Lacey Reed jumps at the chance for independence with a career in the big city. But her naivety and ambition blind her to the lure of a blackmailer. With her savings gone, she has nowhere to turn when she literally runs into financier Connor Devlin.
Though dazzled by Lacey, Connor sees the desperation she tries to hide. His gut tells him to help, and he hires her as his fake fiancée. Now Lacey has a job, and Connor has put a bandage on a family crisis.
When the blackmailer ups the ante, Lacey resolves to face him down—no matter what the consequences. Does that mean Lacey will lose the only man who’s ever seen who she truly is?
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What Part of No Don't You Understand?
Lacey Lee Reed was at the type of event, which for years had been, if not her life's blood, then at least her meal ticket. Anyone who knew her, or thought they did, would say she was in her element — smack dab in the middle of a society party with every A-lister in New York in attendance.
But she couldn't breathe.
The combination of exotic perfumes and expensive colognes in the warm room hit her harder than the kick of a mule. She swayed on her five-inch heels.
Focus, Lacey. You will not have a panic attack in the middle of your best friend's wedding.
She pasted on a smile as she scanned the sparkling sea of Prada, Gucci and Dior visible over his head, scoping out her escape.
She inhaled again, slower this time, then eased out a steady, candle-extinguishing breath. Ridiculous to feel trapped. Another focused breath. She wasn't alone. Not by a long shot.
She was in the middle of the most enormous ballroom the Pierre Hotel possessed at one of the splashiest New York City weddings in decades. The VIP crowd was nothing new, nothing she couldn't handle.
It was individual people that creeped her out.
The old Lacey would have told this SOB staring straight into her cleavage where to go. Politely and with every bit of the charm her mama taught her. But that was the old Lacey. Current day Lacey's head was spinning, just like it had that one time when they were thirteen and she and Mandy snuck a cigarette out by Mandy's grandparents' barn. That memory put a genuine smile on her lips.
Against her every instinct she extended her hand.
"It was a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Calloway." The manners drummed into her through generations of Reed grandmas meant she remembered his name, met his lascivious eyes, and continued to smile even as she yanked her chilled hand from his too-familiar grip.
Their three-minute conversation had gone two and half minutes too long. Lacey had learned, at long last, to trust her intuition, and she needed to be gone.
"Please, call me Artie." He leered toward her again.
She managed a quick step backward, and collided with the kind of human bulk that could be put to good use working Navy's under-appreciated defensive backfield. Sure hands gripped her elbows lightly, steadying her.
She twisted round and looked up. And up some more. He towered over her, even though she stood at least six feet in her heels. Her pulse slammed through the gate and charged into a full gallop as she appreciated just how well he filled his three-piece bespoke tux.
He was a heaven sent opportunity and she grabbed hold of her chance to escape.
"Su-gar! There you are!" Lacey slathered on the down-home greeting like grease on a hot griddle. "You promised me a dance and listen," she tilted her head toward the band, "it's our song."
Not sparing her savior another glance, she dragged him farther into the center of the ballroom where Sabrina and Vlad's couture clad guests were swaying to Adele's "Someone Like You."
He gathered her close, pulled her fully into his arms. The heat of his large hand warmed her bare back, placed as it was right where the deep drop of her couture dress finished just above the curve of her rear.
It was a daring dress and since it was backless it meant she was braless but if there was anything Lacey knew, and these days she doubted she knew much, it was how to wear a dress. With an in-your-face confidence that allowed none of her inner turmoil to show.
"Are you kidding?" Sabrina said when she described the skimpy dress, "the blue is gonna look fabulous with your eyes. I just want you to be there, Lacey, I don't care what you're wearing," she said. "Or not wearing. Go for it."
Lacey hadn't told her best friend that this dress was her sole choice. Who would believe it? Once she'd used up all of her savings, she had e-bayed, consigned or otherwise cashed out her entire wardrobe of runway outfits and designer accessories.
This blue dress, the bejeweled clutch she was, well, clutching, and her favorite, red-soled stilettos were the only dressy pieces she had left from her modeling days. They were classics and her favorites and she trotted them out on occasions like this when she had to put on a show in public.
"This is our song? Really?" Amusement laced his dark voice. "I don't know if I like the idea we chose this song. Way too sad."
The smile in his voice trickled down her spine like warm honey while his large hand stayed, just there, in the small of her back.
To break the spell of his voice, Lacey tilted back her head to get a better look at him. Big mistake! The eyes that glittered with bad boy confidence were the same rich brown as Grandma's gingerbread. His short hair was several shades darker and liberally threaded with silver at the temples.
She pressed her lips together, pushed out a nervous breath.
She wanted to laugh off the desperate need to escape creepy Calloway. Instead, she was as jittery as a newborn foal and twice as clumsy.
Wow Lacey, when did you become so pathetic?
He stopped moving for a moment and looked straight into her eyes. His dark eyes danced with devilish humor, the kind of eyes that always saw the funny side of things. She hadn't seen the funny side of anything in months.
Try to relax for a second, Lacey. This man thinks you're crazy.
"So what song would you choose?" She looked up into his laughing eyes and her curiosity was genuine.
"Hmm." She felt his chest expand against her own as he took a thoughtful breath. "Definitely something slow, something classic."
Then the girl singer launched into a throbbing version of the Etta James standard: "At Last."
"Yeah, maybe something like this," he said. "Might as well keep dancing. Looks like your friend is still, ah, interested."
Laughing and perceptive eyes.
He nodded toward where Calloway hovered at the perimeter of the room, gaze glued to them as they circled the crowded dance floor.
She averted her gaze from Calloway with a practiced cool that gave no hint of her racing thoughts, desperate to erase the image of how he'd smacked his lips when he said he followed her career, that he'd even been to some of her shows. How he'd been so very impressed by her assets.
There'd been a time when, even if she didn't exactly welcome those comments, she'd let them roll off her back. They went with the territory, the image she had created. She was the scandalous, always scantily clad, Lacey Lee. In the beginning, she'd done it for spite. She relished the idea of the admiral's red-faced censure and her mama's purse-lipped disapproval every time another outrageous photo of her appeared in print or online.
That childish game had palled. And Lacey discovered that once her bold as brass image was out there, the public didn't bother to question the truth of it. It didn't matter whether she was a gawky country girl or a sleek runway model. She could count on one hand with two digits left over the people who'd ever cared to get to know the real Lacey.
Tonight was different. It was her first public event in months. And Calloway's comments so unnerved her, she was headed into a full-blown anxiety attack.
Lacey had no one to blame but herself. She'd created this monster. She'd engineered her own downfall.
So she didn't look back toward Calloway again. She turned her chin the other way into the tuxedoed linebacker's neck instead, rested her cheek against his jacket as the music segued into a smooth rendition of "Autumn in New York." In spite of his size, her dance partner moved with an assured grace that meant she didn't have to worry about having her toes mashed. And he smelled amazing, like the beach in winter, salty-fresh and bracing. She barely felt her eyelids flutter down. A moment later, she was at the shore and the strong thump of his heart was as comforting and regular as the tide.
He stopped moving.
The song had ended.
Lacey blinked and forced herself back into the present. The unbearable present. She stuck a smile on her face.
"I owe you one. Thanks," she said. Then she slipped back into the crowd.
The cell in his pocket vibrated again. Fifth time. Damn he hated the things. Spent most of his down time searching for off the grid extreme sports locations where cell phones were useless. Connor gripped the device, wondered the amount of pressure it would take to crush the irritating piece of metal in his hand. He rolled his shoulders as he ran a quick calculation of who might need to contact him after his explicit instruction that he was unreachable for the duration of the Grigory wedding and reception. Unable to ignore the persistent vibration, he swore retribution on the offender even as he feared who knew what, then stepped back into one of the many alcoves in the cavernous ballroom. He tugged the cell from his pocket and skimmed the text.
Not Shaw or one of his other deputies pulling him back to his high-powered reality.
No, it was a far worse torment: Delia.
— Connor! Pick up your phone or at least text me. When are you coming home? Mom wears her game face but she's struggling. I can't convince her to get help. I'm worried. Would it kill you to drag yourself back from whatever mountain you're climbing or motorcycling through and visit her? C'mon bro, I go as much as I can but it's complicated with the kids and my practice. Besides she wants to see YOU. —
Delia was nothing if not dramatic. But then again, he hadn't seen his mom since somewhere around Labor Day. He couldn't remember the last time he'd called her. When had he become that guy? A long time ago. Going home, sometimes, just calling home meant thinking about issues he would just as soon bury forever. He pulled up his calendar then texted back.
— I'll call her tomoro, be there Thanksgiving. No extreme sports lately. Just long hours. Devlin Enterprises doesn't run itself. Give the munchkins a hug from Uncle Con. —
Delia shot right back:
— Yay! The girls'll be psyched, they sd just yesterday that Uncle Connor needs a hug bc he doesn't have a gf. —
Connor didn't dignify that last remark with a reply. It was their running joke. Delia's girls were his only girlfriends he'd told them, every time Delia or anybody else got on his back about settling down.
Because that would never happen. No one ever had and no one ever would ever get him to fall so hard, or reel him in so tight that he lost his judgment. He had a front row seat on the course of true love and it was a dark abyss he had no intention of approaching.
His work-hard-play-harder lifestyle left zero time to venture into that dreaded fifty-first state most females couldn't wait to visit: relationship. His liaisons were all the same: fun, physical and brief. He wasn't looking for profound, he didn't want permanent. No one got more than a few nights out of him, and that was just the way he liked it.
Besides, after their somewhat rocky start, Delia and Gavin were solid gold. They had the happy family thing covered. And as long as he kept a watchful eye on the home front — from a distance, and stepped in where needed, everyone back there would have to be satisfied.
He scanned the crowded room, not tough as he stood head and shoulders over most of Vlad's guests, but the hot number in blue satin was nowhere to be seen. She'd fallen into his arms and then out again just as quickly. He might have thought she was a product of his own very fertile imagination, amped up by the excellent vodka that was flowing like water here tonight but he'd seen her, everyone had seen her, standing as the maid of honor to Vlad's wife, Sabrina.
Her just-this-side-of-indecent dress and artfully mussed updo of midnight hair prompted fantasies of tumbled sheets and sweat. Since he'd found it impossible to keep his gaze off her anyway, he'd tracked her progress around the ballroom. Hell, every guy here had no doubt done the same. Aside from the bride, who was most convincingly welded to her husband's side on the receiving line, she was the most beautiful woman in the place.
When she'd backed into him, then looked up with those enormous blue eyes under the sweep of black bangs, he'd seen more than just hot sex wrapped in satin. He'd seen panic. But then again, maybe he hadn't. He shook his head. Maybe she was bored and amusing herself playing party games with the old dude. He knew the type.
But he'd be lying if he said he didn't want another slow dance with her. Preferably far away from the cast of hundreds at Grigory's wedding. Yeah, he'd dance with her, even if the band blared heavy metal. The slower the better, because he could still feel the press of her braless breasts against his chest. He grabbed a tumbler of iced vodka from a passing waiter and downed it in one gulp.
"I asked you not to call me."
Texts were bad enough. Lacey's stomach always twisted when she heard Barry's cloying voice. Thankfully she hadn't sampled any of the exotic delicacies here tonight, because right now her roiling tummy was ready to give up its contents.
She moved farther down along the hotel corridor to find a quiet spot where none of the wedding guests could overhear.
"But I love hearing that sweet twang. It's almost as good as," he paused and Lacey bit her lip till she tasted blood, "seeing you," he said.
He barked a laugh and then his voice lowered to an ominous purr. "And I'm waiting for a payment." His tone hardened. "It's late."
"Today's Sunday. I'm working on it, but this week is Thanksgiving. I need a week. Till next Monday."
Lacey worked to keep her voice even. Every time Barry spoke it took her back. Compelled her to recall how naïve she'd been, how excited to meet the talented Barry Bixby, it- boy of the couture photography world. Back then, she could hardly believe her good fortune. It was a dream come true that he'd chosen her, Lacey Lee, to be the next big thing as the star of a luxe fragrance campaign. He'd dangled a contract that promised to net her seven figures. She took the bait. Now she knew better. He'd been working his own sick agenda.
"That would make you two weeks late. Listen Lacey, you know the deal. Meet my terms or I show your little art film to the world. It's your choice."
Bile pushed its way into her throat at the sick excitement in his quickly drawn breaths.
"And of course, I'll be forced to charge interest."
Forced, her Aunt Fanny. The creep. Would she ever figure a way out of this hell? How would she ever take her life back?
"Damn you Barry."
She hissed the curse from her tight throat as she ended the call. She refused to beg and her skin would crawl straight off her bones if she had to hear another word out of his lying mouth.
Trembling, anger, and fear at war within her, Lacey pushed her cell into her clutch. She stumbled into the rest room and held her shaking hands under cool running water then scrubbed them. She felt dirtier than an unmucked barn just speaking to him.
No way could she get the money by Monday. Not unless she won the lotto. Think Lacey! But the stress of these last months had turned her brain to grits. Just getting through each day had turned into a feat of epic proportions. When she was supposed to be sleeping, all she saw, like some freakish carnival game in her head, were the ever-increasing neon dollars of Barry's demands and her ever-diminishing ability to meet them.
After she paid next month's rent, her bank account would read zero. She was down to minor articles of clothing and essential furniture. Tomorrow she would see about selling her sofa. Now that Sabrina had moved out of the building she didn't have visitors at all. Desperate didn't even begin to describe her situation.
But she couldn't go back to modeling. Another one of Barry's rules. Not that she had the heart for it anymore. But it would have been the quickest way to pay him off.
Sometimes, in the wee hours, when sleep refused to come, she brooded over the irony of it. How she'd once thought her modeling career would be her salvation, her ticket out of the backwoods, her escape from under her parents' controlling thumbs, the bankroll of her entrepreneurial dreams. The key to her personal independence.
Yep, she had it all figured out.
Admit it, Lacey. You thought you were brilliant. Naive and greedy is more like it.
Pressing her lips together, she re-pinned the stray strands of hair that had escaped her updo. Then she smoothed clear gloss over her tense lips.
Excerpted from "A Model Engagement"
Copyright © 2017 Evelyn P. McCabe.
Excerpted by permission of The Wild Rose Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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