Happy New Year! I can't believe it's already 2015. Hope your New Year's Eve celebrations were fabulous 🙂
I was sitting in front of my computer, working on a new book, when a reminder popped up on my screen. With the busyness of the holiday season, I almost forgot that At Last is releasing on January 6! So it's time to share with you chapter one of Gemma and Greg's love story. Here it is.
Gemma Aldwyn suppressed her sigh and tried to look as nonchalant as possible while standing in the middle of a crowded dance floor. It was bad enough that it was a ten-year-old kid she’d been dancing with when the MC announced it was midnight, and therefore Christmas Day. Now, everyone was kissing someone—except for her, it seemed.
Here she was without a date in one of the most romantic places she’d ever stayed—the Carmichael Sanctuary, a private, exclusive and luxurious resort in Australia, located in the quiet country town of Serenade Bay on the fringes of a sub-tropical rainforest. Trying not to look out of place, she casually looked around for a person who wasn’t smooching with someone, only for her gaze to land on the one man she’d hoped would at least give her a peck on the cheek—Greg Carmichael, the brother-in-law of two of her best friends.
But just her luck. A pretty supermodel wannabe had caught Greg, and was giving him a very flirty embrace.
Her lips twisted into a rueful curve at the snarkiness of her thought. Truth was, rather than a supermodel wannabe, that woman happened to be Liana Sanders—the only daughter of Tony Sanders, one of Australia’s wealthiest entrepreneurs. In terms of social status and power, the Sanderses were almost at the same level as the Carmichaels—up there.
With Greg being CFO and co-owner of the Carmichael Corporation, one of the most successful private companies in Australia—whose business interests included property development, ecotourism and wineries—it didn’t surprise Gemma that women from equally influential families would want to snare him. Being a hunk with knee-weakening good looks, Greg had sophisticated and beautiful women flocking to him everywhere he went. With his older brothers, Zach and Jeff, both off the market, the ladies hadn’t been holding back in showing their interest in Greg, the only Carmichael brother left unattached.
Gemma had been quite surprised by the overt flirtation by a couple of the women at tonight’s party. Apart from Liana, there was also Annette, a well-known actress, who’d been vying for Greg’s attention all day. The unfortunate thing was they had plenty of time to fight over Greg. Both women were also staying at the Carmichael Sanctuary until after New Year’s Eve.
Well, Greg looked like he was enjoying Liana’s attention. His hands were even lingering on Liana’s waist as they chatted.
This time, Gemma’s exhale came out loud and gushy. Seriously, she should stop noticing what Greg was doing, what he was drinking, who he was talking to, who he was hugging…
She already knew he wasn’t going to be her New Year’s resolution guy. Even if she’d had a secret crush on him for ages, it didn’t matter.
Greg’s own brothers had a nickname for him—Mr. Commitment-Phobic. Since Gemma was looking for something serious, and all he was into was play, they weren’t a match. Besides, Greg wasn’t interested in her anyway.
It was kind of morale sapping that she was the only one who wasn’t going to accomplish the group New Year’s resolution she’d made with her four best friends. Worse, it had been her idea to make a deal with Rebecca Andrews, Sarah Daley, Amanda Payne and Brenna Ward to make time for love this year. She’d argued—aided by the effects of alcohol—that they should pinky-promise to get off their butts and be pro-active in finding themselves their true loves.
Each of them had been pretty poor in initiating dates with men, holding on to some past hurts that had made them reticent about going into relationships that didn’t guarantee their heart’s safety. What better way to break the shackles of fear and self-doubt than by making a pact that all of them had to fulfil?
Well, Rebecca had recently married Zach Carmichael, and Brenna was just proposed to earlier tonight by Amanda’s brother, Ash Payne. And the reason why they were here at the Carmichael Sanctuary for two weeks was not only to celebrate Christmas and New Year’s Eve, but to also have a joint celebration of Sarah’s engagement to Jeff Carmichael, and Amanda’s engagement to Connor Reid—a childhood friend of the Carmichael brothers.
Yes, her best friends of twenty-one years had over-fulfilled their resolution. They were now in permanent relationships. All four of them. And here she was, a bystander in the middle of the dance floor while everyone else seemed to be revelling in the romantic vibe.
Hurriedly, she walked off. Might as well pretend she needed to go to the bathroom. She sniffed, thinking no one was likely to notice—
She stopped to smile at Magda Carmichael, the lovely eighty-year-old grandmother of Greg, Jeff and Zach.
“Merry Christmas, dear,” Magda said, enveloping her in a warm hug.
“Merry Christmas, Magda,” she responded, returning the elderly lady’s embrace with genuine fondness.
“I’ve been meaning to tell you all night that you were absolutely wonderful playing the piano while singing those beautiful songs,” Magda said. “I knew you’re a piano teacher, but I didn’t realise you’re that great a talent!”
Gemma blushed. She was stoked that people had enjoyed her performance just after dinner—her gift to Ash and Brenna for getting engaged tonight. “I hope my nerves didn’t show,” she said with a laugh.
“Were you nervous?” Magda asked with surprise. “You didn’t seem like it to me. You looked like you were in your element, sitting in front of the grand piano, singing those moving love songs.”
Gemma chuckled. “I most certainly was nervous, Magda. There are plenty of VIPs here. I’ve never performed in front of a bunch of…” She let the sentence trail off, choosing not to voice out the words wealthy and famous people. The woman in front of her was one of them—not to mention powerful and influential. As the matriarch of the Carmichael family, Magda had had her fair share of being on the cover of magazines.
But Gemma was comfortable with Magda. At first she’d been intimidated by her. But not for long. Magda had treated her like family by virtue of her being one of Rebecca and Sarah’s ‘sisters-by-choice’.
“Well, everyone I’ve spoken to thought you were amazing,” Magda said. “In fact, more than one of them commented that they enjoyed listening to you while you were practising in the piano lounge for the past couple of days. I’m sure you’ve noticed them sitting around, sipping drinks, while you played.”
“Yes, I did,” she said shyly. She gave Magda a goodbye hug and headed for the bathroom, feeling much better. But before she could leave the ballroom, someone else called out for her.
Gemma halted, her heart pounding as she smiled up at Greg.
“Merry Christmas,” Greg said, kissing her on the cheek.
“Merry Christmas,” she said breathlessly, unable to help but be thrilled that Greg seemed to have sought her out, since she was already away from the crowd.
“You were great tonight. Everyone loved you.”
“Needless to say, a few people have asked me if there was any truth to the rumour that we’re together,” he said with a grin.
She rolled her eyes with mock frustration even as she blushed. “What? The rich and famous read gossip magazines too, do they?” she asked jokingly.
Greg snickered. “They’re just as nosy as everyone else.”
Since the day she’d walked down the aisle with Greg—as his partner bridesmaid during Zach and Rebecca’s wedding—paparazzi shots of the two of them had made it to the magazines. Of course, speculations abounded that she was Greg’s new flame. It couldn’t be further from the truth.
“So you’ve set the record straight, I take it,” she said lightly.
“Yeah,” he said, his smile disappearing. “But there’s a new article that came out yesterday.”
“About us again?” she asked in consternation. She’d already had a paparazzo or two hassle her a couple of times. Plus there was the scary middle-aged lady who’d accosted her on the street, insisting her daughter was Greg’s one true love.
“Yes. Unfortunately, there’s something about us again.”
She shook her head. “I really don’t get this. Apart from being together at Zach and Bec’s wedding, where we had to be arm-in-arm, we’ve done nothing to make them think we’re a couple. Why do they keep making things up?”
“You know how they work.”
She nodded, giving him a sympathetic smile. If all this media attention was intrusive for her, it was much, much more so for Greg and his family. Since the horrific tragedy three years ago, when their parents and grandfather died in a freak light-plane accident, interest in the Carmichael brothers hadn’t let up to this day. The media, who’d left them well alone before that, had suddenly become interested in all aspects of their lives. Most had been respectful during those first few months. But as time went by, the gossip rags realised they sold magazines like hotcakes when photos of the good-looking—not to mention fabulously wealthy—Carmichael brothers appeared on their covers. Now, the brothers constantly found themselves in an unwanted limelight.
“Have you seen the article?” she asked. “What’s it about?”
Greg sighed, running his hand through his short, dark hair, his blue eyes betraying his worry. “Apparently, it involved your clients,” he said reluctantly.
She stared at him. “What do you mean?”
“I asked someone to grab me some copies. We’ll find out tomorrow, although I’m sure you can Google it already.”
“Okay, but what did you hear? What about my clients? They’re just kids!”
“Well, from what I was told, a certain shutterbug has been hanging around outside of your studio. A father of one of your students noticed him looking through the windows when he happened to pass by, and asked the photographer who he was and what he was doing. Then the paparazzo asked the father questions about what he knows about you and me. And apparently, we were on the cover again, showing us at Sydney airport just before we flew out to come here. Funny how there was no mention of the other guys, because we were in a big group.”
“Oh, no,” she said. “Some parents, I’m sure, would welcome the attention. But most would hate being dragged into this ridiculousness, especially if it means their kids might be harassed.”
“I know,” Greg said. “Don’t worry. We’ll sort it out. Try not to let it worry you, especially since we’re supposed to be celebrating and relaxing for the next couple of weeks.”
She made a face. “Okay.”
Greg gave her a stern look. “Convince me you mean that.”
She chuckled. “Okay,” she said in a stronger voice.
“Good,” Greg said, giving her a dazzling smile that made her want to gape at him till the sun rose—in five to six hours’ time.
She excused herself to go to the ladies’ before she made a proper fool of herself. If only those rumours about her and Greg were true, she’d probably welcome the attention with open arms. But they weren’t. And now that her students might be affected, it wasn’t funny anymore.
Greg stared at Gemma as she walked away from him. He couldn’t help but admire how her dress showed off her stunning body. She’d always been lovely, but she was particularly beautiful tonight.
There was no denying the strong attraction he had for Gemma. It had been bothering him for some time now. But he’d been doing his best to fight and hide it.
It wouldn’t be fair to Gemma if he acted on his physical urges, as she wasn’t the casual-dating kind of girl. And that was all he was into—casual. After the personal promise he’d made three years ago to be more considerate of women’s feelings, he’d been conscious of not leading anyone on.
He took a sharp intake of breath as he remembered his last-ever discussion with his parents.
~ ~ ~
“You weren’t there for the board meeting again, Gregory,” his dad said. “If you’re going to be one of the heads of this company in the future, you have to start taking your company responsibilities seriously. Or I won’t have a choice but to cut you out of it!”
Greg smirked, knowing his dad would do no such thing. He’d been threatened with that many times in the past, and he still got invited to high-level meetings. Besides, he might not be there all the time, but he was brilliant at what he did.
“You have to grow up, Greg,” his mother said angrily. “We didn’t raise you like this. I especially resent the fact that you include my friends’ daughters in your shenanigans! Don’t you care about Glenda’s feelings? You made her hope, then you dropped her three days later!”
“She knew what she was getting into, Mum,” he retorted.
“You’re so inconsiderate of women’s feelings, Greg,” his mum accused. “All you care about is satisfying yourself.”
“Look, I have to go,” he said.
“This conversation is not finished, Gregory,” his dad called out.
“No time,” he responded, leaving his dad’s office. He was only twenty-six. He had no plans of being roped into the boring, responsible life too early.
What he was looking forward to was meeting with his cousin Rick for some fun with a few girls they’d met at a club the other night.
~ ~ ~
Greg shook his head to bring him back to the present. It hurt to remember that afternoon. Because the next day, his parents were gone.
He took a deep breath to settle his emotions. Once again, he was hit by the realisation that he’d never get the chance to make them proud of him. That opportunity was lost forever.
He didn’t know whether to believe in life after death, but a big part of him still hoped that somehow, his parents and grandfather could see that he’d made a turnaround. He still hoped that they knew of the promise he’d made to his brothers and grandmother to be completely dedicated to ensuring that the Carmichael Corporation, the company created by his grandfather out of nothing, would flourish and continue to grow in leaps and bounds. He didn’t know of any better way to honour the loved ones they’d lost unexpectedly.
He’d kept his promise every day, working as hard as he possibly could. Knowing that he was now contributing to the company as equally as Zach and Jeff had alleviated some of his guilt.
And though his mother was no longer around to see it, he’d changed his attitude towards women. While he’d never intentionally set out to hurt anyone in the past, he’d been an inconsiderate, immature idiot who’d seduced anyone he was attracted to. He’d reasoned that since the ladies were very much aware of his reputation, they must have known what they were getting into by being with him. Looking back, it appalled him how many girls he’d sweet-talked insincerely to satisfy his wants. He never wanted to be that kind of guy again.
However, he was still very much into the single life. It was simply a fact he couldn’t change. He’d come to believe that a serious relationship just wasn’t meant for him. Not at this point in time, anyway.
The difference was that he was now completely honest with girls about what he wanted—fun flings only, and nothing more. If they were looking for commitment, he stayed away from them, even if the physical attraction was great.
His grandmother had surmised that the reason love had never captured his heart was because he had too many choices—too many women who were throwing themselves at him. Well, that was true. Especially now that Zach and Jeff were most definitely taken, the interested ladies seemed to have become bolder and more aggressive in getting his attention. So even though he’d become very picky, he didn’t lack for female company whenever he wanted some.
He was surprised by the number of women out there who were happy with a short fling. Their reasons were varied, although two motivations had been the most common. Either they wanted the experience of ‘dating’ a rich guy for a few days, or they intended to use his name to further their personal interests. He didn’t mind those motives. He was comfortable with that kind of give and take, as long as they were honest about it from the beginning.
Admittedly, it wasn’t all roses for him in the dating game. There had been a few ladies who truly lit his fire. But since they were genuinely the kind who equated sex with emotions, he’d had to keep his paws off of them. He knew he was bound to lose interest after about a month or so. That cycle had been pretty consistent for him. So he’d rather avoid them than break their hearts later.
“Hey,” he said, smiling at Annette, the actress sister of one of Jeff’s friends.
“You promised me another dance, handsome,” Annette purred, running her hand on his chest.
“I did, too,” he agreed amiably, leading her to the dance floor.
Now, here was a woman who’d happily climb into his bed on his terms. Actually, he was trying to choose between Annette and Liana, another guest, to be his fling while he was at the Sanctuary. Both girls had made it clear they were happy with no-strings fun if that was all he was offering. He knew and they knew that being associated with him, even for just a short while, could do wonders for their respective careers.
Both women were very pretty and sexy, but neither held a strong enough attraction for him to easily make a decision. Unfortunately, while he was at the Carmichael Sanctuary, his choices were limited.
He held Annette close, trying to read his body’s reaction to her.
Meh. Nothing to get excited about.
His gaze strayed to the big double doors and his breath hitched, his heart beating faster. Gemma had just walked back into the ballroom.
Ah, damn it. Why her? He couldn’t do anything with her. He shouldn’t do anything with her.
***End of Chapter One***
Chapter Two will be ready for you tomorrow!
It will also be available from January 6 on Google Play, All Romance Ebooks, Smashwords and Scribd. (The discounted price will remain for a couple of days after release date to allow those who can't pre-order time to download at the special price.)
Enjoy your day/night!