Welcome to an advanced peek at the FIRST THREE chapters of the Upper Crush – a laugh-out-loud, enemies-to-lovers, steamy, standalone, small town romantic comedy with a fiery country girl giving a cocky city boy a run for his money. No cheating or cliffhanger, but snort-laughs, swoons and a deliciously happy ending guaranteed in this sparkling and sizzling romcom!
Please note, even though this novel is finished, edited and ready for you, you may still find some small errors or typos, which you are very welcome to let me know about.
Lady Estelle Foxbrooke is done cleaning up the mess left by her wild parents. She’s got a plan: take the reins and save the family estate her way. But then she’s saddled with a business partner she’s hated all her life. He’s her twin brother’s worst enemy and looms in her path like a six-foot-four hurdle.
After a catastrophic business failure, rich and successful James Hunter-Savage has watched his dream life in London crash and burn. Forced to ditch the city for the Somerset countryside, he’s now living with his parents and expected to work with the infuriatingly attractive Estelle. She’s sharper than a whip, pushes all his buttons, and seems determined to break him.
As Estelle and James jockey for position, their explosive personalities combust into passion, sending Estelle’s plans to the edge of ruin. With James’s flimsy reputation in tatters, and the biggest event on the Foxbrooke calendar on the brink of collapse, will they realise their love is worth fighting for? Or are their hearts and hard work heading for the ultimate fall?
Saturday December 2nd – Seven-twenty p.m.
There were no last thoughts or words from Lady Estelle Gloria Elizabeth Foxbrooke as she plummeted towards certain death. No scream. No swearing. No internal cry at her own carelessness. Just a gasp, then whooshing panic as she toppled over the banister and headed straight for the tiled floor of Foxbrooke Manor’s entrance hall, thirty feet below.
Ten minutes earlier
‘Oh, no,’ Estelle muttered as the sound of barking dogs echoed towards her down the corridor. It was the night of the revamped Winter Ball at Foxbrooke Manor and her family couldn’t afford to have anything go wrong. Thanks to her wayward father, Arthur, the Duke of Somerset, the estate was on a financial precipice, and it only needed one more cock-up to send it over the edge.
The guests had arrived and were making their way from the bar areas to the two dining rooms. The corridor of her family home was empty, so Estelle tried to run towards the noise she knew could only spell trouble. However, her long legs were constrained by a tight turquoise dress that felt a size too small, and her feet were in heels that belonged in hell.
Both had been gifted to her by her aunt, Simone, a famous American fashion designer who’d settled in Paris thirty-five years previously. Lady Estelle Foxbrooke may have had the height and looks of a model, but she had no interest in following her mom onto the catwalk, or restricting her calories until she reached the required weight.
Up ahead, the barks were now interspersed with excited growls.
Kicking off her heels, she yanked the skirt of her dress to the top of her thighs and sprinted forward. Her stockinged feet slid on the tiles of the entrance hall and she grabbed at a coat rack to steady herself.
Arthur Foxbrooke owned two black hellhounds: Caligula, a Great Dane, and Borgia, a Labrador Retriever. Both animals were more unmanageable than their master, which was saying something, and were now enjoying an orgy of destruction as they attempted to fight, eat, or shag each other, as well as all the decorations running up the stairs.
Her tone may have worked on her own dogs, as well as most people, however Caligula and Borgia were having none of it. They took one look at Estelle, then bounded up the stairs and away.
Clenching her hands into fists, she let out a cry of frustration. Despite her twin brother, Henry, returning to the family home a few months ago to help run the estate, their father always seemed to find a way to undo their good work. Neither she nor Henry could babysit Arthur or his pets twenty-four-seven and so, in a few brief minutes, two uncontrollable dogs had destroyed a day’s worth of work.
What a mess…
Winding up the banisters had been metres of lights, winter foliage, garlands of fragrant dried fruit, and loops of popcorn threaded on gold string. It had been a magnificent feast for the eyes as well as the nose, but now everything lay in tangled tatters.
Should I get Jack?
Jack, one of her oldest friends, had just moved back to Foxbrooke and had spent the last few weeks helping to organise the Winter Ball. During that time, he’d also fallen in love with Eveline, Estelle’s best friend, and tonight was their first official outing as a couple. Estelle didn’t want to disturb them, or any of the staff who were rushed off their feet preparing for dinner. She could clear this up on her own.
Hands on her hips, she surveyed the scene. If she ignored the confetti of popcorn, leaves, and oranges studded with cloves that littered the floor, most of the decorations were still intact—just not in the right place. She glanced at her watch. Twenty minutes until dinner was served. She could do this.
Dashing to the bottom of the stairs, Estelle began disentangling the lights from the greenery, popcorn and fruit garlands. The bulbs had gone off, but she didn’t care about fixing them. She just needed to get the overall appearance back to how it was and hope people were drunk enough not to notice.
And this is why I did a final check, she thought as she made her way up the stairs, looping the decorations around her arms. As with most matters relating to her family and their home, Estelle could never truly relax. It was like keeping an eye on a delinquent toddler centipede—having to be on constant alert as you waited for one of the hundred shoes to inevitably drop.
Tonight was meant to be the moment where everything came together and they made a decent profit. A night where she could relax and let her hair down. But no. Here she was, cleaning up her father’s mess, whilst he chugged champagne and partied with her two mothers elsewhere in the house.
Estelle paused and briefly closed her eyes as her throat tightened. Her three parents were still happily in love after over thirty years, Henry was smitten with his girlfriend, Libby, and now Eveline had found her perfect man in Jack. Despite her public protestations to the contrary, Estelle’s love life was non-existent and had been that way for years.
And no surprise. There’s no room or time for a boyfriend.
As well as managing the estate, Estelle ran a livery. Until Henry had returned, she’d been working fourteen-hour days, seven days a week, for years without a break. She had more time to herself now her twin was back, but the only man she was interested in didn’t seem interested in her.
Isaac Hayward was a brilliant yoga teacher, kind, and extremely hot. He had dark curly hair, emerald green eyes, seven-day-stubble, and the body of a gymnast. Yet despite Estelle inviting him to every event she could, he always declined.
No-one else makes me—
Another man’s face came to mind, sending a wave of heat crashing through her.
No, no, no. A thousand times no! NOT him!
Turning back to the miles of lights, she looped more around herself and staggered up another step like an overloaded Christmas tree. There was no way in hell she was going to let her treacherous body and mind think of, or react to, the man who was her brother’s worst enemy: James Hunter-Savage.
Estelle had known about James for years, but had only met him in person twice. From Henry’s description, she’d always pictured an ogre with the social skills of a cocky troll. James was definitely overflowing with attitude, but his self-confidence was not misplaced. Six foot four, a body that rowed Oxford to victory in the Boat Race and looks that would make a male model feel insecure, James had been the most successful broker at Conqueror, the company Henry had worked for in London. He was now living on the other side of the Foxbrooke river which bordered her family’s estate.
The first gong for dinner rang, signalling everyone to move to their tables. Shit! Estelle was almost at the top of the stairs, but her decision to wrap every piece of decoration around her body was slowing her progress.
Forget doing all of it. There’s no time. Just start mending it and work your way back down.
By now, the loops of lights were almost at her eyeballs. She stumbled, reaching for the support of the wooden banister. Be careful! She was barely able to move her arms under the weight of decorations and they were heavy around her neck, making her unbalanced.
Staggering forward, she managed to unhook the first loop of lights and tie it to a railing with one of the wires the dogs had ripped off earlier. It was going to take forever. Pushing a garland of dried fruit to her forehead, she leaned over the support to work out if she could fix it any quicker.
Suddenly, there was the sound of barking behind her and the rumble of feet.
She turned to fend the dogs off, but one of them jumped up, hitting her in the chest. Tangled and weighed down by decorations, her feet left the floor and she toppled backwards over the railing.
Pivoting, she flailed her arms, her fingers making contact with a branch. Time seemed to slow as she gripped it, pain searing into her palm from the holly leaves.
For a brief second, she hung, suspended in air. Then the branch snapped, and she plunged towards a painful and inglorious death. There was no time to think, scream, or brace herself for impact. One moment she was falling, and the next she’d landed.
However the floor was no longer flat and felt very much like someone’s arms.
‘I’ve got you,’ a man’s voice murmured.
She shook with adrenaline, her breath coming in shaky gasps.
‘Shhh. It’s okay. I’ve got you,’ he repeated.
Estelle opened her eyes. All she could see were strands of lights and leaves.
‘You saved my life,’ she stammered.
‘I don’t know about that. I think I saved a Christmas tree. You just happened to be hiding inside it.’
A nervous laugh burst out of her. The man’s voice was deep and confident. It held her fractured mind together with the same assurance as his arms held her body.
‘Are you okay?’ she asked.
‘Me?’ He sounded surprised. ‘Never felt better. Why?’
‘Well, you’ve just caught me and enough decorations for an average-sized house. That’s quite a weight.’
His arms shifted, as if he were flexing his muscles. ‘I’ve benched far more without breaking a sweat.’
A giggle slipped from her lips, and she mentally slapped herself. Stop it! She was being as ditsy as her youngest sister, Summer.
‘Should I get down?’ she asked.
‘I wouldn’t advise it just yet. I presume the lights are plastic, but a lot of them are broken. I want to make sure they don’t hurt you as we take them off. How do you feel?’
My heart’s pounding and there’s a tingling in my pants, but I think that’s mostly down to you…
‘Are you in pain anywhere?’ he continued.
Estelle took a deep breath. She may not have been able to see her rescuer, but—oh, my god—could she smell him. His scent was hot, spicy, and woodsy, cut with something citrus. Her mouth watered.
‘What are you wearing?’ she blurted.
There was a pause. ‘Clothes,’ he eventually replied. ‘Are you disappointed I’m not also festooned in baubles and garden clippings?’
Another giggle bubbled out. Stop it! ‘No, I mean, what aftershave or cologne do you have on?’
‘Is it too much?’
She shook her head and the lights rattled. ‘It’s really nice.’
Another pause. ‘So are you.’
Her pulse rocketed. ‘You don’t know who I am.’
‘Yes, I do. Even though you’re ninety-nine per cent Christmas tree, I’m still one hundred per cent sure I’m holding Estelle Foxbrooke.’
A flash of panic and arousal slammed through her. Was this James?
‘What’s your name?’
He cleared his throat. ‘When I was born, my parents christened me Kevin.’
Her body relaxed, but she wasn’t sure if it was with relief or disappointment.
‘You don’t like it?’
Estelle tried to arrange her thoughts. The name ‘Kevin’, didn’t seem to fit the voice, or the size, of the man who held her.
‘No, that’s not it. It just doesn’t seem to go with you, that’s all.’
‘Hmm. And what do you think should go with me then?’
Er, me? ‘A name like “Atlas”, or “Thor”.’ Or James…
He laughed, and the vibrations rumbled out of his chest into hers.
‘Well, I think your name suits you perfectly.’
‘Yes. You’re a star.’
Oh, my god. Was this mysterious stranger coming onto her?
She swallowed. ‘In what way?’
‘You shine brighter than everyone else.’
A lump formed in her throat. Had anyone ever said anything like that to her before?
‘Are you flirting with me?’ she whispered.
He huffed out a short breath. ‘I’d like to.’
‘Are you married?’
‘No. I’m ninety-nine per cent single.’
‘And the other one per cent?’
‘Has a crush on a Christmas tree.’
Laughter burst out of her, free and unrestrained. She was alive, and in the arms of a sexy stranger, who—thank god—was not James Hunter-Savage.
The sound of the second gong for dinner sounded.
She sighed. ‘I really should get back.’
‘Can we have a drink together after the meal?’
Excitement rippled through her, and she nodded.
‘I want to get to know you,’ he continued. ‘But I also need to talk to you about some things.’
Excitement veered off track into nervous-land. ‘What things?’
She froze in his arms. Had he followed her into the hall? Waited for her to tumble before making his move? Don’t be ridiculous!
He lowered her feet carefully to the ground. ‘Let me help get you free of all this first. Don’t move and I’ll untangle you.’
Standing stock still, her eyes squeezed shut, Estelle allowed him to unwind the decorations from her arms. As soon as they were free, she shuffled the loops from her waist, down and off her legs, then tugged the hem of her dress back to her knees.
The man stayed behind her, lifting the final strands over her head.
With the decorations gone and her shoes still in a corridor, Estelle felt naked. She could feel the heat of him behind her, her own heart hammering inside her chest. She’d gone from fear to excitement to dread.
‘Estelle?’ His voice was low.
She slowly turned and opened her eyes. They confirmed what her gut already knew.
Hurt, anger and confusion fought for her attention. She’d been vulnerable with him. She’d let her guard down. And what had he given her in return?
‘You lied to me,’ she whispered.
He shook his head, a muscle twitching in his jaw.
‘You lied to me!’ she shouted.
‘No! Estelle, I didn’t.’
He reached his hand towards her and she recoiled.
‘Don’t touch me.’
Shaking, she bent to lift the pile of lights and foliage, but it was too much and half of it dropped back to the floor.
‘Let me help,’ he said behind her.
‘No.’ She ran the bundle to a side door, opened it, and threw the decorations inside.
‘Please, can we talk?’
Returning for the rest of the pile, she carried as much as she could, kicking the rest in front of her.
‘I need to tell you something,’ he continued.
‘I’m not interested in anything you have to say, Kevin,’ she spat. ‘I don’t care how you managed to wheedle your way in here tonight, but I’m going to make sure you never darken our doors again.’
‘Darken your doors?’ His tone sharpened. ‘I’m not a vampire.’
‘No, you’re the antichrist.’
Furious with herself for falling prey to his charms, and livid that tears were threatening to spill, Estelle turned on her heels and ran.
Blinking sweat out of his eyes, his heart pounding at the edge of VO2 max, James pushed himself to the limit on the rowing machine. His movements were robotically precise, his gaze glued to the small screen monitoring his progress. Despite the pain wracking his body, he would not allow even half a second to drop off his pace.
James Hunter-Savage was a self-made man. From the age of seven, he was made to understand that his name, his voice, his appearance, his likes and dislikes could all be broken down or discarded, and remodelled into something better. The same went for friends. The people with whom one associated were a reflection of your social status and power. If they elevated you, they stayed. If they threatened your standing in any way, they were cut without a second thought.
No-one worked harder to create and maintain James Hunter-Savage than the man himself. Building and sculpting his powerful physique, still Olympic standard even at the age of thirty-three, required a single-minded focus.
At the start of the year, his life had been ninety-five per cent on track. He was the most successful, and highly paid, broker Conqueror had ever produced, was in the best shape of his life, and could bed any woman who took his fancy.
Now, twelve months later, everything had gone to shit. He’d lost his job in the worst possible circumstances, was currently barred from working in the City, and hadn’t had sex in nearly a year.
James Hunter-Savage was used to holding life by the balls, but it had turned around and kicked him in the nuts.
His body screamed at him to stop rowing, but his mind had a point to prove. Maintaining his physical strength was the only thing left he had control over, so he kept punishing himself until his guts led the final rebellion. Dropping the rower handle mid-stroke, he grabbed a bin from the floor beside him and threw up into it, feeling a perverse sense of satisfaction and relief, even as his chest and stomach heaved.
There was a knock at the door, and a woman in her late fifties entered, carrying a plastic cleaning caddy. Her white-blonde hair was arranged in a donut bun on the top of her head, and her eye and lip liner had been heavily applied. Dressed in a pale pink cleaning tabard over a leopard print top and matching leggings, her feet were in python print Gucci sliders, and her toenails were painted red. James knew her fingernails matched, however her hands were currently inside yellow rubber gloves.
‘Babe,’ she began, her nose wrinkling, ‘you’ve done it again, haven’t you?’
Crossing the room, her free arm extended as if to take the bin from him.
He stood. ‘I’ll do it.’
‘You don’t want to be dealing with that. Give it to me.’
James held it aloft. ‘No, Mum.’
His mother glanced at the bin, a frown on her face as if calculating the possibility of jumping to reach it, then took a bottle from her caddy and sprayed it liberally over the rowing machine.
‘Well, I’ll do this then.’ She vigorously rubbed the wet surfaces with a microfibre cloth.
‘Honestly, babe. For the life of me, I don’t know why you do it to yourself. It ain’t right.’ She tugged at the machine to move it.
‘Let me.’ James pulled the rower back to its original position—no longer facing the wall, but a window that looked out onto a rose garden.
‘And why stare at the wall? If you don’t want to look outside, there’s the telly.’
James glanced around the home gym, filled with state-of-the-art equipment he was sure only ever got used by him.
‘I don’t need the distraction.’
She slapped his chest with her cloth. ‘You need to make it fun. I’ve been bingeing The Real Housewives of Chelsea. You should watch it.’
‘I’d rather have a full-frontal lobotomy.’
His mother laughed. ‘I dunno what that is. Sounds naughty to me.’ She went to the treadmill and began spraying.
‘Mum, I’ve already wiped it down, and we’ve got cleaners for that.’
‘They don’t do a good enough job, babe. I only keep them on to please your dad.’
James tied a knot in the plastic bin liner and removed the bag. There was no point in arguing. Beverley Hunter-Savage could never rest until every surface in her house sparkled and shone. Her clothes may have been designer, but nine times out of ten they were hidden under an apron.
‘Go take a shower, babe, then find your dad. He wants to see you.’
‘Okay.’ James bit back a sigh and left the room, carrying the results of his exercise session.
Striding through the ground floor corridor towards the kitchen, James’s skin itched with irritation. His father should never have bought this Georgian pile. It was far smaller than Foxbrooke Manor, but still impressive enough to have come with a seven-figure price tag.
Overpriced pile of shit. Damp was already showing through the freshly applied paint, and without modern insulation, James knew the fuel bill to heat it over winter would be astronomical.
Earlier in the year, his father had decided the Hunter-Savage family’s progression up the ladder of the British social classes should skip a few rungs. Step one involved consolidating their holdings and buying Shoscombe Manor, a Palladian mansion set in four hundred and eight acres of rolling Somerset countryside. Step two involved ingratiating themselves with the local nobs. However, once James discovered which members of the aristocracy lived on the other side of the river to the mansion house, he’d put a stop to that plan.
Henry fucking Foxbrooke.
James was fifteen when Henry, two school years younger than him, had started at Eton. Lord Henry Foxbrooke was a viscount, his father a duke, his biological mother a glamorous Black American movie star, and his other mother a wild and beautiful Irish woman. Henry’s family were infamous and exciting, and James expected the heir to the Foxbrooke estate to be cut from the same cloth.
Shouldering open the stiff kitchen door, James stamped on the bottom bar of an industrial-sized bin to lift the lid, then dropped the bag he was carrying inside.
He’s a pathetic little dweeb.
What Henry Foxbrooke had been handed on a plate, James had been forced to fight for every day of his life. But despite being born into money and the top tier of society, Henry was meeker than a mouse and appeared embarrassed by his title. That had annoyed James beyond belief. However, analysing exactly why Henry riled him so much would mean a journey of introspection James wasn’t prepared to take. So instead he needled Henry, hoping to provoke a reaction.
It had taken him seventeen years to get one.
Stalking to a cupboard, James took out a tub containing a post-exercise recovery powder he’d created himself, then glanced around the kitchen for his blender.
It was sitting, unwashed by the sink.
Running the hot water, he scrubbed at the flecks of dried green with a brush. What was this shit? Kale? Spirulina? Pond water? And why the fuck couldn’t she just clean it up after she used it?
As if summoned by the power of his thoughts, the kitchen door opened and a woman entered. Blonde, beautiful, and adventurous in bed, Elyse Kirwin should have been a perfect match for James Hunter-Savage. One night three years ago, she’d approached him in a City bar, and they’d had a two-week fling before James had ended it.
Elyse hadn’t accepted his decision.
Her eyes scanned his body, her gaze a calculated mix of amusement and desire. ‘Hard?’ she asked with a smirk.
He turned back to the sink. ‘My workout, or cleaning your smoothie off my blender?’
She giggled. ‘Sorry, I forgot.’ Coming to his side, she leaned against the counter, watching him. ‘There’s a restaurant in the village called The Colour Palate that’s meant to be good. Wanna go tonight?’
He shook his head. When they’d briefly dated, it hadn’t taken long for James to twig that Elyse wasn’t someone he wanted to spend any time with outside of the bedroom. He’d been upfront and honest with her, but she’d insisted they kept meeting to ‘talk things through’.
He’d indulged her a couple of times, but stopped returning her calls when she wouldn’t accept whatever they’d had was over. After six months of her pestering, she went quiet. Three months later, his dad introduced him to his new PA—Elyse.
‘Oh, come on,’ she continued. ‘It’ll be fun. For old time’s sake.’
Shaking his head again, he twisted the cleaned blender back onto the base unit and measured out scoops of powder. Avoiding Elyse when he worked at Conqueror was easy enough, but now? She even lived in the same house as he did. His parents thought the sun shone out of her arse, and hoped their son would get together with her.
Been there, done that, not going back.
‘Do you believe in fate?’ she asked, standing too close to him.
‘No,’ he replied, sloshing raw milk into the jug. No matter what Elyse asked him, the answer was always a negative. He hoped if he kept shutting down every conversation, she might finally leave him alone.
She curled a strand of hair around a finger. ‘But look at us… We’re now living—’
James turned the blender on, drowning out the rest of her sentence. When he reluctantly switched it off, Elyse held out a cup.
He twisted the jug off the base. ‘I’ll take this with me.’
‘Your dad wants to see you.’
‘I’ll find him in a bit.’
James went to the door and yanked it open.
‘Enjoy your shower,’ she called after him.
He didn’t reply, already starting down the corridor.
‘Think of me…’ she continued, the words slipping through the closing door and sticking to his skin.
Back in his bedroom, James went to the tall window that looked out over the formal gardens, gulping his recovery drink.
The small box hedges surrounding the rose bushes had been immaculately trimmed when his parents had bought the house, but without constant upkeep, the garden was beginning to unravel.
Just like my life.
His dad had employed one gardener, but even in the winter it wasn’t enough for a place this size. James wanted to be rich, but he was also pragmatic. What was the point in buying a lifestyle you couldn’t afford to maintain?
He glanced around his bedroom: a chintz palace, where every possible eyesore was hidden by the same flowered fabric. The tops of the curtains were tucked behind upholstered pelmets, the bottom of the bed was obscured by a frilly valance, and the pillows and duvet were hidden by a coverlet as if they’d just died. Even the radiators were tidied away inside wooden boxes with lattice fronts to let the heat out. The wallpaper had the same pattern of blue roses as the soft furnishings, and the overall effect of the room was that of being suffocated by a rich grandmother.
James finished his drink and took the jug into the adjoining bathroom, rinsing it out in one of the two sinks, then tossed his clothes to the marble floor and stepped into the shower. This was the best part of the house: hot water that came out with more power than a herd of stampeding elephants. He let the droplets batter his muscles, releasing some of the tension that seeing Elyse had overlaid on top of the stress of everything else.
I need to get back to London.
But how? His flat was rented out to cover lawyers’ fees and most of his savings were gone. Everything he’d worked so hard for had disappeared because he couldn’t keep his big mouth shut.
Now he was living with his parents and his ex in the arse end of the country, and had taken on a job he had no clue how to do.
Resting his forehead against the back wall of the shower, he let out a breath, his thoughts returning to last Saturday night.
If meeting Henry when they were at school had been a surprise, then meeting his twin sister had been an even bigger one.
Estelle was fire, light and energy. Power crackled from her into him, turning on every cell in his body from his brain to his cock.
Even during their first brief meeting on Foxbrooke high street, a few months ago, the force of Estelle’s personality had met his and given it a kicking. ‘I know exactly who you are… And if you know what’s good for you, you’ll stay away from my family.’
A smile spread across his face and his dick sprang to life. He’d savoured every word she’d hurled in his direction and had replayed the meeting each and every time he’d brought himself off since. Now, that first encounter had been superseded.
Reaching down, James gripped his shaft. He’d blagged himself an invitation to the Winter Ball at Foxbrooke Manor so he could see her again. Thanks to his father’s machinations, he needed to talk to her, but he also wanted another hit. A kick to his heart to keep going when everything else in his life was falling apart.
Catching sight of Estelle across one of the rooms on Saturday night had jolted his heart with electricity. Tall, curvaceous, and devastatingly beautiful, she’d been wearing an iridescent turquoise dress he wanted to rip off with his teeth.
Closing his eyes, he stroked his hard length, sensation shuddering up his body as he imagined her full lips parting with pleasure, her eyelids fluttering in bliss as he slowly fucked her.
Last Saturday, standing at the bar with Henry and the local vicar, Estelle had, once again, sent him packing. But before dinner, he’d searched for her.
His hand stilled around his cock as blinding panic shot through him, his mind replaying the moment when Estelle tumbled off the balcony. He’d never experienced terror like that before.
Thank god I was there.
And after catching her, she hadn’t realised who he was. It was a blessing and a curse. A blessing because he got to see a different side of her, the one he knew she gifted to her family and close friends. And a curse, because he’d been so blinded by her charms that he’d flirted with her, then fucked everything up.
Letting go of his cock, he turned the shower icy. Time to wake up and smell the cold cup of coffee sitting in the chipped mug of reality. Estelle Foxbrooke didn’t want him, and he couldn’t be chasing someone that hot to handle when he needed her onside.
Ten minutes later, James knocked on a door downstairs and pushed it open.
‘Jamesy-boy!’ his father cried. ‘Grab a seat.’
Elyse sprang up from behind a desk. ‘Let me get it.’
‘No,’ James replied, taking a chair and positioning it across from his father. He sat, staring at the bottom of his dad’s loafers.
Kevin Hunter-Savage was leaning back in his leather chair, his feet on the desk in front of him, playing with a fidget spinner. His hair, once naturally black, was now approximately the same shade as before, but with a blue hue to it, courtesy of the dye he used. He was wearing a garish Versace patterned shirt, the top buttons undone to show off a multitude of gold chains, and a pair of Gucci jeans a size too small.
‘Elyse, babe,’ his dad said. ‘Give us five, would ya?’
She nodded. ‘Of course, Kev.’
He gave her a wink. ‘That’s my girl.’
She smiled at him and left the room.
‘Why won’t you make a move?’ his father hissed the moment the door was closed. ‘What’s wrong with you? She’s like family.’
James sighed. ‘She’s not family.’
‘She is to me and your mum—’
‘I’m not going to change my mind.’
Kevin flicked the fidget spinner. ‘She fancies you.’
James didn’t reply.
‘Elyse,’ his father continued, as if James didn’t know who he was talking about.
‘I don’t give a fuck.’
The spinner fell to the desk with a crash.
‘You should give a fuck,’ his father snarled, pointing a finger encircled with heavy gold rings at James. ‘She’s a nice girl and your mum wants grandkids. Do it for her if you won’t do it for yourself.’
James let out a bitter laugh. ‘You want me to impregnate your assistant just to make Mum happy?’
‘Impreg-what? Don’t use your fancy words with me, Jamesey-boy. Just marry her and make babies.’ He flicked his hand at his son. ‘I give you my blessing.’
‘Thank you so much,’ James replied, his voice laden with sarcasm.
‘She’s nice,’ his dad continued.
‘So you keep saying.’
Kevin picked up another fidget toy, this one a poppet in the shape of a dinosaur, and started playing with it. James wasn’t sure if he’d prefer his father scrape his nails down a miniature blackboard.
‘You wanted to see me?’
‘Yeah, yeah,’ his father replied, depressing the silicone circles with his thumbs so fast it sounded like he was making popcorn.
Kevin tossed the toy to the desk and picked up the fidget spinner again. ‘We’ve got a bit of an issue.’
James’s heart sank. What now?
‘We’re going to have to relocate the company I bought for you.’
‘No.’ James stood. ‘Absolutely not.’
His dad flicked the spinner and balanced it on the end of his thumb. ‘No choice, son. If we’re paying rent on that place in Bath then there’s no moolah left to pay for the gig next year.’
Christ. ‘How long have we got?’
‘Gotta be out at the beginning of next week.’
‘What?’ James felt like he was watching what little was left of his life disappearing down a plug hole. ‘It’s buying this shit hole that’s done it, hasn’t it?’ he yelled, gesturing to the house around them.
His father stood. ‘Watch it, son.’
‘They saw you coming, didn’t they?’
‘I got this pad for a steal,’ his father blustered.
‘Bullshit. It was on the market for months. You should have got it for a quarter of what you paid.’
‘Your mum wanted it.’
‘You still could have got the price down!’ James ran his hands through his hair. ‘I’m not doing this. I’m walking away.’
James stalked to the door. ‘Watch me.’
His dad ran after him. ‘Son, if you do that, we’ll lose the house.’
‘What are you talking about?’
Kevin looked away, his hands now fiddling with loose change in his pockets. ‘Our businesses have taken a hit over the last couple of years, and you’re right, I overextended getting this place. I can just about scrape together enough to pay for what we promised in the contract, but if you can’t make the event next summer turn a profit, then your mum and I are out on our arses.’
James took out his phone and fired off an email.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Telling our only surviving member of staff to cancel the meeting on Monday with our business partner.’
His dad’s shoulders relaxed. ‘So, you’ll do it? You’ll stay?’
‘I’m doing this for Mum, not you. And you know what you have to do. Anyone connected with the new business, whether stakeholders or the guy who delivers pizza after hours, they never see you.’
James held his father’s gaze as the terms of a bargain struck twenty-six years ago were aired once more.
His father sighed and held out his hand. ‘Deal.’
One Week Later
Life is good, and the future’s going to be even better.
Striding up Milsom Street in Bath, Estelle had just the right amount of adrenaline running through her veins. It was enough to make butterflies dance excitedly in her stomach, but not enough to turn it.
She was within touching distance of her dream of staging a music and arts festival at Foxbrooke Manor, but needed outside help and investment to make it happen. After successfully securing both through a partnership with Excelsior Events the previous month, the company had, unexpectedly, been bought out. Now she was on her way to meet the new owner.
Please let them be nice. Not some cocky arsehole or society queen who looks down her nose at me.
Crossing the road, she checked her appearance in the windows of a shop filled with Christmas decorations. She’d swapped her usual wardrobe of jodhpurs, jeans and jumpers for a plum-coloured cashmere coat her mom had given her. Underneath, she’d crammed her curves into a tight pencil skirt and cream silk blouse that complemented her soft brown skin.
Her feet, usually in riding boots or wellies, were now squeezed into uncomfortable designer boots. The added height took her to just over six feet tall and helped her fake the confidence her parents had down to their bones.
Pausing at the window, she ran her fingers through her curly black hair and frowned at her reflection. Should she have worn make-up? Rummaging in her handbag, a gift from her aunt, she pulled out a vanilla lip balm and swiped it over her lips.
Why did they specify we have to work together in the same office?
The butterflies in her tummy flapped their wings faster. The new owner had honoured the original contract she’d signed with Excelsior, but with a few amendments, one of which was that Estelle had to work directly with whoever now ran the company.
Are they using me to get to Mom and Dad? Mammy?
A year after becoming the Duchess of Somerset, Estelle’s mom, Vivienne Camille Boucher, had fallen in love with a single mother from the village and brought her into the marriage. Arthur, Vivienne, and Dervla Foxbrooke’s unconventional relationship, as well as the sex parties they hosted at the manor, were a source of embarrassment for their six children, as well as gleeful gossip-rag fodder for the wider world.
Growing up, the eldest Foxbrooke siblings—Estelle, her twin brother, Henry, and their adopted brother, Connor—had borne the brunt of the public’s fascination with their family. Even though Estelle loved her parents deeply, she also wished they were a little more normal.
Letting out a long breath, she squared her shoulders.
Come on. You’ve got this. After thirty years dealing with Mom, Dad and Mammy, there’s nothing you can’t handle.
She continued on through the crowds of tourists enjoying the Christmas market, refusing to allow them, or her tight skirt and pinching boots, to slow her pace. Bath may have been small, but she was used to the rural quiet of Foxbrooke and the company of her dogs, horses, and small circle of family and close friends. Here, jostled by strangers, she was aware just how much of an adjustment it was going to be commuting from her comfort zone into the city.
Just breathe. The new owner is just one person. How bad can it be?
Half way up Bartlett Street was the address she’d been emailed for the new offices of Excelsior Events, now called ‘BDE Entertainment’. As she was about to ring the buzzer, a man exited the building and pulled the sign for the company from a frame to the right of the door.
‘Excuse me,’ she began.
He turned. ‘Yes?’
She nodded at the sign in his hand. ‘Are they still here?’
‘Till the end of the day. Then they’re out.’
What? Her tummy prickled with anxious confusion. ‘Why?’
He shrugged. ‘They haven’t paid their rent.’
Estelle’s mouth opened, but her brain was in freefall and all words had been lost to the wind.
‘Do they owe you money, too?’ the man asked.
Only a few hundred grand to pay for the festival… She swallowed, her mouth drier than a desert.
He punched numbers into a keypad and opened the door for her. ‘First floor. Go on up. They might not let you in otherwise.’
Stammering her thanks, she entered, taking the carpeted stairs slowly, as if doing so would order the thoughts flapping inside her skull like headless chickens. She’d already spent so much of the estate’s money on the festival; securing acts, putting down deposits, building a website. There was no money left if they didn’t have the events company footing the rest of the bill.
Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck! Pausing on the first landing, sweat beading on her brow, she undid her coat to let in some air. She’d only met the previous owners, Colin and Deborah, once before and they’d seemed straight down the line. Surely they were staying on for a transition period?
Just speak to them. Everything will be fine. They signed a contract. Remember?
Jogging up the rest of the stairs, she stopped and stared at a sign stuck to a door. It had the words ‘Big Dick Energy Entertainment’ printed on it, with a logo consisting of an eggplant emoji being struck by a bolt of lightning.
This was BDE Entertainment?
Heart hammering, she knocked.
The door opened inwards and a man in his twenties appeared, dressed in a plaid shirt and navy jeans. His eyes gleamed as he gazed at her, as if she was Santa arriving with presents. Or a strippergram. She re-tied her coat.
‘Lady—’ he began.
‘I told you to take that fucking sign down,’ a man yelled from inside the office. ‘Twice.’
Estelle couldn’t see who was shouting, but the voice was deep, powerful and angry. She took a step back.
The young man rolled his eyes. ‘Bear with,’ he said to her under his breath. ‘Someone hasn’t had enough coffee yet.’ He held out his hand and she shook it. ‘I’m Max, we met briefly a couple of months ago.’
‘Who is it?’ the voice from inside snapped.
Max winked at her and closed the door slightly. ‘Lady Foxbrooke,’ he said over his shoulder. ‘Your ten o’clock.’
The anxiety that had been pricking at Estelle’s stomach now turned stabby. She had no idea what was going on, and Max seemed to be taking perverse delight in riling whoever he was talking to.
‘I told you to cancel her,’ the man hissed, still loud enough for Estelle to make out every word.
‘No, you didn’t,’ Max replied calmly.
‘Yes, I did. We’re not doing this now. Apologise and tell her we’ll re-arrange.’
Max turned back to her. ‘Lady Foxbrooke—’
‘Estelle Foxbrooke, and no.’
‘We’re not re-arranging anything.’
Max smirked. ‘Of course.’ Opening the door, he stepped back, bowing slightly as he extended his arm into the office. ‘Lady—Estelle Foxbrooke. Welcome to Big Dick Enter—Energy Entertainment.’
Summoning all her courage, Estelle marched into the room, then stopped dead.
No, no, no, no, no, no, no.
Perched on the edge of a desk, surrounded by boxes, was James Hunter-Savage.
Memories from ten days ago at the Winter Ball winded her. She was once again tumbling through the air towards certain death. Only this time, a duplicitous stranger with a silvery tongue wouldn’t be there to catch her. Her angel was in clear sight, his mask gone, revealing exactly who he really was: Lucifer.
‘You…’ she choked out.
Even though James’s posture was relaxed, she recognised a tightness around his eyes and jaw.
He opened his palms. ‘Me.’
‘I don’t understand.’
Pushing upright, he held out a hand. ‘I’m the CEO of BDE Entertainment.’
Estelle’s fingers curled inward to form fists.
You shine brighter than anyone else…
Had he really murmured those words in her ear?
Dropping his arm, he glanced over her shoulder at Max. ‘Go to the nearest decent café and get us—’ He broke off and frowned. ‘No, safer to find a Starbucks. Double espresso for me and make sure it’s in two cups to keep it warm.’ His attention came back to Estelle. ‘What would you like?’
You to turn back into Kevin? Disappear in a puff of smoke? Spontaneously combust?
She shook her head. ‘Nothing.’
James kept his gaze on her as he spoke to Max. ‘Cappuccino?’
Surprise rippled through her like an electric shock. How did he guess right?
His nostrils flared at her reaction, as if scenting victory. ‘And make it a double shot.’
Her mouth fell open. She quickly snapped it shut again.
A dangerous smile spread across James’s face. ‘No sugar. She’s sweet enough.’
‘Screw you,’ she spat, attempting through the force of will alone to summon lightning bolts from her eyes.
He raised an eyebrow, and a traitorous flame of arousal flickered low in her belly. She stamped it out.
‘Screw me?’ he replied casually. ‘Is that an invitation?’
Estelle’s mind immediately flashed an image of James’s naked body above her, and desire shot from her belly to her chest. She sucked in a breath.
His expression darkened, then he glanced at Max. ‘Go on, then. Use the company card.’
‘No,’ she said.
‘No to…?’ James let the question hang in the air.
Shut this down. Now. ‘Coffee. You. Everything.’
He paused. ‘I’m really not as bad as you think.’
‘I know. You’re worse.’
Something that looked like vulnerability flickered across his features. ‘Will you at least give me a chance to prove you wrong?’
‘When hell freezes over.’
The look disappeared and he shrugged. ‘Apparently the climate is changing.’
She gave him her frostiest glare in return.
He didn’t break eye contact. ‘Max, why are you still here?’
‘Um—’ Max began.
‘He stays,’ Estelle interrupted.
‘Do you feel unsafe around me?’ James asked.
Only because my stupid lips want to kiss your stupid face.
The intensity of his stare was making her tummy swoop.
Think! ‘You attacked my brother.’
‘I did? Which one?’
‘Henry, of course. Connor and Leo know to avoid you like the plague.’
James stepped behind the desk and sat. ‘Please, take a seat.’
She didn’t move. Despite the unsettled rage, she didn’t trust herself not to lurch straight into his arms like an out-of-control robot fuelled by sex hormones.
‘Look,’ he began. ‘Much as I would rather believe your version of what happened back in June, the truth, and you know it, is that your delightful brother punched me, not the other way around.’
‘You were coming onto Summer.’
James steepled his fingers as his dark eyes held hers. ‘So, talking to a woman during the day in a public space warrants an unprovoked attack and a broken nose?’
‘You stole Henry’s girlfriend,’ she blustered.
‘No, I kept Elizabeth company after your brother stood her up.’
‘He didn’t stand her up.’
‘Oh, yes, of course,’ James replied, his voice dripping with sarcasm. ‘He was just an hour and a half late for their date.’ He glared at Max. ‘Leave.’
Estelle turned. ‘Stay.’
Max was glancing between them, a smirk back on his lips.
She faced James. ‘And you also stole Henry’s client, the deal he was working on, and his commission.’
He gave her a half shrug. ‘So, hitting me was justified?’
Estelle hesitated. She knew it wasn’t, but right now the overwhelming urge to kiss James was nicely balanced by the urge to punch him.
He eyeballed her.
She stared back. Do not break. Do not even blink.
‘Er…’ Max began.
‘Go,’ James snapped, at the same time she said ‘stay’.
‘Estelle—’ James began.
‘Do not call me that,’ she hissed at him.
His eyes widened as if genuinely surprised.
Shit! She’d spoken without thinking. The sound of her name on James’s lips felt far too intimate, but she knew she’d just set herself up for something far worse.
‘Would you prefer “Lady Foxbrooke”?’
She shook her head, her cheeks heating in anticipation of what was coming next.
‘No! There’s no need to address me as anything, because this is the last time we’re ever going to meet.’
James leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind the back of his neck. His pose was at ease, but he had the alertness of a tiger preparing to pounce.
‘You know that’s not true.’
‘We need to have a conversation about the festival,’ he interrupted. ‘And in private. If you won’t have it here, then we’ll go outside.’
She strode out of the office, running down the stairs as fast as her skirt would allow.
James caught her up at the front door and leaned forward to hold it open.
Pushing past him into the street, Estelle welcomed the drop in temperature, but wished she was in jeans and riding boots so she could run away.
‘Where are you parked?’ he asked.
She didn’t reply, keeping her gaze fixed forward as she navigated the meandering crowds.
‘Estelle, please can we have a civilised conversation about this?’
Civilised? The word felt like a punch to the guts. Her whole life she’d endured the media describing her family as the polar opposite. She walked faster.
‘Can you afford to put the festival on without the financial backing of BDE Entertainment?’ James continued.
Of course we fucking can’t! She pressed her lips together as if to permanently seal them shut.
‘Do you have the money to pay the penalty clauses if you cancel?’
No! she internally howled.
‘Do you believe you can find another events company this late in the day to invest and pay BDE Entertainment for breaking the contract?’
Oh, god. Oh god, oh god, oh god. What am I going to do?
There was a pause, then he sighed. What was he going to say next? Tell her she was a star? That he wanted to flirt with her?
‘Want a hot sausage? Some roast nuts?’
She glanced at him in shock.
He gestured to a Christmas market stall. ‘Bratwurst? Chestnuts? Glühwein?’
‘Are you trying to be funny?’
‘Not particularly, but we need to have a proper conversation, so I’m trying to lighten your mood.’
Stumbling to a halt, she pointed at him, her finger stopping a centimetre from his chest.
James was far too close for comfort and now she could also smell him. The scent was irresistible, like a love potion crossed with a superconducting magnet.
‘Yes. You’re all thunderbolts and lightning.’
‘Very, very frightening?’ she added sarcastically.
‘I wouldn’t say I was frightened…’
‘What are you then?’ she asked, before immediately wishing she hadn’t.
His gaze flicked to her mouth and she swallowed.
He paused before speaking. ‘Challenged… I think we’re going to work well together.’
‘We’re not going to be doing anything together,’ she snapped.
‘We are never going to see each other again. Ever.’
James took a card from his pocket and held it out. ‘Re-read the contract you signed, then give me a call.’
She snatched it from him and tried to rip it in half. However, it was laminated in plastic and wouldn’t tear. She dropped it to the pavement.
Dammit! Bending to pick it up, her face took a whistle-stop tour of James’s perfectly formed body. Despite the December cold, she was burning up. Stalking to a bin, she threw the bent card inside, then headed down Stall Street towards Southgate car park.
‘What are you doing?’ she spat.
‘Enjoying your scintillating company?’
‘Fuck you,’ she muttered.
‘Anytime, foxy lady.’
She whirled around. ‘Don’t call me that.’
‘Then what can I call you?’
The question hung in the air.
‘Star?’ he finally asked, his voice low, as if the word was for her and her alone.
A wave of emotion flooded Estelle’s chest. She shook her head, hitched her skirt up under her coat, and ran.
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