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#FridayFreebie #FridayReads Valentine (Challenge series #1) #contemporaryromance


Three friends. Three challenges. Are they willing to risk everything for love? Life is good for ex-soldier turned entrepreneur Michael Ede. Or so he thinks. When his friends set him a challenge to exorcise the memory of a woman from his past, he expects it to be a walk in the park. Socialite Kasie Bosa is spitting fire at men. Her long-term boyfriend has asked for a break via text message of all things. Fuming, she’s told him to go take a dive off the nearest bridge. So the next man who crosses her path is at risk of being shredded with her spa manicured nails. Bad news for Michael who has chosen her as the object of his challenge. But neither of them can deny the sizzling chemistry between them nor control their responses, it seems. It’s the season of love. Will they escape unscathed?

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Chapter One

I love those who can smile in trouble, who can gather strength from distress and grow brave by reflection. ~ Leonardo Da Vinci.

Trouble. He could spot it a mile away.

A man accustomed to dealing with danger in all guises, he'd come across its varied forms from the killing fields of Sierra Leone to the marshy jungle of the Niger Delta. Danger came in the form of men with machetes or AK47s and explosives packed into cars in crowded markets. Though scarred, he'd dealt with trouble and survived.

Yet, standing outside the front entrance of Park Hotel, Enugu, the light morning breeze fanning Michael Ede's face, his gut twisted with the awareness of a different kind of trouble.

Today, danger was disguised as a woman. A stunningly beautiful woman.

Sure, she had the poise and elegance of a well-bred lady. A white shirt and high-waist black trouser suit enhanced as well as hid a curvaceous figure in silk swatches, feet encased in black shiny leather peep-toe high-heeled pumps, jet-black hair pulled back in a chignon, blood-red lips matched her toe nails, she exuded sophistication and class.

Perhaps it was the way she avoided eye contact or the vicelike grip she had on the Louis Vuitton satchel she clutched in her left hand, but some vulnerability seeped out of the exterior shell of elegance and connected with a part of him—the part currently buried under the rubble of a demolished heart. A flame ignited in his gut, licking his skin with hot yearning.

Danger signals resounded within his head, veins churning with rising adrenaline, all his attention focused on the object coming toward him, a sixty-kilogram missile made of flesh and bones.

Get out of here!

Ignoring the screeching warning, he stood his ground. A born fighter, he was no yellow feathered bird ready to take flight at the flicker of a storm. He never ran from danger.

Sashaying toward him, lips in a glorious pout, eyes amber-brown and captivating, she came to a halt more than two long strides away from him.

Did she know, if she came any closer he might not be able to keep his hands off her? He wanted to touch her caramel skin. Slide his tongue along the curve of her collarbone. Would she taste as delightful as the sweet?

Squeeze. Release. He curled fingers into his palms and unclenched them at his sides; the sound of his pounding heart rivalled the drumbeats heralding Obiagu masquerades.

Hot blood scorched his veins, his body ablaze with desire. It had nothing to do with the early morning sun burning his back.

And everything to do with the woman standing before him. Trouble!

"Who are you? Where is Jonah?" she queried, her soft voice laced with annoyance, her words a swarm of stinging hornets buzzing in the air around him.

A vertical line ran from her forehead to the bridge of a small perfect nose, marring her beautiful otherwise unblemished oval face. Sepia eyes squinted in the sun, scanning him before surveying the hotel car park as if expecting the elusive Jonah to appear any minute.

Strange, in the short time her gaze left his body, he missed its warming effect on his blood vessel.

Focus, man.

She was just a woman like any other. Nothing special. He'd been without one for too long, the only reason for his swelling lust.

Straightening leisurely, he rolled his shoulders and strode toward her. He was here on a mission.

"Kasie Bosa." Her name rolled off his tongue with ease, his tone authoritative. In a power play with an adversary, confidence was key.

People of her class expected everyone else to bow and scrape to them. He wouldn't. Not for her. Not for anyone. It was only fair to start their encounter the way he meant to proceed.

She reared back; possibly surprised he'd addressed her directly. Tough. She had to learn to live with it.

Suspicious eyes connected with his and held. Reading the challenge in them, he raised one eyebrow daring her, excitement churning his gut. He was going to enjoy taming this one.

"Yes, I’m Kasie," her sharp voice sliced through the air, eyes flashing with irritation.

"My name is Michael. I’m your replacement driver. Jonah is not available today."

Disbelief lurked in her gaze as she appraised him from head to shoes.

"You are my new driver? What joke is this? I’m calling the car service. I requested the same driver for the week. You—you stay right there."

Bristling at her command, he took a step forward.

No one spoke to him as if he was at their beck and call. He didn't dance to anyone’s tunes.

You signed up for this. Your baby is at stake.

The cautious voice in his head reined him in, reminding him of the purpose of this encounter. H wasn't going to lose Cessie for any woman.

Taking a step back, he allowed his muscles to relax and gave her a cursory nod while maintaining her gaze.

With one last glare, she dug her hand in the oversized black leather bag and took out a phone. Swivelling, she dialled a number and walked back through the hotel entrance into the lobby, holding the phone to her ear.

From this spot, Michael couldn’t hear her. But he could guess who she was speaking to and the response she’d get back. The manager of the chauffeur service would apologise for the interruption in service. But the bottom line remained. Michael would be her chauffeur for the rest of the week.

Unless she chose a different car service.

A vice tightened in his chest. Shaking his head, he refused to accept this altogether improbable option. The hotel only used one car service. As far as he knew, she didn’t have another option readily available to call upon. She wasn’t going anywhere without him for the foreseeable future. He'd make sure of it.

As he waited for Kasie's inevitable return to the car pack, he wondered why she riled as well as roused him with such fierceness. There was no avoiding the need simmering in his veins waiting to be vented. She was an attractive woman. It made the task at hand a lot easier. He would have her, possess her, albeit temporarily.

Still, there was more. He couldn’t shake the sense that she would be more bother than he was willing to deal with. That before they were done, he would be bearing scars surmounting the physical ones currently marring his flesh.

He pushed back the sensation, refusing to acknowledge the warning. Instead, he focused on the reasons she was no good for him. Reasons he had to follow this course of action through to its bitter end.

She was just a woman. He'd met loads of women like her. Women who thought the world was at their feet and men at their beck and call. Little princesses who wallowed in the ill-gotten wealth from fathers who looted the country’s coffers. Oh, yes he knew such women intimately. He’d spent years protecting their corrupt parents all in the name of serving his country.

Well, not anymore. Those days were long gone. These days, he was his own man and no longer had to kow tow to anyone.

Kasie sashayed back out, the provocative and confident swing of her hips drawing his attention once more.

"Right, it looks like I’m stuck with you for the time being at least."

She didn’t look pleased at the idea, her lips pursed in a straight line. "Here take this. We’re heading to Apex Bank on Okpara Avenue this morning. Let’s go."

Gritting his teeth to stop from retorting at her order, he took her briefcase, placing it next to her when she got in the back seat of the spacious Volkswagen Tuareg she'd specifically requested.

He drew in a deep lungful of air before sliding into the driver’s seat. He needed to pipe down and learn to ignore her bristling attitude. No one had forced him to do this.

Keys in the ignition, he started the car engine and drove out of the hotel premises.

The scent of orange blossoms filled the interior of the car, mixed with another which was all woman. Kasie. Was it possible for a scent to induce a high? He wanted the fragrance infused in every epithelial cell of his lungs.

A quick glance in the rear-view mirror, and Kasie's laptop was out of the bag as she worked. Business-like this morning, her brown eyes focused on the screen, her fingers tapping on the keyboard.

Such a contrast from when he'd first seen her last night.

He'd been out with friends, Peter Oranye and Paul Arinze. They'd met in school, College of Immaculate Conception to be precise, and remained friends though their life paths had taken them to various parts of the world. In the end, they all still returned to Enugu. It was the one place they called home. The one place where their souls longed for. Enugu was in their blood.

Last night they were at the Fusion Bar and Restaurant located at Nike Lake, an extension of the Park Hotel. The atmosphere reeked of class and fun. The music made people want to wind their hips and the food was divinely sumptuous. The chef was an award winner who'd been poached from a top hotel in Lagos.

He loved it here. Discretion was important to most of the clients. Unlike some of the other night spots, guests could choose to have a relaxing evening or dance the night away. No interruptions.

Unusually for a Wednesday, they'd been sitting in the main lounge instead of the private lounge they favoured when Kasie walked in. Serendipity, some might say.

No one in the bar could miss her entrance. In a black knee-length shift dress and stilettos, her hair up in a bun. She oozed confidence in a don't-mess-with-me way, her hips swaying, her chin up as if she owned the place.

Those sexy heels elongated her legs, inviting the right man to earn her submission. He imagined those legs wrapped around his hips as he subdued her into a mass of pleasure. A ball on contradictions, she floated to the bar, ignoring everyone in the room.

"She is one hell of a babe," Peter said, his lips widening in a grin.

"Whoa." Paul made a low whistling sound. "I’m sure even Michael, the great lover, would have a tough time seducing this one. She looks like a ball breaker."

Peter and Paul chuckled. For some reason, Michael didn't laugh. Mesmerized, he just watched her through half-closed lids.

His friends were right. She did look like a hard nut to crack. There was no smile on her face, her lips set in a hard line. Slender fingers tipped with crimson nail polish curled around the tall glass the bar man had offered her. She picked up her drink and walked to a straight-backed chair instead of one of the more comfortable sofas. Still paying little attention to the rest of the guests, she opened a newspaper and focused on it.

She was one cool cat. Still, he would bet a few mullahs she wasn't as hard as she appeared beneath the ice-princess exterior. His body pulsed to life. She had passion beneath, waiting for the right man to ignite it.

"Every woman has her button. You just need to find it and press it," he said, waving his hand dismissively, ignoring the baiting. He picked up the glass of brandy and took a sip. The liquor rolled around on his tongue before he swallowed. A trail of burn travelled down his throat to stomach.

"You do realise who she is, right?" Paul asked. The reflection of the overhead spotlights dancing in his eyes as he smirked.

"Another hotel guest?" Michael replied with nonchalance, despite the awareness of his rapidly beating heart.

""Nah. Wrong answer." His friend mimicked the voice of a game show host. "She’s a regular at the hotel. But that's not it."

He took a sip from his drink before continuing.

"Her name is Kasie Bosa. You know, the daughter of Chief Titus Bosa, one of the biggest Kingmakers in Nigerian politics." The curl of Paul's lips was pure shark, all white teeth, dangerous and cunning.

"Another spoilt rich girl then," the words spilled from Michael's lips before he could stop himself. An odd mix of disgust and fury churned his gut. The curl of his fingers around the brandy glass tightened.

"Exactly." Peter nodded.

"So what about it then, Michael...Interested?"

Okay. He hadn't seen this coming. His friends usually didn't bring this up. His past entanglement with the daughter of a political big-wig. The dalliance with Ruth Mbadiwe had cost him a lot. So he had no love for spoilt rich girls.

"Not for me."

He shook his head and gulped down the rest of the drink. The memories of his youthful stupidity still infuriated him. Deciding he needed another drink, he waved the waiter over and ordered another round for everyone.

His friends watched him silently. Listening to the tinkling of ice as he swirled them around, he ignored Peter and Paul. They didn't leave him alone for too long though. Paul spoke up first.

"I think it’s time for you exorcise the ghost of Ruth from your psyche."

Jerking his head up, Michael glared at Paul.

"What? By getting involved with another over-pampered princess? I don’t think so," he said, his voice deepened by irritation.

"Maybe not. But you’re not a kid anymore. You are older, wiser. You know how to handle yourself. And I know you’ll never lose your head to one of those. You just need to do it to prove to yourself that you’ve moved on."

"I have moved on," he snapped.

"Have you?" It was Peter this time.

His gaze moved to the other man who was also matching his unflinching glare. "You can’t even see one of them without gnashing your teeth."

"I wasn’t gnashing my teeth," he countered angrily, slamming his glass down on the table. Liquid sloshed over the side onto the polished dark wood surface. What’s with my friends and the double onslaught?

"You are."

"I can hear it from here."

Peter and Paul spoke at once. Michael paused. Slowly the red mist in his mind cleared. His friends were correct. His jaw was locked so tight, his teeth were grinding together. And he hadn’t realised he was doing it. Though his life was miles better than where it had been when he’d met Ruth, he still carried the pain of her rejection with him.

He lowered his head in his hands, scrubbing his close-cropped hair and sighing in resignation.

"You have to do this. You have to move on." Peter's sombre pat on his right shoulder emphasised his words.

"And I know a way of making it more interesting for you. Let’s raise the stakes." Paul's grin was more wild tiger than Cheshire cat.

"I’m listening." Michael raised his brow, the gambler in him suddenly awake. His friend knew how to get his attention.

"She’s here for the next week, time enough for you to seduce her and make her fall for you."

Okay, one week was a tight timescale to work with but it was still no challenge. "Not interesting enough."

"You haven’t heard the but..." The wicked grin on Paul's face widened which meant he was up to some mischief.

"Let’s hear it then," Michael said, tapping the table with the pads of his fingers impatiently.

"The have to seduce her, not as Michael the entrepreneurial millionaire but as Michael nobody."

He scratched his chin, the short nails grating on his day-old stubble. "I like those odds better. Still what’s in it for me?"

Peter laughed. "You mean getting the girl is not enough."

"I can get any girl anytime. There’s nothing special about this one," he replied with a shrug.

"OK. As it’s for a good cause, I’ll put up the keys to my X5," Paul said, still grinning. His friend loved his cars, the SUV one of his favourites. He wouldn’t give it up lightly.

"And I’ll put up my holiday home in Gambia," Peter said more solemnly, although Michael could see the amused glint in his eyes.

If his friends were willing to gamble some of their prized possessions, then they must really care about this exorcising thing. Still, they had to want something in return.

"So what’s in it for you guys?" He wasn’t going to lose but he liked to know what he was likely to give up.

"We want your baby, the Cessna, if you don’t complete or lose the challenge."

High stakes indeed. They both knew he loved his plane. After he left the military and began making some money, he trained as a pilot. It was an expensive hobby but he’d come to realise life was too short not to live it to the fullest. When he’d landed his biggest contract to date with a major bank, he put the down payment for the Cessna. Now, he now fully owned it. It was his baby. Nothing else he owned gave him as much joy.

The gambler in him loved a challenge. He’d taken some pretty dicey risks in the past. The idea of losing something he loved definitely appealed to the risk-taker in him. He never put up anything he wasn’t willing to lose. He wasn’t about to lose his baby because of this woman, though. No way.

"So I’m to seduce little Miss Ice Princess there with nothing but my charm in less than a week? And if I don’t, I lose my beloved Cessie? Great, I’m in."

A grin widened his lips, adrenaline rising in his blood. He hadn’t felt this good about any stakes for a long time. In fact, he felt positively alive and kicking.

Peter raised a toast and they lifted their glasses, drinking to their agreement.

"We’ll meet next week and find out if you met the challenge," Paul said when he put his glass down.

"Oh, don’t you worry. I’ll win this challenge," Michael said confidently, relaxing back into his chair. He glanced over to Kasie. She took a sip of her drink. The movement of her delicate neck as she swallowed punched his gut with longing. On his tongue, he could almost taste the victory of possessing her. It would be a sweet and sumptuous triumph.

"You do realise women like her only look at men with money. If she thinks you can’t keep her in the lifestyle she’s accustomed to, she wouldn’t even give you a look in. How are you going to charm her without any show of wealth?" Peter asked, his face creased in a concerned frown.

"Why are you worried about him? It’s Valentine day in a couple of days, so the love god is already smiling down on him. She’s likely to be more amenable anyway, the lucky so and so," Paul interjected.

"It’s a bit late to start worrying now, my friend. The game is on."

Michael patted Peter’s hand, ignoring Paul’s jibe. He already had a plan working in his head. The army had taught him a few things, one of which was how to think on his feet, on the move, in tight situations.

The ability had saved him from more than a few hairy scrapes in the past. It certainly came in handy now. He didn’t have a long time to work his usual magic with Kasie. So he needed to put himself in a position where he’d be in her presence regularly. An idea occurred to him.

"Does she use Prestige Car Services?" he asked Paul. If she was a guest staying at the hotel, then she would need to hire a car to get about. While public transportation was good in Enugu, he didn't quite see Kasie as the kind of girl to hop on a bus. A car hire service seemed right up her street.

"I believe so. But there's no harm in checking." Paul waved over a waiter and whispered something in his ear. The man nodded and walked off. "I sent him to find out from reception."

The three of them co-owned the hotel, the restaurant and adjacent night club, so there wasn't much that happened here they couldn't access. Michael had come up with the initial idea of running a hotel and his friends had backed him with the finance.

"What exactly do you have in mind?" Peter tapped the screen of his phone absently as he asked the question.

"You'll find out soon enough," Michael replied.

The waiter returned. "Yes, she's booked with Prestige Cars all week," he said.

"Thank you," Paul said and the man departed.

"Great. She’ll have a new chauffeur in the morning." Michael allowed his body to relax into the soft leather of his stuffed armchair, his grin widening as his plan took shape.

"Brilliant. The owner of Prestige Cars will become the driver. This could get very interesting." Paul's amusement evidenced by his chuckle.

Michael shrugged off his friend's banter. When he started the business, he’d worked as a chauffeur himself until the business had taken off. He knew the ins and outs of the job. If there was a way of getting close to Kasie, it was as her driver. To top it off, he didn’t have to pretend to be something he wasn’t.

Unlike his friends, he hadn't been born into money. His mother had raised him alone, scraping by to make ends meet as a petty trader. He could barely remember his father who had died when he was just a boy. He got through school by sheer force of will and determination.

Everything he owned now he’d had to work or hustle for. Going to sleep and waking up hungry had been a regular occurrence of his youth. Poverty had dogged his footsteps. So acting the lowly driver for a few days shouldn’t be a problem.

Last night, the thought had been crisp and clear in his mind. However, sitting in the driver’s seat this morning with Miss Ice Princess in the back, his confidence lost some of its lustre. He hadn’t realised how much being ordered about would infuriate him.

He just had to live with it for a few days and then it would be over. Moreover, knowing he’d get to defrost Miss Ice Princess here made it worth the discomfort.

When he pulled into the premises of Apex Bank, he stared in the rear-view mirror again. Their eyes connected in the mirror. Golden brown pupils looked back at him. He read curiosity, heat and for a brief moment, fear in them. He held her gaze wondering what thoughts were in her head but she lowered her eyes.

Stepping out, he held the car door open for her. Her light perfume wafted into his nostrils as she breezed past him. A vision of Kasie dressed in a sundress, rolling in wild flowers assaulted his mind.

Whoa! Where did that come from?

Physically shaking his head to dispel the vision, he picked up her briefcase from the back seat and followed her. He watched the gentle swaying of her enticing behind. A grin tugged the corners of his lips but he held it back.

Before she reached the main entrance Kasie turned, holding out her hand.

"I’ll take it from here. I’ll ring you when I’m ready to go," her voice was soft, her expression serious.

For some reason, he wanted to see her smile. He wanted to watch her face light up in laughter. But maybe not right now, he thought as frown lines appeared on her forehead when he didn’t pass the briefcase immediately.

"Sure." He nodded and handed her the briefcase. He watched her stride into the bank building. Yet her perfume stayed with him, stirring him, exciting him.

Trouble had walked into his life. No doubt.

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