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Slave To Love

It’s been five years, and Christian Jace Morton still hears about his older brother, Eagan, and his controversial and groundbreaking TV show “Love My Way.” He’s also tired of everyone’s fascination with BDSM, so much so that he stops his involvement in the Lifestyle and opts to go by his middle name to keep his association away from a character with the same name in a popular book series. Considering he hasn’t truly forgiven Eagan for abandoning the family when their father died, Jace decides to put his full concentration on his construction business. His life would be fine if his sister-in-law, Eagan’s wife Ananda, didn’t ask him to use his house for another reality TV show.

Taran Kerrigan has been enamored with the BDSM lifestyle since she heard about the “Love My Way.” Since she was only nineteen at the time the show was taped, her friend, “Love My Way” contestant Dorothy/Meadow, talks her out of trying out for the show. When Taran hears that Ananda “Begonia” Morton has been trying to contact Dorothy to have her own show for her to find a Dom...or Domme, Taran offers to go in Dorothy’s place. She wants the BDSM fairy tale.

Even though Jace wants nothing to do with the show, his interest is piqued once he sees Taran. When he discovers her love of the show and all things Eagan Morton, he doesn’t want to reveal his identity of being Eagan’s brother. He competes if only to refute the notion of finding the perfect BDSM relationship on a reality TV show.

Can Jace learn to let go of the past and trust his instincts? Will Taran see past the fanfare of the Lifestyle to discover its true meaning? Will they do it in time to discover each other?

A Phaze Books Release

Contains sexual language and explicit sexual situations intended for the enjoyment of adult readers.

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Bridget Midway

Born into a loud family of five kids all fighting to be heard, I decided to make myself more noticeable through writing.

My passion for writing sensual, titillating scenes stemmed from my mother who always told me to follow my heart.

I now live on the east coast with my dreams, my close friends and wonderful characters who keep me up at night...and hopefully will do the same to you all, too!

Coming Soon...
Contains sexual language and explicit sexual situations intended for the enjoyment of adult readers.

Excerpt

Chapter One

Jace Morton wanted some time by himself to collect his thoughts, get his mind right before the award ceremony. Too bad the hotel lobby he stood in offered no peace or privacy. Guests checking into their rooms glanced at him.

He wore an all-black suit with a striking cobalt blue tie, something his mother selected. If she hadn’t chosen it and begged him to wear it, he would have gone to this event with his shirt unbuttoned at the top and as casual as he could. Only his mother had the power to sway him.

He peered at the main entryway into the Cavalier Hotel, checking to see if one special guest arrived. The bright lights in the lobby put a spotlight on everyone in the space. No way could anyone hide.

Jace paced around the small area he occupied. His shiny black leather shoes hadn’t been properly broken in yet and they pinched the sides of his feet. Damn wide feet. Big man problems. At least his suit fit him like a glove. Great having a tailor.

He shoved his hands in his pockets, half-expecting to find an old friend. He’d given up cigarettes recently, and dropped other harmful vices years ago. Some habits he couldn’t ignore no matter how hard he’d tried. So far, he’d kept the urges at bay.   

“Great night, huh?” Another construction company owner popped up in front of Jace’s view. A big smile split the cherubic man’s face.

Jace shook the stranger’s chubby hand to get him moving on as fast as possible. “Yes, it’s an honor to be nominated.” He patted the shorter man’s shoulder whose name had escaped him.

Bob? Bill? Brady? Hell, who knew? Did it really matter? Jace had built his business alone with little help from his family. He’d earned this “Builder of the Year” nomination based on his merits. Associating with other business owners didn’t benefit him.

“All the action right now is happening in the ballroom.” Jace pointed to the room where he’d have to give a sincere speech about his accomplishments in the world of construction and real estate once he won the award.

He had to think of himself as a winner. It would be too easy to let doubt cloud his thoughts. He had done that for far too long.  

Billy Bob, as Jace now thought of the visitor in front of him, carried a quaky smile as Jace nudged him toward the room with soft lighting, bathing the guests in a dim glow. His hard-soled shoes reminded Jace of a toddler learning about the joys of running after figuring out she could walk.

“Aren’t you coming in?” Billy Bob stumbled on his steps as he tried keeping his stare on Jace while walking away from him.

Jace glanced at his watch. “I need some time before it all starts.”

No use keeping the conversation going, Jace turned his back on him to put his attention guests coming in the door. He glanced at his watch. Would he make it in time?

Jace felt a light touch on his arm. He started to turn and lay into Billy Bob for encroaching upon his space again. When Jace saw his mother’s face, his shoulders relaxed. Although he wanted to smile, he couldn’t.

“You’re looking a little tight.” She brushed her hands down Jace’s lapels then quickly adjusted her gauzy tan shawl around her shoulders.

Despite it being the beginning of July, his mother still carried a pale complexion. Jace had hoped his mother would venture outside more, visit friends, get some sun.

“I’m fine, Mom.” Jace attempted to offer a pleasant expression but couldn’t muster one.

He should have been able to be happy for a family member who had always supported him, even during his darker days. He wanted to see his whole family behind him.

He stared at his mother. She’d kept her blonde hair with bits of gray strands peeking through in short cut. She’d desired simplicity, she’d claimed, when she’d gotten the style shortly after Jace’s father had died a few years ago.

People had always told Jace that he had his mother’s looks. He certainly didn’t get his height from her. Her diminutive stature had him peering down at her.

She’d lost some of the weight she’d gained when his father had become sick. Emotional eater, she’d said to explain the change. Her light blue eyes sparkled when she smiled. It helped that the lines around her eyes looked like rays coming from the sun.

“You were always a bad liar.” She patted his shoulder. “I’m very proud of you, son. I know you’ll win. And if you don’t, screw ‘em.”  

Jace took her hand from his shoulder and kissed the back of it. “Thanks.” He glanced at the door. He didn’t know his mother would have caught the break in attention.

“Did he say he was coming?” Aileen held onto her small, silver purse with both hands. She glanced at a passing waiter carrying a tray full of champagne glasses. She quickly brought her attention back to him after swallowing hard.

Jace clutched her hand harder to let her know he had her back. “I called him and left him a message. I sent him an email.” His shoulders tightened with each desperate admission about trying to wrangle his older brother to an important event happening in his life.

“Did you go see him?”

Jace tried hard not rolling his eyes at his mother’s naïve inquiry. “You think Eagan is sitting up in his house in Virginia Beach waiting for me to show up?” He shook his head. “He’s off producing more movies and TV shows. He could care less——”

“Don’t say that.” Aileen shook her head when she interrupted her son. “Eagan cares. He loves you. So does Ananda.”

Ananda. No way would Jace’s mother dare call her by her BDSM scene name, Begonia. Hell, Jace didn’t know if his mother had seen the Love My Way TV show and knew how her first born met his wife of five years. Then again, Jace hadn’t seen the show at all when it had aired or when it came to online streaming sites or on repeat on Cine-tastic.

“I don’t doubt that.” He looked at the door again.

“Bad liar.”

Jace dropped his gaze to his mother. “Why do you think that I’m not telling you the truth?”

She snickered. “A mother knows.” She put her hand to the side of his face and urged him to bring his head down so that she could kiss his cheek. “See you inside. You’ll be great.”

Aileen turned to the grand ballroom. Jace watched her until he could no longer see her. When he turned, he saw someone else who had become like his brother Eagan but couldn’t exactly be classified in the same category, and it had nothing to do with him being African American. Since he worked for Jace, Jace had to keep the boundaries set.

Aaron Slater strolled into the hotel with his wife, Cherryce, hand in hand. Aaron’s golden brown skin tone looked like a stark contrast against Cherryce’s dark mahogany complexion. They did look good together.

Although he did love Aaron like a brother and trusted him, seeing him so happy in his long-term marriage forced Jace to look away. He couldn’t bear to view something he could never have.

“Hey, man. What are you doing out here?” Aaron slapped palms with Jace and pulled him in for a half-hug. “Shouldn’t you be in there, getting ready to drop some knowledge?”

“Needed some time to myself.” Jace leaned down and gave Aaron’s wife a kiss on her cheek.

“You look so handsome.” Cherryce smiled. She nudged Aaron’s side. “See. I knew I should have brought that girl from church.” Her deep Bostonian accent came through even when she tried to whisper.

Jace took a deep breath and kept his mouth closed for fear of offending the only people not related to him who had his back. Cherryce, with her kind, brown eyes, always tried hooking up Jace with different women. The women she chose for him didn’t match his type. Too bad that didn’t deter her.

“Drop that, honey.” Aaron raised his hand up to Jace. “It’s my man’s night.”

“Yeah, you two go inside. I’ll be there in a minute.” He patted Aaron’s upper arm as he walked by to go to the ballroom.

Jace glanced at his watch again before peering at the door. Eagan wouldn’t be showing up tonight. He didn’t know why that news shocked him. Even before their father had passed away, Eagan had started pulling himself back from Jace and their mother.

Eagan couldn’t have blamed his aversion to Jace on BDSM. Both participated in that. At least at one time they did, just not in the same circles. The fifteen-year age difference prevented Jace from mingling with Eagan’s clubs and groups.

Once Love My Way aired, Jace stopped all association with the lifestyle. He had been his own man before the show. Then people thought he’d became a Dom because of Eagan. Part of that had been true. Jace knew he wanted to be a Dom before he knew what to call his predilection.

To be seen as a copycat and worse pushed Jace to the edge. With a few exceptions, he hadn’t looked back on his old life. As he stared at the front door, his former life came waltzing through it.

In a sea of beige and muted colors in the hotel, Michelle Jaxon, his last serious relationship, strolled into the place like a dream. She gasped when her gaze met his. She tried pretending not to notice him, keeping her head down and her stare averted.

“Michelle?” Jace called out to her.

She stepped up her pace.

“Hey.” He approached her. Before he could touch her arm, her breath caught and she stumbled back.

“Don’t touch me, okay.” The African-American woman folded her arms over her chest and glanced around as though looking for an escape route or an ally.

Jace didn’t think she would need either one to talk to him. He took a step back. “I wanted to say hello. It’s been a long time since we—”

“Please, don’t remind me.” She shook her head. “I looked at you and thought I was the luckiest sista in the world.” She smirked. “Tall, gorgeous man. Broad shoulders. Good body. Intelligent conversation. Then you got weird.”

Jace never thought he would have been classified as a weirdo. He knew he should have stuck with his circle of friends. He liked Michelle. She seemed down to earth and, more importantly, down for anything.

“We need to talk.” Maybe if Michelle knew that Jace had stopped his involvement in the BDSM lifestyle, she would see him differently. If nothing else, they could at least be friends.

 “I didn’t come here for you.” Michelle peered around him. “I’m seeing someone else.”

“I’m happy for you.” His mother couldn’t accuse him of lying again.

Jace had suspected that Michelle would move on to someone else, someone safe, someone vanilla.

The brief relationship they had might not have worked out for them, but Michelle carried a shapely, voluptuous frame that Jace liked holding at one time. Her rich café au lait complexion complemented her dark brown eyes. She’d even cut her hair to a short ’do where the back looked like she kept it shaved close to her head and the front she left long and sweeping over one eye.

When they had dated, Jace loved staring at her full lips. Now she kept them in a tight line like she fought to hold back the venomous words she wanted to spit at him.

He hadn’t intended on scaring her when he’d shown her a black scarf as a potential blindfold. Until her, he hadn’t thought about his old lifestyle in years. She’d taken the spanking during sex very well. The mention of whips and canes had her running for the hills.

“I hope he treats you right.” Jace clasped his hands together to keep from touching her.

“He doesn’t want to tie me up and whip the skin off my back.”

A couple standing close by glanced at Jace and Michelle for a moment when she made the inflammatory statement. Jace took a couple of steps away from them in the hopes that Michelle would follow. She hadn’t.

Jace kept hit tone forceful and even. “I didn’t either, had you allowed me to explain.”

“You didn’t need to tell me anything because it’s not like you would listen to me anyway. I’m not down for what you want in a relationship.” She shook her head, making her perfectly coifed hair flip back and forth in front of her face.

Her assessment of him felt like a stab in his heart. Jace liked to think when he had performed as a Dom that he had been one who did listen to his submissives and slaves. He understood that the relationship had to be a two-way street, even if he had been the one to direct the traffic.

Billy Bob waddled out to the lobby area. This time he sidled up to Michelle. When he wrapped his arm around her waist, the pieces fell into place. First Eagan had been a no-show, and now Michelle dated a troll man without a name. At every turn, Jace felt like a loser despite being recognized for his achievement in his industry.

“I see you met the love of my life.” Billy Bob squeezed her in close to him. “Michelle, this is—”

Jace cut the man off. “We know each other.” He waited to see if Michelle would fill in the blanks about their six-month union nearly a year ago.

“Titus said that after the ceremony tonight, he wanted to talk with some other builders.”

Titus. Damn, Jace had been way off in his guess.

“He’s planning on expanding.” Michelle turned to him and smiled, a first since she’d come into the hotel. “He’s going to be huge.”

“And I have this accounting genius by my side to thank.” Titus kissed her cheek. “She gave me the strength to be all I could be.”

Jace couldn’t decide which hurt him more, hearing about Titus’s plan to expand a business similar to Jace’s or the fact that his former flame found happiness with someone else, someone who apparently appreciated her more than he had.

Jace peered over at the doorway to the ballroom. The organizer waved her hand to usher them back into the room.

“Looks like it’s show time.” Titus patted Jace on his shoulder. “See you in there.”

Michelle looked away from Jace as she walked arm-in-arm with her new man. Jace strolled by them at a faster pace to get to the person running the show.

“You’re not announcing the winner now, right? Are you all serving dinner first?” Jace pointed into the room.

The slender, older woman blinked. “Um, yes. Dinner will be served. Then we’ll announce this year’s winner.”

“Great. I need five minutes.” He didn’t wait for her to respond. Jace darted off down a side hall, careless of where it led. He needed some space after encountering his past and coming to terms with his future.

 

****

 

Twenty-two year olds like Taren Kerrigan didn’t want to spend Friday nights out with their parents. Her father made her feel obligated to come to this industry event under the guise that he could pick up new business and Taren could possibly meet someone—a man her parents would like, someone like her father. Taren felt stuck between her helicopter duo, who made sure to always keep a hand on her.

Consuella and Del Kerrigan flanked both sides of Taren as they sat at a table with a group of Del’s employees from his insurance company, no one Taren knew. Not that it mattered. Her parents kept their full attention on her.

“What am I doing here?” Taren didn’t bother lowering her voice or whispering. Since she sat between her parents, she had to project for both of them to hear her.

“I told you. Homeowners need insurance companies. I want these builders to refer to us with their buyers.” Del straightened his tie.

Taren’s father had always been a stable influence in her life, her rock, and always overprotective. At her age, Taren didn’t need or want his protection. She wanted freedom. She yearned to live.

“Fine for you and Mom.” Taren pointed to Connie. “I don’t need to be here. You’re not accepting an award. Some guy I don’t know is. I shouldn’t be here.” She shook her head.

“I know what you mean.” A young, white, thin man, who sat across from her, winked.

Taren pretended to gag. She didn’t need someone else acting empathetic to her plight.

The man blinked and looked down at the table.

“You’re being rude.” Connie patted Taren on her arm and nearly hissed in Taren’s ear.

“No.” Taren pushed back from her. “I’m being real. I’m not needed here.”

A waiter came to their table with a huge platter full of plates of food. He placed a plate down for each guest. Taren peered down at the rubbery chicken covered in a light-colored sauce with sallow corn and anemic pieces of carrots next to it.

Connie turned to the waiter. “The lights in here won’t be turned back up too quickly, will they?”

“Mom, please stop.” Taren held her mother’s wrist.

“Stop what? Stop caring? I can’t do that.” She shook her head.

Connie had cut her hair short in the back of her head and left the rest of her dark brown hair with crisp curls made by a curling iron. Her blood red lipstick gave her lips a deceptively sinister appearance. As always, her stylish mother made Del match his outfit to hers. Or maybe they made that decision together, that she would rock a red lace dress while he sported a black suit with a red shirt and black-and-red tie.

Together, the three of them looked like the picture-perfect African-American family. If someone took their picture right now, Taren wouldn’t have been smiling.

Taren leaned over closer to her mother. “Mom, after this, the three of us need to talk.”

“It might be late. You really need to get your sleep.” Connie picked up her fork and knife and started cutting into her chicken. “We can talk in the morning.”

“No, it has to be tonight.” Taren shouldn’t have waited so long to break the news. Every time she’d tried bringing it up, her parents found ways to shut down her request.

“Why don’t you eat your dinner? It’s going to get cold.” Without taking a break, Connie reached over to Taren’s plate with her fork and knife, and began cutting Taren’s food up for her.

The young man across the table who had spoken to her before gave her a look of pity. No way would Taren take that from some guy she didn’t know. She grabbed her mother’s wrists and moved them off her plate.

“Mom, stop.” She released Connie and had to take several deep breaths before continuing.

“I was only trying to help. You need to know that it’s okay to ask for help.” Connie placed her utensils down on her plate.

“How are my two firecrackers doing over there?” Del nudged his elbow against Taren’s arm.

Because Taren and her mother had the same short stature, her father liked calling them his firecrackers. As a kid, Taren didn’t mind. As an adult, she had to start speaking up for herself.

She looked at her father first. “I’m moving out of your house.” Then she turned to Connie. “The moving truck will be by tomorrow.” Then she volleyed her gaze from Del to Connie, waiting for a reaction.

“No, you can’t move.” Connie picked up her utensils again and started cutting up her already macerated meal.

“I am moving. I’ve put in a deposit for the apartment. I’ve put in my change of address. I’ve even started moving things over there on my own.” Taren placed her hand on her mother’s arm and felt her flinch at the connection. “I need to go out on my own and do things. I’ll be fine.”

Connie remained quiet.

Taren turned to Del. “Dad?”

He stared at her for a moment. “We’ll talk about this tomorrow.”

No one listened to her. Her parents acted like Taren hadn’t said anything, or that the news she dropped didn’t mean anything. She had imagined what it would be like for someone to make all the decisions for her. In her mind, it would be sexier than this.

She recalled one of her favorite TV shows, Love My Way. A BDSM dominant looking for a submissive on a reality TV show. The Dom, Eagan Morton, seemed so masterful yet sexy. He told each of the contestants what to do, what he wanted. In that scenario, the feeling of being told what to do seemed different than what she’d had with her parents. Maybe because the contestants had wanted that life. They’d had a choice.

After Taren graduated from college, she felt like she reverted back to her childhood days. She’d moved back into her old bedroom with her original twin bed. Her parents took care of her and her needs. They kept her preserved like a rare doll. The thought that her concerns had been dismissed so easily boiled her blood. Her heart thumped a hard rhythm. If she didn’t get herself cooled down, she would lose it.

Taren moved her chair back. “I need some air.”

“Let me go with you.” Connie started to get up from her seat.

“No. Please. I’ll be fine.” Taren never thought her fun-loving parents would be so overbearing. “Enjoy your dinner.”

Taren strolled briskly down a hallway in the fancy Cavalier Hotel. If nothing else, she could always say that she had been to the lavish Virginia Beach hotel. She wanted to do it, though, under better circumstances.

Her high, black-and-white strappy heels didn’t allow her to run as fast as she wanted, but she moved quick enough to be able to whisk by guests milling about in the lobby. At the end of a hallway, she pushed on a set of double doors to a patio.

She ended up in a place that seemed to come straight from a dream or a fantasy. Lit candles in glass vases and candlelit lanterns lined the brick patio flooring. Chaise lounges with white seating cushions lined the sides to leave room to walk down the center. Soft piano music, piped in through speakers, wafted through the still night air.

Taren sat in one of the lounges and closed her eyes. If she listened beyond the music and concentrated hard enough, she heard the ocean waves a block away crashing on the beach. At least she forced her mind to hear that, to imagine her life on the beach.

She opened her eyes and stared into the darkened garden where she caught something she hadn’t noticed before. A man stood toward the garden area with his fists on his hips.

From behind, he looked impressive. A tall white man with a head full of his own dirty blond hair and big feet would capture any woman’s attention. She couldn’t wait for him to turn around.

She noticed a white stick in between his fingers. “Lots of candles around here.”

The stranger turned around and the air escaped her body. Even in darkness he looked incredibly enticing. Shadows highlighted his sleek nose, strong jaw line, and full lips.

At first she thought he may have worked at the hotel as a front desk clerk or concierge or manager. The way he wore the suit, no way could this man be told what to do by someone else.

He moved slowly toward her, stalking her.

“Um, you can use one of the candles to light your cigarette.” She hated the habit, but felt the need to be accommodating.

The man looked down at the slender addiction between his long fingers. “I bummed this from some waiter out here, but I wasn’t going to smoke it.” He crushed it in his hand. “Old habits die hard.”

Taren’s clit throbbed as soon as she heard his deep voice. That reaction alone made her sit up and take notice of this man. As soon as he moved in closer, she noticed his light blue eyes.

Her heart pounded, and all at once, she felt like a schoolgirl again experiencing her first crush. No way could she feel this way over a stranger. She would blame this reaction on lack of food. Her dinner waited for her in the ballroom along with her parents’ overprotective nature.

“Know what you mean.” Taren thought about her parents and their need to be so overbearing.

“You look nice.” He scanned her from her head down to her toes.

She thanked the Lord that she’d had a pedicure. Taren swept her hand over her hair that she had styled in an up ’do.

“Here for a wedding or something?” He looked at the hotel. “This place is known for that.”

“No, here with my parents.” She winced as soon as the words left her mouth. “My dad owns an insurance company. We’re here for some builders event.”

“But you have no interest in that.” He crossed his arms over his chest.

“Not really. I don’t know the person being honored. I don’t even know his name or the name of his business. I’m here to enjoy rubbery chicken.” She lowered her head and voice. “And be treated like a child.”

“What was that?” He moved closer to her.

“Never mind. Are you here for a wedding?” She smiled. “Are you the groom?”

He shook his head. “Not really marrying material. What about you?”

Taren shrugged. “If it were up to my parents, I would be married off to the goober at our table because he looks safe and reliable, which means he’s boring.”

“Boring might be good for you.”

Taren tilted her head at this stranger’s assessment of her.

He continued. “You’re young.”

“And?” She crossed her arms over her chest.

“You don’t know what you want yet. Sometimes it takes someone who’s been there to help guide you.”

Taren bolted to her feet. “The best decision you made tonight had to be that you didn’t smoke that cigarette. Other than that, you are dead wrong about me.” She started to leave.

“So you didn’t want me smoking?” he asked from behind her.

Despite her better judgment, she stopped and acknowledged him. “It really doesn’t matter what I want. If you wanted to smoke, I was being polite and letting you know how you can accomplish that. But I think it’s a disgusting habit. It ruins your teeth, your lungs, and your skin. You stink and you make everything around you smell.”

“Had I lit my cigarette, would you have stayed or gone back into the hotel and rejoined your party?” He took another step closer to her.

At his close proximity, she caught his intoxicating scent that reminded her of the outdoors, like honeysuckle and fresh-cut grass. “If you had smoked, I probably would have moved to another spot out here or gone back inside.”

“What if I wanted you to stay?” He inched in closer. “You know. For conversation. Would you?”

Taren returned his direct stare with one of her own. She wanted him to see that she wouldn’t be bossed around, at least not by him. She’d had fantasies about being a submissive for a strong dominant man. No matter how fine she found this man, he had another thing coming if he thought he could rule her.

“No, I wouldn’t.” She hoped she sounded convincing.

He looked like he struggled to not smile. “Interesting.” He sauntered to her. “You have a mind of your own, but you’re accommodating. You stand strong in your convictions, but can be yielding.”

Taren remained in her spot, but her knees knocked together so hard she felt her body shaking.

“You would make a good—” He glanced up at the doorway going into the hotel. “Have to go. Enjoy the rest of your evening.” He continued to the hotel. On his way, he tossed the crushed cigarette into a nearby trash bin.

With him inside, Taren exhaled and braced her hands on her knees. It felt like she had been in a boxing match with this man for twelve rounds. She ran her hand over her hair and down her black sheath dress before going back into the hotel. Taren made it to the ballroom in time to see a picture of her sparring partner on the screen behind the podium.

Had she known she’d been in the presence of one of the nominees, she would have not argued with him. Who was she kidding? Taren loved to prove a point to a fault. Sometimes that trait frustrated her parents. Taren couldn’t help it.

Taren didn’t even go to her parents’ table. She moved off to the side to see who would win.

A pale woman with jet-black hair in a bob stood at the podium holding an envelope with a gold seal to close the flap. “Now I understand why celebrities get so nervous opening these things.” She waved the envelope in the air.

A ripple of laughter filled the conference room. Taren didn’t find the statement amusing. Looking at the way her mystery man kept his face hard, he didn’t appear amused either.

“And the award goes to…” She opened the flap and pulled out a red card. “Titus Breckenridge!”

Taren looked at the man she’d shared a passionate exchange with only moments before. He remained seated. He didn’t even clap for the winner. She would have taken the lack of response as him being a sore loser. A strong, capable looking man like that didn’t seem like he lost a lot of things.

A rotund man waddled up to the podium to accept the award. He shook the woman’s hand first before making his speech. “Good evening. I’m thrilled and humbled to be named Builder of the Year by the Hampton Roads Builder Association.”

A rousing applause filled the expansive ballroom. Taren kept her arms down by her sides. She couldn’t believe that one of the nominees had been the same man who’d made her knees knock together. He hadn’t said anything when she’d voiced her displeasure about attending the ceremony. He’d listened to her.

Come on, girl. He wasn’t taking you seriously.

Taren shook her head and continued listening to Titus’s speech.

“I want to start by thanking my family for providing me the stable foundation to create my incredible business.” He paused before continuing. “My mother has always believed in me.”

Taren watched the award loser glance at the older woman next to him like he wanted to spout those same words to her had he won.

“But I must admit. I’m luckier than most.” He chuckled. “It helps to have a father who is also in the business and helped paved my way to the top, both emotionally and financially.” He stared at an attractive African-American woman sitting in the crowd. “And now I have a woman who is by my side and is my rock in every way.”

Taren glanced at her courtyard mate. He dropped his gaze to the table before he bolted to his feet and headed to the back of the room.  

Taren took that as her cue to leave. She knew her night had ended poorly when she wanted to root for a man who had tried to define her within five minutes of meeting her.

She darted to the table to get her purse.

“You’re just in time for the speech,” Connie said as she pulled out Taren’s chair.

“…With supportive parents and the love of my life, I feel like I can conquer the world.” The speaker made a point of glancing at Taren like he’d made the statement to her.

Damn. Was the whole world against her?

“I’m not feeling so hot.” She turned to her mother. “Nothing serious. I’ll get a cab. I’ll meet you two at home.” She kissed Connie on her cheek and gave Del a hug before leaving.

Life for Taren would have to be better once she got out on her own. Then she would show everyone who doubted her that she could make her own way.