The Bridal Candidate 1 Sample

The Bridal Candidate 1 by Linda Verji 1600x2500

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Chapter 1


Heart Connections by Donna V

“What a load of bullshit,” Damián Colter mumbled under his breath as he stared at the sign that marked the building’s entrance.

There was no such thing as a heart connection when it came to marriage. Only money connections, name connections or sex connections. Love was a con; nothing but a mirage expertly conjured by charlatans to blind unsuspecting idiots as they sucked them dry of whatever they could. Thank God he’d opened his eyes in time.

The thought of love and relationships was enough to give him a chill despite the heated Alabama air swirling around him.

What the hell was he even doing here?

Oh yeah! Zoe.

Taking a deep breath and steeling his shoulders, Damián stepped into the building. A small arrow marked ‘Heart Connections’ and plastered to the cream wall pointed him up the narrow stairway. He took the stairs two at a time to the mezzanine floor. A glass door, with the words ‘Heart Connections: Everyone deserves love’ embossed on it, marked his destination.

The moment he pushed the door open, cool air laced with something sweet brushed across his face displacing the heat of summer. Heart Connections was everything he expected a matchmaking service to be. The reception area was a large, open and airy space enclosed by pristine white walls and large windows overlooking the busy townscape. White wicker loveseats with pastel green cushions were artfully arranged around the room and backed by wicker and glass coffee-tables. Large picture frames hosting happy couples lined the walls intermittently broken by abstract paintings and potted plants. To cap the easy yet romantic ambience, instrumentals of old-school rhythms played softly in the background.

“Good morning.” The perky dark-skinned receptionist smiled at him as she rose from behind the reception desk. “Welcome to Heart Connections. I’m Cara.”

“Thank you, Cara.” Shifting his car keys to his left palm, Damián accepted the hand she offered. “I have an appointment with Ms. Vaughn for eleven a.m. Damián Colter.”

“A minute, please.” Cara turned to her computer, tapped on the keyboard a few time before nodding. “Please have a seat while I inform Ms. Vaughn that you’re here.”

While the receptionist knocked then entered through the door on the right side of the room, Damián settled into one of the loveseats. Atop the coffee-table sat a bunch of magazines. He expected to find only bridal and wedding crap, but was pleasantly surprised to find the Financial Times, a copy of the day’s newspaper… there was even a Car. Picking up the Car, he thumbed through the glossy pages while he waited.

“Ms. Vaughn is finishing up with a client and will be just a few minutes,” Cara said when she returned. “Can I offer you something while you wait?”

“Cold water,” Damián returned curtly. He didn’t like waiting – actually people, especially those working for him, rarely if ever kept him waiting. He cast an eye towards the clock. Realizing that it was only ten-thirty, he decided to give her fifteen more minutes, and only because he’d done his research.

Despite the fact that Heart Connections wasn’t exactly booming and that its current owner wasn’t married, the company had a staggeringly good success rate. A fair percentage of their matches led to marriage. And compared to other matchmaking services, their divorce rate was comfortingly low. Research aside, if Aiko Vaughn wasn’t done by ten forty-five, he’d find another matchmaker.

Lucky for her, at exactly ten forty-three, the door to her office opened and two women exited. Aiko was distinctive enough that he pegged her right on sight. She stood several inches above the pallid sixtyish woman walking beside her. Her figure was lip-licking sexy; an ample bust cinched into a tiny waist and flared into thick hips. The all-white sheathe dress she wore smoothed over her delicious curves and set off her bronzed skin and jet-black curly hair magnificently. But it was the jagged scar running from the edge of her left eye down to her cheek that drew Damián’s gaze back to her face.

“… and you’re not going to get me any faddy daddies, right?” the elderly woman asked.

“No faddy daddies,” Aiko promised with a smile. There was something about her wide smile that seemed to bring all her features alive and camouflage her scar. It was the kind of smile you wanted to fall into and never come crawling out of. When she said, “Trust me,” it was no wonder that the older lady nodded eagerly in response. Damián fought not to return her smile when she turned her attention to him.

“You must be Mr. Colter,” she said.

“I am.” Damián nodded as he set the magazine aside then stood to greet her.

“It’s nice to meet you.” The hand that met his was warm and dainty, and her handshake was firm. She didn’t linger on the greeting. She gave him a quick and impersonal once over before she turned to her receptionist. “Cara, why don’t you finish up with Idi while Mr. Colter and I talk?”

Damián was oddly disappointed when her gaze didn’t linger on him as other women’s usually did. He swiftly tapped down on his disappointment; he wasn’t here for her approval – just her services. However that didn’t mean he couldn’t appreciate the woman’s assets. As he followed Aiko to her office he couldn’t prevent the automatic lowering of his gaze to her ass; and what an ass it was – round, full and begging to be touched.

“Mr. Colter,” Aiko yanked him from his errant observation as she turned and his gaze jerked upwards quickly to meet hers. “Please have a seat.”

He took the offered loveseat. “Damián.”

“I’m sorry?” Her brow arched in question.

“You can call me Damián,” he clarified.

“Damián.” She nodded. His ego crowed when she pronounced his name with a slight Spanish accent just the way he liked it. He caught the slight scent of her flowery perfume as she took the one-seater adjacent to his seat, and enjoyed the brief flash of silky smooth skin before she smoothed the skirt of her dress over her thighs. “So, Damián, you mentioned that you were looking for someone in your email but we didn’t really get to talk. What exactly are you looking for? A friend, lover, wife…”

“… a mother.” Damián finished her sentence. “I’m looking for a mother for my daughter.”

“O-okay.” She drew out the word. “Why don’t you tell me about a bit about yourself so we can figure out what type of partner you’re looking for?”

“You don’t understand.” He leant forward in his seat. “It doesn’t matter whether she and I match. I just want a woman capable of raising a twelve year old and I’m willing to pay for her.”

Aiko’s eyebrows shot right up to her hairline. “Excuse me?”

“I’m offering marriage and ten thousand dollars per month to any woman who can raise my daughter.”

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Chapter 2


Damián Colter was everything the magazines had claimed he was and more.

Aiko had done her research, as she usually did for all potential clients, but nothing could’ve prepared her to meet the man in person. Now that he was here she could see why the women of Montgomery had kept him on the list of top-five most eligible bachelors in the city for ten years running.

Tall? Check. At over six feet solid muscle, he dwarfed everything around him. She was by no means the shortest woman around but in his presence she felt like she was the china shop to his bull. She was keenly aware of his elegant lean, long length sprawled on the loveseat.

Dark? Check. His skin was a delicious tanned shade of olive that only heritage could’ve created. Handsome? Check… Actually scratch that and replace with too pretty for his own good. His haircut was a bit too long for a conventional businessman and a silky brown lock fell carelessly over his brow drawing attention to his eyes; dark, grey eyes that seemed to lure you in, promising endless and delicious secrets.

Mysterious? Check. There was precious little about the man in the press. Most of the articles about him were business-related. The only close to personal thing she’d found out was that three years ago he’d been briefly engaged to a woman named Holly but the engagement ended abruptly. No more details. Not that the lack of details into his personal life had quelled feminine interest in him. He had quite a vibrant fan club. In fact Aiko had found a lot of very explicit fan fiction about him online. No, she hadn’t read it. Okay, maybe she’d glanced at it – but it was for research.

Rich? Stinking! Despite the careless haircut, the light fuzz on his chin, and his casual jeans and shirt combo, Damián was not only a member of one of the city’s most affluent families but had gone ahead to make his own fortune in the aero-technology field.

There was only one thing the magazines had forgotten to mention.

Crazy? Bat-shit crazy.

“She’s got to be older than twenty five.” Damián played with the Mercedes Benz emblazoned car-key in his hand as he laid down his list of requirements. “She has to have her own children or at least be in a profession that requires constant handling of them.”

Aiko couldn’t even believe that she was sitting here listening to him rattle his order like he was in line at a take-out diner and ordering a burger. They’d had a lot of strange customers in Heart Connections. They’d had the man who only dated Yugoslavians who weighed under ninety pounds and couldn’t speak English. They’d had the woman who wanted all potential mates respectful, owning their own home and measured for dick size. They’d had them all, but Damián was… new territory.

Usually, she dealt with clients like those by pointing out their own flaws and reminding them that they shouldn’t expect her to find them Mr. or Ms. Perfection when they weren’t that perfect themselves. Then she’d start the conversation by asking them what personality traits and values they were bringing to the table that a potential mate would want. Damián however seemed to think that ten thousand dollars per month was all the personality he needed.

She fought to keep the distaste from spilling into her expression as she nodded along to his words.

“I don’t expect her to quit her job,” Damián continued, “but I expect that her schedule will be flexible enough that she’ll be home when Zoe is.”

Before she could stop herself, she stated the obvious, “Have you considered just hiring a nanny?”

Her question drew the first indication of discomfort from Damián. He shifted slightly in his seat, his gaze lowered and he raked his fingers through his hair, ruffling the strands and making her itch to smooth it down for him. He stated simply, “I have needs.”

Oh, he wanted a nanny and an escort.

Her dislike radar climbed a few hundred notches. Pretending she didn’t understand what he meant, Aiko screwed her expression into one of confusion. “Needs?”

“Sex.”His dark eyes met hers. “I don’t expect or want love but she needs to be agreeable to sessions at least three times a week.”

She’d heard sex called many things – sessions was not one of them. Behind her calm exterior, amusement bubbled and Aiko couldn’t hide the slight tilt of her lips. Damián picked up on it. “Something funny, Ms. Vaughn?”

“Nothing. Nothing.” She crossed her leg over the knee of the other. Damián’s eyes immediately followed her movement but met hers again when she drew his attention. “It seems like you’re looking for a business deal rather than a real marriage.”

“This will be a real marriage.” Damián’s voice was insistent as he leant forward. “At least it’s realer than anything else you’re offering those people.” He gestured towards a picture of a happy couple on the wall.

The potshot was subtle but Aiko caught it and her hackles rose. However, her tone didn’t change in cadence as she asked, “How do you figure?”

“We’re both walking in eyes wide open,” he surmised. “I know she wants my money, and she knows that I want sex and a mother for my daughter. No surprises.”

“Marriage comes with surprises,” she stated. “People change and so do their expectations.”

“How would you know?” He arched an eyebrow. “You’ve never been married.”

That pricked. But he was right. She was just restating what she’d heard her mother, Donna, say to clients over and over again. Her own love life was a blank page with just one name written at the top.

Lincoln Ware.

Theirs had been an intense four month affair in Iraq in between dodging IEDs, snipers and suicide bombers. But it’d been everything. She knew what it felt like to be loved; to know that you were the most important person in someone’s life; to know that you were the first face they wanted to see when they woke up to battle and the last face they wanted to see when they died on the field. Loving Lincoln had been like being doused in opium, injected with ecstasy and then lit up. She’d craved him night and day as he’d craved her, been willing to lay her life down for him as he’d laid down his for her.

Everyone deserved a Lincoln at least once in their lifetime.

And it just didn’t feel right to inflict Damián to any woman out there.

Gathering her words and herding her voice to display the appropriate level of regret, she said, “Unfortunately, I don’t think Heart Connections can match you.”

“I thought your tagline was everyone deserves love,” he scoffed, “or is that just a pretty decoration for your door?”

“You’re right. Our door does say everyone deserves loves. But you see Mr. Colter…” Her voice practically dripped of fake sweetness as she her lips stretched out in a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “… we can only help those who are looking for it. And you’re not.”

If there was anything she’d learnt from working with her mother, it was that in this business the clients were often wrong. Many times, what they thought they wanted wasn’t what they really needed. It was Heart Connections’ job to guide them towards what they needed. If the client insisted on being right and wasn’t open to negotiation, then Heart Connections reserved the right to kick them to the curb – politely of course. It was what had kept them at the top of their game.

Damián didn’t look like the type of man who wanted to negotiate his ‘needs’. He watched her in silence as her comeback reverberated in the room. A few moments later, his eyes narrowed and he sat back in the seat with his arms crossed over his chest. “What’s your going rate to match someone?”

“Like I said, we won’t be able to-“

His words slashed across hers, “Humor me.”

Even though all she wanted to do was grab his arm and escort him out of her office, she said, “We charge a flat rate of five hundred dollars for a personalized mixer, and one hundred dollars per blind-date.”

“I’ll pay you five thousand to match me.”

Not only was the guy crazy he was also selectively deaf.

“Thank you for your offer, Mr. Colter, but we are unable to help you at this time.” She stood to indicate an end to their meeting. “However, when you’re ready for a real relationship, we’ll be glad to help out.”

 

* * * * *

 

“I’M JUST SAYING, Auntie.” Cara shook her head in disappointment. “You lost us a cool five grand.”

“Who was I supposed to match him with?” Aiko asked even as she kept her eyes on the road.

“Cashmere.”

Aiko burst into laughter. “That gold-digger? No.”

“But he was looking for a gold-digger,” her niece insisted, “and Cash is looking for a gold mine. The Perfect Match by Aiko V.”

“You’re wrong for that.” Aiko chuckled. Despite Cara being nine years younger than her, Aiko loved working with her. The nineteen year-old was mature, hardworking, fun to be around and extremely courteous to clients.

There was not a day that Aiko didn’t thank God for prodding Cara to register at a college that was close by instead of going up north like she’d always threatened. There was no way Heart Connections would’ve found a part-timer who would’ve agreed to take as low a salary as she was paying Cara. Her other receptionist took home almost double Cara’s pay. As soon as Aiko had Heart Connections rip-roaring again, she promised herself she’d give her niece a large bonus.

Pulling up in front of Little Theresa Preschool, Aiko craned her neck in search of the kids, just in time to see them racing towards the car, a thoroughly harassed teacher toddling after them. The moment Aiko exited the car, they both lunged for her.

“Mommy.””Auntie.” At four and five respectively, Seraphina and Michael were a bundle of energy and it took both Aiko and Cara to strap them into their seats.

“Mommy, Mookie got in trouble with the teacher today,” Seraphina tattled as Aiko drove away from the school.

“I did not. I did not.” Michael whined from the back. “Phia’s lying.”

Practiced in negotiating peace agreements between the two feudalistic kids, Aiko managed to divert their attention to what they’d learnt today as she drove them home. She’d just turned right at the forked road that led to their street when she saw him; the gaunt, stooped man trudging along the dirt side-path. He was in stripped pajamas and socks with no shoes.

“Is that Papi?” Cara asked.

It was.

Aiko pulled the car up at the side of the road and exited it. Coming up behind him, she touched his arm slightly. “Daddy.”

A startled Samuel turned to her. Confusion creased his dark face and folded his brow as he stared at her. The expression along with the heavy salt and pepper of his hair aged him beyond his sixty-two years. Suddenly his lined face lit up in a bright smile. “Donna, I was looking for you.”

“I’m here.” Aiko felt her heart constrict and tears prick the back of her throat as she led him towards the car. “Come on let’s go home.”

Samuel Vaughn was a pale shadow of the man he’d been before Alzheimers had ravaged his mind. Looking at him now, it was hard to imagine this was the same Sammy V who’d plucked at the heartstrings of lovers all around the world with his ballads.

It was hard to imagine he was the same man whose lap she’d sat on countless times, her ear pressed to his throat and reveling in the vibrations of his voice as he sung to her. It was hard to imagine that this was the same man their mother had called her soul. Donna’s death a year ago had sped up his descent into a world where memories were like soap bubbles that burst the moment he tried to grab at them.

The moment she settled him in the backseat with Seraphina and Michael, Samuel went silent. Through the rearview mirror, Aiko caught him staring dazedly outside the window the whole way home.

Home was a two-story colonial brownstone set on a quarter acre estate. Aiko still remembered the day they’d moved in here when she was about Seraphina’s age. Theirs had been a true rags-to-riches story, and they’d all been so excited racing around the house unbelieving that this was to be their new home.

The good old days!

Letting Cara handle the younger children, she guided her father into the house. Will, Samuel’s would-be nurse, was sprawled out on the couch; head tilted upwards, mouth open and snoring like nobody’s business.

When Aiko muffed his head, He came awake with a loud snort and a “What? What?”

“Dad left again,” Aiko said.

“Sorry,” the young man apologized as he rubbed his palm over his face.

“Don’t let it happen again,” she said even though she wanted to shout at her nephew. It wouldn’t have been fair. Between playing football and keeping his grades up so he’d get a college scholarship, the sixteen year-old was constantly tired. “Where’s Jayceon?” she asked after his brother.

“He’s in the garage with Mama.” Will turned bleary eyes to the large watch on his wrist. “It’s Papi’s bath-time. I should-“

“It’s okay.” Aiko stopped him when he made to stand up. “I’ll do it. Take a nap then I’ll wake you when I’m done.”

He was knocked out like a light even before she and Samuel were out of the den and was still asleep when they came back. She would’ve let Will continue sleeping but someone had to watch Samuel and make sure he didn’t sleep otherwise their night would be a disaster. She checked on Cara and the kids who were in the kitchen working on dinner, before she headed out to the garage – or at least what used to be the garage. Now it was a bakery.

Several ovens lined the walls infusing the whole space with the cloying scent of melting chocolate, baking flour, savory nuts and cinnamon. Aiko’s senses gloried in the delicious scents and her stomach growled reminding her that she’d skipped lunch today.

“Thank God you’re here.” Her sister, Femi, welcomed her with a heavy sigh of relief. She was standing by the long table at the center of the room next to her son. The two were artfully arranging cupcakes in white boxes. “We just got an order from Sweet Nature for a hundred boxes.”

Despite the fact that all she wanted to do was sit down, put her feet up and just breathe, Aiko joined Femi and Jayceon at the table without complaint and with practiced ease. There wasn’t time to be tired at the Vaughn home.

People said that she and Femi looked alike and Aiko had always vehemently refuted it, but after gaining her pregnancy weight she could now see what they saw. Like Aiko, Femi was amply blessed. God had been in a giving mood when he was fashioning the Vaughn women; curves, curves, and more curves to compliment the rich coffee-tones of their skin. But that was where their similarities ended.

Unlike Aiko, Femi’s face was unmarred by any scars. Where Aiko preferred her hair tamed in weaves, Femi was all about the dreads. Femi preferred to be comfortable having commandeered Aiko’s army pants as hers when she wasn’t in jeans, while Aiko gravitated towards dresses and more fashionable clothes. It wasn’t just their looks and dressing that differed; their personalities were light and day. Where Aiko was easy-going, Femi was a military commander disguised as a stay-at-home mother and baker.

As they worked, Femi inspected each box Aiko and Jayceon prepared with hawk-eyes making sure that each cake was placed right. Perfection was Femi’s middle name and as with everything else, she ran her family like a brigade. Each of her four kids and her husband, Lewis, knew their place and duties in the food-chain. Aiko knew that if she let her, Femi would run roughshod over her and Seraphina. It was why she’d chosen to set up their own home in the space above the garage rather than stay in the main house with everyone else.

By the time the truck from Sweet Nature left with the delivery, Cara was calling out that dinner was ready. Dinner was the part Aiko loved most about her family. It was always a festive affair with everyone at the table and sharing a meal and their respective days. From the smiling faces, it was obvious that despite all the bad days they’d had, there was still enough love between them to get them over anything else life threw at them.

After dinner Aiko went upstairs to pick Seraphina from Cara’s room so they could go home. But just as she passed the master bedroom, Femi called out, “Aiko, Kalila’s on Skype.”

“She is?” Aiko joined Femi on the bed. The moment she saw their middle sister beaming at her through the screen of Femi’s laptop, Aiko smiled. “Hey, Kalila.”

“Hey,” Kalila returned. “What time is it there?”

“Nine,” Aiko answered. “How are Strive and the kids?”

Kalila had left the States eight years ago to research her masters’ thesis in Nigeria and ended up staying there. She was now married to a Yoruba doctor, Strive, had twin sons and only came to the US once every year.

Femi let Aiko and Kalila exchange pleasantries for five whole minutes –a record for her – before she interrupted with a sober, “So I called Kalila because we need to talk.”

Aiko muscles immediately tensed as they always did when Femi used that tone.

“Oh, Lord. Is this because of the garage again?” Kalila rolled her eyes. “We all agreed that if Aiko pays rent, you won’t look for a tenan-“

“It’s not about the garage,” Femi interrupted then corrected herself. “Actually it’s about the garage and more.” She paused before she said, “I want us to sell the house…”

“What?” Aiko’s head snapped towards Femi with whiplash speed. “No!”

“Of course not!” Kalila voiced her agreement.

“… and to put Dad in a nursing home,” Femi finished her statement. That declaration drew shocked silence and disbelieving stares from her sisters. She rushed to explain, “Look, you two don’t know what I’m dealing with here. We’re paying the mortgage for a six bedroom house. Lewis is running ragged trying to scrounge up security jobs. I’m running ragged trying to run this bakery. And we’ve got my kids taking care of Dad or bursting their hinds in the bakery when they should be worried about school.”

“But you said you could handle it,” Kalila protested.

“And we agreed, you’d give me six more months to get Heart Connections back in the black,” Aiko added, “then I’d start helping you out with the mortgage.”

“I know what I said,” Femi snapped. “But it’s not working. Something’s got to give.”

“That something won’t be Dad.” Aiko shook her head violently. “Or the house?”

“What do you want me do? Eh?” Femi scowled at her. “I’m not going to kill my kids to pay the bank.”

“Femi, Mum and Dad worked hard for that place,” Kalila’s voice was slightly more conciliatory than Aiko’s. “And Dad isn’t at the point where he needs to be put in a facility.”

“How would you know? You’re all the way in Calabar. You don’t know how it is to have to sleep with one eye open worried that if you don’t he’ll wander off in the middle of the night and get knocked down by a car. You don’t know how it is to wake up in the morning dead on your feet but knowing that the business that feeds your family won’t run if you don’t get to it,” Femi complained bitterly. “I’m not superwoman.”

“But I’m here to help you,” Aiko protested.

“From five p.m.? It’s not enough.” Femi scoffed. “If we sell the house, we can finish repaying the mortgage, do some serious advertising for Heart Connections to get more clients, then use the rest to set Dad up in a nice facility where he has round-the-clock care from a qualified nurse. Lewis and I can find something smaller that we can handle.”

“Don’t you think that’s drastic?” Kalila asked. “Why don’t we borrow money from Misha and Danny then-“

“And then what?” Femi interrupted. “We’ll still have to pay it back. Furthermore, this isn’t a one off expense we’re talking about. What about next month? Will we go back to Misha? What about the next?”

Femi’s words effectively nixed the idea of borrowing money from their well-to-do cousin. Obviously she’d been thinking about this issue for a long time and had logical counter-arguments for their protests. But as logical as her arguments were, they were also very callous.

The one achievement their parents had always been proud of was this house. Despite their own ragged backgrounds, Samuel and Donna had risen enough to give their children the home they’d never had. Donna had always said that she wanted her grandchildren and her grandchildren’s children to live in it. Selling it then hustling their father into some nursing home with impersonal strangers taking care of him seemed like spitting in the face of their parents’ dream.

And Aiko couldn’t do that.

Not even if she understood where Femi was coming from.

Not after everything they’d done for her.

No, she couldn’t do it.

“What if I help you with the mortgage,” she suggested impulsively, “and pay for a live-in nurse?”

“Where are you going to get the money?” Kalila asked.

Aiko had no idea. She certainly couldn’t get it from Heart Connections – its finances were too precarious. Using the agency as collateral, Donna had borrowed quite a considerable sum of money to cater for their dad’s medical costs. Aiko was still paying that loan off, but with her recent marketing revamps the company was earning much more and almost in the black. Nevertheless, it still wasn’t in any condition to carry their home’s mortgage.

But still, lack of funds was no excuse. She wasn’t going to let her father be carted off to a nursing home or his dream razed to the ground. If she had to sell her kidneys that was what she’d do. She turned to Femi, her voice fevered as she asked, “If I find the money will you stay in the house?”

Femi’s expression was doubtful, but she shrugged. “If you find the money, we’ll stay.”

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Chapter 3


At seven o’clock the same evening, Damián walked into his house to the sound of bedlam.

“I’m going. I’m going,” a shrill voice screeched from somewhere upstairs. “You can’t stop me.”

 “Zoe, your father said you’re not allowed to leave the house on school nights,” returned the older but audibly desperate voice of her nanny, Mrs. Tilford.

“I don’t care,” Zoe hollered at the top of her lungs. “Let go of my bag.”

There was a scuffling sound, and the two seemed to be in some sort of struggle. Mrs. Tilford sounded winded as she said, “No, you can’t go.”

“Give me my bag,” Zoe screamed. “Give me my bag.”

Damián considered going upstairs to break it up. He really did. Then he remembered how much he hated dealing with Zoe when she was in one of her ‘moods’ and changed his mind. Mrs. Tilford would sort it out or offer her resignation in the morning like the other previous nannies had done. They were at what now? Four? And that was just this month.

Heaving a tired a sigh, Damián turned on his heels and headed to his study. He wasn’t surprised when he found his father and his best friend there. He’d seen their cars as he was parking his.

“What are the two of you doing in here?”

“Hiding out from your banshee spawn,” Archie Colter said without looking up from the chessboard between he and Josiah Neal.

“She’s in rare form tonight,” Josiah added.

There had never been two more different looking men. Archie was the light to Josiah’s dark. Gray eyes, pasty white skin that contrasted starkly with his mane of midnight black hair, and wirily tall; he was the antithesis of Josiah’s own brown-eyed, bald-headed, chestnut-toned and heavily muscular looks. But despite their different looks, at heart they were the same man. Identical expressions of concentration played on their faces as they sought to outmaneuver each other.

“Don’t talk about my daughter like that. And I meant what are you doing in my house?” Damián clarified as he walked to the bar and poured himself a glass of bourbon. “Don’t the two of you have women to go to?”

Both Archie and Josiah guffawed in laughter and Damián couldn’t help but join in.

These two were even worse than him when it came to relationships. Archie was currently shacked up with a twenty-two year old playboy ‘model’ who the media had branded Nurse Nicole. Josiah was noosed up to Mayor Swan’s daughter, Caroline, but theirs was a marriage-in-name-only. It wouldn’t have surprised Damián in the least to find out that she was under some other man. After all Josiah was always on top of other women.

Psh! Marriage was such a farce.

But both of them seemed extremely satisfied with their relationships. Archie had got a PYT (pretty young thing) on his arm and in his bed in exchange for helping Nicole launch her ‘modeling career’. Josiah had gotten the political connections he needed to build his business in exchange for helping Caroline piss off her anti-black-anything parents. Win – Win! Their respective relationships had lasted a lot longer than these bullshit love-ships Aiko Vaughn was promoting.

As if reading Damián’s mind, Josiah lifted his gaze from the chess board. “Did she help you out?”

“Kicked me out of her office.” Damián tipped his glass to his lips. The bitter liquid burned its way down his throat as he took a seat opposite the two chess-players.

Damián had tried love. Twice. Both times it hadn’t worked, and he’d ended up the loser. Now all he was looking for was a mutually beneficial relationship. What was so ridiculous or incomprehensible about that? But Aiko had looked at him like he’d demanded a harem before she’d denied him her services and sent him away. Damián, who wasn’t used to being denied, was still reeling in anger.

“I told you it was a waste of time.” Josiah, whose sisters attended the same church as Aiko, said, “I hope you didn’t tell her that I sent you.”

“Nah! You’re good.” Damián reassured.

“You don’t need to go to a matchmaking service anyway. You’ve got me,” Archie said as he moved his knight and took down another one of Josiah’s pawns. “I was talking to Miller Reston yesterday and his daughter, Shaye, came up.”

Damián’s eyebrows arched upwards and his tone was dripping with disbelief when he asked, “She just came up?”

“Yes.” Archie nodded, completely unfazed by his son’s skepticism. “She’s a good Southern girl who comes from good stock. It doesn’t hurt that she’s involved with Child Alive among other charities. The voters will love her.”

“Dad, I’m only going to say this once more,” Damián said carefully. “I’m not running on the Republican ticket. I’m not running on any ticket. I’m not running. Period.”

“Nonsense.” Archie dismissed with a wave of his hand. “Josiah and I were just discussing it before you came and we both think Tony Moron needs to go.”

“Tony Moran,” Damián corrected as he threw Josiah a ‘what the hell’ look. Josiah knew full well that he wasn’t interested in his father’s political ambitions for him.

Josiah just shrugged even as Archie continued, “Do you know what Moron did today? Opened a new school! We don’t need any more darn schools. These kids already know too much anyway. What we need are more jails. Someone needs to corral these hooligans running around…”

Drink in hand, Damián sat back in his seat and zoned out. Politics didn’t interest him. After the president had completed his term and Archie had resigned his position as White House Chief Of Staff, Damián had thought they were done with the politics. Yeah! For about six months. Then Archie had gotten it into his head that he was still young enough to bring another president into the White House.

And just think – what if that president was his son? He’d be a legend.

According to Archie, Damián was the perfect candidate. He was the grandson of DeAnn Colter, a leading light in the second Feminist movement, guaranteeing the women’s vote. He was the son of Archie Colter, Republican puppet-master extraordinaire to pull in the WASPs, and had a Mexican actress for a mother to pull in the minorities. His background helping the Air Force would appeal to the gun-thirsty crowd, while his good looks would blind the airheads. And he was Josiah Neal’s best friend. Everyone knew that Josiah practically ran their little village. Damián’s nickname for Josiah’s company, Apollo Risk Management, was ‘I Know Everyone’s Secrets‘ Incorporated.

The support would come rolling in.

Damián was fully aware that he was playing into his father’s hands by searching for a wife because that would make him appealing to the family-values lot. But Zoe had him between a rock and a hard place. He made a mental note to add un-Republican looking to his list of wife-qualities. Immediately Aiko Vaughn’s face flashed in his thoughts.

She wasn’t the most beautiful woman he’d ever met, but she was intriguing enough that he whirled her image around in his mind. He could still see the striking smile and the quiet confidence in her gaze as she’d evaluated him. Even her tossing him out on his ass had been so dignified that if he wasn’t well-versed in the art of ‘get the fuck out’ himself, he would’ve thought it just a polite goodbye. He mentally smiled.

His smile faded into wistfulness as he etched her figure in his mind. Damián liked his women with a little meat to their bones and Aiko had fit that criterion perfectly… and that ass. If they’d met somewhere else other than at her office, he had no doubt that he would’ve made a very different proposal. Something involving silk sheets, wine and naked tangling limbs.

What he wouldn’t have done for one night of her in his bed; to have her naked in his arms and to turn her out. He could already imagine her poised elegance morphing into screaming, moaning mindlessness. He could hear her whimpering his name over and over again as he touched her. Damián itched to smooth his palms over all those curves and silky-soft skin and wrap her legs around his flanks as he sunk his c-

 “Are you listening to me?” His father yanked him out of his errant thoughts.

Damián refocused to find both Archie and Josiah staring at him. Sitting up on his seat, he sighed then said, “Yes. I’m listening to you.”

“So what’d you think?” Archie said.

“About what?”

“You’re hopeless.” Archie shook his head in disgust. “I wish you’d give as much attention to our legacy as you do to your toys. If you-“

The door burst open just then interrupting his words.

“Daddy.” Zoe flounced into the room, her harassed nanny at her heels. Propping her hand on her hip, she ordered, “Tell Mrs. Tilford I’m going to Shelley’s house.”

She’d taken Damián’s height and stood well above her nanny. Her waist length and recently dyed ice-blonde hair was a harsh contrast to her olive skin. Dark kohl lined her eyes, making her blue contacts seem even more vivid, while her lips were painted a startling shade of pink to match her nails. But it was the glittering, tight, black thigh-length dress and four-inch stilettos she was wearing that drew his attention.

Damián had since stopped having mini-heart attacks at Zoe’s wardrobe choice but that didn’t mean that his muscles didn’t tense in protest. That was his little girl, and she looked like she was twenty-five going on fifty instead of twelve.

She needed a mother.

 Careful not to spark one of her temper tantrums, Damián asked, “I don’t think Shelley’s parents will want you disrupting their home at this time.”

“They won’t care.” Zoe shrugged and flipped her hair. “Her dad is in Europe and her mom has a headache.”

Uncomfortably, aware that Josiah, Archie and Mrs. Tilford were watching their exchange, Damián asked, “Have you finished your homework?”

“No,” Zoe returned, rolling her neck like the question was beyond ridiculous. “Can I go now?”

Damián was stumped. From firsthand experience, he knew exactly what was going to happen if he said no. Zoe was the queen of dramatica and he was her stage. An audience like this would just feed her antics. It was just easier to surrender. Turning his gaze to the nanny he said, “Tell Kevin to drop her off.”

 Zoe smirked at the nanny triumphantly. “I told you.”

She then pranced out the room without even a by-your-leave to her father or his guests.

Damián ignored his father and friend’s knowing gazes as he tilted his drink against his lips and took a long, bitter gulp.

 

* * * * *

 

AIKO COULDN’T BELIEVE she was actually considering this.

“Am I really doing this?”

She sat in her car in the parking lot. Her manicured fingers tapped against the steering wheel in rapid panicked taps as she bolstered her courage. Through the rearview mirror, she stared at the tall building behind her. The sun’s rays bounced off its windows turning the structure a cold silver-blue. Was she really going in there?

She’d spent a sleepless night mulling over how she was going to keep her father in his house. She’d tried to go through her options – and discovered that she only had two. Either prostitute herself or let her father go to a home.

Yes, it was prostitution. Even cloaked in marriage, there was no denying that that was what she was considering doing – selling herself for money. Her conscience and upbringing had wrestled for control of her actions. A good woman didn’t do this sort of thing. Marriage was supposed to be for love not for money. She couldn’t do this.

Logic asked her to take a look around their home. It told her to look at her father. What was the use of being a ‘good’ woman if she couldn’t keep her family together? Being good wasn’t going to keep her father out of a nursing home and it certainly wasn’t going to pay the mortgage.

“I have to do this.” To reinforce her words, her mind sent her an image of her father at the piano this morning. Playing the piano seemed to be her father’s way of connecting with the world despite his sickness. They’d all gotten so used to his playing the piano, they barely acknowledged it anymore. But today it had drawn tears from Aiko. She couldn’t imagine not having those soothing sounds to accompany their morning bustle.

“I’m doing this.”

Resolutely, she grabbed her purse from the passenger seat, slung it over her shoulder and exited the car. The summer heat smacked her right in the face, heating her body despite the light chiffon blouse she was wearing. She breathed a sigh of relief when she stepped through the entrance and into the cool building. She made a beeline for the security desk.

“Good morning,” she greeted the two guards behind it. “Coltech Consult.”

“Fourth floor,” the guard guided after searching her bag, taking her driver’s license and handing her a guest ID.

At the elevator another stiff-faced guard waited. With a curt nod, he checked the floor number on her badge then he pressed the elevator button for her before accompanying her to the floor. She was half-afraid he was going to stalk her to her destination. Fortunately when the elevator doors slid open at the fourth floor, he stayed put in the metal cage. But she’d breathed a sigh of relief too early. Another guard waited at the entrance to Coltech Consult.

What was this? The White House?

“Aiko Vaughn to see Damián Colter,” she said in response to the burly uniformed man’s question.

“Appointment?” he asked.

“No.” Aiko smiled confidently. “But he’ll see me.”

Or at least she hoped he would. Her face was a blank canvass as she watched the guard dial the reception but underneath the calm exterior, she was a bunch of nerves. After how she’d treated Damián the previous day, she wouldn’t be surprised if he turned her away at the door. But she was counting on his curiosity about what she was doing here overriding his anger.

She was right. When the guard replaced the receiver in the holder it was say, “Take a right to the reception.”

At the reception, a smartly dressed older lady met her with a smile. “This way, please.” She led the way past glass double-doors and into Coltech Consult.

If offices were still offices, then Coltech was playing in a league of its own. Far from having typical cubicles or offices barred by stone walls and doors, for the most part Coltech was a large open space arranged like a massive cybercafé. Round tables and multicolored couches were artfully arranged around the space giving it a feeling of organized chaos. The only enclosed section was the glass cubicle at the far end of the room.

In it, Damián Colter sat.

His attention was on the computer screen in front of him but as if sensing her approach, he turned his gaze upwards and met hers. Despite the glass and distance between them, the man’s striking good-looks were undeniable. She didn’t know too many men who could pull off tousled hair, a powder blue shirt and jeans, and still look like they deserved their own page on GQ.

If she wasn’t so nervous perhaps she would’ve appreciated those good looks more. But what she was about to do kept playing in her mind and the lump at the back of her throat grew larger as she trailed behind the receptionist. Her anxiety grew when a dilemma she hadn’t even considered occurred to her. What if he didn’t want her?

She wasn’t exactly Halle Berry in the looks department. She wasn’t embarrassed by her scar but she wasn’t oblivious to its presence either. What if Damián was turned off by it? No, she’d seen how he’d looked at her yesterday. There’d been no disgust in his expression, only interest. Or maybe he was just faking it?

Whatever. She quashed her anxieties as the distance between her and the office shortened. She was going to try anyway. If he rejected her… well, at least she tried. The receptionist turned the doorknob and let Aiko into Damián’s office.

“Thank you, Marie,” Damián dismissed the receptionist as his eyes met Aiko. The door closed softly behind Aiko but she barely heard it; her attention was on the supremely masculine male currently observing her. His gaze slid away from hers, danced down her body lingering on her breasts and hips, before coming back to her face. His lips curved in a smile as he drawled lazily, “Well, isn’t this a surprise?”

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