least it was an escape.

***

Edward’s hands drifted over me. His lips caressed my chin, slid along up to my cheek to brush my ear. “I love you,” he murmured.

He pulled me back onto the bed with him and I sighed as my body lined up with his. I could feel him, hard beneath me. His hands slid down my back to grasp my hips, his fingers stroking along the skin of my ass.

Everywhere he touched, warmth followed.

“Of course he does,” said a mocking voice from behind. “Why wouldn’t he love you?”

I jerked when Flynn flung himself down on the bed next to us, but Edward didn’t even notice. His mouth slid down my neck to the edge of my nightshirt. He cupped my breasts through the silk and I caught his hands, still staring at Flynn.

“Stop it,” I hissed at Edward. “Don’t you see…?”

“Ignore him,” Edward said.

Flynn laughed, that bright and careless noise that tried to tug a smile out of me. “Yes, ignore me, Gabriella. But really, of course Edward loves you. You’re his pretty, perfect doll. You love the same things he does. It’s easy to make you happy. He can dress you up and take you out whenever he wants to play with you.”

Edward’s mouth followed the path of his hands, pulling down the front of my shirt to bare my breast. Embarrassment flooded me as he circled my nipple with his tongue. “Don’t!”

“See?” Flynn studied us clinically. “He takes you out whenever he wants to play. When he doesn’t, he’ll just put you away again.”

“Ignore him,” Edward said, his voice suddenly angry. He lifted me, positioning me over his hard cock. I cried out as he pushed inside me, quick and hard. “He’ll go away if you do.”

Edward thrust himself in and out, his body rough, but his kiss on my breast was gentle.

“Ignore him,” he said again, using his arm around my waist to encourage my movement.

Behind me, I felt soft lips on my shoulder.

“Can you ignore me?” Flynn asked.

He slid his hands around me and I gasped at the feel. Cold, wet red covered my breasts, beading my nipples and the arousal that had been missing slammed into me.

Edward continued to urge me to ride him while Flynn teased my nipples, his mouth on my neck. He sucked on the skin until I knew he'd left a mark. A mark that Edward would surely see. But still, I couldn't push him away.


Page 16

“I remember how you looked, wearing nothing but paint, standing in the sunlight in my studio,” Flynn rasped in my ear.

“Ignore him,” Edward said, twisting his hips and arching up, forcing his thickness deep, deep, deep inside me.

I wailed, my hands fisting on his shoulders.

“No.” Flynn kissed my cheek and plumped my breasts together. “No, I won't let you ignore me, because you want me. As long as you want me, I will always be here.”

I turned my head and looked up into his eyes and knew at once it was a mistake.

“You still want me,” he said again. “Admit it. Stop lying to yourself. To Edward.”

Then I was falling…falling…and when I stopped, it was just him.

Just Flynn.

And he came down on top of me, caught my mouth as he drove into me. Hard, fast strokes that made my body scream. Over and over until I was clinging to him and panting. Begging him never to stop...

***

 

I woke up with a half-sob caught in my throat, my body primed for orgasm, my skin ultra-sensitive and my head pounding. Even the brush of the soft cotton sheets was too much.

Edward was still sleeping next to me and the sky outside the windows was dark. I hadn't been asleep that long.

Drawing my knees up to my chest, I struggled not to cry.

I struggled not to moan.

My knees brushed against nipples so sensitive, just that light touch was enough to make me gasp.

You still want me…

Want him?

I was starting to realize I was seriously fucked up.

Edward made a low noise in his throat and I gave him a quick, nervous look. Scared I’d wake him, I slid from the bed and hurried over to the bathroom. I needed to pull myself together before I even attempted to go back to bed.

Once I’d ducked inside, I hit the lights and looked around. A bath. That’s what I needed. I’d take a hot bath. But as I was walking by the enclosed shower, I detoured and decided on a shower instead. I didn't feel patient enough to wait for the tub to fill.

As the steam enfolded me like a cloud, I rested my head back against the tiled wall and closed my eyes. It felt like heaven. My head continued to pulse and pound.

So did other parts of me.

I shot a look at the bathroom door and then slid a hand down my belly. Damp curls met my fingers and I bit my lip as I eased them lower. I swallowed a groan as I scraped the tip of my nail over my clit. It was swollen and throbbing. One slow circle, then another, and another…

I closed my eyes.Think of Edward…

But it wasn’t his face that came to mind.

I saw Flynn’s face, that day in the studio. Hard and intent, as he painted me with streaks of color and then stood over me, next to me, kneeling in front of me as he snapped picture after picture.

When I climaxed against my searching fingers, I was picturing him on his knees, driving inside me.

***

“Lunch?” Edward kissed me lightly on the lips before he climbed out of the car. We’d swung by the Bouvier building first. It was closest.

I wasn’t entirely lying when I shook my head regretfully. “I’ve got a feeling my boss is going to let me have it for coming in late. I might end up having to work straight through...and stay late.”

He frowned, then stroked his fingers across my cheek. “If you ever want to find something that makes you less unhappy, just say the word. I can help out.”

“I’m fine.” I wasn’t even going to consider that. I was paying my dues, I told myself. Paying my dues. I didn't want to be one of those women who only made it because of who she was sleeping with. Or, in my case, marrying.

Once he was striding toward the towering spire of the Bouvier empire, I looked up in the mirror to see Paul waiting for my instructions. “My place first. I need to change.”

And face Kendra. I’d already let my work know I’d be in late. Which was why I was already prepared to work through lunch and stay after for a bit.

***

“You’rewhat?”

She stared at my face, not at the ring I’d been waggling at her.

“Engaged.” I smiled, but it fell flat. “You know, love, marriage…I dunno, maybe a baby carriage somewhere off in the future?”

I’d hoped to elicit a laugh, but she just stared at me as if I had gone crazy.

After a moment, she turned away, pacing over to the window seat where she sat down. “Gabs, you barely know this guy. Please, please, please…” She dropped her face into her hands and sucked in a breath.

I had the feeling she was bracing herself.

When she looked at me, there was a hard glint to her light green eyes. “If you haven’t at least found out his last name, I’m calling your mother and siccing her on you. She’ll talk some sense into you.”

“Oh, yeah.” I poked out my lower lip and huffed up some air, blowing a few strands of auburn hair out of my face. Moving over toward the chair near the window seat, I sat. “I learned his name alright. Ah, you remember how you kept thinking he looked familiar?” I hesitated.

Kendra arched a brow at me. “And?”

“Well.” I swallowed. “He…um…well, his family kinda owns Bouvier.”

She blinked. Then she started to laugh. “Very funny, Gabs. Very…” She stopped laughing after she caught sight of my face. “Shit, you’re not joking, are you?” She sank onto the window seat.

“No. His name’s Edward Bouvier.” I managed a weak smile. “Kind of crazy, huh?”

She lurched up out of the window seat and started to pace. “Crazy? What the hell, Gabs?”

Her chestnut brown curls flew around her shoulders as she spun to face me. “Are you telling me that you’re engaged to the guy who owns that great big building where I go for half my shoots?ThatBouvier?”

Clearing my throat, I met her eyes then looked away. “Well, to be accurate, the family owns it. He’s got...” my voice cracked. “Brothers.”

“Brothers. Wonderful.” She dropped down on the couch and pulled a pillow to her chest. “Gabriella, if this is serious, if it’s real, I’m happy for you.”

“Thank you.”

“Just be sure.”

“Iam,” I said, smiling. It was my best smile. I knew it was.

Her eyes narrowed. “Then why do I get the feeling something is making you…nervous?”

Dammit.

“Well…” I got up and moved to the window, taking up the spot she’d vacated. “It’s…life is insane, Kendra. I’m not kidding. We had dinner at his country club so we could tell his parents. Well, his mom and his step-dad. His half-brother showed up.” I'd gotten that much out of Edward without sounding too curious. Flynn had been the accident child between Claire and her second husband, Albert McCreary. “And you…well. He introduces himself and I hear the name and I’m thinking, it’s coincidence, right? It’s gotta be and….”

Even I could hear the nerves, spilling out of me along with the words. As Kendra’s brows rose higher and higher, I tried to slow myself down, but I couldn’t Finally, I came to a halt and faced her, head on.

“Edward’s brother is Flynn.”

Kendra looked blank.

“Flynn McCreary.”

“Oh, no…” she whispered, lifting a hand to her mouth. Her eyes widened.

“Yes!” I dropped onto the seat again.

Her phone rang then, interrupting what I knew would have been a monumental cry fest. Instead of sobbing on my best friend’s shoulder, I was left sniffling on the window seat as she hurried out less than ten minutes later—the photo shoot had been rescheduled. For that day.

Change of plans?

Courtesy of Flynn McCreary.

 

Chapter 3

 

I’d been on the money when I'd said my boss wasn’t going to play nice about me coming in late. I worked through lunch, through rush hour, right up until it was nearly eight-thirty. She was calling me from her cellphone with things I needed to do.If, of course, I wanted to show I was serious about my position.

I was tempted to tell her to shove my position up her ass.

Except I needed the job, and I wanted the connections. The obviously expensive engagement ring didn't help matters since I knew a single call from me to Edward would take care of all of it. It also seemed to piss my boss off even more.

I didn’t see Edward at all, although he texted me off and of throughout the day. The messages should have made my day better.

They didn’t. They just reminded me that I was lying to him.

The apartment Kendra and I were struggling so desperately to keep was empty when I got home and when I finally checked my voicemail, I found out why. The photo shoot went well, they were all out having drinks and tapas, courtesy of Flynn.

The sound of his name made my heart hurt.

I wanted to text her back and tell her to dump a margarita on the bastard’s head, but that was the absolute worst thing I could do. The jerk would open his mouth to Edward, I just knew it.

You need to tell him.

That inner voice kept me awake half the night and I finally resorted to digging through the medicine cabinet until I found some generic knock-off of those nighttime over-the-counter pain relievers with that extra junk thrown in to help me sleep.

The last clear thought I had about Flynn was at the club, and the way his mouth had felt against mine, the way he'd tasted. And the way my heart had thumped so hard against my ribs when I’d heard his voice.

For a split second, just that one split second, I’d felt so painfully happy.

***

Morning came with a headache.

Sitting at the table, I watched as Kendra all but whimpered and crawled out of bed, clearly feeling about as lousy as I was, although for different reasons.

The signs of a hangover were pretty clear.

Out of pity, I went about brewing her some coffee while she stumbled into the bathroom. She collapsed onto the chair across from mine and took the cup with a pitiful moan a few minutes later. I put a bottle of water, already opened, and some ibuprofen down next to her.

“You’re an angel,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.

“Have fun?”

She went to nod and then stopped, cradling her head. A few minutes passed in silence as she rubbed her temples and sipped water and coffee alternatively.

Bit by bit, she woke up and when she finally focused on my face, her bloodshot eyes widened slightly. “Wow, honey. You look like hell.”

“Gee, thanks.” I tipped my cup toward her in salute. “Every girl loves to hear that in the morning, you know.”

She shrugged. “You know me. I love to offer a pick me up.”

“Yeah, well, consider my confidence boosted.” Then I sighed and propped my chin on my fist, looking outside the window where a steady downpour had been falling since I’d climbed out of bed.

“You’re not coming down with anything, are you?” There was a mix of concern and apprehension on my best friend’s face as she squinted her eyes to study me.

The last time I’d ended up sick, so had she and she’d almost passed out on a shoot.

“No, I’m just tired.” Looking down at the ring that felt like a five pound weight on my hand, I twisted it. “I guess I’m just nervous about everything. I mean, how are you going to get by without me here to make you coffee when you’re hung over?”

“Funny.” She made a face at me and sighed, looking around the beautiful studio. “Well, the good news is that I’m starting to bring in good money now, and steadily.” Despite the obvious headache, a light of pure delight gleamed in her eyes. “My agent called me yesterday and said I’ve got offers coming in like mad now. Money won’t be a problem…andyou were right. I finally had somebody call from that office that handles rent control stuff. The dickwad is jerking us around and it looks like he’s in major shit for it too.”

“Well.” I smiled again and this time, it felt more real. “That is seriously good news. Not only are you raking in the cash, that asshole is going to get what’s coming to him.”

She reached over and patted my hand. “You worry too much, Gabs. Everything works out.”

“Yeah.” I wished I had her optimism.

***

A catastrophe at the office kept Edward late again.

“What kind of fashion catastrophe can keep you late?”

“Family dramas,” he said and I could hear the weariness in his voice even over the phone. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. I was thinking we could go out for dinner even if I got out of here later than planned, but I doubt you’re going to want to go anywhere at eleven o’clock.”

I eyed the time on the DVD player beneath the TV Kendra and I shared, not quite managing to hide my grimace from her. “No, I’m not quite up to dinner that late. I’ll be honest, I’m pretty worn out already.”

He was quiet a moment and then asked, “You sound upset.”

“I’m not. I’m just tired.”

He seemed to accept that and we talked a few more minutes, making a date for lunch the following day before he hung up. I heard voices in the background, and although they weren’t raised, there was that agitated, animated tone that spoke of dissent.


Page 17

“Trouble in paradise?” Kendra studied me over her take-out dish of chow mein.

I looked down at my own order of bourbon chicken and shrugged. “Not between us. Apparently family drama.” A sick feeling twisted my stomach, but I forced myself to eat another bite. After swallowing, I flicked Kendra a look and gestured airily with my chopsticks. “Apparently there’s trouble in Bouvier land.”

“Just think. In a while, you’ll be part of that drama.” She winked at me.

That didn’t help my stomach at all. Nor did my vivid imagination, which was currently spinning up sordid tales about how Flynn had convened an emergency family meeting—did they have those?—about how he and I had met before, had a torrid affair and he’d spent a long, lusty afternoon snapping pictures of me naked. Then we’d parted angrily and I’d, out of a vengeful need to get back at him, gone after his brother, just to hurt him.

Which of course was bullshit, but it wouldn’t take much to convince Edward’s mother of that. I could already tell she was looking for a reason to dislike me. Flynn had one ready-made.

An active imagination was both the gift and the curse of being a creative person.

“Hey,” Kendra said, stirring me out of my misery. “Don’t look so glum.”

The couch shifted as she plopped down next to me and I found myself being pulled into a one-armed embrace, chicken and all. “You’re gonna see him tomorrow, Gabs. You’ve got a lunch date, right? You’ll see him and everything will feel all normal again.”

“Yeah.” I stabbed at a piece of chicken and forced myself to sound cheerful. “You’re right.”

***

Edward’s hands cupped my face, but the kiss I expected didn’t come. His driver, Paul, stood unobtrusively off to the side as my fiancé studied my face for a long, quiet moment. The concern in his eyes had me fighting the urge to squirm.

“You don’t look like you’re feeling well,” he said, concern in his voice.

“I'm fine.” The words came sharper than I’d planned, underscored by the twang of my Tennessee youth. Scowling at myself, I softened my voice as I murmured, “I’m sorry. I just…you and Kendra, both of you. I’m fine. I’m just not sleeping very well right now.”

I made a show of turning his watch to face me and then leaned in, giving him a quick kiss. “I’ve missed you and I’ve only got forty-five minutes, so let’s not waste it here.”

“Of course.” Edward glanced over at Paul. “Pick me up in an hour.”

We walked to one of the nearby cafes and found a table outside, crammed under a red and white striped awning. It was busy but not insanely so.

“This is one of my favorite places,” I said, sighing as I caught the smell of French fries and burgers. “It’s not quite as good as our favorite place, but sometimes a good burger just hits the spot.”

We talked for a few minutes and I could feel the tension draining away as we placed our orders and sipped icy soft drinks, the condensation forming on the cups almost the second the server placed them in front of us.

Edward looked like he was having some trouble sleeping himself, dark circles lying under his eyes.

I was about ready to say something when the server brought our food out. As she departed, Edward studied a burger that was nearly half the size of the plate. “I’m supposed to eat all of this?” he asked.

“I never do.”

“You probably should.” He picked up the burger and smiled at me. “If you’re not sleeping well, you might be coming down with something. You want to make sure you’re eating well to keep your strength up.”

Irritation started to build inside, but I told myself I was being stupid. He was just concerned. I was lucky to have a guy who cared that much.

“I’m not getting sick,” I said after I swallowed the bite I’d just taken. If my mouth was full, I wouldn’t snap at him. “I’ve just been worrying some.” I offered half of the truth. “About money, about Kendra and how she’s going to get by once I’m out of the apartment. That sort of thing.” I made a face and added, “If I could get a for-real writing job, things would get better, but…”

I trailed off and shrugged.

“You know, you could move in with me.”

I jerked my head up, staring at him.

“What?” He laughed and took another bite of his burger. “You were right, this is fantastic.”

As if noticing I was still staring at him, Edward smiled. “Gabriella, you’re going to be living with me after the wedding. Why not move in with me now? It would keep you from worrying so much about money, wouldn’t it?”

“I…” Swallowing, I busied myself with grabbing the ketchup for my fries, all but frowning at them. “It’s more complicated than that. I don’t want to leave Kendra in the lurch. I mean, she’s starting to get more money coming in and the rent control mess is going to get straightened out, but I can’t just up and leave her without letting her make plans, you know?”

“Of course.”

The understanding smile on his face made me feel like a heel.

“You know, with the magazine, I’m sure we’ve got writing positions opened.”

My hand jerked so hard, I almost knocked over my drink. Steadying it just in time, I blew out a slow, controlled breath and then laid my palms flat on the table. I could feel him staring at me as I struggled to get my emotions level before I answered. Okay, the moving-in thing, I could deal with, even if I wasn’t ready to do that yet. After all, he was right that we'd be living together after we got married. But this…?

No.

“Please don’t do that,” I said softly, still staring at the table and my plate of food that still close to overflowing. What I’d eaten now sat in my belly like a leaden weight and I didn’t think I’d be able to eat much more.

“What?” Edward asked.

When I looked up at him, I could see his confusion was genuine.

He didn’t get it.

But then again, maybe he couldn’t.

He didn’t know what it was like, perhaps, to work and struggle for something, to know he’d made it on his own.

“I’m going to do this on my own,” I said, taking the napkin out of my lap and folding it carefully. “Or I won’t do it at all.”

His head inclined, a shadow falling across his pale eyes.

Were we about to have our first fight?

“My writing is mine.”

Edward opened his mouth and I braced myself.

“Of course, Gabriella. I understand. I’m sorry.”

***

Late that night, I was in bed next to him again. His chest was snug against my back and my body felt almost bruised from the intensity of his lovemaking. We’d come together almost desperately, Edward showing a passion that seemed almost out of place with his normally controlled character. Afterwards, I was so exhausted, I’d thought I'd fall asleep immediately.

But here I was, wide awake and it was almost one in the morning.

I eased my way out from under his arm and padded my way over to my purse I'd left on his dresser. Quietly, I made my way into the bathroom, digging around in my purse for the nighttime painkillers I’d been using the past few nights. They rattled around inside my purse, but I couldn’t find them, so I started pulling things out, one by one.

Gum. Condoms, not that we were using them anymore. Birth control pills. A couple of crumpled ones. A brilliant blue business card, crumpled around the edges...shit.

My breath caught.

Immediately, a pair of cadet blue eyes flashed through my mind.

Flynn.

I stood there, holding his business card in my hand, my heart racing as memories of that afternoon burned their way through my mind.

I needed to throw it away. I needed to find the medication so I could get some sleep. Tomorrow, I’d seriously hit the internet and try to find a job that would pay better and maybe wouldn’t suck so much. Maybe I wasn’tentirelystressing over my job, but a better one would help.

What I didn’t need to do was stand there staring at Flynn’s card.

I should have crumpled it up and thrown it in the toilet.

But I didn’t.

Slowly, I smoothed it out and then, I pulled out my wallet and shoved it inside, tucked behind a picture of me and my parents.

 

Chapter 4

“What am I doing?” I whispered.

My fingers shook as I wrapped them around the banister and I almost turned around halfway up the flight of stairs.

You’re doing whatever it takes to make sure you sleep at night.

I’d had another nightmare, one where Edward and I had been getting ready to say our vows and Flynn had come strolling in, passing outa little somethingfor the guests. He’d made hundreds and hundreds of copies of the pictures. His palm prints, vivid red, on my breasts.

I had to see him and make sure he wasn’t going to tell Edward. Wasn't going to show him...

That was why I was here.

That was the only reason.

Just as I went to open the door, it flew open and a woman came tearing outside. “You are a piece ofshit, McCreary. You hear me? You’re slime. Your only value is behind that camera!”

Flynn appeared in the doorway, a rumpled t-shirt over an equally rumpled pair of jeans. He was about ready to fire something off at her—I could tell by the way he’d been opening his mouth—but when he saw me, he stopped. His head went back and he folded his arms over his chest. Heavy stubble darkened his jaw and he looked so incredibly beautiful, my hands started to itch.

Because you want to slap him again. That’s all.

If only I could believe that.

“Well, well, well…” he said after a moment. He came out into the hall and circled around me, as though inspecting me from head to toe. “If it isn’t the soon-to-be Mrs. Edward Bouvier. And how are you doing today, my sister-in-law?”

I pinned him with a withering stare. “I need to talk to you.”

“I’m listening.”

“Inside.”

He placed his back against the door and gave me a sweeping bow, one that would have done nobility proud. Or at least I thought so. Too bad he preferred to act like a toad rather than a prince. I eased past him and tried to find something to focus on besides the big bed over against the farthest wall, but he had it set up, clearly for a shoot…or maybe he’d been planning another seduction. Probably both.

“What was that all about?” I asked, the acid in my voice dripping. Nodding towards the hall, I gave him a sweet smile and asked, “Did your flavor of the day decide she didn't want to play with you?”

“Nah.” He scraped at the short growth of stubble on his cheeks, his eyes burning as he studied me. “She wanted to play, but I wasn't in the mood. She didn’t take it well and since I’m on a timetable for this shoot…”

He shrugged and shouldered around me. The feel of his arm brushing against my breast was almost painful, it felt so good. My nipples tightened and I turned away, determined not to let him see how good it felt, just to have him touch me again.He’s bad for you…bad, bad, bad.

“Whatever it is you want, Tennessee, you need to make it quick. I’ve got to get another model in here or I’m not going to get this assignment done.”

“Are you going to show Edward the pictures?”

For the longest time, he didn’t answer.

I heard movement coming from behind me and I made myself turn to face him. He had busied himself with straightening up the set, gathering up what I assumed was the clothing the model had been wearing. I didn’t know. As though he felt my gaze, he finally looked back at me. His eyes were flat and hard, his mouth unsmiling. “I’m not planning on it.”

I breathed out a sigh of relief. “Can I have them?”

“Why?” He angled his head, curiosity leaking onto his face.

“Because…” I frowned. “Well, I just…look, I’ll probably burn them.” I knew immediately that had been the wrong thing to say.

“Hell, no.”

He turned on his heel and strode over to what looked like a makeshift, open-air office, a table, a computer, files. After digging through a few piles, he grabbed his phone, then cast me a look so full of contempt that I nearly took a step back.

“You still here?”

“Flynn…I…”

“You can’t have them.” He gave me a glare icy enough to freeze me to the bone. “It’s not happening, don’t ask again. I’m not seeing my work destroyed just because you went and turned prudish on me. But relax. Like I said, I’m not planning on showing Edward. We might not see eye to eye, but he is my brother. I wouldn't do that to him.”

“Why do you have to be such an asshole?” Glaring at him, I closed the distance between us. I should have known that getting closer to him was the last thing I needed to do.

“Hey,” he said. “I don't make any bones about who I am and I don't try to be somebody I'm not.”

The look he gave me was telling. The unspoken words? Equally so.

“What's that supposed to mean?” I demanded.

“What do you think it means, sweetheart?” He raked me over with a look and then turned around. “Now you need to get out. I'm not kidding about cutting it close on this assignment. It's a big one and if I mess it up then I don't get another one. I like this job and I like my work. I take it seriously.”


Page 18

“You've never taken anything seriously in your life.”

He spun around, pure fury on his face. He stalked towards me, blue eyes blazing. “You don’t know shit about me or my life, Gabriella. You hear me? You don’t knowshit. I’m damn good behind that camera. It’s the one thing I am good at and it’s something that’s mine. My family name didn’t do it and it’s got nothing to do with Bouvier or my mother. It’s all mine.”

The passion in his voice hit me hard because I recognized it. I felt the same way about my writing. I sucked in a breath, ready to apologize, but he jerked his head toward the door.

“Now unless you’re planning to take Amber’s spot in this photo shoot, you need to leave.” His tone was dismissive.

I continued to stare at him.

“Now,” he said, voice hardening. “Or I call security.”

The vehemence in his words caught me off guard. I glanced at all the framed images and prints, placed with care on his walls, positioned to maximum advantage. He was right, I thought. I didn’t know anything about his life. Not because of anything I’d done…I would have loved to have gotten to know him, but he’d shut down any chance of that the first afternoon I’d been here.

“Yeah,” I said, swallowing. “Yeah, okay.” I nodded and turned to leave.

I don't know what drove me to do it. I was almost to the door when I found myself turning back to him, heart racing. I jutted my chin up. “I keep my clothes on.”

I can't say who was more surprised, him...or me.

For a long moment all he did was stare at me. Then he shook his head. “Not a good idea, Tennessee. Your fiancé would have a heart attack.” A mocking smile twisted his lips and he looked almost cruel as he paced closer. “And then he'd probably kill me. This is an assignment. You get that? We’re not playing around anymore. You can’t strip off a few pieces of clothes, toss your hair around and call it done when you get uncomfortable. This is a serious shoot, with specific requirements set out by the client.”

“I understand. You’ve made it clear you’ve got an assignment,” I said, rolling my eyes. “This all means it pays, right?”

He laughed and the sound had a wild edge to it. “Oh, yeah, it pays. These are for book covers though, Tennessee. Very public.”

My skin burned, lust churning in my gut. Guilt followed on the heels of it and I told myself I needed to go, needed to leave. It had been a bad idea to even come here.

As if he could read my mind, he said, “You don’t have what it takes for this, baby. You would freak out if you saw your body all over the cover of some steamy erotica.Edwardwould freak out.”

“I would not freak out.” Indignation slammed through me, drawing my spine straight. I jabbed my finger into his chest. “I was able to strip naked in front ofyou, McCreary. I think I could handle being in some torrid clench on some paperback.”

“Uh-huh.” Flynn’s cocky look told me everything I needed to know and it was the final push I needed.

He didn’t think I’d do it.

Then a thought hit me and my anger died away. “Unless...I mean, your client isn't looking for someone like me.”

His eyes flickered. “Someone like you?”

“My hands are one thing.” I looked away as I remembered how gorgeous the woman who'd left had been. “Something like this.” I swallowed hard. “I don't exactly look like that other model.”

“Are you shitting me?”

My head snapped up.

“You're really going to use that as an excuse?”

“What?” A bit of anger started to burn away my insecurity.

“If you're going to chicken out, don't act like it's because I don't think you're not gorgeous. Just say you don't have the guts.”

I felt the same flash of fury that I'd felt when I'd first met him. I flicked him off and he laughed.

“Still doesn't mean you're not chicken.”

I let a slow smile spread across my face, the same smile that had gotten me into trouble at the bar. His reassurance, however rudely stated, that I looked good enough for it, had made my decision for me.

“Does my face have to show?”

His expression was almost comical. Finally he tilted his head back, as though he was praying for patience. Or strength. Shoulders rising and falling on a sigh, he rolled his neck so that he could see me from the corner of his eye. “I can figure out a hundred ways to keep your face from showing. But we both know you're not going to do it.”

I glared at him. “As long as I can keep my clothes on and my face doesn’t show, I'm in.”

He studied me for a moment, and something in my expression must've told him I was serious. “You can stay dressed, but those clothes…?” He shook his head. “They have to go. As to your face?” He snorted. “Don’t worry, Tennessee. It’s not your face I’m interested in.”

I wanted to slap him for the leer that had accompanied that last remark, but I settled on a cool smile. When I held out my hand to shake, however, he gave me his back, moving to dig around on his desk.

“What are you doing?” I snapped.

“Gotta sign a release. I need to find a new contract for you,” he said, his voice brisk and blunt. This was professional Flynn. “We’ll go over terms and payment, all of that.”

The factual, calm way he was approaching things made me relax. As my tension fell away, I put my purse down and shrugged out of my cardigan, hanging them on one of the hooks along the front end of the studio.

“You’re certain you can keep my face out of it?” I asked, nerves starting to fight past the excitement.

Flynn shot me a dark look. “Don't worry, Tennessee. Like I said, it's not your face I'm interested in.”

***

After I'd signed the release and the contract, I’d reiterated I wasn’t going to be naked and Flynn had responded by tossing some clothes at me.

Now, as I stood under the hot lights, I almost wished Iwasnaked.

I’d be a little cooler at least. Maybe not more comfortable, but cooler. The pants were some sort of fake leather and they might as well have been painted on. The bra barely fit and he’d adjusted the back of it and done something else so that my cleavage looked like…well, notmine.

The first twenty minutes were grueling and I developed a whole new level of respect for Kendra. After another thirty minutes, I realized I should have demanded more money. He snapped at me for shifting positions—I think I moved a fraction of an inch—and I took one of the fake knives he’d given me to hold and threw it at him.

“Excuse me, but I'm sort of new at this, remember?”

To my surprise, he grinned. Regarding me with so much heat I felt scalded, Flynn came to me with a swagger. He stole all my personal space and every inch of bare skin cried out for his attention. There were a lot of inches.

He didn't stop moving until there was no room left between us and even then, he found a way to surround me, his arms coming to bracket me up against the faux wall he'd chosen for a backdrop. “You might be new at this, Tennessee. But you're a natural. Now...” He reached and grabbed my hip.

I smacked at his wrist. “Hands off!”

“Don't worry.” He twisted his hand around, trapping my wrist. Something akin to misery flashed in his eyes as he rubbed his thumb over the place where my engagement ring had been. I wasn't stupid enough to wear it in the shoot. “We had some heat, but I'm not into poaching. Like I said, Edward's my brother. Just relax and...”

I almost reminded him that he'd kissed me after he'd known that Edward and I were engaged, but I didn't want to bring that up. I didn't even want to think about it. Ever.

His eyes held mine while he brought my hips forward, cocking the left one out. He twisted me some, the position unnatural, but not quite as uncomfortable as how I’d been standing.

“Better?”

“Yeah.” I would have said something else, but he moved around me, using his hands to guide my back, arching it slightly so that my breasts were thrust higher. There were trails of sensation tingling up my spine from where he had touched and I was so glad the bra he had given me was padded, otherwise he would have visible proof of how much his touch affected me.

Don’t worry…I’m not into poaching.

Guilt flooded me and some of the heat cooled. It was a good thing too, because if Flynn put his mind to it, I had a bad feeling he could have made me forget about the fact that I was promised to someone else. To his brother. I would have hated myself afterward, even more than I hated myself now, but I wasn't sure I would've been able to control it.

“Let’s get this done,” I said, my voice brusque. “How much longer?”

“We’ve got time for a few more solo shots before Cody shows up.”

“Solo…?” I frowned at him as he backed up.

“Keep that scowl up, Tennessee.”

“Who cares if I scowl; my face isn’t supposed to show, remember? And who is Cody?”

“Yeah, damn. Oh, well. We need a full spread, some of you solo and then some of you with a male model. Cody is...the model I usually work with. Okay, turn away and face the wall, face half turned toward me. Trail your left hand down your hip—drop the knife first. Keep the knife in your right hand and lift it. Act like I’m standing right in front of you and you’re going to shove it right into my gut. That’s it. Perfect.”

He kept talking me through the rest of it and after a while, I half sank into a daze, a mindless sort of state where little existed save for his voice and the heat of the lights. It was easy, for that stretch of time, to forget about everything, even my guilt.

***

The slamming of the door tugged me out of the fugue-like state and I blinked, looking around as though I’d just woken up. Flynn frowned and looked at the door as he lowered his camera.

“Cody’s here.”

I nodded, swallowing. “I need some water.”

He jerked his head toward the partitioned area that hid a small kitchenette and I went to grab a bottle. My throat was dry. The rest of me was covered in a fine sheen of sweat and I was suddenly exhausted. How did Kendra do this all day?

When I came out from behind the screen, I stopped dead.

Okay.

Wow.

Flynn expected me to pose withthatguy?

He looked to be four or five years older than me and he was…well. Perfect. On a physical level, I don’t think I’d ever seen a more beautiful man in my entire life. He was better looking, if possible, than both Flynn and Edward together. His eyes were such a piercing blue it was almost painful just to look into them. His face was the kind of thing master sculptures would spend their entire lives trying to reproduce…and fail.

Flynn caught sight of me and rolled his eyes. I had the feeling my reaction was fairly common. The man smiled at me. Damn. Not only was he drop-dead gorgeous, he was approachable too.

“This is Cody. Cody, Gabriella.”

Cody's left brow arched. “Wow, popular name. My brother’s fiancé has the same name.” He grinned at me, displaying a charming dimple in his left cheek.

Flynn snorted and then shot me a sly smile before looking back at the other man. “Cody, this is going to be your new sister-in-law. Gabriella, meet your other future brother-in-law.”

Both of us looked at each other for a minute and then we gaped at Flynn together. I waited for the punchline. Cody, though, had no such reservations.

He came at me with a grin and a whoop, grabbing me around the waist and picking me up to spin me around in the air. “You've got to be kidding me. Edward didn't tell me you were a model.” He put me down and studied my face, clasping my chin to turn my face from side to side. I had the feeling he was trying to figure out if he’d seen my face around before.

I gently nudged his hand down while Flynn came up from behind him and smacked him in the back of the head. Cody glared at him and I could suddenly see the resemblance between the two of them. I remembered Claire saying she'd had two sons with her first husband. That would've made Cody the middle child, which meant I'd guessed his age about right.

“Edward doesn't know, Cody.” Flynn’s voice was curt. “She needed the money and I needed the model. Amber had a tantrum and stormed out. I’m shooting photos so that her face doesn’t show. Just don’t tell Edward, okay?”

My face heated as Cody’s gaze slid from his brother to me, suddenly serious. “Edward doesn’t know.”

I shrugged and looked down, unable to meet those clear blue eyes.

His face softened. “Well, I won’t tell him.” Then he grimaced. “But damn…you two are going to get me in trouble if he finds out.”

He turned away and strode toward the set. As he did, he stripped off his shirt and I stared at the hard, muscled perfection of his back. Wow. He was probably only about an inch taller than Edward, maybe two inches taller than Flynn, but he was definitely bigger than both. Edward's body was athletic, packed muscle. Flynn's was lean. Cody had the kind of rippling muscles that...well, that sold romance novels.

“So, what happened with Amber?” Cody asked. “She still trying to get you naked or what?”

I whipped my head around to stare at Flynn.


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But he had turned his back.

“Cody, just shut up.”

***

Nowthiswas awkward.

I’d heard that Hollywood kisses were anything but sexy in real life and now I could believe it. Cody and I weren’t kissing, but he had put his hands all over me. While the man was physical perfection, I didn’t know him and he was going to be my brother-in-law. Sure, maybe it would have been different if it was Flynn.

That sly voice inside me whispered,you should be thinking it would be different if it was Edward.

But Edward wouldn’t be able to relax in front of a camera and I knew that.

Flynn could. I suspected he even had. And Flynn could probably make me forget the camera was there. The guilt would choke me when it was done, but right now, I was too aware of the camera, and too aware of the fact that the man with his hand dangerously close to my crotch was a virtual stranger, family to be or not.

Flynn had kept telling me to relax, but it was almost impossible.

“I suck at this,” I said, groaning.

“No, you don’t.” Cody gave me a brotherly pat on the shoulder with the hand thatwasn’tintimately placed. “You’re just nervous. It'll pass.”

“Let’s take a break,” Flynn said abruptly.

It had only been twenty minutes since we’d started, but it felt like hours and I happily untangled myself from Cody and all but ran for the cardigan I’d left hanging by the front door. Wrapped in it, I came back into the main area of the studio to find Flynn and Cody leaning against the tall stools and sipping water.

“You still seeing that fitness guru wannabe, Jake, something. What was his last name?” Flynn asked.

I blinked and looked over at Cody.

Cody made a face. “He called himself a physical wellness counselor, and no.” He tipped his water toward Flynn and added, “You asshole. You called it. The dickhead was looking at me to bankroll his life guidance centers. 'Fitness centers that feed the mind, body and soul.'”

“You’re gay.” The words popped out of me and immediately heat scalded my face. I really hadn't meant it to come out like that.

“And you’re straight.” Amused, Cody grinned at me. “At least I hope you are since you're marrying my big brother. Don’t look so embarrassed. Yeah, I’m gay. It's not a secret.”

Flynn stared at me.

There was a look of almost challenge in his eyes.

I stared right back at him. Hell, I didn’t care if his brother was gay. Actually, it made it a lot easier. Maybe it was stupid, but I could relax better having a gay guy put his hands all over me for some pictures versus a straight guy.

A faint smile curled his lips and he tipped his head at me.

I looked back at Cody and grimaced. “I’m sorry, that sounded really rude. I’ve got this really bad problem. My friend Kendra says I have no filter and everything that comes into my head usually just comes right out of my mouth.”

“Wow. I bet our mom justlovesyou.”

“No.” I sighed. “She really doesn’t.”

Cody got up from his stool and came to pat me on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, Gabs.” He paused then asked, “Or do you only go by Gabriella?”

“Kendra calls me Gabs.” I found myself relaxing by the second.

“Cool. Don’t worry about my mom. Edward and Edward’s father are really the only ones who ever earned her complete approval.”

He and Flynn shared a strained look that told me exactly what it was that bound these two half-brothers together. I felt a sudden pang of homesickness at the thought of my own family. We'd never had anywhere close to the money these guys had growing up, but at least I knew my parents loved me, unconditionally.

Flynn capped his water. “Let’s get back to work.”

It got easier from there. Knowing that the hand on my butt or near my crotch or lying along the outer curve of my breast had absolutely no sexual interest in me made it easier to fall back into that state I’d been in earlier. It was a weird feeling, a sort of high, I thought, something I could get used to and when it was done, I was both drained and energized.

I wanted to collapse, but at the same time, I knew I’d never sleep. Not any time soon at least.

“How about dinner?” Cody came up and slung his arm around my neck, kissing my temple. I’d already figured he was an affectionate sort. He hugged Flynn—which had shocked the hell out of me—and several times during the shoot, he'd embraced me too. The easy affection was almost soothing. My family was like that and I hadn't realized how much I'd missed it until now.

Glancing over at Flynn, I went to say no. But he shrugged. “Why not?”

Why not? The tension from earlier was gone and really, wasn’t it better if I found a way to get along with Flynn? Maybe even just to level things out and be friends?

“Sure.”

That was how we ended up at a crazy little Latin restaurant with amazing sangria, fantastic food and music that made my feet itch. As if sensing it, after we’d placed our order, Cody tugged me out onto the dance floor and we spent the next twenty minutes dancing.

By the time the night was over, I was somewhat relaxed and I felt more accomplished than I had in a very long time. I had money in my pocket. Money I’d worked damn hard for and Flynn had told me it was possible another job might come up that would work for me. He’d keep me in mind.

Better than that, Cody and I had hit it off. I'd been worried it wouldn't last outside the studio, but no, he really liked me and I liked him. It was almost like I'd known him my whole life. That, more than anything else, felt amazing.

At least I’d have one friend in this family.

 

Chapter 5

Edward eyed the Latin décor with exasperation and fondness as we climbed out of the car. “Cody, we won’t be able to hear ourselves think,” he said, shaking his head.

Cody shot us a wide grin. “I don’t come here to think, Edward. I come here to dance, to eat and to drink.” He winked and hooked his arms through mine and Kendra’s, dragging us inside, leaving Edward to trail along.

I shot him a look and saw that he was smiling. As I'd found often happened when Cody smiled, I found myself smiling back.

We were shown a table on the uppermost level, which turned out to be the quietest and the most private in the place.

“Well, we won’t find any naan here,” Edward said, leaning over to whisper in my ear. “But it should be fun. It looks like you and Cody are getting along.”

“Yes.” I nodded as I focused on the menu.

When Edward had begun to make introductions at the beginning of the evening, Cody had grabbed my hand and kissed it. “Gabs!” he’d exclaimed, his eyes wide in false surprise. “How did this happen?” Then he'd looked at Edward and, without blinking, had said, “I don’t believe it…you’re stealing my girl.”

He’d laughed at the look on Edward's face, then hugged me, telling Edward that we’d bumped into each other at some point and had been introduced, by a photographer, he'd thought. It had been tossed out casually and when Edward had glanced at me for further explanation, I’d just smiled and shrugged.

Cody had quickly shifted subjects by grabbing Kendra and kissing her lavishly on the mouth. “I alwaysknewyou would hit it big, gorgeous. Now look at you! How much longer before Bouvier springs and has your face out on Times Square for the whole world to see?”

Kendra had glowed at the idea of it. The kiss hadn't hurt either. Cody may have been gay, but he was smoking hot.

The restaurant wasn’t conducive to quiet chatter, but we managed to talk somewhat and laugh through the meal. After we ate, we went down to the dance floor. Edward bowed out before we did and Kendra, Cody and I danced together until we were all exhausted. It was nice to be able to dance without any expectation or worry that someone would try to pick me up. Cody was a great deterrent against would-be suitors, better even than the ring shining under the club lights.

Collapsing into a vacant booth in the shadows at the back, we ordered a pitcher of sangrias and tried to catch our breath. Kendra was halfway through her glass when somebody emerged from the knot of bodies and she straightened up.

I recognized him. His name was Jordan and he and Kendra had dated off and on, with a lot of off, lately.

She shot me a look.

I rolled my eyes.

When he bent down and whispered in her ear, she shrugged. He straightened and she took a casual drink of her sangria, pretending to think. He said something else to her and she sighed, rolling her eyes dramatically and then pointed to me.

I gave a look of mock confusion.Sure. Blame whatever on me. It wasn't the first time I'd played the bad guy so she could either get some, or deny some, depending on her mood. This kept up for a more minutes and then eventually, she leaned over to me.

“We’re going to dance for a while. He wants me to go home with him. Shake your head and act like you don’t me to go.”

“I don’t care!” I shouted over the din.

“I know that! But you should…he won’t quit the hot and cold!” She made a face at me.

“That’s because you string him along, you tease.” I made a face at her. Then as she straightened, I caught her hand and shook my head, giving her my best sad face.

She shot Jordan a look. Damn, the girl should have gone into acting. Even from here, I could see his jaw clenching and I watched as he turned his head, staring off into the crowd. When Kendra bent back to me, I said, “You’ve made him suffer enough. The guy really likes you. Either let him go or do something about it.”

She shrugged. “He’s fun, but…I don’t know. I think I’ll go home with him tonight.”

She waggled her fingers with me as she walked away. I almost felt bad for the guy. She made my head spin and I was just her wing-man. Or would it be wing-woman? Whatever I was, I didn't know what the hell she wanted.

Before the night was over, Cody ended up hooking with somebody, too, so it was just me and Edward as we left the club. I slid into the back seat and he followed. I barely waited for him to close the door before I moved closer.

“My place is only a couple minutes from here,” I said, half sitting on his lap as I kissed him.

It had beenwaytoo long since I’d kissed him, touched him.

I could feel the rising heat in his body, but he eased me over to the side and gave me a pained look, nodding toward Paul on the other side of the privacy glass. “We can be at my house in just over thirty minutes. Not much traffic in the city once we’re through this crush.”

“But…” I trailed my fingers over his cheek. “Kendra went home with Jordan. We’d have the place to ourselves.”

He caught my hand and pressed a kiss to my knuckles. “It’s a studio. What if she ends up back there at three in the morning because things don’t work out? That’s not much of a place for any kind of privacy.” He was still holding my hand and now, he looked at me over it, his gaze pinning me in place as he sank his teeth into the fleshy part of my palm.

It sent a shiver through me.

His voice was low as he spoke, a rough edge to his words. “The things I want to do to you demand complete privacy, Gabriella. I plan to make you cry out my name long and loud, and I don’t want to risk your roommate coming home or having to worry about nosy neighbors listening in.”

He tucked me under his arm and hit the intercom button. “Home, Paul.”

I sank against him, sighing.

I guess I could see why neighbors overhearing us would get to him. I’d been kinda thrown the first time I'd heard the bed-frame from the apartment above rattling. But Kendra wasn’t likely to stumble in at three in the morning. Not when she was with Jordan.

It wasn’t a big deal though.

Not really.

***

I reached for his head and his voice, low and rough, said again, “Keep hold of the headboard, Gabriella.”

Swearing, I closed my hands around the carved wood and tried to lift my hips, needing more. More friction. More ofhim. But, he licked me slowly, his tongue circling around and around my clit.

He’d kept me hovering on the edge of orgasm for so long, I thought I’d go insane. Now I was sure of it.

“Please,” I moaned, desperate.

And this time, he answered, bringing his hand around and pushing two fingers inside me, curling them at just the right moment.

I came hard and fast, calling out his name. I felt like I was on fire, as if the climax was burning through me and would leave me nothing but ash. But it was worth it.

I was still shuddering when he flipped me over onto my belly and lifted me onto my knees. He shoved into me with one long, slow push and by the time he was done stretching me, I was keening and ready to come all over again. I could barely breathe with the intensity of my need.

“More.” I rolled my hips back against him and sighed out his name. “More, Edward, please.”

And he gave it to me. Slow, deep lazy strokes that brought me to a slow, lazy orgasm. If the first had been fire, this was a slow smolder, like liquid coating my skin, filling me until my climax washed over me.


Page 20

He waited until I came before he started to thrust deeper, harder, faster. Each stroke was more than the one before, reaching far into me, joining us so intimately that I couldn't distinguish his body from mine. I felt him come, his cock jerking inside me, the hot spill of it adding to the sensations coursing through me and nearly making me come again. When he pulled out, a shudder did go through me, a mini-orgasm that made me whimper.

He chuckled, that manly sort of laugh that said he knew he'd done a good job. He pulled me back against him and wrapped his arms around me as our hearts slowed and our blood cooled.

“I’ve missed you this week,” Edward murmured against my temple. “I love you.”

“Hmmm…” I knew there was something I should say in return, but I was already drifting to sleep.

 

Chapter 6

“A party?” Terror seized my heart as I sat next to Edward. We were at our favorite restaurant and my belly was full of lovely wine, naan and curry, but now I thought I just might lose it all on Edward’s lovely suit. Fear did terrible things to me and I was actually petrified. “Um, I’m sorry. Did you say a party? At your mother’s home?”

“It’s a family affair.” He smiled at me and brushed my hair back behind my ear. “Cody will be there. Flynn too, but you two didn't seem to get along too well last time. Don't worry about it though. Flynn's not easy to get along with.”

I grabbed my water and guzzled it as much to give myself time to think. “I don’t know...”

“Gabriella.” Edward took the water from my clutching hands, gently prying it away. “You’re going to be my wife. There are certain functions I have to attend, duties I need to...I want you to be there with me. Please say you’ll do this for me.”

How could I say no? Those beautiful blue eyes watched me so steadily. And he gave me so much. The least I could do would be this.

“Okay.” I nodded.

He leaned over and kissed me. I tasted the spice from the food we’d eaten on his kiss, and some of the nerves untangled. I could do this, right? It was a party, not something scary. He’d be there with me. Cody would be there too. I refused to think about Flynn, because really, that wasn’t going to help.

We spent the rest of the evening feeding each other dessert and sipping wine and I was able to relax, forget about the party. It was a week away. I could procrastinate with the best of them. Why worry about something so far in the future when it wouldn't do me any good?

But after we’d settled into the car, Edward handed me something that made my worries about the party surface.

I looked at it, confused. Right up until I saw the credit card with his name...andmine on it. “What’s…?” I swallowed. “What’s this?”

“You’ll need a dress,” he said softly. “For the party. Since you’re attending as a favor to me, it’s only right that I pay for the dress. Please don’t say no.”

I tightened my grip on the card. I wanted to give it back. I had some money in my account thanks to the two modeling jobs, but I still had to buy a wedding dress and the ones I’d been looking at, the ones that would hold up for a society wedding were going to cost a lot. I couldn't expect my family to pay for much of anything for the wedding. I was the middle of six kids from a lower middle-class family. I needed to save every penny I could and buying a dress suitable for a Bouvier party would definitely cut into the little I had. I thought of the looks I’d been given at the country club and I knew nothing I could find in my closet would cut it.

“Okay.” I nodded. My pride wasn’t going to get in the way of doing something for the man I loved. I smiled at him. “Okay.”

***

“Thanks for coming,” I told Cody as he breezed inside the apartment. He stopped and looked around before turning back to me. “Kendra has a shoot and Edward…well…”

“Big brother is busy running the fashion industry.” Cody gave me that charming, boyish grin and shrugged. “It’s not a problem. Trust me, I know exactly what kind of threads you need for the party with the sharks next weekend.”

“Sharks.” I swallowed. “Lovely.”

It had been three days since I’d committed to going. It was now Sunday and I’d put off shopping until the weekend because I’d thought Edward could go with me to help pick something appropriate. My plans were dashed when, on Friday, he’d announced he had to go to London for some sort of meeting.

I'd understood, of course, but I couldn’t do this alone. Now, thanks to my charming soon to be brother, I didn’t have to.

“This place is fantastic,” Cody said, moving over to the window seat and leaning forward to look out. “I love it.”

“Really?” I laughed sourly. “Your brother doesn’t think so.” Immediately, I regretted the bitter tone. I was just pissy because I missed Edward. He'd never said a bad word about my place. Not really. Then again, he hadn't exactly seen it either.

He snorted. “If it doesn’t come with maid service, linen service and turn down service, Edward isn’t going to think much of it. He’s not as rigid as Mom, but he’s still got a bit of a stick up his ass.”

“He does not!” I glared at him.

“Oh?” Cody straightened and looked at me, a dare in his eyes. Arms folded across his chest, he asked, “So when was the last time you two spent a night here? Ordered in take out from the local Chinese place…?”

When I had no response, he smiled. “He’s not a bad guy, Gabs. Don't get me wrong. I love my brother. But he’s spent so much time being groomed, and then grooming himself for Bouvier, he never saw the world outside what Mom created for us. Flynn and me?” He shrugged and his voice softened. “Sometimes I think Mom wished she’d had another little Edward instead of me.”

“That’s not true,” I contradicted him automatically.

“Yeah, it is,” he said it with no malice and no bitterness. “She loves me, I know that, but I’m a queer in a rich, fairly conservative family, Gabs. It's PC to say that you're all for equal rights, but it something else to have someone like me as part of the family. But, Mom didn’t throw me out when I told her and she hasn’t tried to change me. She's even been fairly decent to the few guys I'd brought home for the family to meet. For her, that’s fairly impressive. But I know I’m a disappointment.”

Uncertain of what else to do, I went to him and hugged him. I wasn't even close to petite, but Cody made me feel tiny, even when I was the one offering him comfort. “I’m sorry.”

He squeezed me back. “You can’t pick family. Blood anyway. Sometimes, though, we get lucky with the ones we can choose.” Then he kissed my temple. “I’ll tell ya what, Gabs. If I could've been the one choosing, I don’t think I could have picked any better than you.”

***

This so-called family event that Edward had invited me to wasn’t just some backyard barbecue. Granted, I hadn’t expected it to be, but I’d thought maybe it was a small family gathering.

Cody let me know just how wrong I was and I was even more grateful I'd thought to ask him to help me.

It was an annual event and there were usually anywhere from four to five hundred in attendance. Just hearing the numbers made my head swim. And, of course, because the Bouvier family was one of the biggest names in the fashion industry, their family was held to the highest of standards. Since Cody had been to more than one of these before, I put myself in his capable hands. His capable hands led me, via the subway system, to Saks.

I was just dressed in what I had come to accept was ‘my’ style: country girl meets city chic and while I thought I looked pretty damn good, I doubted it was up to Bloomingdales—or Bouvier—standards. Since I couldn’t change that, I decided not to worry about it. I’d fake it.Fake it until I make it.

I’d been doing a lot of that since I’d come to New York and so far, it hadn’t failed me yet. With Edward's— no, I corrected myself—my credit card inside the one good purse I had, a second-hand Coach purse I’d found on eBay, I let Cody draw me inside the magical and intimidating sphere that was Saks.

The beautiful people were everywhere. People in elegant fashions, designer labels, the kind Kendra was starting to get called in to model. The kind I couldn’t even hope to afford. I was certain people would look at me and see me for what I was. A backwoods Tennessee nobody who didn't belong.

Cody must have sensed something was off because he hooked his arm through mine and started pointing funny things out, but he didn't say a word about it.

“That's one of the fashion lines my mother helped launch. Hideous, isn't it? Flatters nobody and makes everybody look like that one weird girl fromThe Breakfast Club.”

“I liked the weird girl,” I told him, trying to let go of the tension building in my neck.

“So did I. Convinced myself I had a crush on her for a while. Then I accepted the fact that the only guy on there that interested me remotely was Judd Nelson.” Cody grinned down at me. “The age difference though? A bit of a problem. And he’s not that hot now.” He switched easily from one topic to another. “See over there? Today’s hottest fashion, recycled straight from the seventies. Of course, the designer was bragging all over about how he had this hot new trend that had never been seen before.”

The skinny-fitting jeans with flared legs were done in eye-searing patterns. The only thing ‘new’ about them were that the psychedelic prints might actually glow in the dark. Had that technology existed in the seventies? I wasn’t sure.

“Next it will be beehives and poodle skirts.” Cody shuddered.

“Vintage is coming back,” I told him.

“Hush.” He shoulder-bumped me. “You're ruining my vibe.”

I would have said something else, but he dipped his head and shushed me. Then, before I could process what he was thinking, he unhooked his arm from my neck and hooked our elbows instead. In the next five seconds, I watched Cody Bouvier do a total personality change.

He stopped walking and began to sashay.

He went from talking to me, to chattering at me like a magpie, gushing at shoes and purses. It was almost like being trapped in the clearance sales with Kendra. If she’d been hopped up on speed.

“Oh, my goodness, would you justlookat those shoes…and justthink, Gabby!” He held them up and gave me a sidelong smirk. “That purse. The one you had when we were out dancing the other day. These shoes would lookperfectwith that purse. You should totally buy them. Edward would love to see you buying a few more pieces…”

I gaped at him, unable to believe what I was seeing and hearing. “Are you—?”

My question was interrupted by a high squeal.

Really, the girl squealed.

I stared as she threw herself between us and wrapped her arms around Cody. He returned the enthusiastic greeting by hugging her back and then breaking away to grab the woman’s face and plant a lavish kiss on her mouth then each cheek. That part of him wasn't an act.

“Sweetheart!” He beamed at her. “I had noideayou’d be here today, but aren’t you just the answer to this man’s prayers.”

“Cody!” The woman all but bounced as she hugged him again.

Then, as Cody glanced at me, she turned her head and I found myself staring into a pair of purple eyes.

The contacts—they had to be—made her huge eyes that much more engaging and she flashed a wide smile on her pretty face. “Hello! How are you?”

Before I had the chance to answer, Cody hugged me up against him with his free arm. “Dawn, we so need your help. This is Gabby. Gabby is marrying my older brother, Edward, you know the one…”

While he droned on, I find myself squirming, miserably uncomfortable as the saleswoman held out a hand. I hadn't even thought about what it would be like to be recognized as a Bouvier in public.

“Congratulations!” Another squeal.

“Thanks.” I brushed my hair back in a nervous gesture and then my left hand was caught in hers while she studied my ring.

“Wow, that’s some ring,” she murmured. Then she turned to Cody, suddenly all business. “You said you need my help. What’s up, beautiful man?”

Fifteen minutes later, I was walking back towards the changing room. When I turned to close the door, however, I found that I wasn't alone.

“What’s the deal?” I hissed as Cody squeezed into the changing room behind me. I glared at him. “Oh, you arenotstaying in here.”

“You’re going to need help fastening some of them up.” He rolled his eyes. “Besides, I've already had my hands all over you and it didn't do a thing for me. Sorry, sweetheart. Still gay.”

He was also still acting.

“Yeah, I got that. And judging by the way you were behaving out there, you're suddenly my sassy gay friend. The accessory every girl needs this season.” I frowned at him. “Why are you acting like a damn caricature or a…a…” I fumbled for the best way to say this without sounding terrible.

Cody finished it for me, his brows arched, face calm. “Stereotype?”

“Well…” Blowing out a breath, I shrugged. “Yeah.”

“Because that’s the mask Dawn expects to see.” He shrugged and leaned up against the wall. “You saygayand you saymodel, and a whole lot of people are going to expect the sassy gay friend type.” He shrugged. “Maybe it’s not who I am, but if it gets me what I need, I'll play the part.”


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Then he shouldered off the wall and looked down at me. He and Flynn may have only been half-brothers, but there was more of Flynn in that look than Edward. I felt like Cody's eyes could see straight through me.

“The act also helped me avoid the result I didn’t want. You’re scared to death, Gabs. If she’s focusing on me, then she’s less likely to focus on you. People who know me already know I’m gay and if they're focusing on me, then maybe you’ll slide under their radar.”

“I…” I swallowed, shame twisting inside me at the thought of him having to pretend on my account. “I don’t want you having to wear a mask for me. I can take care of myself.”

Cody’s face softened and he reached up, pushing his walnut-brown hair back from his face. “I know you can. But everybody wears masks, Gabs. It’s not like I’m not doing anything I don’t do half my life.”

I started to contradict him, but he arched an eyebrow and the words died in my throat.

He turned to the dresses the attendants had rounded up for us. He selected a couple, seemingly at random. “You wear a mask too, you know,” he spoke while his back was to me. “You speak your mind around me, around Flynn…but around Edward, you hesitate. I bet you wouldn’t have up and fired off what you said to me the first day we met. And I know you wouldn't have flipped him off like Flynn says you did to him.”

He turned and handed me a dress of pale, soft blue.

He was right. I wasn't as open with Edward as I was with his brothers. Cody made me feel comfortable. Flynn...well he just pissed me off and I lost what little filter I had. I didn't say anything about that though. I couldn't admit it, not even to him. So I said the only thing I could think of.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” He kissed my forehead and gave me a small, but genuine smile. “People don’t wear masks because they like them. They wear them because they think they need them.”

***

The party was held at the Bouvier family estate, nearly forty-five minutes outside the city. I was wrapping my head around the fact that Edward had grown up here when he gave me a kiss on the cheek and then left me with Cody and his parents while he went to mingle.

Albert McCreary, at least, was nominally polite, but Claire Bouvier couldn’t have made her displeasure any more plain.

After Edward was gone, she gave me a narrow look and said thinly, “At least you learned to dress for the occasion.”

Cody responded before I could. “I tried to talk her into wearing latex and leather. If she had fun, I could, too, but Gabriella wouldn’t budge. She insisted on being conservative…the brat.” He winked at me.

Claire’s mouth tightened in disapproval before the scowl faded and she sighed, shaking her head at Cody. “How is…” she paused briefly and then smiled. “Jordan?”

“Lousy, I hope.” Cody shrugged. “We broke up. He wanted family money. I told him to get lost.”

“I’m sorry.” Claire's sympathy at least sounded genuine, but then she turned towards me and narrowed those icy eyes. “My boys always figure it out in the end when they're being used.”

“I’m not using Edward.” I didn't raise my voice, but I did make sure the words were firm.

Her nostrils flared and I could see the words forming, but before she had a chance to give them voice, Cody caught my hand in his. “Right. So, Mom, I promised Edward I’d introduce Gabriella to people while he's off talking business. Come on, Gabs!” Cody put his glass down on the tray of a passing waiter and then caught mine, and did the same. “Let’s go mingle.”

Without wasting another second, he had us lost in the crowd and I gave him a grateful look. “Thank you.”

He squeezed my hand and then let it go. “No problem.” He put a sedate distance between us and then nodded at the crowd. “Some of Mom and Dad’s friends still don’t know about me. I’m not exactly in the closet, but it's not like we had a big coming out party or I invite any of my boyfriends to family gatherings. Until I do, we can’t risk having anybody thinking I’m hitting on my brother’s girl.”

Immediately, Flynn’s voice came rose from the back of my memory.I’m not into poaching.

I didn’t have time to dwell on it. I was acutely aware of the fact that I was catching a lot of looks and not many people made an attempt to hide their curiosity. We were halfway across the elegant pavilion when a tall, curvy blonde with near-black eyes came up to Cody and gave him one of those air kisses.

“Stacia. You look lovely.”

“Cody.” She stepped back and then smiled at me. Her hair was that sort of blonde that was almost white. “You must Gabrielle.”

“Gabriella,” I corrected with a smile.

“Of course.”

Something told me she knew the right name.

She sipped something from an elegant flute. It was clearly crystal and sparkled in the sun. No plastic stemware for the Bouviers, I see.

“Stacia Vanderbelt and her family are old friends of my parents,” Cody said, staying close to my side. He gave me a friendly smile, but I could see the caution there.

“Cody, you make me sound ancient.” Stacia laughed, the sound bright, like water dancing over bells. She sipped from her glass again, still smiling at me over the edge. “Edward and I went to school together.”

Ding, ding, ding…

That smile on her face suddenly made sense. It was a catty and sly smile.

“Did you?” I feigned interest. “How nice.”

“Well, we weren't in the same class. He is a few years older than me.”

Of course she had to make sure I knew she wasn't thirty and not married. Among people like this, she'd almost be an old maid.

As though he’d been summoned, Edward emerged from the crowd and his eyes warmed as they met mine. My heart thumped hard and fast against my ribs at the sight of him. He looked incredibly handsome, the slim fitting suit highlighting the breadth of his shoulders, his narrow hips. His hair was lighter now, the sun picking out the blond highlights among the brown and my fingers itched to comb through it.

He was watching me with a new intensity and my skin heated under the slow appraisal as he walked towards me. The green sheath Cody’s flighty friend Dawn had helped me select seemed to meet with approval all the way around, but the only approval I'd needed had been the heat in Edward’s eyes when he’d arrived with Paul earlier to pick me up.

Now, as he smiled at me, my heart set to racing all over again.

When he reached me, he bent down and pressed his lips to mine, the kiss chaste, but still managing to heat me straight down to my toes. His hand stroked down my arm to my hand, clasping my fingers. “I see Cody is showing you around.”

“Yes.” I shot his brother a grin, but then looked back into Edward's eyes. “Cody is fabulous, but you know he isn't you.”

“Ouch.” Cody clapped a playful hand over his heart.

Edward gave us an amused look before shifting his attention to Stacia. “You're looking well, Stacia. How have you been?”

I got the impression that he'd purposefully put off talking to her until after he'd made it clear that I belonged to him. The thought made my stomach twist. He might've left me in Cody's care for a while, but he was going to make sure everyone knew who I was.

She was a quick change artist, I had to give her that. In the blink of an eye, the sly smile was replaced by a dewy, sweet one and she moved to lay a hand on Edward's arm. She managed to sway closer without moving her feet at all. “Well enough, although I've missed seeing you.”

My eyes widened and I shot him a look. Edward was oblivious to the come on in her voice and stamped all over her features. From the corner of my eye, I saw Cody smirking. Anger burned within and I eased closer, curling my hand through Edward's arm.

“We'll have to get together. You, Gabriella and I could have lunch.” He nodded at her, all courtesy.

Like hell we will.

Stacia beamed.

Edward kissed the top of my head and murmured, “I'll catch up with you soon.”

“But...” When his eyes came back to mine, concern and a question there, I swallowed my protest. I wasn't going to be one of those women. “Never mind. Go do what you need to do.”

He kissed my hand, sweeping his thumb over the inside of my wrist. Then he was gone.

“Clingy, aren't we?” Stacia’s sweet smile was gone, replaced by that snide one.

I whipped my head around, something ugly bubbling on my lips. I needed somewhere to direct the negative feelings Edward's departure had stirred up.

Cody laughed, a surprisingly nasty edge to it. “She wasn't the one making a play at an engaged man, was she, Stacia?”

Fine lines of strain fanned out from her dark eyes but in the span of heartbeats, her expression cleared and once more, that bright, airy laugh echoed around us.

“Flirting?” The dig in her voice was unmistakable. “I doubt you'd recognize it if a woman was flirting with you.”

“He would.” I angled my head up to see my future brother-in-law's face. It was stony, completely devoid of any emotion. “He just prefers the other gender.”

“Be more discreet,” Stacia hissed. She shot a look around the pavilion and the expression on her face couldn’t have been more plain.

Don’t say theGword!

I was suddenly so pissed off. Next to me, Cody stood silent and unmoving. Suddenly, he wasn't just future family. He was my friend and I wasn't going to let anyone talk to him or about him that way.

“Why?” I demanded, the twang in my voice coming out loud and clear. “Oh, wait. I forgot the law of the land. Hypocrisy and bigotry are all well and good. But a man can't be gay. That's just unacceptable, am I right? And I thought ya'll up here were supposed to be more tolerant.”

Stacia sucked in a breath, flags of color riding high on her cheeks. She suddenly looked older than Edward.

“I thought I heard those dulcet tones, Tennessee.”

My heart made a mad attempt to jump right out of my chest as Flynn came up at that very moment. He wasn't looking at me though. He had his eyes locked on Stacia and she was watching him the way a rabbit might watch a hawk, with fear and fascination. I completely understood the feeling.

“Hello, Stacy.”

“Stacia,” she corrected. She swallowed and lifted a hand to toy with the pearl necklace she wore. The necklace, along with her soft ecru dress spoke of an old world elegance, the kind that made me think of Hollywood glam from back in the forties and fifties. Which, I supposed, was exactly what it was supposed to do.

Flynn lifted a tumbler of whiskey to his lips and sipped it, studying her from over the rim for a long moment before glancing over at us. “Cody. Gabriella.”

Cody shot his brother a wide, easy smile as he caught my hand and guided it to his elbow. “I’ve been tasked with introducing our soon-to-be-sister-in-law around, Flynn.”

“Then why don’t you do that?” Flynn said. His blue eyes met mine briefly before he looked back at Stacia. “Stacy and I will get caught up.”

A moment later, the crowd separated us and I looked up at Cody. “Is there something weird going on there that I need to know about?”

Cody grimaced. “I don’t know if I want to get into that conversation or not.”

I had to ask. “Is she…wasshe involved with Edward?”

“She wishes.” He snorted and shook his head. Then he shrugged. “Of course, she’d marry any one of us. She even tried to make a play at me, despite knowing that I was gay. She made it clear that didn’t matter to her, once I told her that it wasn't possible for her to turn me.” He tugged me over to the side and dipped his head to murmur in my ear. “You’re a sweetheart, but you don’t need to do that.”

“Do what?” I frowned up at him.

“Get pissed off at people for being people.” He straightened and looked around the crowd, his face resigned. “This world is what it is. Some of them know and don’t care. Others know and pretend I’m not here. Others…they know and pretend not to. And some really are just in the dark. I’m not going to change any of them and none ofthemare going to change me.”

“You don’t need to change!” I gripped his hand and squeezed.

“No.” He pinched my chin and then led me back out to the pavilion. “But I’m not going to worry about changing them either. The world is full of assholes and bigots, Gabs. Not my job, or yours, to change them. People will change when they want to, not a moment before.”

***

If Cody had stayed with me, I might have made it through that party relatively unscathed. But Cody wasn’t there just to babysit me and two hours into the ordeal, he met up with some friends and I silently slipped away, feeling like a fifth, sixth, and seventh wheel, all rolled into one. I knew he wouldn't mind if I hung out with them, but I did.

Feeling lost, I started searching for Edward and finally found him standing in a knot of couples probably ten years older than we were, but I was determined not to let that get to me. I’d have to feel comfortable here sooner or later, right?

Why not now?

With that thought in mind, I strode toward him and settled at his side, smiling up at him when he glanced down at me, an odd, almost startled look on his face like he hadn’t expected to see me there.


Page 22

“Gabriella.” He gave my cheek a quick kiss and made quick introductions. Then, just like that, went back to discussing things that I couldn’t hope to follow.

Stocks. International business deals. This wasn’t just fashion. This was business on a level I couldn’t have followed if I had seven or eight years of schooling to help me through.

One of the women looked over at me and asked, “Will you be coming on board to help with Bouvier?”

I stared at her, terror all but choking me. I really hoped that Edward didn't expect...

Edward stroked a hand down my spine, letting his hand settle at the small of my back. “Gabriella is pursuing a career in writing.”

“Ahhh…” She gave me a kind smile and then focused her attention back on Edward.

It had been a kind smile, but something about it made my cheeks burn red with humiliation. I couldn’t define why, only that it made me feel like...less. I squeezed Edward’s arm. I needed to get away from here for a few minutes. I needed to have a few minutes with him. Just him.

Him and me…

He bent his head and kissed my temple and went back to chatting with everybody around us.

“Edward,” I whispered, my blood starting to roar in my ears.

“In a bit, darling,” he said, his voice low, a placating smile on his face.

Swallowing, I withdrew my hand from his arm, remaining at his side for a moment before I turned and slowly walked off, a fake smile given to anyone looking my way.

He didn’t even turn to watch me go.

I had to get out of here. I didn't belong.

I looked around, for Cody, even for Flynn, somebody to tell.

But there was nobody around. Nobody save for my fiancé, who was too busy chatting with his friends to notice me slowly making my way toward the towering structure of the house.

Even when I reached it and turned back to look at him, he was still standing there, chatting. He didn't even seem to have noticed that I'd left.

So I left.

 

 

Chapter 7

“No…please…I…yes…yes…”

The low, desperate moans were unmistakable.

I’d been determined to get as far away from here as I could, but the house was immense and I’d ended up lost when I’d gone through the back doors.

Now, standing in a small alcove of what looked to be a private garden, I told myself to leave. Immediately.

I knew that was exactly what I needed to do, but I couldn’t seem to move my feet. Or my eyes. They were locked on the two forms in front of me, mostly hidden by the greenery surrounding them.

“Flynn, dammit, please!” Those low moans were coming from some unknown brunette and as I licked my lips, she squealed and twisted her hips. I found myself echoing her movements and wishing I was the one over there, bent forward with my weight braced on my hands, with Flynn McCreary driving into me, his gaze locked on my ass as he fucked me hard and fast.

The woman’s pretty pink dress—and the petticoat—were shoved up over her hips and back. From my position, I had a better view of him than her and it was a lovely view.

His shirt hung open, pants pushed low, revealing those sexy v-grooves, his flat abdomen, his thick cock…when it wasn’t buried inside whoever the nameless woman was.

Guilt twisted my gut, because I was torn up inside with envy. I wanted it to bemestanding there, bent over and open for his invasion. I wanted to be the one on the receiving end of that intensity, feeling his hands hold me steady as he slowly filled me, then withdrew, only to surge deep inside all over again. Heat pulsed and throbbed inside me and I thought if I reached down and touched myself, I’d come in no time. No time at all.

She moaned and twisted and writhed.

He made no sound at all.

He hadn’t been like that with me.

He muttered and talked to me, said all sorts of dirty things to me, both praising and damning. His voice had been half the reason I'd come as hard as I had.

“Flynn, please!”

Her voice cracked and I felt something twist inside me as he started to drive into her harder and faster. My breathing sped up in response and I bit my lip, sliding my hand down my thigh Then I realized I was toying with the hem of my skirt, drawing it up.No, I told myself.No.

“Yes…yes…”

Her raw, low moans followed me as I forced myself to back away.

If I stayed there watching them, I just might find myself doing something awful, something I’d never forgive myself for. So I left. I needed to find my way to the front of the house and call Paul. He could give my regrets to Edward. Not that I really regretted leaving. I just—

“There you are.”

I froze.

That cold voice was like a slap against my overly heated cheeks and I slowly turned to find Claire Bouvier standing in the hall. She had a look on her face that could have been summed up in two syllables.Ah-ha. It was a triumphant sort of gleam, the kind that a cat might have in its eyes when it finally caught a mouse.

I was no damn mouse.

Drawing my chin up, I met her stare. “Did you need something, Mrs. Bouvier?” I asked quietly.

Her brow arched. “I was just wondering where my dear daughter-in-law-to-be had disappeared to. Cody was looking for you. Edward is still talking with a group from the European division. Who knows what Flynn is doing.”

I managed not to toss out,don’t you meanwho?There was no way she didn't know about her son's...tendencies.

“I’m right here,” I said, shrugging. “I was trying to find the front of the house. I was going to call Paul.” I shrugged and glanced past her to the windows that faced out over the grand lawn of the backyard. “I’m not feeling well.”

“I wouldn’t think so,” she said, her smile seeming to be pleased. “Coming face to face with everything you’re not? How could you feel well?”

Shocked at the fact she'd actually come out and say such a thing, I stared at her. The heat of my humiliation, when my pride was already shredded, was so immense, I felt sick to my stomach. I couldn't find the words. “I…you don’t—”

“I don’t what?” She cut me off and crossed her arms. “I don’t understand? Let me guess.” She lifted a hand, tapping her finger with her lips. “You love Edward…” She arched her brows. “I imagine you think you do. Any number of girlshaveloved him. But that doesn’t mean they’d make him a good wife, darling.”

“Is that really your decision?” I demanded, starting to get my footing back.

She cocked her head and then, slowly, she smiled. “Yes. I’m the one who holds the purse strings…so, yes.”

“What about whathewants?” I was shaking inside. Shaking and half-sick with anger and a shame that I knew was unfounded. So what if I wasn’t from the New York elite, or from some family that could trace its roots back a few hundred years? My parents loved me. They had worked hard to provide for me. There was nothing to be ashamed of about that. Yet this woman was trying her best to make me feel substandard.Screwthat.

Oh, but she was good. Even as I pulled together the ragged edges of my dignity, she moved forward and reached up, brushing my hair back from my face. “You can’t even be there for him now in the way that he needs, Gabriella. Can’t you see that? He needed a partner with him and you’d rather run around chatting with his brother than stand at his side. What do you think you can possibly do for him that a dozen other women can’t dobetter?”

I swallowed.

Then, slowly, stepping back out of reach, I met her eyes.

“I can love him.”

I didn’t look at her as I cut around her and started to walk. Maybe it was luck or maybe it was some weird twist of fate, but this time, I found my way to the front of the house. I’d sent a text to Paul as I wound my way through the elegant labyrinth and he was there, waiting for me.

Half falling into the back of the car, I whispered, “Take me home, Paul.”

“To the mansion, Miss Gabriella?”

I huddled into myself. “No.” Tears stung my eyes. “I need to go to my home, Paul. The mansion isn't home.”

 

Chapter 8

The boss from hell was on vacation, but that didn't mean I was. She'd left me with a list of projects and assignments I was supposed to have completed by the time she got back. Oh, and she'd left instructions for periodic updates. At least, I was able to work from home.

It was Monday morning and I was halfway through the second assignment, which I considered being ahead of the game. I'd gotten the first one done last night since I'd ended up getting home early from the party and hadn't spent the night with Edward as I'd previously planned.

I was also now the proud owner of a raging headache. That's what happened when you stayed up too late working and switching between swearing, crying yourself silly and hating on your future mother-in-law.

So far, the morning was going better than last night. I'd managed to keep Claire and her ugly words mostlyout of my head and I thought I almost had a handle on this. I could be rational…maybe. And I needed to be rational, because I still had to talk to Edward.

He hadn’t called last night.

I’d gotten home a little before nine and I’d waited, half-expecting him to call to make sure I was okay. But even as I'd busied myself with the assignment my boss had wanted first, I'd kept eying my phone. It'd had plenty of bars on it, and the battery had been full, because I’d plugged it in when I got home.

But there had been no call.

And so far this morning, there'd still been no call.

It hurt. It hurt a lot. It also pissed me off, getting under my skin in ways I couldn’t describe. Why hadn’t he called? When had he finally noticed I was missing? He'd order my food, give me a credit card to make sure I had clothes to wear for his party, but he couldn't pay enough attention to me at the party to notice I was gone.

Then I felt like an idiot, because he wouldn’t have had to have noticed. Paul would have called him right away. He probably would have sent a text at some point, probably while we were still making our way into the city. Paul would've passed along the half-truth I'd given him about not feeling well.

Still, why hadn’t he called to see how I was feeling?

“Stop it.” I ground the heel of my hand against my forehead and squeezed my eyes shut. “Focus, Gabriella.”

The figures on the screen blurred together and I got up to pace. I finally forced myself into the head of one of the characters I’d been creating. It took a while, but after what felt like a hundred circuits across the living room, I finally felt centered.

Returning to the desk, I sat down and told myself I wouldn't even look at my phone for at least an hour. Putting it all out of my head, I got a little more work done on the research my boss was torturing me with. A glance at the clock had me thinking I just might get it done before ten. At nine-twenty, the phone rang.

I grabbed it, certain it was Edward.

It wasn't.

“Tennessee.” Flynn’s voice was low, smooth and did bad, bad things to my mental state.

Immediately, my mind flashed back yesterday and how I'd seen his hands running over that woman’s body. He’d stroked one hand up her spine and tangled it in her hair, using it to tug her head up and back as he'd pounded into her. I could too clearly recall how he'd been so insanely silent, even as she made low, almost delirious sounds of pleasure as he'd driven inside her.

“What do you want?” The question came out sharper than I'd intended. I rubbed my temples and pushed back from the kitchen table I had turned into a makeshift desk for the morning. I sighed. “Sorry. Rough night. What do you need, Flynn?’

“Oh, a lot of things. But that’s not why I’m calling. I’m calling to tell you that your photo shoot was a total success. The client loved the pictures I sent her. She ended up buying a couple of different prints. I’m glad we ended up changing out your wardrobe a few times.”

I was still stuck back on thetotal successpart of his comments.

“I’m sorry, what?”

“Your photo shoot. You kicked ass, Tennessee.”

“That’s…” I stood, pressing a hand to my belly. It was jumping around like crazy. At least this time it was good crazy stuff. Well, good and completely nerve-wracking. “That’s what I thought you said.”

Flynn’s chuckles made my already wobbly knees feel a little weaker. “So my client ended up with two prints: one for an upcoming book and one for the one she’s planning next.”

The disbelief was giving away to excitement. “You’re serious.”

“Yeah. Yeah, really.”

I could hear the smile in his voice and it was contagious. Spinning away from the table, I shoved a hand through my hair and started to pace. I'd never in a million years thought someone would want the photos. No matter what Flynn had said, I'd never truly believed that I was model material.


Page 23

He continued. “If you’re open to the idea, I can do some magic and edit the other images. Some I kept aside so she wouldn’t choose them and then I’ve got the ones she wasn’t interested in. It’s a decent enough selection. I can put them up on my gallery and offer them as stock photos.”

“Ah…stock photos?” I stopped.

“Yeah. And I’ll pay you for them. If anybody wants exclusive rights, then that’s an extra fee.” He was quiet for just a moment and then he came back with a figure that I was sure I'd misheard.

“What’s that for?” I rubbed my chest. I was finding it hard to breathe.

“For putting them up on the stock website. If anybody buys exclusive rights, then you get another cut. What do you think?”

What did Ithink? “I don’t know. Um…yeah. Sure.” The extra money would be more breathing room, right? “I mean, you’ve cropped my face out, right?”

“Sure thing, baby.” There was nothing but swaggering confidence in his voice. “I’ll have to get a new contract out to you. Okay, now that we’ve done that, the other reason I called, how about setting up another session?”

Another session? “What?”

“Look, you and Cody are great together. You’ve got natural curves on you and the book world is looking for that right now. I’ve got a stable of models I usually stick with and I’ve been needing some new blood—you’re it. Come on, Tennessee…one more shoot. I’ll pay double what the last shoot went for.”

Double—

Shit.

To be honest, I was already way too interested, but I needed to be smart and keep my distance from Flynn. The money, however, was making me think twice about being smart. “Look, I’ll think about it, okay?”

“Do that. We’ll talk.” There was a pause, and then he added, “Hope you're feeling better.” He hung up and I stood there, staring at the phone like I’d never seen it before.

Blowing out a breath, I put the phone back down and looked back at the computer screen. I started to sink back down into my chair, but I never had the chance to get all the way there. The buzzer from the front of the building went off.

A moment later, after I’d hit the button, Edward’s voice drifted up to me. “Gabriella, may I come up?”

I looked down at the t-shirt and yoga pants and sighed. We were getting married. He'd see me like this eventually. Might as well be now. “Yeah, come on up.”

I made a halfhearted attempt to clean up the mess I’d made from the morning, coffee cups, my breakfast of granola and yogurt. I was reconsidering my decision about changing, but before I had the chance, he knocked.

I opened the door and the smile on his face faltered slightly when he saw me. “You’re still sick.”

“No.” I frowned.

His gaze slid down a little lower and I found myself shuffling my feet. My yoga pants and t-shirt were perfectly decent for lounging around the house and since I hadn’t planned to leave anytime in the next few hours, I didn’t see the problem. Yet I found myself squirming and uncomfortable.

Moving aside, I waved him in. Edward came in slowly and looked around, his gaze lingering on the wide open studio, the murphy bed where Kendra slept, the sofa bed that I'd already made up and tucked away. “Welcome to my humble abode,” I said, forcing a smile.

He turned to me. “Why didn’t you come find me last night? If I’d have known you were sick, I would have left with you. You didn’t have to come back here.”

Back here…? Like it was some friend's place where I was crashing out of desperation?

His gaze slid back around the studio. It was a lovely place in my opinion, but I guess I could see where it was lacking by his standards. Hell, pretty much anything short of Buckingham Palace would be lacking compared to what he was used to. I suddenly felt embarrassed by my little home.

“I live here,” I said softly. When he looked back at me, I shrugged and turned away, fighting back the feelings I didn't want. “I’m not sick. I had an awful headache and I just needed…” Claire’s words came back to me in a rush and I moved over to my desk, busying myself with straightening things up so I didn't have to look at him. “It was a lot to take in, Edward. Besides, you looked like you were doing just fine by yourself. It’s not like you needed me.”

“Gabriella, I don’t know what you mean.”

I turned back to him, the misery from yesterday rushing forward and I couldn't hold back. “You tell me that, sooner or later, I need to get comfortable with that sort of thing and then you take me to that party and basically abandon me. I knew five people—six if you included Paul, but it wasn’t like he was invited. Your mother hates me. Your step-dad tolerates me. Flynn spent the entire evening flirting, and you hunted me down one time. I spent the entire time talking to Cody and the one time I did find you, you made it absolutely clear that I wasn’t precisely welcome.”

By the time I finished, I was breathing hard and Edward was staring at me in dismay. “Sweetheart…”

I held up my hands and shook my head. I so wasn't in the mood. “Don’t.” Turning away, I stared out the window.

Edward came up behind me and I could see the reflection of his apologetic face in the pane of glass. I didn't look at him, but when his hands covered my shoulders, I let him tug me back against him.

“It would seem I messed up, didn’t I?” he said, his voice low as he slid his hands down my arms. His breath caressed my neck.

As he wrapped his arms around my waist, I tried to let myself relax.

“I’m sorry, Gabriella.”

It made it easier, but I was still hurting.

Easing around in his arms, I looked up at him and tried to smile. It wasn’t a real smile, but it was close. “I just…I didn’t feel comfortable unless you or Cody were with me. I know I can’t constantly have somebody with me, but it was the first time I was there and my fiancé wasn't even the one who introduced me to people.”

“You weren’t comfortable. I should have done better.” He stroked his hands down my arms then back up. His gaze slid back down to my t-shirt and he rubbed the hem of the sleeve between his thumb and forefinger. “Why don’t you let me make it up to you? I’ll take you to lunch, we can go shopping…”

I pulled away, easing out of his grasp. Crossing my arms over my chest, I moved over to the narrow slice that comprised most of the counter space in the kitchen. Easing my hips against it, I focused on the work spread out in front of me. “You don’t need to buy me things, Edward.”

“But I enjoy buying things for you.” He started toward me, but when I tensed, he stopped. “Gabriella, what is this?”

“I don’tneedyou to buy me things.” I gestured to the apartment. “I’ve been taking care of myself ever since I got up here and I’m doing a pretty decent job of it.”

“I never thought otherwise. I just like—”

“Buying me things. I know.” My gaze landed on the computer, on the assignment from the lousy boss that paid so little and I knew that if it wasn’t for the money I’d gotten from Flynn, right now I wouldn’t be doing much to contribute to the rent. Kendra was doing fine now that she was getting money in from her modeling, but me…?

“Gabriella, I just…we’re going to be married. Why is it a bad thing for me to like taking care of you?”

“I don’t need to be taken care of!” I shouted.

He stiffened. “Gabriella, I’m sorry. I know you’re independent and I love that about you. But…” He gestured toward my clothing. “In a few months, you’ll be my wife. How can you afford the clothing you’ll need with the job you have now? You won’t even let me help you find a better paying one—”

I shoved myself off the counter, his comment about affording the clothing I'd need to be with him putting me on edge. “I found a better job, thank you very much.”

“Did you?” He angled his head to the side. His features softened and the smile in his eyes made some of the anger inside me fade. He was happy for me.

When he stepped closer this time, I didn’t move away. He cupped my face and pressed a kiss to my mouth. He lifted up just a little and studied me before lowering his head again.

The second kiss was deeper, slower, hotter. His tongue swept my mouth, claiming it, and then his hands were at my waist, pulling at my shirt. I lifted my arms to help him, the anger inside coalescing into something else. Something just as intense and just as hot, but much more enticing. He shoved his hands inside my yoga pants, pushing them down below my hips. His lips slid down my neck and I gasped as he sucked a patch of skin into his mouth and bit down lightly.

“I want you,” he muttered. “I’ve missed…Gabriella. Now.”

“Ummm…”

When he spun me around, I gripped the counter in my hands. I made a halfhearted swipe at the curtains, closing them, while behind me, I heard his zipper coming down. He drove inside me, thick and hard and full. I moaned and twisted my hips back against him, trying to take him deeper as he withdrew. I wasn't prepared at all, barely wet from his kisses. It hurt, but felt so good at the same time.

Then he drove inside me again and I had to bite my bottom lip to keep from crying out. Pain and pleasure coursed through me and I slid my hand between my thighs, seeking out my clit as he continued to stroke deep, deep inside me. His fingers dug into my hips, half-lifting and hauling me back to meet each stroke. I clenched down around him and heard a low, harsh noise escape his throat. My thighs were shaking. Heat spread out from my pussy, rolling through me like waves and I knew it was going to overtake me, shatter me.

He swelled inside me, the head of his thick shaft rasping against me in the best way and I couldn't hold back the half-strangled cry this time. He groaned and hauled me back down on his cock. The roughness of it sent me straight into orgasm. He followed only seconds later, buried deep inside me.

***

“So where is your job?”

Edward stroked a hand down my hair.

We were sitting on the couch, him in a suit that was now somewhat rumpled and me in a t-shirt and clean panties.

I swallowed, thinking back to the stupidity that had driven me to tell him I had a job. What I had was a job offer. One that involved taking my clothes—or at least most of them—off in front of his brother. Edward wouldn’t like it. In fact, he'd hate it. It didn’t matter that it was for something like book covers or that a lot of people would think that it was kind of awesome. I was still kind of baffled by it.

“Gabriella?”

I made a distracted sound under my breath and then looked up at him. “Hey, why don’t we go out to lunch? I’m getting kind of hungry.” I pressed a quick kiss to his cheek and then stood up. “Let me go change.”

Once I had some clothes in hand and the bathroom door shut behind me, I silenced my phone and then pulled up Flynn’s number.

Okay. I’ll do it. I’ll be your model as long as you never show my face.

A few seconds passed before his response came up.

That’s not always going to work, Tennessee. I’ll have clients who will need a woman’s face.

I snorted.

Then work your magic and photoshop somebody else’s face onto my body or something. Besides, you said it yourself…it’s not my face you’re interested in.

I was smiling when he replied.

You win, Tennessee.

He told me a time and a place. I deleted the messages and put the phone down, then busied myself with getting ready.

I'd decide what to do about my asshole boss and shitty job later.

 

Chapter 9

“Are you sure you wouldn’t like some wine?” Edward leaned toward me and brushed my hair out of my face.

“I’m fine.” My headache was mostly gone, but I wasn’t going to risk it coming back.

“You didn’t eat much.”

“I didn’t eat breakfast until a little after nine.” Shrugging, I used my fork to push some of the food around on my plate and, because he was watching, I scooped up another bite of pasta and took another bite.

It was delicious, the sauce exquisite and if I could have made myself eat more, I would have cleaned the plate. But I wasn’t hungry. I was nervous.

“Perhaps we should have waited until later.” Edward covered my hand with his.

“No.” I turned my hand around and twined our fingers together. “This is fine.”

We’d ended up at a quiet little Italian place, early enough that the lunch hour rush hadn’t really started.

“Would you like to order some dessert?” He was already lifting a hand to flag down a server.

“No.” I found myself having to fight not to snap at him. He was practically hovering at my elbow. I guess he was just feeling guilty after last night, but it was grating on my nerves. And that just made me feel even worse for it annoying me.

“So tell me about the job.”

“The job?” I jerked my head up and found him watching me, his eyes all but glowing. Panic fluttered inside me. “I…”

“Nervous?”

“Oh…oh, yeah.” Realization slammed into me and I rolled my eyes. “I’m very nervous.” I couldn’t even explain just how nervous I was. “I can’t really talk about it though.”

“Why not?” He frowned at me.

Maybe thinking on my feet wasn’t my gift, but I was getting better at it. “Well, it’s a writing thing. I’m doing some writing for a celebrity, but my name is all being kept out of it. I had to sign a non-disclosure and everything just to get the job.” I blew out a breath and shot a look at him. “So, I…well, I can’t really talk about it, but it's a great job and much better pay.”


Page 24

He lifted a hand. “Say no more. I’m not at all familiar with the writing world, but I understand the terms of an NDA. Congratulations. I’m proud of you.”

Heat flooded my cheeks, but it came from guilt rather than embarrassment at the praise. I’d lied.

He’d believed me.

I lied to him and he believed me.

“Here…we can talk about this instead.” He withdrew a narrow, leather bound notepad. “We need to start talking about the wedding…setting a date, making plans.”

A strange sensation clutched my stomach and I stared at him.

Plans…“Yeah. I guess we do need to start making plans.” I didn't mention that I'd been hoping we'd have a bit longer engagement than we'd had dating. It was all happening so fast. I reached out and touched the notepad he’d placed on the table. “What’s this?”

“Some notes, a little bit of information. Certain people that will have to be invited to the wedding.” He smiled. “I’ve got the name of several wedding planners who come highly recommended.”

I was happy to see that my fingers weren’t shaking as I opened the neat little palm-sized notebook. It was a pretty small notebook. It couldn’t be that bad, right?

Moments later, I was about to lose what little food I’d eaten.

That pretty small notebook was all but full. The list of people who had to be invited? There were double columns of names that took up the front and back of each page for more than half of the notebook. The rest of it? Notes on how many people I should expect to have in attendance...just from his side.

My eyes rounded when I saw the notation:plan for six hundred guests.

“Well, I guess a small wedding is out of the question, huh?” I managed to smile at him when I looked up.

“The Bouviers don’t really dosmallwhen it comes to formal events.” He grinned at me.

“You know, my parents got married on the beach in Florida. Mom was barefoot. She looked beautiful.” I looked back down at the notebook and didn't even mention the fact that there was no way in hell my parents could pay for even a fraction of the kind of wedding I saw here. “Somehow I don't think that's in your notebook.”

***

We ended back up at his place…and I ended up naked and stretched out on the floor.

His hands slid down my body. I sighed in pleasure as he lifted my hips and pressed his mouth to my core. He nuzzled me through my curls and pleasure slashed through me when his tongue flicked out and he licked me. I gasped as he circled his tongue over me and then slowly slid it inside, lapping and drawing me closer and closer to the edge.

When I was hovering right there, he came down over me and spread my legs, settling between them as if he belonged there, made to fit me perfectly.

“Look at me, darling,” he whispered against my lips. I tasted myself there and moaned, rising up to kiss him again, deeper and harder. He slid inside me and it was sweet and lazy and easy.

His cock stretched me and filled me, all pleasure and no pain. I'd been a bit sore from earlier, but he'd more than prepared me now, his tongue having eased the ache, replacing it with a different sort of throbbing.

I brought my knees up and curled them around his hips, arching up and shuddering, urging him on. Catching one of his hands, I guided it to my breast, needing him to touch me.

He dipped his head and I cried out as he caught one nipple in his mouth, scraping it with the edge of his teeth, tugging, tugging, tugging until it was throbbing and pulsating in time to the driving rhythm of his hips.

I tangled my fingers in his hair, arching closer. I could feel each ridge of his cock, the swollen vein, the pulsations running through it and it was driving me mad. My pussy clamped down around him when he pushed in and then held there, right there, grinding against me and my clit, already so sensitized. I tensed, ready for that last nudge to push me over the edge.

He caught my chin, craning my head upward.

“Open for me,” he whispered against my lips, teasing my mouth.

“Edward…”

He rolled his hips as his tongue stole inside, and when I started to climax, he swallowed my broken moan down until his own joined it.

***

“I missed this.”

Edward wrapped his arms around me later that night and tugged me up against him until my back was snug against his chest. I put my hand on his forearm and stroked it in response. The muscles under his tanned skin were strong, defined.

“You know I’m sorry about the party. I didn’t…well, I can’t undo it. But I didn’t want you to feel abandoned. I knew Cody was with you and I had obligations. I didn’t think you’d be comfortable with some of the people I’d be talking to. I didn’t realize how it would make you feel, handling it the way I did.”

I turned my head to the side and pressed my lips to his chin. “It’s okay.”

“It’s not—”

“It’s done.” Snuggling more comfortably against him, I didn’t fight the yawn that came out, threatening to crack my jaw. “I didn’t sleep well without you last night. I’m tired.”

He didn't press the matter, responding to my not-so-subtle request to let it go. As he drifted off to sleep, I lay there, staring off into the darkness.

We’d started talking wedding plans.

I was wrapped in the arms of a wonderful man.

I should be happy.

So why wasn’t I?

 

Chapter 10

“Wow. You’re up early. I thought you were working from home this week.”

“I am.” I slid into the chair at the desk and fired up my laptop, glancing up as Kendra emerged sleepy-eyed from the bathroom. “I’ve got…” I grimaced before telling her. “I’m doing some more modeling for Flynn.”

She stopped in her tracks, staring at me. “Does Edward know?”

“No.” I gave her my best pleading expression. “Please don’t tell him.”

“Gabs, this is just going to lead to trouble. You already know what a player Flynn is. Shit, he’s probably just doing this to try to get back in your pants!”

“Give me some credit.” I rolled my eyes at her before looking down at the screen to pull up my email. I’d notified my boss via email last night of my decision to quit, along with the two assignments I’d managed to finish. Hopefully having them done promptly would make her a little less maniacal as she processed my resignation.

Her response was in my inbox.

I gaped when I saw the subject line.

“Thatbitch!” I breathed out.

“What?” Kendra paused in the rant I wasn't listening to, to come look at me.

“I quit my job with the she-dragon.” I pointed to the screen. “I told her I’d work out my two weeks—longer if she needed an extra week or so to get somebody in—but she just emailed me back and told me I was fired in the subject line. She didn’t even bother to add anything in the text of the email.”

“Why did you quit?” Kendra's eyes narrowed.

“Because I’m getting paid better with Flynn and this way I won’t have to cram it all in early in the morning or make up excuses in the evening when I could be with Edward.” I shrugged.

“So you’ll just lie about what you do for a living?”

Guilt twisted in me, but I shoved it down. “Kendra—”

“This isn’t like you!” she shouted. “You’re making up stories and hiding things from the guy you’re supposed to be in love with. What gives, Gabriella?”

“It’s a better paying job and it makes me happy.” I snapped my laptop shut and stood up, glaring at her. I was really getting tired of her questioning my decisions when I'd never done anything but be supportive of hers, no matter how bad they'd been. “My boss has done everything but shit on me ever since I started working for her. She’s taken ideas that were mine and pawned them off as her own. She makes fun of me, the way I talk, the way I dress. Ihateit there but I couldn’t find anything else. Now I have. It pays better and it’s fun. What’s so wrong with that?”

“Two things.” Kendra held up a hand and ticked off a finger as she listed her reasons, her eyes flashing. “Again…you’re lying to your fiancé, that’s one. And the second thing? It’sFlynn. He already used you once. Why are you setting yourself up to be hurt by him again?”

“I’m not!”

Somebody slammed something against the floor below us and we heard a distant shout. “Shut up already!”

Sucking in a breath, I forced myself to be quieter. “He was perfectly behaved during the last shoot. This is business, Kendra. Just business.”

“You sure about that?” She arched an eyebrow.

“Yeah.” I crossed my arms. “Hell, the way you’re acting, I’d almost think you’re pissed off that he asked me to be his model instead of you.”

She sneered. “Not even close. But fine…fuck it. I won’t be worried that my best friend is going to screw up her life.”

She strode past me into the kitchen.

I had to fight tears as she clanged her way through making coffee.

Yeah, I decided. Maybe Kendra was right.Fuck it.

***

“Come on, Tennessee. I need you to flirt with the camera a little more. Pretend I’m Edward or something.” Flynn’s voice was brusque.

I tried not to think about it as I concentrated on relaxing my spine and letting Cody ease me back into what felt like a ridiculously awkward position. His hand rested high on my hip, almost cupping my butt, but not quite. His other arm was around my spine, steadying me. I closed my eyes and let my head fall back.

Flirt with the camera…

I imagined the dark head bent over my breasts didn’t belong to a gay man who had no sexual interest in me whatsoever, but that it was lighter hair...

Pretend…

“That’s it.”

I heard the whine of the camera, heard Flynn moving around, while in my mind’s eye, I was imagining something else entirely.

Tension slammed into me because the fantasy shifted on its own—and it wasn’t Edward taking center stage in my daydream.

“Okay, take a break,” Flynn called out just as I started to wobble.

“You okay there?” Cody asked softly as he brought me back to stand flat on my feet.

“Yeah.” I managed a weak smile. “This has just been…intense.”

“You get used to it.” He gave me a playful tug on my hair and then gestured to his brother. “Of course, it would help if somebody would yank the stick out of his ass.”

“Bite me, Cody,” Flynn said, his gaze focused on the camera. Studying the images, I knew.

Cody just shook his head and looked back at me. “So have you started looking for a dress? You said that you're talking dates and everything. Looking at next summer? Spring?”

“I don’t know.” Trying to keep my voice casual, I shrugged. I honestly didn’t know if I could handle this tension for that long. I'd thought I wanted to slow it down, but the more I considered it, the more it freaked me out. Months of panicking over a wedding? Over six hundred guests...

“You and Edward are going to get a wedding planner, right?”

I sighed, not wanting to admit how much that bothered me. I'd always imagined planning my own wedding. Going over things with my mother, with Kendra... “Yeah.”

Cody kissed my forehead. “Trust me. You’ll be glad. You’ll need the planner to run interference with my mother and let me look at the people you’re considering. I know some people in that area. I might be able to tell which people to avoid. There are some who’ll just bend over to kiss Mom’s ass, and you'll want someone to back you.”

“Okay, if you’re done talking weddings…” Flynn said sourly. “How about you grab some water and then help me get the backdrop into position, Cody?”

Cody mouthed,He needs to take out that stick.

I coughed to cover up my laugh.

***

 

I got a text from Edward a little after one. Guiltily, I realized it wasn’t the first one. I quickly replied.

Got caught up with work. Sorry!

Flynn passed by my shoulder just as Edward’s response came through and I heard him snort. “Would you mind your own business?”

“Sure thing, Tennessee. Make sure he knows the big bad city hasn’t eaten you alive without him at your side.” He gave me a look of mock concern. “You wouldn’t want him calling in the National Guard.”

I flipped him off and then looked back at the text.

It’s okay. I was just worried. Is it your new job that you’re working on? Have you heard back from your boss about your resignation?

I told him that I had, and that she’d fired me.

His response was pithy enough to make me smile.

Call me when you’re done working for the day. We can get some dinner on the way home.

I told him I’d call him and let it go at that. I still wasn't sure how I felt about him referring to his place as home.

Then I turned back to watch Flynn and Cody wrestle the mattress into position under a different set of lights. Had Kendra been right? Should I just tell Edward what I was doing? Logically, I knew the answer, but I also knew he wouldn’t be happy. But I needed to pay my own way in life. I had to.

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