About the Book
He promised to stay away…but some promises are made to be broken
Plain-Jane computer programmer Khloe Richardson needs a date—one to make the prince of her dreams jealous. Maybe then he'll finally see her as a desirable swan and not the ugly duckling in the second office from the left.
But when she bids on a bachelor at a charity auction, the man she wins is millionaire Niall Hunter—who once made intense, passionate love to her and then left without a word. She's determined not to let her guard down again—among other things—around the infamous Irish lothario.
Niall never imagined his penance for one hot-as-hell night with his best friend’s little sister would be transforming her from a shy wallflower to a sultry siren. Helping her attract another man is torture...especially when he promised his friend he’d stay away. Plus, she wants forever, and he's not a forever kind of guy. But Niall can't stop wanting her. Can't stop touching her. Can't stop, period. And damn if he can remember why he has to...
Only under the threat of death—or watching the latest Kanye West rant on YouTube, the same thing in Noelle Rana’s book—would she admit this, but…
When she was a kid, she loved fairy tales.
Yup. Enchanted forests, cottages made of candy, glittering castles with their royal banners waving from gleaming turrets. Glass slippers, gorgeous gowns, and priceless jewels. Magical fairy godmothers, protective dwarves, and beautiful princesses who played with golden balls.
What girl wouldn’t rather become lost in that world instead of the one that contained this-side-of-rundown apartments with water-stained walls and temperamental heating? One with hand-me-down clothes and shoes that pinched because they were a size too small? One where dolls were missing an eye or an arm? Because when toys came from the thrift shop, beggars couldn’t be choosers.
But soon enough, the grim harshness of reality bullied away the gilded dreams of fairy tales. When a child’s father came stumbling home at two o’clock in the morning reeking of alcohol and crying for the wife who’d left him nine years earlier, right after their daughter was born… Well, stories of kings, queens, and princes tended to tarnish.
Still, as twenty-five-year-old Noelle stood in the wide entrance to the huge ballroom and surveyed its glowing, crystal chandeliers, pristine marble floors, and floor-to-ceiling arched windows, she couldn’t help but be reminded of the castles from those old stories. Couldn’t stop the awe and delight from swelling in her chest before she quelled it with a mental Get real slap down.
After all, she hadn’t arrived at this ritzy, hoity-toity event to dance until midnight or court a prince.
Nope. She was here to collect…or go down swinging.
Aiden Kent was definitely handsome enough to rival the son of a king, and people no doubt treated him like royalty since he was a millionaire ’n’ all, but to her, he was more of an ogre—no offense to Shrek. Though, to be fair, Aiden would probably call Noelle a witch. Oh, who was she kidding? He’d definitely call her a bitch.
Squeezing her eyes shut, she released a slow, long breath. Unfortunately, the calming technique did nada for the frantic tumbling and somersaulting in her stomach. Nerves or not, she couldn’t allow the 99.9 percent probability of his animosity—okay, fine, hatred—make her turn tail and run. She’d given up everything to come to Boston and hunt him down. She couldn’t quit now. Not when she’d come so far and so much was at stake. Her future rode on finding him and forcing him to listen to her.
But first she had to locate the coldhearted bastard.
“Excuse me,” a voice demanded from behind her.
Noelle turned around and tilted her head back to meet the aloof stare of a black-suited man treating her to a not-so-subtle once-over. Suited, not tuxedoed, so he probably wasn’t a guest but an employee. From the faint tightening of his mouth as he scanned her fitted leather jacket, dark-blue skinny jeans, and knee-high combat boots, he probably assumed she didn’t belong in the ballroom. Most likely because the staff, in their starched, white shirts and black bow ties, were dressed more formally than she was.
Hell, she’d driven sixteen hours from Chicago to Boston, with everything she owned stored in her backseat and trunk, and she’d barely had time to unpack. So, damn it, she hadn’t had time to dry-clean her Christian Dior dress or find her Manolo Blahniks. Shucks.
Okay, no problem. Skating past security had been a foreseeable stumbling block. I got this.Mentally rolling her shoulders, she plastered on her best little-girl-lost expression and added a dose of sheepishness that would’ve made her father, a stellar con artist, give a proud fist pump.
“Can I help you?” the suit asked, suspicion coloring his tone.
“Would you, please?” She made a show of glancing around her, wincing. “I’m supposed to meet my friend here to give her a ride home from work. Sarah. She’s with the catering crew. Do you know her?” She palmed her cell and pretended to scroll through her address book for “Sarah’s” phone number. “I’m certain she told me to meet her at eight…”
“Dinner is just about over, miss,” he said. After giving her another head-to-toe scan, he glanced over her shoulder toward the crowded ballroom and then returned his attention to her. At least the distrust had disappeared, replaced by what seemed like impatience and more than a little irritation. “You can’t stand here. The auction is about to start.” He waved a hand toward the exit behind him. “The kitchen entrance is this way and down the hall. You can wait for her by that door.”
“Oh, great,” Noelle chirped, pouring feigned relief into her voice. “Thank you.”
He nodded and stood guard, watching as she backtracked out of the ballroom and strode down the corridor. The watchdog waited until she reached the swinging set of double doors, where noises of clanging pans and shouted orders emanated, before he returned to his post. And as soon as he disappeared from view, she retraced her steps. This time, however, she didn’t park it in front of the entrance like a dumbstruck ninny. Slinking to the side, she leaned against a wall next to a couple of towering plants that could’ve doubled as trees. Their shadows provided nice coverage where she could watch and hopefully not be seen.
A moment later, unbelievably cheesy music that wouldn’t have been out of place on The Young and the Restless rolled through the room. She snorted, scooting forward and peering out between the trees. With all the money floating around this room, they could’ve at least sprung for music from the twenty-first century.
“Welcome to the Rhodonite Society’s Eleventh Annual Masquerade Bachelor Auction,” a slender blonde in a gold, tight-as-a-gnat booty dress announced as she strolled to the center of the stage at the far end of the room. A bachelor auction. What the hallowed fuck?
She shook her head. This is what Aiden did? Who he’d become? Maybe he’d been so long removed from the poor South Side Chicago neighborhood they’d grown up in, that silly, self-aggrandizing events like bachelor auctions had become the norm.
“And welcome to a wonderful night filled with fun and luxurious, once-in-a-lifetime dates courtesy of ten of Boston’s most handsome, eligible bachelors. Every penny of the proceeds will benefit the Blake Literacy Foundation, which raises awareness of illiteracy as well as providing programming, tutoring, and technology to Boston’s underprivileged youth.”
Uh-huh. Every penny right after fees, expenses, and whatever else the “charity” could trump up were deducted.
Applause, chatter, and a few whistles filled the room. Because these people were so gung-ho about the idea of stamping out illiteracy.
“So, without further ado, here is your first bachelor!” Blondie eased out of the spotlight as a man in a black tuxedo and a white mask strutted out of the wings and paused center stage. With one hand in his pants pocket and a hip slightly cocked like a wannabe Abercrombie and Fitch model, he radiated arrogance. Noelle didn’t need to see his face behind the disguise concealing his features. Handsome or not, it was clear this guy thought he was the shit.
“Our first bachelor considers himself a risk-taker,” Blondie announced. “Whether it’s in the conference room, on the slopes, on the racetrack, or in love, he doesn’t play it safe. As a very successful financial manager, he loves to discover new avenues of earning money for his clients and longs for the same excitement in his love life. The woman who eventually wins his heart will have the same adventurous spirit, be spontaneous, and have a wonderful sense of humor.” And a double-D rack and be as smart as a box of rocks. Noelle snorted. “Since he’s a gambler in life, the lucky woman who wins this bachelor will spend a thrilling weekend in…Las Vegas! Three days and two nights spent in a luxury resort. Enjoy the finest restaurants, the best shows, and of course you’ll try your luck at the most famous casinos on the Strip. So who would like to win this fabulous, thrilling weekend in Sin City? Let’s start the bidding at $5,000. Excellent.” Blondie grinned. “I have $5,000. Do we have $6,000? Six. Seven?”
The bidding continued, fast and furious, until it topped out at $13,000. Jesus Christ. Who the hell dropped that much money at one time? On a date? And Noelle had never understood the big deal about Las Vegas. Wasting money on a chance and a prayer. That wasn’t risk-taking or excitement—it was stupidity. Growing up and living with an alcoholic father with a spotty employment record, as well as a shady brother who could’ve earned W-2s for using women, had schooled her early on the value of a buck. But if a person had never known the gnawing emptiness of going to bed hungry or had never lit enough candles to erect a shrine because the power bill hadn’t been paid, then plunking down more than ten grand with the wave of a paddle probably didn’t register on theirWhat the hell? meter.
Four more men appeared on the stage and exited with exorbitant price tags hanging over them. Ten thousand. Fifteen thousand. If she had the kind of money these people threw away, she wouldn’t be in a strange city, hiding behind trees in an honest-to-God ballroom. She wouldn’t have to seek help from a man who detested her and her family with a passion usually reserved for sex and religion.
“And here’s bachelor number six.”
A tall man emerged from the wings, his long, unhurried stride covering the distance to the center of the stage in just a few steps. His black jacket draped over his wide shoulders and tapered to his slim waist as if he’d been sewn into it, while the crisp white shirt hugged his chest like a woman who just couldn’t take no for an answer. Pants the same ebony color emphasized and flattered the powerful strength of his legs. Powerful—a perfect description of this man. He controlled it, exuded it, wore it.
Noelle straightened, an electric current surging through her body. Everything within her—every sense, every thought, every cell of her damn body—tightened into narrow focus. Nothing else existed in that moment but the bachelor standing at the front of the room, hands tucked in his pockets, his elegant grace and confidence evident in the very absence of the snicker-inducing posing and posturing of the men who’d preceded him.
A mask might’ve hid his features, and he donned the same formal monkey suits as the other bachelors, but this man she would know anywhere. It’d been six years since she’d last seen him, but not for a second did she doubt who graced the stage.
Even as an eleven-year-old girl, she’d been fascinated by the masculine beauty of the son of her father’s girlfriend. His hair was a bright blending of canary, goldenrod, and chestnut, three of the colors in her most prized possession—the 120-crayon box her father had surprised her with on her tenth birthday. She couldn’t glimpse his brilliant green eyes from her hiding place, but she knew they were the same. Even when he’d stared at her with icy disdain or, for a precious short while, gazed at her with blistering heat, the beauty of his eyes had never changed.
That gaze had always contained the power to wound her like no other. To make hurt crawl through her like a living thing. To cause joy and love to burn bright like the Olympic torch…like no other person had been capable of stirring.
To cause guilt and shame to snake through her, even when the sins his stare accused her of weren’t hers to bear.
“This bachelor may not be a Boston native, but our fair city has certainly become home to him. Though his business and personal interests—such as travel, history, and classical movies—take him all over the country and world, he always looks forward to returning to the welcoming, open arms of…Kupel’s Bakery.” Laughter rippled through the room. Noelle shrugged. Must be a Boston inside joke. “Still, he is on the elusive search for a woman who will tempt him like his favorite bagels. And he does believe she’s out there. She will be intelligent, independent, and have a sharp wit. She won’t need him but want him. My, my.” Blondie made a show of fanning herself with the note cards in her hand.
Bullshit, Noelle scoffed. She hadn’t met a man yet who didn’t prefer a woman reliant on him for something. Money. Sex. Attention… Love.
“The lucky woman who wins this bachelor will fly in his private jet to Los Angeles for two days and one night of sightseeing, fine dining, and shopping on the famous Rodeo Drive, all topped with a red-carpet movie premiere. Exciting, isn’t it? We’ll start the bidding for this star-studded evening at $7,000. Seven. $8,000? Wonderful. Eight…and nine over here.”
Noelle watched the paddles fly up around the room, the rapid flickering of wood soon turning into a blur. Eleven thousand came and went, with fifteen fast approaching. One woman in particular seemed intent on winning. Whenever an amount was shouted out, the stunning redhead raised it by a thousand, never hesitating. She must’ve really wanted to rub elbows with celebrities. Or maybe it was the man himself she wanted to rub elbows—and other body parts—with. Noelle would bet her most treasured graphite pencil set that the draw was the trip, but the prize was the bachelor.
“Seventeen? Eighteen? Eighteen-thousand dollars! Do we have nineteen?” Blondie scanned the audience, her bright smile gleeful. “Eighteen going once. Going twice. Sold to number 51 for 18,000. Congratulations!”
Holy Christ. Eighteen-thousand dollars. Noelle blinked. Then exhaled, staring as Aiden nodded to the redhead and strode off the stage. The rest of the auction passed without Noelle paying much attention to it. Her heart thudded against her rib cage. Each second that passed drew her inexorably closer to the moment when…when… Oh, God.
She closed her eyes, pinching the bridge of nose, wishing she could shut off the queasiness she felt as easily.
“And now the moment you’ve all been waiting for…” Blondie trilled as all ten men filed back out on the stage. “Bachelors, please remove your masks.”
Unbidden, Noelle inched forward, focused on one person. The only one who mattered. The one who would determine the path of her future—whether it would be hard, or hard as hell.
Slowly, bachelor number six lowered his mask, and Noelle glimpsed the features of the man she hadn’t seen in six years.
Moisture fled from her mouth as if chased. There were the same chiseled planes that never failed to make her fingers itch to grab a graphite pencil and draw them. Try to capture his vitality and masculine beauty with paper, lead, and ink. He still possessed the same mouth that seemed incapable of losing the full, sensual curves whether flattened into a grim line or quirked in a lazy half smile. The same hard jaw that begged for a woman’s lips to brush over it.
As many probably had. She clenched her fingers into fists at her thighs. Not that who kissed him where was any of her business. She didn’t give a damn. Not anymore. Who he fucked, how many—and according to the Boston society gossip pages, there were many—wasn’t what had brought her here. Only a promise.
Cautiously, she edged from the safety of the trees. No one had noticed her yet, and she took comfort in the inattention while it lasted. Because it wouldn’t last.
Her heart lodged in her throat, each beat threatening to cut off her air supply. With feet that became heavier with each step forward, she eased toward the crowd of gowned and bejeweled women and tuxedo-clad men. Like the Red Sea, they parted, staring and murmuring at the oddity in their midst. Heat blazed up her neck and poured into her face, but she jacked her chin higher, dragging on the I-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude she’d acquired early on in life.
Ahead of her, Aiden greeted the redhead who had won the date with him. He lifted one half of that beautiful mouth in a teasing, flirtatious smile that still haunted her. The seductive gleam in his green gaze caused the breath to stutter in Noelle’s lungs, and it wasn’t even aimed at her. He clasped the woman’s hand, but as if sensing the tension whispering through the ballroom, he glanced up.
The warm light in those brilliant eyes dimmed, replaced by a coldness that sent a shiver tripping down Noelle’s spine. Her slow tread stumbled, halted. Go, a voice urged. Keep going. But her body, frozen by the shock and growing rage in his hardening expression, paralyzed her muscles.
Well, Aiden had finally noticed her.
And now there would be hell to pay.
Copyright © 2016 by Naima Simone. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
About the Author
Naima Simone’s love of romance was first stirred by Johanna Lindsey, Sandra Brown and Linda Howard many years ago. Well not that many. She is only eighteen…ish. Though her first attempt at a romance novel starring Ralph Tresvant from New Edition never saw the light of day, her love of romance, reading and writing has endured. Published since 2009, she spends her days—and nights— creating stories of unique men and women who experience the first bites of desire, the dizzying heights of passion, and the tender, healing heat of love.
She is wife to Superman, or his non-Kryptonian, less bullet proof equivalent, and mother to the most awesome kids ever. They all live in perfect, sometimes domestically-challenged bliss in the southern United States.