Tempted by Pleasure (Secret Invitation #1) (9 page)

BOOK: Tempted by Pleasure (Secret Invitation #1)
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Chapter 16

Erin

With a little begging, Foster convinced me to let him drive me to my parents’ house for dinner. He’ll be here soon. Katie is meeting us there. I stare in the mirror, then run a comb through my hair, determined to look my best. It’s not every day I send Thomas packing and reclaim my life.

After lunch with Foster again and another long talk with my best friend, I know what I have to do. Mom and Dad will ask lots of questions, and they’ll get angry at my answers. Come Monday, my father will consult with his team of high-powered attorneys and have me removed as his legal heir. Mom will obediently agree with whatever financial decisions he makes. With one stroke of a pen, I’ll be reduced to an indistinguishable member of the Covington clan, like a distant cousin.

No inheritance doesn’t mean they don’t love me. Right? Maybe if I have children, they’ll designate my eldest as the heir apparent.

My cell vibrates and I grab it off the vanity. I don’t recognize the number, but answer anyway. “Hello?”

“Erin?”

That gravelly voice is unforgettable. “Jeffrey?”

“I’m delighted you remembered.”

“How could I forget?”

He chuckles. “Are you free for drinks tonight?”

Is he asking me on a date? “No, I have plans.”

“Cancel.”

“I can’t, family commitment.”

“Ah, the drudgery of familial get-togethers. Call me after you get home, I’m usually up late.”

“I will.” I disconnect and let out a frustrated laugh.

I didn’t know socializing outside club events was encouraged. I did read the handbook, but don’t recall anything regarding the subject. Drinks are innocent enough, and seeing him in the real world might help move things forward. Does he act and dress the same way in public? Smell the same? Kiss the same?

“Easy.” My hormones are on high alert. Whenever I think about sex now, it has two similar faces—Foster and Jeffrey.

I walk to my bedroom, eyeing the cherry wood poster bed, wishing I could crawl underneath the thick comforter and hide from the world. But that’s not how things work.
Own this.
I rifle through my closet and choose a burgundy, silk jersey wrap dress and black heels. I slip them on and return to the bathroom and admire myself in the mirror. I’m blessed with long legs, and this outfit will get Foster’s attention.

What started as friendship has taken on a rhythm of its own, a cat and mouse game. The roles switch depending on my mood. Tonight I’m the prowling feline, and Foster better watch out.

At quarter–to-six my doorbell rings and I answer. Foster is wearing a green pullover and slacks, holding a bouquet of red roses.

“Erin.” He opens the screen door and steps inside. “You look gorgeous.”

“Thank you.” Tension racks my body whenever he stares at me like I’m the only woman on the planet. But my smile is genuine. He makes me happy. “Taking the fresh flowers every day a little too seriously?”

“Should I give them to someone else?” He hides them behind his back.

“No!” I attempt to snatch them, but he spins around, blocking me.

“Wrestling match?”

“Dressed like this?” I thrust my hand on my hip. “You’d have me at a serious disadvantage.”

“I like that idea.” He grins and offers the flowers again. “Replay?”

“Thank you, Foster. They’re lovely, let me get a vase.”

“Much better.” He follows me into the kitchen. “What smells so good?” He sniffs the air, exploring my countertops.

“Banana nut bread.”

“Homemade?”

“Yes. Do you want some?”

He pats his stomach. “Can’t resist fresh-baked goods.”

I rinse my hands, grab a knife from the cutlery drawer, then slice him a generous piece off the loaf cooling near the window. “You’re lucky. This was destined for the freezer.”

He takes a bite and closes his eyes. “Oh. My. God.”

“What?”

“Tastes like shit.” He shoots me a mischievous grin. “But I’ll brave another piece, with butter this time.”

“Oh really?” I’m still holding the knife. “After you insulted me?”

He edges closer, plucking the knife out of my hand. “Not sure I should trust you with sharp implements when you’re feisty.”

God he has a way of distracting me too easily. That beautiful face, his enviable body, his overwhelming presence.

“Erin? Mind wandering again?”

I break out of my trance, clearly unable to concentrate. Halloween can’t get here soon enough. “Ready to go?” Maybe if we get in the car and drive, I’ll stay focused.

“Not yet,” he whispers in my ear. “Let me taste you.”

Resistance is impossible as he hugs me close, my cheek resting on his chest. I breathe him in, and his spicy cologne goes straight to my head like too much champagne. Then he raises my chin, forcing me to meet his gaze.

“This isn’t easy.”

“W-What?”

“Keeping my hands off you.” He brings his lips to my neck, nibbling and kissing until I sigh. “Let’s skip dinner.”

“Rules,” I remind him.

He exhales, obviously frustrated. “Maybe you need to rethink everything. Are these rules for me
or
you?”

I don’t know what to think or how to feel.

He back steps, holding my hands. “What are you thinking about?”

Should I risk telling him the truth? Will he misinterpret my insecurities as weakness? “I don’t want to end up like the girls I’ve seen you with in the papers.”

He blinks rapidly, then shakes his head. “You’ve followed me in the papers?”

“Yes.”

“If you were curious, why didn’t you pick up a phone or connect with me on LinkedIn or Facebook?” He sounds so disappointed. “Ignore half the bullshit you read or hear.”

“What about the other half? Is that true?”

“You want full disclosure?”

I nod. My interaction with men is so limited, but I need to know.

“Up until a few months ago, I played the field, baby. I won’t lie. I like to fuck.”

I gasp and laugh at the same time. Did he just say what I think I heard? “How romantic.”

“I didn’t mention relationships, Erin, I meant sex.”

Frowning, I glance away. “I know.”

“Does that surprise you?”

“Am I judging the boy I used to know?” Our eyes meet.

“Is that fair?”

“From what I see, not much has changed.” Except that I’m drooling, and totally miffed that he freely admits to sleeping around.

“Maybe I deserved that one. But my feelings are real, Erin, I don’t waste time.” One side of his lips tip up as he checks his watch. “If we don’t leave, we’ll be late.”

I don’t say anything, but cover the banana bread with a towel, then turn off the lights. I follow him out the front door. He opens the passenger door for me and I slide inside his car. The leather seat hugs my body like a glove. The differences between my little red Audi and his big black Jaguar remind me of the vast dissimilarities between us. I’m cute and inexperienced, the ex-girlfriend he thinks he’s still crazy about. Then there’s the shark. I watch him climb into the driver’s seat, confidence bleeding out every pore.

“Ready?” he asks.

Am I? “Wait!”

“What is it, baby?”

I lean across the console, offering my mouth. “Kiss me, Foster.”

I don’t need to ask twice. He cups my face between his hands and slants his hot mouth over mine. God he tastes good. I touch his chest, and those wicked sensations he conjures ripping through me again. It’s a slow, delicious kiss at first. His tongue drifts lazily over mine. My fingers glide up his front, stopping on his shoulders. I love his sculpted arms. I love his mouth. After his tongue moves more forcibly against mine, I moan, completely lost.

He leans back. “More?”

Speechless, I settle in the seat again and pull the visor down in search of a lighted mirror. My lip color is gone. I check his face. There’s a streak of purple on his cheek. Should have worn my all-day lipstick. “Wipe your face.”

He stares in the rearview and grins. “Let’s give Thomas something to think about.”

Although I like the idea, a dinner party isn’t the appropriate place to torture my make-believe fiancé. I open my purse and fish out a tissue and my lipstick. I fuss in the mirror for a few seconds. “Good as new.”

“You’re fucking perfect.” The tone of his voice makes me uneasy.

My eyes automatically shoot to his face, then his crotch. His slacks can’t hide his excitement. I can’t think straight if I know he has an erection.

“Blow off dinner.” He rests his hand on my lap. “Fuck, Erin.” He squeezes his eyes shut.

I reach over him and turn the ignition key. The car purrs to life. “Not this time.” It’s a weak no that suggests more.

“When?”

Maybe never. And surely not after Halloween, which narrows our window of opportunity down to practically nothing. If I didn’t have a history with Foster, he’d be the one. But something inside me can’t let go of the past. It’s not just fear. It’s something deeper, something far more dark and unexplored. Maybe I don’t want him to know what kind of woman I truly am. I hardly tolerate my own truth well.
I want to be tied up and fucked. I want to be spanked. How’s that for honesty, Foster?

“What?” He’s studying me.

“Excuse me?”

“You just asked me,
‘How’s that for honesty
?’”

“No I didn’t.” I thought it. I didn’t say it out loud.

“Yes you did. Are you falling apart on me, Erin?”

“No.”

He doesn’t look convinced. “We’re going to explore this a little more after dinner.” He buckles up and backs out of the driveway.

Chapter 17

Erin

If I said I didn’t miss Ocean Drive, I’d be lying. Although my parents live in a modern Mediterranean-style home with white-washed stucco walls and a tile roof, it has landmark curb appeal. The outdoor living space features a custom-built BBQ area flanked by cascading waterfalls and a wading pool. At sunset, after my father turns on the lights, it reminds me of a starry sky.

To my amazement, only fifteen guests are seated at the outdoor dining table. I’m sandwiched between Thomas and Foster, with Katie and my mom staring at me from across the way. Maybe if I slide the ridiculous centerpiece down a foot, I can hide behind it.

I’ve already endured a painfully silent first course appetizer of chickpea blini with lemon mousseline and wild salmon caviar. The caterer serves the second course, shrimp quenelles in a bouillon. I sample it delicately, savoring the flavor until Thomas addresses me.

“Meredith told me you expanded the store.”

I face him. “Last year.”

Foster laughs, and I pinch his thigh under the table.

“It’s been that long?”

“You’ve never visited my shop, Thomas.”

“Is that an invitation?”

“Everyone is welcome.”

His vacant expression is further testament as to why I can count on two fingers how many meaningful conversations we’ve shared. Speaking of hands, I snatch his left one. “Oh dear.” Slim fingers and a small wrist. Not a good sign according to Katie.

“Is something wrong?” he asks.

“Nothing,” I lie and let go.

“Erin,” Katie calls. “Not at the table.”

I smirk and taste another spoonful of cold soup. I wish my mother had been more strategic about the seating arrangement. Why didn’t she place Thomas near my father who is at the opposite end surrounded by his board of directors and personal attorney?

“So where have you been hiding, Foster?” Mother asks. “We’ve read about your latest exploits in the energy sector. I seem to recall something about signing contracts with Saudi Aramco and Sinopec to double the capacity at a refinery in Southern China?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He sips his wine. “It includes refinery upgrades.”

“Don’t the Chinese have engineers for that?”

“I’m sure they do.” Foster smiles. “But it’s a package deal. The refinery will process heavy crude, increasing overall output and boosting the market.”

“And your father?”

“He swears the earth is still round and the sky is blue.”

Mother gives a feminine laugh, covering her mouth with her linen napkin.

“What does that mean?” Thomas asks.

I shake my head, loathing the sound of his voice.

“Everything is peachy,” Foster clarifies.

Once again I move in for an under-table assault, but he catches my fingers.

“If you pinch me,” he growls near my ear, “I’ll bite your nipple.”

I nearly choke on my water. “Is that a promise?” I smile up at him, praying he’ll say yes.

“Guess we’ll find out
after
you tweak me again.”

“What are the two of you whispering about?” Mother asks.

“Catching up on things,” I say. “Foster and I haven’t seen each other in a long time, Mother.”

“Well, we’re happy he’s here.”

The meal progresses nicely. Servers bring slow-roasted duck with miniature watermelon cucumbers, a red grapefruit gastrique, and chickpea crepes. Once I finish eating, Thomas clears his throat and gazes at me.

“Take a walk with me, Erin.”

“Now?”

He nods.

Not wanting to cause a scene, I slide my chair back. “How long are we going to be?”

He shrugs. “Long enough to discuss some important issues.”

I cringe at the thought, but willingly follow him away from the covered patio and into the garden. I glance over my shoulder twice, afraid Foster will appear.

As shallow as my mother comes off, she’s really very talented. Her vast garden is a monument dedicated to my grandmother, who was a master gardener. The oasis is contrived for privacy, with tall shrubbery, ornamental arches, an aviary, a small fish pond, and a ring of rare fruit trees in the center. I run my fingers up a brass railing that stops underneath a gazebo. Thomas turns around, his dark eyes focused on mine.

“I’ve missed you, Erin.”

How do I respond? “We live twenty minutes apart, Thomas, so pardon me if I don’t accept your excuses that logistics prevented you from calling me or visiting my store.”

He chuckles. “I admire your spirit.”

I hope he appreciates my candor, too. “I don’t want to marry you, and I’m certain you care little about me.” Honestly, I don’t know what he thinks about this arrangement.

“I’m committed, Erin.”

“To what?”

“You.” He reaches for my face, but I back away. “Are you drunk?” I meet his gaze, embarrassed to discuss marriage with a man I hardly know. “I tolerate my mother and father’s ass-backward thinking, but what excuse do you have?”

“Didn’t your parents explain?”

“No.”

He rakes his fingers through his hair. “I suppose that’s my responsibility.”

“If you don’t start making sense, I’m going back to the party. Alone.”

“Not until you hear me out.” He blocks my route.

There’s only one way in/out of the gazebo, and if I have to use all my weight to go through him, I will. I don’t like being cornered. “Get out of my way.”

He waves his hands. “Fine.”

I take the first step.

“Your father is a pathological gambler.”

I freeze. So the bastard had a plan all along. “What?” I don’t bother facing him. If I do, I’m certain I won’t be able to keep dinner down.

“Impulse control issues, like a kleptomaniac. But never mind the cause. To be perfectly honest, he spends more time on the rough than he does the fairway, Erin. He’s a bad shot and a drinker. Add money into the mix . . .”

“Fuck you, Thomas.” I join him in the gazebo again. “Since when did you become an expert on my father? Until recently, I thought you shared a professional relationship, nothing more.”

“Maybe if you were an attentive daughter, you would have noticed.”

Rage uncoils inside me fast, and before I regain control of my emotions, I slap his face, hard enough for the impact to sting my hand. It doesn’t faze him.

“That’s a freebie, Erin. Don’t do it again.”

His voice is low and mechanical, and it frightens me for some reason. “I don’t monitor my father’s financial dealings.”

“You should, and in the future,
we
will.”

I laugh. “There is
no
we, get that through your thick head. I wouldn’t marry you if—”

“Your father’s gambling addiction doesn’t stop at the club. It includes the boardroom.”

I cross my arms over my chest. “Lies.”

“Do you think my father’s dealings end at the plumbing supply house? He has an investment portfolio that could rival Donald Trump’s. Covington Industries is a multi-million dollar corporation, one my father was eager to invest in.”

“Only board members hold stock.”

“Not any more. Once Robert’s checks started to bounce, he began using shares in CI for collateral.”

He must be telling the truth.
Tears sting my eyes, but I hold them in. I won’t let Thomas have the satisfaction of seeing me cry. “For what?”

“I’ve already explained, to gamble.”

“On what?”

“Golf games, poker, football, elections . . .”

“Elections?”

He nods.

Oh. My. God. “
And this arrangement will satisfy his debt?”

“Most of it,” he says. “If you marry me, everything stays as it is. Refuse, and my family will be forced into a hostile takeover of your father’s firm.”

“That’s blackmail.”

“No,” he corrects. “It’s business.”

No wonder my mother told me not to make fun of a man’s living. If it were any other family, I wouldn’t. My head is swimming. I can’t wrap my mind around this. My church-going, frugal father is no better than a drug addict. Years of Ivy League education, training, and grooming from my grandfather, successful acquisitions and investments that nearly quadrupled his wealth, all lost on betting? It’s fantastical. “Why me?”

“I always wanted you, Erin.”

I shiver from the thought of ever sharing a bed or life with him. And the idea of reproduction, bringing little Kingsley monsters into the world, repulses me. “I hate you.”

“I accept the challenge.”

Sarcastic asshole. “Don’t you want to be loved? At least respected by the woman you marry?”

“Apples and oranges.”

“I’m leaving now.”

“Not with Foster.”

“Excuse me?”

“I accept your independence and promise I won’t alter your lifestyle too much. But appearances are important. I can’t have my
fiancée
running around with a prick like Foster Wagner. What would the tabloids say?”

“What if I provided full disclosure of what you just threatened me with?”

“People like winners. Even if you roused public sympathy, your father would suffer the consequences. He squandered his wealth and broke a few laws doing it.”

And offered up his daughter as payment to save his own ass.
That sad reality leaves a lump in my throat. “I need time to think.”

“How long?”

“Until Halloween.”

BOOK: Tempted by Pleasure (Secret Invitation #1)
3.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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