An Exclusive! Novel, Book 2                           December 31, 2016         

         An Exclusive! Novel, Book 2         
                 December 31, 2016
        

Exclusive! Which singing superstar is ready to rekindle an old, infamous flame?

Five years ago, R&B star Dean Copeland found the success he’d always wanted, but only after leaving behind the only woman he’s ever loved. He’s never been able to forget her—not even when she tried to ruin his career. Now, a quirk of fate has brought her back into his life, sources tell us.

Nadia Ferguson never meant to become a celebrity gossip blogger, but after Dean disappeared, all she wanted was a little revenge. Now a popular makeup artist, she’s left her former occupation behind. If only forgetting her first love was that easy.

This time, walking away isn’t an option for either of them, those in the know say. Not when they need each others' help to get ahead. Certainly not when their attraction burns brighter than ever.

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Chapter One

“DC, you’re killing me!”

Dean Copeland ignored the usweekly.com article his manager, Tony, thrust at him and continued striding across the office to the mini-fridge. “That’s unfortunate. Also highly unlikely since you are alive and well and talking to me.”

“That’s your problem right there,” Tony said, smacking the paper against his palm. “That smart-ass attitude. The press laps that shit up. And you insist on giving them more ammunition.”

“How? Because I say the new album’s not ready and I don’t know when it will be?” Dean yanked opened the refrigerator and grabbed a bottle of water with a little more force than was truly necessary. He twisted the cap off and took a long swallow. The cold liquid didn’t do much to cool his irritation.

Tony released one of his patented dramatic sighs. “You got into a Twitter fight with a fan.”

Dean shrugged. “He called me every name in the book and some he made up. I defended myself.”

Tony threw his hands up. “And the press picked it up. Some are calling you Diva Dean. There are rumors you’re demanding a new contract before you’ll record a new album. People are wondering if you are a jerk, after all.”

Every muscle in Dean’s body tensed at that word. Jerk. Something he’d been called before by a person who was supposed to have his back. When worse words weren’t being used. Dean glared at the other man. “I’m not a jerk.”

His manager sent him a conciliatory look. “I know that, but it doesn’t help that someone at the record company is spreading rumors because you haven’t produced a new album. You’re costing them money, and they’re pissed.”

Dean made a sound of disgust. “So they’re going to guilt me back into the studio?”

“As far as they’re concerned, the end justifies the means.” Tony rocked back on the heels of his expensive designer shoes. “Soooo…when do you plan on getting back in the studio?”

Dean spoke through gritted teeth. “When I’m ready.”

He dropped into one of the white postmodern chairs his manager preferred. Tony claimed they were an investment. Dean called them uncomfortable, but since they were all he had to work with, he’d make do. He settled back as much as the narrow, stiff-backed chair allowed.

“That’s not good enough,” Tony sputtered, agitation filling his dark eyes.

Because Tony was in that state ninety percent of the time, Dean didn’t worry. He looked to his right and studied the magazine offerings on the end table. Billboard, Rolling Stone, Variety, and a few others. At least Tony didn’t have one of the gossip mags which loved to detail the latest Dean Copeland scandal. He picked up the magazine on top and flipped it open. Ugh. Some trade publication that covered every possible conference in the U.S. Boring. But he kept his head down, not in the mood to have the conversation he’d had with Tony at least ten times before.

Another sigh from Tony reached his ears anyway. “You’ve got to take this seriously. People aren’t going to wait forever.”

Yeah, yeah, he’d heard it all before. Usually from himself as he stared at his image in the mirror while he shaved every morning. His fans were starting to get restless. He snorted. Shit, who was he kidding? His fans were well past restless. Not that he could blame them.

Five years since he’d signed his record deal. Four years since his first album was released. Three years since he’d won Grammys for Best New Artist and Record of the Year. Album of the Year, too. Eleven million albums sold. A sold-out, worldwide concert tour. All the radio airplay, magazine covers, and TV appearances a recording star could hope for, not to mention the countless YouTube hits and social media followers he’d accumulated.

With all that acclaim, why hadn’t he tried to duplicate his success? The million dollar question on everyone’s lips.

“The only good thing about your hiatus is that no one pays attention to what that woman says on her website anymore.”

That woman. Hope. The familiar mixture of pain and confusion—guilt—twisted his insides at the mention of the woman who’d once meant everything to him. A man never forgot the woman who tried to destroy his life. The woman who’d acted as his muse. A woman he’d once loved. A love she’d killed with her vindictive actions. A love he’d killed first.

Dean glared at the other man. “Tony.”

His manager held up his hands. “Sorry, but you see the messages you get on Twitter and Instagram. Your fans want answers.”

They did. His fans were still rabid, waiting with bated breath for news on more music from him, but it wouldn’t take much for them to latch on to the next best thing and forget all about him. He should get back in the studio and crank out another CD.

Dean dropped his head and flipped the magazine page. Hell, if it were that easy, he would have released three more albums by now. But it wasn’t. He’d written some songs. He couldn’t not write. Too bad the songs were all shitty, unworthy of being recorded as demos, let alone released to the public. His music had to mean something. It had to come from the heart. His fans deserved that and he refused to give them anything less than his best.

And he was nowhere near his best.

That first album had been so easy to write. So personal. So cathartic. So natural.

But did he really want to go back to that well? There was no question what his fans wanted. The pain, the longing, the confusion that defined his first album, when Hope was lost. But he didn’t know if he could give them what they wanted. Wasn’t it about time he moved on? But if he didn’t write and sing songs about the agony and the wonder of love, about her, then what was left?

He didn’t know and that scared him more than anything, including baseless threats from his high-strung manager.

“The record label called again this morning,” Tony continued. “They’re planning something. I don’t know what, but they are, so you need to give them some new music, so they’ll back off. You’ve got to get over this writer’s block.”

He knew that. Better than anyone. He loved music. He wanted to get back in the studio and produce magic. It was what he lived for. What he’d worked for his whole life, even when his father told him he was wasting his time. When his dad told him music was pointless. Real men had real jobs. Real men didn’t have feelings. They sure as hell didn’t reveal them in songs for everyone to hear.

Dean flipped another glossy page, this time a colorful ad catching his eye. A winemaker’s conference in California. He liked wine. Maybe he should go. Who cared if he wasn’t a vintner? Maybe getting hammered with the world’s best wines would kick-start his writing mojo.

“Are you listening to me?” Tony asked, sputtering again. The familiarity of Tony’s reaction calmed Dean.

He turned the page. “Every word.”

“Oh.” Tony sounded surprised, but pleased. Dean glanced up in time to catch his manager tugging on the lapels of his pinstriped sports jacket with satisfaction. “Good to hear. We need to brainstorm. Figure something out.”

Did Tony think he hadn’t been trying? He had. Every single day. Another page flip. More conferences. Ticketing systems this time. Boring.

“You need a change in scenery,” Tony said. “You should go on vacation. For real this time. Sleep with a groupie or two.”

Sex advice from his workaholic manager? Is this what his life had come to? With a sigh, Dean turned the page.

“Find another Hope.”

That wasn’t going to happen. Ever. He’d moved on. She didn’t mean anything to him anymore. She couldn’t. And if his manager brought her up one more time…Dean growled.

Tony backed up. “Okay, okay. I won’t mention her again. But you do need to relax. No playing shows, no running to make a flight, no being in a different city every night…”

Dean stilled, Tony’s voice fading away to nothing. He gaped at the page, certain his eyes were deceiving him. He blinked twice and refocused on the magazine. No, his eyes were fine. LASIK surgery, courtesy of his first royalty statement, had made sure of that. What he was seeing was as real as real could get.

“Somewhere tropical. With beaches and all the alcohol and willing women you can stand. A real vacation. That’ll get the creative juices flowing.”

Dean leaped up from the chair. “Tony, you’re right. I need a vacation. As a matter of fact, my vacation starts now.”

Tony pumped his fists in the air. “Great. Where are you going? When will you be back?”

But Dean was already gone.

 

****

 

Nadia lightly brushed blush on her volunteer’s impressive cheekbones and tried to ignore the chattering from the audience. What she was doing was interesting, but not worthy of incessant whispering and giggling. She didn’t think anyway. Had she accidentally put mascara on the model’s lips and lipstick on her lashes? It was possible. After all, she’d been working on autopilot while sneaking peeks out the corner of her eye to see if she could spot the source of the whispers and giggles.

She stepped back and inspected her handiwork. No, everything was as it should be. Tara, the volunteer, looked lovely, if Nadia did say so herself. Which she did. She did good work and was damned proud of that fact.

She’d demonstrated a beach bride look on the blonde. Tinted moisturizer evened out her skin tone, which had some natural redness in it. Bronzer on her cheekbones and the tip of her nose where the sun hit. A touch of light pink lipstick for color and she was done. Fresh-faced, natural and stunning. Nadia’s calling card.

Not that the audience seemed to appreciate her efforts. She looked into the crowd again. Nothing looked amiss. Conference attendees filled every seat, but hardly anyone was paying attention to the happenings on the stage. They were too busy giggling, murmuring to each other, and peering at the back door.

Hmmph.

Tara shrugged, clearly as perplexed as she was. Nadia sent the other woman a hopefully reassuring smile, then stepped closer to the microphone. “Does anyone have any questions?”

She stared into the capacity crowd, waiting for someone, anyone, to ask a question. Not one hand rose. So much for this being one of the most highly anticipated workshops at the conference. She looked at the clock on the back wall and stifled a sigh. “All right. Well, that concludes my presentation. If anyone has any questions, I’ll be here for a few more minutes.”

She turned to gather her supplies after a quick stop to thank Tara. Her supplies were laid out very precisely—she wouldn’t have it any other way. She carefully returned the brushes and makeup to their rightful places in her case and wiped the counter with disinfectant wipes. The twittering behind her faded away as the attendees rushed out of the room like they’d just been told that one million dollars in free makeup was up for grabs down the hall.

Hmmph.

Nadia glanced at her watch. She had about an hour and a half to kill before she was supposed to meet her friend Charlotte. Enough time to go back to her room and grab a quick nap. She was ready for a break. She’d done two presentations today during the first day of the International Cosmetics and Spa Conference, a conference she’d been welcomed to as a featured speaker. Which apparently meant nothing considering how fast all the attendees had run out of there.

Nadia sighed. Okay, maybe she should stop being grumpy. Folks had come to the presentation, after all. Bright side. Silver lining and all that jazz.

Footsteps sounded behind her. Ooh, maybe someone did have a question. One more brush to return to its designated spot and she’d be done and ready to answer any questions that came her way.

“Hope.”

Nadia froze, the brush slipping out of her suddenly nerveless hand and dropping onto the counter she’d just wiped clean.

No. It couldn’t be. Her ears must be deceiving her. They had to be.

But the voice was so familiar. Achingly familiar, even though she hadn’t heard it in person in years. Not since the last time she was here at the Corazon y Sol Resort in Miami. Her feet refused to move. Her voice refused to work. But they had to and soon. If she didn’t turn around and say something, she’d be confirming his assertion.

“I’m sorry. You have the wrong person,” she managed to push past a throat that had gone dry as three-year-old foundation. She grabbed the brush and stuffed it in her case, abandoning any attempts to be neat. She couldn’t concentrate on orderliness at a time like this. She had to get out of there.

His hand landed on her bare arm, sending an electric shock through her body.

“No, I don’t think so.”

 

***

 

Dean hadn’t believed what he’d seen in that magazine. Not really.

But it was true. Hope was here. No. Nadia Ferguson, successful makeup artist/esthetician and entrepreneur.

Only she was trying to deny the truth. But there was no point in denying the undeniable. He’d witnessed her patented neat freak side in her precise care and handling of her supplies. Her voice was the same. Smooth as silk. Confident. Her clothes were different, but he liked them. Five years ago, she hadn’t called attention to herself with her attire. The passing time had made a big difference. White skinny jeans molded to curvy legs and were paired with a silky, hot pink top that clung to her perfect breasts. Killer silver heels completed the eye-catching look.

She was as sexy as he remembered. Sexier. Why he’d expected that to change he didn’t know. Wishful thinking on his part, he guessed. Hope that his recollections of her were inaccurate.

She tried to jerk away, but he tightened his hold. He didn’t want to let her go. Not after all this time apart. The thought shook him. What the hell was he doing? He released her. The tingle that raced up his arm from the contact needed to be ignored. It was undoubtedly caused by memories of their time together. But memories were remnants of the past. That’s all they’d ever have. A past. As it should be.

Hope—no, Nadia—turned and looked him in the eye. “What do you want? What are you doing here?”

Like she was the only one who could demand answers. “Why did you lie to me?”

If she’d told him her real name, imagine what their future could have been. More importantly because it was more important, if he’d known her real name, he could have done more to stop the damage she’d tried to inflict on his career.

Her eyes widened. “I lied to you,” she said, pointing first at herself, then at him. “Are you kidding? You’ve got some nerve.”

Guilt stabbed him near his heart because of course she was right. He’d screwed up in a major way, but her lie had made it impossible to correct. And then she’d come back at him, guns blazing. So yeah, he was the one who had a right to be pissed. “We need to talk.”

“About what? Go and crawl back under whatever rock you slithered out from.” She grabbed her case and started around him.

Dean stepped in front of her and ignored the glare that would have caused lesser men to check their family jewels to make sure they hadn’t turned to paste. This close he catalogued the features that had once been so dear to him—the creamy skin the color of caramel, the long, thick lashes that framed large, brown eyes spitting fire at him, the small snub of a nose she’d always decried. Black hair framed her face in soft curls he’d loved to run his hands through. “You were good with her.”

She jerked back, then stared at him, confusion swirling in her eyes. “What are you talking about?”

“That lady. I watched you with her. At the beginning, she could barely string two words together, but you worked your magic and relaxed her.” He’d slipped into the room, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible, and watched her do her thing, but left after a few minutes when a few people recognized him and started pointing and whispering.

“Umm…thanks. If that’s all, you can go now.” H-Nadia licked plump lips covered in shiny gloss.

He stared at her mouth, the blood thickening in his veins as he remembered the passionate kisses they’d shared. Would that same fire still exist between them?

“Dean…”

He’d always loved hearing her say his name. How she’d sigh it during their lovemaking. He dragged his gaze upward, not bothering to hide his thoughts. Her eyes widened. Yes, she knew what he was thinking. Maybe even shared the same thoughts. “Hmm?”

“You…”

He inched closer, noting the languor in her eyes and her quickening breath. “What?”

Bang!

They jumped apart and whirled toward the door where a hotel employee was pushing a housekeeping cart into the room. She stopped when she spotted them. “Sorry. I thought the room was empty. I’ll come back.”

“No,” Nadia said. “Don’t go. I was about to leave.” She glared at him. “Stay away from me.” She stalked out of the room without a backward glance.

He started after her, but the housekeeper moved in front of him, blocking his way. “Hey, are you DC? Can I have an autograph?”

Over her shoulder, he watched, frustration tearing through him, as Nadia rushed down the hall. Out of his reach. But he wasn’t done with her yet. Not even close. She could run, but she couldn’t hide. Not this time. Not anymore.

 

***

 

Nadia craned her neck, scouring the crowded lobby behind her, as she hurried toward the hotel’s bank of elevators. Also known as salvation. She half-expected to see Dean bearing down on her, but she didn’t spot him. That didn’t stop her from smashing the up button when she arrived at the elevator a few seconds later or silently begging the car to hurry up and get there. Moments later, the elevator did her bidding and opened.

Her shoulders slumping in relief, she stepped inside and pressed the button for her floor. The doors smoothly eased shut—until a hand shot through the tiny opening. The panels jerked once, like they weren’t sure what to do, then slid open.

Dean squeezed through the gap.

“Get out,” she ordered.

“No.”

“Then I’ll go.” She stepped forward, but the traitorous doors had already closed, and he blocked her from the button panel. She’d have to reach around him or push him out of the way. Yeah, right. No way in hell she was getting closer to or touching him. Definitely no touching. Her arm still tingled where he’d touched her earlier.

So she strove to ignore him. A good plan, but a virtually impossible one. The elevator was big, but not big enough. She could smell him. He smelled the same. A ridiculous thought. She hadn’t seen him in years. She shouldn’t remember what he smelled like, but she did. Delicious. Like soap and cologne, a subtle, spicy ginger aroma that had always tickled her nose in an intoxicating manner.

And while his fans rhapsodized about his song lyrics and stellar voice, they were just as likely to moon over his looks. The jackass. She didn’t have to look at him to remember every feature. A sharp blade of a nose. Dark eyes that missed nothing. A strong, hard jaw. A scar on his left cheek she’d traced more times than she cared to admit. A lean, muscular build highlighted by broad shoulders and long legs. Skin the color of cocoa. Rich, delicious, dark cocoa. He was ridiculously gorgeous, in other words.

A slight noise almost had her turning toward him, but she caught herself in the nick of time. She knew what had happened. He’d slumped his rangy figure against the wall and crossed his arms. There’d never been a wall he didn’t live to slouch against.

Instead, she stared straight ahead and willed the elevator to go faster. She’d been thrilled when she’d been given an ocean-view room on one of the hotel’s highest floors. Now she wished she’d claimed a fear of heights when she checked in. The elevator crept upward. No one joined them, of course. That, apparently, was asking for way too much.

“You can’t ignore me forever.”

His voice rumbled behind her, sending a delicious shiver down her spine. Deep and smooth with a hint of Texas, his home state. She’d always teased him about the accent he claimed he didn’t have. He said she only heard it because she was from California. Her lips curved at the memory.

Unacceptable.

“Watch me,” she answered.

“I’m not going away. You know I’m not, so we might as well get this over with.”

Nadia glared at the elevator doors and pressed her lips together to keep a curse from spilling out. He was persistent or at least he had been in pursuing her five years ago. Later, after she’d cried enough tears to fill the Atlantic Ocean, she’d realized he’d done so for the thrill of the chase. When he’d caught her, he’d gotten bored and left. But he’d worn her down then, and now he’d come all the way to Miami and chased her into an elevator after she’d told him to get lost. So no, he wasn’t going anywhere. That didn’t mean she had to talk to him, however.

You owe me.”

She owed him?

She whipped around so fast, only the ballet lessons she’d taken for years as a kid kept her from falling on her butt. “I owe you nothing.”

Her glare should have been enough to incinerate him. He didn’t so much as blink, damn him. No, he scoffed instead. “Really? Even though you tried to destroy my career?”

She flinched. She couldn’t help it. “I didn’t try to destroy your career.”

That had just kinda happened. And he’d recovered anyway, so how much damage had she really done?

Anger flashed in his eyes. In an instant, he’d stretched to his full height, his arm whipping around her. A second later, the elevator screeched to a halt. He focused his intense gaze on her. “Then what do you call it?”