In keeping with the whole easy beach read theme, I thought I'd share this one with you. Talk about steamy summer romances! This one's Hot with a capital H. But unlike your typical cheesy romance, it's got substance to the story. A family mystery, a great group of characters, and an endearing four-year-old who almost made me wish I'd had one of my own. (Almost.)
The first book in the series, Fresh Temptation, is free, but just grab them all because I can almost guarantee you'll want to read them together.
|Fresh Temptation is free!|
“May I take your coat, sir?”
Victor forced a grin. “Sure.” He handed his Italian suede coat to the coat check attendant.
Be a good sport, Victor told himself. He hated pretentious black tie dinners like these. This annual fundraiser was one of a handful of events he always attended in person instead of sending a colleague or simply issuing a large donation from his office. Tonight’s ten-grand-per-plate meal was hosted by the Whitt Foundation, a respected non-profit humanitarian organization.
And since Victor’s ex-fiancee was Alexis Whitt, he would have rather been anywhere else.
Their engagement had ended two months earlier—a year before their scheduled wedding date—when Victor caught Alexis in a compromising position with her personal trainer, Esteban. Such a cliche.
He blamed himself for a while. Maybe he spent too much time working and didn’t lavish enough attention. He focused on maintaining the wealth he’d amassed at a young age as a successful investment banker. At thirty-one, Victor Barboza was one of the youngest billionaires in America. Quite a feat for a kid born on the wrong side of Guadalajara. Tonight he was here to support a worthy cause he believed in: one of the Whitt Foundation’s efforts was building orphanages and schools in third world countries.
He had never told anyone the real cause for the break-up. Perhaps he should have, but he didn’t. He had too much respect for Alexis’s parents to subject the family to the frivolous gossip of Manhattan’s upper east side.
Besides, petty snickering and sympathy weren’t a part of his lifestyle.
Victor preferred to move on. Live and learn. No more spoiled little trust fund princesses for him.
He adjusted his tie and scanned the main ballroom for the handful of people he actually wanted to see in this crowd. In seconds he was approached by one business acquaintance, then another, most of them asking Victor’s advice. Had he heard of some new hedge fund? What was the weakest growth stock to avoid this month?
It was only a matter of minutes, though, before one conversation took an awkward turn.
Tim Lundquist casually asked, “So the wedding’s in April, correct?”
Bree Lundquist, in her green sequined gown, gave Tim a sharp elbow to the arm and cleared her throat. “The food smells divine, don’t you think? I hear they hired a famous chef.” She cackled and patted Victor’s arm. “I hope we eat soon. I starved all week so I could look good in this dress but I may have to indulge tonight. So tell me, how does a man like you work so much but still find time to stay in such good shape?”
Victor chuckled. He was grateful for her swift change of subject. A good portion of this crowd was probably as oblivious to the latest upper east side gossip as Tim. He could tell by some random shy glances that there were surely rumors spreading, but he didn’t much care. When this semi-uncomfortable event was over, it was back to seeing most of these people two or three times per year. That was something he certainly didn’t miss about Alexis. She loved to find reasons for him to don a tux and mingle with “friends” of her family.
Victor chatted with the Lundquists for several more minutes when he felt a hand against his back.
“Barboza!” Douglas Whitt appeared at his side, jolly and boisterous as usual. “How’s life in the penthouse?”
“Good.” Victor smiled. The “penthouse” was an inside joke. Both he and Douglas Whitt came from meager beginnings before working their way to the top of the business world. And even though Victor would never be Douglas’s son-in-law, he still considered Douglas a valued mentor and hoped to maintain a friendship.
Victor could’ve kicked himself for thinking any of Douglas’s hard work and determination could have rubbed off on Alexis. Occasionally he thought about the day he met his former flame. She hooked him with, “My Daddy’s the son of a poor Kentucky coal miner.” Her intentions were so obvious now. Marry a rich, handsome bachelor who’d make Daddy proud, while elevating her social status. If there was anything else she cared about, Victor sure didn’t know what it was.
Douglas handed Victor a glass. “Bourbon. Thought you could use it.”
“It’s that obvious?” Victor took the drink and immediately brought it to his lips.
The robust gray-haired man shrugged and inched closer, his voice quiet. “Listen, if it weren’t for my wife I’d never attend another one of these God-awful shindigs. We have an agreement. She gets to dress up and throw a fancy party for all her friends, and I get drunk enough to pretend I wanna be here.”
Victor almost spit out his drink, laughing.
“It’s true,” Douglas said. “We could raise more money if we didn’t have to use the best caterers in town or rent this ballroom.” He sighed. “Oh well. C’est la vie. When are we having that lunch we always talk about?”
“Don’t worry, son. I’ll not try to sway you to reconsider.” Douglas gave him a knowing smirk.
Victor was stunned that the old man brought it up so casually. He knew from a few quick email exchanges that Douglas was disappointed about the broken engagement. He could also tell Douglas had no idea Alexis had cheated. The two men had become fast friends, and Douglas welcomed humble, hard-working Victor into the family as his own son, hoping he would be a good influence on his daughter. And perhaps, subconsciously, that was why Victor had avoided Douglas’s friendly invitations for lunch or drinks after work. He would take no chances on being persuaded to give the woman a second chance.
But there was a murky place deep inside Victor’s heart that still longed for Alexis. Aside from her pampered rich-girl tendencies, she was actually a smart, lovely woman six years his junior and fresh out of law school. And she was undeniably hot. Long auburn hair. Sparkling blue eyes. Legs for miles. She would have no trouble landing another eligible billionaire in no time. Landing one who would so easily win Douglas’s approval again…that would be tricky.
Victor took another sip of his bourbon and looked Douglas in the eye. “Soon, then. This week, maybe next.”
“Wonderful.” Douglas smiled and slapped Victor’s shoulder. “Now if you’ll excuse me, there are some stuffy socialites I need to see.”
A few minutes later, as Victor chatted absently with people he’d never met before, the lights dimmed for an instant. A voice rang out over the speakers. “Ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats. Dinner will be served in five minutes. Your table assignment can be found on your ticket.”
Victor pulled his ticket from his pocket to see he was assigned to table number eleven. He briefly glanced around the room for his ex-fiancee, then breathed a sigh of relief. He hadn’t seen her all night. With any luck, she was keeping her distance and he could go the entire night pretending she didn’t exist.
There were ten chairs at table eleven. Victor sat in one of the four that was vacant. An elderly couple quickly filled two of them. The guests at the table commenced with small talk. The chair to Victor’s left was still empty when the wait staff began distributing the first course.
And then, seemingly from out of nowhere, the empty chair moved.
Unconcerned, Victor turned to greet the new guest. He closed his eyes for a moment and smothered his groan before it could leave his throat.
Alexis, of course. Auburn hair clipped atop her head, hanging down in deliberate ringlets. Long black dress, cut low at the chest, with a slit from her heels to her thigh. In other words, she was gorgeous.
But she was still the coddled heiress who cheated on him.
“Hello, all.” Alexis’s tone was perky as she addressed her table mates. “I hope we’re all having a lovely evening so far.”
A few people returned her greeting. Victor immediately decided to be as quiet as possible. He saw the awkward glances from a few others at the table who obviously knew of the break-up and probably wondered if they were now back together. When the appetizer was placed in front of him seconds later, he said, “Bourbon, please,” to the server.
Alexis was silent for a moment as the others at the table talked amongst themselves. Then she cleared her throat. “So you won’t talk to me? Or look at me?”
“I’m here to support a good cause. That’s all.”
“You could at least be civil.”
“I am being civil.”
She edged closer and lowered her voice. “Come on. There’ll be a scene if you ignore me. You know people are watching us.”
Looking straight ahead, he answered through gritted teeth. “Then perhaps you shouldn’t have sat down next to me. Or had us both assigned to the same table.”
“Well…I thought maybe you wanted to talk to me. Why else would you be here tonight?”
“I already told you. To support a good cause.”
Her silence conveyed her disappointment loud and clear. But Victor went on, striking up a conversation with the couple sitting next to him.
After numerous attempts to get his attention, she interrupted him mid-sentence with a loud whisper in his ear. “Please talk to me.”
Knowing her too well, he closed his eyes and leaned a bit closer. Might as well get it over with. “What is it?”
“I’m sorry I had to do this. You ignore my calls. I need to speak with you.”
“Then get on with it.”
She stammered in response to his sharp tone. “I just…think…we should give it another shot. I…” She gulped. “I was wrong. It’ll never happen again.”
His head shook. “We’re finished. I know who you really are now.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Yes I do. Trust me. This little stunt you pulled tonight is exactly what I’m talking about. You’re so selfish; you’ll do anything to get your way.” He finally made eye contact with her, leveling his glance just enough to show the woman he could not be charmed by her loveliness. Yes, she was an auburn-haired vision to behold but he wouldn’t be made a fool twice. “I only came here tonight out of respect for your family and this organization. I would walk out of here right now, chica, but that would only cause you and your family embarrassment. You want people to talk about us tonight and think we’re back together but I don’t care what they think.”
Alexis pursed her lips, hoping to contain her tears. She remembered when he used to call her, “mi amor.” And now, “chica?” It rolled off his lips in such a tawdry fashion. “You’re making a mistake.”
“Well, you made one first.” Victor scooted his chair as far from her as possible and struck up a new conversation with the couple sitting beside him.
After several unsuccessful attempts to get his attention again, Alexis excused herself from the table. Victor didn’t turn around to see where she went.
* * *
|Click here for book 2, Armando Returns.|
Cara Green held her cell phone at her thigh and tried not to let her supervisor see she was reading a text message. Luna Lee Catering had a strict policy against cell phone usage, and as much as she needed this weekend job, she had to know if her three-year-old son, Isaac, was all right.
The text message from her mother read, “In ER right now. Temp 103.”
Cara’s eyes welled up as she slid the phone into her pocket. She wanted to stay home and take care of him today, but it wasn’t possible. Between her three jobs, she would soon have enough money to pay the outrageous co-pay for the tonsillectomy Isaac desperately needed. She mustered a grin and tried not to think about how miserable and fussy he had been since yesterday. When she left the house for work today, he launched his warm little forehead against her chest, crying for her to stay. As long as she didn’t picture his sad face, she was fine.
Isaac was prone to ear, nose, and throat infections. The doctor made it perfectly clear that a tonsillectomy was inevitable. “Simple procedure,” he said, “kids recover fast.” The doctor went on and on trying to convince her, but Cara was already convinced.
If only her insurance company wasn’t such an asshole.
Trying to save money, Cara swallowed her pride and moved in with her mother. So far, it wasn’t nearly as bad as she had feared. She was just another of the many people she knew who had to move back in with their parents after layoffs, divorces, inability to find a job. For Cara, being a twenty-seven-year-old single mom while living with her mother was a nightmare come true. But she tried to stay positive. She just knew she would get another public relations job once the economy turned around. This life of working three jobs and barely spending time with her son would end once she had a nest egg saved up. During the week, she was a receptionist at a ramshackle construction company that she was pretty sure doubled as a front for a money laundering scam. On the weekends, she worked for Luna Lee Catering when they needed her. And if that wasn’t enough, she helped an old high school friend, Marcy, with her new office cleaning business in the evenings.
This week, Cara had seen Isaac a total of twelve hours. And for most of those hours, he was asleep with his latest sinus infection.
On the bright side, this was the swankiest party Cara had seen in a long time. The staff had already been alerted that there would be plenty of trays of goodies to take home tonight. Leftovers were a blessing for her bank account, but a curse for her waistline. Since taking this job, she had gone from a size ten to a size fourteen, but that was the least of her concerns. She ate what she could, when she could. Tonight, she and some of the other servers had already polished off several small trays of heavy hors d’oeuvres, courtesy of the manager.
And her pants felt even tighter.
She chuckled to herself and popped a mini-quiche into her mouth, from the tray she was preparing. They were going to make a delicious breakfast tomorrow.
She was just about to start on the next tray when her supervisor, Keith, walked in.
“Need you out front, Cara.” He groaned. “Sandy just went home with the stomach flu.”
“Great.” Cara nodded, praying silently that she hadn’t already been exposed to new germs to bring home to Isaac.
Seconds later, she walked out of the kitchen with an empty tray and started to clear dishes from tables full of guests who were finished with the first course. As usual, she was amazed by the excess surrounding her. Why do women need to wear prom dresses to raise money to fight poverty? This was so not her scene. Rich people eating rich food, having boring conversations about rich things. Most of them didn’t make eye contact with her when she asked, “May I take this?” They just nodded and went about their evening, chatting with the people beside them. She smiled despite their arrogance. Some of the men wore cuff links that surely would have paid off her entire credit card debt.
On her third round of cleanup, a few of the guests spoke to her, making polite small talk.
An elderly woman touched her arm. “Could you please tell me the name of tonight’s chef, dear? This food is simply divine.”
“Um…” Cara shut her eyes tight for second, trying to remember. She had only heard it once, during the staff meeting before set up, and she was distracted with the task of hiding her cell phone. There was indeed a fancy chef on staff that night. From what Cara understood, he supplied the recipes and hung around in case one of the guests wanted to pay him their compliments. She saw him for approximately five seconds before he headed off to the terrace for the evening to smoke cigarettes. But she suddenly remembered. “Um…Andrew Trafalgar!” She calmed her voice and repeated herself. “Yes, Andrew Trafalgar.”
The woman turned to her husband, nodding. “We’ll have to keep him in mind, won’t we?” She smiled and gave Cara’s hand a warm pat. “Do give him my compliments, please. The name’s Betsy Kisch.”
Cara grinned, hiding her tightly clenched teeth. “Yes. Betsy Kisch. I’ll remember.” Sure, like I have nothing better to do than to pay your compliments to that jackass doing nothing but sitting on his ass outside?
Betsy turned to the handsome man on her other side. “Smashing first course, wouldn’t you agree?”
The young, dark-haired man spoke dramatically. “Absolutely, Bets. Smashing. How in the world did you read my mind?” Quickly, he cocked a brow and gave Cara a wink that made her chuckle.
Betsy Kisch gave him a playful slap on his wrist and burst into laughter. She knew she was being mocked.
Appreciating his sarcasm in the midst of this stuffy crowd, Cara asked a question just as a gorgeous redhead took the vacant seat beside him. “Sir, would you like me to forward your compliments to Mr. Trafalgar as well?”
“Sure. Victor Barboza.” He gave the redhead a short, sideways glance, then looked up at Cara. “But I won’t be needing the services of a chef or a caterer anytime in the foreseeable future. No big events coming up.”
The redhead stared straight ahead. “That’s enough, Victor.”
Cara let out a nervous giggle, her wrist aching from the tray of dirty dishes she supported with one hand. Tension was unmistakable between these two strangers. “Okay then. I’ll pass the compliment along.”
As soon as the words left her mouth, her phone vibrated in her pocket and her smile disappeared.
Tears filled her eyes. I’m the worst mother in the world. If only she weren’t so desperate for this paltry paycheck she would have taken her sweet, sick toddler to the emergency room herself. She briefly scanned the room, sickened by the decadence. These people had no idea how easy their lives were compared to hers. Surely their children wanted for nothing, especially something as simple as medical care for a sinus infection.
Since the room was noisy and the people at this table seemed nice, Cara looked around for her supervisor. She then made a split-second decision to look at her phone.
She forced a big, fake smile, hoping they wouldn’t notice her watery eyes. “Is it okay if I set this tray down on the table for a sec?”
Victor returned her smile. “Sure, honey. Take all the room you need.” He took the tray from hand and placed it directly in front of him.
“Thanks.” Cara didn’t notice the redhead’s jealous glare as she pulled her phone from her pocket. She looked down at her mother’s message, which said, “Surgery Monday morning. Call soon.”
A few tears escaped Cara’s eyes and she wiped them away. If a doctor deemed it to be an emergency, the cost would be completely covered, either by her insurance or by one of the free hospitals in the area. And even if that fell through, she would find a way to pay for it herself. A hefty monthly payment plan, a new credit card, another job. Whatever it took. She felt a sense of relief, knowing Isaac would soon be back to his fun-loving self.
She took a deep breath and reached down for the tray. “Thanks.”
Victor’s eyebrows crinkled. “Everything okay?”
She grinned. “It will be.”
The redhead stood just as Cara lifted the tray. “Was that a cell phone I just saw?”
Shit. Cara’s tone was sheepish. “Um…yeah.”
Victor shot the redhead an angry look. “Alexis, don’t.”
Alexis walked around his chair and looked Cara in the eye. “We were assured the staff wouldn’t spend their evening on their cell phones. It’s very unprofessional and this is an expensive event.”
Cara felt a giant knot form in her stomach. “I’m really sorry. I know I could get in trouble but I have a three-year-old in the emergency room. He’s really sick.”
The guests at the table were now looking at Cara, their mouths gaping.
Betsy Kisch spoke up. “Oh dear, what’s wrong? Is he all right?”
Alexis shook her head. “You’re here, working, instead of taking care of your sick son?”
Cara’s mouth dropped open. “Yes, as a matter of fact.” Her fear quickly turned to anger as she looked in Alexis’s judgmental eyes. “You know, some of us weren’t born with silver spoons in our mouths. Some of us have to work hard for a living, even when we have sick kids at home.”
Alexis scoffed. “Yeah, whatever.” She turned on her heel and scurried away, her long dress flapping against her perfectly toned calves.
“That’s just great.” Cara sucked her bottom lip between her teeth and closed her eyes, hoping the tears wouldn’t come. She knew she would lose her job over this.
The people at the table all spoke at once. Cara was too shaken to discern any of their words. She simply reached down for the tray, opened her eyes, and headed back to the kitchen as fast as her feet would allow. She was almost there when she heard someone following her.
“Hey.” Victor put a hand against her back. “I’m so sorry about her.”
Cara paused to look in his eyes. “That wife of yours…” She shut her mouth. Maybe you won’t get fired. No need to mouth off and make your situation worse. She grunted and walked on through the swinging kitchen doors.
Victor followed her inside. “She and I aren’t together. She’s a fucking bitch. I’ll talk to your manager. Alexis is probably angry because I’m ignoring her and she thought I was flirting with you. She’s really selfish.”
Cara let out a cold chuckle and sat the tray on top of the counter. “Yeah well, maybe I’m better off. I need to go check on my son anyway.”
“Is he okay?”
“He will be.”
“Is there anything I can do?” Victor’s brown eyes were full of compassion. “Let me make this right.”
|And book 3, More Than a Maid, is here.|
Cara couldn’t look in his eyes for long. She sensed his sympathy, and she didn’t want it. She stared off at the wall. “No, please. You wouldn’t understand.”
“Come on, try me. At least tell me which emergency room.” He put a gentle hand on her shoulder.
Tears suddenly flowed freely down her face. His touch sent her over the edge, and she wasn’t sure why. Maybe deep down, she really did ache for his sympathy; for the touch of a handsome man who offered help of some kind. But she thought again about the sequins and shiny jewelry flaunted in that ballroom. At a ten-grand-per-plate dinner. It was shameful, and she wanted no part of it. No, her desperate situation would make both her and Isaac stronger; she always found a way to get through. She shook away from Victor’s grasp, sniffling. “Please don’t. I really need to go.”
Cara ran to the back room to retrieve her purse from her locker. Victor didn’t follow. Soon she was driving home, leaving her catering job behind. She no longer cared whether or not she was fired.
Maybe that rich bitch was right, she thought. Maybe she should’ve been taking care of her son instead of working tonight.
Happy Summer Reading!