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THE SIXTEEN-FOOT HIGH, wrought-iron gate in front of my father’s mansion serves two purposes. One: to keep other people out. Two: to keep me in. When a person thinks of a prison, they visualize cold, vertical bars sliding and clanking loudly within the tracks of a rectangular frame. No one pictures black, burnished steel elegantly constructed in a fancy scroll pattern or gorgeous electronically-driven twin gates that swing open like the massive jaws of a lion lazily yawning.
They imagine someone being confined in a six-by-eight cell with a grungy toilet and filthy sink. They cannot fathom a prisoner sleeping in the lap of luxury inside a southern plantation-style home with twenty rooms, five of which have full baths complete with Jacuzzi tubs. A place so grand it makes Tara from Gone with the Wind look like a dilapidated hovel in the ghetto.
Forgive me for sounding like a poor little rich girl, but that’s exactly what I am. Within these walls of wealth, I wear the finest fashions. Daily my body is draped in Dior, veiled in Versace and covered in Chanel while my soul is stripped naked of any real emotional connections. I consume the tastiest cuisine prepared by the most elite chefs—all trained in France—yet I am starved for even the most basic of affections.
My father—Mander Leif—is a big-shot billionaire perfume manufacturer. He’s also a brilliant chemist who has created some of the world’s most famous fragrances. He spends every waking hour on one business deal or another. The rest of the time, he’s filming his flamboyant perfume commercials, building his blog and advocating his online ads.
Despite his absences, I truly am proud of his accomplishments. Being an African-American man born into poverty, he literally had to claw his way out of the mire. With nothing more than a steely determination, a thirst for knowledge and a hunger for power, he built his empire from scratch. His company—Feline Fragrances—produces the most seductive scents in the entire world. So seductive he can’t resist screwing the waif-thin models who spritz their feathery-boned wrists and skinny, elongated necks with his brand.
Speaking of the adulterous devil, here he comes now.
Striding into the kitchen like the King of Confidence, he’s wearing a fitted suit from the Armani Collezioni G-Line. Leisurely, he selects a porcelain cup rimmed with 14-carat gold off a silver, Sheffield serving-tray. Filling it with espresso, he says, “Good morning, Cherub.”
The nickname is his subtle way of saying I’m his chubby angel. I prefer it to my mother’s not-so-subtle nicknames for me: fat-ass, pudge-bucket and dough-girl. In her defense, she mostly uses them while inebriated. Which is pretty much around the clock unless she’s in a ritzy resort somewhere drying out. This month it’s the Phoenician in Scottsdale, Arizona. I can’t say I miss her, but I do pity her. Why? Because she was really something before electricity.
Based on old photographs, she was the belle of the ball. Now, due to the heavy drinking and pill-popping, she’s a lily-white, washed-out, wrinkled- beyond-her-years socialite. That’s right. I’m the result of an interracial marriage. I don’t mind my much lighter shade of mocha skin tone or my unruly, raven-colored locks. What difference does it make how I look anyway when no one but the servants and my bodyguard see me?
Smiling up at my father from the table where I’ve just devoured a pile of smoked sausages and a stack of whole-wheat pancakes with real maple syrup, I say, “Good morning. What’s on tap for you today?”
He takes a silent sip of his highly-caffeinated beverage—such a debonair man of his financial stature wouldn’t dare slurp—and says, “More of the same. What sort of lofty plans does my princess have?”
Before answering, I guzzle my non-GMO, organic, pulp-free orange juice. I know he abhors this type of unrefined behavior, and I take great pleasure in the clench of his freshly-shaven jaw.
I answer his question with a question. “What sort of plans can a princess locked away in an ivory tower have, King Leif?”
He sighs heavily. “Must you be so dramatic, Aviana? You know very well that your isolation is for your own safety.”
“I’m suffocating here!”
“Then go out.”
I blow my breath so hard, a few pancake crumbs roll off the edge of my plate. “You mean with Landon?”
“Of course. He’s your bodyguard. I pay him good money to protect you.”
“Father, can’t you understand how I feel? I long to be free. To drive through those gates by myself and explore the world. I want to go for a long walk alone. To think and dream without intrusion.”
“Do those thoughts and dreams include being kidnapped by some sick psycho and held for ransom? Because that’s a very real possibility, young lady. There are thousands of criminal opportunists out there waiting to get their greedy hands on my fortune. And the best way to do that is through you. Cherub, you have been so sheltered, you have no idea how crazy the world is.”
“I can’t imagine it being any crazier than this world,” I say, spreading my arms in a gesture meant to encompass the entire mansion. “I know you think you’re taking care of me. That what you’re doing is for my own good. But there’s nothing good about being alone all the time.”
He scoffs, “You are not alone. You have the servants as well as Landon and Laura. She’s been your nanny since you were born. You are literally surrounded by people all day long.”
I shake my head. “Yeah. People on your payroll. I have no real friends. I’ve never even set foot in a classroom.”
“You had the best tutors money could buy. You have a better education than any student could hope for.”
“Education isn’t entirely about books, Father. I’m an eighteen-year-old with no life experiences. No boyfriend. No hopes of falling in love and getting married.”
He smiles and softens his voice. “I was going to wait until your mother got back from her vacation to share this news. But given your current state of despondency, I shall tell you now. Next month, I will be throwing a debutante-style dinner party for the sole purpose of finding you a suitable mate. Many of my business associates have fine sons. Young men with the proper pedigree and financial status to keep you in the lifestyle you’ve grown accustomed to.”
“Oh my God! I have heard it all now.”
“Actually, you haven’t, but I don’t have time to fill you in on all the details. I’m running late for a meeting,” he says, finishing his beverage. “We’ll talk more when I get home tonight, Cherub.”
Knowing this will be another one of many unfinished conversations, I push my plate to the side and eagerly grab the entertainment section of the newspaper. I like to look at the latest movie releases and daydream of sitting in a theatre full of my peers, holding hands with a man of my choosing, watching Hollywood’s best on the big screen.
Of course the mansion is equipped with a home theatre bigger than most cinemas. My father gets prescreen copies of movies long before they are released for public viewing. But like so many other activities I engage in, they are completely empty and hollow without someone special to share them with.
As I’m about to dispose of the paper, I see an announcement that turns my insides to jelly and sends me floating away on cloud nine.
I can’t believe it, but my favorite author of all time, Gavin Winslow, is doing a book signing at All Booked Up—our town’s local bookstore. Because I live a life of loneliness, novels have become my closest friends. When I was younger, I enjoyed tales of action and adventure. But when I hit puberty, I discovered the delicious world of romance. For the last five years, Mr. Winslow’s books have taken front and center stage in my reading. The man writes women and love scenes so well, I can’t help but imagine how good he would be in bed.
Feeling better and more hopeful than I ever have, I run to my room and start planning my great escape. No matter what it takes, I’m determined to sneak out and meet Gavin. I refuse to have such a scrumptious experience tainted with my father’s limo driver waiting by the curb or a bodyguard lingering by my side. Tonight, I’m going to make a memory with the most passionate, prolific writer in the romance genre. And guess what? He also happens to be the dreamiest man alive.
How do I know he’s so handsome? His picture is on the cover jacket of all his novels. I can’t tell you how often I’ve fallen asleep to the sight of his thick, chestnut-brown hair haphazardly falling across his forehead. How many times I’ve traced my fingertips along the image of his strong, square jaw and the cleft of his chin. How desperately I’ve longed to feel his full, firm lips pressed against mine. With any luck, I’ll at least be able to gaze into his emerald-green eyes tonight at All Booked Up.
AS WITH ALL OF my book signings, women of every age, shape, size and social status are lined up out the door and around the block. Don’t get me wrong; I’m grateful for my readers. I appreciate each and every one of them. But I have a gut feeling they wouldn’t appreciate me nearly as much if they understood what a dud I am in the sack. If they knew I was only able to make love to a woman between the pages of my books, they wouldn’t turn out in droves to see me. No female romance reader could respect a man who couldn’t do the deed in real life.
And no, it’s not a matter of taking a little blue pill. My problem is not a physiological one. It’s a psychological one. There’s nothing wrong with me physically. For complicated reasons, I simply have a slew of sexual snakes in my head which prevent me from performing. I’ve spent as much time on a psychiatrist’s couch as I have watching television on my own sofa. Years of therapy have done nothing to resolve my issues. I am no closer to fucking a woman now than when I first sought help.
My latest therapist has suggested I take a hiatus from my writing. She seems to think I need to steer my thoughts and energy in another direction. But what the fuck does she know? She’s not the one suffering from blue balls. She’s not the one whose teeth stay on edge, wanting and needing a coupling that never comes.
Sliding stacks of my latest book to the side, I take a long drink of seltzer water and plaster a smile on my face. The owner of All Booked Up, Skyler Chapman, gives me a gentle nod and unhooks the red, velvet rope separating me from my fans.
When I turn my attention from her to the first woman in line, I feel a jolt of white-hot electricity in my nether regions. My cock jerks as hard as a fishing rod with a Hammerhead shark struggling against the line. With her sinfully-abundant curves and her soft, sad eyes, she instantly has me under her spell.
My mouth goes dry, and my throat works convulsively as she steps up to the table with my novel—Shadows of Seduction—pressed against her ample breasts.
I’m at a loss for words while the raging boner in my trousers threatens to burst through my zipper. Clearing my throat, I manage to ask, “Who should I make the inscription out to?”
She blushes. “To your future wife.”
“I’m positive you haven’t made me come the first time,” she says, giggling. “Although I have no doubt you are quite capable of giving a gal multiple orgasms many times over. Your author bio states you’re single, Mr. Winslow. And as sure as I know my name, I’m certain you’re the man I’m meant to marry.”
I have no idea what to say to this woman. I’ve encountered overzealous fans before but none as bold as this one. She gives shock-value a whole new meaning. Even if she wasn’t acting completely nutty, she is way too young to be on my radar at all. Judging by her flawless, creamy skin and her youthful glow, I’d say she can’t be more than eighteen. I’m a damn decade older than her.
Feeling an overwhelming need to get her gone, I ask, “Why don’t you tell me your name? There’s a really long line behind you. We mustn’t keep the others waiting.”
“I’m Aviana Leif, soon to be Aviana Winslow,” she says, batting her velvety-black eyelashes.
She’s a natural flirt. A relentless one. I will give her that. But that’s all I can give her. Even if I were willing to entertain such foolish notions, I couldn’t be a husband in the biblical sense to her or any other woman. However, I’m sensing there is something super-special about Miss Leif. Something that calls to me on a deeper than physical level. A solidly-entrenched loneliness I can relate to.
This woman-child looks as if her soul is barely holding on by a thread. Her naked vulnerability and the need to be loved cries out from the depths of her soulful eyes. Pretty peepers that are wise beyond her years.
She slowly, almost reluctantly pushes the book into my outstretched hand. While I’m signing it, she quickly grabs my extra pen and jots her phone number down on one of the bookmarks I always give out to my readers. Lowering her voice to a whisper, she folds the bookmark in half, slides it across the table towards me and says, “Don’t lose this, Gavin. I’ll be waiting for your call.”
With a trembling hand, I pick up what I know without a doubt is a metaphorical Pandora’s Box and slip it into my pocket.
She takes her signed copy of Shadows of Seduction, gives me a little wave and disappears into the night.
THERE WAS A TIME when I found a book signing to be invigorating and energizing. Now I’m just happy it’s over and glad to be back home. Ready to relax, I flip the lever on the side of my recliner. It’s not until I’m prone that I realize how exhausted tonight’s event made me. Maybe my therapist was right after all. Perhaps a nice long hiatus would do me a world of good.
Clicking the remote, I turn on the late-night news and take a sip of iced tea. A banner for the lead story crawls slowly across the bottom of the screen. It reads: Aviana Leif—daughter of fragrance mogul, Mander Leif—has been hospitalized following a mugging outside a bookstore in downtown Sparkle City, South Carolina. Details of her condition have not been officially released, but sources are saying her injuries have resulted in blindness.
Panic grips my heart as nausea roils in my stomach. Fighting back disturbing, dick-deflating memories from long ago, I reach into my pocket and pull out the bookmark with Aviana’s number on it. Against my better judgement, I feel the need to call. My gut tells me to leave it alone. To leave her alone. But my soul says she needs me.
The phone rings several times before someone comes on the line. It’s a gruff, male voice, sounding a hundred times wearier than I feel.
“Who is this?” the voice demands.
“Gavin Winslow. I’m calling to inquire about Aviana.”
“I’m her father. Where did you get this number?”
“Uh, she gave it to me.”
“When, where and how?”
“Earlier this evening at All Booked Up. She wrote it down on a bookmark.”
“I see. So all of this is your fault.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t follow what you’re saying.”
“What I’m saying, Mr. Hotshot Romance Writer, is this: my one and only child, the heir to my vast empire, is lying in a hospital bed, blind as a bat because of you.”
“With all due respect, sir, I would say your daughter’s tragic condition is the mugger’s fault, not mine.”
“I disagree. Based on what Aviana said after regaining consciousness, she snuck out of the house to see you. Now, she can’t see anything at all. Had she not been so severely smitten by your stupid little love stories, she never would have used such poor judgement. She denies it, but I’m not so sure you didn’t do something to lure her to that bookstore. Why else would she have foolishly ventured off alone?”
“I won’t even attempt a guess at your daughter’s motivations, but I can assure you there was no luring involved. Until this evening, I had never met or even heard of her or you. Please give Aviana my best. I hope her recovery will be a speedy one.”
“You will give her those well-wishes yourself. Be at my mansion tomorrow morning at eight o’clock. This is your mess, Mr. Winslow. You’re going to clean it up,” he says, ending the call before I can reply.
Apparently, the arrogant asshole assumes everyone knows where the Leif mansion is located. I suppose that’s what GPS is for, I think before drinking the rest of my tea and wishing it was something a whole lot stronger.
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