Everyone Has Secrets; Some More Devastating Than Others…
Presenting a brand new collection of page turning romance and suspense from NINE International USA Today Bestselling, Award-Winning Authors.
Nine stories, nine heart-wrenching soon to be revealed secrets. Can the truth really set them free?
Here are excerpts of the wonderful stories from Invincible Secrets
Georgia Moon by Jen Talty
“Whoa there, girl.” Luke Hannah pulled back on the reins as he approached what used to be his ranch but now belonged to the Whiskey family. Well, if had to sell his land, they were the only people he wanted to have it. He’d been thrilled to hear they’d turned it into a boarding house for their students and instructors.
But he never expected Georgia Moon would take up residence in his old master suite.
In the distance, he could see JB and Georgia Moon on the back deck by the pool. He raised his hand to wave, but Georgia Moon raced off into the house.
Either she hadn’t seen him.
Or she was avoiding him.
He hoped it was the former but suspected it was actually the latter. And he couldn’t blame her after everything he’d done. However, if JW could forgive him, then she should be able to, and he was going to do whatever it took to make her understand that he only did those things to save his sister from a crazy ex-husband.
JB stepped from the fenced-in area and greeted Luke with a wave of his hat and a smile. “When did you get into town?”
“Late last night,” Luke said. “Brought my sister and her baby with me. JW said we could stay at the manager’s cabin since Georgia Moon is living in my old place. Is she here?”
JB nodded. “But she’s really busy.”
“Avoiding me,” Luke said as he tied Misty Blue to the railing. He pulled a toothpick from his shirt pocket and plopped it between his teeth. “I don’t get it. She’s the one who pushed JW into talking to me after the whole Bella incident, and she did so by telling him that I did him a huge favor by sleeping with her in the first place.”
JB laughed. “You did, but are you really that blind?” JB glanced over his shoulder once. “Dude, she’s got it bad for you. Always has.”
Luke coughed. “I didn’t know that then, but JW certainly gave me an earful about her last night when I got here, but I’ll tell you what I told him. There are things about my life right now that are uncertain; I won’t put any of that on Georgia Moon.”
“Uncertain how? Once Robert is behind bars, you and your sister can have your lives back. I mean, her husband is dead. He can’t hurt her anymore.”
“I know. But it’s more than that. I’ve been living with Annette in Florida for the last year.” He waved his hand toward the ranch. “I don’t own this place, or any place anymore. I barely have two dimes to rub together. Trust me, I’m not fit for anyone, especially Georgia Moon.” The fact that Luke could easily let lie after lie roll off his tongue disturbed him, and it made him feel like he wasn’t much better than his father. He would testify next week at Robert’s trial, and then he had to decide if he wanted to attend his father’s execution or not.
That posed a different set of problems.
“That doesn’t answer my question,” JB said. “I’m sure JW gave his big brother lecture on kicking your ass—”
“I’m going to stop you right there. I care about your sister. She and I became really good friends before everything went down last year, but my life is in Florida, helping my sister. Not here. Not anymore.”
“Fair enough.” JB turned and pulled open the sliding doors. “I’ve got work to do. She’s probably in your old office. One of only two rooms she didn’t change. Everything else will look totally different.”
“That’s probably a good thing,” Luke said.
“And if she asks, I didn’t let you in.”
“Got it.” Luke held out his hand. “It’s good to see you, man.”
“You too. I wish you’d consider coming back. We could use a world-renowned trainer on our team.”
“Those days are long gone.” Luke slapped JB on the back. “I’ll see you later.” Tentatively, Luke stepped into what used to be his kitchen, only it looked nothing like what he remembered. When he owned the house, it was open to the family room and dining room. Now it was closed off like a galley kitchen.
Of course, it wasn’t meant to be a gathering place anymore. No. She’d turned it into a state-of-the-art kitchen with its only purpose to feed people.
He made his way down the long hallway toward his old office. His pictures were replaced with plaques and images of famous bull riders, though one of them was him. He let out a soft chuckle as he thumbed an image of him and JW, the one and only time Luke had beat him. He’d been twenty-one, and while his career was always one step behind JW, he had considered himself a huge success.
His pulse jumped. He’d spent two months trying to find dirt on JW and had come up empty-handed. Robert had accused him of not trying or holding back information, but the simple truth was that JW and his family were stand-up people, and the only skeleton they had in their closet had been a difficult childhood. During those two months, he’d successfully fended off Bella and her advances. Had he known her plan had been to get caught, he wouldn’t have slept with her.
There was no good reason for Luke’s actions. Hell, he probably wanted to get caught as well, but he doubted his subconscious wanted to hurt JW. No. It was more punishment for his piss-poor decisions.
But what choice did he have?
He took in a deep breath and rounded the corner. He paused at the doorway and stared at Georgia Moon, who sat behind his old desk. The only thing she’d changed in this room were the pictures on the wall, the trophies in the case, and the person who occupied it.
She raised her hand and twirled her hair with her fingers. He’d been mesmerized many times by this action, and it made his heart skip a beat every time. In what seemed like slow motion, she turned her head, and her lips parted.
“Hey there.” He took a few tentative steps into the room. “You look good.”
“So do you.” She leaned back in her chair. Her long dark hair cascaded over her shoulders. She wore jeans and a white tank top that hugged her body, showing off each glorious curve. “I bet Misty Blue was happy to see you.”
“She nearly threw me off when I mounted her from sheer excitement. Doesn’t anyone ride her?”
Georgia Moon raised her hand. “I ride the crazy monster and so does JW. Misty Blue even likes Kitty, but we haven’t chanced that. Kitty is a quick study, but she’s got a lot to learn about temperamental horses.”
“My sister says I have a lot to learn when it comes to women. She’s here, you know. With her son. He’s really adorable.”
“I’m glad Annette got that asshole out of her life.”
“You and me both.” Luke waved his arm. “Mind if I sit?”
“I’m really busy, Luke. I don’t have time to sit down and shoot the shit.” She folded her arms across her chest and kept her lips drawn into a tight line.
He made himself comfortable in the brown leather chair that he’d spent a small fortune on. “Why are you still so mad at me? I thought we were on good terms when you bought this place.”
“We’re not on bad terms,” she said.
That gave him a little bit of hope.
“That said, I struggle with the idea that you were paid to ruin my family. I didn’t know that when we bought your ranch. I’m not sure I would have talked my brother into taking your call had that juicy piece of information had been at my fingertips.”
“I was protecting my sister, and frankly, I’d do it again if it meant making sure my nephew wasn’t raised by his biological father.” He pumped his fingers, keeping his anger in check. No one knew the hell he’d lived the first ten years of his life, or the lasting effect it had on him, except his sister. “I know you and your brothers would do anything to safeguard each other.”
She dropped her hands to her lap and sighed. “I won’t deny that I would do anything for family, but you should have told us when you came to me for help. I thought you just wanted to make sure Robert didn’t grow his business. I didn’t know he paid you to be Bella’s whore.”
He let out a sarcastic laugh. “I felt like shit the entire time. Thanks for reminding me what a lowlife I am.” He stood and held his head up high. “I am profoundly sorry for what I did, and I’ve paid a huge price for my mistakes. All I want is for us to be friends again. I’m here until the trial is over, except for maybe one short trip to deal with some old business with my sister, who, by the way, is dying to meet you.”
Georgia Moon nodded. “You said you’d do it all over again, does that mean—”
He raised his hand. “No. I meant I’d do what I needed to do to help my sister, but I would have thought about double-crossing Robert. You have to remember, he held the cards. He had the power to destroy my sister’s life because of her husband, and he used that to make sure he got what he wanted. However, when I came up empty-handed, he and Bella went rogue.”
“And that’s the rub. You slept with her anyway.” Georgia Moon stood shaking her head. “But what is done is done.” She sashayed across the room and held out her hand.
He took it and rose. Staring into her dark-chocolate eyes, he smiled. “Does this mean we’re good?”
“Just don’t lie to me again, okay?”
Taking her chin between his thumb and forefinger, he prepared to lie. “I won’t.”
“Good. Now give me a proper hug.”
Resisting the urge to kiss her, he wrapped his arms around her body, tucking her head to his chest. He rested his chin on the top of her head and inhaled her coconut perfume.
She always smelled like a tropical rainy afternoon on the beach.
“Do you remember what tomorrow is?” she whispered.
He froze. His heart plummeted to his stomach. Of course, he remembered. For the rest of his life, he’d never be able to erase Joanie’s death. It had been what drew him to Idaho in the first place. He’d come here as a teenager to visit her grave and apologize. It had been the first time he’d laid eyes on the pretty Georgia Moon. She’d been all of sixteen years old with a wild streak. He’d hid in the shadows behind a large tree and watched her for thirty-two minutes while she talked to her dad’s friend, telling her all about the hot new ranch hand.
It wasn’t until years later that she asked him to join her at Joanie’s gravesite, but he couldn’t refuse Georgia Moon’s request. He had no valid reason, and he had been unable to come up with one on the spot.
“Will you come with me?”
“Of course,” he said softly. But this sealed his fate.
He would not be moving back to Buhl, Idaho. It would disappoint his sister, but they could find another ranch, in another state.
Away from the woman he’d have to spend the rest of his life lying to if he stayed. He couldn’t do that.
He loved her too much.
Kips Resolution by Alicia Street
“He’s the answer to your problem!” Willow squealed, practically jumping out of the booth they sat in at the Coffee Cove.
Mina gave her a look. “What on earth are you talking about?”
“That ‘little problem’ you’ve been agonizing over for so many years?”
“Oh that.” Mina’s cheeks flamed and she glanced around, but even though the eatery was crowded, no one was paying any attention to them. It was embarrassing enough to have reached the age of twenty-seven without ever bedding a man. Last thing she wanted was for any of the locals in her hometown to overhear this totally mortifying fact.
“Ask him to help you solve it.”
“Why would he want to bother with me?”
“Are you kidding? All men love the idea of being a woman’s first. It brings out some weird primitive side of their male ego that makes them want to pound their chests. Virgins are like buried treasure.”
“It won’t work.” Mina shoved her plate of salmon salad away. This conversation had her stomach in knots.
“Based on your experiences with him at Shannon’s house, he sounds like a friendly easygoing guy. Plus you’ve had the hots for him ever since you saw his photo at Tate and Shannon’s house.”
Mina sighed. “That’s exactly why it would never work. The minute Kip senses I’m into him, he would run the other way.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Yes, I do. Guys like him don’t look twice at someone like me. And that’s okay because most of them are arrogant jerks I would never be interested in as a boyfriend. He’s probably one too. Truth is, I’m not all that interested in having a man at all.”
“Okay, maybe I would, but I think it’d be best to get this over with by choosing someone who doesn’t really attract me. That way it won’t get complicated.”
“Sorry to shock you, sweetie, but attraction is what this is all about.”
“Maybe I should encourage Richard.”
“No!” Willow slapped her hand on the table and Mr. and Mrs. Polaski who were sitting at a table near their booth looked over.
Mina rubbed a hand over her face. “I do not want to have this conversation in public.”
Willow leaned forward and lowered her voice. “We are finishing this conversation. Today. What if he leaves town while you’re hemming and hawing? You’ll have missed your chance. Last time we watched a rom-com you were almost in tears saying you were doomed to die a virgin. That you were terrified of turning into a dried up old prune. You swore you were going to sleep with the next guy you dated. But did you? No.”
Mina wrinkled her nose. “I couldn’t. Nathan just didn’t turn me on. I’ll try with Richard.”
“That’s not gonna work because you are not really attracted to him. Having sex has to be fun, exciting, wonderful. You’re not going to get that with Richard. He is too much like you. He prefers spreadsheets to people.”
“I do not.”
“You need a guy who’s going to loosen you up, get your juices flowing, get you all hot and bothered.” Willow gave her a sly grin. “Somebody like hunky Mr. Rocklyn.”
Mina fiddled with her napkin, remembering the way she felt the last few times she was near Kip. That surge of tingling heat that went through her just looking at him. How she could barely control the urge to touch him.
“And best of all,” Willow added with a grin, “He is only here temporarily. So you could do a no-strings-attached fling. Bing, bang, boom. Your virginity is gone and so is the guy who knows your secret. Then when you finally meet somebody you want to get serious with, you will be an experienced woman.”
Alana by Denise Devine
Reid placed crisp slices of bacon on thick paper towels covering a large cutting board and turned off the heat under the pan. “So, what are your plans for today?”
Alana sighed as she helped Hannah get into her booster seat. “You mean after I check my email for replies to my job applications? More packing and cleaning, I guess. I’ve finished the dining room and now I have to haul all of the boxes to storage. Why, did you have something else in mind? A new lead to investigate so I can put it off for one more day?”
He opened a cabinet and took out a couple plates. “You need a security system on the premises. I was thinking of getting some equipment today and setting it up. You’re not safe any longer staying in that house by yourself.”
Alana rested her chin on the palm of her hand. “This town is one place I never thought I’d feel unsafe. It makes me sad. My condo in downtown Minneapolis is more secure than the town of Merrick seems to be. If I can’t feel protected in my grandmother’s house, where can I go?” She looked up. “What has happened to this world?”
“I don’t know,” Reid said as he set the plates and silverware on the table. Reaching into the refrigerator, he pulled out a container of orange juice and set it on the table along with a pitcher of syrup and a plate of butter. “The principal reason I moved here was to get my daughter out of the city, but it’s become evident that the issues I had with living in the city have followed me here.”
He set two platters filled with the pancakes and bacon on the table and sat down. “Let’s put this discussion on hold for now and enjoy our breakfast.”
They passed the platters back and forth, piling their plates with food and were discussing the fact that Hannah would be starting school soon, when the door to the screen porch swung open.
“Knock, knock!” Jemma’s clear voice rang out. “Good morning!”
Alana froze, her fork suspended in mid-air. Sitting at Reid’s table in her bathrobe made her look as guilty as sin…
Hannah fed a piece of bacon to the dog.
“I hope you don’t mind my coming over so early, Reid, but I bought some fresh kolacky on sale at the bakery and—”
Wearing a long, sweeping cape in dark green, Jemma stopped at the kitchen door and gasped, dropping the box of kolacky on the floor.
Alana dropped her fork. It clattered on the table.
Reid choked on his coffee.
Dusty pushed a kolacky with her nose and began to wolf it down.
For a moment, no one spoke as the shock of Jemma’s untimely arrival sunk in.
“Well,” Jemma said dramatically, her gaze scanning the scene, “I can clearly see what’s going on here.” She glared at Alana. “You just couldn’t resist, could you?”
Reid pushed back his chair and sprang to his feet. “Jemma, please, it’s not what you think.”
Jemma laughed, though tears were already forming in her moss-colored eyes. “Don’t insult me, Reid. It’s exactly what I think. You two have been sneaking around together behind my back since the day you met.” She pointed an accusing finger at Alana. “She told me all about it!”
Alana stood up. “Jemma, that’s not true! We haven’t done anything wrong; I swear!” Jemma whirled around to leave, but Alana rushed to her side. “Please, Jemma, don’t leave. Let’s talk this over. I can explain. Reid is right, the situation is not how it looks. Far from it.”
Jemma stopped and gripped the door. “You just don’t get it, do you?”
Alana blinked. “What do you mean?”
“I mean,” Jemma said slowly, “you’re so used to having it all that you just don’t understand what it’s like to be lonely and alone. To want for anything. You’re beautiful and smart and self-confident. I’ve always been in awe of you—and I’ve always stood in your shadow watching you excel in everything you put your mind to do.” Her voice trembled. “You can have any man you want, but I guess having any guy isn’t as fun as taking mine away from me.”
“Oh, Jemma,” Alana said softly. “I didn’t know you felt that way and I’m sorry if I’ve ever done anything to make you feel less than the most important person in the world to me. Please, sit down and I’ll explain everything.”
“There’s nothing to explain except how we went from best friends to this….” Jemma shook her head. “I must be the world’s biggest fool. Excuse me, but I have to go.”
“No, don’t leave because of me. You’re not the biggest fool. I am,” Alana said, her voice breaking. “I should never have agreed to stay on here while my parents went on their anniversary trip. Though I meant well, I’ve done nothing but cause trouble.” She turned away and headed toward the stairway to the second floor, but stopped at the living room doorway and stared at Reid. “You don’t need to bother with setting up a security system. I won’t need it now. As soon as I change clothes, I’m leaving Merrick. And I’m never coming back.”
She turned and ran through the house, nearly blinded by tears. She’d lost her grandmother, the house that gave her the best memories and now her closest friend. All because of a man. When would she ever learn?
The Sister Pact by Jacquie Biggar
Holly Tremaine glared after the cabbie who’d just driven away with her carefully wrapped Christmas gifts in the backseat. She’d done everything short of flying to catch his attention, all to no avail. Now what was she going to do? She hadn’t even caught the number of his taxi. The car was blue and white, and the cab driver had been an older man with pictures of his two grandchildren taped to his dash—that’s all the information she had.
What a mess.
The bluebird of lost hopes—aka the cab—disappeared into the busy Victoria traffic leaving Holly alone to face her past. She swallowed hard and turned toward her parents’ imposing two-story townhouse. The dismal day blended with the gray stone and black iron accents that had intimidated her as a child—nice to see some things remained the same.
Sighing, she tightened her grip on the carry-on bag she’d limited herself to for the flight—which is why she was now giftless—and trudged toward the big oak doors as though she were fighting her way through quicksand. Great. Not even in the house and she already regretted the trip.
The sign below the bell was no less glaring for the elegant script; No Soliciting, Fundraising, Salesmen, Religion or Politics- Thank you.
As though attaching manners at the end softened the cold tone the message conveyed. That was her parents in a nutshell.
She jabbed the bell like it was a release valve for her frustration. The rain that had held off while she dashed from store to store began to fall—a misty drizzle that sank into Holly’s clothes and turned her hair lank in a matter of seconds. Wet and miserable, she waited for someone to let her in.
The door swung back revealing a yawning black maw—or so it seemed in that moment. The one person Holly had hoped to avoid stood in the entry.
“Holly.” Susan looked down her slender, too perfect, nose. “You’re late.”
Holly blew a wayward strand of wet hair away from her face and tried to ignore the tic developing over her right eyebrow. “Well, I’m here now. Better late than never, right?” She glanced over her shoulder at the curtain of rain. “Mind letting me in? It’s cold out here.” She smiled and took a step forward, forcing her sister to move or get plowed down.
The grand entrance was just as inhospitable as she remembered. Dark wood climbed the walls while marble tile covered the floor like a layer of ice. Eight years and nothing had changed.
“Where are they?” she asked, though she knew the answer by glancing at her watch. Five o’clock, time for pre-dinner drinks in the lounge.
“Mom and Dad? Or Steven?”
The nervous tap-tapping of Susan’s glossy black pump told Holly she wasn’t nearly as calm as she pretended. For her part, Holly couldn’t control the fluttering in her stomach at the thought of seeing Steven after all these years. Her sister looked… older—harder. Maybe married life hadn’t turned out like she expected. Was it wrong Holly hoped that was true?
“I just arrived, Sue.” They’d both used nicknames for each other as children. “Can we save the arguing until tomorrow? I’m beat.”
Susan’s expression softened as though she, too, regretted the distance that had grown between them. “Hols, we need to…”
“Who was at the door, darling? Your parents are acting even stranger than normal.” Steven approached from down the hall, his view obstructed by his wife.
Breathe, Holly. She was going to hyperventilate and embarrass herself by passing out on the floor at their feet, she could see it now. Well, she could if not for the black dots dancing before her eyes. Oh man, he was every bit as striking as she remembered. Movie star handsome. And at one time, the love of her life. No matter how many pep-talks she’d given herself, nothing could have prepared her for this.
Her vision blurred. She leaned hard on the handle of her luggage as her knees wobbled, then gasped as the wheels slipped out from under her and she went down, landing hard on her elbow.
“Ow,” she muttered, almost as an afterthought, too busy trying to control her flip-flopping tummy. “I don’t feel so good.” At least the tiles were cool on her back—small favors.
“Take it easy,” a rich, deep voice murmured. And then he was there. Warm hands cradled her head while wide shoulders blocked the vision of Susan’s surprisingly worried expression. Strange, she thought Susan would be laughing at her predicament.
“I’m fine,” she snapped, wriggling to escape Steven’s hold. But then she looked into his eyes and froze. Steven’s eyes were the blue of a midnight sky. These eyes matched the winter storm lashing the windowpanes—grim and steely. “You,” she whispered, stunned.
“Were you hoping for someone else?” Steven’s annoying, pain-in-her-butt brother asked.
Holly lay back and closed her eyes. “Why can’t I catch a break?”
All of Nothing by Natalie Ann
In the end, she drove home after her shift despite the fact she really wanted to go to his house. At one point, she started to turn her car in that direction, but then chickened out and went home instead.
The minute she walked in the door she wished she hadn’t though. Realization dawned. She wanted to spend the night with him and almost turned around, walked back out the door and drove across town to his place.
Instead, she made a cup of tea, brought it back to her bedroom, and sipped it in bed while she looked through an old photo album from her childhood.
Turning page after page, reminiscing over fond memories—which were so long ago and diminishing rapidly—fighting back the emotions and thinking of Ben.
She needed to make some serious decisions soon because things were moving fast with Ben, and she had to decide if she was ready to take the step toward him.
He hadn’t said anything different, hadn’t acted any different, or even put pressure on their relationship. But she knew enough about him by now—and his family. His family was close, closer knit than anything she had ever witnessed.
He was slowly pulling her into his life. She wanted to be part of that life—wished to be part of it more than anything she had wished for in her adult life.
Those fears that had lingered in her mind for years had to be pushed back first though. Fears of being left alone again if things didn’t work out.
It was too early to even know right now. For as much as she knew about him, there was still plenty that she didn’t. Surprisingly, she wanted to. She wanted to know what made him tick, what made him move, and what made him into the man he was today.
He hadn’t talked about Trent at all since that one night a week ago when he had a nightmare. But one other night he was mumbling in his sleep, whispered sounds, urgent sounds, and she swore she heard Trent’s name.
There was definitely something going on there. He was good at hiding whatever it was. Nevertheless, she saw. She had a feeling Kaitlin did too, and that was what Kaitlin had meant weeks ago when she said she hoped Presley helped Ben heal.
Presley was good at keeping secrets. She had plenty of them herself, which was why she sensed that Ben did also.
Besides the situation with Trent, whatever that might be, Presley had a feeling there were more secrets that Ben had. Secrets about his past in the service that no one knew about and would never know.
So until she could get a grasp on them, or how he was handling them, she was going to stay one step back regardless. She didn’t need to take on someone else’s past, not when hers was enough to overwhelm her as it was.
There would always be obstacles in their way until they both came clean. Unfortunately, she wasn’t sure she could ever come clean with her past. Not the complete truth of it all. Some things were just too hard to share with anyone.
The Set Up by Dani Haviland
“Not bad,” Victoria said as she looked over the linen-covered tables laden with silver chafing dishes of hot meats and sauces, and cut-crystal platters of fresh fruits, canapes, and intricately carved and formed vegetables. “Just make sure you pick up something quick to chew and swallow that won’t stick in your teeth or stain them. Better yet, just grab some celery to play with. Give them a little preview of how sweet your long fingers will look, running up and down…”
“Mother!” Grace hissed. She cleared her throat, nodding to a worried man who looked to be the butler or someone else in charge of keeping order. She quickly got her embarrassment under control and asked, “You did get the invitation situation cleared up, I hope.” Oh, Lord, I hope you didn’t get it cleared up. If they throw us out, we’ll be ruined. Even F-list men won’t want me. I’ll be free again!
“Silas!” Victoria gushed, her hand out, ready to paw the arm of the man in charge of checking invitations. “I didn’t know you worked in this neighborhood. Nice digs,” she added, nodding to the elaborate ice sculptures on the tables, then the young men rushing back and forth with trays of champagne flutes.
“I’m doing well, thank you for asking,” Silas said guilelessly, then looked aside, as if he wished she hadn’t spotted him.
“Oh, and this is my daughter, Grace. Say hello to Silas, dear,” she prompted. Her hand lay on Grace’s forearm, fingers clutching gently, reminding her to play her part.
Grace looked to make sure her mother was turned away, watching for available suitors, before she said, “Hello, Silas,” then mouthed the word, ‘dear.’
Silas’s mouth twitched in a grin as she playfully repeated what her mother had told her to, then quickly returned to somber when he saw Victoria look back at them. “It’s a pleasure,” he said. He turned to Victoria and added, “If there’s anything I can do for you, Mrs. Stillwater, please don’t hesitate to ask.”
“Well, now that you mention it, Silas,” she said, her hands leaving Grace and settling on his upper arm. “We would love an introduction to one, or all, of the Armstrong brothers. You see, it doesn’t really make a difference which one we meet first,” Victoria said. “I hear they’re all such interesting men.”
Silas flashed his phony smile, acknowledging the truth of what she had just said, but hiding his true feelings from her. His stomach knotted at being near this social lamprey who was obviously siccing her disinterested daughter on whichever of the rich brothers took a fancy to her.
The gentleman’s gentleman had first encountered Victoria Stillwater years ago when he was working for another family and she was still a newlywed. She was slobbering drunk at the time, and he had only been employed by the banker and his family for a week when she hit on him. She rubbed her bony fanny up against him, then turned and grabbed him in the crotch when she thought no one was looking. He covered up the shock of her fumbled clutch, pretending he had a sudden gut pain, but his boss had seen the whole episode. The only good that had come out of her botched flirt was his employer had seen that he was capable of discretion under pressure.
He stayed with the banker until he died, enjoying a comfortable relationship with the confirmed bachelor. In appreciation, the old man left him his huge house and a very comfortable inheritance.
Silas no longer had to work but still very much enjoyed the people watching – the social sambas and tangos – that blossomed at galas and parties. He let it be known to local families that he would be available for big events where a cool head and discerning eye were needed – situations like tonight where multiple party-crashers had already dropped in. Some of the revelers were looking for introductions, others to pinch a silver salver or two, a few just wanting free food and drink. Discretion in ejecting wayward sorts was a top priority; bad publicity and the need for law enforcement was to be avoided.
He looked up, presumably searching for one of the young Armstrong men, but really trying to read the beautiful young girl with dark blonde hair. She couldn’t be more than a recent high school graduate, a gentle soul who appeared to have no interest in her mother’s hunt for a husband for her. The sadness behind the young girl’s eyes couldn’t be hidden by the expert application of makeup or the feigned smile that was fading as the moments passed.
Yes, his gut impression was right. It was the mother who was on the prowl, seeking a mate for her pup. It was obvious to him that the humbled lass had her sights set on someone who was not in this thoroughbred stable. More than likely, she had chosen an open range mustang and Mom had shotgunned him out of the territory, scared him away with emasculating threats.
“Oh, isn’t that one of the sons?” Victoria exclaimed, grabbing Silas’s arm, bringing him out of his introspection. She realized what she had done, glad that she had only nodded in Alex’s direction and not pointed. “Isn’t that Armando?” she asked.
“No, ma’am,” Silas said, enunciating the generic salutation, refusing to call her by name. “That is Alexander, although I don’t think anyone ever calls him by his full name. I suggest Alex for addressing him.”
“Oh, yes,” Victoria agreed. “Al is such a common name. It sounds like the name of a plumber or car mechanic, not an architect.”
Silas glanced over at the young woman. She was suppressing a grin at her mother’s obvious prejudice when it came to names, snapping back to primness when her mother turned her way.
“It looks like he’s ready for a fresh drink,” Silas said. “Let me see if he’s available.”
As soon as her social coordinator was out of earshot, Victoria clutched Grace’s arm, her fingers digging into the bare flesh. Grace flinched and her mother relaxed her grip, hoping she hadn’t inadvertently left a mark. “Remember to let him do the talking. It’s fine to give him prompts. Ask him about his latest project, where he likes to vacation, anything positive.” She looked up and saw Silas speaking with him, then glancing her way. “Smile, Grace. Show him your perfect teeth, but don’t open your mouth too wide. I don’t want you to appear too eager.”
Grace smiled at the irony. Eager? I’m the opposite of eager. Her slight smile widened as she noticed the eye roll of the party manager. Looks like Silas has us pegged. I may be missing the parties with my friends, but if Mother gets her comeuppance at this gala, it will be worth it.
Perfectly at peace for the first time since her mother had ‘caught and broke’ her, Grace was radiant in her momentary serenity as the two men approached. She briefly caught the scent of her mother’s perfume, her body’s nervous sweat setting off the high-dollar aroma. Better her than me. She’s a nervous wreck! And I am so enjoying her discomfort…
“Mrs. Victoria Stillwater,” Silas said, positioning himself between the two parties. “May I introduce the first son of our host. This is Alexander Armstrong,” winking at the man when he used the full version of his first name.
“Alex,” he said, winking back, then accepted the proffered hand. He reached to shake it, then realized Victoria was holding it up for him to kiss. He stifled his chuckle at the formality and brushed his lips across her cold knuckles. He stood up and looked at the young woman beside her. “And you are?”
“I’m sorry,” Silas said. “I didn’t get your name, Miss.”
“I’m Grace Elizabeth Stillwater, but Grace or ‘Hey, you!’ will get my attention,” she said, making sure she didn’t laugh out loud at her own joke.
“Well, then, Grace it is,” Alex said, now totally intrigued with the good-looking party crasher. “Silas, why don’t you show Mrs. Stillwater to the more comfortable seating inside. I think Grace and I would like to take a walk. You would like to see the stables, wouldn’t you?”
“You have horses?” Grace asked, then playfully smacked her forehead. “Let’s hope so. I don’t think you have stables for camels or ostriches…or do you?”
Alex put his arm across her shoulder. “Where have you been all my life?” he asked, then looked back to make sure they wouldn’t be followed.
Silas’s hand was on Victoria’s elbow, urging her toward the pavilion. “Let’s leave them alone, shall we?”
Victoria took a step to follow the young couple, then halted. She’d have to trust Grace not to blow her first chance at bedding the billionaire’s son. Then again, there were still two more brothers. It would serve the brat right if she did choose the wrong one the first time.