Naked men have never really been my thing. I know what you’re probably thinking—Coral, maybe you DID hit your head too hard! And that’s possible. But the few men I’ve seen without their clothes never set my world—or any part of my body—on fire.
And I couldn’t imagine that anyone naked, no matter how gorgeous he might be, was hotter than Dax Turner in a tux.
Because Oh. My. God. What that man did for a simple black and white suit must’ve been illegal in forty states.
And normally, meaning on any given day of my life, the sight of him would’ve sent me into Babble Land, where it was impossible to form a coherent sentence and were I to attempt it, I’d probably accidentally end up talking about something idiotic like the number of planks on the bottom of a standard pirate ship in the eighteenth century.
Because, of course, I have shit like that rolling around my brain on the regular.
But tonight was different because for the past five hours, I’d been immersed in a deep pool of woman-power-generated confidence, surrounded not only by my two besties but also by an amazing team of makeup and hair professionals, all of whom were the best ego-boosters in the world. They’d made me feel . . . special. Beautiful. Exciting. Strong, powerful and able to take on the whole fucking universe.
Or at least that was what Nia, my hair wizard, had said. And right now, I needed to believe her.
So instead of melting in a puddle of babbling goo, I greeted Dax with a smile that said I was a gorgeous badass. Judging by the flare of surprised heat in his eyes, I was pretty sure he’d gotten the message.
“Holy shit,” he murmured. “Coral, you’re a fucking knockout.”
I was vaguely aware that Celeste sighed and Sabrina muttered something along the lines of you better believe she is. But for a long and blissful moment, it was only Dax and me existing in a world of our own, a world where I really was a fucking knockout and where I could actually believe that the two of us were fated for each other.
And then Sherell, my publicist, breezed into the suite and interrupted my fantasy.
“You’re looking good, kiddo,” she greeted me, her shrewd gaze taking me in from head to toe. “This is absolutely perfect. You on the arm of this hunk of man-candy is going to get all the rags talking.” She held up her hands as though building headlines. “Sexy romance author brings the heat. With all this free publicity, we’re going to pulverize the publishing company when we negotiate the terms for your next contract.”
I blinked as Sherell effectively brought me back to earth. Oh, that’s right. I wasn’t all dressed up and looking fine to woo Dax Turner to my bed. This wasn’t real. It was just a fairy tale where I happened to playing a temporary role. Once midnight struck? I’d not only lose the glass slippers but the prince. He wasn’t mine to keep.
“Thanks.” I managed to give my publicist a tight smile. “Dax, this is Sherell Winters, my publicist. Sherell, this is Dax Turner, my . . . date.”
Sherell turned the bright glare of her professional grin to the man in question. “Dax. So good to meet you.” She shook his hand and then leaned toward me, saying in an aside that was clearly meant to be heard by the whole room, “I don’t know where you found this one, but he’s the hottest fake boyfriend I’ve seen in a long time.”
I didn’t miss the expression on Dax’s face—the frown of irritation and cloud of confusion. I also didn’t appreciate Sherell spouting off my personal business to the entire room. Sure, Celeste and Sabrina knew the deal with my date, but the hair and makeup team were still here, and they weren’t privy to the details. I’d be mortified if it leaked that I’d had to find a man to pretend to like me for the evening.
Celeste must have picked up on my concern because she grabbed Sherell’s elbow and steered her away from me, muttering something that had the publicist grimacing and nodding. I took the opportunity to step closer to Dax and speak to him quietly.
“Thank you for being here tonight—for doing this.” I lifted one hand and dared to brush it along his lapel. “And for looking so good doing it.” I paused as a thought occurred to me. “Did you have to rent this? I’m sorry, I didn’t even think of it. I’d be happy to reimburse you for the cost.”
Dax’s brows drew together like thunder. “I would never expect you to do that—this is a date, Coral, no matter what your publicity person says.” He spit out the words with undisguised distaste. “And for the record, no, this isn’t a rental. I bought a tux not long after I got the job at the Gwynn. I work a lot of high-end fancy parties, and I hated throwing money away on renting clothes for them, so I saved up and got my own.”
“So you’re saying that you’re both sexy and savvy?” I heard the words coming out of my mouth and wondered how I’d managed to think of such a thing—and to actually say it.
But it must’ve been the right thing because Dax’s annoyance disappeared, replaced by a cheeky grin.
“You know it, baby.” He brushed the backs of his fingers over my cheeks. “I’ve got layers you haven’t begun to uncover yet.”
Those cheeks were blazing red now, I was sure. I wished suddenly that we were alone so I could begin the process of—what had he said? Uncovering his layers. That sounded like fun.
“The car’s out front,” Sherell announced. “It’s time for us to go. C’mon people. Let’s move.”
Dax crooked his arm, offering me his elbow. “Shall we?” His smile was warm and intimate, meant only for me.
I slid my hand into his arm and held on tight.
The limo was large enough for all of us—Celeste and Sabrina, who’d declared that they were each other’s dates for the evening—Sherell, who was solo since she was only here on business, and of course, Dax and me. Still, with five of us in the backseat, I was forced to press up against Dax, whose solid thigh was alongside mine, separated only by the thin material of his pants and my dress. His hand rested just above his knee, and I found myself wishing that it might stray over to caress the skin revealed by the slit in my skirt.
“So, Celeste, Sabrina. . . neither of you brought dates?” Sherell might have been a killer publicity agent, but she wasn’t known for her tact. I winced, feeling sorry for both of my friends.
“No,” Celeste responded breezily. “I’m single and happy to be that way. I’m focused on my business—I own a lingerie shop, you know. It’s very successful and takes up a lot of my time.”
“Oh, in that little town where you and Coral live, right?” Sherell’s tone was slightly patronizing. “That’s sweet.”
“You’re single now,” I jumped in, trying to steer us away from any potential conflict. “But just wait’ll December, when the hottie from your past comes back to town. I know you two are going to fall in love all over again. It’s just got to happen.”
Celeste rolled her eyes and stuck out her tongue at me. “Stop, Coral. We’re not all leads in your romances. We live in the real world.”
“So true,” Sabrina added. “And there’s no way Celeste is going to let Ty reel her in again. He broke her heart once. She’s not going to let it happen again, are you?”
Celeste frowned. “Well, I’m not sure it’s fair to say Ty broke my heart back then. We were kids. We both agreed that we weren’t in a place to be together. He didn’t do anything wrong . . . exactly.”
Sabrina opened her mouth to argue, but I interrupted, raising my voice. “And Sabrina’s on her own tonight because she had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to reconnect with her childhood sweetheart . . . and she didn’t just let him get away. She ran like hell in the opposite direction, and she’s been dodging his calls ever since.” I tilted my head, giving her a saccharine smile. “Isn’t that right, sweetie?”
My friend’s face flushed pink. “I made the decision that we weren’t cut out for each other. That’s not the same thing at all. I was smart, not scared.”
“Hmmm, sounds like the same thing to me,” I observed.
“Saved by the bell!” Sherell announced. “Or rather by the timely arrival at the theatre.” She pointed to Celeste and Sabrina. “You two stay back with me. Dax, you’ll get out first, and then you’ll give Coral your hand to help her out of the limo. Once you two are in the middle of the red carpet, being blinded by flashbulbs, the rest of us will climb out and make our way inside. We’ll see you there.”
“What, no red-carpet photos for us?” teased Celeste.
Sherell silenced her with a glare, and then suddenly the car had stopped and the door was opening. Dax hesitated only a moment before he stepped out smoothly, and seconds later, his hand was reaching for mine.
All the nerves I hadn’t had earlier rose to the surface, and I felt dizzy. What the hell was I doing? This was crazy. People were going to see through this ruse, and then everyone would make fun of me—
“Coral. GO,” Sherell hissed.
Acting on instinct—I almost always did what I was told—I slipped my hand into Dax’s and allowed him to guide me out until I stood next to him. I thought he’d let go of my hand and offer me his arm again, as he’d done at the hotel, but instead, he threaded his fingers through mine and squeezed my hand.
“You’re beautiful. And more than that, you’re a fucking best-selling author who wrote the words that made this movie—this night—possible. None of these people would be here if it wasn’t for you. So let’s go slay this thing, here and now. Together.”
It was as if strength flowed through his touch and his words. Without even thinking about it, I curved my lips into a smile and glanced up into his eyes, hoping he felt my gratitude as we walked hand-in-hand into the melee.
“Coral Jennings! Look here!”
“Hey, Coral! How does it feel to be here tonight, at the premiere of a movie you wrote?”
“Coral! Who’s your date?”
I ignored the first questions shouted out and chose to answer the last.
“This is Dax Turner. My boyfriend.”
Want to know what comes next?
Episode Thirteen is coming next Friday, November 19th!
Tawdra Kandle writes romance, in just about all its forms. She loves unlikely pairings, strong women, sexy guys, hot love scenes and just enough conflict to make it interesting. Her books include young adult and new adult paranormal romance, new adult and adult contemporary romance and adult paramystery romance. She lives in central Florida with a husband, kids, sweet pup and too many cats. And yeah, she rocks purple hair.
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