Nobody's Princess

Chapter 1

 

Tiffany needed a man, about six-two with blond hair and a tan. Right now, or life as she knew it was over. Teeny exaggeration, but she was desperate for one white male, twentysomething, handsome, light eyed, and ripped and cut like every girl’s dirty dream.

In Chicago, a city of a shade over 2.7 million people, 48 percent of them male, and 31 percent of them white, how hard could that be? Of course, to accurately calculate the chances she’d need to break that down into how many of the male residents were white and between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five. If she could get five seconds to write this all down in her book, she could do it.

“Did you get hold of the casting agent?” Piers fussed with his camera, his face already the telltale pink prefacing a meltdown. Dear God, not that. Piers could throw a time-chewing tantrum to rival a toddler. Time was not her friend today.

“No.” Tiffany snapped her book shut and hit redial. She kept Piers in her peripheral vision. Please, let the woman be there. Piers was going to go nuclear any second now. If Piers lost it, the shoot would run over. Her new life started in a little under three hours and she couldn’t be late for that.

“Hi, you’ve reached the voicemail o—”

“Shit.” Tiffany ended the call. She refused to let this stop her. If necessary, she’d march outside and drag the next blond man in here, but she was going on her date. Tonight. “I’ll keep trying.” She smiled apologetically at Piers. As if that would stop a meltdown. Not. “Okay, let’s get the rest of you ready.”

It was so unfair, she had all the other models—Asian, black, Hispanic, Indian, and Franco, who was Italian, but apparently had the bone structure and sleek, long hair to pass for Native American. Tiffany wasn’t sure his real name was Franco. Maybe he wasn’t even Italian.

“Tiffany?” Piers tapped his foot impatiently.

She spun toward the cluster of hotness lounging about, looking effortlessly gorgeous. Except that much perfect took serious work. The fresh bagels she’d fetched that morning lay untouched—two hundred and fifty calories per bagel, another fifty for the cream cheese. She moved the bagel plate to the other side of a dish of strawberries. One dish aligned to the right of the cream cheese, another to the left. She snatched up a strawberry and popped it in her mouth. Four calories. You had to love numbers.

The models shifted to their feet in a tidal wave of undulating muscle. Pumped up, made up, and ready to shoot. Six-two, six-four, six-one—no, the order didn’t work for her. Tallest to shortest or the other way around would be better. Maybe even tallest in the middle and descending in height order on either side. If Piers ever asked her opinion, she would tell him so. This was not her job, however. Her job was gofer, as in go for this and go for that. Shut your mouth, do as you’re told, and show up looking fabulous. She took a deep breath. Two hours and fifty-five minutes to the launch of New Tiffany.

“Give me beautiful, darlings.” Piers glanced up from his camera. “Get me that casting agent,” he yelled at her. “And for Christ’s sake get them oiled down.” Piers winked at the models. Flirting with the “meat” was his sole prerogative. “I need muscle. Big, shiny, I want to lick it muscle.”

 

Didn’t they all. Tiffany patted the side pocket of her Dolce & Gabbana tote, reassuring herself that her book was safe and waiting for her.

She hit redial with one hand and grabbed the bottle of body oil with the other. God, she’d stroked more abs than any girl could fantasize about. Pretty much her only job perk. Six models, each with a six-pack, did that make thirty-six abs or eighteen? It would depend on whether you considered one ridge of muscle as consisting of two separate . . .

“Lower,” Franco purred in her ear.

“Oh, puh-lease.” Tyrone grabbed the bottle from her and oiled himself. “There’s nothing down there, sister.” He rolled his eyes at Tiffany dramatically. “And believe me, I’ve looked. Now, if you really want to—”

She slapped a handful of oil onto the nearest corrugated stomach. Her gaze drifted to the hot pink corner of her book peeking over the edge of the tote, the abs calculation forming in her head. She needed to write it down before she forgot. A tiny moment of sanity hovered, right there between those special pages. Later.

“Time?” Piers shouted.

Tiffany checked her phone. Shit. “Two forty,” she called back and braced for impact.

“Christ on a stick, Tiffany.” Piers started his meltdown. Tiffany counted slowly backward. Five, four, three, two, one, and— “Fucking twenty to fucking two. Shit. Fuck. Bum. Bugger. Willy. Dick.”

The models suppressed a snicker or two. They couldn’t help it. With his British accent, it never sounded that bad when Piers swore. It sounded sort of cute. The cuteness wore off fast, and after seven years of working for Piers it wasn’t even mildly amusing.

“Get that silly cunt from casting on the motherfucking phone and ask her where my fucking white boy is. Tell her to get his pale arse down here or he will never work in this motherfucking cesspit of a fucking fuck-nose shitting town again.”

“Impressive,” one of the models murmured beneath his breath. This must be his first Piers shoot.

“He’s just getting started.” Tiffany grabbed the oil and smeared. The waves of rage emanating from Piers almost made her hands shake. She tried the casting agent again. Shit, she had only booked the studio for another two hours and fifty minutes. Her schedule was sliding straight into the toilet.

“Adjust the package on . . .” Piers clicked his fingers as he came up blank on the name. “Um . . . number two.”

“Tyrone,” number two helpfully supplied.

Heat crawled over Tiffany’s face. Her gaze dropped to the bulge of Tyrone’s crotch. Tyrone spread his arms out and grinned. “Go ahead.”

Sinfully beautiful, and Tyrone knew it. She couldn’t resist grinning right back. Such a pity he was gay. And she was in a steady relationship with the most wonderful man. In. The World. Everybody said so. Ryan was perfect. Maybe not exciting, but she’d had exciting, and look how that had ended up? Disaster. No, Ryan was the one for her. No more wild, crazy rides. Her phone buzzed in her hand.

“Is that the casting agent?” Piers demanded.

“No.” Tiffany glared as Lola’s name lit up her screen. The woman’s timing couldn’t suck more. As much as she needed to speak to Lola—and she really, really needed to speak to her—she didn’t want to answer the call now. Five days she’d waited for Lola to call back. Lola pretty much ignored every call she didn’t feel like taking. Conversely, when Lola wanted to speak to you, she wanted it now and would blow up your phone until she got hold of you.

She hit Ignore and slipped the phone into her pocket. Why today of all days? It must be some kind of cosmic joke. Could you calculate coincidence? You must be able to. Nearly everything broke down to numbers in the end. Her gaze strayed toward the tote again. Her book seemed to shimmer and pulse for attention. Perhaps she could just quickly . . .

“Hi, I’m looking for Tiffany?” A deep voice spoke from behind her.

Tiffany whirled on her four-inch heels and looked up. And up some more. Oh, thank you, sweet Jesus. Her white boy was here and he was gorgeous. His blond hair was cropped close to his scalp. It brought all your attention straight to that face. And what a face. You could break rocks on that jawline. The straight blade of his nose rescued him from pretty, but the mouth beneath it curved full and etched, made for nibbling on.

Tiffany did a quick, happy two-step. He even had beautiful blue eyes. He might be a shade on the tall side, but they could fake that a bit. Not as young as she’d first thought, but makeup would fix that. Two vertical lines between his eyebrows gave off a sort of don’t mess with me vibe. She beamed at him. “You’re perfect.”

He raised an eyebrow, and returned her smile cautiously.

Oh, yes, yes, yes. He had one of those smiles, all innocent on the outside until you looked into those bad-boy eyes. Scrap the Botox, those laugh lines were smoking hot. She did a quick body scan. Nice. Very nice. If he looked as good out of that tight T-shirt as he did in it. Seriously, where had this boy been hiding himself?

Tiffany patted the sort of forearm that could be best friends with a jackhammer, and mentally forgave the casting agent. “Okay.” She stretched her fingers to capacity to grip his arm. Wow! And this from a girl who worked with wow every day. “We are going to have to hurry. Strip and let’s get you all pumped up.”

“Where the hell have you been?” Piers snarled. “Your call time was one thirty.”

Blondie opened his mouth to reply. Tiffany spun him toward makeup. No good arguing with Piers when he was on a tear. A waste of time they didn’t have. Things were turning around. The white boy was here, and he was gorgeous. The shoot would finish on time, and then she could deal with Lola. And still have time to prepare herself for the night.

Blondie stood there giving the other models a thorough eye scan. Gay. What a shame.

She shook her head at herself. What did it matter? She was practically an engaged woman.

Blondie hovered at her side.

Clichés sucked, but some of these boys had no brain beneath all that brawn. Hooking her hands beneath the hem of his T-shirt, she tugged. “You have to take this off for makeup.”

“Are you taking my clothes off?” Blondie folded his huge paws around hers and stopped her. He had a great voice, like hot chocolate laced with rum. The sort of voice that would do great bedtime stories.

She hauled back on her thought path. “You have to strip.”

He looked right at her. Not past her or around her, but right at her as if he wanted to see straight into the center of her.

“Strip?” Up went one eyebrow.

Something she didn’t want to name crackled through the space between them. Sweat prickled her palms. Her hands were still fisted around his shirt, exposing about two inches of stomach. He had a garden path trail of hair disappearing below the low-slung waist of his jeans. That would have to go. Pity. Tiffany dragged her stare off his navel and focused on the writing on the front of his T-shirt: Never trust an atom—they make up everything.

Cool shirt. She and Blondie were probably the only two people in the world who thought it was funny. “Yes, strip.”

She pulled at the shirt and his hands tightened over hers. Tiffany glared up at him. Following up on late with an attack of modesty? Unbelievable. Did he think he would be modeling undershirts and long johns? “You have to take it all off.”

“Normally I get dinner first.” Those bad-boy eyes danced at her, inviting her to share the joke. For a second, she badly wanted to.

“Tiffany, sweetie.” Tyrone appeared beside her. “That’s not your model.”

“What?” Tiffany stared at Blondie. Of course he was her model, because otherwise she was stripping . . . A whimper caught in her throat.

He looked back at her.

Tyrone took her by the shoulders and spun her around. “That’s your model.”

He pointed to a beautiful Rocky (as in the Picture Show, not Sly) look-alike talking earnestly to Piers. Piers lapped it up, waving one hand through the air and patting the pretty blond boy on the arm.

“I . . .” Tiffany peered over her shoulder. Please let the last two minutes be a figment of her imagination. Her figment grinned at her and tucked his hands into his back pockets.

“Tiffany,” Piers bellowed. “Get Mark into makeup. And get him a cup of coffee. The poor boy has had a horrible day.”

“I’m so sorry I’m late.” Mark approached her, his big blue eyes awash with apology. “I’m new in town and I got lost.”

“Sister,” Tyrone cut across him, “save it for the preacher and get your ass all prettied up. We are not getting any younger over here.”

“Yes, of course.” Mark scurried over to makeup, leaving Tiffany standing with Blondie.

“Well.” She hoped she wasn’t blushing as much as she thought she was. “I thought you were one of the models.”

“Thank you, I think.” His voice held enough of a laugh for Tiffany to see the funny side. The corners of her mouth tilted up.

“Tiffany,” Piers demanded from across the room. He waved his hand over a pair of briefs and frowned. “Do we like the color of these?”

And just when things were looking up. Thank God she’d had the foresight to pack different colors. “You don’t like them?”

“It’s just . . .” Piers plucked at his bottom lip, thrust one hip out, and stared down at the model’s skimpy underwear. “He has this lovely skin and I don’t think these do anything for it.”

Tiffany clenched her belly in protest. Piers looked ready to take one of his stands. This would throw her whole schedule off. There wasn’t enough of those briefs for anyone to give a shit about the color. And the model wearing them had an honest-to-God eight-pack, all carved out of his deep chocolate skin. She went with the tried-and-true response, guaranteed to win the argument. “That’s the color the client wanted.”

Tiffany held her breath as Piers glared at the yellow briefs. Take the shot, Piers. Please, please, please, take the shot.

“I don’t know why I must always work with people who have such fetid taste.” Piers stalked over to his camera.

Tiffany let her breath out.

“I wouldn’t wear yellow underpants if you paid me.” Blondie’s heavy baritone stroked her eardrums. His voice sent goose bumps frog-marching up and down her spine.

“Well, we’re paying him.” She turned to frown at him. “If you’re not a model, then what are you doing here?”

“Looking for you.”

Goddamn it. Her phone slipped out of her hand. Blondie caught it in one paw.

“Do I know you?” Tiffany snatched her phone back.

“Nope.” He shook his head slowly. “We’ve never met. But I know of you. I’m a friend of your husband. Lola told me where to find you.”

“What?”

“I’m a friend of Luke’s. Your husband?”

That’s what she thought he said. Her heart skipped a beat. “Fuck!”

 

 

Chapter 2

 

The studio tilted around Tiffany.

“Is there somewhere we can talk?” Blondie glanced at Piers and back at her.

“Luke?” She forced the name past her stiff lips. “You want to talk about Luke?”

Threes, trouble always came in threes. Someone must have proven that. What were the odds? She needed to work out the odds. First the date, then Lola, returning her call today of all days. Now this guy showing up out of nowhere. Her fingers twitched to write this down, try to find the connection. The pink book beckoned from her tote bag.

“Yes.” Blondie smiled down at her. “His stepmother—Lola, is it? She told me where to find you.”

Son of a bitch! She should never have contacted Lola. That was her first mistake. Nothing good ever came of contacting Luke’s family. Only, with the proposal looming and the way things stood, she hadn’t really seen an option. She couldn’t very well accept the proposal of one man while she was still married to another. “I don’t have time to talk about Luke.” Ever. “And ex. He’s my ex-husband.”

Up went Blondie’s eyebrow. “Um, not according to—”

“He’s my ex because I say he is.” Her breath sawed through her mouth. She forced it to slow down. Nobody but Lola knew she and Luke were still married.

“O-kay.” Blondie held up his hands in surrender. “Whatever, but I still need to talk to you about Luke.”

“Well, hello.” Piers slithered up beside her. His gaze fixed over her head. “And who might you be?”

This was all she needed, Piers asking questions.

“Thomas.” He held out his hand to Piers. “Thomas Hunter.” The name suited him, direct and no-nonsense.

Piers slid his fingers into Blondie’s—Thomas’s—and leered over his slow hand squeeze.

“Are you a model?”

“No.” Thomas gave a rumble of laughter. “I’m an engineer.”

“A real man, then?” Piers sidled a bit closer. “You should consider modeling. You have fabulous bone structure.”

“My mother will be pleased to hear it.” Thomas slid his hands into the back pockets of his jeans and smiled down easily at Piers. “Actually, I just needed Tiffany.”

The way he said that made her belly tighten. Her phone pinged. And right on time, Lola crashed the party. At least she’d given up calling and was sending texts. Tiffany had a thing or two to say to Lola about sending hot blond men to her place of work. Men who knew Luke and knew he was still her husband.

“We all need Tiffany.” Piers put his arm around her shoulder and tugged her closer. Tiffany almost lost her balance. “I need her now and you can have her later.”

“Um, no.” Tiffany wriggled out from beneath Piers’s arm. God, she could smack him. His little display of affection was only to impress on Thomas that he wasn’t really a screaming bitch. But then, she only had a few more hours to put up with him. “I can’t see him later. I have a date.”

Piers threw her a look that said he didn’t give a shit.

“Why don’t I take your number and I can call you later,” Thomas said.

“Look.” She needed to shake him off before he screwed up everything. “I—”

“Here.” Piers grabbed the phone out of Thomas’s hand. His fingers flew across the touchpad. “This is Tiffany’s cell and I put mine in there as well. Just in case. You can call me anytime for anything.”

“Um, thanks.” Thomas peered down at his phone.

Tiffany twitched to snatch it and start deleting. Piers really shouldn’t be handing out her number to anyone, particularly not Luke’s friends. Luke was out of her life, gone, over, except for the car. And the divorce.

“I’ll call you later,” Thomas said.

“Don’t.” Tiffany stepped away from him. “I have nothing to say about Luke.”

“Yeah.” He pulled a rueful face. “That’s not going to work for me. I can see you’re busy, so I’ll call you later.”

He turned and strolled his very fine ass away from her.

Tiffany smirked at his broad back. Not if I see you first.

****

Tiffany barely stopped herself from running as she crossed the parking lot to her car. As it was she did a quick scan to check that no big blonds lurked in the shadows waiting to spill her secrets to the world. That exit line of his had a bit of a threat hanging off the end of it.

Thank God, the shoot was over. Piers had grown steadily more toxic as the afternoon progressed. A last-minute idea change from the client had turned him feral. She hated her job. Correction, she hated working for Piers, but her options weren’t exactly overwhelming with no qualifications and a high school diploma Daddy had fixed for her. Still, her job had paid for the repairs to her girl.

And there she was. Her girl. Sitting in the middle of the nearly empty parking lot, reducing the cars around her to rolling tin cans. The Lamborghini Miura, with its come fuck me lines and parking-lot hustle. Mee-you-ra: even the sound of it made her tingle.

Except the Miura wasn’t really hers. First, she’d belonged to Luke. The three of them had been twined together—her, Luke, and the Miura—in a fast, wild ride that took your breath away. God, they had laughed and laughed as Luke opened the Miura up and let her eat the highways. Young, beautiful, carefree, and in love. A pang shot through her chest. She wasn’t that Tiffany anymore. She was this Tiffany, the one who was going to do the right thing, marry the perfect man, and love the life she should have lived all along.

Tiffany had started the repairs with the idea of giving her back to Luke. She’d broken the Miura, another victim in the wreckage she and Luke left behind. It seemed right to fix it. That had been the plan, anyway. So why, when the car was all fixed and beautiful again, did she still have it? Daddy asked her that all the time. Even Ryan wanted to know.

Sweat broke out over her skin. Lola, Luke, and that Thomas guy all converging on her and threatening to topple her stack of lies. Oh, God, she had to keep this from Daddy and Ryan. She needed to calm down. It was bad, but not quite hopeless. Yet. What she needed was a plan.

The weight of her book in her tote hung reassuringly heavy against her shoulder. If she got home fast enough, she would have ten minutes before she got ready. Some girls did chocolate, others took long bubble baths, but she had her pink book filled with wonderful numbers. From panic to poised in a few neat calculations.

Nothing could get in the way of her marrying Ryan. She’d been ready for this since the day they met. Ready to settle down and help Ryan grow his career. Raise a few children together, throw fabulous parties for beautiful people, and live the life she was born for.

Tiffany slid the key into the lock and turned. The door rose to stand, as designed, like the horns of a bull. She didn’t want to think about that time in her life. Mostly, she didn’t want to think about Luke. Her secret was still safe. She had kept it for seven years. This was just a minor hiccup, a bump in the road. Well, she would flatten it. A quick call to Lola, and her plan was in motion.

Tonight was going to be one of the biggest nights of her life. She was getting engaged, for real this time. Not two kids, crazy in love with each other and not thinking past what they had in their pants. With Ryan, she had the real thing: a mature relationship, based on mutual respect and friendship. And the sex was comfortable, satisfying, and frequent enough for both of them to feel good about it.

Okay, Ryan didn’t turn her hormones inside out, but that was good. She wasn’t twenty anymore, but staring down the barrel of her thirtieth birthday. At this point in her life, sex wasn’t a two-backed beast that gobbled up everything in its path. It was supposed to be an extension of her intimate and caring bond with her partner. That was how Ryan put it.

The Miura crackled and popped into life beneath her. It licked along her nerve endings like the rasp of a cat’s tongue. Almost four hundred pounds of torque in a decadent V-12 engine, and it was all hers. At least for now.

Light traffic saw her home quickly, and it was still early as she let herself into her Gold Coast condo. Her cleaning lady had been and left the huge shutters open.

Tiffany poured a glass of a crisp Sauvignon Blanc and stepped out onto the enclosed deck. Fold-down glass shutters ran the length of the room, open to admit the evening breeze. A gentle Latin beat floated in from her neighbors’ apartment. She’d never met them, but she liked their music. Not so much the couple on the other side of her. They liked to party and they liked to fight, and they did all of this loudly.

She looked around the airy, sleek lines of her home. It had been a gift from Daddy after she’d split from Luke. Cool hardwood eased the ache of her bare feet as she carried her shoes into her bedroom. The other bedroom stayed empty for the most part. All dressed up and ready for a guest. But she didn’t have guests here much. Most of her friends were married, some of them even on their second and third marriages. Which brought her right back to Luke.

On her deck, she eased onto the daybed and sipped her wine. Her book sat on her lap. Pink so hot it made you blink with tiny rhinestones swirling and dancing across the cover. She cracked it open and found a blank page. The familiar weight of the glittering pen rested in her hands as she wrote. Numbers. Neat, precise, ordered. No guesswork and no room for error. From the first moment she had learned to count, numbers had been her friends. Of course, Daddy didn’t think much of her interest in numbers, so she kept it to herself.

“Everybody has a gift, Princess. Your gift is to be beautiful.”

And she was, on the outside, but inside she hugged her numbers to her until she got the chance to write them down in her book. If you looked for them, every day was full of small calculations and examples of numbers in action. Carefully she recalled all those instances throughout the day when she’d wanted to reach for her book. When the world swirled into chaos, numbers were the way out. Simple calculations, more complex concepts, they all broke down to the basic relationship between one number and the other. Addition, subtraction, division, and multiplication; predictable, constant, reliable.

She let the numbers work their magic. The panic subsided and peace moved in. This was all doable. First, the special dinner Ryan had called and reminded her about that morning. Tomorrow, she would call Lola and find out where Luke was hiding. Lola had to know where he was. Then she would track down Luke and get her divorce.

Tiffany tossed back the last of her wine. She debated pouring another one. What the hell, she deserved it after the shock she’d had. Her phone blinked with a missed call from an out-of-town number. She listened briefly to the message. Then had to listen again because she’d paid more attention to the voice than the words. Thomas had called. He said it was urgent. It all sounded a bit dirty in that killer voice of his. He wanted to set up a time to see her.

Delete.

She got to her feet and padded through to her open-plan kitchen that faced Lake Michigan. Everything in the condo faced that incredible view. She found the wine and topped off her glass. The last she’d heard from Luke, he was working in an ashram in India. Luke in an ashram! She’d pay good money to see Luke getting up with the sun and meditating. Or even better, Luke doing communal chores like cleaning toilets. She could have had the papers served to him there, but decided against it. Actually, she’d been deciding against it for the past seven and a half years.

The Tiffany who married Luke wriggled and squirmed, not ready to be tucked away forever. Tough shit. Wild Tiffany had run out of time. She took a huge gulp of her wine. It went down the wrong way and she came up for air coughing and spluttering. The problem with her divorce—other than she didn’t have one—was that nobody else knew. Daddy, Ryan, and all her friends assumed she was divorced. Most of the time she thought of herself as divorced. They could all go right on thinking she was divorced, because she sure as hell wasn’t going to tell them.

Why hadn’t she filed for divorce? She didn’t really know, or want to know. Maybe it had something to do with that piece of her that questioned if marrying Ryan really was the right thing for her. She didn’t trust that part, though, because that was the part that ended up married to Luke.

But she missed her sometimes. At times it felt like she had two Tiffanys wrestling for space inside her. One Tiffany knew Daddy was right, her future lay with Ryan. The other one craved the speed of the Miura, top down, wind whipping through her hair, and screaming her defiance at the top of her lungs.

The whole thing made her head hurt. Perhaps if she charted it all out on a graph, she would see it more clearly. She almost opened her book again.

Her phone rang. Thomas. She hit Ignore and checked the time.

Time to get beautiful.

 

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