I know I shouldn’t want him.
I wish I didn’t crave him.
With every day that passes, I pray that the sweet throb of yearning will dim. And yet it doesn’t.
Awake, I can feed the pain. Can fall back into those memories that cut as deep as a knife. Passion erased. Love eradicated.
Before, there’d been a man who wanted me. After, only a scorch mark remained, like a shadow burned into the ground from a nuclear explosion.
Awake, I can hold onto my anger.
But in my dreams, I always surrender.
I tell myself I’m better off without him. But I need him. His skills. His help.
I have no options left. He is the place where desire and fear meet. And all I can do is pray that I don’t shatter like glass under the weight of my regrets.
Built in 1931,the historic Hollywood Terrace Hotel once reigned supreme as the place to see and be seen along the famous boulevard. But time wreaked its revenge, and like the fading beauty of Golden Age starlets, the Art Deco palace fell into disrepair as flappers gave way to hippies and Baby Boomers, all of whom were overrun by Millennials who watched as the twentieth century rolled inexorably into the twenty-first.
For the first decade of the new millennium, the once majestic icon stood faded and broken. The exterior stucco dulled to a lifeless gray. Windows soiled and cracked. The famous gardens overrun with vermin and weeds.
The interior fared no better. Mold grew around leaky pipes. Rats scurried the halls, surrendering only to the feral cats who claimed the dark spaces as their own. Carpets rotted. Wallpaper peeled. And a fine dust covered every surface like a blanket of neglect.
With the determination of a beleaguered prizefighter, the building fought to stay upright despite the repeated blows of weather, earthquakes, and the monotonous parade of progress marked by shiny new storefronts. When yellow tape emblazoned with Condemnedand Do Not Crossappeared across the etched glass doors, the locals were certain that the final blow had been landed.
Then Scott Lassiter rode to the rescue, and it turned out that the story of the Hollywood Terrace wasn’t a boxing movie after all. It was a makeover. My Fair Ladyfor the bedraggled hotel.
The international real estate developer pulled out all the stops, remaking The Hollywood Terrace into the gem it had been almost a century before. He turned the mezzanine conference rooms into his private suite of offices, and claimed the entire top floor as his stunning penthouse residence, complete with an indoor pool and a formal ballroom.
Everyone who was anyone attended the grand re-opening five years ago, and Lassiter was feted by the town’s movers and shakers as a hero. A miracle worker. A true citizen, devoted to preserving the history that had put this corner of Southern California on the map when those first pioneers with cameras had hustled to the land of manna and sunshine.
That party had made headlines across the globe, the Hollywood connection and the many stars on the guest list making the story too delicious to ignore.
Tonight’s party was even more lush. Dozens upon dozens of guests filled the meticulously restored Art Deco ballroom with its bold colors and geometric designs. The combined incomes of the well-heeled, international guests made a Hollywood star’s bankroll look like a teenager’s allowance. Rare champagne vintages flowed in fountains of pure silver. The women glided over the marble floors in formal gowns designed to accentuate assets of the non-gemstone variety. And any man in a suit that cost less than twenty-five grand was obviously a poser.
And yet despite the beautiful people floating on clouds of money-soaked power, there was no press in the ballroom for this soirée. No photographers clicking away for sexy images to post on Page Six or Instagram. On the contrary, this party was an intimate affair conducted in Lassiter’s own private fiefdom.
And only a veryselect and very exclusive clientele had been invited.
Stark Security operative Quincy Radcliffe was not on the guest list. Not officially, anyway. That, however, didn’t stop him from signaling a passing waiter and snagging a scotch and soda.
He sipped it slowly, his dispassionate gaze studying the cadre of tailored men and coiffed women who moved in and out of Lassiter’s orbit, as if they were coming to pay tribute to a god.
All they saw was Lassiter’s money and power. They had no idea that their host’s hefty bank account had been generated less by his real estate portfolio and more by the percentage he took from money laundering and protection schemes.
Scott Lassiter was a manipulative prick whose sharp talons reached deep into the criminal underground. And someday it would be Quince’s pleasure to pull the rug firmly out from under the feckless tosser, then ensure that Lassiter abandoned his plush penthouse for a different view. The kind with dozens of iron bars.
That, however, wasn’t on tonight’s agenda. For the time being, Lassiter was the lesser of two evils, and if everything went as planned, the pathetic wanker would be an unknowing conduit to the sex-trafficking, sub-human monster who was at the core of tonight’s mission: Corbu. Marius Corbu.
“Incredible, isn’t he?”
The breathy voice came from a brown-eyed blonde with long, straight hair that hung to the middle of her back and a soft fringe of bangs that brushed her perfectly arched brows. She wore a filmy gold dress and make-up so expertly applied it seemed invisible except for the dark liner that shaped her wide eyes and lipstick so red he couldn’t help think of ripe cherries.
“You’re referring to our host, Mr. Lassiter?”
She giggled and sloshed her champagne as she struggled to clap her hands. “O.M.G.,”—she actually said O.M.G.—“You’re British.”
“Bloody hell. Am I really?”
She laughed again. “And funny, too. No. What’s that word? Droll. You’re very droll.” She cocked her head, studying him. He knew what she saw. Dark hair, a lean face, and deep-set gray eyes. He wore an Ermenegildo Zegna bespoke suit that cost more than his car, and according to his partner Denise, he looked “fabulously fuckable.”
The blonde apparently agreed, because he saw the exact moment that her gaze shifted from amused to predatory. “I like a funny man.” Her voice was low. Sultry. “A man who laughs probably does other interesting things with his mouth, too.” She tilted her head provocatively. “I’m Desiree. What’s your name?”
“Canton,” he said, giving her his mission alias as a hedge fund manager based in Hong Kong. “Robert Canton.”
She eased toward him, the dress shifting from opaque to sheer as she stepped into a puddle of light. She was entirely bare under the flimsy gown, and he felt his body tighten in reflex, but not desire. Slowly, she ran her fingers over the lapel of his jacket, then continued the downward motion until she was cupping his cock, hard now because, after all, he wasn’t dead. Nor was he surprised. This party was about sex, after all. Paid, kinky, anonymous sex. And God knew he wasn’t immune to the charms of a beautiful woman.
She pressed her free hand to his shoulder as she leaned in to whisper. “Well, I’m all yours, Mr. Canton. However you want me, all the way until the sun comes up.” She nipped at his earlobe, and he thought how easy it would be. She’d be willing to do bloody well anything—that was the point of tonight’s little meet-and-greet. And damned if he didn’t need to take the edge off.
Some operations were harder than others, and this one was a right pisser. It had gotten into his head. Worse, it had gotten into his blood. And it burned there like a slow poison. Or more accurately like a fuse. Let it burn too long, and he’d explode. The dark memories would win out, the monster would grab control, and–
“Oooh, I think that’s a yes.” She started to slowly stroke him. “I’ve never fucked an English guy, and I promise you I’m worth it. Please tell me you haven’t given some other girl your key.”
He produced a thin smile, then slowly moved her hand off his crotch. “Sorry, love. I’m sure you’d give me a right proper ride, but my key’s already spoken for.”
“Maybe not,” the female voice said into his ear. It was Denise, and she was currently on the roof across the street. And also in his ear. Listening to absolutely everything since their coms were on VOX. “I can’t get the transmitter arm to lock in place. I’m going to have to stay up here and position it manually.”
“What?” Desiree asked.
“It’s just a pisser that you won’t be in my bed tonight. But rules are rules.” And the rules of this party mirrored the old suburban key parties of the sixties and seventies. Bottom line—a man claimed a woman with a key, she went to his room, and he spent the night enjoying her, as Desiree had said, any way he wanted until the sun came up.
The beauty of the party from the perspective of the men was that every woman was a sure thing because each and every female was a high class call girl who was well-paid by Lassiter to attend. Denise included, although to be fair, it was her alias—Candy—who was getting that nice pay day.
As for the men, they each paid Lassiter a hefty sum, supposedly for a room at the hotel. In reality, the payment assured the privilege of finding a Miss Right willing to satisfy any and all kinks, fetishes, and predilections. As a bonus, they each enjoyed the smug satisfaction of buying sex without actually paying for sex.
Quince didn’t need a woman in his room. He needed a partner to act as a lookout and keep the small signal booster in perfect alignment with both the transmitter and Lassiter’s computer. The transmitter that Denny was battling on the nearby roof wouldn’t do a damn bit of good if the signal wasn’t captured in his room on the fourth floor, then boosted down to where Quince would be hacking Lassiter’s computer on the mezzanine level.
And while Desiree might be willing to fulfill his every kinky fantasy, he doubted that she would regard helping him hack into Lassiter’s system as a genuine fetish. Besides, she’d already wandered off in search of another key master.
Easy come, easy go.
“You realize this is a problem,” he murmured, lifting his glass to hide the slight movement of his lips, then taking a long swallow because he damn sure needed it.
“No, really? I’m so glad you’re here to explain things to me.”
He swallowed a laugh. “Temper, temper.”
“You can’t tell, but I’m flipping you off.”
“I’d expect nothing less.” He crossed to the window so that he could talk more easily, keeping an eye on the guests in the reflection as he pretended to study Hollywood below. Denny was out there, perched atop an old department store that had been converted to office space.
“Fuck it. I’m going to use a strip of duct tape to get as close to dead-on perfect as I can. I can get back pronto. You need me in that room.”
He did, dammit. But they also needed certainty with regard to the transmission. This mission was the pivotal point in a joint EU and Spanish task force operation to take down Corbu and his international sex-trafficking operation. Stark Security had been hired to handle this one critical piece of the puzzle. A single, limited mission to get in, obtain and decrypt Lassiter’s contact files, then pass along the contact protocol for Corbu to the task force.
Fail and Stark Security would lose its growing reputation in the international intelligence community. More important, thousands of innocent lives were at stake, and the window of opportunity was tight. As they said at America’s NASA, failure was not an option.
“I’m coming to you.” He knew damn well she was more than competent, but he had to try. “Maybe I can secure the arm.”
“There’s not enough time. I have to capture the signal in fifteen minutes and you need to be in position in twenty. Blow the window and we’re fucked.”
He pulled out the antique Patek Philippe pocket watch that had once belonged to the father he’d barely known. Exceptionally crafted, it still kept perfect time, though its accuracy had little to do with why Quince wore it religiously. Almost superstitiously.
The Patek Philippe was a reminder of the past, a warning against the future.
It would never lead him astray, and right then it told him that Denny was right.
“All right,” he said. “Get over here.” It was a huge risk, but the powerful transmitter was designed to allow for the transmission and reception of the massive data packets necessary for the cutting edge decryption software hosted back at the SSA. With luck, Denny’s rigged up anchor would allow the transmitter to capture and relay enough of the signal to the booster in Quincy’s hotel room. That device worked much like a WiFi router, and it would send the signal out into the interior of the hotel, where it would hit the tech that Quince would be using to hack into Lassiter’s system.
For that to work, however, the transmitter’s signal had to hit the booster with dead-on accuracy. Anything less, and the booster would be relaying garbage to Quince, not the high-end hacking software created by Stark Applied Technology. Not an ideal situation, but they had no choice.
He turned back to face the room. He needed to know where Lassiter was so that he could slip down to his assigned room on the fourth floor without being noticed. There.
Lassiter was standing in a group of five men and two women, his hand low on a slim brunette’s back. Reddish-brown hair fell down to her shoulders, her smooth skin revealed in the low-cut dress that came close to revealing the crack of her perfect, heart-shaped ass. There was something so familiar about her…
He brushed the thought away as irrelevant. “All right. I’ve spotted Lassiter. I’m heading—”
Then she turned, and he saw her face.
He froze. He absolutely fucking froze.
Eliza? Surely it couldn’t be Eliza.
“Quince?” Denny’s voice was tight. “Is it Lassiter? Is he suspicious?”
“Not Lassiter. A ghost.”
Because she had to be a ghost. The woman with mahogany hair and sky-blue eyes. The woman whose dimple had once made his heart flip.
The woman he’d cherished. Whose scent still lingered in his dreams.
The woman he’d loved more passionately than he’d believed possible. And who now surely hated him more than he could imagine.
There was no way that woman could be at a party like this. No way at all.
Dear God, what had she gotten herself wrapped up in?
Without conscious decision, he moved toward her, his long strides eating up the distance as Denny chattered in his ear. “What’s going on? Dammit, I’m on my way. Rendezvous at the room in four minutes.”
He knew he should turn around. There was too damn much riding on this mission. The lives and freedom of so many innocents who’d become ensnared in the Romanian kingpin’s sex trafficking confederation. Thousands upon thousands of tormented victims, including one innocent, terrified thirteen-year-old girl.
Her abduction was the trigger that had pushed the EU task force into immediate action. The daughter of the Prince Regent of one of Europe’s smaller monarchy’s, the princess had been abducted during a school trip. Her father had gone to the task force’s leader, a classmate from Eaton, and essentially opened up the monarchy’s massive coffers to fund whatever it took to get the girl back and shut down Corbu’s operation.
Quince shuddered as the image of another teen girl flashed in his head. Shelley. Her trusting eyes. Her choking sobs. And his own screams of terror and helplessness as fiery pain ripped through him and the world collapsed around him.
And in that moment, he knew what he had to do.
“Stay on the roof,” he ordered Denny.
“Trust me. I’ve got it covered.”
He’d been too damn weak to save Shelley.
He’d failed her. Hell, he’d failed himself.
He damn well wasn’t going to fail again.
Even if that meant pulling Eliza Tucker into this buggered-up scheme.
He’s touching me.This too-polished, too-twisted, smarmy son-of-a-bitch actually has his hand on the small of my back, his thumb rubbing the bare skin at the base of my spine. It’s intimate. It’s possessive. It’s revolting.
It’s my own damn fault.
I’m the one who shoved my tits into this too-tight dress. I’m the one who caught Scott Lassiter’s eye. And now it looks like I’m the one who’s going to have to endure a night in bed with him if I don’t want to risk blowing my cover.
The irony isn’t lost on me. For my entire life, my sister Emma has been my protector. A brilliant, strong, vengeful angel standing between me and the dangers of the world. Didn’t matter if it was mean teachers, street thugs, or our own monstrous prick of a father, she was always right there, doing whatever she had to in order to keep me safe.
And now here I am, stuck in the middle of a situation I don’t fully understand as I pretend to be my sister. Or, more accurately, as I pretend to be my sister pretending to be a call girl.
Thank goodness I’ve spent over a decade working as a semi-struggling actress. Sliding in and out of roles. Commercials, community theater, the occasional bit on a soap opera, and a few small parts in films shot in New York.
I’ve never tried to land a recurring television role or a long-contract run on or off Broadway. It just doesn’t appeal. I want success, sure. It’s just that there’s something compelling about variety. After all, the more I can get lost in someone else’s life, the less I have to examine my own.
All of which makes me an excellent chameleon. Which is probably the only reason that no one is pointing a finger at me à la Invasion of the Body Snatchersand screaming that I’m a fraud who doesn’t belong here.
Because I don’t. I really don’t.
And when Emma finds out that I’m not only impersonating her but that I’m putting myself in danger, she’s going to be royally pissed. But that’s okay. Pissed means she’s alive. And all things considered, I want her ranting and raving and furious. Because the alternative is too horrible to even contemplate.
I draw a deep breath. My worries about Emma have been a constant for a full twenty-four hours, ever since I realized she was missing. But I need to push them down, because I have more immediate problems. Like how I’m going to extricate myself from this perv who’s decided that I belong to him tonight. Because every minute I’m trapped with Scott Lassiter is another minute I don’t have answers.
I shift slightly and glance around the room, wondering who my contact is supposed to be. According to Emma’s partner, a few days before she disappeared, an anonymous source had reached out to Emma. He called himself Mr. X and promised her information about a case she was working. All she had to do was meet him at this party.
“They couldn’t grab a booth at McDonalds?” I’d asked.
A wide grin had split Lorenzo’s ruddy face. He’d run a hand over his head, pushing a tuft of hair to one side to reveal his growing bald spot. “Pretty sure that wasn’t on the table, baby girl.”
I crossed my arms and cocked my head in response to the endearment, but he brushed me off. I’ve known Lorenzo since I was nine and he was a beat cop in Venice Beach who’d looked the other way when he caught Emma and me sleeping in an abandoned car.
All Lorenzo knew was that Emma had been working on one of her pro bono cases. After over a decade working for the government, she’d gone out as a full-time private investigator a few years ago. Her passion is helping runaways and other endangered kids, and Lorenzo told me that she’d stumbled across some sort of exploitation conspiracy that was organized in forums hosted on the dark web.
“I’m guessing Mr. X is in deep, but wants out,” Lorenzo had said.
“So he contacted Emma and set a meet,” I guessed. “But before it could happen, the real baddies also realized she was poking around in the forum. Somehow they figured out her identity and grabbed her.”
“That’s what it looks like to me.”
My chest tightened as I forced out the next words. “Did they—do you think they killed her?”
“I hope not,” he’d said, his basset hound eyes profoundly sad.
“I have to go to the police.”
“And what would they do? For starters, they’d tell you to wait. Her apartment is relatively neat—”
“Someone was in it.” I was sure about that.
“Yousay. But it’s not ransacked. You say things are out of place, but that doesn’t necessarily mean foul play. All you know is that she’s gone and you don’t know where. But she’s a grown woman. She could have left on a whim. Gone off with a man. Decided to take up fly-fishing.”
“She always tells me where she’s going. We don’t keep secrets.” I think of the things she’s told me that she should have held close. Dangerous things if anyone found out.
No. She wouldn’t keep something important from me.
“Last I heard, you were supposed to be on some cruise ship,” Lorenzo says when I point that out. “She said you’d told her not to bother calling, but that you’d check in from various ports.”
I grimaced. All true. Except that I never even had the chance to set sail.
I’d landed a role in a shipboard musical. Three full months at sea visiting a variety of ports. Three months of one and two week excursions, a different set of passengers on every journey. Ninety full days with no one from my past, and no one who would be part of my future. The job had sounded like heaven, and I’d jumped all over it.
But then the cruise line cancelled the show entirely, replacing the large-cast musical with a single stand-up comedian. Budget cuts. Which left me not only out of work, but at loose ends.
Which was why I’d decided to fly to LA to visit my sister.
Emma, however, was gone.
“She would have sent an email if she decided to take a last minute vacation,” I told Lorenzo. “You know she would.” Emma and I are more than just sisters. She practically raised me. And it had been the two of us against the world ever since that horrible day when she’d pulled me from the house that was never, evera home.
Lorenzo had nodded sagely. “I know it. You know it. The cops don’t. You need more if you want help. Weneed more. You think I’m not worried? This is Emma we’re talking about. She’s like a daughter to me. You both are.”
“You really think this Mr. X knows something?”
“I think he’s the only lead we have. I’d go if I could, but I don’t think I can pull off a low-cut evening gown.”
He was right. I knew it. And not just about how he’d look in drag.
I either went to the meeting or I let time slip away until the cops might legitimately get interested.
Put it that way, and there was no question. Emma was in trouble, and that was all that mattered to me. Because at the end of the day, she’sall that matters to me. Well, her and Lorenzo. They’re all I have. All I’ve ever had.
Once upon a time, I thought there might be someone else. Dark and edgy, sweet and sensual, Quincy Radcliffe had an intensity that had drawn me to him and a strength that had held me close. In his arms, I’d felt safer than I had since I’d left Emma and Los Angeles. I’d opened the steel cage around my heart and invited him inside.
We were together for almost three months, and in that time I let my guard down completely. I let myself love him, and I thought he loved me, too.
I’ll never make that mistake again.
He ripped me apart. Shattered my soul from the inside out.
He’d made me love him. And I can’t forgive him for that.
But I have to thank him, too. Because I learned my lesson that spring in London. I’d thought that maybe I could change. That perhaps the wall I’d built and the masks I put on didn’t have to be permanent. That I could chip away at those barriers and try to let someone else inside.
Quince made me want to try. He made me hope.
And when he betrayed me … well, he taught me that I needed those walls. They were what kept me safe.
Now Emma lives inside the walls. Lorenzo, too.
Just them. Only them.
They’re all I have, and that’s why I’m here in the Art Deco elegance of the Hollywood Terrace penthouse ballroom.
It’s why I followed Mr. X’s detailed instructions for the meet. Why I’m pretending to be one of the many call girls hired for the evening. And why in addition to my slinky black dress, I’m wearing a red ribbon as a bracelet, just as instructed. The point is to signal to Mr. X that I’m the anonymous BAB, the alias Emma was using in the forum.
It stands for Bad Ass Bitch, though I’m probably the only one in the world who knows that. Right now, I don’t feel particularly bad ass. I wish I did. Because a bad ass bitch could probably figure out a way to disengage herself from the man who seems determined to keep me at his side.
Then again, I’m supposed to be in character. A call girl named Bunny. And girls like Bunny aren’t bad asses. On the contrary, girls like Bunny drop to their knees or spread their legs on command. I understand Bunnies, so I’m not exactly stretching my acting chops tonight.
Maybe if my name for the night was Amber or Domino or Serena. If I had a riding crop instead of a red ribbon. Maybe then I could put on a show. Really step out of myself and pull on the BAB persona.
But I don’t. I can’t.
Just as well, I think. Because from what I can tell, this is a party full of Bunnies. Not Serenas.
In other words, I’ve stepped into a world that is run entirely and completely by men. Rich, powerful, controlling men. With dark and dangerous appetites.
Oh, Emma. What did you stumble into?
I’ve been asking myself that question ever since Lassiter zeroed in on me, which happened the moment I’d entered the penthouse. At first, I’d thought it was because he saw through my cover. Later, when he commented on my unusual bracelet, I breathed a sigh of relief, assuming that he was Mr. X. Soon enough, though, I realized that he just wanted me naked.
Now, I’m stuck with him when I need to be mingling. I need to be reaching for drinks on waiters’ trays, making sure I flash the red ribbon enough that Mr. X can’t miss it. At the same time, it’s very clear that female autonomy is not the buzzword for the day, and that if Lassiter wants me at his side, then I’m stuck there until he deigns to set me free.
“Actually, I’m already in progress on similar remodels in Chicago, Houston, and Manhattan,” Lassiter is saying to some billionaire mucky-muck with a thick Italian accent who’d asked if Lassiter was planning to expand his “business model.” Since I’m disgusted by the whole scenario, I tune him out, only to jump when I hear my name. Or, rather, when I hear my hooker name.
“—like Bunny here.”
“I’m sorry, what?”
Lassiter smiles indulgently, then squeezes my ass. I refrain from slapping him, since that would definitely be out of character. “I was telling Mr. Scutari that all of the women at my soirées are delightful, but there are a few who have a rare quality. A stunning allure.” He brushes my hair behind my ear, and I have to force myself to smile instead of flinch. Not that I’m a shiny, pure little angel. Far, far from it. But there are men who can have me in their bed and men who can’t.
Lassiter lives deep in can’tterritory. And right now I’m praying that Mr. X finds me soon. I’d even be okay with a massive earthquake hitting LA. Anything to keep Lassiter from presenting me with his key and aiming me toward his room. Because I’m pretty sure that the only reason he hasn’t keyed me yet is that he’s the host, and he has to wait until all his guests have selected their girls.
I expect him to continue waxing poetic about the quality of the merchandise, but instead the conversation shifts to international finance. As if this is an average cocktail party and I’m his dutiful, doting girlfriend.
The whole thing is very surreal, and with every moment that passes, I’m afraid that coming here was a mistake. I’m not any closer to finding Emma, and as the night drags on the chances of ending up in Lassiter’s bed are increasing. I’d known that was a risk, of course. But I’d assumed that Mr. X would find me, then we’d go to his room, purportedly for sexy shenanigans, but really for an intensive, clandestine discussion of what happened to my sister and how we can help her.
So where the hell is he?
I punctuate the thought by twisting around to survey the room. Lassiter’s hand stays possessively on my back, and I force myself not to grimace. I’m so focused on not jerking my body out from under his touch that I can barely take in the room around me.
Which explains why I don’t immediately register the man stalking toward us, his long stride eating up the ground as he crosses the length of the ballroom.
The man who left me. Who broke my heart.
My mouth goes dry, my blood running hot through my body.
My palm tingles with the desire to slap him. And when I see those deep gray eyes lock onto mine, I silently scream out a warning begging him not to say my name.
That’s when it hits me.
That’s when the pieces fall together.
Quincy Radcliffe is the reason I’m here. My Quincy is Mr. X.
So what the hell am I going to do now?