Authors: Mia Caldwell
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #United States, #African American, #Women's Fiction, #Romance, #Multicultural, #New Adult & College, #Multicultural & Interracial
“What was all that?” she asked, rubbing her aching head.
His expression was grim. “Someone clearly tipped them off about your injury, and I guess they jumped to the conclusion I had been the one to hit you.”
She snorted. “Idiots. And who would tip them off?”
He lifted a shoulder. “Perhaps someone at the hospital. We haven’t made an official announcement of the engagement, but since I was with you the whole time at the hospital, it wouldn’t take a genius to figure out you’re important to me. The ring on your finger adds another clue.”
She looked down at it reflexively, having forgotten she was wearing it. It had been on her finger for almost a week now, and she was completely adjusted to it. That was disturbing for many reasons, and if she’d had the energy, she would have tried to pull it off. “Still, why would they assume it was you?”
He shrugged. “I have no idea. I guess because I’m a celebrity.”
She shook her head, and then groaned at the motion. “The hospital people would have known the truth though. So would anyone that was at the house, assuming it was one of Carly’s associates who called in the tip.”
He sounded bitter when he said, “When does the paparazzi let a little thing like the truth stand in the way of a sensational story?”
“True,” she conceded with a sigh. “Well, I’ll just issue a brief statement with a reputable newspaper, and this will all blow over.”
He let out a sound that could have meant anything, but seemed to be one of skepticism. “I hope you’re right.”
She was clinging to her optimism, but it rapidly faded as they approached her apartment building to find it surrounded by more reporters. He barely slowed down before driving on by. “Hey, I need to go home, Connor.”
“You’ll stay at my place.”
His inflexible tone struck her wrong. “No, I won’t. I’m not going to let a pack of cretins run me from my own home.”
“They won’t leave once they see us go in together.”
She frowned. “Then drop me off.”
“No way. Dr. Whitaker said you have to be watched for the next forty-eight hours.” He barely glanced away from the road as he reminded her of that.
She shrugged. “She’ll never know.”
“I’ll know.” He shook his head. “I’m not risking your health when I have plenty of room in the penthouse. You’ve been there, so you know what it’s like.”
Reluctantly, she nodded. “Well, okay. Thank you, Connor.”
His lips twitched. “If that tone was any more grudging…” A hearty laugh burst from him.
“Sorry. I’m just used to taking care of myself.”
Connor looked at her for a moment, lifting her hand from her lap and squeezing it with his. “Let me take care of you for a bit. It will be a privilege.”
She wanted to make light of his words, and she searched desperately for a hint that he was kidding or being mock-gallant. She saw nothing but sincerity in his expression, and that made her swallow a thick lump that unexpectedly lodged in her throat. “Well, thanks, I guess, Connor.”
He released her hand a moment later. A few moments after that, they arrived at the building housing his apartment, and he cursed. Connor slapped his fist against the steering wheel before glaring at the press of reporters crowding the entrance to the private parking garage. By the stir in the horde, it was clear they had been tipped off about which vehicle to look for, and they were all crowding around the sedan.
With a curse, he backed down the street, paying little attention to the reporters trying to block them. Angelina admired his skillful driving as he forced the media to scramble out of the way while driving in reverse and turning a sharp corner. The motion of the car sent her head throbbing again, but the rush of adrenaline tamped down the pain, at least for the moment.
Once they were back on the city streets, she watched him navigating with confidence and bit her lip. With a sigh, she asked, “Now what?”
“Um, okay.” She trailed off, waiting for more details that didn’t come. “What is Plan C?” Her stomach dipped as she braced herself for the suggestion that they stay with his father. She hoped that wouldn’t include Brenda’s irritating presence.
Instead, he completely shocked her by saying, “We’re going to Catalunya.”
Her mouth dropped open. “As in Barcelona?”
He nodded. “The Spanish Grand Prix. You made the arrangements for me, right?”
“Months ago,” she said with a wave of her hand. “Before your accident. You aren’t cleared to race again yet. You aren’t planning to race, are you?” Why did that send a surge of panic through her? It was what he did and had done successfully for the past seven years without any injuries—until his prototype crashed.
“Not this time, though I hope to be up for the Monaco Grand Prix. I’m attending to schmooze and make connections. I’m planning to retire from the circuit as a driver after this season, and I want to transition to construction.”
Relief swept through her, though it shouldn’t matter to her either way. “That sounds…safer.” Except when he tested his vehicles. “Still, there’s no reason for me to go with you to Barcelona, Connor. I can hole up in a hotel.”
“Not for forty-eight hours, you can’t. Knowing your penchant for planning, I no doubt have a ridiculously large suite awaiting me, so there will be plenty of room for you to have your own space. The jet’s always on standby, so we can be in the air in less than two hours. There’s a bedroom on board, so you can sleep during the flight. You can’t visit Kevin for two weeks, and I’m your employer, so you can’t feign work as an excuse. What other reasons do you have?”
“Just planning a wedding I’m supposed to skip out on at the last moment,” she said overly sweetly. “Put like that, Barcelona sounds like a joy.” Her face fell. “Oh, but I don’t have my passport. It’s back at the apartment.”
He smiled. “Leave that to me, my darling fiancée. I have it all under control.”
She snorted. “I’m the one who usually manages all the details of your life, Mr. Blackwell, so pardon my skepticism.”
He just laughed, looking arrogantly confident that he could arrange the world to suit his needs. She had to reluctantly concede he was right to be arrogant when they were on his private plane ninety minutes later, preparing for a final takeoff. Her passport was in her purse, and a suitcase of her clothes was also stowed in the plane’s bedroom. She didn’t know who he’d sent to accomplish the task, but he had made it happen. She wasn’t certain if she should be annoyed, impressed, or perhaps fearful for her job—which she already knew would be ending as soon as she jilted him at the altar, so that wasn’t really a concern.
In lieu of any response, she chose to hide out in the plane’s bedroom and sleep as they undertook the hours-long flight. She was probably making a mistake by going along on this trip, but as she lay down and drifted into a deep sleep, she realized she was looking forward to it all the same. Not because of her boss, of course. It had absolutely nothing to do with Connor.
If only she could make herself believe that completely…
Barcelona was just the distraction she needed. Because Connor wasn’t racing in this Grand Prix, he didn’t have to participate in the pre-time trials or any of the myriad details leading up to the racing itself. Instead, they spent hours wandering the city, starting on foot before renting a scooter when Connor reluctantly admitted that his hip was bothering him.
It had taken her a couple of hours to coax him into admitting that as she watched with growing concern the way his gait became more uneven as time passed. After acquiring the scooter, they zipped around the city in a whirlwind tour. He showed her The Castle of the Three Dragons, a drive-by viewing of Camp Nou Stadium, and Palau Nacional before they made their way to the shopping district of La Rambla.
Moving down the pedestrian mall, they zig-zagged in and out of foot traffic on the scooter. She half-expected someone to stop them, but Connor seemed unconcerned by the possibility. She was still relieved when he parked the scooter, and they did more walking, this time at a slow and steady pace.
They shopped several kiosks and paused to admire the paving bricks that looked like water rippling. Ambling further on, she was surprised when he took her hand, and even more surprised by how right it felt. He tugged her over to a small fountain with a lamppost at the top, and she admired its interesting design.
“The Font de Canaletes,” he said.
She looked at the plaque on the ground. “The legend is you’ll come back to Barcelona if you drink the water of the fountain.”
He snorted. “Yeah, you’ll come back for antibiotics.”
She giggled, and they walked on, finally stopping at a tapas bar on Rambla Del Mar, where they stuffed themselves silly on olives, anchovies in vinegar, and prawns in peppercorn sauce, paired with a Cava wine from the Penedès region.
It was a relaxing day and made all the more relaxing by the fact no one was pointing at them or trying to take their picture for sensational news stories that had no substance. To be on the safe side, Angelina had applied heavier makeup than usual to hide the bruise Kevin had inadvertently left on her cheek, and she was confident it was unnoticeable other than some slight swelling.
They finished off the evening with a long dinner at the Forestier Restaurant in their hotel before retiring to their shared suite in Hotel Miramar. There was an awkward moment as they stood in the entertainment area, staring at each other as though waiting for the other to speak. For her part, she didn’t know what she expected Connor to say, or what she even wanted to say, if anything. She was drawing a blank too. The silence was growing, feeling even more awkward, so she cleared her throat and spoke at the same time he did.
“It was a lovely day.”
“I had a good time.”
They laughed together, and she was struck by how much it felt like a real date, complete with the awkward ending that she remembered well, especially from her early dates, back when she was young and inexperienced. That was how being with Connor left her feeling all over again, as though she had never been through the courtship dance before. Knowing this was all fake didn’t help remove the awkwardness from the illusion.
With a smile that hurt the corners of her mouth because she was projecting it so brightly, she gave a jaunty wave and rushed to the smaller of the two rooms of the suite. As soon as she closed the door behind her, Angelina leaned back against it and took several deep breaths to restore her calm.
When she flipped the lock on the door a second later, she wasn’t sure if it was a precaution to keep Connor out, or to remind her to stay in. It had been such a pleasant day, with Connor so charming and attentive. It had made it difficult to remember he was also a playboy racer who went through girlfriends frequently when he unleashed his charm on her and made her the focal point of his attention. It was even more difficult to remember that none of it was real when she wore his mother’s ring on her finger.
With a sigh, she moved away from the door and headed to the bathroom. Perhaps a warm shower—even better a cold shower to dissipate the ache of desire filling her core—would help restore her sense of reason and remind her that she and Connor could be friends, but nothing more, and not for long. When she played her part in their agreement, there would be nothing more to any fledging friendship, so it would be better to keep things on a professional level and not even flirt with the idea of friendship, let alone anything more serious.
Just because his father wanted him to get married didn’t mean Connor had changed his mind about settling down. She was well aware he was just playing along to preserve his father’s health, and that was her role in the situation as well. Giving in to the attraction flaring between her and Connor would be madness. She knew that, so all she had to do was remind her body of that whenever she was in his presence and tempted to ignore common sense in favor of explosive desire.
No problem at all. She deliberately avoided her own eyes in the mirror, not wishing to see confirmation of just how full of false confidence she was at the moment. Or full of something anyway.
There was one more day before the race began, and when he suggested they take a rental car to the old circuit used to host the Barcelona Grand Prix until 1975, she was agreeable. It wouldn’t have been her first choice, but she suspected it was an important landmark to the racing enthusiast inside Connor, though he had probably been there before.
Still, she was touched that he wanted to share the experience with her. That reaction should be setting off alarm bells ringing in the back of her mind. Instead of focusing on that, she decided to push aside all angst-filled thoughts for the day to just focus on having a good time and relaxing, freed from the pressures of her everyday life for the remainder of their impromptu vacation.
The drive to Montjuich Park didn’t take long, and she was pleasantly surprised to find there were no lapses in conversation today, with no awkward silences either. Either they had both made an effort to avoid the unspoken tension of the previous evening, or perhaps they were both just in a different mood today. Whatever the reason, the conversation flowed, and she was surprised to find they had a lot more in common than she would have expected.
When they arrived at Montjuich Park, the first thing they did was go to the old course, where Connor did a lap in their rental car. It was no longer part of the circuit, but the route remained part of regular city traffic, so it was well maintained. When they drew up to what would have been the finish line, he grinned at her. “Trade places.”
She shook her head. “No, thanks. I’m not much of a driver, and I’m not even on the rental agreement.”
Connor rolled his eyes. “I’m willing to take the risk that you won’t crash the rental car in a few minutes, Angelina.”
She sniffed at him. “You’re being awfully reckless, Mr. Blackwell.”
He shrugged his shoulders and winked at her. “You know me, baby. I’m a racer. I guess you could say reckless is in my blood.”
With a huff and another roll of her eyes, she slid from the car and traded places with him. Despite her bluster and protesting, she couldn’t deny a slight thrill of adrenaline shot through her when she was behind the wheel of the car, staring at the track ahead of her. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t a real race, and that she had never even briefly considered driving a race car before as anything but a scary occupation. She could suddenly feel the history of the track resonating within her.
Sitting beside Connor as he made exaggerated engine sounds with his mouth and counted down to the start of the race, it was as though she was surrounded by phantom cars, all waiting for the light to change. Here she was, in the first grid position, and all she had to do was maintain the lead she had already acquired by finishing first in the time trials. That was no problem for skilled driver like herself.
She wanted to giggle at her own silliness, but when he said go, suddenly she couldn’t stay the impulse that had her foot pressing hard on the gas pedal and sent the little mini peeling down the street with a squeal of rubber against asphalt. She was going faster than she’d ever driven before, though still not insanely fast, as they rounded the corners, and he led her through the imaginary race with his sportscaster-like commentary.
When she stopped again at the finish line, which was also the beginning point, she collapsed against her seat, surprised by how much adrenaline had pumped through her system during the imaginary race. She shook her head. “That was surprisingly intense.”
He chuckled. “Yeah, but it’s nothing like the real thing.”
She turned her head and smiled at him, suddenly glad he had convinced her to act so crazily irresponsible by her standards. “I don’t think I could handle the real thing. This was enough racing for me.”
He laughed again as he directed her from the racing area to a parking spot nearby. “I got the hotel to pack us lunch, and this looks like a good spot to spread it out on the grass.”
Together, they spread the included blanket and unpacked the basket. She was famished after the adrenaline rush, and he must have been as well, because they systematically made their way through the feast that should have fed for easily, but somehow seemed to disappear between the two of them and their best efforts.
Afterward, she was stuffed and leaned back on the checkered blanket, folding her hands behind her head as she looked up at the bright sun. “I think this was just what I needed, Connor. This whole trip has been so relaxing, and it’s helped me unwind from all the stress that I’ve been living with the last few years.”
He sighed, a sound of contentment, and stretched out near her, but not touching. “I’ve enjoyed it too. I’m always on the go, and that’s usually what I prefer, but there’s a lot to be said for just slowing down and enjoying the moment with someone special.”
She could have made a flippant remark, something that would’ve changed the atmosphere between them and lightened that unspoken tension that seem to be settling in again. Instead, she licked her lips and turned her head to look at him. “Be careful, Connor. This is starting to feel perilously close to a real date.”
“Well, I do owe you a first date, after all. Sorry there aren’t any hot dogs.”
Remembering the narrative he’d spun about their first nonexistent date, she grinned. “I wouldn’t have room for them anyway.”
He rolled closer to her, still not touching, but now on his side, facing her. “Do you remember how our first date ended?”
In spite of herself, or rather, in spite of common sense, she turned on her side to face him, and their chests were almost touching. “I think it ended with a kiss, because you respected me too much to try anything else?”
He nodded, his expression earnest. “I do respect you. I hope you believe that, Angelina. I know this whole thing has been unconventional and stressful for both of us, but I want to make sure you know that I do like and respect you, and I don’t consider you just one-night stand material.”
Warmth suffused her chest, and the sensible thing would have been to roll away and get up, to break the moment before anything that shouldn’t happen did anyway. Instead, she licked her lips and remained right where she was, watching with a hint of confliction, but mostly anticipation, as he moved his head toward hers, angling his chin so that her lips were easier to reach with his mouth.
It was a tender, sweet kiss and over with all too quickly. He withdrew a moment later, pausing only long enough to press a small kiss to her nose as well before he was the first to roll away and stand up.
She was surprised, perhaps even shocked, by the turn of events, and when he held out a hand to help her to her feet, she didn’t protest. She simply stared at him with disbelief. “That’s it?”
Connor nodded. “I don’t have the self-control for anything else, Angelina, and we both know how this script plays out.”
She cleared her throat, still in a daze that Connor had been the one to call a halt to their burgeoning make-out session rather than her. She should have been the voice of reason, and had she been, she wouldn’t have ended up lying against him like that to start with.
Who knew Connor had it in him? She nodded her acceptance and helped pack up the rest of the things, sensing instinctively that the outing was over and hoping it didn’t signal the end of their tentative friendship.
The day of the race dawned, and they arrived about an hour before the event got underway. She remained at his side, trying not to reveal her surprise the first time or two he introduced her as his fiancée, realizing it made sense. They would be having a wedding in the next few weeks, so she supposed it was naïve to think they could have kept their supposed union and its dissolution under wraps.
Briefly, she remembered the unpleasant sensation of being swarmed at the hospital and wondered how much of that was in her future once she ostensibly jilted Connor at the altar, having no doubt he would play up the broken heart angle for much sympathy, and only she would know it was to get sympathy from his father and no one else, simply to get the old man to relax and not endanger his health. She would end up a pariah in the process.
Since she was stuck with the role, she did her best to perform it well, staying beside him as he chatted up sponsors and construction teams, clearly working on making connections for when he retired from racing at the end of the season, if he decided to go ahead as planned.
The race itself was as boring as she had expected it to be, and it was nothing like the very brief stint of being the driver that she had experienced yesterday in the fake race. She did her best not to yawn her way through it, but it was a relief when it was over hours later.
They enjoyed it intimate dinner at a sidewalk café before returning to their room and parting ways for the evening. After the brief kiss yesterday, she had made a conscious effort to avoid touching him, and he seemed to have adopted the same strategy. Reminding herself it was the wisest course didn’t take away the slight sting of regret she experienced when she imagined how close they could be right now if they were just silly enough to give in to the attraction simmering between them and not worry about the future.