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Charlie Masters clutched a hand over his heart and jumped back from his front door. Before his mind could register what was happening, the large crowd of people crammed into his Buckhead high-rise broke out in song.
"Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you!"
At last a smile broke wide across his full lips as he finally crossed the threshold into his apartment where black-and-gold balloons showered down on his head. "You guys shouldn't have," he said in the middle of their song.
His smiling and jubilant friends parted like the Red Sea to allow a magnificent four-tier, circular chocolate cake to be rolled out to the center of the living room.
Charlie moved forward, taken aback by the decorative dessert. Each layer showcased multiple ribbons of dark and white chocolate. On top, the ribbons looked more like a gigantic Christmas bow with the number thirty-four sparkling in the center.
Impressed and touched by the gesture, Charlie blushed like a prepubescent teenager until his friends finally ended their song and erupted into a thunderous applause.
"Thank you, guys. Thanks. You're the best."
"Are you just going to stare at it all night, or are you going to make a wish and blow out the candles?"
Charlie turned to his right and beamed a smile toward his best friend and fraternity brother Derrick Knight and his wife Isabella. "Hold your horses, man. Can't a brother just enjoy the moment?"
The guests laughed heartily.
Derrick rolled his eyes, but his smile remained as wide as Charlie's.
To his left, his other three Kappa Psi Kappa brothers cut in, "C'mon man. Make a wish."
"Yeah. You're holding up the music," Taariq added.
Make a wish. Wouldn'tit be great if he could fix his mounting problems by simply making a wish? Feeling the weight of everyone's stare, Charlie played the good sport by closing his eyes, leaning forward and finally blowing out the candles.
Another round of thunderous applause ensued and a second later, Rick Ross poured out of his surround-sound speakers, and most of the crowd paired off to get their grooves on. The rest of them crowded around Charlie and pounded his back in congratulations. It felt like most of the guys were trying to break his spine in half.
Before Charlie could ask his Kappa brothers how they'd managed to plan this whole thing without him catching wind of it, Hylan moved up behind him and jammed him into a headlock and razed the top of his head with his knuckles.
"Hey, old man. What did ya wish for?"
Charlie chuckled despite his inability to breathe.
"He can't tell you that," Isabella said, coming to his defense. "If he tells, then it won't come true."
Hylan grunted, but released Charlie before he passed out.
In retaliation, Charlie popped Hylan on the back of the head, and then the two raised their dukes as if they were really considering squaring off for a fight.
Taariq rolled his eyes and sucked his teeth. "You two cut it out."
Still smiling, Hylan and Charlie dropped their fists and instead gave each other a shoulder bump.
"Happy birthday, man," Hylan said. "You're " Their conversation trailed off when a Halle Berry look-alike strolled past laughing and shaking her romp to the hard bass pounding all around them. "Excuse me, fellahs," Hylan said, adjusting an invisible tie. "But booty calls."
Charlie and the gang laughed as Hylan strolled off in a George Jefferson-imitation strut.
"A steak dinner says he'll strike out," Charlie said, sliding a hand into his pocket and rocking back on his heels.
Taariq frowned. "You know her?"
Charlie nodded. "Yvette. I tried to hook up with her a couple of years ago, but her girlfriend, if you know what I mean, nearly took me out."
The fraternity brothers chuckled then swung their heads back in Hylan's direction to watch in giddy anticipation of his crash and burn.
Yvette beamed a beautiful smile at Hylan and even fluttered a hand across her heart.
Taariq leaned toward Charlie when Hylan's mack game seemed to be working. "Maybe she's swung back to our side of the fence," he whispered.
"Oh ye of little faith." Charlie smirked. "Three, two, one."
Right on time, a three-foot-eleven woman rushed onto the scene and managed to work her way in between Hylan and Yvette.
Isabella gasped. "That's her girlfriend?"
Hylan stared down at the small woman in open confusion right up until the time the woman dealt a deadly left hook into the family jewels.
"Ooooh." Charlie and the Kappa boys cringed and covered their own packages in union as they watched their brother double over in pain.
The angry little woman snatched her girlfriend's hand, and together they marched off into the dancing crowd.
Isabella couldn't help but join in. "I don't think I've ever seen anything like that in my entire life."
"Been there, done that." Charlie shook his head. "I wore a cup to the clubs for a full year after Mighty Mouse dealt me the same blow."
Taariq, Derrick and Isabella laughed.
A crouched Hylan returned to their intimate circle in defeat.
"So how did it go?" Derrick baited, wrapping an arm around his wife. "Get the digits?"
"I don't think she's my type," Hylan croaked. "Damn. Is it just me, or is the room spinning?"
"It's just you," the gang responded and then burst out laughing again.
Still chuckling, Charlie gave a quick scan of the room to survey the selection of beauties his buddies had rounded up for the evening. If anyone knew his type it would be his Kappa brothers.
After a week of battling to keep his company, Masters Holdings, from plunging into bankruptcy, Charlie needed a distraction. Burying himself into something along the lines of five-foot-nine with a lot of curves was right up his alley. The thicker the better.
Judging by the number of female gazes that drifted his way, Charlie was going to have a good night. A very good night.
Taariq threw the best damn parties in Atlanta, and it was clear he'd spared no expense for Charlie's thirty-fourth birthday bash. Actually, calling them merely women was a serious disservice. They were more like works of art.
"I know that look." Taariq laughed, swinging another hard pound against Charlie's back. "I guess that means we can give you our gifts early."
Frowning, Charlie faced the group again. In sync, they each rolled out a sleeve of gold-packaged condoms.
Isabella couldn't stop herself from giggling.
"Try not to use them all in one night," Derrick chuckled.
"Funny." Charlie rolled his eyes when the gang draped the condoms around his neck like Mardi Gras beads.
"You know I've been waiting hours so I can have a slice of this cake," Isabella said, drawing his attention from his search of women in the room.
Charlie took another look at the elaborate cake, once again impressed with the intricate details. "Chocolate. My favorite." He picked up the knife but hesitated slicing the beautiful dessert.
"Derrick told me you loved chocolate. So I got you something a little different: molten chocolate cake. The center is filled with raspberry jelly." Isabella beamed and clutched her hands together. "I found this wonderful new shop downtown. The owner is a master." She glanced around. "Where is she?" Isabella grabbed his hand. "I can't wait for you to meet her."
Charlie selected a corner and gently cut a slice. "Here you go," he said, grabbing a paper plate and serving her. After handing it over, he noticed a smudge of frosting on his finger and licked it off.
"Hmm." His eyes bulged in shock at the sinfully delicious chocolate as it melted in his mouth.
Isabella lit up. "Wonderful, isn't it?" She grabbed a fork and then held out a piece of the cake for him to taste. "Here, try it."
"Heeey!" Derrick stepped forward and draped a possessive arm around his wife's waist. "I'm the only man you're supposed to be feeding cake to." He even managed to look wounded.
Charlie ignored Derrick's fake jealousy act and took a bite of the cake Isabella offered. "Hmm. Damn!" Hands down, it was the best cake he'd ever tasted. He better not tell his mother that.
Isabella's excitement grew. "Fantastic, isn't it? I swear this woman is going to be the next big thing," Isabella gushed and then turned toward her husband. "I'm telling you we need to invest in her shop."
Derrick sighed dramatically, but he wasn't fooling anyone. Where Isabella was concerned, Charlie's best friend would deny her nothing. After a year of marriage, the couple still behaved as though they were coasting on an extended honeymoonprobably to the dismay of Isabella's father, who had his mind and heart set on his only daughter marrying a prominent political ally and another Kappa Psi Kappa brother named Randall Jarrett.
No one ever mentioned how Isabella was once, technically, engaged to two men at the same time, or how her father had arranged to have Derrick held hostage while trying to force her to marry someone she didn't love. But they did talk and laugh every chance they could about Derrick, Randall and Reverend Williams falling headfirst into a Lady Justice water fountain and duking it out in front of Washington's political elite moments before Isabella was to walk down the aisle.
"Where's Stanley?" Charlie asked.
The group looked around.
"He's gotta be around here somewhere," Taariq said, frowning. "He better not bother the DJ. I keep telling that boy that white men can't rap and I better not catch him on the mic. I have a rep, you know."
"What about Eminem?" Charlie asked.
"I reserve judgment until I see the man's daddy. You know what I mean?"
"All right, all right." Charlie popped his collar. "I know you have some Cristal floating around here."
Taariq reached out and grabbed two flutes from a passing server. "Yo, here you go, bro." He handed a glass to Charlie. "Cheers!"
"Check it. One, two. One, two," Stanley rapped into the microphone. "I'm a white boy and a frat boy"
"All, hell naw," Taariq cursed. "They gave Stanley the mic. "Charlie"
"Yeah, I'm cool. Handle your business." Charlie chuckled and waved him off.
People in the crowd started booing.
Charlie sliced himself a piece of cake. As he chewed he couldn't stop moaning. He tried to stop, but damn. What exactly is in this stuff?
"Oh, there she is," Isabella said, glancing over Charlie's shoulder and waving.
Turning, Charlie froze as a stunning cinnamon-brown sister navigated her way through a throng of dancing people. Her long brown hair fell in loose curls across her shoulders while her deep sable eyes twinkled with excitement and two raisin-sized dimples grooved into her apple cheeks. Entranced by the angelic vision, it took Charlie longer than normal to take notice of her statuesque curves.
He smacked his lips, but it had nothing to with the lingering taste of chocolate in his mouth and everything to do with a sudden longing to taste her strawberry-colored lips. Absently, Charlie pulled at his collar and wondered who in the hell turned up the heat.
In Charlie's mind, the woman was moving in slow motionlike a classier version of Bo Derek in the movie 10. The beauty's breasts had a slight jiggle as she walked and her hips swayed in a strange, but hypnotic, rhythm.
"Happy birthday to me," Charlie mumbled under his breath while his erection pressed hard against the inseam of his pants.
Isabella looped an arm around the mysterious woman's waist and then led her to their small circle. "Gisella, I'd like for you meet the man of the hour, Charles Mastersbut everyone calls him Charlie. Charlie, this is Gisella Jacobs, the owner of Sinful Chocolate. She made your cake."
"A pleasure to meet you," Charlie said, offering to take her hand. "The cake is delicious."
"Likewise." Gisella's accented voice was musical yet husky, a heady combination. "You have a lot of friends," she added, glancing around. "I hope you don't mind my crashing and networking for new business. Isabella assured me that you wouldn't mind."
Charlie cocked his head while the corners of his lips curled with open pleasure. "You're French," he announced, moving closer. "How erotic."
Gisella's arched brows rose in amusement. "Erotic?"
Even the way she said the word sent pleasure rippling down his spine and added a sweet ache to his throbbing hard-on. "Come on now," Charlie said, erasing the last remaining inches between them. "Surely I'm not the only red-blooded American man who's been enslaved by your " His eyes roamed yet again. "Accent."
"Oh, he is good," Isabella whispered, turning toward her husband.
Charlie had forgotten about their audience.
Derrick nodded and proceeded to pull his wife away. "Let me get you out of here before you fall under his spell and I have to fight for you all over again."
Taariq and Hylan also didn't linger for a brick wall to fall on their heads. They quickly turned their attention to a couple of other women floating by.
Gisella looked stunned at how fast everyone disappeared and left her alone with a man with predatory eyes and a wolfish smile. Maybe she should grab one of the white napkins from the table and wave it as a flag of surrender.
"I'm glad Isabella told you to come. I like making new friends." Charlie couldn't stop his gaze from roaming again. By his shrewd calculations, her measurements were a perfect 36-24-36. Lord, this was shaping up to be one hell of a birthday.
"Interesting party favors."
"Huh?" Charlie followed her line of vision to the condoms draped around his neck. "Oh. Well. You want one?"
Gisella blinked and took a step back.
"Okay. That didn't come out right." He laughed.
Gisella took another precautionary step back. The man looked as if he was going to devour her right there in front of everyone. "Well, like I said. I'm just trying to drum up new business," she said, trying to swallow her nervous tremor.