Read an Excerpt
No Romance Required
A Love Required Novel
By Cari Quinn, Heather Howland, Shannon Godwin
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Cari Quinn
All rights reserved.
Cory Santangelo glanced at his watch. Again. He'd forbidden the ever-attentive press from attending tonight's gala because he'd obtained an exclusive for coverage elsewhere. Wrong move, apparently. When a man paid handsomely — and secretly — for a notable photographer from the state's largest newspaper to surreptitiously memorialize an event, he expected said photographer to arrive in a timely fashion. Preferably before the event ended.
Hell, he would have considered allowing the paparazzi to attend if he'd known the photog he'd secured wasn't going to show.
Oh, it wasn't over yet. Though the crowd of guests at Value Hardware's annual Helping Hands charity benefit had definitely thinned, a stalwart number of partygoers would remain until the last drop of Cristal had been consumed. This gala had its roots in assisting the community, notably the underprivileged and down-on-their-luck, but many of those who came to their aid preferred to do so in gorgeous surroundings. Hence the yearly ball and its attendant auction, which always brought in the big bucks to help the foundation. Particularly this year, when a real-life romance had played out while the trinkets and baubles were offered up for bid.
His little brother, Dillon, had fallen for one of those down-on-their-luck types. Alexa Conroy owned a small, struggling flower shop in town and had fought a not-so-evil empire — which happened to belong to Cory — to save her business. Lex and Dillon had ridden out of there via motorcycle just a short while ago after putting on a show worthy of the daily soaps, complete with sweeping kisses and a frantic bidding war over a painting aptly titled Love at First Sight.
Now Dill was probably off biblically romancing his new girlfriend, and Cory couldn't have been happier for him.
Especially since he'd hoped to milk the night for every drop of publicity it was worth. And that had been when he'd believed the only excitement would consist of Dillon's large award for his volunteer work with the charity. The lovey-dovey melodrama was a news-at-eleven bonus, one that virtually assured that the charity and Value Hardware would get good press for days, despite Dillon the do-gooder's publicity ban.
Or it would have assured it, had the photographer ever showed.
Cory pulled out his cell to call him. No reception bars. Of course. He needed to change plans. Or better yet, he needed his assistant to change them for him.
"Cory, wait." He turned, glimpsing his mother and stepfather rushing toward him. He didn't like the inevitable drop in his stomach as his mom gave him a quick hug and recounted the success of the night. All too often lately their discussions veered into a place he didn't want to go, especially with his parents.
"Isn't it wonderful about Dill and Alexa?" She sighed. "Dad and I were beginning to think he'd never fall in love."
Here we go. "Isn't that something that happens on its own timetable?"
"Of course, but you can help it along sometimes." She grinned and pinched his cheek as if he were eight years old. As heat filtered into his face, he glanced around to make sure no one had seen her gesture. "It's all about meeting the right people, sweetie. Something you don't do enough of. You need to get out more, experience —"
"I experience plenty. Thanks for the advice, though." He kissed her forehead and waved his phone at his stepfather, who stood stoically behind her. "Sorry, business."
"Speaking of business ..." Raymond Santangelo placed an arm around Cory's shoulder, effectively halting his escape. He led him and Cory's mother to a more private corner, where they stood between a potted ficus tree and a giant cardboard cutout of Dillon with the words "Volunteer of the Year."
His mother tilted her head to the side, peering at him closely. "How long has it been since you've been on a date?"
Cory opened his mouth, then shut it. "Excuse me?"
His mother sighed and smoothed a hand over her neat auburn bob. "You remember dating, don't you, sweetheart?"
"Dating isn't part of my lexicon right now." Cory pointedly glanced at his watch, furtively searching for an exit. Perhaps if he got out of there in a hurry, he'd head all of this off at the pass.
Raymond, who seemed completely unaffected by Cory's attempt at bolting, stroked his short beard and shook his head. "We're moving away in four weeks. You and Dillon are going to be on your own. Not that we won't be available via phone and e-mail."
"And Skype," his mom added brightly.
Yes, Skype. Dillon had taught her how to use that particular piece of technology, damn him. Cory would make sure to thank his brother later. "I'm not a boy." Cory met his stepfather's gaze. "I think I've demonstrated my maturity and my ability to take care of myself. Of course we'll miss you both." He spared his mother a brief glance. "But this move is the best thing for your health, and Dillon and I are more than capable of running things." The rest wasn't worth discussing.
"You're not any good to the company if you're not good to yourself. And news flash, son, the circles under your eyes and your tendency to snap before your brain engages aren't winning you any favors." When Cory would've replied, his stepfather shook his head and tucked a hand in his pocket. "Look, we all knew this wouldn't be an easy conversation. No one wanted you to feel like you were being attacked, but we all have a vested interest in making sure you're happy."
Cory tightened his jaw. "The bottom line."
"No." His mom's face softened, her eyes going damp. "Do you really think that's all you are to us?"
Cory turned away from the plea in her voice. He hated hurting her or worrying her for even a moment, but what did they expect from him? He didn't have time to date, not with their looming retirement and the magazine launch. His free moments were chock full with store minutiae. Where, exactly, was he supposed to fit in this restorative dating?
"I have one unscheduled hour a day." Cory pressed his fingers to his eyes. Waving his cell phone at his parents again, he added, "Look, can we finish this chat later? I really have to —"
"Not so fast."
Should've known it wouldn't be so easy. Wordlessly, he waited.
Raymond crossed his arms over his chest. Despite his kindly smile and penchant for friendly chats, the man could summon an iciness that glaciers would envy. "Customers don't feel comfortable approaching you in the store. In fact, I got two complaints this week."
"About what?" Cory couldn't stem his outrage.
"About you. You blow people off when they say hello. You don't think personal relations have anything to do with crunching numbers, and you're wrong. In this economy, that personal touch is what keeps businesses like ours afloat. And if you're not helping us, you very well could harm us." Raymond's jaw ticked. "Not acceptable, son. You need to take care of your responsibilities outside of the store, too. And that includes finding alternate ways of stress relief."
Cory stared at him, sure he'd heard him wrong. "Sex?"
"We're not talking about just physical relief." How his mother could remain so placid when talking about sex in the presence of her grown son, Cory had no clue. "Who do you have to turn to when you need to talk?"
"I don't. Need to talk," Cory said when they all stared at him. "I have friends, of course, should the urge arise."
He glanced away from the pity scrolling across his mom's face. His stepfather was slightly more circumspect, but not much. They knew he didn't have many friends. A spat with Victoria Townsend, who ran his company's lifestyle magazine, usually was the extent of his personal conversations with people outside of his family or work associates.
"The kind of companionship you find in a relationship extends beyond friendship, son." Raymond's gentle tone didn't lessen the steely glint in his eyes. He wasn't backing down. Well, neither was Cory.
"I'm not a damn virgin. I'm almost thirty years old, for God's sake, not twelve. I do know these things." Cory raked a hand through his hair. He didn't even dispute what they were saying for other people. Sharing a meal — or a bed — with someone appealed to him on some levels, but a relationship usually brought far too many complications.
"You already know so many lovely women, sweetheart." Cory braced. Whomever his mom suggested, he would vehemently turn down. To do otherwise would break the unspoken mother/son covenant about dating advice created hundreds of years ago. "What about Melinda Townsend? She'd be perfect for you."
Yeah, so he'd believed the several times he'd tried to set something up between them. Just to have a social companion, nothing more or less. He'd been resoundingly dismissed by Victoria's sister.
Ignoring the question, Cory gave his parents a thin smile. Hopefully it didn't hold the hostility he feared it did. "I'll think over what you've said, I promise. And I do appreciate your concern."
Or he would, once the sting wore off in a year or two. Did they really think he was such a loser that he needed his mommy and daddy to fix him up?
"Consider this a directive, rather than advice. I'm not letting the company run my oldest son into the ground. You've been sacrificing love and a family for power tools and spreadsheets. Well, no more. You have a stake in Value Hardware but I get to choose the CEO. If I need to replace you in that role in order to protect your physical and mental health, then I will. Do you understand?"
Cory felt the bile rising in his throat. Not run Value Hardware? Was his father serious?
"When we speak again, I expect this to no longer be an issue. And trust me, we will be speaking again, Cory. Soon." With an air of finality, Raymond shifted toward his wife and traded his glower for a smile. "Mark Pendergast keeps trying to flag us down. Shall we go see what he wants?"
Shocked into silence, Cory looked away from his mom's sympathetic glance as she and his stepfather headed over to speak to Mark, one of the charity's biggest benefactors.
Phone in hand, he marched outside into the balmy late-summer night, determined not to let lack of cell service, publicity snafus, or familial interference further ruin his mood. He wasn't about to lose his temper in public, so it was better that he get some air.
Lots and lots of air.
His parents were going to drive him mad and he'd just have to accept that fact. With one son paired off, they would redouble their efforts to matchmake the other.
But to issue a directive? That was crossing the line.
He was successful alone. Content. Why didn't they get that?
They had no reason to question his methods. Business was good. Profits were up, and plans for the next two new Value Hardwares slated to open beyond their home base of Haven, Pennsylvania, by next spring were progressing on schedule. Simply Home, the magazine that would further brand his parents' chain of stores as the full-service home beautification centers he'd always envisioned, was his brainchild.
His parents' retirement was looming on the horizon. Soon he would be able to steer the company he'd been the de facto CEO of for the past few years in the direction that best fit his vision. Dillon would share in the plans, of course, and his parents would always keep their fingers in the pot, but once they were shipped off to Arizona, God bless them, he'd be the captain of his domain.
Directive, his ass. No one was keeping that from him.
He checked his phone. Still no bars. He'd have to try calling the photographer from the road.
Besides, the banquet was basically over. He'd made it this far, why not keep going? He had plenty of work to do and the only way he could be sure of maintaining his cool was leaving altogether.
His car was parked on the side street, the perfect spot for his earlier entrance and now exit. His escape was in sight. If his parents questioned why he'd left so soon, he'd tell them he'd decided to go home and cozy up with eHarmony.com. Why put off his chance for true love? Might as well start the search tonight, since he forecast it would take approximately half a lifetime to find a suitable candidate. Maybe longer. The chances of him finding someone who could tolerate his insane work schedule were slim to none. At least, he hadn't met anyone so far who'd been willing to accommodate it.
He walked across the concrete portico toward the beckoning darkness of the well-manicured grounds that surrounded the banquet hall. The last thing he cared to dwell on tonight was his lack of a love life. If there was anything that would settle his mind — other than telling off his worthless photographer — it was recounting his successes. There were many, and there would be more. Dissatisfaction with his life surfaced occasionally. He was only human. But he didn't long for anything he couldn't satisfy within the columns of a profit-and-loss sheet.
Dillon was different, and he'd found someone to complement him. He and Alexa would be happy — at least until the inevitable squabbling and monotony of a long-term relationship set in — and Cory had done his part to help them along, in the form of paying off some of Alexa's overdue bills. Money cured most ills, if one knew who to pay and had the wherewithal to do so. And he did.
Noises carried on the wind, laughter and conversation and the subtle clink of champagne glasses. The sounds faded the closer he grew to the property's back exit, his expensive shoes whispering over grass damp from the sprinkler system. Earthy scents filled the air. The minty scent of wild bergamot, soil, and green things growing. Things that Dillon and Alexa would know how to nurture, whereas he only knew how to prolong their deaths. He'd never figured out to how keep a plant alive for more than a few months. The only green he knew how to take care of fattened his bank account.
At the back of the grounds stood a small gazebo, bordered on three sides by a thick hedgerow broken only by a quaint gate that led to the side street. He'd used that gate earlier to slip in undetected. Although given his family's prestige, he never remained undetected anywhere for long. But he never stopped searching for the security provided by anonymity. Luckily his spotlight-hogging brother usually took up the bulk of the glare, and tonight was no exception. Dillon's new romance would keep the local gossip hounds busy for weeks. And if that picked up the foot traffic in the store, so much the better.
He just wished he'd gotten pictures.
Ah well. The important thing was to focus on his priorities.
On his way past the gazebo, he glimpsed a slim figure leaning against the railing. He couldn't make out many details in the dark, other than she had long, blond hair cascading down her bare back. The closer he got, the more he was able to discern. She wore what looked like a glittery gold scarf, except that scarf happened to wrap low on her back to cover her ass and upper thighs. Just barely. It probably counted as a dress in some obscure usage of the word.
He picked up his pace, intending to continue on, until he heard her voice. It was like silken honey, layering over his senses. His knees locked, halting his forward progress. He knew that voice.
Victoria, his interior designer and magazine consultant on Simply Home. As much as she annoyed him, she was also scarily efficient and had more creative ideas in one gold-toned fingernail than he had in his entire body. Hence why he hired her.
The annoying thing? He'd known Victoria since high school and they'd clashed numerous times. Pretty much every time they spoke. Their combative style of communication probably wouldn't have worked for others, but it suited them just fine.
"You're sure you're okay, Bry? No, I know. Yeah." The pause that followed was broken up by her continuous fidgeting. She played with her caramel-colored hair, stuck out her hip, even bent from the waist to stretch, accentuating the swells of her barely concealed ass.
Cory glanced away, but not before his stolen glance at that curvaceous part of her anatomy made him so hard so fast he didn't even have time to curse. Jesus. Victoria didn't make him aroused. Ever. That was statistically impossible.
He was overtired, that's all. Too consumed by the conversation he'd just had with his parents, and his no-show photographer —
Speaking of the photographer, if Victoria could get service, he should be able to now as well. Cory whipped out his phone. Voilà. Actual bars.
So why was he continuing to listen to her phone call instead of making his own?
"I'm just worried about you," Victoria went on. "If you're hurting, you need to make sure you ease back. Boinking blond triplets does not qualify as relaxation." Her laughter made Cory smile in spite of the erection from hell he was currently sporting. "Enough. TMI, dude. I'm serious. You need to take care of yourself. I need my big brother strong and healthy."
Excerpted from No Romance Required by Cari Quinn, Heather Howland, Shannon Godwin. Copyright © 2013 Cari Quinn. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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