Authors: Geneva Lee
Tags: #Adult, #Contemporary Romance, #New Adult, #Romance
Copyright © 2014 by Geneva Lee.
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Printed in the United States of America
First Printing, 2014
P.O. BOX 1456
Poulsbo WA 98370
For the girls who need a new fairytale.
y eyes skimmed the smoking room’s ornately decorated walls as I gulped my glass of champagne. Overhead, a painting of a duke, or some other important character with a lacy cravat at his throat, glared down at me, denouncing me as a fraud. Being a recent graduate of Oxford didn’t mean I belonged at the exclusive Oxford and Cambridge Club. Most of the other graduates were from old money, and while my family was wealthy by most anyone’s standards, we didn’t have a family name or a title like most of my peers at the Degree Day celebration. I finished my drink while cursing my best friend Annabelle for convincing me this was a good idea.
“Clara, there you are!” Annabelle swooped at me like a hawk and her perfect fingernails dug into my arm, preventing my escape as she dragged me across the room toward a group of young men. Other than the aggressive move, she was the picture of propriety, her blonde hair still tucked in a graceful chignon at the nape of her neck, and the clasp of her necklace resting below it in perfect symmetry. Everything about Annabelle was polished—from her three-inch heels to the three karat diamond sparkling on her left hand. “I want you to finally meet my brother John.”
“I’m not looking for a boyfriend right now, Belle. I’m a career woman now, remember?” I reminded her. Even if my new job at Peters & Clarkwell hadn’t technically started yet, I didn’t need a man to distract me. Belle knew that, but it wouldn’t stop her from insisting I meet him. Even with her education, she’d been bred to believe a girl’s best prospects lay in marriage. I was familiar with this concept, my mother having harbored similar delusions.
Belle shot me a wink over her shoulder. “But you could have some fun. John works all the time anyway and he’s worth a fortune. You could be a Baroness.”
“Not everyone bases attraction on money and power,” I said in a low voice, not wanting to offend the number of powerful and rich people surrounding me.
Belle halted in her tracks, causing me to crash into her. She leaned toward me, and she whispered in my ear, “Have you ever snogged a rich and powerful man? Gone to bed with one?”
I bit my lip and glanced around us, uncertain how to answer. Belle knew I had only been to bed with one man, my now ex-boyfriend, who was neither rich nor powerful. Daniel had the chip on his shoulder to prove it. Whereas I often felt inferior around the old money at Oxford, he only felt angry. I’d grown-up well-off, at least. A shiver ran up my spine, thinking of how ugly our relationship had grown toward the end. I’d ended it over winter holiday, but even months later the thought of him made me shudder. Belle noticed and sighed.
“Daniel doesn’t count,” she said. The perfect, porcelain skin between her expertly shaped eyebrows furrowed at the thought. She shook her head as if wiping away the distasteful memory and shot me a mischievous smile. “If you had been to bed with a man like I’m talking about, you would know.”
“I’m deeply concerned that you’re deeming your brother as suitable for this position,” I told her, cocking an eyebrow suggestively. “How close are you two?”
“Stuff and nonsense.” She swatted at my arm, but the impish grin stayed on her face. “I’m just looking out for you, Clara. You need a good shag.”
I suspected as much, although she hadn’t voiced this particular concern until now. She’d been my flatmate through the worst bits with Daniel. Not only had she approved of our break-up, but she’d been hovering over me like a mother hen since then, taking me shopping and introducing me to new people. It was only a matter of time before she tried to set me up on dates. I supposed I should be grateful that she’d waited until my final exams were over and I’d officially graduated before she pushed her matchmaking agenda.
“Belle, I really don’t need a guy right now,” I said as firmly as possible, hoping to put the issue to rest but knowing there was no way in hell that I had.
She dismissed my objection with a fluttery wave. “Need and want are two different things, love. Never confuse them.”
Before I could object further, she beckoned for a tall and rather awkward man to join us. John was clearly her older brother, if his receding hairline was any indication, and there was no doubt he had money. Somehow he’d managed to pair the most expensive and the most boring elements of modern fashion into one garbled, but obviously costly outfit. A Rolex and Berluti loafers were combined with a Harris Tweed jacket straight out of the eighties. He looked as though he couldn’t decide if he was off for a day of hunting or business.
And that’s how he dressed for a party.
“You must be the famous Clara,” John said, taking my hand. For a moment he looked torn between kissing it and shaking it. The result was a limp and sweaty squeeze. John might be worth a fortune and have a title, but he didn’t strike me as a go-getter. “Belle has told me all about you. A degree in social studies, is it?”
“Yes.” I wanted to draw my hand away, but I wasn’t sure how to do it.
“Fancy yourself the next Mother Teresa?” he asked, dropping his other hand on top of our loosely clasped ones. It was not an improvement.
“And if I say yes?” My question was bold and Belle blinked in surprise next to her brother. It wasn’t like me to be so confident, especially around a stranger. But that had been me in university. I had a degree from a top college now and a highly competitive new job. I wasn’t the same girl anymore. I couldn’t be. I wouldn’t allow it.
“You’re much too pretty to be a nun,” John said. His chest puffed a little as he added, “I recently qualified for barrister.”
“How fascinating,” I said absently, pulling my hand from his and looking across the room. “If you’ll excuse me, I see…”
I bolted into the crowd before Belle could produce a minister to finalize the engagement, noting that I really had to speak with her about attempting to set me up in the future. Despite Belle’s education, her family had placed her on the fast track to marriage, a rather archaic result of being titled. She might have fought them on the issue, but she seemed quite happy to go along with it, especially since her fiancé was a favorite of the palace. But I couldn’t see myself married, and I didn’t want to, especially after Daniel. A career was a better path for me. Safer, more fulfilling and infinitely less messy.
The crowd swallowed me up as I fled, protecting me from Belle’s matchmaking, but making it almost impossible to get out. By the time I pushed through to the hallway, my heart was racing. I sank against the wall and took a deep breath, tugging down the simple black sheath I’d borrowed from Belle despite her objection that it was too somber. It was one of the few items in her closet that was age-appropriate. My own closet consisted of jeans and jumpers and a handful of nice, tailored suits. It was nothing like hers. Most days, Belle looked like a movie star, flashing as much skin as she did money. But the rest of her wardrobe consisted of dress suits that looked as if they’d been stolen from the Queen Mother herself. I’d been lucky to find this, even though I suspected it had been purchased for a funeral.
An exotic spicy scent wafted toward me, tickling my nostrils. It was completely out of place in the stuffy, old building, which had outlawed the practice of smoking, even in the now inappropriately named smoking room. I’d seen the signs in nearly every room, but clearly someone had not. I looked up, realizing a bit late that the smoke meant I wasn’t alone, and my hand clutched my chest reflexively when I caught sight of him. Where there’s smoke there’s fire, and good lord, was he smokin’.
The man lounged against a door propped open to a terrace, a thin clove cigarette dangling carelessly from his sculpted lips, which twitched into a bemused smile that rested comfortably in its place. His face was lined in shadows cast by the light filtering in behind him, but I noted the trace of his strong jaw and a hint of blue in his eyes. I didn’t need to see more to know he was one of the rich and powerful men Belle had spoken of. He was what she’d been referring to in her earlier statements. It radiated from him—wealth and authority and virility—and my body responded to it, my traitorous feet stepping closer to him. I could see him better now and discovered he had another defining characteristic—he was also handsome, which hardly seemed fair.
He had a face that would make angels weep and gods go to war. Sharp, chiseled features highlighted by golden skin spoke of faraway, sunny beaches. His dark hair wasn’t a result of the shadows he stood in. It was nearly black and tousled into a mess that made me imagine tangling my hands through it. For a brief second, I pictured grabbing it as my body pressed against his.
Get a grip, I commanded myself. I hadn’t been laid in a while but reacting to a stranger like this was embarrassing, even if he didn’t know what I was thinking. Of course, from the arrogant but seductive curve of his smile, he knew exactly what I was thinking. But the smile stopped at his eyes, which blazed fiercely. I felt the hunger in his gaze as though it was mine, and my own desire tightened across my belly. I needed to keep him at a distance. I could feel it.
Plus the whole smoking in the boys’ club bespoke a general disregard for rules. Or other people.
“I don’t think you’re supposed to smoke here,” I said. I sounded like a total snot, but I’d grown sick of the privileged class bending the rules at their whim, and something about the way he was looking at me suggested I was nothing more than an object—a toy that he wanted to play with.
“My apologies.” He smirked, but his amusement didn’t hide the cultured rasp of his voice. “Are you going to report me for conduct unbecoming?” He stepped back so that he was technically on the terrace, finding a way to loosely follow the restrictions. But I suspected he did it to please me. He didn’t strike me as the type to worry about breaking a few rules.
Even though I couldn’t see his eyes clearly anymore, I felt his gaze burn into me. It flustered me, my emotions waffling between annoyance and girlish excitement. “I wouldn’t want you to get into trouble.”
He turned toward me, revealing his striking face once more as his lips twitched and curved into a wicked smile, flashing me a row of perfect teeth. “We wouldn’t want that.”
Blood rushed to my cheeks in a hot flash of embarrassment. I wanted to kiss that wild smirk off his face, but I shook the fantasy from my mind. In the light, he looked familiar, like I had known him at some point. Perhaps a childhood schoolmate? I would have remembered him if he had attended my college. There was no way I wouldn’t have noticed his crystal blue eyes or that shock of dark hair that skirted the line between propriety and pop star. Between the broad shoulders trapped in a well-cut suit and his good looks, he wasn’t a man I would easily forget. So how could I know him—and not know him? My gaze lingered at his unbuttoned collar and loose tie, imagining what it would be like to unfasten the rest of his buttons and pull him free of it. My teeth sank into my lower lip at the thought.
Was I actually standing here, fantasizing about a total stranger—in front of him? Maybe Belle was right, after all.
His eyebrow cocked up as I continued to stare, and I looked away, ashamed that he’d caught me. Of course with his looks, he likely got stared at quite often. He didn’t need to know he’d gotten my knickers in a twist, or that he could probably talk me out of them altogether. Although he probably knew that his crooked grin was practically a panty-dropping license.
“I think that I should warn you of the dangers of smoking,” I said, wanting him to feel an ounce of the humiliation coursing through me, but also desperate to keep the conversation flowing. I didn’t want him to leave.
“Poppet, you would not be the first.” But he flicked out the cigarette and tossed it in a nearby can. The movement was smooth and self-assured, as though there was no possibility of missing—as if the world would merely shift to suit his needs.
I was increasingly sure that I knew him, and whoever he was, he was having a lark at my expense. “Have we met before?”
“I think I would remember you,” he said, his eyes flickering as he spoke, the magnetic energy of them growing in intensity, sending a tremble quivering through me. “It’s more likely that my reputation has proceeded me.”
“A ladies’ man then?” I asked. That wouldn’t surprise me.
“Something like that,” he said, his words thick with implication. “What’s an American girl doing in this snobby old place?”
I stiffened immediately, feeling some of the familiar defensiveness this observation usually produced. But I sensed he wasn’t condescending, just curious, so I forced a smile onto my face. “I’m a British citizen actually. Although I grew up in the States. Mom’s American. She met my dad when he was studying at Berkeley.”
Stop telling him your life story
, the tiny obnoxious voice that played critic to my every waking moment admonished me.
“And a California girl, too,” the stranger said. “I can’t imagine why you’d trade the beach for rainy old London.”
“I like the fog.” It was true but admitting it made me blush. It was a silly reason, but his head cocked, as if he were intrigued.
I took a step closer to him, holding out my hand. Perhaps he expected a formal introduction before he’d fess up. “I’m Clara Bishop, by the way.”