Xavier: The Contract Chapter Two

Did you get to read chapter one of Xavier: The Contract yesterday? Hope you enjoyed it.

Here's chapter two for you to check out.

Xavier: The Contract Chapter Two

Eve Marrin left the juice bar and instantly turned her head to the direction of A to X Fitness. She inhaled deeply at the sight of the dark-haired, muscular guy walking back inside the gym after saying goodbye to the older man with him.

Xavier. What a handsome hunk.

She slurped on her smoothie with a pout, regretting now that she hadn’t agreed to have coffee with him. It wouldn’t have hurt, since he clearly didn’t know her. This was Sydney, not Adelaide. The statewide evening news in South Australia, on which she was a popular anchor, didn’t get shown here. She was a virtual unknown in this town, so Xavier couldn’t be like her ex-boyfriend, who’d used her profile to boost his own business, all the while sleeping with his secretary. Nor was Xavier like one of the men who’d stopped her on the streets of Adelaide, trying to chat her up because they’d watched her every night on TV.

That was why Xavier was such a breath of fresh air. Not once had she felt she needed to question his reasons for wanting to get to know her. It was… so much fun. And she hadn’t felt like that in a long while.

Admittedly, she’d been having a hard time trusting men’s motives since breaking up with her cheating ex. Her family and some friends had been encouraging her to enjoy life more. They were concerned that she was already jaded at only twenty-nine, with a job that entailed reporting on negative, shocking and horrendous news almost every day. Her parents had even warned against applying for the Your Eyes and Ears role, considering how hard-hitting the top-rated Australian public affairs program was, with its fearless coverage of scammers, shonky service providers, and the like. They worried it would suck the light out of her.

But she didn’t see that role as light-sucking. Yes, the show played up the sensationalism, but it provided a service to the country and to would-be victims of scams and crimes. Eve hadn’t been able to save her Aunt Tammy, but she’d love to have the opportunity to save other people from becoming prey to heartless predators.

She blinked back the tears that immediately surfaced at the picture that popped in her head: her Aunt Tammy, unconscious in her own bathtub, with an empty plastic bottle of sleeping pills floating on the water.

Eve had never screamed so loudly in her life, and she couldn’t remember how she’d managed to drag her aunt out of the tub and onto the bathroom floor. Fortunately, Eve’s apartment wasn’t far from a hospital, and paramedics had arrived within minutes. They’d found her giving CPR to her aunt and taken over. But even then, they’d been too late.

A year and a half on, Eve still burned with anger at the man who’d driven Tammy to do the unthinkable. Everyone in the family had been aghast to learn that Tammy had given all her life savings to her then-boyfriend, who’d turned out to be a conman who’d already stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars from other lonely women. If it hadn’t been for Tammy’s suicide note, no one would have known the truth about the scoundrel.

Eve dabbed the corners of her eyes with a finger. Unfortunately, the lowlife scammer who’d destroyed the lives of several ladies was still at large, his true identity unknown. He apparently used several aliases, so who knew exactly how many women he’d victimised?

That was why Eve had applied for the Your Eyes and Ears role. She couldn’t think of a more worthwhile career than helping expose tricksters so they could eventually be caught.

She felt her watch tap her with an incoming call, and pulled out her phone from her bag. “Hi, Dad.”

“Hi, Eve. Where on earth have you been?” Lionel asked softly. “I’ve been trying to reach you all morning.”

“Sorry. I was with a friend, then I went to a gym.” Speaking of gyms… She turned around and started heading back to A to X Fitness. Why not have a drink with Xavier to cheer her up? She’d need it after this phone call.

“You know I needed to speak to you urgently.”

Eve rolled her eyes. No way would she let her father risk losing any money in a questionable investment promoted by his new bowling buddy. “What do you mean?” she asked innocently.

“You know what I’m talking about. I’m really keen to invest in the property development scheme Scott’s in. He needs an answer right now because they’re meeting with the bank this afternoon.”

“I’m sure there’ll be other, much better investments for you to consider.” She dearly loved this man who’d adopted her when she was twelve—two days after Lionel had married her mother. But she worried he hadn’t done enough due diligence on this investment.

“I know you’re only trying to look out for us,” Lionel said gently. “But I truly believe Scott is trustworthy. You should meet him one day.”

Yes, she’d love to meet Scott one day and suss him out. But she simply feared her dad was starting to get desperate for a source of income since the dry-cleaning business he and her mother had run for fifteen years had finally folded, and he was still out of work. Her mum’s current job in the supermarket was only enough for the couple’s living expenses, forcing them to dip into their savings to pay for outstanding business debts. Going into what appeared to be speculative investment wasn’t the answer.

And call her cynical, but she still wasn’t satisfied that it wasn’t a scam. Fortunately, Lionel couldn’t go ahead with it without her help.

“So,” Lionel said, “will you lend me the twenty-five grand? Please? I’ll pay you back with interest.”

“Sorry, Dad. I trust you, but I think Scott’s not giving you enough time to fully consider his proposition.”

Lionel let out a heavy sigh.

“But if you guys need some cash,” she added hastily, “I’m more than happy to lend you some. As long as you promise none of it is going towards this investment Scott is selling to you.”

“No. We’re still fine, so far. I just want to do something so your mother and I won’t have to rely on you in the future.”

“I know. I appreciate that. But that investment is not it. Please trust me on this. It’s literally too good to be true.”

“Okay, fine. I’ll tell Scott I don’t have the funds. I won’t tell him you don’t trust him, though. He’s a good friend who keeps asking about how you’re doing.”

“Okay.” She’d rather her father wasn’t friends with this Scott person, but she’d keep her mouth shut about it for now.

“Will we see you on Sunday when you get back?”

“Sure. We’ll have dinner together.”

“Good. We’ll cook. I don’t want you taking me and your mother out again. We can’t afford to return the favour at this point.”

“Dad, you know I don’t mind,” she said with censure. What proud, stubborn folks.

“That’s not the point. Anyway, see you soon, darling. Bye for now.”

“Bye. Kiss Mum for me.”

“Will do.”

She’d just hung up when her phone vibrated with another incoming call. She frowned at the unfamiliar number. “Hello?”

“Hello, Eve?”

“Yes?”

“It’s Chester Blunt. Did I catch you at a bad time?”

Her heart skipped. The co-host of Your Eyes and Ears was calling her! “Hi, Chester. No, this is not a bad time. I’m free to talk.”

“Good. I was speaking with Aaron and Jody about your interview with them the other day. I was wondering if you’re available for another interview at three this afternoon?”

Her heart beat faster. “Yes, I can make it.”

“You’re staying at Macleay Street in Potts Point, right? At the building right across the road from the fountain?”

“Yes.” She loved that Airbnb place she’d found online. The price was extremely reasonable for the location.

“I’ll pick you up by the bus stop in front of your building in two hours.”

“O-kay,” she said slowly, confused. “We’re not having the interview at the station?”

“No. This is kind of an unofficial interview. I’m not supposed to tell you this, because nothing’s been announced, but Aaron’s not so sure about you for the job because they think the other candidates are better suited.”

Eve’s heart sank, although she wasn’t surprised. Aaron Adler, the program director of Your Eyes and Ears, hadn’t looked enthused when he’d interviewed her. She guessed that while she was successful enough to anchor a statewide evening news program, she wasn’t a recognisable face outside of South Australia. The other candidates were probably vastly more popular than her and already had a following.

“I disagree with Aaron,” Chester said. “I don’t think your lack of profile compared to them is a big issue. Your Eyes and Ears already has a strong following in the over-forty demographic because of me and Veronica. With Veronica’s imminent departure, this is the opportunity to have a co-host who could pull the younger demographic into the show. Besides, I believe you’re closest to having Veronica’s on-screen presence. Your compassion and strength shine through with just your delivery.”

“Thank you,” she murmured.

“Fortunately, someone else seems to agree with me—Trevor Clarence. Have you heard of him?”

“I’m afraid I haven’t.”

“I’m not surprised. His legal entity owns sixty percent of our production company. He’s originally from Adelaide and spends half of his time there, so he’s familiar with you. He wants to see you before he decides if he’ll lend his weight to your case.”

Eve’s mouth dropped. Had she heard him right?

“So what do you say?” Chester prompted.

“Yes, of course. I’ll be waiting by the bus stop at three.”

“Great. We’re going to his house. That’s where he’ll meet us.”

“Okay, thank you, Chester. I really appreciate this.”

“My pleasure. I really believe in you. My gut tells me you’re the best choice as Veronica’s replacement. See you soon.”

Eve took a huge breath as Chester hung up. Wow. That was totally unexpected. And incredibly exciting.

She should go and do some Googling on Trevor Clarence. But that meant not having time to go back to A to X Fitness. Pity.

But then, again, she still had a chance at the Your Eyes and Ears co-host role. She might be moving to Sydney. And she’d promised Xavier a date if she did.

She grinned. A promise was a promise.

* * *

“We’re here,” Chester said.

Eve stared at the imposing gates of Trevor Clarence’s Vaucluse home while Chester pressed a button on a security panel to announce their arrival. The solid metal gate slid slowly to the side, giving Eve her first glimpse of the long driveway and the breathtaking mansion standing proudly at the end of it.

She took deep breaths to calm down her nerves, which had increased exponentially.

The details she’d found online about Trevor Clarence were scant—strange for a person who was clearly very wealthy. A couple of websites did suggest that he was an extremely private individual who shunned media attention, and that the guy had sold his multimillion-dollar IT company three years ago. At fifty-five, he’d chosen to retire from “the daily grind”. He still held a financial interest in the company that produced Your Eyes and Ears and owned a couple of commercial properties.

She’d tried to find out more from Chester, but Chester hadn’t been forthcoming, only stating that he’d prefer to let Trevor himself answer Eve’s questions.

Anyway, here she was, feeling unprepared for her meeting with the person who could change the course of her career. It still stunned her that Trevor Clarence was extending an opportunity to her that he hadn’t appeared to have offered to the other candidates. Even if she didn’t get the job, she was already grateful for the boost this gesture had given her.

“Impressive, huh?” Chester said, staring up ahead at the house as they slowly drove towards it.

“It certainly is. So is there anything else I should keep in mind before I meet him?”

Chester shrugged. “He’s really easy-going, so just call him Trevor, not Mr. Clarence. And have at least one glass of wine. He’s a wine connoisseur and very proud of his collection. He loves opening hundred-dollar bottles for his guests and expects them to like them as much as he does.”

“Wow.” She doubted she was considered a guest, though. She was only here for a job interview.

Soon they were parked by the double front doors. Two men in black suits, clearly security personnel, were waiting to welcome them. They were rather good-looking.

But not as hot as Xavier.

She hid her smile at her thought. Handsome as the security guys were, they definitely had nothing on Xavier.

“Good afternoon,” said one of them as he helped Eve out of the car.

She smiled her thanks. “Good afternoon.”

“Trevor’s ready to meet with you,” said the other, pushing one of the front doors open. “I’ll take you to him.”

Eve glanced at Chester as they followed the man inside. Chester didn’t seem to know the security guys, so he probably didn’t come to his house that often.

Her nerves came back. Had she really made that much of an impression on Trevor Clarence? She was finding all this a little surreal.

They turned a corner and arrived at a big open-plan room tastefully furnished with a leather lounge set, a ten-seater dining table and an amazing kitchen with a huge island. The wide bifold glass doors leading to a balcony were closed—probably due to the cool weather—but the sky was clear outside, and the views of Sydney Harbour were magnificent.

A blond man in casual clothes placed the wine bottle he was holding on the coffee table and walked over to them with a smile.

Eve recognised him as Trevor Clarence. He looked a tad older than the picture she’d seen on the internet.

“Hello, Eve,” Trevor said, extending a hand. “Pleasure to meet you.”

“The pleasure’s all mine, Trevor. Thank you for this opportunity.”

“You’re welcome.” Trevor greeted Chester, then gestured for both of them to take a seat on the sofa.

“So, Eve,” Trevor said, grabbing the bottle of red and pouring the wine into three crystal glasses, “I heard that Aaron doesn’t think you’re suitable for the role.”

She smiled. “He did give me that impression during my interview.”

Trevor chuckled. “Well, for me, you have the most charisma out of all the candidates. While you all passed the on-screen chemistry test with Chester, I think you’re the most capable of making the viewers feel with you. To me, that’s of primary importance with shows like Your Eyes and Ears. I’ve watched you enough to know you can be straight to the point and hard-hitting, but you also have a soft side that can elicit empathy. There’s no point to the show if the hosts can’t make the viewers care. You might not have the kind of following the others already have, but I do believe you’ll pull in new viewers that the show hasn’t been able to reach before. You’re younger and certainly a fresh face—no offence, Chester.”

“None taken. Fifteen years on the show will give you these lines.” Chester touched his forehead.

Eve chuckled along with Trevor.

“Anyway,” Trevor said, “I believe that with the right platform, you’ll easily draw in more of your own following. In a nutshell, I think Your Eyes and Earsneeds you, and you need it in return. Which is why you’re the perfect co-host for the show.”

Gratitude surged within Eve. This sounded promising. “Thank you,” she murmured.

Trevor handed them their wine. “Cheers.”

Eve clinked her glass with the men’s and took a sip. “This is beautiful,” she said.

Trevor beamed. “Glad you like it. Carmichael Shiraz 1999.”

“Yes, exceptional,” Chester said, before taking another big gulp.

“Have some cheese and crackers,” Trevor offered, indicating the tray on the coffee table.

Chester didn’t hesitate, placing a large chunk of camembert on a cracker and popping the whole thing in his mouth.

Eve reached over and cut herself a smaller slice, aware that Trevor was scrutinising her. She ordered herself to relax. One thing she’d learned was not to look intimidated, no matter how she felt inside. In a competitive industry, the one who didn’t wither under bold inspection earned respect.

“Why Your Eyes and Ears, Eve?” Trevor asked after a long moment. “Is it because it’s the number one public affairs program in the country?”

“That did influence my decision a great deal,” she said, meeting his gaze. “But it wasn’t my main reason. Frankly, I can’t wait to personally shine the spotlight on heartless con artists preying on people who can’t fight back against them.”

Trevor cocked his head. “Do I detect more than a professional interest in this?”

Eve stared at her glass. “My aunt overdosed on prescription drugs a year and a half ago, after she lost her life savings to a man who befriended her in church, and proposed marriage within three months. She’d suffered from anxiety and depression for most of her life, and that pushed her over the edge. She wasn’t the first victim of that con artist. He’d stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and kind from women whose hearts he’d also broken. While my aunt was the only one I know who took her life because of him, I’m sure he’s destroyed the happiness and financial security of plenty others—and will continue to do so until he’s caught. So…” She took a sip of her wine. “I honestly can’t wait to help expose the likes of him to the unsuspecting public. I know that Your Eyes and Ears has also helped the police catch perpetrators when their victims found the courage to talk after seeing their cases on TV.”

“I’m sorry to hear about your aunt,” Chester murmured.

“Thank you.”

“Well.” Trevor reached for his phone and called someone. “Aaron, it’s Trevor Clarence. How’s it going?… Good… I have Chester and Eve Marrin here with me… Yes, Eve Marrin. I asked Chester to set up a meeting with her. Anyway, Chester and I believe that Eve is the best person to replace Veronica. I know you don’t agree, but I’m asking you to reconsider… I know you’re the program director, Aaron, and I do trust you, but I feel strongly that Eve is a great choice.”

Eve could make out Aaron’s voice on the other end of the line as he argued with Trevor.

“Look, how about you trial her out for, say three months?” Trevor said in a calm tone. “Promote her to the viewers as Veronica’s substitute for the holidays, since she’d be starting in October and the three months would finish in December. If she doesn’t work out, then replace her in the new year. I don’t see a problem with that… Good, glad you like that idea… I’ll leave it to you to arrange the paperwork and call Eve when it’s ready to be signed… Perfect… Thank you, Aaron. Bye.”

Eve gaped at Trevor.

“We haven’t discussed remuneration,” Trevor said to her, “but I don’t think you’ll be disappointed when you get your contract for a three-month stint. It’s all up to you now. If you want the job permanently, you have to work extremely hard to impress Aaron.”

Eve shook herself out of her surprise. “Thank you, Trevor. I won’t let you down.”

“I don’t expect you to,” Trevor answered smugly. “But don’t announce this to anyone yet. Let Aaron run the timeline on when to let the public know who’ll be replacing Veronica. Give him that, at least.”

“Okay. My lips are sealed until then.” She turned to Chester. “I want to thank you too. I’m so thrilled to be working alongside you.”

Chester grinned. “You’re welcome.”

Eve relaxed in her seat. She had less than two months to organise everything, including resigning from her current job. She ran the risk of being jobless after December, but she wasn’t going to worry about that right now. She intended to stay at Your Eyes and Ears permanently.

In the meantime, she could use the rest of the weekend to start her search for a place here in Sydney.

And see Xavier.

She breathed deeply. Perhaps she could see him before he found out who she was and what show she was about to co-host. Just for a change, she’d like to go out with a man who didn’t seem to have any ulterior motives for wanting to go out with her.

“Now, Eve,” Trevor said, “the anniversary of Ross Anton’s arrest is coming up in two months. I’ve been very interested in his case, having been a former Stirling Mortgage Brokers client, myself. It might be a good topic for you to cover on your first day at Your Eyes and Ears. Personally, I’d like to hear from other past clients who still feel betrayed by Ross and the Stirlings. Just don’t interview me for the show,” he added with a laugh.

“That’s a great idea,” she answered.

She was familiar with the Ross Anton case, even though most of the happenings had occurred in Sydney. The flamboyant businessman’s networking parties had been legendary, so when news of his arrest had come out, it had shocked many people. But the fact that he was also the business partner of Holly Stirling’s parents had made his arrest viral.

Eve couldn’t wait to do some research. She didn’t know much about the Stirling family, as she wasn’t a fan of Holly Stirling, but she’d love to investigate the possibility that Gerald and Adele Stirling had pulled the wool over the eyes of the public. She remained sceptical that they’d known nothing about Ross Anton’s criminal side, so she couldn’t wait to sink her teeth into this now. She’d been a mere observer of this case in the past.

But first things first. She’d ask Chester to drop her in the city on their way back. Hopefully, Xavier was still at work.

**End of Chapter Two**

Mark Tuesday, the 27th of February, on your calendar! Xavier: The Contract will be releasing then. Hope you're looking forward to it as much as I am.

In the meantime, you can preorder the book from the following stores:

Amazon.com | Other Amazon Stores | Apple iBooks | Kobo | Barnes & Noble

Store link to Google Play will be available on release day.

Love,

Miranda xo

Xavier: The Contract Chapter One

She could ruin him and his family, and he is tasked to protect her. Now, Xavier not only needs to watch his back–he also has to watch his heart.

***

Xavier: The Contract is releasing on Tuesday, the 27th of February, and I can't wait for the day to come. I had a blast writing this story–the first book of the new Indie Rebel series–and I'm so excited to share it with you.

Not long to go before the 27th, but here's chapter one right now to whet your appetite. Enjoy!

Xavier: The Contract Chapter One

“Keep going,” Xavier Stirling grunted, adjusting his arms’ and legs’ grips around the thick horizontal logs he was dangling from, his muscles straining. He stopped to crane his neck and look at the other man who was groaning in agony.

“Argh!” Jaxon Caine, the millionaire owner of a tax agency franchise, pushed the bar past the next barrier on the pull-up ladder segment of Obstacle X, his biceps taut. He tried to advance further, but he lost his grip and dropped to the heavily cushioned floor.

Xavier climbed down and clapped. “Excellent work. That’s the farthest you’ve gone, and your time’s improved too.”

Jaxon reached for his water bottle, his breathing laboured. “Thanks. But seriously, bro, don’t slow down for me next time. I need to know how I’m keeping up with you when you’re full steam ahead.”

Xavier chuckled. “I didn’t slow down that much. You’ve done well. But we should keep concentrating first on your upper body strength before we work on improving your speed.”

“Well, my new girlfriend’s impressed with speed,” Jaxon said with a grin. “But I couldn’t have continued anyway. I have to run for an important meeting.”

“Excuses, excuses,” Xavier teased. “I won’t let you get off as lightly next time.”

Jaxon laughed, heading to the men’s shower room. “I don’t expect you to. See you Monday. Enjoy your weekend.”

“You too, bro.”

Xavier wiped his face with a towel and glanced at the people congregated by the entrance to the Obstacle X room. There were still five minutes left of Jaxon’s one-on-one session, but several members of A to X Fitness— Xavier’s gym in Sydney’s central business district—were already waiting to use the room’s facilities. He was heartened that the three hour-long blocks each day when the Obstacle X room was available to regular members were very popular.

“You can go in, guys,” he said to them.

He was proud of his newly refurbished gym. He’d hesitated to lay out a large sum to create this obstacle course, especially since it took up a lot of space where he could have put more exercise machines or group classrooms. But he’d taken the risk. He wouldn’t have gotten some of his personal training clients if it wasn’t for this obstacle course. Now, he even employed two fitness trainers who used to be his competitors, and they’d brought their own loyal clients who were eager to be trained on Obstacle X.

It would still take several more months to break even with his investment, though, with rent here in the city being so expensive. Thankfully, with A to X Fitness being right on the ground level of a forty-five-floor commercial building on busy George Street, a number of executives who worked long hours—including Jaxon—found the location very convenient.

Xavier grinned, remembering Jaxon’s comment about his new girlfriend. The man appeared totally smitten with the Olympic gold-medal-winning triathlete he’d met a few months ago.

Speaking of smitten…

He snorted. He wasn’t at all smitten, but he hurried out towards the main gym floor, scanning each person using the elliptical machines in search of the stunning brunette who’d caught the attention of every single cell of his body the first time he’d seen her.

To his disappointment, his mystery woman wasn’t there again.

She’d stepped onto an elliptical last Monday at one in the afternoon. He knew because he’d happened to check the time right before she’d come into his view. He’d been immediately bowled over. And to his delight, she’d returned on Tuesday and Wednesday around the same time.

But he hadn’t seen her at all yesterday, and there was no sign of her again today.

He should have approached her earlier, but he’d baulked at picking up a woman in his place of business. The last thing he’d wanted was to set an example to his staff that would encourage them to flirt with the customers. But now, he wanted to smack himself for missing the opportunity.

He turned around to do some paperwork in his small office, but stopped in his tracks. He gaped at the woman coming out of a dance-exercise class. This time, her chestnut-brown hair, which was usually in a bun, was in a ponytail.

She was here after all, and he let out a sigh of relief.

Or several sighs of relief.

Or whatever, because his breathing had shallowed and his heart was suddenly beating like crazy, as if he’d jumped on one of the ellipticals and pushed himself hard from the get-go.

Damn. He just had to meet her.

Without another thought, he walked towards her. “Excuse me.”

“Yes?”

His breath hitched again when her beautiful chocolate-coloured eyes met his gaze. “My name is Xavier, and I’m one of the personal trainers here. I noticed that you’re a new customer. I was wondering what you think of A to X Fitness?”

Ugh, lame. But he had nothing else prepared.

She cocked her head, regarding him curiously. “How do you know I’m a new client? I bet there are many casual customers coming here all the time.”

Whoa, he hadn’t expected that. He looked around, ensuring none of his staff could hear him, and let out an embarrassed chuckle. “I’m sorry. That was actually my way of asking your name.”

To his relief, she laughed.

“I see. That still doesn’t explain how you knew I’m a new customer.”

Okay, this hadn’t started the way he wanted. He wasn’t usually a bumbling idiot when it came to women. He sent her an apologetic smile that he hoped conveyed he wasn’t being a creep. “I first noticed you on Monday, and I know you haven’t been here before then. I would have remembered you otherwise. And, no, I don’t notice everybody new who comes in here.”

She stared at him for a long moment before her face broke into a smile. “Okay, I’ll buy that.”

“Phew.” He brushed off imaginary sweat from his forehead and grinned.

“So do you really work here, or was that just a line?”

“I really work here,” he said with a laugh. “And apart from wanting to meet you, I do want to know how you’re liking this gym.” If she enjoyed it here, then she’d keep coming back, wouldn’t she?

“I like it a lot. The facilities are great, the classes on offer are excellent, and the staff are fantastic. Unfortunately, you don’t have a branch in Adelaide.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m only here in Sydney for a week. I’m from Adelaide, and I go back on Sunday.”

His spirits crashed. “Really?”

“Yeah, really.” She sounded equally disappointed.

“Shame. So you’re only just visiting?”

“Yeah. Actually, I came for a job interview and decided to enjoy a week’s break here also.”

He perked up. “So you could be moving to Sydney?”

She shrugged. “I won’t know for another week or two. But I’ve been having fun playing tourist.”

“Need a guide for the weekend?” he asked teasingly.

She chuckled. “Thanks, but I already have things planned. Anyway, I have to go. It was nice meeting you, Xavier.” She gave him a small wave before walking towards the ladies’ change room.

“So your name is…?” he called out.

She turned around. “Eve.”

“So, Eve,” he said, approaching her. “If you get the job you applied for, will you come back here and take me up on my offer to be your tour guide?”

She laughed. “Okay.”

“Well, then, I wish you the very best of luck in getting the job.” He put his right palm against his chest to further convey his sincerity.

“Thank you,” she said with a chuckle.

“You know, I have half an hour for a coffee…”

Eve gave him a pretty smile. “Next time.”

He watched her walk away. What a real damned shame that she lived in another state. He’d just have to forget about her until she came back. If she ever came back.

“Xavier.”

He turned around in surprise at the sound of his father’s voice. “Hey, Dad. What are you doing here?”

“Thought I’d pop by,” Gerald answered. “Place looks packed.”

“Obstacle X is waiting for you,” he teased. “Where’s your exercise gear?”

Gerald simply laughed. “Hey, I want to talk to you about something. Can we talk in private?”

“Sure.” Xavier led his father to his small office, which overlooked the main gym floor on one side, and the Obstacle X room on the other.

“What’s up, Dad?”

“Anything weird happening lately?”

He frowned. “Weird? What do you mean?”

Gerald pulled out a folded piece of paper from his pocket. “I don’t want you to be alarmed, because I’ve already gone to the police with this.”

Xavier took the paper and unfolded it. The hairs on his arms and neck stood as he read the three sentences in the middle of the sheet.

YOU STIRLINGS ARE ROSS ANTON’S PARTNERS. STIRLING MORTGAGE BROKERS IS A COVER FOR ALL YOUR CRIMES. WATCH OUT, BECAUSE WHY SHOULDN’T YOU PAY TOO?

“Where’d you get this?”

“In the mail. That’s a copy. The police took the original when I first told them about it.”

“When?”

“Last month.”

Xavier scowled. “You got this a month ago and you didn’t tell me?”

“I didn’t want you to worry. Anyway, the police said it most likely came from an angry client who feels betrayed by our company. As you know, there are some who were downright appalled that someone like Ross could have had access to their private information.”

“What makes them think that?”

“Well, they found fingerprints on the original letter and envelope, but they didn’t match anything in their database. Apparently, that’s a very good thing, because if the writer is in any way connected to Ross’s crimes, either they would have been more careful not to leave their fingerprints everywhere on it, or they would already have a police record. That’s why the detectives believe it’s just a disgruntled client who’s still scared that their details might have been stolen by Ross. And that it came to our PO Box was positive too.”

“So what else are the police doing about this?”

Gerald shrugged. “They’re still investigating. They did also ask me to remind you and your sister to keep an eye out for anything suspicious, although that will always be difficult in Holly’s case,” he added with a sigh.

Xavier himself took a deep breath. With his sister being a superstar pop singer with a few overzealous fans, how would she be able to tell the difference between star-struck admirers and possibly dangerous individuals?

At least Holly now had a bodyguard. The whole family had forced her to hire one after Ross’s arrest.

“And they also asked again if I remember Ross mentioning Eugene Barker to me,” Gerald said. “Frankly, I don’t believe Ross ever had dealings with Barker. I don’t think he’s that big of a criminal. But you know what? It still makes my skin crawl every time I think we were even close friends with that Ross, not to mention had him as our marketing director. Thank God we were able to buy back his shares.”

“Yeah.”

“Anyway, that’s all. I better leave you to it. I gotta get back to work myself.”

Xavier walked his father to the exit. “See you in a day or two—when you come back for a private training session with me.”

“I’ll let you know when I’m ready,” Gerald said with a chuckle, stopping at the foyer to give him a back slap. “See you on Tuesday at home for dinner. Don’t forget that Holly’s leaving for her big North American tour, so we won’t see her for months.”

“As if I’ll miss that. Anyway, let me know if you get any more anonymous messages, ’kay?”

“Okay, but I really think it’s all harmless. Like the police said, it’s probably just a former client venting a little.”

“Let’s hope—”

“Bye, Xavier,” Eve said as she walked past them towards the exit.

His heartbeat instantly spiked. “See you later,” he enunciated.

She laughed. “I hope so.”

“Who was that?” Gerald asked in a low voice.

“A customer,” he answered, busy watching his mystery woman walk out the glass door.

“I mean, what’s her name?”

He filled his lungs with air. “Eve.”

“You seem… enamoured.”

He scoffed. “Enamoured? Not at all, Dad.”

“Well, you’re still gawking at her,” Gerald teased.

Xavier forced himself to peel his gaze off Eve to look at his father. “I want a date or two with her, that’s all. I’m hardly enamoured. Besides, she lives in Adelaide, so there’s not much point pursuing anything.”

Gerald wrinkled his nose in disappointment. “Yeah, long-distance relationships don’t often work. But you should really think about finding a partner you can settle down with. You’re thirty now.”

“Thirty-two,” he said with an eye roll. His father could never get his and Holly’s ages right these days.

“See? I already had two kids at that age.”

“Aren’t you supposed to go back to work?”

“Fine,” Gerald said. “See you Tuesday.”

“See you, Dad.”

He walked out the door with Gerald, waving goodbye. But his eyes scanned for Eve.

No luck. He couldn’t spot her amongst the lunchtime crowd milling around George Street.

Shaking his head, he walked back to his office. He gazed out the window to watch people use the machines and smiled. At least Eve liked his gym.

Actually, he’d been thinking of expanding. Perhaps Adelaide could be a good location for his first branch outside of Sydney.

He snorted. It intrigued him just how attracted he was to a complete stranger. The pull to want to have some fun with her was strong.

That was all, though, nothing more. He wasn’t the long-term-relationship kind of guy. Not anymore. His desire for anything permanent with a woman had died with Gail. He had enough happening in his life not to want to work on something that could be taken away without warning.

A dull, distant sadness instantly clouded over him at the memory of his last girlfriend. Sadly, Gail hadn’t survived a middle-of-the-night attack five years ago, when her drug-crazed neighbour had driven a knife into her stomach after she’d refused to hand him money.

Xavier crossed his arms. He still laid some blame on the police for Gail’s passing. They’d taken over half an hour to get to Gail’s place after her neighbours had reported hearing loud arguments from her apartment. Gail might not have bled to death if they’d prioritised the call. Worse, they still had no idea where her neighbour had disappeared to. Now, Gail’s case was considered as cold.

He rubbed his face, remembering the dark despair he’d fallen into following her death.

Then the murder of his client-turned-friend, Richard McCarthy, a mere five months after Gail’s had threatened to drag him down further. But looking for evidence against Richard’s killer had pulled him out of the abyss. He hadn’t wanted another person close to him be denied the justice they deserved.

Unfortunately, Richard’s killer was still at large too.

He’d always suspected Ross Anton to be the murderer, but his parents’ former business partner had staunchly denied it during his arrest ten months ago. Subsequent police investigations pointed to Ross telling the truth about being a thief only, not a killer.

He frowned, remembering the note his dad had shown him.

After several stressful months of putting out fires created by Ross’s arrest, Xavier hoped his parents weren’t about to face worse times with their clients.

He had a bad feeling about it, though, especially when Ross had warned him something like this could happen.

Unbidden, the day of Ross’s arrest played back in his head.

* * *

Xavier glared at Richard’s murderer. Finally, the bastard was being arrested, and Xavier was more than glad he was present to see it.

Ross Anton caught him staring as two detectives led him to an unmarked police car. “Xavier! I didn’t kill anyone. Yes, I stole, but I’m not a murderer. You have to believe me before it’s too late.”

“Too late for what, Ross?” he asked in a bored tone, not surprised that the man was trying to save his ass. Ross was narcissistic enough to believe he could get away with anything.

“Mr. Anton, you’ve been cautioned about your rights,” Detective Swanson said.

Ross glared at the detective. “If you believe I’m the one responsible for killing all those people, then you won’t be looking for the puppet master! He could very well go after everyone involved in my arrest. Everyone who’s here today! Even Xavier’s parents could be in danger.”

“Leave my parents out of this,” Xavier said coldly.

“But they’re my business partners!”

“They know nothing about who you really are and what you’ve done.”

“They might have been clueless about me, but that won’t protect them. The puppet master is as paranoid as he is ruthless. He won’t hesitate to get rid of anyone involved with me, now that I’m in police custody.”

“Mr. Anton,” Detective Swanson said with impatience. “You’ll make things easier for yourself if you tell us who this supposed puppet master is.”

“I already told you, I’m not going to say his name until I’m guaranteed complete protection by the police. And I bet you you’ll want to make a deal with me. He’s one of the most cunning and sickest criminals you could ever know.”

“We’ll see,” Swanson said, making to close the car door.

Ross leaned sideways to prevent it from shutting. “I have the right to contact a relative or a friend, right?”

“Yes, you can do that at the station.”

“I’d like Xavier to be my call-a-friend. Give me a couple of minutes of privacy with him, then I’ll tell you who the puppet master is.”

Swanson narrowed her eyes.

Ross sighed. “I want to apologise to Xavier’s parents, and he can deliver my message to them. Gerald and Adele have been good friends to me. I don’t want them thinking I’ve stolen from them or messed with the business.”

Swanson exchanged a glance with Detective Harris before raising her eyebrows at Xavier.

Xavier shrugged. “If he’s going to tell us who the puppet master is—if there’s really a puppet master—then I’m fine with it.”

Swanson nodded, opening the back window before closing the door. “When we come back, you’ll give us his name,” she warned Ross before she and Harris walked away.

Xavier stared at Ross impassively. He had no idea what was going on in the man’s mind, but he doubted Ross suddenly felt sorry for all his misdeeds.

“I need your help,” Ross whispered, glancing furtively at the detectives’ retreating backs.

Xavier laughed dryly. “Seriously? But I don’t know how to pick handcuffs yet.”

“Listen to me! The puppet master is one motherfucker named Eugene Barker, and the police—”

“Eugene Barker?” Xavier asked sharply. He’d heard of the man. Barker’s face had been all over the news over a year ago, when he’d somehow escaped from police custody while being transferred to a maximum-security prison. He was a wanted man in several countries, reportedly heading multiple international crime syndicates involved in money laundering, white-collar crimes and artwork trafficking. Most chilling of all, he apparently left a lot of dead bodies in his wake.

Ross sat up straighter, his gaze intense. “I know you’ve heard of him, so listen and listen well. I’m sure the police will offer me a deal in exchange for more information about Barker, since they’re so desperate to catch him. But just because I’ll have police protection doesn’t mean I’ll be safe. He’s got minions in and out of jail. He could get me there too. And I’m telling you, Xavier, it will only be a matter of time before he sets his sights on your family. He’ll off people if he suspects they could be a threat to him. He needsto be caught.”

“You should have given him up much earlier, then, shouldn’t you?”

Ross shook his head. “I was too scared. He would have killed me without warning if he even had a sniff of me wanting to go to the police. But now, I don’t have any other choice. For all our sakes, Barker has to be found. He’ll start hiding again now. He knows how to disappear into thin air.”

Xavier frowned at Ross, taking in what the man was saying. The puppet master was the Eugene Barker? Damn.

“But I’ve heard of people who are also after Eugene Barker,” Ross said conspiratorially. “They’ve been instrumental in getting some of Barker’s men caught, even if the police are too arrogant to admit that fact. I’m happy to give them details about Barker too, so they or the police can catch the bastard once and for all. They’re not easy to find, but I have info on how you can get in touch with them.”

Xavier snorted. “Me? Are you kidding me? You want me to act as a go-between for you and some… what… vigilantes?”

“Yes! Consider this. Police from here, the US, Canada, the UK, Germany—they’ve been searching for Barker for years. Years, Xavier. And the one time our police managed to get him, he escaped. So frankly, I don’t want to rest my hopes on the police. We need the Indie Rebels’ help.”

“Indie Rebels?”

“That’s what they’re called.”

Xavier shook his head. “I don’t think I should trust anything coming out of your mouth right now. I think you’re just trying to trick me into doing something for you.”

“I’m not!” Ross insisted. “I’m telling you that the police have proven to be inept when it comes to getting Barker. We could all be dead before they even turn up at the scene of the crime.”

Xavier inhaled sharply, an image of Gail flashing in his mind. He knew damned well what it meant for the police to arrive too late.

“Everything okay here?” Detective Harris asked as he and his partner returned.

“Ross has a name for you,” Xavier quipped.

“Give it up,” Harris said, looking inside the car window.

Ross’s lips curved mirthlessly. “Eugene Barker.”

Harris shot Swanson a startled glance.

“I’ll tell you everything I know,” Ross said, “as long as it doesn’t come out that I’ve ratted him out.”

“How much do you know?”

“A lot. And that’s all I’m saying until I talk to my lawyer.”

Harris glared at the captive, then opened the car door to close the window.

Swanson motioned for Xavier to move away from the vehicle. “Thank you. We weren’t expecting this at all. But if Ross is telling the truth, then you guys do have to be careful. Once Barker learns that Ross is in custody, he might start looking at the people close to Ross—including your parents.”

“But why?”

“If Ross does know a lot about Barker, then Barker might get nervous that we’ve got Ross. Not to scare you, but Barker’s well-known for shutting up people who he thinks might have information that could be detrimental to his syndicate.”

Xavier raked his hair. “I hope you don’t mind me asking, Detective. But why on earth are the police having a hard time catching this man?”

Swanson sighed. “He’s a master at hiding. He has a lot of cronies. Mind you, we’ve already caught some of his partners, but he’s always been one step ahead. He’s definitely not someone to be underestimated. Anyway, we’ll be in touch again soon. We need to talk to Ross more. In the meantime, I suggest you don’t talk about Eugene Barker’s supposed connection with Ross to anyone. That could help ensure you don’t get onto Barker’s radar.”

“Okay. Have you heard of the Indie Rebels?”

Swanson frowned. “What do you know about them?”

“I’ve never heard of them until Ross mentioned them just now. He said they’ve helped you guys catch some of Barker’s people.”

“The Indie Rebels are a vigilante gang, Xavier,” Swanson warned. “Stay well away from them. Don’t believe that they can do a better job than the police—because they can’t. Now, what else did Ross say about them?”

“That’s it. He said he doesn’t know anyone from the group, that’s why he wants me to find them.”

“Well, ignore Ross. We’ll deal with him. And if you find out anything about the Indie Rebels, let me know. We don’t want them taking matters into their own hands.”

Xavier nodded, refraining from mentioning that Ross appeared to know how to contact the Indie Rebels. Instinct told him it was better to keep that information to himself.

* * *

Xavier was startled by the tapping on his office window, pulling him out of his thoughts. One of his customers was waving at him.

He smiled and waved back, then went to sit in his chair.

He hadn’t heard anything from the police that their arrangement with Ross Anton had been broken or cancelled. As far as he knew, the police were still pretending that Ross had not revealed his connection to Barker to anyone.

Had Barker stopped buying that story? Did he believe that the Stirlings had information about him and his syndicate?

Out of all possibilities regarding the note his parents had received, Xavier feared this one was the truth. Unfortunately, there was nothing he could do but trust that the police were on top of this.

The Indie Rebels popped in his mind and he shook his head to clear it. He was sure Ross had been exaggerating about their success.

He got up from his chair to wait outside for his next client.

Had Eve seen him on Obstacle X? Perhaps she’d be impressed if she saw him on it.

He laughed out loud. Where the hell did that thought come from?

**End of Chapter One**

That's all for today. Keep an eye out for chapter two tomorrow!

Preorder Xavier: The Contract

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Love,

Miranda xo

 

 

The Unreal Boyfriend Release Day

The Unreal Boyfriend is out now!

Hope you enjoyed Chapter One and Chapter Two of The Unreal Boyfriend. Now you can read Bernadette and Derek's full story. I've loved writing this book and I'm so excited for you to read it. If you don't have your copy yet, you can get it from the following stores:

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Love,

Miranda xo

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The Unreal Boyfriend: Chapter Two

Hi again! Hope you enjoyed Chapter One of The Unreal Boyfriend.

Before the book releases on the 30th, I'm excited to share Chapter Two with you as well. Here it is.

The Unreal Boyfriend Chapter Two

Bernadette shrugged into her coat and put on some lipstick. Then she practised a happy face in front of the mirror.

Good. She looked genuinely okay. Paige should be the only person she had to be extra careful with. Her best friend had a knack for guessing if she was feeling low. Still, she’d managed time and again to convince Paige there was nothing to worry about.

“Bernadette! We need to change my bedsheets!”

Bernadette exhaled harshly. Now that she was about to leave for Lara’s third birthday party, her mother had started to find things to hold her up and spoil her fun.

She grabbed her bag and left her room. “We’ll do it tomorrow, Mum, before I do the washing.”

June plopped herself in her favourite armchair in front of the TV and glared at her. “All you know how to do is to enjoy yourself. Look at you, all dressed up to join your rich friends for yet another party, and you can’t even give your mother enough money so I can go out and entertain myself.”

“Not when your idea of entertainment is pouring all of your cash into poker machines,” she retorted.

“Playing the pokies relaxes me! Isn’t that important for someone who’s had a heart attack? Anyway, I keep telling you to ask those bazillionaire friends of yours to help you out with a better-paying job. Then you won’t have to be stingy with me. And don’t forget you owe me your friendship with them. If I hadn’t taken you with me to the Shiptons’ house when you were little because there was no one to look after you while I worked there as a housekeeper, you wouldn’t have met Paige, and you wouldn’t have become best friends with someone from a wealthy family. And if you hadn’t become Paige’s best friend, then you wouldn’t also have met her rich husband and his rich friends. Come to think of it, you should tell Paige that I want to meet her again to say hi. She really owes me something too, you know, because if I hadn’t brought you to her parents’ house, she would have been a lonely only child with no one to play with—”

“I’m going,” Bernadette interrupted, heading for the door. “I’ve cooked your lunch and dinner. You just need to heat them up in the microwave.”

“If you let your Auntie May get you a date with her husband’s nephew, our problems will be lessened. We could be rich, too! But I just don’t understand why you—”

Bernadette shut her apartment door behind her and ran for the exit. It didn’t matter that this happened almost daily since her mother had reappeared in her life and moved in with her a year ago. Time and repetition only increased her hurt.

She got in her car and slumped on the driver’s seat. At least she’d soon be at Lara’s party. Any break from her mother’s favourite pastime of making her feel guilty for almost everything was very welcome. Unfortunately, today was also the day she’d get to meet Holly.

She sniffed and turned on the engine. She couldn’t decide if she’d rather suffer her mother’s incessant whining or see Derek with his girlfriend. But she wouldn’t think of not being there to celebrate Lara’s birthday.

She drove down Parramatta Road, grateful that the traffic wasn’t as bad as she feared. Congestion had been increasing more and more on Sydney’s roads, and she’d worried she might be late in getting to Rick and Lexie’s house.

She normally enjoyed driving so she could be alone with her thoughts. But right now, all she could think of was the possibility of witnessing Derek cuddle up with Holly. Ugh. Now she was getting a headache.

Hey, good! She could have a valid reason to leave the party early!

She snorted and pushed the button on the console to turn on the radio. Love song. Gah! She’d rather have silence.

Her mind strayed back to her mother as soon as she’d turned off the music.

June’s mild heart attack a year ago had suddenly turned Bernadette’s world upside down. Estranged for eleven years, June had called Bernadette from the hospital, saying she didn’t have anyone else to turn to in her time of need.

Seeing June unwell and looking years older than her age had shocked Bernadette. And to her surprise, she’d found herself open to a reconciliation. When June had expressed remorse for kicking her out of the house a day after her seventeenth birthday for choosing to go to university and only work part-time, instead of working full-time so she could hand more money to June, Bernadette had been ready to forget about the past.

But after two or three months of relative cooperation, things had started to get more difficult. June had gone back to moaning and whining that being a single mother had robbed her of her hopes and dreams. As if June was still supporting Bernadette! To the contrary, Bernadette had been doing everything for her mother, including cooking, cleaning, washing—practically all the housework. June even refused to look for a job, claiming she wasn’t ready to return to the workforce in any capacity as the stress would be detrimental to her health. Yet June nagged Bernadette to make more money so they—June, in particular—could have “a better life”.

Bernadette was already earning a good salary, having worked her way up in the insurance industry. But June wasn’t even impressed that Bernadette was now a senior underwriter in one of the biggest multinational insurers in the world. As far as June was concerned, Bernadette wasn’t doing enough to milk the relationships she had with her “bazillionaire” friends. To June, that was a sign of stupidity, especially when they “needed the money”.

Bernadette was nearing the end of her tether. The only thing holding her back from throwing June out was the fact that June was her mother. Somehow, she couldn’t do to June what June had done to her eleven years ago.

Perhaps it was because she sympathised with her mother, even if June’s attitude caused her grief. Being aware that her mum had had a difficult life, having been raised by different foster families, Bernadette somewhat understood June’s own emotional scars. And even though June hadn’t wanted to get pregnant at eighteen, June had done her duty of making sure they’d had a roof over their heads, putting food on the table and sending her to school.

Compare that to the father Bernadette had never known. Apparently, her then-teenaged dad had walked out on them when she was only six months old, unable or unwilling to stick around. At least June had raised her even if she wasn’t a wanted child.

And, truthfully, despite everything June had done, Bernadette still sought her mother’s love and approval.

She sighed. Would the need ever go away?

A car honked behind her and she noticed the red traffic light had turned green. She pressed the gas pedal and continued on her journey. As she got closer to Rick and Lexie’s, she shook herself and tried to relax. She wouldn’t want to inadvertently wear her heart out on her sleeve in front of her friends.

Soon she was parking her car about a block away from the Donnellys’ house. Judging by the number of cars parked in the area, most of their guests had arrived. She grabbed her present for Lara—a life-sized stuffed koala she’d crocheted herself from a pattern she’d bought online—and got out of her car. Was Derek already there? With Holly?

Well, time to meet the girlfriend of the man she had the hots for.

She made her way to the house, pasting a smile on her face as she neared it. The gate was open and she spotted Lexie and the birthday girl by the front door, greeting guests.

“Auntie Bernie!” Lara said, waving enthusiastically.

“Hello, sweetie! Happy birthday!” She hugged the child and exchanged kisses with Lexie.

“Is that for me?” Lara asked, pointing to the gift-wrapped present. “Mummy said I’ll open all my gifts later.”

“Yes, it’s for you. I made it myself. Hope you like it.”

Lara grabbed the parcel and grinned. “I think it’s a toy!”

“What do you say, Lara?” Lexie prompted.

“Thank you, Auntie Bernie. Do you like my fairy dress?”

“Yes, it’s very pretty.”

“And my wings?” Lara turned around to show her back. “Mummy got lots of wings for my party. You get one, too!”

“Thank you. Yes, I believe we’re all wearing wings today.”

“Yes. Including my daddy and my grandpas and Julian and Nate and Tanner and Uncle Brad and Uncle—”

“Everyone, including the boys,” Lexie interrupted with a laugh.

“Mummy, I want to give Auntie Bernie her fairy wings now.”

“Okay.”

Bernadette followed Lara to the big family room at the back, where Lara’s grandmother was handing out costume wings. Bernadette selected a pair and slid her arms into the elastics, adjusting her dress around the armpits. “How do I look?”

“Good!” Lara said with a pleased grin. “Now you can go to the garden.”

“I’d love to.”

Lara led Bernadette to the Donnellys’ large backyard. It was already full of people, with both kids and adults wearing fairy wings of different shapes, sizes and colours.

Bernadette’s gaze landed on Derek immediately. He was sitting near the pool area with Tristan, Brad, Erin and a couple of people she didn’t recognise. Well, those two strangers appeared to be together, so the woman couldn’t be Holly.

Maybe Holly couldn’t make it? Or maybe Derek had changed his mind about introducing her to the gang today? Wouldn’t that be good?

“Bern!”

“Hey!” She greeted Paige with a kiss and noticed a stunning brunette standing beside them. Her mouth dropped open as she recognised the face. It was Holly Stirling, the singer who’d won a popular talent show three years ago and was now one of the biggest stars in the world. Bernadette even loved her songs. She was such a fan.

Oh, hell. This was Derek’s Holly?

“Um, Bern, you know Holly Stirling,” Paige said. “Holly, this is my best friend, Bernie—Bernadette Luna.”

Holly extended her hand for a shake. “Pleasure to meet you, Bernie.”

“The pleasure’s mine, Holly,” Bernadette responded, her eyes still wide even as her heart constricted.

“I’m so happy to finally be meeting Derek’s friends,” Holly said with a smile. “We kept on talking about it, but it just hadn’t happened until now because I’ve been so busy these past couple of years.”

“We’re glad it’s finally happened,” Bernadette said brightly, her acting chops kicking in.

Holly chuckled. “I did tell Derek I’ll take the blame for him keeping my identity from you guys. I just had so much pressure coming from so many different directions that I’d asked him not to mention to anyone that he was going out with me. Even up till now, I’m still trying to adjust to the craziness of showbiz. And if the media discovered my relationship with him, it would just add to the pressure. Luckily, Derek’s also keen to keep the media from hanging around him in case they sniff out the dealings of his well-known clients. As you know, if the media finds out that he’s a buyer’s agent for some of the most recognisable celebs on the planet, he’ll have trouble keeping his clients’ affairs a secret from long-range camera lenses. Plus, he’s naturally very private, but I’m sure I don’t have to tell you guys that.”

“Yeah,” Bernadette murmured.

“And,” Holly said secretively, stepping closer to her, “we’re still pretending we’re not together. We’re telling people I’m here as Rick and Lexie’s guest, not as Derek’s girlfriend. I’m only coming out to Derek’s closest buddies because you guys have been insisting on meeting his girlfriend Holly.”

“Oh, right. Sure, no problem.” Any hope Bernadette had had that Derek wasn’t serious with his on-again, off-again girlfriend had faded fast. Ouch.

“Hey, Bernie, you’re here!”

Her heart skipped at the sound of Derek’s voice before sinking back to her stomach like lead. She managed to come up with a grin, though. “You’re a naughty one, keeping Holly Stirling away from us for so long,” she said in a low voice.

Derek let out a laugh that sounded forced. “Well, here she is, finally.”

“Careful, Derek,” Holly said under her breath. “Don’t stand close to me. A caterer already saw us talking privately inside the house and she’s been whispering to her workmates ever since—and sneaking glances at you.”

Derek casually moved away from Holly to inspect Bernadette’s wings. “Obviously, we have the same taste, Bern. Your wings are exactly the same shape as mine, just a different colour.”

“You two are so cute,” Holly said with a giggle. “The gorgeous prince and princess of the fairy kingdom.”

Bernadette chuckled nervously. Wow, she wasn’t expecting such a comment from Holly—

“Would you like a drink, ma’am?” a caterer asked Bernadette.

Ah, Holly was merely trying to deflect attention away from her and Derek. Okay, Bernadette was fine with helping throw off a scent. “Shouldn’t we be king and queen since Lara would probably want to take the princess role?” she said in a teasing tone before eyeing the selection of beverages on the tray carried by the hired worker. They all seemed alcoholic.

“Bernadette can’t handle much alcohol,” Derek informed the caterer. “Or you’ll find her passed out on the floor before you can count to ten.”

“Oh,” the server said. “Should I get you something else, ma’am?”

“I’ll get it,” Derek said. “You want your usual?”

“Yes, please,” Bernadette answered.

The server gave their little group a nod of acknowledgement and walked away to offer drinks to the other guests.

“Thank you, Bernie,” Holly said. “Hopefully, that would give that woman and her friends something else to think about.”

“No worries,” Bernadette murmured. If only Holly knew just how much she’d want to trade places with her in Derek’s heart, Holly might be horrified at what she’d just put Bernadette through. Pretending to be Derek’s girlfriend. Imagine that!

“Shall we go get your drink?” Derek asked.

Bernadette nodded and followed Derek to the makeshift adult drinks bar at the far end of the garden, away from the kids’ play area.

“Holly Stirling, huh?” she said softly. “So she’s not on-again, off-again, after all, hey?”

Derek didn’t answer, and she wasn’t sure if it was because she’d hit the mark or Derek simply didn’t want to be overheard by the other guests who were coming up to greet them.

Let it go, Bernie. No point wallowing in that question.

Easier said than done. Pretending to her closest friends that she wasn’t touched by the pain of disappointment would be hard. But for the rest of the day, she had to do her best.

By five in the afternoon, Bernadette felt proud of herself. The guests had left except for the gang, and here she was, chatting comfortably even though Holly and Derek were sitting right in front of her.

She couldn’t help but keep glancing at Derek, though. They hadn’t had a chance to talk about their little act. But then again, what was the need for a discussion? She was the one who’d effectively volunteered her services to Holly and Derek’s cause when she’d followed Holly’s lead of trying to confuse the caterer. Fortunately, the party was officially over, and the hired help had gone. Act well and truly finished.

“This was the most relaxing time I’ve had in a long, long while,” Holly declared. “I’m still enjoying myself, but I’m afraid I have to go. Dante, my manager, is about a minute away to pick me up. We have to go through a few things for a round of interviews tomorrow for my new release.”

“I’d walk you out,” Derek said, “but it might be better if I don’t. Paps might still be hiding out there.”

“Sorry about that,” Lexie said. “I’ll walk you out.”

Holly waved a hand dismissively. “No need to apologise. There’s nothing anyone can do about the paparazzi.” She hugged everyone goodbye, expressing her thanks for a wonderful day.

To Bernadette’s surprise and relief, Holly and Derek only kissed each other on the cheeks, not the lips.

“Catch up with you guys again soon,” Holly said as she hurried to the side gate with Lexie.

“See yah!” Bernadette said cheerfully along with the others. Her glance strayed towards Derek, and she found him gazing at her in a way that made her heart race.

She couldn’t look away, and she felt a pinching in her chest when Derek broke their eye contact.

Why, oh why, did he have to look at her like that?

Paige casually leaned over to whisper in her ear. “You okay?”

“Yeah. I survived the day,” she said under her breath.

“I still can’t believe you agreed to pretend to be Derek’s date today.”

“You know me. Ever ready to be of assistance,” she said dryly.

“Sorry, hon. I know it’s not as easy as you make it out to be.”

She smiled at Paige. “I just need to keep looking for my Mr. Right. He has to be out there somewhere, unless I’m permanently cursed.”

“Stop saying that about yourself! You’re going to find love and you know it.”

Bernadette merely sighed. She’d be kidding herself if she didn’t admit that she was hurting a lot at that moment. Out of all the men she’d met, she’d been hoping against hope that Derek was her Mr. Right. Clearly he wasn’t, so she had to try harder to kill the love bud that kept growing fast and unstoppable like a weed. Luckily, she seemed to have found an effective poison for it now: Holly.

“I think I’m gonna go, too,” she said to Paige.

“Oh, please stay. There’s plenty of food left and we’re partying till dinner, like we usually do.”

“I really just want to go home.”

Paige squeezed her arm. “Okay. We’ll have lunch sometime this week. Just the two of us.”

She nodded, rising from her seat as Lexie made their way back to them.

“Gosh,” Lexie said. “I’d hate to be someone constantly on the media’s radar. A guy sprang up from nowhere after Holly crossed the road to get to her manager’s car. Holly had to speak with him just to make him back off.”

“Now you know why I’d been so quiet about Holly,” Derek said. “I’d get in trouble with my clients if paps followed me around and got a photo of them checking out properties.”

“Still, how could you have kept this from us for so long?” Tristan asked with a frown. “Since when have we become untrustworthy?”

“Hey, you know it’s not that I don’t trust you. I was just keeping my promise to Holly not to tell anyone. That’s all it was—me keeping a promise.”

Tristan shrugged, still scowling. But he did clink Derek’s beer bottle with his when Derek held it up as a peace offering.

“Hey, guys,” Bernadette said. “I think I’m gonna head home, too. I have this headache that’s starting to get bad.”

Her friends murmured their sympathies, and she refused to change her mind despite their pleas to stay for dinner.

When she turned to Derek to say goodbye, their gazes locked for a moment—long enough to make her blush.

Oh, for heaven’s sake, Bernie, the man has a girlfriend! And what makes you think you can compete with Holly Stirling?

“I’ll walk you out, Bernie,” Lexie said.

“Okay,” she said gratefully. She had to leave now. She couldn’t take much more of any of this.

Lexie steered her towards the house instead of the side gate. “You okay?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t warn you about Holly the moment you got here. It was just that other guests were arriving and I couldn’t tell you—”

Bernadette put an arm around Lexie’s shoulders. “Hey, don’t worry about it. I’m fine.”

Lexie returned her hug and squeezed her tight. “Before you go, I have something to tell you about the paparazzo who approached Holly.”

“I’m sure he’s not interested in me,” she said with a laugh.

“I heard him ask Holly if she was going out with Derek McCarthy, the owner of Alpha Property Buyers Advocates.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. The man said he had photos of Derek leaving Holly’s house at eight in the morning last Wednesday, and that several publications were bidding for them.”

“Gosh, Derek wouldn’t be happy about that.” And Bernadette didn’t like the picture that invaded her head. Her chest felt heavier.

“No. But the pap also said that he was giving Holly a chance to give him the true story because he was a big fan, so he wanted to be as fair to her as possible. So Holly said she was definitely not dating Derek McCarthy. She said she simply had a meeting with Derek to interview him as a potential buyer’s agent for her brother, who was overseas, but that her brother has since decided not to buy anything yet. She also said she was sick and tired of all the fake stories being published about her, and pleaded with the pap not to sell the pictures.”

“I don’t blame her for lying,” Bernadette murmured.

“Me neither. Anyway, the guy tried to make a deal with Holly. He’d pull Derek’s pictures from sale, but he wants a couple of exclusive photos of her that he could actually sell. But before anything else, he wants proof that Holly and Derek aren’t an item. He said it was too juicy a piece of information to pass up if it was true. So… well… Holly said that Derek has a girlfriend and it wasn’t her. And guess who she mentioned when the pap insisted on a name.”

Bernadette’s mouth dropped to the ground. “No way.”

Lexie placed a comforting hand on her arm. “I’m so sorry, honey. This just sucks for you big-time. But obviously Holly thinks you’ll be okay with it after the help you gave them today.”

“Serves me right for being too helpful, huh?”

Lexie smiled sympathetically.

“Bernie!” Derek came rushing to them, eyes wide. “Thank God you’re still here.”

Bernadette’s lips twisted. She already knew what Derek was going to ask. Could she go further with their act?

And why on earth was she even considering it?

“I just got a text from Holly and…” Derek raked his hair, his face a picture of mortification, uncertainty and apology.

She sighed and gave him a smile. It wasn’t Derek’s fault he couldn’t return her feelings. Besides, she liked to think she was magnanimous enough to continue doing a good friend a big favour. What had she got to lose? Her heart was already used to suffering, especially when it came to him, anyway. So no big deal, right?

And might as well be useful so she could forget being so… unwanted.

***End of Chapter Two***

Not long to go now before you can read the rest of Bernadette and Derek's story. Here are the preorder links for The Unreal Boyfriend.

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The Unreal Boyfriend: Chapter One

 Only a handful of days to go before the release of The Unreal Boyfriend on the 30th of November! Before the big day arrives, I'm excited to share Chapter One of Bernadette and Derek's story with you.

Here it is. Happy reading!

The Unreal Boyfriend Chapter One

“Jump.”

Bernadette Luna grinned at the utterly handsome Derek McCarthy, thrilled at the glint she saw in his chestnut-brown eyes. “How high?”

“As high as you can,” Derek answered with a quirk of his lips.

Bernadette inhaled deeply, staring at the dark brown hair she was itching to run her hands through. Forcing herself to peel her gaze away from Derek, she looked around. A few of their friends were helping the little kids play basketball on the other side of the giant jumping castle, not paying any attention to them. So she bent her knees, raised her arms like chicken wings, and launched herself into the air.

Her eyes widened as she felt her right foot land awkwardly, and a little yelp escaped her throat as gravity pulled the rest of her body towards the soft ground. Drats! She quickly smoothed down her billowy skirt that had ridden up her thighs, praying that no one had gotten a peek at her underwear.

“You okay?” Derek asked.

She laughed to cover up her embarrassment. “See? This is exactly why I hate being in these inflatable things.”

“At least I’m not jumping all around you like some mean boys did when you were twelve years old,” Derek teased.

“I guess. And at least you’re not chanting ‘we saw your pink panties’,” she said dryly.

Derek helped her up, not giving an indication if he’d had an eyeful of her… well… pink undies.

Frankly, she wouldn’t have minded if he had. In fact, she’d love it if Derek saw her naked—as long as he was naked with her in a room with a bed. Ugh, how bad did she still have it?

“So let me get this straight,” Derek said. “You hate jumping castles because you lost your footing in one before, and you couldn’t get back up because mean boys were jumping all around you while they teased you mercilessly about your pink panties?”

“Uh-huh.”

Seventeen years ago?” Derek asked softly.

She flushed. “That sounds silly, doesn’t it? But didn’t I just prove to you that bouncy houses and I don’t get along?”

“Come on. Time to get over this silly fear. Jump higher.” Derek clapped his hands like a coach encouraging his charge.

Bernadette raised an eyebrow. She’d like to think Derek was somehow flirting with her. Sure, it was usual for him to be this friendly and fun, but he’d never spent this much one-on-one time with her before. She had a feeling it meant something. “Am I your case to solve now?”

“You’d disappoint Tanner if you didn’t enjoy this castle, too. Look at him. He’s so loving it in here.”

She chuckled and turned her attention to the birthday boy, the son of Paige Grant—her best friend—and Tristan Grant—Derek’s best friend. The one-year-old’s laughter was infectious as he sat in the far corner between his grandmothers, watching his two-year-old and three-year-old playmates shoot small beach balls into a plastic hoop with the help of their daddies and uncles.

Without saying a word, she attempted another jump… and stumbled towards Derek.

He caught her, his hands gripping her upper arms tightly.

“I’m okay,” she said, giggles bubbling out of her. “I’m starting to seriously believe I’m cursed when it comes to jumping castles.”

“And you’ve been in how many in your lifetime?” Derek asked, his hands sliding down to her wrists.

“Two,” she said a tad breathlessly, the warmth from his touch travelling throughout her whole body. Derek was probably only wanting to make sure she’d gotten back her balance, but so what? Derek McCarthy was holding hands with her—almost. After a year and a half of being secretly in love with him, she’d allow herself to enjoy this moment.

“Two, huh? Yeah, maybe the jumping castle fairies have something against you,” Derek said teasingly.

“Auntie Bernie, Uncle Derek! Watch me!” said the three-year-old son of Lucas and Jade Renner-Bilton.

Bernadette felt bereft when Derek let go of her hands to watch Julian jump.

“See, I didn’t fall!” Julian said proudly.

Bernadette clapped. “That’s great, Julian. If I jump and fall again, will you help me get up?”

“Of course!”

“Julian helped me when I falled,” Lara informed.

Bernadette grinned at Rick and Lexie Donnelly’s cute daughter, whose third birthday was up next in two months. “Wow, Julian helped you when you fell?”

Lara nodded vigorously. “You can do it, Auntie Bernie.”

“I can jump, too!” shouted Nate. Gavin and Natasha Redford’s son started bouncing up and down, and his cousin, Carter and Cassie Garrett’s daughter, Chelsea, took his hand to jump with him. The two-year-olds shrieked in laughter as they lost their balance and tumbled together.

Aw.

“Mama! Dada!” Tanner suddenly cried out, his face lighting up as Paige and Tristan entered the jumping castle. The birthday boy snatched his arms from his grandmothers’ grips and crawled with speed towards his parents.

Bernadette sighed. Gosh, these kids were making her clucky! She glanced at Derek, the guy she hoped to be The One. The man of her dreams was putting his phone against his ear.

“Holly, what’s up?” Derek said to his caller.

Bernadette’s breath hitched. Holly? Suspicion quickly rose up inside of her as she watched him from out of the corner of her eye.

“Okay. I’ll see you tomorrow night,” Derek said before hanging up.

“Who’s Holly?” Tristan asked.

“Oh, just… a friend,” Derek said casually.

Tristan smirked. “I bet it’s your on-again, off-again girlfriend. Now we have a name for her.”

Bernadette gulped. No.

But Derek remained silent, not contradicting Tristan’s declaration.

Bernadette took a sharp breath. Of course she’d misread Derek’s extra friendliness. She had a habit of doing that, then reality would always whack her in the face. Good thing she’d learned how to deal with disappointments a long time ago—pretend she didn’t care.

She kicked hope out of her chest and placed her heart back in its protective box. Then she plastered a smile on her face.

There.

Paige stood close to her and murmured in her ear. “The girls are plotting to get Derek to introduce us to this invisible on-again, off-again girlfriend.”

Bernadette kept her lips curved up. “Why?”

“Why not? We’re all finding it very strange that he hasn’t so much as shown us a picture of her after all this time. Besides, I think it’ll be good for you. You’ve been holding yourself back from getting serious with other guys. Being face-to-face with Derek’s girlfriend might help put out the torch you’ve been carrying for him.”

Bernadette sighed. Paige knew her better than anyone. “So what is the plan?”

“Don’t know. The girls are discussing it right now.”

Bernadette peered through the castle’s window. The other women were huddled at one of several outdoor tables decked out in Disney-themed decor in the large garden of Tristan and Paige’s country property. The sun was shining brightly on this beautiful spot in the South Coast of New South Wales, Australia, but her mood was becoming bleak.

She didn’t particularly want to meet Derek’s girlfriend, but she supposed it would be better to know what was being planned so she could prepare herself for it. “Okay. I think I’ll join the girls.”

“Sure,” Paige said.

“Hey, where’re you going?” Derek called out as Bernadette headed for the exit. “We’re not done yet.”

Her heart skipped a beat. “I’m just taking a break.”

“But we’re going to have a dancing competition, right, kids? We’re all gonna see who can dance the best without falling down.”

Julian started shaking his hips. “Dancing contition is fun, Auntie Bernie!”

“Dancing competition, bubba,” Lucas said, ruffling Julian’s hair.

Julian scowled at his dad. “I’m three already! Bubba means baby. Marissa is a baby. Aimee is a baby.” He pointed first to Jarryd Westbourne and Marilyn Grant’s five-month-old daughter, then to Brad and Erin Mead’s six-month-old child. “The baby in Auntie Geri’s tummy is a baby,” he added.

“Sorry,” Lucas said with a grin. “But you’ll always be my bubba, no matter how old you get.”

Julian rolled his eyes. “Fine. Can we do the dancing contipition now, Uncle Derek?”

“When Auntie Bernie comes back.”

“Don’t go, Auntie Bernie!” Lara said. “We’re dancing now!”

Chelsea ran to Bernadette and clung to her hand. “Please?”

Bernadette relented and walked back to the group. “Okay, then.”

“Yay!” the children cried.

Derek played a fast song on his phone. “Okay, everybody. Dance!”

Bernadette let out a laugh as Derek took her hand and twirled her around. At least Derek was being a wonderful friend who went out of his way to make her feel like a valued part of a big family—something she didn’t get from her own flesh and blood.

She appreciated the man, even though he unknowingly kept on breaking her heart over and over again.

* * *

Derek released Bernadette’s hand to dance with Lara, ignoring the curious glances being thrown at him by his buddies. What a time for Holly to call him. And how stupid of him to have called her by name. He bet his friends wouldn’t let up until they’d learned more about the woman he’d told them he’d been dating on and off for years. He could only hope he’d continue to get away with simply fobbing off their questions about her.

“So you’re seeing Holly tomorrow night, huh?” Tristan said, one of his arms around Paige’s waist while he carried Tanner in the other as he danced with his family. “Exactly when do we get to meet Holly?”

Derek filled his lungs with air, careful not to look like he was sighing, and even more careful not to give in to his strong desire to check out Bernadette’s reaction.

He’d been thoroughly enjoying Bernadette’s company today. And, as usual, he found her laughter thrilling… and her long-lashed chocolate-brown eyes captivating… and her sweet smile fetching…

“Dude, we’re dying of curiosity here,” Lucas said.

“Nothing’s changed,” he answered in a bored tone.

“You should have brought Holly here today,” Tristan said.

“Hey, no one told us we’re having a disco here,” Marilyn said, walking inside the bouncy house with her husband Jarryd. “And who’s this Holly person you’re talking about?”

Argh, the last thing Derek wanted was for anyone else to hassle him about Holly, no matter how close he was with everyone in this tight-knit group.

Holly is the name of Derek’s mysterious girlfriend that he couldn’t wait to introduce to us,” Tristan said with sarcasm.

Marilyn’s jaw dropped. “Really? Holly, huh? So when do we finally get to meet her?”

“I’ve told you guys before,” Derek said patiently, “there’s no reason for you to meet her at this point. We’re still only casual.”

“Look,” Marilyn said, “I know it’s really none of our business, but I honestly don’t understand it. You’ve always introduced girlfriends to us in the past, even if you weren’t serious with them. So what’s so different about Holly that you don’t want us to meet her?”

Derek shrugged. All this bullshitting about his relationship with Holly was taking its toll on him, but it had to continue. “It’s just one of those things. I don’t know where to take it with Holly yet and, like I’ve said, I don’t want her to think our relationship is serious enough to introduce her to you guys.”

“But you’ve been dating the woman for over two—or is it three?—years now,” Marilyn said. “If you’re still not serious about her after all this time, then shouldn’t you… I don’t know… set her free and move on?”

“And aren’t you misleading her anyway by still keeping her around when you know you’re not serious?” Tristan pressed.

Derek shook his head. “It’s actually the same for Holly. She’s not serious about me, either. We’re just in an on-and-off relationship because it suits us to have a casual connection every once in a while.” This time, he couldn’t help glancing at Bernadette. She was dancing with Nate, and her long, silky black hair covered her face from his sight. Argh, he wished he wasn’t being grilled about Holly right now.

“So,” Paige said, “do you mean that you and Holly get together simply out of convenience?”

“Yeah, you could say that.” He refrained from looking at Bernadette again.

“I think it would help both you and Holly if we meet her,” Marilyn said. “It couldn’t be fun being in an emotional limbo for over three years.”

Derek snickered. “Who said we’re in an emotional limbo? And before you get on my case because you bet on me for our Captured by Love game, I can tell you I’m not the next guy going down on one knee in front of a woman.”

“Literally all of us here had bet on you to be the next person to propose to someone,” Marilyn said with a wink. “Actually, the girls and I were just talking about that. Since it won’t be fun if we all win—or lose—we decided that we’ll also bet on when you’re going to give up your bachelorhood. Whoever nominates the closest date to your actual proposal will win.”

“Hey, I like that idea,” Lucas said. “So this is an additional game?”

“Yes. The wider game is still ongoing, since there are now over a hundred people putting in their bets for charity. Nine different bachelors have been named to win this round. But this separate game is just for our gang because we all put our money on Derek to be captured by looove next.”

“Okay,” Tristan said. “The date I’m nominating for Derek to propose to someone is this time next year—Tanner’s second birthday.”

Derek snorted. “Are you kidding me?”

“Hey, I married Paige within months of meeting her. I’m sure that you proposing to someone in a year is not that impossible.”

“Your relationship was supposed to be fake!”

“Don’t let me down, bro. I haven’t won a single Captured by Love game yet. I’m counting on you.”

Derek groaned. “Don’t anyone tell me their dates anymore. I don’t wanna know.”

Everybody laughed, but they did let him off the hook and got busy doing funny dance moves with the children.

Derek watched Bernadette surreptitiously. Her movements weren’t as energetic as everyone else’s. He hoped she was only watching her balance, and that the conversation about Holly hadn’t depressed her.

Had he done the wrong thing by seeking her out and spending a lot of alone time with her today? He knew she’d had a crush on him not long after they’d first met on Tristan and Paige’s wedding day, but he was also certain she’d gotten over him quick smart since she’d been dating other guys. Hopefully she hadn’t read much into his actions. He didn’t want to give her the wrong impression.

Well, in a way, he’d been giving her the right impression since he very much wanted to enjoy her company. But he should stop and watch himself in case the others started to notice. He wouldn’t hear the end of it otherwise, and it really wasn’t fair to Bernadette.

“Excuse me, Paige. We’re ready for lunch,” a man in a pirate costume said by the castle’s doorway.

“Oh, great! Yes, please,” Paige said.

Mr. Pirate rang a handheld bell. “Boys and girls, who wants to join me at the captain’s table, har har?”

“Me!” all the kids cried, raising their hands.

“Great! Follow me and we will eat delicious food while I tell you a very exciting story!”

“I’m not hungry,” Chelsea said, crossing her arms against her chest.

“Everyone eats first before we start playing again,” Carter said firmly to his daughter.

With some coaxing, all the kids agreed to eat their lunch with Mr. Pirate and his able assistant, and the adults made their way to the long buffet table brimming with mouth-watering dishes.

“So,” Tristan said to Derek as they settled themselves on one of the outdoor settings after filling up their plates. “Is tomorrow night with Holly just a booty call, or are you trying to work something out with her?”

Derek bit into his mini burger, buying himself a few seconds to think of a good answer that would put a stop to this topic.

“Seriously, Derek,” Marilyn said, joining them. “We can’t figure out your relationship with her.”

He held back a sigh. Tristan and Marilyn were among his oldest friends and they’d always been open and honest with each other. But he simply couldn’t share this particular matter with anyone, not even them. “Right now, our on-and-off relationship works for us. We’re only on when we want to hang out with each other, and we’re off for the rest of the time. But because we’re both busy with our work, we always end up just dating each other instead of other people.”

“So what’s with flirting with Bernie all day?” Marilyn asked casually.

His eyes widened. Had he been that obvious? “I wasn’t flirting with her.”

Tristan snorted. “Come on. You’ve been all over her today.”

“I honestly wasn’t,” he insisted, running a hand over his face.

“You know,” Marilyn said, “I’d thought in the past you’d be married by your mid-twenties—well before any of the other guys. You took relationships more seriously than they ever did in our younger days. Yet here you are, thirty-three years old and the only remaining bachelor in our group. I really think you’re hiding something.”

Derek glanced sharply at Marilyn.

“Why don’t you want to introduce Holly to us? Before her, you’ve always taken your dates—even the non-serious ones—to our get-togethers. But you’re so reluctant to let us meet Holly. Why?”

“I already told you why.” What else could he say?

Tristan let out a heavy breath. “I know what Marilyn’s saying. In the beginning, I kept buying your story that you simply weren’t serious enough about this Holly person to warrant introducing her to us. I got distracted from looking more closely into your situation because of my past drama with Paige’s parents, and then getting married and having a baby. But now I smell that something’s off with all the excuses you’ve been feeding us.”

Derek shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Marilyn leaned closer to him. “What’s really going on? I can’t imagine you continuing to see the same woman for over three years and still calling it casual. That’s just not you.”

“You guys are reading too much into this. It is simply a casual thing that’s been going on for a while. Introducing her to our group might wreck something that’s working perfectly fine for Holly and me.”

Tristan’s brows furrowed. “We might wreck something? If it’s only casual, why are you worried about that? There are a lot of inconsistencies with your answers, bro, and I’m starting to get worried.”

“Really? What’s there to worry about?”

“How can it be casual and yet be exclusive? For over three years? I still can’t believe we—your best buddies in the whole world—know virtually nothing about the woman you’ve been seeing for over three years. Hell, we’ve only just discovered her name today! And if Holly’s also not serious about you, why are you concerned that she might get the wrong impression if you got her to meet us? See? Lots of holes and very weird.”

Derek’s gaze flicked away from Tristan’s probing eyes. “I told you, it’s just one of those things that happened to work like that.”

“You know,” Marilyn said, “I could always ask Gavin and Carter to check if everything’s okay with you. It’s so not you to be this secretive about your relationships, especially to us.”

“Hey, good idea, Marilyn,” Tristan said.

Derek’s heart raced. Surely these guys were only joking. But, knowing them, they just might act on Marilyn’s suggestion if he didn’t assuage their concerns. The last thing he needed was for their private detective friends to start snooping around his affairs. He couldn’t take that risk.

He let out a chuckle. “Fine. If you guys are really that keen to meet Holly, I’ll introduce her to you. If she’s free, I’ll bring her to Lara’s birthday in a couple of months.”

“Finally!” Marilyn said, looking up to the heavens.

“Good,” Tristan agreed.

Derek’s gaze involuntarily went to Bernadette, sitting at the table next to theirs. He caught her staring at him before shyly looking away.

His chest squeezed, and he frowned at the strength of it.

Damn it. He was in such a big fucking mess.

***End of Chapter One***

That's all for today. In the meantime, you can preorder The Unreal Boyfriend right now from the following stores:

Amazon.com | Other Amazon Stores | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Apple iBooks

The store link to Google Play will be available very soon.

Keep an eye out for Chapter Two tomorrow!

Love,

Miranda xo