No Ordinary Love
A Journey's End Billionaire Romance
Journey's End Billionaires, Book 1
Meet the Billionaires of Journey’s End…
Opposites attract. But for how long?
Sexy French billionaire Jean-Baptiste Mercier avoids emotional attachments by giving his model or actress girlfriends his credit card—but never his heart.
Down-to-earth career woman Samira Palmer avoids dating anyone right now—especially bad boys. Until a handsome man with a thrilling accent and piercing green eyes literally bumps into her one unprecedented night.
Sparks fly when opposites attract. As for happily ever after between star-crossed lovers? Anything’s possible in small-town Journey’s End…
If you love hot and emotional contemporary interracial romance, pick up this two-part romantic saga today!
1. No Ordinary Love (Baptiste & Samira #1)
2. Beyond Ordinary Love (Baptiste & Samira #2)
3. Everything I Hoped For (Anthony & Melody #1)
4. Everything I Need (Anthony & Melody #2)
Read an Excerpt
Jean-Baptiste Mercier washed his hands, checked his teeth for any lingering signs of dinner and left the men’s room.
Whereupon he ran directly into Queen Nefertiti.
Who was on her phone.
She was tall. Or maybe not. Maybe her height was simply an illusion created by her wedge-shaped electric blue crown, upon which glittered many colorful jewels in the shape of a cobra. At a quick glance, he saw that she wore a matching goddess gown.
He had a startling glimpse of dramatic dark eyes, heavily lined.
High cheekbones in a stunning shade of mahogany.
A whiff of sandalwood.
A lush mouth, thinning with annoyance as he plowed straight into her.
He tried to slow his trajectory, but there was no chance. Why? Because she’d startled him. Not by standing in the middle of a hotel hallway where he meant to walk.
This one startled with her beauty and elegance.
Without thinking, he caught her by the upper arms. Steadied her, even as the smooth warmth of her bare skin sparked a frisson of awareness along all his nerve endings.
Her eyes widened, so perhaps she also felt it. She backed up a hasty step, taking her silky flesh with her. He felt the unexpected hardness of her gold cuffs as her arms slid out of his grasp.
“Pardonnez-moi, ma reine,” he said hastily, shocked into forgetting his English.
“Ça va,” she said, startling him again.
Actually, that was two startles. First, because she spoke French, and second, because she had the sort of voice—smooth, throaty, resonant—that would be right at home singing jazz in a club on the Left Bank back home.
“You speak French,” he blurted, the soul of sophistication in that proud moment.
She didn’t smile. A fourth surprise. Americans, in his experience, were like Labrador retrievers bounding through life, happy all the time and willing to grin at every passing fire hydrant on the street. But this one? She was all Parisienne, a sleek cat who required patience and wooing before she’d deign to trouble herself with your existence.
No, she didn’t smile. But the lines of her beautiful face eased, bringing her aloofness level down a notch or two.
“Un peu,” she said, nodding. A little.
With that, she pivoted to go on her sky-high heels, blowing the tattered remnants of his mind as she went. Slits in the bottom of her gown happily gave way to miles of gleaming brown legs. She had bright red toenails. Her sandals were golden, with straps that crisscrossed and wound their way up to the knees. Her ass? Big. Round. High. What would his buddy Daniel call it? Oh, yes. Tight.
Queen Nefertiti had a tight ass.
Her tits looked every bit as promising, although her half-moon jeweled collar had sadly blocked a good portion of his view in front.
His heart sank as he watched her walk toward the early Halloween party that was evidently in full swing in the hotel’s ballroom down the hall. His scrambled brain and dry throat kept him stupefied and helpless, tripping him up at the very moment he needed to be quick on his feet.
Don’t just stand there, Baptiste—do something!
At the eleventh hour, he managed a hurried step after her, his heart thumping in time to the burst of dance music from the party. “Nefertiti.”
She stopped and looked back over her shoulder at him. Once again, the electrical wiring in his brain sparked and smoked. In fairness, though, it wasn’t his fault. The long line of her neck distracted him and made it official:
He wanted to touch, nip, lick, suck, bite and possess every inch of this woman. He wanted her silken limbs wrapped around him the way the straps on her sandals wrapped around her shapely calves. He wanted her scratches up and down his back, her tongue in his mouth and her cries in his ears.
The vehemence of his sudden and unexpected desire made his blood hum and sent tiny shivers racing up the back of his neck and across his scalp.
“What a relief.” Her delicious lips crept closer to a smile. “You don’t know how many people have called me Cleopatra tonight.”
He stared at her for a long beat or two, floundering while a harried electrician inside his head worked frantically to get his thought process rewired.
She was only a woman, he reminded himself. No need to lose his mind.
He cleared his throat.
“Of course you’re not Cleopatra.” He approached her, edging around some sort of a zombie and his companion, a ruby slipper, short skirt and garter-wearing version of Dorothy who had evidently spent some time in a pornography shop. “You’re Nefertiti. I’ve seen your bust in the Louvre.”
She made a dismissive sound. “That’s hard to do, since it’s in Berlin at the Neues.”
Once again, everything inside him rose to attention, not least of all his queue.
He looked her up and down as he stepped closer. “Are you challenging me, madame?”
She looked him up and down, her expression disdainful even though her eyes were alight with mischief. “It’ll take me five seconds to prove you wrong.” She held the phone up for him to see. Gave him a rueful shrug. “Not much of a challenge there, monsieur.”
He grinned. Stepped closer still, which put him right in kissing range.
“This is an important issue,” he said, his voice turning husky. “We must get to the bottom of it. For…international relations.”
One sleek brow rose. “International relations?”
He pressed a hand to his heart. “What could be more crucial?”
She ducked her head, dimpling but denying him the full smile.
“I’m just finishing a business dinner with my colleagues in the restaurant.” He gestured to the Asian restaurant at the other end of the lobby. “Let me say good-bye to them, then I’ll join you at the party. For a drink.”
Her head came up. She studied him for a long, measured beat or two. Long enough for a glorious flush to creep up her neck and over her sculpted cheekbones. She opened her mouth. He waited on high alert, oblivious to a passing stream of costumed partygoers.
“As important as it is to maintain good international relations—”
“Between old allies,” he added quickly, sensing that the wind was not blowing in his favor. “Because if the French didn’t have your backs, you Americans would all be celebrating absolutely nothing on July the Fourth, and you’d fly a funny flag and sing ‘God Save the Queen’ at all your sporting events.”
That did it.
She finally laughed for him, a breathtaking display of shining eyes, dimples and white teeth in sharp contrast to her dark skin.
Desire coiled tighter inside him, pooling low in his belly.
“And I’m very grateful, because I don’t know all the words to ‘God Save the Queen.’”
He laughed again, at least until her smile tapered off and died.
“But I’m with my friend tonight. And I didn’t come to flirt with handsome Frenchmen.”
“Then you shouldn’t have worn that costume,” he said, trying to dial back some of his intensity at this confirmation that the attraction was mutual. “Not a very good plan, was it?”
She blinked and looked away, hesitating.
All was not lost, then.
“You can have a drink with me,” he murmured. “No doesn’t have to be your final answer tonight, does it?”
Another hesitation. A longer pause.
And then she surprised him again.
“It’s a private party,” she said, tipping her chin up in a gesture somewhere between an invitation to kiss her and a challenge. “Too bad you don’t have a costume. Or an invitation.”
With that parting shot, Nefertiti strode away, treating Baptiste to a heart-stopping view of swaying hips and ass. Only when she’d disappeared through the door and into the crowd did sudden panic lodge in his throat and his hands curl into fists of frustration.
He needed a costume! Where could he find a costume at—he checked his watch—nine o’clock on a weeknight? Lobby shop? He looked wildly around, but no, the only one open at this hour was the convenience store for aspirins, sodas and chips. Where else could he—
He spied a Phantom of the Opera walking through the lobby with Christine on his arm.
Aha. Better idea.
Hurrying over, Baptiste pulled out his wallet and counted out several bills. “Excuse me, sir. I need a costume. I’ll give you a hundred dollars for the mask.”
Phantom and Christine exchanged excited looks, quickly repressed.
“Dude. I can’t part with the mask. It’s part of the whole—”
“Five hundred dollars.” Annoyed at being fleeced and in too much of a hurry to do anything about this budding capitalist who knew when he had the market cornered (what if Nefertiti slipped out some back door before Baptiste could find her again? He didn’t even have her number!), Baptiste put the twenties back and thumbed his way to five hundreds. “Throw in the cape. And your invitation so I can show it at the door. Final offer.”
The deal was struck. Money changed hands. Rarely had anyone disrobed so quickly. The Phantom ripped off his mask, while Christine all but decapitated him in her determination to yank the cape off his neck.
Buzzing with anticipation—and, in fairness, the two bottles of chardonnay he’d shared over dinner—Baptiste slung his new costume over his arm and hurried back to the restaurant. His good friend from their shared time working at a Napa winery, Daniel Harper, waited for him, as did Daniel’s father, Nigel Harper.
“Forgive me.” Baptiste laid his cape on the back of his chair, the mask on the table and resumed his seat. “I, ah, discovered that there is a Halloween party in the ballroom. I’ll go to it after dinner.”
Daniel’s eyes narrowed with suspicion—Baptiste shot him a veiled keep quiet! look—but Nigel didn’t notice. The older gentleman cleared his throat and raised his glass.
“I can’t tell you two young men how thrilled I am with this merger. When my wife and I started Harper Rose Winery all those years ago, we never dreamed that one day we’d grow large enough to capture the interest of a French winemaker.”
“I never dreamed you’d consider a merger,” Daniel said in a stage whisper.
Nigel picked up his chopsticks and, without a word, used them to rap Daniel’s knuckles.
“Hey!” Daniel yelped.
Baptiste laughed, his loneliness at bay for now as it had been since he arrived in small-town Journey’s End in the Hudson River Valley earlier today. Something about being with Daniel and his family (he’d met Daniel’s parents a couple of times over the years when they visited Daniel out in Napa) relaxed him and put him at the kind of ease he wasn’t sure he felt anywhere else.
Back home in France, his late mother’s family dinners, such as they were, had always involved servants, tuxedos, endless courses, fountains of champagne and, inevitably, snide comments, disdain and ugliness. Since her death last year, he hadn’t seen any of his extended family, and he was happy to prolong that drought indefinitely.
He and families did not get along.
Hard, then, to explain his unwilling but ongoing fascination with functional families, like Daniel’s.
It wasn’t that he thought Daniel’s family was perfect.
It was just that it was demonstrably better than Baptiste’s had ever been.
“As I was saying,” Nigel said serenely, putting the chopsticks down again, “I know we’ve got some challenges ahead, but I look forward to a long and happy association with Baptiste and the Mercier family. And to a long and happy retirement with my son Daniel at the helm of the winery. To our new winery. To Château Harper Rose.”
They all clinked their glasses.
“To Château Harper Rose.”
“To new friends and business partners.”
“Santé. To your health,” Baptiste said. “Did I clink both your glasses? Don’t want anyone to have seven years of bad sex.”
“Yikes.” Daniel made a face and clinked Baptiste’s glass again. “Just in case.”
Nigel, who’d taken a sip, paused to tip his head, consider his glass and clink Baptiste’s glass again. “Just in case.”
They all laughed. Nigel clapped his hands together and rose. “Well, it’s time for us old folks to go home. Don’t you two stay out too late now, hear? You both just came in from France this morning. You’re probably jet-lagged. And you’re turning around and going back home in a few days, Baptiste.”
“Tomorrow after the meeting, actually,” Baptiste said.
“You’re going to be dead on your feet, man,” Nigel said.
“It’s not a big deal,” Baptiste said. “I’m used to the flight.”
“I should think so,” Daniel muttered. “Since you own a private jet. Don’t try to act like you’re struggling through security and riding in coach like the rest of us.”
“It’s the lack of gratitude that gets me,” Baptiste said sadly. “This morning, Daniel rode on the jet with me. He was like a kid on Christmas morning. Now? He throws me under the van.”
“Bus,” Daniel said.
“Whatever,” Baptiste said.
They all laughed. Baptiste and Daniel stood.
Baptiste reached for Nigel’s hand. “Pleasure, sir. It’s a shame Daniel is such a jackass, but I look forward to working with you.”
Still laughing, Nigel pulled Baptiste in for a hug, then turned to Daniel.
“I’m proud of you, son,” Nigel said gruffly.
Daniel pressed his lips together and nodded, a flash of something emotional in his eyes.
Baptiste looked away while the Harper men hugged, trying not to feel longing for a father figure or regret that he’d only had ten years with his biological father before a boating accident got him. Ten years of being ignored and shunted off on nannies had been more than long enough. It wasn’t as if his father would have completely transformed his personality and become a real parent in the eleventh year, if he’d lived that long. Far more likely he’d have poisoned Baptiste’s thoughts and memories more than he already had.
Baptiste cleared his throat, trying not to feel its sudden tightness. Focused instead on where he was, who he was with and who he hoped to be with very soon.
His heart thumped with anticipation.
“Good night, fellas,” Nigel said with a final wave, and was off.
Baptiste snuck a quick glance at his watch and snatched up his cape and mask. It had only been seven minutes or so. Hopefully, Nefertiti would be easy to find, although he had no real idea how big the ballroom was, so that was a concern.
“I’ll see you in the morning at the office?” He checked his watch again. “We’ll tell the employees about the merger and—why are you looking at me like that?”
Daniel sank back into his chair and stared up at Baptiste as though he’d tried to hold his chopsticks between his toes while he ate his sushi.
“You’re not leaving, are you?”
Baptiste frowned. “What if I am?”
“I’m about to propose to Zoya. My nerves are shot. I need a drink. You can temporarily suspend your search for more ass for five minutes and have a drink with me.”
Buzzing with impatience, Baptiste signaled for the server, dropped back into his chair and tried not to hate his good friend quite so much.
“Why is this a drama?” he grumbled. “You love Zoya. She loves you. You’re willing to shackle yourself to each other for life, and you bought an expensive ring. Voilà. The end.”
“Glenfiddich. Neat. You know what? Make them doubles,” Daniel told the server, who headed off again. “Thanks for that touching encouragement, Baptiste. I feel reborn.”
Baptiste forced himself to slow down and take a closer look at his friend, who looked a little green around the edges. “What’s up?”
Daniel blew out a breath and leaned back, running a hand over the top of his head. “I proposed to her once before. Back when we graduated from college. She said no. Obviously.” He folded his arms. Unfolded them. “I might have a small case of PTSD.”
Baptiste blinked and studied this information from every direction, trying to see it from an angle that made sense. No luck.
What was going on?
In the several years he’d known Daniel, ever since they worked at their respective wineries in Napa, learning the business, he’d never known him to show anxiety about much of anything. Daniel demonstrated supreme confidence in winemaking, biking, chasing women and any other endeavor that Baptiste had ever seen him try.
“You don’t get nervous,” Baptiste said, nodding his thanks as the server arrived with their drinks. “You never get nervous. You get angry, but never nervous. You could defuse bombs or perform brain surgery for a living.”
Daniel shrugged. “Yeah, well, I never had a second chance with the love of my life before.”
“Look at you.” This was not the time to laugh at his friend, but honestly—what did Daniel expect? “The last thing I knew, you were joining me on my quest to sample all the women in Napa, and now this. What am I to think?”
“You’re to think that I’ll hopefully be the happiest man in the world by this time tomorrow,” Daniel said. “Why’re you looking so shocked? You’re acting like I want to propose to a goat.”
“Goats are a great deal less trouble than women,” Baptiste said.
Daniel snorted. “The women you deal with? Agreed.”
A sudden wave of moodiness hit Baptiste, causing him to glare at Daniel.
“What was all that about on the phone the other day, by the way?” Daniel asked. “When I walked in on you yelling at someone. My French isn’t great, but it sounded like you were telling them to move out of your apartment.”
“In the entire world, no one is as nosy as Americans,” Baptiste said, tossing back half the Scotch. “You should work on that. As a culture.”
Daniel snickered, a smug and hateful sound that set Baptiste’s teeth on edge, especially coming as it did from someone whose entire life was a study in perfection. “Yet you call me angry.”
“Do you ever get tired of your perfection?” Baptiste wondered. “Perfect looks and charm. Perfect job, life and family. And now a perfect fiancée—”
“Don’t jinx me.”
“And presumably perfect children soon? Do you ever think that the rest of the world might not have it so easily?”
“If I were in a snarky mood, I’d mention that your billions could buy a lot of perfection—”
Baptiste gulped more Scotch, savoring the burn even though it tasted sour on his tongue.
“—but I’m not. So I won’t. What I will say is that despite appearances, I’ve spent a lot of my life running away. From Journey’s End. Zoya. My father. My memories. But that got old and I decided to make a change when I moved back here. Now I’m working on my relationships and my job. I’m much happier. Nothing’s perfect, though.” Daniel paused thoughtfully. “Well, except for my perfect looks and charm. Like you said.”
“The point is, don’t hate the player. Hate the game.”
Wonderful, Baptiste thought.
There was another American idiom he’d have to learn.
“If you’re unhappy with your life, change it,” Daniel added serenely, sipping his Scotch.
“I’m perfectly happy,” Baptiste snapped.
“Right. That’s why I walked in on you shouting at that woman on the phone the other day.”
Baptiste scowled down at his empty glass. Realized his right leg was jiggling and stopped it. Smoothed the corner of the white tablecloth. Wished he had more Scotch.
“If you must know,” he finally said, “Daphne—”
“Daphne? I hate her already.”
“—is having a difficult time coming to terms with the fact that our relationship, such as it was, is over and I will not be renewing the lease on her apartment at the end of the year. The only good thing is that my lawyer now demands that these women sign confidentiality agreements so there will be no more blabbing to the tabloids.”
Low whistle from Daniel. “Confidentiality agreements? Who’re you? Brad Pitt?”
Baptiste flapped a hand. “It’s only prudent for a man in my position.”
“So this Daphne’s down in Manhattan?”
“Correct. We had words. She feels that I should continue to subsidize the lifestyle she became accustomed to when we were together. I disagree and feel that her six-month lease is more than generous. Her modeling career is taking off. I believe she’ll soon be gracing the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and fashion weeks all around the world. She has plenty of her own money, if not the private jet. And another man will be along soon to buy her more trinkets if she doesn’t want to buy them for herself. The end.”
Daniel shook his head. Whistled. “How does that work, man? It’s like a cash transaction with you.”
Baptiste shrugged irritably. “There’s no puzzle. I give the women an American Express card.”
Daniel leaned in. “The Black Card? The one with no limit?”
Baptiste stared at him, aghast. “You think I’m a complete fool, don’t you?”
“It’s a simple question,” Daniel said, his eyes glowing with amusement.
“You can never trust women with anything. Least of all money.”
“That kind of ignorance just goes to show you’ve been trusting the wrong women. But don’t try to dodge the question. What about the credit card you give these women?”
“There’s a monthly limit to the card. The relationships last while they last. And then?” Baptiste snapped his fingers. “C’est fini. How do you do it?”
Daniel made a face. “Not like that.”
Baptiste started to get annoyed. “I personally witnessed you spending thousands of dollars on Zoya this weekend. So you are no better.”
“I spent thousands of dollars on the woman I love and plan to marry. You spend thousands of dollars on women you sleep with who mean nothing to you. Actually, now that I think about it, it’s probably the perfect situation. You’re looking for the hookup without drama, and they’re looking for the sugar daddy. Win-win for everybody. I commend you.”
Daniel raised his glass in a final toast and downed the last of his Scotch.
Baptiste tried an offhand laugh, but it sounded coarse and choked. Probably because his mind had unwillingly shifted to his fortune-spending and Chanel-wearing mother with her endless stream of husbands, lovers and their pending replacements, all of whom had flitted between Paris, Gstaad and St. Tropez, depending on the mood and time of year.
“Transactions about sex and money make the world spin,” Baptiste said. “Why not combine them and make things simple?”
“Simple, eh? So what do you expect out of these women? Other than the obvious.”
“Nothing. That’s the beauty of it.” Baptiste thought that over for a beat or two. “Well, I suppose we’ll expect each other to be available for the odd event here or there. Other than that? Just fun. Convenience.”
“And what if one of these women doesn’t feel like being bothered with your ass one night? Maybe she wants a girls’ night out. Or what if she just wants to cuddle and watch a movie on the sofa when you show up? What then?”
Baptiste barked out a startled laugh at this unlikely image. “I don’t spend this kind of money to deal with rejection. Or scheduling issues. Or drama. And the women understand that.”
“So you’re dating wind-up dolls, basically.”
Baptiste winced at that image, appropriate though it might be.
“Sounds thrilling.” Daniel considered his empty glass. “Kind of superficial, though.”
More unwelcome thoughts shifted into Baptiste’s mind. Like the woman before Daphne, a three-month affair whose name and face he couldn’t now recall. Or the way Daphne had burned through her welcome at the six-week mark, which was part of the reason she’d been so upset when he ended things earlier than she’d probably expected.
Or his increasing boredom and generalized dissatisfaction with life.
Having used all his energy on the fake laugh of a few seconds ago, he had none left to manufacture a smile now. The result was a tug on one side of his lips that felt crooked.
“C’est la vie,” he said. “No one ever accused me of being a prince.”
Daniel made a dismissive sound as he reached for his wallet and tossed some money on the table. “Your life. But I think you’re selling yourself short. And you don’t want to be the seventy-year-old guy showing up at some Halloween party with a Phantom of the Opera costume so he can try to hook up with some hot woman he saw across the room. Not a good look.”
Baptiste was so busy wishing he could smash Daniel’s perfect nose that he didn’t notice that Daniel had paid the bill. He picked up the money and tried to hand it back.
“I’ll take care of this.”
“I took care of it,” Daniel said, standing.
“Not this time.”
Baptiste thrust the money at him. “I insist.”
“Save your breath.”
“I always pay,” Baptiste said, flabbergasted. What was with people tonight? Why was everyone surprising him with their behavior? Back home in France, his friends never even made a pretense of reaching for the bill. “I have the fattest bank account. I pay. Always.”
Daniel flashed that winning smile. “Fuck you.”
“You put me up at your fancy-ass château in Bordeaux. You helped me negotiate good prices for Zoya’s ring and cello. You flew me back here on your private jet. You’re saving my family’s winery from financial ruin, and you bought dinner for me and my dad. We can either use that money to buy the drinks, or I’ll take it back and shove it down your throat. Your choice.”
A pregnant moment or two passed, during which it could have gone either way, but then a thought occurred to Baptiste:
He might be glaring at the best man—and truest friend—he’d ever known.
So he made a show of putting the money back down and shrugging.
“If you want to pay, you can pay. Why didn’t you say so?”
They laughed, the tension broken.
Baptiste also stood. They hugged.
“Good luck with Zoya tonight. You won’t need it, but I wish it anyway. She’s a wonderful woman. You’ll have a long and happy life with her.”
“From your lips to God’s ears,” Daniel said fervently. “Did you text Sean?”
Their other friend from Napa, Sean Baldwin, was also visiting quaint Journey’s End, Daniel’s hometown. The three of them had enjoyed many grand adventures together over the years, and Baptiste looked forward to catching up with him.
“Not yet, but I will,” Baptiste said. “See you in the morning? At the winery?”
“In the morning. How’s your room upstairs, by the way? This is the nicest hotel we’ve got in Journey’s End, but it’s not the Ritz.”
Baptiste gathered up his Phantom costume and hurried to the Halloween party, eager to find his Nefertiti again.
This was getting ridiculous.
Samira Palmer grabbed her drink, ducked behind one of the pillars closest to the ballroom’s dessert bar and checked her phone for texts.
Nothing. Oh, wait, there was something from her ex-fiancé Terrance again:
Can we talk soon?
There was only one response to such a text, and she’d gotten good at giving it:
You don’t need him, girl, she reminded herself.
Taking a deep breath to clear Terrance’s unwanted image from her brain, she checked the time.
Nine twenty-nine. And here she was, a grown thirty-three-year-old standing alone in a crowded and noisy ballroom like a jilted prom date. While wearing a freaking Nefertiti costume with a heavy-ass jeweled crown on her head and torture device sandals on her feet.
And paying two hundred dollars for the privilege. Not including tax.
Was she a loser, or what?
She finished the last of her second chardonnay and set the empty glass on a nearby tray as she moodily watched the crowd (if she saw one more hooker Dorothy costume with ruby red stilettos, she was seriously going to hit someone) and scrolled through her options. Another drink might be nice, but she had a big meeting at work in the morning, and she didn’t want to show up with a hangover. On the other hand—
Her phone buzzed in her hand, startling her. The display flashed her best friend Melody Harrison’s picture.
Well, thank God. About damn time.
“What’s going on?” Samira snapped as the picture resolved to show Melody in her scrubs as she hurried down some hospital corridor. “You’d better be coming to the party as a surgeon, because I know you’re not about to cancel on me.”
“I’m canceling on you,” Melody said. “I got called in. Car accident. Sorry.”
“You should be. You’re the one who dragged me to this nonsense and forced me to rent this expensive-ass costume for the night.”
“Well, I wanted to get you out so you wouldn’t mope. On the plus side? You look great.”
“I do look great, don’t I?” Grinning and striking a glamour pose, Samira ran the phone down the length of her body.
“Love the gladiator sandals!”
“Yeah, well, that’s not the point.” Samira held the phone in front of her face again. “The point is, you know I don’t have this kind of money to waste right now. I got my AmEx bill today. I’ve been carrying it around with me. I’m hoping if I look at it enough times, I’ll erase some of the zeroes with my mental powers.”
“Oh, no.” Melody, who’d ducked into the hospital cafeteria for a cup of coffee, made a face. “What’s the damage?”
Samira swallowed hard, barely able to get the words out. “Ten-eight.”
“Oh, my God.” Melody looked a little woozy as she paid the cashier and resumed her march through the hospital. “I know you’re sick.”
“You could say that,” Samira said. Almost eleven thousand dollars. Samira’s half of the nonrefundable expenses for a would-be event of the year that Terrance had called off the night before the wedding. “At least he’s paying his share.”
“I know you’re tired of me saying this…” Melody began.
Samira rolled her eyes. “Here we go.”
“But this could have been so much worse. Thank God you didn’t marry a gay man, honey. Thank God you didn’t, I don’t know, have kids with him and invest five years in building a family before he told you.”
“Kindly do not try to find a bright spot in this tragic situation. I spent over a year with a guy and didn’t notice he was gay.” Samira paused, then let her worst fear slip through. “Hell, maybe he wasn’t gay until he hooked up with me.”
Melody scowled at her as she hit a metal plate on the wall and walked through a massive swinging door. “You know that’s not how it works.”
Samira did know, but try telling that to her eviscerated ego. It remained secretly convinced that if she’d been more exciting in bed, she’d be a honeymooner unpacking all her wedding gifts in her new home right now instead of an embarrassed dumped bride returning her half of the gifts with awkward thank-you explanation notes.
On the plus side? Now she knew why their sex life had always been well south of stellar.
“None of us suspected he was gay,” Melody continued. “He set off no gay-dar. Just goes to show you can’t go around stereotyping people and hitting them with your preconceived notions. He’s gay. He worked up the courage to come out of the closet and call off what would have been a bad marriage. You dodged a bullet. An expensive bullet, but think what a divorce would have cost you. Live and learn, right?”
“Well, apparently I’m only batting fifty percent on that one. Did you forget? The guy before my runaway groom cheated on me for six months, and I didn’t realize that either. I’m too stupid to live, evidently.”
“You just want a husband and children. That’s not stupid.”
“It is when it eats up good childbearing years on trifling guys,” Samira said.
“All men are not trifling.”
Melody laughed. “I’ll find you one later. I know you dodged a bullet, but I still want to punch Terrance for doing this to you. It’s not like you open up and trust people in the first place.”
“I don’t need him, anyway,” Samira said. “I’m fine by myself.”
Harsh sigh from Melody. “See? This is just the excuse you were looking for to push men away and make sure no one else gets close to you.”
Samira glanced all around. “I’m sorry. I’m having a tough time visualizing the men you’re referring to. Maybe they’re all dressed as the Invisible Man tonight.”
Melody snorted out a laugh. “I gotta go scrub in. You okay?”
“I’ll live,” Samira said glumly. “I’m going home. Enough’s enough.”
“Don’t go home and waste the pretty! Seriously, who’s there? Anyone interesting?”
Samira’s mind flashed back to the hot French guy, her heart rate kicking up.
“I don’t know,” she said, adjusting one of her earrings.
“The music sounds good. Is that Sir Mix-A-Lot? ‘Baby Got Back’?”
“Yeah. The DJ seems to be in love with the nineties.”
“Well, take a minute and try to unwind. Have a spin around the room. Maybe you’ll meet someone to hook up with.”
“I don’t hook up.” Samira had never managed a successful casual sexual relationship, and she wasn’t going to waste even more childbearing years trying to figure out how to do it now. “You know that.”
“You need a hot hookup to get back in the saddle, girl. Just sayin’. Okay gotta go. Love you. Call me tomorrow.”
“Love you,” Samira said, and hung up.
So…what now? More wine? A walk around the room, like Melody suggested?
Nah. Time to call it a night, for a variety of reasons. She had better wine at home, and she’d already made approximately one million laps around the room while waiting for her friends. Worse, the dance music and noise level had maxed out her delicate ears. Most importantly? The effort to pretend that she was casually mingling rather than performing a covert op to relocate Sexy French Guy had left her exhausted and irritable.
Because, really, what the hell did she think she was doing?
Why would he want her? No one else ever did. Not for long, anyway.
They’d had a fun little interlude, but he was gone now, evidently never to return. And it was all for the best. Seriously. What had gotten into her, anyway? What had she’d thought she’d do if he reappeared? It wasn’t like they’d disappear into one of the fancy suites upstairs and have chandelier-swinging sex all night.
You don’t need him anyway, girl, she reminded herself—hang on.
Were those lemon tarts on the dessert table?
Well, she’d have one for the road, then leave. She deserved a special treat after the day (Week? Month? Year?) she’d endured.
Things were definitely looking up.
Hitching her clutch more firmly under her arm, she helped herself. Lemon tarts! Oh, and look—cream puffs. Better have one of those, too—
“Cleopatra,” said a male voice at her side. “Why do you keep slipping away from me, baby?”
Samira scowled and tried to pretend she didn’t hear him. Unfortunately, there was no avoiding Drunk Julius Caesar, and she should know, because she’d been trying all night.
Sure enough, he loomed closer, planting himself firmly in her peripheral vision, and left her no choice but to acknowledge his presence.
The current song was, appropriately enough, TLC’s “No Scrubs.”
“Kindly leave me alone.” She flashed him a pleasant smile. “I don’t want any trouble, but you’re starting to get on my nerves.”
The guy sized her up—again—with his bloodshot eyes, swaying lightly on his feet. With his flowing white toga and headband made of green leaves, he wasn’t bad looking and would do himself a world of good if he just stood there being handsome rather than trying to drink his way to the bottom of every liquor bottle in the room.
“We should get together,” he said, sidling closer. “Talk about our plans to conquer the world. I could feed you peeled grapes. No snakes allowed.”
He cracked himself up with his sad little joke.
Rolling her eyes, Samira took her dessert-filled plate and turned to go.
Until he reached out and clamped a heavy hand around her upper arm.
“Where you going? Don’t be such a bitch.”
“Hey!” she cried, her shrill voice cutting across the music.
Samira acted without thinking. Dropping the plate, she turned into him, holding her hand open wide, and smacked him hard in his woefully unimpressive groin. He yelped and doubled over, letting her go so he could grab his abused privates with a moan.
Her repulsive job done, she dusted off her hands with grim satisfaction. She fully expected him to drop to his knees and was happily anticipating seeing him curl up in the fetal position when she realized that someone else had gotten involved.
It was…oh, God, it was Hot French Guy, who’d materialized out of nowhere.
Even more incredible?
He was now disguised as the sexiest Phantom of the Opera ever.
Samira gaped at him, all good sense doing a spectacular swan dive out the nearest window.
If she’d thought he couldn’t get any handsomer than he’d been when he nearly knocked her on her ass earlier, with his shaggy, shoulder-length sable hair, expensive European-cut James Bond suit (circa Daniel Craig), full lips, harsh cheekbones and dimpled chin beneath a dense five o-clock shadow, she’d been wrong. Now his ensemble included a sweeping black cape (she loved capes!) and a sculpted white half-mask that sliced diagonally across his face and only covered the right side.
The overall effect? He looked powerful and vaguely dangerous. Ridiculously sexy.
As for his eyes…
The same eyes that had studied her with the intensity of a solar flare a little while ago were now narrow slits of fury. His chin was set. His lips were flat, his jaws tight. In that tense moment, Samira wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see him unsheathe a sword and skewer Drunk Julius Caesar with it.
But he twisted the guy’s arm behind his back, making the drunken idiot cry out just as a security guy rushed up.
“Apologize for bad manners,” Sexy French Guy snarled.
Drunk Julius Caesar, red-faced and gasping, cupped his balls with his free hand and acted like he had some options. “Screw you, man!”
Without a word, Sexy French Guy cranked that arm a little harder.
“Okay! Okay! I’m sorry.”
Sexy French Guy turned him loose with a rough shove to the back, at which point security took over.
“Come on, genius,” the guard said, taking Drunk Julius Caesar by the upper arm and frog-marching him through the crowd that had gathered to watch the commotion. “You’ve been causing problems all night. Time to go.”
They left. The muttering and excited crowd dispersed, leaving Samira alone with her thundering pulse, Sexy French Guy and a stunned relative silence.
“Did he hurt you?” SFG asked in that delicious accent, his voice husky and urgent.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes,” she said, starting to smile.
He frowned behind his half-mask, adding to the intensity of his heated expression. “What’s funny?”
“If my parents or best friends had seen that, I don’t think they’d look as upset as you do right now.”
He hesitated while some of the bloodlust eased from his face.
“I thought he was hurting you. I didn’t like it.”
“He wasn’t. I can take care of myself.”
“I saw that.” His features eased into something softer, but still turbulent. “But I really didn’t like it.”
Samira stared at him, trying to detect signs of bullshit and finding none.
He stared back, his gaze penetrating.
“It’s the cape, isn’t it?” Samira asked, desperate to break the spiking tension, which made her skin much too tight and her blood too swift and hot. “You put it on, and now you think you’re some sort of superhero.”
His surprised laughter generated startling white teeth and dimples, quickly subdued. “A useless superhero, as it turns out. Imagine my dismay when I go to all this trouble and you rescue yourself.”
That made her laugh.
He went very still, his breath hitching.
Another round of staring ensued, broken only when a server appeared, startling them. They looked around to discover him with a champagne bucket and two glasses.
“Did you still want the champagne, sir?”
“That depends.” SFG turned back to Samira. “Have a drink with me?”
Samira tried to look severe, probably failing spectacularly.
The thing was, this wasn’t her. Nothing about this night was her. Not the costume, the flirting with a complete stranger who didn’t come with an introduction or thorough vetting by her friends or the way something illicit fluttered deep in her belly every time she looked at SFG.
And yet she felt the unerring certainty that this was exactly where she belonged tonight.
“How do you know I like champagne?” she asked.
“Je ferai tout ce que vous voulez, ma reine,” he said quietly, holding out a hand.
He spoke too fast, and her remembered high-school and college French was only passable. Even so, there was no mistaking the raw sincerity in his voice. And what heterosexual woman alive could refuse an invitation like that from a man who looked like this?
“Whatever I want?” she asked.
Unmistakable admiration gleamed in his eyes as he led her to a table in the back.
“Absolutely whatever you want.”