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Nina Tempted the Lord
By Kelly Hunter, Shannon Godwin
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Kelly Hunter
All rights reserved.
Official rumor had it that at seventeen, Judge Moreau's youngest daughter had run away and joined the circus. Unofficial rumor had it that Nina Moreau had run off with a hard-bodied Irish boy whose dimpled smile had burned hotter than the southern sun. Neither rumor was strictly true.
At seventeen — with a dozen years worth of ballet, gymnastics, and bone-bending focus already behind her — Nina Moreau had quite simply followed the dance.
The circus and Connor Boyd had merely been bonuses.
Connor was long gone — he had the itchiest feet on the planet — but Nina had stayed with the Night Circus, and new friends had gradually replaced the family she'd left behind. The Englishman Alexander Carradice for example, had joined the company some two years ago in the role of finance director. A desk job, one would have thought. No need to get out on the floor and find out what performers needed or what the support staff wanted. No need to figure out how to improve the touring experience or how best to advertise the circus. Not his job. But Alexander Carradice had done all of those things and the circus had flourished and Alex still seemed to spend more time out of his office than in.
Fair of face and exceptionally well formed, Alex was also sharply observant, and Lord, he could be blunt when the mood came upon him.
The mood was very definitely upon him now.
"Nina, if you're not going to concentrate, get back on the floor before you fall," he roared from his spotter's position some forty feet below.
Nina paused, mid-reverse-flag-climb, and shot him a glare, never mind that his aristocratic English accent usually made her want to smile and — on rare occasion — swoon. Yes, the aerial silks were dangerous and involved hanging in midair by a slender bolt of silk or two. Yes, she was a long way off the ground and her Isabella drop had been sloppy. But she'd do it again in a minute, and this time she'd do better. That was what practice was for. "Carradice, what is your problem?"
"You! You are my problem." Alex matched her glare for glare. "Your timing's off, your last drop scared me witless, and who knows where you left your focus, because it's certainly not up there with you. Kat, bring her down."
"Kat, I'm fine right where I am."
But Kat minded Alex, not Nina, and lowered the rig.
"Don't you scowl at me, Nina," Alex told her the minute her feet hit the floor, striding up to her, towering over her, because that's what happened when one person measured in at over six feet and the other one could barely lay claim to being five-four. And a half. "You've been distracted for days and you're driving me nuts. I fear for you up there. I know your concentration's shot. So either tell me what's wrong so we can fix it, or stand down and let Kat perform in your stead. She's ready. You're not."
"That is not your call to make," snapped Nina, and eighteen-year-old Kat winced and tried to make herself even smaller than she already was. "Sorry, Kat." Nina turned to Kat and tried to put the younger performer at ease. "I didn't mean you weren't ready. You need to go take a look at the new performance roster." Nina allowed herself a crooked little smile. "I think you'll like it."
"Now?" asked Kat, and Nina nodded and watched the younger woman hurry toward the door.
This wasn't the beginning of the end.
Kat wasn't as good as Nina on the aerial silks.
"C'mon, Nina. Spill." Alex's voice had gentled considerably. "What's got you so spooked?"
"A wedding," she said with a weary slump of her shoulders. "My sister Honey's getting married."
"And?" he asked warily.
"And she wants me to be her maid of honor. She sent me a dress. It's sleek and gorgeous and flattering and it fits as if it were made for me."
"Really not seeing the problem here, Nina."
"The problem is I haven't been home in seven years. Not once, since I chose this way of life. I'm kind of estranged from my family." Nina tugged gently on the silk she still held in her hands, testing the strength in it and the give. "Honey tracks me down and takes me to dinner every year on my birthday. My mother sends money and a card and phones me a couple of times a year. My father sends nothing at all. And now Honey wants me in her wedding party? It's not going to fly. Honey doesn't need that kind of stress on her wedding day."
"Sounds to me as if that decision's already been made," Alex offered. "Bride's prerogative."
"Bridal insanity," Nina said.
"Perhaps she's counting on people to behave."
"Seven years, Alex. My father hasn't laid eyes on me in seven years."
"He's a district court judge. He doesn't lose."
"He lost you."
Kind words. Words that made her want to confide in him just that little bit more. "I'm scared, Alex. Scared of going home and finding that everything has changed and nothing has changed."
Alex looked around the practice gym as if weighing his options. Finally, he spoke. "Would you like me to come with you? Be your plus-one? I know a little something about family disapproval. Moral support in the face of it is my specialty."
Maybe, but seduction and the breaking of hearts came effortlessly to Alex as well, and he wasn't exactly known for backing down in the face of a challenge. He called things how he saw them and he was very fond of taking control.
"If I take you, you'll cause absolute chaos," she said with utter certainty. "You'll charm all the women and the men will want to shoot you and I'll be the one who brought you."
"I'll be the perfect gentleman," said he of the ratty track sweats and faded T-shirt. "I'll be so respectable you won't even recognize me. People will wonder where on earth you found me. They'll be lining up to congratulate you on landing me. Even the judge."
"Carradice, unless there's a wedding ring on my finger I won't have landed anything. We're funny that way in the South. What I can guarantee is that if you come as my date, my unfortunate fascination with penniless, no-good circus bums will be confirmed in full."
Alex smiled, and wasn't that a sight: all reckless sensuality wrapped up in boyish charm. His shoulders were wide, his body lean, and he had hazel eyes framed by ridiculously long lashes. The less said about his messy, dark-blond hair the better. There was a very good chance he didn't own a comb. "Or we could play it that way," he murmured. "Could be fun."
"Do you own a comb?"
"I own several."
"Ever use them? Or did someone once tell you that 'just rolled out of bed' was a really good look for you?"
Alex grinned some more. So much for Englishmen having bad teeth. His teeth were even and pearly white. "When's the wedding?"
"Have you asked for time off?"
Nina nodded. "I got the go-ahead this morning." Which went some small way to explaining her possible lack of focus. "Two weeks' leave. Kat's performing in my place. The wedding's being held in Bellefleur, just outside of Baton Rouge." Nina unclipped her silk from the rig and started rolling it around her hand, more for comfort than anything else. "I'm thinking I'll head off on Thursday and drive there. Take a couple of days to get there. Stop and catch my breath along the way."
"Gather your courage," Alex murmured. "Strengthen your defenses."
He knew her too well. "Still feel like coming with me?"
"I have two conditions," he said.
"Only two?" Odds were he'd have more than that once he got started. But the knot in her stomach was already easing at the thought of having Alex along for the ride.
"One," he said, shooting her a quelling glance. "Driver chooses the music."
"Fair enough. What's your second condition?"
"I drive."CHAPTER 2
Two days later, Nina sat on her suitcase outside her modest apartment building and waited for Alex to arrive. It wasn't that he was running late; it was more that her apartment was suddenly too small, the heels of her shoes were too worn, the shoes themselves too cheap, never mind that they'd been chosen for comfort and she'd never hated them before. Her mother would notice. Honey would notice. New shoes would appear overnight to go with the new season's dresses that would magically appear in her closet.
A gift from one sister to another, Honey would call it.
Making sure Nina didn't embarrass her family completely was another phrase that sprang to mind.
My Little Brown Mouse, her father had called her during childhood, never mind her mother's protestations. Brown eyes, straight brown hair, pale skin with a tendency toward freckles. Nothing remarkable about her at all. Honey had been Honeybun. Honey had been blessed with golden hair and much lighter brown eyes than Nina's. Honey glowed.
Nina, not so much.
Not until she started to dance.
Nina grimaced and stared down at the hands in her lap — hands that weren't soft and ladylike but strong and calloused. Nothing she could do about those, although she'd gone and gotten a manicure so that her nails at least looked nice. So what if they were fake? She was making an effort. That had to count for something, right?
She'd done everything right. She'd even remembered to tell Honey that Alex would be accompanying her to the wedding as her date. Honey had grumbled at the last minute addition to the guest list and fretted about where to seat him. Nina had told Honey to pass the matter over to the wedding planner and let her do her job.
Nina closed her eyes and willed herself to stay calm and wait patiently for Alex. Alex, who'd added another condition to his list of demands — namely that they were driving his car from Florida to Louisiana and not hers.
Nina hadn't even known that Alex had a car. She'd only ever seen him ride an old Vincent motorcycle — the kind that made old men stop and talk and young women stop and sigh.
Hard to think of a car that might suit Alex's particular brand of sexiness, but Nina gave it her best shot as she sat in the sun and tilted her face skyward. A muscle car — matte-black with a throaty roar? She wouldn't put it past him. But Alex also favored elegance over flash, so maybe not. Something quirkily British, perhaps, to go with his accent? A Jag? That'd suit him, but Alex was also fond of immersing himself in local culture. Maybe he'd turn up in an American classic.
If he turned up in a Hummer, could she justify shooting him?
She heard a car pull into the pickup circle but kept her eyes firmly closed until it came to a purring stop. Not a Hummer.
Might not even be Alex.
Nina opened one eye just a fraction. Moments later she had both eyes wide open because frankly, the view was magnificent.
Alexander Carradice lounged lazily behind the wheel of a vintage indigo-colored Corvette. The car was all gleaming chrome and shiny, shiny paint. If it had a roof, it was currently down. If the wire rims were any glitzier they'd have blinded her.
And if Nina had more manners, her mouth might not have dropped open as far as it did.
Not your average, everyday means of transport, she'd gotten that right. As elegant a piece of motoring machinery as she'd ever seen, she'd gotten that right too. Maybe he'd borrowed it. Rented it.
Damn, but he looked good in it.
Alex's smile came slow and sure as he looked her over. "Ask me where it came from," he offered finally. "You know you want to."
"I do want to." He was absolutely right. "But a lady wouldn't." Nina looked Alex up and down, this time noting that his clothes were a distinct cut above his usual fare. Not the jeans — they were the same — but his jacket had a couple of rows of what looked like brass buttons incorporated into the design, and the cut was truly superb, emphasizing his broad shoulders and lean, muscular body to perfection. The antique timepiece on his wrist likewise signified an income level that stretched way beyond average. "It suits you, though." She gave him that. "The car. The watch. The sweet smell of money."
"You mean I wasn't meant to?" Truth be told, Nina had absolutely no idea of Alex's financial status beyond the facts that he presumably drew a financial director's wage and that he always paid his own way. He dressed down more often than he dressed up. He treated people as equals until they failed to do the same and then he dismissed them as if they didn't exist. She'd assumed that he came from a relatively moneyed background, but in the few years she'd known him, she'd never actually asked. She trusted him to know how to hold his own with her family. To fit in — or not — as he chose.
But she hadn't quite expected ... this.
"Honestly, Alex. You didn't have to go to all this trouble to impress. I value the scruffy, T-shirt-wearing, checks-his-phone-when-he-wants-to-know-the-time Alexander Carradice quite a lot."
"Never doubt it." How could this man not know his worth? Surely she hadn't been that unappreciative? "Accessories don't make the man, Alex. I value you. Having said that, I'm really liking the jacket you're wearing. It's a little bit debauched and a whole lot hot."
"I'm aiming for English aristocracy," he murmured.
"And you're nailing it." Her family wasn't going to have the faintest idea what to do with this man when it came to fitting him into their social scheme of things. The notion made her smile. "Thanks for coming with me. Seriously."
"Hold that thought. Especially when my father gets you off by yourself and offers you bourbon and starts quizzing you about your pedigree. Because if you're wearing that watch and driving this car, he will."
"So?" Alex grinned and got out of the car and came around and opened the passenger-side door for her. "Milady."
"Don't say I didn't warn you."
"Get in the car, Nina. I can handle your father."
Nina got in the car and Alex shut the door behind her. He loaded her luggage while she ogled the car from the inside. Beautiful ride. Old-fashioned glamour and the scent of luxury leather all around her. Somewhere between here and home she was going to have to buy a scarf and have herself a little Audrey Hepburn moment.
Alex eased into the driver's seat and on instinct Nina leaned over and slid her hand around his neck and drew him closer, loving the scent of him, his familiar face and the shadowy green color of his eyes.
"Thank you for making this drive something to look forward to." The kiss Nina aimed at his cheek missed by a mile and she wound up bussing his lips instead. His lips were warm and soft and very still. They'd never done this before. Plenty of touching, yes, but no kisses on the lips.
Why had they never done this before?
Alex's body had gone statue-still as well, and Nina frowned. She'd seen him bestow public kisses on others; he wasn't exactly shy. She'd seen him deliver easy, reckless kisses and his eyes had always been laughing and his lips had always been responsive.
Why had he gone so still?
And then his gaze dropped to her lips and the day suddenly got a whole lot hotter.
"Just how big a distraction do you want me to be for you, Nina?"
She could feel his hair beneath her fingertips and the warmth of his skin. The weight of his gaze. So many things she shouldn't be feeling ... that she'd tried so hard not to feel for this man, because Alex's love affairs were notorious for being lighthearted, fleeting things that were over almost as soon as they began, and Nina wanted this man in her life forever. She had a far better chance of keeping him in her life forever if she kept their friendship strictly platonic.
That was why they didn't kiss.
There was just too much to lose.
"I, ah, sorry." She let go of his neck and pulled back abruptly. "Really sorry. I didn't mean — I mean you don't have to be that much of a distraction. I would never jeopardize our friendship for a quick ... For a quick ...
"It wouldn't be that quick, Nina." Alex's voice came at her gravel-rough and deeper than usual. "For you I'd take my time."
It wasn't as if Nina hadn't seen Alex work his magic on women before. He flirted shamelessly with seasoned performers and backstage cable crew members of all shapes and sizes. He cajoled and smiled and they sighed and blushed and fell so easily under his spell. But he'd never been serious about a woman as far as Nina could tell, and he'd never before turned all that lazy charm on her. Nina felt it, yes indeed she felt it burn. "I bet you say that to all the girls," she said lightly.
Excerpted from Nina Tempted the Lord by Kelly Hunter, Shannon Godwin. Copyright © 2013 Kelly Hunter. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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