Read an Excerpt
It was one thing to boldly decide that you were going to capture a rich husband to save you from your life, and more to the point from the desperate financial situation you'd discovered you were in through no fault of your own, Angel Tilson thought a bit wildly as she stared around the glittering ballroom, but quite another thing to do it.
She didn't know what her problem was. She was standing knee-deep in a sea of wealthy, titled people. Everywhere she looked she saw money, nobility and actual royalty, filling the sparkling ballroom of the Palazzo Santina and threatening to outshine the massive chandeliers that hung dramatically overhead. She could feel the wealth saturating the very air, like an exclusive scent.
The whole island seemed to be bursting at the seams with this prince, that sheikh and any number of flash European nobles, their ancient titles and inherited ranks hanging from their elegant limbs like the kind of fine accessories Angel herself could never afford. It was the first time in Angel's twenty-eight years that she'd ever found herself in a rooma palace ballroom, to be sure, but it was still, technically, a roomwith a selection of princes. As in, princes plural.
She should have been overjoyed. She told herself she was. She'd come all the way from her questionable neighborhood in London to beautiful Santina, this little jewel of an island kingdom in the Mediterranean, in order to personally celebrate her favorite stepsister's surprising engagement to a real, live prince. And she was happy for Allegra and her lovely Prince Alessandroof course she was. Thrilled, in fact. But if sweet, sensible Allegra could bag herself the Crown Prince of Santina, Angel didn't see why she couldn't find herself a wealthy husband of her own here in this prosperous, red-roofed little island paradise, where rich men seemed to be as thick on the ground as Mediterranean weeds.
He didn't even have to be royal, she thought generously, eyeing the assorted male plumage before her from her position near one of the grand pillars that lined the great roomall Angel needed was a nice, big, healthy bank account.
She wanted to pretend it was all a gamebut it wasn't. Not to put too fine a point on it, but she was desperate.
She felt herself frown then, and made a conscious effort to smooth her expression away into something more enticing. Or at least something vaguely pleasant. Scowling was hardly likely to appeal to anyone, much less inspire sudden marriage proposals from the sort of men who could buy all the smiles they liked, the way common folk like Angel bought milk and eggs.
"You can just as easily smile as frown, love," her mother had always said in that low, purring way of hers, usually punctuated with one of Chantelle's trademark sexy smirks or bawdy laughs. That and "why not marry a rich one if you must marry one at all" constituted the bulk of the maternal advice Chantellenever Mum, always Chantelle, no age ever mentioned in public, thank youhad offered. But thinking about her conniving, thoughtless mother did not help. Not now, while she was standing knee-deep in another one of Chantelle's messes.
Hurt and fury and incomprehension boiled inside of her all over again as she thought of the fifty thousand quid her mother had run up on a credit card she'd "accidentally" taken out in Angel's name. Angel had discovered the horrifying bill on her doormat one day, so seemingly innocuous at a casual glance that she'd almost thrown it in the bin. She'd had to sit down, she'd been so dizzy, staring at the statement in her hand until it made, if not sense in the usual meaning of the term, a certain sickening kind of Chantelle sense.
Once she'd got past the initial shock, she'd known at once that her mother was the culpritthat it wasn't some kind of mistake. She'd hated that she'd known, and she'd hated the nausea that went with that knowing, but she'd known even so. It was not the first time Chantelle had "borrowed" money from Angel, nor even the first "accident", but it was the first time she'd let herself get this carried away.
"I've just received a shocking bill from a credit card account I never opened," she'd snapped down the phone when her mother had answered in her usual breezy, careless manner, as if all was right with her world. Which, at fifty thousand pounds the richer, perhaps it was.
"Right," Chantelle had drawled out, in that slightly shocked way of hers that told Angel that, as usual, her mother had not thought through to the consequences of her actions. Had she ever? Would she ever? "I've been meaning to talk to you about that, love," Chantelle had murmured. "You won't want to ruin Allegra's do this weekend with this sort of unpleasantness, of course, but we'll have loads of time afterward to"
Angel had simply ended the call with a violent jerk of her hand, unable to speak for fear that she would scream herself hoarse. And then cry like the child she'd never really been, not when she'd had to play the adult to Chantelle's excesses from such a young ageand she never cried. Never. Not over Chantelle's innumerable deficiencies as a mother and a human being. Not for a single reason that she could recall. What problem did tears ever solve?
Fifty thousand, she thought now, standing in the middle of the dazzling ballroom, but it didn't feel real. Not the fairy-tale beauty and elegance of the palace around her, and not that stunning number either. The sickening enormity of that sum of money rolled through Angel like thunder, low and long, and she wasn't sure, for a moment, if she could breathe through the sheer panic that followed in its wake, making her skin feel clammy and her breath shallow. Fifty thousand pounds.
Neither she nor Chantelle had a hope in hell of paying off a sum that large. In what universe? Chantelle's single claim to fame was her marriage to beloved ex-footballer and regular subject of tabloid speculation and gossip Bobby Jackson. It had resulted in Angel's wild-child half sister, the sometime pop idol, Izzy, who Angel did not pretend to understand, and very little else. Aside from notoriety, of course. Chantelle had been a market stall owner before she'd set out to net herself one of England's favorite sons. No one had ever let her forget it. Not that Chantelle seemed to careshe got to bask in Bobby's reflected glory, didn't she?
Angel had learned better than to inquire after the state of Bobby and Chantelle's deeply cynical union a long, long time ago, lest she be subject to another lecture from her relentless social climber of a mother on how marriage, if done correctly and to a minor celebrity like big-spending and large-living Bobby, was simple common sense and good business. Angel shuddered now, trying to imagine what it was like to remain married to a man that everyone in the whole of England knew was still sleeping with his ex-wife, Julie. If not many others besides. How could Chantelle be so proud of her marriage when every tabloid in the UK knew the shameful state of it? Angel didn't know.
What she did know was that there were certainly no heretofore undiscovered stashes of pounds sterling lying about Bobby's house in Hertfordshire or the flat in Knightsbridge Chantelle preferred, or Chantelle wouldn't have had to "borrow" from her own daughter in the first place, would she? The truth was, Angel suspected that Bobby had cut Chantelle off from his purse strings long ago. Or had emptied out that purse all by himself, with all of his good-natured if shortsighted ways.
Angel couldn't seem to fight off the sadness that moved through her then as she thoughtnot for the first timewhat her life might have been like if Chantelle had been a normal sort of mother. If Chantelle had cared about someone other than herself. Not that Angel could complain. Not really. She'd always been treated well enough by Bobby's rowdy brood of children from his various wives and loverseven by Julie, if she was honestand the truth was that carelessly genial Bobby was the only father she'd ever known. Angel's real, biological father had done a runner the moment seventeen-year-old Chantelle had told him she was pregnant. Angel had always been grateful for the way the Jackson clanespecially Bobbyhad included her. They'd tried, and that was more than others might have done. But at the end of the day she wasn't a Jackson like the rest of them, was she?
Angel had always been far too aware of that crucial distinction. She'd always felt that boundary line, invisible but impossible to ignore, marking the difference between all of them, and her. She'd always been on the outside looking in, no matter how many Christmases she spent with them, pretending. The Jacksons were the only family she had, but that didn't make them hers. All she had, for her sins, was Chantelle.
Angel wished, not for the first time, that she'd gone on to university. That she'd dedicated herself to an education, a careersomething. But she'd been so very pretty at sixteen, blessed with her mother's infamous blagging skills and the body to back them up. She'd been confident that she could make her own way in the world, and she had, one way or another. She'd talked her way into more jobs than she could count since then, none of them long-lasting, but she'd always told herself that that was how she liked it. No ties. Nothing that could hold her back should she need to move on. She'd been muse and model to a fashion designer, had run her own retail shop for a year or two, and could usually pick up some kind of modeling job or another in a pinch. It was always a struggle, but she paid her rent and her bills, and often had a little bit left over, as well.
Not fifty thousand quid, of course. Not anything even remotely close to that.
Her stomach heaved, and she pressed her fist against her belly as if that would settle it, by force. By her will alone. What was she supposed to do? Declare bankruptcy? Have her mother arrested for identity fraud? However angry she was, however hurt, again, she couldn't quite see taking either route. One was humiliating and unfair. The other was unthinkable.
Right, she thought then, her usual cool and practical nature taking over at last, shoving the unfamiliar lashings of self-pity aside. Enough whingeing, Angel. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity tonight. Pull yourself together and use it!
Angel helped herself to a flute of champagne from a passing waiter, took a restorative sip and squared her shoulders. She decided to ignore the faint trembling in her hands. She was Angel Tilson. She was toughshe'd had to be, the whole of her life. She did not break at the first sign of adversityor even at fifty thousand pounds' worth of signs. She did not recognize defeat. As Bobby had always saidwhile throwing the odd drink down his throat, but the sentiment was the same regardlessdefeat was nothing more than an opportunity to succeed the next time. And the glorious thing about having no options was that she had absolutely no choice but to succeed.
"So," she murmured to herself, fiercely, "I bloody well will."
Her reasons for going ahead and playing this game might have been desperate, but that didn't change the fact that it was a game she was very good at playing. How could she not be, she thought with something like dark humor. It was in her genes.
She ran her free hand over the curve of her hip, making sure her dress was in place, sticking like glue to the tight, toned curves she'd inherited directly from her mother. She could not quite bring herself to be grateful to Chantelle for that little gift. Not quite. Not tonight. The dress was strapless, short and black as sinand pretended to be decorous while instead showing off every mouthwatering inch of what was, she knew, her only weapon and greatest asset. Her body.
Nearby, a gaunt-faced older man with centuries of breeding stamped into his sunken bones and his so-proper-it-hurt wife stared at her as if she'd committed some hideous breach of etiquette right there in front of them. Anything was possible, of course, but Angel knew she'd successfully kept a low profile here at Allegra's partyso outside her realm of experience was it to find herself in a palace. The well-bred couple averted their eyes in apparent horror, and Angel bit back a laugh.
She'd leave the truly appalling behavior to the rest of the Jackson family, as she suspected her half sister and stepsiblings, all seven gathered together under this much-too-elegant roof, were more than up to the task. It was, in fact, a Jackson family tradition to stir up scandal wherever they went.
Her half sister, Izzy, had recently been involved in a highly publicized engagement that had ended so dramatically and so openlyat the altar, no less, flashbulbs pop-pingthat Angel had cynically assumed it was all part of her younger sister's increasingly desperate bid for attention from the less and less interested press. Izzy was as bad as their mother, who was no doubt also in this huge crowd somewhere right now, flinging her mane of blonde hair about like a woman half her age, inevitably dressed in something scandalous and up to who knew what. They could even be up to their usual mischief togethera prospect Angel couldn't bear to think about any further.
She, on the other hand, had to be just well-behaved enough to catch the right sort of eyeand just badly behaved enough to make sure that eye didn't stray. When the gaunt older man snuck an appreciative second look at her figure behind his wife's stiff and scandalized back, Angel smiled in satisfaction. The game was on.
She prowled around the edge of the great gala event, fortified with another glass of the remarkably good champagne, scanning the party for any possibilities. After some consideration and a long look at an obviously wealthy-looking sort with an unfortunate nose that could, in a pinch, double as a bridge over the English Channel, she admitted that she was, regrettably, not that desperate. Not yet.