Never Look Back
LENGTH: 36,900 words, 164 pages
RELEASE DATE: September 2018
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
“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.
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.