New York Times bestselling author Gena Showalter introduces the Original Heartbreakers--about sexy bad boys each meeting their match--with a special prequel novella!
In small-town Oklahoma, reputation is everything, and Kenna Starr will do anything to overcome hers. The supposed bad girl is determined to walk the straight and narrow, a seemingly impossible task when Tall, Dark and Sexy shows up...
Rich and powerful, Dane Michaelson is every woman's dream. When he returns to Strawberry Valley after a sixteen-year absence, he is unprepared for the redheaded girl he's never been able to forget. She's all woman now--and he's never wanted anyone more. But to have her, he'll have to break through her defenses...and surrender his own.
Look for the next books in the Original Heartbreakers--The Closer You Come, The Hotter You Burn and The Harder You Fall--from Mills & Boon Books!
A huge thank-you to Susan Mallery,
Lori Foster and Bella Andre.
Back Cover Text
About the Author
"YOU'RE LATE." A harried man wearing a suit that could have graced the cover of a high-fashion magazine stepped into Kenna Starr's path, stopping her. "All staff enters at the back. Be a good girl and hurry."
Humiliation burned her cheeks as his identity clicked into place. Timothy Calbert Jr. She'd practically grown up with the guy, and though he'd left town years ago and must have returned only for this special event, the fact that he was her boss's son meant she couldn't correct him the way she had as a child: a slap to the back of the head.
"I'm not staff," she muttered. Not tonight, at least. Usually she did work events just like this one. And, granted, she was wearing a dress similar to the one gracing every female serving hors d'oeuvres to the engagement party guests.
By "similar," of course, she meant "the exact same."
But every cent she made went to bills and there was never anything left over for extras. So she'd gone with Plan ABG. All Baby's Got. Her uniform.
Sure, it was far too short and so tight breathing was nothing more than a pipe dream, but it had one redeeming feature--it cost zero dollars.
Resourceful gal that she was, Kenna had tried to set herself apart by tying a sheer white scarf around her neck, letting the ends hang between her cleavage and fall all the way to the dress's hem.
No! Bad Kenna! No mentally using Twitter tonight. "I'm a guest," she added. "An honored guest." Kind of. Maybe.
Okay, probably not.
Junior's lips pursed with irritation. "Name?"
Seriously? She told him, trying not to be further humiliated.
He checked his clipboard. After a blink of surprise, he gave her a disapproving once-over. "Through there." He pointed to the left, but made no effort to move out of her way.
Head high, she skirted around him and came to the foyer's edge. The party was already in full swing, the spacious sitting room crowded. Her heart hammered against her ribs as she studied face after face she didn't recognize. With the glitter and shine radiating from flawless skin and perfectly made-up features, these people had "city" written all over them.
And she was just supposed to mingle with them? The cream of Oklahoman society? With Dane Michaelson, who was expected to be here?
He'd moved away from Strawberry Valley sixteen years ago. Though his parents had kept their home, he'd never returned. Not even for a short visit. But the town had never forgotten him and, according to gossip, he'd recently taken over his father's crude oil and natural gas business.
Natural gas, she thought, snickering.
I am not a child. She quickly smoothed her features into a prim-and-proper expression. I am a good little robot.
She scanned the crowd again, but found no sign of Dane. A man rumored to go through supermodel-like beauties as if they entered his bedroom on a conveyor belt--and exited that way, too. In his spare time, he raced fast cars, played golf and sailed, and attended the occasional charity gala. Rich-boy luxuries a country girl like her would never experience.
Did he spend any time thinking about her? Remembering her--hating her?
Can't worry about stupid Dane Michaelson and his stupid feelings. I'm going to have fun. For once.
Desperate for a distraction, she took a step forward. Finally she spotted a few locals. In Strawberry Valley, everyone knew everyone else, so it was only a matter of time before someone noticed her and waved her over....
Andy fetch me a scotch and this time don't be stingy Teegle skipped his gaze right over her. Caroline I'll know if you spit in my food Walloby pointed to her empty champagne glass, expecting a refill.
All I'll ever be to these people is a waitress.
Kenna's best friend and roommate, Brook Lynn Dillon, who was serving tonight, noticed her and made a funny face. Kenna laughed, wishing she could sidle up to her friend and stay put for the rest of the evening. To near the girl was to enter her force field, becoming invisible to everyone everywhere. Men especially couldn't see anything but Brook Lynn's fall of curling blond hair and big blue eyes.
As if he hoped to prove it, an older male wrapped his beefy fingers around Brook Lynn's arm. The girl jolted, and the tray she held wavered. Champagne sloshed over the rim of the glasses, and the women around her stepped away as if she'd just contracted a deadly virus--while all of the men moved closer in an attempt to help her.
She tried to wave them off.
They kept talking to her, patting her with napkins to blot up what had spilled.
One rescue, coming up. Kenna hopped off the dais and strode forward, determined to free her friend from the grabby hands. But as more and more partygoers moved away from the chaos, a path beside the girl opened up, revealing the group of people Kenna hadn't yet noticed. At the center of them was the most beautiful man she'd ever seen. So beautiful he couldn't possibly be real.
The moisture in her mouth instantly dried. He was tall and leanly muscled, with bronzed skin and hair a rich jet-black. His features looked chiseled from granite. Strong, sculpted. Hard. His eyes, a smoldering gold, were stunning and somehow familiar, perfectly offsetting his blade of a nose. A nose that would have been considered too severe if not for the luscious contrast provided by the only point of softness he possessed--his lips. Even his jaw was hard, a square shadowed by the hint of a beard.
He wore danger and excitement as well as he wore his pin-striped suit, as if everything had been perfectly tailored to fit him by magic fairies. Kenna shivered. He was every woman's fantasy made flesh...and he was staring right at her, his glass lifted midway to his lips, as if he'd been frozen in time.
Electricity crackled in the air between them, a new experience for her. One she didn't understand, and didn't like. But as ensnared by him as she was, she didn't realize she'd bypassed Brook Lynn completely to stop directly in front of him...until it was too late to back away without causing a scene.
What have I done?
Chin up. Shoulders back. Smile.
"Um, hi," she said, then cursed herself for being lame.
The chesty blonde at the man's side flicked her an irritated glance, only to brighten. "Oh, good." She handed Kenna an empty glass. "I'd like another. Thanks." Then, with her profile to Kenna, she returned to her story about a recent trip to Italy and all the fun she'd had.
Welcome to my nightmare. Kenna's cheeks heated.
Sadly, I doubt this will be the last time I'm embarrassed tonight.
Mr. Fantasy slowly lowered his glass. His eyelids appeared heavy, long black lashes shielding all that smoldering gold. "Kenna Starr," he said, unrepentant as he interrupted the blonde--who then faced Kenna with darkening interest. "It's nice to see you again." His voice was as heady and seductive as the rest of him. Low, with a raspy quality, like melted honey drizzled over warm chocolate chip cookies.
Then his words penetrated her awareness of his masculine charm. See her...again?
He must have sensed her confusion, because he added, "And in the same spot we first met, no less."
Realization was like a punch in the gut. The same spot. There was only one person she'd met in this house...no, please no...but there was no denying it. She'd just stumbled upon Dane Michaelson.
He looked to be the right age. Around twenty-nine. He had the right hair and eye color. But he didn't have a mess of scars on the left side of his face--surgery?--and he wasn't peering at her with hatred, wasn't calling her awful names.
You're stupid and ugly and trash!
Those were the words he'd spat at her during their last "play date." She'd been seven, and he'd been thirteen, and before that moment, she'd loved spending time with him. Which was funny, considering he'd ignored her every time they were thrown together, never deigning to speak with her until those final minutes. But she'd wanted a friend so badly she'd somehow convinced herself she could win him over.
Now, looking back, she knew how impossible that would have been. At the time, he'd known what she hadn't. Her mother and his father were having an affair.
Kenna wanted to hide under the covers every time her mind drifted back to the day of discovery--when she remembered Christine Michaelson, Dane's mother, walking in on the couple.
How could you do this to me? I'm your wife. And you. You're nothing but trash. A cheap whore!
The very next day, the Michaelson family had moved into the city, about an hour and a half away. Kenna often wondered if Dane realized the affair had continued despite the long distance. Roanne Starr's "me vacations" to "rest and recharge," despite the fact that she had never worked a day in her life, had given her away. And--
Everyone is watching me, Kenna realized with dawning horror. They were waiting for her to respond to Dane.
"You grew up," she blurted out. Oh, wow. State the obvious much? Way to rack up the fails tonight. You don't even deserve a mental Twitter account.
"I know a few people who would agree with you," he replied easily, those amber eyes glittering. "But not many."
"Well," the chesty blonde said, running her well-manicured hand down his tie. "I happen to know for a fact that you're a big...big boy."
O-kay. Going there, are we?
Dane frowned at the woman.
"Darling!" Roanne's voice registered, saving Kenna from having to say anything else.
A slender arm wrapped around Kenna's waist and tugged her none too gently from the group. "Excuse us, please."
"I guess this is goodbye," Kenna said with a wave.
Dane's frown landed on her and deepened.
Roanne drew her away, managing to maintain a smile as she whispered, "I asked you not to embarrass me, and you show up like this?"
Ah. Motherly love and unconditional acceptance. Can't ever get enough.
They stopped in a shadowed corner. At forty-five, Roanne was still one of the most beautiful women Kenna had ever seen, with a thick mass of red waves and green eyes that rivaled the most expensive of emeralds, two features Kenna had inherited. But while Roanne had flawless porcelain skin, Kenna was covered in freckles.
"It's like you go out of your way to hurt me." Roanne removed Kenna's scarf and tucked one end along the bust of her dress.
"What are you doing?" she asked, standing still and just letting it happen, whatever it was. Fighting would do no good.
"Making you somewhat presentable. You should have let me buy you a dress."
Roanne had been living off Henry Starr's insurance money for about two years. He'd died of cancer after an eight-month battle; actually, he'd died of a broken heart long before that, hating Roanne for her betrayal, but never leaving her. Why he'd stuck around, Kenna had never known. It certainly hadn't been for her. He'd actually disowned her right before her seventeenth birthday, and he'd made it clear his money wasn't to be spent on her, so despite her mom's seemingly kind offer--always comes with strings--Kenna would never take a dime.
"You know Daddy would have rather I wore last season's garbage bag," she said.
"He's dead. What he wants doesn't matter anymore."
"That's so cold."
"It's also true."
Maybe, but all Kenna had ever wanted was to make her father proud and happy.
And I failed in every way.
Motions clipped, Roanne threaded the scarf between Kenna's breasts, draped the material along her middle, then wrapped the ends around her waist. To make sure everything stayed in place, she then used a diamond-crusted broach to pin those ends at Kenna's lower back. The final result was shockingly effective, making the dress appear almost Grecian.
Roanne looked her over, nodded. "That'll have to do. Now, don't be a wallflower," she said, patting Kenna's cheek. "Get out there and have a good time. Or not. Probably not. We don't want a repeat of...you know." Her mother flittered off, calling, "Hannah! Darling, you are utterly radiant! I'm so glad you could join us."
Deep breath in...out...
Kenna concentrated on the beauty of her surroundings, wondering where to go next. The room was decked out with an incredible assortment of hand-carved stones, exotic woods and colorful marbles. Every piece of furniture provided a perfect complement, seemingly plucked straight from some Victorian palace. But her favorites? The intricate mosaics and the magnificent frieze ceiling.
"Champagne?" Brook Lynn approached her, holding out her tray.
Kenna gazed longingly at the offering, but shook her head. "I wish. It would certainly make the time tick by faster." She made sure to enunciate each of her words, so that Brook Lynn would have an easier time reading her lips. Her friend had a rare inner ear disorder that made her hear everyday sounds at an unbearable volume. Even something as simple as a cat's meow used to send her into screaming fits of pain. The implants in both of her ears were supposed to regulate volume somewhat, or, when even that proved to be too much--as it always did at big social gatherings--render her temporarily deaf.
"It would also energize this dud fest," Brook Lynn said.
"True, but I can't risk it." Even a few sips of alcohol turned Mild Kenna into Wild Kenna. She danced on tables, sang too loudly, even performed strip teases. Once, she'd slept with a boy she hadn't known--which was exactly how she'd ended up with the horrible reputation she'd never been able to shake.
"Oh, all right," Brook Lynn said. "But if one more drunken old fart grabs my bee-hind, I'm going to do what Rick did to that biker and rip out his throat--with my teeth."
Rick from The Walking Dead. Kenna and Brook Lynn always watched the show together, and then discussed their survival plans for a zombie apocalypse afterward. An apocalypse guaranteed to happen. It was just a matter of time.
"No throat ripping today." Kenna lifted the hem of her dress, revealing the small weapon strapped to her inner thigh. She rarely left home without some sort of protection. "I brought a mini-ax. I'll defend your honor."
"Hey! That ax is supposed to be reserved for zombie kills."
"Um, I'd say these people are close enough. Wouldn't you?"
Brook Lynn chuckled, and as always, drew the attention of every man nearby. Unfortunately, "every" included their boss, Mr. Calbert, who stood in a far corner watching his employees, making sure everyone did what they were supposed to do. He scowled at Brook Lynn and made a shooing motion with his hands. Grumpy businessman speak for go back to work or you're fired.
"I'll stay till the bitter end and help clean up," Kenna said. "That should pacify him for this little noninfraction infraction."
"No way. You won't be paid for it. And you need to get home to Norrie."
Norrie. Kenna's daughter, and the light of her life. The reason she pushed herself as hard as she did, working full-time and going to school part-time, with the dream of becoming a teacher. "She's staying the night with a friend, so no more protests. I'm helping and that's that."
"Okay. I accept and you're a doll." Brook Lynn kissed her cheek before sailing off.
Kenna meandered through the crowd. A few feet away, a guy held out his empty glass without looking away from the man he was conversing with, expecting the wait staff to see and take it. Afraid he would drop it and cause a scene, garnering Mr. Calbert's displeasure with his employees, she bounded forward and claimed the glass. Then the man beside him handed over the glass he'd just drained.
After she placed the empties on a passing tray, she circled the room, pretending to be a happy guest. The richest of women from Strawberry Valley were decidedly chilly with her, but then, that was nothing new. Some even drew their men away from her to stop any kind of interaction.
Chin up. Shoulders back. Smile. They'd never know how deeply their treatment wounded her.
She'd done penitence for her sins for seven years. She'd done penitence for her mother's sins for far longer. No one had wanted to cast blame on Thomas Michaelson--or anger him by turning on his lover. But they'd needed a target. And there I was, painting one on my chest.
The city folk were more than happy to chat with her, but they yammered on about things she didn't understand or even care to know. NYMEX. U.S. Energy Information Administration. Untapped oil and natural gas fields in Alaska and the continental United States. Finally she planted herself in a corner for a brief respite...and like a creeper, watched Dane.
The blond bombshell stayed at his side ninety-five percent of the time, clinging to his arm. No matter whom he spoke with, male or