Tempting Prince Charming - Lauren Smith - E-Book

Tempting Prince Charming E-Book

Lauren Smith

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Beschreibung

This prince charming has the world at his fingertips.


 


Anything real estate mogul Thad Worthington wants, he gets—except true love.


 


Until one cold night when he meets a woman with a warm heart.


 


But his would-be princess has no desire to risk her heart for a second chance at a fairy tale, not when she’s already widowed and a single mother.


 


After one scorching kiss that leaves him changed forever, Thad won’t let his princess run from him.


 


When her wicked stepmother threatens to ruin this fairy tale, Thad is left holding a glass slipper and searching for the woman he can’t live without.

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Tempting Prince Charming

Ever After - Book 2

Lauren Smith

Contents

Once upon a time…

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Epilogue

Legally Charming

Other Titles By Lauren Smith

About the Author

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

Copyright 2021 by Lauren Smith

Cover Art by Croco Designs

All rights reserved. In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher constitutes unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at [email protected] Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.

The publisher is not responsible for websites (or their content) that are not owned by the publisher.

ISBN: 978-1-952063-10-7 (e-book edition)

ISBN: 978-1-952063-11-4 (print edition)

Once upon a time…

There lived a young woman who was too afraid to believe in love again…

1

Thad Worthington hastily shoved his stack of work papers off his lap and onto the seat beside him. “Stop the car!”

His private driver hit the brakes and the Rolls-Royce Phantom stopped along the curb.

“Sir?” His driver’s eyes flicked to Thad in the rearview mirror.

“Just a moment,” Thad said, his gaze drawn to the sight outside his window.

They were on a quiet neighborhood street in Chicago, off Thad’s usual beaten path—by choice, of course—and yet he hadn’t ever remembered seeing this impressive brownstone residence before. The gloom of a wintry, rain-soaked evening had settled on the city, yet this home glowed with warmth and light.

He tilted his head, studying the home with undeniable curiosity. The first floor had been converted into a coffee shop. The Chi-Bean was painted in pale blue letters on the front door.

Something inside Thad shifted, like the deep rumbling of tectonic plates beneath the earth’s surface. He had to go inside.

“Simon, I feel like a cup of coffee. I’ll text you when I’m ready for you to pick me up.”

“Of course, sir.” Simon pulled to the curb and Thad moved his papers into his briefcase. All thoughts of his various real estate deals were, at this moment, tossed firmly to the side. The glowing illumination of that brownstone and its coffee shop made him a moth to it’s warm, welcoming flame.

He stepped out of the car and a thick, misting rain immediately coated his bespoke suit and coat. He raked a hand through his hair and strode toward the entrance, pausing as he read a sign taped to the inside of the door.

“Open Mic Night—Thursdays 8pm to 10pm. All singers welcome. Guitar provided.”

His heart gave a little jolt. Could he do it? Could he sing in public? It was something he’d only ever done in the privacy of his penthouse. Singing opened something inside him, something that spread its wings and took flight whenever he strummed his guitar and let the words of a song pour from his lips.

It was cathartic, like dropping beneath the surface of the stillest lake. And at the same time, his heart came alive like it had been struck by lightning.

He wasn’t afraid of anything in the boardrooms where he made his multimillion-dollar deals, but singing… that cut him open, left him exposed, vulnerable.

He wanted to feel that tonight, surrender to it, and the quiet euphoria it left behind.

He curled his fingers around the door handle and pulled.

A wave of warm air hit him as he stepped inside. He took in his surroundings carefully, noting the architecture and the quality of the building itself. He’d always believed a building was more than just four walls, that it could resonate as something people could feel to the point where it became part of them. He knew it sounded foolish, but he did believe it.

This place was full of love, from the cozy tables, to the fireplace with an actual fire going, and the stacks of board games nearby. Seats held a mix of college kids, late night dates, and anyone who wanted a place to escape the rain for a bit.

With a charming smile, he strode to the counter where two women were manning the Chi-Bean’s counter. One was a young college girl, a blonde with big green eyes. She stared at him like a kid who’d just walked into the largest candy store she’d ever seen. Thad was used to that response. Plenty of women tripped over themselves when he was around. It wasn’t about his features alone, plenty of men were handsome. And it wasn’t about his tailored suits, which anyone could buy. But if you combined those elements and added in his confidence, poise, and respect, people acted like a movie star had entered the room. He tried not to abuse his power…when possible, but it didn’t stop him from using his charm on the women he met.

The other woman only glanced at him, more interested in her work, but he was instantly struck by the cascade of her black hair that almost looked violet in the room’s lighting. The first girl jabbed her out of the way so she could take Thad’s order.

“What can I get you?”

Thad studied the menu carefully before making a choice. “A large lemon ginger tea, please.”

He glanced toward the fireplace, noticing the empty stool and microphone on a stand. A lone guitar was propped up next to them. It was close to eight. Any minute now, singers would be lining up to pour their hearts out over the mic…and he planned to be one of them.

“Oh my God, Chris Hemsworth just walked in.”

Veronica Hannigan jerked up under the cupboard as she put away creamer bottles in a small fridge, slamming her head against the bottom of the wood counter.

“Ow…” she hissed, then retreated from the cupboard and glanced at her employee Zelda, who was manning the coffee counter.

“What did you say?” she asked.

“Chris Hemsworth just walked into your shop.” Zelda muttered from the corner of her mouth before she changed her voice to greet a customer. “What can I get you?”

Veronica shoved the last bottle of creamer inside the fridge and got to her feet. The Chi-Bean was on the first floor of the five thousand square-foot brownstone she lived in. Her whole world and everything she cared about were underneath this roof. It had been her childhood home; she couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, which was one of the reasons she’d spent her life’s savings to open up the coffee shop.

Finished with her customer, Zelda nudged Veronica with her elbow. “Over there.”

Just inside the door stood a man who was at least six foot four with dark gold hair and hazel green eyes. Veronica’s mouth dropped open. He did look like Chris Hemsworth, one of her favorite actors, but he clearly wasn’t that man.

The man wore a fine suit, though most of it was covered by a wool knee-length grey coat which only added to his mystique. He looked around the shop, taking in the bakery counters, the tables, and the stack of board games near the lit fireplace that kept out the October chill.

The man’s gaze touched upon her and Zelda briefly before moving on. It was like he was trying to read the history of the building itself as he examined the cozy shop’s interior. Veronica had worked hard to make the Chi-Bean warm and inviting. This business was all she had, and she was damn proud of it.

The man finally came toward the counter and Zelda artfully nudged Veronica out of the way. Veronica had to roll her eyes at the younger girl’s antics sometimes. Hot men were Zelda’s territory. That was the rule. Not that Veronica cared to argue. She had plenty to do running the shop, so tending the customers was rare for her. .

“What can I get you?” Zelda asked the man.

Veronica discreetly moved behind one of their espresso machines so she could watch Mr. Tall and Too Gorgeous place his order. The way a person took their coffee told her a lot about them. If she had to guess, this guy was a straight coffee guy: no decaf, black, and probably nothing else.

He studied the menu carefully, unbothered by the customers lining up behind him. It was nearly eight o’clock, one of her busier times because it happened to be open mic night, where singers could play for the small crowd already gathered.

“A large lemon ginger tea, please.” said the Chris Hemsworth look-alike. His voice was deep, a perfect baritone and almost melodic. Was that even a thing for a man’s voice? If it was, he had it in spades.

“No problem!” Zelda swiped his credit card before handing it back. “You should stick around. Our open mic night starts in a few minutes.”

“Anyone can sing, right?” he asked.

“Anyone who wants to, right boss?” Zelda shot a look at Veronica, who had to step away from her espresso shield to meet the demands of his soft but intense look.

“Yes, that’s right. Anyone can play. You just sign up over there by the stool.”

As he turned to leave, the man’s lips curved in a playful smile that made her heart flutter. The sensation was so unexpected she actually forgot to breathe. When she finally remembered, she gasped.

“You okay?” Zelda whispered.

Veronica pressed her palms on the counter. “Yeah…”

But she wasn’t. It had been six years since she felt like this. Six years since she’d last felt that zing of attraction. She wasn’t used to it, even more so because it was for a man she would likely never see again.

“Zelda, get the open mic night started. I’ll handle the counter.”

Zelda practically bounced with energy as she rushed around the counter toward the fireplace where the stool sat empty next to a well-loved guitar.

She grinned at the audience as she picked up the mic. “Welcome to our weekly open mic night.” Her green eyes twinkled as she fully embraced the spotlight. “Who’s ready to become the next internet signing sensation? Just kidding, but seriously, if anyone gets famous after singing here, you better mention the Chi-Bean!” The audience laughed and she laid out the rules for the night.

Veronica was only too happy to hide behind her counter and listen to whatever music came from the patrons tonight. Music had saved her, offering a light in a world that had dimmed so much she feared it would never be bright again. And whenever she filled the space she worked in with those melodies, it reminded her of how much she’d survived and how lucky she was.

Over the next half hour, she listened with a smile and refilled orders from returning customers.

“Hey boss, we need more venti cups,” Zelda called out as she rang up another order.

“I’ll get them.” Veronica opened the door to the storeroom and dug through a large cardboard box until she found a sheath of the right sized cups.

The coffee shop grew quiet as the performers changed, then a deep voice came over the microphone.

“I’m Thad, and I’m going to sing ‘You Are the Reason’ by Calum Scott.” There was a moment of silence before a soothing, yet haunting, guitar melody began to play and the man started to sing.

Veronica froze. Her skin tingled with goosebumps as she listened to his words. He sang of his heart beating and losing sleep over the woman of his dreams. It was a song sung to lull a woman into a sweet hazy spell of heartache and a breathless joy all at once. Pain filled his voice as he sang about being broken and needing to fix it, if only he could turn back the clock.

But it was the line about making sure the light defeated the dark and how he would spend every hour making sure the woman he loved was safe that broke Veronica. The song dug into her soul, dragging her back four years to that night her life changed forever…

The flashing blue and white lights outside her window. Opening the door to a pair of officers and rain-drenched slickers. They exchanged a glance and removed their caps as they stepped onto her porch. She didn’t remember the exact words they said. It all became noise to her.

“Very sorry… There was an accident… The storm…”

She remembered the way her porch light lit up the rain just behind the officers, and she remembered the small fluttering kicks in her womb as her unborn child seemed to understand what the police were telling her.

“We’re so sorry…”More noise.

That was the day the darkness consumed her world. Only Lyra’s birth a month later brought the light back, but the shadows still lingered at the edges of her heart. How could a stranger’s haunting voice and song do this to her?

Veronica struggled to breathe while the words washed over her like the ocean battering a wild, rocky shore. It was somehow less painful to embrace the tidal wave of emotions rather than try to hold them off.

She wasn’t sure at what point she started crying, but she felt the tears roll down her cheeks, dripping off her chin and wetting the baby blue apron she wore. She sniffed and scrambled around the storeroom until she found a box of tissues and wiped her face. The man’s voice died away, and the last bit of the guitar’s notes hummed in the air. There was a heavy silence for a moment before the coffee shop erupted into applause.

“Thank you,” the man murmured. He sounded almost embarrassed.

Veronica stayed where she was in the storeroom until the next song began. After an extra moment, she emerged and handed Zelda the sheath of cups.

“Hey, Ronnie, are you okay?” Zelda asked she got a better look at her face.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” They both knew it was a lie, but Zelda was nice enough not to pry.

Veronica glanced around the room at the customers. “Who sang that Calum Scott song?”

Zelda grinned. “The Chris Hemsworth look-alike. His voice was everything, wasn’t it?” she sighed dreamily.

“Yeah.” Veronica looked for him, but the mysterious stranger was gone. Yet his words and the sound of his voice lingered in her mind long after she and Zelda closed down the shop.

She saw her employee safely out, then climbed the stairs to the residential floors of the brownstone and unlocked her apartment door.

“Mommy!” a little voice trilled. Veronica groaned as she caught the four-year-old bundle of energy as she barreled into her arms. If it wasn’t for Lyra, Veronica wouldn’t have been able to rebuild her life into what it was now.

“You should be in bed, honey.” She frowned at Lyra. Her blonde curls bounced, and her soft blue eyes were full of mischief. In those moments, Lyra looked so much like her father, especially her blond hair.

“Sorry, Mrs. Hannigan,” the babysitter said as she stepped into the hall. Katie was her next-door neighbor’s daughter who helped Veronica watch over Lyra on evenings when Veronica had only Zelda working downstairs. Veronica had two other part-time employees during the week, but on nights like this, Katie was a godsend in the form of a sixteen-year-old girl.

“It’s fine, Katie. I know she’s a handful sometimes.”

Katie laughed as Lyra spun around in her Princess Elsa costume. Lyra was at that fun age when she never wanted to wear anything else except for the Elsa dress if she could help it.

“Here you go.” Veronica handed Katie two twenty dollar bills and Katie gave Lyra a quick hug before she left for the night.

“Alright, kiddo. Bedtime for real. It’s after ten, and mommy has to be up at five.”

Lyra followed her into the bedroom and leaped onto the white wood twin bed while Veronica pulled some PJs out of the dresser.

“Elsa PJs?” Veronica offered, waving the jammies in front of her daughter. “That way mommy can wash your dress so it’s all clean for tomorrow?”

Lyra studied her intently, the way all young children did when they were debating whether or not to trust their parent during such negotiations.

“Okay.” Lyra let Veronica change her into her PJs, then climbed under the sheets.

Veronica kissed her head.

“Get some sleep.” She tickled Lyra’s arms and the girl giggled but quickly started to calm. Her eyelids grew heavy while she watched Veronica pick up the costume from the floor.

“Alexa, play the lullaby mix,” Veronica asked the smart speaker in Lyra’s room. Almost immediately, the device began to play soothing sweet music.

As Veronica stepped outside her daughter’s door, she heard Lyra speak to the device.

“Alexa, can you bring me a daddy?”

“I’m sorry, I cannot order a daddy,” the device replied.

Veronica sucked in a breath as pain squeezed her chest. Ever since Lyra had learned that you could order things from the device, she tried over and over to ask it for a father.

That was the one thing Veronica couldn’t give her, no matter how much she wanted to. Her heart was permanently broken.

Veronica walked into the laundry room feeling numb. She put the tiny Elsa costume into the washing machine with the rest of her load before she turned it on. Then she went into her own bedroom and collapsed on her bed, exhausted.

Across from her was a dresser with a collection of photos in frames. The one in the middle held her attention. It showed a man with a hand on the woman’s rounded belly, his lips pressed in a kiss against the sun dress covered shape of an unborn child. Lyra.

“I miss you, Parker,” she whispered. “I miss you so much.”

But no matter how much it hurt, she couldn’t hide the photos of him. Sometimes the pain of what she lost was the only thing that kept her grounded. Someday maybe it wouldn’t hurt so much, but right now she had to be strong for Lyra.

Veronica changed into a loose t-shirt and boxers and climbed into bed with a heavy sigh. She reached for the bedside lamp and killed the light.

Thad strolled into the lobby of the Gold Circle hotel. It was full of life, glittering with 1920s art deco design and accompanied by an energetic night scene. A crowd of people left one of the remodeled ballrooms where their exclusive concert had been playing tonight. He slipped through the crowd, moving against the tide of people as he had every night since he and his father had reopened the old hotel in downtown Chicago.

Once inside the elevators, he swiped his keycard for access to the penthouse suite. The doors opened to a three thousand square-foot apartment. He tossed his keys, wallet, and keycard on the gray granite kitchen countertop before he removed his coat. Normally, the empty rooms of his home bothered him, but the feeling was worse tonight.

His mind was still buzzing from his moment in the spotlight. He could still feel the electricity that crawled along his senses as he sang, and soon, his thoughts turned toward the little, elegant brownstone house itself. If he had to guess, it was worth around three million, with a lease on the first floor for the coffee shop and a lease on the residential property upstairs.

Thad closed his eyes and leaned back against the kitchen counter, picturing the brownstone’s first-floor interior. It was just the sort of thing he was looking for. While he loved living in the Gold Circle hotel, he wanted a space away from downtown so he could make this suite his perfect bachelor pad. It would always be ready for a night of seduction, and he wouldn’t have to worry that a woman would get too attached when she knew it was just a crash pad for the night. The last thing he wanted was to give the women he dated the wrong impression; he had no plans to settle down anytime soon.

He’d been featured in last month’s GQ and ever since, he couldn’t set foot outside the hotel during the day without getting mobbed by at least a handful of women. Instead, he resorted to going out mostly at night, making him feel like a damned vampire. He was glad the real estate offices of Worthington Enterprises were only a block away, otherwise he would have had a hell of a time getting to work.

He and his driver, Simon, had a carefully planned routine. In the mornings, Simon would text Thad that he was outside, and Thad would go down and get straight into the car. Any delays meant a chance to be recognized from the billboards all over town with his face on them. His butler, Winston, also helped him handle anything else he might need, including sneaking in and out of the hotel.

Thad found his cellphone and dialed his personal assistant, Brandon. The kid was twenty-two, smart as a whip, a hard worker, and on call 24/7.

“Hey, Mr. Worthington!” he answered enthusiastically despite the late hour.

“Brandon, I’m going to text you an address. When you get into the office tomorrow, find out who owns it and what its current value is.”

“Sure thing,” Brandon replied.

“Thanks.” Thad hung up and crossed the kitchen into his large living room. His guitar sat in a stand by the fireplace. He picked it up and sat down on the couch, the weight of the instrument giving him an immediate sense of peace. He brushed his fingertips over the strings and listened to the vibrations ripple through the quiet apartment. After a moment, he started to play the “The Sound of Silence.” He let the words move through him as though they had a soul of their own.

Tonight he’d conquered his only fear: singing in public. Something about letting people hear his voice, knowing they could judge him for it, had always terrified him. Thad wasn’t used to fear. He lived with confidence. Money, power, and connections, combined with good looks, had given him just about every advantage in the world.

But tonight, he’d put himself on the line in a way he’d never done before. It had felt so good and seemed to leave him in a different sort of headspace. For the first time in a long time, he’d felt connected to something, not separated from it.

It had to be the brownstone; that house had some sort of energy that called to him. He could feel himself becoming fixated.

He continued to sing and play, letting his usually smooth voice turn almost ragged with desperation near the end.

As the last notes faded into silence, he thought again of that cozy little building and how he was going to own it, no matter what it cost him.

2

Thad pushed through the misted glass doors and entered the main lobby of their company. He was instantly greeted by his assistant. “Mr. Worthington, you’re early!”

Thad gave his usual reply. “I’m always early.”

The offices of Worthington Enterprises were sleek and modern, with a touch of antique gilding, a faded memory of the roaring twenties. Its design was tempered by the modern age and was a style Thad very much loved.

He’d gone through a period in college where he’d been obsessed with The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Perhaps it was a bit of hubris, to be obsessed with a mysterious billionaire literary figure, but Gatsby had been his idol.

It wasn’t because of what people usually thought when they read the book. Gatsby was a tragic figure, not a hero, and what drew Thad to him was knowing the man had lived his whole life with one vision: winning the heart of a woman he could never truly have. He’d built up a glittering, powerful empire, only to have it crumble just as he foolishly believed he held the woman of his dreams in his arms forever.

There was something to the irony of getting what a person truly wanted, only to lose everything else. In a way, he identified with it. He shoved thoughts of Gatsby aside and focused on his assistant.

“What did you find out about that brownstone?” he asked. Brandon stuck by his side, matching his pace as they walked toward his office.

“I’ve got the owner’s name, phone number, and the current market value with the specs on the house.” He handed Thad the information, neatly printed on expensive card stock with the company letterhead. Thad brushed his thumb over the name Annette Becker.

“My father in yet?”

“He is. Your mother will be by for lunch with the both of you later.”

“Thanks, Brandon. I sent you some reports early this morning. Review and we’ll discuss them in an hour. I want to hear your thoughts.”

“You got it,” the young man replied eagerly. He was the son of a friend of Thad’s father. Despite how nepotism usually worked out in the workplace—that is to say, badly—Thad had been pleasantly surprised by Brandon’s intelligence and work ethic. Most Ivy League kids were smart but putting in the necessary effort left most of them clueless. Thad supposed most people would think the same of him, but they would be wrong. He’d gone to Princeton on an academic scholarship and later approached his father, who’d been an investment banker at the time, to open Worthington Enterprises with him four years ago. With Thad’s aggressive confidence and his father’s reserved analytical approach to balance each other out, they made a great team.

Thad didn’t go see his father just yet. First, he went to his own office and pulled his cell out. He dialed the number for Annette Becker and watched the Chicago skyline as he listened to the phone ring.

“Hello?” a woman answered.

“Ms. Becker?”

“Mrs. Becker,” she corrected, and he realized he was speaking to someone a little older, perhaps his parents’ age. “Who is this?”

“Mrs. Becker, my name is Thad Worthington. I understand you own a brownstone on North Astor Street? The one with the coffee shop on the first floor?”

“It’s actually in a trust over which I’m the sole trustee with discretion to sell. Has my tenant done something? If that—” the woman cut herself off. “I’m sorry, what did you say was the reason you called?”

“I am interested in making an offer on it, if you wouldn’t mind showing me the rest of the property at a time that’s convenient for you?”

“I might,” Mrs. Becker said slowly. “My asking price is three and half million.”

He checked the details that Brandon had written down. “Zillow has it listed for $2,895,000.” The report said it had three bedrooms and two bathrooms upstairs with a business property on the first floor for a total of 5100 square feet. Half of that was likely downstairs and had been modified with the construction of the coffee shop, but he could easily put money in to have it restored to a normal residence when he moved in.

“Yes, well, the home has sentimental value. It belonged to my late husband.”

“My sincerest condolences.” He said at once, even though the woman didn’t sound at all that upset. “If you aren’t interested in selling, I completely understand.” He gave the customary pause, letting her think it over.

“I can make time to show it to you on Sunday. I will make sure the renters are out when you arrive.”

“Wonderful.” Thad gave Mrs. Becker his cell number. “Just text me a time for Sunday.”

“I will,” she assured him in a much sweeter voice than she’d initially used. She was definitely willing to sell and the thought made him smile. Today was Friday, so he would only have to wait a few days to check out the brownstone’s upper floors.

With his personal project out of the way for now, it was time to visit his father. Whereas most men in his father’s position would have a corner office, or at least have a large window, Timothy Worthington did not. Thad’s father preferred an office in the center of the floor, where he could be close to his employees and feel approachable. It represented the sort of man Timothy was: a good, kind man who’d been glad to leave the exhausting hours of investment banking behind. Thad’s mother had also been thrilled by the career change.

Thad knocked on his father’s half open door.

“Come in.”

Thad pushed his way inside and grinned at the sight of his father examining a model of a new hotel structure. It was one Thad didn’t recognize.

“New project?”

His father gave a delighted smile. “Yes, it’s the model for a series of two-story beach houses along the Gold Coast, though I’m tempted to rebuild some of the old mansions that were torn down. What do you think would be better?”

“You know what my vote would be.” Thad would rather have a glorious mansion turned into a modern hotel than have dozens of small beach homes litter the coast.

“Restored mansions it is.” His father set the beach house model aside and leaned back in his chair. “Our afternoon meeting got pushed back to tomorrow. You’re free if you have anything you need to do around the city.”

That was good news. Thad wanted to see the brownstone again in daylight. He’d learned early on that a person had to see a space in both the light and the dark before they could truly judge its worth.

“I’m thinking of buying a place on North Astor Street…” He wasn’t sure why he needed to tell his father, other than to see if he approved. That was rare; he usually didn’t seek approval from his parents. Thad was close to both of them, but he’d always been confident enough to do what he wished on his own. But something about this property felt different. It was a personal investment as opposed to a business interest.

“One of those lovely houses?” His father stroked his chin. “Are you thinking of moving out of the penthouse?”

“Sort of. I still want to keep that space for entertaining.”

Timothy chuckled, understanding what Thad meant, albeit in a vague way. “Well, you never needed my opinion before, but I’d say go after it. Those places were built to last.”

“Thanks.”

When Thad returned to his office, he sat back in his chair and steepled his fingers. The walls were covered with black and white photos of various real estate projects. He liked the sharp contrast the photos provided. His gaze drifted past the frames and far into the distance as his thoughts left work behind.

All he could think about was that house, and how he’d felt last night as he sang with his whole heart and soul under its roof.

“He’s back!” Zelda announced with an excited whisper.

Veronica was busy cleaning out one of the smoothie blenders in the sink. It had broken…again. The damn thing had been a piece of crap from the moment it had arrived. “Who?”

“Chris Hemsworth!”

“Zelda!” She spun around to tell Zelda to hush but froze as she saw that he was standing at the counter. Zelda was in a daze, as though the man’s ridiculously good looks were somehow more hypnotic in daylight.

Veronica gently nudged Zelda away from the cash machine to talk to the attractive stranger.

“What can I get you?”

“Black coffee, light cream.”

“Sure thing.” Veronica accepted his credit card and couldn’t help but notice the name. Thad Worthington. He had one of those heavy black credit cards she knew had no monetary limit. The thought made her dizzy and his name sounded super rich, like the hot jerk a girl would crush on at an elite boarding school in some cheesy coming-of-age rom-com.

Veronica glanced up and found him smiling at her in a way that brought back the same fluttering in her stomach from the other night.

“I don’t suppose I can have my card back?” he asked, still smiling.

“Oh, God. I’m so sorry.” She handed it back quickly. “I don’t usually get so—” she trailed off before she admitted she’d been gawking at him.

“It’s okay. I get that a lot, ever since the article.”

“What article?”

“The one in… Never mind.” Thad’s eyes, a soft hazel green that burned like ginger fire, focused on her intently. “You really don’t recognize me?”

“I…should I?” Veronica felt like she was the butt of a joke the universe was telling and she was missing the punchline. “Wait, are you in a band?”

“No, it’s… It’s not important,” Thad recovered quickly. “Thank you.” He glanced down at her chest and she flushed at such undisguised appraisal. Then she realized he was just looking for a name tag. She’d forgotten hers in the back of the shop.

“Veronica… I’m Veronica.” She could have smacked herself. This guy didn’t care what her name was.

“I’m Thad. Nice to meet you.” He extended his hand and Veronica took it. His grip was strong but not threatening. He gave it a gentle shake.

“It’s nice to meet you, too,” she said, feeling incredibly shy beneath the gentle but no less intense gaze of this gorgeous man.

When he released her hand, the world around her came crashing back. Zelda running the espresso machine, the buzz and chatter of customers. For a moment, this man had erased the background completely. Only Parker had ever done that to her before.

Thad gave her one last look before he chose a table facing the street and sat down.

“Wow…” Zelda said the word, managing to give it three syllables. “Put your eyes back in your head, boss.”

Veronica tried, but damned if she wasn’t distracted for the next half hour glancing at the man who sat quietly reading the newspaper. Veronica had let Zelda deliver the coffee to him and despite her sweet flirtations, Zelda returned to the counter with a defeated frown.

“He has to have some superhot girlfriend, right? Probably dates models or something,” Zelda muttered as she scrubbed almost too vigorously at the imaginary stains on the countertop.

“A guy like that?” Veronica chuckled. “He definitely has a girlfriend, maybe even a dozen. He looks like a player.”

Veronica forced her focus away from Thad, and it was a short while later when she glanced back, that her heart sank. Another attractive man had joined Thad at the table, carrying a baby carrier. The man reached down, pulled the baby out and handed the child to Thad, who accepted with a sheepish grin and bounced the baby on his knee, making the child squeal.

“Oh damn, he’s gay. I knew he was too freaking gorgeous to be straight,” Zelda said. She sighed. “They make a beautiful couple, though, don’t they?”

“Yeah, you’re right. They look good together.” Veronica turned her back and buried any of the silly daydreams she’d started to form about Thad in the sweet nebulous clouds of her mind.

Thad handed back his best friend’s one-year-old daughter, Hayley, despite the fact that she wanted to play more. “So, how’s things?”

Jared Redmond was a top-flight real estate attorney who’d recently married a woman who worked at the Chicago Art Institute as a junior director. They both kept long hours, but somehow had managed to do the whole “raise a kid thing,” something which still impressed Thad.

Jared sighed and leaned back in his chair, a picture of ease. “Things are great. Felicity sends her love, by the way.”

“Fatherhood looks good on you.” Thad couldn’t resist teasing Jared about that. Hayley had been an unexpected but welcome surprise to the couple.

“Yeah, it does.” Jared’s eyes softened as he shot a peek into the baby carrier at his feet. “So, why are we here? We usually do drinks at Hackney’s,” Jared asked.

“I wanted your opinion.” Thad nodded subtly at the brownstone around them.

Jared didn’t pick up on his hint. “On?”

“This place.” Thad pointed a finger upstairs. “It’s got a residence upstairs.”

“Yeah? Have you seen it yet?”

“No. I will this weekend, though.” He grinned. “I love the feel of this place.”

Jared seemed to notice the change in Thad as he spoke of the brownstone. “So you’re thinking of living here? What about the penthouse?”

“I’ll keep it open for fun, but it would be nice to have a place that’s out of the way.”

His friend smiled. “You want a real home.”

He hadn’t thought of it like that but that was indeed what this was going to be. A real home. He could leave his wild party days and endless women for the penthouse.

“Let me get this straight. You, Thad, the man who only gives a girl one date, is thinking of settling down?”

“No,” Thad laughed. “I just want to keep that part of my life separate. When I own this place, I want it to be my private sanctuary.”

“You mean No Girls Allowed.”

“Not quite so Calvin and Hobbes, but yeah.”

Jared shook his head. “You and your damn models. You know none of those women are real, right? Real women are sweet and sexy by being themselves, not acting like a man’s boyhood fantasy. You should try dating a real woman if you want a real home.”

Thad played with his empty coffee cup. “You stole the real woman I wanted. You also knocked her up and married her.”

Jared’s laughter died. “Don’t forget I got there first. I staked my claim on Felicity before you ever met her.”

Thad watched his best friend turn all caveman over his wife. Felicity had been the first woman to tempt Thad into changing his ways, but it had been clear from the moment they met that she was never going to be his, and he’d done the honorable thing and helped get her and Jared back together.

Thad wasn’t even sure if he would ever fall in love the way Jared had. He’d thought he’d been in love once, but he’d been wrong. Ever since then, he’d kept his emotional distance.

“You know what? You need a real date for a change. Not with the usual girls you date. You need someone who isn’t pretending to be someone else.” Jared looked around the coffee shop. “You need to date someone… like her.” He gave a subtle jerk of his head toward the Chi-Bean’s counter.

Thad followed his gaze to the woman currently smacking a possibly broken smoothie machine with a furious yet adorable snarl on her face. She had the most stunning black hair pulled into a ponytail that he remembered from the first night he was here. He’d introduced himself to her earlier when he’d realized she hadn’t recognized him from the GQ magazine interview. It had been refreshing for a woman not to know who he was. She’d still given him that adorable “deer-in-the-headlights” look like other women did though.

“You know that she’s not a challenge, right?” Thad said. Seducing a girl like that would be all too easy.

“Oh, but that’s not the challenge. The challenge is you can’t sleep with her until fifteen dates in.”

The gauntlet thrown, Thad stared at his best friend. “You think I can’t make it fifteen dates without sex?”

“I know you can’t.” Jared’s smug smile made Thad lean in to growl in response.

“Want to bet on it?”

“What’s the point? You’d only lose.” Jared shot back.

“Fine, if I win…” Thad grinned eagerly. “You have to name your next little tyke after me.”

“And if I win, you name your next new hotel ‘Jared’s Place.’”

Thad snorted. He could make it fifteen dates just hanging out with a woman.

“Deal.” He thrust his hand out and Jared shook it.

Thad glanced over at the young woman in question. She’d abandoned the smoothie machine and was now on the phone, still angry. She looked kind of cute when she was pissed. His eyes moved over her body, noting how the baby blue apron hugged her curves.

“Batter up,” Jared chuckled and sat back to watch Thad go to work.

Thad headed for the counter, catching snippets of the woman’s conversation.

“The warranty’s still good. Yes, that’s why I’m calling. I need a replacement. It’s been giving me trouble since the day I bought it. It’s a lemon, okay?” She paused, then closed her eyes and sighed. “Yes, that’s my address. Please expedite the shipping if you can. Thank you.” She hung up and turned to face him only to gasp and go red.

“Oh gosh! I’m so sorry. Can I get you something?”

“Veronica, right?” He was fairly certain that was what she told him half an hour ago.

“Yeah…” Veronica’s eyes were that lovely storm blue and held a hint of gray. She was very pretty, and he was going to enjoy proving Jared wrong. He had self-control. He could make it fifteen dates with this girl. She couldn’t be more than twenty-three or twenty-four. He’d be careful not to break her heart. She looked so damn innocent, not like some of the women he’d dated. Those girls he’d been with always tried to look older than they were, sophisticated and sexy…but Jared was right about them. It was all a performance, completely unreal. It hadn’t bothered him, though, until today.

God, he’d become jaded, hadn’t he? Maybe it would be nice to be with a real woman for a while, someone whose beauty was natural, who wore clothes not designed to seduce, and whose unguarded smiles were its own reward.

“Sir?” Veronica broke through his thoughts.

He smiled at her but didn't lay it on too thick. Go slow, he reminded himself. “This is going to sound crazy, but can I have your number?”

“For the Chi-Bean? Sure it’s—” she started to pick up one of the coffee house business cards on a little stand. Thad reached out and gently caught her wrist.

“No, your number.” He never let his eyes leave hers. He was beginning to become obsessed with that shade of blue. What would those eyes look like when she was gazing at him in full arousal, her body writhing beneath him as he covered her with kisses? Thad slammed the door shut on that mental image before he got too carried away.

“My number?” Veronica stared at him. Her gaze darted toward the table with Jared and then back to him.

“Yeah, I’d take you out for coffee, but you seem to have that covered here. How about drinks instead?” Thad gave a charming chuckle that made her flush an even deeper red.

Veronica continued to stare at him. Suddenly the other employee, the cute college kid who’d tried to flirt with him earlier materialized next to Veronica.

“Here’s her number.” She nodded toward Jared as she handed Thad a slip of paper with a number on it. “We both thought you were taken.”

“Thanks. I’m definitely not taken. That’s a friend of mine.” He glanced at Jared who was watching him intently, a smile twitching at the corners of his lips.

“I’m Zelda,” the girl said and nudged Veronica out of her state of shock.

“Look sir, I’m sorry. I really don’t think—”

“Don’t,” Thad smiled. “Think that is. This is just a drink, a chance to get to know each other when you’re not on the clock. It’ll be fun. How about tonight?”

“I…” Veronica’s expressions were so easy to read. She was trying to find a way out of this. That was interesting…

“We close at ten tonight, but she can meet you here at eight,” Zelda said.

At this, Veronica shot her a glare. “I’m sorry, but I can’t. I need to be home at nine, remember?”

Zelda shrugged. “Talk to Katie. She can cover for you for one extra hour, right?” Zelda’s face had hardened to stone, but there was nothing mean about the expression. More like she was determined to win the argument.

“It’s one hour,” Zelda continued.

“I won’t keep you past that. Scout’s honor.” Thad winked at her.

“Okay,” she agreed slowly. “But I really have to be back by nine.”

“Excellent.” He typed her details into his phone and sent her a text with his name.

“I’ll be here at eight to pick you up, Veronica.” He turned and went back to his table, excited but also curious about the woman’s hesitation. Was his game off?

Back at his table, Jared was grinning even more smugly than before.

“Real women aren’t so easy, are they? Even starstruck, she still had to be pushed into it. You might make it fifteen dates after all. I think I made this too easy for you.”

Thad clenched his jaw. He definitely hadn’t expected so much resistance from the girl and while a challenge was fun, he didn’t want Jared to think he had a chance of winning.

“I can’t wait for you to tell Felicity her next kid is going to be named Thaddeus or Thadosia.”

“Thadosia?” His friend laughed, startling a few of the customers drinking their foaming lattes.

“Shut up before you scare your kid.” Thad grumbled as they got up and left the Chi-Bean.

“You are so off your game. I have to call Angelo. He has to hear this.” Jared pulled out a cell phone to call Angelo, Thad’s other best friend.

Today was going to be a long day. But tonight… Tonight he was taking Veronica, a cute coffee barista out for drinks. A nice, normal girl on a nice, normal date. How hard could it be?

3

“Zelda, I’m going to kill you.” Veronica snapped the moment Thad and his gorgeous plantonic friend walked out the door.

Zelda turned wide and guileless brown eyes on her. “What? Me?” she asked before dissolving into giggles.

“You know I don’t want to go out with him.” Well, that was a bald faced lie. There was something about Thad—a lot of somethings, honestly—that made her skin tingle. That hadn’t happened in a long time. She really didn’t need this, not today when everything was going wrong.

Their blender had broken and she’d yelled at the customer service rep when they’d tried to avoid honoring her warranty. Veronica began stacking cups aggressively. Now she was going to spend the next several hours freaking out over a date she never asked for and worrying about whether Katie would agree to watch Lyra a little longer this evening.

“How long has it been since you dated?” Zelda was more serious now, and that didn’t make Veronica feel any better.

She paused before she answered, her mind already replaying the succession of failed attempts to get back out there. “Two years.”

Two years and half a lifetime ago. She’d tried a couple of online dating apps, but the men there had inspired nothing in her but dread when she’d actually met with them. She’d even thrown up in the bathroom of one of the restaurants after her date was over because she’d panicked when the man asked to see her again.

But the truth was, there’d been nothing wrong with the guy; she’d merely freaked out at the thought of committing to a relationship again. She wasn’t ready yet. Hell, she might never be ready.

Veronica could hear Parker’s voice in her head. “You know what I love about you, babe? You love with your whole heart.”

She did, and that was her curse.

But this Thad guy…well, he didn’t seem to be a guy who would be around long term. He was clearly a one night kind of guy. It wasn’t like he would want to marry her and start a life with her. What did she have to lose? Maybe she could just enjoy herself. That little realization sparked a flair of excitement deep in her belly.

Fun. She deserved a bit of that, didn’t she?

“Just have drinks with Chris Hemsworth and bask in the beauty of that manly scenery. I know I would.”

“You have to stop calling him that.” Veronica tried not to laugh. “Or else I might accidentally call him that too.”

“Just think.” Zelda twirled her counter wiping cloth playfully. “He could speak to you in an Aussie accent, or maybe he could dress up in a Thor costume… Talk about some seriously hot role-playing.”

Zelda ducked as Veronica chucked a dishrag at her. “His name is Thad.”

“Thad? That sounds sexy.” Zelda was still giggling.

“I think it’s short for Thaddeus,” Veronica mused. A rare name, for sure, but it fit the handsome, mysterious man.

“Now it sounds almost Roman — oh! Dress him up in a gladiator costume and—”

The next dishrag smacked Zelda right in the face.

The coffee shop door opened, and Katie came in with Lyra, who was bouncing with excitement. Her preschool was five days a week from nine to four and Katie’s high school was only a block away, which made it easy for the teenager to walk Lyra home. Plus, it saved Veronica from trying to make time away from the shop to pick her up.

“Mommy!” Lyra marched up to her. Her backpack, which was almost as big as her, bounced against her tiny body, reminding Veronica how small her baby was, even though she’d grown so much in the last year.

“Hey, honey. How was school?”

She struggled to open her bag. “Cool! We had drawing lessons.” Katie rushed to get her away from the counter before her backpack exploded, as it tended to do the moment Lyra got home every day.

“Let’s go get a table, Lyra. We can show some of your drawings to your mom there.”

“Thank you.” Veronica told Katie. “Zelda, can you manage the counter for a minute?”

“Sure thing.”

Veronica removed her apron and joined Katie and Lyra at an empty table to see her daughter’s most recent artistic masterpieces from daycare. Most of them were very crude stick figures. They had circles for hands and tiny lines for fingers, which made Veronica smile. She tried to keep track of the basic developmental milestones, but overall she was a pretty relaxed parent. Probably because working so hard at the coffee shop meant she didn’t have the energy to become a tiger mom.

“What did you draw?”

Lyra pointed a tiny finger at the scene. “Me, you, and the beach.”

She pointed a figure beside her in the drawing. “And who is this?”

“That’s my daddy.”

A lump formed in her throat. “That’s Parker?” She’d had the talk with Lyra last year about where Parker was, but children processed death so differently than adults. She wasn’t sure if Lyra understood it.

“No, this is my second daddy. My first one’s in heaven, remember?” Lyra’s nose wrinkled as she looked at Veronica.

“Your second daddy?” Her stomach plummeted at the thought. Then, completely unbidden, her thoughts strayed to Thad and how crazy it was she’d agreed—under duress—to go out with a man who had a definite effect on her.

“Uh huh,” Lyra said with the distracted confidence of a child who was certain it would happen.

Katie’s eyes met Veronica’s. The girl was only sixteen, but she was mature for her age. She could tell how sensitive the whole subject was. Veronica tried to smile at the teen without making the girl pity her any more than she already did. She jerked her head, motioning for Katie to join her a little away from the table.

“Katie, can I ask you for a favor?”

“What’s up, Mrs. Hannigan?” Katie’s voice dropped, her head inclined toward Veronica, concern clear in her eyes.

“I…have a date tonight.”

“What? Oh my God, that’s wonderful!” Katie was hugging her before Veronica had even finished. “Sorry!” Katie released her. “So what time? Do you need me to watch Lyra?”

“Could you? I promise I’ll only be gone for an hour, from eight to nine pm.”

“No problem. Lyra is good about reading her stories or watching a movie if I need to do homework. We’ll be fine.”

“Thank you so much, seriously.”

The teenager blushed. “It’s no trouble. I’m really happy for you, Mrs. Hannigan.”

“It’s just one date,” Veronica murmured, blushing.

“Yeah, for now, but if this guy is smart, he’ll want you forever.” Katie said this with such certainty that Veronica almost believed her. Katie was a young, hopeless romantic, much like she’d been at her age.

“I’ll take her upstairs and get her settled in, Mrs. Hannigan.” Her daughter waved at her as they went through the door marked Private, which led up to the residential part of the brownstone.