Read an Excerpt
"Your invitation, please?"
Madison pulled the five-by-eight-inch, eggshell card-stock invite from the silver evening bag that hung on her shoulder and handed it to the usher. She looked at him over the top of the Armani shades that sat perched on the tip of her delicate nose. He read the name embossed in gold lettering, allowing his gaze to travel from her Christian Louboutin stiletto-clad French-manicured toes, up shapely tanned legs to a hemline that ended above her knees, continuing to round hips, a tiny waist and ample cleavage. He settled on her face, an approving smile on his lips as he handed her invitation back over to her.
"Thank you, Ms. Madison Daniels. Welcome to the 'Friends to Elect the next United States President'banquet. Enjoy yourself this evening."
"I always do," Madison said.
She glided through the door the young man held open, her steps poised, her grace evident of a childhood of grooming. The wine-colored carpeted foyer to the Grand Promenade Ballroom was peppered with tuxedos and cocktail dresses as men and women chatted and laughed gaily. The backless, minuscule Donna Karan dress she wore, stunning and shimmering silver, caused passing gazes to linger on the "redbone" beauty as she made her way through the room. She was used to the attention and was undeterred as she continued to the main room, a faint scent of Armani Code perfume accentuating the air immediately around her. She stopped just inside the door, looked around, a frown forming at the corners of her mouth.
"Are you disappointed because he's here or because he's not here?" a deep voice asked from beside her.
Madison turned slowly to the left, her gaze traveling upward until it landed on a chiseled face. Gleaming white teeth set inside supple lips curved in a smile greeted her. An even-toned nutmeg face with eyes like ebony marbles framed by curly eyelashes was fixed in her direction.
"Excuse me?" she quipped.
"You were looking around for someone and your expression was one of obvious disappointment," he said.
"And naturally you assumed that I was looking for a man? Typical," Madison scoffed.
"I suppose I could not fathom that a beautiful woman such as yourself could ever be unescorted to a well-appointed affair such as this. My luck has never been quite that good, although I did win a blue ribbon at a potato sack race once when I was seven years old."
There was no doubting the charm of the debonair stranger. The unmistakably English accent was melodic to Madison's ears, making his rash judgment of her mood sound less antagonistic. He was long-drink-of-water tall, at least six feet two inches, towering above her diminutive frame. The span of his broad shoulders was visible in the classic Ralph Lauren black tuxedo he wore, and for a moment she had a fantasy of him picking her up, tossing her over one shoulder and carrying her away into his jungle lair. She snapped out of it with a quick shake of the head. She was no Jane and he certainly was no chocolate Tarzan. What he was was extremely good-looking, smooth-talking and probably the sexiest man she'd ever laid eyes on. However, Madison was not a woman who was easily charmed by good looks and sweet words.
"Stevenson. Stevenson Elliott"
"Stop interrupting me, please. I find it rude and annoying," Madison snapped. "Now, Mr. Elliott"
"But all of my good friends just call me Steve," he persisted.
Madison regarded the broad smile housed in a mouth that was sumptuous and boyish at the same time. She tried to force an expression of aggravation onto her face, but realized that she had already begun to enjoy the game of cat and mouse they were playing more than she should. There was an air about him that was both irresistible and engaging, yet she was not about to let such a pompous foreigner in on the fact that he'd moved her.
"Mr. Elliott, while I would love to stand around trading witty commentary with a presumptuous stranger, frankly, I've got better things to do with my time."
Madison turned away from him in an attempt to keep her eyes from betraying the lie she'd just told him. At that moment there was nothing she'd rather do than remain in his presence, but she was a woman who was pursued, not the other way around. She walked away from Stevenson Elliott, certain that his eyes were trained on her receding figure as she felt them boring into her back. The natural twist of her huggable hips as she walked was slightly exaggerated for his benefit and his torment.
Stevenson laughed out loud, taken by the beauty with the unconventional hairstyle and prickly tongue. He watched her as she crossed the room with a self-assured spring in her step that was admirable. He started to go after her, but instinctively knew that it was probably not a good idea. This silver-clad goddess was hell on wheels, of that he was certain, and a distraction like her was the last thing he needed in his life. There were expectations on his shoulders that required clear thinking and undistracted diligence. Yet even as he reminded himself of his obligations, his smoldering eyes followed her around the room.
"There you guys are," Madison said as she came upon the table where her parents were seated.
Dr. and Mrs. Joseph Daniels were sharing a table with Judge Kelly from the southern district of New York, his wife, Patricia, Senator Houssman from Poughkeepsie and his wife, Carla, and Georgetta Price, a world-renowned Broadway diva.
Joseph rose to greet his daughter, his facing beaming with pride. "You made it, pumpkin," he said, kissing her cheek. Joseph Daniels's eyes lit up at the sight of his youngest child. His warm-brown face gave way to a wide smile, tiny laugh lines appearing in the corners of his eyes. Anyone who knew him knew that he had a heart as good as gold and as soft as putty when it came to his two daughters. Despite the trials and tribulations that Madison had dragged them through over the years, and mountains of worries finally pushed aside, there was nothing that could diminish his love and adoration for her, his youngest daughter.
Elmira tilted her face upward slightly to receive her daughter's peck on her cheek.
"Everyone, you remember my baby girl, Madison?" Joseph asked with pride.
"Joe, I don't think you can call this beautiful young woman your baby girl anymore. She's all grown up!" Senator Houssman said.
"She certainly is. Why, the last time we saw you, young lady, it was with a face full of braces and pretty little pigtails," Patricia Houssman chimed. "You, my dear, are an absolute knockout."
"Thank you, Mrs. Houssman. Senator." Madison smiled.
Joseph pulled out the chair to his left for Madison, who slid into the seat with a radiant smile.
"I don't care how old or beautiful a woman she becomesshe will always be my baby girl!" Joseph said proudly, squeezing Madison's shoulders firmly before taking his seat again.
Chatting resumed at the table as the band played and the champagne flowed. Thus, the evening progressed. It was one of the first political affairs that Madison had attended where she actually was not bored out of her mind. Georgetta Price was a laugh a minute, regaling their table with stories of the many schizophrenic directors and unscrupulous starlets she'd come across in her career, which spanned more than three decades. Madison listened with half an ear, as her mind remained preoccupied with thoughts of the charismatic young man with the English tongue and charming wit. Her feminine senses had been stroked by his teasing, making it difficult to forget him. She surreptitiously scanned the room from time to time, hoping to catch a glimpse of him; however, like Cinderella at the ball, he seemed to have vanished into thin air.
As the evening wore on, Madison made every effort to push all thoughts of the handsome stranger from her mind, reminding herself that she did not need romantic entanglements in her life right now. She was doing well all by herself and the last thing she needed was for some guy to come along and make her lose her focus. Despite occasional pangs of loneliness that were normal for a young woman, she rather enjoyed the time and space of living alone in the city that never sleeps.
It had only been six short months since she'd moved off of her bourgeois parents' luxurious Southern estate and out of their reach. Leaving the drama and scandal she had caused in North Carolina behind her, she had seized the opportunity for a fresh start in the Big Apple. New York City was a metropolis of big buildings and even bigger dreams, and unlike the glove in the infamous
O. J. Simpson trial, it was a perfect fit. Gone was the flowing warm brown hair that had not been cut more than a quarter of an inch since she was five years old and in its place were short, funky new locks in hair that had been dyed honey-blond. This new hairstyle was becoming, giving her buttermilk complexion a fresh, quirky look.
Since she'd landed in New York, Madison had become devoted to living a healthy lifestyle by eating right and working out three times a week at the New York Sports Club. Her naturally sexy, curvaceous frame was in tip-top form physically, which also boosted her mental and emotional states. She had never felt more motivated and ready to take charge of her destiny. Of course, she had yet to figure out what that destiny was, leaving her reliant on the monthly allowance her father sent. Her Upper East Side apartment was small, yet chicly decorated, and by subsidizing what her father gave her with work at odd jobsranging from dog walker to yoga instructorshe was able to live a comfortable lifestyle.
Money matters didn't concern her, however, because she realized that she was a work in progress who had come a long way from where she once was. She was contemplating her options and even considering going back to college on a part-time basis. Admittedly, she was enjoying the relative calm of a life that did not include nightly partying, alcoholic binges and the distraction of juggling relationships like a circus trickster. That was precisely why she'd sworn off sordid affairs with men handsome, charming men.
"How's everyone enjoying the party?"
Madison started at the sound of that baritone voice, instantly recognizable. She felt a sudden flush in her cheeks when his strong hand landed lightly on her shoulder. She suppressed her body's urge to tremble under his unexpected touch.
"We're enjoying it just fine, young man. Say, aren't you Gregory Elliott's son?" Senator Houssman asked.
"Yes, sir, I'm Stevenson Elliott. It's a pleasure to meet you, Senator Houssman."
"Your father and I did some business together years ago when I was a consultant in the natural resources industry. I lived in England for over three years. Very fine man, that Gregory Elliott. Is he here tonight, son? I'd love to say hello," the senator remarked earnestly.
"Yes, sir. He and my mother are seated right over there, with Congressman Powers."
"Oh, yes. Excuse me, folks," the senator said, rising and shaking Steve's hand before departing.
Steve walked around the table, shaking hands with the men at the table and delivering compliments to the ladies who were seated there.
"Stevenson, this is our daughter, Madison. Darling, say hello," Elmira said, her voice a tad too cheery for Madison's tastes.
"Mother, we met earlier in the evening," Madison answered dryly, avoiding making eye contact with Steve.
She picked up the glass in front of her, taking a long sip of the cool, sparkling water to soothe the sudden dryness that had developed in her throat.
"Yes, we have. In fact, that's precisely why I came over to your table. I was standing across the room wondering to myself if the lovely young lady would like to join me on the dance floor. I think we'd be a perfect match to show the more mature folks how to get this party started the right way," Steve said.
Madison looked up at him finally, glancing from his extended hand to his face.A flash of benign irritation passed through her eyes as she stared at him without speaking. She ran her tongue over her bottom lip as she thought of a tactful way to get him to leave her alone, but when his gaze fell to her mouth and he smiled seductively, she realized how suggestively her action might have been perceived.
"What a lovely idea. Go on, Madison," Elmira encouraged, her lips spread as wide as they could possibly go without splitting her face in half.
Madison gave a slight smile, quickly putting in check the old Madison, who would have snapped her mother's head off right in front of a roomful of people for her transparent attempt at interfering in her life and matchmaking. She took Steve's hand and rose from her chair, allowing him to lead her out into the middle of the dance floor. The band began to play "So Amazing" by the late Luther Vandross just as Steve slid his right arm around Madison's body, drawing her to him closely as if they had danced together a thousand times before. Madison rested the palm of her left hand on his shoulder blade, while he closed her right hand in his. His long fingers wrapped around hers tightly. In her heels she was still three or four inches shorter than him, landing the top of her forehead against his chin. A perfect fit.
"So, Madison Daniels. Pretty name for a pretty woman," he said.
Their faces were just inches apart. Madison could feel the warmth of his breath on her nose and it made her conscious of how close their bodies were to one another, but at the same time rendered her incapable of breaking the intimacy even if she wanted to. It felt too good to sever.
"Thank you," she said, all too aware of the erratic beat of her heart.
"No, thank you for sparing a few moments of your precious time to dance with me," Steve said, his voice tinged with mocking amusement.
"So, let me guess. You're some sort of funny guy, huh?" Madison inquired. "Or so you think."
"No, not at all. Actually, I'm usually quite serious. Some people might say that I'm extremely intense. It must be something about the romantic lighting and the festive mood in this room that has me reacting like this. Or it could just be the company I'm keeping."
The seductive lilt to his voice was making her feel warm and causing her to be all too aware of the sensations his body against hers was creating.
"So, Mr. Elliott, when you aren't acting out of character, what do you do?" Madison asked, attempting to steer the conversation to an area that would not cause her temperature to continue to climb.
"Well, I'm a citizen of Great Britain and back home I work with my father."
"And what does your father do?"
"He is Chairman and CEO of the Elliott Corporation. Our business is manufacturing. But I don't want to bore you with shop talk when I'd much rather talk about you and how striking you are."
"I see. Well, Mr. Elliott, you're a long ways away from Great Britain, in case you didn't notice. I'm not sure how things are done there, but here in America, we don't fixate on a person's exterior because we are astute enough to realize that what lies beyond that shell, the interior, is where the treasure actually rests."