Despite how alluring he is, Vanessa really must resist. After all, her fledgling catering business depends on being welcomed back into the family fold...and their endless fund-raisers and formal dinners. It's an entrepreneur's dream, even though toeing the social line is a tad, uh, restrictive.
Still, a single night with Lucas won't be her downfall, will it? Surely she could indulge just this once, then return to playing good girl in the morning. Too bad once is not enough with this man. And even more devastating than his bedroom charm are the secrets he's about to reveal....
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
FROM BEHIND HER POST at the chocolate fountain, Vanessa Douglas watched the posh crowd of Atlanta's social elite schmooze each other.
Prominent doctors and lawyers, board members and business moguls turned out in jewels and designer clothes, decorated by elegantly dressed first spouses or young, hard-bodied second ones. Vanessa fought the urge to yawn.
But when a girl made penis-shaped cakes for a living, a lot of things seemed staid by comparison.
"Have you seen any cute guys?" her best friend and business partner Mia Medini asked.
"Nope. And hardly anybody under forty."
"What we expected. Your mother never listens." She planted her hands on her trim hips, which were shown off to perfection in a silky turquoise dress that also complemented her olive-toned skin and dark hair. "People our age go to nightclubs for fun, not the country club."
"Except my sister." Angelica, wearing a powder-blue suit and pearls, stood across the room with a group of elderly women. Nearby, their parents socialized in an intimate circle of longtime friends, her mother in cream-colored Chanel, her father in dignified navy Brooks Brothers. Vanessa glanced down at her rebel-red shimmery cocktail dress, bought from a sample sale in midtown at Vampy Divas. Yep. All was right with the world.
Even though her mother had sent catering business Vanessa's way instead of steering it in the other direction, hell, apparently, hadn't actually frozen over.
"But your sister is a fifty-year-old in a twenty-five-year-old body," Mia said.
"She hooked the best cardiac surgeon in the South." Mia elbowed her. "Like he's a damn herring. And, personally, he's too staid for me."
"Wearing a bow tie is not a good sign."
"Though I once knew this stripper who wore his bow tie on his — "
"Mia, please," Vanessa said, glancing around furtively to see if they'd been overheard. "Not here."
Mia looked wounded. "You turn into such a stuff-bucket around them."
She knew it was true. But she was tired of the estrangement from her family. She'd had her rebellion, and she was ready for compromise. "I'm just trying for peace. For once."
"I wish you luck on your journey, Don Quixote." Ignoring her roommate's negativity, Vanessa rearranged the stack of napkins on the table, which were highlighted by elegant shrimp canapés and delicate chocolate puff pastries. No anatomically correct — or incorrect — body parts in sight.
Damn it. "Though everybody has been complimentary," Mia went on. "You think we'll actually get more business from doing this shindig?"
Vanessa shrugged as if she hadn't given the idea much thought. "Maybe. We could use it."
Of course she'd given the idea a lot of thought. Her family was a cornerstone of the swanky society laid out before them. Her father was a senior partner in one of the oldest, most prestigious law firms in the city. Her mother was a premier society queen. Vanessa and her sister had been raised as pristine, pure debutantes.
And she'd chucked it all to slave in the kitchen making chocolate sauce and leaven bread for a living.
Crazy? Her mother thought so. As well as most of the people she'd grown up with. But Vanessa had never felt more normal, free and alive than the day she'd packed her jeans, T-shirts — and the scandalous red bra she'd worn under a white shirt once and nearly sent her mother into a dead faint — and moved out on her own.
After being cut off from the family money at the urging of her mother — she was the power behind the throne, no matter what her father claimed — Vanessa had put herself through culinary school and started her own business. After years of having to sneak into the kitchen to help their housekeeper make cookies — debs didn't cook, they nibbled elegantly — she'd found a profession where getting messy was just part of the process.
For years, she'd wondered if the sneaking part was her only attraction to cooking, but after moving out and working in a restaurant, she'd realized that being a chef appealed to her need for excitement and variety. From a practical aspect, she could eat and get paid. Emotionally, it gave her instant gratification — she fed people, and they were happy. She didn't disappoint them, and they didn't try to change her.
Rejection of her efforts was rare.
Which brought her thoughts back to her family. Her sister, believing that a woman wasn't complete until she married, constantly tried to fix her up with men who were completely wrong for her. While Vanessa fought to keep her fledgling catering business afloat, her mother discouraged everyone she knew from using her services. And her father seemed too busy to notice there was a rift in the family at all.
Still, seven years after her big rebellion, Vanessa could say she didn't regret the choices she'd made. She had great friends who supported her, she threw her energy and hopes into her business, and she planned for the future.
And yet she wanted nothing quite as much as a reconciliation with her family. Just not at the expense of her pride.
How's that for a contradiction? "Do you think her usual caterer really canceled on her at the last minute?" Mia asked, her tone as suspicious as Vanessa's had been when her mother had called her less than a week ago to ask them to cater this party.
She'd like to think her mother was softening, or at least getting used to the idea of a daughter in the — shudder — service industry. Or maybe, actually — big gasp — accepting Vanessa's chosen career and lifestyle rather than doing everything possible to turn her into a society princess and carbon copy of both her and Vanessa's younger sister. But Vanessa wasn't holding her breath.
"I guess I'm a sap for bailing her out," Vanessa continued.
"Since she's done so much to help us."
"She thinks she's doing what's best for me."
"Yeah, well, you're twenty-seven. I'm pretty sure you've figured out what's best for you on your own."
"And we did a classy job. I bet fifty bucks your mother didn't sleep a wink last night, wondering if we'd show up with boob-shaped suckers and a cock-shaped champagne fountain."
Vanessa's eyes widened, and she temporarily shoved aside her vow for peace. She exchanged a knowing look with Mia. "That's not a bad idea."
"For that bachelorette party this weekend."
"We could have champagne spurting out the top."
"Crude, but fun."
"My mother really would faint." Mia flicked her hand in dismissal. "Well, she's not going to be there, is she? And let's quit talking about her. It's too frustrating." She craned her neck to try to see around and over the crowd. "This place is a crush. Somehow the staid and boring really have found their own place in the world. Imagine that. Still, there's got to be at least one scrumptious, eligible man — oh, my God. What's he doing here? Hide me."
Vanessa looked around and quickly spotted the problem — Colin Leavy was heading their way. He'd been in love with Mia ever since he'd come into their bakery and catering shop to order a cake for his mother's birthday two years ago. Unfortunately, he was an accountant and the epitome of staid, so Mia wouldn't have anything to do with him.
Vanessa thought he was cute, and his devotion to Mia adorable. She might even reveal her chocolate-cheese-cake recipe to have a man look at her with the devotion Colin showed Mia.
Somehow, in her relationships, Vanessa always managed to be the pursuer, not the pursuee. Because she knew what she wanted? Because she knew how to get what she wanted? Or because she impulsively jumped in with both feet without bothering to ask too many questions?
She highly suspected it was the latter, especially after the last guy she'd gone out with that turned out to have a fiancée.
"Good grief," she said to her partner. "There are worse things in life than having a bright, successful man grovel at your feet."
"Depends on the man."
As Colin approached, and Mia realized she didn't have anywhere to hide, she simply crossed her arms over her chest.
"Hi, Mia. Would you like to dance?"
"I'm work — "
Vanessa pushed her friend forward. "She'd love to." Mia glared at her over her shoulder. "But, I — "
"Come on, Mia," Colin said. "Please."
Who could resist those sweet, puppy-dog-brown eyes? Apparently not even Mia, who sighed, but held out her hand to take Colin's. Vanessa hoped she let him lead.
While her partner was dancing, Vanessa roamed the perimeter of the room, making sure the platters of appetizers and pastries were filled, and the waitstaff kept the drinks flowing. The party doubled as a fund-raiser for a local children's hospital, so once her mother presented the check to the chairperson at 10:00 p.m., the crowd would probably disperse and Vanessa and Mia would be free to clean up and go. Still, it would be midnight before they got home, as they had to pack everything, then run it all through the industrial-quality dishwasher at the shop.
Dessert First had started on a whim, had quickly become a challenge, but it fulfilled Vanessa as nothing else ever had before.
She'd met Mia in culinary school, where her friend had excelled at organizing and managing much more than she had at cookies and pastries. They'd become close buds, then business partners and roommates. Vanessa knew she could count on Mia like no one else in the world, and that safety net allowed her to handle the tension between her and her family with much more confidence and panache.
Maybe, with Mia's business savvy and Vanessa's sugary concoctions, they wouldn't have to struggle so much someday. Maybe this party could be the beginning of healing and understanding with her family.
Oh, yeah, and maybe the man of her dreams was going to pop out from behind the fruit bowl and whisk her to his castle in the sky.
EXCEPT FOR HER, THE PARTY was a dead bore.
Lucas Broussard prowled the edges of the room, knowing he'd have to endure many more of these things if he was going to be accepted in this city. Networking in his profession was a necessity. A sacrifice, like so many others, he'd just have to buckle down and endure.
Were they all genetically programmed for this stuff? Small talk, gossip, bragging. Trophy wives and pedigreed family trees.
At least, though his mistakes and faux pas were many, he'd never been accused of boring his audience to death.
As expected, and like everyone else, he'd flashed his Rolex. He wore a custom-made designer suit. He'd made plenty of money as a respected attorney, even if the money was a little too new to be decent and his tactics were sneered at by some. He held his champagne glass by the stem. He could even tell the brand was that old reliable Dom Pérignon and not the now hipper Cristal.
And still the boy from Cypress Bayou Trailer Park of Lafayette, Louisiana, lurked inside him. Inescapable. Maybe even necessary.
All in all, he'd much rather snag that hot blonde in the red dress, a bottle of whiskey and head home.