There was no way he was letting her walk out that door. Kara hadn’t been overly fond of him before. He’d acted like a selfish bastard, and without that debt hanging over her head, she’d never attend the gala with him. Morgan wasn’t a mustache-wielding villain, but he wasn’t a hero either. At least, this way, he’d be getting a fiancée in return.
“What’s this?” he asked, motioning towards the suitcase as he approached her.
She whirled around, slamming him with her best fake smile. “I thought I’d save you the trouble of giving me the boot.”
A tight ponytail held her hair and her face had been scrubbed clean of makeup. She was positively radiant. So much so that he would have almost thought she was over the fiasco of last night. But her swollen eyelids and bloodshot eyes gave her away.
He’d made eight seconds with two cracked ribs, so the low-volt pang of contrition coursing through his chest should have been easy to ignore.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t. “About last night—”
“Agnes has,” she interjected, “already called for the limo and made arrangements with your pilot to fly me back to Texas.”
From the corner of his eye, he saw Agnes walk in. An unfamiliar frown of worry held her face. “I’m afraid she was adamant, sir.”
“It’s fine, Agnes.” Morgan stepped closer and gently took Kara by the elbow to move her away from the door.
“I owe you an apology, Kara.”
Startled by his admission, she stared up at him.
“The shy mouse comment was out of line. I had no right to say that about you.”
“Y-you don’t have to apologize,” she said, her ponytail whipping from side to side as she shook her head. “It was me–”
“No. You’re right. I’m a pompous pig. I shouldn’t have insisted you wear the dress and parade around in front of me.” He let out a hefty sigh for a dramatic effect and waited for a sign.
She hooked her front teeth over her bottom lip and shyly looked up at him. “I never thought I’d hear you apologize.”
That makes two of us.
Confident the admission of guilt he’d just layered on had done the trick, Morgan moved on. Raising his hand, he eased the tip of his finger along the silky-smooth line of her jaw.
He took great pleasure in making her tremble with just a touch, but at the same time, he was hesitant about the uncertainty in her eyes. Palming her chin, he smiled warmly. “But this won’t work unless you’re comfortable with me.”
That smile she’d been holding onto earlier shattered. “Let’s face it,” she said, pulling away from him. “This isn’t going to work at all. And how dare you throw an audition at me after I thought I had the job!”
Morgan froze. “What?”
“Don’t get me wrong.” She pointed a finger at him. “I could have passed last night’s kissing audition with flying colors if you hadn’t been drinking.”
Drinking? He’d had one whiskey. “Kara, calm down.”
“And I mean, seriously. No one in their right mind is going to think a man like you is in love with a woman like me.”
What did that mean? “A woman like you?”
She glanced up at him with sad rheumy eyes. “A shy mouse.”
A fresh wave of guilt hit him. “Kara–”
“And I’m way out of my league with the whole acting thing.”
That was the reason she was so perfect for the role. Everything about her, her emotions, reactions, and feelings, was authentic. “I’ll give you a few pointers and help you along. It’s not a big deal.”
“But it is, Morgan,” she cried as the tears came.
And… she’s crying again.
“Wearing that dress was a big deal to me. Being half-naked in front of a man I barely know is a big deal to me. And when I agreed to take the job, I didn’t know your mother would be a part of my audience.”
“My mother?” he questioned.
“Why didn’t you tell me about the Sadie Hope Cancer Center?” She waved her arms in the air like she was marshalling a Boeing 777 down the runway.
He pushed four fingers into the middle of his forehead, reminding himself to be patient. “The charity event is all over the news. How could you not know?”
“I’m too busy to watch the news.” Down went her arms. “What little I know about you is from listening to my sister, Tiff, rave on and on about your shirtless cameo appearances or from Sage.”
Nothing good there.
“I can’t fool your mother into thinking I’m in love with you, Morgan. She’ll know.”
“Be convincing,” he said stiffly, his back teeth still on edge from the mention of his sister-in-law’s name. “And she won’t.”
“That’s just it,” she exclaimed. “I don’t know how. All I know how to do is to be me, and I’m not in love with you.”
Something about that truth grazed a foreign spot in Morgan’s chest. The feeling was akin to disappointment, but he couldn’t pin it down to anything exactly. “Well, I’ll have to work on that, won’t I?”
Her shoulders slumped. “That isn’t funny.”
He could portray a personable character with sensitivity and warmth. Hell, he could even throw in a little honesty here and there. But comedy was not his strong suit when it came to matters of the heart. “No, it wasn’t,” he muttered, wishing he hadn’t said anything at all.
She moved away, silently retreating to her suitcase and the door.
Gripping his nape with one hand, he continued. “Kara, the magic of acting is convincing people you’re feeling something, even when you aren’t, and making them think you are someone other than who you really are.”
Her eyebrows went high. “Sounds misleading.”
He made a scoffing sound. “Do you feel betrayed every time you watch a movie?”
“It’s not the same. We’re not making a movie. We’re deceiving people, Morgan.”
That truth hit home. But he didn’t have a choice. It was the only way he could be the man his mother thought he was.
“I’m sorry you went through all the trouble of flying me out here. But I think you should search for a different actress – someone who won’t have qualms about putting on a skimpy dress,” she said meekly. “A woman who can rock heels and doesn’t stumble around like a newborn calf taking its first steps.”
He didn’t find the analogy humorous. “Kara, you’re nothing of the sort.”
“There’s no denying it,” she cried. “Look at me!”
He had been and was finding it extremely hard not to stare. But he’d never be able to undo the damage caused by his shy mouse comment with a few sentences and ordinary charm.
He had to do something and fast because he’d just seen the limo top the drive, so he tried another approach. “Listen to me, Kara. Feeling confident in a dress, being comfortable with your own sexuality, and learning to walk in heels will come to you with time and pract—”
“No.” Her voice held a note of finality. “Don’t you get it? I’ll never be like Sugar.”
Morgan froze. How did she know about the escort?
Kara read his mind. “Agnes and I bumped into her yesterday as she was walking out of your bedroom.”
He’d gone upstairs to his bedroom after he’d ordered Sugar to go, thinking she’d let herself out like she had so many times before. But she obviously hadn’t. And now he was stuck trying to explain. “That isn’t my bedroom,” he said, awkwardly wedging his hands on his hips. “My private suite is upstairs and down the hall from yours. I use the downstairs bedroom for…” The word failed him.
That was the word. “I won’t deny who I am.”
She lifted a shoulder and let it fall. “No one’s asking you to.”
A heavy silence descended on the room. He shouldn’t feel like an adulterous bastard, but the disappointment in her eyes cut him to the quick. He and Kara weren’t really engaged, in love, or even in a relationship. He hadn’t made promises or vows. The strange part was he’d never felt morally wrong for entertaining escorts until now.
“Listen, Kara.” He placed a hand on his forehead to ease the stress building up in his temples. “Acting isn’t easy and despite what people think, requires discipline, devotion, and often sacrifice.”
“Oh, wow,” she said blandly. “Thanks a lot. I feel so much better now.”
“All I’m saying is every character is different and playing complex roles can sometimes be scary because of what you learn about yourself while you’re preparing.”
Where’d that come from?
Morgan wasn’t sure what had made him dish out those words of acting wisdom, but it was the truth. He’d learned a lot about himself over the years. Mostly, that he was more comfortable with pretense than he was at letting people see the real him.
He let her think on what he’d said for a minute, then proposed an alternative he was sure would entice her into staying. “Give us two days. If you feel the same way, I’ll pay you the sixty grand and won’t say a word about you leaving. No harm. No foul. What do you say?”
Kara didn’t jump to accept his offer. Her eyes didn’t light up. She didn’t smile or offer any sort of response that might indicate he’d gained a foothold in winning her over. She just stood there, drilling a hole through him with a sharp, intrusive stare that questioned his motives.
He’d perfected the art of disguise, of keeping his true self hidden, but as she searched his eyes, Morgan felt that veneer weaken.
“No.” The faint answer was loud and clear. She wasn’t buying it.
With an unfamiliar uneasiness stirring in his gut, he ditched the subtle guidance and switched his tactics. “I don’t want another actress.” Using the tip of his index finger, he trailed a light caress down her jawbone. “I. Want. You.” The whispered declaration melted her stare and caused her to shiver. “Are you up for the challenge?”
Before she could answer, the front door burst open and in walked Sugar. “You’ve got some nerve, Morgan. Telling Gwen you don’t need me anymore while this one walks in and makes herself at home.”
The security gate was locked and coded, so Sugar must have sneaked in when Barnes opened it.
“Out. Now,” he commanded, stepping in front of Kara to shield her from what he thought was going to be an ugly scene.
“This is my home, Sugar.” With the self-assurance of a lioness, Kara slipped around him to stand at his side. She gazed up at him and her countenance was that of a woman deeply in love. “Morgan asked me to marry him, and I said yes.”
Kara was falling into character. She wrapped her arms around his waist and snuggled closer. He gladly took the cue, taking pleasure in the experience of her soft body pressed against his.
Sugar’s blue eyes blazed with anger. “Where’s your engagement ring?”
“I wanted something special,” Kara admitted, sliding her hand over his stomach. “Something big and shiny.”
“We were just on our way to pick it up,” he added, amazed she was ad-libbing like a pro.
Sugar laughed smugly. “You’re lying.”
“Am I?” In a moment he was sure was days away, Kara raised to her tiptoes and planted her lips on his.
It was an impromptu kiss done for the sole purpose of convincing Sugar their relationship was legit and that they were deeply in love.
They were acting, rehearsing for a larger stage and a more complex performance. But as Kara’s soft lips moved over his, nothing had felt more real to Morgan.
It wasn’t a skillful kiss, meant to arouse and stimulate. It was a first kiss. An innocent exploration of a woman hungry for knowledge about herself and her own sexuality.
But damn, it was sexy.
He wanted to teach her and show her what pleasure awaited her if she fancied more. But he held back.
Remember. Patience. Slow and easy.
This was Kara’s kiss. She’d started it and she’d be the one to end it. He might be a babbling idiot by the time it was over, but that was a chance he was willing to take.
A few seconds later, he heard Sugar blare out a vulgarity just before she slammed the front door.
Kara slowly lifted her lips and stared up at him with dark eyes that were consumed in a daze of desire and awe.
Yeah, I feel the same way. “That wasn’t a goodbye kiss, was it?”
She dropped back to her heels and breathed, “No.”
He played it cool. He couldn’t let her see how unraveled her kiss had left him or how relieved he was she hadn’t left. “So, you’re staying?”
“Yeah,” she whispered. “I guess I am.”
“Morgan?” Her voice was low, but not meek. Her eyes drilled him with the same intense focus as before.
Ever so gently, she placed her hand on the left side of his chest. The warmth of her palm penetrated blood and bone and settled around his heart. “What do you think you’ll learn about yourself by playing my fiancé?”
Morgan felt his heart flutter and for a second, thought it might be giving out on him. He’d thrown that learning-something-about-herself into their conversation as last-minute bait to keep her from walking out the door. He’d never expected her to throw it back at him. “Mmm…good question.”
How was he going to answer her?
You could try the truth. Maybe throw in a little soul searching while you’re at it.
Taking her hand, he gave it a light squeeze and winked. “Maybe I’ve learned all there is to know about myself.”
She cocked an eyebrow up. “That’s doubtful.”
He stepped back and fisted a hand over his mouth. “Ahem. Ah… Sugar brought up an important point.”
“You don’t have an engagement ring.”
Holding her left hand up for inspection, she studied her bare fingers. “Nope. No ring.”
“I guess I should take care of that.”
“Oh, boy,” she said with an over dramatized and elated gasp. “My very own cubic zirconium.”
Morgan watched her swing around and set out for the front door in a long feminine prance that resembled a badly injured flamingo. He gave her points for the failed attempt at being graceful and wondered how long she’d practiced walking on those stilts before she’d thought herself competent enough for a stroll like that.
Just when he thought she was finally getting the hang of the heels and might make it to the door, her right ankle bent and like a slow-moving train wreck, she went down.
Luckily, the suitcase broke her fall.
He winced. “Careful.”
Red-faced but uninjured, she scrambled to her feet. “I’m okay.”
“Stay where you are. I’ll get the car.”
Turning around, he held back a chuckle and headed for the garage. He’d buy her the biggest, most expensive ring in Beverly Hills if that’s what she wanted.
Kara deserved the real deal.