Piper Sullivan
Romance Author

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CHAPTER ONE

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Becca

“I need to run out, but I shouldn’t be gone longer than an hour, and you don’t have anything scheduled but lunch. Make sure you eat because you never like these rubber chicken dinners, and tonight will be a long one.”

My boss Eric, who also happens to be my cousin, just stared at me with an amused smirk on his face.

“Need to get all prettied up for the Valentine’s ball tonight?” He wiggled his eyebrows trying to embarrass me. We didn’t grow up together, but we’d spent enough time together to be comfortable. And he never failed to do his best to pull my leg.

“Not hardly,” I scoffed and threw in an eye roll for good measure. “Some of us actually have to work tonight, but the dress I’d planned to wear has a mysterious stain, which means I need an emergency replacement.”

I liked shopping as much as the next girl, okay not as much, but there were times I found it therapeutic. But when it came to buying fancy-ass ball gowns I’ll never get to wear again, shopping was a chore.

His amusement dimmed at my words. “Right. Here, put it on the company card.” He held the card out to me and I knew what this was. Sympathy. I appreciated it, but I hated it too.

I held my hands up as far away from the offensive black card as possible. “Not necessary Eric. I’m not rich, but buying a pretty dress won’t break me.” Eric’s mother and my mom are sisters, but my aunt had married well, so Eric got a great start in life. He’d taken that start and turned it into pure gold. Maybe platinum. My mother, however, made the worst decision imaginable, and my grandparents cut her off. Which meant I got the life of Cinderella.

Before the Fairy Godmother.

But I didn’t begrudge Eric any of his success. At all. He worked hard and deserved it. Besides, he paid me very well for my long hours and complete devotion to his life and his business.

“But thank you. Seriously.”

He still held the card out. “But you could get a pair of those sparkly shoes I know you love so much. Impractical as they may be,” he teased. “Think of it as a bonus for all the hard work you’ve put in to pull this ball together.” I hesitated, and his grin widened because he knew I would give in. Eventually. But my boss was not a patient man. “Fine Becca, have it your way. This is an order. Take the card.”

I rolled my eyes but the effect was lost by the grin I couldn’t hide. “Thank you, Eric.” I took the card with my thumb and forefinger like it might bite, and he laughed. “Seriously, eat when Martha brings in your lunch.”

“Yes, mother.” He gave me a salute and I turned, shaking my head as I walked away.

By the time I made my way to the high-end department store where my friend Jenn worked as a personal stylist, I had already double checked with the florist and caterer for tonight’s event, updated the guest list and made a few tweaks to the seating arrangement. Things were just about set for tonight, which only left me one problem at the moment. Finding a damn parking spot at least in the same zip code as the store.

As if the drive here wasn’t frustrating enough.

I loved living in New York, I mean who wouldn’t when there was constant action and the city never went to bed. Plus, you could get any type of food delivered to your apartment, day or night. Most days, like all of them, it would have been quicker to take the subway. But Eric wanted what he wanted, and now, which meant I couldn’t rely on the totally unreliable public transportation.

But finally—there!—I found a spot between a beat up delivery van and a sleek blue Tesla. Typical New York. Gotta love it.

I pulled ahead and prepared to back into the spot, but a fancy-ass red sports car swoops in, nose first, and steals my spot! That asshole just ate up another ten minutes of the hour I’d allotted to get my ball gown, so I decided to take a few seconds for myself.

To calm down…

To hell with it!

I backed my little Prius up until we were parallel and he was a captive audience because I had him trapped.

“Hey asshole, thanks for stealing my spot!” It wasn’t the cleverest thing I’d ever shouted at a shitty driver, but he was lucky I didn’t just ram my little piece of crap into his fancy car.

The bastard.

No, the handsome bastard flashed a smile I was sure made all the women in his orbit lose their panties. Well I appreciated his face, but my panties were firmly in place thank you very much.

“When you’re Jackson Steele, honey, you can park wherever the hell you want.”

Jackson Steele. Sounds like the name of some rich prick who thought the world spun solely to serve him. The name was familiar, but at the moment I didn’t give a damn who he was. This was New York, you couldn’t toss a hotdog wrapper in the trash without hitting a celebrity. Color me not impressed.

“Yeah? Well enjoy your spot, dickhead. I hope someone keys your car!” I’m not even ashamed of what I did next because he deserved it, and my patience had fled halfway through the trip here. “Rot in hell, asshole!”

I threw my half-drunk cup of cold coffee through my passenger window and right into his chest. It bounced off his shoulder and hit his passenger seat. Satisfied I’d ruined his day too, I sped off.

To find another parking spot. In bum-fuck Egypt.

* * *

“Damn girl, you look like you’re ready to kill someone.”

Jenn flashed a sympathetic look and held her arms out in case I needed a hug.

I love this girl, she’s been like a sister to me since we met. “I am ready to kill, but I tossed a cup of coffee at him and I feel better. At least I will. Eventually. Plus, I can’t go to jail, Eric is counting on me for tonight.”

Guys like that really got under my skin. It wasn’t enough they were handsome, rich and successful, but they had to make sure the rest of us knew it too. “It took me forever to find a parking spot.”

“Don’t worry. I’ve already picked out a few dresses to get us started, but first,” she grabbed my arm and led me to one of the thick, wine colored settees and pushed me down onto it. “You need a drink.”

“I wouldn’t say no,” I told her on a rush of breath. Drinking in the middle of the day wasn’t something I ever did. With Eric’s nonstop schedule it was impossible to do that and do my job well, but today wouldn’t end until the wee hours of the morning, so I could have a single drink.

Okay, I had two. Maybe, three.

Whatever it was, I needed it to calm down and ignore the ridiculous price tags on the dresses Jenn had pulled for me. The dresses were gorgeous, made of incredibly delicate fabrics sewn and woven to perfection. And they all made me feel like a fraud.

“This is way too much.”

The royal blue velvet halter dress was magnificent. The neckline was dotted with jewels, drawing attention to my long neck. It clung to my curves. Finally, a dress existed that made my five-foot-ten height and curves look slender. Damn near alluring.

“But it looks amazing,” Jenn insisted as she circled me, tugging the fabric to check for imperfections. “It looks damn good.”

She was right. Even I thought I looked hot, and most days I figured I was cute at best. “But the price…”

“It’s on your fancy pants cousin, take the dress. I have the perfect shoes and lingerie for you.” She filled my glass again with a saucy smile. “Take off the dress and hand it over,” she told me as she held the glass just out of my reach.

“Fine,” I groaned and went back to the oversized dressing room. The thing looked at least a time and a half larger than my bedroom. The dress, though, was perfect and I decided that Jenn was right. Eric had offered to pay, so I would get what I needed and not think about the rest. At least until tonight when I had to put the dress on and wear it in front of people. Important people. “Okay I’m going to get this dress and we should …” The words died on my tongue as I took in Jenn’s disapproving boss as she approached.

“What is the meaning of this, Jennifer?” Her boss was tall, thin and fierce. A mere manager at the department store who acted like she owned the place. She gave the snobby shop girls in Pretty Woman a run for their money.

“Jenn is helping me pick out a dress for the Valentine’s Charity Ball, you know the one where all of the city’s beautiful and important people will be?” I stared at her. No, I stared her down, because I learned quickly working for Eric that the only way to get them to back off was to prove your dick was bigger. Today, mine was.

She sniffed the air and dismissed me. “Jennifer, you cannot simply use the champagne for all shoppers. It is expressly for our VIP customers.”

Okay, now that pissed me off.

“And how exactly do I not qualify as a VIP when I’m spending thousands of dollars in this store? You know what, never mind. I’ll just call my boss and my cousin, Eric Peters, the talent agent, and tell him how this place treats people. I doubt any of the new girls we sign will come back here. As long as you’re around.” I added for good measure.

She called my bluff and so I did just that. Sort of. I pretend-called Eric. “Hey cuz, yeah I got my dress. Well I’m only getting it so Jenn gets the commission, but we’ll have to go elsewhere to get your new wardrobe for the summer, and to dress Harmony’s Delight. Yeah, sure I’ll call back that shopper at Sak’s.” I tapped the screen with a frown and looked to my friend who looked scared shitless. “Now Jenn, you said something about shoes and lingerie?”

She nodded, but her boss stepped in. “Jennifer, you’ll have to pay for that champagne.”

“Jeez! I’ll make sure everyone knows what an evil bitch you are,” I told her, meaning every word. Jenn was one of my few close friends and I couldn’t let this witch treat her this way.

“It’s fine, Becca.” Jenn looked more defeated than I’d ever seen her, and that pissed me off even more. But this was her job, so I conceded and watched the stick-figure walk away on stilts. “I hate that woman.”

“Me too. And hey, I’m sorry I got you in trouble.” I knew she couldn’t afford what her boss would make her pay for that bottle of overpriced swill. I felt as tipsy as I would on the cheap stuff. So I did the only thing I could to help her out. “Hey, what do you know about waitressing?”

She shrugged. “Carry plates and glasses, bow and scrape to the important people. Right?”

“Right,” I grinned and told her about the waitressing gig tonight. “It pays well for the night, to more than make up for whatever else that witch will take from your check this month.”

Her green eyes brightened. “Really? You’re a lifesaver, Becca.” She wrapped an arm around me and guided me to the shoe and lingerie departments where I charged a month’s salary to the company credit card.

“Don’t even mention it. Just show up on time and wear a white, buttoned-down top and a black skirt.” I gave her the address and parking instructions. “Cruella took up so much of my time, and now I’ve got to hike a mile to my car and get back. Lots to do before tonight.”

“Good luck, girlfriend. I’ll see you later.”

I waved her off and took my bags. There was a lot that needed to be done before I could even think about getting dressed. This stupid Valentine’s Ball was wearing me out.

February fifteenth couldn’t come soon enough.