The stakes have never been higher
When aspiring private investigator Prudence Washington delivers legal documents to Max Benton, she receives an unexpected marriage proposal. Notorious playboy Max needs a fake wife in order to receive his hefty inheritance. Agreeing to the plan will help Pru's bank balance and vacationing with the sexy billionaire is doing wonders for her libido.
Max spends more time in the tabloids than in the boardroom, but he's got huge plans for a new chain of hotels. He'll happily prove he's turned over a new leaf by sharing a roomand unforgettable nightswith his gorgeous new "wife." Working together to expose a saboteur only increases their combustive attraction. But can he convince the woman he drew into a lie that he'll do anything to make this connection last?
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Tracking down Max Benton would involve walking straight into a den of temptation. Of course it would.
Pru could practically feel the bass from the nightclub's music entering her body through her feet and rocking its way up to her hips. The music came courtesy of Mike Benz, an up-and-coming half Dutch, half Cameroonian DJ who was enjoying his first stateside residency at Sin, one of New Orleans's premier nightclubs. His beats were fantastically good. So good, they awakened a long-dormant urge within Pru to get out on the crowded dance floor.
Back in the day it hadn't taken more than a glass of champagne and the right song to get Pru on the floor. And she'd often stayed there all night, enjoying bottle service courtesy of her latest boyfriend or admirer, dancing with her fellow showgirls until she couldn't dance anymore. Back in the day, her number-one goal in life had been to squeeze as much fun as she possibly could into her twenties, and to prove to everyone she came in contact with that Prudence Washington was the exact opposite of her boring name.
She was no longer a showgirl or hell-bent on proving that there was nothing prudent about her. Nonetheless, she was currently dressed to party well, in a little gold mini-dress pulled the day before from her mother's vintage collection of seventiesera cocktail attire. She considered it a uniform, the uniform she needed to get her job done. Her current job being Max Benton. And she was all about her job, which was why instead of hopping on the dance floor, she headed straight for VIP.
The hulking security guard standing at the bottom of the roped-off stairs that led up to the VIP area gave her an approving once-over as she approached. She must have had a little of the old Pru magic leftover, she thought.
She'd made the right choice. In the background, she heard the DJ announce that he was taking a break but would be back on the turntables before the night was through. Then his excellent beats were replaced by canned Top 40 music playing at even higher decibels.
"You on the list, baby?" the security guard asked, lifting up his clipboard.
She threw him a flirty look. "Not quite," she admitted. "The guy I'm here to see is trying to stay under the radar these days, but if you tell Max Benton that Prudence Washington is down here looking for him, I'm sure he'll appreciate you letting him know. Really appreciate it.'''
The security guard didn't respond quite as hoped to her insinuation that there would be a nice tip involved if he passed along her message to Maxwell Benton, the younger, not nearly as responsible, Benton hotels heir. Not only did his face harden, he moved to stand between her and the black velvet rope.
"No Maxwell Benton here," he said, his voice completely monotone.
"Are you sure about that?" she asked. "Because I know he'll be upset if he hears I was asking for him and you didn't let me up."
The truth was, she was banking an awful lot on the fact that Max Benton had stepped to her twice. The first time had been at his brother Cole's wedding to her best friend, Sunny Johnson, about a year ago. The second time had been a couple of months ago, right before Pru's retirement from the Benton Revue, at Cole and Sunny's baby shower.
Shortly after the shower, Cole had cut his younger brother off, refusing to keep issuing checks for the brand-ambassador job he'd been assigned. Back when the Benton had been one luxury hotel, having an international playboy as the brand ambassador had been a good idea. Max had been all too happy to gallivant around the world, living the kind of life that perfectly encapsulated the particular decadent brand of luxury the Benton was trying to sell to its affluent guests and gamblers.
But then their grandfather had died, and Cole had taken over the Benton Group. He'd expanded the Benton from one hotel into a nationwide outfit of luxury casino resorts, which served to draw even more attention to Max's international escapades. Which wouldn't have been a problem, except then Cole started making plans for the Benton Inns, a new chain of midrange hotels that would cater to non-gambling clientele whose pockets weren't deep enough to afford a stay at one of the Benton Group's luxury properties. This new market expansion meant that Max's infamous reputation was no longer compatible with the Benton brand.
According to Cole, Max had stormed out of Vegas soon after Cole gave him the news about being fired. He sold all his stock in the Benton Group to some investment-fund manager before Cole could buy him out and then disappeared from the public eye. The only contact he'd had from Max since his departure from Vegas was a CC: on a short email, sent to their family's lawyers, informing them that he would like his trust paid out in full on his thirty-fifth birthday.
After receiving Max's email, Cole had hired a number of private investigators to track him down. To his surprise, they'd failed, finding neither hide nor hair of the playboy who'd apparently decided to step out of the spotlight as soon as he was fired. The weeks until Max's birthday were ticking down now, which was why Cole had decided to let Pru, who was currently studying to take the privateinvestigator exam in the fall, have a shot at it. A long shot on his part, but a possibly huge opportunity for Pru. One she was taking seriously, since it was just the kind of case she needed to kick off her post-showgirl career.
After a week of trying to track down Max Benton from the one-bedroom apartment she shared with her brother, she'd decided to use her own limited funds to follow a hunch. Max, who had often been photographed with DJ Mike Benz in European nightclubs, would surely put in an appearance at his friend's very first stateside gig.
However, showing up here had been only a hunch, and she knew that there was a good chance the security guard wasn't lying about Max not being up in the VIP area. But then again, why would the guy have gone so cold on her if Max Benton weren't up there?
No, she thought, she'd definitely come to the right place. She could feel it in her gut. But how was she going to convince the mountain standing in front of her to let her through?
The mountain, who was currently saying, "Time for you to move along, ma'am."
Wow. Now he was calling her "ma'am"? That was past cold.
"Look," she said, leveling with him, "I know you have your orders, but"
"Hallo, who are you?" someone interrupted before she could finish.
Mike Benz appeared beside her in a ratty purple hoodie and a T-shirt with a panda on it. His clothes, paired with his tall, thin frame, made him look even younger than Jakey, her eighteen-year-old brother. But Pru knew from her research that despite his youthful appearance, he was the same age as her, twenty-nine.
So at least she didn't feel like a shameless cradle robber when she turned on her old showgirl smile at full beam and said, "Hi! I'm Pru. I love your music."
She limited herself to those three sentences and held her breath. She'd hoped that the simple act of introducing herself with a big smile and an emphatic compliment would have the same effect it did back when she actually made a game out of getting into VIP.
Mike Benz smiled back at her and said, "Would you like to come up?"
"Sure!" she said, her smile becoming even brighter.
He offered her his arm, and with a sheepish look, the mountain unlatched the velvet rope before stepping aside to let them pass.
Just like that she was in! Pru's heart beat in her throat as they came to the top of the stairs. Hoping hard that her gut had been right and that Max Benton really was there tonight.
"M.B.!" a voice boomed across the area.
Mike Benz threw his arms in the air and yelled back "M.B.!" like a kid playing a game of Marco Polo.
Pru had to work hard to keep a triumphant smile from breaking out across her face. She had bet right. Max Benton approached them, dressed in a white linen suit with a V-neck T-shirt underneath. His on-trend look, paired with intentionally scruffy black hair and at least three days' worth of beard growth, somehow managed to make him look as if he'd rolled out of bed and a high-fashion ad at the same time. It was easy for Pru to understand in that moment why women around the world had fallen at Max Benton's feet. Why, according to the nauseating amount of research she'd done on the Benton heir, he'd been dubbed the Ruiner in certain feminine circles.
One reality starlet had claimed she wasn't able to date anyone for a year after spending a few weeks with Max. Pru remembered her tale with an inner grimace. Once you go Max, you never go back.
"I didn't know you were here," Mike Benz said to Max as they clasped hands and exchanged a one-armed hug. "Why didn't you text me?"
Max threw him a lazy smile, his pale green eyes shining with their usual wicked gleam. "Figured you'd get up here sooner or later," he answered.
Pru watched the exchange from her position on Mike Benz's arm. Max was so insanely good-looking, even more so in real life than in the many pictures of him floating around the internet. If not for the jagged imperfection of his nose, which had been broken a couple of times without proper resets, Max might have been too pretty. But as it was, the crooked nose on top of so much symmetry only made it that much harder for Pru not to stare at him, even though she was trying to play it cool.
Max, however, didn't seem to have any problems keeping his eyes off her. He barely spared her a look while he and Mike Benz exchanged small talk about how Mike liked New Orleans. Pru was actually beginning to think that Max didn't remember her and she'd have to awkwardly reintroduce herself, when he said to Mike, "So you know Pru, too?"
He still hadn't looked directly at her, Pru noticed.
"Ya, man, we met outside VIP," Mike Benz answered.
Pru quickly rushed in then with her cover story. "One of the girls I used to dance with back in Vegas moved out to Miami and decided to have her bachelorette weekend here in New Orleans." This much was trueeven if that bachelorette night had happened years ago, not tonight as Pru had insinuated.
"Anyway, I was pretty sure you were up here in the VIP area even though the guy downstairs kept saying you weren't." She squinched her face to further sell the story. "Trina's bachelorette weekend was wild, so I almost believed him. Like maybe I'd just been crazy, thinking it was you up here and not some other guy that maybe looked like you."
She held her breath, hoping Max didn't see straight through her technically-true-but-not-really story.
Max pegged her with a look, his eyes shrewd, as if he was deciding whether or not to believe her. But then he said, "No, it was me you saw, and I'm glad you decided to bring the party up here."
"Me, too." She turned to give Mike Benz another one of her showgirl smiles. "Thanks, Mike!"
Mike grinned down at her. "No problem. Any friend of the other M.B. is most definitely a friend of mine."
"Oh, goody," she said, doing her best imitation of the coquette she used to be. "I love making new friends."
She could sense Max watching her closely as she and Mike made flirty exchanges. This was another huge gamble. Openly flirting with someone else in order to get his attention. But from what she'd read, Max had a competitive streak a mile wide. In his twenties he'd drag raced on every continent except Antarctica. In his thirties, he'd been spotted at high-roller games with million-dollar stakes. And just a few weeks before Cole had cut him off, a story had surfaced about Max wagering the Benton New Orleans in a bet with another hotel heir about who could swim one hundred meters faster. Luckily he'd won that bet, considering he didn't have the authority to make that kind of wager in the first place.
But in any case, Pru sensed the easiest way to engage Max was to play to his sense of competition. And apparently she was right.
Max looped an arm around Pru's shoulders and said, "I've got a couple of bottles back at my table. Let's catch up, Pru."
Then he nodded toward Mike Benz and said, "You can join us if you want."
An hour later, Pru wasn't so sure who was scheming on whom. The three of them were sitting on a plush white couch, arced around a small table with a silver bucket full of ice and champagne bottles at its center. Max had his hand on her knee as he once again filled her glass with champagne. He'd yet to let her glass get more than half-empty. But as attentive as he'd been, he'd spent most of the night talking with Mike Benz about a hotel he was planning to build in New Orleans.
He'd explained the boutique hotel would sit somewhere between its luxury and lower-tier counterparts. With an Old World Parisian aesthetic outside, and a modern European design inside, the planned hotel would also have a hot nightclub that would attract and cater to the many singletons and unmarried couples who flooded into New Orleans every weekend, looking to have fun. Apparently, Max wasn't as disconnected from the experience of the non-VIP nightclubber as she would have thought, because he painted a picture of a trendy and sophisticated hotel with prices within reach of people in their twenties who hadn't been born with silver spoons in their mouths.
Pru could actually imagine herself going out of her way to stay at a place like that back when she'd been in her early twenties. It was also a very intriguing idea, coming from Max, since his hotel would probably be competing with both the Benton New Orleans and the planned Benton Inn New Orleans, which would be opening its doors in the fall.
She didn't have to fake her interest in the conversation. In fact, she had to keep reminding herself to surreptitiously pour out half flutes of champagne whenever both men weren't looking (with a silent apology to whomever was in charge of cleaning the club's carpets at night's end). And by the time Max was done telling Mike Benz about his plans, both she and the DJ were leaning all the way forward.
Max eventually asked Mike about his plans after his residency was through, and Mike confessed he didn't have any. By the time Mike's break was over, the two had all but made a formal deal for Mike Benz to be the first resident DJ at the hotel Max would be opening.
Pru observed Max as he watched Mike Benz leave. Though he'd made it seem as if he was the one doing Mike a favor, he now wore a self-satisfied smile. And Pru began to suspect then that Max hadn't invited her over to his VIP table to just one-up Mike Benz. Rather, he'd been using her to achieve his ultimate goal. Getting Mike Benz to agree to a handshake deal.
This gave Pru pause, because if she was reading the situation right, Max wasn't quite the useless ne'er-do-well he'd come off as in the online gossip blogs. In fact, she'd bet money Cole had no idea what his younger brother was up to.
Her suspicions were confirmed when Max's easygoing smile disappeared as soon as Mike was out of earshot. "Planning to go squealing to my brother about this?" he asked Pru.
Pru answered more frankly than she might have under normal circumstances. "I'm Sunny's best friend, not Cole's. I barely see him, and when I do, we're usually not talking hotel business."
"That's not an answer," he pointed out.
Pru lifted her eyebrows. Max was also quite a bit shrewder than she'd originally given him credit for. "Okay " She set her glass of champagne down and turned toward him on the couch. "Are you saying you don't want me to tell your brother about your plans?"
Max also set aside his glass. "What if I were saying that to you?" he asked.
"Then I'd say if you don't want me to tell him about your hotel, you can just ask me not to, instead of accusing me of being a tattletale."
After giving her an incredulous look, Max said, "Fine, can you not tell Cole about this?"
"No problem," Pru answered, somehow managing to keep her voice light despite the raging headache she could feel coming on. Reacting in an outwardly negative fashion to the club's loud music wasn't exactly in line with the free-spirit party-girl persona she was trying to affect with Max.
"Hey," she said, turning her showgirl smile back on, despite the fact that her head was throbbing. "Want to get out of here?"