Less than a week to go before the release of My Best Friend, the Billionaire! Are you excited to start the new series after reading Casanova? You'll meet Hal again, and Stefan, Elise's boy!
To whet your whistle, here's the first chapter...
I doubt anyone else can tell. When he walks into the surgery where I’m in the middle of vaccinating an abandoned dog against distemper and leptospirosis, Hal gives his normal, melt-you-from-the-inside-out smile to the two veterinary nurses who are working with me, before saying, “Sorry for interrupting.”
“Hey, Hal,” one of them replies, “haven’t seen you all day. You been busy?”
“Yeah, nonstop today.” He looks and sounds perfectly normal, like any other day he’s on call as an Animal Welfare Inspector. I run my gaze up him as I depress the syringe. His old gray Converses are flecked with mud, as are his well-worn navy pants. The SPCA navy polo shirt is stretched tight across his broad shoulders, the collar flicked up to protect the back of his neck from the hot sun while he walks across the estate. I can just see the curl of the Maori tattoo on his right arm peeking out of the base of the sleeve.
His brown hair looks as if he hasn’t combed it this morning, which is probably the case. He has a few days’ growth of beard. His lips wear a smile, and his deep voice bears the husky, soft tone he uses when he talks to people he likes.
But I’ve known him for long enough to spot the tension in his shoulders, and the fact that his smile doesn’t reach his eyes.
“Izz, I need you,” he says.
I remove the needle from the terrier’s skin and rub its neck. “I’ve got one more dog to see. I’ll be about ten minutes.”
“Now, Izzy,” he says, and walks out.
The nurses both look at me, their eyebrows rising at his tone. I shrug. “Can you finish up here?” I ask Em, the older of the women.
“Of course. We’ll get Mr. Salt-and-Pepper all cleaned up, won’t we sweetie?” she coos to the little gray-and-white terrier, who’s adoring being the center of attention for probably the first time in his life.
I wash my hands, then leave the surgery. Hal’s not in the waiting room, so I walk out of the veterinary center and into the bright sunlight.
It’s midafternoon on Monday, the twenty-first of January, the height of summer in New Zealand. Here in the Bay of Islands the sun is high and hot, and my skin crisps as I walk across the large square around which most of the buildings are based.
Noah’s Ark No-Kill Animal Sanctuary is situated on a headland outside the town of Paihia overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The sea is a deep blue today, filled with boats heading out to or returning from the islands, and I can smell the salt, mingled with the aroma of the steak-and-cheese pies and coffee being served in the canteen. Even though I don’t eat meat, I’m so hungry it makes my stomach rumble.
Hal’s leaning against the ambulance, his arms crossed. “Ready?” he says, pushing off the van as I walk up.
“What?” I frown at him. “I was just about to go and have lunch. I’m starving.”
“I’ve had a call from a farm out in Oromahoe. Reports of a badly mistreated dog. I want you to come with me.”
I blow out a long breath. “Can’t Stefan go with you? I’ve been working all morning and I could really do with a break.”
“If I say I want you, it means I want you.” His tone is flat, irritated, the words forced through his gritted teeth as if he’s pushing an apple through a tennis racket.
I stare up at him. He’s six-three, and although I’m five-nine and the tallest woman at the Ark, I still have to crane my neck.
He glares at me. His brown eyes are hot and feverish, and his chest rises and falls faster than usual. Despite being a big guy, he’s one of those men who’s always on the move, even when he’s sitting down, his knee bouncing, fingers drumming on the table. I can feel the energy flowing through him; if he were a car, his engine would be revving, the wheels spinning as he strained to get away. If I were to touch him, I think our skin would spark; my hair’s almost rising around my face with the static.
There’s something odd about his expression. I’ve known this guy for eighteen years and I know him better than almost anyone. We’re the best of friends, and I can read his moods the way ancient druids used to read the entrails of animals, so I know he’s angry, irritated, and frustrated about something. But I don’t know what it is.
He takes a step closer, his gaze boring into mine. How often do you really look into someone’s eyes? I knew his were a dark brown, so dark that often you can’t see the pupil, but it’s only now, right up close, that I can see there are little orange flecks in them. They’re intense, filled with emotion, like a whisky-filled barrel about to overflow. His lips part as if he’s about to say something, and my gaze drops to his mouth. When he smiles, you can see his canines, which are slightly longer than his front teeth. I call him Edward, from Twilight, which annoys him.
But he’s not smiling now. I wait for him to tell me what’s bothering him. Instead, he snaps, “Get in the van.” He turns, walks around the ambulance, and climbs in the driver’s side. He slams the door shut.
I wait for a moment. If he were anyone else, I’d give him the finger and walk off in the opposite direction. At nearly thirty, I’m old enough that I don’t have to put up with anyone talking to me like that anymore.
But it’s Hal, and he’s obviously in trouble, and his pain is my pain—that’s the way it’s always been.
Plus, although I’d never admit this to anyone, he said, “If I say I want you, it means I want you.” The fact that he’s my best friend doesn’t change the reality that he’s the best-looking guy at the sanctuary, and although he’s being an arrogant ass today, I’m enough of a woman to be flattered by his words.
I glance over my shoulder, thinking quickly; Stefan’s in the surgery with Clio, a trainee vet, and Summer’s due in an hour. The morning rush has died down, and it’s relatively quiet now. They can do without me for a while. I have my phone, credit card, and SPCA ID, and I don’t need anything else. Lunch will have to wait.
I walk around the van, open the door, and climb in. Hal pulls away before I’ve buckled my seat belt, driving fast down the long lane toward the main road.
I wait for him to apologize for being rude to me. After a long silence, I realize that’s not going to happen.
Puzzled, I survey him with a sidelong glance. His gaze is fixed on the road. His knuckles are white on the wheel. Normally when he’s grumpy I’ll tease him until he laughs, but I have a feeling that approach won’t work today.
“Want to talk about it?” I ask.
He indicates to take the turn toward Oromahoe. “A woman from the farm next door reported there’s a dog kept in a cage outside her neighbor’s farm. It’s been there for a few weeks, never let out, no shelter, and she’s not sure if it’s been fed.”
I’d meant did he want to talk about what’s bothering him. I think he knew that, and clearly the answer is no. I decide not to push it.
“Are we expecting trouble?” I ask.
I frown. “Yeah, it’s a good job Stefan didn’t come.” Stef’s the same size as Hal, a six-foot-three Viking lookalike, and probably a little better in a fight than me with my puny muscles.
Hal doesn’t answer. For some reason, he wants me with him. I sit back in my seat, again deciding not to push it.
We drive in silence for about fifteen minutes through the Northland countryside. We had a lot of rain last week and everything looks green and lush. It’s humid today, and I always wear the long-sleeved SPCA shirts, so I’m hot, and a bead of sweat trickles down between my breasts, making me scratch. My stomach rumbles loudly, and Hal glances at me, the corner of his lips curving up for the first time.
“I haven’t eaten anything today,” I tell him.
“I keep telling you to have breakfast.”
“I’m not hungry at six a.m. My digestive system doesn’t wake up until at least ten.”
“I’ll buy you lunch when we get back.” He slows the van and indicates as we approach a battered yellow letterbox. There’s no road sign, but Hal’s obviously been given directions, because he turns onto the drive and heads up the hill.
I straighten in my seat, my heart picking up speed as he crests the hill and starts going down to the farmhouse at the bottom. I’m a qualified Animal Welfare Inspector, the same as Hal, and it’s not the first time we’ve removed an animal from an angry owner. But Hal’s mood has got me on edge, and I can feel trouble on the horizon like storm clouds, even though the sky is blue as a baby’s eye.
He draws up by the fence that surrounds the farm and turns off the engine. We get out, he retrieves our emergency bag and shoulders it, and we approach the gate. It’s padlocked shut, and there’s no other way in. Hal drops the bag over the fence and vaults over it, then turns and holds up a hand. I sigh and clamber over, taking his hand as I jump down onto the grass. He squeezes my fingers briefly before releasing them, and I know it’s the closest I’m going to get to an apology today.
We approach the farmhouse. It’s a long, low building, stone-built, which is unusual up here in the Northland, and looks in a bad state of repair: one window broken, the wooden sills unpainted, tiles missing from the roof. The area out the front is full of rubbish: rusted metal, old bricks, torn cardboard boxes, piles of dirty rags. If the people who own this place keep it in such a bad state of repair, what kind of attention are they going to pay to their animals?
We make our way around the left of the house, and I spot the cage immediately. The dog is lying on its side, its chest rising and falling slowly. It hasn’t stirred, even though it must have heard us. It’s a Border Collie, an intelligent and obedient breed used for herding sheep. Its coat is dirty and matted, and sores mar its skin. The one bowl in there is upturned. There’s no kennel, no bed, no food or water, and the only shade it would get would be late in the day from the house when the sun has passed overhead. There are feces in the cage, so clearly it’s not been let out, because it’s rare for a dog to defecate where it sleeps.
I exchange a glance with Hal. It’s hardly the first abused animal we’ve seen. Although we’re both qualified vets, we’ve been running the Ark’s Animal Welfare Team for five years, and we both love feeling as if we’re doing good out in the community. We’ve brought in hundreds of dogs, cats, pigs, sheep, cows, and even horses, and I’ve trained myself not to get emotional when I’m out on call, because me breaking down in tears isn’t going to help the animal or my partner. I keep all the feelings locked away, although I admit I sometimes have a quiet cry when I go home.
But today, tears prick my eyes, possibly because I can see Hal struggling to hold it in, too. He drops the bag and looks at the cage, his hands on his hips, breathing heavily.
“Come on,” I say softly. “Let’s get her back to the van.”
We approach the cage, and the dog lifts her head and looks at us. I drop to my haunches as Hal investigates the cage door, and I look her in the eye. “Easy now,” I say. “Good girl.”
Hal grunts. The cage is locked. “Fucking thing,” he snaps, although he keeps his voice low, so he doesn’t startle the dog. “I’ll have to break it, Izz.”
“What do you think you’re doing?” The voice comes from behind us, and I turn to see a red-faced man emerging from the side door. He’s short but wide, with arms like tree trunks, thick, dark hair that looks as if it’s never been combed, and there is a look of fury on his face.
He’s also carrying a shotgun...
My Best Friend, the Billionaire (The Billionaire Kings, Book 1) will be out on Saturday 2nd Feb on Amazon! Keep your eyes peeled!
It’s time to introduce my new series for 2019!
The first book out in January will be Casanova, a standalone, but if you read it you’ll also be able to spot the first mention of a very important character – Hal, the son of Brock from the Three Wise Men series, who is going to be the star of the first book in my new series.
My Best Friend, the Billionaire, will be the first book of The Billionaire Kings, and it features Hal and his best friend Izzy, who both work at Noah’s Ark, an animal rescue shelter. Hal and Izzy are veterinarians who also work for the Animal Welfare Unit, rescuing wounded and mistreated animals in the local community.
You might remember Noah from A Secret Parcel (Three Wise Men Book 3). (If you haven’t read the Three Wise Men yet, the box set is currently only 99 cents, so it’s the perfect time to catch up!)
Noah runs the Ark, a no-kill shelter that treats and re-homes rescue animals, as well as providing important veterinary services to the Bay of Islands. It’s situated high on a hill overlooking the bay, somewhere like this:
The series is set approximately 30 years after Three Wise Men (and Casanova), and you’ll be able to catch up with Brock, Charlie, and Matt, as well as their wives, and their children. Book 2 will be about Matt's son, Leon, and Book 3 will feature Charlie's son, Albie. There are lots of other characters for you to meet and fall in love with, and plenty more books to come if readers decide they want them! You'll also meet up with Ryan, Summer, and Noah, and find out what happened to them, too!
Here is a basic family tree so you can see the relationship between them.
So why did I choose to write about this family? Well there are several reasons. The Three Wise Men was my first big-selling series, and the box set also made the USA Today bestseller list, which told me that readers found the characters as appealing as I did when I wrote them. I loved the three King brothers, and I really enjoyed researching and writing about the childhood respiratory illnesses that their company helps.
I kept thinking about their children, and how their sons, especially, would be so like their fathers, with the same generous nature, but strong personalities. This new generation of King heroes are cousins, and they've been born into the family wealth, but that makes them no less philanthropic.
I wanted to write about a subject that I personally found as appealing as heroes who care for sick children, and rescue animals was the logical step. After calling Georgia's son Noah, the step to creating Noah's Ark was an easy one. Once you read about what's happened to Noah over the years, you'll understand why he felt the need to run a place for both wounded animals and wounded hearts. Noah is a recluse, but providing you all enjoy the series, he'll hopefully get his happily-ever-after later too :-)
So, let me introduce you to the new heroes!
Hal is a veterinarian who is also a director of the Ark. He helped establish the building right at the beginning, along with his cousins, Albie and Leon, and his step-cousins, Ryan, Summer, and Noah. Hal runs the Animal Welfare Unit with his best friend, Izzy, and another good friend he met at veterinary college, Stefan. Hal's gorgeous. If you don't fall in love with him immediately, I'll be very surprised! He and Izzy have been friends forever, but recently something has changed, and he's started to see her in a different light...
Albie is Charlie's boy. Unlike his sister, Poppy, he hasn't inherited his father's Aspergic tendencies, but, like Charlie, he's warm, affable, and caring. It's well known that there's a close connection between violence toward animals and violence in the home, and Albie works with the others at the Ark to run educational programs that teach children, especially, how to care for animals. He's the contact with the Ministry for Children, the Women's Refuge, and the Police - he's the one who knows people, and he prides himself on being able to talk anyone into anything!
Leon is head of HR so he's in charge of the personnel at the Ark, as well as running the offices and overseeing the business side of the shelter. He's the smart one, and he's tough and not afraid to tell it how it is! The others turn to him when they need to get something done. He works closely with his PA, Nix, who seems to be the only one who understands that he's not the ogre everyone thinks he is...
Book 1 is written and just needs editing, and I feel with this that I've very much written from the heart. As an author, it's easy to get swayed by what you read online, comments from readers, reviews, and opinions from other writers. Over the past year or two, I feel that I've reined myself in sometimes - I've written a little sweeter, I feel, than my earlier books, and more small town, more down to earth. I've loved my Brides and my Blue Penguin Bay stories, and I'm certainly not turning away from what I think I do best - stories where families and friends feature highly.
But with My Best Friend, the Billionaire, I've injected a little fantasy back into my writing, returning to what I really enjoyed - gorgeous rich guys with larger-than-life personalities and strong, sizzling, heartfelt romance. I've written exactly what I wanted, and as a result I'm very happy with the feel of the book. It's first person, present tense, as hot as it needs to be without being an erotic romance, and it's very... I don't know... me, I guess!
The book will be available on February 2, but I’m not putting it up for pre-order this time, and it’ll only be available on Amazon, to take advantage of the Kindle Unlimited program. I appreciate this might disappoint some readers who only buy from other retailers, and I’m sorry about that, but at the moment this makes the best business sense for me.
Here’s the blurb to the story. In a week or two I'll share a short snippet for you, to introduce you to Hal and Izzy. I hope you love them too :-)
MY BEST FRIEND, THE BILLIONAIRE
I met Hal on the first day of high school.
I also fell in love with Hal on the first day of high school.
But although we were good friends from the start, I knew he’d never be mine.
He’s gorgeous, confident, sexy, and he’s also incredibly rich.
I’m scarred – physically and emotionally – quiet, and my family has always been poor. The two of us are poles apart.
So I’ve trained myself not to think of him in that way.
Not to think of kissing him, undressing him slowly.
Of sliding beneath the bedclothes. Of having his hands on my skin.
I don’t think of it at all.
I can’t. Because Hal never stays with a girl for long, and if he were to have me, then leave me, my heart would break into a million pieces, and I’d never be able to put it together again.
But then he tells me he’s fallen in love with someone. I try to guess who, and he just smiles.
“Izzy,” he says patiently, “it’s you.”
You get what you pay for…
It’s my thirtieth birthday. It’s also Valentine’s Day. I’m not sure which one sucks most.
My best friend, Sarah, begged me to go out with her and her husband for dinner, but I’m not in the mood for celebration. I’ve worked hard all day, run for an hour, and now I plan to spend the evening alone playing video games and eating a whole tub of cookie dough ice cream.
But when I get home, I discover a man sitting on the carpet in the corridor outside my penthouse apartment.
He’s tall, gorgeous, wearing an expensive suit, and carrying the biggest bouquet of red roses I’ve ever seen.
He also has a huge red bow tied around his waist.
“I’m from Casanovas,” he says.
Hmm. That sounds vaguely familiar…
He gestures at the bow, and his smile turns mischievous. “Sarah says Happy Birthday.”
Oh. My. God.
And here's the first chapter to whet your appetite! Adults only please!
There’s a man sitting on the carpet in the corridor outside my penthouse apartment.
I have no idea how he got there. Access is only by an elevator, and you need to punch in a code to enable it to rise to the top floor. I freeze and turn to stop the elevator doors closing, but they’ve already shut, and there’s a soft whoosh as the carriage descends, leaving me stranded.
I turn back, my heart banging on my ribs, and fumble in my pocket for my phone as he gets to his feet. He’s between me and the stairs, blocking my escape. I take the phone out, my thumb ready to dial the emergency number. Then I hesitate.
He doesn’t look like a man who’s here to mug me. He’s wearing a tuxedo, an expensive one, judging by the fact that it’s single breasted and non-vented, with a satin shawl collar--I recognize a bespoke suit when I see one. He has a white winged-collar dress shirt and a black bow tie, and his shoes are polished. He’s tall, at least six-two, I reckon, with thick dark hair and a short beard.
He’s carrying the biggest bouquet of red roses I’ve ever seen. There must be four or five dozen there at least.
He also has a scarlet ribbon tied around his waist in a big bow.
“Ms. Bennet?” His voice is deep and a little husky.
I decide offense is the best form of defence. “Who are you?” I demand. “And how did you get in here?”
“I used the elevator.” He smiles. It’s a nice smile, non-threatening. His eyes crinkle a little at the edges. “I’m from Casanovas.”
Casanovas? I go cold.
The guy gestures at the bow around his waist, and his smile turns mischievous. “Sarah says Happy Birthday.”
I feel some clarification is in order.
Sarah is my best friend and my business partner. We met at university, where we were both studying Computer Science and Software Engineering. We recognized in each other a dynamic work ethic, ambition, and a smart brain, and it wasn’t long before the two of us were pairing up on our projects and knocking the rest of the class out of the park. We graduated with top class degrees and were offered a whole range of high-level jobs.
But that would never have satisfied Sarah and me. Hacking was our hobby, and we had great fun breaking into the sophisticated security systems of various businesses. We never stole anything, we just messed around with them a bit. We added customers called William Shakespeare and Jane Austen, or changed the loading screen on all their computers to a picture of a dog in a hat smoking a cigar. Then we approached the businesses with hands raised, said it was us, and told them we could redesign their systems to ensure nobody broke into them again. Every one of them said yes. It turned out to be a surprisingly lucrative enterprise, especially when we hacked into the Beehive--New Zealand’s government building. That landed us a contract to redesign all the government’s security software, which in turn led to a plethora of private contracts from top businesses.
In retrospect, I’m amazed we never did time. We’re too young, too smart, and too pretty to go to prison, Sarah always says. Now we have more money than we know what to do with, and we just hack for fun.
Sarah married and has two kids.
I met Alex at twenty-one, fell in love, got cheated on, and had my heart broken. And that was the extent of my love life. Since then I’ve devoted myself to my work, and as my office is at home it’s rare for me to venture out, except for when I run along the waterfront.
The other day Sarah and I were talking online. We’d just completed a huge project, and she said she wanted to take some time off with her husband and kids. I yelled at her for being selfish. She told me I needed to get laid more than anyone in the world.
“I don’t need sex,” I told her.
“Bollocks.” She was born in England, and it’s her favorite swear word. “You absolutely need to get laid. Very soon, and many, many times, hopefully.”
I scowled at her. “There ain’t nothing a man can do that my vibrator can’t.”
“Honey, if you seriously think that, you definitely need a man.”
“I’m not dating,” I told her quietly. “I’m not putting myself through that again.”
Her expression softened. “Alex was eight years ago.”
“Only eight years? I have an eidetic memory. I can remember every inch of that smug bastard’s face.”
“Aw, Elise.” She spoke with real regret. “You used to be such a softie.”
“Yeah, and look where that got me.” I used to wear my heart on my sleeve. Alex ripped it off and stomped on it until it had the consistency of mashed potato. I will not open myself to that kind of pain again.
Before I graduated, I wore pink, watched romcoms, and laughed all the time. Now I wear black eyeliner, watch psychological thrillers, and say fuck a lot. My mother hates it. Which of course is partly why I do it.
Sarah gave me an impish look. “Anyway, who says you have to date?”
“What do you mean?”
“Ever heard of Casanovas?”
“The eighteenth-century Italian adventurer?”
“Nope. Well, yes, I guess it’s named after him. It’s an escort agency.”
My eyebrows rise slowly at what she’s suggesting. “Yeah, that’s never going to happen.”
“I know someone who uses it,” she informed me.
“Leigh, from my Pilates class.”
“Seriously?” I know Leigh. She’s runs a communications company. Older than us by about ten years. “I thought she was married.”
“She is. She said her husband can’t get it up anymore. So she gets a Casanova while hubby’s at work, bonks him senseless, then cooks hubby’s dinner, and everyone’s happy.”
“And they say romance is dead.”
Sarah shrugged. “They’re still married, so I guess it works. She has orgasms on demand and her husband doesn’t feel guilty anymore.”
“He doesn’t care that another guy’s servicing his wife?”
“Keeps her quiet, I guess,” Sarah said. Leigh can talk all four legs and a couple of ears off a donkey. I doubt that even relentless sex will shut her up for long. “Anyway, Casanovas. She told me all about it. It’s extremely exclusive.”
“You mean it’s overpriced.”
“It’s expensive. But they only accept the best guys.”
“By best you mean those with the biggest dicks?”
“Not necessarily,” she says, straight-faced. “Although I’m sure that’s on the list. They have to go through training.”
“For what? Firearms? First aid?”
She grinned. “I’ll let you think about that one. The point is that it’s not a brothel, and they’re not skanky hookers who are reading over your shoulder while they’re going at it.”
“They can read?”
“Elise! They’re high-class escorts. You pay them to be your companion. They’ll do anything you ask. Leigh says sometimes she gets her guy to do the ironing.”
“Why would you hire an expensive escort to do your ironing? Wouldn’t the local dry cleaning service be cheaper?”
“I guess they don’t do it naked and promise an orgasm afterward.”
“They’re very… conscientious,” Sarah says.
I don’t even want to know what that means. “I’m not going to pay a man to have sex with me.”
“Fair enough.” She smiled, and I got the first tingles of warning.
“It’s your thirtieth birthday soon,” she said. “And it’s Valentine’s Day.”
“Don’t you dare…”
“Gotta go. Kids need feeding.” She hung up.
I rolled my eyes and promptly forgot all about it. But apparently Sarah hadn’t.
The guy in the suit doesn’t seem surprised that I’m not jumping up and down with joy.
“Sarah left you a message,” he informs me. He slides a hand into the top pocket of his jacket, retrieves a piece of card, and proceeds to read from it. “‘Dear Elise, I knew that if I asked you whether you wanted me to arrange a Casanova for you, you’d say no, so I did it anyway. He’s under strict instructions not to let you talk him out of it. Apparently he’s very good in the sack.’” The man’s gaze slides up to meet mine. “I apologize for the lack of humility--that wasn’t my idea.” He returns to the card. “‘He’s all paid for until midnight, so make the most of him. Happy birthday.’”
He holds the card out to me. I stare at it for a moment. He purses his lips and slides it back into his pocket.
“If you’d like to ring her to confirm she arranged this, go ahead,” he says. “I know it must feel odd having a strange guy turn up on your doorstep-”
“-so I’d understand if you wanted to check before you invite me in,” he continues as if I haven’t spoken. “I have a card, and you’re welcome to call Casanovas, too.”
I blow out a breath. “No need. Sarah told me she was going to do it. And I told her I wasn’t interested. So I apologize for wasting your time--I’d be more than happy to compensate you for your trouble.”
“Already been paid,” he says. “And I’ve been told not to take no for an answer.”
“Meaning what?” I ask. “You’re going to force your way into my apartment when I try to lock the door?”
He gives me a wry look. “No…”
We study each other for a moment. We’re standing about six feet apart. He’s a big dude. Big shoulders, broad chest, big… feet. He makes me feel small, which isn’t easy considering I’m five-ten in my running shoes.
This guy is here to take off his clothes and have sex with me. His eyes are warm, and I know he’s thinking about what I’m going to be like in bed.
Orgasms on demand, Sarah said. I wonder what it’s like to have sex with a man whose sole purpose is to give you pleasure?
I blink and glare at him. I can’t imagine this happening any more than I can me skydiving off Auckland’s Sky Tower. I don’t like heights.
“Your friend did this because she thought you’d like some company,” he says softly.
“I don’t want to have sex with a stranger,” I tell him, refusing to blush and hoping my boldness will scare him off.
He doesn’t look scared. “It doesn’t have to be about sex. Sarah thinks you’re lonely, and that you’d enjoy being with a man for a few hours. Maybe have a drink, have a chat. Would that be so bad?”
“You’re thinking you can make me feel guilty because I assumed you were here for sex.”
His lips curve up. “Sarah told me you were smart.”
“And now you’re trying to appeal to my vanity.”
“Is it working?”
I don’t reply. It is, a little. The best compliment anyone can give me is that I’m smart. Did Sarah tell him to say that?
The truth is, I feel a little guilty because of the sex comment. He is a person, when it comes to it, not a machine, and from what Sarah said, the Casanovas pride themselves on offering companionship to women who, for whatever reason, can’t or don’t want to get a date the traditional way.
Sarah would have known there’s no way I’d go through with this, but I am touched she’s trying to help. The guy’s nice, and if I were to get a date, a man like this would be high on my list of suitable partners. I’m not one of those women who demands their men are shaved and oiled. I like a guy to have hair on his face and chest, to have muscles--to look like a real man. Did she look at a menu or something? Did she pick this dude out personally?
I’m not interested in sex, but I’ve worked hard today, I’m tired, and I’ve argued with my mother about the decreasing number of childbearing years available to me--just what every girl needs when she’s turning thirty. Suddenly the notion of sitting down for a drink and a talk with a good-looking guy doesn’t seem like the worst idea in the world.
Still, I know nothing about him, and I’ve never invited a strange man into my apartment.
“What’s your name?” I ask him.
“Nico? Is that Italian?”
“My grandfather was.” He smiles. “Everyone calls me Nik.”
He doesn’t say ‘all my friends call me Nik,’ so I can’t say ‘I’m not your friend.’ His eyes are shrewd. He might be a male escort, but he’s intelligent. And there I am, making judgements again. He could be a genius for all I know. Just because he has sex for a living doesn’t mean he hasn’t got a brain.
This guy has sex for a living. I wonder vaguely whether he’s ‘conscientious.’
“How long have you been waiting?” I ask him.
He stretches out his arm to pull the cuff of his jacket back from his watch. “About an hour. Sarah thought you’d be home by seven.”
The poor guy’s been sitting on the carpet for an hour, on Valentine’s Day. Presumably he doesn’t have a sweetheart waiting at home for him. “I went for a long run. I’m sorry if I kept you waiting.” I’m wearing a gray vest and leggings, and I’m conscious of sweat marks darkening my top. I couldn’t have looked less sexy. Everyone-calls-me-Nik must be shuddering in his shiny shoes.
“No worries,” he says. “It’s a plush carpet, and I have a very soft butt.”
My lips curve up, and he grins.
“Look.” I blow out a breath. “I release you of your vow. Take the money and run, mister. Have a night off.”
He hefts the roses in his arm. “I’d rather come in for a drink.”
“I’m saying you don’t have to work tonight. You can keep the money. Sarah won’t mind--she wouldn’t have expected me to go through with it anyway.”
“I’d still rather have a drink.”
“You mean sex.”
“You said there wouldn’t be any,” he points out.
“Then why do you want to come in?”
He tips his head to the side and gives me a long, lazy look. “Because you fascinate me.”
I stare at him. “Why?”
He gives a short laugh. “Because you’re strange. And beautiful. And clever. Seems like a winning combination.”
He called me beautiful. He’s paid to say that, I remind myself. Still. Flattery will get you everywhere.
“Did Sarah say she’d give you a bonus if you managed to get inside?”
He smiles. “No.”
“How much did she pay you?”
He just shakes his head, still smiling.
“I’ll pay you double whatever it was to go away,” I tell him.
His smile fades a little. Ohhh… the money is important to him. Then I want to smack myself around the head. Of course it is. Why else is he here? Because he saw a photo of me online and fell in love?
Grow up, Elise.
But he says, “No, thank you. I’ll stick with the money I’ve got. Your friend was very generous. But I’ve been sitting on the carpet for an hour, and even though it’s plush, I’d love a soft chair, and a beer, or a whisky, or whatever you have inside that classy apartment.”
I give up. I suppose I can always get him to do the ironing. “All right, you can come in. One drink. And then you’re heading home.”
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