Aileen & Kristian
Pleasure is a game to him. Until one woman changes all the rules…
As one of Hollywood’s hottest producers, Kristian Bowen is on top of the world. With the Quantum team fresh off a clean sweep of awards season and looking ahead to the premiere of their new film, Insidious, Kristian’s life is exactly how he likes it, complete with a stable of willing subs to tend to his every desire. Until he attends the wedding of his friend and business partner Flynn Godfrey and meets Aileen Gifford, the close friend of Flynn’s new wife, Natalie. Since meeting Aileen five months ago, Kristian’s carefully cultivated life has changed in ways he never could’ve expected. Now Aileen and her children are moving to Los Angeles, and he’s not sure whether to be excited or terrified about his powerful feelings for the single mom…
Aileen is coming off the worst year of her life, spent battling breast cancer while taking care of two young children. When Natalie, Flynn and their other friends encourage Aileen to move to LA and work for Quantum, she jumps at the chance to give her family a fresh start. And with her off-the-charts attraction to Flynn’s business partner in the mix, the idea of living in LA becomes that much sweeter. Until everyone shows up to welcome her and the kids to their new home in LA—except Kristian.
He can’t avoid her forever, and when these two finally see each other again, sparks fly between the single mom and the producer with a past he’s kept hidden from everyone who matters to him. When that past rears its ugly head, will he run away from the woman he loves or turn to her for comfort in the storm? And will she prevail in convincing him that he can be himself, in every possible way, with her?
Kristian and Aileen’s long-awaited story is full of heat, heart and humor, as well as appearances from all the Quantum characters readers love!
(Quantum Series, Book 6)
By Marie Force
I counted the days. I can’t remember the last time I was so excited for something to happen that I counted the fucking days. I did that leading up to today, the day Aileen and her kids, Logan and Maddie, officially move to LA. I first met them in January when they came for Flynn and Natalie’s wedding. Before Natalie’s life blew up after she got together with Flynn, she was Logan’s teacher. Aileen was sick with breast cancer then, and Natalie was a good friend to her and her kids.
The first time I saw Aileen at the wedding, she was painfully thin with deep, dark circles under her eyes and the shortest hair I’d ever seen on a woman. I found out later that was because she’d lost her hair during chemo, and it had started to grow back. I remember wondering about the odd haircut and then feeling guilty when I found out why her hair was so short.
But the signs of her illness aren’t what I remember most about my friend’s wedding day. No, it was Aileen’s joyfulness that stood out. I’d never met a woman who had such incandescent light about her, even during what had to be some of the darkest and most difficult days of her life. She was, even in the throes of illness, so beautifully alive.
I was drawn to her like the proverbial moth to flame, and like a moth that doesn’t know enough not to fly directly into the heat, I was unable to resist talking to her, getting to know her and nurturing an immediate and unprecedented attraction. The heat of that attraction swallowed me whole, and I was powerless to walk away. I let the attraction grow and flourish into friendship over subsequent visits, including the one in which I helped to convince her that she and the kids ought to move from New York to LA to live near us. Hayden offered her a job at Quantum, and we all encouraged her to take the leap.
And then I counted the fucking days.
So, what am I doing sitting on the floor of the game room closet in my Hollywood penthouse apartment, ignoring one call after another from my business partners, who are also my closest friends and the only family I’ve ever had? They want to know where I am, if I’m all right and why I’m out of touch on a day we’ve all been looking forward to.
We have plans. Flynn and Nat are picking up Aileen and the kids at LAX while the rest of us—Jasper, Ellie, Hayden, Addie, Leah, Emmett, Marlowe, Sebastian and I are supposed to be waiting for them at the house Ellie used to call home in Venice Beach. Since she’s moved in with Jasper, Ellie is renting the house to Aileen. I’m sure the others are already there as the airport contingent is due home within the hour. Everyone is excited for them to get here.
We have surprises waiting for them. Two days ago, Natalie, Marlowe, Addie and Leah accepted the shipment from the company that moved Aileen’s stuff from New York. Flynn, Hayden and I spent an entire evening putting beds together while the women unpacked their kitchen stuff. Aileen thinks she has all that to contend with when she arrives, but when they walk into the house today, their things will be waiting for them along with a black Audi sedan in the driveway.
I check my watch to confirm the car is being delivered right about now. The car will be in the company’s name, but I bought it for her. I knew she’d never accept such an extravagant gift unless I billed it as a company car. I’m not sure why I felt the need to do such a thing, but I was at the dealership finalizing the purchase when it occurred to me that buying her a car might be too much too soon. By then it was too late to take it back, and besides, I didn’t want to. She needs a car, so I got her one.
Natalie stocked the kitchen with groceries and filled the house with vases full of Aileen’s favorite white hydrangeas.
Imagining her reaction to everything we’ve done has me yearning for something I simply have no right to. If she is an angel sent straight from heaven, I’m the devil himself in comparison.
I grew up mostly on the streets in the meanest part of Los Angeles, clawed my way into the film business, catching a couple of lucky breaks that brought me to where I am today. I’m one of Hollywood’s most influential and powerful producers, a partner in the Quantum Production Company with some of the biggest names in the business. I’m on top of the world—literally—in my penthouse apartment right in the heart of Hollywood, which is suddenly trendy again.
Despite my many successes, despite the Oscar and Golden Globe that sit on a shelf in my office at work, and despite the fortune I’ve accumulated through hard work and determination, I’m still the homeless, rootless boy I once was. Crippled by fear, I’m sitting in the corner of a closet, ignoring calls and texts from the people closest to me and telling myself it’s the right thing to do.
I’m a piece of shit compared to her. The things I’ve done to survive and thrive in this harsh world would horrify her. I’m wealthy beyond my wildest dreams—and I had some fairly wild dreams as a kid running the wicked streets of LA—but all the money in the world can’t scrub the darkness from my soul.
I shudder in revulsion when I think about the things I did to stay alive. I don’t believe in regrets as a matter of principle. You can’t change the past, so why waste the present with regrets, or at least that’s always been my philosophy. But for the first time in my life, I wallow in a vast sea of regret. I wish I were someone different so I’d be good enough for a beautiful, unspoiled angel like her. Bile stings my throat, bringing tears to my eyes. I have to stay away from her and her precious children, even if everything inside me calls out for her, wishing I could let her fix what’s wrong with me, wishing she could be the one to chase away the darkness and fill me with her light.
She’s finally here. I could see her right now. All I’ve got to do is get up off the fucking floor, get in the car and point it toward Venice Beach. Everyone I care about is there. They’re looking for me, wondering where I am.
Moaning, I drop my head into my hands and rock back and forth as my phone rings again.
I can’t. I just can’t.
I’ve never been this excited about anything, except my babies, who are now nine and five and out of their minds with excitement. I couldn’t believe it when Flynn insisted on sending the Quantum jet to pick us up.
The Flynn Godfrey, who is now my friend. I still can’t believe that!
Even though he’s now happily married to one of my best friends, I have the biggest celebrity crush on him. I’ve seen every movie he’s ever been in at least five times. I’ve watched Camouflage a dozen or more times. He won the Oscar and every other major acting award for that film this year, and having met and spent time with him, I know firsthand that he’s as good of a person as he is an actor.
I’ll never forget the first day Natalie brought him to my apartment. That was last winter when I was so frightfully ill and fearful of what was going to become of me and my children. Then Flynn made a humongous donation to the fund that the kids’ school started for us, alleviating so many of my worries. Then he went a step further, hiring a housekeeper and nanny to help me with the kids. He single-handedly saved my life in every possible way, especially by getting me in to see the top breast cancer doctor in the city, who took over my care and made a few tweaks to my treatment program. Within weeks, I was feeling better than I had in a miserable year of surgery, chemo and radiation.
I’m not out of the woods yet. It’ll be years before I can consider myself “cured,” but I’m doing much better than I was, and I have Flynn to thank for that, too.
The entire Quantum team has become like family to the kids and me during our trips to LA for Flynn and Nat’s wedding and later for school vacation. They took us in and made us part of their tribe, and when they teasingly suggested we relocate, the kids begged me to do it. They love California and the people we’ve come to know there. With nothing much holding us in New York, they prevailed, and I agreed to the move, but only after they finished the school year.
School ended yesterday, and today we’re on the Quantum jet about to land in Los Angeles, our new home. If there’s one person among our new friends I’m looking forward to seeing more than anyone else, well, that’s my little secret.
I don’t know what you’d call the flirtation or whatever it is between Kristian and me, but it’s something, and I can’t wait to find out if it might turn into something more. It’s been years since I’ve dated anyone or been interested in a man, and I’ve never been attracted to anyone the way I am to him. He makes me feel so special by listening to every word I say like they’re the most important words he’s ever heard. The last time we were in LA, when we all stayed at his place in the city to avoid the reporters who’d swarmed around a scandal in Jasper’s family, Kristian and I sat on his patio and talked until four in the morning while everyone else was asleep.
With wavy dark hair, intense cobalt-blue eyes and sexy dimples that appear only when he’s truly happy or amused, he’s so gorgeous that I often find myself staring at him like a lovesick puppy.
I’m dying to see him again, to find out if the attraction is still there and to see what might come of it. I’ll never admit that he was one of the primary reasons I wanted to move here, but I’d be lying if I tried to deny it.
“How much longer, Mom?” Logan’s question interrupts my delightful thoughts of Kristian Bowen.
I check the time on my phone. “About twenty minutes.”
The kids are so excited to see our new home, to get settled and to spend the summer in LA. I’m starting my job at Quantum in two weeks, part-time for the summer while the kids attend camp and then full-time when they go back to school. I can’t believe I’m going to work for the company that produced Camouflage and counts among its partners Flynn Godfrey, Hayden Roth and Marlowe Sloane. Talk about being starstruck! And I haven’t even mentioned the other two Quantum partners, Jasper Autry and Kristian Bowen.
His name makes me want to sigh in anticipation, knowing I’m going to see him again today. If I were to let out my inner high school girl, I’d be writing his name next to mine on the cocktail napkin the steward gave me with the glass of wine I ordered and then drawing hearts around our names. But I’m not a high school girl. I’m a mature woman of thirty-two with two incredible kids who are my whole world and a brand-new life in a dynamic city to look forward to.
With maybe a brand-new man, too. God, I hope so. He’s so beautiful and sexy and intense, and I haven’t had sex since the dinosaurs were roaming the earth, or at least that’s how it seems. The last time was when I was pregnant with Maddie, who just finished kindergarten. There are dry spells and then there’s my life, a barren sexless wasteland. I’m ready to get my groove on again, and Kristian Bowen is the one I want.
He’s the only one I want.
But does he want me like that? Or are we stuck firmly in the dreaded friend zone? Why in the world would a man like him who could have—literally—any woman in the world want to be with one who’s fighting an ongoing battle with breast cancer while raising two young kids alone? There’s baggage and then there’s my two-ton trunk, a heavy load for me, let alone a man who can have any woman he wants.
Ugh. Do yourself a big favor, girlfriend, and don’t put the proverbial cart in front of the sexy horse. He’s apt to run for his life away from you and all your luggage.
Before I can let that depressing thought derail my excitement, a crackling sound comes from the speaker system ahead of the pilot’s voice. “Hello from the cockpit, Gifford family.”
The kids bounce in their seats, their excitement palpable.
“We’ve begun our final descent into LAX, and we’ll have you on the ground in about ten minutes. We ask you to fasten your seat belts and prepare for arrival. Welcome home, folks.”
The pilot’s sweet words of welcome bring tears to my eyes. After what I’ve been through, I’m so grateful for every day and determined to make this move the best thing that’s ever happened to my little family. My primary concern is making sure the kids are happy and healthy. They will miss their friends in New York, but they’re excited about moving to California, especially Logan, who missed Natalie terribly after she left in the middle of the school year.
A few minutes later, the plane descends through the clouds to reveal the sprawling city of Los Angeles below. “Look, guys.” I point to the window. “There it is.”
“Move your head,” Logan says to his sister. “I want to see, too.” She insisted he sit with her, and he allowed her to have the window seat, even though he wanted it for himself. He’s so good to Maddie and often stepped up to help with her when I was too sick to care for them. He’s far too mature for his nine years, and I hope this move will allow him to be a kid again and not a kid with a sick mother and a little sister who needs him more than she should.
They cheer when the plane touches down with a thud and the roar of the thrusters, which they’re used to from our earlier flights to LA.
After taxiing for quite a few minutes, the plane finally comes to a stop.
I supervise the kids, making sure they have everything and ushering them to the door, which opens right onto a tarmac where Natalie waits with her movie star husband, who is now our friend. Pinch me, please. Flynn Godfrey is my friend! It’s taken some practice to get used to saying that sentence, but he’s made it easy by being so amazing from the first time I met him. He’s done so much to help make this move happen, and I’ll never be able to repay him for his astonishing generosity. It’s easy to forget just how beautiful they both are until I’m with them, and then it hits me all over again that my lovely, wonderful friend Natalie hit the husband jackpot with her gorgeous, generous husband. They both have dark hair, and while her eyes are green, his are brown. I can’t imagine how stunning their future children will be. It’ll be unfair to the rest of the average-looking world.
Logan and Maddie run to Natalie, who embraces them both at the same time while Flynn looks on, grinning widely. He and Natalie are so in love that being around them gives me hope for myself. Maybe someday I’ll find someone who looks at me the way he looks at her. I’m mildly disappointed to realize that Kristian didn’t come to the airport, but then I check myself. Why would he come to the airport? I’m Natalie’s friend, after all.
Flynn hugs and kisses me. “Welcome to LA.”
“Thank you so much for everything. The plane, the movers, all of it.”
“Anything for you.”
He’ll do anything for Natalie—and her friends—and has proven that many times in the months since we met.
They load us and our suitcases into a silver Mercedes SUV, one of sixty cars that Flynn owns. Natalie mentioned that once, and I thought she was kidding until she told me she was dead serious. Sixty cars! It boggles the mind. But like he says, he could be addicted to worse things than cars.
On the way to our new home in Venice Beach, Natalie and Flynn point out landmarks and other points of interest, none of it registering with me because all I can think about is whether Kristian will be there when we get to the house. Now that I’m finally here, I want to get to know him better. I want to find out if the attraction that burned so brightly between us is still there or if it will fade now that we’re going to see each other more often.
I hope that doesn’t happen. I’ll be so disappointed. I’ve allowed my crush on him to get totally out of control, blowing it up in my mind into a romance with epic potential. In reality, he was probably being nice to me because he feels sorry for the single mom with cancer.
I’m appalled by the tears that fill my eyes. I stare out the window at the passing scenery as I try to get myself under control. With everything else I’ve got to deal with, including a new home, a new job and two kids who’ve been uprooted from the only life they’ve ever known, I simply don’t have time to obsess about a man.
But then we arrive in Venice Beach and pull up to the bungalow that now belongs to us, thanks to Flynn’s sister Ellie. The street is lined with some of the nicest cars I’ve ever seen, including a black Range Rover, a gray Jaguar, a Porsche and something else I don’t recognize, but it looks expensive. I begin to feel hopeful again. Does one of those fancy cars belong to Kristian? I have no idea what he drives, but it’s probably something amazing.
In the driveway is a black Audi sedan that looks new. The porch is decked out in balloons, and the yard is full of friends waiting to greet us. My heart pounds with excitement as I take in the familiar faces—Marlowe, Leah, Emmett, Sebastian, Addie, Hayden, Ellie and Jasper.
Everyone is here. Everyone, except Kristian.
Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
~ Calvin Coolidge