Read an Excerpt
"You almost make a girl believe in fairy tales." In this rare intimate moment amidst the festive chaos, Lindsay Bingham reached out and tucked a stray strand of hair into her friend Sophie Baldwin's bridal veil.
Sophie looked every bit the princess she was. Literally. A real princess.
The wedding was magical and the reception was the social ticket of the year, Lindsay marveled. It was still hard to believe that salt-of-the-earth Sophie Baldwin from Trevard, North Carolina, was full-fledged royalty.
Last year, she'd discovered her birthright—or maybe it was more apropos to say her birthright finally found her—and she'd been swept away to the island of St. Michel in imperial fashion. As if that weren't enough good fortune, she'd just married her prince in a gorgeous December wedding.
Right on cue, tall, handsome Luc Lejardin whirled by on the dance floor with another woman in his arms. But as he caught and held his bride's gaze, it was perfectly clear he only had eyes for one woman.
Lindsay sighed. She would've gladly relinquished rights to an entire kingdom to have a man look at her that way.
"If I keep humming, 'Wish Upon A Star,' will I get my turn as Cinderella?"
Sophie smiled. "Maybe, but since that song belongs to Pinocchio, you might end up with a fibbing bad boy rather than a handsome prince."
Fibbing bad boys. The story of her life.
"That's right," she conceded. "Cinderella's fight song was 'A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes….'"
Sophie winked at her. "A little dream-wishing never hurt anyone."
"Yeah, but for the foreseeable future, I'm going to do my best to do more thandream. I'm getting my life together. I'm calling it the 'New Me' plan."
Yeah, rather than the old "Plan of Self-Destruction." A strategy that involved seeing how many years she could accrue at her dead-end job as a receptionist at Trevard Social Services and how many Mr. Wrongs she could pack into one lifetime.
She sighed against the beat of protest that thrummed inside her. Frankly, her "New Me" plan was a lot easier in theory than in practice. Her receptionist job was comfortable. It was so simple she could do it on autopilot. Even though her boss was a colossal pain in the butt, it was definitely one of those devil-you-know situations. Or so she told herself.
But the job was getting her nowhere.
As were the men she sometimes dated.
From her perspective, the journey toward true love sometimes seemed akin to walking a tightrope strung across a dark, scary abyss. She'd walked that rope before, holding the hand of a man she loved and trusted, a man who, once upon a time, said he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. Ultimately, he'd not just let go of her hand; he'd shoved her into the darkness below.
She'd nearly drowned in the misery.
Even now, almost seven years later, when she thought about the man who'd broken her heart, the pain resurfaced like it was covered by fading Novocain.
To numb herself, she dated. She'd even had relationships—if you could call them that. The men all had one thing in common beyond the tall, broad-shouldered, feral masculinity: none were husband material.
She preferred it that way. By dating the perennial bad boy, it was a given that those relationships wouldn't last. She kept a firm grip on her heart. That way it couldn't be broken.
Sophie squeezed Lindsay's hand. "I think focusing on you is a wonderful idea, and to help you with that, I have a surprise for you." Sophie's face lit with a certain look Lindsay had seen before. A look that meant Lindsay should probably run the other way—as fast as she could.
Her friend always meant well, and she could also be extraordinarily generous, as evidenced by the way she'd packed the past month full of fabulous surprises—from daylong, head-to-toe spa days, to designer clothes, shoes and handbags, to the custom-made Cartier diamond necklace and earrings she'd presented her attendants to wear with their bridesmaids dresses.
"What are you up to now?" Lindsay narrowed her eyes, playing along with the tone Sophie had set for this one.
"I'll tell you in a minute. First, I have to say hello to someone."
She followed Sophie's gaze to a short, slight man who was making his way toward them.
"Your highness, such a lovely wedding." The man had a thick Italian accent. He bowed and dusted Sophie's hand with a kiss. "It is a great honor to bear witness to such a momentous occasion."
Okay, this could take a while. But Lindsay had monopolized Sophie long enough. It was time to relinquish her friend and give others a turn. It was a good time to get a drink. The guests didn't want to talk to her, and that was okay. Really, it was. She didn't want to stand there, awkward as a sixth finger while this man did what every guest at this wedding endeavored to do: endear himself to the future queen of St. Michel.
She turned to Sophie. "Will you excuse me for a moment?"
Sophie smiled. "Is everything okay?"
Lindsay nodded. "Absolutely, I need something to drink. Would either of you care for something?"
"Nothing for me," said the Italian. "But please allow me to be at your service."
"No, no, thank you. You stay here and talk. I'll be back."
"You don't have to leave," Sophie whispered.
She'd been so good to make sure Lindsay didn't feel out of place during her stay at the palace. The poor woman must be exhausted.
"I'm fine," Lindsay assured her. "I'll find you later."
"Okay, don't forget. Your surprise."
Sophie had been so generous already. Lindsay couldn't imagine what else she could pull out of her crown. Especially tonight. Sophie's big night. It felt wrong for her friend to take time away from her wedding to give her something else. If anyone should be fussed over tonight, it was the bride.
Across the room, Lindsay spied a tux-clad server with a tray of champagne flutes. She walked over and helped herself, then turned to survey the crowd. The guest list was studded with several A-listers who melded so well with the others that sometimes Lindsay had to do a double take before she could identify them. But she was careful to not be too obvious. No one here gawked or gushed.
That's why it was important that she honored the agreement she'd made with herself and remained cool— and not go stark raving fan girl, even though Johnny Depp was sitting directly in her line of vision at a table for two, with his arm draped around a petite woman.
Lindsay bit her bottom lip instead.
She watched as the actor lifted a cigarette to his lips, taking a long drag. It was just as well she didn't try to engage him in conversation, because with all this pent-up nervous energy, she'd probably end up saying the wrong thing or bleating like a startled goat rather than forming words that made any sense.
Her toes curled in her custom-made Jimmy Choos (one of the bridesmaid gifts from Sophie), and she exhaled a full-body sigh, reluctantly tearing her gaze from him.
As she skimmed the crowd, she stopped suddenly, backtracking to a familiar face. A sulking hulk of handsomeness and broad shoulders sat alone at a table toward the back of the ballroom.
It was that famous chef. Oh, what was his name…?
As she studied his ruggedly attractive face, the olive skin and perpetual five o'clock shadow, Lindsay's mind flipped through names one by one, but she couldn't quite pin it down.
A couple of years ago, he'd been the poster boy of the trashy tabloids. Oh, what was his name…? He used to have a show on Food TV… but something had happened. She couldn't remember what. In fact, she couldn't remember the last time she'd seen him on television. Not that she'd ever been a big fan—but boy, he was even better-looking in person than on TV, and the tabloid photos didn't do him justice.
Yes! That was it.
She snapped her fingers. As if he'd heard her, which was impossible over the clamor of conversation and music, his dark gaze slid to hers and locked into place.
Her stomach performed a curious lurching summersault. Good grief, the guy was handsome. But based on the headlines, he was no Prince Charming. Not by any stretch of the imagination.
Still, she couldn't make herself look away.
Ping. There it was. That steel-to-bad boy magnetic draw of attraction—pulling her in a direction her better judgment warned she shouldn't go.
He kept watching her and she kept watching him back, over the top of her champagne flute.
She'd known guys with bad reputations like him. He was exactly the type of guy she was drawn to.
If there was one thing her résumé of postengagement relationships had taught her it was you can't rehabilitate a bad boy.
That was the short-term draw.
A slow, lopsided smile that barely turned up the corner of Montigo's lips promised trouble. Those were definitely bad-boy eyes gazing at her. Dark, sexy, bad-boy eyes that were meandering brazenly down the length of her body.
It wasn't the way Luc looked at Sophie. No, this was something altogether different. Her mind skittered through all sorts of possibilities involving bare broad shoulders, rumpled bed sheets and a lot more skin than he was showing now….
It kind of took her breath away.
It was her last night in St. Michel….
Even if he wasn't part of her "New Me" plan, she'd never see him again.
But then the strangest thing happened. Her better judgment kicked in.
What was the point of a one-night stand—besides a night of great sex?
Back home, her friend Ida May Higgins, the woman who'd known Lindsay since she was born, who'd cared for her after her mother died and had in many ways been a surrogate mother to her, insisted that the only way Lindsay could fix what her former fiancé, Derrick, had broken was by simply taking the time to be alone so that she could get to know herself.
As in no one-night stands.
Besides, Sophie had yet to cut the cake and toss the bouquet. As the maid of honor, Lindsay needed to be available for Sophie, not formulating a plan to hook up with Mr. Hottie.
Willing herself not to look back at him, Lindsay swallowed the rest of her champagne, set the empty glass on a busing tray and made her way toward the terrace for a breath of fresh air.
Something—anything—to clear her head.
If she were at home right now, she'd pull out her mother's recipe book—a small red notebook filled with pages of handwritten recipes, mostly desserts—and bake. The kitchen was her sanctuary; baking helped her keep her sanity.
Even though she'd been so young when her mother had died she didn't have memories of her, she had her recipes. And bringing them to life somehow made Lindsay feel connected to this woman she never really knew.
She'd brought the red notebook to St. Michel with her but she hadn't been near a kitchen in the month she'd been there. So, since baking wasn't an option, she made her way toward the ballroom's open doors.
The terrace was dotted with a smattering of people. Mostly couples who'd stepped out into the moonlight for a little romance, it seemed, from the way people were paired up, some with arms entwined, others stealing little kisses—one couple, off in the far corner, getting a little too frisky for public decency.
Lindsay hated intruding on the romance, but she couldn't go back inside. Not just yet. To give them some privacy, she walked to the other end of the terrace, leaned against the ornate wrought-iron railing and tilted her face into the briny breeze that blew in off the ocean.
It was a gorgeous night. In North Carolina, she'd need a parka and gloves to be outside on a December evening. Here, the temperature was a little chilly, but it was brisk and fresh—just what she needed. She was already starting to feel revived.
After being in St. Michel a month, Trevard, North Carolina, seemed like a vague smudge on a distant horizon. It was hard to believe she'd be going home tomorrow. She blinked away the thought. No way would she waste her last night dwelling on the mundane. She'd have her fill of that soon enough.
She looked around, taking in the huge moon hanging over the water like a brilliant blood orange, spilling diamond seeds across the inky sky and into the restless sea below. Such a beautiful moon on Sophie and Luc's wedding night, as if the heavens were bestowing a special blessing upon their union.
It was all so romantic.
A shooting star burst across the sky like a Roman candle. Remembering her earlier conversation with Sophie, a chill skittered over her. She crossed her arms to rub away the goose bumps, then closed her eyes and wished…
When she was done, she looked around, blinking a couple of times at the couples paired up on the terrace.
Well, Cinderella, you're certainly not going to find your prince at Lover's Lane. Better get back inside.
As she turned to leave the happy couples to their romantic seclusion, she nearly bumped into someone. Backlit by the warm glow of the ballroom, he was silhouetted and she could barely make out his features. But she didn't need better light to recognize Carlos Montigo.
"It's a beautiful night," he said with a melodic Spanish accent, warming her from the inside out.
"It is beautiful. I was just—"
"If you're cold, I'd be happy to offer you my jacket."
"I appreciate the offer, but I'm fine."
He nodded and stepped up to the railing next to her. Looking at him from this angle made her draw in a quick breath. He might've been born of the bad-boy mold that attracted her, but something in his voice and in the way he carried himself suggested he was different. But exactly how, she couldn't discern.
"You made a beautiful bridesmaid for the princess."
"Thank you. Are you a friend of the bride or the groom?"
She cringed at the inane question. This was not North Carolina. Sophie hadn't met three-quarters of the guests, and she'd bet good money that Sophie and Luc didn't know most of them personally. That was what famous people did—hang out with other famous people. Go to their weddings. Whether they knew each other or not.
"I am acquainted with the Henri Lejardin, St. Michel's minister of art and culture, the brother of the groom. I have catered events for him in the past. I am in town for another occasion—the St. Michel Food and Wine Festival—and he invited me tonight.
"I am Carlos Montigo." He offered a hand and she took it.
"Lindsay Bingham," she returned.
He lifted her hand to his lips. She liked this gallant European custom.
His gaze slid to hers and locked into place.