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Pretty Perfect Toy



“It’s time to live in the light, Ella…”
With their attraction too explosive to ignore, Cassian Court has whisked Mishella Santelle from her tiny island kingdom to the empire he rules: New York City. Here, they have succumbed to the magic of Temptation Manor, surrendering to their lust—and a love that won’t be denied.

But happiness is nearly ripped away, when an act of heroism turns Cassian into a target of violence…from which physical recovery is only the beginning of healing. Cassian must find a way to expose his emotional scars too—meaning he must visit a past refusing to release him from its haunting grip.

“Take me into the darkness, Cassian…”
What are the secrets of Turret Two? Once revealed, will they clear a path for new connection to Ella…or anchor him deeper in the past as they struggle with the challenges of the present? Being touted as New York’s fresh “it” couple is insane enough—but just when Ella decides she’s had enough of being the city’s perfect little toy, a shocking visitor changes everything…and she must accept an even more agonizing reality.

Deception isn’t always black and white. And sometimes, the prettiest toy hides the darkest secrets.

Other Books In This Series


Excerpt


“Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without, and know we cannot live within.”

—James Baldwin

ONE

*

Mishella

I AM GOING to hell.

A choir sings in Latin. People speak in reverent tones. Sun streams

through angels and saints on stained glass windows, dappling rainbows across pious stone effigies—

And all I can think about is undressing the golden perfection of a man next to me.

And that would only be the start.

I want to touch him. Caress every muscled, chiseled inch of him. Wrap my naked body around his. Guide his erect, straining body deep inside mine...

Not. Now.

But why not now?

Cassian. I ache...

Nearly six weeks have passed since the moment that changed life for him and me. Forty-one days, to be exact—since the night he confronted a group of hoodlums attacking me in a dark corner of Bryant Park, not knowing one of them was carrying a gun—that the thug then fired three times.

Even here, in the streaming sun of mid-July, I relive that horrific midnight as if it has just happened. The minutes, seeming like hours, of gripping his pale hand, locking my terrified gaze into his glassy one,

screaming across the park for help until I was hoarse...then screaming some more...

“Please! Come quickly! His name is Cassian Court. Yes, that Cassian Court. You must help him! You must—”

“Ella.”

My head snaps up. He is not pale any longer, thank the Creator—a little patch on his elegant nose actually peels from the sunburn he incurred during our sailing trip on New York Harbor over the weekend— and his eyes are glittering instead of glassy, as deep a forest green of the T-shirt hugging his flawless torso. Regrettably, that is mostly hidden now, layered beneath a tan sports coat paired with matching slacks atop his muscled legs...

With a backside to match.

Get your mind off his backside.

Stop thinking of how those perfect mounds would feel, clenched and

naked against your palms, as his thighs slide between yours... Ohhhhh...my.

“Hmmm?” I hope he does not expect more. Likely, he does not. These moments come upon me often. It is a bizarre mix of the awe I felt when we first met, and reverent thanks for his simple aliveness—meaning I am now an idiot barely capable of logic or speech.

The sensation is...

wonderful.

And troubling.

I am rarely described by anyone, myself included, as the fanciful one

in the room. And while Cassian Court is often labeled as New York’s crown prince, I spent much of my adult life just steps away from real royalty. True, the halls of Palais Arcadia, on the Mediterranean island I called home until two months ago, would not qualify as a wing of some New York buildings—but they were perfect training wheels for the world I am now a part of. Many times, even in the center of, as Cassian’s—

What?

As I gaze at his chiseled face, the query burns deeper than ever. What am I to him? Girlfriend? Companion? The ideal decoration for his arm...for now? Or...something else? Something he does not want to see nor even has to, thanks to the giant whale still flopping in the middle of the room between us. A whale possessed by a ghost named Lily Rianna Court.

His wife.

Until four years ago.

It is the sole detail I can get out of anyone about her—including the

man’s own mother. Yes, I have tried. And tried. Struggled to give him time and room to come to me—the considerations I did not give him the night I first learned about Lily. Instead I stormed off, making him chase me across a park—

The park he left on a stretcher. With three bullets in his body.

“Knock knock.” Cassian’s playful tone wrestles me from the flashback. He taps a finger to my forehead. “Anyone home?”

I gaze at his retreating hand. Despite my dark reminiscence, fresh need curls low in my belly. Finger porn, Cassian Court style, is not a temptation for which I have girded this afternoon. “Désonnum,” I mutter, jerking my stare to meet his instead—

As if that helps.

His eyes have turned smoky—and an alluring kind of reproving. When I use native Arcadian, it hits him like an aphrodisiac. I have not simply “guessed” at this fact. He made sure I knew it shortly after the shooting, when he was still prone in a hospital bed and unable to do anything about it. Since then, we have certainly been able to do a few things about it—just not all the “things” we did before that terrible night.

Things he always had such perfect names for.

I want to fuck the color from your eyes, Mishella.

Take me deeper, favori.

Of course you can come a fourth time for me, little girl.

We have dealt with the dearth. We have had to. Compensated in ways

our relationship definitely needed. We have been on real, honest-to- Creator dates. Have seen some movies (he likes Tim Burton and Peter Jackson), flown out on some day trips (I have decorated his refrigerator with tacky tourist magnets from Niagara Falls, the Hudson Valley, and the White House), and even gone bowling and sailing (a thousand gutter balls and a sunburn of my own later, I am in love with both). I have learned about his love for omelets and bacon and good Scotch. He has learned I prefer milk chocolate over dark—and now, thanks to him, cannot get enough of New York street tacos and red velvet cupcakes from Billy’s Bakery.

By all the rules of a “good” relationship, we have done very well. Good.

It is a category. A definition.

For a relationship that has none.

Moments like this are simply the silent, screaming proof of it. Where

even désonnum does not belong. As our stares weave tighter and tighter, a tapestry unfurls, brighter and brighter—and I suddenly see every thread of his thoughts and every color of his soul as if they are my own.

We smile.

He lowers his hand. Scoops mine into it.

“The director was just saying that much of the stained glass in the

museum wasn’t acquired until the nineteen seventies,” Cassian explains. “But that now, it’s a crucial part of the Cloisters’ collections.”

“Oh.” I blink, focusing on the large glass pieces. “Hmm. Very interesting.” Lying on top of lusting now—in the glow from large glass panels where every figure has wings, a halo, or both.

Yes. Hell-bound.

The man to whom Cassian is referring, a handsome fellow with the beginnings of gray around his angular face, warms then preens. The “Cassian Court Effect” has claimed another victim. I have yet to meet anyone in this city, from car valets to waitresses to heads of huge corporations, who is immune to it—the largest casualty, of course, being the girl in the mirror. It is a sentence I fully accept—though at first, it was like turning my skin inside out. After twenty-three years of learning to see only the scheming side of humanity, it has been strange—and amazing—to shift my lens, seeing things through Cassian’s focus. He stuns me, this man with the shadows in his eyes and the ghosts from his past, who can still rouse so much of the light in others. Or perhaps that is the drive behind his laser focus on it—that seeing the Eden in others helps banish the Hell in him.

In that case, maybe I am glad that is my destination too.

“What an honor and privilege it has been to escort you through the museum this afternoon, Mr. Court.” The director still glows as we make our way out of the little stone room, into a pair of galleries lined with elaborate medieval tapestries. “Rarely do we get a chance to see our benefactors outside of the fundraising special events, which are usually such cluster f—”

As the man colors, Cassian smirks. “It’s all right, Blythe. You’re among friends.” He wraps an arm around my waist. “Fly that cluster fuck flag with pride.”

The man chuckles—and clearly enrolls himself as a new member of the Cassian Court Fan Club. As its president, I join him in worshipping the man with my upturned smile—though the next moment, it is impossible to even remember Blythe’s presence. As soon as Cassian dips his head to return my gaze, electricity arcs and zaps and binds us, even stronger than before...heat rocketing into desire, then desire coiling into lust, as the world spins far away and we breathe hard together, barely recalling we are in public and cannot simply shred each other’s clothes away...

“Shall we continue out to the garden?”

Cassian blinks. His jaw compresses before his head jerks up, a forced smile on his strong, sensual lips. Hell overtakes me prematurely, simply having to stare at those lips instead of pulling them to mine...then to other places...

“Of course,” he tells Blythe, shooting me an apologetic glance while slipping his grip from my waist to my hand. It is certain and commanding, his thumb caressing my knuckles as we follow the director out to the little square courtyard, with its lush plants, manicured lawns and stone fountain surrounded on all four sides by arched walkways. The echo of our steps on the stones seems a perfect—and agonizing—echo of the desire pinging through our bodies.

By all the powers.

When we make it through the garden and finally enter another soaring chapel, I press back into Cassian’s side. Perhaps letting his arm rub my chest will relieve at least the ache in my breasts...

And the pillars will magically turn into soaring red velvet cupcakes.

“The Romanesque Hall and the Langon Chapel,” Blythe rambles on. I smile and nod in all the right places, attempting to focus on his litany.

Constructed in stone sourced from Moutiers-Saint-Jean...

Burgundy, France...

in the grand gothic architectural style...

“Gothic.” Cassian is more engaging than I can hope to be, even adding

one of the most classic versions of his subtle smile. “Well, obviously.”

“Oh, oui!” The director laughs loudly, earning himself high-holy glares from a cluster of women nearby. Cassian fields it like the verbal version of a fist bump, encouragement and camaraderie in a pleasant mix. I am as grateful for it as Blythe, because I now start to wonder if the man is actually making a play for Cassian. That should make me amused,

but...does not. The sensation getting in its way is a complete flummox. What is this twisting in my belly, this irksome stab in my chest?

The feeling intensifies as the director claps a hand to Cassian’s shoulder and starts regaling us with details of the chapel’s ceiling. I am not as easily “called” as Cassian, barely listening to the narration, even as Blythe guides us to a small side doorway, through a portal accessed by a swipe of his museum key card, then up a flight of private stone steps into private offices and event preparation rooms. The men continue to talk, now I am only interested in the man’s rapt stare at Cassian—even as he swings another door wide, and shows us onto a balcony with a jaw- dropping view of the sunset over the Hudson.

That is only where the magic begins.

The alcove is aglow, though not by artificial means. A hundred white candles burn in ornate medieval candelabra, their stone bases carved with a menagerie of animals and—of course—angels. More candles are arranged in the center of a table set for two, with a plate of fresh meats, cheeses, and vegetables accompanied by a tall bottle of Italian red wine. Another plate holds an assortment of fancy desserts. The air is a rich mix of sinful and spiritual, the savory food blending deliciously with the tapers’ warm wax.

“Oh.” I gasp it before I can help it. While the museum tour has been wonderful despite Blythe’s bizarre behavior, this is the last—but absolutely best—thing I have fathomed as a grand finale. A medieval-style dream come to life, with my own gorgeous knight.

I hope that is what the two chairs mean...

Especially when Blythe lifts both brows expectantly at Cassian, then prompts, “Wellll?”

Cassian squares his shoulders. Sweeps an appraising look across the balcony. As a result, I do not stop gazing at him. Is he adopting “CEO Face” just for me? He knows what it does to me; I have told him in words of his own language—words borrowed from my best friend Vylet, a self- proclaimed “Americano junkie,” to make sure he understands the point, loud and clear.

Turn-on. Panty dissolver. Invitation to lick.

Without looking at me—another purposeful move?—he pivots his attention back toward Blythe. Waits through one more pause before speaking.

“It’s perfect.” He grins big, hauling the other man in for a one- shouldered bump. “Thank you, Blythe. Can’t express my gratitude enough.”

“Oh, you already do, Mr. Court.” Before I can decipher that bit of gushing, the man is back in professional mode, bowing to both of us with formality rivalling any Sancti Palais page from back home. “With that, I bid a fond bon soir. Simply pick up the red courtesy phone when you’re ready to depart. Security will phone your car to the front and let you out.”

“Outstanding.”

Blythe bows low over my hand before leaving completely, ensuring I stand in a pool of my own confusion as soon as he shuts the door and is gone. Though I direct my frown out toward the glistening waves and watercolor-bright sky, my unease has not escaped Cassian’s observance. Not that I expected it to. The man has been my personal mind reader since the moment we met.

“All right.” He demands it in a murmur against my hair, tucking me close to his body. “Out with it.”

“With what?”

“You really giving me that, armeau?”

“And are you really using that word...now?”

Armeau. It is not a term he throws around lightly—because he knows

that I do not. The Arcadian word for “gift” carries a double meaning, used to denote a person who is special above others in a person’s life. When used, it...elevates a conversation.

“Sure as hell am.” Though his reply comes without a skipped beat, he lets one pass while drawing up and re-locking our stares. “You’re troubled. Why?”

I wrestle my gaze away. Turn it back to the horizon, banking that the sunset will hold it still for more than a few seconds. The gamble was worth it. The sky is a palette of pink and orange, the river a collection of purple and gold. I walk to the balcony’s edge. For a moment, I can truly imagine we are a knight errant and his lady, enjoying a respite as day transforms into night. “There is no room for troubled here.” I hope my peaceful breath proves how much I mean it.

“You accuse me of pulling the armeau card, then use a line like that?” Dismissive shrug. “Worth a try.”

Cassian chuckles hard enough to make me join in. Soothes my frayed

nerves a little more by stepping behind me, caging me against the stone

ledge, hands flattened just next to my elbows. “You weren’t comfortable during the tour.”

I shift a little. Enough to assure myself his warmth is real...

Including the stiff ridge between his thighs.

“Not true.” I curl one of his arms forward, around my waist. More...I

want so much more. Though keeping our hands from each other would be a feat close to achieving world peace, his recovery from the shooting has stopped us short from being fully passionate for the last six weeks— meaning everything about his nearness coats my senses like a wizard’s spell. His scent, cedar and soap and musk. His muscles, now leaner but more defined because of the changes in his workouts. His masculine force, potent and stringent, as if trying to gash its way out of his body and into mine. “The tour, I was very comfortable with.”

“But...?”

His voice vibrates along my ear. I swallow, struggling not to let that fire course through the rest of me...but as my toes burn with it, I embrace the defeat. “But Blythe...”

“Blythe?” He jerks back. Just a little. “You’re in a twist about him?”

“He...” My lips purse. Borrowing serenity from the sky, despite how the man swirls heat through my belly with tiny circles of his fingers, I push on. “He...wants you, Cassian. In that way.”

He resettles behind me. Expands the caresses, playing at the top of my panties through my light cotton dress, while teasing my neck with a soft chuckle. “Is that all?”

I take my turn for a little jerk. “Is that all?”

“I’ve known the man for years, Ella. And he isn’t subtle.”

“Isn’t—? Wait. You mean he’s...tried to...”

“Tried.” He has the nerve to chuckle about it. “Long ago.”

“How long?”

“Long enough.”

“And—and did you—errrm—return his—his—”

Another chuckle, huskier and sexier, before he dips in to nip at the

space beneath my ear. “What do you think?”

I squirm. Battle through the steam he has thickened through my

senses with his oh-so-talented fingers and lips. “I think you are a man of many passions—”