The MEGA Billionaire Romance Collection *Limited Edition*
The MEGA Billionaire Romance Collection *Limited Edition*
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Chapter 1 Look inside: Flirting with My Enemy
Chapter 1 Look inside: Flirting with My Enemy
“Hey there. I’m Elle Brook. You must be Sonia from Crumbs magazine…”
Preparing for an interview in front of the mirror is a new low for me.
I draw in a deep breath, fasten the last button on my shirt, and try again. “Hi, Sonia. I’m Elle. Nice to meet you.”
I shake my head and my loose ponytail wobbles, threatening to fall out. No matter how many times I sit in front of the mirror, going over my different greetings, I still sound too stilted and fake.
Relax, Elle. Relaaaax. The voice in my head sounds like Antonio––my yoga instructor. And when I say yoga instructor, I mean the guy I follow on YouTube. I roll my shoulders back and straighten my spine.
It’s not like me to be nervous. Not when it comes to meeting new people.
I talk to hundreds of strangers every day.
Okay, maybe I keep most conversations to a minimum, and I struggle to hold eye contact. But I don’t usually feel this jittery about the whole thing.
Sonia is a reporter from Crumbs––a local magazine. I’m going to have to give her lots of eye contact and tell her all about my new invention: the Meteor.
It’s a simple chocolate cupcake with vanilla frosting and a mind-blowing, gooey surprise inside: chili and chocolate ganache.
It sends people into chocolate heaven, then BANG! The chili hits the roof of their mouth like a firework, and the explosion of flavor delivers the most intense experience, ever.
At least, that’s what I’ll say to Sonia.
Really, the idea is just a hint of chili to add a little heat to the flavor. But that won’t have any wow factor on the posters.
This interview will take up a double spread in the magazine, and it’s the exposure I need to give my business an edge.
And, boy, do I need that edge.
Two months ago, some big shot British businessman set up his franchise Got Cake? right next door to my bakery. Next door.
Despite a petition to stop the corporate monster opening its doors and several letters to my local congressman, nothing could stop the huge corporate bakery from opening.
I guess there’s no obstacle too big for a billionaire.
My friend Connie thinks I’m worrying about nothing. She works at her dad’s Chinese takeaway in Chinatown. She says there’s loads of competition over there, but they’ve all learned to co-exist.
She says New York is big, and I’ve hit the jackpot with my bakery being on such a busy sidewalk, so I shouldn’t sweat it.
She’s right, I guess. But every opportunity I get to earn more publicity is a big deal.
Sure, people will go into Got Cake? for their mass-produced cupcakes and donuts. But everyone comes into Elle’s Kitchen for something special.
The Meteor cupcake is going to get the whole city talking.
Soon, everyone will be saying Got––what? And this whole mess will blow over.
The door buzzes and the grating noise sends a shockwave through my body. She’s ten minutes early.
Thankfully, I live in a small one-bed apartment above my bakery. So, all I have to do is walk downstairs and let her in.
But as I walk downstairs, something terrible hits me, and I clamp my hand over my mouth and nose, trying to resist the urge to gag.
“Joyce, what is that awful smell?”
Joyce is an early bird. She’s always the first one to show up at work. I leave the opening up to her.
The woman is past retirement age––no one really knows how old she is. But I know for a fact she’s celebrated her seventy-first birthday more than a few times.
In spite of her seasoned years, she has the stamina of a twenty-year-old, I swear. She marches, actually marches, with her elbows sticking out. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her walk like a normal person.
I spot her in the back, stacking boxes of frosting. “What’s that, doll? I haven’t been able to smell anything since 1994.” She flicks her hand at me with a slight shake of the head, as if to say I’m being dramatic over the smell of rotting fish.
“Joyce, it’s really bad,” I bark through my hand. “What is it––oh.”
The buzzer sends me hurrying back into the bakery.
As I edge closer to the glass doors, I get a good look at the reporter waiting outside. The woman has a beautiful hourglass figure, olive skin, and a cascade of black hair flowing to her tiny waist. I pull my hand from my mouth to give her a wave as I approach the door, but as I part my lips to give a toothy grin, I inhale the putrid-smelling air, and a bubble of nausea rises to the back of my throat.
We can’t have the interview here. Not now.
I slow my walk across the bakery floor in a casual swagger to buy myself some time.
Come on, Elle. Think. This is what you’re good at.
Then my brain forms the perfect idea.
I pick up my pace, yank open the door, and hop out onto the street before Sonia can step inside. “Well, hey there, you must be Sonia, pleased to be meeting you!” I say in a southern drawl.
That is not my accent.
Now I don’t know whether to laugh and act normal or carry on with the act. Maybe she didn’t notice?
“Elle, right? I didn’t know you’re not from New York.”
She did notice. Dang.
I start nodding like one of those dogs with the bobbing heads. “My daddy raised me on a ranch. We kept buffalos and eagles and…” Sonia’s eyes grow so wide, they’re literally bulging out of their sockets. I cut myself off quickly with a nervous giggle.
I know nothing about the world beyond New York. I’ve lived here my whole life, and my daddy? He’s a mystery. I don’t even have any memories of a dad. My mom worked three jobs to keep us fed and housed, and it’s because of her strong work ethic that I’m where I am today.
That’s what should go in the magazine spread.
“Buffalos? Do you mean bison?” Sonia asks, a delicate brow shooting up.
My ears ring like the shrill alarm on a sinking ship.
We’re going down! A voice screams in my head.
I twist a stray strand of blonde hair with a breathy laugh. Meanwhile, a busy stream of people flows past us, going about their normal day and completely unaware of Sonia and I blocking the bakery door.
“Shall we take a walk? Central Park is just a few blocks away... I’ll show you my favorite bench,” I offer, putting my genius plan into action.
Operation: Walk and Talk. It’s fool-proof.
But the dead stare Sonia gives me is enough to kill a million dreams.
“Hmm. That sounds nice,” Sonia begins, her eyes narrowing at me––probably wondering why I now sound like a New Yorker as I’ve dropped the southern drawl. “But I’m here to do a piece on Elle’s Kitchen, and it would be a good idea to do this inside.”
She makes for the door, and I slam a hand on the glass so hard, the resounding bang makes a few passersby jump and stare in alarm. “No,” I say, and it comes out in a low dramatic rumble. I picture myself glowering at the woman, with a serious smolder.
I’m sure one day I’m going to look back on this and laugh.
But not today. No one is laughing today.
I see actual fear in Sonia’s doe eyes as she looks up at me in silence for a second. She’s probably telling herself she must still be asleep. Either that or I’m a crazy person.
But I’ll take it. She can think I’m crazy. Heck, she can write in her stupid magazine that I’m the biggest loony in the city. But what I can’t let her do is walk inside my beautiful bakery and then go write about the “quaint family business ruined by the stench of dead trout.”
My reputation will never recover from that.
Sonia steps away and studies me for a moment. I stare back, trying to keep eye contact, even though I want to pull my gaze away and glare at the small crowd of people forming around us.
“Move along, people,” I want to bark. “Nothing to see here.”
But instead, I hold Sonia’s stare, determined to show no sign of weakness. When neither of us moves or bats an eyelid for several awkward moments, I plant a fake smile on my face and clear my throat. “It’s a lovely day. It would be a terrible shame to waste the opportunity to sit in the sunshine.”
Oh great. Now I sound British.
But Sonia’s line of sight shifts from my eyes to over the top of my head and her painted lips curve up into a beaming smile. An authentic one.
“Mr. Masters!” She shoulders past me like I’m an overgrown bush in the jungle, and my stomach plummets as I swivel on the spot to look at the person behind me.
Cool. Suave. Six-foot-something. He towers over me like a gentle giant, wearing a soft gray designer suit, smelling like wood and spice. I hate to admit it, but it’s a relief from the fish.
He and Sonia grasp hands, and he looks down at her with such tenderness, it does something funny to my insides.
I hate him, and I hate that he’s so… nice.
“Sonia Tullo, I’m immeasurably excited to meet you. I’m a huge fan of your work,” he says in a real British accent. He cradles Sonia’s hand as if he’s holding a rare jewel, and his smile actually reaches his almond shaped eyes. I’ve heard about smiles like that, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen one.
It’s like he’s speaking to an old friend. Sonia bends over slightly with a school-girl giggle, melting under his charm. “You know what? My morning just opened up.” She shoots me a glare. “How about we do an interview?”
A bubble of rage boils over in my midriff and I hold my breath.
No. This isn’t happening.
I watch, my mouth hanging, as Zane pulls open a door and waits for Sonia to walk into his snazzy Got Cake? bakery. Then he holds up a finger to her and hops over to me, his eyes twinkling.
Um. No, Mr. Twinkle-eyes, you don’t get to look at me like that after stealing my interview.
“Hey, Elle Brook, right?” He offers his hand, but I cross my arms and give him my best impression of my mother’s glare. To my utmost satisfaction, the twinkle fades from his eyes, and he drops his hand. “I was wondering if you knew anything about a faint fishy smell coming from out back?”
Faint fishy smell?
My bakery door swings open, and a waft of rotting fish guts spills out into the street, several passersby groan and cover their mouths, picking up their pace as they walk away. Joyce sticks her head out of the entryway, squinting at the sidewalk. Somehow, she’s oblivious to the passersby retching at the smell coming from the bakery. Her face lights up when her eyes land on me. “Elle! I was wondering where you got to. I need some help in here, doll.” Then her eyes take in Mr. Twinkle-eyes, and now she’s positively beaming. Great. Way to support a fellow employee. “Why, Mr. Masters! Fancy seeing you out here. You’re looking suave.” She doesn’t even wait for a response before she’s gone again. When the door swings shut again, my eyes are watering and I’m fighting the urge to hold my nose.
“No,” I lie. My voice is several octaves too high. “I’ve no idea what you mean.”
Zane looks at the front of Elle’s Kitchen, then at me. “All right, I just thought I’d ask. It was nice to meet you, finally. Maybe we can have a coffee this afternoon? I’d love to get to know you.”
“Sure,” I say, smiling sweetly now. Why am I agreeing to this? Have I truly lost my marbles?
“Great. I’ll swing round at lunch,” he says, his eyes twinkling again. I release my arms and let them swing awkwardly at my sides.
“Well, I better get back to work. These cupcakes won’t make themselves!” I edge away, dreading having to open that door again. My heart weeps at the thought of having to go back inside my stinky bakery.
I pause by the handle, willing Zane to just walk away and leave me to die on the street. And thankfully, he doesn’t loiter.
With a soft wave, he marches back into Got Cake? and disappears behind the shut door.
Then I exhale deeply. I didn’t even realize I’d been holding my breath.
Great. Zane Masters just took my interview, and now I have three hours to get rid of the fish smell before Zane comes over for coffee.
I hold my breath as I take the handle and pull it open to go back inside.
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