(Eligible Billionaires, #1-9)
Publication date: December 27th 2016
Genres: Adult, Romance
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Praise for Can’t Buy Me Love:
“Marr delivers a great story, the thrill of romance, and sexy love scenes in this often delightful novel.”
—Romantic Times Book Review
“Maggie Marr does it again! Can’t Buy Me Love is an entertaining hot and heavy high stakes Hollywood love story that’ll keep you turning the page! ”
—Jenny Gardiner, #1 Kindle Best Selling Author, Sleeping With Ward Cleaver
“Sharp, sexy prose and a fast-paced plot make Maggie Marr’s Can’t Buy Me Love a very entertaining and steamy read! Romance readers will love this book! ”
—Jane Porter, Best Selling Author, Flirting With Forty
“Readers will delight in Meg and Cole’s sexy, romantic and charming love story and will find themselves touched by the kind of passion and vulnerability it takes to bring these two ambitious people together for a lifetime.”
—Marilyn Brant Author, A Summer in Europe
Eligible Billionaires Boxed Set (Books 1-5)
Can’t Buy Me Love (Eligible Billionaires Book One)
“Is it always this hard?”
For Cole Jackson only one response answered Meg’s question: Yes. Every conquest was the outcome of a hard-fought battle, every win the results of a decimated other side, every challenge more difficult than the last. Otherwise, what was the point? With ease came softness and with softness a swift defeat.
Cole yanked at the knot of his cobalt blue tie, tired of the daylong stranglehold. On the far side of his office window, night sucked away the last light of day as the sweltering orange sun surrendered to the Pacific. The streaks of pink, orange, and fuchsia that decorated the sky failed to captivate Cole. He could witness such displays of color on any horizon, in any city, on any night—so why waste time with this sunset?
Cole reached for the crystal decanter stationed on the bar in his office. His pour was generous and neat. Amber liquid shimmered in the final rays of the sun. He sipped the bourbon. Heat slid down his throat, but the liquor didn’t scorch him nearly as much as the woman who, after a six-month absence, now stood in his office.
“There are cell phone towers up and down the entire California coastline and the one spot in Los Angeles where I can’t get a signal is your office?”
Meg Parson’s voice was brighter and lighter than the curves of her body would suggest. She shifted her weight and her hip teased forward against her suit skirt. The outline of bone against taut fabric taunted Cole with hints of lace panties. In a careless moment his gaze roamed over her legs, caressed her skirt, and brushed over the outline of her breasts.
Hunger for Meg clutched his belly and twisted hard. Cole turned toward the ocean and the unwatched sunset—away from Meg. Better to feign interest in the blossom of color on the horizon than to indulge his desires to stare at his colleague and former assistant.
“Hello? Hello?” Meg said into the phone.
In the window, Cole caught Meg’s reflection as she flipped her long sable-colored hair over her right shoulder. She tightened her jaw and closed her eyes.
His stomach clenched as Meg’s tongue caressed her pout of a mouth. Cole took another slug of his drink, hopeful that the liquid heat burning down his throat would distract him from his desires.
He set his jaw in opposition to his craving and pulled his gaze away from Meg’s indelible imprint on the glass. He didn’t need the reflection; her every sinew was seared into his mind but Meg was off-limits.
In the three years she’d worked for him, Meg made herself indispensable, and he had been fool enough to let her become a necessity. She knew everything about him—from the way he took his coffee down to his shoe size. She ran his business affairs seamlessly. He leaned on her. Depended on her. Cole even began to need her and needing anyone was intolerable. To need a person was to appear weak. Need allowed vulnerability to take root. Need was the end of strength. No, to need Meg was completely unacceptable.
“Yes, hi. This is Meg Parson. I have Cole Jackson for Stan Morton,” Meg said.
With the sound of his name on her lips he faced her. This was a business deal, nothing more.
“Of course I’ll hold.” Meg covered the mouthpiece and her blue eyes sparkled with the thrill of the deal. “Why didn’t we use your landline?”
Cole’s heart quickened as Meg’s excitement spilled over to him. Cole sipped his drink and watched Meg over the top of his glass. This time, her proximity, and not the bourbon, seared through him.
“They’re getting Stan,” Meg whispered, still covering the mouthpiece.
Stan Morton owned one of the two things Cole wanted most in the world: TBC Studios.
And the other thing?
Cole’s eyes traced the porcelain curve of Meg’s neck as she twirled a piece of hair between her thumb and pointer finger. Well, the other thing wasn’t for sale, nor was it negotiable. Office dalliances weren’t Cole’s style and neither was a long-term commitment. Meg was the type of woman who required he break both rules, and Cole preferred his relationships exactly as they’d been for the past decade: hot, fast, and disposable.
This deal was Meg’s baby, and once it was consummated Cole would have to promote Meg. If he waited any longer another company would swoop in and grab her. One of his competitors might already be trying.
“How will you celebrate?” Cole rarely asked Meg anything so personal. A dusty pink flush crept over Meg’s ivory-colored cheeks.
Protectiveness surged through Cole.
“I’m thinking Bali.” A smile started in Meg’s eyes and quickly encompassed her whole face as she thought about a luxurious and well-deserved beach vacation.
One Night for Love (Eligible Billionaires Book Two)
“I want it harder,” Prim said. A grunt came from behind her. “God, yes.” Warmth pulsed through her body and tingles shot from her spine and into her limbs. “Yes, deeper, deeper.” The warmth in her core puddled. Her muscles loosened. Her eyes closed. She soaked in the pleasure of a strong, hard touch. Stroked. Kneaded. Rubbed.
This was paradise.
“Lady got too much tension in her shoulder.” Layla’s hand, supple with oil, trailed along the fine vertebrae of Prim’s neck. “Muscles still knotted in here”—her deft fingers pulsed along Prim’s left shoulder—“even after six days of massage.”
Air whooshed from Prim’s lungs. She opened her eyes and stared at the terra-cotta-tile floor beneath the massage table. What could she say? Even with the sun, surf, and sand, she couldn’t forget her huge mess of an existence in California, which she would return to tomorrow.
“Lady’s lower back is still tight.”
Layla’s fingertips fanned out and Prim felt the tension in her back melt. Relaxation oozed through her.
“Lady needs to be with a man.”
Prim jerked her head from the circular cushion. “A what?”
“Head down.” Layla pressed on the back of Prim’s head. “A man. Lady needs to be with a man to release the tension in her body.”
Prim resettled her forehead and cheeks against the cushion. Her sex life, or lack thereof, wasn’t something she really wished to discuss with her masseuse. Of course, Layla’s hands had been all over Prim’s body for the last six days. The morning massage was a high point of Prim’s existence at Mesquale. She’d spent the past six days trying to relax, trying to forget about her career disappointment, and trying to prepare for the unwanted reality she was about to return to.
“Thought lady would find a friend by now,” Layla continued. “Every morning I walk up to house and think this is the morning pretty lady has no more tension here.” Layla’s thumb dug deep into the muscle of Prim’s left shoulder.
“Oooow,” Prim whined. Layla’s thumb hurt so good.
“Lady is pretty. She is young. She has beautiful body. Not married. No kids. She has private house, private beach at resort.” With each word, Layla rubbed her hands deeper into the muscles of Prim’s back. “She on holiday without man, but plenty of men at resort on holiday without a woman.”
Prim closed her eyes. Layla was beginning to sound more and more like Prim’s mum in London.
“So why, I ask, why has lady, while she here, not found friend to take care of all the tension in these muscles?” Layla pulled the heavy, heated towel up over Prim’s back and took her strong hands and stroked down Prim’s left leg.
“God, yes,” Prim whispered between her teeth.
“You not answer me.” Layla laughed. “Maybe lady not know answer.”
“Men are pigs,” Prim said. There were two Prim wanted to gut right now.
“You’re not having sex,” Layla said. “I feel it in your muscles. I see it in your joints. Too tight. No sex.”
Prim’s sexual frustration bubbled through her body and replaced the relaxation that Layla’s hands had provided.
“I just haven’t found anyone,” Prim said. “No one that I want to be with.”
“Don’t have to keep the man, just have to use the man. Don’t keep the pig for a pet, just use it for what you need.”
Prim smiled. She liked the way Layla thought.
Layla tickled Prim’s right toes. “Done.”
Prim sat up and pulled the sheet around her body.
“Lady leave tomorrow?” Layla asked. She wiped her hands on a towel.
Prim nodded. “Early. I return to work on Monday.”
“Maybe you get lucky tonight. With all the massage, your muscles are ready for a man. The heat will explode for you. Maybe you find one at Devils and Angels?”
Prim screwed up her face and shook her head no. “Not going.” She slid from the massage table. “Leaving early tomorrow morning, spending the night here.”
Layla’s smile slipped from her face. “Lady must go.” Her gray hair was twisted in long coils around her face. The skin around her eyes was etched with tiny wrinkles, but Prim could neither tell her heritage nor, for certain, her age. She seemed timeless. “Someone you must meet. I feel it in your body.”
Okay. A little too much voodoo with the massage. Prim reached for the envelope she’d prepared and handed it to Layla. “I can’t thank you enough for this week. You’ve made my body feel…” Prim pulled the sheet tighter around her torso. “Well, you’ve made my body feel better than it has in years.”
“Eighteen months,” Layla said. “It’s been almost eighteen months since you’ve been with a man.”
“How do you—?”
“You still not believe what my fingers feel? I can feel it all in your muscles, in your bones. We carry the body through life, and life … it infiltrates all of the body.” Layla said the words as if they were obvious facts. “You go tonight. You meet someone, take away the tension these hands can’t reach.” Layla hefted her bag of massage oils over her shoulder. “You go.”
“Not going,” Prim said again and followed Layla toward the door. “But thank you.”
“You are going,” Layla said, a smile plastered to her face. “The man who will take the tension from you will be there. You will find him tonight.”
Prim’s smile remained fixed to her face. Perhaps it was the language barrier. She’d had similar conversations with Layla over the course of the last six days, and instead of arguing or trying to explain, Prim had simply nodded and smiled. The last one was when Prim had emphatically denied that she would go snorkeling but then she … had?
Layla’s smile remained on her lips as she descended the front stairs. She raised her hand and waved over her shoulder. “Lady have fun time tonight. More fun than the last eighteen months.”
Prim closed the door behind Layla. She was not going to the party at the resort’s disco tonight. She’d already scheduled an early dinner and she had to pack. Her flight was leaving early for Los Angeles, and the car was scheduled to pick her up before sunrise. Prim walked to the open French doors. The surf pounded the shoreline. A breeze gently lifted her hair from her shoulders. Beautiful. Luxurious. Glorious. Relaxing.
The muscle in her left shoulder tightened. How was that happening? Layla had worked on Prim’s body ninety minutes a day for six days. How could there still be tension in any part of her? Her hand clasped her shoulder and she pressed her fingertips deep into the muscles. The tension was because of the two pigs in Los Angeles. One a seller and one a buyer. With one stroke of a pen, they’d both upended the carefully crafted life Prim had worked toward.
Ryan Murphy had ruined Prim’s future. He’d sold Metro Media to that old codger of a man, William Rhodes. Why would a seventy-year-old man who’d made his money in steel suddenly have an interest in a media company? If only Ryan had told Prim he was considering the sale. If he’d given her even a little time, she could have found a way to buy Metro herself. Since she’d arrived at Metro, her ultimate goal had been to run the company—perhaps even own it. After years and years of hard work and sacrifice, that goal was now lost to her.
Prim looked out at the sand of her private beach. She’d resigned when she discovered that Ryan intended to sell Metro Media. Eventually she’d forgiven him. His grief over Paloma had tainted his judgment. He’d not been rational. He’d come to Prim’s home and begged her to stay for three months as part of the transition team. She’d grudgingly agreed.
Prim closed her eyes. A breath of fresh air tinged with salt entered her lungs. She opened her eyes and exhaled. Twelve hours of paradise remained. Twelve hours without the sharp changes that would inhabit her life for the next three months. The sheet that wrapped around her body dropped to the ground and Prim stepped out onto the deck, now naked and free.
She’d needed this time to prepare herself. She’d needed to be alone to think and to process the inevitable changes she’d confront when she returned to work Monday. Prim stretched her arms up over her head and let the sun warm every inch of her skin. She hadn’t been naked on her beach the entire time she’d been at Mesquale. Not once. But today was the last day. Why not be wild? Why not be free? Why not go to the Devils and Angels party at the disco tonight? After six days of sun, surf, and sand, she deserved to be completely relaxed and totally free.
A Christmas Billionaire (Eligible Billionaires Book Three)
Once upon a time, Nick North had believed in love. He’d believed in Christmas. He might, if asked, have told you he even believed in happily ever after. But the Nick North who wanted to believe in a future that contained a wife and children and a happily-ever-after was gone. Killed by a dream that had died. His heart had frozen solid on a Christmas Eve night long ago.
People who knew Nick, with his tall, muscular body and his eyes the cold gray of a cloudy winter sky, might even be able to pinpoint the moment that carefree young man who had been unencumbered by heartbreak had died, though the people who knew the details wouldn’t have dared discuss such a topic in front of Nick. If anyone ever missed the old Nick, the warm and jovial man he’d been before that frozen Christmas Eve, before the night that turned his heart to ice, they never uttered the words of their distress in front of him.
Some people, those who didn’t know about Nick’s heartbreak, determined that his final semester of B-school had changed him. The work, his studies, his drive to succeed, his dogged determination to make billions of dollars and fulfill his family’s desires, killed the carefree Nick North. Nick became a hard-carved, heartless, cold-blooded capitalist. A man who saw only black and red, dollars and zeroes, profits and losses. A man who could quickly assess any business and whittle it down to its essence, squeeze out every penny, and just as easily toss the business aside, workers be damned. According to Nick North, there was no human side to business, there was nothing personal, there was simply business.
Other people knew the truth of what had happened that long-ago December night. Those people—Nick’s inner circle, his mother, his now-deceased father, his sister, a couple of B-school classmates—realized the sad details of what had happened to Nick and his heart on Christmas Eve. An event that had turned a warmhearted, loving young man on the cusp of a bright and brilliant future into a cold-hearted son of a bitch.
Nick avoided those who had known him before, those who understood his heartbreak, his change, his loss. Once his father passed, Nick purposely avoided his mother. His mother and his sister never spoke of Nick’s heartbreak. His B-school classmates who knew of his loss were scattered to the wind, tossed about on foreign corporate shores.
And the woman? The woman who shattered his heart and dashed his hopes for a happily-ever-after? She was gone, and Nick hoped to never see her again. To see her those emerald eyes and that amber hair would drop him to his knees. He’d loved beyond what he’d thought himself capable of, and she’d left him, abandoned him, turned her back on his love. Gone was his future and his plans. His heart had split wide, and the cold, frigid air of a Chicago Christmas had seeped into the still-beating inner chambers and frozen him from the inside out.
Nick North would never love again.
With a frozen heart he focused on business. The coldness, the calculations, the dollars, the pursuit of profit engaged his brain. The hard, cold world he created with his own bare hands. Building after building after building, added to the immense portfolio of North Industries. Nick stood atop North Tower, hands grasped to hips, the Chicago skyline lay before him a slain beast at his feet. North Tower was the newest skyscraper to decorate Chicago’s skyline. Taller than Willis Tower, prettier than Trump, and soon to be better known than Hancock. This floor was reserved for him and his life and his work. Wind blasted the building and created a tiny sway beneath his feet. A blast of arctic cold could cause any one of the skyscrapers that graced the Chicago skyline to sway six, seven, as much as ten inches at a time.
Let the cold wind blow.
Nick preferred the frigid to the warm. The ice to the puddle. The gray to the sun. Cold was Nick’s dominion.
The phone on his desk rang and he pressed the Bluetooth in his ear. “Is it done?”
The long pause and the sigh from Frederick indicated that the one thing Nick wanted accomplished was still unfinished.
“No, sir, it is not.”
His jaw muscle tensed. Were Frederick not his most brilliant and trusted advisor, and a man Nick had been lucky to have in his life since he began North Industries, the heat building in his chest would rage forth. His frozen heart had not tamped down the heated fury that could warm his belly in a second.
“Who the hell is this woman?”
“Sir, she’s an activist who came to visit her grandmother for the holidays. When she discovered your plan to demolish Winter Pines and replace it with the Shopping Extravaganza, she went into action. And that, sir, is when the proverbial shit hit the fan.”
“It’s been a week, Frederick. You should have assessed her weaknesses and her desires so that we might capitalize on those.”
Beyond the wall of windows thick gray clouds with bruised, purple bellies rolled in from the west. Sleet sliced from the sky toward Michigan Avenue, where the ants of humanity scurried below.
“Are you slipping, Frederick?”
He turned toward his desk, which was sleek and hard and made of steel. “Yes, slipping.” His fingers curled around the black leather back of his chair. “Or do you have a soft spot for these people? Perhaps this woman whom you’ve failed to properly assess?”
“No, sir,” Frederick said in his even, measured tone. So impudent that Nick could hear a smile in Frederick’s voice. “Not slipping, sir, merely trying to hold this deal together until Christmas.”
“Christmas?” He might pierce the leather back of his seat with his fingertips. “You’re treading water until Christmas? My timeline dictates that we break ground this week. My intentions are to have that entire geriatric home demo’d by Christmas Eve. I want a hole where Winter Pines is by Christmas Day. Have I not been clear, Frederick?”
Frederick was as smooth as ice and as old as a glacier. Few emotions ran through the man and that included fear, which was the primary reason he’d been in Nick’s employ for so long. Aside from Nick’s mother and sister, and of course the woman—the one woman whose name Nick refused to think or to say—every other person on the planet seemed to tremble in trepidation at Nick’s approach. He did not court the fear, he didn’t want the fear, nor did he need his employees and business associates to fear him, although it did help maintain the cold, frosty perimeter that surrounded him at all times. Distance, absence of warmth, created a safe distance from human contact, feelings and even the remote possibility of love.
“This woman has shut us down for nearly five days,” Nick said. “I convinced the mayor, the city council, and the zoning board of that little suburban outpost to approve this construction. We hired local architects. We commissioned environmental and economic reports. I even offered buyouts to the residents of Winter Pines and paid for their moves. All was on track until this woman. How are this woman and her grandmother still there? How is she keeping my demolition team from starting?”
“She has chained herself to the front door of the central building, sir. As of this morning. Yesterday it was a sit-in, but the local police threatened to move them. Today she’s returned with chains and padlocks.”
Nick closed his eyes. He tilted his head back, and a giant blast of air exited his lips. What kind of woman chained herself between a glass door and a wrecking ball? A twinge tightened his right shoulder. He’d known such a woman, what seemed like a lifetime ago.
“I’ll be there within the hour.”
“Excellent, sir,” Frederick said.
Again Nick heard the smile in Frederick’s voice. What in the hell? Why was Frederick so excited to see Nick on-site when it was so obvious he was completely pissed off?
“I think your coming to Lake Grove and seeing what is taking place at Winter Pines is an excellent idea.”
“You understand I’m not happy about this, don’t you, Frederick?”
“Yes, sir. Looking forward to your arrival.” Frederick hung up.
Odd. Frederick hung up … Nick always hung up first when he finished a call with Frederick. It wasn’t that Frederick was any less responsive than he’d always been, but there was something in Frederick’s voice. Something unfamiliar, something unusual, something—
A chill slid down Nick’s spine and goose bumps prickled across his skin. This wasn’t right. He strode through his office and out the door. He’d be in Lake Grove soon, and he’d fix this damned mess himself.
Last Call for Love (Eligible Billionaires Book Four)
“It’s so tight.” Ryan couldn’t stop now. He needed this. He had to get what he wanted.
“Harder.” Charla bit her bottom lip. “Can you do it harder?”
Ryan grunted. His breathing shortened. He placed Charla’s hands around the base. He sucked in air. “Come on, baby. Come on, for me …”
The pressure built, and with one more hard squeeze, the lid for the giant jalapeno jar slid loose.
“We got it.” Charla grinned.
Ryan’s heart pulled a bit with her happiness. He’d worked with Charla now for just over two weeks. She had a great smile. Joy took over her entire face and danced into her blue eyes. The splashes of freckles across the bridge of her nose seemed to laugh when she was happy. Charla pulled a strand of blonde hair behind her ear.
He wiggled his eyebrows and set the jar on the bar. “Finally. Took both of us. Maybe I need to hit the gym more often.”
“Right, Mr. Muscleman, like I don’t see you running on the beach every darn day.”
Ryan grabbed a rag from the hook beside the sink and scrubbed the bar top. Running reduced the mental pain and chased away the memories.
Charla turned back to the cutting board, where she prepped fruit and other garnishes for the multitude of drinks they would serve to Mesquale guests today.
A gentle breeze swept off the bright blue Pacific and across the sand. Mesquale was paradise. A warm, lush, tropical paradise. Ryan slid his gaze along the beach and the still-empty cabanas. People came to Mesquale to escape. He certainly had.
Rain. Slick pavement. Lights. Blood. He shook his head.
“All good.” He walked to the end of the bar and flipped on the banana leaf fans that hung low from the thatched roof. The fans slowly turned. According to every bartender at Mesquale, The Banana Boat Bar was the best bar to work. The loudest, hippest spot at Mesquale. Ryan had gotten the shift by covering for his roommate Trevor.
The Banana Boat began service at ten a.m. with Bloody Marys and piña coladas and Mai Tais. They served all the way to two a.m. Mesquale never slept. The resort rocked 24/7/365.
Ryan tossed the washcloth into a laundry bag under the bar. Towels and washcloths were used once. Mesquale was the epitome of cleanliness. And while The Banana Boat Bar was meant to seem easy-peasy casual, this beach bar was still located within a five-star luxury resort where the elite of the world came to play. Luxury was one of the main reasons Ryan had chosen Mesquale.
“Ryan, may I see you please?” Antoine Antigua, the general manager of Mesquale, stood just inside the door of the bar. With steel-grey hair, tanned skin, sharp blue eyes, and a well-tailored handmade suit, Mr. Antigua exuded professionalism. Only perfection was tolerated at Mesquale. “Half an hour.”
Mr. Antigua turned on the heels of his perfectly polished shoes and walked away from the bar.
“Wow. What’d you do?” Charla mumbled. “Didn’t think you’d been at Mesquale long enough to get on Antigua’s radar.”
“Why? Should I be worried?”
Charla raised her shoulder, and the knife she held slid through the rind of a plump lime. “I mean, maybe not worried. Antigua is demanding, but fair. He’s definitely one of us.” Charla’s gaze trailed across the open-air bar and toward a couple that walked along the beach. Diamonds dripped from the woman’s ears, wrists, and fingers. She carried what Ryan had learned was a ten-thousand-dollar handbag. “Not one of them.”
Ryan moved closer to Charla. She smelled like citrus and honey and the ocean. Her hair was still damp from the early morning waves he’d seen her riding before work. “What do you mean one of them?”
Charla put the freshly cut limes in a jar on the bar. “You know.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Like us. Good. Kind people who have to work for a living.” Her brows tightened over her pug nose. Ryan followed her gaze toward the long and lean botoxed woman, who settled onto a beach chair.
“People who understand what it’s like to struggle, to feel. People who aren’t handed everything on a silver platter.” She picked up a silver tray and placed two glasses of lemon water and four napkins onto it. “You know, like I’m doing now.” She smiled and wiggled her eyebrows, and broke the tense mood that came with her words.
“Doesn’t everybody work?” He handed her a bowl of fresh strawberries. “Even rich people?”
“Hah! You are new to Mesquale. No, not everyone works. Especially not people like her. They’re completely different than us. Believe me, I know firsthand how different those people are. I’m pretty certain just by looking at both of them they’re total trust-funders with a couple million in the bank.” Charla’s gaze landed on Ryan. “I can spot them. Plus they’re thick as thieves at Mesquale.” She lifted the tray. “That’s why us proletariat toilet-scrubbers got to stick together.” She held out her hand in a fist, and Ryan bumped his fist to hers.
Charla turned and sauntered toward the couple, now lounging on their chaise in the increasing warmth. She wore the short sarong and strapless top that was the uniform for all the female bartenders and servers who worked the outdoor cafes and bars at Mesquale.
Ryan tapped the pedometer on his wrist and checked the time. Just enough to finish setup and get to Antigua’s office. Better to be a bit early than late.
A few minutes later Charla set the tray on the end of the bar. “They’re good right now. Reading, sunning, and snoozing in the lap of luxury.” She returned to cutting the fruit needed for morning drinks. “So what’s your story?”
“Me?” Ryan pressed his hand to his chest.
“Well, aside from the duo in the sun, it’s only us for probably another fifteen minutes or so. There was a late-night party in the disco last night. I’m guessing we won’t see many guests until after eleven.”
“Right, the Angels and Devils party.”
“Did you work it? Management relies more on staff veterans for that sort of event.”
“No, no, no.” Ryan shook his head. “Didn’t work it.” He needed to be more careful about what he said and how he said it.
“Are you American?” Charla asked. “Your accent kind of gives it away.”
“As does yours,” he said, and deflected the conversation back to Charla. “What part? I’m guessing maybe …” Ryan tapped his fingertip against his lips. She was very good-looking, with that southern California sort of blonde hair and surfer look, but Charla seemed a bit too down-to-earth for a SoCal girl, plus she was always on time for her shifts and sometimes ridiculously early. “The Midwest? Indiana? Illinois?”
Charla’s gaze jolted away from the pineapple she was cutting. “How did you know that?”
“Good guess,” Ryan said. “I’ve spent a lot of time all around the U.S., and you strike me as a Midwestern-type girl. Although I’m guessing that most people say San Diego.”
“Bingo.” Charla smiled and nodded. “Central Illinois but got to Mesquale by way of San Diego. You’re good at this.” That lovely smile again.
A tingle flashed through him, a tiny jolt he’d not felt in close to eighteen months. How strange. There were hundreds of beautiful women at Mesquale at any given time, and yet he’d not felt any kind of attraction to a woman since—
“Now it’s your turn. Where in America are you from?”
“You’ll have to hold that thought.” Ryan backed out from behind the bar, thankful Antigua had requested a meeting. “I don’t want to be late for Mr. Antigua.”
“No, you definitely don’t want to be late for a meeting like that.”
Running from Love (Eligible Billionaires Book Five)
“Push, baby, push.” Poppy’s voice was breathy. Her muscles tightened. “Harder, right here. Yes, yes.”
“Is that good?” A drop of sweat rolled down the side of Trevor’s face. “Baby, is that good?”
“You got it, yeah, Trevor, you’ve got it. Just a little bit harder.”
With one final push, Trevor shoved the last box into the storage unit. He yanked down the heavy metal door and slipped the padlock through the metal hasp. “Wow, Pop, you’ve got a lot of stuff. I did not get half of that storage unit.”
A wicked smile danced across Poppy’s face. “No, but you get to share it with me.” She hooked her arm through his.His heart thwapped against his ribs. She killed him. He’d die for Poppy. He’d definitely give up an entire storage unit for her. Of course, if he told Poppy of his undying love, she’d run as fast and as far as she could and leave no forwarding address. No, the best approach to Poppy was slow and smooth. Love made her skittish. He’d been working on her for going on six months. Ever since he arrived at Mesquale. Poppy was as fearful of commitment as Trevor was of living a life predetermined by his family.
“What’re you complaining about? You have plenty of room. Besides, you’ve got less stuff than me,” Poppy teased.
Trevor opened his fist. The key lay in the palm of his hand. “Who keeps it?”
“Well,” Poppy said and held out her hand. “I suppose I’ll be first one back to Mesquale, so me.”
Trevor held his hand up high and out of Poppy’s reach. “You won’t lose the key then, Pop, on your random travels around the globe?”
“Of course not.” She reached up toward his hand and her body pressed to his. Her curly black hair, almond-shaped brown eyes, her golden-tinted light brown skin. Tiny shirt, little skirt, the press of her breast, the scent of her skin, that mouth. How could he let Poppy leave? “Now give it.” Poppy smiled and reached higher.
Tyler brought his hand down and wrapped both arms around Poppy. Forget the key. Forget the lock. Forget the storage container. All he needed, all he wanted was right here in front of him and she was leaving. Tomorrow. She was leaving him and them, and quite possibly he’d never see Poppy after tonight. Unless he could convince her. Take away her fear. Make her understand that the two of them together were much more powerful than any fears she had about giving her heart to him.
He pressed his lips to hers and his whole body ignited with a passion that never quelled. He pulled her closer, his sex hard and impatient. She rolled her hips forward and pressed to him. His hands grasped her jaw. She had a beautiful jaw that cut sharp to her swanlike neck. Her body was pure perfection. He kissed her and his tongue slid her lips open. The want. The insatiable desire that throbbed through him. He backed her against the cinder-block wall and his hand slid down her neck and cupped her beast. How would he live without this … without seeing Poppy every day? Poppy was a need. An addiction. Her kiss, her body … they were drugs that he needed to survive.
She was his lover and his muse. The words Trevor wrote flowed fast and free when she was with him. His heart sang a different tune. Her sarcasm, which hid her soft gentle heart, was a language that he understood. She was the yin to his yang, the peanut butter to his jelly, the effervescent song that sang through his heart. She couldn’t leave and go to Hong Kong. She couldn’t leave without him.
He pulled back and looked into her eyes. He brushed his thumb over her cheekbone. “Don’t go.” His voice rasped out over his desire, over his need, over his want. In her eyes, Trevor saw the softness of love and then the slice of fear that chased the openness away.
“Hey, don’t do that.” His eyebrows pulled tight. “This is me. Wait for me. We’ll go to Hong Kong together. Or wherever the hell you want to go. Just don’t leave tomorrow. Stay with me until my contract is up. It’s only three more days.”
Poppy tilted her chin and dropped her gaze. “Trevor, we made an agreement. Six months.” She wouldn’t look at him. He pressed his hand to her chin and forced her to look into his eyes.
“Forget the agreement, Poppy. I love you and you love me.”
She turned her head away from him. The muscle in her jaw flickered, and she swallowed. He pressed his lips to the side of that beautiful throat. His hand slipped down the front of her body and up under her skirt.
“Don’t tell me you don’t love me too.” He slipped his fingers beneath her panties.
A gasp of air passed over her lips.
“Because your body doesn’t lie.” He slid the tip of his finger over her sex to the nub already swollen with desire. Her body responded and her hips pressed forward. He pulsed one finger into her sex. His lips stroked down her neck. He could get her to say yes. He could convince her to stay. He could make her promise to wait three days and let him go with her to Hong Kong.
“Oh, Trevor.” Her voice, that soft luxurious voice, like velvet over his skin, killed him. He slid down the front of her and tugged her panties over her hips and past her knees. Here, in this hallway, he pressed his lips to her sex. So wet, so ready for him. Pleasure. He would give her so much pleasure that she had no choice but to surrender. To admit her love, to admit she needed him as much as he needed her. He parted the lips of her sex and slid his tongue along her cleft. Her breath came from her chest in tight bursts. Her fingers wove through his hair and pulled.
“Oh my God, Trevor. Oh my God.” Her hips moved forward and back. He clamped one hand to her hip and held her still. He pulled her clit into his mouth. His tongue took in the sweetness of her want and her desire. He circled with his tongue and sucked. Her movements caused his desire to ratchet into a frenzy.
“Trevor, baby, oh my God, Trev, I’m going to come.”
Tiny noises escaped her throat and he pressed forward and slid two fingers in and out of her as he sucked.
“Oh … yes … yes.” Her body tensed and tightened. Her sex clamped around his fingers. His tongue stroked her over the edge and her body throbbed with pleasure. She trembled and gasped and fell forward, both her hands on his shoulders. He stood before her and pressed his mouth to hers. The taste of her sex on his lips. The smell of Poppy surrounding him, the essence of this woman he loved pervading his every pore, his every need, his every desire. He pulled away from her and looked into her eyes.
“Please, Poppy,” he said. “Say that you’re mine.”
Eligible Billionaires Boxed Set (Books 6-9)
A Forever Love (Eligible Billionaires Book Six)
Justin Travati didn’t have a son. In his twenties he’d been as diligent about preventing accidental reproduction as he was with takeovers and acquisitions, and he was damned good about due diligence in deals. Now, years later, children weren’t an option.
Or so he’d thought.
His hard stare pulled away from the Manhattan skyline outside his office window and flicked toward his computer screen. His eyes traveled the words strung together in the e-mail. Impossible. The correspondence had to be a prank, a hoax, a way to extort money from him for whatever ill-conceived plan this person named Max had.
Max. Justin’s father had been named Max. His child? Named Max?
Impossible. Utterly incomprehensible. He pushed the button on his speakerphone. “Liza, get me Roger in security. Tell him I need him now.” Without listening for his assistant’s response, he clicked the Off button. Again, for the fourth time, he read the words sent from someone claiming to be his son with the name Maxwell Hayes. He clicked on the address. MHayes@RockwaterFarms.net.
What the hell was Rockwater Farms? With swift finger strokes across the keyboard, Justin searched. His eyes ate up the results. A picture of rolling hills, an enormous red barn, wheat, livestock, and a restaurant … the best restaurant between Chicago and San Francisco. Which wasn’t saying much. The middle of the country was a wasteland of repressed, unimaginative people. But this place …
He scrolled. Then clicked on the Team button. The chef, Nina Hayes; her father, the founder of Rockwater Farm; and the CEO … A. Hayes.
His heart jackknifed. A roar filled his ears.
Fire-red hair, a halo of untamed curls framing her fair-skinned face and bright green eyes, high-cut cheekbones, and a mouth with lips … those lips.
He remembered those lips.
He remembered that mouth.
He remembered that hair gliding through his fingers.
One night. How old had the boy in the e-mail said he was? He clicked back to the correspondence. Counted the years in his mind … clicked back to the picture of Aubrey. Older now, but no less beautiful. He guessed no less feisty and no less self-righteous than she’d been fifteen years before. A sigh crossed his lips.
The impossible was possible, and in his soul he knew …
Justin pressed the button on his speakerphone. “Liza, book me dinner at The Red Barn at Rockwater Farms. Once we have a date then clear my schedule and call the pilots.” His gaze remained locked on Aubrey’s eyes. It would seem there was something interesting in Kansas after all.
A Billionaire for Christmas (Eligible Billionaires Book Seven)
Justin’s arrogance shocked Anthony. Yes, as children all four Travati brothers had blindly followed their oldest brother’s lead, but now they were grown men. That Justin would shove some woman and her son at them, expecting them to accept Max as a true Travati heir without easily acquired proof, was nearly more than Anthony could tolerate.
“Stop here,” Anthony said.
His driver pulled to the curb.
“Two hours.” Anthony opened the door and slid from the back of the car. The air smelled of dirt. An ugliness claimed the street of his childhood.
Why did he come here? Because the choice as to whether to revisit his past each week had been taken from him. His best friend Vinnie was dead, Shelly was gone, and he’d made a promise to Vinnie. Shelly and Vinnie’s grandmother lived here. The elderly woman refused to move. The homes that had once housed working-class families, including Anthony’s own family, were nearly all in disrepair. Long ago this street had hosted stick ball games and block parties. Sprinklers watered each yard in the summer and mothers passed out red cherry-flavored popsicles that dripped down your chin on long hot July and August days.
He walked over the chipped and broken sidewalk, through the chain link gate and up the steps. Mrs. Bello’s yard was well kept. No weeds. Flowers bloomed in the beds. The white house with green trim was spotless, thanks to the handymen Anthony sent each month. His hand clasped the rail on the front steps and it wiggled the tiniest bit. Not good. Mrs. Bello was still steady on her feet, but a fall down the stairs could break her hip. He’d send a handyman tomorrow. Anthony wouldn’t have Vinnie and Shelly’s grandmother falling down the stairs.
The door opened before he rang the bell. The sweet scent of something baking and the rich earthy scent of coffee filled his nose.
“Anthony!” A smile claimed Mrs. Bello’s face. “I didn’t expect you today. Come in. I just finished baking a tea cake.”
The tiny house was warm. He listened for the sound of air-conditioning, but there was no whir. Was she cold or did she not want to spend the money? He turned. She wore a sweater in the middle of July. Money wasn’t the issue, then.
“Sit, Anthony, sit.”
He did as he was told. A few moments later she carried a tray with two china plates and cups out to him. He held himself back. His natural instinct was to jump up and take the tray from her, but she wouldn’t let him. He’d tried many times before today. She still didn’t know who paid her gardener and her maintenance man and the nice people who came four times a week to check on her and do the shopping and cleaning. His response to her questions was that those must be programs having to do with her pension. Little did she know, he was the program.
“Thank you, Mrs. Bello.” He took a sip of coffee and she settled into the chair beside him.
This room whirled with as many childhood memories as the street. Memories that bled into his teenage years. He and Shelly and her older brother, Anthony’s best friend Vincent. Memories of first grand moments and first times swirled through his mind whenever he visited Mrs. Bello. Until the memories ended. He’d graduated business school, Vinnie had died, and Shelly had left.
The wound still ached.
“How is your week, Anthony?” Her smile was soft but her eyes held worry. Of course, she watched the news and knew the troubles the Travati brothers faced. Even now, the events of the world played silently across the muted flatscreen TV.
“It’s been a long week, but everything will be okay.” He reached out and grasped her hand. The skin was faded and marked with age spots. She worried about him and his brothers, as she had worried about Vincent until his death. Mrs. Bello still worried about Shelly. He was the only Travati who came to the neighborhood on a weekly basis.
“How was your eye appointment?” All her doctors’ visits were logged into his personal calendar. He not only asked Mrs. Bello, but he also followed up with the doctors.
“My eyesight isn’t getting any better, but it isn’t getting any worse either.” She lifted her cup of coffee and took a long sip. She watched him over the rim of her coffee cup. She was stiff, as though there was something on her mind.
He took a bite of her cake. “Oh my, this is good.”
A giant smile spread over her face. She relaxed into her chair and clasped her hands in satisfaction. “I’ve wrapped up the rest for you to take home. Maybe share it with your brothers? I see Justin on the television”—her eyebrows tightened—“and he looks too thin.”
Ha! Anthony wouldn’t be sharing anything with any of his brothers, especially Justin, any time soon. After that dinner with Max and Max’s mother, he couldn’t imagine Justin wanting to break bread with him for quite a while. The earful he’d received from Leo had been enough for Anthony to want to escape the Travati offices today.
Sure, Leo and Devon also wanted Max to get a paternity test. But then they had the arrogance to throw out words like “loyalty” and “respect” and “family” when Anthony had done nothing except openly voice what the three of them had agreed needed to happen. He wanted proof of Max’s paternity. That wasn’t too much to ask, especially when dealing with a billion-dollar business.
“Have you heard from your sister lately?” Mrs. Bello’s sister, her last living relative aside from her granddaughter Shelly, was a retired nun living in San Francisco.
“Yesterday.” Another smile spread over Mrs. Bello’s face, causing her eyes to brighten with excitement. “Said to expect a surprise.”
Anthony tugged at his tie. “Surprises are nice.”
Mrs. Bello nodded. “Around Christmas. I know that seems forever from now, but Christmas will be here soon.”
Anthony forced his face to remain neutral. Christmas was five months away, but maybe the days flew by for Mrs. Bello. “We’ll all be together again this year for Christmas, yes?” He sipped his coffee. The smell reminded him of his parents. His mother had drunk coffee every hour of the day.
“I’d love that. With the tree and the mass! And the Teddy Bear Luncheon you do for the children.” She clasped her hands together and leaned forward. “I loved every moment of seeing them so happy.” She took a long deep breath. “If only I’d had my Shelly, too, the day would have been perfect.”
Anthony swallowed. Yes, with the Shelly that he’d loved when he was a teenager and in college, the day would have been perfect, but not Shelly as she was now. Not the woman he’d seen in Texas and tried to convince to go to rehab. No. Anthony shook his head. He shut out thoughts of the current Shelly, as well as the promise he’d made to Vincent before he shipped out.
Anthony had tried. Dammit, he’d tried. Five years ago he’d tracked Shelly down in some hellhole roadhouse in Texas, but couldn’t convince her to come home. Her eyes had held a scared wildness—her skin parchment thin, her formerly lush blonde hair limp and dirty. Ever since the last time he’d seen her, Anthony had expected a horrible call about Shelly’s demise.
“Have you heard from Shelly?” Anthony asked. His voice remained steady even while his heart beat faster.
“I did.” Again a small smile and a nod. “Not too long ago.”
His eyebrow arched. “Is she still in Texas?”
“Really? Where your sister is?”
Mrs. Bello nodded. “Oh Anthony, I can’t keep a secret.” She leaned forward and pressed her hand to Anthony’s knee. “That’s the surprise! My Shelly is coming home this year for Christmas.”
Anthony’s fingertips tingled and his eyebrows pulled tight. “That is a surprise.” He couldn’t tell Mrs. Bello that he doubted Shelly would return for the holidays. Shelly had told her grandmother countless times that she’d come home for a visit and then had failed to return. Nevertheless, hope and happiness filled Mrs. Bello’s face. Anthony nodded. “That will make for an extra-special Christmas.”
“Yes,” Mrs. Bello said. “Yes, it will.”
Anthony lifted the china cup with tiny pink roses painted along the rim and took a slow sip of the now bitter drink. He would spend the next five months managing Mrs. Bello’s expectations, slowly, gently, getting her used to the idea that Shelly wouldn’t return for the holidays. He glanced at Mrs. Bello’s happy face, filled with hope and excitement because she believed that her beloved granddaughter Shelly was coming home.
Shelly wouldn’t be here for Christmas. Anthony knew it. He would do all that he could to make up for Mrs. Bello’s inevitable disappointment. And he would make this upcoming Christmas extra-special for Mrs. Bello. He had five months to plan. Because if Shelly Bello actually came home to New York for Christmas that would indeed be a surprise for all of them.
A Convenient Arrangement (Eligible Billionaires Book Eight)
“Do you think Leo will ever get married?” Gwen twirled toward Nina, her best friend’s sister, who stood at the kitchen island.
“Leo?” Nina lifted her knife from the pile of chopped chives on the cutting board and pointed it toward Gwen and Aubrey. “He’s the only Travati brother I don’t think will ever get married.”
Aubrey sighed and rubbed her rounded baby belly. “I have to agree. Even Devon, once they get that entire legal mess sorted out, will settle down someday. But Leo’s a confirmed bachelor.” She walked toward the kitchen cabinets and reached up to pull out more serving trays they expected at least forty people at the party tonight. Gwen rushed over to help. Aubrey still had three months until she was due, but she didn’t need to be lifting and reaching, not with so many people here to help with party preparation.
“Leo asked me to plan the launch party for the new app.” Gwen set three silver trays on the counter.
“Ha! The new app?” Nina rolled her eyes toward the ceiling. “You mean his Convenient Arrangement app? Might as well be called the booty-call app, or the one-night-stand app.”
“I don’t know.” Gwen placed the trays side by side on the kitchen island for Nina.
“Maybe a one-night stand could be…beneficial? I’ve never had one, but—”
“Well, I did, and I ended up with Max,” Aubrey said.
“I’ve had plenty,” Nina added.
Aubrey tilted her head and shot her sister a questioning look.
“What? I was in Paris in culinary school, I was super young and single. What else was there to do but cook, eat, smoke, and have sex?”
Gwen smiled. She loved how direct Nina was about her life and her feelings.
“I get how a one-night stand can be fun.” Nina scraped the chives into a ramekin. “I just don’t believe women go into one-night stands with the same expectations. Sex means something different to women.”
“Not all women.”
Air blasted from Gwen’s lungs. Leo stood in the doorway with his arms crossed over his chest and a silky smile on his face. He might be a lothario, but he was a gorgeous lothario. Black hair, walnut-brown eyes with flecks of amber, and those lips… Damn, those plush, thick lips would feel so… She tore her eyes away from Leo. No use thinking of him in that way. They could only be friends. Leo’s sister-in-law, Aubrey, was Gwen’s best friend, and Gwen knew from spending time with the Travati family that she and Leo had very different ideas about what an ideal future looked like.
“I know a lot of women, especially businesswomen and executives, who don’t want the complications of a relationship.” Leo walked to the counter, grabbed one of Nina’s ahi tuna crisps, and popped the appetizer into his mouth.
He was sexy even when he chewed.
“That explains the models, heiresses, and actresses we see you on TMZ with,” Nina said, setting the crisps onto a silver tray.
Leo smiled and little shocks danced over Gwen’s skin. She licked her lip and studied the appetizers. Leo was not a man to date, or become involved with, or to—her gaze slid toward his. He lifted one eyebrow and smiled.
Heat shot through every cell of Gwen’s body. But she could flirt, couldn’t she? They always flirted. In that friendly sort of you’re-a-friend-of-the-family-I-would-never-take-this-anywhere way.
“What about you, Gwen? You’re a business owner, very busy with your event planning, no time for a relationship. Wouldn’t you like an app where you could meet someone who wants a similar type of arrangement? A person that you could go to events with and have dinner with and maybe even”—Leo shrugged, raised his eyebrows, and shot her a wicked smile that made her toes curl and her girl parts tingle—“who knows? Take care of some of those,” his voice lowered, “more personal needs.”
“My God!” Nina said, an incredulous smile launching over her face. “Are you kidding? Is that working for you? That pitch? I mean granted, Leo, you’ve got the smooth looks thing going for you and the billionaire bit, but that, that’s your pitch to the ladies?” She shook her head and again rolled her gaze upward.
“I don’t know,” Gwen said, “I can see how it might work for him.” She shot Leo a smile. He nodded his thanks, an answering smile spreading over his face.
“I’m telling you,” he continued. “We’re billionaires now, but after this app launches, you might as well drop the ‘b’ and put a ‘t’ and an ‘r’ in front of that word.” Leo winked at Gwen. He turned and exited the kitchen.
“Sounds a little—”
“Incorrigible,” Aubrey laughed. “I’ve married into a family of incorrigible and gorgeous men.”
“Gorgeous, definitely.” Nina grabbed an oven mitt. “The funny helps with the whole god’s-gift thing, though, when it comes to the Travatis. If they didn’t have that sense of humor, then I couldn’t stand any of them. That’d be pretty damn tough, seeing as you’re married to one.” Nina opened the oven and slid a tray of crab puffs onto the rack. “Gwen, you wouldn’t use that app, would you?”
Gwen shook her head. “Probably not. I’d get my heart broken every which way. I’m holding out for real love—the kind with a proposal and a ring and a wedding and then the kids. Call me old-fashioned, but that’s what I want.” She picked up a tray of finished appetizers and walked to the kitchen table.
“Not old-fashioned,” Aubrey said. “I wanted that too.” She rubbed her pregnant belly. “Had to have a child nearly grown and a marriage fifteen years later, but I got what I wanted.” She smiled. “Worth the wait.”
“I guess casual works for Leo,” Gwen sighed. “He gets what he wants and has a new woman on his arm every six weeks.”
“I think the type of woman that Leo dates does want what he wants, a convenient arrangement,” Nina said. She washed her hands in the sink. “I’ll be interested to see how many other women in the world think that will work for them.”
Aubrey lifted a stack of linen napkins and walked to the table. “And to be fair, Leo is honest with them. They totally know what’s up going in.” She pressed her hand to the side of her belly. “Oooo.”
Aubrey smiled and grasped Gwen’s hand. “Feel that.” She pressed Gwen’s fingertips to her round belly. “Must be from the hot chocolate I drank.”
A thud vibrated against Gwen’s palm. Her chest warmed and a smile broke over her face. “Amazing.”
“It is,” Aubrey said. “I can’t wait to meet the baby.”
“Who can?” Gwen added.
“You still refusing to find out the sex, sister dear?” Nina wiped her hands on a dish towel that hung from her chef’s pants.
“We’re going old school. Justin and I want to be surprised.”
“Damned inconvenient for the baby-gift-buying crowd,” Nina mumbled.
“You don’t have to wait much longer.”
“Just twelve more weeks,” Gwen added.
“Then it’ll be time to get that bun out of the oven.” The timer sounded on the stove and Nina pulled open the oven door. “But these are done now.”
Gwen laughed at the timing. Her life was brilliant and filled with nearly everything she wanted. Loneliness still pinched her insides, but she had good friends and a growing business and who knew, someday, maybe someday soon, she’d have everything she ever desired.
A Forbidden Love (Eligible Billionaires Book Nine)
How long did it take to rebuild a life? How many hours of service before Devon’s soul healed? Before he forgave himself for the damage he’d done? A year? That date loomed on the calendar and he still ached with regret. A decade? A lifetime? And why had the guilt hit him when it did? On the streets of Rio, just three months after the trial. He’d walked out of his hotel and seen a girl, too young, barely an adolescent, standing on the street corner in heels and garish makeup. Her skirt too tight, her shirt barely covering her breasts. She’d been waiting…waiting to earn money.
That one moment, that one visual, had ended him.
His hands slid through the cold Pacific and the surfboard pressed hard against his chest. After months of threats from the Russian mob against him and his family, and even attempts at violence, he’d left New York. He’d hoped leaving would pull the heat from his family. If they wanted him, let them come after him, far away from the rest of the Travati family.
That day in Rio. He’d been headed out to find coffee and breakfast, but seeing that girl ended the path he’d been on. The path he’d thought to continue down for a lifetime once the events in New York “cooled off” post-trial. The look in that girl’s eyes… She should’ve been snapchatting with her girlfriends, not turning tricks. That instant had flipped him from the self-absorbed playboy he had been to…well, he wasn’t sure what exactly. Now life was unfamiliar, unanticipated, and new. Devon scanned the distance, then paddled his board around to face toward the shore. His wet suit the only thing keeping him from turning blue. He sat up and nodded a greeting toward his neighbor Jax, another frequent morning surfer, who sat astride his board a short distance away.
Surfing as the sun rose was Devon’s meditation. The water, the waves, the board were now the constants in Devon’s life that kept him sane. He shook the memory of the girl in Rio from his head. His testimony had been about different women, in a different city, but the same type of commerce. Devon hadn’t known, not for certain, what Sergey had been doing in the nightclubs Devon and his brothers owned…but he should have.
Devon stared out across the vast, infinite-seeming ocean looming large toward the far horizon. Endless. The dishwater-colored waves reflected the May gray that took hold of Venice. No blue sky this morning. Just gray and cold. The water rolled. Devon’s turn for a catch. He tensed and started to paddle. Even after months of practice, he still sucked on a board, but he was trying. Every damn day he tried. The water surged and he paddled, willing his body and his mind to relax, to simply ride. The water swept under him with a cataclysmic, surreal force. Suddenly, like magic, the ocean was alive, pulling him and his board. He positioned his feet on the board and stood. His thigh muscles braced, his arms out to steady himself, his toes digging hard into the board.
Adrenaline surged through his body. The water rushed by and wind breezed over his face. No matter how stupid or awkward or bad his stance was, this moment of pure adrenaline-charged freedom was worth it. Thirty seconds of pure freedom. Maybe the only thirty seconds of freedom Devon experienced each day.
Clarity. His mind here. Now. Silent. The wind. The smell of the sea. The power. The magic. The pounding of his own heart. Freedom surged through his veins. Powerful and strong, until he slipped.
He always slipped.
His balance lost, Devon slammed into the drink. The magical force he’d ridden, but never tamed, whipped him into a barrel roll. The waves surged past him. He was a rat in a washing machine. Bouncing and clawing and praying for daylight and air. The wave finally passed, and bubbles flowing toward the surface pointed Devon upward. He kicked and broke through to oxygen. He sucked air into his lungs. Devon’s board floated on the water beside him. He grabbed onto it and swam in until his feet touched bottom. He stood, lifted the board from the water, and walked onto shore. He turned back toward the sea. In the distance, in the west, a sliver of blue cut through the gray.
There were problems in this world. Injustices. Pain. Unfairness. He’d been insulated from the pain in the world but Sergey’s trial had interrupted his luxurious lifestyle. Now he was no longer immune and shielded by a tower built of money and gold. He would never again not see. He had time, he had billions of dollars, and he had a burning desire to make changes in the world. To make changes within himself.
He peeled his wet suit from the top half of his body and let it drop at his waist. Droplets of water flew through the air as he shook his head. Bikes streamed by on the cement ribbon that wound along the beach from Malibu south to Marina Del Rey. Every morning as Devon exited the drink, runners and bicyclists already littered the path, getting their blood pumping as they started their day.
Wedge, a homeless guy missing one top tooth in front and a bottom tooth on the side, held down his usual corner of the sand. His bike leaned against a palm tree, and the basket on wheels that he used to haul his stuff during the day was emptied of his tent and blankets.
“Morning, Wedge.” It’d taken three months of daily greetings before Wedge had spoken back to him. Then another three months for Devon to get Wedge’s name.
A gap-toothed smile spread over Wedge’s face. “Saw you bite it. Came up from the drink sucking air.”
“Madre was a little mean this morning.”
Wedge tilted his head toward the sky, his eyes raking across the clouds. “Madre likes to shine blue. Suppose them clouds have her irritable just like they do the rest of us.”
Devon nodded. Four days of clouds sounded normal to him, a New York transplant, but then again, so did rain. Los Angelenos didn’t do weather. They didn’t have to. So when Mother Nature failed to grace them with perfect blue-sky, seventy-degree days, they tended to get cranky. And according to Wedge, that crankiness extended to Mother Ocean.
“You got lunch today?” Devon asked. He unzipped the tiny pocket in his wet suit and slid two fingers in to pinch the folded ten-dollar bill stashed there. But he wouldn’t offer it up until Wedge responded.
“Yeah man, the shelter’s having a big do today for us veterans. I’m good.”
Wedge nodded. “You starting your new gig today?”
Devon cocked his head to the side. He wasn’t sure what Wedge heard or didn’t hear when they talked or what Wedge remembered from day to day. And he hadn’t really said that much about what he was doing. Devon had tried to steer every conversation back to Wedge, which hadn’t been all that successful. All he’d gleaned was that the homeless man had grown up in San Diego, served, and now lived on the beach. Details were scarce and oftentimes hard to piece together.
“Do good man,” Wedge said. He folded the blanket he had been sitting on and put it in a plastic bag.
“Thanks.” Devon hefted his surfboard. “See you tomorrow.”
Wedge nodded and continued packing his stuff. Devon waited for a break in the stream of bikes and runners to hustle across the path toward his place just on the other side. He let himself onto the patio and flipped on the outdoor shower to rid himself of sand. As he stripped off his wet suit, he turned back for a last look at the ocean. The sliver in the sky was now a swath of bright blue that slowly pushed aside the gray.
Maggie Marr is the author of contemporary romance and women’s fiction. She writes smart, sexy, women and the men they love. She got her start in Hollywood pushing the mail cart at ICM, but quickly rose through the ranks to become a motion picture literary agent. As well as writing, she maintains a boutique legal practice dedicated to the needs of creatives & entrepreneurs. She is the current President of Los Angeles Romance Authors (LARA) and legal adviser to the Women’s Fiction Writers Association (WFWA). Maggie loves all things pop culture and when she isn’t taking care of her clients or writing she can be found reading, chasing kids, or exercising her rescue pup.