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Sometimes people come into your world and wreak havoc. They leave a mark that can’t be removed.

That mark for me Mia was Drake Volkov. She didn’t know her introduction to the New York art world would begin with a chance meeting at a masquerade ball with the one man her brother asked her to stay away from. But I don't think I can...

Main Tropes

  • Enemies to Lovers
  • Anti-hero
  • Forbidden Love


Emilia Hudson has never been one to consider arranged marriages, especially if it meant her fifty-five year old parents would have a say, but with her dismal love life, she’s almost reconsidering.

After her latest dating disaster, Emilia writes a simple blog post that goes viral. Worse yet, people start considering her a relationship expert, and all she feels like is a fraud.

As the emails and speaking engagements start rolling in, she realizes her only option is to take the bull by the horns and run with the unexpected fame.

What she doesn’t want to do is talk about the real reason why she won’t ever fall in love again.

However, when she gets an offer she can’t refuse from a major publisher, that’s all they want her to write about, but It isn’t until she meets the man behind the proposal that she realizes why…

Intro to Chapter One

“Come on, Mia. You can do this,” Ginger Mesnet coaxed me. She shook her head full of blonde curls as she climbed up the steps with her black stilettos clacking.
I looked up the long flight of marble stairs that threatened to carry me straight to hell. Granted, it was a hell I chose, but I didn’t expect things to feel so wrong once I arrived.
On the surface, the idea sounded like a good one, possibly even fun. Enjoy a night of drinks, meet a few good-looking men, and help out my brother, Luke.
Luke owned one of the largest private security firms in the country. Celebrities and politicians regularly tapped his company for services that law enforcement couldn’t provide. He also specialized in countersurveillance and risk management, which often meant being proactive when it came to the bad guys, which was what led me here tonight.
My brother’s line of work often put him in complex situations with outcomes bordering on downright dangerous. Thankfully for him, he managed to run into the right woman who was about as twisted as he was, and they both loved the adventure of it. In fewer than two weeks, they’d be walking down the aisle, and because of that, I volunteered to keep an eye on someone for my brother so Luke could spend a blissful three weeks away from work.
My preference? I tended to enjoy a paintbrush and a blank canvas rather than sneaking down an alley to spy on someone, but here I was in all my sparkly glamour.
I think my willingness to help my brother out was because his relationship with Hannah had secretly given me hope that screwed-up people could find love. Plus, he’d caught me in a weak moment. I’d just broken up with another quasi-boyfriend before coming to New York. I seemed to specialize in men who were as walled off as me. Usually, it was a win-win.
Regardless, I now stood at the entrance to a singles event in the middle of Manhattan with a gallery owner I didn’t want to disappoint and a mission to spy on someone for my brother, of whom I’d only seen a photo.
I watched Ginger tread up the stairs as a group of men, with satin and feathers wrapped around their heads, meandered up the steps.
Was this what my life had come to?
Why, yes. I think it had.
“I don’t hear your feet trying to catch up.” Ginger’s voice rang through the air as her red silk dress cascaded down the steps behind her.
One thing I learned about Ginger was that she lived for any type of affair that would allow her to dress up and drink, which was probably what made her the perfect owner of an art gallery. She was also the perfect unsuspecting companion for the night.
A woman with a black cape hopped up the stairs, and I kept in a groan.
Did I mention the singles event tonight was a masquerade ball? I guess that would explain the capes, masks, and feathers a little better. Truthfully, the idea of hiding behind a disguise seemed like a great idea yesterday.
Not so much.
It didn’t provide nearly enough protection from the world I was about to enter.
It was like Eyes Wide Shut met a New York Furry Convention.
It didn’t matter how much gold glitter I’d painted around my eyes. I didn’t belong here. Where I did belong was back in my studio on the beach in California, painting to raging music and blissfully ignoring the outside world.
A man clad in a rented tuxedo zipped past me and glanced over his shoulder as I stood rethinking my life. His peacock mask made me cringe as his beady eyes stared back at me like I was a disgrace to singles everywhere.
I probably was. I didn’t like dating, relationships, or any complication that involved emotion. I reserved those pesky feelings for the canvas.
The man hopped up the rest of the steps to join the other singles, and I debated whether I wanted to make a run for it. No client of my brother deserved this type of devotion. Besides, how would I know who was who with masks on everyone? As a team, we didn’t think this through very clearly.
I sucked in a deep breath and glanced around. It was definitely time to get out of here. Ginger would have to forgive me, and so would my brother.
“Don’t even think about getting out of here.” A man’s sultry voice snuck up on me from behind. He sounded like pure sex. The huskiness intrigued me, but I refused to turn around to give him what he wanted.
When I didn’t acknowledge him, the man placed his fingers on the small of my back and an unexpected thrill spiked through me.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I snapped, turning to face the guy who was beyond brazen, but instead of being angry, I was in awe of the man in front of me.
His icy blue eyes rested on mine as I studied him. His chiseled features looked like a carving from one of the masters, and he filled out his expensive suit to perfection. My eyes dropped to his pouty lips before bringing my gaze back to his, and that’s when I realized how much he resembled the photo of Drake Volkov, the man I was supposed to be watching from a distance.
I stiffened at the realization but forced the worry away. There would be absolutely no reason for Drake to know anything about me or why I was here. Luke would’ve made sure of that.
I turned my gaze to the street below. My brother’s instructions had been simple. Keep an eye on Drake from afar and find out who he was here with and where he was going after the event. By the looks of it, I’d say Drake Volkov was here alone.
“Well?” I asked again, attempting to sound annoyed. “I’m waiting for an answer.”
Intrigue flashed through his eyes, and my pulse increased slightly. I’d never gotten nervous around men.
In fact, I liked to believe I made them nervous. I’d always managed to maintain control of my life. Relationships had never been a priority, and they never would be. I didn’t need a man to be satisfied. I had my work. I had a full life back in California. If I had needs, I made sure they were met and moved on.
“My hope is to convince a very beautiful woman to stay and endure the horrors of the evening with me. You don’t belong here, and neither do I.” The man could cast a spell with just his words, and they curled around me like magic.
“When you put it that way, why would I ever run away? Sounds like a delightful event.” I couldn’t hide my smile, but a pulse of worry dashed through my veins. “If you can tell me one good reason to stay at an event with a bunch of men in feathers, then maybe I’ll reconsider.”
“Because I’m not one of them.” His eyes glinted with satisfaction, and I had to chuckle.
Drake was confident and smooth, two characteristics that usually got me in deep trouble.
“Which reminds me. How did you get away with wearing no mask to a masquerade ball?” My brow arched.
“I’m not much for rules,” he replied simply as he held out his arm for me, and rather than run away, I slipped mine through his.
Drake slowly led me up the stairs, and I had to remind myself that he was completely off-limits and the man my brother wanted me to tail.
“What made you come tonight if you’re dreading it as much as me?” I glanced at him and noticed the dark stubble along his jawline. This guy was beyond sexy and definitely my kind of trouble.
“I’m here on a dare. How about you?” he answered.
I let go of his arm and glanced toward the crowd of people congregating near the bar. I didn’t see Ginger, which wasn’t a surprise. She managed to get swallowed into whatever affair she was attending.
“I wish I could say the same.” I smiled and saw a number of women slow their steps purely to admire how handsome this guy was. I couldn’t say I blamed them. Besides, he wasn’t mine to claim.
“There you are,” Ginger said, rushing over with a martini in her hand. “There are men all over the place.” She barely gave a glance in Drake’s direction. “How about we move toward the dance floor?”
“I’m not feeling much like dancing,” I confessed.
Noticing Ginger’s expression fall, I quickly changed my tactic. After all, I didn’t want to blow my chances at her art gallery because I’d brought her here under false pretenses. In Ginger’s eyes, I was here to find a date for my brother’s wedding.
“Maybe it’s just my nerves. He’s already caught me trying to escape once.” I pointed my thumb in Drake’s direction, but she didn’t bother to look at him.
“It’s true. Really, you should be thanking me that she’s still here.” His low voice held an intensity that unsteadied me. I wasn’t used to this kind of reaction. I always knew how to keep a safe distance between desire, need, and lust, but as I stood here next to him, the line was starting to blur. Maybe it was because I knew he was off-limits. That had to be it. I knew I couldn’t have him, so I wanted him even more.
Made sense.
I snuck a look at Drake, but his eyes were already fastened on mine. His gaze was filled with some sort of possession I’d never encountered before, and it sent an unexpected shiver through me.
“Umm . . .” I bit my lip, completely taken aback at my response. I was rendered speechless.
I was never rendered speechless. I always had too much to say about everything and everyone.
“Let’s get you a drink and get you loosened up.” Ginger pulled me with her before I could gather my thoughts or object.
I felt Drake’s eyes on me all the way to the bar, and I was quite tempted to give him another look, but I resisted.
“So you can thank me later for pulling you away from the most notorious bachelor in all of Hell’s Kitchen.” Ginger laughed nervously. “Not to mention, he’s the son of a mobster. Not wedding date material.”
I leaned against the bar and tapped my fingers along the white marble as I waited impatiently to place my drink order. Leave it to my brother to skip one or two important details before sending me here.
“That doesn’t automatically make him bad,” I whispered, thinking back to my own rather cavalier ideas about relationships and sex. I liked having zero commitment. And as far as family not always sticking to the right side of the law, I wasn’t one to judge. Not all of our family was on the right side of the bars.
“What’s his name, anyway?” I asked casually, pretending to play the part my brother assigned.
Ginger’s loose blonde curls bounced along her shoulders as she broke into laughter.
“Drake Volkov. But I’m telling you, if you knew even half of his issues, you’d stay far away.” She continued to shake her head. “Just trust me. You don’t want a thing to do with that man or his family.” Her eyes narrowed on me as she took a sip of her drink and I ordered mine.
“I mean it,” she continued. “Steer clear. The entire family should be locked up.”
Obviously, Ginger didn’t know me that well, or she’d understand that the moment someone told me not to do something was the exact moment I wanted to do it.
It was a sick trait, but I couldn’t help it.
I glanced behind me to where Drake had been standing, but he was nowhere to be seen. I’d found him and already managed to let him slip away. This kind of work really was exhausting.
I reached for my glass of champagne and took a sip. By the looks of the place, I’d need several glasses to survive the night.
I slid my finger along my hair and readjusted the mask around my eyes. Gold glitter floated through the air, and I held in a groan of frustration.
My brother owed me big time.
“There are two very good-looking men over by the sign-in table, and they’re looking our way,” Ginger hummed, setting her empty glass on a table.
I followed her gaze and saw two decent-looking guys watching us as they drank beer. Granted, they were wearing masks, so who knew, but neither did a thing for me.
In fact, the red velvet curtains behind them looked far more appealing—especially from an artist’s point of view—but I knew I had to tread lightly with Ginger. After a two-year court battle, her divorce was finalized one month ago, and she hasn’t wasted a moment since.
Not to mention, we were two nights away from my big night, the opening of my exhibit at her gallery. She held the key to my entrance into the New York art scene, and if it meant some harmless flirting, so be it.
One of the guys held up his beer toward us, which was exactly the opening Ginger had been waiting for. She let out an excited chirp, and I held my glass tighter, praying it would shatter in my fingertips and buy me a bloody ticket out of here.
“You know you don’t want to bother with either of those men,” Drake said in a hushed tone. His voice made my skin sizzle with excitement. “They won’t interest you in the least bit.”
Ginger snapped her head to look at the man standing behind me. Her gaze hardened on him, and I realized in that moment that there might be more than one reason Drake was off-limits. I turned around to see him but took a step back.
“And you will?” I asked, folding my one arm across my chest.
I took a sip of champagne, not taking my eyes off him.
The attraction I felt toward Drake was insanely dangerous. The combination of dark hair and light blue eyes was hauntingly beautiful, and the dark lashes outlining his eyes would probably be the death of me. Men like this didn’t exist where I lived in California. I was used to the surfer boys and club owners. This guy had an edge about him that drew me in far too deep.
“Certainly sure of yourself,” I retorted, swallowing more champagne.
“If I don’t believe in myself, no one else will. It’s totally your call, though. If you’re into those two over there, be my guest. I’ll just hang at the bar, enjoying the view of you in that goddess of a dress.”
The cocky bastard had me. He could read me like an open book, and I didn’t like it one bit.
Not one bit.
I hadn’t stayed single this long by falling for some guy’s pick-up lines and . . .
Who the hell was I kidding?
He was the exact type of guy I ran from, but for some reason, I didn’t want to go anywhere, which was a danger sign as clear as any.
I couldn’t be a part of whatever Drake had planned for the rest of the evening, or I wouldn’t get the information Luke needed. I brought my eyes back to his, and he looked thoroughly amused.
“Listen, I’m looking for safe with no drama, so I’ll take my chances with the Hardy Boys over there.” I kept my face void of expression and pointed at the two guys who were still watching us closely.
Ginger snickered, and I suddenly felt bad for Drake, but he didn’t miss a beat.
“Well, it sounds like the matchup is off to a good start already. If you change your mind, you’ll know where to find me.” He turned around but stopped and spun back around. “And don’t let Ginger taint your views about me too much. She’s biased.”
Ginger grabbed my hand and nearly pulled my arm off as she tugged me toward the two men.
“So you know him?” I asked. “Like personally? Not just his reputation.”
She let out a sigh and slowed her pace.
“My sister was married to his brother.”

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