Monica was walking on the immaculate grounds of Whitmore Manor where her friend and co-worker Alex invited her to spend the afternoon. It was the day before the annual charity ball and already there was a sense of excitement and anticipation in the air. This was to be her first one since she only started working with Alex in autumn of last year.
As she pondered over what to expect, her gaze drank in the beautiful landscape which spread before and around her. She was so caught up in her surroundings that she didn’t notice the tall man heading towards her until she almost ran into him.
Her eyes flew up from his broad chest to his face. Her breath caught in her throat when she found herself looking into classic handsome features. Dark, wavy hair, dark brown eyes, chiseled nose and his lips…she realized that they were moving which meant he was saying something. She pulled herself together.
“I–I’m sorry,” she apologized. “I was so busy admiring the place that I didn’t see you until a moment ago.”
His eyes were riveted to her face. “And, you are?”
She held out her hand. “I’m Monica. I’m here because of Alex.”
“Jared.” He grasped her hand. “Does he know you are here?”
“Yes. He brought me here to spend a quiet afternoon.”
“Where is he? He’s not a very good host leaving you out here by yourself.”
“He didn’t mean to desert me,” she said, trying to act calm when her heart was racing. Jared was staring at her with those penetrating eyes of his and he was still holding her hand. “He had to run an errand and said that he would be back shortly.”
He released her hand then and shoved both of his in the pockets of his trousers. “So, how long have Alex and you known each other?” he asked.
She put her hands behind her back. “September will make it a year,” she said.
“You’re different from his other girlfriends,” he noted as he studied her face.
She was about to tell him that she was not Alex’s girlfriend when Alex himself showed up.
He came from behind Jared. He grinned at Monica. “I see you have met my big brother,” he told her. He turned to Jared. “Thank you for taking care of Monica while I was gone.”
Jared inclined his head. “It was my pleasure,” he said before his gaze shifted to Monica. “It was nice meeting you.”
She smiled at him. “It was nice meeting you too.”
“Excuse me.” He turned and walked away. Monica was sorry to see him go.
When they were alone, she turned to Alex, “He thinks I’m your girlfriend,” she told him, looking very displeased. “What gave him that impression?”
“Well, the only women I brought here to meet Mother and Jared were the ones I dated so when he met you, he naturally assumed that you were my current girlfriend.” He looked at her. “Does it bother you that he thinks that we are dating?”
“Yes, it does.”
Alex groaned. “Don’t tell me that you have fallen for his dark, brooding looks too.”
“Is that why you never mentioned to me that you even had a brother?”
“It must have slipped my mind. Anyway, let’s talk about something else. Are you all set for the ball tomorrow evening? I won’t be able to bring you, I’m afraid. I have to be here, greeting the guests.”
“Yes, I’m looking forward to it. I’ve never been to a ball before. Is everyone going to be there?”
“By everyone, you mean Jared. Yes, he’ll be there–he and his brooding looks which always seems to attract the ladies.”
Monica looked at him. “Do I detect a little bit of jealousy?”
Alex sighed. “Yes, I am jealous and have been since we were children. He was always getting the attention and the girls. That hasn’t changed. Just once I would like to find a woman who will be immune to his charms and prefer me instead.”
Monica tucked her arm in his and gave him an encouraging smile. “I’m sure you will find such a woman. Now, this woman would like a tour of the grounds, if you don’t mind.”
He smiled. “It would be my pleasure.”
It was the night of the ball and she entered the room, her eyes wide with wonder as she espied the magnificent room and the beautiful decorations. When Alex saw her, he whistled. He was standing by the entrance receiving the guests with his mother and Jared. She was wearing a strapless cream chiffon gown and her hair was swept up exposing her long, slender neck. “You look amazing,” he said as he kissed her on the cheek.
She smiled. “Thank you.” Her gaze shifted to Jared who was staring at her. He looked absolutely gorgeous in his black tuxedo. Even in her heels, she had to tilt her head back to look up at him. “Hello, Jared,” she said shyly.
“Hello, Monica,” was his quiet reply. He had a curious expression on his face. “It’s good to see you again.”
“It’s good to be here.” She lingered there for a moment before she moved reluctantly away. She could feel his eyes on her as she greeted his mother. The older woman beamed at her. “You look lovely, my Dear,” she said. “I am delighted that you could come. I hope you enjoy yourself.”
Monica smiled. “Thank you, I will.” She moved on, taking in the atmosphere, the people. She saw a few of her co-workers milling about and she joined them. At dinner time, she sat at the same table with the Whitmore family. She was seated next to Alex and opposite Jared. Every now and then, she raised her eyes to look at him and found him already looking at her. Each time their eyes met, she felt her heart race. No one else seemed to notice.
The food was amazing and afterwards, there was dancing. She danced a couple of dances with Alex who was in very high spirits. Then, as she was about to follow Alex back to the table, Jared barred her. “Dance with me,” he said and wordlessly, she acquiesced. Her heart did a somersault when he pulled her to him and they moved to the music.
He was a terrific dancer and his movements were fluid. She was acutely aware of his hand in the small of her back, their bodies inches apart. He smelled really good. It felt wonderful dancing with him and she wished that it would last. At one point she looked up at him and he was looking down at her. His eyes were dark and smoldering and a muscle throbbed along his jaw line. They didn’t say anything but the moment was charged as their attraction for each other was palpable. She saw his gaze lower to her lips and they parted.
“Mind if I cut in?” Alex’s intrusive voice startled her and she felt Jared release her. Then she was in Alex’s arms and he swirled her away as Jared walked stiffly off the dance floor. For the rest of the night, Alex tended to her and she didn’t have a chance to dance with Jared again. She left the ball feeling frustrated, especially after his cold manner toward her when they said goodnight to each other.
She tossed and turned all night and in the morning, she decided that she would go over to Whitmore Manor and straighten things out with him. She couldn’t let him continue to believe that Alex and she were dating. Last night it might have seemed that way, though. She let Alex have it last night when he was driving her home. He was sorry and he told her to drop by the manor and talk to Jared.
She finished her breakfast, showered and pulling on a pair of dress jeans and a yellow top, she left her condo. She took the train from London to Surrey and then a short taxi ride to Whitmore Manor. The place seemed quiet—she supposed it was because it was a Sunday morning. She hoped Mrs. Whitmore wouldn’t mind her dropping by unexpectedly. She ran up the steps leading to the front door and rang the bell. As she waited she looked over at the spot where she first met Jared. How handsome he looked that day in his denim jacket over a black shirt and tan colored trousers.
The door opened and the butler stood there. “Good morning,” he said.
“Good morning. Is Mr. Jared Whitmore at home?” she asked.
“He is but he gave strict instructions not to be disturbed. Perhaps, you would like to see Mrs. Whitmore, instead. She’s in the drawing-room.”
“Yes, thank you.” The man stepped aside to let her into the foyer. He took her to the drawing-room and after informing Mrs. Whitmore that she had a visitor, he left.
Monica went over to the armchair where the woman was seated. “Good morning, Mrs. Whitmore.”
Mrs. Whitmore smiled when she saw her. “Good morning, Dear. How nice of you to drop by this morning. Did you have a good time at the ball last night?”
Monica nodded. “I did.”
“It was an extremely good turn out and I believe that this year we received more donations.”
“Mrs. Whitmore, I came to see Jared but was told that he didn’t want to be disturbed.”
Mrs. Whitmore sighed. “He’s been cooped up in the study all morning. Can’t imagine what he’s doing in there. He hasn’t had any breakfast. I have a good mind to send a tray in to him. You know, that’s exactly what I will do.” She pulled the cord beside her. “He needs to eat something.”
“Mrs. Whitmore, do you mind if I take it to him?”
“No, not at all. You may be a welcome distraction.”
A few minutes later a maid appeared and Mrs. Whitmore asked her to prepare a tray for Mr. Whitmore and to bring it to the drawing-room. As they waited, Monica and Mrs. Whitmore exchanged pleasantries and spoke of the ball.
Then, the maid went in carrying the tray. “Thank you, Janet,” Mrs. Whitmore said. “Set it on the table over there.” Janet did so and left the room.
Monica went and took it up. She went to the door but stopped, unsure of where to go.
“The study is down the hall here and on your right.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Whitmore,” she said gratefully before she departed.
Her heart thudded with every step as she went down the hallway. She set the tray down on the floor, opened the door and pushed it open. She took up the tray and went inside. She stood at the door. Jared was sitting at the desk backing the door but when he heard it open, he said. “I gave strict instructions not to be disturbed. I don’t take kindly to having my orders disobeyed…” his voice trailed off when he swung the chair around and saw her standing there. “What are you doing here?”
She stood there, unsure of what to do next. He was standing now, his expression guarded. “I brought this tray for you. Your mother said you haven’t eaten. She’s concerned about you.”
His gaze shifted to the tray and then back to her. “So, she sent you with it instead of sending Janet?”
“I offered,” she told him. “I needed to speak to you.”
“Set it on the table over there. What do you need to speak to me about?”
“It’s about Alex and me…”
His expression darkened at once and he dragged his fingers through his hair. “Never once in all of my years have I ever been jealous of my brother. Not even when I see how our mother continues to pamper him as if he were still a child, but that all changed when I met you.”
She stared at him. “What do you mean?” she asked, looking confused.
“I am jealous of him because of you, Monica. From the moment we met, I wanted you. That’s why I said that you were different from his other girlfriends. I was never attracted to any of them. You were different because I was immediately and deeply attracted to you. Last night at the ball, I couldn’t take my eyes off you. I watched you dancing with him and wished that I was the one dancing with you. Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer and that’s why I asked you to dance with me. The way you felt in my arms…” he closed his eyes at the memory. “It felt so right. I asked myself how could something that felt so right be wrong. I wanted to kiss you so badly but just then, Alex came and claimed you and I had no choice but to step aside. I watched you with him for the rest of the night, kicking myself for falling for a woman who belonged to someone else.”
It took a moment for Monica to answer because she was stunned. She couldn’t believe what she just heard. “Jared, I don’t belong to Alex,” she told him. “He and I are just friends who happen to work together. When you and I met, you assumed that I was another one of his many girlfriends and when I tried to clear up that misunderstanding, Alex joined us.”
“My brother has a knack for interrupting at the most inopportune moment.”
She took a step closer. “That’s why I came here this morning, Jared. To clear things up. I couldn’t go on letting you believe that I was in a relationship with Alex when I am not. Alex knows how I feel about you. He knew it since the first time I met you.”
Jared moved around the desk so that he was standing in front of her. “How do you feel about me?” he asked, his expression tense. His hands were at his sides, aching to hold her.
“I never thought it was possible but when I met you it was love at first sight,” she said, her feelings unguarded.
He pulled her into his arms then and he muttered, “I fell in love with you the first moment I saw you and I felt like a heel because of Alex. That’s why I have been cooped up in here all morning. I was sitting here, thinking about you and feeling guilty. And now that I know Alex and you are not romantically involved, I feel like a guilty man who has been granted a reprieve.”
She reached up and cupped his face between her hands. “You have no reason to feel guilty anymore,” she said, “We are both free and we both know what we want…”
“Yes,” he groaned and his head swooped down. His mouth closed passionately over hers.
She sighed and closed her eyes as she responded to the kiss which she had been dreaming of since last night at the ball.