One Night of Misbehavior
He wears his scars on the outside. She keeps hers safe inside.
Charlotte Dixon ignores her stepmother’s edict and, in an act of disobedience, attends one of the social events of the year—a masquerade costume ball. Charlotte’s naughtiness escalates when she dances and smooches with a sexy mystery man. The night of anonymous passion that follows makes her yearn for a different life, but the next day she’s back to her dull routine of household management.
Advertising tycoon, Ash Marlborough is about to set a private investigator on the trail of his nameless princess when she waltzes right into his place of work. Charlotte is shocked to meet her masked man in the flesh, and even more perturbed when he asks her out on a date. Despite craving another night of sexy loving, she doesn’t have time for a man, not when she wants to reinvent herself and grasp a new, improved life with both hands. But Ash knows what he wants, and he’s determined to win the heart of his princess. Let the dance of seduction commence.
Warning: Contains a conniving stepmother, selfish stepsisters, a grandmother with fairy godmother tendencies and a sexy masked man who is willing to face them all for the love of a good woman.
“Charlotte Joanna Dixon!” A shrill voice—her stepmother’s—hacked through Charlotte’s Saturday morning lie-in and intensified the boom, boom, boom of her aching head. “Of all the mornings for you to sleep late,” Elizabeth screeched. “Didn’t you set your alarm clock? I have to meet the fundraising committee in an hour.” The sharp accusations kept coming, accompanied by a thunk on her bedroom door.
Charlotte stared up at the damp spot on her bedroom ceiling and started silently counting to ten. One. Two. Three. Snippets of music, memories of a sexy masculine form crept into her mind, and her count faltered. Last night she’d experienced the dizzy taste of freedom and now the thought of her normal routine rubbed like a raw blister. Her mouth settled into a mutinous line. Maybe she’d stay here all day.
“Charlotte!” Doors slammed. The water pipes in the old Victorian groaned as they gave up water for the shower. “Hurry up.”
Or not. Sighing, Charlotte scrambled into jeans and a T-shirt and trudged down the sweeping stairs to the kitchen. On automatic pilot, she started the coffeemaker then filled the jug to boil for Gran’s tea. While she waited, she trotted outside to grab the early morning post from the mailbox.
Soon the scent of fresh coffee flooded the kitchen, making her stomach lurch in protest. Maybe the last glass of Champagne hadn’t been the best idea. Gritting her teeth, she set the breakfast table, then swallowed down two headache tablets and assembled a tea tray for her grandmother. When she carried the tray and three letters upstairs, she found her grandmother was already awake, perusing one of the new craft magazines she’d had Charlotte purchase for her the previous day.
“Morning, Gran. How are you feeling? You have mail from your friends.”
“Charlotte.” Gran put down the magazine and peered over her glasses. Her blonde curls were already brushed into submission and a pale pink lipstick gave her face a touch of color. She cocked her head in Charlotte’s direction like an inquisitive bird. “You were late home. Tell me about the ball.”
“Shush, someone will hear.” Heat suffused Charlotte’s cheeks as memories of the previous evening rose to thump her over the head—seductive music, dancing, glasses of tickly Champagne. Many glasses of crisp, fruity Champagne. And Zorro.
Her entire evening summed up in a few words. She’d let a tall, masked man seduce her with his charisma and endless glasses of Champagne. The night of freedom had gone to her head along with the alcoholic buzz, and for one night, the mysterious and very sexy Zorro had shoved her loneliness aside. Unsteady hands poured tea for her grandmother. After adding a touch of milk, she handed over the cup and saucer.
“I danced so much my feet are sore,” she said, opting for a partial truth. She did have a blister on her little toe.
“Good. Did you see Elizabeth at the ball? What about Jenny and Rachel?”
Charlotte plopped on the end of Gran’s bed and nodded cautiously. The pain was muted now, the tablets working their magic. “They seemed to enjoy the ball. Everyone danced all night. The band was excellent.”
Gran’s faded blue eyes twinkled behind the lenses of her glasses. “Did they recognize you?”
“They didn’t glance at me twice.”
“I told you so.” Her grandmother’s gaze zeroed in on her neck.
Charlotte recalled the addictive kisses Zorro had trailed down her throat, the sensual bite and suck, and groaned inwardly. Kisses plus suction equaled one thing. Hickeys.
“Did you meet someone special?”
“No,” Charlotte said quickly. Too quickly.
Charlotte was glad someone saw because she didn’t understand her actions of the previous night. Yes, she’d had too much Champagne, but she’d known what she was doing. No one had forced her to kiss Zorro or to run her hands down his naked chest. Heck, no one had forced her to scream with the pleasure of her orgasm either. It was as if an alien had taken possession of her—one who enjoyed the heck out of sex.
“I think I’ll go down to breakfast this morning,” Gran said unexpectedly. “I want to hear about the ball.”
“I’ll help you dress.”
“There’s a tube of concealer in my dressing table drawer,” Gran said. “Perhaps you should apply some to your neck while I’m taking a shower. You don’t want Elizabeth asking embarrassing questions.”
No, she did not. Half an hour later, Charlotte had breakfast ready and Gran was seated at the table, eating a bowl of porridge.
Elizabeth stalked into the kitchen and sat beside her mother. “Coffee.”
“Elizabeth,” Gran said in a sharp tone. “Charlotte isn’t your maid.”
Elizabeth yawned and smoothed a hand over her neat blonde bob. “I provide her with a roof over her head and a small wage. The least she can do is make me breakfast on a Saturday morning.”
Charlotte frowned in Gran’s direction. Mother and daughter couldn’t be more different in temperament and often butted heads. She wasn’t about to get into the middle of one of their arguments. She rose from the table and her dry toast, grabbed a mug and poured coffee for Elizabeth. On hearing the clomp-clomp of footsteps on the stairs, she pulled two more mugs from the cupboard. She handed one to Jenny and the second to Rachel as they sailed past to join their grandmother and mother at the table. All four women were petite and blonde with blue eyes. Jenny and Rachel wore jeans and silky tops to highlight their curves while Elizabeth stuck with classic—black trousers and a feminine blouse in baby pink.
“What’s for breakfast?” Jenny asked. “I’ve got the munchies.”
“There’s fruit and cereal or I can make some more porridge,” Charlotte said, praying none of them noticed the love bites. The concealer hadn’t exactly lived up to its name.
“I’ll have toast,” Rachel said. “Whole wheat.”
“I’ll have fruit and cereal,” Jenny said.
Without a word, Charlotte started preparing the requested breakfasts.
“Did you enjoy the ball?” Gran chirped.
Charlotte frowned in Gran’s direction, noting the satisfied glitter in her eyes. A secret smile played on Gran’s lips as she studied her granddaughters and daughter. Then she shot a mischievous glance at Charlotte, her granddaughter by marriage.
“I want details,” Gran said. “The spicier, the better.”
“I wish they’d had an ordinary ball instead of a costume one,” Jenny said. “It was difficult guessing identities. I don’t want to waste effort playing nice with men who don’t have money.”
“That’s not a good attitude,” Gran scolded. “When I was a young girl, we accepted dances from everyone who asked us. It was good manners.”
Rachel rolled her eyes. “Times change, Gran. Women can vote now.”
“I want the girls to make good marriages,” Elizabeth said. “Money is important.”
“I don’t want a traditional relationship,” Jenny said. “I want a career plus a rich man. Did I tell you Marlborough Media is looking for a junior designer? They’re starting interviews on Tuesday.”
“Are you applying?” Rachel asked. “You’d have a good shot since you’re already working there. More coffee, please, Charlotte.”
Charlotte’s ears pricked, and she wondered if there was the slightest hope of scoring an interview. While she loved Gran and didn’t mind looking after her, she’d kill to break into the graphics field and gain more independence. No rich men for her. No marriage either. She wanted to step into Ms. Independent’s shoes and answer to no one but herself.
“I’ve already booked an interview slot.” Jenny flashed a grin, sharing her confidence with each of them in turn. “I intend to grab that spot.” She shook out her long blonde hair and picked up her coffee. “I heard they’d stopped taking applicants because they have enough.”
“Charlotte wants to go into graphic design,” Gran said casually.
“Charlotte?” Elizabeth’s plucked brows rose to new heights. “How are you going to manage a job? Who is going to look after Mum when her lupus flares up? Who will run our errands? No, it’s impossible. We need Charlotte to cook meals and run the household for us.” She reinforced her words with a glower that dared Charlotte to argue otherwise.
Charlotte picked up her toast with a trembling hand and forced herself to take another bite. It helped to still the tap-dancing in the pit of her stomach and dammed up her words of protest. She was saving every cent she could, but her bank account remained depressingly small. One day, she promised herself.
“She doesn’t have the qualifications to apply for the job,” Jenny said, her tone and pointed look running along Smug Street. “So it’s a moot point. I hope Ash Marlborough sits in on the interviews. He’s amazing. And he’s single.”
“It wouldn’t hurt to have an in with a rich bachelor,” Elizabeth said in a thoughtful manner, obviously dismissing any further thoughts of Charlotte getting a job.
“Exactly.” Jenny smirked in Charlotte’s direction again. “A job and a rich lover in one swoop.” She’d made a turn onto Complacent Drive.
“He has scars on his face,” Rachel said with distaste. “I can’t look at him for longer than a few seconds. Imagine having to kiss him.”
Jenny shrugged. “Who cares what he looks like if he has money?”
Charlotte wanted to clap her hands over her ears, or even better, go back to bed. Instead she dispensed toast, fruit and cereal and made another pot of coffee, tuning out the usual morning discussions and avarice from her stepmother and stepsisters. Her mind turned more pleasant corners, drifting to the previous night and her Zorro lover. He’d asked her for a dance early on in the night. They’d laughed and talked about the different costumes. She’d felt like a real princess in her apricot ball gown with full skirts and the beaded bodice that cupped, lifted and flattered. The best part was her invisibility to her stepmother and stepsisters. Her dark brown wig and skillful makeup, courtesy of Gran’s best friend Esther, had completed the fantasy, and Zorro’s attention made her feel extra special. Their conversation had morphed into design and different advertising promotions they’d enjoyed, and an undercurrent of lust hummed between them, growing more urgent as the evening progressed. Charlotte removed the dirty plates from the table and made Gran another pot of tea, the twinge of her muscles reminding her of their frantic lovemaking. Heat burst onto her cheeks, her hands shaking as she stacked the plates in the dishwasher.
“I need you to take my costume to the drycleaners,” Rachel said.
“Mine too,” Jenny said.
“You can take them all,” Elizabeth instructed.
Charlotte opened her mouth to object and snapped it shut again. She’d only find herself in the middle of another argument. Same old, same old.
“Charlotte, dear. Could you find me a pen and notepad please?” Gran asked. “What are you all doing today?”
“I’m going to stay with my friend at the beach,” Jenny said. “I’ll be back late Sunday afternoon.”
After handing over the requested items, Charlotte resigned herself to another evening of looking after Gran. A night alone in front of the telly since Gran went to bed around eight. At least the rugby was on and she could ogle the players to her heart’s content while working on one of her craft projects. Maybe she’d do some artist trading cards with a rugby theme. Yes, that would work.
“Can I borrow your digital camera, Elizabeth?” Gran asked.
“It’s in my room, Mum. Get Charlotte to grab it for you when she makes my bed. I must go or I’ll be late for my meeting.”
Her stepmother and stepsisters left to enjoy their weekend, and Charlotte worked her way through the house, picking up clutter and cleaning as she went. She made a mental note to ring the taxi company. Maybe the driver had handed in the apricot rose that went with her gown. Maybe. She couldn’t remember if she’d still had the rose when she left Zorro in the hotel room. You sneaked, Ms. Feisty, Charlotte’s annoying inner dragon, drawled with a heavy helping of disbelief.
“Charlotte!” Gran called.
“Did you want something?”
“I have a list of items for you to purchase for me. Here’s some money. There should be enough for you to have a quiet coffee and for a cab as well. You’ll need it to drop the dresses at the dry cleaners. Pass me the phone please, dear.”
“I can’t leave you alone for that long.” Charlotte had noticed the hectic color in Gran’s face and her labored movements this morning, despite her determination to share the family breakfast. “The dresses can wait until Monday.”
“The items on my list can’t. I’m going to ring Esther. We want to work on a scrapbooking project together.”
Charlotte found herself overruled and ousted from the house. She hurried through her chores, but even so didn’t return to the house until late afternoon. She staggered through the door with three bags of groceries.
“Where have you been?” Elizabeth narrowed her gaze. “What are those disgusting marks on your neck?”
“Charlotte?” Gran’s voice came from the nearby lounge. At least her presence would probably halt Elizabeth’s tirade.
“We’ll discuss this later,” Elizabeth snapped, and she brushed past Charlotte, leaving a lingering trace of a spicy perfume in her wake.
“You should have reapplied the concealer,” Gran said. “Come and show Esther.”
“Gran, you shouldn’t eavesdrop.” Charlotte peered in the hall mirror. She sighed at the telltale bruises and entered the lounge. “I don’t think more makeup will help, and why would Esther want to see my neck?”
“Did you get everything on my list?” Gran asked.
“I did. I’ll bring it in after I unpack the groceries.”
“Excellent.” Gran clapped her hands together and cast a conspiratorial grin at Esther. “I have news. You have an appointment at Marlborough Media on Tuesday at five thirty. They managed to squeeze you in.”
Charlotte left the house before her stepmother and stepsisters arrived home from work. Propelled by Ms. Feisty, she marched into the luxurious reception area at Marlborough Media. It was like a dream—one of those that hovered on the cusp of both excellent and disturbing, the type that could transform into a nightmare at the slightest wrong move.
Gran had pooh-poohed Charlotte’s objections when she’d asked who would look after Gran if she had one of her bad patches. Gran had told her not to worry, that they’d work it out and hire someone else to help out around the home if—when—Charlotte got the job. According to Gran, it was time for Charlotte to gain some independence instead of spending all her days with an elderly woman and her friends. She made the changes seem easy, but somehow Charlotte didn’t think the transition would gain Elizabeth’s approval.
She joined the line of people waiting to speak to the receptionist. The skinny blonde with ultra-short hair wielded her power from behind a beautiful marble counter, juggling the phone, the arriving and departing customers and prospective employees with aplomb.
Charlotte had dressed in her best business clothes—a black skirt and jacket and added a soft apricot blouse with a high collar to hide her Friday night indiscretions. She’d confined her red hair to a simple braid and kept her makeup subdued. A mistake. The other applicants were fashion-shoot ready, and she half expected a photographer to step through the door and bark orders to strike a pose. The man on her right sported a tattoo sleeve on one arm and splashes of bright red highlights contrasted with the rest of his spiky black hair. His expensive and trendy black, short-sleeve shirt and black trousers completed the look.
The two women sitting on chairs to her left were dressed in designer outfits and wore glittering jewelry and heavy but impeccable makeup. They fluttered their mascara-laden lashes and pouted lips painted with strong red and deep pink.
“What are you doing here?” a voice hissed from behind her.
Charlotte jumped at Jenny’s sharp tone. “I have an appointment.”
“How? Last I heard they were booked out for the day and weren’t taking more applicants.”
“Jennifer McDougal,” someone said in a loud voice.
“This isn’t over,” Jenny said. “Mum will hear about this.”
Charlotte watched her stepsister glide over to the woman waiting for her by the door, graceful despite her high heels. She held an elegant brown leather briefcase in her right hand and, like everyone else, appeared ready to step onto a catwalk in cream trousers and a sleeveless bronze shirt. A pained sigh escaped Charlotte. She’d told Gran this was a bad idea, that it would cause friction at home. And she didn’t have any qualifications, which worried her most of all. But then the other part of her—the feisty part who had slept with Zorro because it was something just for her—told her to grow a pair. She wanted this, didn’t she? Hell, yeah, Ms. Feisty continued. You go in there and knock their socks off. I wanna see bare feet and skin, she added slyly.
Charlotte gave an inward ahem and mentally knocked Ms. Feisty off her soapbox. Back to the job at hand. After Gran informed her about the appointment, Charlotte had done several online searches to investigate Marlborough Media and their founder Ashley Marlborough. Mr. Marlborough was in his early thirties and had built the business from scratch. He’d made his first million with inordinate ease and was worth much more now. Nicknamed The Beast in the media because of scars on his face and upper torso, women chased him, and he was a regular feature in the local gossip magazines. She’d clicked through photos taken during social events and seen stunning blondes and gorgeous brunettes hanging on his arm as if only he could keep them standing upright.
She’d read about the way he’d lost his mother in the same fire that had left him scarred, and how his father took sole care of him while he recovered. She’d studied his face until it became familiar to her. Oh, she’d heard Jenny go on about the scars and how she couldn’t look him in the eye. If he was in the interview room, Charlotte didn’t want to react in a manner to show her in a negative light. He had pretty eyes—a pale blue that contrasted with his inky-black hair and drew attention. His crooked smile contained a hint of mischief. The rascal in him had pulled a return grin from her, even though she was only studying his photo.
“Yes?” The blonde receptionist pulled her from her thoughts.
“Charlotte Dixon. I have an appointment at five thirty.”
The receptionist referred to her computer screen and tapped a few keys. “Good. They’re running a little over, so your appointment will be closer to six. Is that okay?”
“That’s no problem.” She was already in trouble with Jenny for attending the interview and had a lecture about her ungrateful manner and terrible attitude in her near future. Arriving home late wouldn’t add much to the severity of the lecture. Besides, Gran knew her appointment time and would have an idea of when she might arrive home.
The assistant called names one by one. Charlotte glanced at the blue cardboard folder on her lap, cowed by the parade of smart people with their glossy leather briefcases. She focused on her breathing and fought her escalating anxiety. Even breaths. In. Out. In. Out.
Part of her wanted to stand and leave, but Ms. Feisty forced Charlotte to remain seated. Gran had gone to a lot of trouble arranging this interview, although Charlotte still wasn’t sure how she’d managed it. In answer to questions, Gran had muttered something about special contacts, tapped the side of her nose and refused to say more. Gran and Esther had spent the weekend helping her to work on her portfolio, taking photos of some of the craft projects she’d done over the years and listing her qualifications and experience. Gran had insisted on adding a list of the craft classes they’d done together plus the partial diploma in graphic design she’d completed at night school. All practical experience, she’d insisted.
This preparation did nothing to quell the nerves galloping around the inside of her stomach. She’d bet ten dollars the other applicants possessed professional qualifications and experience stretching from the tips of their pointy shoes to their immaculately coiffured hair.
A mature woman appeared in the doorway. Her navy-blue suit skimmed her body, giving the impression of smart femininity. Her efficient gaze zeroed in on Charlotte, a pleasant smile taking her wrinkled face to pretty. “You must be Charlotte Dixon.”
“Yes.” Charlotte rose, taking a second to ascertain her knees wouldn’t fold under the strain of acute nerves. She’d watched the other applicants enter the inner office one by one then leave again, their expressions ranging from confident to downright depressed. And now Charlotte followed the woman into another office, Jenny’s smug whisper ringing in her ears. You’re wasting your time. The job is mine.
A great exit jibe on Jenny’s part. Charlotte sighed. Maybe her stepsister was right, and she was squandering everyone’s time. Don’t listen to her! Ms Feisty shrieked. We can do this.
“Take a seat,” the woman said, gesturing at two chairs. “They won’t be much longer.”
The door opened after five minutes and a petite blonde in a chic red trouser suit and skyscraper black heels sashayed from the inner sanctum. She exited, leaving Charlotte and the lady alone.
A phone rang inside the inner office and a husky voice answered. Another male chatted with a woman, their low murmurs discernible to Charlotte from where she sat. But it was the husky voice that grabbed her attention. Every muscle in her body tightened, the distinct twang of her lady parts signaling a warning.
The man speaking in the office sounded an awful lot like Zorro.
“I really enjoyed this story. It was a light, fun read with some great characters…The characters were honest with real concerns and struggles, and the plot was very enjoyable. The author does a good job writing about opposites attracting and finding commonalities, and the challenges of overcoming personal demons.” ~ Lynn, The Romance Reviews