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“Oh my. I was hooked. You won’t be able to put this down!”Aleatha Romig
New York Times Bestselling Author
Edward Fasbender is a devil.
He's my father's biggest rival. He takes what he wants, and he bows to no one.
And now Edward Fasbender wants me.
I didn't expect to want him back.
Having him is not in the cards, not when a union with him would destroy my father. But that doesn't mean I can't play with him a bit.
Except, I've never played against such a ruthless opponent. Edward is cold and vicious, and my blood has never run hotter. They say you should choose the devil you know, but I've always preferred long odds.
Even if it'll get me slain.
"Oh my. I was hooked. You won't be able to put this down!" - Aleatha Romig, NYT Bestselling Author
Rivalry is book one of four.
Release date: June 4, 2019
Publisher: Paige Press LLC
Print pages: 298
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Listen to a sample
“You really screwed this one up, Celia. Hudson is officially out of reach. You let him slip away, and now everything you dreamed of is over.”
I rolled my eyes, even though my mother couldn’t see my face through the phone. I was tired of this speech. I’d heard a variation of it at least three times a week since my childhood friend had gotten married over two years ago.
As for my dreams being over...well, it had been a long time since I’d imagined myself ending up with Hudson Pierce. That was my mother’s aspiration, not mine. Not anymore.
There wasn’t any use in arguing with her. She found some sort of comfort in lamenting over her daughter’s failures, and this particular lament was one of her favorites.
“From what Sophia says, he’s even more devoted now to this marriage than he ever was, and I’m not at all surprised. A man will leave a wife easily enough, but when she gets pregnant, forget it. He’s sticking around.”
I leaned my head against the window of my Lyft car and sighed. “How is Sophia these days?” It was a manipulative redirection on my part. It disgusted me that she pretended otherwise, but Hudson’s mother wasn’t exactly on friendly terms with Madge Werner like she once was.
That was also my fault. Hudson’s fault too, not that either of our mothers would ever concede that fact.
I knew my tactic worked when my mother huffed loudly in my ear.
Just as I’d thought. My mother hadn’t directly spoken to Hudson’s mother about any of this. Likely, she’d picked it up through the grapevine. A friend of a friend or overheard it at a charity luncheon. What else did the rich bitches do these days to keep themselves entertained?
My own methods of amusement certainly weren’t of the popular variety. But they were definitely more fun.
Or they once were, anyway. Even The Game had lost its spark in recent years.
“I don’t even know why I bother talking to you about this,” my mother droned on. “It’s your own fault you’re not with Hudson.”
There was his name again. Hudson. There had been a time when it hurt to hear it. A time when immense agony had wracked through my body at the two simple syllables. That was a lifetime ago now. The bruise he’d left was permanent and yellowed with age, and I pressed at it sometimes, saying his name, recalling everything that had transpired between us, just to see if I could provoke any of those emotions again.
Every time I came up empty.
I owed that to him, I supposed. He’d been the one to teach me The Game. He’d been the one to teach me how to feel nothing. How to be nothing. How ironic that his life today was happy and complete and full.
Good for you, Hudson. Good for fucking you.
My mother was still yammering when the car pulled up at my destination. “You don’t even realize how much you gave up when you let him get away, do you? Don’t expect to do better than him. We both know you can’t.”
Indignation pierced through my hollow cocoon; anger in its varied forms was the one emotion that seemed to slip in now and again. My mother didn’t know shit about me, no matter how close she perceived our relationship. Couldn’t do better than Hudson? God, how I longed to prove her wrong.
But I didn’t have any ammunition. I had nothing. I wasn’t dating anyone, not really. I had my own interior design company that barely made enough to pay expenses, and I didn’t even take a salary for myself. I was a trust fund baby for all intents and purposes, living off my father’s business, Werner Media. And while all of my choices were purposeful, I couldn’t exactly explain to my mother that the majority of my time and energy was spent on playing The Game. There was no one who would understand that, not even Hudson anymore.
With no comeback, my best bet was to end the call.
“I’m at my meeting. I have to go now, Mom.” My tone was clipped, and I brusquely hung up before she could respond.
I gave my driver a digital tip, threw my cell phone in my bag then climbed out of the car. It was hot for early June. Humidity hung like thick cologne, and it clung to me even after I entered the lobby of the St. Regis Hotel. I was running late, but I knew this building from a lifetime of living among the upper crust of New York, and I didn’t have to stop to ask for directions. The meeting rooms were a quick elevator ride up one floor to the level that had originally been John Jacob Astor’s living quarters. The hotel had been kept in the elegant chic design of his time, and while pompous in its style, I found the luxurious decor both timeless and elegant.
Since I was in too much of a hurry to admire the scenery, I headed straight to my destination. Inside the foyer for the Fontainebleau Room, I paused. The doors were shut. Was I supposed to knock or walk right in?
I was already digging out my phone to text my assistant, Renee, when I noticed a man in a business suit sitting behind a small table at the opposite end of the foyer. He seemed to be deeply focused on the book he was reading and hadn’t yet seen me. I didn’t know what the man I was meeting with looked like so I couldn’t say if this was him or not.
Cursing myself for not being more prepared, I approached him. “Excuse me, I’m Celia Werner, and I’m supposed to—”
The man barely looked up from his reading when he cut me off. “I’ll let him know you’re here. Have a seat.” He propped his book open by placing it face down on the table and then stood and circled around it to the door of the Fontainebleau. He knocked once then opened it, disappearing inside.
Somewhat baffled at the curt greeting, I scanned the foyer and found a bench to sit on. I took out my phone and shot a text to Renee.
Why isn’t this guy meeting me at the office again?
I rarely took initial client meetings anywhere else. When Renee had first told me about the appointment, I’d assumed I was being hired by a committee or a board of directors and that they’d requested to interview me as part of a general meeting of some sort. It made sense in that case to go to them rather than the other way around. But something about the vibe of the situation made me start to doubt my first assessment. If there was an entire committee behind the closed doors, why had the man who greeted me said “him”? And wouldn’t I have heard voices or people noises when the door had briefly been open?
While I waited for Renee’s response, I pulled the client file from my bag and looked over the papers inside. The usual client questionnaire was on top, but unlike usual, it was completely blank. I flipped to the next page, a background report. I ordered these on any client I considered taking on, not so much as a safety precaution, but more out of flagrant curiosity. My best games had been inspired by skeletons of the past, and I never passed up an opportunity to play.
I had no intention of taking on this particular client, however. In fact, I was only meeting with him so I could turn him down. The reason was laid out in bold in the first line of his information sheet: Edward M. Fasbender, Owner and CEO of Accelecom.
I didn’t know much about Accelecom and even less about Edward Fasbender, but what I did know was that the hardball strategies of his London-based company were the primary reason Werner Media had never been able to penetrate the UK market. My father would be livid if I ever worked for his competitor, but he might be delighted to hear me tell him I’d rejected their offer. Proud, even.
At least, I hoped he would be. God only knew why I cared so deeply to please the man, but I did. It was ingrained in me at an early age to cater to the men who held dominion over me. My father was the lord of our household. If I could make him happy, I was sure my mother would stop her eternal lamenting. If I could make him happy, maybe I could be happy.
It was a ridiculous notion, but it had deep roots inside me.
I scanned through the rest of the report on Fasbender. Married very young. Divorced for several years. Hadn’t remarried. Two nearly grown children. His father had also owned a media company that had been sold when Edward was a teen, just before both his parents had died. He’d built Accelecom from practically nothing, turning it into a multibillion-dollar company before he’d even turned forty-two, which would be in September. It was all pretty standard information, but with years of experience, it was enough to help me create a solid picture of what kind of man Edward M. Fasbender was. Driven, calculating, strategic, monomaniacal. His dating history was too sparse for him to be attractive. He likely had to pay for his sex and didn’t mind doing so. Egocentric and misogynistic probably as well, if I knew this kind of man, and I did. It would be fun rejecting his offer of employment, as shallow as the move might be.
My cell buzzed.
RENEE: He insisted on meeting at the hotel. You approved that before. Is that still okay?
I’d been eager to be amenable, I remembered now. The more congenial I was in the outset, the more surprising the rejection.
It’s fine. Did he say what the project was going to be?
Something office related, I suspected, since there was a committee involved. Oh, that was going to be even more fun, turning him down in front of people.
RENEE: He said he’d only discuss it in person.
I added controlling to the list of character traits. And he definitely had a small dick. There was no way this asshole was packing.
Before I could ask Renee anything else, the door to the meeting room opened and the man from before stepped out. “He’s ready for you now,” he said, again making it sound like Mr. Fasbender was alone.
I shut the file folder, but didn’t put it back in my bag, too eager and intrigued to bother with the hassle. I stood up and walked to the door of the Fontainebleau. As soon as I crossed over the threshold, I paused and frowned. Every time I’d been here in the past, the room had been set up with several round tables, banquet style. This time there was only one long boardroom type table, and though there were several chairs lined up around it, no one was sitting at them. My gaze swept the space and knocked into the one other person in the room—a man who appeared to be the same age the report had given for Fasbender.
But if this really was Edward Fasbender, I had grossly fucked up on my assessment of him. Because this man was not just attractive, he was overwhelmingly so. He was tall, just over six feet by my guesstimation. His expensive midnight-blue tailored suit showcased his svelte build, and from the way his jacket sleeves hugged his arms, it was obvious he worked out. He was fair-skinned, as his German name suggested, but his hair was dark and long at the top. While it had been tamed and sculpted in place, I imagined it floppy in its natural state. His brows were thick, but flat and expressionless, his eyes deep-set and piercing, lighter than my own baby blues, though maybe it was his periwinkle tie that brought them out so vibrantly. Whatever the reason, they were mesmeric. They made my knees feel weak. They made me catch my breath.
And his face!
His face was long with prominent cheekbones, his features rugged without being worn. He was clean shaven at the moment, but I was sure he could pull off scruff without looking gritty if he tried. His lips were full and plump with a well-defined v at the top. Two faint creases ran between his eyebrows making him appear intensely focused, and the slight lines that bookended his mouth gave him a permanent smirk, even when his mouth was just at rest.
Though, he might have meant the smirk in the moment. Considering the way I was standing frozen gawking at him, it was highly likely.
I shook my head out of my stupid daze, put on an overly bright smile, and started toward him, my hand outstretched. “Hi, I’m Celia Wern—” Before I could finish my introduction, the heel of my shoe caught on the carpet, and I tripped, spilling the contents of his file all over the floor.
Blood rushed up my neck and into my face as I crouched down to pick up the mess. It was awkward kneeling down in my pencil skirt, but I was more concerned about gathering the papers before he saw them. It only took five seconds before I realized the concern was unnecessary, because, even though I’d dropped the pages at his feet, he was not bending down to help me. I was right about his character, it seemed. Arrogant, egocentric. Asshole.
I shoved the papers back in the file and shot a glare up at him, which turned out to be a mistake, because there he was, peering down at me with that perma-smirk, and something about the position I was in and his exuding dominance sent a shiver through my body. My skin felt like it was on fire, and goosebumps paraded down my arms. His presence was overpowering. Overwhelming. Unsettling.
My mouth dropped open in surprise. Men didn’t make me feel this way. I made men feel this way. I overpowered the men around me. I overwhelmed them. I unsettled them.
I didn’t like it. And yet, I also kind of did. It wasn’t only an unusual feeling, but it was a feeling. It had been a long time since I’d felt anything, let alone something so startling.
I swallowed and prepared to rise when he surprised me again, finally stooping down to my level.
“Edward Fasbender,” he said, holding out his hand.
With a scowl, I took it. My hand felt warm in his tight grip, and I let him hold on past the length of a standard handshake, let him help lift me back to a standing position before I withdrew it sharply.
He smirked at this too—that mouth smirked at everything, but I could feel the smirk in his eyes as well. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you, Celia,” he said in his distinguished British dialect. “Have a seat, will you?”
If there had been any logic to not taking a seat, I would have continued to stand, simply because I hated conceding any more control to him than I already felt I had. But there wasn’t anything practical about standing, so I threw my bag and the file on the table, pulled out a chair and angled it toward the head where, if the laptop and phone sitting there were any indication, I surmised he was going to sit.
“I hadn’t realized I’d only be meeting with you, Mr. Fasbender.” I purposefully didn’t scoot the chair back into the table so he could have a prime view while I crossed one long leg over the other. I had nice legs. They were two of my best weapons.
The bastard didn’t even glance down. With his eyes pinned on mine, he unbuttoned his jacket and sat in the seat I’d assumed he’d take. “Edward, please,” he said sternly. He’d already made it clear he meant to call me Celia, even without my invitation to do so.
“As I was saying, Edward, I would have insisted we met in my office if I’d known you were reserving a meeting room simply for my benefit.”
He tilted his head, his stone expression showing nothing. “It wasn’t simply for your benefit. I’ve been using this room as my office while I’m in the States meeting with potential investors. It’s unconventional, perhaps, but I’m already staying in the hotel, and so the location has proved convenient. Plus, I rather like the setting, don’t you?”
I ignored how much I liked the low timbre of his voice and surveyed my surroundings once more. The Fontainebleau was one of the more lavish meeting rooms in the hotel. With the numerous crystal chandeliers, gold leaf plating, and ornate molding, the decor seemed to have been directly inspired by Versailles. I appreciated the luxurious look, but this was a bit on the abundant side, particularly when being used as an office. The fact that he liked it said more about his character. I added pompous and extravagant to my earlier assessment. He was probably even going to use the room as an example of whatever it was he wanted me to design for him.
No. Just no. Even if I were accepting his job offer, which I wasn’t.
Refraining from commenting on the decor, I turned back to my subtle admonishment. “I’m sure this is convenient for you, but our discussion will be limited because of it. I’ve brought my computer and a portfolio, which will show you some of my work, but this would be much easier if you could see the models in my office. Maybe we can reschedule and meet there at a later time?” It would be even more delightful to reject him after stringing him along.
“That won’t be necessary. I’m not interested in your design work.”
The hairs on the back of my neck pricked up in warning, and I was suddenly glad for the man outside the door. Not that I couldn’t handle myself. I’d been in much more precarious situations than this and survived.
“I’m sorry,” I said, my voice cool and steady from practice. “I don’t believe I understand.” Though, I was beginning to have my suspicions. If I wasn’t here about a design project, this meeting could only have to do with my father.
“Of course you don’t. I didn’t have any intention for you to understand until I was ready to explain.”
He was such an arrogant piece of work. If I wasn’t completely aroused with curiosity, I would have been out the door at this point.
“Since I’m here now, I’d appreciate it if you’d go ahead and fill me in. What is it you want from me?”
He leaned back in his seat, somehow seeming just as upright with his posture even in the reclined position. “What I want, Celia, is quite simple—I want you to marry me.”
I felt my jaw go slack, but I refused to let it gape. Refused to let him see the extent of my shock. “Excuse me, what did you say?”
“You heard me.” His expression remained unreadable except for the slight twitch of his left eye, which I guessed to be amusement.
Oh. It was a joke, then.
“Ha ha,” I said, hating how uncertainty coursed through my body. It was an unfamiliar feeling. It made my breaths come shallow and my ribs feel tight. “Very funny. Do you use this opening a lot with potential new associates?” At least my voice stayed steady. Surprising considering how shaken my nerves were.
“I assure you, Celia, I’m quite serious.”
Heat flushed through me. Embarrassment, as the situation became clear. I’d planned to fuck with my father’s rival, and here, he’d beaten me to the punch.
I gathered the file and threw it into my bag. “I hope you enjoyed making a spectacle out of me, Mr. Fasbender.” Like hell was I calling him by his Christian name now. “I’m sure it’s quite the life you lead where playing around with other human beings is merely a means of entertainment.”
The words were out of my mouth before I realized the hypocrisy in them. I knew about such games. I knew about such forms of entertainment.
But he didn’t know that, and I wasn’t about to clue him in. I could be an exceptionally good actress when I wanted to be. “Most of us have to take our jobs seriously. Most of us don’t have ample free time to satisfy such juvenile whims.”
I rose to my feet, slung my bag over my shoulder, and spun toward the door.
“Sit back down, Celia.”
He hadn’t raised his voice, but it was sharp, and the authority in his command was indisputable. It stopped me immediately.
Slowly, I turned back toward him. I didn’t even think of the action consciously. In fact, I could hear myself arguing with my body as I pivoted in his direction. Don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it.
But it was as though I were a mechanical doll he was controlling by remote. I couldn’t not turn around. I couldn’t not give him more of my attention.
I was able to find enough restraint to not immediately sit down, at least. With my heart hammering in my chest, I stared at him with bold determination.
He raised his brows, as though it wasn’t often that his demands were questioned. It might have given me a thread of satisfaction if I didn’t sense the current of fury underneath the surprise. It was strong and swift and there, as clear as any word he’d spoken.
It scared me.
Thrilled me, too. How often did I meet someone as dauntless as I was? I’d never encountered someone who was more so.
I swallowed, and when his eyes flicked from me to the chair, an unspoken order, I sank primly back into the seat.
The edges of his lips curled into a faint smile, and as enraged as I was at his gloating victory, the small gesture also sparked something warm and strange along my sternum.
“You’ll find I hate to repeat myself,” he said after a beat. “But let me say again, I am quite serious about my proposition.”
In an attempt to get my bearings, I studied him. I had absolutely no read on him whatsoever. His motives, his mood—all incomprehensible, no matter how hard I tried to stare into him. I did notice he was even more attractive than I’d first thought, despite his stony expression. Maybe even because of it. He was completely composed and poised. Still, and that was unbelievably sexy.
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