What are the worst four words to hear in the English language besides ‘we need to talk?’
‘We overbooked. You’re out.’
Especially six weeks before you’re hosting a gala to pop the cork on the new charitable foundation you started.
Normally, the buzz of the alcohol would’ve lifted my spirits, or at least let me have an ounce of optimism in this shitty situation. There has to be a venue in one of the largest cities in America that has availability on short notice. Weddings get canceled all the time. Not that I’m wishing a broken heart on anyone so I can steal their venue spot, but if I’m being cynical—and I’m speaking from experience here—it’s a lot better to never say I do, than to say it then have half your worldly possessions stolen from you in divorce court.
Let’s all be honest, love fogs up a sane mind more than a bottle of tequila on a Mexican beach. One minute you’re all ‘woohoo,’ licking salt and sucking back limes under a makeshift tiki hut poolside. The next you’re hunched over the trunk of a palm tree with your stomach rejecting the good times you promised.
Love’s bred from the same false high. Except the regret doesn’t always come on the same night. Sometimes it creeps up on you like a long night of drinking expensive champagne. You think you’re having a sweet time, drinking conservatively and keeping away from the hard stuff. Then you pass out on the way home to wake up wondering what the hell you did and where the damn Advil is.
My experience with marriage was the latter.
I’d known Todd my entire life. Grown up with him from our first week at Montessori school together. He chased me around the playground and gave me a locket in the first grade. He asked me to the carnival in third grade. I wouldn’t call what we had kismet. Half the time he annoyed me, but he was kind and considerate. A good guy. Before walking down the aisle, I convinced myself that passion and spontaneity were overrated.
The fact that I predicted his proposal down to the month he bent down on one knee in a public setting proved I was constantly one step ahead of him. If it weren’t for his cheating dick, maybe I would’ve still believed that marriage wasn’t boring and redundant.
“Another round ladies.” Lincoln, our usual waiter at the speakeasy I’m a member of, Torrio’s Table, delivers another round of Vespers for my co-workers and me.
“I know he’s young but damn.” Chelsea’s gaze follows his ass as he walks away.
I admire too, because Lincoln is easy on the eyes. Not even a nun could argue that.
“I’m sure Dean would love to hear that.”
Chelsea sweetly smiles over at Victoria. “You can act like you’re not looking, mama saint, but you’re not fooling anyone. Not to mention, me looking doesn’t mean he holds a candle to my man.”
Both my employees recently found new men in their lives. They’re both willing to give love another try, believing that fate’s GPS somehow steered them wrong the first time with their failed marriages. Well, in Chelsea’s case she just sort of looped back to her ex-husband.
Are they happy?
Will it work out?
I don’t know.
I hope it does.
But I’ve been where they are. Sex until dawn and breakfast in bed. Scary how fast things pivot to masturbation and grabbing a banana while waiting for your Starbucks.
I hope they both have happily ever afters, but right now, I need them to get out of la-la land and find me a venue.
“I have no idea what to do. It’s July. Invitations have been printed which means I have to get them reprinted, but I don’t even have an address. Girls, we need to brainstorm.” I twirl the glass by the stem between my finger and thumb.
“We’ll figure something out.” Victoria’s sweet gaze lands on me.
The door opens into the secluded room and my worst nightmare saunters in with that cocky ass grin on his face. “As if I need anything else bad tonight.”
Chelsea spots the guy she thinks has been soaking my panties for the last few months, turning back my way, smirking.
“Ignore him.” Victoria squeezes my forearm. She’s the sane one out of the two of them.
Roarke Baldwin swaggers across the room and nods and waves to some other patrons like he’s running for fucking Congress. I’m still waiting for an answer from management on how he got his membership to Torrio’s. Before my divorce, he was never here.
His gaze remains on me the entire time he passes our table.
I let a breath leave my lungs once he clears my vision without stopping. Until I feel movement in the booth behind me across my back, alerting me that he can hear our conversation. Chelsea’s eyes stay on the back of his head, confirming my thoughts.
“I’m sure we’ll figure something out.” I fluff off the topic of the venue because I don’t want the man behind me knowing I’m at a disadvantage.
“We’ll find a venue. Don’t worry,” Chelsea blurts out and I’m really hoping it’s the hormones in her body that are making her ignore the fact that I tried to squash this topic. “What kind of a place double books and doesn’t know it until six weeks out?”
I drag my finger across my throat.
“I agree, I felt like cutting their throats when they called. I’m happy you feel the same way because I thought it was my pregnancy hormones kicking in. The other night, I got so mad at Dean because he didn’t wipe off Grover’s paws when he came in from outside,” Chelsea continues rambling.
“Chels.” Victoria widens her eyes and bops her head in the direction behind me.
“Oh,” she mouths and slinks back into her booth. “Sorry,” she mouths again, biting her lip.
My eyes close and the booth behind me shifts.
Please be getting a drink. Lincoln’s swamped and he’s on the opposite side of the room, so it makes total sense if Roarke was headed to the bar.
Chelsea’s gaze follows him and I don’t need a tracker on the man to know where he’s at, watching Chelsea does just fine. Even Victoria’s watching him. I can tell he’s at the bar. Thank God.
A few seconds later their eyes widen and their faces lose color. Their unspoken reaction makes my internal radar blip and bleep, signaling that he’s drawing closer. The scent of his musky cologne wraps around our booth as tightly as the viper he’s proven to be.
Once we’re in his clutches, he eyes the empty spot next to Chelsea.
For reasons unknown to me, she slides over closer to Victoria.
He folds himself into the booth, glass clasped in his hand, his gaze focused solely on me. “Ms. Crowley, I couldn’t help but overhear you’re in need of a venue?” His perfectly styled salt and pepper hair is the first sign that he’s dangerous. It suggests he’s older and more experienced than I am. He’s had years at the practice of fucking with people’s lives—both professionally and personally I’d bet. Lord knows his profession relies on his ability to twist words and plant seeds of doubt.
A solid piece of ice clanks against his glass, splashing the dark amber liquid inside when he sets it down on the table.
“I’m not interested.” I sip my drink, purposely pressing my lips around the edge of the glass hoping to drive him as batshit crazy as he drives me.
“What if I can get you a venue?”
His arrogance never ceases to amaze me. Like I’m some damsel in distress and he’s going to gallop into my town on his white horse to save the day. No thanks.
The girls’ gazes dart over to me like they’re watching the latest drama and someone just announced a surprise pregnancy. Maybe they’d like some popcorn to keep their jaws from hanging.
“I’m sure your price is more than we can afford.” I tamper down my emotional side—the irrational one that demands I reach across the table and wrap my hand around his throat until his face turns red.
“Oh, Ms. Crowley, you have it all wrong. You know as well as I do the art of negotiation is simple. I give you something you want and you give me something I want.”
I twirl my glass on the table, the liquid splashing from side to side.
Throw your drink in his face.
Unfortunately, I’ve been trained to not show anyone they’re getting a rise out of me.
‘Calm your temper,’ my dad’s voice rings out in my head. ‘Do not show them what you’re feeling. Under any circumstances.’
I plaster a half-cocked smile on my face. “And what is it you want Mr. Baldwin?”
I lock eyes with him, and maybe my father trained him, too, because there’s not one flicker of doubt to be found.
My stomach stirs with a million butterflies. Some die and fall to the pits of my belly while others soar with the thought of him telling me exactly how and where he wants me.
“Oh, Mr. Baldwin—”
“Call me, Roarke.” His arrogance shines through his eyes over the rim of his glass. His Adam’s apple bobs, prompting sweat to puddle between my breasts.
“I don’t think so.” I sip from my own drink, needing the coolness to chill my skin back to the icy hatred I need to deal with this vulture.
Chelsea makes a squeaking sound and Victoria reaches over and squeezes her knee.
“Why what?” I ask in a voice devoid of emotion.
“Why won’t you call me Roarke?” The ice in his glass clinks again as he sets it down and my eyes clock his expensive watch. His crisp white buttoned shirt sleeves peek out of his dark charcoal suit. He even has a crimson pocket square in his front pocket which separates him from every other suit in here.
Which is fitting since he walks around like he’s the fucking King of England.
“Roarke would make it sound like I liked you. I do not.”
His hand covers his heart and his gaze darts over to my friends. “Is she always this straightforward?”
The girls who I hired for their sharp tongues and intelligence look like a pair of starry-eyed lovesick teenagers right now.
Roarke doesn’t wait for them to answer because like most things with him, I’m certain he doesn’t care what anyone else’s opinion is about anything.
“Your words, Ms. Crowley, they hurt. I’ve done nothing to warrant your hatred.”
I tilt my head and draw in a slow, deep breath trying my best to rein my temper in.
Yeah, that didn’t work.
“You took from me. You stole a lot from me. Things he didn’t deserve.” I school my face to hide how angry I am.
“Now, now. My client paid me to do a service for him. I did that service.”
I huff but quickly quiet myself and straighten my back. “Your client didn’t work for that money. He didn’t work for that vacation home. He didn’t sweat for anything. His surgeon salary was untouched for most of our marriage.”
Why am I rehashing my divorce like we’re in mediation again?
I put my hand up in the air before he can deliver his rebuttal. “You know what? Never mind. The divorce is over and I’m rid of that name now. It is what it is, but I will assure you, Mr. Baldwin, I do not need your help now, nor do I need your assistance in the future. Thank you for your kind offer, but we’re fine.”
The fucking bastard smiles like I just jerked him off until his cum dripped down my fingers like a melted ice cream cone.
“All right then. I’ll leave you ladies to figure out a solution yourselves.” He slides out of the booth with the finesse of a man who’s never suffered from clumsiness.
“Goodnight, Mr. Baldwin.”
“Han… Ms. Crowley.” His knuckles rap on the wood of the tabletop, his eyes still taking me in.
Saliva puddles in my mouth but I refuse to swallow. I’ll never let him witness my physical attraction to him.
“Is there something else, Mr. Baldwin?” My eyes train on his, the ache between my thighs growing.
“Should things change, you know where to find me.” He winks and Chelsea’s eyes follow him for a moment. Since the booth behind me doesn’t shift, I assume he’s moved on to make the people on the other side of the room miserable with his presence.
Usually, I’d resort to curse words and another drink or two after reliving my divorce with the man who facilitated it, but the ladies need to trust that their boss can handle an egotistical male who’s trying to be the white knight galloping in to save the day.
“Holy shit,” Chelsea says, her hands clutching her stomach like she’s about to vomit. “I thought Dean and I were intense. You two.”
“Chels.” My tone holds a warning.
“Good for you, Hannah. He can go suck it.” Victoria downs the rest of her Vesper.
I smile politely at Victoria. Chelsea’s still awestruck, her eyes having a hard time not veering over to Roarke.
“He’s just so…” Chelsea never learning her lesson continues to ramble. “Commanding.” Her eyes sweep over ours. “Like he’d do nasty stuff to you, but you’d enjoy every minute and then end up begging for more.”
I don’t disagree with Chelsea. Roarke Baldwin screams ‘strap me to a bed and show me how a real man does it.’ Not that I would say that. Ever.
No, I’d fall to my knees and show him exactly how a woman can transform him into making her breakfast the next morning. But if I let one toe dip in that water, I’m sure he’ll swallow me up like a hungry crocodile. That’s why the electric fence is between us, so it can zap me every time my damn lady parts want to take a dip.
“Chels. Dean?” Victoria reminds her of her fiancé.
Chelsea waves her hand in the air and rolls her eyes. “Please, Dean knows he’s the only one for me. I’ll tell him all about Roarke Baldwin when I get home and he’ll probably be extra alpha tonight to prove he’s the real man.” She looks absolutely giddy thinking about it. A flush appears on her cheeks as though she’s imagining what he’ll do to her. “I give Hannah credit though. I would’ve crumbled and I’m a hard case to break.”
“Chelsea, all Dean had to do was get you alone in his office,” Victoria says.
Her cheeks redden even more.
Sometimes I wonder what if? What if I wouldn’t have settled with Todd? What would fate have brought my way if I’d stayed single?
My subconscious needs a real talking to.
“Chelsea, I don’t care what you have to do. I’ll pay whatever the cost. Find me a venue,” I say, shifting the conversation back to business.
She nods, knowing we’re shifting into go time.
I hired her because I saw her capability of turning no’s into yes’s so I feel assured that she won’t fail me now. There’s no way I can go to Roarke Baldwin and let the man have one up on me. At least not without losing my dignity.