Not long to go before the 24th of January and the release of The Unmasked CEO! I'm so excited! I hope you are too.
But first, it's time to share with you Chapter One of Simon and Geri's story. Here it is. Enjoy!
Simon Alexander folded his arms across his chest, annoyed at the uncomfortable feeling being stirred up by the lovefest happening before his eyes. Why did he have to feel envious of his loved-up buddies?
He hid a smirk as Marilyn Grant canoodled with Jarryd Westbourne right in the middle of Brad and Erin Mead’s living room. Well, melt was more an apt term for what Marilyn was doing in the arms of her new fiancé. Heck, the two of them were in the clouds, their faces radiating with a kind of bliss that Simon was certain he’d never ever experienced.
Today was supposed to be Erin’s birthday party and, once again, the celebrations had included an engagement. For some reason, his male friends had a habit of getting down on one knee in one of these get-togethers. It was kind of… motivating.
Simon suppressed a snort at his thought. Him proposing to a woman? What a hoot.
He had to admit, though, that for a while now, a part of him had been wanting some of the love potion these couples had obviously ingested. He was someone who always sought—and got—the best that life could offer, and he couldn’t help but want what they were having.
Problem was, he doubted his ability to stick with one woman forever. He’d sure as hell get bored eating the same food every day, no matter how delicious it was. Wouldn’t that same argument apply to tying himself to the same girl for the rest of his life?
But then again, he hadn’t really tried. It wouldn’t hurt to try, would it?
Cassie Garrett, one of three new mothers in this gang of close-knit friends, sprung to her feet, glancing at the baby monitor that was in a pouch hanging around her neck.
“I got her, honey,” Carter said to his wife.
Cassie flashed an adoring smile at her husband, who was quick to make his way to the guest room where they’d left Chelsea, their five-week-old baby daughter, to sleep.
“I better check on our princess too,” Rick Donnelly murmured, kissing his wife, Lexie, on the temple before following Carter to see to his own eight-week-old, Lara.
“Hey, bring them out here if they’re awake,” Simon called out. He wouldn’t mind carrying the too-adorable infants again. He’d been terrified the first time, seeing how small and delicate they were. But he had the hang of holding babies now.
“Are you getting clucky, Simon?” Lexie asked teasingly.
“No,” he said, sending a comical grin to Julian, Jade and Lucas Renner-Bilton’s four-month-old son.
“You wanna hold him?” asked Natasha Redford, who’d been playing with Julian and successfully getting chuckles out of him.
“Sure.” He took the baby from the very pregnant Natasha, who placed a hand on her full-term stomach, as if feeling something.
“You okay, babe?” Gavin Redford asked his wife, instantly alert.
“Yeah. He just kicked, that’s all.”
Simon couldn’t help but watch as Gavin sat Natasha on his lap, awed at the tenderness on Gavin’s face as he rubbed his wife’s belly.
And that envious feeling poked Simon again.
Honestly, he couldn’t understand himself. He sure as hell wasn’t ready for babies, much less getting hitched to anyone. Maybe he was just so taken by his friends’ lovable kids? Fortunately, he could hand them back to the parents when he’d had enough.
But, yes, he wouldn’t mind having little ones of his own in the future too.
Wooo. Big fucking admission for Simon Alexander, Mile-High Playboy. Maybe he was getting clucky, after all. He never thought that happened to men as well.
Julian started to cry in his arms.
“Hey, little guy. What do you want? You wanna fly on a jet?” Simon made a whooshing sound as he pivoted around.
Julian stopped whimpering and stared at him.
“Aha! You do want Uncle Simon to fly you on one of his airplanes, don’t you?” he said with exaggerated wonder. “Where do you want to go?”
Julian smiled widely, letting out a gurgle.
“You’re a natural with kids, Simon,” Marilyn said with a laugh. “Maybe I’ll bet on you for this round of our Captured by Love game after all. I wasn’t going to, since you made me lose a few times before, but it looks like you’re ready for a family now. You just might beat Tristan and Derek in getting engaged next.”
He shook his head, pulling a funny face for Julian’s benefit. “Like I said before, Marilyn, I’m not after a wife yet. I just don’t want to get turned down again by the nice girls I ask out.”
“I still can’t believe it,” Tristan Grant said in a goading tone. “Mr. Mile-High Playboy Simon Alexander rejected by the last three women he wanted to date. Three rejections in six months. Who would have thought that would ever happen?”
“Hey, don’t forget about the seven who asked me out during that time,” Simon said defensively.
“Yeah, the playgirls, the immature ones, the gold-diggers,” Derek McCarthy quipped, tongue firmly in cheek.
Simon sighed. Those were his words, not Derek’s. And, yes, he was getting sick of the women who sought him out because of his reputation—that of a rich, hunky playboy who liked giving sexy ladies mile-high experiences.
He’d enjoyed that image for years. How could he not, when even some beautiful celebrities and models specifically asked for the owner of Alexander Jets to accompany them to their destinations? Since his clients’ satisfaction was his number-one priority, he was more than happy to comply with their wishes. And, of course, the women were always more than satisfied with him.
But, lately, he’d been getting tired of the kind of girls who clamoured for his attention. They’d been very demanding not only of his time and presence, but also of his generosity. Especially of his generosity. They weren’t even real girlfriends and they had the audacity to threaten to drop him when he’d refused to take them on a luxury trip somewhere or declined to take them shopping.
Pfft. As if he’d cared when they’d upped and left to find someone else willing to fund the extravagant lifestyles they wanted.
Seriously, if he was to keep a girl around, then he’d want someone like his close female friends: caring, smart, independent women who loved their men for who they were, not for the dollars in their bank accounts.
But how could he meet someone like these ladies when their kind was keen to avoid a known playboy like him?
He’d been so seduced by his fast and fun life that he hadn’t been willing to give up his freedom for anyone or anything. Now, karma seemed to have bitten him on the ass and was making him pay for his own emotional immaturity by making him attract only the players and the gold-diggers. His reputation had cloaked him like a bad smell. When the three nice, relationship-material ladies he’d recently asked out had turned him down, each had said something along the lines of “I’m not that kind of girl.”
What a huge blow to the ego and a big wakeup call! Who’d want to be constantly shunned by nice girls and used by gold-digging players? So, yeah, it was time to distance himself from his playboy image. Thirty-two was old enough for that.
Julian made a gurgling sound and Simon made another funny face, bouncing the baby in his arms. To his delight, Julian laughed.
“Aww, look at that,” Rick said, walking back to the party with Carter, both of them clearly smitten by the precious bundles each was carrying in their arms.
Simon smiled. Fatherhood suited the guys. “So,” he said to no one in particular, “what do you think of my planned experiment to go incognito so I can woo a nice girl without my playboy reputation and financial status tainting how she sees me?”
“Do you already have a girl in mind?” asked Brad, who’d been a busy bee making sure that his wife didn’t lift a finger at her own birthday party.
“No. That’s why I want to stay outside of Sydney for a while, where I’m not well known. If I meet someone who has no idea who I am, I can start with a clean slate. And since I seem to be a magnet for gold-diggers these days, I don’t want to be seen as being rich at any level. So my first option is to pretend I’m just an employee pilot working for Alexander Jets. I can service the regional areas where women wouldn’t know me from Adam.”
“Pilots earn above-average salaries, and Alexander Jets is known to be the top private jet service in Australia,” Natasha pointed out. “That can still be attractive to those wanting a boyfriend only for his money.”
“Why don’t you just pick a country town and look for a casual job there as a farmhand?” Tristan quipped. “You’re a smart guy. You can learn how to milk a cow quick smart.”
Simon snickered just as his phone buzzed with a work call. He pulled it out from his pocket and Julian started whimpering again, looking at his daddy with a sad, irresistible look.
“Had enough of Uncle Simon, bubba?” Lucas cooed at his son.
Simon gave Julian to Lucas and answered one of his account managers, who also happened to be his cousin. “Hey, Elle, what’s up?”
“Sorry to bother you when you’re at a party, Simon, but I have a problem. Remember Ingrid Lawrence?”
“Geri Blaine, Mrs. Lawrence’s assistant, called to say that they need to fly from Brisbane to Sydney this Friday instead of next week. Apparently, Mrs. Lawrence’s grandson, who’s based in Boston, will be in Sydney from Friday for four days only to attend a weekend conference. They want to see each other, hence Mrs. Lawrence wanting to get to Sydney a week early. Problem is, all our planes are fully booked on Friday and Mrs. Lawrence won’t fly commercial because of her dog. She wants a private jet where her dog is allowed to roam free in the passenger cabin with her. So before I suggest one of our competitors to them, I thought I’d call you first to see if there’s something we can do.”
Simon pursed his lips. Seventy-two-year-old Ingrid Lawrence was his newest client. Having recently sold her company that made wildly popular cooking sauces and condiments to an international conglomerate for several million dollars, Mrs. Lawrence had decided to live it up. She was now enjoying the fruits of a lifetime of hard work, doing a luxury around-Australia tour that she hadn’t had the chance to indulge in during her working years.
“Who are our clients flying from Brisbane to Sydney around the time that Mrs. Lawrence wants to be rescheduled?” he asked.
“Well, Tristan Grant is one of them. I’m assuming he’s there with you, and I thought you could talk to him?”
“Ah, good! Leave it with me. Tristan has been thinking of extending his stay in Brisbane to catch up with more people.” He winked at Tristan, who raised an eyebrow at him.
“Great,” Elle said. “One other thing. They need to hire another short-term chauffeur because their current one suddenly resigned due to a family emergency. Geri’s having a hard time finding a replacement at the last minute, especially since it’s a live-in job. Apart from driving them around, Mrs. Lawrence wants an able-bodied man who can also act as a bodyguard because she feels safer staying in rented houses that way. Because of the dog, they always stay in houses rather than hotels. Anyway, I’ve asked around, but I’m not having any luck either. I thought that with your vast network, you might know someone who could refer a suitable person for the job?”
“No one immediately comes to mind. How long do they need the chauffeur for?”
“Two months, ideally. They’ll be here in New South Wales for a month, then Victoria next month. But they’ll accept someone who can only do the New South Wales leg, if that will make it easier to get a chauffeur at short notice. Geri did stress that the guy has to have at least three impeccable references, considering he’ll be staying with the two ladies for the duration.”
“Okay, I’ll ask around. I’ll call you back shortly.”
“Great. Thanks, Simon. Bye.”
“So,” Tristan drawled when Simon hung up, “I take it you want to bump me off the plane on Friday so you can fly someone else, huh?”
“Only if you really intend extending your stay in Brisbane,” he answered seriously.
“Well, you just helped me make up my mind,” Tristan said cheerfully. “I’ll stay until next Monday morning.”
“Excellent. Thanks a lot, bro,” he said gratefully. “By the way, does anyone know of a company that can supply Ingrid Lawrence with a live-in chauffeur-slash-bodyguard for a whole month? Or a person who might be interested in the job? The chauffeur will be staying with Mrs. Lawrence and her personal assistant, so I need a name that you guys already trust.” He told them about Ingrid and her travel plans.
“No,” came the replies.
“I do,” Lucas said.
Lucas grinned slyly. “You. Perfect incognito role, dude. As you said yourself, the nice ladies outside of Sydney shouldn’t recognise who you are.”
Simon chuckled, shaking his head.
“Why not? Remember our earlier bet? This chauffeuring-bodyguard gig is the perfect setup for that. You’re an excellent driver and a black belt in karate.”
“You made another bet apart from our Captured by Love game?” Carter asked.
“Yeah,” Lucas said. “As you know, Simon wants to hide his financial status so he doesn’t attract gold-diggers. But how can an uber-wealthy guy with expensive tastes who’s never even set foot in thrift stores hide his identity for any length of time?”
Simon smirked, his competitiveness kicking into gear. “I’m sure I’ll manage well enough being on a chauffeur’s salary, Lucas. How hard can it be? And you’re right. It’s the perfect setup. Since we’ll be hopping from town to town, there’ll be lots of opportunities to meet nice, decent ladies.”
“And if you do meet a nice girl that you like, how long are you gonna lie to her about who you really are?” Marilyn asked with clear disapproval. “I’m telling you that even your devilishly handsome good looks won’t keep a woman if you keep on lying to her.”
“Hey, I don’t intend to deceive anyone for the heck of it. I just don’t want someone prejudging me because of my playboy reputation or wanting me because of my money. I need to break the cycle of attracting the wrong girls and being avoided by the decent ones.”
“So you’re really turning over a new leaf?” Erin asked in a serious tone. “For real?”
He inhaled deeply. “I want to, for the right woman. And I blame you loved-up people for this affliction,” he said, pointing an accusing finger at his partnered friends.
The girls cheered and gave each other high fives.
“Well,” Jarryd said with a grin, “since I’m a happy Alexander Jets customer, put me down as a reference. I’d like to see this happen for you, Simon, and I don’t mind twisting the truth a bit for this important cause.”
The others chimed in with the same offer.
“Thanks, guys,” Simon said with a laugh.
“Just remember, we’re counting on you to come clean after your contract is finished,” Rick warned. “And no playboy shenanigans. We’re putting our professional reputation on the line by giving you semi-truthful references because we want to support you turning over a new leaf.”
“Yes, don’t worry. I understand and appreciate what you’re doing for me. And you know what? I’m really glad I decided a long time ago not to have my photo on the Alexander Jets website. As long as the girls I meet don’t have a reason to Google Simon Alexander, it shouldn’t be a problem hiding my identity for one month. Lucas is right. This job with Ingrid Lawrence is the perfect setup.”
“Good luck, Simon,” Marilyn said. “We’re really rooting for you to find your potential other half.”
“Thanks,” he said, rolling his eyes to hide his embarrassment at the fact that he was truly excited.
This business of finding a special someone couldn’t be all that difficult when his undesirable image wouldn’t be dragging him down, right?
* * *
“If our flight can’t get rescheduled, then we might have to postpone our road trip and go home in the meantime,” Ingrid Lawrence said. “I don’t really want to do that, but Justin will have more opportunities to see me in Hobart since he’ll be there for several weeks to visit his parents after his short stay in Sydney.”
Geri Blaine hid a sigh as she placed a cup of coffee in front of her employer of almost four months. They couldn’t go home yet. Touring Australia with Ingrid as her personal assistant and travel companion was the only reason she was able to stay away from Hobart.
“Someone from Alexander Jets will be calling me soon with an answer, Mrs. Lawrence,” she said as she sat next to Ingrid on the sofa. “Let’s hope they’re able to fly us to Sydney on Friday in time for your dinner with Justin.”
Rolf, the five-and-a-half-month-old Yorkshire terrier, left Ingrid’s side to settle himself on Geri’s lap. Geri petted the pooch, smiling at the feel of his newly trimmed coat.
Rolf closed his eyes, content and tired from his recent play in the park nearby.
“I swear that dog loves you more than me,” Ingrid said with a huff before taking a sip of her coffee.
“He’s just more used to me,” Geri said. What else could she say? Rolf did prefer her over Ingrid.
One of her first tasks when she’d started working for Ingrid was to get a puppy that Ingrid could take with her during her travels. Geri had instantly fallen in love with Rolf when a friend—an expert dog obedience trainer—offered one of his Yorkie pups for sale. That same friend had helped Geri completely house-train Rolf and get him ready for long trips. By the time they’d left Hobart two and a half months ago, not only had Rolf been fully housebroken, but he’d also been travel-ready.
Fortunately, apart from the occasional utterances of jealousy, Ingrid didn’t mind much that her dog preferred Geri. Ingrid was happy enough as long as Rolf slept in Ingrid’s bedroom and sat next to her during plane take-offs and landings to soothe her fear of flying.
Geri’s phone vibrated on the coffee table, the name Alexander Jets flashing on the screen. Please, she said in silent prayer before answering the call.
“Hello, Geri, it’s Elle Milton from Alexander Jets.”
“Hi, Elle. Do you have good news for me?”
“Yes, I do. We can reschedule your charter flight to Sydney this Friday with a twelve p.m. departure time from Brisbane, if that suits.”
Geri let out a relieved sigh. “Yes, that’s perfect. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. As you know, we have a complimentary pickup from your accommodation to the airport. Would you like me to arrange that now too?”
“Yes, please. And did you manage to find a chauffeur service we can contact?”
“Yes. I have the phone number for a gentleman called Simon James. He’s a freelance chauffeur who’s worked for some of our clients before. He likes working in different places and enjoys meeting new people—that’s why he hasn’t sought permanent employment. Apparently he’s available, but only for one month.”
“Fantastic! I’ll have a chat with him and check out his references.” No way Geri would let a stranger spend the whole month with them unless she was sure he was squeaky clean and trustworthy.
She took Simon James’s contact details and finalised the arrangements for their Sydney flight before thanking Elle profusely and hanging up.
“Did she find us a chauffeur?” Ingrid asked.
“Yes. But I need to check his references first.”
“Great! I’m sure he’ll be fine since he was recommended by Alexander Jets. Let’s go ahead with our road trip, then. In a way, I’m glad I won’t be in Hobart while Justin’s there. He won’t be able to force me to see his parents if I’m not around,” Ingrid said with a harrumph.
Geri put a neutral smile on her face. For all of Ingrid’s bluster, she knew that the older lady was hurting far more than she let on. It was public knowledge that Ingrid was estranged from her own son and daughter-in-law, who’d tried to set up a rival food sauces and condiments brand using Ingrid’s recipes a few years ago. It had been a very public family spat, with Ingrid suing and winning. Now that she’d sold her company for millions, Ingrid was set on spending the money she’d worked long and hard for on herself, and not leaving any of it to her son.
Ingrid’s grandson—who was the same age as Geri at twenty-seven—was another matter, though. Ingrid had a soft spot for Justin, even though she hardly ever saw him. So Geri was extremely grateful that her employer preferred not to be in Hobart even though Justin would be spending a few weeks there. Ingrid had no idea whatsoever how much she was saving Geri from her problems by wanting to continue travelling.
Geri dialled the number Elle had given her as she sat at the dining table.
“Hello, Simon James speaking,” came a deep, sexy, masculine voice.
Gosh, Simon James sounded like Chris Hemsworth! The hunky image of her biggest celebrity crush in Thor costume instantly filled her mind.
She rolled her eyes at herself before putting on a professional tone. “Hello, Simon, my name is Geri Blaine. I work for Mrs. Ingrid Lawrence. Your number was given to me by Elle Milton from Alexander Jets, and I understand you’re open to considering a job as our chauffeur and bodyguard for one month?”
“Oh, yes. Thanks for calling, Miss Blaine. I’m definitely available.”
“Right. First, I just want to clarify a few things about the job. If you’re hired, you’re expected to stay with us in various accommodations as we travel around Sydney, the Blue Mountains, and the South Coast—which are the places Mrs. Lawrence particularly wanted to visit. You’ll be on call at all times and there will be no official days off for the whole month, but I’m sure you’ll be happy with the amount of downtime you’ll get. Mrs. Lawrence usually prefers to stay in most evenings, so during those times, you’ll be free to either join us for a meal in our accommodation or do your own thing for the rest of the night. Occasionally, she might not want to do anything for the whole day, so you might have some extra free time then.” Geri rattled off other requirements, including no drinking of alcohol unless there would be no more driving for the day, and advised Simon of the generous pay that Mrs. Lawrence was willing to offer the lucky candidate.
“That all sounds good to me,” Simon said.
“Okay, great. We’re keen to—”
“Don’t forget to tell him I don’t want him wearing those distinctive chauffeur uniforms,” Ingrid interrupted from behind her. “I hate attracting attention like that. Neat casual clothing is fine.”
Geri suppressed a sigh. She wasn’t ready to offer this man the job yet.
“Well, I’m sure you heard what Mrs. Lawrence said, Simon. As I was saying, we’re keen to hire the right person as soon as possible. But first, I need to check your references. Are you able to give me at least three phone numbers of previous clients you’ve worked with?”
“Yes. I have their details right here.”
She took them down as Simon read them out to her.
“Their companies’ customer service departments are open on weekends, so you can contact them today and you’ll be put through,” Simon said. “I took the liberty of explaining that you’re keen to find a chauffeur-bodyguard quite quickly.”
Geri was amazed. The man was well prepared. “Thank you, Simon. I’ll give you a call after we’ve made our decision. I take it you’re free to start on Friday if we do hire you?”
“Yes. Friday’s perfect. And I know Sydney, the Blue Mountains, and the South Coast very well. I can even be your very own tour guide, Miss Blaine,” Simon said lightly.
Something about the friendly and easy way Simon spoke made Geri feel relaxed about him. “Great. And please call me Geri. I’ll speak with you again soon.”
“Looking forward to it, Geri. Bye.”
Geri hung up and opened her laptop that was sitting on the dining table. She Googled Lucas Renner-Bilton of Bilton Machineries, the first name Simon had given her.
Her brows rose. Bilton Machineries was a multibillion-dollar company, and Lucas was the part-owner along with his father. If this Lucas person was to give Simon a good verbal reference, that would be impressive enough.
She Googled the next name, Rick Donnelly of RD Luxury Vehicles.
Whoa. This man owned a chain of car dealerships that sold Ferraris, Porsches, BMWs, Mercedes Benzes, and the like. Mr. Simon James was quite well connected.
She looked up the third reference, Jarryd Westbourne of Westbourne Constructions.
Her eyes bulged out. Gosh, she should have recognised the name. Jarryd had been in the news a few weeks ago for helping police catch a fraudster. She remembered how very good-looking Jarryd was, not to mention being a billionaire.
Wow. If these three people gave Simon glowing references, she most certainly would snap him up as their chauffeur. The phone numbers Simon had given her matched those appearing on each of the companies’ websites, so she knew they weren’t fake.
She called Westbourne Constructions first, introducing herself and asking for Jarryd Westbourne. She still got surprised that she was being put straight through to the boss. She’d never heard of a busy CEO taking phone calls on Saturday afternoons just to give a reference for a contract worker. Simon James must really be held in high esteem by these people.
Fifteen minutes later, Geri sat back on her chair, totally impressed. All three men had vouched for Simon’s trustworthiness and reliability, with each saying they’d use his services again and again. They’d even stated that they’d done security checks on Simon—for which Geri didn’t have the time or resources—and Simon had passed them all.
“We found our chauffeur, Mrs. Lawrence,” she called out. “I’m happy to hire Simon James.”
“Good,” Ingrid said absently. “I know I can count on you to do all the checking and worrying.”
Geri forced out a chuckle. Ingrid had no idea why she had to be extra careful about people they connected with during their trip.
She’d considered confiding in Ingrid about her predicament, but it was way too risky. Ingrid might sack her. Things had a way of being misinterpreted, and Ingrid might believe that she didn’t want to go back to Hobart because she’d stolen her younger sister’s money.
Shaking her head to push away her unwanted thoughts, she dialled Simon’s number.
“Hi, Simon, it’s Geri Blaine again.”
“Hello, Geri,” Simon said, his tone rich and delighted.
“I’ve spoken to your references and, yes, we’d like to hire you.”
“That’s great! Thank you. I’m looking forward to working with you.”
And I’m looking forward to seeing the face that goes with that voice.
Ugh, she and her weakness for deep, sexy voices! For all she knew, Simon was married with five kids.
That would be a good thing. In fact, she’d prefer it if Simon was nowhere near as good-looking as his soundalike, Chris Hemsworth. She didn’t need to be distracted by a handsome co-worker when she had her safety and future to worry about.
***End of Chapter One***
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