“I have to go,” I said, my voice laden with disappointment.
“You probably have to put on some clothes first.” Kara sounded disappointed, too.
“I guess I have to.” I grinned at her.
Freshly shaved, tuxedo on, hair combed, I was ready in ten minutes. Kara still sat on the bed where she’d lazily watched me get ready. I gave her one more kiss on her forehead.
“Join me soon?”
“Yes.” She nodded, smiling. “In about an hour.”
“I can’t wait.”
I really couldn’t. I wanted to show her everything, the glamour and festivity of the gala, and then anything and everything else she might enjoy for the rest of our lives. We had so much to do together, so much ahead of us. Because this time, I wasn’t letting go. I finally had her, the one I’d always wanted. The only woman I’d ever loved.
I loved her. I knew that now. And tonight I’d tell her.
I watched Declan leave the hotel room in a daze. What had he done to me? Had anyone ever lost their mind, cause of insanity multiple intense orgasms? What a way to go! You’d lose your grip on reality with such a huge smile on your face.
I didn’t think I’d ever recover. Good thing I’d never have to try. This was real, what we had. I loved him and he loved me. I knew he did, in every fiber of my being. It was in the way he touched me, held me, kissed me, made love to me. We belonged together. And now nothing stood in our way.
I walked over to the opulent bathroom and sat down on a satin pedestal at a three-way mirror. It was set up for some serious work to take place, the lighting, the space, you could really lay out all of your artist’s tools and devote time to perfecting your image. In a soft, fluffy robe, I applied lotions and powders and grinned at my reflection from ear to ear. Glowing like I was, I felt like I didn’t need any make-up at all. Typically critical of myself, tonight I could tell I looked radiant. Especially wearing his necklace.
I’d never seen anything so stunning. I had no idea what it cost. I didn’t want to know, I’d be too scared to wear it and I never wanted to take it off. The diamonds caught the light and sparkled like sunshine around my neck. The rubies would accent the deep red of my dress perfectly. And Declan had claimed I looked like the finest gem of all.
All those worries about not fitting into his world—they were gone. First of all, I didn’t care anymore. All that mattered was Declan and he loved me so why did the opinions of other snobby people affect me in the least? Second of all, on Declan’s arm, the world was my oyster. He was a VIP host tonight, the founder of one of the charities being celebrated at the gala, and I was his guest.
This man took me places I’d never dreamed I’d go, and I didn’t just mean fancy parties. Today we’d never even left the hotel room but I’d been transported, experiencing emotions and intense pleasure I’d never imagined. The things he’d done to me, that I’d let him do to me and loved over the past week? I was over feeling sheepish, shy, shocked about it all. When you loved each other, everything felt intense. No wonder I responded to him like butter in a heat wave, he was my soul mate. This was how it was supposed to be.
I blow-dried and styled my hair, smiling the whole time. You’d think my cheeks would start to hurt after a while, but maybe all those years with too few smiles were balancing things out now. I felt absolutely fine, no end in sight. I brushed my hair out straight and left it down, simple. It looked sleek and full, the highlights I’d gotten last week adding depth and shine and movement.
It took a while to work myself into the dress. The corset presented a challenge. I had no maid or stepsister to pull me into it tight. Instead, I wiggled and twisted and managed as best I could. But once I finally got myself all hooked up, maneuvered the dress over my head, zipped up the side, slipped on my heels, that smile broke out over my face all over again.
Holy shit, I looked like a bombshell. From every angle in the mirror I shone radiant and divine. With high, high heels and the drape and cut of the dress my legs looked a mile long. I swept my hair off my shoulder and watched the diamond necklace shimmer and sparkle.
At that moment, I believed in fairy tales. Hope bloomed full in my heart. This might have started as a bargain, an agreement based on an exchange of sex and money. But now it was much more than that. Dreams did come true. We understood each other in a way no one else ever could. Everything was going to work out and I was the luckiest girl on earth.
Searching for my purse, I found my cell phone and realized I hadn’t checked it in over a day. I’d been too busy enjoying myself with Declan. I had a voicemail from yesterday. It was our ranch foreman, Bill. His voice sounded tired. He apologized for bothering me. He said he’d hoped he wouldn’t have to talk to me until I got back from my trip. But then a couple of guys from the bank had come out to the ranch. We had until five p.m. Monday to come up with the money or they were foreclosing. The time had come.
Panic set in quick, a tight grip on my throat. I took a deep breath and told myself to calm down. That wasn’t my reality anymore. Declan was real and he cared about me, deeply. He was going to help me out and this would simply be a nightmare I’d wake up from, clean and simple in the morning sunshine. I couldn’t wait.
Then I saw a text message from a couple of hours ago. Lymon, the toad man:
You have 24 hours.
What did he think he was, a terrorist? Was he issuing a bomb threat? I tried to calm myself down by rolling my eyes, telling myself this guy was over-the-top crazy. He was such a goon, harassing me for my answer. I’d have him out of my hair soon enough, too. But his text message sent a cold chill down my gorgeously-dressed spine.
I put the phone down quick. He didn’t get to ruin my night on the town with my man. And I didn’t need him anyway. He didn’t even deserve a response.
But as Vladimir drove me over to the Met, I felt unsettled and nervous. My joie de vivre of moments ago had fled and now I was just a plain rancher’s daughter heading out to an overwhelmingly fancy party. I had no idea what to expect. Would there be paparazzi there with cameras? Celebrities? People with microphones trying to talk to me?
Suddenly, my stomach balled in a knot and I wished I were headed anywhere else. I couldn’t catch a deep enough breath in the stupid corset and I felt light-headed. What I wouldn’t give to be at home sitting out on my porch swing looking at the stars and humming to myself. Or settling into my old, worn, soft couch with a comfy blanket, hot cocoa and a delicious romance novel.
“I could bring you around the side entrance,” Vladimir offered.
“Oh, yes, thank you,” I exhaled with relief. He must have seen the panic in my eyes. As we drove slowly past, the front entrance looked much worse than I’d imagined, with a literal red carpet up miles of stairs thronged with photographers. I’d never have made it up past the first step.
The side door was much quieter, just a few uniformed men and a bitchy-looking woman all in black with her hair swept up and an earpiece like the secret service.
“Name, please?” She eyed me disdainfully, holding a slim, silver iPad with what I figured was the guest list. No clipboard for this lady, only the latest issue Apple gadget would do.
“Kara Brooks.” It came out in a whisper and I had to repeat myself over the emerging din of the party. Voices, glasses clinking, laughter, a string quartet. I wanted to vomit.
“You may proceed.” She checked me off or whatever and stepped up to the next guests. She sure seemed to give them a warmer welcome.
The minute I walked in I knew my hair was all wrong. Every woman I saw had their hair swept up in some kind of a glamorous twist. One woman had sticks poking out of her bun like skewers. I’d been a fool to leave mine down like I was headed to a parking lot kegger. Why hadn’t I thought of that?
Also, I didn’t see a single other woman in red. Silver, gold and lots and lots of black. I remembered a novel we’d read back in high school English class about an adulterous woman wh
o’d had to wear the scarlet letter A on all her clothing. I felt about that scandalous and ostracized, standing there head-to-toe in scarlet.
For a moment, I considered turning and running. I probably wouldn’t get very far though, not with the heels I was wearing plus the corset restricting my breath. What I wouldn’t have given for a pair of old cowboy boots, jeans and a t-shirt. Then I could have gotten the hell out of there.
I needed to find Declan and I needed to find him fast. I should have texted him before I left the hotel room. After seeing toad man’s message though, I’d practically thrown the phone out the window. I had nothing with me but my hotel room key card and a $20 bill. Tucked into my corset, because I was that classy.