Dreaming of a Wild Christmas and Entangled
Here's your sneak peek at chapter one of Dreaming of a Wild Christmas and chapters one and two of Entangled, the first book in the In Paradise series. As you read, please keep in mind that all written work is subject to changes before official publication. I hope you enjoy it, and if you'd like to leave me a love note, use the button below. Happy reading!
DREAMING OF A WILD CHRISTMAS:
A HOLIDAY NOVELLA
Tuesday, December 21
Valentina Jones pulled open the coffee shop door, fighting against the same wind gusts that shook passengers to yelps and gasps on her flight to Colorado yesterday. With only her eyes visible through the knit cap pulled just above her eyebrows and the matching scarf secured tightly around her nose and mouth, Valentina was desperate to get inside and breathe air laced with coffee and pastries -- not yarn.
It was a bright, but boisterous, Tuesday morning, and the first day of her holiday vacation. It was also her first holiday vacation without her loud, judgmental, and impossible to please family—and no matter how high the winds or cold the temperatures, she was going to hit those slopes, drink spiked cider, flirt with guys, eat carbs, and hit repeat until she boarded the flight back to Philly on Sunday.
The line to place orders was stretched the length of the cafe, but she had no place to be until early afternoon when she’d join a trio of other young women from the singles’ group she was traveling with for their first runs.
She unraveled her scarf and freed her two french braids, twirling the curled edges around her fingers before pushing them behind her shoulders. She whipped out her cell phone, ignoring the texts and voicemail messages from her family and opened Instagram. She wanted to snap a selfie before strands of hair inevitably escaped her braids and her edges rose and softened around her face. The cafe had a full-length window facing the mountain, and with the snow forming mini-white cyclones in the wind, it was the perfect backdrop for some shameless photographic bragging. Her life wasn’t exactly perfect right now, but this moment was and she needed to be the envy of someone—even if it was staged perfection.
Ten minutes later and four selfies in, she made it to the register and placed an order for a medium mocha latte for herself, and a large cappuccino for her new friend. She added an assortment of pastries and awkwardly flirted with the tall, lean guy with light brown eyes taking her order. She was clearly out of practice because he barely returned a smile when he gave her the total and directed her to insert her card in the chip reader.
She navigated around the other caffeine deficient patrons waiting for their orders and lucked up on a couple finishing up at a table for two in the back corner near a double-sided fireplace. The place was packed, and people were still pouring in. Only the free-riders and park rats went out early in this type of weather, not at all discouraged by a little wind. Her and most of the other skiers at the resort decided to wait it out a while longer. She suspected that by noon the slopes would be dotted with skiers of all ages and all abilities—virgins and novices mixing with the pros and the instructors.
She felt anticipation rising at the thought of losing herself on her first downhill run—to feel the pressure in her muscles, the slick surface beneath her skis, slicing through the crisp air and speeding away from all the issues with her job, her family, and her lack-luster love life.
She checked the time on her phone and peered towards the door. Still no Lauren.
Sliding her arms out of her coat, Valentina glanced around the room and knew she’d spend a lot time in this space. It was warm and spacious, its concrete floors painted a blended shade of rust, brown and gold, with furnishings artfully worn and scattered among the small deep mocha tables and chairs. Vintage skis and custom artwork—including colorful representations of Biggie and Tupac in ski goggles—covered the walls and industrial light fixtures gave the space a soft and comforting glow.
“Valentina,” the barrista called out. “Order for Valentina on the bar.”
Leaving her coat, scarf and hat at the table to hold her space, she headed to the bar. At barely five feet tall, she reached for the two cups and her finger tips barely skimmed the edges. She popped up on her tippy toes and was able to snag the saucers with her index finger, but not enough to pull them forward without flipping them over. Finally, she pushed both elbows on the counter and lifted her full body weight up and over, pulling both drinks forward with minimal sloshing. When she was planted safely on the ground, she heard someone snicker behind her.
Someone had been watching her short girl maneuvers.
Balancing both cups in her hands, she turned slowly to face her heckler, squinting and daring him to laugh in her face. But he spoke first.
“Valentina Simone Jones. I knew it could only be you. Not many Valentina’s on the slopes, and definitely not many at your deficient height.”
Valentina stood motionless, an ice sculpture melting under his gaze. Remnants of their shared history gripped her. She didn’t even dare breathe—at least not until she could make sense of what was happening. She honed in on the movement of his lips against a face that was different, matured, yet familiar. But the deep, rich voice pouring from those lips—it was the same—along with the soulful dark brown eyes and ridiculously thick eyelashes. Those lashes really were a crime against female humanity. No amount of mascara could rival what he had naturally.
Praying he didn’t catch the audible sigh that reminded her she needed to breathe, she took his measure—no longer a boy, but a grown ass man. He looked more like a male model than the boy next door she remembered and crushed on all through high school. His facial hair had grown in and was neatly groomed, framing his too perfect white teeth and cocky smile. A thick brown cashmere sweater covered his neck, and his distressed jeans and butter-colored Timberlands reminded her that though he was definitely all man now, he had held on to some of his boyish style. His look was natural—one part hip-hop mogul and equal parts effortless European style. He was taller and broader with biceps worthy of a comic book superhero. And after all these years, she still hadn’t tamed the butterflies dancing in her belly.
When Valentina couldn’t find her words, the always cool, cocky, and unaffected Terrence Richards stepped closer and took one of the coffees from her.
“Yeah, I’m surprised to see you, too. Let’s catch up.”
CHAPTER 1: RILEY ST. JAMES
Gazing across the Potomac River dividing and connecting two cities, Riley St. James observed its steady current leading to and flowing away from something, depending on perspective. At nearly half past 7:00 p.m., the sun’s dissent on the Southwest waterfront of Washington, D.C., was nearly complete, revealing an evening canvas of pale pink, golden yellow, and soft orange filtering through voluminous white clouds against a light blue sky. From the hotel’s floor to ceiling windows, she watched reflections of cherry blossom trees dance along the river’s edge, while small clusters of people absorbed the last bit of daylight, snapping photos, or just walking beneath the canopy of floral glory.
The mellow rhythms of a jazz tune in the background soothed her somewhat frantic nerves. She took a deep inhale, letting the allure of the evening wash over her. When she released it, any remnants of doubt and insecurity evaporated, mostly, and she counted her blessings. Her mother and father were with her—and actually being cordial with one another—along with her extended family and closest friends, all present to celebrate her big day. This solitary moment, basking in the life she’d built for herself and culminating in this occasion, was pure perfection. Whoever said perfection was an illusion lied. She had expected it, orchestrated it, and was now living it.
She adjusted the waist of her dress and turned just as the jazz track transitioned to Coltrane’s Equinox.
Jonathan S. Jasper, III, entered as if on cue.
Her eyes drank in her betrothed with equal parts lust and love. His satin-textured black-on-black dinner jacket clung to perfectly formed arms and broad shoulders, while black, slim-fit tailored pants contoured to his lean muscular thighs. But it was the collared black shirt that did it for Riley. Unrestrained by a tie, the top two open buttons exposed his deep bronze skin and distracted her with thoughts of spreading kisses across his neck. His designer shoes shined and he walked with an air of confidence, a swagger, that she never tired of watching. His dark hair was neatly trimmed and his clean-shaven face was smooth to the touch. As he approached, she caught the scent of his cologne as it lingered in the air, subtle but discernible to her.
Jonathan was a real-live, walking, talking, breathing one-percenter all around, down to his magnetic grey eyes—possessed only by one percent of the world’s population. The youngest partner in his grandfather’s law firm, just one of his family’s many business enterprises, Riley’s wayward mother had proclaimed him a catch. While her more cynical father predicted the relationship would be more like a catch and release scenario. Rarely did she side with her mother; but on this point, they agreed.
“Well, hello, gorgeous,” he said, a dazzling white smile spreading across his face. “You look ready for your last night as Miss Riley St. James.”
“Hi, yourself, handsome,” she said blushing through a self-conscious grin.
Sliding one hand around her waist, he pulled her closer. With his warm palm resting on her hip, he whispered in her ear, “I can’t wait to make you my wife and this body legally mine.”
A warmth rose in her and a soft moan escaped as she fought back the temptation to press her body further into his. But she let reason win.
Not wanting to ruin her make-up or sheer white dress, she eased back, smiled, and let her eyes search his face. She had memorized the curve of his lips, the shape and texture of his eyebrows, and the pool of grey that swirled in his eyes. And yet, something about him always seemed to elude her, like an unsolved mystery or closely guarded secret. It both frightened and thrilled her.
He returned her smile as his thumb firmly traced the spine of her back.
“Control yourself, Mr. Jasper,” she whispered in his ear as his hand reached the nape of her neck. “The night is young and our guests will be arriving soon.”
She slid herself gently from his embrace, and he made a show of adjusting his collar and jacket. When he was done, she placed her arm through his and they headed to the ballroom. Exiting the room, she caught a glimpse of their reflection in the window. He in all black and she in all white. He was the yin to her yang.
* * *
The Rehearsal Soiree was a red-carpet affair, with their guests dressed in semi-formal attire parading down a candlelit hall where they greeted and were photographed with the happy couple, positioned at the entry way like urban royalty. It was a scene plucked straight out of the Great Gatsby movie, minus Leonardo DiCaprio. Their guests, dripping glamour and achievement, caused such a spectacle that complete strangers snapped random photos as they exited the stretch Hummers hired for the night.
Riley watched endearingly as Jonathan exchanged secret greetings with his fraternity brothers, masculinity radiating from his pores. And while she knew it was against the night-before-the-wedding rules—she couldn’t help thinking that she just might demonstrate her appreciation tonight. That’s something he’d never expect from his “Catholic good girl.”
He had started referring to Riley as a good girl in college. On their first date he realized her truth was his kryptonite. To win the heart of a girl who planned to save her virginity for marriage meant he had to be all in—or all out. True to form, Jonathan went all in.
Tonight, he had held Riley close, his hand rested on the small of her back with his thumb gently massaging the small dip at the base of her spine. The sensation of that slight touch pulsed through her body and kept her right at the edge of her sanity.
Surrounded by their families and closest college friends, it was a night she knew they would always remember.
And yet, surrounded by all that perfection, there was one small anomaly in the evening. A bothersome suspicion that assaulted Riley’s wall of confidence.
One of her sorority sisters, Sierra Charles, had brought as her plus-one her college roommate, Issy Bisset. A perfect blend of French and Nigerian, Issy was a cool party girl at heart, and always down for whatever. Some of Jonathan’s frat brothers came solo and there were a few other single ladies in attendance, but none of them could match the allure of Issy. Riley had been hoping for a love match among their single guests during the weekend wedding celebration. But with Issy in play, it might be more like a quick hook-up.
When Issy appeared in the doorway with Sierra, Riley watched as heads turned and all eyes focused on her. Riley felt Jonathan’s hand slip just slightly, but he recovered and she appeared unbothered. There had been rumors back in college that he and Issy had messed around, but he swore it was nothing and she chose to believe him. Mostly.
Sierra was always the wild card. She had your back in a bind, but she also had a talent for stirring up trouble. With so much history and more than a few rumors between their guests, Sierra’s simmering stew might prove toxic tonight.
Riley surveyed Issy in her fullness—a full jet-black thicket of soft, tight coils framing her perfectly dimpled face. She had the lashes, the perfectly arched eyebrows, flawless ginger skin, and shocking red lips. Riley willed herself to plaster on a smile before she leaned in and accepted Issy’s embrace, welcoming her to the dinner.
“Everything looks perfect, Riley,” she said. Riley thought there was a just a little too much emphasis on the word looks, but she let it slide and graciously accepted the compliment.
Sierra was right behind Issy. She and Riley had known each other since they were freshmen. They had pledged their sorority together, and had made their share of mistakes together. Sierra had never been a fan of Riley’s relationship with Jonathan, and Riley couldn’t help wonder if her choice of a plus-one was an unsubtle warning.
Now standing face to face, Riley signaled to Sierra she wasn’t happy with raised eyebrows and a pinched smile. But it was too late for Sierra to do anything, so she opted instead to throw her arms around Riley and lavish her with compliments Riley took advantage of their proximity to whisper in Sierra’s ear.
“What the hell were you thinking bringing Issy here? Are you trying to upset me?”
Sierra lowered her voice and responded through a fake smile. “If you’re worried about Issy at this stage, maybe you really shouldn’t be marrying Jonathan, Soror.”
Freeing herself from Sierra’s grip, Riley forced a smile adding, “It's not Issy I'm worried about. It's you, Sierra. You have a reputation for being sloppy and my rehearsal dinner is not the time or the place.”
Through a calculating smirk, Sierra scanned Jonathan's attire from head to toe before turning her attention back to Riley.
“Hmmm. The villain wore black and the virgin wore white. A real life fairytale.”
Raising her hand to Sierra’s shoulder, Riley dismissed her with a cavalier gesture. “Move along, Sierra. I have other guests to greet.”
Sierra chuckled, and exaggerated her greeting to Jonathan.
Now with Sierra’s back to her, Riley watched out the corner of her eye as Issy embraced Jonathan and he gave her a polite church hug.
Riley refused to let Sierra’s words shake her. But watching a retreating Issy, her stomach stirred and a flash of heat rose spread across her cheeks. Issy effortlessly slid her jacket off her shoulders, revealing a dramatic backless black sequined dress that hit her just below the knees and fit like a second layer of skin over wide-hips and an ample ass. Her strappy sparkling Louboutin sandals were at least five inches tall—five inches that transformed her 5’7 lean body into a weapon of mass destruction for any man in her path. Cardi B had called Louboutin’s “bloody shoes” — lyrics to a song that Riley would now refer to as Issy’s anthem.
Over the years, Issy’s star had risen as a print model, and later as she began acting with a few minor roles on sitcoms, movie cameos, lots of commercials, and was now an influencer—whatever the hell that meant. If it paid the bills, Riley was happy for her. Any woman, but especially a black woman, calling her own shots and defining her own success got nothing but respect from Riley. Issy was no different.
Watching Issy own the red carpet, Riley was conflicted. Simultaneously she admired and was suspicious of the woman. Her instincts had kicked in and she had an uneasy feeling that Issy’s presence meant trouble for some unsuspecting sucker tonight.
CHAPTER 2: GABRIEL LAURENT
Gabriel Laurent slowed his pace, wiping perspiration from his brow with the edge of his shirt.
Breathing heavy and his heart rate elevated, he had hoped he could outrun the difficult decision he would have to make tonight. Stretching his legs and arms, Gabriel faced the River Seine and watched its current—slow and deliberate, coming and going, connecting and dividing.
Everything in life was about choices. His was simple—well, not really. Should he return to his family business and take his place next to his father? Or should he accept the opportunity his company has groomed him for, proving they value his input and expertise?
Slowing his pace, he was happy to be home during his favorite time of year in Paris. The foliage alone was worth the price of the airfare. A splattering of white and Sakura cherry blossom trees blended with magnolias and plum blossoms at the river’s edge and stretching along the length of the street. Each fragrance was distinct, but not overwhelming—each blossom unique and fleeting.
Wanting to lower his heart rate before walking back to his flat, he took a seat on the grass beneath a white cherry blossom tree not fully bloomed. But it provided just enough cover to meet his needs, and it was his favorite. Most people lingered near the trees with the most vibrant pinks or the fullest blossoms. But he preferred the soft white petals of the cherry blossom trees and their distinct branches cascading and nearly skimming the earth. It was a beauty that didn’t scream out for attention in its perfection.
Settling in to think through his options, his solitude was interrupted when his sister called.
“Are you busy?” Juliette asked.
Swatting away a swarm of miniature insects, his quiet time was proving anything but.
“I’m never too busy for you, ma chère soeur,” he said. “I just finished up an early evening run. How are you? Everything alright?”
“I just wanted to make sure you were still coming for dinner tonight,” she said. “I know Papa has been pressuring you, but I really want to see you before you go back to New York.”
Always a very clever girl, she was now an even more astute young woman, and despite his best efforts, he could never hide the tension with their father from her. He just hoped she didn’t feel too affected by it.
“I’ll be there,” he chuckled. “And don’t you worry about Papa. I can handle him.”
“Oui. I know you can,” she said, and then paused.
The pause worried him. The tension was spilling over and he hated it.
“It’s just…” Juliette’s voice softened and trailed off.
“I don’t know,” she continued, her voice laced with concern. “He’s been in a bad mood and I know it’s because he wants you to come back to the family business. But you know his bad moods lead to bad decisions.”
“You shouldn’t worry, Juliette.” He wanted to console her, but knew there was conflict and a reason to worry. He just didn’t want her to do the worrying.
“Papa and I want the same things. We just disagree on the details. I want to make changes and he wants to keep everything just as it is. Maybe we can come to a compromise tonight. At least I hope we can.”
“Really, Gabriel? You want to come back to the company?”
He heard the anticipation rise in her voice and felt guilty. Wanting the same thing wasn’t enough. There was a gulf of distance between them as wide as the river in front of him about how the company should be managed. His father wouldn’t let go of the reins and Gabriel wouldn’t settle for being a figure head just because it was his birthright.
“Yes, Juliette. I do. But on my own terms.”
She sighed heavily into the phone.
“It’s going to be a long night,” she said.
Gabriel knew she was being serious, but he wanted to lighten the mood.
“You’re right! Because after dessert, you and I are going to escape into your living quarters and you get to pick the movie. But I’m choosing the snacks.”
“I’m going to hold you to it.” He sensed her smiling through her quick agreement.
“I have no doubt that you will.”
When they ended the call, Gabriel stood, his moment broken by Juliette’s call and more people flooding the walk ways taking in the cool temperatures and the fleeting floral scenery.
Just as he started walking, his phone vibrated again. He didn’t recognize the number, but answered anyway.
“Bonjour!” The voice on the other end was a little too eager, yet very familiar.
“Oui, Monsieur! How are you?”
“I’m fine. But how’d you get my number? And why are you calling out of the blue?”
Cecily Leroux was beautiful, a trendsetter, an heiress to her family’s fortune, and his college ex-girlfriend. She was a lot of things, subtle was not one of them.
The wind picked up and clouds had started to move in. Rain wasn’t in the forecast when last he checked, but the threat was obvious. So, Gabriel picked up his pace.
“Aren’t you happy to hear from me? Your parents certainly thought you might welcome a call from your first love,” she said, playing coy.
Gabriel hadn’t spoken to Cecily in years. He was mostly based in the U.S. and Cecily was running the world of Paris high society. The last he heard she was playing a major role in le Bal des Débutantes. She had participated as a high school senior and always described it as the time of her life.
It was also how Gabriel met her.
He had been tapped to be a cavalier—the young men who escorted the debutantes—thanks to his mother. He was paired with Cecily because of their mutual family connections. Young, immature and boyish Gabriel liked her instantly. She was funny, smart, personable and without doubt, the most beautiful girl at le Bal. Everything in her life came easy, and he never saw her behave as anything other than a girl who knew the world would rise up to meet her and he was just along for the ride.
It was never lost on Gabriel that his mother tried to steer him away from Cecily, while his father approved of her in every way. But most assuredly, her greatest asset to his father was her family’s business. For his mother, that was her greatest disqualifier.
Among her family’s holdings was an outrageously profitable and upscale hotel enterprise. His father admired and coveted their properties—mostly because they weren’t really in direct competition to our family’s own significant portfolio. In all things, the business was first with his father.
When Gabriel and Cecily landed at the same college, they became an instant “it-couple” on campus. Their relationship had been completely orchestrated by Cecily—something he realized in hindsight. After college, he eventually found a permanent out—accepting a job with an American company. He knew Cecily would never leave Paris and she moved on quickly with a parade of celebrity suitors at her disposal. He’d seen her in magazines and tabloids over the years, as beautiful and unburdened by real life as ever.
Her appearance now was definitely suspicious, but more inconvenient. He had a lot to sort through and didn’t have the time or space to indulge whatever this was.
Gabriel changed his approach to speed this along.
“It’s always nice to hear from an old friend, Cecily. What do I owe for this spontaneous call?”
She giggled. But her tone was uneven. Almost forced.
“Can’t a girl reconnect with her old flame? I heard you were in town and wanted to catch up. Maybe grab a cocktail or a coffee. Maybe dinner and be each other’s desserts.”
Gabriel shook his head and smiled despite his irritation.
“Same old Cecily, I see. Why are you really calling?”
The sounds of the city had picked up as restaurants were opening for dinner and sidewalk cafe tables were emptying of their couples and groups of friends taking refuge indoors from the unpredictable weather. And Cecily was stalling.
“Hello,” he said. “Are you still there.”
“Why must you always question my motives? I called simply because I want to see you. I hear through the family grapevines that you may soon return to Paris to work with your father. If that’s true, maybe there’s a chance for us to reconnect.”
Gabriel couldn’t tell if she was being serious, or if she wanted something else. But what? She had everything she could ever want—including her pick of men. Why him? And why now?
“Ah, I see. You’ve spoken to my father.”
Gabriel navigated throngs of people on the slim sidewalks, stomach growling as he inhaled the sweet scent wafting from the small crepes cart that was always a block from his flat. He wanted this call over before he made it home.
“Talk of my return is premature, so sorry to disappoint. And if I do return, I’ll be too busy to connect or reconnect with anyone.”
Cecily interrupted him. “Don’t be so quick to dismiss me. It’s just a drink between old friends. How about tomorrow?”
Small droplets of rain now dotted the concrete and Gabriel picked up his pace. He wasn’t against having a drink with Cecily, but he didn’t know if he’d still be in Paris tomorrow.
“Maybe,” he said, not wanting to seem too harsh. “My travel plans aren’t finalized yet. But if I’m still here, we’ll have a cocktail.”
“Magnifique! I’ll call you tomorrow! Enjoy dinner with your family.”
The line disconnected.
He slipped the phone in his pocket and opened the door to his building. Sliding the key in his flat’s door, Cecily’s last words lingered.
How did she know he was having dinner with his family?