Title: The Invitation
Author: Vi Keeland
Genre: Standalone Contemporary Romance
Release Date: January 18, 2021
Excited about Vi Keeland’s upcoming release, The Invitation? Check out this SNEAK PEEK of CHAPTER 1!
“I can’t do this…” I stopped halfway up the marble staircase.
Fisher paused a few steps ahead of me. He walked back down to where I stood. “Sure you can. Remember the time we were in sixth grade and you had to make that presentation about your favorite president? You were a nervous wreck. You thought you were going to forget everything you’d memorized and be standing there with everyone staring at you.”
“Yes, what about it?”
“Well, this is no different. You got through that, didn’t you?”
Fisher had lost his mind. “My fears all came true that day. I got up in front of the blackboard and started to sweat. I couldn’t remember a single word I’d written. Everyone in the class stared, and then you heckled me.”
Fisher nodded. “Exactly. Your worst fear came true, and yet you lived to see another day. In fact, that day turned out to be the best day of your life.”
I shook my head, bewildered. “How so?”
“That was the first time we’d ever been in the same class. I thought you were just another annoying girl like the rest of them. But after school that day, you ripped into me for teasing you while you were trying to do your presentation. That made me realize you weren’t like the other girls. And that very day I decided we were going to be best friends.”
I shook my head. “I didn’t speak to you for the rest of the school year.”
Fisher shrugged. “Yeah, but I won you over the next year, didn’t I? And right now you feel a little calmer than you did two minutes ago, don’t you?”
I sighed. “I guess I do.”
He held out his tuxedo-clad elbow. “Shall we go in?”
I swallowed. As terrified as I was of what we were about to do, I also couldn’t wait to see what the inside of the library looked like all done up for a wedding. I’d spent countless hours sitting on these steps, wondering about the people walking by.
Fisher waited patiently with his elbow out while I debated another minute. Finally, with another loud sigh, I took his arm. “If we wind up in jail, you’re going to have to come up with the bail money for both of us. I’m way too broke.”
He flashed his movie-star smile. “Deal.”
As we climbed the remaining steps to the doors of the New York Public Library, I went over all of the details we’d discussed in the Uber on the way here. Our names for the evening were Evelyn Whitley and Maximilian Reynard. Max was in real estate—his family owned Reynard Properties—and I’d gotten my MBA at Wharton and recently moved back to the City. We both lived on the Upper East Side—at least that part was true.
Two uniformed waiters wearing white gloves stood at the towering entrance doors. One held a tray of champagne flutes, and the other a clipboard. Though my legs somehow kept going, my heart felt like it was trying to escape from my chest and take off in the opposite direction.
“Good evening.” The waiter with the clipboard nodded. “May I have your names, please?”
Fisher didn’t flinch as he doled out the first of what would be a night full of lies.
The man, who I noticed had an earpiece in, scanned his list and nodded. He held a hand out for us to enter, and his partner handed us each bubbly. “Welcome. The ceremony will take place in the rotunda. Seating for the bride is on your left.”
“Thank you,” Fisher said. As soon as we were out of earshot, he leaned close. “See? Easy peasy.” He sipped his champagne. “Oooh, this is good.”
I had no idea how he was so calm. Then again, I also had no idea how he’d managed to talk me into this insanity. Two months ago, I’d come home from work to find Fisher, who was also my neighbor, raiding my refrigerator for leftovers—a common occurrence. As he ate two-day-old chicken Milanese, I’d sat at the kitchen table sorting through my mail and having a glass of wine. While we talked, I’d sliced open the back of an oversized envelope without checking the address on the front. The most stunning wedding invitation had been inside—black and white with raised gold leaf. It was like a gilded work of art. And the wedding was at the New York Public Library, of all places—right near my old office and where I’d often sat and had my lunch on the iconic stairs. I hadn’t visited in at least a year, so I was seriously pumped to get to go to a wedding there.
Though I’d had no idea whose wedding it was—a distant relative I’d forgotten, maybe? The names weren’t even vaguely familiar. When I turned the envelope over, I quickly realized why. I’d opened my ex-roommate’s mail. Ugh. That figured. It wasn’t me who was invited to a fairytale wedding at one of my favorite places in the world.
But after a couple of glasses of wine, Fisher had convinced me it should be me going, and not Evelyn. It was the least my deadbeat ex-roommate could do for me, he’d said. After all, she’d snuck out in the middle of the night, taken some of my favorite shoes with her, and the check she’d left behind for the two months of back rent she owed had bounced. At a minimum, I ought to get to attend a ritzy, thousand-dollars-a-plate wedding, rather than her. Lord knew none of my friends were ever getting married at a venue like that. By the time we’d polished off the second bottle of merlot, Fisher had decided we would go in Evelyn’s place—crash the wedding for a fun night out, compliments of my no-good former roomie. Fisher had even filled out the response card, writing that two guests would attend, and slipped it into his back pocket to mail the next day.
I’d honestly forgotten all about our drunken plans until two weeks ago when Fisher came home with a tuxedo he’d borrowed from a friend for the upcoming nuptials. I’d balked and told him I wasn’t going to crash some expensive wedding for people I didn’t know, and he’d done what he always did: gotten me to think his bad idea wasn’t really that bad.
Until now. I stood in the middle of the sprawling lobby of what was probably a two-hundred-thousand-dollar wedding and felt like I might literally pee my pants.
“Drink your champagne,” Fisher said. “It’ll help you relax a bit and put some color back in your cheeks. You look like you’re about to attempt to tell the class why you like John Quincy Adams so much.”
I squinted at Fisher, though he smiled back, undeterred. I was certain nothing was going to help me loosen up. But nevertheless, I gulped back the contents of my glass.
Fisher tucked one hand casually into his trouser pocket and looked around with his head held high, like he didn’t have a fear in the world. “I haven’t seen my old friend party animal Stella in a long time,” he said. “Might she come out to play tonight?”
I handed him my empty champagne flute. “Shut up and go find me another glass before I bolt.”
He chuckled. “No problem, Evelyn. You just sit tight and try not to blow our cover before we even get to see the beautiful bride.”
“Beautiful? You don’t even know what she looks like.”
“All brides look beautiful. That’s why they wear a veil—so you can’t see the ugly ones, and everything is magical on their special day.”
“That’s so romantic.”
Fisher winked. “Not everyone can be as pretty as me.”
Three glasses of champagne helped calm me enough to sit through the wedding ceremony. And the bride definitely didn’t need a veil. Olivia Rothschild—or Olivia Royce, as she would be now—was gorgeous. I got a little teary eyed watching the groom say his vows. It was a shame the happy couple weren’t really my friends, because one of their groomsmen was insanely attractive. I might’ve daydreamed that Livi—that’s what I called her in my head—would fix me up with her new hubby’s buddy. But alas, tonight was a ruse, and I was no Cinderella story.
The cocktail hour took place in a beautiful room I’d never been in. I studied the artwork on the ceiling as I waited at the bar for my drink. Fisher had told me he needed to use the restroom, but I had a feeling he’d really snuck off to talk to the handsome waiter who had been eyeing him since we’d walked in.
“Here you go, miss.” The bartender slid a drink over to me.
“Thank you.” I took a quick look around to see if anyone was paying attention before dipping my nose inside the glass and taking a deep sniff. Definitely not what I ordered.
“Ummm, excuse me. Is it possible you made this with Beefeater gin and not Hendricks?”
The bartender frowned. “I don’t think so.”
I sniffed a second time, now certain he’d made it wrong.
A man’s voice to my left caught me off guard. “You didn’t even taste it, yet you think he poured the wrong gin?”
I smiled politely. “Beefeater is made with juniper, orange peels, bitter almond, and blended teas, which produces a licorice taste. Hendricks is made of juniper, rose, and cucumber. There’s a different smell to each.”
“Are you drinking it straight or on the rocks?”
“Neither. It’s a gin martini, so it has vermouth.”
“But you think you can smell that he used the wrong gin, without even tasting it?” The guy’s voice made it clear he didn’t think I could.
“I have a very good sense of smell.”
The man looked over my shoulder. “Hey, Hudson, I got a hundred bucks that says she can’t tell the difference between the two gins if we line them up.”
A second man’s voice came from my right, this one behind my shoulder a bit. The sound was deep, yet velvety and smooth—sort of like the gin the bartender should’ve used to make my drink.
“Make it two hundred, and you’re on.”
Turning to get a look at the man willing to wager on my abilities, I felt my eyes widen.
Oh. Wow. The gorgeous guy from the bridal party. I’d stared at him during most of the wedding. He was handsome from afar, but up close he was breathtaking in a way that made my belly flutter—dark hair, tanned skin, a chiseled jawline, and luscious, full lips. The way his hair was styled—slicked back and parted to the side—reminded me of an old-time movie star. What I hadn’t been able to see from the back row during the ceremony was the intensity of his ocean blue eyes. Those were currently scanning my face like I was a book.
I cleared my throat. “You’re going to bet two-hundred dollars that I can identify gin?”
The gorgeous man stepped forward, and my olfactory sense perked up. Now that smells better than any gin. I wasn’t sure if it was his cologne or some sort of a body wash, but whatever it was, it took everything in my power to not lean toward him and take a deep whiff. The sinfully sexy man smelled as good as he looked. That pairing was my kryptonite.
There was a hint of amusement in his voice. “Are you telling me it’s a bad bet?”
I shook my head and turned back to speak to his friend. “I’ll play along with your little bet, but I’m in for two hundred, too.”
When my eyes returned to the handsome man on my right, the corner of his lip twitched just slightly. “Nice.” He lifted his chin to his friend. “Tell the bartender to pour a shot of Beefeater and a shot of Hendricks. Line ’em up in front of her, and don’t let us know which is which.”
A minute later, I lifted the first shot glass and sniffed. It honestly wasn’t even necessary for me to smell the other, though I did it anyway, just to be safe. Damn… I should’ve bet more. This was too easy, like taking candy from a baby. I slid one shot glass forward and spoke to the waiting bartender. “This one is the Hendricks.”
The bartender looked impressed. “She’s right.”
“Damn it,” the guy who had started this game huffed. He dug into his front pocket, pulled out an impressive billfold, and peeled off four hundred-dollar bills. Tossing them in our direction on top of the bar, he shook his head. “I’ll win it back by Monday.”
Gorgeous Guy smiled at me as he collected his cash. Once I took mine, he lowered his head to whisper in my ear.
Oh my. His hot breath sent a shiver down my spine. It had been way too long since I’d had contact with a man. Sadly, my knees felt a little weak. But I forced myself to ignore it. “Thank you.”
He reached around me to the bar and lifted one of the shots. Bringing it to his nose, he sniffed before setting it back down and smelling the other.
“I don’t smell anything different.”
“That just means you have a normal sense of smell.”
“Ah, I see. And yours is…extraordinary?”
I smiled. “Why yes, it is.”
He looked amused as he passed me one of the shots and held the other up in toast. “To being extraordinary,” he said.
I wasn’t generally a shot drinker, but what the hell? I clinked my glass with his before knocking it back. Maybe the alcohol would help settle the nerves this man seemed to have jolted awake.
I set my empty shot glass on the bar next to his. “I take it this is something the two of you do on a regular basis, since your friend plans to win it back by Monday?”
“Jack’s family and mine have been friends since we were kids. But the betting started when we went to the same college. I’m a Notre Dame fan, and he’s a USC fan. We were broke back then, so we used to bet a Taser zap on games.”
“A Taser zap?”
“His father was a cop. He gave him a Taser to keep under his car seat just in case. But I don’t think he envisioned his son taking hits of fifty-thousand volts when a last-minute interception made his team lose.”
I shook my head. “That’s a little crazy.”
“Definitely not our wisest decision. At least I won a lot more than he did. A little brain damage might help explain some of his choices in college.”
I laughed. “So today was just a continuation of that pattern, then?”
“Pretty much.” He smiled and extended his hand. “I’m Hudson, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m St—” I caught myself in the nick of time. “I’m Evelyn.”
“So are you a gin aficionado, Evelyn? Is that why I didn’t smell anything different between the two?”
I smiled. “I wouldn’t consider myself an aficionado of gin, no. To be honest, I mostly drink wine. But did I mention my occupation? I’m a fragrance chemist—a perfumist.”
“You make perfume?”
I nodded. “Among other things. I developed scents for a cosmetics and fragrance company for six years. Sometimes it was a new perfume, other times it was the scent for a wipe that removes makeup, or maybe a cosmetic that needs a more pleasant smell.”
“Pretty sure I never met a perfumist before.”
I smiled. “Is it as exciting as you’d hoped?”
He chuckled. “What exactly is the training for a job like that?”
“Well, I have a chemistry degree. But you can have all the education you want, and you still won’t be able to do the job unless you also have hyperosmia.”
“And that is…”
“An enhanced ability to smell odors, an increased olfactory acuity.”
“So you’re good at smelling shit?”
I laughed. “Exactly.”
A lot of people think they have a good sense of smell, but they don’t really understand how heightened the sense is for someone with hyperosmia. Demonstrating always worked best. Plus, I really wanted to know what cologne he was wearing. So, I leaned in and took a deep inhale of Hudson.
Exhaling, I said, “Dove soap.”
He didn’t look completely sold. “Yes, but that’s a pretty common soap choice.”
I smiled. “You didn’t let me finish. Dove Cool Moisture. It’s got cucumber and green tea in it—also a common ingredient in gins, by the way. And you use L’Oreal Elvive shampoo, same as me. I can smell gardenia tahitensis flower extract, rosa canina flower extract, and a slight hint of coconut oil. Oh, and you use Irish Spring deodorant. I don’t think you’re wearing any cologne, actually.”
Hudson’s brows rose. “Now that’s impressive. The wedding party stayed in a hotel last night, and I forgot to pack my cologne.”
“Which one do you normally wear?”
“Ah… I can’t tell you that. What will we do on our second date for entertainment if we don’t play the sniff test?”
“Our second date? I didn’t realize we were going to have a first.”
Hudson smiled and held out his hand. “The night’s young, Evelyn. Dance with me?”
A knot in the pit of my stomach warned me it was a bad idea. Fisher and I were supposed to stick together and limit contact with other people to minimize our chances of getting caught. But glancing around, my date was nowhere in sight. Plus, this man was seriously magnetic. Somehow, before my brain even finished debating the pros and cons, I found myself putting my hand in his. He led me to the dance floor and wrapped one arm around my waist, leading with the other. Not surprisingly, he knew how to dance.
“So, Evelyn with the extraordinary sense of smell, I’ve never seen you before. Are you a guest or a plus one?” He looked around the room. “Is some guy giving me the evil eye behind my back right now? Am I going to need to get Jack’s Taser from the car to ward off a jealous boyfriend?”
I laughed. “I am here with someone, but he’s just a friend.”
“The poor guy…”
I smiled. Hudson’s flirting was over the top, yet I gobbled it up. “Fisher is more interested in the guy who was passing out champagne than me.”
Hudson held me a little closer. “I like your date much better than I did thirty seconds ago.”
Goose bumps prickled my arms as he lowered his head, and his nose briefly brushed against my neck.
“You smell incredible. Are you wearing one of the perfumes you make?”
“I am. But it’s not one that can be ordered. I like the idea of having a true signature scent that someone can remember me by.”
“I don’t think you need the perfume to be remembered.”
He led me around the dance floor with such grace, I wondered if he had taken professional lessons. Most men his age thought slow dancing meant rocking back and forth and grinding an erection against you.
“You’re a good dancer,” I said.
Hudson responded by twirling us around. “My mother was a professional ballroom dancer. Learning wasn’t an option; it was a requirement if I wanted to be fed.”
I laughed. “That’s really cool. Did you ever consider following in her footsteps?”
“Absolutely not. I grew up watching her suffer with hip bursitis, stress fractures, torn ligaments—it’s definitely not the glamorous profession they make it out to be on all those dance-contest TV shows. You gotta love what you do for a job like that.”
“I think you have to love what you do for any job.”
“That’s a very good point.”
The song came to an end, and the emcee told everyone to take their seats.
“Where are you sitting?” Hudson asked.
I pointed to the side of the room where Fisher and I had been seated. “Somewhere over there. Table Sixteen.”
He nodded. “I’ll walk you.”
We approached the table at the same moment as Fisher, who was coming from the other direction. He looked between Hudson and me, and his face asked the question he didn’t say aloud.
“Umm…this is my friend Fisher. Fisher, this is Hudson.”
Hudson extended his hand. “Nice to meet you.”
After shaking with a silent Fisher, who seemed to have forgotten how to speak, he turned to me and took my hand once again. “I should get back to my table with the rest of the wedding party.”
“Save a dance for me later?”
I smiled. “I’d love to.”
Hudson turned to walk away and then turned back. As he walked backwards, he called, “In case you pull a Cinderella on me and disappear, what’s your last name, Evelyn?”
Thankfully, him using my fake name reminded me not to give him my real one as I’d almost done the first time. “It’s Whitley.”
Oh God. Did he know Evelyn?
His eyes swept over my face. “Beautiful name. I’ll see you later.”
When Hudson was barely out of earshot, Fisher leaned close to me. “My name’s supposed to be Maximilian, sweetheart.”
“Oh my God, Fisher. We have to leave.”
“Nah.” He shrugged. “It’s no big deal. We made up Maximilian anyway. I’m your plus one. No one knows the name of the person Evelyn brought. Though I still want to play a real estate tycoon.”
“No, it’s not that.”
“Then what is it?”
“We have to leave because he knows…”
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