All billionaires. All looking for the one thing that money can’t buy.
Each of them milled around in front of me in the Casanova Club conference room with drinks in their hands. The place smelled like expensive cologne and whiskey, and the night had barely begun.
All the men, minus the one who was out finishing a world tour with his band, were impeccably dressed and of the highest quality New York City had to offer. Every man was startlingly different from the rest, but they all had one thing in common. They were worth billions. Each and every one of them.
That amounted to a very wealthy room—and that wasn’t even including my own obscene bank account.
But this wasn’t about me. This was about them. The candidates.
“Gentlemen,” I said, clapping my hands together. Some of them turned to look at me. Others continued to talk quietly amongst themselves until I raised my voice over theirs, demanding their attention. Last year, I stood where they were now. I had insider knowledge about this elite matchmaking process. “It’s time to get this show on the road. Put up your measuring sticks, and tuck your dicks back in your designer slacks. We have a lot to get done tonight, and I have a beautiful woman to get home to. One of you lucky bastards is going to be just as lucky if you play your cards right. Time is money. Sit.”
None of them were in a hurry to take their seats. They moved slowly, as many wealthy men did, knowing that everyone had to wait on them, not the other way around. Once they had all pulled out their high-backed leather chairs and tucked in to the obsidian round table, I knew it was time to begin.
I planted both hands flat on the table, spreading out my fingers and bracing myself as I peered around at all of them. “We’ve made progress and narrowed it down to one hundred women.”
“One hundred?” one of them asked. Joshua the Canadian. A smirk played on his lips as he swirled the straw around in his whiskey glass. When he lifted it up and took a sip, he didn’t use the straw. “Only ninety-nine to go. Should be easy.”
Chuckles circled the room at his sarcasm. The women we’d narrowed it down to were as beautiful and charming as we were rich. I nodded at Joshua. “It will be well worth it in the end.”
“If I win,” Joshua said dryly.
More laughing went around the table. Easton, the broad-shouldered quarterback from Florida, rested his elbows on the table and cleared his throat. “How many do you want us to cut tonight, Jackson?”
“Good question,” I said, fanning out the headshot photos of the women still in the running to be part of the Casanova Project. “At least half.”
Easton rubbed at his jaw. “Why can’t the club just let more women be part of the contest?”
I straightened up and crossed my arms over my chest. “Twelve men. One woman. You knew how this worked when you signed on. And last I checked, your sponsor still wants you to be part of this.”
“Twelve men?” Cooper Diaz asked, casting his blue gaze around the room. “I only count eleven. Let’s make it easier for ourselves and cut out the rock star who’s too important to have come to any of these meetings.”
I didn’t say anything.
Easton nodded his agreement. “Sounds fair.”
“You sound intimidated,” Wyatt, the good old fashioned cowboy drawled.
Cooper’s eyes narrowed in Wyatt’s direction.
I cleared my throat. “All you lot have to do is sit back and do your part. It gets easier. Trust me.”
None of them had a wise word to chime in. They had all seen firsthand last year that this process really could work if you gave it a chance.
At the beginning of 2017, I had no clue how much my life was about to change. I’d gone into this whole thing with a critical mindset and a chip on my shoulder. I hadn’t actually anticipated falling in love with the one girl we’d hand picked out of thousands of submissions. In fact, I’d been positive it wouldn’t work for me.
But here I was, standing in this same damn room, giving the same speech my old President had given us. The victor leading the blind, so to speak.
These boys had no clue what 2019 had in store for them. Shit was going to get messier before it got easier, and they were going to have to come to terms with the fact that one girl was going to be courted by all of them—and each of them only had a month with her.
And then there would be waiting while she spent time with the others. The competitors.
I knew for a fact that none of these men grasped how truly difficult that was going to be.
But I knew.
“At the beginning of the year, we will have ten women competing to be part of the Casanova Project. You will have the chance to meet them all, and from there, we’ll reduce the numbers down to a single woman. You will each have a month with her throughout the year. At the end of the year, shortly before Christmas, she will either accept a proposal from one of you, or she will walk away with one million dollars.”
“We know how the Casanova Club works, Jackson,” Wyatt drawled from my right side. The way he leaned back with a slight slouch in his chair spoke of his southern roots, as did his thick Texas accent. All that was missing was a piece of hay pinched between his teeth and a wide-brimmed hat shadowing his eyes. I was sure the only reason those two accessories were missing was because he might have been turned away at the Club entrance.
“I hope you guys are ready for a wild-ass year,” I said, cutting to the chase.
They all nodded. Some bumped each other’s shoulders in camaraderie that would be gone in a year and a half.
I lifted my chin. “We’ll meet again in December to pin everything down.”
Wyatt rubbed at his forehead and looked down at the photos spread out on the table. “Let’s get on with this then.”
“I hope you bastards know I’m bad at sharing.” Easton chuckled as he reached for a couple photographs.
Joshua remained where he was but cast an eye roll in Easton’s direction that went unnoticed by everyone but me. “Sharing is for the birds, Easton.”
“This bird?” Easton asked, flipping Joshua the middle finger.
More laughter rippled through the room.
Jeremiah, who had been brooding all evening, raked his fingers through his hair and let out a long sigh. “Someone break out the gin. It’s going to be a long night.”
Sweat beaded on my upper lip, and I braced myself on the bathroom sink. I’d been running around like a chicken with my head cut off all afternoon, trying to make sure everything was in order for Thanksgiving at my mom and dad’s restaurant. While we didn’t have many customers in the restaurant—zero, to be specific—we did have quite a few delivery orders. As a girl living paycheck to paycheck in New York City, I couldn’t afford a car, so I’d been riding my bike back and forth between the restaurant and the delivery locations for the last two hours. The hair at the back of my neck was damp and clinging to my skin, and I had a nice slick patch of wet skin right between my boobs.
Every girl’s favorite feeling, right?
I tugged my elastic out of my hair, which had grown heavy with all the sweat and started inching down toward my already too hot nape. I drew it back up, raking my fingers through it, and secured it in a messy dirty blonde bun once more. I checked the mirror to make sure I looked somewhat presentable and tucked a few shorter strands behind my ear that didn’t quite make it into the bun.
“Four more hours, Pipes,” I said to my own reflection. “You got this.”
Sometimes, a pep talk was required before facing the rest of the day. Especially when my first four deliveries hadn’t even bothered to send me off with a tip. And on Thanksgiving Day at that.
My tips were the least of my worries. Business was way down from last year, and last year, my mom and dad had barely been able to pay their heating bill. I was growing more and more concerned with every passing day that this winter might spell doom for us.
And I had no clue what my parents would do if the restaurant went under.
Piper’s Paradise was the name of the restaurant. Had I fought tooth and nail to convince my Baby Boomer parents that this was a terrible name and even more terrible marketing? Yes. Had they listened? No.
The sign for Piper’s Paradise was royal blue with white lettering. The text was old fashioned, and the two Ps were larger than the other letters. We had a blue awning out front on the sidewalk that covered the four wrought-iron patio sets we’d managed to find at another restaurant’s going out of business sale.
We should have seen that for the bad omen it was.
Foot traffic had slowed down a lot on this street since the restaurant opened two years after I was born. Now, nineteen years later, it was a little hole in the wall with excellent food, supreme service, a cozy atmosphere, and unfortunately, no customers. And they were kind of integral to the whole operation.
We were in competition with other restaurants and cafes now. What we offered didn’t seem to really be what people wanted anymore. They wanted modern and trendy cafes with brick walls, industrial light fixtures, and power outlets on all the tables. They wanted eight-dollar coffees and an eighty-five percent gluten free, vegan-friendly, ocean-wise, low-carb, no-carb, no-dairy, no-sugar menu.
My parents were raised on pasta and potatoes and meat, so all those things were ludicrous suggestions. I’d stopped making them.
After one last look in the mirror, where I smoothed out my black T-shirt and tightened my apron, I slipped out the bathroom and back out into the restaurant.
The clatter of silverware on dishes descended upon me as I hurried down the hall from the bathrooms and alongside the kitchen. I poked my head in the door and called, “Back on the floor!”
My father, dressed in his white chef’s jacket and hat, looked up at me with a tired smile. “Thanks, kiddo.” He went back to counting inventory. If there had been any customers in the front of the restaurant, he might have been cooking something.
I missed those days dearly.
My brother Phillip was wiping down tables when I came back out to the front. Sunlight shone in on the dark surfaces and dried the wet lines from his cloth within seconds. He looked up at me and nodded. His hair, the same ashy blond shade as mine, fell over his eyes, and he shook it out of the way.
“We have another delivery,” he said.
“Oh goodie. How far away?”
“Not far. Maybe a fifteen-minute bike ride up the street? A honey ham. Mom is getting it together for you in the back now.”
“All right,” I sighed.
The bell above the door chimed. Phillip and I both spun on our heel, smiles stretching our cheeks and hope blooming in our chests. Could it be a customer? The first one in three days?
The man who walked in was dressed in a slim-fit navy-blue suit. He had narrow shoulders, long legs, and a black leather folder tucked under his arm. As he walked toward us, the heels of his shiny black shoes clicked on the hardwood floors.
“Mr. and Mrs. James?”
“Uh,” I said as me and Phillip looked back and forth between each other. I knew this man was looking for my parents, but I sensed his visit was not for a good reason, and I didn’t want to burden them with more bad news. “How can we help you?”
“I’m here to collect the overdue payment on the loan.”
I blinked. Loan? Neither my mom nor my dad had mentioned anything about having to take out a loan. “How much?” I asked.
I bit my bottom lip. There was no way they were coming up with that sort of cash anytime soon. Money was tighter than it had ever been.
“Is there any chance we can pay it at the end of the month?” my brother asked from beside me. He threw his rag over one shoulder. “It’s a bit tight, with it being Thanksgiving and all. And the holidays are just around the corner and—”
“Circumstance does not, unfortunately, count as a relevant excuse to not pay what you agreed to pay when you signed the paperwork, Mr. James.”
“Our parents signed the paperwork, not us,” Phillip said.
“If it is not paid, the interest will increase,” the man said.
Phillip opened his mouth to retort, but I held up a hand. I could sense my brother growing more and more agitated by the second. “I can cover it,” I said.
Phillip’s head snapped over to me. “What are you talking about, Piper? It’s fifteen hundred dollars.”
“I heard him,” I said. “I’ll be right back. Phillip, be nice while I’m gone.”
Phillip grumbled as I hurried back down the hall into the back room, where I found my purse under my father’s desk. I rummaged around for the envelope of cash my mom and dad had handed me this morning. Seventeen hundred dollars total, which included all my tips and hourly earnings from working in the restaurant every day for the last two weeks. This was all I had to show for a total of almost one hundred and seventy hours of work.
I took out fifteen hundred dollars and crammed it into the front of my apron, just to be safe. Then I went back out to meet the loan collector and my brother, who was standing with his arms crossed over his chest, staring daggers at the man in the navy suit.
I pushed the wad of cash into the man’s hands. “When will the next payment be due?”
He pulled the leather folder out from under his arm and slid the cash I’d handed him into the crease. Then he held it out to me, showing the loan information. “January first,” he said. “Thank you for your time. Happy Thanksgiving.”
“Yeah, you too, you greedy shark,” Phillip muttered.
I slapped his arm as the man stalked out and turned left on the sidewalk. We watched him through the window until he disappeared. Then Phillip rounded on me, his blue eyes widening. “You just gave away your entire paycheck!”
“Piper! How are you going to make ends meet? What about your rent? Food?”
“Don’t worry about me, Phillip. I’m doing all right. I have a bit tucked away for emergencies. Mom and Dad need our help right now.”
“This isn’t your responsibility, Piper. They should have let this place go a long time ago.”
“Don’t let them catch you saying that,” I said, shaking my head at him and then turning to head back to the kitchen to get the ham from my mother. “They’ll hang you for treason.”
Phillip rolled his eyes at me and started muttering under his breath before returning to mindlessly wiping the already pristine tables.
I got back to the apartment I shared with my best friend Janie around eight thirty in the evening. It was cold as hell outside. My cheeks burned from the stinging wind I’d had to face riding my bike to make deliveries and to come home. My legs hurt from all the riding and so did my ass and vagina. Bikes were not comfortable things, and although I was a seasoned rider, I would never get used to the damn seat. I needed a plush one.
Maybe one day, I’d be able to scrounge up enough cash for a purchase like that.
Janie was sitting on the couch when I came in and put my bag down on the kitchen counter. She muted the TV and looked over at me, resting her cheek in her hand and pouting her full pink lips. “I missed you, Piper. I thought you’d be home earlier today?”
I sighed and went into the living room. Our place was small. Tiny, really. It was more of a studio apartment with a bedroom and a den. I’d made the tiny den space into my bedroom, and for the sacrifice, I didn’t have to pay as much rent as Janie, who had the bathroom attached to her room. She needed it. She worked as an assistant to one of the top players in New York City, Jackson Lee, so when she got ready in the mornings, she went all out. It was literally in her job description.
I dropped down on the couch beside her and kicked my heels up onto the coffee table. “I know. Things got complicated. I needed to make some deliveries.”
“Of course you did,” Janie said, patting my knee. “Want a glass of wine? One of my coworkers brought me a basket. It’s homemade, so don’t get your hopes up, but wine is wine, right?”
“Please,” was all I had the energy to say. Janie stood up and went into the kitchen. She was wearing a pair of dark gray leggings that showed off her perky ass. Her boobs were equally as perky beneath her wool sweater, and she wasn’t even wearing a bra. Bitch. “Tell me about your day. I need a distraction.”
Janie opened a bottle of red wine and poured two glasses. “Well, it was a bit hectic. Jackson has been really busy trying to get everything ready for a secret mission of sorts that starts around Christmas time.”
“Secret project, huh?”
“Key word ‘secret’.”
“Tell me.” I grinned.
“Oh come on, Janie. Who am I going to tell?”
Janie came back to the sofa and handed me the glass of wine. She swirled hers around in her glass and studied me. “All right. Fine. But you have to swear this stays between us. It’s very confidential.”
“Have you heard of the Casanova Club?” she asked.
She nodded. “All right. Well, it’s basically an elite dating event.”
“A dating event?” I asked, arching an eyebrow. “Like speed dating?”
“Erm, no. Not really. Twelve men have been selected to participate. Twelve men all like Jackson. Rich. Handsome. Incredibly successful. But these men are all so busy, they don’t have time for the traditional dating scene. They are all, however, looking for someone to spend the rest of their lives with.”
I giggled. “Seriously? You mean someone to produce their spawn for them while they carry on making millions and screwing their secretaries.”
“For the record, I’ve never fucked Jackson. He’s quite the gentleman.”
I grinned. “If he propositioned you, are you telling me you’d say no?”
“Now that he’s married? Yes. Had he put the moves on me before that? I would have turned into a puddle at his feet and let him do whatever he wanted to me.” Janie gave me a sly smile before taking her first sip of wine. She cringed as she swallowed. “Oh God. Save yourself. Don’t drink it.”
I stared at the red liquid. “But it’s wine. I can’t throw it out.”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Janie said, leaning forward to put the glass on the coffee table. “Anyway, a lot of time went into selecting the men for the 2018 event. One woman will be selected to spend one month with each man throughout 2019. At the end of the year, she will either accept a proposal from one of them, or she can walk away with a million dollars, cash in her hand.”
My eyes widened. “Seriously?”
“Seriously. It’s been running for three years. And all three years, the woman has chosen the engagement.”
“Obviously. It’s more money long term.”
Janie shrugged. “I guess.”
“How does someone get a chance to be one of these women?”
Janie burst out laughing. “Don’t even go there, Piper. Seriously. These women are vetted and sent through the wringer. They’ve already done interviews, galas, contests—you name it. By December, it will be narrowed down to ten women. And then to one.”
I chewed the inside of my cheek. “A million dollars would solve all my problems.”
Janie put her hand over mine. “I know, baby girl. I know.”