Authors: Shelly Ellis
Can't Stand the Heat
The Player & the Game
Published by Dafina Books
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
I walk a little taller knowing I'm your mommy.
My load's a lot lighter because you are my hubby.
With each book it becomes harder and harder to write my acknowledgments page because the list of people whom I should thank gets longer. Inevitably, I'm going to forget someone, but I will try my best!
First and foremost, I'd like to thank my husband, Andrew. You were there long before the first book in the Gibbons Gold Digger series was ever written. You've listened to me lament or held me during a good cry after every rejection letter. You did the happy dance with me whenever I got good news. Even though you prefer to just skip to the sex scenes, you believe in me and my work, and I will be forever grateful for that. Now that we have our little girl, my writing time is even more compressed (and coveted), so I appreciate you watching her while I type away. Your love and assistance is invaluable, Andrew.
Thanks to my editor, Mercedes, for taking a chance on me. You've gone the additional step by believing I can actually have a career in this industry and you're willing to support it. I'm happy my submission made it into your inbox (and you responded!). You chose me out of many. I'm a very lucky girl.
Thanks to my parents; you were my earliest supporters and critics. Mom, I don't know where I would be now if you hadn't lent me the first book in the MacGregor Series, which made me
want to be a romance writer. Dad, thanks for patiently waiting for me at the library desk when I couldn't decide between copies of the Sweet Valley Twins.
Thanks to Aunt Rachel, Great-Grandma, and Granddaddy for knowing how to tell a good story.
Thanks to the blerds and blerdettes of Black Girl Nerds for giving me a platform to share my literary work, my nerdiness, and my thoughts. I've met so many of you guys through the site and Twitter. Jamie Broadnax, I have no doubt that you will build your Black Girl Nerds media empire one day. At least I can say I was there at the beginning!
Thanks to fellow authors Samara King, Alexandra Caselle, Stacy-Deanne, Jill Archer, Sezoni Whitfield, and Deatri King-Bey for hosting me on your websites. And thanks to DJ Kimberly Kaye for hosting me on the radio!
Thanks to Romance Novels in Color, Teresa Beasley, KC Girlfriends Book Club, African Americans on the Move Book Club, and Romance in Color for your glowing and
reviews. Thanks to Black Expressions for selecting my book to sell to your readers.
Thanks to the readers who have reached out to me to say they like my books.
Finally, thanks to the family members and friends who I didn't mention by name but who have supported me and my writing.
(Unwritten) Rule No. 5 of the Gibbons Family
Family always comes firstâwhile men
come somewhere between shoes and handbags.
“I know! Isn't he brilliant?”
“The show is wonderful! Just wonderful!”
If they only knew,
Dawn Gibbons thought as she glanced around the crowded gallery.
She looked at the people strolling throughout the exhibition space, at the couples who stared at the canvases on the exposed brick walls and nodded in appreciation, and she wanted to give herself a toast. She hadn't thought she would be able to pull this off, considering the limited amount of time she had to organize this exhibition, considering how much arm twisting she had to do to get tonight's featured artist to just pick up a paintbrush and
But she had done it. Despite all the obstacles she had faced, tonight had been a resounding success. Dawn didn't toast herself, but she downed what was left of her MoÃ«t & Chandon and smiled.
“Great work, darling!” said Percy, the gallery's owner, in his British accent as he sailed toward her.
He was wearing a leather jacket and faded jeans todayâan outfit that was much too young for a man his age. His thinning gray hair was pulled back with a rubber band, leaving a knobby stub of hair at the end. The three top buttons of his silk shirt were open, revealing the wiry hairs on his pale chest. He wrapped a skinny arm around Dawn's waist and gave her an affectionate squeeze.
“Thanks, Percy.” She wrinkled her nose at the overpowering smell of his cologne and nodded. “It did turn out well, didn't it?”
“We should go somewhere after the show and celebrate, darling,” he whispered warmly as he leaned toward her ear. The smell of his cologne became five times stronger. The heat of his breath on her cheek almost singed her. “Maybe you'll finally let me take you out to dinner.” His hand descended from her waist to her ass. He petted it gentlyâlike he would a purring kittenâand winked one of his blue eyes at her. “What do you say?”
“Oh, you don't have to do that.” She slowly removed Percy's hand from her bottom. “But thank you for the offer.”
Percy was one of the few rich men in Dawn's social circle whom she hadn't dated, and quite frankly, she didn't have any plans to ever date him. He was her boss! Her art and her work as gallery director were more important to her. Unfortunately, Percy wasn't accustomed to women turning him down, which probably made him even more eager to get her to dinner and finally get into her pants. She was a challenge to him now, the Mt. Everest that he had yet to climb. But she desperately wished he would take his mountain boots and pick and climb somewhere else.
“I should go around the room and mingle.” Dawn patted his arm soothingly, hoping to soften the blow of her rejection. “You know, make sure everyone is enjoying themselves andâmore importantlyâbuying the artwork.”
“Yes. Yes, of course, darling.” His smile tightened, barely masking his disappointment. “Mingle! Mingle! Don't let me keep you.”
She turned and walked away, handing off her empty glass to one of the waiters who strolled around the room with Lucite trays covered with hors d'oeuvres and champagne glasses.
Her sister Lauren's restaurant, Le Bayou Bleu, was catering the event with Southern-style, high-end cuisine that all the patrons couldn't seem to get enough of. In fact, she heard whispers from the staff that they were dangerously close to running out of food.
Lauren couldn't be here tonight herself to supervise. She was still on maternity leave and was at home with her infant son, Crisanto Jr., but Dawn's other two sisters had shown their support by coming to the event. Her very pregnant sister, Stephanie, had waddled through an hour ago. She had purchased one of the smaller pieces on display before leaving the gallery with a mouthful of shrimp. Dawn's eldest sister Cynthia had left fifteen minutes later. She said she had a date with a very wealthy construction company owner and had to run home to change clothes.
“He's handsome, charming, and he pulled in seven figures last year, girl. You never know,” Cynthia had remarked. “He could be
one” Dawn assumed Cynthia really meant number three, since this would be Cynthia's
husband if she managed to get this one down the aisle. Though, truth be told, Dawn had little room to talk herself. She had been married twice before also, continuing the long tradition in her family of women who married often and divorced just as frequently. But unlike Cynthia, Dawn had little interest in finding a third husband.
Dawn had been doing some soul-searching and self-examination lately with all the changes that were going on around her. Two of her sisters had fallen in love. One had recently had a baby and the other had one on the way. Dawn felt like she had reached a point in her life when obtaining a rich husband wasn't as important to her anymore. Besides, rich men were a lot like the temperamental artists whose work she featured at her gallery. They both required coddling and their egos had to be constantly fed. She didn't have time to cater to both right now.
Dawn continued her path across the gallery, adjusting the cowl neck of her maroon top and the hem of her asymmetrical wool skirt as she went.
“Congratulations, dearest,” said Madison McGuire, a small-town girl who made good by marrying one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington, D.C. Now the wealthy D.C. socialite patronized the local art scene.
“Thank you for coming, Maddie!” Dawn said, leaning forward and lightly kissing the air beside Maddie's rouged cheek.
“Oh, I wouldn't miss it for the world!” Maddie exclaimed. She took a sip from the champagne glass. “The exhibit is fascinating . . . and of course, I have to do my research!”
You know, a little birdie told me that you're thinking about buying Sawyer Gallery, but I wasn't sure if that was just a rumor.”
Maddie laughed. “Oh, it's not a rumor. I can assure you of that! Martin Sawyer is ready to move on to a new venture, and I told him I'd happily take the gallery off his hands. We signed the paperwork a month ago. I plan to hold our grand opening sometime in the spring.” She leaned toward Dawn and whispered, “Do you think you would be interested in changing venues? I'd love to have you at the helm of my gallery.”
Dawn glanced across the room at Percy, who was idly groping some bouncy young blonde as he stood among a circle of friends.
Maddie's offer was certainly tempting. Unlike with Percy, Dawn wouldn't have to worry about Maddie patting her ass and trying to seduce her on a weekly basis. Plus, Dawn had always admired Maddie. If there was nothing a Gibbons girl loved more, it was a fellow woman who used her wiles and her wits to climb the socioeconomic ladder, a woman who knew how to “get her hustle on” but to do it with grace and style.
But Dawn liked the control Percy gave her over the gallery. She loved her staff. She was comfortable here.
Dawn sighed. “I don't think I would, Maddie, but thank you for the offer.”
Maddie glanced in Percy's direction. He and the blonde were now making kissy faces at each other, making Dawn cringe.
” Maddie asked again. “I heard Percy can be quite the handful.”
You have no idea,
Dawn thought. She hesitated then nodded. “I'm sure.”
“Oh, well. It was worth a try.” Maddie waved her hand. “Always good to see you, Dawn.”
“You too,” Dawn replied, continuing to make her way across the cavernous space. She stopped now and then to talk to and kiss the cheeks of a few patrons, but she soon noticed two men she hadn't seen before. They were standing near one of the floor-to-ceiling canvases on the far side of the gallery. They drew her attention because their staid business attire made them stand out like sore thumbs from the rest of the flamboyantly dressed art crowd.
The shorter of the two stood in front of one of the paintings, gazing at it admiringly. The elderly gentleman was dark-skinned and very distinguished looking with his navy blazer, tan slacks, white dress shirt, and penny loafers. He leaned his weight against a bamboo cane as he bent forward to read the plaque near the painting.
Beside him was a man who was almost a foot taller and was several decades younger. He was less engrossed in the artwork than his companion. Instead, he stared in amazement at the people in the gallery as if he were watching circus performers. His honey-colored skin and short dark hair was in striking contrast to his pale gray eyes that she could see distinctly even at this distance. He was handsome, though a little too straitlaced for her taste.
she thought as she scanned his perfect black suit, sensible blue tie, and starched white shirt.
No, he's probably an actuary, I bet. Any person who dresses that boring has to be in insurance.
She slowly walked toward them. Boring or not, they could be prospective buyersâwealthy suburbanites with a lot of cash to spend who wanted to impress their friends with the discovery of a hot new artist.
“Hello,” Dawn said. She extended her hand. “My name is Dawn Gibbons. Is this your first time at our gallery?”
She offered her hand to the older gentleman first. He hesitated before taking it.
“Hello,” he said softly, finally shaking her hand. His wrinkled face filled with warmth. “It's a . . . a pleasure to finally meet you, Dawn,” he began nervously. “I-I had debated on coming here tonight. I couldn't work up the nerve at first until my friend Xavier, here”âhe nodded toward the younger man who stood silently at his sideâ“agreed to come with me. But I really wanted to . . . Oh, listen to me ramble. I should introduce myself first.” He cleared his throat. “My . . . My name is Herbert Allen.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Allen.” She nodded in greeting. “Thank you for coming to our gallery.” She pointed toward the painting. “So tell me, are you interested in this piece?”
He paused and gazed at her quizzically. “You've . . . you've never heard of me before?”
Dawn's smile faded. She shook her head. “No, I'm sorry. I haven't.”
He looked deflated.
Now put on the spot, Dawn quickly flipped through her mental Rolodex, trying to recall the name, Herbert Allen, but she came up with a blank. She hoped he wasn't someone important. Percy would be royally PO'd if he found out she had offended one of his friends.
Suddenly, something came to mind. She snapped her fingers. “Oh, I remember now! I'm so sorry. Tonight has been so crazy and I've been so frazzled!” She laughed and patted his shoulder, turning back on the charm. “Herbert Allen. Yes, I remember. We met at the spring benefit last year, didn't we?”
He and the younger man exchanged a look. He then shook his head. “No, we didn't meet at a spring benefit. In fact, we've never met before. I had . . . I had hoped your mother had mentioned me, at least.” He shrugged. “But I guess not.”
Dawn frowned. “My mother?”
He took a deep breath and gazed into her eyes. “I'm your father, Dawn.”
Her gaze shifted between the two men. “I'm sorry. Is . . . is this some kind of a joke?”
“No, it's not a joke. I really am your father.”
He took a step toward her and she took a hesitant step back, trying desperately to process what she was hearing.
“Dawn, I wanted to have a chance toâ”
“Wait. Wait! Stop! Back up!” She held up her hands. Her heart thudded like a snare drum in her chest. “What are you talking about? What do you mean you're my father? I . . .” She took a deep breath, fighting to regain her calm. “I haven't seen or heard from my father in thirty-seven years and you . . . you just show up out of the blue like this! You just blurt this out!”
His eyes lowered to the hardwood floor. “I know and I'm sorry. I didn't want to do it this way, but I don't haveâ”
“No!” She furiously shook her head. “No, I'm not . . . I'm not doing this.”
Dawn turned around and walked away from him. She angrily strode toward the gallery's revolving glass doors, ignoring the curious stares that followed her as she passed. She felt as if she had been ambushed. Was he really her father? If so, why did he choose tonight of all nights to announce himself? Why hadn't he picked up a phone and called? Couldn't he have sent a letter? This was ridiculous! She was practically trembling with anger and confusion. She had to get out of there.
“Darling, where are you going?” Percy called after her, but she ignored him.
Dawn stepped into the gallery's foyer. It was decorated for the holiday season with garlands, holly, and twinkling Christmas lights, but she certainly wasn't in the holiday mood right now. Just before she reached the doors, she felt a strong hand clamp around her wrist. She whipped her head around and looked up. When she did, she was staring into the gray eyes of the wannabe actuary. His warm touch and gaze instantly made her tingle, catching her by surprise. It was a feeling she didn't want right now. She yanked her wrist out of his grasp.
“Can you hear him out?” he asked. “It took a lot of courage for him to come here tonight!”
She glared up at him. “Is that what you call it? Why didn't he find that same damn courage ten or twenty years ago? Where the hell has he been all this time? Why is he doing this here? Why
His stern expression softened and once again she was struck by how handsome he was.
“Look, Herb knows that he hasn't been the best father to you. Believe me. But your mother didn't exactly make it easy for him these past years.”