Harlequin Presents #2929
Originally published: 07/01/10
Thrust into the limelight, child star Cassandra timidly enchanted audiences night after night. But when her parents died, Cass retreated into her own world—too shy to leave her home. Once a year she shares her musical passion by offering lessons in a charity auction… This year, money talks. The winning bid: $100,000!
Enter Neo Stamos, arrogant Greek tycoon. He wants Cass with a burning desire, though he knows that, shy and sweet, she will need a gentle awakening…. But Neo’s the master of seduction!
“The Shy Bride was an enjoyable story with a touching romance and engaging characters.”
Kathy’s Review Corner
“I enjoyed reading “The shy bride” a lot, especially because it’s different compared to most books by Harlequin. The story concentrates on the relationship between Neo and Cassandra without rushing through it. They get the chance to become friends and fall in love without any haste or drama and I really enjoyed this aspect of the book. The love story is really sweet and lovely and both Neo and Cassandra are great characters. I also enjoyed reading about Zephyr and I’m already excited for his book. So all in all I think “The Shy Bride” is a great and lovely book and once again Lucy Monroe made me feel happy through one of her books.” ~Tester, amazon.com reader review
I like more softly-spoken heroines, and I liked Cassandra’s approach to life and enjoyed the way she struggled to overcome her issues. I also love that she didn’t transform into a different person by the end. Her friendship and later relationship with Neo was wonderful to read about.” ~ReviewerAus, amazon.com
“This is one of the sweetest, most sincere love stories I’ve read in a long, long time. Too often, these books race along and, because of their length, don’t allow any time for readers to wrap their mind around why two people are supposedly drawn to each other — other than the old stand-by, lust. I always wonder in that fictitious part of my brain whether most of these characters would still be together say, 15, 20 years down the road.
In this story, Lucy Monroe introduces us to two characters who genuinely grow to like and love each other. It helps that they’re both very nice people — also an oddity for Presents books. Yes, there’s a physical attraction, but that really pales in comparison to the love, companionship and support they give each other. So many real-life romances and relationships work because each person makes the other one a better, more complete and happier version of themselves. That’s the basis of this story”~L.Tutor, amazon.com
“This is a joke, right?” Neo Stamos stared at the fancy certificate with the logo of a local charity fundraiser on it.
His oldest and only real friend, not to mention business partner, Zephyr Nikos, had to be kidding. He had to be. No way could the certificate be meant for Neo. He had to have gotten it for someone else and was using to pull Neo’s chain before giving it to them.
“No joke. Happy thirty-fifth birthday, filos mou.” Unlike in the early years of their friendship when they had tried to speak only English to one another to improve their grasp of the language, they now spoke in Greek so they would not forget their native tongue.
“A friend would know better than to give me such a gift.”
“On the contrary, only a friend would know how appropriate, how needed this little present is.”
“Piano lessons?” A year’s worth. No damn way. “I don’t think so.”
Zephyr leaned against the edge of Neo’s hand-crafted mahogany desk that had cost more than he had earned his first year of gainful employment. “Oh, I do think so. You lost the bet.”
Neo glared, knowing anything he said in repudiation would sound like whining rather than the rational argument it would be. As they had so often reminded each other over the years, a bet was a bet. And he should have known better than to make one with his shark of a friend.
Zephyr’s gaze reflected his knowledge of Neo’s quandary. “Think of it as a prescription.”
“Prescription for what? A way to waste an hour a week? I don’t have thirty minutes to waste, much less a full hour.” Neo shook his head. There was a reason all of his designer suits were purchased and tailored by an exclusive men’s dressing service, and it wasn’t because he liked to shout his billionaire status to the world.
It was because Neo Stamos did not have time to shop for himself.
“Unless you know about something, I do not…” Like the cancellation of one of their property development projects going on worldwide. “There is no place in my schedule for piano lessons.”
Bet or no bet.
“There is definitely something going on you don’t know about Neo. It’s called life and it’s going on all around you, but you’re so busy with our company, it’s passing you by.”
“Stamos & Nikos Enterprises is my life.”
Zephyr gave Neo a look of pity, as if the other man hadn’t worked just as hard to leave their shared history behind. “The company was supposed to be our way to a new life, not the only thing you lived for. Don’t you remember, Neo? We were going to be tycoons by thirty.”
“And we made it.” They’d made their first million within three years of stepping onto American soil. They’d been multimillionaires a few years later, and held assets in excess of a billion dollars by the time Neo was thirty. Now he and Zephyr were the primary shareholders in a multi-billion dollar company. Stamos & Nikos Enterprises didn’t simply bear his name; it consumed his waking and sleeping hours.
And he was just fine with that.
“You wanted to buy a big house, start a family, remember?” Zephyr asked in chiding tone.
“Things change.” Some dreams were mere childhood fancy and needed to be left behind. “I like my penthouse.”
Zephyr rolled his eyes. “That’s not the point, Neo.”
“What is the point? You think I need piano lessons?”
“As a matter of fact, yes. Even if your GP had not issued you a warning at your latest physical, I would know something has to give in your life. Considering the stress you live under, it doesn’t take a doctor to know you are a heart attack waiting to happen.”
“I work out six days a week. My meals are planned by a top nutritionist. My housekeeper prepares them to exact specifications and I eat on a schedule more regular than you keep. My body is in top physical condition.”
“You sleep less than six hours a night and you do nothing that works as a pressure valve for the stress in your life.”
“What do you consider my workouts?”
“Another outlet for your highly competitive nature. You are always pushing yourself to do more.”
Zephyr should know. He was right there competing with Neo. So, the other man had started leaving the office closer to six than eight a couple of years ago. And maybe he’d taken up a hobby unrelated to real estate development or investments, but that didn’t mean his life was better than Neo’s. It was just a little different.
“There is nothing wrong with striving to achieve.”
“That is true.” Zephyr frowned. “When you have some measure of balance to your life. You, my friend, do not have a life.”
“I have a life.”
“You have more drive than any man I have ever met, but you do not balance it with the things that give life meaning.”
As if Zephyr had any room to talk.
“You think piano lessons will give my life meaning?” Maybe Zephyr was the one who needed a break. He was losing his grip with reality.
“No. I think they will give you a place to be Neo Stamos for one hour a week, not the Greek tycoon who could buy and sell most companies many times over, not to mention people.”
“I do not buy and sell people.”
“No, we buy property, develop it and sell it. And we are damn good at making a profit at it. Your insistence on diversifying our investments early on paid off too, but when will it be enough?”
“I am satisfied with my life.”
“But you are never satisfied with your success.”
“And you are any different?”
Zephyr shrugged, his own tailored Italian suit jacket moving over his shoulders flawlessly. “We are talking about you.” He crossed his arms and stared Neo down. “When was the last time you made love to a woman, Neo?”
“We are past the age of scoring and sharing, Zee.”
Zephyr cracked a smile. “I don’t want to hear about your conquests. And even if I did, you couldn’t tell me about this one because you’ve never done it.”
“What the hell? I have sex as often as I want it.”
“Sex, yes. But you have never made love.”
“What difference does it make?”
“You are afraid of intimacy.”
“How the blue bloody hell did we get from piano lessons to psychobabble? Hell, when did you start spouting that garbage at all?”
Zephyr had the nerve to look offended. “I am simply pointing out that your life is too narrow in its scope. You need to broaden your horizons.”
“Now, you sound like a travel commercial.” And a damn hypocritical one at that.
“I sound like a friend who doesn’t want you to die from a stress related illness before your fortieth birthday, Neo.”
“What the hell? Where is all this coming from?”
“Your GP didn’t just warn you at your physical; Gregor took me aside last month during our golf game and warned me that you are going to work yourself into an early grave.”
“I’ll have his license.”
“No you won’t. He’s our friend.”
“He’s your friend. He’s my doctor.”
“That’s what I’m talking about, Neo. You’ve got no balance in your life. It’s all business with you.”
“What about you? If relationships are so necessary to a well rounded life, why aren’t you in one?”
“I date, Neo. And before you claim you do too, let us both acknowledge that taking a woman out for the express purpose of having sex with her, and no intention of seeing her again, is not a date. That is a hook-up.”
“What century are you living in?”
“Believe me, I’m living in this one. And so are you, my friend. So, stop being an ass and accept my gift.”
“Just like that?”
“Would you rather welch on our bet?”
There was no answer for that question Neo wanted to give. “I don’t want to take piano lessons.”
“You used to.”
“What used to? When?”
“When we were boys together on the streets of Athens.”
“I had many dreams as a boy that I learned to let go of.” Accumulating the kind of wealth currently at his disposal required constant, intense sacrifice and he’d gladly made each and every one.
In the process, he’d made something of himself. Something completely different from the deadbeat father who had taken off before Neo was two and the mother who preferred booze to babysitting.
“Says the man who worked his way off the Athens streets and into Wall Street.”
“I live in Seattle.”
Zephyr shrugged. “The stock market is on Wall Street and we lay claim to a significant chunk of it.”
Neo could feel himself giving in, if for no other reason than not to disappoint the only person in the world he cared enough about to compromise for. “I will try it for two weeks.”
“Two and that is my final offer.”
“I bought a full year’s worth, you’ll note.”
“And if I find benefit, I will use the lot.” Though he had absolutely no doubts about that happening.
Cassandra Baker smoothed the skirt of her Liz Claiborne A-line dress in navy blue and white oversized checks for the second time in less than a minute. Just because she lived like a hermit in a cave sometimes, that didn’t mean she had to dress like one. Or so she told herself when ordering her new Spring wardrobe online from her favorite department store.
Wearing stylish clothing, even if said outfits were rarely seen anywhere but her own home, was one of the small things she did to try to make herself feel normal.
It didn’t always work. But she tried.
She was supposed to be playing the piano. It relaxed her. Or so everyone insisted, and she even sometimes believed. Only her slim fingers were motionless on the keyboard of her Fazoili grand piano.
Neo Stamos was due for his lessons in less than five minutes.
When she had offered the year’s worth of piano lessons to the charity fundraising auction, as she did every year, she assumed she would get another student in her craft. A rising star seeking to work with an acknowledged if reclusive master pianist and New Age composer.
Cass unclipped, smoothed and then re-clipped her long brown hair at the nape of her neck. Her hands dropped naturally back to the keyboard, but her fingers did not press down and no sound emitted from the beautiful instrument. She had been sure that just like in years past, the auction winner would be someone who shared her love of music. She’d thought she had no reason to worry that her next student might not share Cass’ adoration for the piano.
She’d had no reason to even speculate that a complete musical novice – a tycoon billionaire, no less – would be her student for the next year. It was worse than unbelievable; it was a personal nightmare for a woman who found it difficult enough to open her home to stranger.
Trying to circumvent that feeling, she’d spent an inordinate amount of time reading articles about him and studying publicity photos as well as the few candid shots of him she’d discovered on the Internet. None of that had helped.
If anything, her worry at the prospect of meeting him had increased. His publicity photos showed a man who looked like he rarely, if ever, listened to any sort of music at all. Why in the world would a man like that want to take piano lessons?
Apparently, he did though. Because when the bids were well into the tens of thousands, Zephyr Nikos swooped in with an offer of one-hundred thousand dollars. It boggled her mind – one-hundred thousand dollars for one hour a week of Cass’ time. Even though the lessons lasted a year, the bid had been beyond extravagant.
The organizer of the fund raiser had been ecstatic, keeping Cass on the phone long past her usual chat time with people she barely knew. The older matron had waxed poetic about how wonderful it was Mr. Nikos had bought the lessons for his lifelong friend and business partner, Neo Stamos.
And indeed it had been Mr. Stamos’ very efficient, and rather aloof, personal assistant who had called Cass to schedule the lesson. The office automaton had made it clear that the lessons would take place at Mr. Stamos’ convenience. Cass had been tolerant because her own practice schedule was flexible and she had almost no social life to speak of.
Regardless, the Tuesday morning at 10 a.m. classes were hardly a challenge to her schedule. Though Mr. Stamos’ PA made it sound like he would be sacrificing something akin to his firstborn child to be there.
Having no idea why a fabulously wealthy, far too good looking, clearly driven and supremely busy tycoon would want the lessons, Cass was even more nervous than usual at the thought of meeting a new student for the first time. In fact, Cass hadn’t felt this level of anxiety since the last time she had performed publicly.
She’d been telling herself all morning, she was being ridiculous. It hadn’t helped.
The doorbell rang, startling her into immobility, even though she’d been expecting it. Her heart beat a rapid tattoo in her chest, her lungs panting little, short breaths. She turned on the bench, but did not stand to her rather average height of five-feet-six-inches.
She needed to. She needed to answer the door. To meet her new student.
The bell pealed a second time, the impatient summons thankfully breaking her paralysis. She jumped to her feet and hurried to answer it even as worried questions that had been plaguing her since discovering the identity of her new student once again raced through her mind.
Would Neo Stamos himself be standing there, or his PA? Or maybe a bodyguard, or chauffer? Did billionaires talk to their piano teachers, or keep underlings around to do that for them? Would she be expected to teach with others in the room? If he had them, where would his bodyguards and chauffer wait during the lesson? Or his PA?
The thought of several people she did not know converging on her home made Cass feel like hyperventilating. She was proud of herself for continuing down the narrow hall to the front door of her modest house.
Maybe he was alone. If he’d driven himself, that opened another host of worries. What did billionaires drive and would he feel comfortable parking it in her all too normal neighborhood in West Seattle? Should she offer the use of her empty garage?
The bell rang a third time just as she swung the door open. Mr. Stamos, who looked even more imposing than he did in his publicity photos, did not appear in the least embarrassed to be caught impatiently ringing it again.
“Miss Cassandra Baker?” Green eyes, the rich color of summer leaves, set in a face almost overwhelmingly attractive in person, stared at her expectantly.
She tilted her head back to meet the dark haired tycoon’s gaze. “Yes.” Then she forced herself to make the offer she would have to any other student. “You may call me Cass.”
“You look like a Cassandra, not a Cass.” His voice was deep, thrumming through her like a perfectly struck chord.
“Cass is what my protégés call me.” Although referring to this man as a protégé struck her as decidedly off.
As if he found the term an incongruous as she, his perfectly formed lips quirked at one side. Though it could not be called a true smile by any stretch. “I will call you Cassandra.”
She stared at him, uncertain how to take his arrogance. He didn’t appear to mean anything by it. His expression said he believed it was simply his prerogative to call her by the name he felt suited her, rather than the one she used with the few people she had regular, ongoing communications.
“I believe it will be easier to start the lesson, if you let me inside.” His voice was tinged with impatience, but he did not frown.
Nevertheless, he made her feel gauche and lacking in manners. “Of course, I…did you want to park your car in the garage?”
He didn’t even bother to glance over his Armani clad shoulder at the sleek Mercedes resting in her driveway before shaking his head, a single economic movement to each side. “That won’t be necessary.”
“Okay, then. Let’s go inside.” She turned and led the way to the piano room.
It had been the back parlor when the house was first built in the late nineteenth century. Now it served beautifully to house her Fazoili and practically nothing else. There was a single oversized Queen Anne style arm chair for the use of her rare guests, with a tiny round side table, but no other furniture cluttered the room.
She indicated the wide, smooth piano bench, the same exact finish as the Fazoili. “Have a seat.”
He did as she suggested, looking much more relaxed in front of the piano than she would have in his high rise office.
A few inches over six feet, he was tall for the bench, and yet he did not look awkward there.
His body did not have the lithe grace or conversely extra weight around the middle of most male pianists she knew, but was well honed and very muscular. His hands were strong, with long but squared fingers bearing the wrong calluses for a pianist or a billionaire, if she were to guess it. His suit was more appropriate for a boardroom than her music room, and yet he did not look ill at ease in the least.
Perhaps the sable haired, super rich Adonis simply did not have the awkward gene like normal people.
“Can I get you anything to drink before we begin?”
“We have already spent several minutes of the hour allotted for this lesson, perhaps you would find it more efficient to dispense with the pleasantries.”
“I do not mind going a few minutes over so you get your full lesson,” she said, feeling guilty but equally certain she had nothing to be guilty for.
“I see.” Strangely enough, his abrupt manner was easing some of her anxiety.
Or was that simply because he had not brought the entourage she had feared? Regardless, she was finding the new situation much less excruciating than she had anticipated. Her gratitude over that fact made her want to be accommodating.
So, no pleasantries then. “Perhaps next week, you should forego ringing the bell and simply come inside,” she offered.
His far too compelling green gaze narrowed. “You do not lock your door?” He didn’t wait for her to answer before informing her, “I flipped the deadbolt when I closed it.”
No doubt a man in his position would find it second-nature to double lock a door behind him. “I’m surprised you don’t have bodyguards.”
Really, really surprised.
“They are watching the house from the outside.”
“No one came in to secure the premises.”
“I do not live a sitcom cop show. You were thoroughly vetted before my PA called to schedule the lessons.” He gave her slight frame a cursory perusal. “And you hardly pose a personal threat to me.”
“I see.” Vague discomfort at the fact she had been investigated settled in her stomach.
“It was not personal.”
“Just necessary.” As had been her research of him on the Internet.
Although, she suspected the background check done on her had been far more invasive. No doubt, he knew her history. He was aware of what her agent termed her idiosyncrasies. And yet, he did not treat her like a freak.
“Exactly.” He looked pointedly at his watch. Not a Rolex.
She found that interesting, but didn’t comment on it. He’d made it very clear he was there for a piano lesson, not conversation. Again, his brusque approach was unexpectedly comforting.
The remainder of the hour went by surprisingly quickly.
Despite an entirely different sort of tension the tycoon elicited in Cass.
Neo did not understand the sense of anticipation he felt Tuesday morning when he woke and realized his second piano lesson would be today.
Cassandra Baker was exactly as the background check on her had implied she would be. Rather quiet, clearly uncomfortable with strangers and yet something about her charmed him. There were far more important events on his agenda, but his second meeting with the world renowned pianist who refused to perform publicly was the first one that came to his mind.
Neo could not believe how much he had enjoyed his time with Cassandra Baker.
No beauty with her mousy brown hair, light freckles and slight build, she was not the usual type of woman he found entertaining. More the average “girl next door” and he would readily admit he met few of those in his current lifestyle. And he would not have met her without Zephyr’s intervention.
Zee was also the person to introduce Neo to Cassandra’s music. His partner had given him her CDs for his birthday and Christmas. Neo started out listening to them when working out on the weight machines, then he would play them sometimes when he was working on the computer. Eventually, it got to where he had Cassandra’s music playing pretty much any time he was home.
He didn’t concentrate on who the artist was, just played the music off his MP3 player. He hadn’t even recognized her name on the gift certificate for his lessons. Not until the preliminary background report on her came in. That was the first time he realized she composed most of the music he found so pleasing as well.
And he wasn’t the only one, Cassandra Baker was a top selling New Age artist. He would not have expected such a popular musician to be so unassuming. Yet she made no effort to allude to her undeniable talent or fame, further cementing her “girl next door” qualities.
Her amber eyes were somewhat stunning though, more for their open and honest expression than even the color. However, it was an undeniably lovely hue and unique in a way the colored contacts so popular among the artificial beauties he “hooked up” (Zephyr even had Neo thinking in those terms now) with could never be.
Although undeniably average, she was far from a troll, still it was not Cassandra’s looks that drew him. There was just something about the reclusive pianist he liked. Perhaps it was simply knowing that she made the music that he enjoyed so much.
Whatever the reason, he looked forward to getting to know her better. And when was the last time he had allowed himself the luxury of something so personal not related to sex?
When he arrived at her house, four hours later, he discovered her door on the latch just as she had said it would be. The evidence of her lax security bothered him, but even more worrisome was the sound of music floating down the hall. She couldn’t possibly know that he had come inside.
He was frowning when he entered the room she had led him to the week before.
She looked up from the piano, her fingers going still above the keys. “Good morning, Neo.”
“Your door was unlocked.”
“I told you it would be.”
“That is not safe.”
“I thought you would appreciate the expediency of getting right to your lesson.”
Without waiting for her to offer, he took a seat beside her on the piano bench. “You could not hear me arrive.”
“I did not need to. You knew where to come.”
“That is not the point.”
“Isn’t it?” She looked at him as if she truly did not understand his problem.
“All right. Shall we start where we left off last week?”
Neo was not accustomed to being dismissed, in any form. Yet, rather than get angry, he couldn’t help admiring the fact the shy woman had so adroitly shifted focus to the reason he was there.
Which was not to lecture her about her habit of leaving the door on the latch, he reminded himself.
He enjoyed Cassandra’s soft voice as she guided him through the day’s lesson. Her passion for her craft was apparent in every word she spoke and the very way she touched the piano they played. A man would give a great deal to be touched by lover with such intense dedication.
Which thinking no doubt explained the inexplicable low level arousal he experienced during something as innocent as piano lessons.