His Mistress With Two Secrets caught the little golden tag on Amazon this week. I'm so thrilled. That's your doing, Dear Reader. Thank you!
I'm rushing this post a bit. We finally have a sunny day and a dozen things to get done. I'm stressing, of course, because I had to delete a thousand words yesterday and didn't get my word count in. Now I'll lose more today. Argh.
Ah well, at least this book is complete and available to you. Read on for Chapter One.
Did you miss last week? Read the prologue here.
Chapter One flashes back to their first meeting.
~ * ~
Two years ago…
Cinnia was not a social climber, but her roommate, Vera, was. Cheerfully and without apology. Thus, when Vera wangled opening night tickets from the owner of the hottest new night club in London, she demanded Cinnia accompany her.
“I told him about your title,” Vera said. “That’s how I got him to say yes to our coming.”
“The title that belongs to my great-uncle a million times removed whom I’ve never met and who wouldn’t know me from Eve?”
“I might have exaggerated how close you are. But I told him about your granny’s vintage tiara and since his theme is ‘flappers and gangsters,’ and he wants window dressing, he said we could come as staff. No swag,” Vera said with a dismayed wrinkle of her nose. “Just mingle with the guests. Be first on the dance floor, that sort of thing.”
Cinnia was reluctant. Her weekends were her only time away from her job at a wealth management firm to put the pieces in place for striking out on her own. She had set September as her goal and had a mile-long list of to-dos to make it happen.
“You work too hard,” Vera groaned. “Look at it as a chance to rub elbows with potential clients. This will be wall-to-wall, top-tier, A-list celebs.”
“That’s not how it works.”
Cinnia’s mother saw a different opportunity when Cinnia spoke to her over the tablet. “Tell me I can’t wear the tiara so I can tell Vera there’s no point.”
“Nonsense. We’ll get my dress out of storage, too. It’s time they both saw some use. You, too, for that matter.” Her mother had purposely held a Roaring Twenties party on her tenth anniversary so she could wear her grandmother’s modest, heirloom tiara. She had had a beaded dress made special for the occasion.
“You wouldn’t get the tiara from the safety-deposit box when we were broke and I wanted to sell it, but you’ll let me wear it to a nightclub?” Cinnia asked, askance.
“This is why I kept it, for you girls to wear on special occasions. Go. Have fun. There’s bound to be some nice men there.”
“Rich husbands, you mean? They don’t sell them at the bar, Mum.”
“Of course not. It will be an open bar for something like this, won’t it?” her mother returned tartly.
There was a reason she and her sisters called their mum “Mrs. Bennet.” She was forever trying to find their golden ticket of a husband. There was also a reason she was so determined to do so. The Whitleys had descended from aristocracy. The blue blood cells had been significantly diluted by bright, peasant red, but Milly Whitley was determined that her daughters would make good matches and the Whitleys would return to the lofty position they’d all enjoyed before Mr. Whitley had died and his fragile financial house of cards had toppled around them.
Until then, they would dress the part and hang onto a house that was a money pit and they would attend the sorts of occasions that told the world they hadn’t gone anywhere.
“I daresay you’ll find a better class of suitor than your usual struggling students and apron clingers,” her mother added snobbishly.
All they needed was one man with deep pockets.
Or, as Cinnia had said countless times, they could all get proper jobs like normal people.
Her two middle sisters decried that as blasphemy.
Priscilla, her first younger sister, was a model. Genuinely pretty, but not in high demand. Two years out of school and she had barely worked at all. She just needed a better head shot or a new outfit or a change of hairstyle and her career would take off, she kept assuring them. Completing a course in hairstyling or something useful like that would only hold her back.
Nell, their stunning little party girl, didn’t need a job. Boys already bought her things and she was the one who would land them the Big Fish when the time came. If Cinnia could somehow keep her in school long enough to complete her A levels without getting pregnant, she’d be thrilled.
Thankfully Dorry had a brain and ten times anyone’s ambition to use it. Their youngest sister had been babysitting from the moment she was old enough to wipe a nose and currently had a job in a fish-and-chip truck, much to their mother’s repulsion. Dorry squirreled her money before anyone saw it and kept her head down, usually bent over a book. If something happened to Cinnia, she had every confidence her baby sister would keep the rest of them fed and sheltered.
She was trying not to put that on poor Dorry. After trying to help her mother win a fight against owing back taxes and other debts associated with her father’s estate, Cinnia had taken an interest in wills and estate planning. As careers went, it paid well enough, was stable and flexible and she found it intellectually challenging.
Her mother said she might as well be an undertaker.
Vera said, “No matter what, do not tell any men we chat up what you do for a living. Not unless we’re trying to get away from them.”
Cinnia didn’t have Vera’s interest in meeting men. Her mother’s lack of a career to fall back on had been their downfall. All Milly was qualified to do was take in university students as boarders because she had a big house, which was how she paid the bills, much to her everlasting embarrassment. She spun it as a lark when people asked about it. She liked to be surrounded by young people, she said, playing eccentric.
Cinnia was determined never to have her back against the wall like that. She was already self-supporting and, even though she knew running her own agency came with risk, she had hit the ceiling where she was. The next step was to become her own boss.
Thus, she was thinking about how to build her client list as she stood with Vera, chatting to an unassuming musician and a nerdy social media magnate. The men were ridiculously wealthy and equally shy, which was why bubbly women like Vera had been called in, Cinnia supposed, letting her gaze stray to take in an evening beyond any she would experience again in this lifetime.
The nightclub was a reclaimed industrial building, tricked out with steel and glass and modern art. Top-shelf liquor was served in cut-crystal glasses by uniformed bartenders. The main room was open to the upper floor, making the place feel airy despite the crush of people in the low-slung chairs and standing in groups around the full dance floor.
Tonight, the tables had been covered with velvet tablecloths and the place was littered with feather boas and faux furs. The typical nightclub black light had been replaced with a sultry red. It threw sexy shadows into every corner and gave faces a warm glow. The DJ was mashing old jazz and modern hits with delightful results while a bouncer guarded stairs that rose to a walk-around gallery on the upper level. When they’d arrived, they’d been given a peek into the ultraposh, private entertainment rooms reserved for the most exclusive guests.
Judging by the movie stars and the other celebrities not gaining access, those rooms would be used by a very rich and exalted personality indeed.
Cinnia wasn’t impressed with money and fame, but she would love to take on any of these pocketbooks as clients. Sadly, people with this much money to throw around were not interested in a boutique agency still smelling of builder’s dust. She had known from the outset that nothing would come of this evening beyond a few lost hours and a cute entry in the logbook of appearances made by her great-granny’s tiara. C’est la vie.
Then she saw him.
Them, really. The Sauveterre twins. The male pair. The same gorgeous man in duplicate arrived at the top of the short flight of entrance stairs, where they overlooked the sunken area of the main lounge.
Her pulse stumbled.
She was startled to see them in person. And curious, of course. She’d been eleven when their sister had been kidnapped, old enough to follow the story as intently as the rest of the world. It had had a profound impact on her. To this day it made her heart feel stretched and tense just thinking about it.
The family name had turned up in a million news stories and gossip magazines and online hits since then. That’s how she knew, despite the distance across the dimly lit room, that they were as handsome as they seemed from afar.
They had identical dark hair cut close under matching black fedoras tilted slyly to the left. While every other man had turned up in a baggy, striped suit with a red tie and carried a violin case, these two wore crisp black shirts with the cuffs rolled back, high-waisted, tailored black pants held up with white suspenders and smart white ties.
The sharp look accentuated their muscled shoulders and neat hips, while the narrow cut of the pants drew her eye to their matching black-and-white wingtips. They looked like gangsters of old, but the really dangerous ones. The ones so powerful and commanding, they didn’t have to swagger. They killed with a blink.
They wore exactly the same expression of bored tolerance as they pushed their hands in their pockets and scanned the room.
It was funny to see them move in unison, which held her attention until one stopped. He turned his head from the direction of the stairs, barely moving, but it was as if he sensed her attention and met her gaze all the way from across the club.
Cinnia’s heart took a funny bounce. She told herself it was the embarrassment of being caught gawking coupled with the shock of recognizing a celebrity. Catching a glimpse of the Sauveterre twins, even in a place filled with faux royals and rock stars, was a big deal. She knew they were regular people underneath the reputation, not something to get fluttery over, but she was rather giddy holding this man’s gaze.
There’s my rich husband, Mum. The thought made her smile at herself.
His head tilted just a little and he gave a slight nod. It was a very understated acknowledgement. Hello.
“Who do you see?” Vera asked, and followed Cinnia’s gaze, whispering under her breath, “Oh, my gawd.”
The men moved down the stairs onto the dance floor, leaving Cinnia swallowing and trying to recover from something that had been nothing. Why did her blood feel as though it was stinging her veins?
“We have to meet them,” Vera insisted.
“Shh,” Cinnia protested, forcing her gaze back to the crooner. She and Vera were supposed to be circulating and making small talk. “Who needs another Gin Rickey?” she asked the men.
She absolutely refused to look around and see if he looked at her again. Why would he? Still, she remained attuned to him, feeling prickly and hypersensitive, like she was in grade school and her first crush had entered the room. She knew exactly where he was as they both moved around the room for the next half hour.
Vera leaned into her. “They’re by the bar. Let’s get into their line of sight.”
“We’ll just see if we can say hi. Besides, there will be a stampede for drinks when it’s time to toast. We should freshen ours now, so we can take them outside for the fireworks.”
She and Vera quickly realized they’d be swimming upstream trying to get nearer the twins or the bar. They moved to safer ground near the bottom of the stairs and stood with attentive expressions as the club owner quieted the room and thanked everyone for coming.
Or rather Cinnia gave their host her polite attention while Vera visually cruised for fresh prospects.
Vera would flirt with anyone. She was fun-loving, pretty and had a knockout figure that reeled men in from across a pub or wherever she dragged Cinnia for a night out. They’d met at uni and Vera was not only loyal, funny and caring, but also the absolute best at keeping Cinnia from becoming the stick-in-the-mud that Vera always called her.
Cinnia wasn’t as curvy as Vera, but she drew her share of male attention. She might not try to get by on her looks the way her mother thought she could, but she knew her wavy blond hair and patrician features gave her certain advantages. They were also a perfect foil for Vera’s darker looks, which Vera used to her advantage.
Cinnia didn’t date so much as play Vera’s wing woman. She had come out tonight knowing they would very likely wind up departing the club with whomever Vera had set her sights on. But, while Vera often went home with men she barely knew, Cinnia fully expected to find her way back to their flat alone.
As the speeches finished up and the fireworks were promised to start soon, there was a minor lull in noise.
“It’d be nice if we could find some men to buy us a drink.”
It was classic Vera, spoken mostly in jest because she knew it got under Cinnia’s skin. She knew Cinnia believed women should be self-reliant and not look to men for anything.
Cinnia bit back her knee-jerk lecture on feminism, refusing to let her friend get a rise out of her.
Behind them, a male voice said, “Ladies? Are you going up?”
Henri recognized the blonde as they made their way toward the stairs. She had a serene profile and a graceful figure draped in a vintage style dress that he imagined his sisters would coo over. They were the fashion aficionados, but he knew quality when he saw it.
Everything about this woman was understated elegance. In a sea of heavy makeup and over-the-top flapper gear, she wore a short black number that shimmered with fringe. Her hair was pressed into the pinched waves of old and a simple line of diamonds banded it. One side of her delicate tiara was bedecked with a leafy filigree and a single feather.
She looked smart and feminine without even trying.
She had smiled at him earlier, which was nothing new. People stared and acted like they knew him all the time. Heads in the crowd were turning to do it now. He usually ignored it, but he had looked back at her for a full thirty seconds because, why not? She was beautiful. It hadn’t been a chore.
Neither was this side of her. The dress didn’t need to hug her figure to show off her pert ass and slender thighs. It was rather erotic in the way it only suggested at the curves it disguised.
“Company?” he suggested.
Possessing exactly as healthy a libido as Henri, Ramon followed his gaze, saw the stacked brunette beside her, and commented, “Good eye.”
They easily operated as one unit without preplanning. Henri paused beside the women in time to hear them wish for a man to buy them drinks.
Ramon stepped past them to open the chain on the bottom of the stairs himself, not bothering to identify himself to the bouncer. Everyone knew them on sight.
“Ladies? Are you going up?” Ramon’s gaze flicked back to Henri. He’d heard their lament and Henri very subtly signaled he didn’t care.
They were targets of gold diggers all the time. They had both learned to take care of themselves. It didn’t mean a good time couldn’t be had by all.
The brunette blushed and smiled, standing taller, shoulders going back. She was dazzled and very receptive. “Yes. We are.” She nodded confidently despite the fact they all knew who moved freely up these upstairs and who did not. She nudged the blonde.
The blonde pursed her mouth with dismay. Embarrassed at being overheard as a mercenary? No need. Henri found that to be the easiest and most convenient of traits to manage in a woman.
The music started up again, increasing his desire to leave the noise and crowd behind.
The blonde looked warily between him and his brother, giving Henri the sense she was trying to work out which one of them had met her gaze earlier.
He and Ramon didn’t fight over women. There was no point since neither of them wanted long-term relationships. Women seemed to view them as interchangeable anyway. But Henri found himself annoyed by the idea she might decide to go with Ramon.
What had been a generic restlessness responding to the gaze of a beautiful female ticked up into a desire to have this one in particular.
“Watch the fireworks in our suite,” Ramon said with easy command, waving an invitation. “Save me from staring at my own face.”
“Why would you stare at your brother when you’ll be watching the fireworks?” the brunette asked with a cheeky bat of her lashes. “Maybe if you didn’t dress alike you wouldn’t feel like you were talking into a mirror?”
“We don’t do it intentionally.” Ramon offered his arm to escort her up the stairs. “It happens even when we’re half the world away from each other. We’ve stopped fighting it.”
The pair was quickly lost in the shadows of the gallery.
The blonde gazed after her friend, biting her lip, then relaxed her mouth and licked her lips as she glanced at Henri. It almost seemed a nervous response, but the action flooded color into a mouth that now looked dewy and soft as rose petals, shiny and kissable. A very enticing move.
His gaze lingered on the sight, as his mind slid naturally into the pleasant fantasy of crushing her mouth with his.
She fell into step beside him.
This was not his first time picking up women with his brother. He and Ramon had long ago concluded that if they were saddled with being the Sauveterre twins they were damned well going to take advantage of the one outstanding benefit. Startlingly good looks, times two, along with buckets of money and celebrity status meant that the sweetest companions were in endless supply.
“Was that true?” the blonde asked, leaning in to be heard. “That you dress alike at other times, not just tonight?”
“Yes.” Henri hated talking about himself and loathed even more talking about his family, but this was one of those innocuous tidbits that strangers loved to hear. The mystery of being a twin was infinitely fascinating to those who weren’t. He accepted it and had stopped fighting it, as well.
At least tonight it gave him an excuse to hold her arm as he leaned down to speak in her ear, liking the silken brush of her hair against his nose as he inhaled a scent that was cool English roses and warm woman.
“In fact, when one of us changes out of what the other is wearing, we inevitably spill something and have to go back to the first outfit.”
He shrugged off her skepticism. His sisters were connected on an emotional level. He and his brother were more outwardly aligned. They had very different personalities, were competitive as hell with each other, but often spoke in unison or followed a similar thought process, inevitably arriving at the same end result. As Henri had been calling his brother to suggest they host this year’s planning sessions in London instead of their usual Paris or Madrid, Ramon had been accepting the invite to this club opening.
“I’m, um, Cinnia. Whitley.” She offered her hand as they arrived on the upper floor.
“Henri.” Her skin felt as soft as it looked and was warmer than the pale tone suggested. She had a firm grip for a woman. He didn’t want to let her go, but she pulled her hand free to glance behind him at Guy, who had followed them, then frowned at Oscar ahead of them, already stepping through the door to the suite where Ramon waited with her friend.
“Do you have bodyguards?”
“It’s just a precaution.” They followed into the suite.
While Oscar inspected the room, Guy brought out his phone and sent a brief text—a request for a background check on both women no doubt. Helping Guy along, Henri introduced himself to the brunette, learning her name was Vera Phipps.
Aside from relying on men’s wallets rather than their own, Henri judged both women to be harmless. Vera sent a “Jackpot” look to Cinnia when a butler arrived to take their order, then she followed Oscar’s path through the room, trailing fingers on the low-slung sofa and chairs as she circled, glancing to the flat screen hung on the wall, and stepped onto the balcony for a quick sniff of the air off the Thames.
She came back just as quickly to fetch one of the swag bags from the coffee table. “Oh! A gold one! Everyone below got silver. And yours is bigger.”
“I hear that a lot,” Ramon said with a smirk, making Vera laugh throatily.
“I bet you do. May I look?” She batted her lashes suggestively. Cinnia did not flirt so blatantly. She offered a demure “Thank you,” as the butler poured their champagne and moved outside to glance at the colored lights swirling on the water. In the middle of the river, the technicians on the float set off a test flare.
It was a warm evening without a breeze. Her gaze lifted to the sparkle of lights across the water and up to the stars.
“I’m surprised you stayed below as long as you did when you had this to retreat to,” she said as Henri padded out to join her. He was compelled. Drawn. It was strange and not something he would typically indulge. The strength of his attraction made him a little uncomfortable.
Below them, people began filing out to the outdoor lounge while the music followed them.
Ramon was the one who liked crowds. Henri preferred a quieter atmosphere, but he said smoothly, “Good thing we did or I wouldn’t have met you.”
Her snort was delicate, if disparaging. Most blondes with blue eyes played up the suggestion of vulnerable innocence in their coloring. Not Cinnia. Her vintage hairstyle framed her face in a waifish way, but her brows had a sharp, intelligent angle. Her lashes stayed low and her gaze watchful, not cynical, but not goggling or overly impressed by any of this.
He liked that sign of inner confidence and strength. It was compelling, sparking his curiosity. “You feel differently?”
“I feel this is a well-oiled machine you two are operating.” She flicked her glance to the plate of canapés that appeared like magic on the glass table next to them.
“I would call that distrustful,” he said, waiting until the server had gone to swing his gaze back to hers. “If I didn’t think you two were running a similar routine. I’ll call it hypocritical instead.”
Her blue gaze flashed to his, but inside the suite, Vera was laughing at something Ramon had said. The two were meshing like cogs rolling against one another to turn out a foregone conclusion. Cinnia’s mouth tightened.
“Unable to deny it?” he taunted gently.
“You approached us,” she reminded with enough pique to amuse him.
“I was invited.”
“I didn’t mean to stare.” Her gaze returned to the view, chin coming up.
It had been more than a stare. She had smiled at him.
He watched with fascination as the fringe across her breasts quivered under an indignant breath. He would bet her cheeks were pink if the light was high enough to tell.
“I doubt I’m the first to be curious about the pair of you. You make a fetching couple.” Her smile was pure aspartame.
Her eyes, however, were a spun-sugar-blue. That was unmistakable as a huge white light swirled down from a helicopter, rousing the crowd below into cheering.
Her beauty gave him a sudden kick in the chest. It wasn’t a trick of makeup because she wore very little. The requisite eyeliner made her eyes stand out, but she’d only darkened her lashes a little. They weren’t lengthened with false ones like so many women wore these days. A shimmery blue streaked across her lids, but otherwise her features were clean and her skin fine and creamy.
“Did you really know it was me who looked back at you, or is that an assumption? Because it usually takes people months, even years to tell us apart.” It was easy once a person realized Henri was left-handed and Ramon right, or that Henri tended to speak French as his default while Ramon preferred Spanish, but few noticed those details.
“You are remarkably alike, but…” She glanced into the suite, to where Ramon was holding open the designer bag, listening politely to Vera wax in delight over the contents. They usually let their mother pick over the contents of those bags, then handed the rest to their PAs, but Henri was just as happy to let these women take them home.
He took advantage of Cinnia’s distraction to glance at his phone. The bullet points backed up what he’d already assumed. Her mother was well-born, but the family was broke. Cinnia worked for a wealth management firm and was listed on their website as an intern, filing and fetching coffee, he assumed. The only risk Cinnia Whitley posed was financial and he was quite sure he could afford her.
He tucked his phone away, irritated to note she was still eyeing his brother, brows pulled together in consternation.
“But?” he prompted, having to stand close to be heard over the music below.
“I don’t know. I don’t read auras or anything like that, but… Never mind.” She flashed him another look, this one self-conscious.
“That’s interesting.” His annoyance evaporated, replaced by intensified attraction. He leaned his elbow on the rail so he was even closer to her, edging into her space, liking the way she tried to quell a little shiver. She smelled like roses and tropics and something earthy that further turned him on.
“Wh-what is?” She was trying to look blasé, but he knew the signs of physical magnetism. There was a pulse beating fast in her throat, but it wasn’t fear. She wasn’t moving away. She was skimming her gaze across his shoulders and down his chest.
Chemistry was such a wonderful thing. He didn’t move, allowing the primal signals to bounce between them, stimulating him and heightening his senses. Sex was the cheapest and best high in the world, as far as he was concerned.
“You react to me, but not to him.”
“I didn’t say that!”
“Didn’t you? My mistake.”
“You are mistaken,” she assured him hotly. “Whatever you’re thinking about me—us—and why we came up here, forget it.”
She wasn’t used to being so attracted to the men she exploited, he surmised. Poor thing. This must be very disconcerting for her. With that reserved personality, he bet she usually did quite well at stringing a man along. Was she afraid she wouldn’t be able to hold out with him until she had squeezed all she could from him?
“I’m thinking you’re here to watch the fireworks. What did you think I was thinking?”
She spun back to the view, setting her chin.
He smiled. “Listen.” He very lightly stroked the back of his bent finger down her bare arm, entranced when goose pimples chased the same path.
She shot him a look that was startled and uncertain, quickly rubbing the bumps away.
“I don’t have to work this hard to get a woman to sleep with me. This is how I live.” He waved his champagne glass at the opulence around them. “Enjoy it without feeling obligated.”
“You won’t expect anything after?” she scoffed.
“By ‘anything,’ do you mean that?” He thumbed to where Vera was on tiptoes inside the suite, painting herself against Ramon, lips firmly locked over his.
Cinnia made a pained noise and looked out across the river again. As strategies went, her friend was overplaying her hand.
“I shall remain hopeful,” Henri drawled.
“Yes, you will remain that way,” Cinnia assured him.
He hid a silent laugh behind the glass he lifted to his lips, deciding he wanted her quite badly and was willing to pay whatever it cost. He respected people who knew what they were worth.
But he only said, “Don’t make promises unless you can keep them, chéri.”
~ * ~
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