T-minus four days until the release of the final chapter in the Cabrera Brothers trilogy, my first series with Harlequin! I'm celebrating by releasing the first chapter for free and sharing it with all the amazing readers who have supported me in my first nine months as a published author.
Thank you. This wouldn't have been possible without you.
Original artwork by Shupeipa
Lights flashed as techno music pulsed through Anna Vega’s veins. She stopped on the catwalk, bestowed a shaky Mona Lisa smile to the nearest camera and then cursed inwardly. Hadn’t someone told her not to smile, to look mysterious and aloof?
Too late now. Besides, she needed to concentrate on walking. One foot in front of the other on sky-high heels that were a feat of engineering. The shoes, a silver creation covered in sapphires, clicked on the glass walkway. The crystal-clear waters of the courtyard fountain bubbled behind her as she stopped for one last look before she disappeared behind the drapes and headed toward the room off the hotel courtyard that housed the rest of the models and their entourages.
Before she could suck in a breath, she walked through the double glass doors and into the waiting arms of half a dozen stylists.
“Brush out Anna’s hair!”
“No, no, the petal for her lips, not vixen!”
“Final dress is the tulle and organza!”
Anna closed her eyes, not letting the crowd pulsing around her witness her conflicting feelings of pride and pain. The final dress she would wear tonight, a gown with a full skirt and a deep neckline, was in honor of her mother. The skirt, a nod to the first formal dress her mother had bought her for family Christmas photos when she was four years old. The top, a nod to the countless times her mother had mentioned that one day she would get the confidence to wear something “just a little more daring.” A day that had never come thanks to a reckless driver on a Louisiana bayou backroad.
Yet her mother would be proud, too. The first design she’d created that was truly her own. No replicating, no playing it safe. No, this one was hers.
Although, Anna contended as she opened her eyes, she wouldn’t have made the plunge neckline quite so deep if she’d known she would be the one to wear it. But when Kess had called her up and told her that she needed Anna and would she please fly to Rome immediately with a suitcase of her designs, she’d put the dress and a few of her old passable works into a case and gone.
Except now she’d been catapulted from slow to light speed. What had started off as filling in some holes in Kess’s first fashion show after a designer had pulled out had turned into her debut as a model when one of the girls had come down with food poisoning.
In classic Kess style, aside from a slight tightening of her lips, she hadn’t shown how much each blow had stressed her out. No, she’d just sighed and plowed forward, determined to make her first show a success. When she’d approached Anna with the modeling request, it had terrified her. But Kess had always been there for her. It had been time for Anna to step up.
The gold of her dress shimmered beneath the lights backstage. A departure from the pastels she normally favored. She used to love the airiness, the crisp feeling, when she slid on something white. But after that damned article, all she saw was bland. Boring.
Even now she cringed at the picture of her that had been selected, the sensationalized text beneath. Although, she acknowledged with a slight smile, that article had at least done some good. In a moment of blazing I’ll show them anger, she’d ordered the fabric that had turned into this dress.
Anna opened her eyes to see Kess standing in front of her. Violet silk clung to the newest producer of Hampton Events’s statuesque frame, stopping just short of her ankles. A seductive drape gave the audience a glimpse of the sparkles a makeup artist had dusted across Kess’s ebony chest. She looked stunning.
Anna tried to give her friend a confident smile as someone tugged the fluffy layers of the skirt down over her legs. “A little different than T-shirts and sweatpants for late-night studying?”
Kess smiled as the concern disappeared. “A little. We’re definitely not in Granada anymore.”
The stage manager’s bellow cut through the cacophony of voices, hair dryers and music blaring over the crowd. Kess squeezed Anna’s hand and hurried away. Two seconds later, the manager yelled for Anna to get in place.
She tapped the toe of her matching gold heel on the ground as butterflies danced in her chest.
One last walk. One last walk and then you’re done and you never have to do this again.
Getting outside of her comfort zone was one thing. Being the center of attention was something else entirely.
“Last walk,” she muttered to herself. “You can do it, you can do it.”
The assistant in charge of the curtain glanced at her and then looked away, a small smile on his face. Compared to the legions of models he’d most likely seen over his career, she probably seemed ridiculous. Inexperienced.
Imposter syndrome reared its vicious head. What was she doing here? She wasn’t a model. She was a barely there fashion designer who had only recently gotten noticed because of a magazine article that had focused more on her personal choices than her art. Even then, the interest had been fleeting, the majority of the requests related to her very loose relationship with one of the wealthiest families in Europe. The couple of inquiries on her actual work hadn’t gone past portfolio requests.
She bit down on her lower lip. A nervous habit she’d developed as a child, one she’d mostly overcome. But moments like these brought it back; when she felt out of her depth and was thrust into the body of a frightened little girl who’d just lost her parents and heard over and over again that she would be protected, shielded from the cruelties of the world. Who, every time she had tried to venture out on her own, was faced with more restrictions, more rules, more questions about whether she was capable of doing this or that on her own.
Over time, hearing how much her aunt and uncle didn’t think she was strong had sunk into her bones. Her parents’ deaths had changed her, zapped so much of who’d she been and left her hollowed out by grief, that she’d accepted their overbearing coddling, allowed herself to eventually believe that she was weak and needed others to depend on.
Except for one. She shook her head. No, he’d always encouraged her, told her she could do anything, be anyone.
Just not his lover.
She scrunched her eyes shut against the memory. Now was not the time to be thinking of one of her biggest failures.
The assistant’s voice banished the last bits of the past. She opened her eyes, squared her shoulders and walked forward. A quick turn to the right after the drapery ended and she was back on the catwalk. Even though the blaring music made it impossible to hear almost anything else, the incessant click of cameras echoed as flashes went off around her.
Then it happened. The heel of the right shoe snapped. Thrown off balance, she stumbled once, twice, then pitched to the side and off the catwalk. In that moment, she heard the collective gasp of the crowd, the frantic clicking of the cameras, her own heartbeat thundering as the wisps of her skirt flew up into her face and thankfully blinded her to her most humiliating moment.
She landed in someone’s lap. She couldn’t see who, but she could feel him. Most definitely a him, she thought as strong arms wrapped around her and steadied her. Despite the severity of the moment, her body registered the muscular chest she was clasped against, the spicy amber scent rolling off her rescuer that simultaneously teased her with its familiarity and comforted her.
“I’m so sorry, I…” Her words trailed off as she pushed the material down and met the glittering brown eyes of the man she’d once loved.
The world returned in a rush as the flashes intensified. Her first instinct was to hide her face in her hands, to try to slink off into the crowd and hope the paparazzi wouldn’t follow.
She swallowed hard. No matter how tempting, running away wouldn’t solve anything. Plus, it would detract from Kess’s show. And it would prove what Antonio had said all those years ago.
You’re just a child, Anna.
She inhaled deeply and then looked Antonio straight in the eye.
“Could I request your assistance? Please,” she added softly.
His lips quirked. “Other than rescuing a damsel in distress?”
It had been ten years since they’d last spoken. She thought she’d remembered his voice, but memories were nothing compared to the deep velvet that slid over her skin.
Steady. Now was not the time to be indulging in any kind of fantasy. Especially when she had a job to do.
“I need to get these heels off. Could you help me stand?”
Before she could stop him, he fisted his hand in the folds of her skirt and tugged up. Just to the middle of her calves, but the gesture froze her breath in her lungs. Her heart kicked into overdrive as his tan fingers slid over her ankles, undid the strap of the offending shoe with skilled dexterity, and slid it off. He repeated the same process with the other as she sat there like a child, barely keeping her mouth closed even as she wanted to release a sigh at how wonderful the brief grazes of his fingertips felt on her skin.
She should be embarrassed. Humiliated. Petrified as the cameras clicked on and the hum of audience gossip built like bees buzzing furiously.
But she didn’t. All she felt, all she saw, was tied up in that moment.
His eyes met hers and, for one second, she saw a mahogany fire flash within the depths.
Then it disappeared just as quickly as it had come. Whatever emotion she’d hoped she’d seen was probably nothing more than a reflection of the cameras capturing her literal fall from grace.
She turned to see Kess approaching them.
“I’m getting back up.” She shot her friend something that she hoped resembled a smile, aware that the world was watching every moment of her little drama. She started to shift on Antonio’s lap and stand. A grunt escaped his lips.
“Oh! I’m sorry, did I hurt—”
He stood in one smooth motion, an arm wrapped around her back, the other holding her legs as he strode forward and set her on the catwalk.
“You can do this,” Kess whispered from behind her as Anna stood. Anna glanced down at her friend then silently chastised herself as her eyes inadvertently drifted to Antonio. He stared at her for one long moment, his gaze opaque, before giving her a nod of silent encouragement.
Anna swallowed hard and turned to face the audience. Thunderous applause rose up, echoing through the plaza as people cheered. She forced a smile onto her face to acknowledge the support of the crowd, inclined her head and then started forward, holding up the skirt so she didn’t have a repeat performance.
Despite the warm reception to her tumble, her eyes grew hot. For one blissful moment she’d been distracted by Antonio. But now, standing alone on stage with all eyes fixed on her, it was a struggle to finish her walk without giving in to the embarrassment that tightened her throat or the worry in the back of her mind that she’d sunk Kess’s show.
And then there was the knowledge that as she reached the end of the runway and posed, Antonio was watching her.
You can do this.
Kess’s words added fuel to the fire that started to burn low in her belly. She could do this. She raised her chin, aimed one last watery smile right at the cameras, then turned and walked back down the runway.
She saw him out of the corner of her eye, could feel his gaze pinned on her. But she stayed focused, looking neither right nor left, as she neared the end.
Antonio had helped her tonight; that much was true. She would have to send him a thank-you card or something to the Cabrera family home in Spain. But his one moment of kindness didn’t change that he had taken her offered heart and cruelly shattered it. That he’d never once reached out in all the time they’d been apart. At one time, he had been her friend, her strength, her first love.
But that time had come and gone.
She passed by him, proud of herself for not giving in to the temptation to look at him. This time, she was the one who would get to walk away.
The final chapter in the Cabrera Brothers trilogy...available February 22nd!
The innocent, the billionaire and their headline-grabbing ruse! Discover this enchanting fake-relationship romance from Emmy Grayson!
Scandalous front-page news…
Or a real-life fairy tale?
Aspiring fashion designer Anna Vega’s spent years healing from her former best friend Antonio Cabrera’s rejection. She’s mortified to literally fall into the billionaire’s arms and spark headlines. Antonio’s solution to refocus the unwanted attention? A ruse of a romance!
After a brush with tragedy, Antonio’s molded himself into the perfect businessman. Anna’s always been a gleaming diamond he’s never felt worthy of. He knows he wants her to stay in his life. First, he’ll have to let her see beyond the impenetrable man he’s become…
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