Authors: Mia Caldwell
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #United States, #African American, #Women's Fiction, #Romance, #Multicultural, #New Adult & College, #Multicultural & Interracial
Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on her frame of mind from moment to moment, she wasn’t the type not to worry about the future. She needed a plan for everything, and nowhere in her long-term plans could she see a place that comfortably accommodated Connor Blackwell. It was the same for him, of course. He wasn’t ready to settle down, and he had no interest in having a real fiancée or wife, so this approach was better, even if it meant living with a tinge of regret.
Three days after their return from Barcelona, Angelina was already ready to go back. They had returned amid a flurry of photographers and news media circling around the private hanger, or as close as they could get to it with security in the way, but fortunately, the paparazzi hadn’t been camped out in front of either one of their homes.
Apparently, the press release Connor’s PR person had arranged to publish while they were gone had finally circulated and calmed down the fervor, at least among the legitimate newspapers. That crisis was technically averted, so she didn’t have to deal with flashbulbs in her face every time she left her home, at least not until she got to the point where she jilted Connor and became the heartbreaking villain in the piece.
That didn’t mean she was freed from annoyances.
Carly and her troop of planners had pretty much monopolized her time since their return. Connor had managed to plead business as a way to avoid most of the meetings and decisions thrust upon her. He had so kindly told her that whatever she wanted was fine with him, flashing her and the assorted ladies present a billion-dollar smile at the same time. That smile had left Carly and the others swooning and hadn’t left her completely unaffected either. They didn’t mean she was jumping with joy from being stuck making all the decisions and helping wrap up the arrangements for this farce.
On the other hand, she was being well-paid to handle it, so she was trying to view it as just another unpleasant detail necessary to keep Connor’s schedule flowing without a hitch. Of course, a fake wedding ending with a spectacular jilting at the altar was bound to put a pretty big hitch in his schedule, but she couldn’t think about that at the moment. Whenever she thought about the reaction she was likely to get after people knew what she had supposedly done to Formula One Racing’s Prince Charming, it was enough to make her stomach churn with dread and bring beads of sweat to her brow.
After the deed was done, her tentative plan was to slip away for at least a week or two, until everything died down, but she didn’t have the luxury of leaving forever, not if she wanted to keep Kevin in the Henderson Center. She hadn’t been allowed to visit him yet, but she received daily emails from his support coach, and pictures often accompanied the update. He seemed a little confused, but according to his coach, he was settling in fairly well, though she knew it would take Kevin a while to acclimate and integrate to any extent, if he chose to at all.
Knowing he was on his path to settling in made it impossible to even think about transferring him to a different facility, so she would have to weather the reporters, their ugly comments, and probably the even uglier looks from the average person if they happened to recognize her. It was a daunting prospect, almost awful enough to make her consider actually going through with the marriage.
Before she could even mentally laugh at that idea, she froze instead when she heard Brenda behind her. They were viewing a facility, since Connor had given William carte blanche to invite whomever he wished. Apparently, his father thought that the more people involved with the wedding, the less likely Connor was to back out, because his guest list was bordering on an absurd one thousand people.
She knew about ten of those people personally, and perhaps recognized another twenty-five names from tasks that she had performed for Connor over the last few years as his personal assistant. With that in mind, the mansion was no longer a practical spot to have the wedding, so yesterday and today was all about exploring other venues that could accommodate such a monstrous gathering. Somehow, Brenda had managed to weasel her way along, and now, she had managed to catch Angelina alone.
With a sigh, she turned away from the glass wall showing the expanse of bluff overlooking the Hudson in the distance. She didn’t greet the other woman, because she could see the ice in her expression. Kitty’s claws were finally coming out apparently. Frankly, she was unsurprised, except perhaps that it had taken this long for Brenda to show her true opinion about Angelina.
“You know you aren’t good enough for him, right?”
She barely blinked at the other woman, once again struck by how beautiful she was, but barely fighting back a shiver at the coldness in the other woman’s expression.
“Do you hear me? You aren’t good enough for him, and you certainly aren’t good enough for the Blackwell name. The thought of you having his children and carrying on his legacy is appalling.”
She continued to stare impassively at Brenda, kind of enjoying watching the other woman’s frustration and anger grow as she remained aloof. “Are you through now?”
“No, I’m not through. I won’t be through until this sham of an engagement is over. You’ll never marry him. I guarantee it.”
“Maybe you’re right.” She strove to sound disinterested. Pointedly, she looked down at her left hand. “Of course, I am wearing his mother’s ring. From what Connor said, apparently William intended it for you instead of me?” She let out a small giggle, as though that was the funniest thing she’d ever heard.
Brenda scowled at her. “I’d be a much better wife for Connor than you could ever be.”
She shook her head. “You’re like a sister to Connor, or at least he thinks that way. I think it’s pretty clear whatever feelings you harbor for Connor, they aren’t at all sibling-like, are they?”
A flush filled her face, finally bringing a hint of color to her pale skin and serving to make the other woman only that much more beautiful. If she’d actually been a rival for Connor’s affections, that she only got more beautiful as she grew angry might’ve been enough to make Angelina hate her.
Angelina knew she wasn’t as luck. Anger didn’t bring out her best features. At the moment, she wasn’t feeling at all angry though, and she certainly didn’t regard Brenda as a rival in any fashion. Even if she and Connor had truly been involved, she was observant enough to know he had no feelings for the other woman beyond fraternal. Brenda just couldn’t see that for herself.
“I was going to marry Connor until you interfered. You won’t make it down the aisle.”
She almost laughed in the other woman’s face, but only because of the astuteness of what she had just said. She could well imagine Brenda’s shock if she admitted that no, she wouldn’t make it to the aisle with Connor.
Discretion held her in check though, because she couldn’t reveal anything beyond the fiction they were presenting to anyone, especially to someone like Brenda. “Just give it up. I’d suggest accepting gracefully that Connor doesn’t love you and doesn’t want to marry you. I have a feeling you know deep down that’s the truth. Even if he and I weren’t getting married, there’s no way he would have married you.”
Brenda bared her teeth, looking insanely angry and slightly unstable for just a moment. “His father’s health is on the line. He would do anything to keep William around. So would I.”
“In that case, you should consider giving in gracefully, because William seems happy with Connor’s choice, and Connor said he hasn’t seen his father this relaxed in a long time.” That much was true. Connor had commented to her during a family dinner two nights before—a family dinner which she had been reluctantly drafted to attend—that his father looked happy and relaxed from the first time since his mother had passed years ago.
William had also been warm to her, but she suspected he would have probably welcomed just about any woman into the family if it meant his son was settling down and preparing to produce the next generation of Blackwells to secure his legacy.
Without another word, Brenda spun on her heel and sped off the opposite direction as Carly and Leanne approached. She listened with half an ear as they chattered at her, offering choices, and she picked random selections. Apparently, she must have done what she was supposed to, because there were no second guesses or questioning looks about the choices she made.
Somehow, she must have avoided making any major mistakes. If she could just get to the ceremony with the same kind of luck, maybe the next couple of weeks wouldn’t be so bad.
And maybe Brenda would completely transform her personality and turn into her best friend in the whole world. Yeah, that seemed about as likely.
That weekend, William sprang his surprise on them, which was an engagement party. Apparently, his birthday party where he had forced Connor to propose didn’t count, so he wanted something to commemorate the occasion and an excuse to take pictures.
She was surprised and pleased to find his little sister was home for the weekend, and even more pleased to discover Lizze was an atypical rich white teenager. She wasn’t bratty or rude, and she seemed genuinely happy for Connor and Angelina. It was touching to experience the other girl’s welcome, but it also left her feeling vaguely guilty. Okay, more than vaguely guilty.
She hadn’t given much thought to the people in Connor’s life when she had agreed to continue the charade, not really thinking it through or realizing she might end up liking them, or they would like her. Suddenly, it wasn’t just about jilting Connor at the altar. She was going to be jilting his family in a way too.
She still understood his reasons, and she couldn’t see an alternative, but she bitterly regretted her role in their upcoming disillusionment. Still, it couldn’t be helped. It was too late to back out now or tell them the truth. It would only hurt them worse if they realized Connor had lied to them about the relationship all along.
The reality of events would make her and Connor both seem cold and heartless if his family found out they had schemed and planned their fake engagement and its spectacularly abrupt ending right from the start. Their motives for doing so wouldn’t matter, and no one would believe they had acted from mostly from altruism.
She did her best to put it all behind her and try to get through the evening so that it remained a pleasant event for everyone. That was part of her job at the moment.
Connor played his role well, never allowing her far from his side, his arm always around her waist to keep her near. When dancing started, they didn’t leave the floor for at least the first hour, and the music was all slow, probably deliberately arranged that way by William, an event planner, or perhaps even Connor himself—because he seemed to have forgotten all about their decision to be wise and back away from the attraction between them, knowing it was scripted to end badly.
She was having trouble remembering that herself as he spun around the floor again, his arms clamping tightly around her as he pulled her back into his embrace, and his lips grazed hers. It was a quick kiss, followed by another and another, each lasting longer than the one before. If they hadn’t been in public, the focus of almost all the eyes in the room, she was certain neither one of them would have had the strength to pull away when they did. She cleared her throat and kept her voice pitched low. “You’re playing with fire here, Connor.”
He groaned, pulling her even closer as he buried his face in the bend of her neck, his lips gently nibbling her skin before he spoke a second later. “I think I want to get burned.”
She stiffened slightly. “You know how this ends. We both do.” Heaven help her, she was saying it just as much to remind herself as she was him.
“Yes, but it doesn’t mean we couldn’t have a heckuva time before it’s over. Just think about it.”
She groaned. “I have been. I wish I could stop thinking about it.” That was the truth. All night, all she could imagine was how it would feel to end the party by slipping into his room upstairs, since they were staying overnight in the mansion, and surrender to the tug of desire between them. She was having trouble remembering all the reasons why it was a bad idea, and she could feel herself weakening.
She was in big trouble.
After the party, he took her hand and pulled her up the stairs behind him, pausing near her door with questioning look. “Should I leave you here? Or do you want to go the rest of the way with me?”
The rest of the way was way too far, and far too reckless. She knew that, and though her body was burning and her heart was pounding, she opened her mouth, licked her lips, and said the only sensible words that she could in the situation. “Take me with you, Connor.”
His room was immaculate and just a shade larger than the one she’d been given for her use, and she was unsurprised to find they shared an adjoining door. Her future father-in-law—if she’d actually been marrying Connor, that was—had made it easy for them to be discreet.
She wasn’t too worried about being discreet right now with the door closed behind them, and Connor’s hands moving over her body in a leisurely fashion. He was just touching her in a slow and careful way, his fingertips gliding over her skin as though he was absorbing the details of her molecular pattern through the whorls of his fingerprints.
His mouth explored hers in a slow fashion, as though they had all night to taste each other. Knowing they did have all night, she was able to rein in the urge to rush, to push him down on the bed, climb on top of him, and ravish the man that she was suddenly desperately in lust with.
Lust was all it was. That’s all it could be, and as long as she kept that in mind, there was nothing wrong with this little fling. It was just a harmless indulgence, and it wouldn’t hurt anyone. She just had to remember to keep it in perspective.
When they reached the bed a few minutes later, it was a completely natural progression of events, and she had no hesitation when she laid down beside him, running her fingers through his dark blonde hair before she began to unbutton the buttons of his tuxedo shirt. “Has anyone ever told you, Connor, that you’re a beautiful man.”
He grinned at her, looking arrogant, but also endearingly boyish at the same time. “No one’s ever said that, but I guess I didn’t need them to. I already knew it.”
She rolled her eyes. “Same old Connor.”
He took her hand in his, preventing her from continuing to unbutton his shirt. “No, not really.” He was surprisingly intense as he brought her hand to his mouth and pressed a kiss to her fingers. “I feel completely different these days, Angelina, and I’m sure that’s because of you.”