Being a celebrity look-alike is about to pay off.
Alexia has never known who her father is and desperately wants to find out the truth about him. She wants a relationship with the mysterious man her mother refuses to talk about.
She can handle being poor and looked down on…but a girl should know her father.
When she’s offered a job doubling for rock star Kari Kingsley, Alexia realizes she’ll have the resources to finally track down her father and meet him. And besides, who could say no to Hollywood, hot guys, and…um, did we mention hot guys already?
She flies off to L.A. and gets immersed in a celebrity life. But when teen idol rock star Grant Delray starts showing interest in her, she suddenly has to worry about blowing her cover. If she were smart, she’d stay away from him.
If she were smart…
This laugh-out-loud Prince and the Pauper retelling is romantic comedy at its best. If you’ve ever dreamed of being a celebrity—or just dating one—this novel is for you!
Grant stood in the green room, leaning against the counter while he gulped down the rest of his water. Singing under the glare of the spotlights always made him thirsty. He caught sight of himself in the makeup mirror. It was the first time he’d ever performed a concert in beat-up jeans and a T-shirt. But then, it was the first time he’d performed a concert where he wasn’t on the venue.
And he’d done it to help out his ex-girlfriend who had lied and cheated on him. Yeah, this was a probably a new low in the pathetic-love-life department. He wondered what the tabloids would have to say about it. More importantly he wondered what Kari would say about it.
It would be nice if she popped in about now with a thank-you and an explanation.
But she didn’t.
Alex had never told him exactly why Kari couldn’t do the concert. She had looked well enough when he’d seen her beforehand. She’d looked great, in fact. Beautiful and yet somehow still . . . he couldn’t put his finger on it . . . that quality about her he found so attractive.
He lingered on the thought of her standing in the doorway and then told himself he was pathetic again.
Over was over. He was stupid to hang around here hoping to catch another glimpse of her.
He would have left altogether except Alex had said he wanted to talk to him, had told Grant he had something important to say. Grant sat down in a chair, tilted his head back and waited. A few minutes later Alex came in. He went and stood in front of Grant, hands thrust into his pocket, a somber expression on his face.
“My daughter wanted me to talk to you, to explain some things, but before I can do that, I have to explain some things in my own life.” Alex rubbed his thumb against his bottom lip, looked past Grant for a moment, then reigned his gaze back in. “Some things I’m not exactly proud of.” He took a small object out of his shirt pocket and closed his hand around it. “You knew Kari’s mother died when she was a baby?”
Grant nodded. “I read about it in Lorna’s book.”
Alex opened his palm to reveal a sapphire necklace. It swung from its chain, lazily flashing blue in the bright overhead lights. “Have you ever seen this?”
Grant nodded again. “Kari never took it off.”
A flicker of pain went through Alex’s eyes and he sighed. “I bought this for my wife when I was out on the road, but she died before I could give it to her. I left it in my guitar case. I don’t know why. I just couldn’t take it out.” Alex kept his gaze on the necklace, slowly turning it between his fingers. “About eight months later I was on tour again, in Charleston, and while I was up on stage I saw this beautiful woman in the front row. She looked so much like my wife I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. I stared at her through every song, and toward the end I pulled her up on the stage to dance with me. Then I asked her to wait in the back.”
Alex paused and his voice dropped. “I gave her this necklace. I guess I just wanted to be rid of it.” His gaze returned to Grant, and his tone changed. “I don’t want you to think I approve of what I did next, especially since you’re dating my daughter. It was wrong. And foolish. And wrong. And I would have to hurt you if you did the same thing.”
Grant said, “You slept with her?”
“And it was wrong.”
So this was why Alex had wanted to talk to him? To give him a Keep-your-hands-off-my-daughter speech? Talk about wasting his breath. Grant put his hands on his knees, ready to stand up. “Look, Kari and I aren’t even dating anymore, so you don’t need too—”
“You weren’t dating Kari,” Alex said. “Haven’t you listened to a word I’ve said?” He held out the necklace to Grant. “I gave this necklace to Sabrina Garcia. She gave it to her daughter, Alexia—to my daughter, Alexia. Kari never wore it at all.”
Grant stared at him, hearing and yet not quite grasping the words. “Kari wore it all the time. I saw it.”
Alex spoke slowly, carefully. “When you brought me here before the concert, I didn’t find Kari in the dressing room. That was Alexia. Maren saw a picture of her and hired her to pretend to be Kari at concerts while Kari was, well, unavailable. They look so much alike most people wouldn’t know the difference.”
Now Grant did stand up. “That wasn’t Kari in the dressing room?”
“That wasn’t Kari?” Grant asked again. He wasn’t expecting a different answer; he just had to repeat the question.
Alex looked down at the necklace, jiggling the chain. “I never knew I had another daughter. I still can hardly believe it.”
Grant turned, paced across the room suddenly filled with energy, with anger. “She lied about who she was to me?”
“Alexia took the job in order to meet me.”
“And why was she dating me?”
Alex shrugged. “My guess is that she liked you.”
Grant had reached the end of the room and paced back the other way. “That’s not how you show someone you like him—you don’t pretend to be someone completely different. You don’t lie to him about who you are. You don’t break up with him for no reason and then never speak to him again.”
Alex turned so he was still facing Grant. “I don’t know what went on between you and Alexia. I imagine you know her better than I do. But it was the one thing she asked me to do—explain the situation to you.”
Grant looked around the room, at the empty furniture and trays of hors d’oeuvres that no one had touched. “Did she give you any other messages for me?”
Alex hesitated but then answered. “No.”
“No,” Grant repeated dully. She hadn’t apologized or given any sort of hope for reconciliation. She had just wanted him to know the truth. Why had she even bothered with that much? “So what am I supposed to make of all this?”
Alex pushed out a breath. “I don’t know. We talked for a little while but she was too busy being angry at me to say much about you.”
She was angry at Alex—she had never met him before. Suddenly all those things she said to Grant about her father made sense. And here Grant had thought it was just a father-daughter squabble he could help patch up. Instead he had brought together two people who’d never met each other.
Well, that explained why Alex hadn’t let her do the concert.
Alex pushed up his sleeve revealing a phone number scrawled in ink. “Alexia left for home before the concert,” he said, “but I’ve decided to book a jet to West Virginia in the next day or two. I figure it’s about time I sat down with her and her mom. Long overdue in fact.” Alex let his sleeve drop back down his arm. “I just need to talk with Kari about this first. I don’t want her to find out about it through the tabloids.”
“West Virginia?” It was then Grant remembered Kari—no Alexia, was her name—standing in his house, telling him she was Kari Kingsley’s nearly identical half sister from West Virginia. He’d thought she was joking. She couldn’t have expected him to believe her. She hadn’t pressed the point. She hadn’t offered him any proof.
Still for a reason he couldn’t quite explain, it gave him hope. For that moment at least, she’d wanted to tell him the truth. “I’m coming with you,” Grant said. “She owes me an explanation.”
Alex nodded. “Fair enough. Now that you know the truth, I’m sure she’ll want to talk to you about it.”
Grant wasn’t so sure. It seemed like a girl who left the state without telling you who she was might avoid further conversations too. He brooded on this while Alex took his cell phone from his pocket and dialed a number. “Maren will know where Alexia lives.” He put the phone to his ear, and almost to himself said, “I suppose she’ll be in school on Monday.”
Which is when Grant decided that he wouldn’t give Alexia a choice about whether to talk to him or not. Being a celebrity had certain advantages after all, it was time he put a few of them to good use.
Sabrina Garcia had just finished posting next week’s housekeeping schedule, when the front desk paged her. A guest wanted to see her. Sabrina made her way to the elevator unconcerned. Probably just someone uptight because their towels weren’t fluffy enough. They got that type of guest every once in awhile—people whose self importance inflated in direct proportion to the amount of time they complained. The best thing to do was smile and promise to fix the problem. Ego boosting, just one more service offered by the Waterfront Place Hotel.
She rode up the elevator, walked across the lobby, and only then took a look at the profile of the man leaning against the front desk. He was in his late forties but still fit and good looking. Small wrinkle lines surrounded his blue eyes, but he had a full head of blond hair which was slightly tussled, as though he’d just run his hands through it.
Thoughts of guests with towel issues disappeared. This was worse. Alex Kingsley was here.
He turned and watched her walk up, making her at once feel self conscious. It had been nineteen years since she’d last seen him and she hadn’t had any warning that he would show up here. She gulped, but tried to hide it. You wanted to look confident when you were meeting your daughter’s father.
As she reached the desk, he smiled at her softly, casually. “Hello Sabrina.” Then he didn’t say anything else. So that was it? That’s what he had to say to her after nineteen years and a daughter? She stared back at him without answering.
He shifted toward her slightly. “I’m Alex Kingsley.”
Yes, she knew. He didn’t look that different and besides Sarah the desk clerk was mouthing the words, “It’s Alex Kingsley!” excitedly behind his back. Sarah looked rapturous about this fact. Sabrina felt considerably less so.
“I know,” she said. “I didn’t forget you.” She hadn’t meant it to come out as an accusation. She’d only meant that of course she would have kept up with his singing career over the years. She’d always known she’d see him again someday. Perhaps at Lexi’s college graduation or wedding. On both of those occasions she would be dressed in something sophisticated yet professional, having fussed over her hair, makeup, and nails.
Now she stood wearing a shapeless blue uniform, her hair laying unfussed around her shoulders and only the barest of makeup on her face.
“Is there somewhere we can go to talk privately?” he asked. “Can I take you out for lunch?”
She looked around as though she might find an excuse, an escape somewhere in the room. She wasn’t ready to talk to him right now. Not like this. But Sabrina saw no easy escape.
“I work until three,” Sabrina said.
Alex didn’t budge away from the counter. “Can I talk to your boss and see if he’ll let you off early?”
Her boss, Mr. Crandall, would agree and probably request an autograph, and then spend the rest of the day bragging to the guests that Alex Kingsley had dropped by. And Alex knew it too. All he had to do was ask and the world moved for him. But she didn’t want to see this phenomena in action and she didn’t want Alex to think he had more power in her hotel than she did.
She sighed and turned to Sarah. “Will you tell Mr. Crandall I had to leave early?”
Sarah nodded. She was still standing behind the desk grinning like an idiot.
Alex motioned to the door. “You know the restaurants around here best. Where would you like to go?”
Somewhere I could yell at you if I wanted to, she thought, but didn’t say it. She wasn’t going to yell at him. She wouldn’t let him know she had ever cared that much about him. “What sort of food do you like?” she asked.
“I’m not picky,” he said, and they both headed across the lobby toward the front door.
Not surprising. He hadn’t been that picky about women either. What did he want from her now that he’d come all the way to West Virginia to see her? There was only one answer, and it bristled her just to think about it. He wanted to take Lexi away from her. He’d come here personally to ask if he could sweep Lexi off to a mansion in Hollywood or take her on a cruise to the Bahamas, or something equally horrible. Sabrina wouldn’t let him do it though. Lexi only had a few months until she left for college. Sabrina was keeping her home where she belonged for as long as possible.
She smiled pleasantly. “Can you walk into a regular restaurant without getting mobbed?”
Alex took hold of the front door and held it open for her. “The fans are usually pretty considerate. Besides, I’m so far out of my element here, I doubt I’ll be recognized.”
Which just meant he didn’t realize how many country western fans lived in West Virginia. She walked through the door, feeling odd that he’d held it open for her, that he’d offered her that little piece of respect. You didn’t open any doors for me when I was nine months pregnant and couldn’t see my feet, she thought, then chided herself for being petty. She had worked through this long ago. She had taken responsibility for her own actions, for her own foolish, blind hopes. And besides, she didn’t regret having Lexi. She couldn’t regret her daughter’s eyes, her smile, all of the things she’d gotten from Alex. So where had these bitter emotions suddenly sprung from?
Sabrina smiled at him just to show herself that she could. “We can go to Los Mariachis if you still like Mexican.”
Perhaps she shouldn’t have revealed that she remembered that about him. His eyebrow rose ever so slightly at the mention. He was cataloging that detail: that she knew trivia about him.
“Still love it,” he said. They’d reached the parking lot, and he gestured toward a sleek black rental car, unlocking it with his keychain.
She had been silly to think that he would remember they’d eaten Mexican food that night. After the concert, Alex had told one of his assistants go out and buy food for them to eat in his hotel room. She had asked for a chicken chimichanga but she hadn’t specified what sort of sauce she wanted so the assistant had brought her three, one with each kind of sauce to ensure he got it right. As though she would have cared. She had been too nervous, too excited to eat much anyway.
They reached Alex’s car and he went around and opened her door for her. He was probably used to opening doors for starlets wearing sequined dresses and spiky heels while on the way to Grammy parties. It seemed so out of place here in the parking lot while she wore her hotel uniform and tennis shoes.
“Thanks,” she said.
Alex sat down in the car beside Sabrina and turned on his GPS to the restaurant function. “Lost Mariachis,” he repeated.
His voice sounded the same. She would have recognized it anywhere. Somehow it had imprinted on her mind without her knowing it.
Sabrina tore her gaze away from him and looked around the leather interior of the car. It smelled new and the dashboard was spotless. Not like her own car which had a perpetual layer of dust clinging to the cracks and crevices. She realized she was clenching her fist by her side and made herself relax. This was ridiculous. She didn’t have to compare herself to him. He didn’t have the same kind of power over her anymore. She no longer believed he was some demigod to worship. He was just a man and she wasn’t a starry-eyed teenager.
Still looking at his GPS he said, “As I recall, you liked mango salsa.”
“What?” she asked.
“You told me you liked mango salsa. I’d never heard of it before. Now every time I have some I think, ‘She was right. It’s good.’”
Sabrina didn’t remember telling him that, but she must have. She’d always liked mango salsa.
She stared back at him half flattered, half incredulous. “You remembered that, but you didn’t remember my name?”
“I remembered your first name . . .” The sentence trailed off. His gaze met hers and she realized he also knew he didn’t have the same power over her. His gaze was nervous, apologetic, asking for her to understand. “I just didn’t think that night would matter to you very much.”
“You were wrong,” she said.
He didn’t move the car. The engine was idling but they sat there surrounded by empty cars.
“I remember that night every time I look at our daughter,” she said. “I remember it when I see your face pop up somewhere or hear your songs. Now that Kari’s become a star, I remember it when I see her face or hear her songs. She looks so much like Lexi. I keep thinking . . .” but she didn’t finish the sentence. I keep thinking, Lexi could be there too, living that life, and I’m glad she’s not.
Sabrina knew she shouldn’t have it both ways—feeling mad at Alex for not being there for Lexi, and at the same time feeling glad he wasn’t. It didn’t make sense, but then, emotions didn’t have to.
“You don’t know much about me,” Sabrina said, “but I wouldn’t have gone with you that night unless you had really mattered to me.”
He let out a jagged breath and looked away from her. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “I was still grieving back then. I’d lost my wife and you looked so much like her.” His gaze returned to her, resting on her face with an intensity she hadn’t expected. “You still do. It’s like . . .” he held out a hand to her. “I can’t help staring at you and thinking: this is what Maribel would have looked like if she’d lived.”
“No, Maribel would have been wearing nicer clothing.”
He laughed. It was a deep rich sound that was familiar, even though she didn’t remember when she’d heard him laugh before. Had he laughed on the night they met? She could only recall the sadness in his eyes–the quiet longing in them.
After they had talked for hours in his suite and it was closer to morning than night, he’d reached out and taken her hand, pulled her slowly to him. He hadn’t needed to ask the question. It had hung in the air between them, unspoken, while his eyes pleaded with her. In response, she had reached up and wound her arms around his neck, pressed her face into the soft skin at the base of his shoulder. They’d stood like that for a minute, just holding one another and then he’d titled her face up and kissed her.
Those memories sat in her mind with perfect clarity.
“That’s the other thing I remember about you,” he said, still smiling at her joke. “You made me laugh. I hadn’t done that in a long time.”
So he had laughed that night. Strange she didn’t remember it.
The car still idled without moving. It was wasting gas, but he didn’t seem to care. Alex’s voice dropped, grew serious. “I want to make it up to you.”
“Make it up to me?” she repeated. She knew what he meant, but couldn’t believe he thought it was possible. Memories flashed through her mind. Lexi crying every night during that first year, and Sabrina staggering out of bed to feed her. She hadn’t been able to turn to a husband and say, “Can you get her this time?” She remembered combing garage sales for baby clothes and buying some boy ones because Lexi needed them, and they were cheap, and besides babies didn’t care what they wore anyway. But Sabrina had cared. She had wanted her daughter to wear nothing but soft pastels, new and lovingly chosen from a store.
“I didn’t realize you were so young.” Alex’s voice was soft and full of self-recrimination. “I shouldn’t have taken advantage of you. I’m not usually like that. Maybe that’s why I never tried to find you. I knew I shouldn’t have done it. I had a chance to go back to Charleston the next year to do a concert and I turned it down. I think I was afraid I’d see you again.”
“You wouldn’t have,” she said. “Not after your manager told me to leave you alone.”
Alex looked out the window and swore before turning back to her. “He never let me know you’d called. Alexia told you that, didn’t she?”
Sabrina nodded. She’d always wondered about that. Back when she was a new mother, not knowing had hurt. Now she knew, and it still hurt, only in a different way.
Alex held up a hand and let it fall. His lips drew together in a tight line of frustration. “You could have found me and told me yourself. My concert schedule was always posted. I would have talked to you if I’d seen you. You could have even gotten a lawyer and sued for child support. Instead, you hid Alexia away and told her I didn’t care. She has nothing but resentment for me now.”
Sabrina hadn’t expected this burst of anger. She’d been prepared for regret, embarrassment, indifference even. But it was anger he was showing her here in the car, raw and painful. It took her aback.
“Maybe I didn’t think it would matter that much to you,” she said.
He flinched enough to show her the words stung. “I don’t deserve that. I had a daughter and I had the right to know about her. I would have made sure she had everything she needed. I would have made sureyou had everything you needed. I missed her entire childhood.”
He would have made sure she had everything she needed? The sentence cut into her, like it was slashing open an old wound. She leaned forward, shivering, even though she wasn’t cold. “You expect me to believe that? You didn’t even call me.”
He let out a sharp breath and gripped the arm rest. The muscles in his arm pulsed. “I’m sorry I lost your phone number. I’m sorry I was so messed up at the time I was only thinking of myself. I’m sorry you had to raise Alexia by yourself. I’m sorry. How many times do you want me to say it? A hundred? A thousand? Just let me know and I’ll say all of them, but you owe me an apology too.”
Sabrina felt tears sting at the back of her eyes. Now that the veneer of pleasant banter was gone, it seemed all she had was emotion. Anger mostly. He had no right to make her feel guilty. It was easy now to swoop in and say you would have been a parent. She had been the one struggling to do it. “Fine,” she said. “I want a sorry for every time Lexi asked about you, and I couldn’t tell her anything because I thought you wanted nothing to do with us. I want a sorry for every Father’s Day gift she made in school that I had to throw away. I want a sorry for every time I saw a man holding his daughter’s hand and I knew Lexi couldn’t do that. And I apologize for not hunting you down and making sure you knew the truth. But don’t tell me you would have made sure I had everything I needed. You have no idea what I needed.”
She hadn’t meant to say the last part. This was about Lexi, not her, but the words came out anyway. Sabrina hoped he’d ignore them, pass over them and push the conversation in another direction.
Instead he picked up those words like a shopper examining goods. “What did you need, Sabrina?” He said her name easily and despite herself, it gave her the same jolt it had when she was younger. Her name on his lips. The syllables of her identity spoken in his smooth, rich voice.
She was obviously incurably foolish; why not crack open her soul a little further and show him every wound that had laid there? The tears were already pooling over her eyes and spilling over. It’s not like she could have pretended indifference. “I needed you,” she said. “You weren’t about to give me that.”
Sabrina looked away as soon as the words came from her mouth. She didn’t want to see his expression. It would show pity or some sort of manifestation that he considered her too far beneath him, or worse yet, that she was delusional. All of which was probably true. Their relationship had only lasted one night for him.
Outside, rows of empty cars sat around them like soldiers in a line, their headlights surveying one another placidly. Sabrina brushed the tears off her cheeks, and probably any traces of foundation that still clung to her face. “I shouldn’t have said that.” She shook her head wearily. “I’m a grown woman with a fulfilling life, but I get into the car with you and suddenly feel like a needy eighteen-year-old.” She placed her hands in her lap where they lay folded. Her nails were short and unpolished. The hands of someone who was constantly working. “I used to believe we belonged together. Let’s just say it was a hard reality to wake up to.”
The hum of the engine was steady, not revving wildly like her heart. This was because the car knew when to keep its mouth shut. Something she wished she had done.
He stared at her silently then said the obvious. “It wasn’t real love. You didn’t even know who I was. Not really.”
It would have been easy to agree with him. To pretend she’d only been foolish back then, but doing so would have betrayed her eighteen-year-old self, and that girl, hurting and alone, needed fierce loyalty. Even if it were only in memory. “I knew everything about you,” she said.
“You knew my image,” he said. “You knew who I was when I was smiling for a crowd and what the tabloids said about me.”
She let out a little laugh that wasn’t a laugh at all. It was surprise that he didn’t realize his personality had always been clearly on display. It had shined out in the cadence of his calm voice, the directness of his gaze, his self-assured walk. “I knew you through your lyrics. When I listened to your albums, I could tell which songs you’d written before I checked the credits. The rest of your band wrote songs about drinking, chasing women, and breaking up. Your songs were about life.” Deep songs, meaningful words that repeated in your mind long after the music faded. Sabrina shifted in her seat to better look at his face. “I bet I could tell you which songs of Kari’s you’ve written.” Without waiting for a prompt she said, “Two Hearts Apart; A Long Way to Go; and Dreaming of a Better Place.”
Sabrina had bought Kari’s albums when they’d come out, hiding them away so neither her mother or Lexi would catch her with them. The albums listed Kari as the composer, but Sabrina had listened anyway, checking. She’d wanted to see if it Alex was there too, if he’d left a part of himself there to mingle with the notes and chords. She’d recognized him in a few of the songs. It had been like getting an unexpected letter from a long lost friend.
Alex let out an amazed whistle and stared at her.
“I’m right?” she asked, even though his expression had already confirmed it.
“I helped on those songs,” he said. “The only one you missed is: Love, Your Style. I guess I should be flattered you missed that one though. I was in a black mood when I wrote it. I’d just been through a bad break up.”
Sabrina silently reviewed the song, seeing it in a new light. It was filled with pain and cynicism. She had just found it frightening to expose her own feelings. He set his to music for the whole world to hear. It was either brave or fanatically entrepreneurial to make money off your own pain that way.
She wondered if he would write a song about her now, and what it would say.
Alex leaned back against his seat. She traced the lines of his arms and wondered what he’d done to get so tan. The beach? Golf? It had to be some outdoor activity. He wasn’t the type to ever use a tanning bed or a spray on.
He regarded her cautiously. “What else do you know about me?”
“That you’re not really that hungry. We don’t seem to be moving very far.”
He looked at the steering wheel as though just noticing it and sat forward in his seat. “Sorry. I was supposed to take you to a restaurant, wasn’t I?”
He took hold of the gear shift, and she chided herself for being flippant, for being too afraid to answer his question honestly—that she still knew everything about him. It had been her secret vice to keep up on him. And why shouldn’t she? She had needed to know those sorts of details for the day when she finally told Lexi about him. It was only for Lexi. Sabrina had fallen out of love and moved on long ago. Hadn’t she had her share of boyfriends? It didn’t mean anything that she’d never actually wanted to settle down with any of them. Raising Lexi and finishing her degree had always just taken precedence.
Alex shifted the car into reverse, but Sabrina put her hand on his arm before he could pull out of the parking space. She didn’t want to go sit in a restaurant and put the veneer of polite conversation back on again. “You don’t have to take me anywhere. I don’t really want to go out in public. I’m a mess.”
His gaze ran over her and he didn’t shift back to park. “No, you’re not. You look great.”
She tilted her head at him in disbelief. “I’ve just been crying and I’m wearing my housekeeping uniform.”
“But you still look great. I know women who spend all day in the salon trying to look half as beautiful as you do—” He broke off suddenly, as though he’d said something wrong, and put the car back into park. “Look, I’m not trying to hit on you or anything.”
“What?” Her mind was still lingering on his comment and she hadn’t had time to process the implications of the rest of his sentence.
“I don’t want you to think I’m hitting on you again. I’m not a total jerk. I realize you probably have a boyfriend and even if you didn’t, you’ve spent too much time over the years throwing darts at my pictures to care what I think. I’m just trying to make amends.”
“I never threw darts at your picture. Curses, maybe, but not darts.” She smiled despite herself. He thought she was beautiful. She felt a spiteful sense of happiness that he was complimenting her instead of all those starlets she’d seen with him in tabloids.
He leaned back into his seat and glanced behind him. She followed his gaze and saw a pair of slender boxes sitting on the back seat. One black, one white. He picked up the black one, fingered it nervously. “I’m not . . . I know that . . .” he ran a hand through his dusky blond hair, apparently at a loss for words.
“What?” she prompted.
“This is probably stupid and I shouldn’t do it, but I feel bad that you and Alexia had to carry around Maribel’s necklace for years. I shouldn’t have stuck you with that memory. I shouldn’t have compared you to her in the first place.” He gave a frustrated grunt. “But even knowing that, I did it again. Two minutes after we climbed into this car, I told you how much you look like her.”
“I never minded that,” Sabrina said, somehow unable to let him feel guilty for that part. She’d always liked the fact that she looked like his first wife. Back when she was younger it was one of the things that had convinced her she and Alex belonged together, that even God thought so. Otherwise he wouldn’t have formed Sabrina to be exactly Alex Kingsley’s type.
“I know you’re not her,” he said. “I just wanted to tell you thanks for the sacrifices you’ve made to raise Alexia right. That says a lot about you.” He handed the box awkwardly to Sabrina. “Consider each one of those stones an ‘I’m sorry’. Now I’m only a few thousand apologies short.”
Stones? She took the box from him, stunned. She should feel something at this moment. Maybe gratitude, or perhaps indignation that he thought he could throw money around to win her over. But he seemed so genuinely eager for her to like the gift that she couldn’t refuse it. His genuine nature. That’s what had attracted her to him in the first place, and here it was again, swaying her actions.
She flipped open the box. Snuggled against black velvet was a necklace dripping with rubies. They grew progressively bigger until the center stone, which was a perfect, winking red oval.
“Do you like it?” he asked.
She didn’t touch it. “It’s stunning.” In fact, it belonged on the neck of an actress. Someone who was off to a posh red carpet event. She had no idea when or where she’d ever be able to wear it, which deflated her a little. Alex Kingsley had finally given her a gift meant for her and she would only be able to stare at it in the box. This necklace belonged to a completely different world than she did.
He must have read apprehension into her gaze. “It’s a purely platonic gift,” he told her. “I’m not hitting on you.”
She looked up from the box. “You know, I wouldn’t mind if you hit on me just a little. Women scorned like that sort of thing. It’s vindication.”
He cracked a smile. “Okay, in that case, I’m hitting on you a little, just so you feel vindicated.”
She laughed, but checked his gaze to see if there was any seriousness to his words. His blue eyes met hers and flashed with some emotion. Perhaps seriousness. Perhaps he was testing the waters. Or maybe it was just her imagination. She was, after all, incurably foolish where he was concerned.
He gestured at the box. “If you don’t like it, I can get you something else.”
“No, it’s beautiful.” She stared down at the rich red gems again. “I’m just not sure where I would wear something this elegant.”
“Ahh,” he said, with a note of understanding. He unclipped the necklace from the box. “You’re in luck. These are all-purpose, dress up, dress down rubies. Here, let me show you.” He undid the clasp and reached toward her. She only had time to sweep her hair away from her shoulders before he was leaning over, putting his arms around her while he redid the clasp. She sat stiffly, trying not to react to his sudden nearness. She could smell his aftershave. His fingers brushed against her skin, making her neck tingle.
He’d done this the last time they met too. He’d put a necklace on her and his fingers had lingered, gently caressing the back of her neck, then making their way to her shoulders.
This time he sat back and surveyed her, nodded with satisfaction, then flipped down the passenger-side mirror. The memory of the first necklace vanished. “See,” he said, “it’s the perfect way to accessorize any hotel uniform.”
She nodded, breathing too hard to speak.
Definitely incurably foolish.
“I could take you out to an exclusive restaurant,” he said still surveying her. “Then you’d have some place to wear it.”
She grinned, not because he’d said anything funny, but because she’d been so worried about meeting him, and here he was trying his hardest to please her. He wanted her friendship. That knowledge relaxed her. “Maybe you should come to my house for dinner instead. Lexi will be anxious to see you again.” Sabrina reached out and put her hand on his arm in a confiding manner. “She wants to love you. It will just take some time. But that’s okay. She’s a wonderful girl.”
He nodded, his gaze first on her hand, then her eyes. “I wanted to talk to you about that. I was thinking that you and Lexi could come out to my ranch in California. We could spend some time getting to know each other. I’ve got horses, a pool, a weight room, a musical studio if she’s interested in that sort of thing. And it’s not too far away from shopping, the night life . . .” his voice trailed off, he was waiting for reaction. “I can hit on you if you’d like . . .”
She laughed, a happy tinkling sound even to her own ears. “We’ll talk to Lexi about it. Now why don’t we go to my house and get something to eat? I’ve got mango salsa.”
He smiled at her and put the car in reverse.
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