New York times Bestselling author Vi Keeland, does it again with her unputdownable novel, The Invitation. The Invitation is the must read novel of 2021, available to read on the Galatea app. The app has received recognition from BBC, Forbes and The Guardian for being the go-to place for explosive new romance novels.
The first time Stella met Hudson Rothschild was at a wedding. She’d received an unexpected invitation to one of the swankiest venues in the city. Their connection was intense. Though the fun came to a screeching halt when Hudson figured out Stella wasn’t who she said she was.
That unexpected invitation Stella received? Well, it hadn’t actually been addressed to her—it was sent to her ex-roommate who’d bounced a check for two months’ rent and moved out in the middle of the night. Stella figured she owed her an expensive night out, but technically, she was crashing the wedding.
Keep scrolling to read the entire first chapter of this unforgettable romance or download the app to read the entire series now
“I can’t do this…” I stopped halfway up the marble staircase.
Fisher paused a few steps ahead of me. He walked back down to where I stood.
“Sure you can. Remember the time we were in sixth grade and you had to make that presentation about your favorite president? You were a nervous wreck. You thought you were going to forget everything you’d memorized and be standing there with everyone staring at you.”
“Yes, what about it?”
“Well, this is no different. You got through that, didn’t you?”
Fisher had lost his mind. “My fears all came true that day. I got up in front of the blackboard and started to sweat. I couldn’t remember a single word I’d written. Everyone in the class stared, and then you heckled me.”
Fisher nodded. “Exactly. Your worst fear came true, and yet you lived to see another day. In fact, that day turned out to be the best day of your life.”
I shook my head, bewildered. “How so?”
“That was the first time we’d ever been in the same class. I thought you were just another annoying girl like the rest of them. But after school that day, you ripped into me for teasing you while you were trying to do your presentation. That made me realize you weren’t like the other girls. And that very day I decided we were going to be best friends.”
I shook my head. “I didn’t speak to you for the rest of the school year.”
Fisher shrugged. “Yeah, but I won you over the next year, didn’t I? And right now you feel a little calmer than you did two minutes ago, don’t you?”
I sighed. “I guess I do.”
He held out his tuxedo-clad elbow. “Shall we go in?”
I swallowed. As terrified as I was of what we were about to do, I also couldn’t wait to see what the inside of the library looked like all done up for a wedding. I’d spent countless hours sitting on these steps, wondering about the people walking by.
Fisher waited patiently with his elbow out while I debated another minute.
Finally, with another loud sigh, I took his arm. “If we wind up in jail, you’re going to have to come up with the bail money for both of us. I’m way too broke.”
He flashed his movie-star smile. “Deal.”
As we climbed the remaining steps to the doors of the New York Public Library, I went over all of the details we’d discussed in the Uber on the way here.
Our names for the evening were Evelyn Whitley and Maximilian Reynard. Max was in real estate—his family owned Reynard Properties—and I’d gotten my MBA at Wharton and recently moved back to the City.
We both lived on the Upper East Side—at least that part was true.
Two uniformed waiters wearing white gloves stood at the towering entrance doors. One held a tray of champagne flutes, and the other a clipboard. Though my legs somehow kept going, my heart felt like it was trying to escape from my chest and take off in the opposite direction.
“Good evening.” The waiter with the clipboard nodded. “May I have your names, please?”
Fisher didn’t flinch as he doled out the first of what would be a night full of lies.
The man, who I noticed had an earpiece in, scanned his list and nodded. He held a hand out for us to enter, and his partner handed us each bubbly. “Welcome. The ceremony will take place in the rotunda. Seating for the bride is on your left.”
“Thank you,” Fisher said. As soon as we were out of earshot, he leaned close. “See? Easy peasy.” He sipped his champagne. “Oooh, this is good.”
I had no idea how he was so calm. Then again, I also had no idea how he’d managed to talk me into this insanity.
Two months ago, I’d come home from work to find Fisher, who was also my neighbor, raiding my refrigerator for leftovers—a common occurrence.
As he ate two-day-old chicken Milanese, I’d sat at the kitchen table sorting through my mail and having a glass of wine.
While we talked, I’d sliced open the back of an oversized envelope without checking the address on the front. The most stunning wedding invitation had been inside—black and white with raised gold leaf. It was like a gilded work of art. And the wedding was at the New York Public Library, of all places—right near my old office and where I’d often sat and had my lunch on the iconic stairs.
I hadn’t visited in at least a year, so I was seriously pumped to get to go to a wedding there.
Though I’d had no idea whose wedding it was—a distant relative I’d forgotten, maybe? The names weren’t even vaguely familiar. When I turned the envelope over, I quickly realized why. I’d opened my ex-roommate’s mail. Ugh. That figured. It wasn’t me who was invited to a fairytale wedding at one of my favorite places in the world.
But after a couple of glasses of wine, Fisher had convinced me it should be me going, and not Evelyn. It was the least my deadbeat ex-roommate could do for me, he’d said. After all, she’d snuck out in the middle of the night, taken some of my favorite shoes with her, and the check she’d left behind for the two months of back rent she owed had bounced.
At a minimum, I ought to get to attend a ritzy, thousand-dollars-a-plate wedding, rather than her. Lord knew none of my friends were ever getting married at a venue like that.
By the time we’d polished off the second bottle of merlot, Fisher had decided we would go in Evelyn’s place—crash the wedding for a fun night out, compliments of my no-good former roomie. Fisher had even filled out the response card, writing that two guests would attend, and slipped it into his back pocket to mail the next day.
I’d honestly forgotten all about our drunken plans until two weeks ago when Fisher came home with a tuxedo he’d borrowed from a friend for the upcoming nuptials. I’d balked and told him I wasn’t going to crash some expensive wedding for people I didn’t know, and he’d done what he always did: gotten me to think his bad idea wasn’t really that bad.
Until now. I stood in the middle of the sprawling lobby of what was probably a two-hundred-thousand-dollar wedding and felt like I might literally pee my pants.
“Drink your champagne,” Fisher said.
“It’ll help you relax a bit and put some color back in your cheeks. You look like you’re about to attempt to tell the class why you like John Quincy Adams so much.”
I squinted at Fisher, though he smiled back, undeterred. I was certain nothing was going to help me loosen up. But nevertheless, I gulped back the contents of my glass.
Fisher tucked one hand casually into his trouser pocket and looked around with his head held high, like he didn’t have a fear in the world.
“I haven’t seen my old friend party animal Stella in a long time,” he said. “Might she come out to play tonight?”
I handed him my empty champagne flute. “Shut up and go find me another glass before I bolt.”
He chuckled. “No problem, Evelyn. You just sit tight and try not to blow our cover before we even get to see the beautiful bride.”
“Beautiful? You don’t even know what she looks like.”
“All brides look beautiful. That’s why they wear a veil—so you can’t see the ugly ones, and everything is magical on their special day.”
“That’s so romantic.”
Fisher winked. “Not everyone can be as pretty as me.”
Three glasses of champagne helped calm me enough to sit through the wedding ceremony. And the bride definitely didn’t need a veil.
Olivia Rothschild—or Olivia Royce, as she would be now—was gorgeous. I got a little teary eyed watching the groom say his vows.
It was a shame the happy couple weren’t really my friends, because one of their groomsmen was insanely attractive.
I might’ve daydreamed that Livi—that’s what I called her in my head—would fix me up with her new hubby’s buddy. But alas, tonight was a ruse, and I was no Cinderella story.
The cocktail hour took place in a beautiful room I’d never been in.
I studied the artwork on the ceiling as I waited at the bar for my drink. Fisher had told me he needed to use the restroom, but I had a feeling he’d really snuck off to talk to the handsome waiter who had been eyeing him since we’d walked in.
“Here you go, miss.” The bartender slid a drink over to me.
“Thank you.” I took a quick look around to see if anyone was paying attention before dipping my nose inside the glass and taking a deep sniff. Definitely not what I ordered.
“Ummm, excuse me. Is it possible you made this with Beefeater gin and not Hendricks?”
The bartender frowned. “I don’t think so.”
I sniffed a second time, now certain he’d made it wrong.
A man’s voice to my left caught me off guard. “You didn’t even taste it, yet you think he poured the wrong gin?”
I smiled politely. “Beefeater is made with juniper, orange peels, bitter almond, and blended teas, which produces a licorice taste. Hendricks is made of juniper, rose, and cucumber. There’s a different smell to each.”
“Are you drinking it straight or on the rocks?”
“Neither. It’s a gin martini, so it has vermouth.”
“But you think you can smell that he used the wrong gin, without even tasting it?” The guy’s voice made it clear he didn’t think I could.
“I have a very good sense of smell.”
The man looked over my shoulder. “Hey, Hudson, I got a hundred bucks that says she can’t tell the difference between the two gins if we line them up.”
A second man’s voice came from my right, this one behind my shoulder a bit. The sound was deep, yet velvety and smooth—sort of like the gin the bartender should’ve used to make my drink.
“Make it two hundred, and you’re on.”
Turning to get a look at the man willing to wager on my abilities, I felt my eyes widen.
Oh. Wow. The gorgeous guy from the bridal party. I’d stared at him during most of the wedding.
He was handsome from afar, but up close he was breathtaking in a way that made my belly flutter—dark hair, tanned skin, a chiseled jawline, and luscious, full lips. The way his hair was styled—slicked back and parted to the side—reminded me of an old-time movie star. What I hadn’t been able to see from the back row during the ceremony was the intensity of his ocean blue eyes. Those were currently scanning my face like I was a book.
I cleared my throat. “You’re going to bet two-hundred dollars that I can identify gin?”
The gorgeous man stepped forward, and my olfactory sense perked up. Now that smells better than any gin. I wasn’t sure if it was his cologne or some sort of a body wash, but whatever it was, it took everything in my power to not lean toward him and take a deep whiff.
The sinfully sexy man smelled as good as he looked. That pairing was my kryptonite.
There was a hint of amusement in his voice. “Are you telling me it’s a bad bet?”
I shook my head and turned back to speak to his friend. “I’ll play along with your little bet, but I’m in for two hundred, too.”
When my eyes returned to the handsome man on my right, the corner of his lip twitched just slightly. “Nice.” He lifted his chin to his friend. “Tell the bartender to pour a shot of Beefeater and a shot of Hendricks. Line ’em up in front of her, and don’t let us know which is which.”
A minute later, I lifted the first shot glass and sniffed. It honestly wasn’t even necessary for me to smell the other, though I did it anyway, just to be safe. Damn… I should’ve bet more. This was too easy, like taking candy from a baby.
I slid one shot glass forward and spoke to the waiting bartender. “This one is the Hendricks.”
The bartender looked impressed. “She’s right.”
“Damn it,” the guy who had started this game huffed. He dug into his front pocket, pulled out an impressive billfold, and peeled off four hundred-dollar bills. Tossing them in our direction on top of the bar, he shook his head. “I’ll win it back by Monday.”
Gorgeous Guy smiled at me as he collected his cash. Once I took mine, he lowered his head to whisper in my ear.
His hot breath sent a shiver down my spine.
It had been way too long since I’d had contact with a man.
Sadly, my knees felt a little weak. But I forced myself to ignore it. “Thank you.”
He reached around me to the bar and lifted one of the shots. Bringing it to his nose, he sniffed before setting it back down and smelling the other.
“I don’t smell anything different.”
“That just means you have a normal sense of smell.”
“Ah, I see. And yours is…extraordinary?”
I smiled. “Why yes, it is.”
He looked amused as he passed me one of the shots and held the other up in toast. “To being extraordinary,” he said.
I wasn’t generally a shot drinker, but what the hell? I clinked my glass with his before knocking it back. Maybe the alcohol would help settle the nerves this man seemed to have jolted awake.
I set my empty shot glass on the bar next to his. “I take it this is something the two of you do on a regular basis, since your friend plans to win it back by Monday?”
“Jack’s family and mine have been friends since we were kids. But the betting started when we went to the same college. I’m a Notre Dame fan, and he’s a USC fan. We were broke back then, so we used to bet a Taser zap on games.”
“A Taser zap?”
“His father was a cop. He gave him a Taser to keep under his car seat just in case. But I don’t think he envisioned his son taking hits of fifty-thousand volts when a last-minute interception made his team lose.”
I shook my head. “That’s a little crazy.”
“Definitely not our wisest decision. At least I won a lot more than he did. A little brain damage might help explain some of his choices in college.”
I laughed. “So today was just a continuation of that pattern, then?”
“Pretty much.” He smiled and extended his hand. “I’m Hudson, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m St—” I caught myself in the nick of time. “I’m Evelyn.”
“So are you a gin aficionado, Evelyn? Is that why I didn’t smell anything different between the two?”
I smiled. “I wouldn’t consider myself an aficionado of gin, no. To be honest, I mostly drink wine. But did I mention my occupation? I’m a fragrance chemist—a perfumist.”
“You make perfume?”
I nodded. “Among other things. I developed scents for a cosmetics and fragrance company for six years. Sometimes it was a new perfume, other times it was the scent for a wipe that removes makeup, or maybe a cosmetic that needs a more pleasant smell.”
“Pretty sure I never met a perfumist before.”
I smiled. “Is it as exciting as you’d hoped?”
He chuckled. “What exactly is the training for a job like that?”
“Well, I have a chemistry degree. But you can have all the education you want, and you still won’t be able to do the job unless you also have hyperosmia.”
“And that is…”
“An enhanced ability to smell odors, an increased olfactory acuity.”
“So you’re good at smelling shit?”
I laughed. “Exactly.”
A lot of people think they have a good sense of smell, but they don’t really understand how heightened the sense is for someone with hyperosmia. Demonstrating always worked best. Plus, I really wanted to know what cologne he was wearing. So, I leaned in and took a deep inhale of Hudson.
Exhaling, I said, “Dove soap.”
He didn’t look completely sold. “Yes, but that’s a pretty common soap choice.”
I smiled. “You didn’t let me finish. Dove Cool Moisture. It’s got cucumber and green tea in it—also a common ingredient in gins, by the way. And you use L’Oreal Elvive shampoo, same as me. I can smell gardenia tahitensis flower extract, rosa canina flower extract, and a slight hint of coconut oil. Oh, and you use Irish Spring deodorant. I don’t think you’re wearing any cologne, actually.”
Hudson’s brows rose. “Now that’s impressive. The wedding party stayed in a hotel last night, and I forgot to pack my cologne.”
“Which one do you normally wear?”
“Ah… I can’t tell you that. What will we do on our second date for entertainment if we don’t play the sniff test?”
“Our second date? I didn’t realize we were going to have a first.”
Hudson smiled and held out his hand. “The night’s young, Evelyn. Dance with me?”
A knot in the pit of my stomach warned me it was a bad idea.
Fisher and I were supposed to stick together and limit contact with other people to minimize our chances of getting caught. But glancing around, my date was nowhere in sight. Plus, this man was seriously magnetic.
Somehow, before my brain even finished debating the pros and cons, I found myself putting my hand in his. He led me to the dance floor and wrapped one arm around my waist, leading with the other. Not surprisingly, he knew how to dance.
“So, Evelyn with the extraordinary sense of smell, I’ve never seen you before. Are you a guest or a plus one?” He looked around the room.
“Is some guy giving me the evil eye behind my back right now? Am I going to need to get Jack’s Taser from the car to ward off a jealous boyfriend?”
I laughed. “I am here with someone, but he’s just a friend.”
“The poor guy…”
I smiled. Hudson’s flirting was over the top, yet I gobbled it up. “Fisher is more interested in the guy who was passing out champagne than me.”
Hudson held me a little closer. “I like your date much better than I did thirty seconds ago.”
Goose bumps prickled my arms as he lowered his head, and his nose briefly brushed against my neck.
“You smell incredible. Are you wearing one of the perfumes you make?”
“I am. But it’s not one that can be ordered. I like the idea of having a true signature scent that someone can remember me by.”
“I don’t think you need the perfume to be remembered.”
He led me around the dance floor with such grace, I wondered if he had taken professional lessons. Most men his age thought slow dancing meant rocking back and forth and grinding an erection against you.
“You’re a good dancer,” I said.
Hudson responded by twirling us around. “My mother was a professional ballroom dancer. Learning wasn’t an option; it was a requirement if I wanted to be fed.”
I laughed. “That’s really cool. Did you ever consider following in her footsteps?”
“Absolutely not. I grew up watching her suffer with hip bursitis, stress fractures, torn ligaments—it’s definitely not the glamorous profession they make it out to be on all those dance-contest TV shows. You gotta love what you do for a job like that.”
“I think you have to love what you do for any job.”
“That’s a very good point.”
The song came to an end, and the emcee told everyone to take their seats.
“Where are you sitting?” Hudson asked.
I pointed to the side of the room where Fisher and I had been seated. “Somewhere over there. Table Sixteen.”
He nodded. “I’ll walk you.”
We approached the table at the same moment as Fisher, who was coming from the other direction.
He looked between Hudson and me, and his face asked the question he didn’t say aloud.
“Umm…this is my friend Fisher. Fisher, this is Hudson.”
Hudson extended his hand. “Nice to meet you.”
After shaking with a silent Fisher, who seemed to have forgotten how to speak, he turned to me and took my hand once again.
“I should get back to my table with the rest of the wedding party.”
“Save a dance for me later?”
I smiled. “I’d love to.”
Hudson turned to walk away and then turned back. As he walked backwards, he called, “In case you pull a Cinderella on me and disappear, what’s your last name, Evelyn?”
Thankfully, him using my fake name reminded me not to give him my real one as I’d almost done the first time.
Oh God. Did he know Evelyn?
His eyes swept over my face. “Beautiful name. I’ll see you later.”
When Hudson was barely out of earshot, Fisher leaned close to me.
“My name’s supposed to be Maximilian, sweetheart.”
“Oh my God, Fisher. We have to leave.”
“Nah.” He shrugged. “It’s no big deal. We made up Maximilian anyway. I’m your plus one. No one knows the name of the person Evelyn brought. Though I still want to play a real estate tycoon.”
“No, it’s not that.”
“Then what is it?”
“We have to leave because he knows...”
Fisher sucked back a pull of his beer. “You’re just paranoid. The guy has no idea. I watched his face when you said Evelyn’s last name, and the only thing he noticed was how beautiful you are.”
I shook my head. “No, he made a weird face. I saw it.”
“How long were you talking to the guy?”
“I don’t know. Maybe fifteen minutes? I met him at the bar and then he asked me to dance.”
“Did he seem like the type of guy who would be shy about asking a question if he had a concern?”
I thought about it. He actually didn’t. Hudson came off more bold than bashful. “No, but…”
Fisher rested one of his hands on each of my shoulders. “Take a deep breath.”
“Fisher, we should go.”
The emcee came on again and asked everyone to please take their seats, as dinner was about to be served.
Fisher pulled out my chair. “Let’s at least eat. If you still want to ditch after we’re done, we can. But I’m telling you, you’re just being paranoid. The guy hasn’t got a clue.”
My gut told me to leave now, but when I scanned the room, I noticed we were the last of a few stragglers standing, and people were looking at us.
I sighed. “Fine. Dinner and then we’re out of here.”
I spoke softly, aware of the other guests seated at our table that we’d been rudely ignoring.
“Where have you been, by the way?”
“Talking to Noah.”
“A cute waiter. He’s going to be an actor.”
I rolled my eyes. “Sure he is. We were supposed to stick together, you know.”
“It didn’t look like you were too lonely. Who was that Adonis, anyway? You know I don’t like it when you have men in your life better-looking than me.”
I sighed. “He was gorgeous, wasn’t he?”
Fisher drank his beer. “I’d do him.”
We both laughed. “Are you sure you don’t think he noticed anything? You’re not just saying that because you want to stay, are you?”
“No, we’re absolutely fine.”
Somehow, I relaxed a little over dinner. Although that might’ve had more to do with the waiter who kept refreshing my drink without being asked than deciding Fisher was right.
It wasn’t that I no longer thought Hudson knew we were imposters, but rather that the buzz from my gin martinis left me unable to care if he did.
After they cleared our plates, Fisher asked me to dance, and I figured why not? A girl could have a worse evening than one spent dancing with two handsome men. So we hit the dance floor for a catchy pop song, and when the music slowed, Fisher took me in his arms.
Halfway through, we were laughing in our own little bubble when a man tapped my partner on the shoulder.
“Mind if I cut in?”
My heart started to pound in my chest. I wasn’t sure if it was the prospect of being back in the gorgeous man’s arms, or the prospect of being found out.
Fisher smiled and stepped back. “Take good care of my girl.”
“Oh, I intend to.”
Something about the way he said it made me feel uneasy.
Though Hudson took me in his arms and started to move us to the music, just as he’d done earlier.
“Having fun?” he asked.
“Ummm… Yes. This is a very nice place for a wedding. I’ve never been here before.”
“Who did you say you were a guest of? The bride or the groom?”
I didn’t say. “The bride.”
“And you know each other how?”
Shit. I looked up, and Hudson’s mouth curved into what resembled a smile, but it definitely wasn’t a funny-ha-ha type of smile. It was more cynical than jovial.
“I, uh, we used to work together.”
“Oh? Was it at Rothschild Investments?”
I wanted to run for it. Maybe Hudson sensed I might do just that, because unless I was imagining it, his grip on me tightened. I swallowed.
“Yes. I worked for Rothschild Investments.”
The only thing I knew about Evelyn’s short-lived job there was that she had worked as a receptionist and couldn’t stand her boss. She used to refer to him as GQ Prick.
“In what capacity might that be?”
This was starting to feel like an interrogation. “As a receptionist.”
“A receptionist? But I thought you were a perfumist?”
OH. Right. I hadn’t been thinking earlier when I’d been honest about my profession.
“I, uhh, I’m starting my own business, and things got delayed, so I needed an income.”
“And what type of business is it you’re starting?”
At least this part wasn’t a lie.
“It’s called Signature Scent. It’s a mail-order, custom perfume line.”
“How does that work?”
“We send twenty small scent samples for the person to rate from one to ten, along with a detailed questionnaire. Based on the types of smells they like and their answers to our survey, we create a scent just for them. I created an algorithm that builds the formula based on the input we collect.”
Hudson scanned my face.
It looked like he was trying to figure out some sort of puzzle. When he spoke again, his tone was softer. “That’s actually a good idea.”
Maybe it was the alcohol fueling my nerve, but I was suddenly offended that he seemed surprised.
“Did you think because I’m blond I wouldn’t have any?”
Hudson flashed what I suspected might’ve been a real smile, but it quickly faded back to his stoic face.
He stared down at me for a long time as I held my breath, waiting for him to call me out as a fraud.
Finally, he said, “Will you come with me for a moment?”
“I have to make a speech, and I was hoping you could stand nearby. Your beautiful face will give me just the encouragement I need.”
Hudson smiled, but again, something about it felt off. What he’d asked seemed harmless enough, though, so as he took my hand and led me to the front of the room, I tried to convince myself that all the weirdness was in my head, stemming from my guilty conscience.
He spoke to the emcee, and then we walked to the side of the dance floor to wait. We stood next to each other as the song ended and the emcee asked guests to take their seats again.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to introduce a very important person to the newlyweds. He’s the brother of our beautiful bride and a good friend to our dashing groom. Let’s give a great big round of applause to our groomsman, Hudson!”
Oh my GOD. He’s the bride’s brother!
Hudson leaned down to me. “Stay right here where I can see your gorgeous face, Evelyn.”
I nodded and smiled, though I felt like throwing up.
Over the next ten minutes, Hudson gave an eloquent speech. He talked about what a pain in the butt his little sister had been, and how proud he was of the woman she’d become.
When he explained that their father and mother had both passed away, I got a little choked up. His admiration for his sister was evident, and his speech was an equal mix of serious and funny.
As he spoke, I let out a heavy sigh of relief that he hadn’t had anything unusual up his sleeve. It was a shame that I’d met him under the current conditions, and that I’d introduced myself with a fake name, because Hudson seemed like a great catch.
At the end of his speech, he held up his glass. “To Mason and Olivia. May you have love, health, and wealth, but most importantly, may you have a long life together to enjoy it all.”
A murmur of salud went around the room before everyone drank, and I thought that was the end of the speech. But it wasn’t. Instead of handing the emcee back the microphone, Hudson turned and looked directly at me.
The wicked smile that slid across his face gave me the chills, and not in a good way.
“Up next,” he said, “I have a special treat for you all. My sister’s dear friend Evelyn would like to say a few words.”
My eyes widened.
He continued. “She has such a great story about how the two of them met. It’s really entertaining, and she can’t wait to share it with you this evening.”
Hudson walked toward me with the microphone in his hand.
His eyes sparkled with amusement, but I worried his shiny shoes were about to be decorated with vomit.
I waved him off and shook my head, but that only egged him on.
He spoke into the microphone as he took my hand. “Evelyn seems to be having a case of the jitters. She’s a bit on the shy side.”
He tugged me, and I took two unwilling steps toward the middle of the room before digging my heels in and refusing to move any farther.
Hudson laughed and raised the microphone once again. “It looks like she needs a little encouragement. What do you say, ladies and gentlemen? Can we have a round of applause to help Evelyn come up and say a few words?”
The crowd started to clap. I wanted the floor to open up and my rigid body to fall into a bottomless pit. But it was becoming clearer by the second that the only way out of this was trudging straight through.
All eyes were on me, and there was no getting out unscathed.
I debated making a run for it, but decided it was better to have only a few people chasing me than the entire place.
So I took a deep breath, walked over to the closest table of guests, and asked a random old man if his drink contained alcohol.
When he said it was vodka on the rocks, I helped myself, downing the entire contents.
Then I smoothed my dress, pulled my shoulders back, lifted my chin, and marched over to Hudson, grabbing the microphone with my shaky hand.
He smirked and leaned down to whisper in my ear, “Good luck, Evelyn.”
The room quieted, and I could feel beads of sweat forming on my forehead and upper lip.
A lump the size of a golf ball was stuck in the middle of my throat, and my fingers and toes tingled.
All eyes were on me, and I wracked my brain to come up with a story—any story.
Eventually I thought of one, though I’d have to improvise a little. But that was par for this evening, anyway, wasn’t it?
I cleared my throat. “Hi…”
I’d been holding the microphone with my right hand. Noticing it shaking, I raised my left and clamped it over the other to help keep it steady. Then I took a deep breath.
“Hi. I’m Evelyn. Olivia and I met in kindergarten.”
I made the mistake of looking over at the table where the newlyweds were sitting. The bride’s face was wrinkled in confusion, and she stared at me while whispering to her husband.
I better make this quick…
“As Hudson mentioned, I wanted to share how Livi and I met. I’d just moved to the City in the middle of the school year and didn’t have many friends. I was really shy back then. My pale skin would turn bright red whenever too much attention was focused on me, so I avoided speaking in class at all costs. One day, I drank an entire bottle of water during recess outside. I really needed to use the ladies’ room when we got back inside, but Mr. Neu, our teacher, had already started a lesson, and I didn’t want to interrupt him. He was, like, seven-feet tall and scary to begin with, and the thought of raising my hand and having all the kids turn and stare at me when he called my name completely freaked me out. So I held it during his entire lesson, and boy, could that man talk.”
I looked over at the bride.
“Remember how Mr. Neu would just drone on and tell all those really bad corny jokes? And then he’d be the only one to laugh at them?”
The bride looked at me like I was absolutely crazy. I was pretty sure she was right.
For the next five minutes, I blabbered on and on—standing in front of a room full of people telling them how I ran to the bathroom when the teacher finally stopped talking. But all of the stalls were taken, and I just couldn’t hold it anymore. I detailed how I’d come back to the classroom with wet pants and tried to hide it, but one boy had spotted it and yelled “Look! The new girl peed her pants.” I’d been absolutely mortified, with tears brimming in my eyes, until my friend came to my rescue. In an act of courage that would become an unbreakable bond for the two of us, Olivia peed her own pants and then stood up and told everyone the grass was wet outside at recess, and we’d been sitting together.
I closed my story by telling a room full of smiling faces how my utmost wish for the happy couple was that they’d have the same love and laughter I’d shared with the bride for many years.
Raising one hand, I held up an imaginary glass. “A toast to the bride and groom.”
People started to applaud, and I knew I needed to use the time to get the hell out of there.
Hudson was still standing off to the side, and if I wasn’t mistaken, I thought he might be a little proud of me for not crumbling.
His eyes gleamed, and he watched me intently as I walked over and pressed the microphone to his chest.
He covered the top of the mic and smiled. “Entertaining.”
I showed him my pearly whites through an exaggerated smile and crooked my finger for him to lean in closer.
When he did, I whispered in his ear, “That was not cool.”
Hudson let out a deep laugh as I stormed away, never looking back to see if he was following. Luckily, Fisher was already walking toward me, so I didn’t have to search for him before we hightailed it out of here.
His eyes were as wide as Frisbees.
“Are you wasted? What the hell just happened up there?”
I grabbed his arm and kept walking.
“We need to get the hell out of here quick. Do you have my purse?”
Shit. I debated just leaving it, but my license and credit card were inside. So I veered left and made a beeline for our table.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Hudson and the groom talking to the maître d’ and pointing in our direction.
“Shit! We need to hurry.” I rushed the rest of the way to our table, grabbed my purse, and turned back around. After two steps I pivoted.
“What are you doing?” Fisher said.
I plucked an unopened bottle of Dom Pérignon from our table. “I’m taking this with me.”
Fisher shook his head and laughed as we headed for the door.
Along the way, we swiped bottles of champagne from every table we passed. Confused guests had no idea what to make of the scene, but we were moving too quickly for them to comment.
By the time we got to the exit, our arms were full, and we had at least a grand worth of bubbly.
Out front, we got lucky that a few yellow cabs were stopped, waiting at the light. Jumping into the first empty one, Fisher slammed the door shut, and we both got up on our knees to look out the back window.
The maître d’ and the two security guys who had been checking IDs earlier were halfway down the marble staircase. Hudson stood at the top, casually leaning against a marble pillar and drinking a glass of champagne as he watched the insanity of our departure.
Blood rushed through my ears as I looked back and forth between the traffic light and the men closing in on us. Just as they reached the curb and stepped off, the red switched to green.
“Go! Go!” I yelled to the cabbie.
He hit the gas, and Fisher and I stayed on our knees, watching out the back window as the men grew more distant.
Once we made the right at the corner, I turned around and slumped into the seat. I couldn’t seem to catch my breath.
“What the hell happened, Stella? One minute I saw you dancing with a gorgeous man who looked completely into you, and the next you were telling some crazy story to a room full of people. Are you drunk?”
“Even if I had been, I’d be scared sober right now.”
“What came over you?”
“It’s not what came over me, it’s who.”
“I’m not following.”
“You know the gorgeous man I was talking to?”
“Well, turns out he knew all—”
A sense of panic washed over me as I realized I wasn’t sure where my cell phone was.
Frenzied, I opened my purse and started to pull things out. Clearly, it wasn’t inside, but it just had to be. Refusing to accept what I’d done, I turned the purse over and emptied the contents onto my lap.
No freaking phone!
“What are you looking for?” Fisher said.
“Please tell me you have my cell.”
He shook his head. “Why would I have it?”
“Because if you don’t, that means I left it on the table at the wedding…”
“Mr. Rothschild, you have a phone call.”
I huffed and pressed the intercom. “Who is it?”
“It’s Evelyn Whitley.”
Tossing my pen onto my desk, I picked up the phone and leaned back in my chair.
“Evelyn, thank you for calling me back.”
“Of course. How are you, Hudson?”
Frustrated enough to call my little sister’s annoying friend who I hadn’t wanted to give a job to, but did anyway, only to have said annoying friend stop showing up to work two months ago and quit without any notice.
“I’m well. And you?”
“Pretty good. Although Louisiana is really humid compared to New York.”
Is that where she’d run off to? I didn’t care, and small talk with Evelyn wasn’t on my packed agenda for today.
“So the reason I had my assistant track you down—a woman came to Olivia’s wedding pretending to be you.”
“Me? Really? Who would do that?”
“I was hoping you could tell me.”
“Jeez, I have no idea. I didn’t even think Liv had invited me to her wedding. I definitely didn’t get an invitation.”
“My sister said she mailed it right around the time you left town. It went to your old address here in the City. Was your mail being forwarded, or was someone picking it up for you?”
“I get almost all my mail electronically—phone bill, credit cards, and stuff. So I didn’t do a mail forward. My old roommate still lives in the apartment, so she could have received it.”
“You had a roommate?”
“Maybe it was Stella?”
Evelyn laughed. “I don’t think so. She’s definitely not the type to crash a wedding.”
“Humor me. What does your old roommate look like?”
“I don’t know. Blond hair, maybe five foot five, pale skin, nice curves…glasses. Size seven shoe.”
The hair color, nice curves, and skin description were a match, and I supposed the woman could’ve had contacts in. But who the hell gives shoe size as part of a physical description?
“By any chance would your roommate have a habit of smelling things?”
“Yes! Stella’s some sort of perfume developer for Estée Lauder. Or at least she was before she quit. We were only roommates for a year or so, but she was always sniffing things—a little odd, if you ask me. She also had a habit of telling long stories when all I asked was a simple question, and giving chocolate bars out to people. But how did you know she sniff—oh my God. Was it Stella who went to the wedding posing as me?”
“Sounds like it may have been, yes.”
Evelyn laughed. “I didn’t think she had it in her.”
From the little time I’d spent with Stella, I could tell she had it in her to surprise a lot of people.
Most would have bolted out the door when I’d called them to take the microphone. But not Stella. She’d been a shaky mess, yet she’d pulled herself together and taken what I’d dished out.
I wasn’t sure what was sexier—the way she looked, the way she didn’t back down from a challenge, or the way she’d defiantly told me I was a jerk before taking off.
It had been eight days since my sister’s wedding, and I still couldn’t get the damn woman out of my head.
“What’s Stella’s last name?” I asked.
“Bardot. Like the old-time movie actress.”
“Do you happen to have a home phone number for her?”
“I do. It’s in my cell. I can forward you her contact information after we hang up, if you want.”
“Yes. That would be helpful.”
“Thank you for the information, Evelyn.”
“Do you want me to call her? Tell her she needs to pay for the cost of attending or something?”
“No, that’s not necessary. I’d actually prefer you didn’t mention this conversation, if you happen to speak to her.”
“Okay…sure. Whatever you say.”
After I hung up, I rubbed my chin and stared out the window at the city.
Stella Bardot…what to do, what to do with you…
Opening my desk drawer, I pulled out the iPhone the catering company had sent over the other day. They said they’d found it at Table Sixteen.
I’d had my assistant call everyone seated at the table except for the mystery woman. No one had lost a phone. So I was pretty certain who it belonged to.
The only question was, what was I going to do with it?
Helena, my assistant, peeked her head into the conference room.
“Mr. Rothschild, I’m sorry to interrupt, but there’s someone here to see you. There’s no appointment on your calendar, but she claims you invited her.”
I held out my hands, motioning to the people seated around the table. “I’m in the middle of a meeting. I don’t have anything else scheduled right now.”
She shrugged. “That’s what I thought. I’ll let her know you’re busy.”
“Who is it?”
“Her name is Stella Bardot.”
Well, well, well… Cinderella finally came to collect her glass slipper, did she?
It had been six days now since I’d messaged her over a note, so I’d assumed Ms. Bardot didn’t have the balls to show up.
I had Evelyn’s old address in our company records, so I could’ve been nice and just returned the phone to her. But what fun would that have been? Instead, I’d sent over my business card with a note scribbled on the back.
If you want what you left behind, come and get it.
“Can you please tell Ms. Bardot I’m busy, but if she can wait, I’ll see her when I’m done here?”
“Sure, of course. I’ll let her know.” Helena closed the door to the conference room.
My meeting lasted another forty minutes, but I probably should’ve ended it after two, since knowing what waited for me in the lobby had me completely distracted.
Finally I returned to my office, carrying the files from the conference room.
“Would you like me to bring Ms. Bardot back?” Helena asked as I passed her desk.
“Give me five minutes and then show her in, please.”
I had no idea what I was going to say when Little Miss Party Crasher walked in. Then again, I wasn’t the one who needed to explain anything. So I decided to play it by ear and see where the conversation went.
Which was a good thing, because the minute she stepped into my office doorway, I could barely remember my own name.
Evelyn—or rather Stella—was even more beautiful than I remembered. At the wedding, her hair had been pinned up, but now it was down, and wavy, blond locks framed her porcelain skin. She wore oversized, thick-rimmed glasses that gave her a sexy-librarian look, and the simple navy blue sundress and flats she had on made her look tinier than she had at the wedding.
Keeping my face as impassive as possible, I stood and gestured to the guest chairs on the other side of my desk.
“Please, have a seat.”
She bit down on her bottom lip, but nevertheless, walked into my office.
“Will you please shut the door behind you, Helena?” I asked my assistant.
She nodded. “Of course.”
Stella and I had a bit of a staring contest before she planted her ass in a seat on the other side of my desk.
“I didn’t think you were going to collect your glass slipper, Cinderella.”
She crossed her legs and folded her hands on top of her knee.
“Trust me, if I had any other choice, I wouldn’t be here.”
I arched a brow. “Should I be offended? I was actually looking forward to you coming for a visit.”
She pursed her lips. “I bet you were. What kind of humiliation should I expect today? Will you be calling in all the employees to laugh and point?”
My lip twitched. “I wasn’t planning on it. But if that’s your thing…”
She sighed. “Look, I’m sorry for what I did. I already wrote the bride an apology letter and sent a little gift to the return address on the invitation. I didn’t mean any harm. When the invitation came, I accidentally opened it, and a few glasses of wine later, my friend Fisher and I concocted the idea that we should crash. I was angry at my roommate—the person the invitation was actually sent to. She’d moved out in the middle of the night on me, and a bunch of my clothes and shoes went missing when she did. And just that day, the check she’d left me for the two months of back rent she owed had bounced. And to top it all off, it had been my last day at my job, so I really needed her half of the rent.”
She paused a moment, seeming to catch her breath. “I know none of that excuses what I did. A wedding is supposed to be a sacred and intimate event for families and friends to share, but I want you to know it’s the first time I’ve ever done anything like that.”
She shook her head. “Plus, I might not have gone through with it if it were anywhere else, but I love that library. I worked a block away for the last six years and had lunch on the steps more times than I could count. I’ve been dying to go to an event there.”
I scratched my chin and examined her face. She seemed sincere. “What took you so long to come collect your phone?”
“No, I prefer you make up a story like you did at the wedding. Because that ended so well…”
She rolled her eyes and let out a big sigh. “I wasn’t planning on coming at all. I even went out and bought a new iPhone. But my rent is due in a few days, and I’m broke because I’ve sunk every penny I have into my business launch, which has now been delayed. I have fourteen days to return the overpriced phone—and the last one is today. I can’t afford a thousand dollars for a new cell, especially now that I don’t have a roommate. I need to return the phone, or call my father and ask him to borrow money. Faced with the choice of coming here and taking my lumps for doing something stupid, or calling my father… Well, here I am.”
My sister hadn’t really even been upset over what had happened at her wedding.
Of course she’d been confused about who the woman telling a story about their childhood was, but when I’d explained that I’d caught her pretending to be a guest, Olivia had laid into me for putting the woman on the spot, rather than quietly escorting her to the door.
To be honest, even I’d felt a little bad once Stella started to sweat and turn pale with the microphone in her hand. But I’d been so annoyed that she lied to me.
Deep down, I knew it was partly because a woman lying to my face brought back some bad reminders.
It also didn’t help that my little sister had chosen to get married at the same place my own wedding had been just seven years before. So perhaps my anger at Stella could have been slightly misplaced.
Opening my desk drawer, I took out the cell phone and slid it over to the other side of my desk.
“Thank you,” Stella said. She picked it up and swiped at the screen. The phone illuminated, and I watched her forehead wrinkle. “It’s still fully charged. Did you charge it?”
I nodded. “It was dead when the caterer sent it over the day after the wedding.”
She nodded, but I could see I hadn’t answered whatever question was on her mind.
“Did you…try to guess my code?”
I managed to keep my face straight, even though that was exactly what I’d done. She didn’t need to know I’d spent an hour trying different combinations to unlock the damn thing because I was so curious about the woman who’d run out of the wedding.
So I sidestepped her question and tented my fingers, speaking in a stern tone. “I needed to turn it on to see if you even had a code, didn’t I?”
Stella shook her head and slipped the phone into her purse. “Oh. Yeah. Of course. That’s right.”
We stared at each other for a few seconds, until the silence became awkward.
“Okay, well…” She stood. “I should be going.”
As twisted as it was, I wasn’t ready for her to leave. I had a hundred questions I wanted her to answer—like what her father had done that made her not want to call him, or why her business launch had been delayed. But instead, I followed her lead and stood.
She extended her hand across my desk. “Thank you for safekeeping my phone, and again, I apologize for what I did.”
I took her little hand in mine and held it for a tad too long. But if she noticed, she didn’t say anything.
After I let go, Stella turned to leave, but then turned back. She unzipped her purse and rummaged through it. Pulling something out, she offered it to me.
“Do you like chocolate?”
I was confused as hell, but nodded. “I do.”
“I keep a Hershey bar in my bag at all times for emergencies. It has anandamide, which is a neurotransmitter and helps you feel happier.”
She shrugged. “Sometimes I give them out to people who look like they need it, but most of the time I wind up eating it myself. I love chocolate. I sent your sister an apology gift, but I didn’t send you anything. It’s all I have for a peace offering.”
This woman was handing me a candy bar to call it even for crashing a seven-hundred-dollar-a-plate event? I had to give it to her; she was unique.
I held up my hands. “It’s fine. We’re good. You keep it.”
She kept her arm extended. “It’ll make me feel better if you have it.”
I managed to keep in my chuckle as I took it from her hand. “Okay. Thank you.”
Stella lifted her purse back onto her shoulder and headed to the door. I followed to open it, but she again stopped abruptly.
This time, instead of a chocolate-bar offering, she leaned in to me and inhaled deeply.
“Retrouvailles,” she said.
I spoke a little French and knew that translated to reunion or something along those lines.
Seeing the confusion on my face, she smiled. “It’s the cologne you’re wearing, isn’t it? It’s called Retrouvailles.”
“Oh… Yes, I think it is.”
“You have good taste. Expensive taste. But good. I created it.”
She nodded, and her smile broadened. “You wear it well. Colognes smell different on everyone.”
Damn, she had some smile. Taking it in, my eyes fell to her lips.
Wow I had the urge to bite them.
“Do you spray the cologne on your pulse point?” She pointed to the hollow at the bottom of her throat. “Around here?”
I practically salivated, staring at her delicate neck. “I guess so.”
“That’s why it lasts so long. Perfumes and colognes reactivate from body heat. A lot of men spray on the sides of their neck, but the bottom of your throat is one of the warmest areas because the blood pumps near the surface of the skin. It’s why most women also spray on their wrists and behind their ears.”
“Are you wearing any?” I asked.
Her brows furrowed. “Perfume?”
“Yes, it’s one I developed also.”
I kept my eyes trained on hers as I slowly leaned forward. She didn’t budge as I came to within an inch of our noses touching, then dipped my head to the side, placed my nose near her ear, and inhaled deeply.
She smelled incredible.
Reluctantly, I pulled my head back. “You wear your creations well, too.”
She smiled once again, but the slight glaze of her eyes told me she felt a bit off-kilter, too. “Thank you, and thanks again for everything, Hudson.”
She turned once more to walk out of my office, and as she stepped over the threshold, a bizarre sense of panic washed over me.
She again halted and looked back.
Before I could stop myself, the craziest words tumbled out of my mouth.
“Have dinner with me.”