Thirty-nine year old CEO and architect Caden Parker is in love with Shakara James. For years he’s kept his attraction to the alluring stripper a secret, masking his guilty desire with disdain and contempt. When his hunger for the twenty-one year old becomes too hot to handle, he reveals his feelings, even though he’s afraid she’ll be disgusted and reject him.
Shakara yearns for the day when Caden, her best friend’s brother, will look beyond her poverty and the choices she was forced to make as a teenage runaway. As Cade’s feelings come to light, Shakara is stunned and overjoyed, but will there be consequences for their love?
Cade strode toward the dining room, swerving around to see Shakara rooted to the spot by the main entrance. He cringed at the tension emanating from her. She was wary of him and his motives. He couldn't fault her. Hadn't he honed his bitterness and sharpened his contempt on her for years? It would take a while for her to warm to him. With great care, he laid the canvas on the dining room table and turned to her.
“Why are you standing there?”
She lifted her shoulders. “You told me to come in. I wasn't sure how far inside your house I was allowed, Mr. Parker.”
“Mr. Parker,” he repeated in a self-deprecating manner. He felt like a bastard ten times over for demanding she refrain from using his given name, stemming from the fear of his reaction to the sound of his name rolling off her delectable lips.
“You don't have to be so formal. But you knew that, didn't you?” He smiled with tenderness and returned to her.
“How should I refer to you? Sir?” she asked.
He shook his head realizing she was teasing him. “Cade. Caden. Whichever you prefer.” Daring to touch her face, he said in a low voice. “Pick one. I want to hear you say it.”
Her eyes sparkled and Cade stroked beneath her chin urging her to look at him.
Swallowing, Shakara whispered, “Cade.”
“That's what you're going to call me from now on. No more Mr. Parker.”
“Why?” She glared at him. “Why are you being nice to me all of a sudden?”
He averted his eyes toward the dining room. “I've already explained it.”
“Yes. I heard you, but you didn't say how you wanted it to be different between us.”
His muscles tensed. Shakara was giving him the opening he sought. With three simple words he could divulge the truth to her. But what if she wasn't ready to hear it? He ran the risk of embarrassing and alienating himself in the process.
“I want to see what you've brought for Julie.” Coward.
They entered the dining room. Cade stood watching her uncover the thin gray sheet protecting the canvas.
He let out a reverent breath and stared at her, then back at the painting. “This is absolutely amazing.”
Her exquisite face beamed with pride causing the lone dimple in her right cheek to deepen. She was so fucking sweet. His heart ached and his cock hardened for the girl smiling at him.
“Why are you working in that restaurant when you have such a wonderful talent?” he blurted.
She lifted a shoulder. “It's a hobby. Painting isn't going to pay the rent or buy food. It's not that serious.”
He inhaled a sharp breath, loathed to be reminded of the means she relied on to provide for herself. “Are you still stripping?”
Shaking her head, she hastened toward the entrance and muttered a curse beneath her breath loud enough for him to hear. “Is this why you invited me in? For a replay of how disgusting I am and that I should be ashamed of myself.”
“Shakara,” he cried, rushing to the door. “Wait. You're jumping to conclusions. Just wait. Please.”
“Wait for what? For you to pull out cash this time. Maybe you have some loose change you want to get rid of. Because everyone knows how easily I'd spread my legs for your almighty dollar, right, Mr. Parker?”
She placed a hand on her hip and cocked her dark curly head to the side. “Oh wait. If I recall correctly you were trying to find out my going rate for a blow job, wasn't it?”
He had to stop her. Lifting her hand off the handle, Cade pulled her to him, uncaring of her struggles against his hold.
“Shakara. That's not what I meant at all.” She wriggled in his arms, but he held her firm, yet gentle, seeking only to give comfort. “I'm sorry. I'm so damn sorry for insulting you, for everything I've ever done to upset you. I'll regret it for the rest of my life. I didn't ask with the intention of hurting you. I wanted to know because...” He stopped suddenly and jerked her head up to face him.
“Why didn't you come and ask for my help? I would have done anything to prevent you from working in a strip club and that godforsaken restaurant.”
She let out an outraged cry and wrenched herself out of his grasp. Shakara stared at him as if he had lost his mind. Damn. He'd revealed too much, too soon.
“Are you out of your mind? You've made it clear since the first day we met that you had no interest in me.”
“That's not true,” he denied.
“It's the truth,” she said, her tone flat. “I wouldn't have approached you even if we were friends. I don't need anyone's help. I've been on my own since I was fifteen. I've survived this long without begging for assistance. That's not about to change anytime soon. You can keep your charity, Cade. I'm sure it would have come with a price.”
He ran a hand through his hair, not quite sure what to say or do. He was making a mess of this. Somehow he'd manage to offend and hurt her, when all he desired was gaining her trust.
“Shakara...” He reached for her then allowed his hands to fall.
She shook her head. “I have to go.”
He stood there, his muscles taut with longing as she turned the handle. He couldn't stop her this time.
The door opened and she spun around to face him once more. “You promise to keep the painting a secret? I don't want Julie to look at it until her birthday okay?”
Cade nodded to her, his heart lightening that she would still speak to him. “I give you my word, baby girl.” He froze, realization dawning on him that he'd just revealed his secret endearment for her.