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Branded(Strand Brother Series, #1)

Lora Ann
Prologue



Aimee



What on earth was I thinking when I agreed to go to this charity masquerade ball? Some of the most wealthy and influential people would be in attendance. Seriously! I need to have my head examined. “Alright now, just breathe, you can do this,” I whispered to my reflection in the mirror. I turned myself every which direction to get a good look at the dress I was wearing. Renée had really outdone herself putting it together for me. When I placed the mask on for the full effect, I realized there was no way anyone would recognize me. Not that I ran in such circles; however, this was a staged event for me. An opportunity to see if I had what my—hopefully soon—employer was looking for. I stepped out of my room to get the final approval from my best friend, Renée.

“Girl, you’re going to knock their socks off.” She exclaimed, “You look amazing!”

On a long exhale, I released the breath I’d been holding. “Are you sure?”

“Hell yes, I’m sure.”

I ran my hand down the full skirt of my gown. It truly was a magnificent dress—emerald green in color with gold edging. I felt like I’d stepped back in time. The mask matched perfectly. While there was no question I was feeling beautiful, my nerves were frayed. “Ren?”

“Yes.”

“I’m not sure I can do this.”

She walked over to tuck a tendril of my hair behind my ear. “Hey. It’s only escorting. You’ve been clear that you want no part of the other business. Relax. They’re going to love you. You have the look men want—sexy yet innocent.”

I scoffed, “My hips are too wide, and my boobs are too large.”

“My point precisely. Men like something to hold on to.”

I smacked her arm. “Renée!” Then I reiterated, “I’m not going to prostitute myself.”

Her lips thinned. “So, I’m a whore?”

Oh, shit. “No.” I inhaled deeply before I clarified, “That’s not what I meant. All I mean is that, that side of the business isn’t my cup of tea. You know I’d never judge you.”

Her entire body relaxed. “Sorry, Aims. I know you don’t.”

Truth be told, the lure of the money was quite intoxicating. And I would be a liar if I said I hadn’t thought about it. My only hang-up was married men. Strange, I know, call it my own sense of morals, but there were just some lines I refused to cross.

“Okay, now.” Renée explained, “You’ll meet Ann and Jack around eleven-ish. They’ll either give you the go ahead or turn you down.”

I still had a hard time grasping it was a brother and sister team that ran the escort service. But according to Renée, they were fair-minded and knew what men of such caliber required. So if I was turned away, it was nothing personal. Still, I really needed the money desperately. With my dad fighting cancer, there was not a dime left for me. And I had run up an astronomical amount of student loans. Bottom line, this was my best bet to pay them off quickly and help out my family. Renée brought me back to the here and now when she said, “Remember, midnight. You make sure you’re out of there.”

I couldn’t stifle the giggle. She raised an eyebrow at me. “Oh, come on.” I clarified, “Even you have to admit it is rather Cinderella sounding.”

She grinned, “Then, by all means, find yourself a very rich Prince Charming.”

I rolled my eyes. “Ha! Surrrrre. I’ll make that my top priority.”

My phone beeped with an incoming message. I read the screen and turned to her. “Car’s here.”

She kissed my cheek. “Go get ‘em, girl.”

I waggled my fingers on the way out. “Ta-ta.”



*****

I focused on breathing and tried to keep my heart rate under control. There was no point in showing up soaked with sweat while I panted like I’d just run a marathon. I gave myself a mental pep talk: You can do this, Aimee. No worries. Everything’s going to work out fine. If I could only believe it was true. I considered praying but then thought that wasn’t such a great idea. Yes, I was only applying for an escort position; however, I knew God was fully aware of just how tempting the offer was to take it a step further. Right, nix on the praying. When the door to the limo opened, I was pulled from my musing. I stepped out onto a red carpet. Luckily, I was no one of significance or with anyone important; hence, the focus was on others that arrived at the same time. Thank goodness.

I was gathered swiftly into the throng and rushed inside. While I took in my surroundings along with all the marvelous attire, a waiter passed by with a silver tray of champagne flutes. I grabbed one and took a sip. In a matter of moments, I was swept onto the dance floor where one gentleman after another danced with me. I eventually needed a break and excused myself to the nearest powder room.

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