Standing in front of the bathroom mirror, Aurora Kingston put the finishing touches on her lipstick and stepped back to look at her handiwork. She barely recognized the woman staring back at her. Five years ago, she’d been pregnant, homeless, and had no idea what the next day would bring.
Now she wore a sleeveless, cream-colored, satin, gown with a strapless neckline, draped corset bodice, and an actual train, sent over by the designer, himself. A limousine waited outside to take her to Lincoln Center for a movie premiere. Aurora had curled her hair in long waves and applied makeup, doing her best to look as glamorous as possible for her evening with famous stars the average person would never meet.
This was her life and there were moments, like now, when she had to pinch herself to be sure she wasn’t dreaming.
“Mommy, look! I’m going with you to the party tonight!” Her five year old daughter Leah stomped into the room wearing a pink, sparkly princess gown from her dress up box, the matching shoes that were too big for her little feet and a handbag dangling from her arm. “Makeup please!” Leah closed her eyes and puckered her lips, making her I’m ready face.
Aurora laughed. Her daughter was such a ham, she thought, as she picked up the tube of gloss and swiped it over Leah’s tiny pursed lips. “All set. You look beautiful!”
“I know!” Leah said with confidence that never ceased to amaze. “So do you, Mommy.”
“Thank you, honey.” Smiling, Aurora reached out and tugged on Leah’s long blonde hair that was damp from her bath and curled around her adorable face.
Aurora saw her own features in her daughter’s smaller ones but she also caught glimpses of Leah’s father’s, at least the unique indigo color of his eyes. It had been a sizzling Florida summer. Nick had been visiting a friend who lived in Miami Beach. It was the same day Aurora had turned eighteen and aged out of foster care. She’d had nowhere to go except the diner where she worked and had been lucky the owners took pity on her and said they would let her stay in the back room.
While serving tables that afternoon, she’d met Nick – they’d exchanged first names only – and they had spent one night together. It had been enough to result in her getting pregnant but at the time? The hours she’d spent with Nick on the beach and later in his hotel room had been an unexpected and sensual escape from the painful reality of her life.
As usual, when she thought of her daughter’s father, a pang of regret hit her hard. Without Nick’s last name, she’d had no way to find him once she’d realized she was pregnant. Although Leah would never know her daddy, Aurora consoled herself with the fact that her daughter had uncles who would stand in as father figures and male role models.
Men she’d never have met if her oldest half-brother, Linc, hadn’t uncovered her existence after their father, the bastard, had passed away. Linc had discovered checks proving Kenneth Kingston had paid to keep Aurora out of his life and in foster care. He’d then traveled to Florida where Aurora had grown up, welcomed her into the family, and remained in town to get to know her, while giving her time to decide whether she wanted to move to New York and be part of their clan.
Leah slid her hand into Aurora’s. “Let’s go to the ball!” she cried out in her high pitched voice, pulling Aurora out of her musings about the past and things she couldn’t change.
“Honey, you know Samantha is babysitting tonight.”
The girl was a high school senior who lived in the neighborhood and occasionally watched Leah so Aurora could get work done.
“I know,” Leah said, and with a dramatic sigh. She released Aurora’s hand, stepped out of the bathroom and began to spin around the bedroom. “But I’d rather meet my handsome prince tonight. Are you going to meet your handsome prince at the ball, mommy?” Ever since they’d watched Cinderella, Leah had been obsessed with the idea of the prince.
She kept spinning, saving Aurora from having to answer. There hadn’t been any princes in her life, handsome or otherwise, since the night she’d gotten pregnant.
Aurora watched as Leah pretended to dance across the ballroom floor. Samantha was going to have a rough time getting Leah to sleep unless a quiet movie managed to chill her out. She twirled around, nearly missing the dresser as she spun.
“Stop before you get dizzy or trip!” Aurora said, too late.
Thanks to the play shoes, Leah’s feet tangled and she ended in a heap on the floor, giggling.
Aurora sighed. “Come on. Up you go.” She helped her daughter stand. “Time to go downstairs and wait for your sitter.”
“I like Samantha. Do you think she’d play Barbies? I want to show her Malibu Barbie and Ken. He promised to take Barbie to the ball tonight, too!”
A grin pulled at Aurora’s lips. “I’m sure she’ll play whatever you want before bed but remember, you promised to be good for her.” Aurora grabbed her purse from the bed where she’d left it and led Leah downstairs just as the doorbell rang.
“Samantha!” Leah barreled the rest of the way down the stairs. Thank goodness she’d left her dress up shoes on the floor in the bedroom.
“Remember, don’t open the door until I get there!” Aurora called out. Leah had a bad habit of forgetting the don’t open the door without a grown up presentrule.
Aurora reached the door where Leah was hopping in excitement but she hadn’t unlocked it or let Samantha inside. “Thank you for listening to directions. “Now what do we do?” Aurora asked.
“Who is it?” Leah yelled loudly.
“It’s Samantha!” the babysitter said back.
Smiling, Aurora nodded at her daughter. “Go ahead.”
Leah reached up, turned the lock and opened the front door. “Samantha! Let’s play!” she said before the girl could even step inside.
The pretty teen laughed and edged her way into the house.
Aurora glanced at Leah. “Let me go over everything with Samantha before I leave. Go change into your pajamas and Samantha will be right in.”
“First, give me kiss good night.” Ignoring her gown, Aurora bent down and basked in the warmth and sweetness of Leah’s arms around her neck. “Night, sweetheart.”
“Good night, mommy.” Leah turned and ran for her room.
Samantha stood waiting. “You look pretty, Ms. Kingston.”
“Thank you. It should be a fun night. I’m guessing I’ll be home around one, like we discussed.”
“No problem. I drove my mom’s car.” The neighborhood with free-standing houses was well lit and safe. Samantha lived about four houses down but it was still better to have her car or get picked up instead of walking home after dark. Aurora couldn’t leave a sleeping Leah to drive Samantha home herself.
“Great.” Aurora went over Leah’s bedtime routine and schedule, what she could and couldn’t eat, no matter what she claimed, and confirmed Samantha had Aurora’s cell phone.
She walked out the front door and waited until she heard the lock behind her before heading down the steps and towards the limousine waiting to take her from Long Island to Manhattan.
She’d been a Kingston for the last four years but she’d never get used to the perks that came with being wealthy and part of a famous family. Speaking of her family, she thought about them during the ride.
Linc was the CEO of Kingston Enterprises, a real estate company worth millions, and married to Jordan, his best friend and the woman who’d accompanied him to meet Aurora for the first time. The premiere starred her famous actress, her sister-in-law, Sasha Keaton, and world-renowned actor, Harrison Dare. The film had been acquired by K-Productions, a company owned by Sasha, Harrison, and Xander, Sasha’s husband and Aurora’s half brother. And there was already Oscar buzz surrounding the film and the performances.
Adding to the fairy dust that had been sprinkled over Aurora’s life, the film’s producer, Cassidy Kingston, was married to Aurora’s brother, Dash, the lead singer of the world famous rock band, The Original Kings. Rounding out her family was another real estate mogul, Beck Daniels, Linc’s former nemesis, who was married to Aurora’s half sister, Chloe.
All in all, Aurora had four half siblings and their mother, Melly, had stepped in as a surrogate mom to Aurora and grandmother to Leah.
Not only had she gone from poverty to wealth, she’d gone from being totally alone to being accepted by warm, kindhearted people. Aurora wouldn’t have cared if the Kingstons were dirt poor as long as they’d welcomed her into the fold.
The limousine pulled up to the red carpet and the driver opened her door. She stepped out and as promised, Xander waited for her at the drop-off point to walk her in.
“You look beautiful,” he said, leaning in and pressing a kiss to her cheek.
She looked at her screenwriter brother in his tuxedo and black framed eyeglasses, and grinned. “You look pretty hot yourself. Eyes bothering you? Headache?” she asked, worried whenever he had his glasses on.
During a stint in the Marines, his unit had been hit by an IED. He’d suffered a head injury, leading to issues that resulted in his medical discharge. He only wore his glasses when he worked late or was suffering from dizziness or headaches.
“I’m fine. I was up late writing, that’s all.”
She studied him, taking in his coloring and expression and decided he was telling the truth. “How’s Sasha?” she asked.
“Excited. Gorgeous.” He lit up at the subject of his wife. “I hope this movie is the one that gets her an Oscar.”
“You’re so cute.” She grinned. “Thanks for meeting me.” She didn’t have to walk the red carpet but her brothers had learned her insecurities well and took good care of her.
She entered the room, doing her best not to let her jaw hang open or show her awe of the variety of famous names and beautiful people surrounding her. This was the pre-screening and they’d be ushered into the theater area soon.
“I see Dash and Cassidy,” Aurora said to Xander. “Go find your wife.” She patted his arm and sent him on his way. “Dash, Cassidy!” she called, catching their attention before they could get lost in the crowd.
They turned and she walked over, joining them. Cassidy was nine months pregnant, due any day, and glowing despite her large belly.
“Who’s watching the princess?” Cassidy asked.
Aurora slid her hair over one shoulder. “I have a babysitter who lives in the neighborhood. If Leah doesn’t wear her out and she’s willing to come back next time I need her, I consider it a win.” She was still dizzy from her daughter’s antics while she got ready.
Dash laughed. “Maybe she’ll play guitar for her all night?”
“Funny,” she muttered, at his reference to the last Christmas present, a guitar, he’d bought Leah, for which Aurora had given him hell.
Especially after Leah woke her up at five every morning when she played. Badly. The child did not take after her talented uncle when it came to music, at least not yet. She was young and there was time but until she was older, Aurora wasn’t ready to spend money on lessons. She needed for Leah to have a burning desire to learn, not jump from one thing to another.
She decided to change the subject. “I cannot wait to see the film!”
Cassidy’s cheeks turned red, no doubt because it was her first solo turn at producing. “I’m so nervous,” she said. “I’m not sure if the twisting in my stomach is the baby or anxiety!” She rubbed her lower back and Aurora glanced at her with concern.
“Babe, you’ve got this. They’re already talking Oscar and Golden Globe nominations. I’m so proud of you.” Dash hugged her to his side.
Watching them, Aurora felt a twinge of envy at the relationships her siblings had found. Though she was beyond happy for each of them, Aurora’s life had been one struggle after another until Linc had found her. With her focus on Leah, she couldn’t imagine ever finding a man who’d want them as a package deal. And that’s exactly what they were. Leah would always come first. She was determined to shower her girl with all the love and security Aurora had never had growing up.
“Don’t remind me,” Cassidy said of the potential awards, still holding on to her belly in a way that did not make Aurora comfortable.
“Are you feeling okay?” Aurora asked.
“I am.” Cassidy blew out a breath and seemed to shake off whatever she’d been feeling. “I’m just tired. We made the rounds when we arrived.”
“And that’s why we found a place to hide out in for a little while,” Dash said of the corner where they stood.
Aurora nodded. “I remember how tough it was at the end of my pregnancy. You should get off your feet and rest.”
“She’s right,” Dash said, his growing concern also obvious.
Cassidy sighed. “Soon.” She glanced around the room and her gaze settled on the corner of the room by what was probably the bar. “Looks like Harrison’s family is as close as yours.”
Aurora had met Harrison Dare when Sasha, Xander and Cassidy were in the early days of putting their production company together. Dash and Xander had houses in East Hampton and Aurora, who’d been staying with Melly, had come to visit often. With Sasha and Cassidy’s help, she’d set up her nonprofit to help girls who aged out of foster care with no guidance or help after.
Harrison, who she recognized in the group, was the epitome of a movie star with his black hair, sexy smile that was just short of perfect, courtesy of one side tooth that overlapped another, but added to his appeal. Men surrounded him. One had his back to her. The others were obviously related to one another with similar features.
“The Dirty Dares.” Aurora grinned at the name Harrison had used to describe his family, one gained by their Dirty Dare vodka brand.
“Yes. Their vodka is world famous and extremely good. I wish I could have a drink before I have to sit through an hour and a half of everyone watching the first movie I produced,” Cassidy said on a cute whine.
“The doctor said you can have a small glass of white wine,” Dash said, in a don’t push your luck, tone of voice.
Aurora was about to pull her gaze away from the huddle of handsome men when the one whose face she couldn’t see turned her way. Familiarity hit her in the gut but there was no possible way it was him. She’d been thinking about Leah’s father earlier and he’d been on her mind. That was the only reason she thought Nick stood across the room from her now.
The rationale didn’t stop her stomach from spasming or palms from sweating. Then he looked at her head on, those eyes she’d been musing on earlier, meeting hers.
“Oh, my God.” Her voice shook and dizziness assaulted her.
Cassidy glanced over.
“What’s wrong?” Dash immediately clasped Aurora’s elbow and pulled her toward him, protective as usual.
She shook her head. “Nothing… I… There’s someone who looks familiar but…” It couldn’t be him. What were the odds?
But he’d left the other men and had started towards her. Aurora panicked. She needed … time to think, to breathe, to accept who he was and what it meant.
“I … I need the ladies’ room!” Aurora jerked her arm out of Dash’s grip and bolted for the double doors that led to a hallway where the bathrooms must be located.
“Aurora?” Chloe called out her name as Aurora passed her sister by, not stopping to talk or answer and she felt her sister’s presence as Chloe followed her to the ladies room.
Aurora didn’t care as long as she had a few minutes to process the fact that Nick, her daughter’s father, was here and her entire life was about to change. Again.
Nick Dare stood with his brothers, killing time until they were let into the theater to see Harrison’s latest movie. He did his best to keep his attention on the conversation around him but it was hard. Yesterday he’d been in L.A. overseeing an issue in one of their California Meridian hotels. Tonight he was in Manhattan, trying to keep his eyes open.
He and his siblings wore tuxedos, all except Zach, who insisted on marching to his own beat, which included his dark jeans, hooded leather jacket, and scuffed, black motorcycle boots. Ever the rebel. The only person missing was his twin sister, Jade, for reasons everyone understood. She suffered from migraines and wasn’t feeling well, though Nick sensed the reason she’d skipped tonight went deeper and he’d talk to her about it tomorrow.
“I thought you were bringing a date?” Asher, his oldest sibling, interrupted Nick’s thoughts. “One of the women you know in the city.” He took a sip of his Vodka as he waited for an answer.
At the question, Nick rethought turning down his own drink but he’d figured the alcohol wouldn’t help his jet lag.
“Umm, no. Last woman I was with used up her three dates,” Nick said.
Harrison groaned. “You really are an asshole.”
Nick shook his head, disagreeing. “If I let a relationship go on despite knowing it doesn’t have a chance, then I’d be the asshole who led them on.” He shrugged. “I know in three dates if something’s going to work out or not. Seems fair to me.”
Zach burst out laughing. “Are you still using that rule?”
“It’s a solid one.” As far as Nick was concerned, true personality wasn’t difficult to discern. Especially when money was involved. Women who were after him for the Dare name or fortune showed their true colors quickly.
He ignored his brothers’ comments and turned to look around. Thanks to Harrison’s talent and fame, Nick was used to premieres, after parties and the celebrities around the room.
His gaze landed on Dash Kingston, lead singer of The Original Kings, and one of Nick’s favorite rock bands. They’d met earlier when Harrison had introduced Dash’s very pregnant wife as the producer of tonight’s film. Beside him stood a blonde woman with a knockout body in a gorgeous fitted gown.
A surge of awareness rippled through him but it wasn’t one of simple attraction, though he was definitely drawn to her. It was something more. He continued to stare until, as if sensing the weight of his gaze, she turned her head.
Her eyes widened and he realized he’d been right. What he’d felt was a renewed connection with the only woman with whom he’d experienced something real. He might have been young then but he’d known.
He was halfway across the room before he registered that he’d moved. People blocked his way and he was lucky he caught sight of her rushing out the double doors. He followed.
He reached the hallway just as she disappeared into the Ladies Room. He had no doubt she’d recognized him but he didn’t understand why she’d run. They’d had one amazing night together. Why would that freak her out now?
Determined to get answer, he propped himself against the wall outside the bathroom door and settled in to wait. Aurora – no last names needed – had gotten away from him once before.
He wasn’t about to let it happen again.
Aurora sat in a chair in the outer room of the restroom, bent at the waist, attempting to pull herself together.
“Breathe,” Chloe said, putting a hand on Aurora’s back.
“Trying.” Aurora couldn’t get past the way her mind and body were spinning out of control from laying eyes on Nick. The man she never thought to see again.
She’d been pregnant and alone. Then Braden and Willow Prescott, who she’d met at the free clinic she’d gone to for prenatal care in Florida, had given her a place to stay. Not long after, Linc had shown up and announced Aurora was a Kingston. But through it all, she’d been a single mother. It was how she identified herself and how she thought she always would be.
Now Leah’s father had surfaced and questions filtered through her brain. Would Nick want to be part of his daughter’s life? Would he fight for custody? Was that possible? She didn’t know him at all. Not his personality or his feelings about anything. One thing she was certain of, things were bound to change. At the thought, she began hyperventilating again.
“Okay enough.” Chloe knelt down on her knees. “You need to tell me what’s going on because I’m starting to panic.”
“I … Okay. I just …”
“Let’s start with why you ran out of the ballroom.” Now that she had Aurora’s attention, Chloe’s voice gentled.
Aurora nodded and pulled in a longer breath. “I saw someone from my past.”
Chloe placed a hand on Aurora’s knee, steadying herself. “Who?”
Tears filled Aurora’s eyes and she refused to let them fall. “Leah’s father,” she whispered.
“Holy shit! No wonder you’re in here hyperventilating!” Chloe pushed herself up. “Sorry I have to stand. This position is killing my knees.”
Aurora glanced up so Chloe didn’t have to kneel in order to talk to her.
“Do you want to tell me how you met him?”
Aurora had never discussed that night with her family. It hadn’t seemed to matter when she couldn’t track Nick down no matter how much money she now had.
“It was my birthday. I had aged out of foster care that day and I went to work at the diner, as usual. I’d already spoken to the owners who had said I could sleep in the back room which was a Godsend.” She began to recall her past. “I waited on a table of guys. One of them, his name was Nick, asked me out for that night. Normally I’d have said no but it was my birthday and I figured I deserved something good that day …” she trailed off, remembering.
She’d been attracted to Nick from the moment she saw him. The other guys around the table had been cocky, prep-school types. Most had blonde hair and sticks up their asses. They’d whistled and winked at her but none would lower themselves to ask her out.
Nick had been different. Kinder. Confident in an innate way. He didn’t have to prove himself or try and act superior. He’d just been a hot, sexy guy who knew what he wanted. She couldn’t believe he’d chosen her.
Chloe waited patiently for her to continue.
Aurora drew a deep breath. “We had dinner, walked on the beach and talked, a lot. We ended up back in his room and … you know the rest. But he used protection.” She waved her hands in the air, as frustrated now as she was then. “It was just one of those freak things.”
She’d never regret having Leah. She adored her child and Leah was her life, but at the time, her fear had been overwhelming.
“Nick and I never exchanged last names. We both knew he was in town for a short time visiting a friend, and would go back to his life. I had to figure out mine.”
“And now he’s out there?” Chloe asked.
“He was standing with the so-called Dirty Dare brothers.”
Chloe narrowed her gaze. “You said Nick.” She pulled her phone from her purse. “Don’t worry. I’m just asking Sasha if there’s a Nick Dare.” Her fingers tapped on the screen.
Aurora blinked. “He looked like Harrison,” she whispered.
A few seconds later, Chloe’s phone beeped and she glanced down. “And we have a winner. Nick Dare is your baby daddy.”
Aurora nodded slowly. A Dare. A cousin to Dr. Braden Prescott and his wife, Willow, who had helped her when she was pregnant. Talk about a small world. Well, that was a coincidence but one she could handle. Nick being here now was harder.
“I have to face him. He needs to know about Leah.” Her insides trembled at the thought.
Chloe sighed. “He does but let’s start with you just seeing him again and go from there. Can you do that?”
“I have no choice.” Drawing a deep breath for courage, Aurora rose to her feet. She’d run like a coward but she’d needed time to get over the shock.
It was time to face her past.
“I’m ready,” she said to Chloe.
Her sister pulled her into a hug. Something that even after four years she was still getting used to after a lifetime of being deprived of affection and physical touch by any adult in her life.
She hugged Chloe back. “Thank you.”
“Don’t be silly. That’s what family is for.” Chloe shot her a look and Aurora nodded.
Chloe stepped towards the bathroom door and walked outside. Aurora followed behind. When she stepped into the hallway, she came face to face with Nick.
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