Never Look Back
Her real life is no fairy tale and she’s no Cinderella.
After what her ex-husband did to her, heiress Henna Colombo is a man-hater, not a dater. And the thing she hates most of all is the fairytale of falling in love.
Why do her father and her new wicked stepmother insist she keeps looking for her prince? And why at The Perfect Date? Only the most pathetic losers use a dating service.
She’s fine being single. As far as Henna’s concerned, the love god can take his diaper-wrapped butt and arrows elsewhere. Cupid can also shove those arrows where the sun doesn’t shine if he thinks for one second that someone like Vassal Milano is her perfect man.
Vassal’s perfect alright—perfect at sneaking around behind her back. Just like her ex, she caught him kissing someone else.
No… she didn’t confront Vassal about it. Why would she put herself through all that heartache and torture again? Outside of a few unforgettable kisses, she and Vassal were only friends anyway. Cupid’s arrow missed her that time—thankfully.
As for the whole dating thing and looking for any sort of honorable Prince Charming? Forget it. No such man exists. Luckily, Henna doesn’t care.
READ AN EXCERPT - CHAPTER 1
“Is that a new dress?” Henna asked, eyeing the sleek, red shift that hugged her future stepmother’s nicely maintained curves.
“I made another visit to Trudy’s red room,” Georgia replied, frowning at the food on the table. “I swear I’m going to have to start filling my purse with snacks before I come to these things. Haven’t these people ever heard of pigs in a blanket? Or cocktail weenies in barbecue sauce?”
“What would Chef Baker say to that kind of food?” Henna asked with her usual snark.
Georgia grunted under her breath. “Trudy wouldn’t eat any of what they’re serving tonight either.” She sighed heavily when Hollywood motioned her over. “I’m going to starve to death if your father doesn’t leave me alone long enough to at least eat a couple cubes of cheese.”
Giggling at Georgia’s complaints and her high-heeled stomp to her father’s side, Henna prowled the banquet table before abandoning any pretense of eating food that looked like leftovers from last week’s fundraiser. The only good thing she could say about it was it didn’t look much different from what she’d find in her father’s kitchen at the moment. Everything there currently tasted of cardboard too.
Her Dad insisted that he wanted he and Georgia to both to live to be a hundred. The translation of that intention so far had meant no one in their household was ever going to eat food that tasted good again. The look on Georgia’s face when her Dad made his ‘live to be a hundred’ announcement certainly had been priceless. Her fellow snacker-in-arms had reacted by tripling the contents of the forbidden food stash hidden in her suite.
Unfortunately, snacks weren’t the same as a real meal even when they tasted so sweetly of rebellion. Not that she’d ever admit it to Georgia, but the weenies in barbecue sauce had actually sounded good to her. She’d have to stop on the way home for take-out again. That was really her only option these days.
“God, woman… don’t even think about eating any of that,” a sexy voice whispered close to her ear. “Everything looks like leftovers from last week’s fundraiser. I see take-out in our future.”
The sentiment echoed her own thoughts so exactly that Henna genuinely laughed before she caught herself. She turned her laughter-inspired smile toward the owner of the sexy voice intending to invite him out to eat with her. Her smile died instantly when she saw Vassal Milano with a smiling woman by his side who was now looking expectantly at her.
Not only did her dinner invitation die a silent death, Henna suddenly remembered why she wasn’t the woman at his side tonight. Close call there. For a moment, she’d nearly forgotten about the last two weeks… and her new never-dating-Vassal-again resolve.
As she stiffened her spine, Henna reminded herself that she and Vassal were only friends. Sure, they’d been lip-locking on a semi-regular basis, but who took kissing as any sort of leaning toward a monogamous relationship these days? Someone her age certainly should have known better.
Still… Vassal could have just told her he was dating other people and saved her this present embarrassment of being surprised, but no. The man she’d been kissing for weeks now hadn’t bothered. What did men mean when they kissed you these days anyway? Maybe Vassal was trying to tuck her into his reserve pile just as her ex-husband kept trying to do.
Well, it was one thing to sneak around and date behind her back. It was another to flaunt them in her face in public places without warning her. The only thing that consoled her at all was that his invitation to the woman must have been last-minute. His latest paramour was wearing a business suit to a cocktail fundraiser for pity’s sake. Vassal’s mother would be appalled by that alone. Katherine Milano was all about keeping up proper appearances—the polar opposite of Georgia Bates who didn’t give a flip and only played that social game for the sake of love.
Henna frowned at the banquet table again and set down her all but empty plate. She was doubly sorry tonight that she’d struck up any sort of relationship with Vassal. His true colors were turning out to be nearly as bad as Jackass Justin’s. She was only a little disappointed in that fact, or at least, that was going to be her story. No man was making her his fool again.
“Henna? Have you met Sandra?” Vassal asked smoothly, noting the tightening around Henna’s mouth with curiosity. Bitterness was taking over Henna’s face lately. He’d never figured out why except for the fact that she habitually saw the worst in everything and everyone.
“No, we haven’t met,” Henna answered in her most formal and coldly polite tone. “How could I have missed seeing her when she’s practically leaning on you?” She smiled to soften the sting of her remark, but the woman seemed totally unaffected. Instead, the woman eagerly offered her hand which Henna reluctantly shook.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Henna.”
“Is it?” Henna asked, searching the woman’s eyes for evil and finding none.
“Yes… well… the world works in mysterious ways,” Vassal interjected, fighting his urge to push the women apart. “This is Sandra Lodestone. Your father repaired her face after a terrible car accident almost a decade ago and now she’s come to work at my company. I brought her here tonight so she could say thank you in person.”
“You’ll find Dad and Georgia in that group over there,” Henna informed them both, more interested in her humiliation than the conversation. People she and Vassal both knew were suddenly paying the three of them a lot of attention. By tomorrow this little ‘meet Sandra’ moment Vassal was inflicting on her would be the juiciest gossip over breakfast.
Henna smiled in that way no one ever recognized was fake except for Georgia who called her “the wicked witch of Cincinnati” when she did it. She channeled her stepmother’s genuine chutzpah and half-smiled at Vassal’s date. “It was nice to meet you, Ms. Lodestone. Please excuse me. I have to see to something.”
Henna walked off with Vassal’s confused blue eyes boring holes into her back. She refused to let it bother her and picked up her pace.
The one time she hadn’t asked him to be her escort in months and he’d shown up with another woman on his arm. No, she would definitely not let his replacement of her get her down. She’d been to plenty of these alone since she divorced. She’d go to plenty more alone.
No matter how tempting Vassal was as a man with his wide shoulders and perfectly kept blonde hair, kissing her former step-sister’s ex-husband had smacked of her needing therapy again. Yet even with her reservations, she had continued to let him kiss her. And she’d been thinking of doing even more until a couple weeks ago. Would it have killed the man to have warned her he was seeing other people? To warn her that she might happen across him having a better time without her than with her? The awkwardness between them this evening was his fault and she refused to own any of it.
“Henna,” Vassal plowed through the group of people separating them. A head of expertly curled dark hair swung until her dull brown eyes met his. His gut tightened in response. “Why are you leaving? You just got here. I just got here.”
“Actually, I’ve been here for two hours,” Henna said tiredly. She adjusted the small purse she’d worn before making herself meet his gaze directly. “I promised Dad to put in an appearance tonight, not spend six hours playing the polite little princess for King Colombo’s adoring subjects. Now I’m going home to watch TV and get something edible to eat. You better head back to your date before she misses you.”
“Sandra’s not my…” Vassal stopped and sighed. “I supposed technically I invited Sandra here. Guess she is my date for the evening.”
“Right. Thanks for not warning me,” Henna said flatly. “If all the stares we got moments ago were any indication, you’ve managed to surprise lots of people. Have a good evening, Vassal. Guess I’ll see you around.”
Henna slipped out the door and away from the man who’d managed to put the first crack in the glacier her heart felt trapped in. Somewhere along the line, she’d convinced herself that Vassal had been too hurt by his failed marriage to ever put anyone he dated through the same cheating hell he’d personally suffered. But she’d obviously been wrong about him.
There must be something about the Y chromosome that she didn’t understand.
Vassal sipped his nearly tasteless wine while Sandra finally got Brent’s sole attention long enough to express her heartfelt thank you. The woman fairly beamed when Brent’s famous fingers touched her face and looked over every inch of what appeared to be the flawless surface of her cheeks. Brent touched her reverently and smiled genuinely.
Vassal could appreciate women responding to that level of genuine attention from a handsome man, especially one as talented and successful as Brentwood Colombo.
“Tell me something, Georgia. Are you ever jealous of Brent and other women? You can be honest with me. I won’t tell anyone.”
Georgia turned away from watching Hollywood examine his work to look at Vassal. He was a handsome man but Vassal didn’t get women at all. Such ignorance was definitely a hindrance for a man who was falling in love with someone as severely damaged as Henna. The saddest part was that Vassal seemed completely unaware that Henna had been falling in love with him right back. Maybe he just didn’t have the patience to wait for her heart to heal enough.
“What he’s doing with Sandra is showing compassion for someone he’s helped. But I’m well aware Brentwood Colombo draws women in droves. If I were jealous or worried, I’d be like that all the time. But I’m not. You know why? Hollywood’s not looking at her the way he looks at me. If he did, he’d be sleeping alone tonight.”
Vassal snorted and rolled his eyes. “Despite Brent’s bad history with women, you somehow manage to trust him.”
“I trust Hollywood because I know his heart.” Georgia sipped her ice water. “Right now his heart belongs to me.”
“Is your comfort because of your ages or…”
“Vassal, stop playing twenty questions. You’re projecting. Why on earth did you bring a date with you tonight? You knew Henna was going to be here alone when she didn’t ask you to be her escort. You’re the first man she’s let get that close since her ex.”
“As I tried to tell Henna before she fled, Sandra’s not my date,” Vassal insisted.
Georgia snorted at his answer. “Sandra Lodestone came with you and she’s leaving with you—ergo, it’s a date. Everyone is whispering about you not being with Henna. You had to know that fact alone would embarrass the hell out of her. I’m not even that well-versed in rich people rules and I knew that… well, actually your slight is more of a woman thing. Personally, I’d have gone for your balls in front of your date and you know I mean that. Henna made polite conversation and left like the well-bred rich heiress she is. Count yourself lucky.”
“But it’s not like tonight is a real date with Sandra. I was just being nice to the woman. She hasn’t been back in town long enough to have a social life.” Vassal squirmed under Georgia’s disbelieving stare. “Fine. I admit my mother suggested I bring someone else with me to show Henna that I didn’t need her charity. Mother doesn’t like Henna ‘stringing me along’ as she puts it. I had no idea Henna would react so coldly to me bringing a friend.”
“Vassal, I’ve seen you kissing Henna and not so long ago. How in hell did you think she would react to seeing you with another woman hanging on your arm? Henna’s lame-dick ex-husband cheated on her with every woman she knew. Then tonight—the first time she didn’t officially ask—you waltz in with a replacement.” Georgia shrugged. “I watched Henna turn to smile at you with the first genuine smile I’ve seen on her face in two damn weeks. You would have been her date tonight if you’d been alone.”
Vassal sighed. “Which is why I felt like a complete idiot the moment Henna turned to me and saw Sandra. I haven’t seen Henna act that way since…” He let his speech drift off. When Georgia raised an eyebrow, Vassal blew out a frustrated breath. His screw-up was now crystal clear.
“Since she filed for divorce from the last man who flaunted other women in her face at every turn?” Georgia knew she’d been accurate when Vassal winced. She shook her head. “You might as well date who you want to now. Tonight’s little stunt may have seemed innocent to you, but it confirmed to Henna that you’re no different than Jackass Justin.”
Georgia raised her hand to stop Vassal’s denial. “Actions speak louder than words. Coming alone. Being with Henna anyway. That would have said to everyone that Henna was your focus no matter what was going on between the two of you. Now…” Georgia stopped talking and shook her head. “I’m going to have to make Henna sign up for Mariah’s dating service. If I don’t, Brent will never sleep again. You were his last hope that Henna wasn’t going to become a man-hating old maid at thirty.”
Vassal swallowed hard and wished he’d ignored his mother like his gut had said to do. “Dating service? Are you talking about the one Brent was using when he found you?”
Georgia nodded. “My daughter runs it, remember? Henna needs some positive experiences so she can heal. Maybe a man who’s willing to pay money to find his perfect date will be less likely to show up for that date with spare female. Henna needs the fairytale more than most women. She especially needs a prince who only has eyes for her.”
“But I could be that prince. I want to be that prince,” Vassal said with more conviction than he’d realized he’d felt until Georgia pinned him down.
Georgia rolled her eyes. “Her prince? You just let your mother ruin your chances with a woman you genuinely like who likes you back. Worse, you did it to get even for not being asked to come as her escort tonight. What happened before that to make Henna mad enough not to ask you in the first place?”
“Before that?” Vassal repeated with a frown. “What do you mean? I didn’t know Henna was mad at me. She never said she was mad at me.”
“All I know is that last week Henna went to have lunch with a college friend and came back morphed into a bitchy man-hater with no explanation. Only men you care about can flip that big a switch in your personality so quickly. Before that day, she was blushing every time your name was mentioned. After that, she left the room when you came up in conversation. The house has become a no-talking-about-Vassal zone.”
Vassal thought about the last week or two of his life. Nothing incriminating came to mind. He’d been working long hours like always and barely keeping up with his social life. All he did was hang out with friends. Nothing out of the ordinary.
“You’re clueless, aren’t you?” Georgia asked.
“Then I can’t help you,” Georgia said, hooking her arm through his. “But you’re a mostly nice person and I still like you a lot. Don’t be a stranger at the house, Vassal. Brent and I would both miss you if you stopped coming around.”
“But you think Henna doesn’t like me now?” Vassal asked. His breathing was tight and irregular. He was pretty sure he was in shock.
“Not the way she did,” Georgia confirmed. She patted his six-pack through his shirt. Poor Henna. The girl had certainly missed out. “Don’t worry, Vassal. Relationships tend to work out like they’re supposed to. Yours and Henna’s obviously wasn’t meant to be.”
Vassal frowned as Georgia wandered off and found her way back to Brent’s side. He watched as Brent turned to Georgia and smiled. Then the man looked her up and down, inspecting her like she was some valuable possession he’d acquired. Vassal didn’t get what he was seeing until Brent slid his arm around Georgia and let his hand rest on her ass in front of all onlookers.
All the while Brent did what he did, Georgia smiled serenely, nodded to everyone, and listened intently to Sandra telling her story like there was nothing else going on. He had no doubt Georgia was completely aware that Brent was copping an ass feel in public. She just didn’t care. Or she liked his show of possession. Which might explain why she wasn’t moving his hand.
Vassal had seen all that happen many times before. What he hadn’t gotten until just now was how their relationship was evident on about a hundred different unspoken levels on top of the verbal one people in Brent’s circle were still adjusting to hearing him declare.
It was obvious that Brent adored Georgia.
So did he. Who wouldn’t adore Georgia Bates? She was feisty, sexy, and the kind of woman who wasn’t shy about telling a man how she felt. Or what she wanted. She was intense but very easy to understand.
Vassal spent most days wishing Henna Colombo had even a small fraction of that kind of female confidence. It would have made figuring her out a lot less painful. Now he’d somehow screwed up and had no clue how he’d done so. What could have incited Henna to get angry with him? And why hadn’t she just said something so he could have set her straight?
Maybe his mother was right. Maybe he should move on and date other women.
Vassal looked at Sandra with new eyes and tried to imagine kissing her good night later. All he could bring to mind was the haunted expression he’d seen in Henna’s eyes as her welcoming smile had faded earlier. He could well imagine kissing Henna good night—had imagined it every night he wasn’t getting to do it for real. The woman wanted him and he wanted her back. There was some sort of wall keeping them apart that he hadn’t felt he could break through.
He’d been waiting for Henna to…
What? Send the right signal? Make the first real move?
Both were laughable expectations given her ongoing reserve around him, but probably right about what he’d been hoping for. He’d been afraid of pushing Henna too hard because he’d wanted to stay in her life at least as a friend. He might have destroyed that by listening to his mother. Henna’s emotional distance had nicked his ego. It wasn’t any more bullet proof than Henna’s was.
And just like Henna, he hadn’t been seriously involved with anyone since his divorce.
Inviting Sandra tonight had been an innocent good deed and one that followed the gist of his mother’s advice rather than the real spirit of it. He’d figured he would get a pass for having done so once Henna knew Sandra’s story. He honestly hadn’t given a single thought to what anyone else would think.
In hindsight, Vassal had to admit Georgia had a point about how it probably looked to those who knew he’d been seeing her more frequently. He should have just come alone and insisted Henna explain why she hadn’t invited him.
Nice guys finish last was trite but it certainly was turning out to be his motto lately.
READ AN EXCERPT - CHAPTER 2
“No. Are you going to harass me through the entire recording?” Henna grumbled as she crossed her arms.
“Yes,” Georgia confirmed as she leaned against the wall. “No man wants a woman who scowls and fumes.”
“Then why does Dad want you?” Henna asked, directing her scowl at the person smirking at her.
She knew she’d failed to intimidate her future stepmother when Georgia only laughed louder. The woman might turn out to be the worst stepmother of all she’d had. Look at what Georgia was making her do today?
Signing up with a dating service shouted to the world that you were a pathetic loser, but did Georgia care about how it looked? No, of course not. Georgia was sleeping with King Colombo and had enough Queen in her to carry off not giving a shit about what anyone one else in the kingdom thought.
“I can’t believe you’re actually making me go through with this,” Henna said, trying very hard to keep the whine out of her voice.
“The dating service was your father’s idea more than mine. I’m just here to make sure you keep your word to him.”
“Not bringing a date to Dad’s seven thousandth fundraiser for the year was a choice, not some problem that needs solving by everyone who thinks they have a right to boss me around. And yes… my father is included in that group.”
Georgia waved a hand. “You could have brought Vassal as your date and your father wouldn’t have said anything. God knows that man has been your back-up date for months.”
“There are reasons I didn’t ask him which are none of your or Dad’s business,” Henna hissed through clenched teeth.
Georgia rolled her eyes. “Will you relax? Everyone with eyes the other night could see that you’ve permanently consigned Vassal to the friend zone.”
“Friend zone? What are you? Twenty?” Henna demanded. She dropped her head and sighed when Della chuckled at her fussing.
“I guess I can see why you’re upset. Maybe that woman really was Vassal’s date,” Georgia said, pretending to reconsider. “If so, bringing her was probably to keep his dignity in front of all those people who’d gotten used to seeing him on your arm. It’s not like Vassal could just go off and lick his wounds in private. His family had donated to that particular charity so he had to be there because of your snooty rich people rules. Right?”
Henna huffed and crossed her arms. “That woman in her business suit was Vassal’s temporary skank for the evening, not his date. He’s got a bunch of skanks he calls when he needs one. Trust me.”
“Skank?” Georgia laughed at the term. “The woman wasn’t even wearing a boob shirt. Sounds to me like you’re jealous.”
“No. I am most certainly not jealous,” Henna said, narrowing her gaze. She had to be careful because whatever she said would go straight back to Vassal. Georgia only saw the best in him. “I’m not in the market for another womanizing womanizer. I wish they all had to wear signs.”
Georgia laughed again. “Vassal’s a flirt, but I’d hardly call what he does womanizing. If you’d have talked to him for more than thirty seconds, you would have known Sandra was someone he works with. I’m sure he’d rather have been hanging off your arm being ignored by you as usual but you’re obviously not even interested enough to pretend anymore. For that there is really only one solution—you both need to date other people.”
“What I do or don’t do with Vassal—or any man—is no one’s business but mine.”
Georgia nodded. “Normally, I would agree with you. I happen to think women don’t need a man at all to survive. But this is a different situation. Your father worries about your non-dating status every day. The least you can do is amass a bigger list of guys not to invite so you can spread your disinterest among them and further confuse your father. Or just take a lesbian lover. That would work too. I could explain either of those scenarios and get your father completely off your back.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my life. Just because I didn’t serial date and marry like Dad did…”
“Stop right there,” Georgia said, interrupting. “Your father was lonely and looking for love, Henna Evelyn Colombo. Now he’s convinced he’s the reason you’re not letting yourself fall in love again. So quit grumbling and go on a few damn dates to make him hopeful that your broken heart is healing. What could it hurt?”
Groaning, Henna made a pouting face. “But I don’t want to date.”
“I didn’t either and look where that got me.”
Henna snorted. “Dad adores you.”
Georgia nodded. “And I adore him back which is why I blackmailed you into coming. A surgeon who operates nearly every day doesn’t need to worry every five minutes about his grown daughter. So suck it up and talk to the camera when Della tells you to. Pretend she’s one of those fancy, schmancy journalists who write society columns for the newspaper. You’re always polite to those people.”
Della chuckled and shook her head. “Was that a segue, Georgia? I wasn’t sure you two knew I was still in the room.”
“Sorry,” Henna said, grumbling in apology as Della helped turn her feet and arrange her body. “I’m tense because I have a lot of other things to do.”
Across the room, Georgia grunted in disgust. “Like what, Cinderella? Go home and brood by the polished granite fireplace the housekeepers clean for you? There are no ashes left in it.”
Della clamped her lips tight to keep from laughing when Henna glared daggers at Georgia. “Okay, Henna,” she said, adopting her best professional face. “When you’re ready, just look at the camera and tell us a bit about yourself.”
Henna turned her brightest, fake smile toward the camera. “Hi. My name is Henna Cinderella Colombo and my future wicked stepmother is making me do this stupid dating video.”
“You’re never going to find your real prince with that kind of attitude,” Georgia said from the background while rolling her eyes.
Ignoring Georgia’s outburst, Henna plowed on. “The truth is that I’m nothing at all like Cinderella. I hate tiaras. I hate going to balls. I’ve never wanted a prince and I definitely don’t want to date a gazillion guys trying to find one. Pretending to be fascinated by everything a man says is too much trouble for me to go through for dinner. Why? Because I’ve spent my entire life in elite social circles pretending to be nice because I had no choice.”
Henna paused to sigh dramatically in frustration, but it wasn’t quite as fake as she’d planned. Her feelings sobered her into a brutal honesty that she almost never gave voice to.
“The truth is that I’d be a lousy date. I’m sick and tired of being nice. I’m tired of banquet tables full of crappy food. I also don’t want to worry about gaining weight because of some stupid dress I have to wear to some function I don’t even want to go to.”
Della cleared her throat to interrupt—and hopefully change the mood. “So what do you want from a relationship, Henna?”
Henna chuckled without humor. “I’ve been working on that for a very long time and I still don’t know. However, I do believe that a woman as close to thirty as I am ought to be able to have the life she wants… or not have a life she doesn’t want.”
Henna paused for a moment than glared at the camera. “So if you’re listening to this rant and hear my father’s name and think you’re going to be dating my rich daddy’s little princess daughter—dude, you’ve got it all wrong. I would rather kiss an actual frog than go out with some lame guy who has so little game that he has to use a dating service. Want some advice? Save your money and go to a bar where you might have a chance of getting laid because you have absolutely zero chance of that with me. If you don’t believe me, look up Vassal Milano. He’ll confirm that last statement.”
Della stepped away from the camera. Usually, she could work with anything a client said, but… whoa, Henna was spewing nothing but vitriol. And who in the world was Vassal Milano? “Okay, well, maybe we should do this another time,” she said bluntly.
“No,” Henna answered just as bluntly back. “I want you to use the recording exactly like I made it. If any man can get past all that, I’ll go out with him. But he still needs to understand that he will never be invited to anything my famous father will be attending. He’s stuck with me and only me for as many evenings as he’s willing to pay for.”
Henna rose from her seat and glared at Georgia. “Bite me, you silver-haired old crone. I did the stupid video and now I’m leaving. Ride your broom home by yourself. I’ll get there on my own.”
Georgia sighed softly and glanced at Della in apology as Henna stomped down the hallway. Moments later, the office door slammed behind her. “I promise Henna’s not half as spoiled as she seemed just now. Under all that ugly attitude is a kind, generous soul who exhibits a lot of grace under pressure. She’s just hurting.”
“Her pain was evident. Who’s Vassal Milano?” Della asked.
“A friend of hers,” Georgia explained as she shrugged. “I think Henna was hoping for more eventually, but the man lost patience and gave up waiting for her to get her shit straight.”
“Are you sure emotional pain is Henna’s problem? There’s lots of anger in her, Georgia,” Della said.
Georgia chuckled. “Yes, but the root source is the pain of her past. It takes a shrewish woman to know one.”
Della grunted. “I can’t use that video as is.”
The statement made Georgia laugh… and shrug. “Why not? You used mine. Put that mean blabbering of hers up. I say let’s see if any crazy monkeys shake out of the trees in your expensive dating jungle. Brent’s name will no doubt draw a few gorillas beating their chest. This could be fun.”
“For you maybe, but I doubt it will be for Henna.” Della stared at Georgia and sighed loudly. “It was nice of you to try to fix Henna up with that Vassal person but Cupid’s never going to have to worry about you taking his job.”
“No,” Georgia agreed while chuckling at the comment. “You and my daughter are giving that little arrow-happy man a run for his money though. I’m living proof. Now work a miracle for Henna Colombo. She’s the closest I’ve ever seen to a woman who’s completely given up on love. Even Jellica wasn’t this hard a sell.”
Della mockingly saluted before Georgia walked out, but had already decided she was going to run this one by Mariah before it went live. Henna sounded more serious than sarcastic to her. Sane guys would run the other way and never look back.
READ AN EXCERPT - CHAPTER 3
Della sighed deeply after the original video finished playing for Mariah. God willing, she’d never have to listen to it again now. “After splicing out the worst of the man-hating remarks, I only came up with about one minute of content that was usable. I thought I could handle anything after fixing your mother’s. Georgia’s was the worst video to edit that I’d ever come across until Henna Colombo’s.”
Mariah chuckled. “Don’t forget Trudy’s Hitler reference. That one gave me shudders. We might have ruined her career by releasing that one as it was.”
Della chuckled at the memory. “Chef Baker’s video was easy to edit—just three clean lines cut and it was done. The rest of the recording was about making streusel or something.” She sobered and sighed. “This is different—very different. All I hear when I listen to it is someone full of anger and hurt. That comes through loud and clear.”
“I know. Based on the stories Mom has shared with me, I don’t see Henna volunteering for counseling. She went that route for her ex and it didn’t help things any.” Mariah leaned back in her chair and chewed her lip while she thought. John had come home late last night and she’d been up with him for hours. Her brain was still fuzzy this morning. “Lord, this is a challenge I never saw coming. Brent is one of our best clients. We can’t outright reject his daughter as a client just for being a pain to deal with.”
“Reject her?” Della winced at what Mariah assumed. “No, no. I wouldn’t do that and I definitely wasn’t suggesting it. Henna Colombo needs us more than some of the others do.”
Mariah laughed. “Needs us? I’m not sure she even needs to be dating, but the woman certainly needs something uplifting in her life.”
Della squirmed in her chair wondering how to delicately reveal her insider info. “Georgia told me Henna’s ex-husband cheated on her multiple times with women living in the house with her and Brent. That must have been terribly degrading to Henna to have to face those women in her own home. But that happened years ago, Mariah. When Henna was here, I got the distinct impression that her current pain is from a much fresher wound. I’m guessing it’s related to that Vassal guy both she and Georgia mentioned.”
Mariah grinned. “Very astute of you, Dr. Livingston. I think you are correct.”
“Really?” Della said in surprise. “Because I was totally going with my gut on that one.”
“Mom told me she thought Henna was falling in love with a nice guy-aka this Vassal guy-who used to be married to one of her former step-sisters. That reality-show-worthy situation would probably keep someone who cares about appearances awake at night. Even if Henna has fallen for him, the man’s a second-hand Prince Charming at best. Their shared past would be a lot to work through.”
Della made a choked sound as she thought about it. “How awful for Henna. Doesn’t sound like a path to any normal happily ever after.”
Mariah nodded in agreement. “Henna’s life seems mired in awful. Her father has used her as his hostess for over a decade. Her ex-husband keeps popping up in her face because they still run in the same circles. According to Mom, Henna hasn’t dated anyone except the second-hand Prince Charming since her divorce. Mom also says Brent would have a melt-down if Henna moved out before convincing him she was okay. There is no reprieve for that woman. Even tough-love Georgia Bates feels sorry for her.”
Della wrinkled her face in thought. “I did too when she came in. How can The Perfect Date help someone who hates the idea of dating?”
“Good question,” Mariah said. She leaned back and swiveled her chair as she thought. The answer that came to her wasn’t great, but it was good. “My theory is that Henna is self-absorbed in her pain because the only people she interacts with are people from her past or Brent’s past. Mom’s interference has started the process of shaking her up, but it’s not enough to foster true healing.”
“I completely agree with that theory and will add that Henna hates being your mother’s current pet project.”
Mariah nodded as she turned back to look at Della. “I think we need to expose Henna to the best of the best guys in our database. I’m talking about the guys running charities and generally doing good by their fellow man on a daily basis. We have several of those because they’re always too busy to hang out in bars or go to clubs. The Perfect Date compensates them one no-fee date each year they remain in the database and think of it as my donation to their cause. Good people deserve to find their perfect life partner.”
“And you think Henna is going to be a perfect partner for one of them?” Della asked, laughing because she couldn’t help it.
“Anything’s possible—but no, that probably won’t happen,” Mariah answered, then chuckled. “But they can maybe show her a different side of men. Dating those guys might help her gain some perspective. We just have to come up with a way to make it worth their while as well because she’s not going to make it easy for them.”
“For those guys to even give her a chance, I’d have to bury Henna’s video. Problem is something is required in that spot. Maybe I can talk Elliston into helping us bypass the programming to leave it out of her bio,” Della said.
“Keep that strategy in your back pocket for a real crisis. Blackmailing your future husband is too much trouble for this,” Mariah said as she smiled. “Use that minute version you made and make it fail at the end as if it was a bad recording. Worse case scenario, viewers will report it to us as broken. I doubt the number will be high enough to be that annoying for you.”
Della giggled. “Sounds pretty devious to purposely upload a bad file.”
“My wicked side comes from sleeping with a cop,” Mariah bragged. Then she laughed. “I’m kidding. It comes from my mother. She’s the most devious person I know.”
While Della laughed, Mariah snapped her fingers. “I’ve got it. We’ll offer a three thousand dollar donation to the charity of the guy who gets the best date rating from Henna. We’ll say she only wants to date philanthropists. Guys will view that three thousand like a refund and they’ll jump at the legitimate chance to put more of their money toward their cause. Phrase the offer carefully and see if you can make it seem a bit like Henna’s idea. But warn them they’re not allowed to talk about their charity on their date with her or make any pitches. Tell them she’s turned off by solicitation after working with her father. They have to show her a genuinely good time and earn their good date rating honestly.”
“Is this as sketchy as it feels?” Della asked.
Mariah nodded and laughed. “Yes, we are absolutely stretching the boundaries of what we do, but it’s worth a shot. At least Brent’s jaded daughter will be exposed to a whole bunch of super nice guys who will hopefully have some mitigating effect on that negative attitude of hers. Who knows? One of them might actually turn out to be her prince after all. Miracles do happen in our line of work.”
“You know I’m a believer,” Della said. “I go home to a miracle every day. Elliston owns his condo so we pay no rent. He won’t let me buy anything but food to help with expenses. He says he wants me to invest my earnings and develop some residual income. My dad adores him because he’s taking such good financial care of me.”
“As trite as it sounds, you actually did find your prince,” Mariah said.
Della sighed. “I think maybe I did. I certainly can’t imagine sleeping without him now. It’s like he’s…”
“Everything good and wonderful about men?” Mariah suggested with a smile.
Della grunted. “Well, he does forget to put the toilet seat back down now and again.”
“Nobody’s perfect,” Mariah said with a laugh. “But don’t tell our clients. We’re selling the dream here.”
“My new dream is that I get more clients like Jellica and fewer like Henna. Jellica had hidden agendas, but she hadn’t totally given up. Henna is genuinely cynical.”
“Lots of younger women these days have bad attitudes about dating. I’m finding guys are just as jaded and cynical. Brace yourself because Henna may be our new norm in the younger clients. It’s very challenging to get them to take a chance on dating outside their preconceived idea of it being useless,” Mariah said with a resigned sigh.
Della chuckled. “Then I need to find us an office manager as soon as possible. Someone will need to answer the door while we’re both hiding in our offices and dealing with headaches.”
Mariah chuckled at her half-serious comment. Della smiled as she headed back to her office.
READ AN EXCERPT - CHAPTER 4
She was in her office pouring over Henna’s files for the second day in a row when Della heard the jingling sound when the office door opened. She’d resorted to hanging a set of bells on the handle so people wouldn’t surprise her when she was there alone.
“Delivery for Dr. Della Livingston,” a voice called out.
“Just a moment,” Della called as she scurried from her office to the front. It was impossible to walk fast in her heels, but they sure made her outfit look good. Elliston was picking her up after work and they were going out to dinner. She was determined to look like a happy fiancée tonight instead of a tired, frustrated matchmaker.
“Hello,” the courier said. “Beg pardon, but there’s a bit of charge left on it, miss.”
“Bit of… oh… how much?” Della asked, silently amused at the woman’s accent. The courier was very tall, on the curvy side, and had her long blond hair caught up in a ponytail that hung out of the back of her courier company’s logo cap.
“Not to be numpty with you, but I still think in terms of sterling. Give me a moment to do the math.”
Della smiled as she waited patiently. “I love your accent.”
The courier laughed. “I love yours too. I’m betting you’re not from O-H-I-O.”
“Not originally. I’m from Kentucky,” Della admitted. “Is my southern showing today?”
“Now I’m definitely feeling numpty because I have no idea what that means. Okay. Here you go, miss. I need two of your yank dollars and thirteen pence.”
Della laughed at the mixed rate. “Cents.”
“Oh, right. Cents. We’re pence. You’re cents. You’d think after tending an American bar for a couple of months, I’d at least get the money straight.”
Della nodded. “I’m going to have to go get it from petty cash. Have a seat if you want. I’ll be as quick as I can.”
“Thanks. I wouldn’t mind a sit down for a bit. Take your time.”
Della hustled back down the hall and heard the phone ring. She turned into her office instead of going to Mariah’s. She’d take the call and multi-task while she searched for change.
Ignoring the guest chairs, Iris Pemberton walked around the desk with nothing on top of it and sat in the big leather chair behind it. Her legs thanked her the moment her tired bum hit the soft leather seat.
The courier job didn’t pay as well in yank money as bartending alongside her tosser of an ex-boyfriend had. Since he threw her out into the street without a coin to her name what were her choices? She had to work for cash now from anyone who’d pay her that way. Delivering stuff at least wore her out enough to ignore the family with the crying baby sharing the small hostel space with her. It wasn’t great for sleep but being bone tired always helped.
She pulled off the cap announcing her job and released her hair from confinement. Seconds after she swept it across one shoulder to inspect the frayed ends, a good-looking brown-haired bloke in a sharp, button-down shirt and khaki slacks walked into the office. He was all long legs and wide shoulders despite his lean build.
Feeling rude for sitting in a place where she didn’t work, she reluctantly rose from her seat. A small grin tugged at her lips when she noticed him eyeing her body. Her six-foot height and proportional curves had obviously surprised him.
“Hello,” Iris said politely.
“Hello,” he said back while staring. “Uh… Della is expecting me. She asked me to come in this afternoon.”
Iris nodded. “Sorry. It’s hard cheese for you at the moment. Dr. Livingston’s in the back looking for some dosh.”
Lincoln’s grin widened as he chuckled. “Hard cheese? Can you try that again in English for me?”
Iris narrowed her eyes. “Are you daft or just pretending to be with me? I’m sure you can tell I’m English.” When he laughed at her insult, she laughed too. Yanks were so strange.
He pushed his glasses up on his nose and stuck out a hand. “Hi. I’m Lincoln Walker,” he said, introducing himself.
Iris shrugged and held out her hand. “Name’s Iris—Iris Pemberton. Pleased to meet you.”
Della came back with her checkbook and a credit card. She held up both. “I’m really sorry, but I can’t find the petty cash. Do you take cards or checks?”
Iris shook her head. “No worries. We’re all skint now and again. Those coins would have been part of my till for the day and I’m good without them. I’ll be going now so you can get back to your regular business.”
With her cap tucked under her arm, Iris walked around the desk.
Lincoln held up a hand. “Wait? You don’t work here?”
Iris chuckled at his assumption. “No, but I do have business with this establishment.” She picked up the package from the desk and handed it over to the still blushing woman. “Here you go, Dr. Livingston. Now don’t you lose sleep about the cash. We’re good you and I.”
Della took the package. “I can’t believe I couldn’t find some spare cash in this place. I’m mortified.”
Lincoln stopped Della’s apology with a hand on her arm. “I’ve got cash. Let me pay your tab and you can catch me back next time I come in.”
“No, I want to. Truly,” Lincoln insisted loudly. He looked at Iris who sighed in dread. Her frustrated reaction made him want to laugh.
“Alright, let me figure up the amount again…” Iris said.
“I owe her two dollars and thirteen cents,” Della interjected, more embarrassed than ever when she recited the small amount aloud.
“Got it.” Lincoln whipped a twenty out of his pocket. “This is tip money for a ride I gave today. Keep the change for your trouble, Iris.”
“Ride? Are you a cabby?” Iris asked.
“No, I fly balloons,” Lincoln said, watching the wonder bloom in her sky blue gaze.
“Balloon rides? How spawny for you.”
“Does spawny mean good?” Lincoln asked, grinning again.
“Very good. I’d love a ride sometime,” Iris replied.
“I’d love to give you one,” Lincoln answered sincerely, his mind instantly jumping to a lot more. He didn’t feel right asking her out in front of Della, so he reached into his pocket and pulled out a business card. “This is my current launch space. Look me up, Iris.”
Iris chuckled. Lots of good-looking blokes liked her tall, blonde appearance. Unfortunately, she was gutted after a man she’d cared about had refused to pay her way back home when he was done with her. For her own protection, she’d decided to be totally done with all yanks, no matter how good-looking or nice.
“Thanks much, Lincoln. I appreciate the offer of a ride… and your generosity.” Iris waved the twenty dollar bill in the air with a grateful smile. “Okay. Got to run. Cheerio.”
“Sure,” Lincoln said, eyeball-to-eyeball with Iris as she passed by him on the way to the door.
Della studied Lincoln as he stared longingly at the courier as she left. Lincoln was one of The Perfect Date’s original clients and had been with Mariah since she opened. She’d been too busy feeling stupid over the money to notice the man had been all but drooling over the tall woman with the accent. If the courier was Lincoln’s favorite type of female, they had a bigger problem than Mariah imagined. There was no one like her in their database.
“Did she say what her name was?” Della asked.
“Iris Pemberton,” Lincoln said, reluctantly turning back to Della. “Any chance you can get me a date with her?”
She wanted to say no instantly. There was too much going on in her life to track down a courier who obviously wasn’t American, talk her into joining the dating database, and arrange a date for Lincoln. The amount of trouble would no doubt prove insurmountable.
“Let’s talk in my office,” Della said quietly, pushing his request aside to avoid saying a flat no. His sigh as he followed her spoke louder than any answer he might give to the questions waiting on the legal tablet on her desk.
Della sighed too and pointed at the guest chair in front of her desk as she hurried to sit behind it. She picked up her legal tablet and folded Henna Colombo’s six pages over the top. She gazed down at some refresher questions she’d prepared for Lincoln. Mariah made it a point to check in with the original clients who were still waiting and hoping.
She’d asked Lincoln to stop by in person to meet him because Della had wanted to get a handle on what he was looking for… since no date had worked out for him yet.
Okay… and she’d been sort of thinking of tossing Henna at him even though there was more than a decade between their ages. It had been a long shot for helping Henna, but Lincoln? He’d found instant hope moments ago… and right in front of her.
How could she take that genuine experience away from him? Bottom line was that Della knew she couldn’t.
“I can’t promise you anything, but I’ll look Iris up and see if she’s interested in joining the database. Or I can simply pretend you didn’t meet her in our office and you can go ask her out yourself. We’ll call it even for you spotting me the twenty.”
“You’d do that for me? Just look the other way while I chased down an interesting woman?” Lincoln asked.
Della nodded. “Your happiness is the whole point of our service, Lincoln. You’ve been a great customer. I can’t imagine Mariah would feel any differently.”
“I really thought Iris was your replacement out front. She smiled when I walked in and said hello. She just looked natural sitting at your old desk.”
Della nodded, but the truth was she hadn’t noticed much about the woman except her accent. “I’m in the process of looking for a new office manager. Did she say she needed a job—or a better job?”
Lincoln shrugged. “No, nothing like that. I should know better than to get my hopes up. This always happens to me.”
“What always happens to you?” Della asked, truly curious about his sad tone.
“I always like the unusual ones and they’re always out of my reach. That’s what sent me to Mariah in the first place. I’d let too many great women get away. I have always had the worst case of bad timing when it comes to dating.”
Della sighed. “Well, we can’t let that continue. So, are you going after her yourself or am I doing it for you?”
Lincoln laughed at the blunt question. “If I don’t go myself, are you going to think I’m a wimp and pull my man card?”
Della shook her head. “No, I’m going to think you’re a man who’s working hard to keep his romantic dreams alive when all he’s ever known is frustration. I’m also going to think you have high ethics in your business dealings in wanting to run this through the database.”
Chuckling, Lincoln shrugged. “Okay. You do it for me.” He looked at Della. “Who was it you wanted to talk to me about today? We haven’t even talked about that person yet. Maybe I need to keep my options open.”
Della folded the legal pad back to normal and flipped it upside down on her desk. “I’ve changed my mind,” she answered firmly. “If Iris is your dream girl, the one I was contemplating is not for you. Trust me—your Iris is whole different kind of woman.”
Lincoln shrugged. “I trust your judgment more than my own. That’s why I’m here.”
“Well, you shouldn’t,” Della said with a smile. “Let’s talk about that doubt. Tell me about the last woman you dated where you felt you missed your chance.”
“Ann Lynx. She was wonderful, but I think she was already in love with someone else. I never heard for certain…”
Della smiled. “Your instincts are working just fine, Lincoln. Ann is currently engaged to a retired military man.”
Lincoln raised his hand. “See? That’s my luck. The interesting ones are always taken.”
Della leaned back in her chair. “Sometimes love really is about timing. Let’s see if we can change your luck with Iris.”
About THE PERFECT DATE Series
The essence of all romantic comedy is that falling in love and navigating an unexpected romance is never easy or simple. Instead, it’s messy and emotional, and if you’re lucky, it’s also sexy and fun.
Some relationship professionals, like my character of Dr. Mariah Bates in this series, sincerely want to help people find their perfect love match. For the various heroines I’ve created, many of whom are older, Mariah’s going to need all the help she can get. Or maybe she just needs to step out of the way. You can be the judge.
NOTE ABOUT THE HEAT LEVEL: Not being a fan of the word “clean” when applied to romance, I will instead say the heat level in this new series is in the 1-2 range, rather than 3-4 like some of my others. The focus is on sensuality and I’ve packed a lot into these stories.
Other Books In This Series
LENGTH: 36,900 words, 164 pages
RELEASE DATE: September 2018