The Billionaire Boyfriend Proposal: Excerpt
Copyright 2014 Kendra Little
Never trust a Kavanagh. That's been my mantra for eight years and it has stood me in good stead. My next door neighbors have proven time and again that they'll steamroll everything and everyone in their path to get what they want, including me and my house. But I wasn't going to give up lightly. I would fight with everything I had. And what I had was a dozen students from my art school and some equally irate neighbors who didn't want their exclusive street overrun by developers. We made up a contingent of one hundred, and we were loud. So loud that we attracted the Roxburg media and the police who had me, the unofficial leader, in their sights.
Never trust a Kavanagh. So when Blake Kavanagh turned up in the middle of the protest, my gut instinct was to ask why. What did he want? What was the second eldest of the five too-gorgeous-for-their-own-good Kavanagh brothers doing back in Serendipity Bend, Roxburg, after breaking my heart eight years ago?
All this time I'd held myself together and forged ahead, never looking back. I'd tried hard not to think about him and what might have been. I'd relapsed upon Gran's death, but I'd managed to claw my way out of the melancholy and return to the comfortable pattern I'd established for my life.
Until Blake's powerful arms dragged me out of danger, and his fury almost got him arrested.
Shock rippled through my body. It turned my legs weak and made my nerves jangle. He was here, now, when I needed him most! I'd thought about this day for so long, what I'd say, do, wear. None of that mattered. All sensible thoughts got shoved aside at the sight of his handsome face, strong bones and bright blue eyes filled with a ferocity I'd never seen before.
I grasped all of that in a fraction of a second. I wanted to gaze at him for longer, digest every small change, but there was no time. Blake wound up his fist to punch the policeman about to arrest me.
"Blake, don't!" I shouted. "If you get arrested because of me…" My voice got lost in the cacophony surrounding us and Blake wasn't listening anyway. He had murder in his eyes and it was directed at the cop.
"Don't touch her," he snarled. "Or I'll break your neck."
I had to get him out of there before he did serious damage. I shoved him in the chest, but it was like a fly tapping against a brick wall. He was bigger than I remembered, his shoulders like solid rocks, straining the seams of his black T-shirt. Another time I would have admired them, but not now with the swell of the crowd surging around us and the police threatening to arrest me and my students.
"Cassie!" he shouted down at me. "Get out of here. It's too dangerous. Go!"
"Not without you. I can't have your arrest on my conscience too."
He blanched and took a step back as if my hands on his chest were actually forcing him. Next thing I knew, we were tumbling backward through the crowd. I wasn't sure who was propelling who, but we ended up among the row of camellias at the side of my front porch, safe. Alone.
My heart beat so fast I thought it would burst out of my chest. It wasn't entirely from the danger I'd found myself in. It beat like that because Blake had returned.
He was back, eight years after leaving me with my aging Gran, my asshole of a brother, and my demons.
I got my first chance to look at him properly since the day we'd argued on the very same porch we now stood near. I still only came up to his chest, but the chest was bigger, broader, his shoulders too. His forearms bulged out of the T-shirt and I found myself staring at them. It was easier than staring at his face with its harder lines, severe mouth, and granite jaw. His hair was cropped close to his scalp and those alert blue eyes harbored more shadows than the last time I'd seen him, something I'd not thought possible. It was an uncompromising face and body, so new yet so familiar.
He stared at me for as long as I stared at him, taking in every inch of me. I wondered if I'd changed in eight years as much as he had. I doubted it. My hair was still a tangle of red curls and the freckles that were the bane of my teenage years still splattered across my nose, but I'd made my peace with them.
I met his gaze with my own, refusing to back down. I wasn't the naive girl he'd last seen crying on the front porch. I was stronger, and I was going to let him know it. "You're back," I said simply.
He nodded. "You okay?"
"Of course." I glanced over my shoulder. My students had taken up a chant and held fast against the bulldozers. The police hadn't arrested anyone else, but the protest wasn't looking like ending any time soon. Good. Maybe Blake's older brother, Reece, would get the message. If not, at least I'd delayed him.
"We tried to stop him," he said with a shake of his head.
"Ash, Mom, Dad, all of us."
"All of you?"
"He won't listen to us. He's determined to wipe this place off the map." Those blue eyes softened as they scanned my face. "He's only trying to destroy his memories of—"
"Don't. Don't mention her or make him out to be some kind of lost soul, affected by her death. She was my sister."
Blake's lips flattened and he looked heavenward, as if he were appealing to Wendy’s spirit. She'd killed herself twelve years ago over Blake's brother, Reece, who'd cheated on her. I blamed Reece, but it seemed I was the only one. None of the Kavanaghs did. Not even Blake was on my side. Our difference of opinion had festered for four years, infecting our relationship and destroying all the good in it until all that was left was a rotten carcass. Our romance had finally ended on a summer evening on my front porch and I'd never seen him again.
Until now. Where had he been for eight years? I'd never asked the Kavanaghs, preferring to avoid them altogether, and they'd never offered up the information. Wherever he'd been, it had changed him. The once happy guy looked like he hadn't smiled in years.
"Why are you back now?" I snapped more harshly than I'd meant to. I was tired, my home in danger of being torn down right in front of me, and now this. My stress levels didn't need him to turn up now.
"Ash called me. He thought if anyone could talk him out of making this monumental mistake, it would be me."
"Guess he was wrong."
His gaze shifted to the crowd behind me. A cry went up, followed by an answering roar from the protestors. The rumble of the bulldozer's engine underpinned all other sounds.
"Cassie!" someone cried.
I turned to go, but Blake caught my arm. His grip was hard but not bruising. "I won't give up, Cass. I'm here to stay, for as long as it takes."
Was he talking about stopping Reece? Or about something else? He looked at me with such intensity that I was sure he could see through to my soul. For one heart-stopping moment, I thought he would kiss me. He could have easily pulled me against his body and I wouldn't have been able to resist.
Part of me wanted him to do it. A traitorous part, but it was small and I was able to drown it out. I stomped on his toe. He sucked air between his teeth and let me go.
I ran off, back into the crowd where one my students embraced me.
I didn't see Blake again for the rest of the day. To my utter surprise and relief, Reece arrived and called off the bulldozer. He sent the police, media and demolition crew on their way, and the next thing I knew he was kissing Cleo Denny, the older sister of one of my students, like he couldn't get enough of her. Like she'd saved him.
I couldn't tear my gaze away from them as they leaned up against his car, encased in each other’s arms. They called me over and Reece told me he would leave my house alone. He was even going to do it up for me to live in and keep the rent the same.
Well huh. Big, bad Reece Kavanagh had a real human heart beating inside his chest after all. It had just taken Cleo to get it ticking again. God help us all if she ever left him.
I didn't see Blake again for the rest of the day, or the next, which suited me fine. I had enough on my plate fending off the media and seeing the garden set to rights again. One entire bed of annuals had been trampled and the bottom porch step was in danger of coming off if anyone heavier than me stepped on it.
Luckily I was pretty handy with a hammer. I had to be. My brother, Lyle, had been useless so it was no loss when he up and left after inheriting the house. It hadn't been Gran's idea to leave the house to her only surviving male relative. She'd tried several times to get my late grandfather's will overturned, but to no avail. Lyle had got it all after Gran died, although he had promised her that I could stay. Unfortunately his debts had mounted so high that he could no longer climb over them and he broke that promise. He'd sold the house to Reece Kavanagh, leaving me beholden to a member of the family that didn't like me or I them. According to Harry and Ellen Kavanagh, I was the woman who'd screwed up Reece by blaming him for my sister's death, and driven away Blake because he'd stood up for his brother.
"Cassie!" called out a familiar voice from the drive.
I set down the hammer and waved at Becky Denny, Cleo's sister and one of my art students. One of my favorites, as it happened. Not only did she have spirit and determination, she was just a gorgeous person inside and out.
"What are you doing here?" I asked.
"Cleo's having lunch with the Kavanaghs so I thought I'd get a ride and visit you."
"You weren't invited?"
She tucked her hair behind her ear, but the blonde strands were too short to stay and worked their way free. "I was, but I'd rather see you."
I smiled. "Thanks, Honey. It's not very exciting here." I brandished the hammer. "Just doing some repairs. Are you sure you don't want to eat with the Kavanaghs? They put on a good spread."
"Nope. I'm going to help you. Got a spare hammer?"
I indicated the rust-red toolbox. "No spare, but you can pass me the nails."
She sat on the higher step and fished out the box of nails. "It's probably just as well I'm not hammering anything. I'd probably bang my thumb or something."
"You're not very handy?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. I've never had to fix anything. Cleo always takes care of repairs around the house, or she calls someone if she can’t."
I positioned the supporting bracket underneath the step and banged in the nail. "Looks like you might need to learn now that she's got a new project."
"What new project?"
Her mouth formed an O. "Don't let her hear you call him a project. That sounds short term and Cleo's definitely in it for the long haul."
I sat back on my haunches and regarded her. "They did seem pretty serious yesterday. You think it'll last?"
"Hope so. I kind of like him." She held up her hands when I scoffed. "When he's not being an asshole, he's nice. Just give it time, Cassie. Maybe you'll see he's not so bad too."
"I've known the Kavanaghs a lot longer than you, Becky." I left it at that. She didn't want to hear about my sorry history with my nearest neighbors and I didn't want to go into it. It was too damned messy and best left in the past. I focused on the positives instead. "Ash is okay, I'll give you that. And I admit I don't know the youngest two brothers very well. If I see them in the street they wave, but that's about it." Ash was the middle of the five brothers, and a good guy. If I ever had a problem with my neighbors, I called him and he'd speak to his parents. None of the boys lived at home anymore, even though the house was the size of a football field. They probably didn't want to live under the same roof as their dragon mother. "Are they all going to lunch today?"
"Everyone except Blake."
My heart didn't a little flip in my chest, as it always did when I heard his name. Old habits died hard, I guess. "Maybe he's left Roxburg again." I tried to sound like I didn't care, but I heard the hitch in my voice. "Now that Reece has decided not to tear this place down, Blake has no reason to stay.
"Maybe. But it seems like he hasn't got a reason to leave now either."
I fumbled the nail she passed me and it fell through the space between the steps and landed on the ground. "What do you mean?"
"Didn't you know? He's quit the army."
Holy crap. Blake had been in the army all this time? That explained the muscles upon muscles. "I didn't even know he'd enlisted." I took another nail and concentrated on the task. If I let my focus lapse, I'd wind up with a bruised finger.
"Apparently he didn't tell his family for years either. I think they hired a P.I. to locate him, but he never wrote or called. What kind of guy does that to his family?"
One who wanted to disappear.
"He seemed pretty intense with you yesterday." Becky's tone was teasingly curious, but I wouldn't get sucked into answering. "You guys have history." It wasn't a question.
"We've known each other all our lives. I used to date him." I left it at that. I liked Becky, but I preferred to keep our relationship on a teacher-student footing. It was easier that way.
"Good job," she said, inspecting the step.
I tested it with my weight. It held so I jumped on it and it still held. "Coffee first or do I tackle the garden?"
"Coffee," she said, grinning. "Then I'll help you. I'm pretty sure I did some of that damage."
I tossed the hammer back into the toolbox and closed the lid. "Don't sweat it. Considering the chaos of yesterday, the place came out all right. Besides, gardening is soothing."
"At least you don't have to clean up your fence."
She looked at me like I was stupid. "The fences all along your street. Haven't you seen them?"
"I haven't left the house." I glanced down the drive, but my front fence was out of sight. That's the thing about living in a suburb like Serendipity Bend. The properties were huge and the fences a long way from the houses themselves. There could have been a herd of elephants walking down our street and I wouldn't know it.
"All the fences along Willow Crescent were tagged overnight," Becky said.
"Tagged with graffiti? All of them?"
I frowned. "Why not mine?"
"That's what Ellen Kavanagh wanted to know."
Ellen Kavanagh was the matriarch of the family, and an indomitable woman. She managed her own business and it was doing extremely well, by all accounts. She'd been strict when we were kids and a ferocious advocate for women's rights and the preservation of Serendipity Bend. From her manicured fingernails to her Prada heels, she was sharp and fierce. She wasn't a woman I wanted to aggravate.
I headed down the drive, Becky beside me, and through the iron gate. Unlike my neighbors, I left my gate open, partly because I had nothing to steal so theft wasn't an issue, but mostly because the intercom didn't work. All along the street were signs of people cleaning graffiti off stone or brick fences. Not members of the families themselves, but garden staff or someone they'd hired in. Only my fence remained untouched, and one other where the fence was a hedge, not brick or wood.
"Whoa," I said on a breath. "I wonder why the street was targeted."
"I wonder why your place wasn't."
If I had to guess, it would be because someone out there had seen yesterday's mayhem on the news and had felt sorry for me. It was the classic David versus Goliath case, and nobody ever sympathized with Goliath. Maybe they thought the fight wasn't over and were expressing their anger at corporate America squeezing out the little guy. Or maybe it was just someone who saw all the big bare fences on TV and thought their artwork would look good on them.
"That one's pretty good." I nodded at the fence directly opposite. It sported a painting of a brightly colored clown face with tears dripping down his cheeks. The rest of the fences were merely tagged with the artist's signature, but that one must have taken some time to complete, and in the dark of night too. The proportions were all correct, and shadowing had been used to great effect to highlight the clown's sad eyes and the teary smudge through the white makeup. It was evocative, beautiful, and made me want to give the poor clown a hug. I certainly didn't want to scrub him off. Sadly, that's exactly what the man dressed in orange overalls was doing.
"Have the police seen these?" I asked, hoping to delay the process just a little longer.
Becky nodded and laughed. "You live in a bubble, don't you?"
"I can't see the street from the house." I shrugged one shoulder. "It's isolated and peaceful."
I blinked at her, but she didn't notice. She was waving at her sister and Reece standing at the Kavanagh gate. They waved back. Becky took my hand and dragged me over.
I steeled myself for my first proper conversation with Reece since he'd called off the bulldozers. The few minutes he'd spent telling me he would leave my house untouched didn't count. I'd still been buzzing from the protest and my encounter with Blake, and he'd been on a high after kissing Cleo. Maybe he was going to tell me he'd changed his mind.
Cleo embraced me before I could even get "Hi" out of my mouth. I glanced past her to Reece and he gave me a sheepish smile.
"It's never quiet in Willow Crescent," he said.
"What a mess," Cleo said, pulling away from me. She nodded at the clown. "That one would look good on canvas, but it doesn't really suit the street." We all stood with our backs to the Kavanagh gate and looked at the sad clown.
"I don't know," Reece said. "There are a few clowns living along here."
"Mega rich ones," Cleo said, hooking her arm around his waist. "I bet they're not crying."
"Money can't buy happiness and all that." He kissed the top of her head. She glanced up at him with so much love in her eyes it hurt to be an outsider looking in. I felt like I was intruding.
"Apparently your mother thinks I had something to do with this," I said, crossing my arms.
Reece frowned. "No, she doesn't."
"But she is wondering why my fence wasn't targeted."
"We all are," Cleo said. "But not because we think you had anything to do with it."
It was easy to fight with a Kavanagh, but not when a Denny joined forces with them. I liked Cleo and Becky. I didn't want to argue with them. I let the matter drop.
"The police are inspecting the CCTV footage," Reece said, pointing out the security cameras attached to the nearby gates. "They'll probably catch their suspect soon enough, especially with that tag. It's pretty distinctive."
"I just hope the poor kid gets let off with a warning," I said. "Graffiti is hardly a hard core crime."
"In that case, you'd better hope he doesn't come back. There are some along here who want to see him given the maximum sentence."
Figured. The residents of Willow Crescent—of Serendipity Bend for that matter—prided themselves on their manicured lawns and perfect hedges. If the graffitist were a poor homeless kid like so many of them were, they wouldn't care what happened to him as long as he stopped. They had never had to worry about where the next meal was coming from or how to keep themselves warm in winter. I included myself in that. I may not be as wealthy as everyone else in the Bend, but I'd always had a roof over my head. I did hope that I was more sympathetic than most, particularly to a talented artist which our graffitist clearly was.
"I was on my way to come and see you," Reece said to me. "I've got a proposal for you."
"Kicking me out already?"
"I won't be going back on my word, Cassie."
I swallowed and didn't say anything.
"I want to renovate," he said.
"So you said yesterday. You haven't changed your mind?"
He smiled. "No. It needs work and I'm worried--we're worried—it might fall down around you."
I was under no illusion that I had Cleo to thank for this change in his attitude. "You don't have to," I told him.
"I do. It's a landlord's responsibility. Besides, I want to. If I let the property go now, it'll cost more to fix it later. It's more economical to attend to problems before they become major."
That attitude I understood. It sounded more like the way Reece would think. He was all about the money and protecting his investment, rather than ensuring I remained dry in a downpour.
"Okay," I said. "Just let me know when the builders will show up."
"That's the thing." He cleared his throat. "I want to hire Blake."
"Come on, Cass, please. He knows what he's doing."
"I'm sure he does, but I don't care. I don't want him around."
Cleo and Becky exchanged speaking glances. "He needs something to do," Reece went on. "He's at a loose end, and he's someone who needs work or he'll go mad. I'm worried—"
"I said no. Find him something else to do if he's bored."
"Cassie," he said quietly, ominously. "It's my property. If I want to employ my brother, I can."
"It's my home, not a property. And as the tenant, I'm within my rights to refuse to have a particular tradesman there." I didn't know if that were true or not and I didn't care. The thought of having Blake within the same walls as me was making me feel light-headed. It had been bad enough seeing him yesterday, but to see him all day, every day, would turn me into a pathetic mess. I couldn't let my students see me like that. I couldn't let Blake see me like that. "I don't want him near my house or me. Is that clear?"
"Abundantly," came a voice behind me as sharp and cold as a steel blade. A voice that made me hot and cold all over. Blake.