Fake engagements are a dangerous business.
Bryan James’s job is on thin ice unless he can secure a contract with a popular design house. He knows his best friend’s sister can help—but her terms are more than he bargained for.
Alexis Devers’s debut fashion line is a hit. But when Alexis’s publicist tells buyers that it landed her a wealthy, gorgeous fiancé, Alexis needs to come up with one—fast. Bryan’s offer to strike a deal is perfectly timed. She’s more than willing—on one condition…
It’s the perfect plan…until feelings start getting in the way. Suddenly, the dangers of mixing business and pleasure become much more real than either of them expected.
Stretched out on the floor of her living room, Alexis Devers flipped through the pages of her sketch pad. Sunlight flooded through the bay windows of her downtown Raleigh condo, illuminating the images she’d created. The soft, white carpet beneath her cradled her body, threatening to put her to sleep. It was only the sheer thrill of artistic expression that had kept her awake for the three hours she’d been lying there in the same spot.
She smiled. The sketches filling the book’s crisp, white pages represented the final iteration of what would be her first independent fashion line. She already had the perfect name for it: Krystal Kouture One. She planned to keep it simple, numbering her lines and using her company name, to keep her brand top of mind with fashion consumers as well as movers and shakers in the industry.
Alexis hadn’t left her house for four days, she was so wrapped up in getting the pieces in the line just right. She’d barely slept, unable to stop visualizing her designs. She’d entered her kitchen maybe twice, and that was to get coffee or water. Everything she’d eaten had been delivered to her door, courtesy of the many nearby restaurants.
Seeing the completed sketches made all her hard work worthwhile. Pride surged through her, because she knew she’d created something sorely missing in the fashion world. Her clothes would blur the line between sexiness and practicality, giving women the option to cover up their bodies without losing any of their natural allure. This line would be perfect to launch for fall, as chilly air encouraged people to layer clothing and shield their bare skin from the elements.
She blew out a breath, anticipating the time crunch she and everybody at Krystal Kouture would soon enter. In order to get the One line ready for launch at the upcoming Carolina Music and Fashion Festival, they’d have to make samples, test and photograph them on the fit model, do preliminary press… Thankfully, she knew her small but brilliant staff would be fully capable of pulling it off. It just meant they were all about to put in some serious overtime.
The festival, cosponsored by the North Carolina Arts Council and the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau, had been created five years ago to showcase the talent of musicians, singers, fashion designers, and models all over the Tar Heel State. The festival brought in a diverse, sizable crowd each year, and Alexis was thrilled that her fashion line would make its debut there. Not only would her clothes be on display for the very women she hoped would wear them, but there would also be retail buyers present. The festival fashion show could be her opportunity to break into the retail market.
Everything was in place for making the One line a reality—-almost everything. She’d have to call her best friend and business partner, Sydney Greer, and let her know that the sketches were finalized. But first, one important question remained to be answered.
What’s my tagline? She tapped the end of her graphite pencil against her chin, turning ideas over in her mind. She needed something catchy but not cheesy or cliché. Something that would express the purpose behind her designs in just a few succinct words. She sat up, scooting her back against her white couch, listening to the whir of her ceiling fan.
The ringing of her smartphone snapped her out of her thoughts. Twisting around, she grabbed it from the couch cushion. Seeing Maxwell’s name on the screen, she answered it. “Hey, Bro.”
“Honestly, Alexis. I’ve been calling you for the past two days. And so has Mom. What in the hell is going on with you?”
“I was working.” She balanced the phone between her ear and her shoulder as she climbed up from the floor. Her back muscles immediately contracted, cursing her for spending so much time on the carpet. She settled onto the couch.
“Good grief. So you mean you were on another one of your ‘art benders’? Where you’re so busy being creative that you can’t even bother to take calls from your family?” His tone held a mixture of mockery and annoyance.
She shook her head. Her brother had a penchant for dramatics. “Maxie, I’m fine. This is how I work.”
“The way you work is weird.”
“I’m an artist. I’m allowed my eccentricities.”
“Eccentrics do things like wear paisley with polka dots or talk to their potted plants. You’re just an oddball.”
“Shut up, Maxie.” She teased him right back, calling him the nickname he hated. He thought “Maxie” was too feminine a nickname for him. He was four years older and had been teasing her for as long as she could remember. “Besides, you’re kind of an artist. Don’t you ever get wrapped up in a project to the exclusion of everything else?”
He feigned offense. “‘Kind of an artist.’ Lex, please. I am the artist. I’m responsible for some of the most breathtaking buildings in this country.”
The Devers children were an artsy bunch, all right. All were North Carolina Central University alumni, having attended the college where their parents had met and fallen in love. Alexis was a fashion designer, Maxwell owned an architectural firm, and… She stopped herself, not wanting to think about something that would ruin her celebratory mood. “Arrogant much? Now you see why I didn’t answer the phone when you called yesterday.”
“Not arrogant. Confident. There’s a big difference, but that’s beside the point.”
“Then what is the point?”
“Just answer my calls, and we won’t have a problem. Oh, and you should probably answer Mom’s calls, too, because if you don’t, she’ll assume you’ve been kidnapped, murdered, and decapitated.”
On that, she could agree. Their mother, Delphinia, professed nonstop worry about her children, all of whom were well into adulthood. At thirty, Alexis was the baby, and Delphinia worried about her the most. “Mom does tend to go from zero to worst--case scenario in ten seconds.”
“Yes, she does, so stop raising her blood pressure.”
Alexis ran a hand through her short--cropped curls. “Fair enough. Why were you trying so hard to reach me, anyway? Is something wrong?” She paused as a terrible thought entered her mind. “Did something happen with Kelsey?”
“No, Kelsey’s fine. I mean, considering the situation.” He coughed. “Everything is fine. I was just trying to invite you to something.”
“Invite me to what?” She stretched out her legs in front of her and leaned forward, releasing tension in the angry muscles of her lower back.
“There’s a step show tomorrow at Central. It’s a Theta Delta Theta thing, but you know your girls from Alpha Delta Rho will be there, too, since that’s our sister sorority.”
Her mood brightened at the thought of returning to her alma mater. “Oh my gosh. I forgot about that. Teresa texted me about that, like, two weeks ago. It’s tomorrow, for real?”
“You do realize that time is still passing while you’re locked in your little creative bubble, don’t you, Lex?”
She rolled her eyes. “Yes, I do.”
“Just thought I’d ask. So are you going or not?”
“Yeah. I’m finished with my project. What time does it start, and where?”
“Two o’clock, at the gym building.”
It had been ages since she’d seen her sorority sisters, and it was high time she rectified that. Based on Teresa’s text, at least a few of her girls would be turning out to watch the brothers of TDT rep their organization at the step show. “I’ve got a lunch meeting, so I might be late. But I’m definitely coming.”
“Good. It’s time for you to get out of the house and rejoin the living.”
“When I see you, I’m gonna give you a smack right upside your head, Max.”
He laughed. “Whatever. I’m, like, twice your size.”
“Then I’m just the right height to punch you in the stomach,” she retorted playfully.
“I’ll see you at the step show. I dare you to leave your sketch pad at home this time, Lex.” Without waiting for her response, he hung up.
She set her phone aside, shaking her head. Max and his stupid dares…
A squeal of delight passed her lips as the perfect tagline came to mind. “Dare to Be Demure!” she shouted into her empty condo. As much as she detested Maxwell’s tendency to “dare” her to do things, she was glad he had today. The tagline was succinct, evocative, and not at all cheesy.
Jumping up from the couch, she jogged down the hallway to her master bedroom. After several days trapped in the house, a shower would be the first order of business. Then she’d have the pleasure of calling Sydney and telling her they were ready to roll.
Bryan strolled into the gym at Central, his eyes scanning the space. The bleachers on either side of the polished basketball court were already partially filled with spectators. It was just before two o’clock, and people continued to stream in around him. He moved farther in, searching the bleachers for Xavier and Maxwell.
He spotted them in the center section on the western side of the gym, toward the top. Jogging over to the bleachers, he slowed to climb the steep stairs. When he reached his boys, he gave them both a brief handshake. “Did I miss anything?”
“Nah,” Maxwell said, keeping his eyes on the preparations happening down on the gym floor. He wore a Theta Delta Theta tee and a pair of khakis. “The kids are still lining up to do their routine.” He leaned back, letting his elbows rest on the rung behind him.
“They did practice a few steps, but it hasn’t really kicked off yet.” Xavier loosened his tie. Now that he served on the city council, the man was rarely seen in public in street clothes.
“Where’s Tyrone and Orion?” Bryan asked.
“Tyrone’s working late on a deposition or something,” came Xavier’s absentminded reply as he kept his eyes on the floor.
“Orion’s on tour with Young--n--Wild. You know those kids need a chaperone everywhere they go.” Maxwell stifled a yawn. “He’ll be back in a couple of weeks, I think.”
Bryan eased into an empty spot on the end of the row next to Xavier. Xavier glanced at his watch. “Looks like they’re going to start late. Apparently, our little brothers aren’t as organized as we were back in the day.”
Maxwell elbowed him. “Xavier, come out of that tie and sport coat. It’s obviously making you uptight.”
Shrugging out of the sport coat, Xavier removed the tie and tucked it into an inner pocket. He draped the coat over the bleachers and clapped his hands together. “That’s better. But they’re still running late.”
“Come on, X. Don’t you remember that step show we did during junior year?” Bryan tapped his shoulder. “That one didn’t start on time, either.”
“Oh yeah. The one where Maxwell got caught in the broom closet with one of the girls from Alpha Delta Rho.” Xavier swiveled around to look in his direction.
“I don’t know what y’all are talking about.” Maxwell’s eyes twinkled.
As the marching band filed into the gym, Bryan and his boys turned their attention back to the floor. The drum major stepped forward, and the drumline began to play a complex, catchy rhythm. Soon, the entire Eagles Marching Sound Machine was playing in all its glory. The rousing music cued the entrance of the young brothers of Theta Delta Theta, proudly wearing the fraternity colors, complete with faces painted half silver, half green.
As was customary, the senior member of the younger set took the mic and called out for all elite alumni of TDT to “represent.” All around the gym, whole sections of the bleachers rose to their feet, cheering and pumping their fists. Bryan, Maxwell, and Xavier joined in, standing and raising their hands and voices in celebration of their fraternity’s proud legacy.
After they returned to their seats and the show kicked off in earnest, Bryan watched the complex formations the little brothers made as they stepped to the music. Putting in extra effort, strictly for visual appeal, was part of the TDT tradition. “Look at those young brothers. They are killing it.”
“I gotta admit, I’m impressed. That ain’t easy.” Maxwell nodded in the direction of the gym floor.
“Whew!” That came from Xavier as one of the young brothers executed a perfect backflip. “He nailed it.”
“Hey, X. How’s married life treating you, man?” Bryan leaned back against the rung behind him.
A goofy grin spread across Xavier’s face. “It’s beautiful, man. Waking up to Imani every day is way better than I could have imagined. We always make sure to eat breakfast together before we go in to work, and—-”
Maxwell’s dramatic gagging effectively interrupted Xavier’s sentence. “Please, dude. You’re killing me.”
Xavier punched him in the shoulder. “What are you, twelve? If you knew like I know, you’d be looking for a good woman yourself.”
“Whatever.” Maxwell sat up a bit and appeared to be looking around. “Where is she? She’s gonna miss the whole damn show.”
“She who?” Bryan asked.
“My sister Alexis. She said she was coming today.” Maxwell stood, peering down toward the entrance. “Never mind. I see her.”
Bryan followed his gaze. A group of Alpha Delta Rho women was entering at that moment, decked out in the sorority colors of purple and blue—-or “lavender and lapis” as ADR ladies referred to them.
The young brothers on the floor ended their routine, and everyone applauded, including the sisters holding court by the door. As the applause began to die down, Maxwell cupped his hands around his mouth. “Lex!”
As Maxwell’s shout rang out, one woman in the group turned her head, frowning as she searched the crowd.
Bryan’s eyes were glued to her as she started walking toward the bleachers. That’s Maxwell’s baby sister?
Gone was the cute little teen who’d visited Maxwell on campus. The woman currently coming their way oozed femininity from her every pore. She was tall—-at least five eight—-and she walked with confidence. Her lithe, curvaceous frame was draped in a fitted lavender top bearing her sorority letters and a knee--length denim skirt that revealed the tempting bronze length of her legs. Short brown ringlets of hair framed a heart--shaped face that could only be described as elegant, and her hazel eyes were fixed on Maxwell.
“Damn.” The word fell out of Bryan’s mouth before he could stop it.
Maxwell cut him a look. “Damn what?”
As Alexis came abreast of them, Bryan blurted, “I can’t believe you’re Maxwell’s baby sister.”
One of her perfectly arched brows hitched, her rose--tinted lips thinning. “Who are you?”
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