Read an Excerpt
The Marriage Agenda
By Sarah Ballance, Tracy Montoya
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Sarah Ballance
All rights reserved.
Chloe Lochlan swallowed in an attempt to chase away the nervousness bundled in her throat. It was useless. Somewhere in the crowd, a man waited for her. Not just any man, but the man — at least as long as Chloe was inclined to believe her best friend's forward opinions on the well-worn topic of Chloe's love life, or lack thereof.
Of course, if she'd learned to dodge Lila Powell's bright ideas, Chloe would be on her sofa with a spoon and a pint of Ben & Jerry's. Instead, she stood with her feet uncomfortably crammed into heels no sane woman should wear, four inches taller and uselessly scanning the clientele at Off the Record, an upscale hotel bar that doubled as Washington, DC's premier place to see and be seen.
Blind date. If only she could have said no, she would have avoided the whole awkward situation, but Lila knew Chloe too well. A blind date gave Chloe absolutely nothing to reject — it was impossible to find flaw with someone she'd yet to meet. But truthfully, her serial incompatibility with just about every man she'd ever encountered had less to do with failings of the opposite sex than with her admittedly one-track drive to be a kick-ass investigative reporter. Chloe had always harbored an ambitious streak, but a year ago, a devastating breakup narrowed her focus to a laser-like precision. Her job wouldn't break her heart.
But Lila wouldn't hear of excuses. A night with a carton of ice cream was no comparison to a man, as far as she was concerned, but Chloe had stocked her freezer anyway. She'd endure the date, all the while thinking of the threesome with Ben and Jerry waiting for her at home. A couple of hours wouldn't kill her, right?
Maybe not, but she was beginning to think they might come close. As she stood alone in the bar, second thoughts closed in. No one had approached claiming to be her date. Had he taken one look at her and left? Patience — and nerve — waning, Chloe scoured the room, hoping for a sign she should leave. And she found one. A big one.
Watching her intently from a corner table was her ex-everything. And in spite of a strict never-again policy for all things Knox Hamilton, her body melted in traitorous anticipation. His trademark bedroom-tousled hair, the same luscious brown hue as those smoldering eyes, did little to kill the energy coursing through her at the speed of orgasm. Her knees weakened, further threatening her unsteady perch on the stilts a salesclerk had tried to pass off as a wardrobe staple.
Chloe stared at Knox, an uneasy feeling crawling through her chest.
All her synapses fired "flee," but her GPS was off. Her attempt at escape landed her at the corner of his table, where she nearly collided with a waiter setting something in front of Knox that was suspiciously akin to Chloe's favorite drink, a strawberry daiquiri. Though the drink beverage seemed to confirm her suspicions, she eyed the glass with a touch of misplaced jealousy. It wouldn't surprise her if he had a date. Well-known and filthy rich, up-and-coming politico Knox Hamilton had everything, including his pick of eligible women.
"Chloe." He drawled her name, adding a seductive syllable or two. "You look amazing."
Her mouth watered at the sound of his voice. "Hi." Her voice squeaked with a less-than-dexterous reply.
He grinned. "It's been too long. Have a seat."
She eyed the daiquiri. "Actually, I have a date. As do you, it seems."
His gaze met hers over the deep amber mouth of his beer bottle. "I ordered that drink for you." The words simmered with the husky promise of the bedroom, slipping from his lips with an odd amount of reckless, deliberate ease.
Entranced, she caught herself staring at his mouth.
He leaned back in his chair, giving her a good, long look at the way his torso shaped his neatly buttoned and pressed shirt. "Will you join me?"
He had no right to look so good. She swallowed, getting a full taste of memories she'd sooner forget. "My date —"
"— is one unlucky bastard tonight. That is, of course, if you'll sit."
If she was smart, she'd give Knox a view of her amazing legs and phenomenal ass as she teetered out of the bar on those damned stripper heels. But curiosity would make a dead cat out of her yet. She pushed back the logic screaming at her not to risk involvement — a year ago, he'd made it clear the two of them had no future, and she had no interest in being a serial plaything to a confirmed bachelor — and assessed the offered chair. It appeared benign enough, and a reprieve from those shoes would be heaven. Sitting across the table from him didn't have to mean anything, and a free daiquiri made for good incentive as far as she was concerned.
With his eyes hotly following her every move, she eased into the chair and waited for the dull ache of his rejection to return. But joining Knox at a table made for two didn't fill her with quite the degree of heartbreak she'd expected. Of course, their split hadn't been due to anything unholy — he hadn't philandered, pillaged, or otherwise found himself aligned with the wrong end of a horse. To the contrary, he'd been a perfect everything, right until the moment he'd left her. Things had gotten too serious between them, he'd said, and he wasn't interested in being tied down.
Chloe hadn't exactly been aisle-bound herself, but the dismissal had come as a blow nonetheless. When he'd spoken those words, she had managed to stay on her feet until the door to her apartment had closed behind him. Only afterward had she fallen apart. Once her eyes were no longer swollen to slivers, she'd put all of her efforts into finding a reason to hate him — wife, girlfriend, a dog he didn't walk — but to no avail. Knox Hamilton was a great guy ... he just didn't want her.
The best relationship of her life — one with the only man she'd ever loved — had been merely a means for him to scratch an itch.
Chloe admitted to no one she'd yet to get over Knox. Still, her refusal to dip a stiletto in the dating pool ever since was evidence enough for Lila, who had heard the whole sordid tale over an all-night binge of hiccup-laden sobs. As far as finest moments went, that evening didn't make the list. Chloe had given up trying to figure out what had gone wrong. A year later, the most painful piece of the whole puzzle was the failure of her judgment. A reporter with horrible instincts ... no wonder she'd thrown herself into her work, trying to prove otherwise.
Acutely aware of Knox's gaze on her, Chloe toyed with the straw poking from her drink.
"Your date. Is it serious?" He sounded outwardly detached, but Chloe sensed a little more under the surface — almost as if he wanted to play it casual but couldn't quite keep his voice there.
She probably was reading too much into it — wanting it too hard. Playing his game, she said, "I don't know yet." She hoped the edge she'd managed in her voice would morph itself into a wall — one that would protect her from where this would likely go. "These days I'm more interested in furthering my career."
He smiled, a bit too secretively for Chloe's taste and scoured his jaw with his palm. "Seems we have that in common, then."
Of course they did. Chloe squirmed. Her admission, however vague, hadn't bothered her — she was rather proud of being a woman who didn't wither without a man in her bed — but something told her his eyes saw too much. They searched her, appraising. Beneath fabric suddenly far too thin, her nipples peaked as if magnetically drawn to him. And why shouldn't they be? The things that man could do with his tongue were lethal. If Chloe wasn't so determined to hold on to a shred of her self-respect, she'd probably reach for him, too.
She settled for her daiquiri, and what was supposed to be a ladylike sip morphed into a gulp of liquid courage. The resultant brain freeze made her skull throb but did nothing to settle her libido.
Neither did Knox's lopsided grin. "How long have you known this date you don't want?"
"It's a blind date. We've ... never met." It would have been a humiliating admission if she hadn't been so proud of her ambition and in no hurry to resurrect her disaster of a love life. Knox could think what he wanted.
"How will you know who he is?"
She twirled her straw. "He's supposed to approach me. My friend Lila texted him a photo. She wanted to surprise me."
"And if he sees you with me, do you suppose he'll give up and leave?"
She laughed. "Is that your ego talking?"
"Maybe it's just the way I'm looking at you."
She took another sip of her drink, measuring her words. "How do you know how you're looking at me?"
He leaned close. "I want you, Chloe."
She froze, her hand clamped on the daiquiri glass. "For what?"
He laughed, stirring the air between them. Somehow, the entire bar and everyone in it seemed to disappear, leaving just her, Knox, and a really bad idea. One on which he elaborated. "I want to apologize. Explain. Grovel for forgiveness. Come upstairs? We'll talk about it in private."
"Forget it, Knox. You can grovel right here." In public.Where it's safe. He'd left her so she wouldn't distract him from his political aspirations, and there he was, trying to get personal. Playing her ... But to what end? Was this some kind of joke? She glanced around. Oddly enough, despite the fact that he and his family ranked right up there with the Kennedys, he wasn't drawing attention. At least not outwardly, though the more closely she looked, the more she noticed a growing number of sideways glances from other patrons. Fortunately the Off the Record clientele wasn't easily impressed. Politicians were a dime a dozen inside the beltway, and rubbernecking wasn't generally a sport of the elite. It was more of a pastime for the uncouth, a grand specimen of which seemed headed in their direction.
Eyes like saucers, the guy went straight to Knox. "Mr. Hamilton ... it's an honor. I'm Jeff Lenox."
Knox stood and extended his hand, which Jeff shook eagerly ... and extensively. But where Chloe would have yanked back her appendage and hit the guy with her purse, Knox merely endured for way too long before he finally extricated himself and clapped the guy on the upper arm. Not hard enough.
"I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage, Mr. Lenox. I don't believe we've met."
"Actually, we haven't. I'm here to meet —" He paused and extracted a cell phone from his pocket. He looked from the image to Chloe and back again.
Oh, God no.
"Her! You must be Chloe." He grinned like the proverbial idiot.
Oh, yes. Lila was a dead woman. Jeff was attractive enough, but the way he swayed at Knox's feet reminded her a little too much of a Twihard fangirl. Sure, Knox was impressive ... but he wasn't spittle impressive. Well, maybe a little. But Jeff was supposed to be her date, and he was gawking at the wrong person.
Knox caught her eye. Lifted a brow. She could only smile pleasantly.
"What business are you in?" he asked Jeff.
"I'm a software systems analyst."
Knox smiled widely, as if Jeff had said something mildly earth-shattering. "This must be my lucky day, Mr. Lenox. How about you come by my office next week? I might have something on which I could use your opinion."
Chloe blinked. Knox was just making time for all the little people that night. First a lowly reporter, then a computer geek. Next, he'd probably save a puppy from a burning building.
Jeff looked to Chloe, as if he needed her permission to date them both. But he didn't wait for it. A split second later, he'd turned back to Knox.
Knox poured on a killer grin and still somehow managed to look sheepish. "Before you answer, I'm afraid I have to admit there is a caveat. It turns out I'm going to have to borrow Ms. Lochlan for the evening. I know she hoped to consult with you — "
"No, no. Of course! I understand."
Chloe narrowed her eyes. Had she just been dumped ... for Knox? Damn the legendary Hamilton charm.
"Good, then. I'll leave your name with my admin." Knox handed over a business card he'd extracted smoothly from his pocket. "I look forward to meeting with you."
One more enthusiastic handshake, a nod for Chloe, and Jeff quickly disappeared into the crowd.
Knox turned that killer grin on her. "You're welcome," he said.
"He wasn't so bad."
"He wasn't your type. Now, about our trip upstairs."
"Why did you tell him I wanted to consult with him?"
"I want to talk to you. Give me the chance, and I'll explain."
"Do it here."
He drained his beer and chased it with a long, lingering look at her. "It's a private conversation."
"If it's the same lame excuse you used when you left me, I can guarantee most of the people in this room have either used it or heard it. If it's all the same to you — "
"It's not all the same to me," he said, his words quiet but firm. "Unless you want the recap to make tomorrow's news."
Chloe sighed and looked to the ceiling, as if doing so gave her a glimpse into the hotel rooms overhead. Bad, bad idea. But he was right. Everything Knox did made headlines, and the last thing she needed was to have their personal conversation end up on the society page — she'd never be taken seriously as a reporter if her name was mired in tabloid gossip. Besides, he promised an apology and an explanation — something, she expected, more than the old it's-not-you-it's-me line. At least it had better be, because if they took this upstairs, they'd be sorely lacking witnesses.
She threw back the rest of her daiquiri. "I guess I owe you one."
"Damn straight." He tossed a fifty on the table. The move sealed their unspoken agreement.
She was screwed.CHAPTER 2
It didn't really matter how Chloe justified accompanying Knox upstairs, for no matter how foolish her actions, she was no fool. She may have been set up for disaster, but she'd roll the dice for some closure. With any luck, Knox would manage to knock himself off the pedestal on which she'd planted him, giving her a chance to move on.
He kept his distance in the elevator, the silence between them thick with anticipation. Sex wasn't on the table, but the promise hung hot in the air, steamy enough to dampen her skin and probably enough to curl the locks Lila had spent hours trying to gloss and straighten for her. He'd always liked that messy look. Bedroom hair, he'd called it, and he'd seen it plenty.
Chloe smoothed her dress and tried not to notice the natural bulge in Knox's pants. He stood casually, half-leaning against the wall. The top two buttons of his shirt were undone — he'd shed the formality of a neat collar when the door slid shut. His shirttail, newly freed from the confines of his chinos, lay wrinkled, caught under one of his forearms to give her that stellar view of his goods. The whole display was just enticing enough to send her heart careening around a forbidden corner or two.
"You remembered I like strawberry daiquiris," she said.
His gaze never wavered from her face. "I remember a lot."
"That's good. Then you probably remember that stupid line you exited on. I deserved more than that, Knox. Anyone would." Chloe pressed the back of her hand against her forehead and sighed dramatically. "So gallant, how you held on to the memory of my drink preferences like a talisman, hoping for the day you'd get to order one up again. It's a wonder you haven't been nominated for sainthood."
For an endless moment — one that couldn't have lasted more than two seconds — he just stared at her. Then, "You're right. I'm sorry."
That was it. No trace of the smooth, political façade he wore for the public. It wasn't that he'd ever been anything but genuine, but when he slipped into professional mode, the transition carried with it the slightest shift. A nuance, really — one that separated her intimate knowledge of him from the suit-and-tie version he presented to the world.
The apology — devoid of excuses and denials — inexplicably riled her.
The elevator door slid open. Knox gestured for her to exit first, so she did, clutching her handbag as if it could save her. Then, realizing what she held, her face heated. Lila had tossed in some condoms — assorted neon colors, which Lila likely found hilarious. Could anyone use those with a straight face? Chloe doubted it.
Excerpted from The Marriage Agenda by Sarah Ballance, Tracy Montoya. Copyright © 2014 Sarah Ballance. 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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