Tempted by Pleasure (Secret Invitation #1) (10 page)

BOOK: Tempted by Pleasure (Secret Invitation #1)
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Chapter 18

Foster

The woman sitting in my passenger seat isn’t the same Erin I drove to dinner. Something happened with Thomas, and if I find out he hurt her, I’ll destroy him. “Talk to me. What did that asshole say?”

“Nothing.”

“One-word answers aren’t convincing.” I watch her every move, an experienced judge of body language, especially with women.

She sighs and stares out the window.

Fifteen minutes later I roll into her driveway and turn the engine off.
She’s too quiet.
Is she asleep?
I lean over and brush her hair off her shoulder. “Tired?”

She gazes at me, her big blue eyes as luminous as the full moon. “Life isn’t fair.”

“No, it’s not.” I climb out and jog around to her side of the car. “Come on, baby. Let’s have a cup of tea and some banana bread.”

She doesn’t refuse and quietly walks to the front door. Once inside, she heads to the kitchen, leaving me alone in the living room. It’s a pleasant space, with chocolate-colored walls and blue accents. And just like her bookstore, everything has its place, except for the photo albums stacked on the floor. I gaze toward the kitchen, where she’s busy boiling water probably. I grab the first album and flip it open, finding pictures from high school.

I sit on the sofa, and start thumbing through pages. There’s Frank Munoz and Terri Lambert, guys I played ball with. I smile at all the photographs of friends Erin and I had in common, realizing how close and yet how far our lives truly were. For the time we intersected, I was happy. Then I find a section filled with images of me and Erin, the weekend camping trip she asked me if I remembered, shots of us in homeroom, fishing, and laughing. There’s even a rose pressed between the pages.

On the next page I discover an illustration with our names scrolled in calligraphy, surrounded by red hearts.
Erin loves Foster.
It screams high school, but I like that she kept it.
And then there’s a collection of notes, a half dozen I wrote to her. I hear movement and close the book, stashing it back where it belongs. I can’t believe she kept memorabilia from our childhood. I thought she hated me.

“Tea and bread.” She sets a tray on the coffee table. “I’m going to slip into something more comfortable, okay?”

“Take your time.” I flash a smile and watch her disappear around the corner.

I grab the album again, searching for a specific letter, one I hope she’d received but never knew if she did. It’s still in the envelope addressed to her parents’ house. I open it, desperate to remember one of the only times I wasn’t a selfish asshole.

My beautiful Erin,

I don’t expect you to ever read this, but if you do, I want you to know how sorry I am for what happened between us. I know it’s been months since we broke up, but after I got to school today, Lizzie told me your mother withdrew you from classes. I’m not sure I can live with that, knowing I won’t see your beautiful smile when we pass each other in the hallway, even if that smile isn’t for me. Tell me what to do, Erin, how can I get you back?

Can we be friends?

Please call me.

F.W.

She’d received it and never responded, not that I blame her.

“Foster!”

My head snaps up. Erin is standing in the archway, wearing silky black pajamas with her mouth hanging open.

“I can’t believe you snooped.” She stomps over to the sofa and snatches the paper out of my hands. “My photo albums are like a diary, not for anyone else to see.”

God she’s beautiful and fucking braless. Her pebble-hard nipples are winking at me, begging for more attention. My balls ache and I have to cross my legs to hide my erection. “Why didn’t you write back? Do you know how long I waited for an answer, how many times I checked mail or expected my mother to give me a message you called?”

“You haven’t touched your tea.” And just like that she ignores me and starts to stir sugar and cream into her cup.

I catch her hand. “One stupid choice in my youth changed the course of our lives and you won’t answer me?” Now I’m mad. “You can’t walk around in denial for the next twenty years. I’m here, the same old Foster, remember? We were happy. I wanted you. Desperately.”

She shakes her hand free. “Don’t pressure me.”

“Don’t make me.”

“After tonight, I’m afraid nothing matters, Foster.”

I stand, knowing that fucking bastard Thomas did something to her. I knew it the second she joined us at the table again. Her face was stained with fresh tears. “You’ve teased me enough, goddamnit.”

“Teased you? That’s rich. You can’t handle the truth, Foster.”

“Try me.”

She stares at me long and hard, then marches to an oak Queen Anne desk in the far corner. She opens a drawer and pulls something out. “Take this.” She tosses an envelope at me, but it falls short. “All your questions will get answered tonight.”

I scoop it up and start to tear it open.

“Not here!”

“Where then?”

“I don’t care.” She palms tears from her eyes. “As long as you aren’t here.”

My anger recedes like ocean waves, replaced by overwhelming tenderness and the insatiable desire to hold her. “Why are you crying, baby?” I move closer. “Tell me.”

“Leave, Foster.”

“Don’t banish me again.” Old fears start to resurface. I can’t lose her.

Our gazes fuse and she opens her mouth, but nothing comes out. Instead, she rushes down her hallway. I hear a door slam and the distinct click of a lock.
Fuck me,
déjà vu
, but this time, it won’t end the same way.

I manage to drive three blocks before I pull over to read the letter. I honored her request to leave, but I’ll be damned if I’ll drive off this island before I speak to her again. I press the dome light on and study the envelope. It’s yellowed and the addresses are faded, but she obviously intended to mail it, there’s even a stamp.

And just as I’ve always suspected . . .

Foster,

You shouldn’t spend your life worrying about me or regretting our friendship. Everything happens for a reason.

I accept your apology, and hope you find a girl who will make you happy.

Now that I’m gone, it’s easier for me to tell you the truth about what happened at your parents’ house. I loved you, but seeing you drunk and acting so stupid hurt me. There’s nothing else to discuss, we weren’t meant to last.

Yes, Mother withdrew me from classes. I’m enrolled at a private school in San Antonio now. I need to focus on my education and can’t possibly concentrate if I stay at Carroll High School.

Sincerely,

Erin Covington

She loved me. The sweetest girl I’ve ever known loved me. I tuck the letter back inside the envelope. Funny how I internalized the loss of Erin. I forced it deeper and deeper away from my heart by fucking and scoring touchdowns. Then I went to college and immersed myself in frat life, but Erin was never out of my thoughts, and no woman, no matter how smart or sexy, could compare.

That’s what made Lazarus such a great opportunity, why my father passed the keys. My dick and heart were disconnected. Emotional entanglements were never an issue, and if a woman got too attached, she was banned from the club. I’ve been walking around in a goddamned stupor for eight years, like a zombie on
The Walking Dead
.

I dial her cell, but she doesn’t answer. I try again and again. Finally, I text.

You love me.

LOVED,
she shoots back.

Why didn’t you tell me?

Wouldn’t have made a difference, I moved.

Should have given me a chance.

She doesn’t respond, and I drive home wondering what the fuck I’m going to do.

Chapter 19

Erin

Foster Wagner makes me feel things that leave me questioning my whole outlook on life. I’ve been a devoted daughter, responsible member of my community, and surely safeguarded my reputation better than most women I know. Not necessarily by choice, but because I’ve been too terrified to love someone after Foster. And now Thomas has threatened to take that freedom away from me.

I can’t hold everything in anymore. Katie is meeting me at Cole Park for a beach-side lunch and I plan on letting my heart bleed. I’m already sitting at our favorite table, watching the seagulls dip and dive for food and glide on the wind. I wish I had wings. I’d fly away. In fact, this is the first time I’ve considered leaving home. I have friends in Baton Rouge and Summerville, South Carolina, who’ve begged me to relocate.

I check the parking lot just as Katie’s SUV pulls in. She’s my only lifeline right now. Everyone else wants something from me. She gets out of her vehicle and waves.

“Playing hooky
and
lunch at the park?” she asks as she sits across from me. “You look tired. What’s going on?”

I open the wicker picnic basket and dig out a couple yogurts, green grapes, sharp cheddar cheese slices, and peaches. “Want a Diet Coke or iced tea?”

“Tea.”

I slide a bottle her way. “I wasn’t completely honest with you at the party last night.”

“Duh.”

I raise an eyebrow. “What?”

“You distanced yourself after you returned from your walk.”

“Guess I did.” I had a good cry after I left the gazebo. I did my best to dry my eyes and put on my happy face, but apparently Katie and Foster are observant enough to know when I’m upset.

“Did you put that asshole in his place finally?”

“No.”

“Why?”

I swallow, searching for the right words to explain the unique situation I’m in. “Family obligations are a big part of the reason my parents want me to marry him.”

“Family obligations?” she repeats. “Are you part of the royal family?”

“Of course not.”

“Then the only duty you have is to find someone who makes
you
happy.”

“He’s blackmailing us.”

She drops her spoon in the yogurt container. “Go to the police.”

“That’s not how things are done, Katie.”

“Bullshit. Last time I checked, extortion was a felony.”

“My father is a compulsive gambler.”

“Oh crap.”

“If I refuse Thomas, his father will seize control of Covington Industries. We’ll lose everything.”

She rests her elbows on the table and leans forward. “You mean Robert and Meredith will lose everything. You still have a life.”

“The media will eat us alive.”

“You’re not responsible for the sins of your father.”

I breathe out heavily. My life is unraveling so fast I can’t keep up. “I wanted to choke Thomas last night. His blatant disregard for my feelings and my father’s reputation demonstrated what a cold-hearted man he is.”

“I’ll have a little talk with Kingsley” She fishes her cell out of her purse. “Give me his number.”

I reach across the table and pat her hand. “I appreciate your offer. Nothing will change his mind. He admitted he always wanted me.”

“So does Foster Wagner, who by the way, is probably in love with you.”

“Don’t complicate things. He likes me,
a lot
.”

“Whatever, Erin. Keep denying it, you’ll find out soon enough.”

“I doubt we’ll ever speak again.” I share what happened last night.

“You loved him?”

“Very much.”

“Have your feelings changed?”

I avert my eyes, focusing on the grayish-blue water. Spending time with him again, laughing, kissing, almost making love, and just knowing he’s close . . . My feelings haven’t changed at all. In fact, they’ve grown. “No.”

“Oh. My. God.” She gives me a sad look. “He’s a hot-shot executive. Ask for help. I’m sure he knows people. Let him deal with Thomas.”

The thought crossed my mind last night. But I can’t involve anyone outside the family. Besides, all I have left is my pride. And I refuse to beg. The simple solution is to marry Thomas and carve out a tolerable existence as a Kingsley. Maybe we’ll divorce in a few years and I can start over again. “I can’t.” I pop a grape into my mouth.

“Negotiate with Thomas.”

“What do I have to offer as consolation? My store? There’s the lakefront property in Sandia, a hundred acres, but it’s not worth much.”

“Isn’t there a cabin on it?”

“Yes, my grandfather loved to fish and hunt.”

I can see the wheels spinning inside her head. She’s a problem solver. “I can’t picture that wuss doing either.”

I giggle. “Probably not.” A nervous knot forms in my belly once I realize what few assets I have. My condo is paid for, but Thomas would never want it. And my business is worth so little. All-in-all, I might be able to raise a quarter million. “Admit it,” I say, “I’m screwed.”

“What about Jeffrey?”

“You’re not suggesting . . .?”

“Asking him for money? Hell no. In reference to Lazarus.”

“It’s the one bright spot left.”

“I want you to be happy, Erin. Lord knows you’ll need something to get you through the next few years.”

I agree, but I still hate the feeling of defeat.

Foster

“Believing natural gas will continue to play a critical role in global energy needs, Quantum Energy made its first major acquisition in five years, purchasing Santigram Systems, Inc., for $26 billion. As one the United States’ largest publicly traded oil companies, the deal opens up new opportunities for Quantum Energy to focus on natural gas being discovered in dense rock formations around the world . . .”

I’m only half-listening to the young executive reading the latest spotlight from the
Oil and Gas Journal
at our monthly staff luncheon. Three bottles of champagne are waiting to be served, and I’m supposed to make a toast. Yes, I had a big part in closing this deal, but my thoughts are invested elsewhere.

Erin Covington.

“Congratulations, Mr. Wagner,” Tasha, one of our newest interns, smiles at me.

She’s nineteen and has a body to die for but she’s no different than most of the women willing to lift their skirts. In fact, she cornered me in the executive bathroom last Monday and offered me a blow job. How can she play so innocent now? Maybe she takes acting classes, too.

“Mr. Wagner?”

I look up. “Yes, Ms. Rosen?”

“Would you like to say something?”

“Of course.” I adjust my tie and stand. “First, I’d like to extend my gratitude to my team.” My gaze sweeps over my personal staff of six. “None of this would be possible without you. But our work isn’t done. With development spending on the rise in Norway, the country’s service sector is already operating at full capacity.”

I hear a couple excited gasps.

I grin. “I know, I know. There’s going to be heavy competition to see who makes the initial team to travel to the North Sea region. Our greatest challenge is convincing the Scandinavians we possess technologies that can save them time and money.”

“What’s our strategy, boss?” Tyrone asks, rubbing his hands together.

“I’ve spoken with the Minister of Petroleum and Energy several times over the last two weeks. He reminded me that the country’s main objective is to ensure creation of environment-friendly management of their energy resources. This is a major opportunity for us to improve our Quality Assurance and Quality Control programs. Get suggestions on my desk by next Friday, okay?” I wait for acknowledgement. “Good. Now eat. You deserve to celebrate.”

I grab a sesame seed bagel and a foil packet of cream cheese off the conference table and head to my office. I’m not in the mood to socialize. I check my cell for missed calls or a text from Erin. Nothing. Should I reach out? The last time I waited, she left, and I’ve already promised myself that’s never going to happen again.

Restless and sick of waiting for her to contact me, I grab my car keys and walk to the reception area. “Cancel my afternoon appointments, Amanda. I’ll return tomorrow.”

“Yes, sir.” She doesn’t question me.

I rush to the garage. I’m making an unannounced stop at the bookstore.

Thirty minutes later, I park in Moore Plaza. It’s windy as I walk. Maybe a cold front is blowing in. I gaze up at sky before I enter her store. Dark clouds are rolling in. I welcome the colder weather.

“Mr. Wagner.” Mary meets me at the door.

“It’s nice to see you again. How’s business?”

“Honestly? We’ve been incredibly busy lately.”

I’ve heard that members of Lazarus have been frequenting the shop. “Glad to hear it. Is Erin available?”

“She’s at lunch.”

“With Katie?” I scan the area for her best friend.

“No.”

Her voice is shaky. What is she hiding? “Is she okay?”

“She’s fine, great, actually.”

I don’t like her answer. “Where did she go?”

“I’m not sure I should—”

“Mary.” I touch her arm. “I’ve known Erin for a long time. Trust me.”

She sighs, then offers a weak smile. “Macaroni Grill, across the parking lot.”

I kiss her cheek and leave.

The lunch crowd has thinned out. It’s after one. I check the main dining area. There’re a few tables with people, but no Erin. A hostess stops me halfway to the bar.

“Can I get you a table?” She leans close, and her breast skims my arm.

Her flirty manners are something I used to appreciate in a pretty girl. “No, I’m looking for a friend.”

I find Erin sitting at a high top with Jeffrey, their backs to me. My hands instantly fist at my sides. I don’t know what to think. Seeing her with another man, especially one from the club, pisses me off. Her beautiful laughter should be reserved for me. And that body . . . I take in her form, posture perfect, long blond hair cascading down her back. Her aqua-colored blouse hangs off her left shoulder, revealing a hint of creamy skin. She’s wearing tight jeans and black boots. My throat goes dry. Meeting Jeffrey outside Lazarus isn’t something I anticipated.
Fuck.

Their stools are too close, arms touching. What in the hell is he doing? My first instinct? Pluck Jeffrey off his perch and punch him. But I swallow my rage and search for a table where they won’t see me. I find one, hidden behind a white pillar decorated with plastic ivy. I sit and wait for a server.

“Would you like a menu?” he asks, setting a glass of ice water in front of me.

“No. I’ll have a glass of red wine and lasagna.”

“Five-cheese lasagna, sausage, hamburger . . .”

“Bring me whatever you like best.”

He nods and takes off.

It’s time to break up the party. I text Erin.
We need to chat.

Half a minute later, she shifts on her stool. She must be checking her mail.
Not now.

Don’t play games with me.

I’ve been completely honest,
she shoots back.

Where are you?

At work.

I frown.
Do you have company?

Yes, can’t talk.

Go somewhere private. Now.

I wait, and she flips her hair to one side, then touches Jeffrey’s back. I cringe. Next she grabs her purse off the table and heads for the bathrooms on the far side of the bar.

I count to thirty, then follow.

I open the door to the restroom. There’s a small entryway with vanities on both sides, no one is inside. I let the first door close, then open the second, which leads to the sinks and stalls. It’s a fairly large space, with tiled walls and soft lights. I find Erin in a corner, working the buttons on her cell.

“I don’t like seeing you out with another man.”

She whirls around, shock and irritation on her face. “Good God.” She covers her heart with her hand. “You scared the shit out of me.”

“Good place to do that.”

She shakes her head. “Not funny.”

I tip her chin. “Look at me, Erin.”

Intense blue eyes meet mine. “Why are you here?” she asks.

“I stopped by the store.”

“Mary?”

“Don’t get mad, I make her nervous.”

She nods as if she understands. “You make me . . .”

“Finish.”

“No.” She retreats a step.

I lean in and rest my palms on the wall on either side of her face, breathing in the fragrance in her hair. “I don’t like where we left off, Erin.”

Her cheeks flush. “Maybe if you’d shown up a year ago, even six months, things might be different. But you didn’t.”

“I’m here now.”

Moments pass without words. I could get lost in her eyes forever. And I love the soft rhythmic sound of her breath. She’s desperate to get away because she knows she’s as drawn to me as I am to her.

“It doesn’t change anything. I have to marry Thomas.”

“Bullshit.” I say it louder and harsher than I intended.
But fuck, what is she thinking?
Why? “I won’t let you.”

“You can’t keep showing up, Foster. I need to stay focused.”

“What about the man you’re having lunch with? Who is he?”

“Just a friend.” She looks away.

BOOK: Tempted by Pleasure (Secret Invitation #1)
12.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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