The perfect business arrangement?
When entrepreneur Ricky Langley offers Eloise Vaughn the help she needs, in exchange for her attending twelve Christmas parties as his date, she can't refuse. Yes, Ricky's handsome, and devastatingly charming, but this is about business. If only her racing heart would get the message!
Ricky has his own reasons for hating Christmas. But with each date that passes Eloise opens his eyes to the spirit of the season and opens his heart to a totally different future .
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There was always too much month left at the end of Eloise Vaughn's money.
"Here, put these crackers in your purse." Laura Beth Matthews gathered a handful of crackers from the party buffet of their newly married friend, Olivia Engle, and shoved them at Eloise.
She gasped. "So now we're reduced to stealing crackers?"
"Five crackers are lunch."
Eloise sighed but opened her Chanel purse and let her roommate dump the crackers inside.
"I'm sorry, Coco."
Laura Beth said, "Coco?"
"Chanel " She shook her head. "Never mind."
Hoping no one saw the crackers falling into her purse, Eloise glanced around the Christmas party at the women wearing shiny cocktail dresses in shades of red and green and the tuxedo-clad men. Subdued gold and silver decorations gave the En-gles' penthouse a sophisticated glow. The clink of ice in glasses, laughter of guests and the air of importancewealth and powerwafted around her.
For fifty cents she could work this room and probably leave with a date. But she didn't want a date. She'd had the love of her life and had lost him. Now, she wanted a job, a good-paying job, a permanent position that would support her. Unfortunately, her degree didn't seem to translate well into actual work. In lieu of a job, she'd take another roommate, someone to help with the rent on the apartment she shared with Laura Beth. Then the pressure would be off, and the salary from the temp job she currently had at a law firm would be enough that she and Laura Beth could buy food again.
But she wouldn't find a roommate here. All of these people could afford their own condos. Maybe two condos and a beach house.
Laura Beth studied the remaining food. "It's too bad we can't pour some of this dip in our purses."
Eloise shoved her purse behind her back. "I draw the line at dip. No dip. Not on the inside of my Chanel."
"You do realize you could sell some of those overpriced clothes, handbags and shoes you own and probably eat for an entire year."
"Most of my stuff is five years old. No one would want it."
Laura Beth sniffed a laugh. "You make it work."
"Only because I know how to change a collar or add a belt."
"So update your stuff and then sell it."
She couldn't. Not that she loved clothes and dressing up so much that she'd die without accessories. It was more that these clothes were the last piece of herself she had. The last piece of the starry-eyed college junior, one year away from graduating, who'd run away and married her Prince Charming.
Her heart pinched. Prince Charming seemed like an odd description. Especially given that she and Wayne had had their troubles. After they married, her wealthy parents had disowned her, and Wayne couldn't find a job. So she'd had to work as a waitress, and they'd fought. A lot. Then he'd been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and in what seemed like the blink of an eye, he'd died. Overwhelmed with grief and confused that death could be so swift and so cruel, she'd gone home, hoping her parents would help her cope. But they wouldn't even come to the door. Through the maid, they'd reminded her that they had disowned her and didn't want her and her troubles visiting their doorstep.
At first she'd been crushed, then she was sad, then she got angry. But that only fueled her determination. Come hell or high water she intended to make it. Big. She didn't know where or how, but she intended to make it. Not just to show her parents, but so she could be happy again.
"I'd like you to meet my cousin."
Ricky Langley glanced up in horror as his lawyer walked up to him with a thirty-something woman. With her hair in a tight black ball on the back of her head and her bright red dress clinging to her curves, she eyed him appreciatively.
"Janine Barron, this is Ricky Langley."
"It's a pleasure." Her voice shivered just the tiniest bit, as if she were so thrilled to meet him she couldn't quite catch her breath.
Another man might have been pleasedmaybe even proudthat his lawyer liked him enough to introduce him to a relative. But since his son had died, he'd been besieged by a loss so intense that thoughts of love, romance or even meeting somebody weren't anywhere on his radar.
He said, "It's nice to meet you," and managed ten minutes of polite conversation, but when he found an opportunity, he slipped away.
He wove through conversation groups as he walked across Tucker Engle's sleek living room. Although Tucker had married six months ago, his New York City penthouse still claimed the sophisticated furnishings of a bachelor pad. Chrome and black leather furniture sat on white shag carpet atop dark hardwood floors. The Christmas tree Tucker had decorated with his new wife, Olivia, glittered with all silver and gold ornaments. The cherrywood mantel over the fireplace boasted one stocking for Baby Engle. Not yet born, the child hadn't been named. They wouldn't tell the sex either. It was all to be a grand surprise.
He pursed his lips as his breathing stuttered. He thought of the one and only Christmas he'd shared with his son. Blake had been born December twenty-seventh, so he was two days shy of a year on his first Christmas day. He'd clapped when he'd seen the tree lit with brightly colored lights that reflected off the tinsel. He'd eaten Christmas cookies. And he'd gone just a bit bananas when he'd awakened Christmas morning to find tons of gifts all for him. He couldn't talk, so he squeaked and squealed for joy. He had torn off wrapping paper, liked the boxes better than the actual gifts and in general made a mess of Ricky's pristine penthouse.
It had been the best Christmas of Ricky's life. And now he had nothing.
He sucked in a breath. He shouldn't have come to this party. He might be eighteen months into his grief, but some things, like Christmas celebrations, would always level him. Worse, he had twelve more of these events on his calendar. Ten parties, one wedding and one fraternity reunion. Last year, six months into his grief, he could reasonably bow out. This year, people were beginning to worry.
He turned to race away from the mantle and bumped into somebody's purse. He swore he heard a crunch as his hands swung around to catch his victim.
"Damn it! I think you crushed my crackers." The scowl on the blonde's beautiful face surprised him so much he forgot he was too unhappy to talk with anyone. "You have crackers in your purse?"
She sighed heavily and tucked a strand of her long yellow hair behind her ear. "Not usually." She glanced at his tuxedo, gave him a quick once-over, then shook her head. "Never mind. You're a little too rich to understand."
"Oh, you took crackers from the buffet table for lunch next week." At her horrified look, he inclined his head. "I used to be poor. Did the same thing at parties."
"Yeah, well, this was my roommate's idea. Typically, I'm not the kind of girl who steals."
"You're not stealing. Those crackers were set out for the guests. You're a guest. Besides, it's the end of the night. Once we all leave, the leftovers will probably be thrown away. Or given to a homeless shelter."
She squeezed her eyes shut in misery. "Great. Now I'm taking crackers out of the mouths of homeless people. I hate this city."
He gaped at her. "How can you hate New York?"
"I don't hate New York, per se. I just hate that it costs so much to live here."
She suddenly straightened. Right before his eyes she changed from a frantic working girl into a princess.
Her shoulders back, her smile polite and subdued, she said, "If you'll excuse me, I want to say goodbye to Olivia and Tucker."
He stepped out of her way. "Of course."
Three things hit him at once. First, she was gorgeous. Her gold dress hugged her high breasts, slim waist and round bottom as if it were made for her. Second, she was refined and polite for someone reduced to taking the extra crackers from a party. Third, she'd barely given him a second look.
Ricky pivoted and saw his attorney scrambling toward him.
"I understand your reluctance to get back into the swing of things, but I'm not going to apologize for trying to find you someone. If you don't soon start dating, people are going to wonder about you."
Hadn't he just thought the same thing himself? "I hope they come up with some good stories."
"This isn't funny. You're a businessman. People don't want to sign contracts with unstable men."
"Being single doesn't make me unstable. I can name lots of men who did very well as bachelors."
"Yeah, but most of them don't have a children's video game line they're about to release."
He turned away. "I'll take my chances."
His attorney caught his arm and stopped him. "You'll be wrong. Look, do you want support when you take this new company public next year? Then you'd better look alive. Like a guy worth supporting."
His attorney stormed off at the same time Cracker Girl walked by, her head twisting from side to side as if she were looking for someone.
A starburst of pleasure shot through him, surprising him. She was beautiful. Physically perfect. And with a conscience. Although taking crackers from a party didn't rank up there with grand theft auto, he could see it upset her.
He laughed and shook his head, but he stopped midmotion. Good grief. She'd made him laugh.
With the party officially winding down, Eloise retrieved her black wool cape, a classic that never went out of style. By the time she reached the elevator, Tucker and Olivia were already there, saying goodbye to guests.
The plush little car took the couple in front of her away. She smiled at Olivia and caught her hands. "It was a wonderful party."
Pregnant and glowing with it, blond-haired, blue-eyed Olivia said, "Thanks."
"It was great seeing your parents too. Where did they run off to? I tried to find them to say goodbye but they were gone."
"Dad wanted to be in bed early so he and Mom could get up early. We're all going to Kentucky tomorrow."
"Celebrating Christmas from the last Friday in November to January second," Tucker said with a laugh.
"You're taking more than a month off?"
"Yes!" Olivia joyfully said. "Five weeks! We're coming back for one party mid-December, but other than that we'll be in Kentucky."
Eloise smiled. She'd wondered why Tucker and Olivia had had their Christmas party so early.
"It's going to be such fun. We'll sleigh ride and skate." She smiled at her handsome husband, a dark-haired, thirty-something former confirmed bachelor she'd fallen in love with in Italy. "And drink hot chocolate by the fire."
"Sounds perfect." For Olivia. The woman lived and breathed the fairy tale. But Eloise wanted a real life. With her husband dead and most of the magic sucked out of life, all she wanted to be was normal, to get a job and never depend on anyone but herself again.
She glanced around. "Have you seen Laura Beth?"
Olivia caught Eloise's hand and pulled her to the side. "She left ten minutes ago with one of Tucker's vice presidents."
Eloise's chest tightened. "Really?"
"They were talking stock options and market fluctuations when they said goodbye to us. I overheard them saying something about going to a coffee shop."
"Do you need a taxi?"
She licked her suddenly dry lips. A taxi? Obviously Olivia had forgotten how much a taxi cost.
The plan had been for her and Laura Beth to take the subway. Together. She didn't want to ride alone this late at night and couldn't believe Laura Beth had ditched her.
Still, that wasn't Olivia's problem. If anything, Eloise and Laura Beth had vowed to keep their financial distress from their now-wealthy friend so she wouldn't do something kind, but awkward, like pay their rent.
"Um. No. I don't need a taxi." She smiled. "I'm taking the subway."
"I love the subway." That wasn't really a lie. She did love the subway. It was cheap and efficient. But at night, alone, it was also scary.
"Oh, Eloise! I don't want you to risk it. Let Tucker call his driver."
Drat. She'd hoped Olivia wouldn't notice that tricky maneuvering use of "we" to make her think she had company for the subway.
Tucker caught Olivia's hand to get her attention. "Ricky's leaving."
Eloise turned to see the guy who had tried to tell her stealing crackers was okay. He had dark hair and dark eyes, and he looked amazing in a tux. Sexy.
She sucked in a breath. Noticing he was sexy had been an accident. She refused to notice any guy until she was financially stable.
Olivia stood on tiptoes and kissed his cheek.
All right. He was tall. It was hard not to notice someone was tall.
He straightened away from Olivia, and Eloise frowned. It was also hard not to notice smooth, sexy brown eyes that had a sleepy, smoldering way of looking at a woman. And that hair? Dark. Shaggy. So out of style she should want to walk him to a hair salon. Instead, she was tempted to brush it off his forehead.
Wow. Seriously? What was wrong with her? She had not intended to take note of any of that. But the guy was simply too gorgeous not to notice.
"Good night, Ricky. Thanks for coming to the party. I hope you enjoyed it."
"It was great."
He kissed Olivia's cheek, and Eloise stood there like an idiot, realizing her mistake. When he'd walked over, she should have taken advantage of Olivia's preoccupation and slipped into the elevator. Nothing was worse than the guilt of a former roommate who hadn't just found the love of her life but also her calling. While Eloise and Laura Beth floundered, Olivia had hit the life lottery and was married, pregnant and a manager for young artists. And now she couldn't stop worrying about her former roommates.
Eloise didn't want to be anybody's burden. She was smart, educated. With the right job, she could be happy as a clam. It was finding that job that seemed impossible. Until she did, she'd be poor. And Olivia would worry.
Olivia glanced at Eloise and, as if just seeing the obvious, she gasped. "You've met Eloise, right?"
The guy named Ricky looked over at her. "I bumped into her by the fireplace."
"She's on her way home, but her friend left early." Olivia winced. "Talking business with one of Tucker's employees."
Eloise supposed she shouldn't be angry because that might lead to a better job for Laura Beth, but she knew the next words coming out of Olivia's mouth before she even heard them.
"You have your limo, right?" She put her hand on her tummy, looking beautiful and Madonna like, the kind of woman no man could refuse. "You wouldn't mind taking Eloise to her apartment, would you?"
Eloise immediately said, "No. I'm fine."
At the same time, Ricky said, "Actually, I think I owe her a favor."
Olivia beamed. "Great."
The elevator doors swished open.
Ricky smiled at her and motioned to the door. "After you."
She stepped inside. As the doors closed, she waved to Olivia. "Thanks again for inviting me."
Tucker and Olivia waved back, looking like the perfect couple. "Thanks for coming."
The doors met and the little car began its descent.
"So your friend dumped you."
"We're both trying to find jobs that pay better than what we have so we can afford our rent. She was talking business with one of Tucker's executives. I can't fault her for that."
"How long have you been in New York?"
"That's a long time to still be scraping by."
"We were fine until Olivia left us."
Even though she had a good excuse for her poverty, embarrassment rumbled through her. She might have been born into money, but she'd gone to the school of hard knocks. Paid her dues. Gotten her education in spite of her grief and confusion. Now all she wanted was a job.
Was that really so much to ask?