Prologue

A little over four months ago . . .

My best friend had lost her mind.

A contract.

To stay on a reality dating show that she never wanted to be part of anyway.

For money.

I still couldn’t believe it.

Oh, the terms were straightforward: pretend to date “The Prince of New Orleans” and refuse his proposal during the last episode, and then he would fund her private marketing firm. An easy bargain, sure, except it required her to give up her job and livelihood for a man she hardly knew on the promise that he would follow through in the end.

Okay, so the agreement his attorney drafted was solid, but a billionaire like Evan Mershano could easily find a way out of it. And then my best friend would be left picking up the pieces of a broken life, while he walked away unscathed.

And what was worse, Sarah Summers’s involvement with said billionaire had introduced me to his overconfident, sexy-as-sin cousin, who refused to leave my apartment.

“You.” I pointed a finger at Will Mershano and narrowed my gaze. “Get off my bed.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He planted his feet on the floor and stood to his six-foot-whatever height and flashed me an amused look. “I can’t say that’s ever happened to me before.”

“Happy to be your first.” I cringed. That was the second time tonight I had said that to him. The damn man had followed me home from the office after showing up unannounced with a Mershano-stamped legal contract. One Sarah had requested I personally review. As her best friend, and the only attorney she knew, I was the obvious choice. Much to my chagrin.

“Shouldn’t you, I don’t know, be leaving? There’s a Mershano Suites a few blocks over.” And his cousin, the same one propositioning Sarah, owned it.

“There is, but it’s much easier to stay here.” He moved past me to the kitchen, where he started going through my wine collection.

“You’re not staying here.” If he found out, there’d be hell to pay, and I really didn’t need to give him a reason to bother me. Not now. Not ever.

Will pulled a bottle from my fridge and eyed the label. “Not a bad brand.” He found the corkscrew in a drawer and started opening it without permission.

“Did you not hear a word I just said?”

He opened a cabinet to pull out two wineglasses. How he found them on his first try was anybody’s guess, but it seemed to fit his personality perfectly. He expertly served the wine while I stared at him in shock.

Who is this man, and why is he in my personal space?

Oh, right. My best friend sent him to me.

I picked up my phone and started typing an angry message, when a generous pour of red wine appeared in my peripheral vision.

“Hint of apple. Nice,” Will murmured after a sip from his glass. “I prefer my personal reserve, but this will do for the evening.” He padded barefoot over to my couch and made himself at home.

“Are you hard of hearing?” I asked. Because that would be lovely. He needed some sort of flaw to detract from his thick blond hair, perfect jaw structure, high cheekbones, and muscular stature.

He kicked his feet up onto the cushion as he rotated to face me. “So what contract amendments does Sarah want you to make?”

I folded my arms. “Is that why you’re still here? Because I think your supervising my work all day was quite enough, don’t you?”

“I promised Evan I would oversee this entire exchange personally.” His chocolate gaze danced appreciatively over my blouse, pencil skirt, and stockings. “And I take my job very seriously.”

My tongue hurt from biting it so hard. Less than twelve hours of knowing this overconfident, sexy-as-sin billionaire, and I wanted to kill him. He ruined an otherwise perfect day by showing up unannounced, and then he followed me home like I couldn’t be trusted. “I already signed the nondisclosure agreement.”

He shrugged. “That means little to me. You could still violate it.”

“And risk my job in the process? No, thanks.” This might be a personal favor for a friend, but it could still hurt my career if I violated any of the terms Evan’s private legal team drafted. Garrett Wilkinson was not an attorney I wanted to piss off. “I don’t require a babysitter, Mister Mershano.”

He eyed me over the rim of his glass. “Oh, I’m well aware of what you require, Miss Dawson.”

I snagged the crystal stem from the counter and took a healthy sip of wine. It felt like heaven against my throat and helped calm some of my nerves. “You’re not going to leave, are you?”

“Not until we’re done,” he confirmed. “As I said, I take my job seriously.”

“I bet you do,” I muttered, rolling my eyes as I snuggled into the oversized chair beside the couch with my laptop and wine. If he was hell-bent on finishing this contract tonight, then I’d stay up as late as he wanted, so long as it meant he’d leave sooner.

“You know, Mershano Vineyards is in the market for a corporate attorney to help with some international acquisitions. It’d be a big job, I think, and would probably require overseeing a legal team.”

“That’s nice,” I replied as I pulled up the legal document Garrett sent over an hour ago to review the edits I requested earlier this afternoon.

“Someone with your skill set might be a good fit,” he continued.

“You’d need someone with a lot more experience than my four years, Mister Mershano.” My experience qualified me to join the team, maybe, but not lead it.

“I think that’s for me to decide,” he murmured. “And I think you’d be a good fit, darlin’. We should work together.”

I couldn’t help the laugh that bubbled out of me. “Yeah, that’s not going to happen. Ever.”

He cocked his head to the side and rubbed a thumb over his bottom lip as he considered me in a manner that sent a shiver down my spine. Oh, that look is trouble . . .

Challenge oozed from him, thickening the air around us. “Hmm, we’ll see, Miss Dawson, won’t we?”

Chapter One: The Business Proposal

“Didn’t we just do this?” I asked, studying all the boxes in my guest room. All of them were marked “Sarah Summers,” just like last time.

“Yep.” Sarah made a popping sound on the p and flashed me a brilliant smile. “But we don’t have to carry them this time.”

“Thank God for that.” Moving my best friend in last month had been a bit of a nightmare. We lugged everything from the third floor of her building to the ninth floor of mine. A truck helped us out for part of the journey, but everything else was a generous balance between the stairs and elevator. “I love you, but I never want to do that again.”

She scrunched up her nose. “Yeah, that sucked.”

The wince that followed wasn’t so much a result of the move as the reason behind it. My best friend had lost everything after her idiot twin sister, Abby, auditioned for a reality show under Sarah’s name as a prank. Instead of suing her idiotic sister for fraud, she chose to go on the show and then struck up a ridiculous contract with the show’s “prince.” Their agreement didn’t go according to plan, but somehow they worked everything out in the end, despite a few misconceptions along the way.

Still . . . “I’ll kick his ass if he screws this up again.”

“Duly noted, Miss Dawson.” The murmur came from Evan Mershano, also known as “The Prince of New Orleans.” He had his shoulder braced against the doorjamb, his dark eyes on Sarah. The adoration in his gaze placated me a little.

“Rachel,” I corrected. Only my clients called me Miss Dawson.

He grinned. “Rachel.”

We met last week for the first time in person, and his love for my best friend showed in every move he made. The fact that he supported her career raised him a peg in my book, and he didn’t seem to be a scoundrel. Still, he had money—a lot of it—and in my experience, powerful men like that could not be trusted. To be unsupportive would be an insult to Sarah’s intelligence, so I kept my mouth shut and silently vowed to be here if she needed me.

“Right, I think that’s everything.” Sarah wiped her hands on her jeans after taping the last box, and Evan moved to add it to the growing pile. His fitted white T-shirt stretched over his biceps as he moved, hinting at what lay beneath his clothes. Yeah, I could admit, he was a fine specimen of a man. My girl had chosen well. The curl of her full lips said she agreed.

“Does that mean it’s time for La Rosas?” That was the payment I requested for helping today.

“Oh yeah.” Sarah loved the cute little Italian place more than I did. “Did we decide on getting takeout, or are we eating there?”

“Don’t look at me,” Evan replied. “You know I’m always up for a challenge, Miss Summers.”

“You just want to get caught, Mister Mershano,” she accused, grinning. The reality show they starred in two months ago was about to air, which meant they couldn’t be seen in public together.

He shrugged. “It would make things easier.”

She trailed her fingers up his shirt as he grabbed her hips. “For you.”

“For both of us.” He bent to nuzzle his nose against hers, making me roll my eyes. I was all for budding romance, but these two needed to get their own room. Outside of my apartment.

“I vote we eat there. Otherwise, you two might come up with some kinky food games in my living room.” I left their resulting laughs behind me as I went to change for dinner. My rumbling stomach kept me from worrying too much about my appearance. I threw on a pair of jeans and a tank top and pulled my blonde hair up into a messy bun. It was a stark contrast to my usual lawyer garb, but I didn’t have any clients to impress tonight.

Sarah and Evan met me in the foyer, both dressed similarly in jeans and wearing matching grins. “You two are starting to look like each other,” I observed. “Evan just needs a better tan and some curves.”

“I rather like his lack of curves,” Sarah murmured, pinching his ass.

“Yeah, yeah, let’s go.” I shooed them out the door and into the elevator. The walk to La Rosas was quick but hot, thanks to the Chicago humidity. Mother Nature wanted everyone aware that June was here. I picked at my tank top, hating the way it clung to my clammy skin, as we entered the restaurant.

“Air-conditioning is . . .” I trailed off as my eyes landed on the casually dressed man waiting by the hostess stand. “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me right now!” I spun around and glared at the grinning couple. “I hate both of you.”

The warm chuckle behind me made my stomach flip. It always did that in his presence, against my better judgment. Seduction seemed to ooze from Will Mershano, wrapping everyone in the room in his alluring web. Including me. And I despised it. I had my doctorate in turning down men, yet this one maneuvered around each of my denials with the skill of a professional athlete. And his sport of choice was flirting.

“Hello, Rachel,” he murmured.

I ignored the shiver traversing my spine and further narrowed my gaze at Sarah. “This was not what I had in mind for dinner.”

“He insisted,” was her excuse.

“Oh, I just bet he did,” I snapped.

The millionaire playboy redefined the meaning of the word persistent.

I turned to meet his dark eyes, so similar to Evan’s, but with a hint of deviousness. Their familial relation showed in their height and broad shoulders, but Will’s nose had a slight bend to it and his jaw was dusted with fine blond hairs as opposed to dark ones. Both men possessed an aristocratic air, screaming wealth and superiority, but there was a playfulness to Will that Evan seemed to lack. Carefree seemed to be Will’s persona of choice.

“No,” I said in greeting. A word I seemed to say a lot in his presence. Of course, he never listened—just took it as a challenge to change my mind. We’d been playing this game for months, ever since he first showed up in my office with that damn contract that Sarah requested I review on her behalf.

“No?” He cocked a dark blond brow. “But you haven’t even heard today’s proposal yet.”

“I don’t need to.” There was no way in hell I would work for him. First, it required leaving Chicago and living in North Carolina. Which, right there, was a deal breaker. Not because of my love for the city, but because of something, or rather, someone, who would never let me leave. And second, it meant joining Will’s staff. Not necessarily a negative, except I would report directly to him. My hormones could not handle short bouts of time with the man, let alone a long tenure of employment.

“The answer will always be no.” He could try to entice me with food and charm all he wanted, but I would never agree.

“How about we discuss it over dinner.” Not a question, just a statement underlined with a hint of demand. Typical Will.

“Are you paying?”

“Naturally.”

I gestured for him to lead the way. “Then after you, Mister Mershano.”

“I’ll keep him in line,” Evan said as he trailed along behind us.

“That’s a tall order,” Sarah said, putting in her two cents.

I snorted. “Please. I’ve got this.” There was a reason I became a lawyer. Winning an argument ran in my blood.

Will held out a chair for me, so I took the one opposite him. His dimples flashed in response, and he sat beside me while Evan and Sarah looked on in amusement. If that simple act entertained them, then they were in for a treat.

When the waiter arrived, I ordered a bottle of the restaurant’s most expensive imported wine and one of each appetizer for the table. “Oh, and I won’t be sharing the wine, so just one glass.”

Sarah coughed to cover her laugh while the waiter jotted everything down. “And for you, sir?”

Will didn’t miss a beat. “Hmm, I’ll take an extra order of calamari and a glass of the Reserve Mershano Cabernet Franc, please.”

The grin slipped from my face as the waiter beamed. “Ah, excellent choice, sir. We just received our first shipment, and the customers are loving it. I promise you won’t be disappointed.”

“Oh, really? It’s a rather unknown brand in these parts. What is everyone saying?”

I rolled my eyes as the waiter gushed over the positive feedback and reviews.

“The best they’ve ever had, huh?” Will mused. “Interesting. Did you hear that, darlin’? Maybe you should give it a try.”

“No, thank you,” I replied sweetly.

“We’ll take a bottle,” Evan murmured, handing his menu to the waiter. “And I don’t think I’ll need a main course with all the appetizers.” He cast an amused glance my way before looking to Sarah.

“Oh, I want lasagna. And if you try to steal any, I’ll divorce you.”

“That requires you to marry me first, sweetheart.”

She shrugged. “Semantics.”

“I’ll have lasagna as well,” Will added before smiling at me. “Do you want a main course with all those appetizers?”

“Chicken Alfredo, please. And can you add lobster and shrimp to that?”

The waiter gave me an appraising look, as if to ask, Where are you planning to put all this food? I might be a tall woman at five feet ten, but I was on the thin side thanks to my morning workout regimen and genetics. My mother’s Irish heritage paled my skin, while my father’s German side gave me the blonde hair and blue eyes. They were both on the slender side naturally and passed those traits on to me and my brother, Caleb. Although, he seemed a bit bulkier the last time I’d seen him, and not with fat.

“Of course, ma’am,” the waiter said after he finished checking me out. “I’ll be back with your wine.” His parting words had me turning to the arrogant blond beside me.

“You shipped a case of Mershano Vineyards to the restaurant?”

“No, I shipped several cases. Sarah said it was her favorite place in Chicago, and I figured the beautiful clientele might appreciate some decent wine.”

I huffed out a breath. “You’re unbelievable.”

“Why, thank you, darlin’. The feeling’s mutual. Now, would you prefer to hear my proposal while you’re sober or after you’ve had a few drinks?”

“Wine won’t make me say yes, Will.”

“My wine might.”

I batted my eyelashes at him. “Care to wager on that?”

I half expected him to take me up on it, but instead, the businessman peeked out from behind his playful mask. He usually bantered with me for a few more minutes before this side appeared.

Uncertainty settled in the pit of my stomach.

No more teasing.

His expression boasted confidence as he prepared for a new round of negotiations.

This was the part of him I feared, the persona that made me feel inferior. He had no way of knowing this, nor was it something he did on purpose. On a logical level, I understood that, but I couldn’t help my knee-jerk reaction to run.

Powerful, rich men always won, no matter the cost. I knew that better than anyone.

“Why are you so adamant against working for me, Rachel? It’s a stable position with excellent benefits, and I’ve already offered to triple your current salary. What more do you need?”

“I don’t want to move.”

“I’ve offered to let you work remotely in Chicago.”

I shook my head. “There’s no way I could hire and manage a team of a dozen lawyers from here. What you’re asking me to do is nowhere near as simple as whipping up a contract.”

“I know that, which is why I want to hire you.”

“What I did for Sarah and Evan is nothing like an international acquisition, Will. That was a simple contract.”

“Right, one written by Garrett Wilkinson that you shredded.”

The famous name made my heart skip a beat, as it always did. He was the prime example of what an expensive education and inherited contacts could do for a lawyer. It helped that he was brilliant and also good-looking. I’d never actually met the man, but I knew I stood absolutely no chance against a man of his reputation.

“I didn’t shred anything. I just rewrote part of it,” I muttered.

“And impressed the hell out of him in the process.”

I almost laughed. “Doubtful. You should hire him instead.”

“He’s an estate attorney, not a corporate lawyer. Besides, I want you.” Those last three words warmed me in a way they shouldn’t. He said them to me every time we debated his proposal. I should be used to them by now, but I couldn’t shake the giddy sensation that blossomed deep within. Which was exactly why I kept saying no. I refused to allow this attraction to grow between us. Whether he intended to act on it or not remained moot. I’d sworn off men like him a long time ago, and I wasn’t about to break my rule now.

“I’m flattered, but I’m not interested.” In working for you, or otherwise. “I like working for Baker Brown. They’re one of the top firms in Chicago, and I have no intention of leaving them anytime soon.”

The waiter chose that moment to return with our wine. Excellent timing. I needed a drink, or twelve, to calm my nerves. Will always did this to me, even in the beginning. Men rarely flustered me, but he found a way each time. And he kept sweetening the offer, making it nearly impossible to refuse.

The opportunity itself was a dream job. Mershano Vineyards needed an attorney who specialized in corporate law to lead an international acquisition project. My education and experience tied nicely to the requirements, and managing a team of lawyers would look great on my resume. But there were other, more qualified candidates out there, and Will had to know that. Which was why I suspected he really only wanted me for the wrong reasons.

Will was the type of man who enjoyed a good game of cat and mouse, and I refused to sleep my way up the corporate ladder. When he finally realized that, he’d lose interest, and I’d likely be without a job. A harsh train of thought, sure, but realistic.

Maybe there was more to his offer, but I refused to let myself read into it. Because I knew if I found any truth in it, then I’d be more likely to accept, and I couldn’t risk it.

“Tell me about your firm,” Will said after the waiter finished pouring our drinks.

I finished half my glass before I gave the usual spiel reserved for potential clients. Not that he was one, but because it was easier. He listened patiently, asked all the right questions, and continued the discussion while we indulged in way too much food. He didn’t make me another offer, for which I was thankful, but I knew he hadn’t given up. Not by a long shot.

Evan and Sarah busied themselves with talking about a work-related trip and the nuances of the move for tomorrow. He had hired a company to pick up the boxes in the morning, and they planned to meet their belongings in New Orleans. I offered to oversee the move from my apartment so they could head home early, which meant I would be going home alone tonight.

“I’m going to miss you,” Sarah whispered as she hugged me tight.

“Me too.” And I would. Maybe not as a roommate, because I liked my space, but she was my best friend. I loved her like a sister.

“I’ll call you every day.”

“You better. And you better visit too.” Because I wouldn’t be able to visit her very easily. She would assume work was the reason, but it had nothing to do with my job and everything to do with my past. My former fiancé didn’t like me to travel, and he had abnormal resources at his disposal to keep me in Chicago.

“Definitely,” she promised. “Love you.”

“Love you too.”

Evan opened the door of a waiting car for her, and she slid inside. “You two behave,” he said, his gaze on Will.

“I always behave,” he replied, smirking.

“Right.” With a shake of his head, Evan joined Sarah in the back seat.

I smiled as they pulled away. My best friend had finally found a man worthy of her. His wealth and stature concerned me a bit, but if anyone could handle an influential man, it was Sarah.

“Let’s go, darlin’.” Will, the forever gentleman, insisted on walking me home since I’d finished half my bottle of wine by the end of dinner. He didn’t touch me but walked close enough for me to catch his spicy scent. I hated that it made my nostrils flare.

He was potent and he knew it. Every flash of a dimple, the confident way he moved, and the constant taunt in his gaze made for a toxic combination.

That, coupled with the alcohol, and I could admit he was downright attractive. And so not coming into my apartment tonight.

“Still no?” he asked as we paused at my door.

“I’m slightly buzzed, not drunk, so yep. Still no.”

“Good thing I didn’t take that bet,” he replied, grinning that cocky grin of his. “But I have hope, Miss Dawson. We’ll work together.”

“Uh-huh.” I patted his muscular chest and immediately regretted touching him. He radiated a heat that left me feeling so cold. I couldn’t even remember the last time I let a man entertain me. It wasn’t that I disliked sex. Quite the opposite. I loved it. But after the last time, I swore never to take a man to my bed again no matter how much I desired him. I refused to let anyone else get hurt as a result of knowing me.

Will cocked his hip against the wall while I slid my key into the lock. “Have a little faith, darlin’. We’ll get there.”

I stepped inside and turned to face him. “You really don’t know when to quit, do you?”

He braced his arms over the door frame and stared down at me. His pupils dilated as they dropped to my lips and slid back up. “Evan’s father once called my desire to own and run a winery a ‘pipe dream’ and insisted I give up. Now that ‘pipe dream’ is worth eight figures, and you know why? Because I didn’t quit.”

He dropped his arms and stepped just over the line into my personal space. I had to look up to hold his stare, which put our lips a few inches apart at best. This was a new tactic, and it halted the air in my lungs.

“I never quit when I want something, Miss Dawson.” He pressed even closer, his breath feathering over my parted lips, but still not touching me. “And as I’ve said, I want you.” He stood like that a moment longer, lingering, taunting, and making me wonder what he would do next.

Will he kiss me? Do I want him to?

Maybe . . .

But he pulled back and flashed that dimpled grin at me. “Have a good night, darlin’. I’ll see you soon.” He turned away with a playful wink.

Well, hell.

I stood gaping after him as he strode down the hall, hands in his jean pockets, his shoulders straightened with confidence. Arrogant man.

“I’ll still say no!” I called after him.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way, darlin’,” he returned.

I shut the door with a shake of my head and a smile on my face. This game, or whatever it was, had started out as annoying but seemed to be heading into entertaining territory. As long as I kept refusing him, of course. Once I gave in, the fun would end.

I took two steps toward the kitchen, when a knock sounded behind me. “Oh, good grief. I am not ready for another round, Mershano,” I said as I opened the door. “My answer . . .” My smile died as I met a pair of icy blue eyes that were nothing like Will’s dark ones.

“Ryan,” I breathed.

“Hi, baby girl.”

Chapter Two: Political Aspirations

My eyes darted to the chain on the door. I had it installed for moments like this, but being with Will had put my guard down. I didn’t even think to check before I opened the door either.

Ryan didn’t ask if he could come in. He never did. Just pushed the heavy wood forward and me backward along with it. He looked immaculate in his designer suit, his brown hair styled to perfection and his demeanor intimidating. It used to be a look that made my mouth water. Now all it did was push ice through my veins.

Six months.

We went six months without seeing each other. No calls, no notes, no nasty emails or unexpected late-night visits. I had taken it as a sign that maybe, finally, he was letting me go.

I walked away from him three years ago. It took considerable effort and help from an old friend to do it, but it happened. Ryan had tried for weeks to force me “home,” showing up every day at my friend’s apartment with a new taunt. It’d been the hardest months of my life, but I’d survived.

Because of Mark . . .

If he hadn’t been home that day . . .

But he was.

The memory of that afternoon elicited a grimace, as it always did. I hated that I couldn’t escape Ryan on my own, but I also acknowledged that reaching out to Mark for help was what empowered me. It gave me back my freedom. Or at least a semblance of it.

But Ryan had it in his head that he was the one who proposed a temporary break, which happened several months after I originally left him.

“You focus on your career, baby girl. I’ll be back when we’re both ready.” It’d been a taunt and a promise all wrapped up in one, and it haunted my nightmares.

Because he did in fact show up when and where he wanted and contacted me at least once every other week in some shape or form.

Then he vanished around the holidays, and I thought maybe, just maybe, he’d moved on or found someone else to obsess over.

But no.

It was a naive notion.

And I knew better.

Ryan Albertson did not simply forget about the things he deemed to be his property. He gave them space on occasion, but he always came back to check on what he considered to be his.

END SAMPLE

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