|HIS PRINCESS releases this Thursday!|
|To celebrate, I’m sharing the first chapter with you all. I hope you like it! *crosses fingers*|
“Now remember the plan,” Joelle muttered to Alice as they ascended the gilt-accented staircase leading to the Omni’s main ballroom. “You go in first, ostensibly to find our table. But in reality you’re there as my eyes and ears, scoping the joint for my target. Any questions so far?”
“Jo, this isn’t The Italian Job.” Alice Halliday, her foster sister and lifelong bestie, looked surly as she tottered on the high heels Joelle had talked her into along with a Givenchy beaded evening dress as black as her ebony hair. Her dark mysteriousness was the perfect foil for Joelle’s Elie Saab floor-length backless gold sheath that played up her tanned skin and platinum blonde hair done up in a Grace Kelly-esque chignon. “You know what this is? It’s you wanting to prance your fancy ass in front of Emerson what’s-his-name to show him what he dumped.”
Grrr. “Emerson Van Holland, and for the record, Al, it was a mutual dumping.”
“That’s not how I remember it.”
“It was definitely a mutual dumping,” Joelle insisted, keeping her polished social smile in place while her voice dropped into a snarl. “I decided to dump Emerson when he dumped me after finding out that as the Fielding heiress, I actually inherited nothing but the name.”
“Uh-huh.” Looking less than impressed with her reasoning, Alice fidgeted with the strap of her dress as they neared the top of the stairs. As they did, they could see the flashbulb of a camera going off. “I’m just glad he showed himself to be a shallow social-climber early on. When he found out you were just a working stiff for Buzzword Online rather than a socialite sitting on stacks of cash, he couldn’t find the exit fast enough. Just consider yourself lucky that you wasted only a month on that dick and move on.”
“After tonight, I’ll be happy to move on. I just want him to get a good, long look at the goddess he kicked to the curb. Then I’ll watch, smiling, as regret crushes his soul so completely it brings him to his knees. Once I see that I’ve crippled him emotionally for the rest of his existence, we can leave.”
“Great. A nice, healthy goal is always good to have.”
“Do you have your phone?”
She thought she heard Alice curse. “Yes, Jo. I have my freaking phone.”
A stab of guilt made her steps falter. “Maybe I shouldn’t have dragged you in on this, Al. I guess it seems pretty stupid, from your point of view.”
“It’s stupid from any point of view,” came the drawling reply before she sighed. “But I get it. And hey, if you’d tried to pull this caper off without me, I never would’ve forgiven you, so go ahead. Tell me about the master plan.”
“You’re the best partner in crime ever.” Giving her foster sister’s hand a squeeze, she refocused on the mission. “Okay. You go into the ballroom first, ostensibly to find our table. But in reality you’re scoping the room to find Emerson Van Holland—”
“He’s always going to be what’s-his-name to me.”
“Then,” Joelle went on determinedly, pausing at the top of the stairs to watch a man with a camera take pictures of well-heeled couples before they entered the ballroom, “you’re going to call me to let me know where he is and who he’s with.”
“This isn’t the crowd I normally run with,” Alice pointed out, casting a dubious eye at the line waiting to get inside. “I’m the daughter of your family’s chauffeur and a community college student. How am I supposed to tell you what fancy armpiece Emerson what’s-his-name is with unless it’s that evil chick from that private hell of a high school your parents sent me to?”
“There were many, but she was the worst. Which means she’s probably the only one I would recognize.”
“I believe in you, so just try your best,” Joelle whispered as they neared the line of people. “It probably won’t take you that long to find Emerson. Just look for a knot of VIPs, and I’m sure he’ll be buzzing around it.”
“Gotcha.” Alice eyed the ballroom’s entrance like it was the gates of hell. “What excuse have you come up with to keep you out here while I go into a ballroom full of people I don’t know, who are attending a charity fundraiser for a museum I’ve never been to?”
“I’ll be staying out here because I plan to be hung up in a conversation with someone while you go inside and do that whole recon thing.”
“Maybe it would be easier if I just took a pic of whoever what’s-his-name is with. I think I can be sneaky about it.”
“Oh, that’s an awesome idea.” Joelle gave her a quick thumbs-up. “In fact, take a pic of everyone at his table, if you can. Everyone he does business with should know what a snake Emerson is, and since I know just about everyone in this crowd, poisoning the well for that jerk shouldn’t be too difficult.”
“Yikes. Remind me to never get you pissed off at me.” With a reluctant chuckle, Alice fished out her phone and fundraiser ticket from the clutch purse Joelle had supplied her with. “Man, I can’t believe I’m about to make a total ass out of myself. You so freaking owe me, Jo. If I didn’t love you so much…”
“Love you, too, Al. You’re the best.” Giving her foster sister a squeeze—and smiling when Alice returned it wholeheartedly—Joelle took a moment to watch her go inside before turning to find someone she could make small talk with until Alice called her.
Without warning, her gaze tangled with a man at the head of the stairs.
A shock went through her at the intensity of the stranger’s unblinking stare, and automatically she glanced behind her to see if he was actually staring at someone else. But as she was standing off to the side of the ballroom entrance, there was no one there.
The stranger was staring at her.
His flawless white dinner jacket and white shirt—silk, she could see the quality of it from where she stood—had to be tailor-made. They simply didn’t come in that size off-the-rack. His shoulders would have impressed Thor himself, along with a chest she could have played racquetball on. His legs were muscle-sculpted as well, and so long they easily prevented his powerful build from falling into the stocky range. Instead, he was the epitome of elegance, from the top of his wavy dark brown hair to the tips of his polished Armani dress shoes.
But why was he staring at her? She knew a lot of people here, but she was sure she hadn’t run across this man before.
She would have remembered.
Even if she had amnesia.
“There you are.” To her absolute shock, the man came right up to her, took her left hand in his, studied it a moment, then raised it to his mouth for an honest-to-God knuckle-kiss. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”
“Uh.” Her polished manners deserted her. All she could do was stare up into this man’s fathomless dark eyes that held just a hint of russet and wonder which one of them had lost their mind. “I’m sorry, but I think you’ve mistaken me for someone else.”
“No, I haven’t. Got a name, my princess?”
Ew. Princess. That snapped her out of it like nothing else. “Joelle Fielding, and scrappy Chicagoan that I am, I’m not big on monarchies.”
“Fine by me. Augustus Bloch, though you can call me Gus.” He still held her hand, and his fingers were so warm she couldn’t seem to make herself pull away. “You’re not married, are you, Joelle Fielding? There’s no ring on this finger yet, or even an indentation of one. No man’s tagged you as his yet, have they?”
Wow. “I… What an extraordinary thing to say.”
“I’m an extraordinary kind of guy. Answer me.”
“No,” she said before thinking about it, then inwardly shook her head at how blindly she followed this stranger’s command. “No, I’m not married, nor have I ever been. But I don’t see how that’s any of your business, Mr. Bloch.”
“Gus. And you’re Joelle. Not Jo,” he added, tilting his head as if wanting to see her from another perspective. “Jo is a commoner. Joelle is the name of a true princess.”
The princess thing again. “Actually, my foster sister calls me Jo, and I call her Al. That’s about as common as you can get.”
His winged brows, peaked in an alluringly diabolical fashion, quirked up. “You were a foster kid?”
“No, Alice was. My family took her in when she was orphaned.” Then she bit her lip when she realized she was babbling. That had to stop. “Not that any of that matters. I still think you might have me confused with someone else, so I’d better—”
“I’m not the kind of man who gets confused, Joelle.” His fingers tightened on hers, as if anticipating her pulling away. “That woman I saw you hug. Was that your foster sister, or maybe a lover?”
Good grief. “That was Alice, and again, whether or not I have a lover is none of your business.”
“It is now.” A slow smile curled his mouth, and to her surprise she found she couldn’t look away from the two perfect dimples that appeared in his lean, clean-shaven cheeks. Had there ever been a more perfectly symmetrical face, with sculpted cheekbones, squared-off jaw and, heaven above, dimples? The more she saw of him, the more she realized that perfection could exist. “The moment I saw you, everything about you became my business.”
“Oh, really?” Wildly her heart bounced around in her chest like one of those bouncy balls she’d loved as a child. “How do you figure that?”
“It’s pretty simple.” He shifted a shoulder, like freaking Atlas shrugging. “I saw you standing there, and something inside me clicked into place. I’m not fighting that, and neither should you. It won’t do you any good.”
“My goodness.” It took all her strength not to pearl-clutch, but damn, it was hard. This man came on like a freight train, and for a wayward moment she could only wonder what he was like in bed… “I think there’s a song like that.”
“I guess this could be called an enchanted evening, now that I think about it. It’s not every day you meet the one that stops you in your tracks and makes you think of things like forever.”
Okay, pearl-clutching was a necessity when a man said things like that. “Anyone ever tell you that you have a tendency to overwhelm?”
“Not my fault. I’ve lost one helluva lot of time with you, so I need to catch up.”
“Catch up? We just met.”
“Yeah, but I’ve been looking for you my whole damn life. Got a shit-ton of catching up to do,” he went on while she grappled with the enormity of that statement. “You and I are spending the evening together. And then maybe the night.”
For heaven’s sake, this man. “Who in the world do you think you are?”
“I told you, I’m Gus Bloch. Also known as the new man in your life.” At that moment, the man with the camera called his name, startling Joelle. He was known well enough by the paparazzi to be called out to? Before she could put voice to the question, a flashbulb went off, and all she could see were spots. “Shit. I’m getting you inside before I get myself splashed all over the front page again for busting up another one of those assholes.”
“Again?” She was still trying to blink the spots out of her eyes as he hustled her into the ballroom, and she found herself taking his arm to use him as her guide. “Apparently I missed an edition or two of the paper. How did you wind up on the front page the first time around?”
“A couple weeks ago I caught one of those little weasels trespassing on the grounds of the place I just bought near Berger Park. I know the place is as big as a fucking city park and it’s right on the lake, but it is still private property. The dude was trespassing, so he got what was coming to him. And it wasn’t front page news. Just the front pages of the business and society sections.”
She shook her head, not sure if she believed him or not. “Why would such a thing show up on the front page of the business section?”
“The place I bought is Gilded Swan, one of Al Capone’s old haunts. It’s kind of a pile right now, but it should be fully restored within the next couple of months.”
“Kind of a pile?” she repeated faintly, rocking just a little, and it wasn’t because she could barely see. Everyone who grew up in Chicago knew the Gilded Swan. A massive property on the shores of Lake Michigan right in the middle of Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood, it was one of the largest privately owned structures in the city. It had once been a stop in the Underground Railroad, and purportedly was riddled with secret passageways and hidey-holes. It had somehow survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and for a time sheltered hundreds of Chicagoans who’d lost everything in that fire. And like he’d mentioned, it had been one of Al Capone’s favorite hideouts, thanks to all the many escape routes that had been built into it. When it had gone on the market, the city’s historical society had tried to buy it, but the owner hadn’t budged on the solid eight-figure price, and many feared a developer who didn’t give a damn about history would snap it up just to knock it down.
But now it was in the hands of Gus Bloch, a mysterious, swaggering bulldozer of a man who apparently had decided they were going to spend the evening together.
And maybe the night.
Holy freaking crap.
“You’re not going to get that, right?”
She blinked, studying his devilishly handsome face while trying to make sense of his words. “Sorry? Get what?”
“Your text chime just went off. Since we’re together, you should probably ignore it—”
“Oh, shoot. I forgot about Alice.” Hurriedly she dug her phone out of her gold satin pouch purse and scanned the text.
“Incoming?” Joelle mumbled, baffled. “What does that mean?”
“Joelle, babe. Look at you, you goddess.”
Joelle swiveled her head around to stare blankly at the man approaching them. Tall and elegant in a tux, lean in muscle with poetically wide, sky-blue eyes and gleaming bronze-gold hair slicked back with a tremendous amount of hair product, it took her a moment to place him. She knew this man, she was almost certain of it. It was on the tip of her tongue…
“Oh.” The light went on, and she put a disbelieving hand to her cheek. Geez, she’d actually forgotten the reason she’d come to the benefit. “Emerson. Uh… wow. Hi.”
“You look radiant, babe, like a beacon in a sea of darkness.” All smiles, Emerson Van what’s-his-name moved in for what was clearly going to be a kiss on the cheek, the phony. But before his social-climbing lips got anywhere near her, a straight arm shot out, and a plate-sized hand planted in Emerson’s chest hard enough for her to hear the impact.
“Mine, asshole,” Gus snarled, every part of him bristling with aggression. Her jaw dropped in unison with Emerson’s at the declaration, before Gus curled his free arm around her and hauled her up hard against his side. “You see this, right? You’ve got eyes in your fucking head and you can see she’s standing here, with me, and no other swinging dick in the room, yeah?”
Emerson looked like he didn’t understand the language Gus was speaking. “I… Yes, of course, I see—”
“Out-fucking-standing. I’m glad to hear your vision’s not on the fritz. But apparently your brain is, so I’m going to help you out with that. You see this woman with me, the one thing you never do is go in for a kiss.”
“I was just—”
“I don’t give two shits what you were just, pal. From this point on, you mind your fucking manners and say your hellos to my woman from a safe distance, yeah? Oh, and one other thing—call her babe or goddess again while in my presence, and I might have to give you flying lessons off the balcony. Nothing personal, but she’s not your babe, or goddess. She’s not your anything. Have I made myself clear, or do I need to repeat this somewhere more private? Like maybe a service alley, and I just let my fists do the talking?”
“Dear God.” Emerson actually cowered, pulling back with his hands clutched against his chest, the wimp. “You’re a total psycho.”
“No, he’s Gus Bloch.” Joelle found herself defending him without even consciously knowing that was what she was going to do. But when she heard the words coming out of her mouth, she discovered they felt right. “He’s a man who knows what he wants and goes after it like it’s his mission in life. Take note—that’s something that should be admired.”
“Yeah?” She felt Gus shift, and she looked up to find he was looking down at her, his face no more than a few inches from hers. “You think?”
“I do,” she said for his ears alone. She still wasn’t sure what to make of him, heaven knew. But she fit so well against his side, and that had to count for something. “I really do.”
“Then why are we wasting time with this asshole?” Smiling down at her and not giving Emerson whatever-his-name-was another glance, Gus turned her toward the dance floor. “Let’s dance.”